Conservatism and Utopia – A Strange Relationship | Jake Scott
Utopia is an odd one for conservatives. I remember, when I was in my second year of undergraduate study, my political theory tutor claimed that all political philosophies have a utopia, to which I replied that conservatism does not because of its ontological foundations in humans as a flawed being. He insisted that a conservative utopia would be one in which nothing changed – though the irony seemed lost on him that, by definition, utopia does not need to change.
Conservatives, in resisting utopianism, usually claim two fundamental arguments: the first, as I say above, is that human beings are fundamentally flawed. The substantive reasons for this are numerous: some claim a Christian basis in The Fall and man’s Original Sin; others are more Aristotelian, and suggest that the inability of man to create a perfect thing is indicative of his imperfect nature (like creates like); and still more are committed to a form of value-pluralism that denies any possibility of perfection on the grounds that all people differ in their perspective on perfection.
Regardless of the basis, the conclusion is the same: utopia is beyond the reaches of Mankind because imperfect beings cannot create perfect things. Again, the reasons differ, such as the epistemic limits (we don’t even know what perfect is), but the result for political utopianism is that no system could lead in the direction of human perfectibility, a necessary condition for the utopian dream.
The second reason conservatives resist utopian impulses is because of that fundamentally unchanging nature of utopia. It is here conservatives reach back to Edmund Burke, and his observation that a constitution without the means of change is without the means of conservation. Burke’s claim is deeply related to his organicism, as the only body in which nothing changes is one that is deceased. Instead, the conservative leans on Burke’s observation that a body capable of change is never old nor young but permanently rejuvenated.
These two principles taken together are usually used to justify limits to change, at least in a political sense, because the desire to freeze time in one moment is to destroy that capacity for change and hence rejuvenation that Burke believed was crucial to the continued existence of the body politic. But the concept of the body politic has declined in favour of the proceduralist liberalism that Michael Sandel diagnosed in Democracy’s Discontent, a vision of a political order as being composed entirely of autonomous individuals, and so the anti-utopian impulse has instead sought its foundations in the anti-collectivist value-pluralism I noted above.
There are issues, however, with anti-utopianism, not least in its own paralysis. G.K. Chesterton ridiculed traditionalists as admiring the ruins of Progressivists, the same admiration that resulted in the ‘management of decline’ attitude the post-War conservatives adopted in the 1960s and 1970s. What I hope to do here is offer a justification of why conservatives need to abandon anti-utopianism, even if retaining that pessimism that Roger Scruton valued.
First, though, a warning on the origins of political utopianism. The philosophical literary origins of utopianism can typically be traced back to Thomas More’s Utopia, the modern etymological roots of the word, in which he depicted an island nation with no private property and practically absent social mores. Utopia was, however, a satirical commentary on the sanctification of pleasure above discipline, and the social atomism that accompanied such a pleasurable existence. In many ways, Utopia preceded Brave New World.
The utopian impulse, however, took on new life with the Enlightenment hope of universal and rationalisable rules capable of uniting Mankind in a single knowledge system. On the back of the philosophical developments of the Enlightenment was the emergence of a new political radicalism that questioned the imperfectability of Man, and instead considered how the political structures of the new world could be used to overcome these inherent imperfections. Spurred on by scientists such as Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, an early biological evolutionist, and the philosophes such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, political utopianism settled on the view that, not only was Man malleable, but the guiding principles of a sort of rationalised anthropology could remake Man through a new political system.
The earliest utopian socialist was Charles Fourier who, he claimed, had discovered through rational observation the mathematical principles for the perfect society. His phalanstere, the perfect colony, would have exactly 1,620 people, of varied social classes, housed in a purpose-built construct out in the countryside.
Marx would attack utopian socialism in The Communist Manifesto, claiming it constructed crystal castles in the sky, but also realised the utopian socialists did not live in a material setting conducive to proletarian revolution, and so ‘they therefore search after a new social science, after social laws, that are to create these conditions’. Marx’s own commitment to a form of utopianism, however, shows the inevitable impulse within reformist movements, especially those that believe they have discovered ‘laws of history’, social, material or otherwise.
It is here we need to remember Scruton’s warning against political optimism. It is not that we should live without hope, Scruton warned, but that we must always retain a degree of pessimism that recognises the fundamental limits to utopianism, and on the implications of that utopianism. One problem with utopianism, for me, has always been its timelessness: not just in the unchanging nature of utopia that I spell out above, but in that the rationalised utopias of the Marxists or socialists are derived from ‘fundamental laws of history’ which, if interpreted correctly, reveals a telos, an end-state capable of judging the validity of the politics of the current day. It is part of the reason you often hear reformers argue that a practice can be outdated, or that reforms should be implemented because it’s 2021, or whenever they are arguing from.
The result of this teleological view of history is, quite simply, if we know where we are going anyway, why not accelerate the process? It was this thinking that satisfied the socialists of the early-20th century into thinking that the convulses of imperialism were necessary in the movement to a capitalist system, which would in turn be the catalyst for the movement to a socialist system. But more radical, impatient utopians believe they have a duty derived from this telos to accelerate the process themselves, and act as the agent of that acceleration; some of the early Russian socialists, Pytor Tkachev for instance, thought they could skip the bourgeois revolution entirely and introduce the dictatorship of the proletariat immediately. What is most disturbing about this impatient utopianism, is the implication that whoever stands in the way of achieving the utopia can be swept away – they are judged to be unfit for the utopia by their inability to value it, anyway.
Here we can see the value of pessimism, in reminding us of the danger of impatient utopianism, derived from the internal logic of utopianism itself.
However, the conservative, or, as Chesterton labelled us, the traditionalist can often use this pessimism as an excuse for inaction – or, as the reverse of the dictum goes, we end up worshipping the ashes instead of preserving the fire. It is worth quoting at-length part of Chesterton’s ‘The Blunder of Our Parties’ from 1924:
If Bolshevism were to blow up the whole City with dynamite, hurling the cross of St. Paul across the Thames and sending the Monument flying beyond the hills of Highgate, it would then become the duty of the respectable Conservative to conserve these fragments in the precise places where they had fallen, and to resist any revolutionary attempt to put them back in their proper place.
As a result of this biting critique, Tamás Nyirkos has posed the question, ‘whether it is possible to be meaningfully conservative without an at least blurry image of what the future – maybe not an ideal future, but at least a bearable one – should be like?’
This is part of the reason I was so impressed by the Mallard’s new editor, Sam Martin, introducing the Utopia Project. Conservatives often shy away from the questions of the future, and as a result they let their opponents dictate the terms of debate – or more accurately, they refuse to debate entirely. But the conservative, as Chesterton indicates, has a vision of the world beyond merely keeping what is there: the phrase, ‘their proper place’, should indicate to us that we do believe in a correct order in the world, and we should not be ashamed to think so. I sincerely encourage as many conservatives as possible to seriously reflect on their vision of the future.