The Triumph of Optimism
Part I: From Post-Modernism to Neo-Modernism
Modern Utopianism and the development of utopian thought were coeval with the advent of “Modernism” and the “Idea of Progress” itself and reflected the Enlightenment belief that human beings could create rational and just societies. Thomas More’s Utopia was a first attempt to depict such a society. Francis Bacons ‘utopian’ New Atlantis depicted a society sensitive to the human possibilities of rational, organized, intentional, scientific method. Bacon was one of the first to realize that science gave human beings the power to alter their physical environment for their own benefit.
Unlike the ‘knowledge for its own sake’ approach, which had characterized ancient Greek inquiry, Bacon was a radical advocate for investigating nature solely to gain knowledge and techniques that would benefit humankind. His technocratic utopianism has affected literature and politics ever since. Much of Science Fiction as well as Fabian Socialism, and the literary optimism this movement spawned in the persons of Wells and Shaw are genetic descendents of Bacon’s basic sense of life and the possibilities of human life in a technological age.
This was when the “Idea of Progress” and the belief in the possibility of progress, as a consequence of the directed and focused actions of rational human beings, became the gestalt of western thinkers.The assumption that material progress and the rational organization of society would make better human beings, that there is a complete identity between material progress and moral progress became that ideology which we now call “Modernism”.
The realization that material progress does not automatically lead to moral progress, that rational and just social institutions do not resolve the problem of human evil has given birth to that anti-ideology which we call “Post-Modernism”.
Belief in human progress characterized the founding fathers of the United States, the first polity in history to be rationally conceived and designed for the sole benefit of its human constituents: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that men are endowed with certain unalienable Rights, that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.”
In other words there is no purpose to organized (governed) society other then to benefit the human beings that compose it. We have become so used to these words that we have forgotten how truly revolutionary they were at the time and how the United States exploded onto the stage of history forever changing the course of human events. The United States is the quintessential Enlightenment project and might be called practical, applied Utopianism.
1) Modernity and “Modernism” These terms are not synonyms. Modernity refers to the advent of our technical civilization dedicated to the comfort and convenience of human beings. Modernism is an “ism”, an ideology that reflects the Enlightenment belief that moral and ethical progress would follow scientific and technical progress and the rational organization of society around scientific principles (thus the Social Sciences). “Progress” for the advocates of “Modernism” was an all-encompassing Unicom predicated on the assumption that all technical progress is beneficial for human society.
“Modernism” and Americanism are almost the same thing. What could be more American then the saying “you can’t stop progress”. Not only couldn’t you stop it, why would you want to? But right at the beginning this concept of progress ran into trouble. Naysayers such as Blake and Rousseau (whom we might classify, in hindsight, as proto-Post-Modernists) excoriated the spiritual impoverishment of a humanity governed by technical reason alone.
Ernest Becker, in The Structure of Evil, brilliantly describes the ideological debate that raged in the Enlightenment. Thinkers as diverse as Hume, Diderot and St. Pierre protested against “a science divorced from human affairs” and “a science which would take the universe and not man as the center” (pg.10) which they felt would follow the organization of society according to a scientific approach that celebrated “valueless ness” as the way to avoid value laden prejudice (literally pre-judgment) and to achieve “objectivity”.
But as science and industry (the very heart of the modernist belief) progressed they themselves laid the groundwork for the eventual “Post Modernist” critique of “Modernism” which harkened back to the early Enlightenment skeptics.
2.) Science and “Scientism.” Science became “Scientism”, not a tool of human inquiry into areas suitable to scientific methods but an almost totalitarian belief system, which denigrated and even negated concepts not amenable to quantitative, measurable, scientific methodology. Rather then saying we have discovered magnificent methods for inquiring into phenomena amenable to quantitative measurement, intellectuals who had become advocates of “Scientism” said that phenomena not amenable to quantitative measurement were not worthy of being addressed or, later on, did not even exist.
“Scientism” achieved its grotesque extreme in the philosophy of Behavioral Psychology of Watson and Skinner. They denied the very existence of volitional human consciousness because it could not be seen, smelt or measured. Mind for them was a meaningless word because it could not be scientifically described. Behavior, on the other hand, could be observed, described and statistically measured.
Science, the first humanity (science being the basis of Enlightenment Humanism) was now transformed into “Scientism”, which denied the very humanity of humanity (that is if we accept that what separates the human from the animal is the volitional reasoning mind).
This became grist for the mill of post-modernists who denied that reason was an universal objective human characteristic, but was rather an ideological construct of western culture; who denied that reason had any intrinsic objective value and who affirmed that non-rational, irrational and even anti-rational ways of relating to reality should be treated with equal respect. Post-modernism retreated back into pre-modernism and put the metaphysical on the same plane as the physical.
3.) Modernity and Post-Modernism. Multi-culturalism was born; medicine men became equal to medical men. Pretensions to hierarchy of values became politically incorrect if they were coeval with cultural origin. Objective rational discourse based upon a universally accepted language of meaning became almost impossible in the Social Sciences and the Humanities. New Age affirmations went unchallenged because there was no way one could challenge them other then by applying ones critical reasoning mind – an effort pre-empted by the prejudices of Post-Modernism. If one attempted to apply critical reason one became open to accusations of cultural jingoism. Anything went.
Analytical and critical questioning became a sign of poor taste and cultural intolerance. The human mind was turned into an uncritical dysfunctional “filter”. This was ideal for advertisers and politicians, but disastrous for our civilization. Reason created science, science created Scientism, Scientism created anti-reason.
Science had to destroy teleology – the philosophy of purposefulness. In order to do its business science had to assume that existence has no purpose. Existence just is. The proper question for a scientist to ask is not why (a value laden question), but how (a valueless question). There can be no scientific answer to the question why, but there can be many scientific answers to the question how.
Richard Feynman, in The Character of Physical Law, relates that when Newton was asked about his theory-“But it doesn’t mean anything – it doesn’t tell us anything”, Newton responded: “it tells you how it moves. That should be enough. I have told you how it moves, not why.” (pg.37)
When science became “Scientism” and conquered philosophy, and academia, and even art, it became a sign of dיclassי philistinism to even ask the question why (or in the case of modern art, what). This approach created the existential dilemma of modern times. If existence has no purpose, then human existence has no purpose. Thus was laid the spiritual groundwork for 20th century Nihilism.
The Social Sciences, like a male dog with its nose up the behind of the in heat female dog of Physical Sciences, quickly followed suit, cutting itself off from its historical roots of a value laden “Science of Man”. “Scientism” desiccated the radical humanism of the Enlightenment. Utopianism could not survive in such a barren spiritual environment.
In addition to “Scientism” the course of straightforward 19th century science also contributed to the decline of the heroic humanism of early “Modernism”. The Enlightenment had inherited a God-Like image of man from the Renaissance. Enlightenment men were usually still believers in God (although often contemptuous of organized religion), and they accepted that men were made “in the image of God” by God himself. Newton and Locke were devoutly religious men. But along comes Darwin and demonstrates that man is not created by God, but has descended from the monkey.
Enlightenment thinkers believed that man was a rational being amenable to self-improvement as a consequence of rational social and political policy. But along comes Freud and blasts away this naive psychology, and demonstrates the dark complexity of the human psyche. Darwin and Freud dealt a severe blow to traditional human self-esteem, and hence to the self-confidence which lay at the base of the modernist ideology.
4.) Post-Modernism It was the historical misuse of industry and technology that set the stage for 20th century “Post-Modernism”. The naive belief that rational technical progress would create a more just and enlightened society and, as a consequence, the moral level of humanity would also rise (the foundational assumption of the “Idea of Progress” and the backbone of Modernism) was soon destroyed by events. Men did not become better; they became better at killing one another.
The American Civil War was humanity’s first industrial war. Tens of thousands of men were slaughtered in single battles fought with industrial means. Europe stood appalled and judgmental at this American barbarism, not realizing that the Civil War was but a prologue for the barbarism of WWI during which hundreds of thousands of men were slaughtered in single battles.
WWI spelt the end of Victorian optimism and blind belief in the goodness of man and the inevitability of progress. The problem of evil was reborn, and nihilistic, pessimistic existentialism dominated the European spirit after WWI.
The coup de grace for naive optimism in the idea of progress as a Unicom occurred in WWII. Here the most developed nation in the history of the planet (industrially, scientifically, philosophically and culturally) committed the most heinous crime in human annals and it could not have committed the crime if it was not so developed. If the Civil War represented the first case of industrial warfare, then the Nazi Holocaust represented the first case of industrial murder. Auschwitz and the other camps were giant factories dedicated to the production of death.
This is the uniqueness of the Holocaust when compared to other mass murders in history (such as that of the Armenians in WWI or the Tutsis today). The Holocaust could not have been perpetrated by a pre-technological society. That it was perpetrated by such a developed society is one of the reasons it is so horrific; not only did it kill millions (nothing unusual in that): it destroyed our most sacred beliefs about ourselves as modern human beings.
The eventual failure of and consequent intellectual disappointment with the various Marxist Leninist experiments may be seen as an epilogue to the “Death of Modernism” (Marxism being the quintessential modernist ideology).
All told, it has been estimated that governments and societies holding the modernist creed as their foundational societal axiom have killed over 160 million people in the 20th century. WWI, WWII, the Holocaust, The Great Leap Forward, The Cultural Revolution, Indian Independence and other “modern” phenomena have piled up bodies in numbers inconceivable to Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, and Ivan the Terrible.
5.) Death of Utopianism. The dismal record of the 20th century made Utopianism unfashionable. It seemed silly and infantile. You were not a serious social scientist if you engaged in such frivolity. Ice cold, valueless, statistical social science became de rigueur.
Some interesting exceptions like C. Wright Mills and Ernest Becker were around, but always on the margins of “serious” social science. If you wanted to get ahead in Academia you talked statistics, not values. Statistics are useful analytical tools but they are not fertile soil for nurturing utopian thought or anything approaching a “Science of Man”.
The concrete examples of various 20th century utopian pretensions, such as collectivization in the Soviet Union and China, the pathetic self-indulgent communes of the 60’s and 70’s dropouts, or bizarre religious communes such as Jonestown and Branch Davidians have done little to improve the reputation of utopian speculations and experiments.
6.) Kibbutz as a Case Study. The failure of the Kibbutz movement in Israel has been the final nail in the coffin. This had been the one 20th century utopian experiment given sanction by “serious” social science. Indeed, the Kibbutzniks themselves were fond of joking that more books had been written about the Kibbutz then there were Kibbutzniks.But today out of 270 Kibbutzim only about 20 are still prospering. Of the rest, half are hanging on by their fingernails and half are economic and social basket cases.
Indeed, the Kibbutz Movement has only survived the last decades because of a 6 Billion-Shekel bailout by the government. This has caused tremendous resentment amongst Israeli taxpayers, and for the first time in their history the general population has come to view Kibbutzniks as being part of the problem and not part of the solution.
The self-esteem of individual Kibbutzniks, used to seeing themselves as the archetypal Israelis, has plummeted; social disintegration has followed and a reverse Darwinist process has taken place. Instead of the best and the brightest coming to the Kibbutz (the historical precedent), the best and brightest have begun leaving the Kibbutz.
One young former Kibbutznik is even suing his Kibbutz for performing a social experiment on him that he claims has left him an emotional cripple. The demise of the “Childrens House” did not reflect a diminishing of collective values; it reflected the concern of loving parents not willing to make their children suffer what they had suffered in the name of a poorly thought out ideological abstraction.
The demise of the “Children’s House” and the consequent necessity to expand family dwellings resulted in tremendous expense, which was a major contributor to the financial problems of the Kibbutz. Idealistic and axiomatic wishful thinking based upon grand sounding slogans (and little else) can produce anti-ethical social structures which result in irrational economic organization, which eventually cause economic difficulties, which result in social disintegration and the loss of individual self esteem for members of the community.
This has been the greatest failure of Utopianism; to understand the connection between economics and ideals: that no matter how lofty the ideal, if it does not rest upon a bedrock of practical, efficient, rational economic behavior it is doomed to fail. The history of the Soviet Union and Chinese collectivization are other much more extreme examples of this truism. If there is to be a “Neo-Utopianism” it must base itself on this self-evident historical lesson.
Part 2: On the Rehabilitation of Utopian Thought:
Why pre-occupy ourselves with Utopianism at all, given its sad record? Because, quite simply, we require concrete visions of our possible future in order to live as human beings on this earth.
As the early Enlightenment Modernists so rightly understood, what separates the human from the animal is the rational mind. The rational, volitional mind is the chief survival tool of the human species. When we use it we prosper, when we fail to use it we endanger our own survival. War and the human suffering it causes are irrational; peace and the human fulfillment it makes possible are rational. A polluted environment is irrational; a clean environment is rational.
1) The Value of Values. Can we even have a rational social science that is not based on a social philosophy possessed of a coherent vision of the innate possibilities of the human being? How can we have a rational Social Science (a true “Science of Man”) without social values? Just as the physical sciences must be valueless in order to be scientific, so must the social sciences be value laden in order to be scientific.
Science is a rational, volitional, intentional activity that must say yes or no to data it gathers. The physical sciences make the decision based upon the quantitative coherence of the data itself after experiment and translation into mathematical language. If the Social Sciences are to be relevant to the survival of humanity (i.e., rational), they must base their yes or no on non-quantifiable values.
Values cannot be perceived by way of statistics; they can be perceived by way of pictures or visions or scenarios. Indeed, scenarios are kinds of mini-utopias. Futurist methodologies will probably be a basic functional tool by which we might construct a Neo-Utopianism.
Human society cannot conduct itself rationally without a clear idea of where it wants to go. Clear ideas would be a better term because “Neo-Utopianism” should be pluralistic in order to avoid the totalitarian know-it-all temptation that has doomed utopian experiments in the past. The horrific consequences of a single-minded (as opposed to an open-minded) utopian instinct are well documented in Yaacov Talmon’s classic work Totalitarian Democracy. Whatever the case, we must have a vision of the kind of future we want in order to make rational decisions on a daily basis.
2) The Value of Vision. Having a vision and being a realistic visionary are absolute necessities for functioning as a rational human being. This is contrary to popular prejudice, which equates visionary with unrealistic fantasy, but it is nonetheless self-evidently true.
Human beings make practical judgments and value judgments every day of their lives. We must do this in order to survive, as the primary human survival tool is not instinct, but the reasoning mind evaluating the human environment. Human beings better at this usually have much more successful lives. Societies and cultures that encourage this kind of thinking are usually much more developed.
“Modernism” was simplistically optimistic about the possible planned perfectibility of human society. The “Post-Modernist” critique identified the simplistic hubris of “Modernism” and showed how this hubris resulted in catastrophe in ecology, politics, economy etc. Post-Modernism gave us wisdom about the limitations of power.
But today we have graduated to an even higher wisdom – that criticism of simplistic visions is not enough; that human society absolutely requires visions of where it wants to go, that without such visions it is impossible to conduct society in a rational way. These visions might be vague, but exist they must if a culture is to be vigorous and healthy.
The question is on the basis of what do we make our judgments? If we do not have a clear vision, or several alternative visions then how do we make rational decisions? If we do not know where we want to go, if we do not have a future ideal of the kind of life we want, how can we judge the practicality or the value of any judgment we must make in the course of our daily lives?
A plurality of visions might be necessary for practical reasons in such a rapidly changing world, and not only to avoid the totalitarian temptation. Utopianism must avoid becoming a finalistic one-dimensional picture. It must reflect a “new view of the cosmos (and) be progressively evolutionary, infinite in its capacity and comprehensible both qualitatively and quantitatively” as Eric J. Lerner writes in his brilliantly original book The Big Bang Never Happened (p.327).
Or as Stephen Jay Gould, commenting on the ramifications of the human genome project in the New York Times, writes, “only humility (and a plurality of strategies for explanation) can locate the Holy Grail.” Gould goes on to hint at the infinite human potentialities offered by a post-reductionist view of human life.
3.) The value of Utopian Thought. There is a socio-psychological price to be paid for the death of Utopianism. Observe the number of people in the modern world who seem to float through life rudderless without a clear view of their own value as human beings. They are so confused about the complexities of modern life that they have shut off their cognitive rational faculties trying to fill the subsequent spiritual vacuum by going shopping, taking drugs, getting involved in cults, getting religiously “saved”, getting “into” New Age fads etc.
The inability to construct rational, realistic alternative future visions leads people to create fantastic ones (benevolent aliens will come in their space ships to take us away to eternal bliss and in preparation we must first castrate ourselves and then commit collective suicide).
Human beings are the only species that can conceive of the future, the only species truly cognizant of it’s own mortality. The resultant angst leads us into the future-conceiving business. Religions had a monopoly on this business for the longest time (the end of days, the coming of the Messiah, eternal life, eventual human salvation, life after death, reincarnation etc). Science began to replace religion in areas amenable to quantitative measurement. The profession of Futurism has attempted to make this process more comprehensive and as rational and as realistic (i.e. connected to reality) as possible.
4) The Value of Futurism. Utopianism was one of the foundational building blocks upon which Futurism was built. Now, Futurism must serve as one of the foundational building blocks of a Neo-Utopianism.
Modern Utopianism coincided with the secularizing process of the Renaissance. People were beginning to shed the surety about the future provided by Religion. This unsurety was reflected in the plays of Shakespeare, the first truly modern writer who anticipated the angst of modern man. “To be or not to be, that is the question!” Utopian speculations, such as those of More and Bacon, in all likelihood responding to this incipient angst, offered secularized versions of a possible end of days as it pertained to human society on this earth.
But if humanity is to survive and have a meaningful existence, then the intellectual project of the 21st century must be to move from Post-Modernism to Neo-Modernism. We must reinstate the Enlightenment ambition to create a “Science of Man”. We must become Neo-Utopians.
Perhaps we can find support for a New Utopianism based upon a New Science of Man that would be based upon new developments and insights in the biological and cosmological sciences. Just as the Social Sciences, dominated by a reductionist mechanical science, destroyed the value laden “Science of Man, so might a new value laden Science of Man find its justification in philosophical insights drawn from new developments in Evolutionary Theory (physical and biological) based upon Plasma Physics and genetic research and ever increasing knowledge about life itself. Edward O. Wilson has made an heroic (Neo-Modernist?) attempt at a synthesis which re-introduces objectivity and meaning into the discussion in his book Consilience.
5.) Recognizing the Threat. Secular Humanism, an outgrowth of the Renaissance, Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment, has been one of the foundation blocks of modernist ideology. But its growing spiritual inadequacies (based in part on the uncertainties of the New Physics) has led to the radical moral relativism of New Age Post-Modernism, on the one hand, and a return to the bedrock certainties of religious fundamentalism, on the other hand.
Both these extremes feed off of one another and both, together and separately, are very dangerous for the future of human society. Only a Neo-Utopianism can offset this double trend and re-invigorate Secular Humanism, which is the necessary meta-ideological underpinning of constitutional Democracy.
Is the United States better off because academic research has “proven” that the “American Dream” was a manipulated myth? Is Israel better off because intellectuals have “proven” that the “Zionist Idea” was flawed at its very inception? Is Europe better off because the Enlightenment dream of a more rational and just society has become unfashionable, replaced by dubious theories of false consciousness and the inherent alienation of the human being? Are any of us better off because radical Greens have “demonstrated” that human beings are basically pests infecting Mother Nature?
Neither individuals nor societies can function efficiently and flourish in an atmosphere of declining self-esteem. Human beings are not just economic beings or cultural beings or social beings. They are first of all heroic beings who require an heroic image of their own future in order to stimulate and sustain the energy capable of bringing out the best of their human being.
This is the task of Utopianism; not a blueprint, but a vision of what things could be like and should be like.
6.) The Value of Neo-Romanticism. Let us define this mood as neo-Romanticism. A Neo-Utopianism would want to change the tense of Romanticism. It would want us to be romantic about the future, not about the past.
I use the term Romanticism in its most precise sense (not in its popularized perversion). Romanticism is that literary genre which sees the human being as a heroic creation and deals with human life as it ought to be, in light of heroic human nature, and not as it is. It is appositive to Naturalism, which deals with life as it is and even celebrates life as it is.
Futurism is, in a way, a realistic Romanticism. It does not deal in fantasy or wishful thinking, but in the rational organization of empirical fact in order to assist us in constructing positive alternative visions of our future.
Rather than an idealized nostalgic attachment to the past let us cultivate a Romantic attachment to the possibilities of the future. We live in the future, and not in the past. Therefore the future is more important then the past, and if we are to love our own lives we must learn to fall in love with the future.
The call for vague visions and Romantic attachment in no way justifies mushy and impractical thinking. The challenge must be clearly and precisely formulated and must reflect reality and not wishful thinking.
It must deal primarily with the “objective” life of the human being as a social animal, and not with the “subjective” life of a so-called alienated individual whose “false consciousness” malevolent forces are manipulating. The challenge must be long term, but not so long term as to be inconceivable. Any vision that transcends 100 years in the future usually turns into the fantasy genre of Science Fiction – interesting, but essentially useless.
7.) Getting There from Here. I will formulate a possible Neo-Utopian challenge as a question, hoping by doing so to avoid the totalitarian tendency of positivist Utopianism. The question is: “How can we create, by the year 2100, a planetary human society composed of 12 billion people with an American standard of living with one tenth the negative environmental impact present human society has on nature?”
What research and development policies, international trade policies, tax policies, space exploration policies must we pursue in order to achieve such a vision? This is a practical question given to rational treatment that will engender numerous alternative possible answers. The debate, therefore, will be utopian but pluralistic and non-totalitarian.
By clearly defining the challenge we will have avoided the imprecise, wishful thinking of New Age Post Modernism reflected, for example, in calls to lower the world’s population from 6 billion to 2 billion within the next century and to “educate” the remaining 2 billion to adopt the way of life of a European village before Charlemagne.
This is neither clear nor moral thinking, its immorality being a direct consequence of its lack of clarity. To attain such a goal we would have to exterminate a few billion, forcibly sterilize a few billion and “re-educate” the remainder in the Rousseau/Robespierre tradition of “forcing people to be free”, a chilling oxymoron that began with the guillotine and ended with the gulag.
People do not require a grand theory of global warming to be for a clean environment. They are for a clean environment because they do not want to breath, drink, or eat poison.
Whether the assumption of human induced global warming is correct or not is beyond the point; any future vision of society that envisions a clean environment must argue its case on the basis of the interests of real human beings living real lives in a sophisticated technological society.
Most human beings have no intention of giving up their technological life style, and billions more aspire to a technological life style. Frantic self-righteous calls by neurotic dropouts to give up soap and hot water and live in teepees are not likely to have wide appeal.
8.) Neo-Modernism: A Better Approach. A practical Utopianism would not present a vision of the future that would require people to give up modern dentistry in order to save the environment.
Indeed, modern dentistry might be the greatest justification for the inherent human morality of the Industrial Revolution. When you go to a dentist you are giving sanction to the metallurgy industry, the chemical industry, the electronics industry, and the pharmaceutical industry, as well as to industrial civilization in general which has provided both the technical means and the surplus wealth to train the dentist.
The Modernists were right; the Industrial Revolution was the greatest event in the history of humanity. In 1750 in France 70% of children died before the age of 5, the life span was less then 40, most women were toothless by their late teens, and only a minority of the population could read and write. How many sane people would want to return to such an era? Yet it is this very gloomy “utopianism” that we are being offered in some anti-modernist quarters.
A Practical Utopianism would be based upon a “Neo-Modernism” that accepts the “Post Modern” critique of the hubris of “Modernism,” but rejects “Post-Modernism’s” radical relativism and lack of coherent vision. It would have a good chance at being relevant and offering positive direction for human civilization. It would enable us to once again instill human society with purpose, rejuvenating human culture around a coherent, yet pluralistic, framework of ideals and values. This would be Utopianism Come of Age!
Ernest Becker’s The Structure of Evil; Fritjof Capra’s The Turning Point; Edward Wilson’s Consilience; Eric Lerner’s The Big Bang Never Happened; Jacob Talmon’s The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy; John Bury’s The Idea of Progress; Carl Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism, and Edward Cornish’s The Study of the Future.