The Loss of Utopia : Progress and Control

Sandro Botticelli's Inferno Canto XVII
Sandro Botticelli’s Inferno Canto XVII

The most persistent – and, I would say, fundamental – questions in our lives are about the human condition. That – the human condition – is a way of being in the world, of an existence of the individual in a perpetual state of confusion – about who he is and where he belongs. About why things are as they are. Then, finally – about why – emphasised – why things are, in the first place. This circle of questions defines the human condition for, in the final analysis, the search for meaning in life is contained within it. The Circle of the Human Condition is, however, a self-perpetuating mystery. The more we seek the more we realise we don’t know. It is characteristic of human beings to find a new and different question every time we return to the Circle. There is never finality, certainty, closure – thus, The Circle of the Human Condition goes round and round, not getting to a conclusion because we never ever even begin. Is it something to do with what they say about problem solving – that if you are getting a different answer every time, there must be something wrong in your system of reckoning?

The way we build the foundations of our existence is through stories. In the form of religion, myths, song and lore. It is through these shared creations of the human imagination that we find some sort of reconciliation with the unknown – possibly the unknowable – and get on by with our lives in a more or less successful way. But it is only ever more or less, never as much as we would want it to be. This is especially true for our times.

I mean when we look at the larger picture – the way we are on this planet – generally speaking, we are disappointed by the way things are. Poverty, disease, war and all those things. We are left to find solace in vague ideas like the human spirit which gets on with things despite the odds. We console ourselves with small moments of happiness in individual lives. We say that – really – this what life is all about : cherishing the moment. We seemed to have convinced ourselves that the human nature is essentially selfish, with glimmers of culture constructed goodness which sparkles only now and then. Only fools dream of Utopia. Even our poetry frowns on the ways of man.

I believe this is a manifestation of a very small problem really. We have no story – it should be Story – for our times. We seem to have lost the art of dreaming Grand Visions of Change. Our lives, our politicking, is reduced to demands and supplies, problems and contingencies – getting on with things. That’s it. The Human Condition has deconstructed itself into a multitude of individual, personal crises : humans and their conditions.

In our post-modern times it seems like sacrilege to speak of a Common Story for the world. The hesitation – or ridicule! – is, in many ways , justified. After all, have not the most forcefully publicized ‘Grand Narratives’ of recent times been only thinly veiled attempts at perpetuating the politics of control. Take the Global War on terror, Islamic fundamentalism and their mother, The Clash of Civilizations thesis. Or even The End of History. But the fact that only essentially one sort of politics – of exclusivisim – has been articulating its visions is the problem of our times. We need grand narratives of inclusion, understanding and hope. Before I enter into an emotional polemic let me state my ideas on what such a narrative could be based on.

One fundamental problem, I most sincerely believe, that we must overcome is the compartmentalization of life. From the largest scale in the geographies of nation-states to the most crucial problem of alienation of individual from individual or society our world is characterized by rampant fracturisation and the crystallization of boundaries. Most boundaries of separation are created by power interests for the perpetuation and aggrandizement of their positions. We need a narrative that challenges these boundaries and offers individuals routes of escape from their hold on the way towards the formation of new, free and just associations. This is a challenge that needs to be addressed right from fractured neighbourhoods to geopolitical rivalries. What can be the basis of such routes of association? The idea of progress, in my view, is a lost ideal which could be revived to serve this crucial purpose.

The idea of progress has largely been discarded after its long history of hijack by colonialism, scientism and modernization. But I believe a more humane and cosmopolitan idea of progress could be developed by building on the contributions of this critique. The concept of Democracy has been rescued from its Euro-centric origins and revived to the status of a universal ideal such that even the most despotic regime professes to be ‘truly’ democratic! A similar rescue is in order for the idea of progress. An idea of progress centred on challenging the politics of control could act as a narrative of liberation that would have global appeal for all who seek one yet remain entrapped by the other. This idea of progress could address both spiritual and material questions of, well, the human condition. Spiritually, it could be built by uniting the advancements of science with the eternally relevant solace of both religious and other philosophy, with each one correcting the faults of the other. We could begin by accepting that the Great Divide between the scientific and religious search for meaning is a manifestation of the politics of control enforced through deceptive narratives and dubious interpretations of the history of man’s search for his place in the universe.

Materially, the idea of progress could be built on the demands for equity in the distribution and use of resources.

My arguments in this essay do not demand a return to ideology. We have suffered enough of that evil. Nor do I call for any new, overly intellectualized theory of justice. Of that, enough too. As we go round and round the Circle, we return, inevitably to the same problems. In our answers, too we reach, in one form or the other, similar conclusions, except for details influenced by the vagaries of time and space. In the stories we tell ourselves about who, or what, or why we are there are one or two simple words that tell us what we must do in life and living. Be kind. Be good. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Courtesy of Walters Art Museum and Newberry Librar
A map of Thomas More’s Utopia (Courtesy of Walters Art Museum and Newberry Library)

This is the sort of story we must have.

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