Toward a Practical Utopianism

By Tsvi Bisk

The Futurist (PP22-25)

May-June 2002

 

 

Utopian thinking needs to be rescued from fantasy and fanaticism; it must embrace science but disclaim moral relativism.

 

Many of us need clear visions of our possible futures in order to live as human beings on this earth. But we need, a new, more practical form of utopianism than what has existed in the past. We need Neo-Utopianism.

 

A rational social science would offer a coherent vision of the innate possibilities of humans, and this vision must incorporate our social values. Values underlie the pictures or scenarios we create about the future. Indeed, some scenarios are 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.) We must have a vision of the kind of future we want in order to make rational decisions on a daily basis. Having a vision and being a realistic visionary are absolute necessities for functioning as a rational human being.

 

The primary human survival tool is not instinct but the reasoning mind evaluating the human environment. Those who are better at this usually have more successful lives. Societies and cultures that encourage this kind of thinking are usually much more developed.

 

The rational Modernists were simplistically optimistic about the perfectibility of a planned human society.  The Postmodernist critique identified the simplistic hubris of Modernism and showed how this hubris resulted in catastrophe in ecology, politics, economy, etc. Post­modernism gave us wisdom about the limitations of power. An anonymous hacker shutting down AOL or hacking into a government computer system is an example of a Postmodern assault on Modernist hubris.

 

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, and 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 what basis do we make our judgments? If we do not have a clear vision, or if we have several alternative visions, then how do we make rational decisions? If we do not have a future ideal of the kind of life we want, we cannot judge the practicality or the value of judgments we make in our daily lives.

 

A plurality of visions may be necessary for practical reasons in such a rapidly changing world, and not only to avoid the totalitarian temptation. Neo-Utopianism must reflect the uncertainties of the future, and it must embrace a cosmos that is "progressively evolutionary, infinite in its capacity and comprehensible," as Eric J. Lerner writes in his brilliantly original book The Big Bang Never Happened (Times Books, 1991).

 

UTOPIAN THOUGHT AND FUTURISM

 

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 shut off their cognitive, rational faculties and try to fill the subsequent spiritual vacuum by going shopping, taking drugs, getting involved in cults, getting religiously "saved," getting "into" New Age fads, and so on.

 

Human beings are the only species that can conceive of the future, the only species truly cognizant of its own mortality. The resulting angst leads us into the future-conceiving business. Religions long had a monopoly on the far future (the end of days, the coming of the Messiah, eternal life, eventual human salvation, life after death, reincarnation, etc.). With the rise of Modernism, science began to replace religion in areas amenable to quantitative measurement. Futurism has attempted to make this process more comprehensive and as rational and as realistic (i.e., connected to reality) as possible.

 

A team examines blueprints. Envisioning a future and planning for it

are practical aspects of utopian thinking, says author Tsvi Bisk.

 

 

Utopianism was one of the foundational building blocks for futurism. 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 their certainty about the future, such as the guarantee of an afterlife, provided by religion. This uncertainty 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, 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.

 

One of the positive aims of Post­modernism was to attack human certainty (moral, scientific, or political) as insufferable hubris. While Postmodernism has performed a valuable service in critiquing Modernist ideology, it is essentially nihilistic. It offers no coherent alternative to Modernism. Indeed, Post­modernism would view the very search for coherence as a Modernist pretension.

 

But if humanity is to survive and have a meaningful existence, then the intellectual project of the twenty-first century must be to move from Postmodernism to Neo-Modernism. We must reinstate the Enlightenment ambition to create a "Science of Man." We must become Neo-Utopians. Neo-Utopian thought can find support in a New Science of Man based upon new developments and insights in the biological and cosmological sciences and from genetic research giving us ever-increasing knowledge about life itself.

 

RECOGNIZING THE THREAT

 

Secular humanism, an outgrowth of the Renaissance, the scientific revolution, and the Enlightenment, has been one of the foundation blocks of Modernist ideology. But its growing spiritual inadequacies, such as its lack of certainty about the future, have led to the radical moral relativism of New Age Postmodernism 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 reinvigorate the secular humanism that is the neces­sary meta-ideological underpinning of constitutional democracy.

 

Three Views of  Utopia

 

Utopianism/Modernism

Anti-Utopianism/Postmodernism

Neo-Utopianism/Neo-Modernism

Utopianism meets our fundamental need to improve things, to believe in the improvability of life. 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 anyone 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 a heroic image of their own future in order to stimulate and sustain the energy capable of bringing out the best of their being.

 

This is the task of Neo-Utopianism; not a blueprint, but a vision of what things could be like and should be like.

 

THE VALUE OF NEO-ROMANTICISM

 

Let us describe the new mood--the yearning for a heroic image of the human future-as Neo-Romanticism. A Neo-Utopianism would want to change the focus of Romanticism. It would want us to be romantic about the future-not about the past.

 

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. Romanticism contrasts with Naturalism, which views 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 will live in the future and not in the past; therefore, the future is more important than the past, and if we are to love our own lives we must learn to fall in love with the future.

 

Let me be clear and precise: The call for vague visions and Romantic attachment does not justify mushy and impractical thinking. The challenge must be clearly and precisely formulated and must reflect reality, not wishful thinking. The challenge must be long term, but not so long

term as to be inconceivable. Any vision that transcends 100 years in the future is usually in the realm of fantasy and science fiction-interesting, but essentially useless.

 

GETTING THERE FROM HERE

 

I will formulate a possible Neo­Utopian 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 that 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 that will engender numerous alternative possible an­swers. The debate, therefore, will be utopian, but pluralistic and nontotalitarian.

 

By clearly defining the challenge, we will have avoided the imprecise, wishful thinking of New Age Post­modernism. A Postmodernist would meet this challenge by calling 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 people, forcibly sterilize a few billion more, and reeducate 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.

 

Most people want a clean environment, not so much because of theories about human-induced global warming, but because of much more banal and selfish reasons. People do not require a grand theory of global warming to be in favor of a clean environment. We favor a clean environment because we do not want to breathe, drink, or eat befouled air, water, or food.

 

Whether the theory of human-induced global warming is correct or not is beyond the point; any future vision of society that includes 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 lifestyle, and billions more aspire to a technological lifestyle. 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.

 

NEO-MODERNISM: A BETTER APPROACH

 

A practical utopian ism would not 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 metallurgical, chemical, electronics, and pharmaceutical industries, 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 than 40 years, most people 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 Postmodern critique of the hubris of Modernism but rejects Postmodernism's radical relativism and lack of coherent vision. Embracing science and reason, Neo-Utopianism 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.

 

About the Author

 

Tsvi Bisk is an independent Israeli educator, social researcher, and writer. He is founder and CEO of the adult education Web site www.adultdegree.com and of the Strategic Educational Planning (STEP) Institute, 15/13 Alterman St., Kfar Saba144228, Israel. E-mail bisk@adultdegree.com.

 

He is collaborating with Moshe Dror on a book entitled Futurizing the Jews for Praeger/Greenwood Press. This article draws from his chapter in Utopian Thinking in Sociology, edited by Arthur B. Shostak (American Sociological Association, 2001), which is available from the Futurist Book­store for $20 ($17.95 for Society members), cat. no. B-2393.

 

A longer, earlier version of this article appears on the World Future Society's Utopias Forum

http://www.wfs.org/utopias.htm

 

 

Recommended Reading

 

Utopian Thinking in Sociology, compiled and edited by Arthur B. Shostak.  Perceptive essays and useful course materials solicited from 44 contributors, principally academics (including 10 students).  This teaching manual is packed with insights from scholars who are struggling to defend a way of thinking that increasingly has either been neglected or attacked outright.  Available from the Futurist Bookstore for $20 ($17.50 for Society members), Cat. no. B-2393.

 

The Utopia Reader, edited by Gregory Claeys and Lyman Tower Sargent.  New York University Press. 1999. 421 pages.  Paperback.  A masterful compilation of seminal utopian writings from thinkers as diverse as Ovid, Plato, More, Swift, Marx, Wells, Huxley, Skinner.  Available from the Futurist Bookstore for $22.95 ($20.95 for society members), cat. no. B-2349.

 

The History of Utopian Thought by Joyce Oramel Hertzler.  University Press of the Pacific.  2000.  336 pages. $42.50.  A scholarly examination of the historical development of social utopias and utopian thinking.  This text attempts to provide an objective analysis of the potency of social idealism-embodied in the ideas of Jesus, Bacon, More, and other great philosophers-and its relation to social progress.  (Order online from www.wfs.org/specials.htm)

 

THE FUTURIST May-June 2002 [PP22-25]

http://www.wfs.org