The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy by Russell Jacoby. Basic Books, [ ] pp., $[ ].
June 1, 1999        

“If you can’t say anything nice,” my mother used to admonish, “don’t say anything at all.” Presumably Russell Jacoby’s mother told him the same thing. (All mothers do.) Fortunately, he disobeyed her and has written some of the most useful, tactless, and entertaining cultural criticism of recent decades. Social Amnesia (1975) traced the Americanization of psychoanalysis, in the course of which it lost sight of how society constrains subjectivity and hence lost its critical edge. Dialectic of Defeat (1981) surveyed the “Western Marxist” tradition of Lukacs, [TK], et al. The Last Intellectuals (1987), his best-known book, deplored the extinction of independent intellectuals, with wide interests and a broad general readership, and their replacement by academics and journalists housed in institutions and writing primarily for peers. Dogmatic Wisdom (1994) blasted both sides in the culture wars – militant multiculturalists and apocalyptic neoconservatives – for “litigating over property lines when the house is on fire”; that is, while liberal education “shatters under the weight of commercialism” and while the “irresistible power of advertising and television” produces a “monoculture of clothes, music, and cars.” Jacoby’s arguments were often original and unfailingly astute, though not always couched in the gentlest, most collegial tones. One finished these books with a heightened appreciation of many intellectuals’ capacity for vapidity, trivialization, and self-importance.

The End of Utopia continues Jacoby’s broadside against contemporary intellectuals, particularly those on the left. Their horizons have shrunk, he charges; explicitly or implicitly, they have acquiesced in the general conviction that “this society is the only possible one.” Critics of the political economy take for granted competition and commodity production, timidly suggesting only minor modifications in the operation of markets. Multiculturalists absurdly equate their demands for increased turf, pelf, and status with a program for radical social transformation. The “idiom of pluralism and rights” bounds the imagination of philosophers. Whether or not the “end of ideology” and the “end of history” correctly describe the world, they all too aptly characterize the left’s worldview.

“Today socialists and leftists do not dream of a future qualitatively different from the present. … Almost everywhere the left contracts, not simply politically but, perhaps more decisively, intellectually. … At best radicals and leftists envision a modified society with bigger pieces of pie for more customers. They turn utilitarian, liberal, and celebratory. The left once dismissed the market as exploitative; it now honors the market as rational and humane. The left once disdained mass culture as exploitative; now it celebrates it as rebellious. The left once honored independent intellectuals as courageous; now it sneers at them as elitist. The left once rejected pluralism as superficial; now it worships it as profound. We are witnessing not simply the defeat of the left but its conversion, and perhaps inversion.”

Much grapeshot follows, trained on an impressively wide range of targets for so short a book: Robert Kuttner’s Everything for Sale, Michael Sandel’s Democracy’s Discontent, Michael Tomasky’s Left for Dead, Ralph Miliband’s Socialism for a Skeptical Age, John Roemer’s A Future for Socialism, Michael Albert’s Thinking Forward, Lawrence Levine’s The Opening of the American Mind, Charles Taylor, Nancy Fraser, Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Jonathan Culler, Tony Judt, Edward Said, Stanley Fish, Clifford Geertz, bell hooks, Social Text, Toffler-style futurism, mass-culture studies, and sundry other persons, texts, and discourses. (There are even a few digs – unfair but amusing – at the ineffably subtle Richard Rorty and the wise and reverend Michael Walzer.) Here, in Jacoby’s mordant asides, is the chief fun and profit of the book. Some comfortably tenured leftists, he remarks, “see themselves as outsiders, blasting the establishment. Like uptown executives cruising around in pricey jeeps and corporate lawyers in luxurious utility trucks, they pose as rugged souls from the back country; they threaten the seats of power as they glide into their reserved parking spots.” The radical program on multiculturalism “might be characterized as jargon attached to an air compressor.” Three bemused paragraphs contemplating a Foucaultian critique of the Santa Cruz municipal anti-discrimination ordinance are a stitch. Like Dwight Macdonald (one of the few intellectuals he admires), Jacoby is important above all as a cultural hygienist, scouring verbal plaque and conceptual decay with his high-powered electric-sarcastic drill.

To deal the Zeitgeist a box on the ear is one thing, however; to account for it is another. What explains the eclipse of utopianism? In a sense, the answer is obvious: utopia lies buried in the rubble of Communism. As Jacoby points out, Cold War thinkers consistently equated utopia with totalitarianism and liberal pluralism with democracy; and they carried the day. There were undoubtedly good counter-arguments: in particular, that Stalinism was not in the least a utopian experiment but was more like Tsarism plus electricity. But arguments are no defense against plausible and politically convenient simplifications. For every pundit, editorialist, and politician in America since roughly World War II, the automatic qualification of “utopia” as impractical and/or dangerous, and probably un-American, saved thought.

Still, one must give the Zeitgeist its due: what most people believe is not invariably false. There is a rational kernel within the shell of anti-utopian prejudice. It is simply this: we all want to see the plans. And there are no plans. A century or more of resonant but empty slogans urging revolution, liberation, the abolition of money, the end of scarcity, a world without work (or conflict or hierarchy or alienation or authority or force) have at last produced widespread skepticism about all fundamental criticism and exalted aspiration.

Utopian slogans have worked much mischief. (Jacoby himself is not wholly innocent: scoffing at mundane social-democratic talk about full employment and retraining the workforce, he reminds us loftily that “once upon a time leftists and radicals talked of liberation and the abolition of work.” So they did; but what, if anything, did they mean by it?) The remedy is not to give up on utopia but to stop sloganizing. To begin with, what does “utopia” mean? Jacoby, like the “negative thinkers” of the Frankfurt School, whom he quotes approvingly, is not generous with specifics, apparently as a matter of principle. But he does offer a helpful definition. The core utopian conviction is “that the future could fundamentally surpass the present … that the future texture of life, work, and even love might little resemble that now familiar to us … that history contains possibilities of freedom and pleasure hardly tapped.”

Utopia, then, is in the future. Why is this worth emphasizing? Revolutionists and abolitionists, utopia’s false friends, insist that it can be constructed out of present materials through a heroic act of will. This is to underestimate recklessly the depth and subtlety of the necessary changes and the intricacy and inertia of every moral culture. Utopia is impossible unless, among an overwhelming majority, solidarity and trust are nearly instinctive; responsibility, self-reliance, initiative, honesty, and other civic virtues are practiced much more widely than now; and democratic habits of self-confidence, candor, and tact are far better developed. Channels of communication and public information are as yet rudimentary. And let’s not forget rhetorical skills like wit, fluency, and concision: without a vast improvement in the general level of these, attendance at all the necessary meetings on the way to utopia will result in an epidemic of premature brain death. With all these moral and psychological changes in place, we can make a start on the technical problem – no less complex, probably – of reconciling equity and efficiency in production and distribution.

Obviously such drastic and intimate changes, on the requisite scale, without undemocratic coercion or divine intervention, cannot be accomplished in a generation, or probably even in a few generations. Carrying off a general strike may be a fine thing, but creating a new moral ecology is an infinitely more difficult and valuable thing. In the Fabian Essays, defending gradualism against the revolutionists and abolitionists of his day, Shaw wrote: “The right is so clear, the wrong so intolerable, the gospel so convincing, that it seems to them that it must be possible to enlist the whole body of workers – soldiers, policemen, and all – under the banner of brotherhood and equality; and at one great stroke to set Justice on her rightful throne. Unfortunately, such an army of light is no more to be gathered from the human product of nineteenth century civilization than grapes are to be gathered from thistles.” Ditto for the human product of twentieth-century civilization. And even an army of light won’t be enough, if a majority or a substantial majority remain benighted. The whole society, more or less, must see the light, or it isn’t utopia.

The foregoing would be a counsel of despair if the human race were only going to last for a few generations. But utopia’s enemies must, if they’re logical, deny that such changes are possible in any number of generations; must assert, in essence, that humankind has already attained its farthest point of moral development and that our present level of social virtue cannot be substantially improved on in saecula saeculorum. This is even more implausible than revolutionism. The wisdom and generosity of the corporate boardroom and the Wall Street Journal editorial page may be the best we can do in 1999. But by 2500? Surely it’s more likely that we’ll all be as gods by then than that we won’t have evolved beyond Robert Bartley and Steve Forbes. Today half the human race has no sanitation, one-fourth has no clean water, one-fifth no adequate housing, and one-sixth no basic health services, while the amount Americans and Europeans spend annually on pet food, cosmetics, and ice cream would supply all those necessities, plus basic education, to everyone in the world who lacks them, with a great deal left over. Do anti-utopians really believe that this vile state of affairs, or its moral equivalent, will persist until 2500 and beyond? It’s too fantastic.

Moral progress is not inevitable, but it is not impossible. It is slow, painful, and uncertain; this is another way of putting the tragic view of life. That view is noble and true, but it is not the same as the lazy, self-serving assumption that things can never be radically better and so there’s no point racking one’s brains to come up with any possible steps in that direction.

What steps, then? Here I have some differences with Jacoby. He thinks modest reform schemes like Kuttner’s and Roemer’s – involving corporate tax incentives, citizen “policy juries,” coupons, and the like – are part of the problem and warms instead to the turgid deliverances of Bloch and Marcuse and the inspired rant of Fourier. I think there’s no harm in the latter but find the former more useful by a long shot. Kuttner, Roemer, Alec Nove, et al leave you feeling that they understand capitalism every bit as rigorously as its defenders – see the point of it, so to speak – yet are convinced it’s a long way from the best that can be had, even if they can’t quite articulate that “best.” Suitably modest but sufficiently roused: this seems the right frame of mind just now for 25th-century utopianism.

I think, too, that a return to metaphysics, which Jacoby seems to favor, is not a step in the right direction. He finds in Rousseau, Whitehead, Marcuse, and other thinkers a “logic of negativity,” according to which oppressive empirical reality is denied and transcended by liberating metaphysical ur-reality. “Metaphysical universals inhere in the world, but transcend it,” he explains. “An individual event may be ‘untrue’ in that it is contradicted by reality, but this untruth expresses its achievement or different truth, its basis in metaphysical principles.” Hmm. Jacoby and his postmodern, anti-metaphysical antagonists seem to be making symmetrical arguments. His syllogism runs: “Only metaphysical principles can generate utopian ideals; utopian ideals are indispensable; ergo, metaphysical principles are valid.” Their syllogism runs: “Only metaphysical principles can generate utopian ideals; metaphysical principles are otiose; ergo, utopian ideals are a fraud.” But the shared major premise is wrong. Utopian ideals are indeed indispensable, but metaphysical principles are indeed otiose, and this is possible because the ideals don’t depend on the principles. Ideals are not propositions; they are expressions of what the eighteenth century called “sympathy” or “benevolence” and what we may simply call moral imagination. The capacity to envision a more decent world is like the capacity to imagine beautiful forms. Both require a native endowment of sensibility, moral or aesthetic, cultivated by training and experience and not choked off by pressing personal burdens or insecurities. Bugger “metaphysical principles.” Besides, the historical evidence is mostly the other way. Priestley and Diderot, Hazlitt and Shelley, Mill and Morris, Shaw and Wells, Russell and Dewey were all metaphysical skeptics and utopian radicals. Were they all merely confused?

One of my favorite utopians is Matthew Arnold, to whom Jacoby devotes several eye-opening pages. Though hijacked by conservatives, Arnold belongs in the pantheon of the left. He championed high culture: nearly everyone knows that, and that is all nearly everyone knows. But he was also, consistently and emphatically, an egalitarian. He thought the most important thing in life was the free development of one’s highest faculties, to which everyone had a right; that this was only possible in a society without gross material and educational inequality; and that the best way to correct such inequality was democratic state action. His defense of tradition was not in the least anti-democtatic; on the contrary.

Arnold kept his distance from contemporary politics. He called himself a “Liberal of the future.” It was essential, he believed, to keep alive a sense of large and distant possibilities and to leaven the quotidian with it. A gracious life, a life of “sweetness and light,” with ready access to “the best that has been thought and said in the world” and the resources and leisure to assimilate it: no society could be considered just in which all this was not universally available. The “secret of the life of the future,” he wrote, is “civilization made pervasive and general.” But that will require much slow effort, as he reminded radicals, and a lot of money, as he warned conservatives.

Arnold’s “Liberalism of the future” seems to me the very pattern of an intelligent utopianism. If alive today he would, I have no doubt, sympathize with single-payer universal health care and a rise in the minimum wage and deprecate a reduced capital-gains tax and across-the-board deregulation. But mainly, he would gently insist that this society is not “the only possible one.” To cowed leftists and smug rightists he would repeat, in the name of the best that has been thought and said in the world, that “the ideal life is, in sober and practical truth, none other than man’s normal life, as we shall one day know it.”