History Creates Progress; It’s Called Time, Research Time, 28/08/2015

Wednesday was a crazy day. So I took the night off from writing a blog post. Today, we’re back, picking up what I posted on Wednesday about the problem of utopian politics in real life.

I want to get into some of the conceptual machinery behind the idea that turns so many people today against utopia. The entire revolutionary socialist movement, pretty much from Karl Marx onward, was about creating a radical change in human society that would transform its entire character. 

A young Josef Stalin even looks kind of
like he could be a film director.
But the only way to transform a whole society according to a specific program is with totalitarian dictatorship. Stalin as the artist and society as the materiel. This is basically why modern right-wing libertarian activists call all leftists Stalinists: they think the left is about revolutionary state socialism, and they think state socialism is the totalitarian transformation of society along a single program. 

Countering this vision is the core problem of the left in the 21st century. And the solution has to do with the way we think of time. When I eventually write the full Utopias manuscript, thinking about time is the thread running through the whole thing.

Here are some ideas I picked up and ran with in Frederic Jameson’s book on utopian thinking and literature, Archaeologies of the Future

A utopian society is perfect. Because such a society is perfect, we must resist all change. Any change from a perfect society is a degradation, a fall from grace, or at least a chip away from perfection. Therefore, the political imperative in a utopian society is to resist change, to suppress all innovations and discourage any radical change. 

The problem with this kind of politics is that it destroys and suppresses all human creativity. I’ll probably play around with Henri Bergson’s and Gilles Deleuze’s concepts of creativity in the text when I deal with this problem. It’ll explore how essential creativity and innovation is to human thinking. 

Our creative powers as a species are at the core of how successful we’ve become. Humanity has a history of adaptation to ecological changes that would (and did) wipe most other species out. That’s why I’m still a little hopeful that humanity can survive the Holocene Extinction, even though it’s also our fault.

The key here is, human creativity is necessary if we’re to respond to the world’s changes. This is where my influence from the American pragmatist tradition would show up in the manuscript. I’ll play with some of John Dewey’s ideas specifically. So we’re stuck with an explicit problem with utopia: by definition, it’s a human society that’s perfect and so must never change, but humanity is defined by our powers to change.

The end of season 9 of Trailer Park Boys saw Julian
literally transform Sunnyvale Trailer Park into an
anarchist utopia, a perfect community in an enclave
far from the oppressive shadow of Halifax.
Jameson discusses a paradox of utopia, but a different one. He talks about how all the real utopian programs that were developed were responses to concrete political problems that were singular to their authors’ times and cultures. Thomas More confronted English Christian extremism and the early Protestant movements. Karl Marx confronted the development of industrial capitalism and extreme exploitation of working people.

Yet utopias always present themselves as the universal solution to humanity’s ills, the perfect society not as a response to a historical issue, but as a literal heaven on Earth. This makes for an internal contradiction, a collision of the universal and the particular as the collision of Heaven and Earth. Jameson understands this paradox as a Derrida-style contradiction: thought is arrested, we hit the schizz point and can’t go further.

The current way I’m thinking about this is simply to double down on the historical aspect of utopian thinking. The will to universality is a feature of human egotism: we always think our own problems and our own society’s problems are the essential problems of human existence. But we’re wrong, and we don’t understand how different human societies genuinely can become if we give them enough time.

So the achievement of a utopian society inevitably collapses. Even if everyone is on board and there’s no repressive violence to force people to accord with the plan, the world will eventually make the plan obsolete. When the problems the utopia was meant to address are solved, the utopian society itself becomes a problem.

Progress is change.


  1. Hey, I just remembered this book that I read at the start of the year. I got really interested in Wayne's ideas after seeing him speak at a conference last year. Mostly his thinking about philosophical anthropology has been useful for me. Anyway, this book (from what I recall) explores how we can rethink utopia in a plurastic society. http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Reform-Utopia-Ethics-Governance/dp/0754623076

  2. More lived in the century prior to the English Civil War. His day job was taking out Protestants for Henry VIII when he was still a Catholic.

    1. Ah, whoops. Faulty historical memory was a casualty of writing late at night. I'll correct that in a minute.