As I’ve mentioned a few times, I got a lot out of Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias, and am still hoping our long-promised book event comes to fruition. The general idea of the book was in line with my thinking that technocratic rationality, of the kind offered by, say Obama or Blair, is not a sufficient answer to the irrationalist tribalism of the right – the left needs a transformative vision to offer hope of a better life, both for the increasing proportion of the population in rich countries who are losing ground as a result of growing inequality and for the great majority of the world’s population who are still poor by OECD standards. So, Utopia matters.
But it’s just as important that utopia be feasible. Utopia as a dream may be comforting, but is unlikely to inspire effective political action. And attempts to implement a utopia that isn’t feasible are bound to end in failure, quite possibly disastrous failure, as the experience of communism showed us.
Turning to health care, we could start with a utopian ideal where everyone got all the health care that could benefit them. But that would be utopian in the pejorative sense – the scope for expanding health services is effectively infinite, and the resources available to society are not.
Thinking about feasible utopia, on the other hand, it seems to me that the system of socialised health care in modern social democracies is not a bad model. That is, if all of society worked like the health care system at its best, we could regard the political project of social democracy as a success.
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That’s the tagline of Crooked Timber, the group blog of which I’ve been a member for quite a few years. I knew that it was quoted by Isaiah Berlin as a translation of something written by Kant, but I’ve never, until yesterday, seen it in a more complete context. That’s when I finally stumbled across Berlin’s, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, Chapter 1 of which ‘The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West’ ends as follows
a liberal sermon which recommends machinery designed to prevent people from doing each other too much harm, giving each human group sufficient room to realise its own idiosyncratic, unique, particular ends without too much interference with the ends of others, is not a passionate battle-cry to inspire men to sacrifice and martyrdom and heroic feats. Yet if it were adopted,it might yet prevent mutual destruction, and, in the end, preserve the world. Immanuel Kant, a man very remote from irrationalism, once observed that ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.’ And for that reason, no perfect solution is, not merely in practice, but in principle, possible in human affairs, and any determined attempt to produce it is likely to lead to suffering, disillusionment and failure.
Broadly speaking, I’m sympathetic to what Berlin is saying here. Revolutionary utopianism has been a disaster, particularly for the left. But, we still need a feasible version of utopia to oppose to the appeal of irrationalist tribalism and the naked self-interest of the top 1 per cent. And, whatever Berlin may have intended by it, “prevent people from doing each other too much harm” should not mean leaving the rich to enjoy the fruits of a system constructed in their own interests, and letting the devil take the hindmost.
A social democratic and feasible utopia should giving all human beings (individually and as a member of various groups) sufficient room and resources to pursue their own idiosyncratic, unique, particular ends with a reasonably equal capability of achieving ends that are feasible given the resources available to society as a whole.
It’s hard to spell out what that means, but I think easy enough to see that developed societies were moving in that direction, broadly speaking, until the 1970s, and are mostly moving away from it today (with some exceptions in areas like gay rights). The failure of the market liberal model to deliver on its promises, evident in the global financial crisis, along with the current struggle over austerity provides an opportunity to recover some of the ground lost in the last thirty years while, hopefully preserving the gains.
fn1. As in many such cases, our blog’s name and tagline owe at least as much to Berlin’s translation as to Kant’s original.
I’m not always in tune with the political zeitgeist, but my decision to run a post advocating a dignified resignation for Julia Gillard was made just ahead of the rush. Of course, the option of voluntarily stepping aside has now been foreclosed. When Gillard goes (I don’t think there’s a remaining question of “if”) it will be as a result the usual messy and unpleasant process of assembling a sufficient number of votes (not necessarily a majority) to render her position untenable.
Both because I don’t want to see any last-minute stuffups, I hope the carbon tax and mining tax legislation is passed before she goes. Certainly, whether or not she supported these measures, she did the hard yards to get them through.
On the question of her replacement, I had previously dismissed Rudd, on the basis that his abrasive personality and micro-management tendencies (not apparent in his public persona, but well-attested) would make him unacceptable to his colleagues. However, the High Court decision on asylum seekers changes all that. Rudd has more credibility on this issue than anyone else in the party. Labor has no choice but to revert to a more humane position and stress the point that the Court decision undermines Abbott as well as Gillard. It now seems highly unlikely that a policy based on long-term detention of people who have already been assessed as refugees can stand up, wherever they are held.
Stephen Smith seems like the natural choice for deputy, and it would be sensible to find a ministerial spot for Gillard, all of which would permit a reshuffle.
No one can tell for sure, but I think the return of Rudd would put the spotlight on Abbott’s total fraudulence, maybe even paving the way for the Rudd vs Turnbull election we should have had last time.