Utopianism could fix politics


'Utopia' by Chris JohnstonA Frenchman once wrote: ‘There are no ideas without utopia'. But utopian thinking seemed to perish in the ruins of the 20th century: in Pol Pot's killing fields and the Soviet gulag. The resulting understandable disillusionment with utopianism had two unfortunate consequences: an obsession with pragmatism and an inability to recognise new forms of dangerous utopianism hiding beneath a veneer of common sense. In both cases the result has been devastating for our political culture.

To be labeled a ‘utopian' in contemporary politics is to be dismissed as irrelevant. A politician's primary virtue is ‘pragmatism'. This has led to an unhealthy scepticism towards people with ideas or vision. We are now cursed with a political system based on the inertia of pragmatism when we desperately need new ideas to deal with challenges that call into question all our long-cherished ways of doing things and of seeing the world. The most important single explanation of the failure — on a global scale — to do anything meaningful so far about the threat posed by climate change is a lack of vision of how our world could be better.

The stubborn adherence to modern consumer capitalism — despite the growing evidence of its economic and environmental failures — is clear evidence of an inability to envisage something better. Of course this has something to do with the failure of the great communist experiment of the 20th century. But to think that there could only be two options — industrial capitalism or Soviet-style communism — is a failure of vision in itself.

There is, of course, a difference between utopian thinking and unrealistic thinking, although in popular parlance they are often confused. ‘Utopian' is often used dismissively or insultingly to describe someone with views that seem unrealistic or impractical. But claims about utopianism are always ideological and political and seldom based on a true assessment of practicality. For instance, those arguing for social and economic equality have often been dismissed as utopians whose ideas allegedly founder on the reality of ‘human nature'.

On the other hand, our entire economic system is based on the clearly impractical and unrealistic belief that never-ending growth is possible, despite the physical limits of a closed system. Yet adherents of this view — most mainstream politicians, economists and nearly everyone else — are considered to be ‘pragmatic' and realistic. This can only be the case because the meaning of utopia is politically and ideologically defined. If impracticality were really the defining quality of utopia, believers in modern consumer capitalism based on unending growth would be the true utopians.

Australia's political culture has long been anti-utopian. Our constitution is little more than a free trade agreement between former colonies, while politicians of the big parties outdo themselves to appear ordinary (I've never understood why one would want an ‘ordinary' person to do the extraordinary job of running a country). For much of the time such anti-utopianism has been healthy, helping us to avoid the turmoil of some other countries. But it now represents a major threat to our long-term future.

We have just been through an election campaign in which the large, old parties were almost entirely bereft of ideas. On the most important issues facing the nation, indeed the world — climate change — we have had a Prime Minister who vaguely recognises the problem but resists doing anything about it, and an opposition leader who trivialises it to a question of tax. There is no doubt that an adequate response to climate change is difficult, that abandoning the religion of endless growth is profoundly unsettling to a society used to continual expansion of appetites, consumption and demand.

But the fact that no adequate response is forthcoming from the old parties is not just a failure of will in the face of a difficult task: it is a symptom of a deep anti-utopian malaise, an inability to imagine a better society.

There are several reasons for this. First, those who benefit most from the status quo — the political and economic elites — want us to believe that we live in the best possible world, and that to challenge it is to risk havoc, instability, social and economic breakdown. But they say this purely in defence of their own interests. Let us not be confused about this. The mining industry's propaganda campaigns against action on climate change and a resource tax demonstrate clearly that its interests will always trump the broader interests of the community — even if it means hastening environmental destruction, climate change and long-term economic and social harm.

Second, we live in a society in which techniques of propaganda and attitude manipulation have been raised to unprecedentedly sophisticated levels. The advertising industry is essentially an enormous propaganda instrument for the preservation of consumer capitalism. The effectiveness of this propaganda lies in its apparently voluntary nature. We allow it into our houses and our lives almost every time we turn on the TV, open a newspaper, catch a train, visit a shop, walk down the street.

Third, our political system is almost designed to prevent change. One inevitable result of this is the gradual morphing of the two major parties, so that if it weren't for the Greens we would live in something approximating a one party state, with a factionalised ruling party. The nature of our political system — its short-termism and emphasis on pragmatism rather than vision — especially the disproportionate power it gives to swinging and disengaged voters, means that the major parties have lost the will to devise policies and go out and explain and defend them. Instead, with the aid of opinion pollsters and focus groups, they try to guess what ‘the people' (actually swinging voters) think. As a result they appear to be opportunistic, vacillating and uncertain. That is to be expected. Most of the time they are not trying to sell something they really believe in, but something their consultants tell them ‘the people' want.

The big problem is that after so many years of this parlous state of affairs the old parties don't believe in much more than the exercise of power itself.

Australia could do with a good dose of utopian thinking.

Colin LongColin Long is the Victorian State Secretary-elect of the National Tertiary Education Union and the lead candidate for the Greens in the Southeastern Metropolitan Upper House region in the forthcoming Victorian election. 

Topic tags: utopianism, utopia, politics, idealism, pragmatism, election


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Existing comments

First! Can't vote for greens because they support abortion and the absurdly termed "same-sex marriage" Those policies can't bring about a "Utopia."

Second: There can be no Utopia on Earth.

Third: The Social Reign of Jesus Christ is man's only hope.
Trent | 06 September 2010

I particularly like the point Mr Long makes about the advertising industry.
However advertising is effective because of "the human factor"; ignorance of which, he says, is used as the basis for criticism of those arguing for social and economic equality.

Anyone who has served on a committee of a volunteer organisation or has been active in a not-for-profit organisation where power, financial reward and prestige would be expected to be low motivators, will know that herding cats into a bag would be easier. Quite often the smaller the issue, the bigger the dispute. I've known one fund-rasing committee to split, and eventually disband, over the value of prizes in a raffle.

The average man in the street, if he exists, is a mystery to me. I have a grudging admiration for the advertising company that can persuade 25% of them to buy a Toyota rather than a Holden. Utopian ideas that do not take into account the vagaries of human nature will never be put into practice by even 20% of the population - unless their proponents hire a brilliant advertising agency..
Uncle Pat | 06 September 2010

Colin Long's dissertation deserves some serious thought. Indeed, the notion of an utopian world springs from the creative thoughts of few. Regrettably, to the majority of humankind utopian ideals are far removed from their daily existence. Since the result of the recent Federal elections, I'd say that the notion of utopia is almost absent in the Australian psyche, particularly when one half of the electorate seems bent to turn this country into 'fortress Australis'! Utopian ideals are about the kind of civilised society we'd like to live, so far that has not been evident in, at least, half of the electorate.
Alex Njoo | 06 September 2010

Mr Long understates the failure of utopianism in the 20th century. It was not just Pol Pot and the gulags of Stalin: it was Lenin, and Mao, and Ho and Hitler, and Kim and and in this century, Mugabe and the current dictator darling of the left, Chavez. The burden is very heavily on the statist utopian to prove that his or her vision will not issue in mass slaughter like ALL the others.

The Greens’ Big Brother vision doesn’t give assurance that that burden has been discharged. They are forever pointing to specks of human rights abuse (relatively speaking ­ if even specks) such as boat people issues and the civilian body count in Iraq, but ignoring the beams in their own eyes of abortion and euthanasia. Even their imagined high ground of environmentalism is riddled with inconsistency. If global warming is such a pressing global issue, why not switch to nuclear power? The fact that they reject all nuclear power options a priori, even the mini ­nuclear plants now being deployed that can’t blow up and don’t produce weapon’s grade material indicates it’s that same old fundamentalist zeal of their wide-­eyed utopian predecessors that we’re dealing with here.
HH | 06 September 2010

“On the other hand, our entire economic system is based on the ... belief that never-ending growth is possible, despite the physical limits of a closed system.”

Can we put this myth to bed? I challenge Mr Long to name a single pro-­capitalist economist who insists that “never-­ending growth is possible”. Economists, ­ particularly those of the capitalist stripe whom Mr Long apparently despises, ­endorse Lionel Robbins’ pithy definition of “economics” as “the allocation of scarce means to specific ends”. "Scarce means", Mr Long: belief in “never-­ending growth” would be radically incompatible with acceptance of this tenet. Sure, there are a few like Julian Simon, who smashed the doom ­merchant guru Paul Erlich when he stupidly predicted the capitalist world would collapse into mass starvation and misery by the end of last century. But that’s because Simon proved that, within ultimate, arguably never to be encountered ­ constraints, native human ingenuity and creativity, in a climate of free exchange, is vastly underestimated by the likes of Mr Erlich ­ and Mr Long and his fellow Greens.

Ultimately, it’s not a question of the incontestable fact that human needs will collide with limited resources, the knee-jerk application of which - had these Greens been politically dominant in the time of Malthus - would have straitjacketed us forever into a living standard of the late eighteenth century European peasant (at best).

It’s a question identifying the best system to deliver tacit, accurate knowledge about the ever­changing kaleidoscope of resources and wants of billions of creative human beings.

It’s about reality­-based Hayekians vs. utopian statists like Marx, and Mr Long.

No contest, in my book.
HH | 07 September 2010


Textbook definitions of economics are nice.

A couple of real world questions for you: does capitalism require 3% compound growth to survive?

Has capitalism (and Hayekian economists) treated the atmosphere as a scarce resource?
Colin Long | 15 September 2010

Colin, thanks.

To respond to your three points:

1. Come up with a better definition of economics than Robbins' that even lowly (in your eyes) textbooks might see fit to mention - even as a footnote - and you'll have something of a tub to preach from.

2. "Does capitalism require 3% compound growth to survive?"

No! Whatever gave you that idea? You really must read more widely. I suggest for starters the archcapitalist (if you like) Murray Rothbard in his "Man, Economy and State" on 'growth'.

3. "Has capitalism (and Hayekian economists) treated the atmosphere as a scarce resource?"

Non issue. I mean: when has capitalism (ie. the free market) been ALLOWED to treat the atmosphere (or the oceans) as a scarce resource?

Your very question on its face suggests ignorance as to what the complete privatisation of earth's resources - atmosphere, oceans, etc - might entail. Given that the atmosphere, the oceans and the rivers are the province of the STATE, and have been since time immemorial - contra Hayekian preferences - I'm struggling to make sense of your question. Do you know what's been going on here?

Are you across Garret Hardins' seminal "The Tragedy of the Commons"? What's your response to that?
HH | 16 September 2010

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