01 August 2008

The utopian fallacy

There is one ideal that a utopia will never allow if its definition is to remain consistent, and that ideal is pluralism. Any utopian world-view has an implicit ideological homogeneity that does not, in fact cannot, tolerate dissent. For a utopia to be what it is - a system of political and social perfection - its members must necessarily embrace similar values and ideals, otherwise its integrity disintegrates. Can any society be called a utopia if it has members, even a tiny minority, who are dissatisfied with the supposedly flawless social order? Can it still be called a utopia if there is but one malcontent?

Given the existential subjectivity of the individual, the call for creating a utopia precludes the individual’s right to his own life and instead absorbs his idiosyncratic identity into that of the collective. The more divergent his own values are from those of the utopians, the more necessary it becomes to reform his ‘error’ if the utopian dream is to be kept alive. A voluntary utopia and a despotic dystopia share a blurry border. Though utopians may claim to celebrate diversity as one of the pillars of their ideal society, the mere existence of dissent contradicts the definition of ‘utopia’ and reveals this particular manifestation to be but a farce.

The idea of a utopia attainable through sheer willpower and hard effort is at the heart of many belief systems. It is the basis for religious concepts of paradise, socialist propaganda, scientism and economic rationalism. There is a co-relation between the strength of a person’s utopian convictions and his ability to appreciate the messy complexity of this real, less-than-ideal, unromanticised world. The stronger the former, the weaker the latter becomes.

Keepers of the utopian faith may contend that their ideal world, though possibly unrealisable, nonetheless serves as a worthy goal to strive for, that the dream mobilises the best aspects of people to achieve the good and transform society for the better. Perhaps, yet all this noble effort is possible without the expectation that everyone jump on the bandwagon in unreserved support of an abstract conception of the ideal society. Idealism taken to an unreflective extreme promotes a ‘if-you’re-not-with-us-you’re-against-us’ stance, a combative attitude that divides more than it unites.

Belief in a utopia that is vulnerable to opposing interests, a utopia that is a fragile bubble of a dream liable to burst at the slightest touch of disagreement, only exacerbates the idealists’ frustration at those they perceive to be sabotaging any possibility of achieving the utopian goal. People are then classified as either allies or enemies to the cause. Those who aren’t toeing the utopian line are cursed as traitors to humanity. “It’ll be your fault if we don’t attain the Rapture/global equality/technological nirvana/unfettered prosperity!” the utopian shouts, jabbing an accusatory finger at the opposition.

The idea of utopia as a destination that must be reached at any cost should be jettisoned from any serious discourse on the path humanity must take in order to progress in all areas of worthy human endeavour. Noble causes don’t need a model of paradise on earth as a comparison to verify their value. It’s enough to know that there are social, political, environmental and economic wrongs to put right, to then identify effective methods to accomplish the task, and finally to just roll up our sleeves and get on with the job.


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