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The Need for Utopia


Adam Swift, in his article “Would Perfect Mobility be Perfect?”* posed the following question to researchers of social inequality and advocates of social justice activism: should social justice be concerned with achieving ‘perfect’ social mobility** and therefore ‘perfect’ social equality, or should we simply accept that such a goal is fantasy and instead focus on ‘sufficient’ social mobility? In other words, should those who are concerned with social justice waste our time with utopian ideals, or should we instead focus on the nitty-gritty of more realistic struggles?

Swift argues that the energy spent pining after the ever just-beyond-the-horizon goals of a social justice utopia blinds activists to the realities ‘on the ground’; that hoping for the day when all people can be free to pursue their dreams prevents activists from engaging in more grounded projects aimed at ameliorating more immediate problems.

This question, at least in academia, isn’t a rhetorical one. Many graduate-level courses (and not a few undergraduate-level ones too), especially in sociology, concentrate on the prosaic ‘nuts and bolts’ of contemporary social science research, and leave the more big-picture style thinking to advanced theory courses or to the individual student to discover on their own. For the most part, this approach is a sensible one, as social science researchers are expected to contribute to the ever-growing bodies of research that make up the vast bulk of contemporary social science literature. The rapidly expanding constellation of academic journals demand that researchers publish more or less constantly, and for many of them, their advancement and salaries depend on producing a corpus of published work that sometimes makes it seem as though modern academia is a game of quantity of quality. The demands on researchers are so great that more than a few will succumb to searching for the ‘SPU’ or ‘Smallest Publishable Unit’; researchers will report even the tiniest, most inconsequential findings – regardless of relevance to any overarching research program – if there is even the slightest chance that such a report could find a place in a journal or two. In a very real sense, social science researchers are often guilty of missing the forest for the trees. In such an environment, where the minutia of our individual sub-sub-specialization can seem to overwhelm us, is it any surprise that many give up on the search for utopia?

The same can sometimes be said of social justice activism; if we need to budget our already-precious time and energy, do we choose to spend it on philosophical ruminations about the type of ideal society we wish to strive for, or do we instead quickly acknowledge that the end-goal is some form of nebulous ‘equality’, and then spend our time countering the rhetoric of bigots of all stripes, either online or in the physical world? Do we sacrifice reflection and reflexivity for the need to see ‘real-world’ results aimed at eliminating real and pressing inequalities that exist all around us? Time, unfortunately, is a zero-sum game; what we spend on one project must necessarily come from time we could have budgeted for something else.

But where Swift gets his analysis wrong is in thinking that the point of utopian thinking is to achieve the imagined end-state. Many of the foundational thinkers of modern sociology, like Marx and Durkheim, imagined utopian societies and they, like more contemporary thinkers such as John Rawls offered what they saw as roadmaps to achieving them. But implicit in each and every one of their visions was that every step towards the end-goal necessarily improved the lives of the groups of people they were concerned with helping. Marx, for example, seemed to believe that every step on the road to that stateless society would bring the proletariat closer to freedom; Rawls believed that the very act of deeply and seriously considering the shape of a perfect society from behind the veil of ignorance would grant the thinker insight into contemporary social ills. Utopian visions of the future provide us with a glimpse of the world once all the solutions provided by the utopian project have been applied. If I want to build the perfect car, or the perfect computer, or write the perfect poem, play, or script, it helps if I first have an idea of what the end-state ought to look like, because knowing that can show me the steps I need to take to get there. Many authors will say that the act of writing often includes taking unexpected turns, but I’ve yet to meet an author who didn’t have at least a sketched-out idea of the ending before they began writing the first chapter.

Utopian thinking gives us an arena within which we conceive, test, and challenge our normative frameworks; they can reveal to us the specifics of our moral codes, and can give us insight into our own problem-solving strategies. But more than anything else, utopian thinking teaches us the importance of committing to the long haul, and they remind us that in a society that values disposability and instant gratification; the diligent pursuit of deeply-held convictions has worth. Utopia is not simply about the endgame; the promise of utopia is found in the striving.

*Swift, Adam, “Would Perfect Mobility be Perfect?”, European Sociological Review, Vol 20. Issue 1, September, 2002, Pp. 1-11

** Social mobility is the extent to which a person’s chances and opportunities in life are tied to the circumstances of their birth. If a person is born into a poor family, what are their chances of ‘moving up’ in society? In a world of ‘perfect mobility’, a person’s social status and their social opportunities would be unrelated; everyone would have an equal opportunity to achieve their goals.