Dreams and Nightmares
And now Norm emails to point out an article of his on this very subject. Very apropos, and full of good points. I want to quote and quote…
Notwithstanding any of this, however, it remains true that from the outset socialism was utopian. It was a distant land, another moral universe. It was radically other vis-a-vis the order of things it aspired to replace. And that is what it still is. A society beyond exploitation is in the realm of the ideal.
And the thing is…well, my colleague will doubtless disagree, but I can’t help thinking that those distant lands we imagine, those other moral universes – those thought experiments and counterfactuals and what ifs – are good for us, if only to get us to realize that the way things are is not necessarily the one and only way they possibly could be. Yes, it can be risky to think that way (al Qaeda dreams its dreams too, as do the people who would like to make the ‘Ten Commandments’ the law of the land, as do white supremacists, as do – ), but it can also be productive.
We should be, without hesitation or embarrassment, utopians…nothing but a utopian goal will now suffice. The realities of our time are morally intolerable…The facts of widespread human privation and those of political oppression and atrocity are available to all who want them.
There is minimum utopia and there is maximum – and even maximum notions have their place, but minimum utopia should be the goal.
There is an interesting column by Ishtiaq Ahmed in Pakistan’s Daily Times that talks about a related subject: revolution as forward-looking, progressive, and revolution as ‘restoration of some normal or pristine state of the past.’
In the dogmatic Islamic conception of time, the pinnacle of human achievements was the Madinese state of the Prophet and his pious caliphs (in the case of the Shias only the period of Hazrat Ali). Since then society is understood to have deviated from that perfect model and has gone completely astray in the current times. Consequently the Wahhabi movement of the 18th century and its current peddlers aim at a revolutionary restoration of early Islam.
Dreams of the lost Golden Age are indeed another version of utopia – and a very scary one for people who are attached to their modern liberties and comforts. I’m a woman, and I don’t want to go back to the 8th century and be locked away for the rest of my life, thanks. I have a perverse fondness for autonomy, for being able to decide all by myself what I’m going to do and where I’m going to go. Most women throughout history and geography have been flatly automatically denied such autonomy, as a matter of course. So have most peasants, surfs, peons, coolies, lower castes, slaves, farm laborers – most people, in fact. And then – autonomy of course is all bound up with time, and who has time if it takes eighteen hours a day just to get the most basic work done? So electricity, running water, refrigeration, various kinds of soap, supermarkets – those are all part of our relative autonomy too; hence facing backward, as Meera Nanda calls it, is not an appealing form of utopianism – except maybe to the people who won’t be doing the drudgery.
So there’s the crux again. Utopia can be a good thing – if it’s the right kind of utopia, but there are other utopian dreamers whose dreams are everyone else’s nightmares.