Everyone Knows Utopia Is Nowhere

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2020-03-21 21:00:00 No comments

Many of the things I've been jotting down lately start with some formulation along the lines of, If the last four years have taught us anything, it's ____. One common fill-in-the-blank for that particular Mad Lib goes something like, "the left/right split in politics is meaningless now." By this I don't mean bothsiderism ("the GOP and Democrats are the same"), but that any coherent analysis of our politics needs to come from looking at the difference between those who believe in incremental solutions — progressive and conservative alike — and those who believe in burning the whole house down and starting over.

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Some of this stems from my reading of Sir Karl Popper's The Open Society And Its Enemies, in which he examines the intellectual history of Western thought through a vaguely similar lens. On one hand you have the historicist view of life, the folks who believe the past can be and should be used to predict or determine the future — the closed society, as Popper called it. On the other, you have the folks who do not believe the future is written in any form, but that this is not something to shrink from, because it means human potential is inherently unbounded.

The whole point of an open society is not that everyone does whatever the hell they like (I remember existentialism being similarly misread, perhaps deliberately so), but that society remains open and responsive to whatever is thrown at it. Plato, one of Popper's earliest examples of a closed-society thinker, wanted to essentially bring history to a halt by creating a society where everything was inherently predictable and bounded. We now know that such a society would be brittle, but it's easy to believe you could crawl into such a society and pull the covers up to your chin and go to sleep. A society where nothing can change is as unsustainable as one where everything is forced to change constantly.

The question that presents itself now is, how do you protect the culture of piecemeal, incremental change/preservation from the asymmetrical warfare of those who simply want to watch the world burn (but for some reason don't think the flames will ever lick at their walls)? Because, if the last, uh, couple of weeks have taught us anything, it's that a fire has no off switch and obeys no masters. And that some people really do just want to watch the world burn.

Tags: Karl Popper philosophy politics