Thinking our way through Utopia

Some philosophical musings for the weekend, on the idea of Utopia, and the mistakes we make fumbling towards the light.

Here is an example. A Chinese social critic in the 1930s might have observed tenant peasant farming in North China; he/she might have argued that the system was exploitative, unfair, and inefficient (three different social values); and he/she might have argued that the collective farm was a superior alternative, being more democratic, fair, and efficient.  The collective farm might have been offered as a utopian alternative to tenant farming.

So the collective farm is likely not to be a utopian solution to China’s rural problems in 1930.  And in fact, subsequent history confirms this conclusion; the Great Leap Forward famine was the consequence of many of these institutional failures.

And here lies the risk behind our overwhemling urge to do good, or better in the world.  Experiences have shown us the very word “utopia” signals something distinctly opposite most of the time – it gives us dystopia.

The idea of emancipatory agency: that it is possible for us humans to restructure our social institutions in a direction that fits our fundamental values better than the present institutions do.  And it is worth underlining how important, but also how risky, this effort is: important, because it gives a basis for thinking that we can create a better world; and risky, because many of the worst historical experiences of modern memory came from “utopian” efforts to redefine society.

So, Utopia, better ingested in small dosages, and slowly?

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