Social Poetry

Anthony Pagden

  • Utopia and Anti-Utopia in Modern Times by Krishan Kumar
    Blackwell, 506 pp, £24.50, January 1987, ISBN 0 631 14873 6
  • Lectures on Ideology and Utopia by Paul Ricoeur, edited by George Taylor
    Columbia, 353 pp, £21.90, December 1986, ISBN 0 231 06048 3
  • Visions of Harmony: A Study in 19th-Century Millenarianism by Anne Taylor
    Oxford, 285 pp, £25.00, February 1987, ISBN 0 19 211793 9

Prophetically, the Island of Utopia is set in or near the Americas – More, characteristically, forgot to ask exactly where. And it was in the Americas that the most extensive, long-lived, and most fantastical, utopian experiments were conducted. The New World’s open spaces provided a constant challenge to the quirkier side of the European social and moral imagination until the end of the 19th century. Most of the early settlers came in quest of some new life. Most wished to live out some version of the privileged worlds they had been denied access to in their home countries. But there were others who came with ambitions to fabricate wholly new worlds, cities on a hill, where life could be made better, happier or morally more complete. In the Catholic South such experiments were largely confined to various attempts to reconstruct the primitive apostolic Church. One Franciscan, with an annotated copy of More’s book in his habit, went so far as to take some at least of the ‘features in the Utopian commonwealth’ and test them out on the Indians of Michoacan. The famous Jesuit ‘reductions’ in Paraguay – the subject of The Mission and now, improbably, of a Jesuit comic-book – though far from traditionally utopian, operated with the same sense that out there in the tropical rain-forests man could retrace his steps and begin again. In the North, such utopian communities were private ventures: and they proliferated – Oneida, New Harmony, Equality, True Inspiration. There was even one called Utopia. ‘We are all a little wild here,’ Emerson wrote to Carlyle in 1840, ‘with numberless projects of social reform. Not a reading man but has a draft of a new community in his waistcoat pocket.’

Most ‘Utopias’, however, are not drafts of new communities but exercises in a particular kind of political theory. They are, as Paul Ricoeur says, ‘social poetry’, a poetry which, in the end, ‘may dissolve politics’. And like all poetry they reject precise literary definition. For the historian of political thought this poses quite serious definitional problems, problems which Krishan Kumar’s book does little to resolve. The Golden Age, the Land of Cokaygne, Joachimism, the Revelation of St John, the free-market economy, socialism and Marxism, democracy, America and the Soviet Union: these and more are all dragged into a history of what he calls ‘visions of ideal otherness’ which begins with Hesiod and ends sometime about now. Its great merit lies in the enormous range of its detail. Whatever the argument – and I remain unclear as to just what it is – the reader is bound to come away with a very strong sense of the depth and extension of the European social imagination. But a work which locates The City of God, Emile and Montaigne’s essay on cannibals within the same history is certain, sooner or later, to run into serious conceptual difficulties. Heuristic genealogies, educational programmes, sceptical observations on the ubiquity of natural law, economic theories or islands where nature provides for all that man needs, really do not belong in the same imaginative space as Utopia or Campanella’s City of the Sun. True, Kumar separates out some of the earlier instances of what he calls the ‘utopian conception’ into ‘pre-echoes’ or ‘prehistoric fragments’, but the distinction between this prehistory and his history is never very clear.

Any adequate description of just what a utopia is – and even Ricoeur seems reluctant to provide or find one – must, as any purely literary history would, contain an account of what the utopian project is. Without making any claims to exhaustiveness, it might run something like this. Our capacity for imagination defines us as precisely as our power of speech. In order to be able to cope with tomorrow I have to create, today, however briefly, an image of the world I am about to enter. I have, of course, every reason to suppose that tomorrow will be much like today, and that all the few differences can be foreseen. I have to imagine, but my imagination is bounded by what I know and have experienced. I cannot conjure up a wholly different world because if it were wholly different no one, including myself, would have any means of understanding it. But if I am more ambitious, and dissatisfied with the world which I do inhabit, if I want to know, and to let others know, what a better life might look like, I can think up an alternative or possible world, one in which all, or most, of the components of this world are present but in which they are organised differently, sometimes radically so. I would then have created a utopia. It will, as Karl Mannheim, the author of the first Ideology and Utopia, said, be ‘non-congruent’ with the world as it is, for it will depend upon the counter-factual claim that although it does not exist, and perhaps never will, if certain things were other than they are in fact in this world, it could exist. Armed with such an image, I might believe myself to be in a better position to criticise the world in which I do live than those who simply begin with that world. Such things as the market economy and the Golden Age – not to mention democracy and socialism – belong to a ‘utopian conception’ only in the vulgar sense of being something desired but unobtainable, for although the images of perfection they offer may well be fantastic and impracticable they are nevertheless, in Mannheimian terms, fully ‘congruent’ with the worlds of those who first dreamt them up.

Ideologies – those ‘obscure metaphysics’, as Napoleon once angrily described them – are perhaps no less difficult to define than utopias. Whereas utopias are offered to us as images for us to emulate so that we might escape the limits of the world where we are, ideologies are built into that world. Ricoeur is not the first to link the two. Even the title of his new book is taken from Mannheim’s famous study. But although Ricoeur’s work offers two accounts and a critique of the first Ideology and Utopia, the resemblance between the two works ceases with the title. This one contains the texts of a series of lectures delivered at the University of Chicago and lovingly (and very skilfully) re-assembled by one of his students, who has provided an excellent introduction. Most of them are about ideologies, rather than utopias, or about those – Marx, Althusser, Weber, Habermas, Geertz and Mannheim – who have written about ideologies. As one might imagine from a writer so concerned with the role of metaphor, Ricoeur is particularly sensitive to the ways in which both ideology and utopia rely upon the human ability to organise the social world through imaginative construction, through symbol and representation.

Thus where Mannheim saw an opposition between ideology and science, because he had ‘no notion of a symbolically constituted order’, Ricoeur sees one between ideology and utopia. For Ricoeur, there is no escape from ideology through science, since for all its claims to scrupulous objectivity (now largely discredited except perhaps within the innermost regions of the scientific community itself), science itself is inescapably ideological. The only way out of the circle is ‘to assume a utopia, declare it and judge an ideology on this basis’. We can only hope to transcend the condition of our cultural world by creating the conditions of one that is wholly other. This is what the original Utopia and Plato’s Republic were aiming at. It is what we would call ideology which comes between the world outside and the shadows on the cavern wall. For Ricoeur, the utopian strategy can be the only possible escape – if escape it is – from the hermeneutical circle since, unlike the flight to science, it presupposes no ‘transcendent onlooker’, no place outside the circle, although Ricoeur, in common with many modern hermeneuticists, never fully explains just who the onlooker is. On this account, utopia and ideology become but ‘two opposite sides or complementary functions’: they make up, or so he believes, ‘what could be called social and cultural imagination’.

But this will be true only so long as the utopia remains firmly located in the imagination. Because utopias are literally nowhere, all their creators since Plato have always been ambiguous, and deliberately so, about their exact moral and practical status. The Republic, says Socrates at the end of Book Nine, is ‘the city that is within’. It is a map of the human psyche, what some historians of science call a ‘thought-experiment’. Its existence on this earth, or even the possibility of its existence, is unimportant, because the man who has grasped the meaning of Socrates’s image-making ‘will act according to the laws of that city and no other’. More’s own project was somewhat different, or apparently so. Stripped of Plato’s elaborate psychological apparatus, Utopia reads much more like a programme for social engineering, despite its author’s own claim that it is a simple fiction ‘whereby the truth as if smeared with honey, might a little more pleasantly slide into men’s minds’. At the very end of the book the figure of More observes ‘that there are very many features in the Utopian commonwealth which it is easier for me to wish for in our countries than to have any hope of seeing realised,’ thus compounding the ambiguity. Can More really have even hoped to see England transformed into a communitarian monastic community? Certainly More, as he appears in Book One before he has heard the traveller Hythlodaeus’s account of the island of Utopia, has no such hopes – or wishes. However critical he might be of the contemporary political order, he is firmly committed to a society based on private property and the pursuit of fame. But then, as Hythlodaeus tellingly remarks, he is ‘a person who has no picture at all, or else a false one, of the situation’. More’s social imagination is, at this stage, deficient. He is, Ricoeur might say, bounded by the ideology of the world to which he belongs. But just how far he has been convinced after Hythlodaeus has given him a true picture of the situation remains unclear. The reader is left to work it out for herself.

More clearly favoured ambiguity. It was, after all, a common Humanist trope. And it had the advantage – which may, in part, explain why utopia was such a popular genre in 16th and 17th-century Europe – of allowing him to criticise contemporary society without being too specific about his intended targets.

But for all its inherent and intentional ambiguity, what Ricoeur nicely calls ‘the glance from nowhere’ remains always the view of a single individual. The author of every utopia invariably takes his vision to be self-evidently the only possible one for the fully rational man. He is necessarily committed to the claim that there is a common purpose behind all human communities, a single goal, which most men have failed to reach because they were not clear-sighted enough to be able to see quite what it was. No utopia contains any discussion of the coherence of that vision, much less any hesitation as to its desirability for all mankind. The diversity of human ends, and any understanding of human needs which extends very far beyond the merely functional, are conspicuously absent. Every utopia, every true utopia, is, in Ricoeur’s phrase, ‘the tyranny of those who know the best’. At this level utopia and ideology both come to serve the same covert purpose. Both are about power; both are means of controlling, in the interests of the few, the minds of the many. In the end, as Ricoeur seems to say, the distinction between them, other than the very different forms in which they are expressed, may lie less in the minds of their creators than in the groups they, often unwittingly, serve. Those already in power are likely to favour ideologies; those with pretensions to power will prefer utopias.

Until the 18th century these ambiguities about the claims of utopia remained unresolved. Whatever else Utopia, Bacon’s New Atlantis, Campanella’s City of the Sun, Andrae’s Christianopolis and their like may have been, they contained nothing that resembled a programme. They express only hopes and wishes, never a mention of how or when. The American and then the French Revolution changed all that. The revolutionaries may not have created an ideal society, but they had shown that societies could be changed by large-scale social reconstruction. ‘We are brought,’ enthused Tom Paine in The Rights of Man, ‘at once to the point of seeing government begin, as if we had lived in the beginning of time.’ The most articulate beneficiaries of this were the two greatest social fantasts of the 19th century: Saint-Simon and Fourier, the subjects of Ricoeur’s last two lectures. Their visions of humane, but technocratic societies seemed clearly realisable, and Fourier, at least, did his not very effective best to see his realised. Both sought to transform the social worlds they themselves inhabited in the utopian’s doomed hope that their sometimes highly idiosyncratic understanding of rationality would triumph in the end. There were others, however, who were less optimistic about the possibilities of radical change in Europe, and had grasped the point made by More himself: that you can only hope to smuggle into the real world some of the features of Utopia. The fully-functioning ideal society can only be created from the bottom up. Those who were serious about their projects had to go elsewhere, where the real world was as it had been in the beginning. For most, that meant America.

Harmony, the subject of Anne Taylor’s excellent book, founded first by the Württemberg religious reformer George Rapp, and purchased in 1825 by the most celebrated of the new utopians, Robert Owen, whose ‘Villages of Unity and Mutual Co-operation’, where inequality, private property and organised religion were to be banished for ever, were typical of the American Utopia. Their members had, as Kumar says, been convinced ‘that, if the world could but see a successful experiment, it would hasten to duplicate and reduplicate it – until whole nations were covered with such communities.’ But in common with nearly all the others – all those, that is, which, unlike the Hutterites and the Amish, were not held together by religious conviction – Harmony could not survive in isolation and could not resist the pressures of the unequal, property-owning, not to mention superstitious communities by which it was surrounded. In the end, America turned out to be America. The image of a rational, ideal community persists and distant echoes of it may still be heard in Presidential addresses. But no one entirely sane would claim that the United States is the instantiation of the dreams of the Rapps and Owens.

Kumar is right in saying that all utopias, whether they function as moral strategies or as practical projects, depend upon a belief in progress, and the capacity of human reason to radically improve the human condition. The experiences of the 20th century have, to all but the very hopeful, largely destroyed that illusion. Ricoeur still believes that in a world ‘blocked by systems which have failed but which cannot be beaten’, utopia is the social critic’s sole resource. He must certainly be right in suggesting that any future political theory will have to make an appeal to the moral imagination, far more powerfully than any of the current theories do. Our future legislators, as Richard Rorty has been saying, sometimes in the pages of this journal, may well be our novelists and our poets. But it is difficult to see what form their new utopia would take. Imaginary islands and mountain communities no longer have the power to move us as they did those for whom the world was not no limited in space. Utopia, and with it the notion of potential social engineering, has also lost out to an intensely individualistic view of social relations. It survives, when at all, largely in Robert Nozick’s conception (which Kumar seems to endorse) of a ‘framework for utopias, a place where people are at liberty to join together voluntarily to pursue and attempt to realise their own vision of the good life in the ideal community but where no one can impose his own utopian vision upon others’. With the disappearance of the community of goals, however, it is hard to see how this could be called a utopia at all. It is merely an empty space in which each can have what he or she wants.