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By Peter Swirski


The Montréal Review, January 2019


"American Utopia: Literature, Society, and the Human Use of Human Beings" by Peter Swirski (Routledge, 2019, pp.256)


            There are two pathways to utopia, and by extension to eutopia—a better rather than a perfect place. The first one is commonplace, having been pursued in every society since the dawn of society, and its principles are as simple as rain. We try to engineer behaviour by tweaking the rules that govern behaviour in society: constitutions, laws, contracts, regulations, norms of conduct, school curricula, and the like.

            Social engineering can be strikingly successful, as it had to be for us to have collectively made it thus far. There are limits, however, to what all such noninvasive interventions can accomplish. This is because, as I was at pains to show in American Utopia and Social Engineering (2011), noninvasive techniques work only to the extent that they don’t interfere with the basic biology underlying the human lifecycle.

            Human nature is enormously pliable as testified by the remarkable variety of cultures and behaviours it nurtures around the globe. But it is not infinitely so. At the bottom of all societies lie structural similarities in the form of biological restrains on flexibility of behaviour. Try to overstep these restrains and nature will push back—and hard.

            For example, in the twentieth century communist states from the Soviet Union to Maoist China tried to do away with family bonds. Those were to be replaced by loyalty and love for the state. Yet, as soon as the ideological soap-bubble had burst, the decades-long indoctrination proved skin deep. People turned out to be less like the infinitely malleable putty that totalitarian architects insisted they were and more like roly-poly dolls, returning to the default state when the force acting on them eased.

            However, social reformers who like to see a quicker return on their investments have a less roundabout path to utopia. Instead of working with social rules and laws, you can cut to the chase and engineer the desired type of social behaviour by engineering the desired type of social being. In stark contrast to socio-engineering, bioengineering is anything but slow, superficial, and reversible. Cut and paste a few genes and in one swoop you could get all the prosociality you want.

            Ultramodern as it sounds, the instrumental path to behaviour modification is not without antecedents, from twentieth-century lobotomy to medieval trepanation. So is its chamber-of-horrors iconography, straight from Bosch’s The Extraction of the Stone of Madness. Naturally, going inside people’s heads and flipping neural switches is not for the weak-hearted among social reformers. This very directness, on the other hand, is what makes opportunistic politicians and utopian prophets salivate at the thought.

            Without any pomp or fanfare we have already plunged into the murky waters of engineering people for society rather than the other way round. In 2016 American Biosafety and Ethics panel gave unanimous thumbs up to gene editing in humans. In an eerie twist, the research is administered by the University of Pennsylvania where in 1999 a gene-therapy project got axed after a patient died and the chief scientist was exposed to have had a financial stake in the trials.

            Like it or not, our technologically turbo-charged civilization is vaulting over somatic barriers and ethical taboos every day. The question is no longer if but when designer genes will become as acceptable and affordable as Calvin Klein’s. And that brings us back to engineering utopia in a world awash with blood, pain, and tears on every page of every history book. Which path should we take: social engineering or bioengineering? Should we modify the way we live or the way we are?

            Of course, this seemingly clearcut dichotomy isn’t. Laws and norms control social behaviour, ideally to the point where they become internalized and no longer needed. Remove the proscriptions and prescriptions and individuals should act as if they were still in place. In utopia you could remove speed limits and radar traps—and publicize it to the motorists—and they would keep the foot off the gas. Better yet, they would never be tempted.

            Conversely, modifications of human nature presuppose changes in laws and statutes, which at that point become obsolete. People engineered not to speed, be it through biogenetic, surgical, or pharmacological means, no longer need speed limits. Wife beaters, homicidal maniacs, or suicide bombers engineered out of violence and rage do not need restraining orders or criminal codes. Generals and politicians who cannot conceive of wars, will not fight them. One utopian hand washes the other.

Modifying People Like Monsanto Corn

            What makes social engineering socially acceptable is that, unlike bioengineering, it is not invasive, one-hundred percent efficient, or irreversible. This is because, instead of poking inside our heads, planners rely on suasion, often in the form of economic incentives or behavioural nudges. Reframing our choice architecture, they promote better choices. Bioengineering, on the other hand, frightens precisely because it is—in principle at least—perfectly effective.

            Whether by means of genetic modification, surgery, nanobots, or molecular-level drugs, bioengineering has the potential to implement utopian imperatives from the inside. Both the allure and the dread of engineering behaviour through invasive means stem from modifying parts of our biological makeup. Instead of a protracted social process, one procedure could remake terrorists, child rapists, and freeloaders into models of civic virtue.

            Both paths to utopia—social engineering and bioengineering—come in two varieties: suasive and coercive. Noncoercive conditioning relies on algedonic control (pleasure-pain principle) to induce people to submit to the social regime. Education, propaganda, and other types of indoctrination also aim to effect compliance without coercion. In contrast, coercive measures are premised on making us do things against our will in the name of higher good.

            Coercion runs the gamut from implicit threats to explicit penalties to the use of force. Despite the bad rap, coercive techniques don’t necessarily involve a fascist boot stamping on a human face. Any form of negative reinforcement or punishment (they are not the same) is a type of coercion. So is normative legislation, which forges compliance everywhere on our planet. The reason we don’t regard it as such—until it takes a particularly repressive form—is because it wards off dog-eat-dog anarchy.

            Be that as it may, from direct democracies to autocracies, laws are backed up by penalties ranging from fines to incarceration or worse. To the extent that these penalties must be credible, the rule of law falls in line with military or paramilitary repression. And yet, the distinction between coercive and noncoercive techniques is crucial. Policies decried as strong-arming become palatable when internalized via education, cultural immersion, propaganda, and similar soft sells.

            The difference is especially striking when it comes to bioengineering. Who in his right mind would consent to somatic or genetic engineering in the name of living in utopia? Voluntary indoctrination, on the other hand, is the cornerstone of modern democracies and an essential part of social engineers’ toolbox. The same people who will resist a communist diktat will follow the communard piper to hell.

            If invasive techniques smack of authoritarianism, it is because they often are. Look no further than the twentieth-century mass sterilizations imposed in the name of eugenic control in the ostensibly democratic United States, India, and many other countries. But invasive methods need not be coercive, let alone harmful. Some, like vaccination campaigns, rely mostly on education and persuasion. And although they modify our biology (via the immune system), entire populations opt in precisely for that reason.

            Ailing patients sign on to all manner of invasive procedures in the hope of upgrading their quality of life. For all the deep-rooted mistrust about messing with our heads, the precedent is clear. Make the price right and watch shoppers line up. But what about bioengineering scaled up to planetary dimensions? Would we opt into a utopian program of, say, genetically neutering our appetite for aggression and violence? Or would we balk at the risk of becoming puppets in the hands of hinky bioengineers and their paymasters?

            The same technology that terrifies with the prospect of modifying people like Monsanto corn opens the door, however, to a future that seems to sidestep the peril of unethical overlords. Instead of retrofitting ourselves, we could bioengineer a new species of utopians. Although fraught with its own hazards, it evades many of those attendant on modifying ourselves. Adam and Eve were glorious creations, not genetic mutants. God was a life giver, not an evil geneticist.

            At the end of the day, the path to utopia bound to provoke the least outcry will be noncoercive and noninvasive. Propaganda and education are acceptable, after all, because they only facilitate the internalization of social ethos. No penalties, no riot police, no armed brigades—just rational suasion, positive reinforcement, and social boosterism. A rave new world, indeed.

A Whopper to Pay

            Another way to frame the issue is to say that the relation between utopia and human nature comes in two flavours. The optimistic variety is evident in Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888). Julian West, an upper-crust Bostonian, awakens in the year 2000 after sleeping for a century-plus. “Human nature itself must have changed very much,” he marvels at the marvellous future. “Not at all,” counters his host. “But the conditions of human life have changed, and with them the motives of human action”.

            This is about as believable as the premise of the hero resting for a century in a mesmeric trance without food, drink, or the need to use a toilet. Bellamy, and with him the utopian tradition from Plato on, puts the cart in front of the horse. We are asked to believe that a radical change in social order can instigate a radical change in human nature. Socialize the economy and watch enmity, egoism, and evil melt away. No blowback from missteps. No pushback from malcontents. No setbacks of any kind.

            If the long and rich history of experimental communities in America proves anything, it is that separating sociology from biology is like trying to separate minds from brains. Where the utopian communities were to be the wellsprings of altruism, they bred egoism instead. Where they were to be paradigms of rationality, they were seething cauldrons of factionalism and dissention. Where they were to be paragons of careful planning, most were textbook cases of sloppy or arbitrary management.

            This alone ought to drive home the point that the biology of the horse is as paramount as the design of the cart. There is also the question of why utopia ought to arise in the first place. Bellamy downplays this chicken-and-egg dilemma, stating that virtuous laws will produce virtuous conduct. Never mind how to settle what is just and virtuous from one person to another. In his utopian calculus, social reform precedes prosocial conduct.

            But why should an unvirtuous society remake itself into a utopia in the first place? What bootstrapping mechanism could produce the wherewithal to enact and enforce policies that cure evil, vice, and greed? Conversely, if the society in question was virtuous enough to enact and abide by utopian reforms, how did it get to be so virtuous before the utopian makeover? It would appear that any community capable of transforming itself into a utopia might already be utopian in all by name.

            After all, as soon as the utopian project swelled in popularity and followers, it would become a mortal threat to the establishment. Faced with losing social control and vested privileges, would the powers-that-be sit by and let themselves become the powers-that-were? Or would they rather, as history bears vivid witness, use all means at their disposal to crush the communards, no doubt branded communists by then?

            Suppose that, against all odds, these colossal socioeconomic dislocations did succeed in precipitating a new order. How would utopians deal with the elites who, having just lost their status and power, are unlikely to roll over for the new regime? Would they need to be culled from the herd in the name of concord and harmony? The best that can be said about such an Iron Heel scenario is that a blood-splattered reign of terror would not bode well for universal liberty, equality, and fraternity.

            Ditching all such deus ex machina storylines, the more cynical—or realistic—view of human nature holds that it must be modified before any utopia can succeed. Murderous and invidious, even if given to collaboration and even sporadic altruism, humankind is, after all, hardly a promising candidate for utopia. The point here is the form and extent of the modifications. Human nature has evolved holistically and to think that you can cherry-pick biology is an illusion. Evolution is not a K-Mart where you stroll down the aisle and select what you like. And there is usually a whopper to pay.


            Among ancient Greeks, Plato was the first known philosopher to seriously play with blueprints for an ideal state. Strictly speaking, of course, his social models dispersed over Republic, Critias, Timaeos, Laws, and less well-known treatises and dialogues were not utopias but uchronias. Instead of being located in a geographical no-place, they were removed into a mythical past.

            Plato idealized the past, cutting and pasting the idea of a mythical golden age from a fellow Hellene, Hesiod. In his epic poem of rural life Works and Days, Hesiod moralized on the decline of the historical ages of Man—from golden in the mythical yesteryear, through the progressively shabbier silver and bronze, down to iron in the present. Then as now, golden oldies came tinged with nostalgia for lost innocence.

            In a nod to Hesiod, in Republic Plato also colour-coded his utopian citizenry gold, silver, and bronze. At the top sat the philosopher kings, whose principal virtue were justice and wisdom. Below them served the guardians (administrators, military brass, public servants), who embodied the virtues of courage and devotion. The last and least on the social ladder were the plebes, whose dominant traits, according to Plato, were restraint and obedience.

            Plato was not the first to disparage the Athenian electorate as feeble-minded and fickle, easily preyed on by demagogues. But his censures and the corresponding nod to the elites earned him more rebuttals than most. In 1959 a couple of Harvard sociologists took Plato to task in their notorious Power and Morality: Who Shall Guard the Guardians? Their verdict could not be harsher. Political ruling classes, they concluded, are consistently more criminal, sub-moral, and mentally deranged than the ruled. And that was before Nixon and Trump.

            The crucial question is which way the causality flows. Do degenerates covet power because they are degenerates? Or do they, as Lord Acton would have it, become unhinged by the power they come to brandish? Though still debated, empirical evidence appears to favour the former view. At the end of the day, of course, the apparent disjunction may only be anything but. As in Orwell’s Animal Farm, utopian revolt might only bring out the worst in pigs already hell-bent on getting their snouts in the common trough.

            Its fascist elements aside, Plato’s utopia continues to matter today because it bequeathed to the Western societies the ideal of a just and equitable society. Echoed by utopian scholars like Chad Walsh, philosopher Alfred North Whitehead went so far as to proclaim that Western philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato. The ideal of just society ruled by a morally upright elite has proved so seductive that we have not stopped wrangling over it since.

            Much of this enduring fascination with Plato has to do with his solutions. Plato advocates tough eugenic controls for maintaining both population stability and social hierarchy. He distinguishes authentic human needs (few) from the endless list of wants, especially for consumer goods and trappings of status. Most of all, he puts the community above the individual so that each human ant is valuable only as part of the hill.

            Some of his key teachings, such as the condemnation of luxury, come in the form of the famous parable about Atlantis. Corroded by wars and moral decadence, he warns, Athens is on the same downward trajectory as the mythical city wiped out in a cataclysm of poetic justice. Unwittingly, the threat of corruption, evident already in the universal slide from the golden to the iron age, casts a deep dark shadow over Plato’s guardians, who are really his focus.

            Plato is contemptuous of democracy, which he equates with mob rule. Even though he allows that all citizens—meaning Athens-born non-slave males—have the potential to grow into philosophers, he backpedals that only some are up to the job. Democracy and meritocracy are, of course, mutually exclusive. Either you invite everyone to join the club or only those who are deserving. Trying to embrace both, Plato tries to square the social circle.

            The problem rears up at every level of social hierarchy, utopian or not. Take modern colleges. Democracy would enrol everyone regardless of ability, race, or age. After all, college graduates live longer, earn higher, and add greater value to society. Except that colleges could not accommodate these numbers, society could not spare them, and most people would not want to stay in the classroom well into their adulthood, even if they were predisposed for advanced-level brainwork, which most are not.

            But if you do not enrol everyone, who gets in? Presumably those who merit it. This, however, hangs a question mark over affirmative action, which democratizes education by giving merit points to minorities for being minorities and, in the process, robs non-minorities of their scholastically merited spots. Democracy, in short, is a fine thing. So is meritocracy. But even in utopia they don’t see eye to eye.

The Island of Dr. More

            The most famous utopia in history, not least because it gave the name to the whole genre, is Thomas More’s. First published in Louvain in 1516, Utopia consists of two books. The first, devoted for the most part to More’s England, was actually written second. The second, narrated by that intrepid wayfarer Raphael Hythlodaeus, details the social and economic arrangements of the island of Utopia.

            And so, Book II begins with a sketch of the island’s geography and topography. The minimum distance between towns in Utopia, we learn at the outset, is twenty-four miles. We also learn from the very next sentence that each town’s territory extends for at least twenty miles in every direction. Have you been paying attention? Together, the two propositions are logically and physically impossible.

            Proposition one entails that there are towns in Utopia that are only twenty-four miles apart. Proposition two entails that the closest distance between any two towns is forty miles. Put the two together and you have a blatant contradiction. And from a logical contradiction anything follows: that kumquats vote Republican, that Martians do not live on Mars, and that More’s utopia is not a prime example of a logical fallacy.

            The only thing more disconcerting than the gaffe at the heart of one of the foundational books of the Western culture is the silence about it among libraries of learned commentary. Could it be that generations of readers of Utopia missed an error of this calibre? Perhaps, insofar as generations of readers of Bellamy, Hertzka, Howell, or Skinner, who founded utopian communities in the belief that the novels delivered workable blueprints for the best of all societies, prove that literary utopias can seriously cloud their readers’ judgment.

            Ironically, it was in the wake of More’s satire that the term he coined came to represent an ideal—as opposed to unreal—society. Biographical and textual evidence suggests, however, that Utopia is not necessarily a straight-faced model of ideal polity. Playful and puckish even when he is moralizing, the narrator may flay life on the British Isles under the pretense of visiting the make-believe Island of Dr. More, but his goal is as much to entertain as to enlighten.

            As a Christian humanist, More was keen to banish from utopia the antisocial effects of the seven deadly sins. Unfortunately for his and other reformist programs, status seeking, greed, lust, envy, overeating, proclivity for violence, and freeriding are all too deeply rooted in evolution to be deracinated at a stroke of a pen. This is why, contrary to Hesiod and Plato, human nature has not changed much since the golden age.

            This is also why Enlightenment utopias began to place the ideal state not in the past but in the vast parts of the yet unexplored—then only uncharted—globe. By the early the nineteenth century, however, as geographical discoveries shrank the Earth, even this narrative stratagem became increasingly threadbare. With the spirit of meliorism and progressivism sweeping the industrial world, the influential social reformer Henri de Saint-Simon proclaimed: “The Golden Age of the human species is not behind us, it is before us.”

            Whether before or behind, it is striking that neither Saint-Simon nor More have anything enlightening to say about the fundamental utopian problems of egalitarianism and socialism—problems of authority and incentives. In a society of equals there are, after all, no rational grounds for following commands. Moreover, since everyone is equal, all should put in an equal measure of effort at work before wealth can be distributed according to everyone’s needs. Good luck with that.

            It is clear what people want—just ask them. Better still, fling open the doors of Walmart or Dolce e Gabbana and let them take what they want. But is it so clear what they actually need? Awarding one woollen coat to every citizen every two years, More insists that Utopians receive what they need in the exact measure they need it. According to whose impersonally and interpersonally non-contentious formula?

A Quintessential Scale Model

            Reading commentaries on Utopia by More’s contemporaries such as Erasmus, Peter Gilles, Busleyden, or Budé, one is inevitably struck by how timely they are, which is to say, how little has changed in the five hundred years since. All the moral, social, and political oratory since More’s time has not delivered us anywhere near utopia. So why should we believe it ever would?

            One tantalizing answer comes from neuroeconomists, who combine the study of economic behaviour with brain research. Oddly, it appears that enforcing the rules of social fairness can carries own reward. People who punish a complete stranger for behaving unfairly toward another stranger register positive emotions, revealed by MRI scans. Their pleasure centres light up like a Christmas tree, strongly suggesting an evolutionary link to altruism and altruistic punishment, the basic ingredients of any recipe for utopia.

            Be that as it may, the folly of our customs and the rot of our politics have not changed since the dawn of civilization, giving ample material for utopian writers and reformers to roast our vanities. Take a look around. The stench of corruption pervading our politics, the obscene violence with which we handle our conflicts, and the carefree arrogance of our consumerist-hedonist economy amply testifies that we remain as unfit for utopia as we were in More’s, or for that matter Plato’s, times.

            Ironically, the very scale of these problems combined with utopia’s unique ability to bring them into focus makes the genre crucial to inquiries into the nature  of better society. Indeed, it is my contention that, far from being a mere literary convention, utopia is an invaluable cognitive shortcut in these inquiries. More than any other genre, it leans on clear protocols for thought-experimenting with boundary conditions of social policies. Utopia, on my understanding, is a social thinker’s drawing board and litmus paper combined.

            Instead of multiplying reformist scenarios, which is costly and time-consuming, it is much easier to extrapolate social extremes and gauge their desirability. Instead of tracking all intermediate states, focus on the best-case situation. If a model of a utopian society bioengineered to refrain from war and killing still looks like dystopia, there is your answer. Conversely, if the worst-case scenario still looks attractive next to the real world, perhaps it is worth another look.

            Controlled social experiments are always messy, often ethically dubious, and sometimes plain impossible. Efficient, safe, and fully controllable, armchair inquiries sweep away these problems by placing experiments in the realm of the imagination. Not coincidentally, imaginary societies and characters are the lifeblood of narrative fiction. Indeed, it is this genius for controlled speculation that makes literary utopias such valuable laboratories of the mind.

            As every scientist knows, the beauty of scale models is that, although they don’t correspond faithfully to the world we know, they capture select aspects of it. As with most reductions, such bare-bones approximations are easier to untangle conceptually, often hinting at regularities that apply to the world we live in. In my view, utopia, that imaginary place where things are the way they ought to be, is a quintessential scale model.

            Put differently, utopia is a projection at its limits—a boundary case, like the speed of light in Einstein’s special relativity. The analogy is apt since, as soon as you begin racing with light, reality starts to kick back. The closer you get to the speed of light, the more massive your body becomes, at the limit soaring to infinity. Similarly, you can always glimpse utopia in the distance, taunting with its siren song, seemingly within reach. But, just like racing with photons, this may be as close as you can ever get to it.

Live and Let Go

Saying that utopia is a pipedream is saying that there is no one perfect social arrangement for all. However, it is possible to conceive of utopia tailored to every individual’s likes and needs—in every sense a youtopia. Its upper limit would be the world housing as many utopias as there are individuals on Earth, forecast to stabilize at ten to eleven billion.

            This number is vast but finite. Not every utopia, moreover, will be unique. Families, friends, social circles, and entire communities may favour common principles  of social life. Outside of hermits and stylites, few people’s utopia will involve living alone—this is why we band and bond in the first place. A global pluralitopia would give all the right to build their version of paradise on earth, providing they respect others’ right to do same.

            Utopia, on this model, is not a static one-size-fits-all but a mosaic of live-and-let-lives. On the face of it, it looks a bit like the world we live in, a planet-wide civilization consisting of a motley of nations, regions, towns, social circles, families, and individuals. But the differences are as noteworthy as the similarities. Pluralitopia safeguards the freedom to live under any social arrangement so long as this doesn’t encroach on the freedom of others.

            The social arrangement that grants everyone the freedom to found their own heaven on earth resembles the pluralitopia that Robert Nozick defended in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974). Translated into a hundred languages and listed by the Times Literary Supplement as one of the One Hundred Most Influential Books since WWII, for close to half a century this iconoclastic study has fuelled debates about what makes good society.

            Ironically, although Nozick himself was the antithesis of a social and political conservative, his chef d’oeuvre was perceived by the neocon circles as underpinning parts of their shock doctrine (even as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin became banner names for liberals). As a result, his libertarian philosophy became the bedrock of neo-conservatism, hijacking the utopian idealism which has historically been associated with social liberals and liberal socialists.

            Anarchy, State, and Utopia proposes a simple but radical makeover of the world we live in in order to create the world we would like to live in. The central element of pluralitopia is the qualified freedom to exercise utopian freedoms. In the parlance of game theory, you can think of pluralitopia as an aggregate utility function, one that factors in everyone’s preferences for building a perfect society under the condition of aggregate freedom to build one.

            Freedom in pluralitopia begins with the freedom to move about, congregate, and experiment with alternative lifestyles and social arrangements. No less vital is the freedom of access to information about other societies, including their constitutions, histories, and practical arrangements. So is the freedom from material needs, such as money to remove to the utopia of your choice or to jumpstart your own. Most of all, there is the freedom from interference from any individual or state (if the latter still exist), so long as your utopia doesn’t curb the freedoms of other paradise seekers.

            As crucially, pluralitopia entails both the freedom not to join anyone’s utopia and to secede from any one you may have joined. This, in turn, entails effective and enforceable divorce laws, asset division statutes, secession mechanisms, and the like. It entails, in short, the entire apparatus of fair and equitable arbitration and conflict resolution, from spouses fighting over child custody to communities splitting assets in the wake of a breakaway. Paradoxically, pluralitopia may be the closest thing to the one-size-fits-all of utopian dreamers.

The Piper to Nowhere

            Outside of alternative-lifestyle communes, few people nowadays take utopias seriously. So why should we? The answer begins with the fact that the yearning for utopia is too deeply buried in our collective subconscious to let go. We all want a better life. We all want to better the lot of our children. Utopian dreams may be no less than a manifestation of the very instinct for survival and, as a result, a narrative expression of our adaptive behaviour.

            This may explain why innumerable generations have been willing to endure terror and mass death on the barricades every time the utopian carrot was dangled before their noses. It may explain why libraries have been written on a subject that is ontologically as real as Santa Claus. It may also explain why, for a place that does not exist, utopia continues to attract a surprising amount of press from academics to polemicists to the general media.

            To take just one prominent example, The Economist, a no-nonsense weekly by any standard, regularly wields it as a measure for our capacity to think big. The Internet as a self-governing cyber-utopia—the Swiss utopia of Universal Basic Income—the utopian populism in Italy—the utopian idealism in post-WWI German politics—the utopianism of moral calculus—the dream of rule of law in Russia-invaded Ukraine—this is just a short list of recent contexts in which utopia comes into the mix with hardheaded economic calculus.

            Come to think of it, who said anything about a no-place? Utopia is all around us, winking seductively from every commercial. Sexy singles, cordon bleu TV dinners, rugrats in self-cleaning nappies, hemorrhoids receding, receding hairlines advancing, stock portfolios kissing the sky. Utopia is traffic-less roads, native-free getaways, and NSA-proof gadgets. Everyone, starting with you, has a dream job, oodles of leisure, and unlimited purchasing power.

            Today the job of sending postcards from a picture-perfect world has shifted, however, from socialists to telecom capitalists and social media evangelists. Each new tech pitch, from driverless cars to Airbnb, is a utopian narrative that starts with “What if you could…?” and ends with “Well, now you can”. Of course, utopia is like Airbnb, happy to accommodate anyone. In China a community of artists and activists beating the drum for the killing fields of the Cultural Revolution does so on a website called Utopia.

            Paul Johnson, historian and adviser to Margaret Thatcher, argued in Modern Times (1983) that the twentieth century was the golden era of social engineering. With the twentieth century looking like the hell of a better world than ours, the fork in the road to utopia has never looked darker. Social engineering leads to Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. Bioengineering may take you straight to hell. One is discredited, the other plain scary. The alternative to both is the world we know—iniquitous and inundated with violence.

            Every day, everywhere, newsfeeds record the obscene procession of atrocities, genocides, mass murders, serial killings, suicide bombings, state-sanctioned tortures, sadism, child abuse, and other testimonies of how badly we need a collective ticket to utopia. Lest there be any doubt about our inhumanity being a historical constant, in Oryx and Crake Margaret Atwood compiles a shortlist of what we are capable of:

The destruction of Carthage. The Vikings. The crusades. Ghenghis Khan. Attila the Hun. The massacre of the Cathars. The witch burnings. The destruction of the Aztec. Ditto the Maya. Ditto the Inca. The Inquisition. Vlad the Impaler. The massacre of the Huguenots. Cromwell in Ireland. The French Revolution. The Napoleonic Wars. The Irish Famine. Slavery in the American South. King Leopold in Congo. The Russian Revolution. Stalin. Hitler. Hiroshima. Mao. Pol Pot. Idi Amin. Sri Lanka. East Timor. Saddam Hussein.

            Little wonder that, facing this Panglossian best of all worlds, generations of practical dreamers decided to put their dreams of engineering a better society to the test. As they followed the utopian piper to nowhere, they suffered duplicity, hunger, poverty, grievous abuse, and even murder. Yet no sooner had one commune folded, another sprang in its place in the name of reaching for the stars in the constellation of Utopia, visible from everywhere on Earth if only you put rose-tinted glasses on.


Peter Swirski is a Canadian scholar and writer, listed in the Canadian Who’s Who. He is Amazon and Alibris #1 Bestseller in American History and Criticism, Popular Culture Criticism, and Canadian Literary Criticism, and author and editor of nineteen award-winning books, including American Utopia and Social Engineering (Routledge, 2011). This is the first chapter of his forthcoming American Utopia: Literature, Society, and the Human Use of Human Beings (Routledge, 2019).


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