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Five and a Half Utopias

Illustrations by Robert Crawford

Despite its dismal record, the utopian impulse is by no means extinct. An eminent physicist looks at several of the guises in which utopian thinking is likely to appear during the century ahead -- and at the perils that lurk behind each one

by Steven Weinberg

(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two or part three.)

I USED to read a good deal of science fiction when I was a boy. Even though I knew pretty early that I was going to be a scientist, it wasn't the science that interested me in science fiction; it was the vision of future societies that, for better or worse, would be radically different from our own. This led me on from science fiction to utopian literature, to Plato's Republic, Thomas More's Utopia, and Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, and also to the literature of anti-utopias, to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984. I have been more interested in other things in recent years, but now that we are starting a new millennium, it is natural to start thinking again about what sort of utopia or anti-utopia might be waiting for us in the future.

There was a great deal of this sort of speculation at the end of the previous century. The characters in Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters (written exactly a hundred years ago) seem captivated by utopian dreams. Here, for instance, is Colonel Vershinin, in Act II:

In a century or two, or in a millennium, people will live in a new way, a happier way. We won't be there to see it but it's why we live, why we work. It's why we suffer. We're creating it. That's the purpose of our existence. The only happiness we can know is to work toward that goal.
Vershinin's hopes have not worked out so well in this century. The most influential utopian idea of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was socialism, which has failed everywhere. Under the banner of socialism Stalin's USSR and Mao's China gave us not utopias but ghastly anti-utopias. It is ironic that in the heyday of utopian thinking, in the nineteenth century, Karl Marx himself sneered at utopian thought, and claimed to be guided instead by a science of history. Of course, there is no science of history, but that's almost beside the point. Even if we could decide that some type of government or economy was historically inevitable, as Marx believed communism to be, it would not follow that this would be something we would like. If Marx had been an honest utopian, and recognized his responsibility to describe the society he wanted to bring into being, it might have been clearer from the beginning that the effort would end in tyranny. Hitler's Germany, too, started with utopian rhetoric: socialism combined with a maniac vision of a master race.
Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.

More on politics & society in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

More on arts & culture in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

Related links:

The Society for Utopian Studies
"An international, interdisciplinary association devoted to the study of utopianism in all its forms, with a particular emphasis on literary and experimental utopias."

Plato's Republic
The full text, posted by a political science professor at the College of New Jersey.

Thomas More
A site devoted to More's life and work. Includes a biography, a timeline, related links, and the full text of Utopia.

Edward Bellamy
"This is a growing collection of resources, excerpts, and original essays dedicated to the author of the most celebrated utopian novel of the nineteenth century." Includes a link to the complete text of Looking Backward.

Aldous Huxley
A biography, essays, a discussion forum, and links to related sites, including the complete text of Brave New World.

George Orwell Resources
A biography, photos, and links to Orwell's works online, including 1984.

Even so, I can't believe that we have seen the last of utopia-mongering. Indeed, five nonsocialist styles of utopia seem (in various combinations) to be emerging in public debate. We had better watch out for people selling these utopias; each of these visions abandons one or more of the grand causes -- equality, liberty, and the quality of life and workthat motivated the best utopian ideas of the past.

Illustrations by Robert Crawford

The Free-Market Utopia

Government barriers to free enterprise disappear.
Governments lose most of their functions, serving only to punish crimes, enforce contracts, and provide national defense. Freed of artificial restraints, the world becomes industrialized and prosperous.

THIS style of utopia has the advantage of not depending on any assumed improvements in human nature, but that doesn't mean we have to like it. If only for the sake of argument, let's say that something (productivity? gross national product? Pareto efficiency?) is maximized by free markets. Whatever it is, we still have to decide for ourselves whether this is what we want to be maximized.

One thing that is clearly not maximized by free markets is equality. I am talking not about that pale substitute for equality known as equality of opportunity but about equality itself. Whatever purposes may be served by rewarding the talented, I have never understood why untalented people deserve less of the world's good things than other people. It is hard to see how equality can be promoted, and a safety net provided for those who would otherwise fall out of the bottom of the economy, unless there is government interference in free markets.

Not everyone has put a high value on equality. Plato did not have much use for it, especially after the Athenian democracy condemned his hero, Socrates. He explained the rigid stratification of his Republic by comparing society to the human soul: the guardians are the rational part; the soldiers are the spirited part; and the peasants and artisans are the baser parts. I don't know whether he was more interested in the self as a metaphor for the state or the state as a metaphor for the self, but at any rate such silly analogies continued for two millennia to comfort the comfortable.

In the course of time the dream of equality grew to become an emotional driving force behind utopian thinking. When English peasants and artisans rebelled against feudalism in 1381, their slogan was the couplet preached by John Ball at Blackheath: "When Adam delved, and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" The French Revolution adopted the goal of equality along with liberty and fraternity; Louis-Philippe-Joseph, duc d'Orléans, wishing to gain favor with the Jacobins, changed his name to Philippe-Egalité. (Neither his new name nor his vote for the execution of Louis XVI saved the duke from the Terror, and he joined the King and thousands of other Frenchmen in the equality of the guillotine.) The central aim of the socialists and anarchists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was to end the unequal distribution of wealth. Bellamy followed Looking Backward with a sequel titled simply Equality. It is a cruel joke of history that in the twentieth century the passion for equality has been used to justify communist states in which everyone was reduced to an equality of poverty. Everyone, that is, except for a small number of politicians and celebrities and their families, who alone had access to good housing, good food, and good medicine. Egalitarianism is perhaps the aspect of utopian thinking that has been most discredited by the failure of communism. These days anyone who urges a more equal distribution of wealth is likely to be charged with trying to revive the class struggle.

From the archives:

"Against Inequality," by Jack Beatty (April, 1999)
A valiant proposal to give every American twenty-one-year-old the same chance to prosper (or fail).

"Today's Most Mischievous Misquotation," by Jonathan Schlefer (March, 1998)
Adam Smith did not mean what he is often made to say.

Of course, some inequality is inevitable. Everyone knows that only a few people can be concert violinists, factory managers, or major-league pitchers. In revolutionary France the ideal of equality soon gave way to the carrière ouverte aux talents. It was said that each soldier in Napoleon's army carried a marshal's baton in his knapsack, but no one expected that many soldiers would get to use it. For my part, I would fight against any proposal to be less selective in choosing graduate students and research associates for the physics department in which I work. But the inequalities of title and fame and authority that follow inexorably from inequalities of talent provide powerful spurs to ambition. Is it really necessary to add gross inequalities of wealth to these other incentives?

This issue cannot be judged on purely economic grounds. Economists tell us that inequality of compensation fulfills important economic functions: just as unequal prices for different foods help in allocating agricultural resources to produce what people want to eat, so unequal rewards for labor and for capital can help in directing people into jobs, and their money into investments, of the greatest economic value. The difference between these various inequalities is that in themselves, the relative prices of wheat and rye are of no importance; they only serve the economic function of helping to adjust production and resources. But whatever its economic effects, gross inequality in wealth is itself a social evil, which poisons life for millions.

Those who grew up in comfortable circumstances often have trouble understanding this. They call any effort to reduce inequality "the politics of envy." The best place for the well-to-do to get some feeling for the damage done by inequality may be American literature, perhaps because America led the world in making wealth the chief determinant of class. This damage is poignantly described in the novels of Theodore Dreiser, who grew up poor during the Gilded Age, when inequality of wealth in America was at its height. Or think of Willa Cather's story "Paul's Case." The hopeless longing of the boy Paul for the life of the rich drives him to give up his whole dreary life for a few days of luxury.

Another thing that is manifestly not maximized by free markets is civilization. By "civilization" I mean not just art museums and grand opera but the whole range of public and private goods that are there not merely to help keep us alive but to add quality to our lives. Everyone can make his or her own list; for me, civilization includes classical-music radio stations and the look of lovely old cities. It does not include telemarketing or Las Vegas. Civilization is elitist; only occasionally does it match the public taste, and for this reason it cannot prosper if not supported by individual sacrifices or government action, whether in the form of subsidy, regulation, or tax policy.

The aspect of civilization that concerns me professionally is basic scientific research, like the search for the fundamental laws of nature or for the origins of the universe or of life -- research that cannot be justified by foreseeable economic benefits. Along with all the good things that have come from the opening of free-market economies in Eastern Europe, we have seen the devastation in those countries of scientific establishments that cannot turn a profit. In the United States the opening of the telephone industry to free-market forces has led to the almost complete dismantling of pure science at the Bell Laboratories, formerly among the world's leading private scientific-research facilities.

It might be worthwhile to let equality and civilization take their chances in the free market if in return we could expect that the withering of government would serve as a guarantee against oppression. But that is an illusion. For many Americans the danger of tyranny lies not in government but in employers or insurance companies or health-maintenance organizations, from which we need government to protect us. To say that any worker is free to escape an oppressive employer by getting a different job is about as realistic as to say that any citizen is free to escape an oppressive government by emigrating.


(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two or part three.)

Steven Weinberg teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1979 and the National Medal of Science in 1991. Weinberg is the author of The First Three Minutes (1977) and Dreams of a Final Theory (1992).

Illustrations by Robert Crawford.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 2000; Five and a Half Utopias - 00.01; Volume 285, No. 1; page 107-115.