The Corbett Report
3 August, 2011
Welcome. This is James Corbett of corbettreport.com with the last word on utopia.
Those with evil intent are seldom courteous enough to announce their intentions openly. As history has shown us time and again, oppressive tyrants seldom come to power campaigning on oppression. Quite the contrary. The most pernicious evil always presents itself as something necessary, something transitory, a mere waypoint on the road to the land of milk and honey. In this way the masses can be led to not only tolerate the most intolerable conditions, but actually to support those who would seek to rule over them.
In the early days, even the most ruthless dictators are wildly popular. By the time the public realizes it’s been had and the blood starts flowing in the streets, it’s too late: the regime is in place and the promises that the tyrant used to gain power are already replaced with the yoke of repression.
In France the revolutionaries rallied under the banner of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” Within a few short years their revolution had morphed into the Reign of Terror, a bloody dictatorship of the guillotine in the name of securing the utopia that the public had been promised. Even at the height of the campaign, as the blood of the people flowed in the streets, Robespierre argued that the bloodshed was a virtuous outgrowth of democracy and even wrote that it represented “the despotism of liberty against tyranny.”
In Russia the Bolsheviks came to power under the slogan “Land, peace, and bread.” Within just five years, however, Lenin had insured a smooth transition from tsarist dictatorship to Soviet dictatorship: he dissolved the Constituent Assembly, which the Bolsheviks did not control, after its first meeting; he disbanded the factory committees which promised to give industrial workers democratic control over their own operations; and he vastly expanded the state security services which imprisoned tens of thousands of anti-Bolsheviks and summarily executed thousands more.
In Cambodia, the communist movement grew in strength and size on the back of the promise to “restart civilization” and return to “Year Zero,” a mythical paradise in which agrarian peasants would become rulers of their own destiny. On his rise to power, Saloth Sar, the leader of the Communist party, stopped living with and consulting with the party leadership. Once he had attained control of the country he changed his name to Pol Pot and began an extermination of two million of his own people, a full quarter of the country’s population. One out of every four people in Cambodia died in Pol Pot’s delusional pursuit of his imagined utopia.
Nor are these by any means the only example of this phenomenon. The English Roundheads overthrew the king just to find they had replaced him with a Lord Protector of artistocratic pretensions. Mussolini marched on Rome on the back of mass public support and proceeded to set up a prototypical fascist dictatorship. The Chinese were promised a Great Leap Forward and ended up bathing in the blood of 60 million of their countrymen. Time after time, the masses have been whipped into a revolutionary fervour by leaders promising a perfect system of governance. And time after time, they have paid for that fervour with their lives.
The term ‘utopia’ itself was coined by Sir Thomas More in a tract written in the early 1500s. The name contains a play on words between the Greek term for nowhere, ou, and the prefix eu-, meaning good. Utopia, then is both an imaginary world, a nowhere land, and a good place, an ideal that we can strive toward in thinking of a good or just system of rule.
More’s utopia was distinctly socialist in nature: there is no money or private property; the economy and the work day are centrally planned to benefit the state; the community eats together in a common dining hall; children are separated from their parents to be raised by nurses. In many ways, this depiction of a perfectly harmonious, perfectly regimented society laid the foundation for the last 500 years of utopian socialism. Time and again utopian revolutionaries have returned to these ideas, whether from a misguided attempt to create an ideal society or a cynical understanding that the utopian urge can be commandeered by an unscrupulous dictator for his own advantage. In the end, the results are always the same: the promised “worker’s paradise” never seems to come, and the few at the top reap all the benefits.
In modern times, a technological idealism has been grafted on to this utopian socialism to create an even more enticing strain of thought with which to capture the imagination of the masses. As the mechanization of the industrial era increased productivity beyond what could ever have been dreamed in the pre-industrial era, a group of technocrats emerged promising a world in which technology itself would make possible a world of plenty. In this technological utopia, the machines would do the work and the workers would be freed from the mundane jobs that had always defined their existence.
The Bolsheviks especially latched on to the promise of technology in the early days of the Soviet Union. Aware of the enormous task before them, the Soviets hoped to create a modern, industrial, centrally-planned economy out of the poor, feudal, agricultural Russian state they had taken over. The centrepiece of this technological transformation of Russia was to be Magnitogorsk, a steel manufacturing city in the Urals that was mandated into existence by Stalin’s first Five Year Plan of 1929. The city was to be built from scratch and serve as an example of a technological utopia. The public was shown propaganda films depicting a modern paradise, a testament to the wonders of industry and the technocratic method.
The reality, of course, turned out to be exactly the opposite of what the public had been promised. Today, Magnitogorsk is as dilapidated as the American industrial cities it was based on. The city is dirty and run down, residential areas awash in the noxious fumes of the factories that were supposed to be the marvels of this modern age. The residents, far from delighting in a world of plenty, long suffered under the yoke of Soviet repression and struggled to get their daily needs fulfilled.
Ironically, Magnitogorsk did serve as the showcase of the Soviet’s promised technological utopia. Unfortunately for the technocrats, what it showed was not how the machinery of the modern age would magically free those who had never been free, but how the very system of technological planning was fundamentally flawed, unable to provide even for the most basic needs of the citizenry.
Remarkably, even now, long after the 20th century technocrats and their vision of the industrial nirvana have been so thoroughly discredited, after hundreds of years of utopian socialist fantasies have shown to lead to nothing but suffering and bloodshed, there is a new class of technocrats who are rising up to once again offer the masses a technological utopia which will provide for all their needs.
Once again we are being told that in this coming utopia an army of benevolent machines will provide for all our needs. There will be no need for money or property, no need for violence or coercion of any kind ever again. In fact, we are told, this technological revolution will not only transform our society, but human nature itself. Freed from the shackles of want by the machines that will provide for all our needs, humans will no longer be violent or selfish or greedy.
This system, we are told, will be “rational” and “logical.” The machines will know what resources are needed, how to acquire them, and how to distribute them. The machines will be able to calculate our needs and provide for them better than we ever could. The machines will be programmed by scientists, and, we are led to believe, they will always know how many toothbrushes to make.
There is no need to worry about who owns the machines, we are told, no cause for concern about how they are programmed or how they make calculations about things we don’t know. In this utopia, the proponents of this movement tell us, there will be no evil people, no elite class that tries to control others, no one at all who tries to control the system, because human nature itself will no longer allow for it.
Ultimately, perhaps it is not surprising that such utopian fantasies can still attract acolytes. The masses have always wanted the quick fix, the wave of the magic wand that will free them from this world of work, toil and strife forever. How appealing it is to be offered the promise of a perfect system, a way to organize our society that will allow us to live in peace and harmony forever. After all, if such a system were really possible, who wouldn’t want to attain it?
But that, then, is the danger of the utopian ideal. The fact that it is always just out of reach, always just one step further down the path of good intentions, means that those who are willing to use this unattainable fantasy to lead society in a dictatorial direction can dangle it before the public like a carrot to lead them further down the garden path. It is, in short, nothing but a tool to enslave the public in the name of creating the perfect society. Indeed, not just to enslave them, but to get them to work toward their own enslavement.
Until this is realized, utopia will always be a powerful motivating force for shaping our society. Those who promise us a world of plenty, where we will receive everything for nothing, will always be popular with a public looking for an easy solution to all their problems. And those who warn against the dangers of utopian thinking will never be popular. They will always be cast as obstacles in the path to the ideal society, and dismissed as charlatans by the masses who are swept into revolutionary fervour, their judgement clouded by the comforting fog of utopian visions.
No, it is never a popular thing to warn against utopia. But it is nonetheless necessary.
For The Corbett Report in western Japan, I am James Corbett.