Sunday, March 13, 2005

The Jaded Utopianist

In "The last of the utopian projects," Eric Hobsbawm asks
Did perestroika herald "the end of history"? The collapse of the experiment initiated by the October Revolution is certainly the end of a history. That experiment will not be repeated, although the hope it represented, at least initially, will remain a permanent part of human aspirations. And the enormous social injustice which gave communism its historic force in the last century is not diminishing in this one. But was it "the end of history" as Francis Fukuyama proclaimed in 1989, in a phrase that he no doubt regrets?
The answer is, of course, "NO", it was not the end of History. And though many have misunderstood Fukuyama's main thesis, Hobsbawm clearly doesn't when, after a paragraph summarizing (yet again) the U.S. drive for world empire, he continues:
Even more questionable is the wider - almost quasi-Hegelian - sense of Fukuyama's phrase. It implies that history has an end, namely a world capitalist economy developing without limits, married to societies ruled by liberal-democratic institutions. There is no historic justification for teleology, whether non-Marxist or Marxist, and certainly none for believing in unilinear and uniform worldwide development.

Both evolutionary science and the experiences of the 20th century have taught us that evolution has no direction that allows us concrete predictions about its future social, cultural and political consequences.

The belief that the US or the European Union, in their various forms, have achieved a mode of government which, however desirable, is destined to conquer the world, and is not subject to historic transformation and impermanence, is the last of the utopian projects so characteristic of the last century. What the 21st needs is both social hope and historical realism.
It is interesting that one who was so wedded to his own utopian ideal (Communism), now dispenses with the possibility that any other set of ideals can be approached. As for myself, I don't believe that any set of "utopian ideals" can ever be attained either, but Hobsbawm has the tone of one who, after seeing his own worldview dismantled, has resolved to dismantle that of others by essentially saying they are wasting their time in the effort. In short, Hobsbawm assumes that because he and his fellow Communists wrongly believed that their socio-political model would prove everlasting, proponents of other socio-political arrangements will "repeat history" and the results will be similar failure. While it's nice to see that he now believes in some degree of "historical realism," (basing it, it seems, on "evolutionary history", which is in and of itself an interesting theory) he misses the mark in trying to peg those who believe in "a world capitalist economy developing without limits, married to societies ruled by liberal-democratic institutions" as being utopianists. According to my albeit amature understanding, once a society reaches Utopia, its citizenry believes that it can go on autopilot and that no tweaking needs to be done. As such, vigilance is lost. In the case of Communism, even when the ideals on which it was based were bastardized and undercut, the Communist idealist failed or wouldn't see the problem and sought to paper over the cracks in the system. With no means to fix the system, it became unworkable.

However, Hobsbawm's warning is worth heeding because it is true that no system that is perfect in theory is perfect in application, but his cynical assumptions don't undercut the "theory of liberty" on this point for two reasons. One is that liberal democracies don't assume they are perfect for everyone within the society and are forever being changed and modified to meet practical problems with pragmatic solutions that are often at odds with ideals previously espoused by that society. The second is related to the first. Liberal democracies are generally aware that they must always be on guard against threats to liberty from power (to borrow from Bernard Bailyn and his example of the radical Whig commonwealthmen). As such, vigilance is at the very core of the system. So long as citizens maintain this vigilance and make sure that they can continue to take action against encroaching power, liberal democracies will succeed.

No comments: