Wednesday, February 15, 2012


A utopia is a non-place.  That is the main reason why I am against utopianism in politics.  But perhaps I should explain a bit further.

By utopianism, I understand any political theory or system which believes that we can, ultimately, sort society out and make it work.  A classic example would be communism.  In Marxist theory, there is an identifiable problem which, when done away with via the route of revolution, will give way to generally harmonious living and a society that just works.  The same could be said, as John Gray points out in his book Black Mass, of the neo-conservative belief that if we just introduced liberal democracy into the middle east, all the political and social problems would evaporate.

I am against this kind of thinking because it is unreal, and I am against because it is grand, noble, and powerful. It is unreal, because no utopian vision has yet succeeded in fixing society, and none seems likely to in the future.  Utopian visions require a changed humanity, and since no humanity other than that which has existed through all the centuries of recorded history is available to us (I will qualify this below), we should be extremely wary of anyone who touts a vision for the future that requires such a change.  Aside from the non-existence of utopia - a pretty big problem! - the issue with utopianism is that its breadth of vision, and its rhetorical force, make it inherently attractive.  Who wants to live in a world that can't be fixed?  We all find the idea of the perfect society attractive, and so we should.  But historically, the sheer grandeur of the ideas has led to horrific acts being perpetrated in the name of progress, or liberty, or the proletariat.  Because utopia is such a powerful vision, it seems to excuse terrible things.  And indeed, if utopia were within grasp - if all that were needed was the removal of this or that person in order to finally fix society once and for all - what ought not be done for the achievement of this vision?  Here lies danger.

Utopianism is prevalent in contemporary politics, usually in the UK linked to the economy.  Whether its the end of boom and bust, or some other promise of an eternally bright economic future, we should resist the urge to believe in this beautiful vista.  It is illusory, and if it is believed in it is dangerous.

How does this fit with my theological commitments?  As before, a summary:
1.  Utopianism, as John Gray shows (despite his apparently limited and flawed understanding of classical Christian eschatology) is a secularised version of the Christian vision of the end; I prefer the original and better version.
2.  Utopianism takes no account of human sin, and therefore assumes that given the right conditions we can be better; I disbelieve it.
3.  A new humanity is on offer, but only in Christ, and only to be partially seen on this side of his coming.  It is not something we can bring, but something he brings with him.  It can be looked forward to, and to some extent anticipated, but not forced.

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