Throughout history, humans have been gripped by the idea of a perfect world, to be attained by revolutionary struggle or divine intervention. Fyodor Dostoyyevsky described the birth of Utopia.....
“people appeared who began devising ways of bringing men together again, so that each individual, without ceasing to prize himself above all others, might not thwart any other, so that all men might live in harmony. Wars were waged for the sake of this notion. All the belligerents believed at the same time that science, wisdom, and the instinct of self-preservation would eventually compel men to unite in a rational and harmonious society, and therefore, to speed up the process. In the meantime, the “wise” strove with all expedition to destroy the “unwise” and those who failed to grasp their idea, so they might not hinder its triumph.”
The first recorded utopian proposal is Plato's Republic. Part conversation, part fictional depiction, and part policy proposal, it proposes a categorization of citizens into a rigid class structure of "golden," "silver," "bronze" and "iron" socioeconomic classes. The golden citizens are trained in a rigorous 50-year-long educational program to be benign oligarchs, the "philosopher-kings." The wisdom of these rulers will supposedly eliminate poverty and deprivation through fairly distributed resources, though the details on how to do this are unclear. The educational program for the rulers is the central notion of the proposal. It has few laws, no lawyers and rarely sends its citizens to war, but hires mercenaries from among its war-prone neighbors (these mercenaries were deliberately sent into dangerous situations in the hope that the more warlike populations of all surrounding countries will be weeded out, leaving peaceful peoples).
During the 16th century, Thomas More's book Utopia proposed an ideal society of the same name. Some readers, including utopian socialists, have chosen to accept this imaginary society as the realistic blueprint for a working nation, while others have postulated that More intended nothing of the sort.
Two modern Utopian movements have been Marxist Communism and American Neo-Liberal free market democracy.
As Dostoyyevsky pointed out, a marked feature of Utopian beliefs is the perception of history as a process, moving forward towards a perfect state. Setbacks along the way are perceived as the result of the acts of opponents or enemies, who must be destroyed if Utopia is to be attained. Typical results of this tendency have been the mass slaughter of whole classes of people perceived to be barriers to achievement of the dream in Soviet Russia and other countries – and the invasion of Middle Eastern countries by the USA aimed at establishing democracy and the “American Way”.
Karl Marx, a brilliant analyst of the faults and flaws of nineteenth century laissez faire capitalism, postulated that a perfect society would be attained through the dominance of the proletariat. His idea was that the perfect Communist state would be attained by destroying the fabric of capitalism, and that revolution towards this end would inevitably pass through a number of phases, one of which he described as the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, in which a government representing the proletariat would dismantle the edifices of capitalism and prepare for the Utopia in which all men could live in harmony without the need for governments. Marx believed that revolution would break out in the western capitalist societies – but instead, the state of Russia under the last days of the degenerate Romanov dynasty, caused the armed forces and urban proletariat to rise in desperate protest. What followed does not need too much elaboration; instead of a progression to a government-free utopia, the process somehow (!) became side-tracked into the formation of one of the most repressive governmental machines seen throughout history. Russia became a dictatorship, and those many members of the proletariat who failed to see the benefits of “Communism” were brutally repressed by mass extermination amongst other means.
As the failed Communist Utopia staggered towards extinction, brought down by a brutal centrist party system, another Utopia was beginning to emerge.
In the twentieth century, Utopianism was found mainly on the far Left of the political spectrum. The Nazis attempted to realise a Utopian vision that condemned much of humanity to enslavement or extermination, but for the most part, the utopias that shaped politics were visions of human emancipation.
Towards the end of the last century the pursuit of Utopia entered the political mainstream. Following the ignominious collapse of “Communism” ( in reality Soviet centrism), the “victor” in the Cold War, American-style democratic capitalism, was seen by many in the US as the final perfected form of human government. Francis Fukuyama an American philosopher of sorts, characterised the “winning” of the Cold War as leaving a perfect politico/economic system as the “End of History”. The system was perfected, no further change was needed, therefore history would come to an end.
American Neo-liberals were possessed of the idea that the free market was a scientifically-proven form of economic system that would guarantee the greatest wealth of the greatest number. If all were able to play their part in the market, unencumbered by the corrupt shackles of government, a perfect society could be created. The economics behind the neo-liberal dream were a strange concoction - a blend of laissez-faire thinking, mixed with mathematical constructs based on game theory, and a dash of genetics based on the idea of the selfish gene. The theories thus constructed were given academic respectability through some European economists of the Austrian School, and Nobel laureates such as Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago.
The Disaster of American Neo-Conservatism
In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks neo-conservatives joined forces in a strategic alliance with Christian fundamentalists, and American politics acquired an unmistakably apocalyptic tone. Declaring that the United States was at risk from forces of evil, President George W Bush launched a campaign to eradicate terrorism from the world. Two years later he declared his intention of exporting American democracy to the Middle East and other parts of the world. Each of these projects was unrealisable. When pursued together they were a recipe for disaster.
The Utopian belief that evil can be removed from human life has assumed many shapes. Many of the theo-conservatives who were George W Bush’s power base expected an End to come about by divine intervention. Their view of the world’s conflicts – especially in biblical lands – was as preludes to Armageddon, in which the struggles between light and dark will be concluded. The American solution to the world’s evil has been repression and violent invasion of “evil” countries, aimed at bringing enlightenment and the American Way – it also resulted in incarceration of enemies without trial and a range of somewhat repressive policies at home. As might be expected, the results of this Utopian vision of the world have been disastrous – the Middle East is now a buzzing hive of extremism and violence, Russia had had carte blanche to re-assert its power base in Europe – and there has been serious deterioration of American power, especially “soft” power.
The failure of Utopian visions to deliver a perfect world has not deterred those who wish for them to deliver the “Celestial City”.
In the real world, ideas have been put forward; advocating continuous adaptation, coping with emerging realities, learning from experience, experimentation, selecting what works and discarding that which doesn’t; seem to offer the best chances of human survival. Prof Charles Lindblom of Yale University described this approach as the science of “Muddling Through”, which experience shows works in all spheres of life, from business and commerce to politics.