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Utopia: Fiction or Reality?

Friedrich knows Karl well enough to see how hard he is trying to conceal his agitation over news that the new LSE Chair in Sociology will be filled by a utopia studies specialist. So-called specialists frequently believe in their subject. The prospect of a colleague actually believing in utopias could not but disturb Prof Karl Popper. Prof Friedrich Hayek is in two minds. The politics of the hiring bother him, although he is not personally threatened. Unlike Popper he has no intellectual investment in seeing utopia as either good or bad.

A short list has been drawn-up, and two of the candidates -- HG Wells and JC Davis -- are visiting today. Hayek resolves to clasp the bull by the horns. He will invite Popper, Wells, and Davis to step across the road from the London School of Economics and size each other up over hotdogs and burgers at Shake Shack on Aldwych. Mr Wells, a science fiction writer, may prove hard to stomach. But bonhomie will surely prevail between Popper and Prof Davis who both wrote their ‘utopia books’ in remote antipodean outposts. Hayek, to be honest, is most curious to try the Viennese beef dog on potato bun. He will suggest a Viennese apple bratwurst topped with Schaller & Weber kraut for his friend Popper. The two men seize every opportunity to stir the pot of their nostalgia for Austrian recipes.

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As they settle in their seats Hayek notices some unfriendly eye contact between Wells and Popper. It dawns on Hayek suddenly that it falls to him now to manage this encounter as though he were Schoenberg at the Konzerthaus conducting a twelve-tone string quartet. He begins effusively to declare how much he is enjoying reading Wells’ most recent utopia novel, which he has started and can’t be sure of finishing. Why, Hayek asks Wells, do you hope to become a sociologist at LSE? Do you wish to write Science Reality in the future? Ho ho.

Ignoring Popper’s muffled snort, Wells proceeds at length to explain his intention to revolutionize sociology by returning the discipline to its roots in utopian thought.

Wells:  My argument is to dispute not only that sociology is a science, but also to go to Plato for the proper method of thinking sociologically. The uniqueness of individuals is the objective truth... and science is the method of ignoring individualities. Sociology is, upon any hypothesis, no less than the attempt to bring that vast, complex, unique subject into clear, true relations with the individual intelligence. The social side of history makes up the bulk of valid sociological work at the present time. Of history there is the purely descriptive part, and, in addition, there is the sort that seeks to elucidate and impose general interpretations upon the complex of occurrences and institutions, to establish broad historical generalizations, to eliminate the mass of irrelevant incident, to present some great period of history, or all history, in the light of one dramatic sequence, or one process. I believe there is no such thing in sociology as dispassionately considering what ‘is’ without considering what is ‘intended to be’. Almost all the sociological literature beyond the province of history that has stood the test of time and established itself in the esteem of men is frankly Utopian. Plato, when his mind turned to schemes of social reconstruction, thrust his habitual form of dialogue into a corner; both the "Republic" and the "Laws" are Utopias in Monologue… Sociologists, also, cannot help making Utopias; though they avoid the word, though they deny the idea with passion, their very silences shape a Utopia.

Aside from a crunching sound as Prof Davis bites unperturbed into his Bird Dog, a deathly hush hangs over their table. Hayek wonders at what point Prof Popper -- author both of a classic demolition of Plato and a treatise on scientific method -- will begin to tear away at the provocations and sheer confusion emanating from this presumptuous candidate.

Popper begins -- with slow, almost frightening deliberation -- by observing that Wells’ utopia novel is the story of a “dream book”, a history of the world published in 2106. In it the word “dream” recurs 44 times, Popper notes with inquisitorial precision. Furthermore, let us not forget that Mr Wells here and elsewhere includes World Government and Eugenics among his ideals. Wells seems on the point of saying something, but Popper gives him no quarter.

Popper:  I sometimes wonder whether the enthusiasm for Plato is not due to the fact that he gave expression to many secret dreams. Most of us suffer a little from dreams of perfection. Plato was an artist; and like many of the best artists he tried to visualize a model, the world of pure beauty. His trained philosophers are men who “have seen the truth of what is beautiful and just and good” and can bring it down from heaven to earth. Politics, to Plato, is the Royal Art of composition. The Platonic politician composes cities for beauty’s sake. But here I must protest. I do not believe that human lives may be made the means for satisfying an artist’s desire for self-expression. I suggest instead that the artist seek expression in another material. Politics, I demand, must uphold equalitarian and individualistic principles; *dreams* of beauty have to submit to the necessity of helping men in distress; and to the necessity of constructing institutions to serve such purposes.

Hayek breaks in with theatrical aplomb to ask Popper if his reference to Art stems from his disgust with Plato’s reference to Socrates’ recommendation to Glaucon that Philosopher Kings should begin by “cleaning their canvases” and expelling unwanted people from the city. Popper nods in the affirmative. Therein lies the mortal danger of utopian fiction.

Popper:  Plato gives the term philosopher a new meaning; the philosopher is the man who may become the founder of a virtuous city with a “heavenly vision” of the ideal city and its ideal citizens. The Utopian attempt to realize an ideal state, using a blueprint of society as a whole, is one which demands a strong centralized rule of a few, and which therefore is likely to lead to a dictatorship. What some people have in mind who speak of our social system and of the need to replace it with another system is very similar to a picture painted on a canvas which has to be wiped clean before one can paint a new one. But it is not reasonable to assume that a complete reconstruction of our social world would lead at once to a workable system. Many mistakes would be made which could be eliminated only by a long and laborious process of small adjustments. Those who admit this and are prepared to adopt my more modest method of piecemeal improvements, but only *after* a radical canvas-cleaning, can hardly escape the criticism that their sweeping and violent measures were quite unnecessary. The desperate hope for political miracles, an irrational attitude which springs from intoxication with dreams of a beautiful world, is Romanticism.

Satiated by his Viennese dog on potato bun, and deep in thought, Hayek drums his fingers on the table. When one considers all that Popper might have said to Wells, how easily, directly and personally he could have humiliated Wells, his friend Popper appears to be in remarkably good humor this lunchtime. Hayek ventures a bold thought, which he knows pierces through a theoretical position which both he and Popper hold close to their hearts.

Hayek gives Popper a friendly tap on the arm. “Come Karl” -- he teases -- “the fact that European fascism was utopian and violent does not mean that utopia today ipso facto is totalitarian. Take as an example the present German legalistic opinion on European political and economic union, which is no more or less utopian than the ideal cherished by Immanuel Kant, that stalwart of rational humanism. Would you not soften your hostility to utopia just a little?”. Popper’s expression does soften. He smiles at Hayek in a way that suggests they frequently reach pleasurable impasses like this one in their talks.

Hayek:  Well then, let’s put a case for having the required *courage* to consider utopia with respect to policy… It is only by constantly holding up the guiding conception of an internally consistent model which could be realized by the consistent application of the same principles, that anything like an effective framework for a functioning spontaneous order will be achieved. Utopia, like ideology, is a bad word today; and it is true that most utopias aim at radically redesigning society and suffer from internal contradictions which make their realization impossible. But an ideal picture of a society which may not be wholly achievable, or a guiding conception of an overall order to be aimed at, is nevertheless not only the indispensable precondition of any rational policy, but also the chief contribution that science can make to the solution of the problems of practical policy.

The comment does not have the desired effect. Popper glares incredulously at Hayek. Hayek would desperately like to explain that, though of course he still holds firm to his belief that good institutions are never designed or constructed but rather evolve piecemeal and incrementally, he at the same time accepts that the ideal spontaneous order of liberal society simply cannot work its magic in the absence of necessary formal institutions. “The knotty question of the bird and the egg”, he winces, squinting at the remains of Prof Davis’ chicken and apple bratwurst. “You know yourself what I said in Road to Serfdom, Karl” -- Hayek continues rapidly -- “The purpose of state activity is to create conditions in which competition will be as effective as possible and supplement it where it cannot be made effective. All we can do is to create conditions favorable to progress and then hope for the best. And, anyway, you yourself just said something a moment ago about ‘constructing institutions’”. There is an extremely awkward silence. Finally, Prof Davis clears his throat.

Davis:  What I am asking is what people are deciding to do when they write out their vision of an ideal society, and how it is that we find certain consistencies of internal structure in the resultant blueprints. Utopia as a structure of thought is relatively unchanging. It is its sameness, its constancy which must be emphasized. Of course, the details have varied (modes of communications, economic organization, technology, etc.), but the structure by which the deficiencies of man and of nature are contained remains comprised of the same elements -- institutional, legal, educational and bureaucratic devices and their sanctions.

Wells:  [interrupting rather rudely] Yet you are a historian, and the job vacancy is for a sociologist. Let me test you then. How do you define utopia?

Davis:  The utopian mode is distinguished by its pursuit of legal, institutional, bureaucratic and educational means of producing a harmonious society. Since nature and man have proved inadequate, artifice must be tried. Men must be made to conform to the law and not vice versa.

Hayek:  I am not convinced. Some conceptions of ideal society are not utopian on your definition. What does Prof Davis make of the claim that an ideal society is one in which human nature is improved and perfected, rendering unnecessary all this enforceable conformity with institutions? The claim may be stupid, but it is simple and intuitive; through religion or socialism or self-discipline and education there arises a so-called “new man”. Luther said it. Che Guevara said it. It is what many leftist European intellectuals expected and hoped for after the End of Marxism. It helps explain the neo-Darwinian turn in social science; modifications in human nature (not institutions) will make everything better...

Davis:  Utopia is only one form that the ideal-society model can take. All visualizers of ideal societies are concerned to maximize harmony and contentment and to minimize conflict and misery; to produce a perfected society where social cohesion and the common good are not imperiled by individual appetite. All solutions to the collective problem of *scarcity* envisage a drastic change in the supply of satisfactions but differ markedly in their attitude to human appetites. In what I have called the ‘perfect moral commonwealth’ the collective problem was solved not by increasing the range or quantity of satisfactions available but by a personal limitation of appetite, an emphasis on duty, loyalty, charity, and virtue. Thus only the new man can produce the new society. It presupposes a continual moral striving by everyone, a moral heroics, a moral rearmament. Man is assumed perfectible.

Popper:  You and me, Prof Davis; neither of us are satisfied with that explanation. What exactly, then, is the utopian alternative to the Perfect Moral Commonwealth as you call it?

Davis:  The utopian assumes sinful man; the utopian does not assume drastic changes in nature or man. Utopia is a holding operation, a set of strategies to maintain social order in the face of the deficiencies and hostility of nature and the willfulness of man. The utopian’s method is not to *wish away* the disharmony but to organize society and its institutions to contain the problem’s effects. In utopia, it is neither man nor nature that is idealized but *organization*. The utopian seeks to solve the collective problem collectively, that is by the reorganization of society and its institutions, by education, by laws, and by sanctions. His prime aim is not happiness, that private mystery, but order, that social necessity. Almost by definition, I suppose... the perfection of utopias must be total and ordered...

Hayek:  Yes!!! The crux!!! This rage for unity and cohesion is the point at which we bump painfully against the Platonic so-called ‘totalitarian’ problem which Popper fears, although I gather that you, Prof Davis, would disagree that a utopian necessarily seeks the extreme perfection of regulation in which, as Plato said, “the whole is aware of the feeling of the parts”. May we say utopia is structure for enabling parts to move freely in positive ways?

Davis:  It is a problem revealed in considering the utopian lawgiver. The lawgiver heroes were interested in good government alone, the triumph of human design over divine power. The weakness and ineffectiveness of central government in the early European state is highlighted by the utopian’s vision of well-ordered, effectively governed and efficiently administered societies. The lynchpin of that vision was the impersonal, state-serving bureaucrat. For him to emerge it was necessary to break the notion of public office as a property to be exploited for private gain and class or sectional advantage. The utopians prefigured this development in their images of states and in their emphasis on the capacity of impersonal bureaucracy, law, education, and fit institutions. We are *now* dependent upon legislative machinery, institutions, bureaucracies, technology, which would once have been considered utopian. But change and freedom, planning, complexity, and morality seem inescapable and incompatible. It is a baby-and-the-bath-water dilemma.

Popper:  Indeed, and a chicken-and-the-egg dilemma too… Good to know, however, that it was utopia which brought us wonders such as Shake Shack.

Wells:  If I may say, with due respect, these problems reveal the necessity of utopian fiction, imagination, dreaming as a force for change in society. I don’t mean utopia is just a luxurious thought for warm days by a bubbling brook watching trout and chewing a blade of grass. The imaginary world is the vehicle that gets the pulse racing, marketing utopia to jaded scholars and a skeptical public, and for talking about eventual World Government.

Davis:  You are a novelist; the job vacancy is for a scholar. Sociology is not fiction. The fact that today we experience yesterday’s utopian fiction is not proof that fiction guided the world to its achievements. Do you happen to know that in the age of the internet the name Utopia has been appropriated by a group of grumpy old Maoists, and, on the other hand, by moral advocates of participatory democracy who would have Europe’s entire population showing their hands face-to-face around a giant campfire in Brussels? All I am saying is that the tradition of utopia always has been a sequence in which law gives structure to the morals and precedes democracy as a precondition of institutional effectiveness. You cannot usefully talk about ‘world government’ until these sequences are rationally analyzed.

Hayek:  Might we now conclude with a useful sentence from Prof Davis’ interesting book? “While fiction may be a necessary condition for utopia (as it may be for any form of political theory) it is by no means a sufficient one”. Bravo. Students of utopia so often enter through a dream which is neither scientific nor historical. If one enters instead through a vision of something feasible and organizational, then the medium of fiction can perhaps be a useful device. So I say to you today: Rescue utopia from the dream world!

A murmur of polite humor and agreement ripples collegially around the lunch table.

The Polish waiter, in all likelihood a student of the LSE, hovers about the edge of the table listening in unobtrusively as he clears the plates. “Excuse me for asking”, he nervously says, “but I find this very interesting. Can you tell me, please, what is the best utopia today?”. Hayek looks at him kindly. “We’re working on it. What do you think?”. The waiter thinks for a moment. Then, with beaming confidence: “If it is possible?; definitely Europe; political union, no question; open markets, universal law; Europe first, later the world.”

Italic Credits:
H. G. Wells, The So-Called Science of Sociology
K. R. Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies
F. A. Hayek, Law, Legislation, and Liberty
J. C. Davis, Utopia and the Ideal Society: A Study of English Utopian Writing 1516-1700