What is Utopianism?
An ideal or perfect society, critiquing the existing society through the creation of an ideal alternative.
Most are characterised by the abolition of want, the absence of conflict and the avoidance of oppression and violence.
Utopian theories are usually based on assumptions about the possibilities of unlimited human development and the idea that humans are rational and perfectible.
However it is often used as a perjorative term to imply deluded or unrealistic thinking or the pursuit of an unachievable goal.
Godwin Contradicts Hobbes and Locke
Philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke came up with a theory of 'state of nature', in which the absence of political authority would lead to a "war of every man against every man", and in which life would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short". This is due to their view of human nature as selfish, greedy and potentially aggressive (i.e. Conservatism). They believed that only a sovereign state could maintain order.
William Godwin (arguably the first anarchist) suggested the opposite. He believed that:
- Humans are essentially rational creatures, who can, through education, truth and enlightened judgement, live by universal moral laws
- Humans have a natural tendency to organise themselves peacefully and harmoniously
- Governments and 'unnatural laws' are the corrupting influence that leads to injustice and greed, rather than any 'original sin' within us; Government is therefore the cause, not the solution
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau: "Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains"
Utopianism lies at the heart of Anarchism - the belief in the natural goodness and potential for good in every human.
Social order arises naturally and spontaneously, without the strict machinery of 'law and order'.
Anarchist conclusions are only reached by political thinkers who are sufficiently optimistic: Collectivist Anarchists believe in the natural sociability and cooperation of humans, Individualist Anarchists highlight the importance of enlightened human reason.
This is often linked to the suggestion that harmony is favoured by nature and indeed, the universe. Anarchists have, on this principle, been sometimes drawn to non-western religions such as Buddhism and Taoism, which emphasise interdependence and natural order.
The most prominent link is with ecology, due to the 'social ecology' thinkers such as Murray Bookchin and their relation to eco-anarchism.
Capacity for Corruption
However, anarchists do not believe that humans are perfect. They acknowledge that rival potentialities reside within the soul, and that humans have the capacity to be selfish and competitive as well as social and cooperative.
Although the human 'core' may be morally and intellectially enlightened, a capacity for corruption is in each individual.
Human Nature is Plastic
One thing that anarchists have in common with socialists is the belief that human nature is plastic. It is shaped by the social, political and economic circumstances which a person lives in.
Law, government and the state breed a domination/subordination system.
Other social institutions can breed respect, cooperation and harmony.
Collectivist Anarchists therefore support common ownership or mutualist institutions, whilst Individualist Anarchists support the impartial market as being the institution that will ensure social harmony.
Opposition to Utopianism
Utopianism has usually been viewed as the weakest aspect of anarchist theory:
- However socially enlightened institutions may be, if any selfish or negative impulses are basic to human nature (rather than being evidence of corruption), the prospect of natural order becomes impossible
- It also becomes impossible to distinguish where the natural negativity ends and the evidence of corruption begins
Utopianism is most pronounced within the collectivist strands of anarchism for this reason - collectivists strongly advocate the natural positivity of human nature. Some individualist anarchists have rejected Utopianism altogether, such as Milton Freidman (1973).