Utopia For Realists

“Progress is the realization of utopias.”

Oscar Wilde

utopia for realistsDutchman Rutger Bregman is a member of the Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe Class of 2017. He’s written four books on history, philosophy, and economics. In his book Utopia for Realists (2016), he recognizes the dangers of utopian thinking:

“True, history is full of horrifying forms of utopianism — fascism, communism, Nazism — just as every religion has also spawned fanatical sects.

“According to the cliché, dreams have a way of turning into nightmares. Utopias are a breeding ground for discord, violence, even genocide. Utopias ultimately become dystopias.”

Having faced up to the dangers, however, he presses on:

“Let’s start with a little history lesson:  In the past, everything was worse. For roughly 99% of the world’s history, 99% of humanity was poor, hungry, dirty, afraid, stupid, sick, and ugly. As recently as the seventeenth century, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-62) described life as one giant vale of tears. ‘Humanity is great,’ he wrote, ‘because it knows itself to be wretched.’ In Britain, fellow philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) concurred that human life was basically, ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’

“But in the last 200 years, all that has changed. In just a fraction of the time that our species has clocked on this planet, billions of us are suddenly rich, well nourished, clean, safe, smart, healthy, and occasionally even beautiful.[1]

“Welcome, in other words, to the Land of Plenty. To the good life, where almost everyone is rich, safe, and healthy. Where there’s only one thing we lack:  a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Because, after all, you can’t really improve on paradise. Back in 1989, the American philosopher Francis Fukuyama already noted that we had arrived in an era where life has been reduced to ‘economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.’[2]

“Notching up our purchasing power another percentage point, or shaving a couple off our carbon emissions; perhaps a new gadget — that’s about the extent of our vision. We live in an era of wealth and overabundance, but how bleak it is. There is ‘neither art nor philosophy,’ Fukuyama says. All that’s left is the ‘perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.’

 “According to Oscar Wilde, upon reaching the Land of Plenty, we should once more fix our gaze on the farthest horizon and rehoist the sails. ‘Progress is the realization of utopias,’ he wrote. But the farthest horizon remains blank. The Land of Plenty is shrouded in fog. Precisely when we should be shouldering the historic task of investing this rich, safe, and healthy existence with meaning, we’ve buried utopia instead.

“In fact, most people in wealthy countries believe children will actually be worse off than their parents. According to the World Health Organization, depression has even become the biggest health problem among teens and will be the number-one cause of illness worldwide by 2030.[3]

“It’s a vicious cycle. Never before have so many young people been seeing a psychiatrist. Never before have there been so many early career burnouts. And we’re popping antidepressants like never before. Time and again, we blame collective problems like unemployment, dissatisfaction, and depression on the individual. If success is a choice, so is failure. Lost your job? You should have worked harder. Sick? You must not be leading a healthy lifestyle. Unhappy? Take a pill.

“No, the real crisis is that we can’t come up with anything better. We can’t imagine a better world than the one we’ve got. The real crisis of our times, of my generation, is not that we don’t have it good, or even that we might be worse off later on. ‘The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,’ a former math whiz at Facebook recently lamented.[4]

After this assessment, Bregman shifts gears. “The widespread nostalgia, the yearning for a past that really never was,” he says, “suggest that we still have ideals, even if we have buried them alive.” From there, he distinguishes the kind of utopian thinking we do well to avoid from the kind we might dare to embrace. We’ll follow him into that discussion next time.

[1] For a detailed (1,000 pages total) history of this economic growth from general nastiness to the standard of living we enjoy now, I’ll refer you again to two books I plugged a couple weeks ago:  Americana:  A 400 Year History Of American Capitalism and The Rise and Fall of American Growth.

[2] See here and here for a sampling of updates/opinions providing a current assessment of Fukuyama’s 1989 article.

[3]  World Health Organization, Health for the World’s Adolescents, June 2014. See this executive summary.

[4] This Tech Bubble is Different, Bloomberg Businessweek, April 14, 2011

Author: Kevin Rhodes

Kevin Rhodes is on a mission to bring professional excellence and personal wellbeing to "anyone wants to create change in their workplaces and personal lives." He draws insight and perspective from his prior career in the law, business, and consulting, also from his studies in economics, psychology, neuroscience, entrepreneurship, technology, and life experience.

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