Continued from last post . . . I didn’t mean to continue this series of posts into a sixth part. But last night, I was thinking about how I've drifted from the main topic of the first post to the more confessional tone of the fifth.
The book project that so much of my last two years of reading is building toward is about utopias, our dreams of a perfect society. That entails quite a few questions. One of those is, What moral norms and political institutions are perfect? Another is, What does perfection mean anyway?
The world changes. And if we ever achieve a perfect society (whatever the hell that is), the world it exists in will keep changing. So to accomplish a perfect society is never really a finished task. The perfect society for one set of circumstances is going to run into problems as circumstances change. So perfecting humanity is an ongoing process of self-critique and change.
Awesome. But what does this mean for how utopia has traditionally gone?
I remember some of Frederic Jameson’s insights when I think about this question. Utopia in the Western tradition of thought has roots in Christianity, the world’s first major eschatological religion – the first major religion in the world to conceive of time as having an endpoint that was also a fulfilment.
At the end of time, goes the Christian Revelations, will be the Kingdom of Heaven. When the self-deceiving incomplete secularism of the Enlightenment* got hold of this idea, then the end of history will be the Kingdom of Eternal Happiness. Marx called it communism, Fukuyama called it liberal democracy.
* I’m simplifying to an absurd degree here, but this is the shorthand for how I interpret a lot of modern secularism, as all the same structures of Christian philosophy, metaphysics, and morality, but with some placeholder where God normally would be. Existentialism tried to get us into pure secularism, but they still lamented the loss of a God figure. Sartre's atheism was pretty dour. Just read Nausea. It took us more than a century to catch up to Nietzsche, who understood that a world without (the Christian sense of) God or perfection is actually pretty amazing.
Jameson showed that whatever you called the Kingdom of Eternal Happiness depended on the social circumstances of your time. Whatever the major problems facing your society were, your utopia was the world in which those problems were solved.
When a social problem is big and pervasive enough to cover all of society, or all of civilization, the problem feels universal. For most of Western history, utopian visions really have pitched themselves as solving eternal problems. But I think we've moved past that as a society.
Think about the latest statement of utopian political activism: Naomi Klein’s Leap Manifesto. It calls for the kind of radical and all-pervasive transformation of Earth's civilization that you expect from a utopia. But it doesn't pitch itself as the perfect society.
It’s actually not nearly so ambitious as the Communist Manifesto’s ambition to build the eternally perfect society. Total universality is so 19th century.** Klein’s Leap Manifesto is a document to solve a present problem, digging ourselves out of the current trap we're in, our stumbling accidental mass-suicide called the Holocene Extinction.
** The craving for total universality is so 20th century.
Thankfully, we're all historicists now. Well, not nearly all of us. There's still plenty of absolutism in both religious circles and atheistic ones. But historicism has been around long enough, and is properly understood by enough people, that it’s become ordinary.
Our knowledge can reach universality in scope and reference, but our quest for knowledge always begins from our position – our priorities and frameworks of thought of our current societies, circumstances, and personalities. Even how we understand our relationship with the divine. A historicist doesn’t even have to be an atheist. She just can’t be an absolutist.
Today’s solutions seed tomorrow's problems, so we can never let ourselves become complacent.