Why Utopian Dreams Often Turn Into Nightmares

utopianism marxism wishful thinking

“Abstraction breeds discontent.” I wrote in a piece last week, in which I linked to a review of Theodore Dalrymple’s Our Culture: What’s Left of It (2005)

In both articles, I argued that the reason so many progressive ideologies fail is because they blindly refuse to acknowledge what is and insist on what they think should be, regardless of what is feasible or realistic.

I didn’t elaborate on the philosophical basis for my position, which has been largely informed by the thought of Edmund Burke,  the failure of communism in the 20th century, and the difficulties democratising Iraq in the 21st. It’s probably worth me discussing it in a little more depth here, so you are aware of where I am coming from…

When the head of the brilliant French chemist Antoine Lavoisier was sliced off in 1794 by an unforgiving guillotine, which showed little regard for his immense intellectual achievements, it led the mathematican Joseph Louis Lagrange to darkly remark:

It took only an instant to cut off that head, and a hundred years may not produce another like it.”

The cruel execution of Lavoisier during “The Reign of Terror”, is a harsh metaphor for how zealous ideologues, intent on their utopian ideal of the future, are prepared to violently dispense with so much historical insight and wisdom, no matter the cost.

In fact, the revolutionary tribunal which sentenced Lavoisier to death, arrogantly declared, “The Republic has no need for scientists.

Though the French revolution was triumphantly hailed by many liberty-minded republicans at the time, the world over, Edmund Burke, an English political theorist was very critical of it. Indeed, as L.G Mitchell writes in the 1993 introduction to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolutions in France (1790):

In 1790, Burke could predict the Terror of 1792-4 because he was convinced that the revolution was flawed from the beginning

Man was certainly capable of reasoning, but he was also capable of much else. He could be passionate and prejudiced. He could be superstitious and violent. Habits and daily routine contributed as much to his political psychology as notions of extended liberty. To legislate on the basis of that description was, predictably, to produce chaos and instability.”

Burke wrote in Reflections:

“… (the philosophers are) so taken up with their theories of the rights of man, that they have totally forgotten about his nature.

The descent from the high-minded idealism of 1789 into the crude vengeance of The Reign of Terror in 1792-4 came about because none of the eager intellectuals egging on the revolution had adequately considered how their abstract notions of liberty would be implemented in reality.

Burke again:

“… (they are committed to) a scheme of politics not adapted to the state of the world in which they live.

Burke’s broad critique of the French revolution arose from his observation that its intellectual foundations in the philosophies of “liberty” and “reason”, first produced by Enlightenment thinkers, like Rousseau, failed to acknowledge the complex mixture of human psychology and social forces rooted in history, which define a particular nations’s political culture.

Though these philosophers evinced a pristine logic in their arguments, Burke, “(was alienated) from the working methods of the Enlightenment, whose protagonists started with the ideal and descended to the practical.”

– L.G Mitchell

Indeed, this absence of pragmatism and tendency towards idealism is something I noticed whilst studying political philosophy at University. Many philosophers eschewed empiricism entirely, and some of my professors disliked us using “real-world” examples in our essays. Instead they encouraged us to pursue “eternal truths” which could only be discovered through ignoring the changing, often messy course of history and turning our attention to ever-fixed, transcendent logic.

Of course, this wilful ignorance of the hearts of men, which history is so rich with knowledge of, means that they never quite discern the whole truth, but only glimpse it dimly.

So many of the moral philosophers I studied had produced lengthy expositions on how to achieve “equality” in society with no case studies to back up their claims. Though many claimed to be social scientists, none had created experiments to test the validity of their ideas.

Of course, you can argue that not all people need to be so practical, it’s perfectly fine for some to operate purely at the conceptual level. Even in a hard science like Physics, theoretical physicists tend to work exclusively on devising formulae, rather than testing, as their counterparts do in experimental physics.

But the big difference I have noticed between the theorists in social science and those in the physical sciences, is that the latter is prepared to be proved wrong, whereas the former is not.

When the Large Hadron Collider smashed particles together in 2012, many world-renowned theoretical physicists gathered at CERN to see whether their life’s work would be validated or not. They were there to see if they were right.

However, the dismal failure of communism in the twentieth century has still not deterred many ideological thinkers in the social sciences from condemning market forces and advocating Marxist forms of egalitarianism. Though they have been proven not to work over and over again.

What the champions of “logic” seem to forget is that they, like all of us afflicted with the human condition, are prone to wishful thinking.

It is not only the left which is capable of this Canute-like behaviour. It captured many in the neo-conservative movement of the Bush and Blair era.

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

– Donald Rumsfeld, Former United States Secretary of Defense (2002)

In the years since the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, there has been much written about how it all went so wrong. Though coalition forces were welcomed by many pro-democracy supporters in Iraq, and were themselves guided by noble dreams of bringing freedom to the region, they found that implementing these ideals in the sectarian culture of Iraq, which was not entirely hospitable to Jeffersonian notions of democracy, very difficult indeed.

The documentary films No End In Sight (2007) and Losing Iraq (2014) examine in detail how little “The coalition of the willing” understood the factional nature of Iraqi society. This ignorance led to years of violence, insurgency and slaughter in the country.

It only became clear with hindsight how and why a vicious bulwark like Saddam Hussein was able to hold on to power for so long in Iraq. Evading that ugly truth meant over a decade of horror and hardened many hearts.

To some, the Burkean approach to politics and society may seem endlessly pessimistic.

To me, it seems fundamentally positive about human nature and human history. After all, it is a worldview that maintains that these are things worth preserving and paying attention to, rather than a desire to abandon it all in pursuit of some vague “better”.

Featured Image Credit: The Fall of Icarus by Peter Paul Rubens (1636). Source: Wiki Art

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