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Liberalism and the Utopian Temptation by Harrison Pitt

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Liberalism and the Utopian Temptation

"The Garden of Earthly Delights" (between 1480 and 1505), a 205.5 × 384.9 cm oil on oak panels by Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1450-1516), located in Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Utopians are forever halfway along their journey to the promised land. Committing many bloody sacrifices, more often of people other than themselves, whatever grand, overarching ideal they have in mind for a better world will always serve to excuse further plunges into depravity.

Macbeth was not a utopian. He murders not because he finds in King Duncan a menacing tyrant, as Brutus does in Julius Caesar, but out of base, undisguised personal ambition. Nevertheless, despite these sordid motives, Macbeth speaks for the more high-minded utopians, driven by some universal project for human betterment, when he states: “I am in blood / Stepped in so far, that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”

Every species of utopian tyrant will have at some point entertained feelings very close to Macbeth’s. Already surrounded by a mass of corpses, it must indeed have seemed “tedious” and thus unthinkable for Joseph Stalin in the 1930s or for Mao Zedong in the 1950s to renounce the dream. To “wade no more” would have meant betraying their superordinate ideal of a man-made utopia—a world purged of injustice but reachable only across a pit of screams.

Shakespeare, as Solzhenitsyn recognized, was untypically ignorant of a vital force in human affairs that proved lethal during the 20th-century: the utopian temptation. From Iago in Othello to Edmund in King Lear, wrote the Soviet dissident novelist, “the imagination and spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses.” Shakespeare’s villains are frankly lightweights beside mass murders like Hitler and Stalin. Solzhenitsyn believed this was because Iago and Edmund had not succumbed to the spell of ideology. Unlike the modern idealistic tyrants, they lacked a utopian pretext to make their evildoing seem not only justified but necessary.

Nazism was not just destroyed in 1945, but has since been utterly discredited in Western societies. So too, in a way, have been the Communist theories of Karl Marx—even if a minority of people, ignorant of 20th-century history, continues to urge recklessly for some kind of revival. Such idealistic dreams, be it of a racially pure Volksgemeinschaft or a classless workers’ paradise, are now rightly rejected for licensing torture, murder, and genocide. Liberalism presents itself as a decidedly more furry and attractive alternative to these dangerous, fanatical creeds. Liberals also like to claim that their political worldview is not even ideological, but simply what happens when kindness and common sense are allowed to prevail over dogmatism, tyranny, and impractical forms of political romance. But is liberalism, the ruling philosophy of our modern world, really so immune from the utopian temptation?

Liberal utopianism, if such a thing can be said to exist, is more slippery than its Marxist or fascist rivals. This is because leading liberal figures, from John Locke and Thomas Paine through to Friedrich Hayek and Steven Pinker, have generally accepted that some form of original sin presents an obstacle to utopian dreamers intent on perfecting our fallen world. Religious liberals have viewed this obstacle in the traditional Judeo-Christian terms: since mankind was born in sin, “nothing but heaven is impregnable to vice,” as Paine writes in Common Sense. The writings of the more secular Hayek and Pinker also exhibit some recognition of the fact that man is prone to error. Whether it is “the calculation problem” stated by Hayek or the “cognitive biases” that preoccupy Pinker, the reality of human imperfection means we are well-advised to resist any temptation to re-engineer the entire social and economic order. ‘Utopia,’ then, has been more or less absent from the liberal vocabulary. But does some semi-utopian tendency still lurk within the liberal project?

In Enlightenment Now, Pinker contends that human well-being, measured across multiple dimensions from overall health to material prosperity, has made quantum leaps in progress thanks to liberal, so-called ‘Enlightenment’ values. Pinker’s general thesis, supported by 75 graphs, is for the most part scientifically incontrovertible. But it is also somewhat bloodless in its neglect of man’s more romantic urges: our desire for spiritual recognition and our hunger to be more than mere passive beneficiaries of efficiently oiled systems of welfare, medicine, and free market exchange.

Pinker is often mocked as a Panglossian optimist, but this is unfair. Not only is Pinker’s optimism free of theology, but it extends far beyond Voltaire’s caricature of Leibniz in Candide. Professor Pangloss, that novella’s cartoonish representative of the German philosopher and his attempt at theodicy, affirms that we live in “the best of all possible worlds.” Pinker’s case is altogether less modest, arguing that our world can get even better, provided we do not jettison the ‘Enlightenment’ values which have served us so well and embrace instead what he condemns as ‘progressophobia.’ 

Liberalism’s semi-utopian conceit, then, is that ‘perfection’ is not a static, abstract ideal to which we aspire, but rather to some extent consists in forever improving—such progress being measured in terms of maximising choice and pleasure while minimising pain and arbitrary boundaries. The basic structures within which that development can occur have been erected by the liberal model: all that remains is to continue exercising our reason to ensure a sustained upward trajectory and to fend off the ‘progressophobic’ demons who, if indulged, will send society backsliding. The Communists and Nazis were too drenched in blood to be convincing harbingers of a better world. But secular modern liberals, well represented by Pinker, are more persuasive with their graphs and calculators, not to mention their smart doctorates and kindly, professorial manners. As such, they can now sell a data-driven narrative of material progress more mentally satisfying than any theory ever dreamt up by Marx.

But Pinker and his ilk are not as novel as they might believe. The 19th-century was full of ‘rational optimists’—thinkers who trusted in reason, technology, and the human instinct for survival to act as guardians of a more prosperous, enlightened future. Jan Gotlib Bloch, an amateur but enthusiastic student of modern warfare, thought that our newly accomplished technological prowess would also expand our moral sensibilities. With the invention of machine guns and rapid-firing artillery, he held that war between great powers was now an impossible anachronism, a mutually suicidal venture from which nothing could be gained. Bloch was right to think statesmen would achieve nothing but universal misery from mechanised warfare. He was spectacularly wrong, though, to assume that the inevitably horrific consequences would prevent them from trying their luck, as the First World War came to demonstrate. So began the horror of the 20th-century, a period in which idealists—minds entranced by the utopian temptation—killed many more people than did cynics.

The 19th-century was also home to philosophically sophisticated optimists like Hegel, who believed the predominant motor of history was rationality and that its in-dwelling purpose would drive our unique species towards higher realisations of freedom. His most famous admirer, Karl Marx, was even more optimistic about human potential. He prophesied that, pending the right economic conditions, man was all set to inherit an enlightened paradise. History would reach its end in the form of a new Communist world order, although Marx conceded that some measure of class warfare and revolutionary bloodletting would be the inevitable birth pangs. 

Finally, sociologist Max Weber contributed his own theory of Entzauberung, or disenchantment, to define the essence of modernity. Weber had intended to capture what it meant to live in the developed West, with its bureaucratic systems and secular rationalist values. To be an advanced society was to have outgrown religious myth. Past cultures honouring their local gods certainly regarded the world as “a great enchanted garden,” but ‘modernisation’ was the process of replacing these bygone charms with the rational administration of society by calculating, scientific bureaucrats. Science and reason, thought Weber optimistically, would secure freedom for the citizens of this brave, disenchanted new world. 

Pinker may find plenty to attack in Hegel, Bloch, and Weber. He would find still more to criticise in the anti-liberal Communism of Marx. Nevertheless, Pinker is hardly the first to find reasons to indulge the utopian temptation, however much he might wish to qualify his love of progress with the caveat that the best of all possible worlds can never technically exist.

But there were also distinguished, anti-utopian voices in the 19th century who called into question these various brands of philosophical optimism. These belonged to figures who recognized that the project of maximising human prosperity, whether by liberal or Marxist means, was not enough to fill the spiritual hole left gaping by the Western experience of disenchantment. Ridding the world of war and poverty is no trivial aspiration, but the soul clamours for more than peace and plenty. Benjamin Disraeli was among the very few statesmen at the time to appreciate that man shall not live by bread alone. Quite apart from physical comfort, we are creatures who long deeply to be anchored by beliefs that give purpose and adventure to lives which would otherwise lack all meaning. For this reason, Disraeli thought the true calling of a statesman was not to obsess over the budget like a Gladstonian policy wonk, but to stimulate the collective imagination of the people, using poetry and myth to make them glory in their share of the national destiny: “Man is made to adore and obey; but if you give him nothing to worship, he will fashion his own divinities and find a chieftain in his own passions.” The problem with liberalism and utilitarianism, Disraeli believed, was that while they might work on their own terms, neither satisfied this more profound human urge to worship and sanctify. As well as full bellies, citizens require spiritual direction: “I think the people ought to be led, ought to have ideas given them by those whom nature and education have qualified to govern states and regulate the conduct of mankind.” It does not take very much reading of Disraeli’s speeches and writings to guess whom he had in mind for the job.

It is highly probable that Dostoyevsky loathed Disraeli. He was confused and appalled by Britain’s alliance with the Muslim Turks over their Russian fellow Christians during the Crimean War (1853-1856). By the late 1870s, he would have been even more outraged by Disraeli’s belief that continued Ottoman rule over the Balkans—where the Turks were committing atrocities against the Bosnian, Serbian, and Bulgarian national uprisings—was a price worth paying to prevent Russia from capitalising on the power vacuum. Disraeli dismissed the reports of Ottoman massacres in Russian-backed Bulgaria, for example, by quipping that Gladstone’s righteously indignant pamphlet on the subject was “of all the Bulgarian horrors perhaps the greatest.”

But in every other respect Dostoyevsky would have lauded Disraeli’s critique of liberal materialism. In fact, the Russian novelist was the main critical genius to expose the real fallacy at the root of the many utopian plans on offer in the 19th-century marketplace of ideas. Whatever the superficial attractions of an ideal society, be it the universal equality of Marx’s vision or the conquest of poverty under liberal capitalism, Dostoyevsky knew that mankind is the type of creature to forego all such earthly blessings to pursue adventure, recognition, and glory, no matter how wise or foolish the cause. Give man “economic prosperity, such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes, and busy himself with the continuation of his species, and even then out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick,” writes the cynical, anonymous narrator of Notes from Underground. “He would even risk his cakes and would deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomical absurdity, simply to introduce into all this positive good sense his fatal fantastic element.” 

All utopians must assume that human beings at the very least grasp what is best for them. Dostoyevsky appreciated that this is not always the case. Furthermore, in Notes from Underground, it is observed that even when we do know our best interests, once they have been “plotted out and tabulated,” we often rebel against them in a spasm of irrational sentiment—out of fealty to some higher cause, if not pure selfish regard for “one’s own free and unfettered volition, one’s own caprice, however wild, one’s own fancy, inflamed sometimes to the point of madness.” 

Dostoyevsky’s critique of the utopian temptation sprang from a sense not so much that man-made efforts to nurse human sorrows with material abundance were bound to fail, but that even if successful, as Pinker claims liberalism to be, a crucial set of questions would remain unanswered. His argument is therefore more fundamental than those which focus merely upon the technical, pragmatic flaws involved in reaching the various utopian destinations.

The problem with Marx’s utopia is that we never arrive. The problem with semi-utopian liberalism, built on the secular, ‘Enlightenment’ values acclaimed by Pinker, is that we are given no idea how to live once we get there. Without anchoring beliefs, Pinker’s world of unprecedented riches and legal freedoms soon loses its attraction, as generations become accustomed to its benefits. It is no surprise that an urge has now developed to re-enchant society—or more often to curse it—in line with the latest ideological fads, from classical Marxism to Critical Race Theory, which are currently defeating Pinker’s ‘Enlightenment’ humanism in the race to win hearts if not minds. The liberal order may save people from hunger, but it makes no claim on the human spirit and is therefore vulnerable to our destructive tendencies. As Genesis teaches, what Dostoyevsky described as man’s “fatal fantastic element” exists even in the midst of paradise.

Pinker would reject the point made by Disraeli and Dostoyevsky that schemes for material betterment cannot satisfy our deeper hunger for struggle and adventure. At the end of Enlightenment Now, he writes that “the spiral of recursive improvement” is itself a “heroic story” of inspiring achievement against all odds. But does this story offer enough to every member of the human race, as Pinker suggests? Can his data-driven narrative of material progress compete with religion and ideological romance in the campaign to win hearts? Pinker’s call to adventure may be rousing to Bill Gates, who praised Enlightenment Now as “my new favourite book,” but it leaves very little purpose for the great mass of humanity. People surely benefit from Pinker’s story, enjoying higher life expectancy and a lower probability of suffering violent death, but most of us are accorded no central role in the narrative ourselves. Its main characters are scientists, economists, and global business leaders.

True, the leading liberal figureheads have resisted the language of ‘utopia.’ But then so did Marx, who associated the word with French socialists such as Charles Fourier and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon—thinkers he spent much of his life deriding as dreamy idealists, insufficiently schooled in the hard particulars of Marx’s ‘scientific’ brand of historical materialism. 

But as with Marxism, the extent to which liberals regard themselves as utopian is largely irrelevant. Names aside, their ideology posits a political order the basics of which cannot be improved. Only the material fruits of that order—prosperity, health, the discovery of new rights—can progress. And since these can never be perfect, as most liberals will admit, the forward movement must be perpetual, the only alternatives being stagnation or the risk of regression. All human values tend to be unmoored from their roots—whether religious, national, or historical—and reduced to a pure question of autonomous choice. Overall, this encourages people to believe that long-established authorities are arbitrary, oppressive obstacles to individual whim; that the forever expanding list of rights is sacrosanct and therefore comes with no necessary duties; and that ‘modernity’ is such a deliverance that nothing can be learned from the past other than the need always to treat it as an inferior prototype of the future.

The fallacy of the utopian temptation as indulged by liberals is not that it fails to deliver the goods, but that its terms for doing so are exceedingly narrow. ‘Liberty’ being the ordained end of the liberal project, it is assumed that the freedom to decide between different conceptions of the good life is no less of an achievement than the undoubted blessing of being able to pick between different groceries in the supermarket. So long as people are not being oppressed, or progress is being made to make sure that this occurs less frequently, liberals are content to have society overseen by a hypothetically ‘neutral’ state. Anyone seeking to reorder the public square towards a more authoritative, less morally neutral understanding of the common good—one that discriminates, for example, between the married family and scatterings of ill-disciplined, licentious individuals—is then dismissed as a censorious persecutor. When individual judgement reigns supreme, a society is only as stable and ethically coherent as the private citizens trusted to exercise it. Without the aid of tradition, an individual’s ability to form judgements with the kind of wisdom intrinsic to a long-established set of cultural values is severely limited.

The utopian trick pulled by liberalism has been convincing the world that sheer material advancement is enough. Liberals therefore overlook our need for shared moral standards by which individual conduct must be judged and traditional routes to spiritual meaning which enchant human life in a way that no GDP statistic ever can. Finally, their self-obsessed materialism makes them complacent in the face of far less risk-averse outside threats, as Vladmir Putin’s deeply wicked yet highly romantic and uneconomical invasion of the Ukraine has served to demonstrate.

The first half of the 20th-century made a mockery of liberal optimism, but after 1989 the ideology regained much of its credibility and showed signs of pulling off a resounding comeback. It may be that human memory is so short and the utopian temptation so strong, that every age must live through its own sobering tragedy.

Harrison Pitt is a writer for The European Conservative. Based in the UK, he has also been published in The Spectator, Quillette, Spiked-Online, The Critic, and others.