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in need of utopia?

analysis, bbc radio 4, 19 december 2002

KENAN MALIK   It used to mean the dream society at the end of the rainbow. Today it conjures up nightmares about Stalin's Terror and the Thousand-Year Reich, Mao's Great Leap Forward and the killing fields of Cambodia.

JOHN CAREY   Utopias are ultimately irreconcilable with human freedom. They bring up issues, fundamental issues that divide people. I do think it's deeply worrying.

KENAN MALIK   Professor John Carey, editor of the Faber Book of Utopias.

JOHN CAREY   If it's true that one definition of moral issues is that they are insoluble, that people will always disagree about them, then we have to find some way of co-existing with those who are utterly divided from us on basic questions. I think September 11th and the whole discussion around that has brought this issue very much into prominence at the moment.

KENAN MALIK   History, especially the history of the twentieth century, seems to provide ample evidence for John Carey's view that utopianism and freedom simply don't mix. Fixed visions, narrow ideologies, impossible social dreams - no one wants a replay of the bloody mistakes of the past. But what happens when our fear of utopian projects threatens to undermine not just malevolent social experiments but any kind of social change?

RUSSELL JACOBY   The utopian spirit, I think, has been diminished virtually everywhere and we're left in a society which no longer has visions of the future which are qualitatively different than the present. The most that anyone hopes for is preserving the status quo or perhaps expanding it in certain limited ways, and in this sense I think anti-utopianism is a conservative conception. We call anyone with a vision a utopian and we more or less say anyone with a vision must be a murderer, and the alternative to that is sort of just the status quo.

KENAN MALIK   Russell Jacoby, professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles. The transformation of British politics over the past decade seems to provide sustenance to these fears.

MICHAEL JACOBS   The sense of what I call magic, which many people felt about politics during the 20th century, has gone.

KENAN MALIK   Michael Jacobs, General Secretary of the Fabian Society.

MICHAEL JACOBS  What that magic was was a sense that the world could be radically changed and that you were part of a social movement that was working towards that change. The term 'socialist' was used not just to describe a set of views, but as an identity. People were socialists and to be a socialist was in a sense to believe in a kind of magic that the world could be different. And I think the loss of that magic constitutes a form of disenchantment.

KENAN MALIK   In a sense you're saying that the very meaning of politics has changed from meaning politics as social transformation to politics as social management?

MICHAEL JACOBS   Politics was once about social transformation, about changing the very structures of the society we lived in, and that has now gone. It's not that governments now - for example the New Labour government - are much more pragmatic or committed only to piecemeal social reform than previous Labour governments. It is that they've lost that wider sense of idealism that goes beyond what they can do today to what they're aiming for tomorrow.

KENAN MALIK   Fabians are noted less for their revolutionary fervour than for their earthy realism. So when someone like Michael Jacobs complains that pragmatism has gone too far, there is clearly something amiss in politics. But why this transformation? Why have we chucked all our visions into the political trashcan and replaced idealists with policy wonks? Because, Mark Mazower, Professor of History at Birkbeck College, London, suggests, by the end of the twentieth century people had simply become exhausted by the constant ideological conflicts generated by fascism and communism.

MARK MAZOWER   One of the things that distinguished liberal democracy from the two totalitarian ideologies was that they implied an ideal of mass mobilisation. They implied that abolition of a private sphere. You were supposed to be constantly mobilised for the ideology. This was a pretty exhausting business and most people, it turned out, liked a private domestic sphere if they could have one, and that was pretty clear both in West and Eastern Europe by the 1950s or 1960s and liberalism was able better to cope with that aspiration than communism was. I do think that in the aftermath of great upheavals, whether they are caused by revolutions or by wars or by earthquakes, many people naturally feel exhausted and wish to re-make their own personal lives.

KENAN MALIK   It may not be the most convincing argument for liberal democracy to suggest that it's good because it's undemanding. But dull societies also tend to be tolerant ones. Political systems that ask less of their citizens are often able to accommodate their differences better. And that, for John Carey, brings us to the real problem with utopian projects:

JOHN CAREY   George Bernard Shaw, for example, said 'We must get rid of the poor', meaning get rid of poverty rather than eliminating the poor. But it seems to me that when you read fictional Utopias, more and more what you find is that it's not a matter of getting rid of social problems but getting rid of the people who cause social problems. So you have to ask yourself how do we prevent rapists, murderers, torturers, tyrants, terrorists, so on and so on - how do we prevent these people entering our society? So then utopians like H.G. Wells, for example, in the early 20th century move on to the suggestion that you eliminate them physically; that if you find people who, as he puts it, make it impossible for others to live happily in the world, you treat them as you would treat a malignant tumour: you cut them out.

KENAN MALIK   So you're saying that utopianism is inimical to a pluralist outlook?

JOHN CAREY   Yes, I think Utopia is inimical to a pluralist outlook. It's true that in some utopias tolerance is, so to speak, advertised. Thomas More in the 16th century gave the name 'Utopia' to his state. There it is said to be a tolerant society. It's completely unfree. If you travel without a permit, you're arrested and convicted of felony. You have to obey rules of working practice - hours of work and hours of sleep and so on. And also, although it's ostensibly the case that religious tolerance is granted, you soon find that it is not the case; that if you, for example, deny the existence of a Supreme Being, then that's a felony too.

KENAN MALIK   Utopias are authoritarian and exclude those who don't measure up. Pragmatism is inclusive and allows for a babel of voices. But how real are the choices we can make in today's pragmatic world? Russell Jacoby, in his book The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy, dismisses the pluralism we're offered as illusory.

RUSSELL JACOBY   I think there's an ideology of pluralism that doesn't correspond to the reality. We're moving towards more homogenous societies at the same time as we're celebrating pluralism, even though fundamentally within those societies differences are getting smaller, not larger. What are the actual choices? Are they choices between food malls, between automobiles? What is multiculturalism within a consumer society? And in that sense, I quote good old Matthew Arnold: I mean the question is not simply freedom, the question is what are people choosing, what are the options? And simply to bless pluralism and multiculturalism without looking at its content seems to me a kind of delinquent intellectual position.

KENAN MALIK   Choice, in other words, has to be more than simply choosing between Nike and Adidas, Habitat and Heals. Real choice involves being able to decide between the different kinds of futures that we might want. In that sense, Professor Jacoby suggests, the twentieth century offered us more choice than we have now, because it offered us real alternatives to consumer capitalism - even if many of them were unconscionable.

Part of the problem in engaging with utopianism is that, as the historian Mark Mazower points out, we live in a world so different from that of even 20 years ago, that we're unable to make the imaginative leap required to understand the utopian mind.

MARK MAZOWER   A lot of history at the moment is made from the perspective of a kind of post-ideological position which criticises the subjects that the historian is dealing with for being part of a more ideological age. So that I think it's become very, very hard for us to put ourselves in the position of those who did believe in these ideologies and to, therefore, misunderstand what they were doing and what they thought they were fighting for. And, to some extent, I think that's as true for our ability to understand what was happening in the Third Reich, precisely because we don't like what they were aiming at, as it is for what was happening in the Soviet Union, where still many Western intellectuals would be more sympathetic to what they were trying to do. So I think the important thing is trying to understand what it was like to live in a more ideological age and what you gain and what you sacrifice by doing so. What people gained was often a spirit of commitment and self-sacrifice and a holistic view of the world which gave them some kind of larger purpose outside their private lives. That was responsible for a good deal of good and it was also often responsible for a good deal of harm.

KENAN MALIK   It's not simply a case, then, of 'two legs good, four legs bad'. There are good and bad points about an ideologically-polarised political process. And there are good and bad points about a society ruled by pragmatism. What we need, therefore, is a political balance sheet to weigh up the pros and cons. The trouble, though, is that the experience of the past century has created an Enron-esque accounting system, under which any kind of idealist vision is written off as damaged goods. But why, Michael Jacobs asks, should the failures of the past continue to haunt the idealists of today?

MICHAEL JACOBS   I reject wholly the claim that because in the 20th century there were evil forms of radical politics therefore that any radical politics now must in some sense carry the germs of that approach. You need to look at the content of radical politics. Fascism and communism were predictably evil long before they were practiced on a mass scale. If you look at the ideas of radical idealists who are calling for social justice in global relations, who are calling for environmental sustainability, those ideas are not totalitarian or dictatorial. On the contrary; they rest on the idea of human and natural liberation and democracy. So I think it's very unfair and quite wrong to tarnish present day radical thought with the terrible faults of certain kinds of radical thought in the 20th century.

KENAN MALIK   Nor, Russell Jacoby believes, should we dismiss utopianism just because it appears to be reaching for the impossible.

RUSSELL JACOBY  Impossibility is always a relative term but, yes, one is talking about ideas which are somewhat beyond the immediate horizon. There is a certain impossibility which inheres in utopian thought. But that's an historical statement, and the point is that that situation can change and that what was utopian fifty years ago you know might not be utopian today.

MICHAEL JACOBS   The whole point here is pushing at the boundaries of what is realistic. You know many people say politics is the art of the possible, but we need to question, well, what is possible?

KENAN MALIK   Michael Jacobs of the Fabian Society.

MICHAEL JACOBS   If you looked at the world in the 1920s and you said that within twenty-five years - one generation - we could have produced a welfare state with a National Health Service, with universal education, with nationalisation of all the failing industries, that would have looked an impossible or nearly impossible dream. So the boundary between what looks impossible and what looks merely difficult, what is transformative and what is utopian, I think is always one that
we need to question.

KENAN MALIK   Politics, in other words, cannot simply be the art of the possible, but must also be about recognising when the seemingly impossible is actually within our grasp. Pragmatism may be less demanding of its citizens, but it also makes citizens less demanding and hence easier to manage. Might a pragmatic society, then, far from safeguarding our freedoms, undermine our very capacity to think of ourselves as free agents? Here's Muslim scholar and cultural critic Ziauddin Sardar.

ZIAUDDIN SARDAR   What we lack in contemporary society is visions. We don't really know, for example, where we are going. We seem to kind of stumble from one crisis to another crisis. So if you look at globalisation, it's been going on for ten, fifteen years. Only now we are trying to begin to grapple with it. So what is happening is that events and particularly technology seems to be leading us to the future by our noses - we are following rather than leading and there's no human element involved, the human being has no agency, we cannot change ourselves. In much of what is going on, I think humanity has kind of more or less been pushed aside, and what is happening is essentially technological determinism is taking us in one particular direction.

KENAN MALIK   When you say there is an absence of human agency today, are you saying that we're incapable of thinking for ourselves?

ZIAUDDIN SARDAR   Well, what I am saying is that a great deal of what is going on seems to have left the human element out of the equation; that we tend to think that technology will change things, we never actually think that we can change things. And I think this idea that we have some power to change - starting with ourselves and then changing society - is essential. So we need to in a sense reclaim agency for ourselves. But that will only make sense if we ourselves have some vision of where we want to go.

KENAN MALIK   Once we lose our sense of the future, we also lose the sense of ourselves as creators of that future, of ourselves as agents of change. The inevitable consequence, Michael Jacobs points out, is that the public gives up on politics:

MICHAEL JACOBS  If you don't have big social, transformative ideas, what you're left with are the policies. And policies are difficult for most members of the public to grapple with - it's very difficult to know whether you're really for or against foundation hospitals or the particular reform of the New Deal for the unemployed. Most people find details of policies quite difficult to grasp and I think they turn off from them. What makes people interested in politics are the bigger ideas - which is why Margaret Thatcher engendered such passion both for her and against her because she espoused ideological visions.

KENAN MALIK   What you're in a sense calling for is a restoration of a clash of politics which requires a strong Right as well. So would you welcome, in that sense, a radical strong Right?

MICHAEL JACOBS   I do welcome passionate politics and if people on the Right hold their convictions with passion, then that will stimulate other people to hold their views with compassion. I do think it's important that people feel passionately about the world they live in, and if that means that there are a little bit more extremes on both sides, then that's a price I'd be willing to pay.

KENAN MALIK   Many people, of course, would be appalled at such a prospect. At a time when Britain faces both industrial unrest at home and the possibility of a military strike abroad, many already hear the echoes of the returning eighties. It's good to be reminded, therefore, that conflict today - whether ideological or social - remains a mere shadow of that of twenty years ago. And, also, that such conflict is not necessarily a bad thing - we need to look at our political balance sheet again.

Mary Kaldor, director of the Programme on Global Civil Society at the London School of Economics, welcomes the passing of old-fashioned ideological conflicts. But like Michael Jacobs, she insists that the end of ideology does not mean the end of idealism. She's keen to promote a utopian vision of international relations governed by what she calls the 'cosmopolitan' ideal:

MARY KALDOR   The term 'cosmopolitanism' comes from Immanuel Kant, and what it means is, I think, two things. On the one hand, it means really a commitment to human equality - what Kant called 'cosmopolitan right' is what we would call human rights. But I think 'cosmopolitanism' also means a commitment to multiculturalism. If you're a cosmopolitan, it also means that you recognise difference and that you celebrate difference.

KENAN MALIK   And you've called such a vision a 'utopian vision'. Is that how you see it?

MARY KALDOR   Yes, I think human societies need Utopias. But to say that it's utopian doesn't mean that I think it's not realistic. There's always been this idea in international relations that there's a struggle between realists and idealist. And the realists are the pragmatists - the guys who think that states matter and force matters - and the idealists are utopians who have wonderful ideas but can't be put into practice. My view is that nowadays realism, by which people mean the primacy of states and the use of military power, is actually impractical. You can do a lot of destructiveness, but you can't actually achieve things, and actually we need a system of international law that is based on ideals.

KENAN MALIK   On the opposite side of the political spectrum to Mary Kaldor stands Roger Kimball, editor of the New Criterion magazine and a leading American conservative. His recipe for international order rests, not on a greater recognition of differences, but on a greater assertion of Western values and US power.

ROGER KIMBALL  It's one of the great tragedies of the present age, in my opinion, that the word 'imperialism' has been enlisted in the index of nasty concepts. Actually imperialism comes in many flavours. It's neither good, nor bad - it can be beneficent and it can be evil. If America were to assert its vision of itself in the world in a fashion similar to the way that Britain did in the 19th and early 20th century, would that be a good thing? I think it would be a good thing. The values that America stands for are basically civilising values - the rule of law, economic freedom, representative government. It seems to me that when you're talking about the imposition of American values, what you're really talking about is the imposition of civilising values, and in some cases they have to be
supported by military might.

KENAN MALIK   You've described American imperialism as a civilising force and something that the world would be a better place for accepting. Does the Right also have grand visions of the kind of world that it wants to see, that you want to see?

ROGER KIMBALL   I would call it not a grand vision but rather a modest vision. I mean, 'conservative' is a term like 'liberal' that covers a multitude of realities. I think primarily conservatives want to conserve. I would not describe myself as a utopian but rather as a realist.

KENAN MALIK   It's a paean to imperialism that reflects the views of many within the current Bush administration. American ideals are civilised ideals, and the world would be a better place for accepting them, if necessary through what has coyly come to be called 'regime change'. I doubt, however, if a previous generation of conservatives - Margaret Thatcher, say, or Ronald Reagan - would have described their proposals for the world as 'modest'. But in a world fearful of ideology, it seems that everyone else has ideologies, but I just have a modest proposal, even if that proposal is for a new world imperium.

ZIAUDDIN SARDAR   The grand project of Western civilization continues almost exactly as it did during the colonial period. Western civilization under the now new guise of globalisation continues to take over the world. Now we are talking about here West not simply as a civilization but also as a conceptual entity, so people in different cultures now actually think in Western terms.

KENAN MALIK   For Ziauddin Sardar, the vision of a resurgent Western imperialism is an aggressive ideology that seeks to silence other civilisations. So how does he view militant Islamic challenges to American values?

ZIAUDDIN SARDAR  Essentially Al-Qaida is presenting us with an ideology that is very narrowly defined and constructed, and it's a construction based on a romanticised history. And that's what ideologies are all about. If you look at, say, Marxism, you know the working classes are romanticised. In the case of fundamentalist Islam, a particular history of the Prophet's life is romanticised. We need to get away from this notion of romanticised histories. And, of course, the reason why Al Qaida's ideology has risen is because there is a counter ideology essentially of rightwing America that is kind of, if you like, the other side of the equation.

KENAN MALIK   This might seem to suggest that the war on terror is propelling us back to a more ideological age. But unlike, say, in the Cold War, neither side in today's conflict has roots in a wider constituency of support. The latest academic study of global attitudes suggests a growing hostility to the American way of life, but little support for any alternative system of values. The war against terror continues to be waged in an ideological vacuum.

For Mary Kaldor, it is important that we do not return to an ideologically polarised world. Idealism, she suggests, needs to be saved from the taint of ideology.

MARY KALDOR   I'm very happy that we have left behind the black-white world of the Cold War. My grand vision is a vision where people debate and where a million visions operate. The awful thing about the Cold War was that there were only two visions. They bore very little relation to reality on either side, and everybody who tried to propose an alternative vision in between was squeezed. And what's been wonderful since 1990 is that you can have discussions of all kinds with all kinds of people.

KENAN MALIK   Don't you think that what has changed over the past ten years is that there's been a shift from idealist, utopian ways of thinking to pragmatic ways of thinking?

MARY KALDOR   Yes I do, and I think that's very dangerous. I think actually we do have two competing visions at the moment. We have the neo-liberal vision, the end of history vision - the vision that you know liberal democracy and markets will provide the ideal, which says it's fine to pursue selfish interests, making money is good, do your own thing, spend, spend, spend, that's what's good. So that's one vision. And then we have these very nasty nationalist and religious visions. And I suppose my cosmopolitan vision is not a vision of an end goal; it's a vision more of what are the processes by which you manage debate and conflict.

KENAN MALIK   This vision of a thousand flowers blooming rather than just two is, of course, very appealing. But there's also something a bit too neat about this concept of pluralism-as-grand-vision. A vision cannot be a process. By definition it requires an end goal. As a pragmatist, I might want to say that all visions of the future are equally valid (though even for a pragmatist there have to be limits to such tolerance). As an idealist, I have to believe that my vision is better than yours; that cosmopolitanism, say, is better than imperialism; and that the world would be a better place if it looked like my ideal. One cannot evade the fact that all utopian projects necessarily create conflict.

The real question is not whether Utopias are good or bad - they can be either - but whether the good that can emerge from a clash of utopian visions outweighs the very real possibility of the horrors that can also emerge. For many sceptics, such as John Carey, the answer is clearly no.

JOHN CAREY   I think that dystopias grow out of Utopias. That's to say every dystopia is someone else's Utopia. In George Orwell's 1984, the rulers believe it is an ideal world, that it eliminates the evils of the old world. In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, which is in part an account of contemporary America - democratic, given up (as he saw it) to cheap, vulgar amusements - at the same time many things are eliminated that the rulers of that Utopia, Brave New World, considered evil. They consider it worthwhile to do without the things that Huxley loved - classical music, classical literature and so on - for a greater degree of freedom and
pleasure for most people.

KENAN MALIK  But are the evils of the past forever to condemn the visions of the future? Can we not learn from the mistakes of the twentieth century - however bloody they may have been - to create new ideals for the twenty-first? For Russell Jacoby, nothing worthwhile can be gained unless we're willing to risk our hand.

RUSSELL JACOBY   If one opens the door and says, yes, let's discuss what the future should look like - is there a danger that there'll be some malicious ideas or some oppressive ideas? Certainly, but I'm willing to take that risk because, as I read history, utopians have much to offer, and the danger is living in a post-utopian society where people now have become sceptics and cynics seems to me a greater danger.

KENAN MALIK   So you're suggesting that human progress is not possible without taking some kind of risk as to the kind of future that might emerge?

RUSSELL JACOBY  Well, yes, there is a risk, there is a danger, but that is the role of thinking, that's the role of ideas - to look over the horizon, to take certain leaps. And I think if one takes as the motto for thought 'safety first', one has crippled thinking, one has crippled the future.

KENAN MALIK   A world without visions of a different future, without a concept of progress, is not, Russell Jacoby suggests, one worth living in. Humans are dangerous creatures capable both of unstinting altruism and immense cruelty. But we should not be so crippled by the fear of the bad that we forego the possibilities of the good. Nor should we be so terrified of the past that we jettison our dreams. The future is a risk worth taking.