Every year when I go home for Christmas, I revisit my old library. It’s the set of books that I read when I was in my early 20s, back when I was finishing my undergraduate degree and going on to postgraduate studies. Although I have read many more books since then, those books hold a special place in my heart. I read them at a formative stage in my life: when I was first developing my philosophical views. I probably remember more about those books than I do about the ones I have read in the last three or four years.
This past week, when I was home again for the Christmas break, I picked up one of the books that had quite an influence on me when I first read it: Karl Popper’s Conjectures and Refutations. I was very interested in the philosophy of science at the time and Popper was a giant in the field. But Popper’s philosophical interests extended well beyond the philosophy of science. He defended a general theory of knowledge, based on the acceptance of profound uncertainty, that he used to resolve some classic problems in epistemology (e.g. Hume’s problem of induction) and to develop a distinctive political ethos. I was never much interested in Popper’s political philosophy when I first read his work, but when I picked up the book again over the Christmas break I decided to take a look at the more political essays. One, in particular, caught my eye. It was his essay on ‘Utopianism and Violence’.
I have recently developed an interest in utopian theory — it’s part of a book project that I am currently working on — and I am eager to read anything about it. Popper was a critic of utopian theories, believing that many of famous utopian works in philosophy (like those of Plato and Marx) were dangerously authoritarian. What I want to do in the remainder of this post is to analyse and evaluate the argument against utopianism that Popper presents in this essay. It’s not a particularly rigorous presentation, but there are some interesting titbits, and it does espouse a popular concern about utopianism.
The argument itself comes in two parts. The first part is a critique of the violent impulse that lies at the heart of utopianism; the second is a defence of an alternative, anti-utopian view. I want to see how well the logic of both parts holds up.
1. Does Utopianism Lead to Violence?
It would probably help if we started with some clear sense of what ‘utopianism’ is. This is not easy since people use the term to refer to different things: a set of views in political philosophy, a description of historical political and social movements, a genre of literature, and so on. Fortunately, Popper provides us with his own preferred definition. He says that ‘utopianism’ is the political philosophy according to which:
[W]e must first attempt to become as clear as possible about our ultimate political ends and only afterwards can we begin to determine the means which may best help us to realise this state.
(Conjectures and Refutations, 481)
I have seen this referred to elsewhere as the ‘teleological’ or ‘blueprint’ model of utopianism. It is the notion that we must first sketch the blueprint for the ideal society and then work out how to get there.
Popper’s major critique of blueprint utopianism is that it leads to violence. This is something that appears to be borne out by the historical evidence, but Popper wants to go beyond historical evidence in his argument. He claims that there is an impulse to violence that is inherent to all blueprint utopian movements. The impulse to violence is the natural consequence of three fundamental assumptions.
These assumptions form the backbone of Popper’s argument. I will call them the ‘plurality assumption’, the ‘conflict assumption’, and the ‘irrationality assumption’ respectively. Knitting them together into a logical argument, I take it that Popper’s case against utopianism looks something like this:
(1) Plurality assumption: Humans have different preferred ultimate ends (i.e. different groups have different conceptions of utopia).
(2) Conflict assumption: On at least some occasions (and perhaps many) the different utopian visions come into direct conflict, i.e. it is not possible to realise one vision without eliminating another.
(3) Irrationality assumption: It is not always possible to resolve these conflicts by rational means; oftentimes violence is the only way to eliminate the conflict.
(4) Therefore, utopianism oftentimes leads to violence.
The conclusion is somewhat modest. The claim is not that utopianism always and everywhere leads to violence, but simply that it has a tendency to do so. Furthermore, the plurality and conflict assumptions are reasonably uncontroversial: it seems obviously true to say that people have different conceptions of the ideal society and that these conceptions can conflict. Think about the conflict between communists and anarcho-capitalists or between secular humanists and radical Islamists. Each is, according to its supporters, utopian, but they are hardly compatible.
That said, plurality and conflict by themselves need not lead to violence. If there were some objective hierarchy of value, that could be agreed upon by all, it may be possible to resolve the conflicts by rational argument. This is exactly what Popper disputes with the irrationality assumption. His case for this assumption rests on the belief that values are not subject to scientific investigation and analysis. This means they are not open to the same kind of objective (or intersubjective) agreement:
[S]ince we cannot determine the ultimate ends of political action scientifically, or by purely rational methods, differences of opinion concerning what the ideal state should look like cannot always be smoothed out by the method of argument.
(Conjectures and Refutations, p. 483)
This might strike you as a self-defeating claim. Popper himself concedes that rational argument is not completely out of bounds in the political arena. He acknowledges that what he is trying to do in his essay is present rational arguments against utopianism, which he hopes will persuade many people. This suggests that it might be possible — however improbable in practice it may be — for people to actually rationally coordinate on some blueprint for an ideal society at a particular moment in time. Does this possibility hold some hope for the utopian?
Popper says ‘no’. He has another argument that deals with this scenario. This argument is a slight variation on the first one, focusing on how values can change over time:
- (5) The ultimate aims/ends of society can change over time, i.e. what seemed desirable to a group of people at T1 may seem much less desirable at T2.
- (6) It would completely undermine any utopian project to allow for such changes in value over time: the purpose of a utopian project is to realise a particular blueprint for society.
- (7) Therefore, utopians will have an incentive to stamp out new alternative views, and they will do this by means of violence.
This argument is logically looser than the first. There is something of a leap from the premises to the conclusion. Nevertheless, I believe my reconstruction is fair to what Popper says in his essay. He has an enthymematic style of presentation that leaves some of the key premises unstated. Furthermore, the logical leap to the conclusion is shortened, somewhat, when we learn that Popper’s definition of violence includes “propaganda, the suppression of criticism and the annihilation of opposition”. In other words, it’s not just kidnapping and assassination that counts as violence.
This, however, leads me to two criticisms of Popper’s argument. The first is concerned with his definition of violence. I think Popper may be over-extending the definition of violence and as a consequence may be misdiagnosing the problem with utopianism. As Aldous Huxley famously said to George Orwell, what is likely going to be truly insidious about utopian (or ‘dystopian’ - the line between the two is thin) societies is not that they use violence to enforce their preferred vision, but that they use techniques of mind control to get you to agree with their vision. People won’t be afraid to express their true opinion for fear of retaliation from the regime; they will wholeheartedly agree with what the regime has to say. Now, to be clear, I think there is something less than ideal about such a society, but I don’t think it is because it leads to violence. I think it is problematic because of how it impacts on freedom of thought and autonomy. This suggests to me that ‘violence’ is not always the most appropriate concept to use to critique utopianism.
The second criticism, which is perhaps more significant, has to do with how Popper defines utopianism. He defines it as having a blueprint for the ideal society, fully formed, before one embarks on a political project. We could accept his definition as being purely stipulative, in which case his claims about the use of violence and suppression by a utopian regime might be plausible. But this would then cause us to overlook another prominent strand of utopian thought: the one that does not sketch out detailed blueprints for the ideal society, but rather thinks in terms of expanding frontiers of progress. There is a famous Oscar Wilde quote that captures this sentiment:
A map of the world that does not include utopia is not even worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which humanity is always landing. And when humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of utopias.
This progressive conception of utopianism would be more tolerant of the shifting sands of opinion over time. This might stem the impulse to violence that Popper sees in the utopian outlook. (This is not to mention the ‘meta-utopian’ philosophy of Robert Nozick, which is explicitly designed to address the problems of plurality and conflict).
2. What Political Ideals are Appropriate?
Popper goes beyond mere critique in his essay. Although dismissive of utopian projects, he wants to maintain some role for idealism in the political sphere. Indeed, Popper has an optimistic bent when it comes to the future. From whence does this optimism spring?
It is here that Popper’s ‘negative utilitarianism’ rears its head. Popper does not think that society should aim at realising optimal states of happiness and well-being in the future; rather, he thinks we should try to eliminate ‘concrete evils’ in the here and now. The elimination of such evils is all we need for political idealism (of a sort) to flourish.
You might wonder whether this ‘elimination of concrete evils’-strategy is substantially different from blueprint utopianism. Popper argues that it is. He does so for largely epistemic reasons, two of which figure prominently in his essay. These form quasi-independent lines of support for his political project.
(5) We have better knowledge/understanding of what it takes to eliminate concrete evils because we have direct and immediate acquaintance with them; we only know ideal situations through, often vague, imaginings.
(6) There is far greater intersubjective agreement about the most serious concrete evils than there is about ideal societies.
(7) Therefore, we ought to focus on eliminating concrete evils, not on blueprint utopianism.
There is something to be said for the premises of this argument. Concrete evils exist in the here and now. They are not merely hypothetical or potential. There are people suffering from war, disease, famine, displacement and so on. Even if we ourselves are not suffering, we can easily gain epistemic access to the suffering of others (if we are willing to expose ourselves to it). No one has similarly direct acquaintance with an ideal society. Furthermore, many people agree on the major ‘concrete evils’ that exist in the world today.
That said, I’m much less optimistic than Popper is on both of these fronts. I think there are two objections to his line of thinking. First, I think the distance between the elimination of evils and the realisation of ideals is shorter than he seems to think. Indeed, you could argue that identifying a concrete evil carries, by some necessary implication, an agreement on an ideal. In other words, if X is a concrete evil, then not-X (or the opposite of X or denial of X) is going to be a necessary element in the blueprint for an ideal society. If you draw together enough not-Xs, you might come up with something that looks an awful lot like a utopian political project.
To be fair, though, I think there is some conceptual distinction between the elimination of concrete evils and the realisation of ideals. If we take it that ‘great physical pain’ is a concrete evil, then the opposite of this (the ideal state) would be something like ‘great physical pleasure/joy’. It might seem like in identifying the concrete evil you, necessarily, develop a conception of the ideal. Nevertheless, trying to eliminate great physical pain, does not, by itself, mean that you are trying to bring about great physical pleasure. There is an intermediate state of being — one in which pain is absent — that you are trying to bring about. This is illustrated in the diagram below. Popper could argue that his political project is about aiming for these intermediate states, and so could deny the charge that it amounts to the same thing as utopianism.
This, however, leads me to the second objection to Popper’s argument. I think his argument is vulnerable to the same criticisms about conflict and plurality, and dynamic change, that he threw at blueprint utopianism. For one thing, I’m not at all convinced, as Popper seems to be, that there is widespread agreement on the most important concrete evils facing society today. Popper was writing in the mid-20th century when there may have been more agreement about this, particularly in the West, but I think that time has past. Just as there are incompatible hierarchies of value thwarting utopian projects, so too are there incompatible hierarchies of disvalue thwarting negative utilitarian projects. Different groups often disagree about what deserves priority. Furthermore, what counts as a concrete evil shifts over time. Once upon a time bullying and sexual harassment wouldn’t have got a look in when it came to identifying society’s greatest challenges; nowadays they are front and centre.
Ironically, I think this leads Popper to develop a utopian philosophy of his own, albeit one that is closer to the progressive model that I identified at the end of the last section. One of Popper’s main problems with blueprint utopianism seems to be that it treats current social orders as ‘mere means’ to an end. This can justify great evils. His preferred approach — progressive negative utilitarianism — doesn’t make this mistake:
We must not argue that a certain social situation is a mere means to an end on the grounds that it is a merely historical situation. For all situations are transient.
(Conjectures and Refutations, 486)
We should instead aim to eliminate currently identified concrete evils and, if and when we succeed with this, move on to newly identified evils. In this manner we can progressively asymptote towards a more ‘ideal’ society, without ever fixating on a particular blueprint or model.
I think there is some wisdom in this idea.