What’s Utopian When The Status Quo is Unrealistic? (guest post by David Estlund)

“In these moments, we should appreciate that unrealistic political thought, including political philosophy, is of profound practical importance, and that it is overly discouraged—both in the culture, and even in the halls of academia…. We, at least some of us, must always be thinking beyond what seems realistic or feasible, about what would be better. That’s how to be ready when the chance comes.”

The following is a guest post* by David Estlund, Lombardo Family Professor of Humanities and Philosophy, Brown University, and author of Utopophobia: On the Limits (If Any) of Political Philosophy (Princeton University Press, 2020).

[photo by David Estlund]

What’s Utopian When The Status Quo is Unrealistic?
by David Estlund

“Strike while the iron is hot.” The ancient advice resonates in this moment of upheaval around the coronavirus pandemic and the outrage at police killings of unarmed Black men. But like the famous slogan, carpe diem, and Yogi Bera’s similar sly advice, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” the call to action, by itself, is an orphan. The moment for action needs, if possible, to have been nurtured by serious thought—not instead of action but in preparation for it. And yet, when opportunities are surprising, as many of the greatest political opportunities are, will there have been years of reflection available about such dim and distant possibilities? In these moments, we should appreciate that unrealistic political thought, including political philosophy, is of profound practical importance, and that it is overly discouraged—both in the culture, and even in the halls of academia.

Even before the pandemic and the recent outrage about policing, ideas like “big structural change” were newly in the air, and moving toward the mainstream.[1] And now, along with the sudden upheavals underway, some futures are newly realistic, or at least more realistic, and others now less-so. In fact, in important respects, the status quo itself is far less realistic, so to speak, than only a few months ago. Many see this historical juncture as one of those times of unanticipated opportunity,[2] and the moment can easily be missed. We have to hope that thought about these unpredicted opportunities is not just starting now. And it is not. But there is both good news and bad news on that front.

I’ll start with the bad: in social and political thinking—both theoretical and practical, both professional and popular, and even in philosophy—there is pressure not to dream, not to bother with possibilities which, though desirable, don’t seem realistic. Certainly, the history of failed utopias is cautionary, and absurdly detailed blueprints for an ideal society should probably remain on the shelf.[3] The possibilities that can suddenly open up are not always good, to say the least. Big change may be in the air, but the masks we don these days remind us that what the air carries can sometimes be deadly. Yet a good lesson can be overlearned. Yes, great care is called for in the realm of action. Still, while carelessness is never a virtue, the realm of thought should, overall, be less cautious and more adventurous than action. Times for action will come, and action will often be taken whether it is informed by forethought and debate or not. A lack of radical thought—not necessarily leftist thought, but thought beyond the evidently feasible—can be dangerous.

One standard site for the tyranny of the practical is governments’ perennial tendency to steer universities toward industry-fostered engineering, vocational training, and the like. Government and industry cheerleading now has STEM majors increasing at the expense of liberal arts majors, to the point where some humanities departments are shutting down.[4] An Australian politician recently proposed to charge students in humanities majors higher tuition than majors involving more job training.[5] But, of course, many of today’s jobs are the products of industries and technologies borne of wild creative thought that would have been starved under such policies. And healthy universities themselves are partly the fragile products of social and political developments of toleration, informed debate, and respect for academic freedom—ideas that were fostered partly by far-sighted intellectual and political work, not by vocational training for the job ads of the day. There are job opportunities around current technologies, and then there are, or will be, opportunities for whole new barely imaginable technologies. And what goes for new technologies also goes for new ways of organizing ourselves socially, politically and economically too. They depend on thinking farther ahead than it is possible to see for sure.

Not all opportunities can even be imagined, of course. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “It’s likely that should white supremacy fall, the means by which that happens might be unthinkable,”—even “crazy,” to us now. The cultural pressure to think within realistic bounds seems to him to demand, “that if I was writing or talking about problems, I should also be able to identify an im­mediate­ly action­able way out—preferably one that could garner a sixty-vote majority in the Senate. There was a kind of insanity to this—like telling doctors to only diagnose that which they could immediately and effortlessly cure.” He says the solution might seem “crazy” at first, and yet there is “insanity” in those shackles of practicality. The character, “Cervantes,” in the play “Man of La Mancha” distills the sideways wisdom of Don Quixote in similar fashion: “When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness.” Less poetically: to the extent that seemingly unrealistic political thinking is discouraged, there is some bad news in that.

There is also the good news, and we see it in this moment where the status quo may (or may not) be toppling like a Confederate statue. On a range of issues, we are hearing from thinkers who, in spite of the anti-Utopian pressures that Coates laments, have long been studying and debating alternative arrangements which must have seemed pretty far-fetched. My favorite example in this moment is the call, eminently debatable, for defunding or even abolishing the police.[6] It sounds to some like a thoughtless emotional eruption. Mar­vel­ous­ly, though, serious thought and research has been put into those possibilities for some years already.[7]

A second example, speaking of Confederate statues, is the avalanche of falling monuments. The idea of removing them has been nurtured for decades. In 1969 there was an early, lonely demand by the Afro Americans for Black Liberation to remove statuary figures of four Confederate generals on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin.[8] To many it must have seemed Quixotic at best, outrageous at worst. Almost no Confederate statutes had ever been taken down. But pioneering idealistic thinkers had opened up a debate. Now those statues at Texas have been removed,[9] along with at least 100 others around the country, all in the last five years, dozens just in the last few months[10] (with many hundreds remaining). It’s hard to tell whether that early effort in Texas or similar efforts contributed to this seemingly sudden development, but in any case what was hard to imagine—except for a few—in 1969, has become a reality some decades later, almost all at once. An unanticipated opportunity has met years of radical reflection, and the opportunity is being seized.

A third example concerns the suggestion that the government give everyone a regular, no-strings-attached, monthly stipend. Really? Before presidential hopeful Andrew Yang proposed to give every American $1,000 a month, most voters probably thought this was silly, and pie-in-the sky in any case. As it happens, “universal basic income,” Yang’s version being just one of many, has been studied by philosophers, economists, and others for centuries, prominent advocates including Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman.[11] There is also a rich history of more contemporary proposals, debates, and experiments. But only now is the idea gaining traction in the U. S., partly thanks to Yang, and partly thanks to COVID-19.[12] Our viral economic devastation has already wrought a single $1,200 grant to upwards of 150 million Americans, and a federal supplement to unemployment benefits to the tune of $600 per week for several months (renewal in some form, is under long Congressional discussion at the writing). Crucial parts of the case for a permanent basic income are becoming clear in real time. Now what would have sounded to many, even just months ago, like the product of an economically illiterate bleeding heart, is entering policy discussions, and backed by years of thought—some arguing for, some against. In the treasury of arguments and counterarguments that are already available to us, even if that treasury is underfunded, we (advocates and opponents) are beneficiaries of the pioneers of political imagination, of thinkers not confined by the evident infeasibility of worthy social changes.

What are the forks that might open up down the road that would be so surprising that it’s hard to believe we will ever really face them? Trying to identify them has the feel of a trick question. What are the possibilities that do not seem to us to be possibilities? To get our bearings, it’s good to consider a few cases that fill the bill in recent times—momentous, intentional, positive change in a time or at a pace that scarcely could be believed only a few decades before.

Robert Kennedy bravely conjectured in 1961 (the year Barack Obama was born) that there was no reason a Black person couldn’t become President “in the near and foreseeable future.”[13] Many would have found that absurd at the time. But change was already rapidly underway. In that year, already 50% expressed willingness to vote for a Black person for president, a dramatic change of 7% from only three years earlier.[14] Then, as seemed implausible even just months before it happened, Barack Obama became the first Black president within the lifetime of Robert’s brother, Ted Kennedy.

There have been improvements on other issues, too. Same-sex marriage gained Constitutional protection in 2015 less than a decade after Hillary Clinton, a leader in the country’s left-of-center political party, along with more than half the country, still opposed it.[15] And since gay marriage received protection, the rise of awareness and acceptance of trans people and their social and legal challenges has been “meteoric.”[16] Most recently, the landmark case this June of Bostock vs. Clayton County, Georgia would have been hard to believe even a decade ago, and its being joined by two staunchly conservative justices—with the opinion even being authored by one of them—made some Progressives’ heads spin even now. Each of those developments would have seemed Utopian just a generation before. Those are changes on a big scale, and that’s the scale to think about looking forward.

So, we ought to hesitate before ridiculing as hopelessly unrealistic those who think, study, and plan around such dreams as the end of world hunger, of rape, or of the automobile; the disappearance of the full-time work week, of significant national boundaries, of war, of the eating of animals, or, at long last, but hopefully soon, of structural and personal racial bias and disadvantage. My point is not to predict those things, nor to insist that they are all to be hoped for. And, while it’s easy to say that “we” want to be prepared for historic opportunities, of course, people’s fantasies differ, and they can be debated. Milton Friedman, who otherwise differs decisively from Coates (though maybe not about the general idea of universal basic income[17]), still thought it important, “to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable,” that opportunities often come with crisis, and that, “When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”[18] Whether you share a thinker’s goals or not, the value of having considered the matter before opportunity’s surprising knock does not depend on believing that we should always answer the door.

Forethought, even of the radical kind, ought to be encouraged. The point is not to call for thinking instead of acting. Waiting can be disastrous, and that’s precisely why we need, not only to act when the time comes, but to have already been thinking for some time—at least some of us—about these choices, if anyone could have imagined them.

The importance of radical thinking about justice is not only practical—as if broad, searching, reflection about such things as social justice is worthwhile only to the extent that it prepares us for action. It is also a powerful way of learning, of discarding errors, and so responding in our hearts and minds more appropriately to events. That in itself must be a part of trying to be a good person, even apart from any action such understanding might prompt. These things will often matter deeply even to someone who can’t act—say, someone who won’t live much longer and can no longer contribute with action, or someone who is barred from action by being in prison. It’s not all about action. But this point is additional to the more action-oriented defense of idealistic thought, namely that we, at least some of us, must always be thinking beyond what seems realistic or feasible, about what would be better. That’s how to be ready when the chance comes.

In the vast array of what humanity can devote itself to all at once, it is important to engage and encourage intrepid, imaginative, idealistic thinkers who are not always impatient for the practical. We need them to be building the fund of currently unrealistic radical ideas that we will wish we had at hand to draw on if and when those ideas become practical options. Some of them will. That way, when we come to a big surprising fork in the road, as maybe we have now, we are ready to take it.

[1] “Big, structural change: We’ve done it before, and we can do it again” Medium, May 23, 2019. By Elizabeth Warren.
[2] “Will the Coronavirus Make Us Rethink Mass Incarceration?” (New Yorker); “Will coronavirus make the world a fairer place?” Aljazeera.com April 9, 2020; “Will the pandemic hasten the demise of capitalism?” People’s World, May 4, 2020; “Will coronavirus lead to fairer societies? Thomas Piketty explores the prospect” Guardian, May 12; “Will the coronavirus make conservatives love government spending?” Washington Post, April 15. “Police reforms quickly take hold across America. It’s only just getting started,:” By Ray Sanchez, CNN, Sun June 14, 2020; “The power of protest and the legacy of George Floyd: Don’t waste a rich chance for social reform,” The Economist, June 11, 2020.
[3] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/utopia-nine-of-the-most-miserable-attempts-to-create-idealised-societies-a6887316.html.
[4] https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2020/02/03/computer-scientist-urges-more-support-humanities-opinion.
[5] https://ministers.dese.gov.au/tehan/minister-education-dan-tehan-national-press-club-address.
[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/12/opinion/sunday/floyd-abolish-defund-police.html.
[7] https://bostonreview.net/law-justice/tracey-l-meares-policing-public-good-gone-bad.
[8] Task Force on Historical Representation of Statuary at UT Austin: Report To President Gregory L. Fenves, August, 2015, p. 15.
[9] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/21/us/texas-austin-confederate-statues.html.
[10] Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy, Southern Poverty Law Center, February 2019. https://www.splcenter.org/20190201/whose-heritage-public-symbols-confederacy.
[11] https://www.chicagobusiness.com/opinion/why-legendary-economists-liked-universal-basic-income.
[12] ‘I’ll Be a Very Happy Man.’ Will the Coronavirus Outbreak Turn Andrew Yang’s $1,000 Prom­­ise Into Reality? Time Magazine, By Abby Vesoulis, March 17, 2020 https://time.com/5804656/ubi-yang-coronavirus/.
[13] “FREEDOM RIDERS | Meet the Players: US Federal Government,” https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/meet-players-us-federal-government/#:~:text=On%20May%2025%2C%201961%2C%20Robert,President%20of%20the%20United%20States.%22 . Accessed June 30, 2020. See video of Kennedy’s remarks, at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oD7a8k5kyGw.

[14] Howard Schuman, Charlotte Steeh, Lawrence D. Bobo, and Maria Krysan, Racial Attitudes in America, Trends and Interpretations, rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 102–8.
[15] “Public opinion of same-sex marriage in the United States,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_opinion_of_same-sex_marriage_in_the_United_States. Accessed June 30, 2020.
[16] https://www.thetaskforce.org/discrimination-masquerading-as-religious-freedom-is-a-slippery-slope-that-hurts-everyone/ “Discrimination Masquerading As Religious Freedom Is A Slippery Slope That Hurts Everyone,” National LGBTQ Taskforce website, May, 2020.
[17]https://www.facebook.com/BasicIncomeMarch/photos/thank-you-ta-nehisi-coates-and-thank-you-for-thewaterdancer-we-hope-that-the-shi/2586531364902324/ .
[18] Capitalism and freedom: 40th Anniversary Edition With a new Preface by the Author, Friedman, Milton. University of Chicago Press, 2002, in the 1982 Preface.

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Patrick S. O'Donnell
3 years ago

I wholeheartedly agree with the spirit and letter of this post. Roughly ten years ago I wrote a piece attempting to clarify the necessity of utopian thought and imagination, arguing that we should not use the word “utopian” solely in a pejorative sense, and that utopias conceived as blueprints are in fact not representative of utopian musings. Much like what occurred last century with the Marxist corpus, these have been misused in ways not intended by their authors, abused by those hell-bent on imposing their single-minded ideological will on others and their polities. There is a considerable distance between utopian imagination and political praxis, and all manner of constraints arise with regard to the latter, including the ethical and political imperatives of representative, deliberative, and participatory democracy, that are not intrinsic to the former. Paradoxically perhaps, it is a somewhat timid if not conservative Liberal political philosopher, William Galston, who has provided us with a succinct summary of the nature of utopias and utopian principles, which I share in the post here (which was one of two on the subject, the other titled Musings on Utopia: Historical and Philosophical): https://www.religiousleftlaw.com/2011/06/utopian-thought-imagination.html

Louis F. Cooper
3 years ago

The piece is well put. Btw, Andrew Yang is not the first presidential candidate in recent decades to propose something like a universal basic income; George McGovern did so in 1972. Searching on “george mcgovern universal basic income” will bring up links and details.

3 years ago

Professor Estlund suggests that, given recent events, now is an especially promising time for utopian ideas that once seemed infeasible to gain traction and that this is cause for optimism and a demonstration of how important it is to allow their exploration. I agree with him that there are several things to be optimistic about. However, I think that there are also several things to be pessimistic about. We are also living in a time when intellectual culture has become more restrictive and there is less opportunity for thinkers to explore the full range of utopian ideas than in the past. Conservatives continue to do their thing and call certain ideas and topics “out of bounds”. Meanwhile there has been an unprecedented shift among progressives to eschew the open exploration of ideas, something that they once championed. Now certain “woke” ways of thinking about social justice are regarded as “the correct way to think” and an interest in exploring alternative approaches to social justice are regarded are a sign of immorality and bigotry.

As far as utopian thinking goes, this is a bad thing. For example, one line of utopian thinking about racial injustice tells us that building stronger racial identities and reforming our institutions so that they respect and promote these identities is key to racial justice. As Professor Estlund suggests, there may be unprecedented opportunities in the present climate for implementing some of these ideas. However, another line of utopian thinking about racial injustice tells us abandoning racial identities and overcoming racialist ways of thinking are key to racial justice. This line of thinking was widely endorsed by civil rights leaders, among others, and there is much evidence in its favor. Yet in the past it has often been dismissed as too utopian because racialism is so imbedded in our societies. And now, in the present climate, this approach to racial justice has become verboten and anyone wanting to explore it faces strong disincentives. In this respect, there are less opportunities for utopian thinking. So, the scorecard is rather mixed and there are both things to be optimistic about and things to be pessimistic about.

3 years ago

“So, we ought to hesitate before ridiculing as hopelessly unrealistic those who think, study, and plan around such dreams as the end of world hunger, of rape, or of the automobile; the disappearance of the full-time work week, of significant national boundaries, of war, of the eating of animals, or, at long last, but hopefully soon, of structural and personal racial bias and disadvantage”

Some of these sound like good ideas, some of them sound utterly horrible and something to be strongly resisted.