In a series of posts for ThinkProgress, Ruy Teixeira urges the Left to recover its utopian imagination. While acknowledging the horror of Communism, Teixeira argues that progressive politics are hollow unless they are oriented toward a vision of the perfect society. The end does not necessarily justify the means. But:
…the idea of utopia can and should live on. Utopia is fundamentally an expression of man’s ability to dream of a better world. It provides inspiration to those seeking social change, providing a model for the society they seek to create. Without that inspiration, there is little long-term commitment to substantial change, which inevitably saps energy from reform efforts.
The post is supposed to be something of a call to arms for progressive activists. Actually, it’s an expression of intellectual exhaustion.
To begin with, Teixeira provides no clear account of what utopia means. By invoking the vision of a better society so generally, he conflates three very different ways of understanding that prospect.
What might be called conservative utopianism defines the philosophical tradition from Plato to Thomas More. While it articulates a perfect society, this approach reminds us that the “good place” (in Greek, eu-topia) is also “no place” (ou-topia). The implication is that perfection is always beyond our grasp. Although the utopian vision is useful for identifying the flaws in really existing society, then, it is also a warning not to expect too much from politics.
A second concept of utopianism derives from Jewish and Christian messianism. On this view, the perfect society is understood as a miraculous rupture of the order of things rather than the result of philosophical reflection on nature. We cannot plan or prepare for redemption. All we can do is wait in pious hope. Because the establishment of the righteous city is in the hands of God rather than man, this form of utopianism may point toward withdrawal from society. But it can also lead, as it did with the nihilists so memorably described by Dostoyevsky, to a politics of disruption that sees social disorder as a harbinger of the end.
It’s pretty clear that Teixeira has neither of these currents in mind. He’s really talking about orderly development toward a goal determined by human reason. The historical source of this form of utopianism is religious. Specially, it lies in postmillenial Christian theology, according to which human beings bear the burden of building up the Kingdom of God. By shifting responsibility from God to Man while affirming the possibility of a fundamentally different future, secular millenialism offers the consolations of revealed religion without the challenging demands of faith. That may be why it has been so popular among intellectuals.
The point in Teixeira’s initial post is that secular millenialism doesn’t work without a vision of its goal. What’s most striking about the sequel, however, is that it makes no effort to articulate such a vision. Instead, Texeira provides list of positive trends, including economic growth, scientific development, and increasing lifespan.
This is not utopianism, even of the specific variety to which Teixeira alludes. Rather, it’s banal technological optimism. Texeira presents no answers to hard questions about how wealth should be distributed, rights and responsibilities balanced, or finite resources managed. He simply assures readers that things are getting better all the time. But who cares that “exports as a percentage of GDP have tripled” since 1950, or that nanotechology is likely to place untold powers at our disposal? Severed from a concept of purpose, there’s no way to determine whether increasing material abundance is good or bad.
What accounts for the poverty of Teixeira’s normative vision? I suspect that the answer has to do with his rejection of the working class as the focus of utopian imagination. In the past, advocates of secular millenialism were able to describe a better world in detail because they knew for whom they were fighting: the workers. For Teixeira, by contrast, progress means improvement in the condition of a “diverse modernizing coalition: minorities, members of the Millennial generation, singles (especially women), seculars, socially liberal, college-educated whites and urbanized Americans, especially in large metropolitan areas.”
The problem is, these groups do not share the interests or demands that unified the old working class. Their increasing numbers make them components of a new Democratic majority in American politics. But theirs is an inherently fractious majority, unable to articulate a common political vision. Teixeira dreams of a new utopia that can inspire the now-ascendant McGovern coalition the way the promise the welfare state defined the New Deal and Great Society. He can keep dreaming: lifestyle liberalism is the end, not the beginning of utopianism.