In Defense Of ‘In Defense Of Utopia’

My essay In Defense Of Utopia (part I here and part II here) generated some criticism, both from the left and the right.  I’ll respond here briefly to a few of the main points, in the spirit of furthering what I hope is a continuing conversation about this very important topic.

On the left, the general thrust of the criticisms was that I was way too optimistic about how much things have improved  and anyway the material indicators I rehearsed, especially economic growth, don’t capture what the good life is all about.  I would reply to this in a couple of ways.

First, as I tried to stress, the point of rehearsing much of the positive data was not to demonstrate that everything is fine and all problems have been solved (otherwise why talk at all about utopia?) but rather to demonstrate that over time life has improved rather dramatically for most people and has the potential to improve much more dramatically in the future than most, in our pessimistic age, appear willing to believe.  This is merely the first step in thinking seriously about utopia, but it is a necessary one that many on the left resist, preferring instead to dwell single-mindedly on the ills of contemporary society.

Second, the point of highlighting economic growth and related indicators is not to collapse the good life and the good society into measures of economic growth.  The point rather is to establish the potential of society to support the good life in the future for essentially all people.  Universalizing the good life will not happen simply because of economic growth but it certainly will not happen without it.  There is still too much scarcity in society today to support a good life for everybody—even in our own society, much less in developing countries around the world where people’s material aspirations are just beginning to be met.

In this vein, John Halpin, in his excellent discussion on TP Ideas about “How Economic Growth Can Save The Planet” quotes Robert Reich making some very important points about growth:

Growth is different from consumerism. Growth is really about the capacity of a nation to produce everything that’s wanted and needed by its inhabitants. That includes better stewardship of the environment as well as improved public health and better schools. (The Gross Domestic Product is a crude way of gauging this but it’s a guide. Nations with high and growing GDPs have more overall capacity; those with low or slowing GDPs have less.)

Poorer countries tend to be more polluted than richer ones because they don’t have the capacity both to keep their people fed and clothed and also to keep their land, air and water clean. Infant mortality is higher and life spans shorter because they don’t have enough to immunize against diseases, prevent them from spreading, and cure the sick.

Exactly.  So growth is a necessary but not sufficient condition to get to where we want to go.  And this is true even if one’s chief concern is, for example, climate change and the state of the environment.  In an important book just published in Germany, Smart Growth: The Green Revolution, Ralf Fücks, President of the Heinrich Böll Foundation and a member of the German Green Party, points out:

[S]imply foregoing consumption will not save the planet.  There are too many of us in the world for that to work.  Tens of millions more are added each year, all striving for the achievements of the modern age.  We cannot undo the measure of individuality, mobility, comfort, communication and plurality of life styles that characterizes modern society.  Promoted as a political program, the minimization of production and consumption would result in an authoritarian, tyrannical reign of virtue in the name of ecology.  We really shouldn’t go there.  The objection of ecological politics is not the modification of human beings but the alteration of industrial society.

Criticism from the right has unsurprisingly had a different flavor.  In an interesting post on The American Conservative website entitled “The End of Utopia and the Limits of the McGovern Coalition”, Samuel Goldman disparages the whole idea that today’s left can usefully grapple with the concept of utopia.  Since the socialist vision tied to the traditional working class has disappeared, he argues that the new coalition of the left, which he labels the McGovern coalition, is too fractious to develop a common vision beyond lifestyle liberalism.

He interprets the lack of specifics for a utopian goal in my piece as exemplifying that difficulty.  That somewhat misunderstands the purpose of my piece which was to start a discussion of utopian vision and goals on the left, rather than provide a blueprint.  That discussion, if it develops, will hopefully prove him wrong on the left’s inability to articulate a common vision.  So let’s get started.