The 20th century was a difficult century for the utopian vision — the quest for an ideal society free from humanity’s chief miseries. The Communist revolutions in Russia and China were supposed to usher in egalitarian utopias where all social needs were met by benevolent state planning. Instead these Communist revolutions produced brutal authoritarian regimes where privileged bureaucracies ruled over the masses and lagged far behind the advanced West in meeting social needs.
In the advanced West, social democrats pursued a gentler utopian ideal that envisioned an egalitarian society of abundance with social control of the economy and enhanced democracy in the workplace and throughout society. But the welfare state model ran into troubles starting in the 1970’s as economic growth slowed and the inefficiencies of the system became ripe targets for conservative political forces. Support for the socialist ideal began to falter. The coup de grace was administered by the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European states. Socialist societies turned their backs on the idea and embraced capitalism with gusto. Even Western European parties that still called themselves socialist abandoned any pretense that they were seeking to create an actual socialist society.
There was also a utopian impulse in America, though it had its roots in the more diffuse political traditions of liberalism and progressive reform. The idea here was that society could gradually perfect itself through a process of continuous reform that would weed out injustice and deliver prosperity for all. That idea came to a head with the Great Society of the 1960’s but sputtered out soon thereafter, battered first by counter-cultural and political radicalism and then by a nascent conservatism fueled, as in Europe, by economic problems that exposed underlying governmental inefficiencies. Over time, the liberal movement backed far away from the Great Society and its expansive vision of social justice and became resolutely focused on maintaining American social programs or, at best, their modest expansion.
Counter-cultural and political radicalism had their own utopian impulse of course. In the 1960’s, visions of society ranging from participatory democracy (Students for a Democratic Society) to communal bliss (hippies) to endless Marxist-Leninist revolution (Maoists) danced in the heads of young radicals. But such hubris did not survive the grimmer atmosphere of the 1970’s, not to mention the pressures of the life-cycle as these young radicals entered their thirties and forties.
As the Left’s utopian dreams faded, surging conservatives attacked vigorously. They argued that all of the left’s failings and especially its visions of a future society were attributable to their fundamentally unrealistic beliefs about human nature. People were selfish and acquisitive, not cooperative and solidaristic as the Left mistakenly believed. Therefore, the vision of society we should all strive for is a society without government and taxes where selfishness would be unleashed and individuals could shape their own destiny free of the oppressive hand of the state. This Ayn Rand-style libertarian utopia became an inspiration to legions of conservative activists.
There are still some true believers in this utopia left — some have recently been elected to office. But their dream of a perfectly unregulated capitalism has little mass appeal in our post-financial crisis world and will have less as the economy improves. The ideas underlying their vision of utopia have been tried and found wanting; their lease on utopia is up.
But the idea of utopia can and should live on. Utopia is fundamentally an expression of man’s ability to dream of a better world. It provides inspiration to those seeking social change, providing a model for the society they seek to create. Without that inspiration, there is little long-term commitment to substantial change, which inevitably saps energy from reform efforts. Reform, after all, is the process of getting things done, but utopia is how you decide what needs to be done. Lacking that guidance, we have been experiencing a “sticky” status quo at the very time when large-scale change is necessary to deal with problems like climate change, economic polarization and financial instability.
But things don’t have to be this way. We are better situated than ever before to pursue a utopian dream that is reasonable and realistic and won’t degenerate into authoritarianism or economic collapse.
So where is the new utopian vision to come from? The first task will be to reawaken hope in the future by rejecting the limits and assumptions of the current debate.
The key limit is not that today’s left still embraces a socialist or (in America) a “Great Society” utopia as a concrete goal. It is rather that they have given up on end goals altogether. It is as if these old utopias are the only ones the left could ever aspire to and, since these goals are no longer feasible or desirable, the left must do without. This leads to the uninspiring vision of a society that is, at best, a little bit better than the one we have today. Hardly the stuff of dreams and movements.
Moreover, the left finds itself drawn to an idealized past, since it now lacks a vision of a fundamentally better future. This generally takes the form of touting the Golden Age of the postwar welfare state, roughly the 1946–1973 period, as some sort of model for society. It is true that wages and incomes rose much faster in that period than since, that there was far less economic inequality, that unions were much stronger and that basic institutions of the welfare state were not only safeguarded but expanded. But as utopia, that’s pretty weak beer. And there is the inconvenient fact that this so-called Golden Age was not so golden for blacks, women, gays and other outsiders. (Ironically, it is this aspect of the Golden Age — a stable, traditional social order — that is recalled with fondness by many on the right and held up on their side as a sort of model.)
Linked to this backward-looking viewpoint is a continued failure to grasp that the traditional working class — the bulwark of the postwar welfare state — is no longer the leading force for progress. Their place has been taken by a diverse modernizing coalition: minorities, members of the Millennial generation, singles (especially women), seculars, socially liberal, college-educated whites and urbanized Americans, especially in large metropolitan areas. This coalition has quite a different sensibility than the traditional working class and are quite unmoved by appeals to an idealized past of happy workers with steadily rising living standards.
What would inspire them is quite different and it is here that today’s progressivism must develop a new vision. That is the subject of Part II of this essay.