More on Utopianism

Chris M. Sciabarra sciabrrc at is2.NYU.EDU
Sun Jul 2 08:06:44 MDT 1995

Seamus Malone makes a very good point that "we must distinguish between
utopianism and optimism.  To imagine things can get better is different
from either a) positing the map of this society, or b) believing in the
"perfectability" of society.  Utopianism is used loosely to describe both
of these which are not necessarily compatible.  They both partake of a
belief in "progress" which again may or may not be seen as dialectically
construted from historical circumstances."

	It is true that often people use the word "utopianism" to
describe simply, optimism, or even principled idealism.  My own approach
to this subject has been to concentrate on utopianism as constituted by a
specific METHOD of looking at social reality.  I think that from Marx's
own critique of the utopians, we can say that utopians adopt a kind of
dualism based on external relations.  By positing a specific map of
social change, utopians often fail to take into account the social and
historical context of the society that exists (Ollman used to say that
they would walk into a Chinese restaurant and order pizza--being totally
unfamiliar with what is on the "menu" of social change).  In this sense,
utopians fail to recognize that there is an internal relationship between
the theorist positing the utopian plan and his or her sociohistorical
setting (they see themselves as external to the social totality; they
posit a synoptic vantage point on the totality).  Popper would emphasize,
in this regard, that no theorist can engage in social "canvas-cleaning"
since the theorist himself (or herself) is a part of the
very canvas to be wiped clean, and the social world continues to
function even during any attempt at social reconstruction...
the world simply does not stand still.  To this extent,
utopians have a tendency then, to abstract their own rational plans from
social and historical specificity.  Hayek would say, in complete
agreement with the Marxist critique of utopianism, that the utopians
depends upon a kind of "constructivist rationalism" to bridge the gap
between their conscious purposes and the unintended consequences of
implementing those purposes.  He'd also add that social action itself is
constituted by both articulated and tacit elements, and utopians often
rely on purely articulated plans, not taking into account those tacit,
inarticulate practices of social action.

	On this subject, both Marx and Hayek would say, correctly, I
think, that utopians internalize an abstract, exaggerated sense of human
possibility (hence, the "optimism" that Seamus mentions), aiming to
create new social formations based upon a pretense of knowledge (an
epistemic arrogance that does not take into account the strictures on our
ability to blueprint the future or to master all of the sophisticated
complexities of social life).

	I think then, that while Marx and Hayek agree here, their
essential epistemic disagreement is this:  Hayek assumes that there will
always be an epistemic realm which is beyond our ability to fully
comprehend, hence standing as a permanent block in any attempt to create
a completely planned social order, a completely INTENDED by-product of
rationalist blueprints.  Marx assumes that historically, we will be able
to transcend these epistemic strictures.

				- Chris
Dr. Chris M. Sciabarra
Visiting Scholar, NYU Department of Politics

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