November 12th, 2016 by Hafiz Noor Shams
How would you imagine a utopia? What is that utopia?
These are hard questions to answer. It is hard because it requires deep reflection. It cannot be answered on the spot.
In this age when pessimism against liberal values grows day by day, to me, the need to imagine a utopia becomes greater than ever. It is either to criticize these ugly forces fueling Brexit and the Trump presidency (or Malaysian racism and corruption), or to convince the masses it is worth staying the course on the liberal project.
And so when I spotted an event called “Imagining Utopia” at the Kuala Lumpur Literary Festival earlier today, I decided to drop by hoping to find the seeds to my utopias. The liberal order is retreating and so I need my rally.
But as I sat in the front row listening to the panel members, I felt growing dissatisfaction against the majority’s view. Instead of a session imagining utopia, it was a discussion criticizing utopias for being out-of-touch/unconcerned with human nature, and then became a session praising dystopias.
I was mad at the direction of the discussion. In fact, when I took up the microphone to express my dissatisfaction, I sounded unreasonably confrontational, to which I had to apologize after.
Utopias and human nature
As a libertarian, human nature is tried and tested line of argument I used against socialists and communists out there, and to defend the liberal market orthodoxy. Greed, self-interest and other darker sides of us are harnessed by the market to do something good as the argument goes. We have to acknowledge these darker sides of us before we can go on to do good, typically the defense goes. Communism does a bad job at incorporating human nature, as the knife strikes into the heart of the anti-market belief.
Unsophisticated to say the least, but hilariously hard to counter at entry-level discussions.
But yes, utopias have trouble dealing with human nature, as human nature is now, to a realist. Utopias ignore, reject or assume heavily modified human nature to create a paradise on earth in our head.
However, the link between utopias and human nature should not be an excuse to dismiss utopias in the first place. Yet, the majority on the panel refused to imagine any utopia, dismissed the roles of utopia without assessing it and then hastily worshiped dystopias instead.
Roles of utopias and dystopias
The majority view is more interested in dystopias. Dystopias to them are of more value than utopias. Why? Because dystopias readily deal with current human nature. Boo!
Utopias and dystopias have their values in criticizing reality. Brazil, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Fahrenheit 451, The Wanting Seed and other dystopias take a development in the author’s reality and then project it forward to show what is wrong with that reality. Showing what is wrong with our (or somebody else’s) current society is one of the major functions of dystopias.
What the majority view fails to realize is the function – or as Zedeck Siew, the only one defending utopias on the panel, puts it, the utility – of utopias with respect to human nature.
The function of utopias is to imagine a different world where we can do better. Be it communist, liberal, religious, materialistic or whatever adjective there is out there to describe whatever philosophy, it is the imagining of a better world, a better way of organizing society or perhaps more importantly, a better or even different human nature. Indeed, it is a criticism of human nature, as it is, itself.
An example involves Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. It is a 1897 communist utopia that I disagreed with and an overly optimistic views of human nature. Nevertheless, it is a powerful criticism of capitalism and together with other experiences, transformed capitalism for the better especially after the 1930s Great Depression. It made us look at our reality clearer whereas before, we took it for granted. Really, the latest technology from computing to logistics risks making central planning more efficient than the free market, just as written in Bellamy’s utopia. This is a challenge to all modern libertarian thoughts.
I feel this is why such majoritarian dismissal of utopias based on our current human nature is highly unsatisfactory. Utopias assess our human nature more comprehensively than dystopias because of utopias’ radical imagination. Yet, the majority dismisses utopias because of human nature.
Radical imagination versus mere extrapolation
Imagining utopias, unlike dystopias, are not merely about extrapolating existing trends. Imagining utopias are about jumping to another plane altogether and projecting from that. It is the imagining of our new and better nature.
The newness requirement is why it is harder to imagine a utopia than a dystopia and why it is wrong to cheapen the value of utopias to that of common fluffy trash. This is probably partly also why, there are more dystopia than utopia literature.
More importantly, going back to the point about pessimism against the liberal order, a creative utopia creates a goal. The path towards that utopia will be the integration between that goal and our current human nature.
That shifting of plane requires radical imagination and that plane will provide contrast to the control group that is our reality.
The impermanence of human nature
And finally, human nature can change. We humans and our society evolve. There are still vestiges of cavemen inside of us but those urges have been modified by our understanding of sciences. Hundreds of years of advancement in physics, biology, chemistry, mathematics, economics, psychology, sociology, philosophy… knowledge has changed our human nature and will continue to do so. I am not about ready to say Darwin, Wallace and others involved in a whole line of evolutionary thoughts from biology to economics are wrong just to defend the idea of the permanence of human nature.
And really, the modern us have been around for less than 100 years. For millions of years, we were savages. For thousands, we lived in ancient civilizations. For hundreds, in nation-states. For decades, the confused post-modern now. After the dramatic change in our lives in just decades, can we be confident that human nature is unchanging?
Victims of our reality
One of the panel members, in making a short digression, said many writings today are clichés because many authors produce derivatives. Well, dystopias are clichés. Indeed, it is a failure of imagination to hastily and prematurely dismiss utopias in favor of dystopias.
In fact, I think we are living in a dystopia. The praising of and the addiction to dystopias is us becoming the trapped victims of our reality.