Imagining the Future   /   Spring 2008   /    Essays

Being in Utopia

Ruth Levitas

The term “utopia,” coined by Thomas More in 1516, is a pun on eutopia/out- opia—the good place that is also no place. The lay meaning of “utopia” has come to be a perfect but impossible society, and the term “utopian” to refer to an unrealistic dream or dreamer. In this discourse, one of the most frequent objections to utopia is that it demands perfection of its inhabitants, and that this is inconsistent with the necessarily flawed nature of real human beings. Utopia may also then be seen as dangerous, for attempts to impose it will mean forcing fallible humans into the procrustean bed of an externally imposed system, resulting in totalitarian repression and violence.

A recent example of this is British literary critic John Carey’s introduction to The Faber Book of Utopias, published at the turn of the millennium:

The aim of all utopias, to a greater or lesser extent, is to eliminate real people. Even if it is not a conscious aim, it is an inevitable result of their good intentions. In a utopia real people cannot exist, for the very obvious reason that real people are what constitute the world that we know, and it is that world that every utopia is designed to replace. Though this fact is obvious, it is one that many writers are reluctant to acknowledge. For if real people cannot live in utopias, then the utopian effort to design an ideal commonwealth in which human beings can lead happier lives is evidently imperilled.

Carey then cites Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun in which selfishness is unknown, Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s The Year 2440 in which citizens voluntarily pay more taxes than they need to, and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward in which the shame attached to deceit is so great that criminals would rather accept punishment than lie to save themselves. Carey reflects: “it is clear that if these are human beings, then the people we have been living among all our lives belong to some other species.” He goes on to cite Soviet Communism as a vision which “fits precisely (and, as events have proved, disastrously) into a utopian mould,” referring to Lenin’s claim that the “higher” phase of Communism will involve transformed human subjects—leading, in Carey’s view, to cruel and unnecessary punishments and murder.

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