Utopia: Uses and Failures

In last week’s post, we discussed the idea of a utopia. Here we will discuss its uses and whether or not this is worth its drawbacks. I will point back to the reference I made to Samuel Moyn on the development of the human rights movement back in the 1970s. This movement, he argues, was born not of hope but the perceived failure of both major systems of government (liberalism and communism). Nationalism had long since been vilified. The ideal had failed, so guarantees must be made.

What am I getting at? It is the fundamental weakness of a utopian vision. The perfect is the enemy of the good after all. But in another sense, however, we need these higher visions. To take an example, the founding of the United States (which I assure you was in 1776). The founders’ vision of the country was neither as enlightened nor cynical as critics and apologists alike claim. Amongst the true starry-eyed visionaries (Jefferson) were the realists (Adams).

Early on in the Revolution, the forces of the Revolution were dominated by revolutionaries in the vein of Samuel Adams. However, these forces were soon overwhelmed by the old elite. The Revolution shifted to a conservative one rather quickly. Amidst this formation of a nation was the, in many ways, centuries/millennia-old views of rights. The ideas of the ether (individual rights) had to be brought to reality. This was encapsulated in the iconic words of the Declaration of Independence.

As the founders sat down to hash out the nation’s future, the utopian vision reared its head. One side felt the rights of Americans could be guaranteed without a Bill of Rights. These as you hopefully recall were the Federalists. The Anti-Federalist held the opposite view. Guarantees must be made. Ultimately the Anti-Federalists won out on that specific issue. The utopian vision may have been used to establish the idea of rights, but guarantees were required to make them a reality. Rights would be taken from the lofty heights of philosophy and declarations and narrowed down to a national context.

Every single civil rights issue that would arise in the United States from the Revolution onwards would rely on the promise of the Declaration of Independence. While the founders had opted for unity and pragmatism to establish and govern a nation, it did not stop the creation of a national mythos with its semi-holy texts to back it up. These texts would act as the precedent, the ultimate vision for those who followed. Everyone from Fredrick Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr. would rely on the precedent established.

G.K Chesterton wrote that tradition is democracy for the dead. Tradition is built up over decades, centuries, and millennia. When we follow these traditions, we are complying with the ways of our ancestors. These can, of course, be good or bad, but the one lesson that can be gleaned from them all is that all traditions have some purpose, obvious or not. So in the previously mentioned establishment of rights and the growth and extension of said rights is simply the continuation of tradition as it morphed and changed over time.

Utopia is inherently fantastical. Anyone who tells you that they have the political/religious system that will bring about such a utopia should probably have frequent welfare checks by law enforcement as they are either mentally ill or a communist. The utopian vision that is provided is only useful in so far as we can make the North Star and not our model. The Old Testament set up the system and society of early Judaism, but like the name, Israel means the Jews would forever wrestle with God. Today the behavior we are expected to have or want to have is always put in check by the reality that “all have fallen short of the glory of God.” In the end, a higher vision, a utopian vision is necessary for a society to craft something greater, but if the utopia is what you are aiming for, be ready for disappointment.


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