Imagining Better Worlds? Pessimism, Hope and Real Utopias
I have recently been reading two books with hugely different claims. One is by by the arch conservative philosopher Roger Scruton; the other by a long dead and much admired Marxist, Ernst Bloch. The conservative is arguing for The Uses of Pessimism – the importance of pessimism in our lives, seeing the radical failure of the left as being bound up with their naive belief in a better world and their tinkering with culture which inevitably brings a worse situation. Reform, he seems to suggest – and certainly revolutions- always bring unintended consequences, damages, failures. We are better off without them. It is the true conservative position to leave things as they are. Bloch’s blockbuster (coming in at three volumes) examines The Principle of Hope , which examines our dreams and utopias for making the world a better place. Hope and visions of a better world exist in everything- from dreams and music to religions and literature. And for Bloch, Marxism is a major tool for helping us analyse the signs of pathways to this better world.
Both books have something to say but Bloch is by far the more significant. What I got most from Scruton is the need to be more cautious in our views on progress or the simple minded optimism about the good of humanity: we are always being stuck with failures, disappointments, regressions; we make mistakes; we often do terrible things: and we better to learn to live with them. Of course. But Bloch examines history to detect an underlying concern with ‘hope’. He inspects utopian movements and the many outlines we have for a better world: in medical utopias, social utopias, technological utopias, architectural utopias, geographical utopias-and in much art, religion, and music. He considers the struggle for peace, the for 8 hour working day and so on. He inspects ‘real utopias’ as well as imagined ones. In all of this he looks for signs of a better world, a dreaming forward to make humanity better. Even though we often fail (in this he would probably agree with Scruton), we must dig through these past experiments and ideas to find better ways ahead. (For a valuable review of this book which is indeed very long and complex, do look at: Douglas Kellner: The Critical Theory Project: Bloch which can be found at http://pages.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/kellner/Illumina%20Folder/kell1.htm
Bloch’s ideas seem to have been taken up recently by a range of thinkers. The Real Utopias Project for example was set up in 1991 in Wisconsin ( seeThe Real Utopias Project,) and explores a wide range of proposals and models for radical social change. The basic idea is to combine serious normative discussions of the underlying principles and rationales for different emancipatory visions with the analysis of pragmatic problems of institutional design.
The current president of the American Sociological Association, Erik Ohlin Wright, is also making the idea of ‘Real Utopias’ the organising themes of his time in office. He writes in the ASA newsletter, Footnotes:
“Real Utopias” seems like an oxymoron: Utopia means “nowhere” – a fantasy world of perfect harmony and social justice. To describe a proposal for social transformation as “utopian” is to dismiss it as an impractical dream outside the limits of possibility. Realists reject such fantasies as a distraction from the serious business of making practical improvements in existing institutions. The idea of real utopias embraces this tension between dreams and practice: “utopia” implies developing clear-headed visions of alternatives to existing institutions that embody our deepest aspirations for a world in which all people have access to the conditions to live flourishing lives; “real” means taking seriously the problem of the viability of the institutions that could move us in the direction of that world. The goal is to elaborate utopian ideals that are grounded in the real potentials of humanity, utopian destinations that have accessible way stations, utopian designs of viable institutions that can inform our practical tasks of navigating a world of imperfect conditions for social change.
Exploring real utopias implies developing a sociology of the possible, not just of the actual. This is a tricky research problem, for while we can directly observe variation in what exists in the world, discussions of possibilities and limits of possibility always involve more speculative and contentious claims about what could be, not just what is. The task of a sociology of real utopias, then, is to develop strategies that enable us to make empirically and theoretically sound arguments about emancipatory possibilities.