I have harangued the utopian pursuit before. Having its conception in the mind of Sir Thomas More, the word utopia literally means nowhere. More’s mythical island paradise was always and will always be a fantasy. But does that mean we should not strive toward it? Or rather a better tomorrow.
The historian Samuel Moyn in his book Human Rights and the Uses of History, (partially in response to the earlier work of Lynn Hunt) attempts to answer the question of where human rights and the human rights movement originated. He argues that this movement originated in the 1970s’ disillusionment with both the Capitalist West in the face of Vietnam and the Communist East and their innumerable atrocities. This pursuit of human rights was effectively based in the pursuit of a form of utopianism. As Moyn states:
To know what to make of human rights in the future, the first step is to understand what they have made us. they allowed us to adopt a utopian stance to the world. But this turn to Utopia did not begin from scratch. And happened only after other, perhaps more inspiring utopias failed. It seems odd to say that the utopian imagination has to start from the real world. But when it comes to international human rights, it is clear that utopia and reality do not so much as exclude as depend on each other. At least, the hope embodied in human rights norms and movements, which germinated in the last part of the twentieth century, emerge from a realistic assessment of what sort of utopian item might make a difference. (Moyn, Human Rights pg. 135)
As he states in his epilogue, history does not construct. If rights are to continue, we ourselves and our political structures must decide to continue them. Rights arose in the 1970s because they made sense, the future might be different. Rights in themselves are a utopian in vision. It is necessary to compromise between this utopian vision and reality. He argues that we must move away from the concerns of the rights movement of the 1970s. To move away from the single-minded focus of civil liberties in evil states and move to a broader focus on economic welfare universally.
This is the route that Dutch historian Rutger Bregman takes in his arguments in Utopia for Realists. While he argues in the book for things like a universal basic income and a 15-hour work week, the most interesting idea in the book (at least to this curmudgeonly writer) is the necessity of the utopian pursuit. In the early pages of the book, Bregman has a quotation (there you go Thomas) from Oscar Wilde which states, “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country sets sail. Progress is the realization of Utopias.”
Bregman argues that the modern world is rudderless. He references such thinkers as Francis Fukuyama and his End of History to support the idea that with all of the awesome progress and achievements of society, we are utterly bereft of purpose or direction. We live in a secular, consumerist, amoral age. From this he posits, that we need to continue our pursuit of progress, our pursuit of Utopia. This as opposed to the “blueprint” Utopias of communism, fascism, etc…
This pursuit would break the cultural melange that we in the West especially find ourselves in according to Bregman. And I can’t find myself disagreeing too much. We’ve all heard the saying of planting trees that you will never sit under. Simply put we ought to leave the world a better place (in our own small ways) than we found it. It seems to this author to be an essential component of stewardship ala the parable of the talents.
However, I cannot help but question if progress is really our ultimate goal here. Humanity went through most of our history without the inkling of an idea of true progress, moral nor material. Christians have long viewed history as a long decline from the heights of the Garden or as Tolkien referred to the degradation of the men of Middle Earth “the long retreat.” The purpose should not be, to my mind, to pursue more stuff for more people, but to pursue what is meaningful and true. In many ways, giving material goods can and is a solution, but to just say to people that purpose and pursuit of our culture is progress seems almost as vapid and empty as the secular materialism that we have now. Because it’s the same damn thing.