The Loss of Utopia
by Dylan Evans
Ever since Plato, western thinkers have dreamed of ideal societies, utopias that could perhaps never be fully realized, but which at least gave us something to aspire to - noble, beautiful visions of what society might one day be like. Thomas More, Tommaso Campanella, Francis Bacon and Karl Marx all painted pictures of a future in which there is a strong sense of community, in which work is fulfilling and leisure is used wisely and creatively. Now, at the dawn of the 21st century, this long tradition of idealism has all but vanished. We have no vision - just the paltry consolations of consumerism.
Sixteen years ago Francis Fukuyama saw the collapse of the Soviet bloc as "the end of history". What he meant was that liberal democracy had emerged triumphant over all alternative forms of human government. There is more to history, however, than government. Indeed, all the major visions of utopia place far greater importance on more mundane matters, such as the nature of work and leisure, and the structure of local communities, than they do on the grand questions of governance.
More, Campanella and Bacon all agree that everyone must work. When work is shared out between all members of society, Campanella calculates that each person will have to work no more than four hours a day. That would leave plenty of leisure time, as well as energy to use that time wisely by, Campanella suggests, attending lectures. Even Marx, who is remembered more for his economic and political theories, started out with a vision of everyday life in the communist society, where a person might "hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner". By reducing history to the question of governance, Fukuyama consigned the more difficult questions about work, leisure and community to oblivion. The "end of history" was just a euphemism for the end of utopia.
Visions can be dangerous, of course. Marx's dream became, for millions, a nightmare. In the 90s, all ideas of radical social transformation came to be regarded with suspicion. It was as if humanity had finally grown up, and left such adolescent fantasies behind.
But if idealism without a dose of reality is simply naive, realism without a dash of imagination is utterly depressing. If this really was the end of history, it would be an awful anticlimax. Look at the way we live now, in the west. We grow up in increasingly fragmented communities, hardly speaking to the people next door, and drive to work in our self-contained cars. We work in standardized offices and stop at the supermarket on our way home to buy production-line food which we eat without relish. There is no great misery, no hunger, and no war. But nor is there great passion or joy. Despite our historically unprecedented wealth, more people than ever before suffer from depression.
The major political parties are reduced to tinkering with the details of our current system. Their only objective seems to be: more of the same, only perhaps a little bit more cheaply. They have no grand vision.
It is this complacency, this lack of idealism, that is in part responsible for the repugnance with which Muslim extremists view western society. When George Bush speaks of exporting democracy to the Middle East, he should realize that liberal democracy on its own is a limp, anemic idea. If the west is to provide a more inspiring ideal, then it is time we devoted more thought to the questions that Plato, More and Marx placed at the heart their utopias; the question of how to make work more rewarding, leisure more abundant, and communities more friendly.
Dylan Evans will be speaking on morality at the Royal College of Art, London, on Saturday, October 29. www.dylan.org.uk
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005