[Paleopsych] Dissent: Ellen Willis: Ghosts, Fantasies, and Hope (fwd)

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Subject: Dissent: Ellen Willis: Ghosts, Fantasies, and Hope

Ellen Willis: Ghosts, Fantasies, and Hope
Dissent Magazine - Fall 2005

[Clearing off the deck: Joel Garreau's new book, _Radical Evolution: The 
Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies--and What It Means to be 
Human_ (NY: Doubleday, 2005) has just arrived. I am signed up to review it for 
_The Journal of Evolution and Technology_ and commenced reading it at once. 
Accordingly, I have stopped grabbing articles to forward until I have written 
my review *and* have caught up on my reading, this last going on for how many 
ever weeks it takes. I have a backlog of articles to send and will exhaust them 
by the end of the year. After that, I have a big batch of journal articles I 
downloaded on my annual visit to the University of Virginia and will dole our 
conversions from PDF to TXT at the rate of one a day. I'll also participate in 
discussions and do up and occasional meme. But you'll be on your own in 
analyzing the news. I hope I have given you some of the tools to do so. As I go 
through my backlog of the TLS, New Scientist, and Foreign Policy, I'll send 
choice articles your way, Foreign Policy first, since that hits the two themes 
I am striving (vainly!) to concentrate on, "deep culture change" and 
"persistence of difference."]

Picture Imperfect:
Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age
by Russell Jacoby
Columbia University Press, 2005 211 pp $24.95

For most of my politically conscious life, the idea of social
transformation has been the great taboo of American politics. From the
smug 1950s to the post-Reagan era, in which a bloodied and cowed left
has come to regard a kinder, gentler capitalism as its highest
aspiration, this anti-utopian trend has been interrupted only by the
brief but intense flare-up of visionary politics known as "the
sixties." Yet that short-lived, anomalous upheaval has had a more
profound effect on my thinking about the possibilities of politics
than the following three decades of reaction. The reason is not (to
summarize the conversation-stopping accusations routinely aimed at
anyone who suggests that sixties political and cultural radicalism
might offer other than negative lessons for the left) that I am stuck
in a time warp, nursing a romantic attachment to my youth, and so
determined to idealize a period that admittedly had its politically
dicey moments. Rather, as I see it, the enduring interest of this
piece of history lies precisely in its spectacular departure from the
norm. It couldn't happen, according to the reigning intellectual
currents of the fifties, but it did. Nor--in the sense of ceasing to
cast a shadow over the present--can it really be said to be over, even
in this age of "9/11 Changed Everything."
That the culture war instigated by the 1960s revolt shows no signs of
abating thirty-some years later is usually cited by its left and
liberal opponents to condemn it as a disastrous provocation that put
the right in power. Yet the same set of facts can as plausibly be
regarded as evidence of the potent and lasting appeal of its demand
that society embrace freedom and pleasure as fundamental values. For
the fury of the religious right is clearly a case of protesting too
much, its preoccupation with sexual sin a testament to the magnitude
of the temptation (as the many evangelical sex scandals suggest).
Meanwhile, during the dot-com boom, enthusiastic young free marketeers
fomented a mini-revival of sixties liberationism, reencoded as the
quest for global entrepreneurial triumph, new technological toys, and
limitless information. Was this just one more example of the amazing
power of capitalism to turn every human impulse to its own
purposes--or, given the right circumstances, might the force of desire
overflow that narrow channel? If freedom's just another word for
nothing left to lose, as Janis Joplin-cum-Kris Kristofferson famously
opined, this could be a propitious moment to reopen a discussion of
the utopian dimension of politics and its possible uses for our time.
After all, the left has tried everything else, from postmodern
rejection of "master narratives" and universal values to Anybody But

Russell Jacoby, one of the few radicals to consistently reject the
accommodationist pull, has been trying to nudge us toward such a
conversation for some time. Picture Imperfect is really part two of a
meditation that Jacoby began in 1999 with The End of Utopia, a
ferocious polemic against anti-utopian thought. Both books trace the
assumptions of today's anti-utopian consensus to the thirties and
forties, when liberal intellectuals--most notably Karl Popper, Hannah
Arendt, and Isaiah Berlin--linked Nazism and communism under the
rubric of totalitarianism, whose essential characteristic, they
proposed, was the rejection of liberal pluralism for a monolithic
ideology. In the cold war context, Nazism faded into the background;
the critique of totalitarianism became a critique of communism and was
generalized to all utopian thinking--that is, to any political
aspiration that went beyond piecemeal reform. As the logic of this
argument would have it, attempts to understand and change a social
system as a whole are by definition ideological, which is to say
dogmatic; they violate the pluralistic nature of social life and so
can only be enforced through terror; ergo, utopianism leads to mass
murder. Never mind that passionate radicals such as Emma Goldman
condemned the Soviet regime in the name of their own utopian vision or
that most of the past century's horrors have been perpetrated by such
decidedly non-utopian forces as religious fanaticism, nationalism,
fascism, and other forms of racial and ethnic bigotry. (Jacoby notes
with indignation that some proponents of the anti-utopian syllogism
have tried to get around this latter fact by labeling movements like
Nazism and radical Islamism "utopian"--as I write, David Brooks has
just made use of this ploy in the New York Times--as if there is no
distinction worth making between a universalist tradition devoted to
"notions of happiness, fraternity, and plenty" and social "ideals"
that explicitly mandate the mass murder of so-called inferior races or
the persecution of infidels.)
In the post-communist world, Jacoby laments, the equation of utopia
with death has become conventional wisdom across the political board.
The End of Utopia is primarily concerned with the impact of this brand
of thinking on the left; it attacks the array of "progressive"
spokespeople who insist that we must accept the liberal welfare state
as the best we can hope for, as well as the multiculturalists who have
reinvented liberal pluralism, celebrating "diversity" and
"inclusiveness" within a socioeconomic system whose fundamental
premises are taken for granted. With Picture Imperfect, Jacoby takes
on larger and more philosophical questions about the nature of utopia
and of the human imagination--too large, actually, to be adequately
addressed in this quite short book, which has a somewhat diffuse and
episodic quality as a result. Still, the questions are central to any
serious discussion of the subject, and it helps that they are framed
by a more concrete project: to rescue utopian thought from its
murderous reputation as well as from the more mundane charge that it
is puritanical and repressive in its penchant for planning out the
future to the last detail.
To this end, Jacoby distinguishes between two categories of
utopianism: the dominant "blueprint" tradition, exemplified by Thomas
More's eponymous no place or Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, and
the dissident strain he calls "iconoclastic" utopianism, whose concern
is challenging the limits of the existing social order and expanding
the boundaries of imagination rather than planning the perfect
society. While he does not simply write off the blueprinters--fussy as
their details may be, he regards them as contributors to the utopian
spirit and credits them with inspiring social reforms--his heroes are
the iconoclasts, beginning with Ernst Bloch and his 1918 The Spirit of
Utopia, and including a gallery of anarchists, refusers, and mystics
ranging from Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse to
Gustav Landauer and Martin Buber.
The iconoclastic tradition is mainly Jewish, and Jacoby, in an
interesting bit of discursus, links it to the biblical prohibition of
idolatry. Just as the Jews may neither depict God's image nor
pronounce God's name, so the iconoclasts avoid explicit images or
descriptions of the utopian future. Further, Jacoby argues, in the
Kabbala and in Jewish tradition generally, the Torah achieves full
meaning only through the oral law: "The ear trumps the eye. Alone, the
written word may mislead: it is too graphic." Similarly, the future of
the iconoclasts is "heard and longed for" rather than seen. Here,
Jacoby's analysis intersects with a fear he has long shared with his
Frankfurt School mentors--that a mass culture obsessed with images
flattens the imagination and perhaps destroys it altogether. From this
perspective, the iconoclasts' elision of the image is itself radically

Is it also impossibly abstract? "The problem today," Jacoby recognizes
in his epilogue, "is how to connect utopian thinking with everyday
politics." Even as utopianism is condemned as deadly, it is at the
same time, and often by the same people, dismissed as irrelevant to
the real world. Jacoby will have none of this; he rightly insists,
"Utopian thinking does not undermine or discount real reforms. Indeed,
it is almost the opposite: practical reforms depend on utopian
dreaming." Again, the sixties offers many examples--particularly its
most successful social movement, second wave feminism, which achieved
mass proportions in response to the radical proposition that men and
women should be equals not only under the law or on the job but in
every social sphere from the kitchen to the nursery to the bedroom to
the street. (As one of the movement's prominent utopians, Shulamith
Firestone, put it, the initial response of most women to that idea
was, "You must be out of your mind--you can't change that!") Yet it
seems likely that the relationship of the utopian imagination and the
urge to concrete political activity is not precisely one of cause and
effect; rather, both impulses appear to have a common root in the
perception that something other than what is is possible--and
necessary. We might think of iconoclastic utopians as the inverse of
canaries in the mine: if they are hearing the sounds of an ineffable
redemption, others may already be at work on annoyingly literal
blueprints, and still others getting together for as yet obscure
political meetings. So the formulation of the problem may need to be
fine-tuned: what is it that fosters, or blocks, that sense of
possibility/necessity? Why does it seem so utterly absent today
(you're out of your mind!), and how can we change that?
These questions are an obvious project for a third book, though it's
one Jacoby is unlikely to write: he is temperamentally a refusenik,
like the iconoclasts he lauds, more attuned to distant hoofbeats than
to spoor on the ground that might reward analysis. It is perhaps this
bias that has kept him from seeing one reason why the anti-utopian
argument has become so entrenched: although there is perversity in it,
and bad faith, there is also some truth. Jacoby is no fan of
authoritarian communism, but he is wrong in thinking he can simply
bracket that disaster or that there is nothing to be learned from it
that might apply to utopian movements in general. The striking
characteristic of communism was the radical disconnection between the
social ideals it professed and the actual societies it produced.
Because the contradiction could never be admitted, whole populations
were forced to speak and act as if the lies of the regime were true.
It is not surprising that victims or witnesses of this spectacle would
distrust utopians. Who could tell what even the most steadfast
anti-Stalinists might do if they actually gained some power? Who could
give credence to phrases like "workers' control" or "women's
emancipation" when they had come to mean anything but? Jacoby
persuasively analyzes 1984 to show that it was not meant as an
anti-socialist tract, yet he never mentions the attacks on the misuse
of language that made Orwell's name into an adjective.
Communism was corrupted by a scientific (or more accurately,
scientistic) theory of history that cast opponents as expendable, a
theory of class that dismissed bourgeois democratic liberties as
merely a mask for capitalist exploitation, and a revolutionary
practice that allowed a minority to impose dictatorship. Similar
tropes made their way into the sixties' movements, in, for instance,
the argument that oppressors should not have free speech or that the
American people were the problem, not the solution, and the proper
function of American radicals was to support third world
anti-imperialism by any means necessary, including violence. A milder
form of authoritarianism, which owed less to Marxism than to a
peculiarly American quasi-religious moralism, disfigured the
counterculture and the women's movement. If the original point of
these movements was to promote the pursuit of happiness, too often the
emphasis shifted to proclaiming one's own superior enlightenment and
contempt for those who refused to be liberated; indeed, liberation had
a tendency to become prescriptive, so that freedom to reject the
trappings of middle-class consumerism, or not to marry, or to be a
lesbian was repackaged as a moral obligation and a litmus test of
one's radicalism or feminism. Just as communism discredited utopianism
for several generations of Europeans, the antics of countercultural
moralists fed America's conservative reaction.

But it's not only corruption that distorts the utopian impulse when it
begins to take some specific social shape. The prospect of more
freedom stirs anxiety. We want it, but we fear it; it goes against our
most deeply ingrained Judeo-Christian definitions of morality and
order. At bottom, utopia equals death is a statement about the wages
of sin. Left authoritarianism is itself a defense against anxiety--a
way to assimilate frightening anarchy into familiar patterns of
hierarchy and moral demand--as is the fundamentalist backlash taking
place not only in the United States but around the world. Jacoby links
the decline of utopian thought to the collapse of communism in 1989,
and that is surely part of the story, but in truth the American
backlash against utopianism was well underway by the mid-seventies.
The sixties scared us, and not only because of Weatherman and Charles
Manson. We scared ourselves.
How did the sixties happen in the first place? I'd argue that a
confluence of events stimulated desire while temporarily muting
anxiety. There was widespread prosperity that made young people feel
secure, able to challenge authority and experiment with their lives.
There was a vibrant mass mediated culture that, far from damping down
the imagination, transmitted the summons to freedom and pleasure far
more broadly than a mere political movement could do. (Jacoby is on to
something, though, about the importance of the ear: the key mass
cultural form, from the standpoint of inciting utopianism, was rock
and roll.) There was a critical mass of educated women who could not
abide the contradiction between the expanding opportunities they
enjoyed as middle-class Americans and the arbitrary restrictions on
their sex. There was the advent of psychedelics, which allowed
millions of people to sample utopia as a state of mind.
Those were different times. Today, anxiety is a first principle of
social life, and the right knows how to exploit it. Capital foments
the insecurity that impels people to submit to its demands. And yet
there are more Americans than ever before who have tasted certain
kinds of social freedoms and, whether they admit it or not, don't want
to give them up or deny them to others. From Bill Clinton's
impeachment to the Terri Schiavo case, the public has resisted the
right wing's efforts to close the deal on the culture. Not
coincidentally, the cultural debates, however attenuated, still
conjure the ghosts of utopia by raising issues of personal autonomy,
power, and the right to enjoy rather than slog through life. In
telling contrast, the contemporary left has not posed class questions
in these terms; on the contrary, it has ceded the language of freedom
and pleasure, "opportunity" and "ownership," to the libertarian right.
Our culture of images notwithstanding, it cannot fairly be said that
Americans' capacity for fantasy is impaired, even if it takes
sectarian and apocalyptic rather than utopian forms. If anxiety is the
flip side of desire, perhaps what we need to do is start asking
ourselves and our fellow citizens what we want. The answers might
surprise us.
Ellen Willis writes on cultural politics and political culture and
directs the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program in the Department
of Journalism at New York University. She is currently at work on a
book about the mass psychology of contemporary politics.

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