The Barbarism of Liberalism: Utopian Ideals, Research Time, 29/12/2013

You don’t name a project Utopias without considering how people think about their political, social, and personal ideals and dreams. Zizek and I agree about many aspects of modern utopian thinking, but I’m not sure that he contributes much to my own work. We seem to be thinking along the same lines, fellow-travelers nodding in agreement. 

Here’s a place where our thoughts are in tandem: the modern conservative utopia. This is based on the imagined ideal past that must be resurrected. The past is conceived as a perfect society, a pure state from which we have fallen thanks to modern secularism, technology, or other forces that destroy the human relationship with supposedly authentic religion, morals, and family values. Whether I talk about the Islamic fundamentalists (particularly radicals like Abu Hamza in Britain, the hook-handed imam), Christian fundamentalists (take your pick among the hypocritical evangelists and Catholics of the American Republican party), the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders campaigning to drive Arabs out of Israel and the West Bank, or the most extreme Hindu nationalists of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party, their utopian drive is the same. All are essentially elites to convert an extreme ideology into political programs that sound as if they are in people’s best interests. 

There was once a time when our society was pure, right, and upstanding; that time must be restored by whatever force is necessary or moral. So many of these movements also have an important goal of restraining, controlling, and possessing women. Slut-shaming, forced illiteracy, the legalization of or indifference to rape; all of these are the weapons of culturally conservative utopians against the freedom of women. Zizek so far in my reading of Living in the End Times does not mention this violent social drive against women in his analysis of conservative utopianism, and that is not cool to me.

One of the best examples of political/religious extremism in
contemporary American democracy is Rick Santorum.
But Zizek’s central idea in his analysis of the conservative utopian vision is that their glorified ideal past is a lie. If today a Rick Santorum looks around at his society and sees decadence, depravity, and a fall from grace, he imagines that state of grace as a time when his god gloried in human virtue. That such imagery is connected to the Christian myth of the Fall seems obvious. What better image for the idealized past than Eden? But any philosophy with moral ideals could become perverted in this way. 

I found the same ideas all over the most repugnant environmentalist philosophies, the radical anti-humanists, anti-technology agrarian utopians. The most disgusting were the philosophies that made indigenous peoples into idealized creatures of pure nature. These supposed progressive environmentalists regarded the indigenous peoples of the world as worse than noble savages: they were animals, and so were treated as heavenly.

This kind of ideal society never existed and never could. A destructive political ideology can be very effective in the world by seducing people into the idea that they can resurrect the pure world of the past to overcome the moral compromises and challenges of the present. A political ideology, in Zizek’s sense, is an absolute principle, a moral categorical imperative expressing itself in political contexts. Many discussions in moral philosophy are about uncovering moral truths, categorical imperatives of this type, an absolute obligation for action. But when such absolute principles and ideals are put into political practice, oppression is the only real result.

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