This is, in a silly way, a footnote to my previous Kevin Williamson post, but, more seriously, to my contribution to our Erik Olin Wright event. In my post on Wright I remarked that, in a sense, he’s pushing against an open door: he wants Americans, who think ‘socialism’ is a dirty word, to be more open to utopian thinking. The problem, I pointed out, is that thinking ‘socialism’ is a dirty word is positively, not negatively, correlated with utopianism, because conservatives are, typically, very utopian, especially in their rhetoric – more so than socialists these days; certainly more so than liberals. Wright responded that his project “is not mainly directed at ideologically committed Conservatives whose core values support the power and privilege of dominant classes. The core audience is people who are loosely sympathetic to some mix of liberal egalitarian, radical democratic and communitarian ideals.”
But the problem is that conservatives are loosely sympathetic to this stuff – in a weird, cognitively dissonant way. Anyway, it isn’t just conservatives who have this funny problem – utopophobophilia. If you want to talk to people about utopia, you have to deal with a lot of confusing, confused love-hate relationships.
Which brings me to Kevin Williamson. His new book, as I mentioned in my previous post, really is (although some of you doubted it, in comments!) The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome: How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure. And yesterday I got an email from National Review, plugging it. Here is Williamson summarizing his position, in a way that perfectly illustrates my argument against Wright. Indeed, Williamson is a kind of Bizarro Wright. (Him want real utopia because utopia am bad. Best way show utopia am impossible is show little ways utopia am actually working.)
Why are our smart phones so smart – getting better and cheaper every year – while our government is so dumb? Is there a way to apply the creative and productive institutions that produced the iPhone to education, public schools, or Medicare?
A few years ago, I was giving a lecture in which I mentioned, as an aside, that libertarians and free-market conservatives often utter the words “the market will take care of it” or “voluntary charity will take care of it” as though those sentences were real answers to meaningful questions. And when they do try to address social concerns in a more substantive fashion, they too often fall into the trap of drawing up blueprints for utopias.
We live in remarkable times, an age of extraordinary wealth, freedom, and creativity. But a few critical areas of life – education, health care, and retirement prominent among them – are dominated by antiquated political systems that cannot respond adequately to the complexity of 21st century life. The problem is not so much left-wing politics or right-wing politics, “good” politics or “bad” politics, but the centrality of politics per se, the inevitable defects associated with centralized, hierarchical decision-making institutions that cannot evolve in response to fast-moving, complex knowledge.
Economists spend a great deal of time talking about efficiency, productivity, GDP, marginal output and the like, but I am more interested in the question T. S. Eliot put to us: “When the Stranger says: ‘What is the meaning of this city? Do you huddle close together because you love each other?’ What will you answer? ‘We all dwell together to make money from each other’? or ‘This is a community’?” I live a few blocks from Wall Street – what, indeed, is the meaning of this city? If we do not have a good answer to that question, then all of the efficiency and productivity in the world are not going to do us a great deal of good.
My book has a two-part argument; I call it “short-term pessimism, long-term optimism.” It is not always obvious, but government as we know it is in retreat, a retreat that I expect to be accelerated by economic trends related to public debt and unfunded government liabilities. But once the disorder is behind us, we will discover new and better ways to serve one another. You would not know it to listen to many of the self-appointed defenders of capitalism, but that is what the economy is there for.
I quote this not (just!) to make fun but because I think Williamson’s case, although extreme, is not untypical. He is saying that the only alternative to utopian thinking is revolutionary communism [hold that objection for just a sec]. Indeed, the replacement of the existing capitalist order with a revolutionary communist order is an inevitable (or highly likely) function of the economic contradictions of actually existing capitalism. The state is destined to wither away. (Just look at your iPhone if you don’t believe me!) No other approach makes sense because it’s madness to try to blueprint our way to some sort of perfect world.
The tendentious bit of my summary is labeling Williamson’s ideal ‘communism’. That term has a history. But there is a straightforward logic to its application in this context: like Marx, Williamson evidently dreams of an ideal community in which we live ‘to discover better ways to serve one another.’ (You have a better definition of communism? I’d like to hear it.) Like Marx, I presume, Williamson believes that by making people free, we will bring them together in ideal community, and by bringing them together in ideal community, we will make them free. It’s a virtuous dialetic that will, in some sense, place us post-politics. And it’s possible. Perhaps inevitable. Last but not least: like Marx, Williamson is very impatient with people who waste their time blueprinting Utopia.
This is not to deny rather significant differences of opinion between Williamson and Marx, not just about economics and politics but about what is really valuable in life. Nevertheless, the odd parallels underscore my sense that the thing that makes utopian thinking hard is not so much that people hate utopia, unreasonably, but that people love it, unreasonably, given that, unreasonably, they think they hate it. Utopophobophilia isn’t just for conservatives. Even Marx sometimes got kind of wild-eyed, in this way.
In “Utopophobia” [that’s audio; the material is gone over a bit differently in print here] Dave Estlund (who contributed to our Wright event) suggests that utopophobia – an irrational aversion to theorizing about ideal political order – is chiefly due to a fallacious slip. He quotes Machiavelli to the effect that is and ought are so far apart that thinking about ought will blind you to is. He quotes Rousseau on the importance of ‘taking men as they are, laws as they might be.’ Estlund basically argues, against both, that even if it is true that is and ought tend to be run together, it doesn’t follow that we should, as it were, preemptively conflate them – as if giving oneself a chronic case of the disease counts as vaccination against it. If two things that you are going to need to combine tend to get mixed up, the thing to do is distinguish them.
I think there’s a lot of wisdom in Estlund’s aspirational-concessive distinction-drawing – I feel I’ve learned from it, anyway – but it doesn’t explain the common phenomenon of utopophobophilia. Love of hating on utopia by utopians. Where the hell does that come from?
People tend to think that bad utopianism means taking too sunny a view of human nature. As a result, people who are cynical about human nature assume they can’t possibly be engaging in utopian thinking.
The truth is that utopian political thinkers are typically very cynical about human nature – albeit selectively so. From Plato on, utopian political plans typically hinge on clever notions for how to leverage weak humanity into social strength. The foundation of Plato’s Republic is deluded and brazen, even if the apex of the pyramid is wise and golden. Marx thinks that communism is inevitable not because all men are implausibly angelic but because they are mostly selfish and deluded, hence rather predictably self-destructive. Free market utopianism is similar. It assumes ‘base’ motives, and ignorance, but predicts a system can be built that will leverage this base matter into something positive – as mathematically ideal as anything Plato dreamt of.
This isn’t to say all these cynical, let’s-turn-weakness-into-strength social schemes are the same, or equally flawed – or necessarily flawed at all. The point is this: from the fact that a lack of cynicism about human nature would be a recipe for unhealthy utopianism, it doesn’t follow that cynicism about human nature is a recipe for anti-utopianism.
Cynicism about human nature feels like a shield against naive utopianism. But the truth is that thinking everyone around you is basically an angel who can be counted on to do exactly what you want them to do is not a typical, psychological temptation that needs to be warned against. The actually psychologically hazardous root of utopianism is utopophobophilia: you, unlike those utopian idiots, see the score. You can pull off the cunning bankshot – using human weakness against itself in some ingenious, generally beneficial way. You are the cunning social engineer because you are cynical. Cynicism breeds utopianism.
Obviously I’m not saying that all cynics are utopians. Just that what makes utopianism attractive is not that it is some saccharine sweet, obviously artificial, Panglossian notion. Rather, it’s a tasty combination of sweet and bitter. It’s satisfying to get to be a lover of humanity while feeling deep contempt for it at the same time. This is what makes conservatives such suckers for utopia – and they aren’t the only ones.
You might object that it isn’t quite fair to extract this from one email National Review sent me, telling me Williamson has managed to draw the blueprint of the one true, blueprint-free anti-utopian heaven. If it turns out that Williamson has really pulled it off – boy will I look like an idiot. No question. That said, I’m not going to read his book. As the man sang: “Well, we’d all looooove to see the plan.” That doesn’t mean we are all willing to pay to read it, if we’re pretty sure it’s bad.