Utopian Politics

I was listening to an episode (now months old, having long been gathering mold on my hard drive) of CBC Radio’s Ideas not long ago featuring an interview with John “so not the scary Mars-Venus guy” Gray called “Utopian Dreams”. The argument he makes draws together a number of points that I seem to keep coming back to, and that I’ve seen a lot of other bloggers/people who think trying to deal with, based on the feeling that there’s a connection between the kind of mentality that promotes fundamentalist religion and a certain branch of secular politics, or feminism, or any number of other “isms”, actually. It’s probably not dissimilar to what’s being argued in the book The Fundamentalist Mind, but I haven’t gotten around to picking that one up yet.

The basic premise is that there’s a certain kind of secular political attitude that’s actually more “religious”, in that it depends on pushing society toward an ultimate utopian goal. Since Gray is a historian, one of his main points is that this kind of political thought didn’t arise until after the advent of the same belief in Western religion. Many of the specifics of Marxist theory and practice, therefore, couldn’t have happened outside of a post-Christian culture, regardless of how atheistic the philosophy is. He talks a lot in the interview about how the so-called “war on terror” generally, and the war in Iraq specifically, exemplifies this mentality – those who buy into the war (again, either generally or specifically) believe that the actions currently being undertaken will produce an “ideal” state (sometimes locally, often globally), a utopian democracy (Hell, from my outsider’s perspective, even the seemingly unquestionable notion of the inherent superiority of the US model of government, democracy etc, including the completely standard use of the terms ‘unconstitutional’ or ‘unamerican’ to automatically mean bad bad bad and wrong wrong wrong, qualifies as a utopian concept, but that’s really another story).

I feel like this premise goes a long way toward explaining the connection that I see between a number of seriously problematic political and activist philosophies – they all depend on some utopian vision at the end of it, present day be damned, ends-justify-means, and yes we CAN make this perfect world if only we can get RID of X, Y, Z. This applies, as suggested, to Marxism and to the war on terror, as well as to any kind of extreme racism/nationalism…but also, I think it applies to certain subgroups of feminism.

Anti-porn feminism emphasizes eliminating pornography and prostitution in order to eliminate violence against women and misogyny in general. There are two main possibilities for countering this point from a feminist perspective- the first is to say that the strategy isn’t going to be successful (and that maybe the productive methodology would reverse the cause-effect roles in that equation) and the second is to say that misogyny and violence are the problems in and of themselves, and that if those could be successfully eliminated, then porn/prostitution wouldn’t be objectifying, wouldn’t be violent, wouldn’t centre the male gaze and would celebrate women/sexuality of all kinds. I personally favour the second, not least because I think the first is the far weaker argument, and the one that continues to ignore the needs/opinions of sex workers (those most immediately affected by any correlation between misogyny and sex work), but also because that argument still buys into the utopian mentality that assumes we can know, with absolute certainty, what a world without sin would look like and where this teleological journey is ultimately taking us. Conversations with people who believe that they do know this can be extremely frustrating, because the very idea that it’s possible that other genuinely believe that what they are describing is not actually The Ideal is just not on the radar.

There’s a reason it feels not that different from trying to have a conversation with a right-wing Christian fundamentalist, and it’s not just that both of those categories are against pornography. I tend to think it’s also not just about the polarized view of the world or about the apparent inability to tolerate dissent. I’ve never taken a course in “Utopian Literature”, but I know a few people who have and am led to believe that the first thing you learn on that theme is that utopian literature is always dystopian literature, making the point that whatever political processes are involved in utopia creation inherently result in dystopia. I was saying in a conversation recently that (in addition to about a hundred other reasons I’m sick of the constant handwringing by feminists about the woeful state of the Movement These Days) there’s something simultaneously pessimistic and extremely naive to arguments about how feminism has lost its way, become distracted by all these *other* issues that aren’t the One True Feminism at all. I say naive because, often, these arguments depend on harkening back to First/Second wave feminism, and contrasting the fact that they achieved Monumental Social Change (citing legal reforms like suffrage, anti-violence measures and abortion rights) with the disparate, disunited, unfocussed Third(ish) wave…and it seems like the point gets missed that legal reform and actual change are two entirely different animals, and while both are necessary, mistaking the lack of the former for the completely lack of the latter is pretty condescending, while taking a nostalgic “those were the days” kind of attitude while assuming the former represents Success is really a very limited view of the situation.

Personally, I actually have to give this some more thought, because I think in a lot of ways I do subscribe to a somewhat utopian form of religion, even if I find it problematic (at best) in politics, and I’m not entirely sure whether that’s a worthwhile division to make.

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3 thoughts on “Utopian Politics

  1. Sarah J says:

    I think it’s partly about rules–at least, it seemed so with my ex, who was a convert at 28 to Islam. He seemed to think that if he just followed the rules laid out by his religion, everything would work out perfectly.

    So if we just follow the Rules of Feminism/Marxism/Christianity/whateverthefuck, life won’t be hard. It won’t be messy. It won’t hurt lke a motherfucker when things go wrong.

    Have another friend who’s constantly reading self-help books about dating, and I like to tell him that women–and life–don’t come with instruction manuals.

    It goes along with the need to categorize everything into neat little boxes, because somehow it means that they won’t break out of the boxes and disrupt your life.

    And then it seems to come from some sort of reverse Kantian categorical imperative–instead of “act on the maxim which you could will to be a universal imperative,” it’s “try to force the maxims you act on to become universal imperatives.” Well, I do what I do because it works for me, but I certainly don’t expect anyone else to work that way.

    and it don’t work. because people don’t have instruction manuals, and they’re messy and weird and sometimes horribly selfish and other times wildly, beautifully selfless.

    The world doesn’t like rules very much. Every time you set them, it’ll find a way to make you break them. (“you” in the larger sense of course)

  2. purtek says:

    Sarah J – That’s it, exactly. Thanks for adding the bit about people not coming with instruction manuals, because that’s a theme I had been seeing around in posts I was reading and connecting to this idea, but when I went to actually do the writing, I forgot it. It’s like everyone wants a script for how not to be an asshole, and really, it’s just like “Don’t be an asshole, k?”

    Also, way to break out the Kant. I got this comment and said to a friend who was over for dinner “Ooh, look, smart people comment on my blog!” 🙂

  3. Mike says:

    Many of the specifics of Marxist theory and practice, therefore, couldn’t have happened outside of a post-Christian culture, regardless of how atheistic the philosophy is.

    Hmmm. Not so sure that I’m down with this bit; I’m more inclined to see Marxist utopianism as a throwback to the grand schemes of the Greek philosophers.

    The dialectic (metaphysical bollocks that it is, even with the faux gloss of materialism) is just repackaged Fichte pretending not to be, and he was only pushing the same dualistic crap that’s been infecting Western culture for the past few thousand years, which itself is a necessary component of utopianism.

    I read somewhere once, it may have been in Tom Holt *checks books*, yes, it was In Your Dreams. Good book that. Anyway, one of the characters comments that idealists are the most arrogant people in the world – they think that they are the only people in the world who ever had their ideas, and that their ideas will definitely and obviously change the world for the better. Scary stuff.

    Sorry, I did have a point in this comment, but it seems to have gone astray…

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