14 June 2015

Utopian Jekyll & Dystopian Hyde

Utopian portraits of the ideal society and dystopian depictions of dysfunctional governance may at first glance appear to be as different as heaven and hell. With the former, perfected laws and customs are shown to banish negative dispositions, and enable harmony and cooperation to prevail. Whereas with the latter, people are seen as systematically oppressed, and caught up in fear and atrocities fuelled by the worst of human traits.

But the utopian impulse may actually have a much closer and darker relationship with dystopian scenarios. J. C. Davis, in his book, ‘Utopia and the Ideal Society’, reviewed the works of a wide range of utopian writers and found one distinctive feature that characterised their output – namely, the prescription of detailed rules and practices that regulated human interactions to such an extent that individual spontaneity was largely displaced by socio-economic rigidity.

Davis noted that utopian blueprints contained extensive proposals on the premise that these would transform human interactions comprehensively. Unlike the reform projects of thinkers, such as Francis Bacon and Robert Owen, whose ideas were often considered too pragmatically open-ended to be truly utopian, the utopian plans in the tradition from Thomas More to Edward Bellamy were admired precisely because they offered to bring about total social unity in every key sphere of life.

Although the reformist followers of Bacon and Owen have often been attacked by critics for not coming up with a guaranteed path to reinvent society within a fixed timescale, they are the ones who have steered progressive changes over time to bring about the tangible betterment of people’s lives. By contrast, utopian ideas have historically had three outcomes.

First, they had been taken up in small communities but the demands on those involved would prove to be too much, and those communities were not sustained beyond a short period of time. In the second type of cases, their proponents adapted their practices so that on the one hand, human nature would not be forced into remoulding itself to fit a purist ideal, while on the other hand, collaboration with the wider society was developed to pave the way for gradualist reforms elsewhere.

Thirdly, there were the notorious cases of blueprints for the ideal society uncompromisingly implemented on a national scale even though they had not been embraced by the general public. In all these cases, the new laws and arrangements imposed on society to make everyone conform to the unquestionable ideal led inevitably to repression.

Ultimately the problems facing society can only be tackled effectively if we engage in a process of inclusive and continuous learning. By adapting their proposals experimentally in the light of what people think and feel about them, the Baconians and Owenites successfully secured improvements for our common wellbeing. But anyone proclaiming to have come up with an absolutely thorough and unquestionable solution that has to be delivered without exception, regardless of what subsequent experience may show, can only be inviting us to go down the most dangerous path.

Dystopian writers have been at the forefront in exposing utopian fantasies – the communist revolutionary, the plutocratic ‘free’ market, the fundamentalist theocracy, or the dogmatic anarchist – and their warnings must continue to be heeded. Otherwise, the utopian Jekyll would once again transform into a dystopian Hyde.

Read ‘Whitehall through the Looking Glass’, for a satirical dystopian novel about an attempt to create the perfect corporate-run society.

Or give ‘Kuan’s Wonderland’ a try, for an allegorical dystopian novel about an ideal world where everyone lives in pre-planned harmony.