Utopian exceptionalism, a danger to democracy, is back in fashion

by Brett Bourbon

Oppression is something terrible and we must strive to create a more just society, but that does not mean that we should organise our political thinking around imagined utopias, because the ideal of a world without power and without conflict, mixed with inquisitorial moralism and political exceptionalism, aggravates problems rather than resolving them. This is explained by Professor Brett Bourbon, of the University of Dallas, exclusively for Oikos, of whose scientific committee he is a member. We publish his article in both English and Italian.

We are striving, hierarchical animals — to think otherwise is to live in a dangerous delusive fantasy, what John Gray calls “the Enlightenment ideal of a world without power or conflict.” Despite this, however, the fantasy of utopia is back in fashion. For some, politics should just be the accomplishment of perpetual peace: of a world without conflict or difference. Other philosophers are less optimistic.  But they still imagine that even if utopia is impossible, it is useful to imagine ideal possibilities towards which we can strive. We might not be able to achieve heaven on earth, but the idea of heaven helps us make the world better. I think otherwise. Oppression is, of course, awful and we should strive to create a more just society, but from that it does not follow that we should organize our political thinking around imagined utopias. In particular, the ideal of “a world without power or conflict” exacerbates the problems it is meant to dissolve.

Behind the idea that we can create a community and society in which power and conflict are absent often lies an attitude of moral righteousness, an ideal of politics dissolved into morality, determining the social order. This ideal of politics informs what Milan Kundera calls “the age of the prosecutors” (Encounter, 21). These prosecutors act out of self-righteous indignation. Their motto is something like: ‘How dare anyone disagree with me!  I will cast the first and last stone!’ Denunciations abound. Human beings are always prone to such self-serving displays, but certain historical situations bring this tone to the fore.

Milan Kundera (born in 1929), Czech writer, poet, essayist and playwright, naturalized French, best known for his novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” (1982).

The reformation and counter-reformation, for example, inspired such self-righteous politics, best exemplified for some by the Spanish Inquisition and for others by Massachusetts Puritans. ‘Because the unrighteous are so very corrupt, they must be converted, punished, or banished. If only the confused were unconfused, then the use of power against them in order to convert, punish, or banish would not be necessary.’ This is akin to Lenin’s strategy of calling any opposition to Bolshevik policies counter-revolutionary. In such regimes of righteousness, power is an expedient, a mere tool of the morally good, who are shocked anyway that others do not see the righteous path. What counts as the good, of course, is obvious to the initiated, and only idiots or those who are evilly disposed would disagree. ‘Moral corruption requires correction,’ the righteous say. ‘It is unfortunate, but necessary. In the future world of the righteous, power will be unnecessary. But now it is demanded and required. At some point utopia will be at hand; flowers will bloom, peace will reign.

Lenin (1870-1924), pseudonym of Vladimir Il’ič Ul’janov, Russian revolutionary, politician and political scientist, later Soviet.

This peaceable kingdom is denied to us only because of them—the unrighteous. They must be castigated, if their shaming through social media fails, then they must be legislated against, prevented from speaking, bullied into submission, their lives destroyed. Innocentiae nihil probat.

As one can see, this way of understanding power and morality is not simply an ideology or a set of ideas, but it constitutes an ethic, a way of living and valuing people and actions. In such an ethic, politics becomes a form of moral display and policing. Democracy—the adjudication of conflict amongst a diverse set of people living together in a community founded on freedom, equality of opportunity, and law— becomes difficult to sustain (if not ultimately impossible).  Some will say: ‘We need not worry about that, because we are pursuing the causes of social justice or of national justice, or of some kind of justice, at least.’ But such exceptionalism is always dangerous and misses the point of democratic government. Inside the fantasies of utopia there exists an engine of bad faith, an incoherence of beliefs about the realities of power and the limits of morality. The engine itself is fueled by an attitude towards power. 

Exceptionalism is always dangerous and misses the point of democratic government.

This attitude can be described as the Manichean belief that power and ethics are radically disjunct, and that power is coercive and evil.  If power is understood as a mere means to enact a moral vision, and especially if it is understood to be evil, then power has been profoundly misconceived.  This is ironic, of course. When power is cast as opposed to morality, it can then be used to enforce morality. Power is cast as a mere servant only when it is first separated out of human life as corrupt and dispensable, and then reattached to human endeavors as a tool. This is a mistake. The schematization of power as evil, in the belief that what is morally good once established will no longer require or foster power, does not lead to utopia, but to political and moral catastrophe. Imagining such a utopia, misdirects the project of politics, as it did for Plato. If you imagine a world free of power you must first, by means of power, remake the minds and souls of individual people. This is not only a form of oppression and bound to fail, it distracts us from the making and nurturing of a democratic community of diverse people, none of whom need be saints.

The English version of this article is available at the following link