A Little Bit Utopian?

by John Quiggin on March 20, 2013

Continuing in our seminar on Envisioning Real Utopias, a contribution from David Estlund. Like several of the contributions, it’s a bit long for a blog post, so I’m posting the opening paras, and posting it as a PDF. Read, enjoy and comment.


Erik Wright’s extended reflection on problems with capitalism, along with his imaginative and rigorous exploration of desirable and viable alternatives, raises telling points about both theory and practice. In the world of practice, modern capitalism is, despite certain virtues, undesirable in certain ways, and his aim is to diagnose the central problems and to begin to construct alternatives. In the arena of theory, Wright tries to move our thinking outside of the usual complacent assumptions about what is possible, but without leaving the constraints of the real world entirely behind. This is a common aspiration, and it bears consideration in its own right. I will put aside Wright’s substantive arguments for or against certain social arrangements in order to concentrate on Wright’s methodological discussions of feasibility and utopianism. As interesting and important as his substantive suggestions are, I will take seriously his argument that the whole project is framed by a methodology that gives both realism and utopianism their due.

The title’s term, “Real utopias,” (anticipated by John Rawls’s “realistic utopia”) suggests that this will be a balancing act. It is intentionally oxymoronic, embracing a tension between two approaches to critical social theory. Are realism and utopianism compatible? There is something appealing about being idealistic. And yet no one, it seems, wants to be accused of being unrealistic. The challenge, plausibly, is to strike some kind of balance. But utopianism is a different concept from idealism, much as libertinism is different from liberality. There is no balancing libertinism, as distinct from liberality, with abstinence (any more than it is possible to be a little bit pregnant). Likewise, I think, there is no balancing utopianism, as distinct from idealism, with feasibility. There are, as a conceptual necessity, no abstemious libertines. I contend that, likewise, there is no feasible utopianism. Is there some way to be realistic other than a concern for feasibility? I return to that question toward the end, with a reflection on the “realistic utopianism” of Rawls.

{ 13 comments }

1

Rich Puchalsky 03.20.13 at 11:37 pm

“Rather, a clearer distinction between utopian thought on one hand, and (merely) relatively idealistic thought that still aims to be practically relevant on the other hand, serves to highlight questions about when, and on what grounds, it is appropriate to capitulate (in theory or in practice) to unfortunate practical constraints. Such capitulation is bound often to be appropriate in practice—even morally mandatory in many cases. But it might yet be capitulation—a concession to, say, the morally poor motives or behavior of individuals or institutions.”

I think that this quote may not into account one of the possible routes between utopianism and realism. The verb “capitulate” implies a sort of time series — as if the utopian runs up against unfortunate practical constraints and has to become a realist.

But it’s possible that the unfortunate practical constraints cause a transition in the other direction. It’s possible to give up on realism if you believe that its main benefit — the chance to get something done — is never going to happen within the immediately achievable system, so you might as well become a utopian and agitate for what you actually want.

2

Sandwichman 03.21.13 at 12:44 am

When I write, I try to remind myself of William Zinsser’s axiom that the most important sentence is the first. And then the second and so on until the reader is hooked.

I didn’t get hooked. Too much “thumb sucking.”

3

John Holbo 03.21.13 at 2:08 am

You lost me with your first sentence, Sandwichman. I found myself very impatient with ‘William Zinsser’s axiom’. (At any rate, folks who talk like that in their first sentence should avoid denouncing ‘thumb sucking’ in their third.)

Welcome to Crooked Timber, Dave Estlund. Glad you could take the time to make such a substantial contribution. Here’s a passage from your piece that says much of what I was trying to say in my previous post:

“The fact that we ought to make the concession can hardly turn it into a non-concession, as if all the highest standards have really been met after all. Justice might be utopian or unrealistic, not something we ought, under unfortunate realistic conditions seek to produce (or, perhaps, even to approximate). And I will assume that there is value in knowing whether what is being proposed by a normative political theory is some approximation to justice, or something else altogether —
something more realistic but more concessive.”

I don’t think that Wright will disagree with this. That is, he won’t say there is no value to ideal theory. He just thinks there’s relatively more practical value to theory that focuses on viability. In a sense, there’s no point arguing about something as uncertain as that. Gentlemen, lay your bets! Do you think people will, on average, be more inspired by hearing about the demonstrated successes of a worker’s collective in Spain, or by hearing someone articulate an abstract theory of justice that is more than we can possibly hope to realize in political practice? Take your pick and take your chances. Wright somewhat conflates his personal enthusiasm for the former approach with an actual argument against the usefulness of the latter.

I guess a really short version of the objection to him would be: what we really want, ideally, is as important an aspect of reality as these others – viability and achievability.

I also agree with your point that ‘utopian’ is a term probably best reserved for a suite of refusals to be bound by the constraints of real politics – apart from that crucial ‘what we really want’ aspect. (I like your ‘can a dish be half vegetarian?’ move.)

That’s enough for one comment. More later. I want to note one bit that made me smile:

“Idealism, we should grant, can come in degrees, then, and sometimes very small ones. What about utopianism? Utopianism can mean different things in different contexts, but in political theory it has, I believe, lost its moorings completely if it can encompass even normative theories or practical projects that insist on remaining within the bounds of the feasible.”

Since the point of utopian thought is to be (experimentally, mentally) unmoored from practical constraints – the bounds of the feasibility – I like this somewhat backwards image of ‘realistic utopianism’ as hazardously unmoored from its proper lack of moorings. It’s seems a silly thing to say but it’s actually the right thing to say.

4

David 03.21.13 at 3:22 am

I’d like to explore further a question that Estlund poses: <blockquote cite="On this prescriptive realism [attributed to Rawls], how are we to estimate what ‘limits of the possible’ are imposed by people’s ‘natures’? Rawls proposes to stay within ‘persons’ moral and psychological natures,’ not just their psychological natures, but what does this mean? (13)”>
Estlund suggests that:

One objection to prescriptive realism might be this. You, the prescriptive realist, grant that, because of what we know about psychology, there are certain ways in which we do not expect people to act, in any social set-ups we can think up. What justifies your belief that the ability to act in those ways is any part of people’s natures? Why think there is a moral nature that goes beyond people’s psychological natures at all?

Estlund suggests that Rawls, here, might be inclined to shift the burden of proof onto those who would deny the possibility “that we have abilities that go beyond our inclinations and proclivities”. But it seems to me that the burden of proof can’t be shifted in that way without further argument–that it falls to the prescriptive realist to say why justice should require the exercise of abilities which, given our best theories of human psychology, we have no reason to expect that people have.

One natural way to respond, I think, is to appeal to some kind of Kantian argument. The Kantian argument would attempt to establish that we have a special ability, the ability to respect the moral law, that is, in some sense, over and above our psychological dispositions and proclivities. If that’s so, I think that would ground a robust defense of taking people’s moral nature to differ from their psychological natures, and so make room for prescriptive realism. What I wonder is whether there’s any other way to respond, or whether shifting the burden of proof is easier than I think it is.

5

David 03.21.13 at 3:25 am

Apologies–I seem to have royally screwed up block-quoting tags in my first post, rendering it partly unintelligible. Please disregard it. Here’s the full post, less ambitiously formatted.

I’d like to explore further a question that Estlund poses:

“On this prescriptive realism [attributed to Rawls], how are we to estimate what ‘limits of the possible’ are imposed by people’s ‘natures’? Rawls proposes to stay within ‘persons’ moral and psychological natures,’ not just their psychological natures, but what does this mean? (13)”

Estlund suggests that:

“It might mean that the observation that certain things are characteristic of human psychology is not yet enough to show that being different is beyond their abilities. Having a moral nature seems to mean partly that we have abilities that go beyond our inclinations and proclivities.”

One objection to prescriptive realism might be this. You, the prescriptive realist, grant that, because of what we know about psychology, there are certain ways in which we do not expect people to act, in any social set-ups we can think up. What justifies your belief that the ability to act in those ways is any part of people’s natures? Why think there is a moral nature that goes beyond people’s psychological natures at all?

Estlund suggests that Rawls, here, might be inclined to shift the burden of proof onto those who would deny the possibility “that we have abilities that go beyond our inclinations and proclivities”. But it seems to me that the burden of proof can’t be shifted in that way without further argument–that it falls to the prescriptive realist to say why justice should require the exercise of abilities which, given our best theories of human psychology, we have no reason to expect that people have.

One natural way to respond, I think, is to appeal to some kind of Kantian argument. The Kantian argument would attempt to establish that we have a special ability, the ability to respect the moral law, that is, in some sense, over and above our psychological dispositions and proclivities. If that’s so, I think that would ground a robust defense of taking people’s moral nature to differ from their psychological natures, and so make room for prescriptive realism. What I wonder is whether there’s any other way to respond, or whether shifting the burden of proof is easier than I think it is.

6

Tim Wilkinson 03.21.13 at 6:07 am

1. But, ‘insist on remaining within’ the bounds of the feasible is not the same as ‘happen to turn out to fall within’ etc., is it? We don’t demand that what looks and feels like a utopia and satisfies all our ideals must be disqualified just because it is feasible, even if we’re surprised its discoverer was able to find it despite insisting on feasibility. The point is not to avoid feasibility, but to avoid compromising.

2. And, maybe there is a point to requiring viability, one which even allows it to be seen as not compromising ideals. Ideals, let’s suppose, are abstract. Utopias are an attempt to make them concrete, even though only in imagination: a utopia is a template for a way ideals might be implemented. Maybe general/more specific, or universal/particular, or something, but anyway we are designing a place which would instantiate our ideals; and I think typically this is going to involve providing more detail.

If the brief is ‘all to be respected equally and permitted to flourish’ or some gubbins like that then I don’t think anyone will be impressed when I unveil my blueprint for utopia and it consists of ‘Place where all are respected equally and permitted to flourish’. If you are going to draw the eye of God you will have to make some decision about the eyebrow of God; if you have to mock-up a nine-bladed chariot, then where do the blades go? 3 on each of three wheels? How is that supposed to work? Don’t we want the wretched thing at least to be symmetrical?

I suppose this to disagree in part with it is not as if one of these, viability, is set by laws of nature while the other, achievability, is subject to our agency – viability as I’m thinking of it kind of is set by laws of nature, even though they might be sociological laws or something, whereas achievability is relative to the actual situation (I can see how one might disagree, but I think this works). Ideals, however fanciful, have to be well-formed, to have some degree of internal consistency; once we move to the utopia stage, we have to have some degree of viability: internal consistency for imaginary societies.

I don’t know if this allows viability to avoid equal treatment with achievability vis-a-vis von Wright’s two criteria:

a) We might be wrong about this, and they might turn out to be achievable, and
b) Even if they are unachievable, the exercise of thinking about them can contribute to the formulation of possibilities that are achievable.

I think (a) still applies, but maybe (b) not so much. Well, if I’m allowing myself ‘not so much’ then perhaps (a) not so much either, only not so much not so much as (b).

But the main idea, which as far as I know (not far) isn’t actually a position Wright proposes, is just that without viability you haven’t really managed to come up with a utopia.

(Incidentally, proofreading: ‘achievability’ and ‘viability’ are switched at one point, p4, 2nd para from bot.)

7

Tim Wilkinson 03.21.13 at 6:24 am

Not ‘von Wright’, of course. I didn’t confuse Nordic with Germanic, I think I must have had Wittgenstein in mind.

Also meant to add (re: 1), in
the ways in which a project hews to the realistic, it is
, in those ways and to
that
extent
,
eschewing
a more pronounced
idealism

(cut and paste from the pdf gives me some vaguely ee cummings-esque formatting – but that isn’t what I wanted to say, which follows…)

This formulation, pf hewing to and eschewing, is a bit ambiguous, and I don’t think it’s very fair on the poor old utopian if, having against all the odds managed to find the holy grail of utopian theory, a feasible utopia, we suddenly disqualify it. After all, if two utopias were found, both satisfying all our ideals and significantly differing only in their feasibility, we wouldn’t then prefer the unfeasible one because it’s more unrealistic.

8

William Timberman 03.21.13 at 2:35 pm

It seems to me that the utopian impulse, as opposed to the fully conceptualized Utopia (More, Butler, Huxley, etc.) or Dystopia (Orwell, Dick) is one of the principal ways in which we resist the human condition as defined by our movers and shakers, the self-described Realists. In that sense, I think DE is right — it is faintly ridiculous to be dabbling with the oxymoron of a real utopia, even as an exploratory exercise. Still, that’s the nature and purpose of any politics worthy of the name, to impose our moral imagination on a recalcitrant reality. For better or worse, that’s what’s got us as far as we’ve gotten. Which means that Wright is also right, or at least it means that he’s not wrong. The fact that it’s possible to see the holes in the fabric of his arguments is a feature, not a bug.

9

Mao Cheng Ji 03.21.13 at 2:52 pm

I don’t think I’m unique in that I don’t really know ‘what I really want’ (JH, 3). I think I do know, however, what I really don’t want. Eliminating the phenomena that annoy you, that seems like a reasonable approach, and different from dreaming up a utopia. Or is it essentially the same?

10

Luis 03.22.13 at 1:55 am

I don’t think Wright says it explicitly (it has been over a year since I read the book), but a key thread running through all his examples (Mondragon, Wikipedia, etc.) is that many people think the examples are utopian, right up until (and often long past) they are proven to exist and be real. So I think the dichotomy that seems to be assumed by many commenters here (either something is a utopia, or it is viable/realistic) is a false one – something can be simultaneously a utopia for the vast majority of society, and a practical, buildable, concrete thing (what people here are criticizing as not actually a utopia) for the small sliver doing the building.

This is not to defend Wright’s use of the word; his cute (underexplained?) wordplay confuses more than it illuminates. But the key point – that something can be utopian to most people (in the best sense of the word), while also being viable and real – seems underappreciated here.

11

Harold 03.22.13 at 2:06 am

–I won’t eat people!
–I don’t eat people!
I won’t eat people!
Don’t eat people

–He keeps on repeating

–Eating people is bad

–But people have always eaten people, what else is there to eat? If the juju had meant us not to eat people, he wouldn’t have made us of meat.

–Don’t eat people

–Oh no, not again

–I won’t eat people
–All the day long
–Don’t eat people
–He keeps on repeating
–Eating people is wrong
–It must be someone he ate
–Eating people is out!
–I give up. I give up. You used to be a regular anthropophagi. If this crazy idealistic idea of yours was to catch on, I just don’t know where we would all be. It would just about ruin our entire internal economy. Fortunately, I suppose its catching on isn’t very likely. Why, you might just as well go around saying “don’t fight people”, for example…

–Don’t fight people? Ha ha! (Both convulsed with laughter)

–Oh, that’s my boy.

12

Luis 03.22.13 at 2:31 am

[I note again, by the way, that it would be terrific to get a commentary in the thread by someone involved in building one of Wright's utopias. But I have no idea who that might be. (I did recommend the book to a friend who is a serious thinker and deeply involved in free software and Wikipedia, but have no indication he ever read it.)]

13

Martin Bento 03.27.13 at 11:03 am

You’re attempting to argue that utopias are exclusive of feasibility by definition and to support this contention with analogies – one cannot have a meal that is half-vegetarian, one cannot be an abstemious libertine – but those items – vegetarianism and abstinence – are exclusive by definition, that is why the combinations do not work. You cannot argue that utopianism is similarly exclusive by definition simply by asserting that those are valid analogies (and you have made no argument for the validity of the analogies beyond their support of your conclusion). They are valid analogies only if utopianism is exclusive, so such an argument is circular.

As Jacques Barzon has pointed out, many of the ideas of the left that have actually worked out – including the biggest one, the various aspects of the welfare state – originated in utopian thought. Many utopian writers thought their ideas feasible (Godwin, Bellamy). That’s largely why they were proposing them. And, empirically, some of them have proved feasible. So defining feasibility out of utopianism leaves out much of its canon and denies it credit for its actual successes.

If your utopia is infeasible, it may have value as a moral standard, etc., but if your utopia is feasible, it can have value as an actual intended destination.

Why does the argument that we might be incorrect about whether a utopia is achievable carry more weight than a doubt about whether it is feasible? Why might a utopia be infeasible? If it is self-contradictory, this indicates a problem, not in your understanding of the current political situation, which no one completely understands, but in your utopia itself. It is entirely a construct of your mind, so if it is incoherent, this is a flaw in the idea itself. It could contradict some well-established principle of science, in which case it hinges on science being wrong in a specific way – highly unlikely, and an externality to your theory on which it weakens your theory to depend. Same if it relies on technology that doesn’t exist and doesn’t look likely, though this verges into achievability. So unfeasible utopias have some real limitations that utopias that would work but which one cannot foresee getting there from here do not have.

Suppose you listed all outcomes that you would consider politically achievable. Not just ones desirable to you, but ones that others might want as well – all outcomes that would be considered by someone “an achievement” Now, move the clock back 500 years and do it again. Same list? Hardly. But anything achievable today was achievable 500 years ago in a 500 year time frame. Very little of it was conceivable, though, and that is the wall utopianism pushes. We may be wrong about whether our utopia is feasible, but we are silly if we think we have the slightest idea what is achievable unless we are attaching a definite sell-by date. And even then, who would have thought 40 years ago that gay marriage would be politically achievable in 50 years? Who thought the fall of the SU was achievable 5 years before it happened? On questions of achievability, we know we don’t know. In fact, the only categories of utopias we can say will never be achievable – which is equivalent to saying are not achievable now on any timescale – are the ones that are unviable.

Likewise, the question of changing achievability and viability is not symmetrical. If your idea is incoherent, you only fix that by changing your idea, which is not disregarding viability of your utopia but accommodating it by substituting another utopia. IF it is unscientific, you can try to effect a revolution in science, but this is probably unpromising. Likewise, if you need some far-fetched technology, say, anti-gravity, you can try to invent it, but, until you do, this is a flaw in your model relative to one that does not face these difficulties. It it contradicts human nature, you can try to change human nature, but that is highly uncertain and ethically problematic in itself, depending on how you propose to do it.

As for this statement:

“It is not as if one of these, viability, is set by laws of nature while the other, achievability, is subject
to our agency.”

It is something like that, actually. The only wrinkle I would add is that utopias can be unviable because they violate rules of nature (including human nature) or because they contradict themselves. So let us say laws of nature or logic. Achievability is certainly subject to agency. Show me one political outcome that is viable but can never – in all the millions of years human may exist in some form in the universe – be achievable. OTOH, all political outcomes that are not viable are not achievable, at least not in a sustained manner. Now, one could say that humans can also change what is viable through technology but “we” – meaning political thinkers – are unlikely to do this, so it is a bit like praying for rain. It might happen, but you will have little to do with it, so your hopes are futile regardless.

In any case, that’s enough for now.

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