Imagining Shangri-La: In Defence of Utopian Thinking

Imagine:

You have been given a chance to recreate society completely from scratch. Yes, you personally have to devise a set of principles by which we will all live.

But there’s a catch: You don’t get to know who you will be in this society. You don’t know if you will be rich or poor, ruler or ruled, white or brown, male or female, intelligent or unintelligent, strong or weak, beautiful or ugly, etc. etc.

After you create your principles, a random lottery will decide who you get to be in it.

Credit for this thought experiment goes to philosopher John Rawls, and obviously the point is to eliminate self-interest in the creation of “utopia” or “the ideal society.”1

And yet, as just and fair as Rawls’ thought experiment sounds – and as fantastic an off-ramp as it is for a conversation about what a society that maximises well-being should look like – it’s still a something of a taboo to even talk about such a utopian project. Even in writing this sentence I feel like I should be looking over my shoulder.

I can only speculate on the origins of this war on hope and imagination. Maybe it’s post-Cold War disillusionment with the Soviet experiment. Maybe it’s Postmodern cynicism, branding every vision of “progress” as merely an expression of a “will to power” over others. Maybe it’s Western elites, demonising any other way of organising society simply because they like the way things are.

But it’s also the thinking of many of our leading intellectual champions. It actually wounds me too much to “name-and-shame,” but it’s safe to say that it’s the “received wisdom” in Arts and Humanities departments across the world, among people who can hardly be branded as establishment boot-lickers.

After all, isn’t the creation of utopia what they tried to do in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and North Korea? Didn’t it lead to the unprecedented slaughter of countless millions in the twentieth century?

Rawls’ thought experiment is all well and good in theory (the thinking goes) but the real world throws up complications: even if you did somehow have the power to implement your utopian vision, inevitably there will be those who dissent, who have alternative visions for society; and just what are you going to do about them?

The answer, such critics assume, is that you will be compelled to censor and persecute the dissenters in order to make your society work. In other words, you will have to devolve into a violent dictatorship – like Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and North Korea – whereby your utopia collapses into a dystopia.

This, you might have noticed, is one of the most prominent themes in dystopian fiction.

However, there are at least three reasons why I believe all of this to be a bit dramatic.

in defence of utopian thinking

First of all, every society is already a utopia to those who have power in it.

Our current society is a utopia to the likes of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and other one-percenters. Our society is a utopia if you’re a fossil fuel company or Wall Street banker putting profits before people, the planet and the future itself.

The only utopia we’re being told we can’t have, then, is one that serves ordinary people. Therefore I contend that the real question cannot be whether we should create utopia but who we should create it for.

Second, every society already has dissenters.

In every society there are people who disagree with the status quo and want things to be different. I should know; I’m one of them. And how do we respond to dissenters in the Western world today?

We pretty much just let them be.

This answer doesn’t exactly make for gripping dramatic fiction (which might be why it’s less heard of) but it’s true. Sure, you might be able to point to the odd exception, but on the whole we’re not rounding up dissenters and hurling them into labour camps and gas chambers.

And there’s absolutely no reason why a push for a better world needs to be any different. If you can get enough people to agree with you that things should be different, then that’s all you need; you can just let the dissenters be. Change need be no more violent or scary than a majority vote.

Third, the odds are that you are already a utopian thinker.

Yes, even if you believe yourself to be among the anti-utopians. How can I possibly say this? Because if you at all believe in “making the world a better place” (and granted, I may be going out on a limb here in assuming that you do) then you need to have at least some notion of an ideal society in that head of yours, some vision of what it is you want society to move towards, some standard by which you judge “better” and “worse” in the first place.

We might as well call this kind of thinking “utopian.”

“it’s impossible!”

Of course, even if you decide that utopian thinking is not so bad after all, you will – as sure as the sun will rise – face a host of naysayers declaring “It’s impossible!” “It’s naive!” Or – my favourite piece of patronising condescension – “It’s nice in theory but doesn’t work in practice.”

I can’t help but wonder if they think society as it currently is “works well in practice,” and for whom? Sure, as we’ve seen, the status quo is fantastic if you’re currently sun-bathing poolside at your Malibu mansion, your biggest problem being the decision around whether to order steak or lobster for dinner.

But ask an Amazon worker whose pay is docked for taking bathroom breaks, or a resident of the homeless encampments springing up around Los Angeles, if the status quo “works well in practice,” and you might get a somewhat different answer.

But ok, I’ll address the charge that an alternative is “impossible.” I’ll address it by saying I really don’t think it matters. After all, when 19th century advocates of the slave trade declared “It’s impossible to get rid of slavery” they were actually right; or at least, they have been right so far.

The Global Slavery Index estimates that roughly 40.3 million people – 71% women and 25% children – are currently living in modern day slavery.2 But this doesn’t mean we just throw up our hands and say “Ok, ending slavery is impossible so let’s just allow it.” No, we fight slavery anyway – whether ultimate victory is “possible” or not – because it’s the right thing to do.

But the main thing to remember about the charge that an alternative is impossible is that they always say that. Whatever it was – democracy, women’s rights, minority rights – those who benefited from things staying the same always shouted “It will never work!”

Yes, at first, a new way of doing things is always seen as “unthinkable.” But give it time; sometimes the “unthinkable” comes to be seen merely as “radical.” And one generation’s idea of “radical” can become the next generation’s “acceptable.” If you’re lucky, the “acceptable” graduates into “sensible,” which is the precursor to it becoming “popular,” and finally, “inevitable.”

This is called the “Overton Window” in political science; that is, the “window” showing the range of “acceptable opinion” in society.3

Once upon a time, feudalism, torture, wife-beating, abducting human beings from their homes and selling them as farm equipment, were all “within” the Overton Window. Basic human decency and treating human beings as human beings all fell far outside of it in the “radical” and “unthinkable” zones.

Thankfully, the Overton Window has moved over time- but only because we didn’t listen to the cries of “It’s impossible!” and we made it move.

All of which, of course, only begs the question: Where could – or should – the Overton Window move next?

imagining shangri-la

As much as I’m tempted to take up Rawls’ challenge right here and now, and outline what I consider to be an ideal society in my eyes, that is not really the point of this post. My point here is not to end the conversation – as though I have all the answers – but simply to help begin it.

And the only way for us to do that is to first do away with the defeatist mythology of anti-utopianism.

Just as we look upon our ancestors and shake our heads in disbelief at their backwardness and barbarism – with their slavery, racism, misogyny and so much more – so too might our descendants shake their heads in disbelief at us; with our treatment of the environment, or of animals, or each other.

And this will be a good thing; because it means we will have grown. It will mean we didn’t listen to the defeatist cries of “It’s impossible.”

It means we will have taken a step towards Shangri-La.

Footnotes

  1. Yes, I know that pedants will be quick to remind me that the Greek root of “utopia” technically means “no-place” or “no-where,” a commentary on the impossibility of achieving an ideal society. But this is an example of the “etymological fallacy.” Just because a word used to mean one thing, it doesn’t follow that it must still mean that thing. So just let it go, ok?
  2. Walk Free Foundation. (2018). Global Slavery Index. https://www.globalslaveryindex.org/
  3. Giridharadas, A. (21 November 2019). How America’s Elites Lost Their Grip. Time. https://time.com/5735384/capitalism-reckoning-elitism-in-america-2019/

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