Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age, by Russell Jacoby

reviewed by Lauren Langman


These Are The Times That Try Men's Souls"
(Thomas Paine, The American Crisis, December 23, 1776)


n dark times hard-pressed people frequently fall into cynicism and, ultimately, nihilism. An infectious despair can persuade many citizens to accede to authoritarianisms of various stripes. But some exceptionally hardy spirits nevertheless manage to generate hope - moreover, hope of a progressive kind.  Given recent events, from 9/11 to Iraq to Katrina, idealism seems long gone and hope nearly extinct but, fortunately, Russell Jacoby comes along to reclaim some hope by mounting a rousing defense of Utopian moments throughout history. Starting with the Greek notion of a “Golden Age,” visionaries always have promised to end our social ills if only their transformative religion, economic or cultural agendas were enacted. Plato, for example, sketched a society based on supposedly perfect justice via imposition of a system of social ranking to insure each person received what s/he was due. The catch is that this supremely ordered Republic was run by philosopher kings, without a trace of popular input. This particular platonic idea always has a lot of traction, justifying top-down rule ranging from extinct dynasties to Leo Strauss and the neo-cons’ version of elitism.

From the affluent, peaceful and tolerant ‘ideal society,’ first dubbed Utopia by Thomas More, to the erotic and culinary pleasures of Fourier to the industrial era schema of Bellamy, Utopians are typically seen as foolish dreamers at best, or, at worst, as totalitarian murderers. How should we sensibly imagine Utopia now? For Jacoby, a Utopia must envision a society that promotes “peace, ease, plenty, equality, leisure and pleasure . . . linked brotherhood and communal work.” If so, what is to be done to realize it? Jacoby takes us on an exciting intellectual journey through Western thought, and some Muslim thinkers like Qutb too (whose fundamentalist visions are hardly Utopian). Jacoby’s Herculean task is to defend an “iconoclastic” tradition that usually is disinclined to give detailed blueprints, but prefers to critique what is wrong with actually existing society.

Jacoby begins with a robust critique of “anti-utopians” who have conflated utopianism with 20th Century totalitarianisms in which torture and mass murder are justified to achieve vile ends. A central aim of his analysis is to refute prominent “anti-utopians” Karl Popper, Jacob Talman, Hannah Arendt and Isaiah Berlin. In their youth Popper and Arendt had been sympathetic to socialism, but following the rise of Stalin and Hitler, they erroneously equated Fascism and Communism with utopianism, and utopianism with totalitarianism. Much like More, the anti-Utopians repudiated an optimistic vision they once embraced. But, while they had a total revulsion against Nazism, they equated Fascism and Communism as massive deformations of modernity and, for Arendt, of “radical evil”. (At Eichmann’s trial, evil was demoted, in one controversial form, to “banality”.) Ironically, after the second world war, they concentrated their critical energies on Marxism and Communism rather than on recently defeated Fascism. (This focus may be due the fact that scholars enjoy the history of ideas and as Arendt argued, Fascism had few serious intellectual antecedents and little legitimation.) Utopians of any kind were implicitly Marxists and, as such, rendered as fools, totalitarians or both - and easily dismissed.

Jacoby rejects this conflation of Fascism and Communism into a single totalitarian form, and denies that it represents a utopian vision. He argues that the mass violence of the conflicts of the 20th century stemmed instead from racist/ethnic, nationalist imperialist, and/or religious sectarian agenda, not from Utopian dreams of peace and plenty gone awry. In no way could a Utopian vision embrace domination, genocide and war, racial purity, xenophobia or the supremacy of a particular religion. Jacoby finds precious little that is remotely Utopian in Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hitler’s Nazism, Pol Pot’s Kampuchea or Milosevic’s greater Serbia. 

Nevertheless, the equation of utopianism with Nazi or Russian totalitarianism has become the “received wisdom” of scholars and politicians. This of course suits elites who can claim there is nothing better than their current policies – and any redistribution of wealth and/or power was demonized and rejected.  TINA universalized portrays any alternatives as discredited Utopian schemes reeking of totalitarianism. Stalin’s perversions of Marxism are used to discredit Marx’s genuine Utopian vision. Instead we should “think small” and celebrate democratic piecemeal reforms. Yet Utopias are not reformist enterprises; the human project can aim for more than better garbage pick up, universal education or health care delivery. Utopian vision can inspire actual reforms, but the result is not a Utopia. A Scandinavian Social Democracy, replete with tolerance of social and sexual diversity might be vastly preferable to the current (imploding) vision of Bush’s Evangelical Christianity, corporate control and imperialism, but the Nordic societies are not Utopias.

Jacoby argues that the classical texts of Huxley and Orwell were not simple anti-Utopian treatises as taught in most American high schools and colleges. Rather, these authors attempted to point out certain inherent dangers in modern societies. For Huxley, the consumerism of Fordist America enabled privatized hedonism to become a means of social control. Shopping malls, real and virtual, dispense new forms of Soma. (Marcuse would later argue that “repressive de-sublimation” displaced critical thought and sustained domination.)  Post Fordist America has not only witnessed a consumerism on steroids, but steroids as consumer goods. Orwell feared the potentials of total domination by the State, but Orwell was a life-long socialist who was concerned that his work was used to discredit socialism. We might well note that the Bush administration, more than any other, has embraced “double speak”, blatant lies and permanent war [on terror] as a justification for policy.

Jacoby is equally critical of “blueprint” Utopians who spell out architectural designs, spatial allocations, dress styles and diet requirements as well as daily schedules for work, play, dining, sleep and even sex. He argues that the prescribing of elaborate details and regulations of what people must do in their everyday life to achieve “freedom” and personal fulfillment is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. To rigidly organize a society through dictatorial schemes cannot a Utopia make-no matter how affluent its people or how often they copulate. But even that tradition became exhausted insofar as it has become more difficult to imagine the future. In response to the growing regulation of the “disenchanted” modern world, romanticism not only flourished but, in subtle ways, influenced a number of thinkers.

For Jacoby, the essence of Utopianism is “iconoclasm,” rooted in the biblical commandment against uttering the name of God  or making graven images of God. “Ye shall make no idols nor graven image” (Lev.26:1). This injunction against representation of the unknown, articulated by Maimonides, was a way of resisting the modern tendency toward visualization. This legacy had a strong influence on the work of Karl Marx, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, and especially Martin Buber and Gerson Scholem whose work resurrected the Kabala, the mystical tradition in Judaism, and Gustav Landauer, a messianic Utopian who refused to spell out the details of what that Utopia might look like. Rather, he rejected a “cold, spiritless” Marxism as product of steam technology and instead chose a “poetic vision” of creativity, enthusiasm, harmony and solidarity.  The iconoclast  “vision”, unlike the sterile blueprint version, might easily lend itself to ephemeral dreams, but instead, it attempt to do no more than imagine the conditions in which a Utopia might take shape.

It was not accidental that the anti-utopians were largely Jewish and in some ways responding to the anti-Semitism of Hitler and Stalin.  So too were the “iconoclastic Utopians” influenced by their cultural roots of Messianic Judaism and its hopes for the return of the  Messiah - no matter what secular directions their work had taken them. For Bloch, Jews were motivated by a Utopian quest. Just as Buber saw mystical Judaism as a “pathway to Utopia”, his friend Gershom Scholem claimed that messianism was like an “anarchic breeze” of uncertainty, Jacoby hopes his message acts as the utopian “anarchic breeze” that animated Adorno, Benjamin, Block or Marcuse whose secular messianism is a more recent expression of the modern, acculturated Jew.   In this way, Jacoby sees the “iconoclastic” tradition rooted in the legacies of Jewish thought, including the warning of the prophets, as articulated by secular Jews.

The protestors and breakers of images would have us “hear” the future but not see it--lest any concrete depiction stifle what might more imaginatively be. Jacoby argues that “iconoclastic” utopians” foster a political imagination that offers genuine hope and possibility rather than the puritanical order of “blueprint” Utopians--even when it is sexually free. The iconoclastic tradition is critical of existing social arrangements, especially those that sustain domination, fragment the social and thwart human development and freedom. This theme is clear throughout the Frankfurt School’s tradition of critiques of capital, Instrumental Reason (technocratic logic), authoritarianism, the culture industries, consumerism and “one dimensional thought”. Instead they promise freedom, “real fellowship” and creative fulfillment, though they are not sure of the forms that will take.  Thus they are more likely to spell out what is wrong with the current world than offer any kind of picture of what a future world might look like. They reject icons.

Besides Jewish mysticism, certain strains of German romanticism influenced the iconoclast’s notions of Utopia--bordering on the mystical and spiritual. In Bloch’s work for example, while hope is rooted in the Freudian theory of dreams as wish fulfillments, his analyses of folk tales, music and stories hint at basic themes of freedom and equality.[1] Utopian thought yearns for the future, but will not chart the shape the future society will take. Yet at the same time, that vision must be shaped by legacies of the past and realities of the present; containing pain, frustrations and hope. In Bloch’s Freudian view the hope for the future is rooted in early childhood experiences. Early frustrations endure as desires for gratifications denied yet found in dreams and imaginaries that represent wish fulfillments. Jacoby suggest that Utopian dreams are rooted in childhood imaginations, though as Horkheimer warn, modernity conspires to snuff Utopian dreams. Moreover, unlike dreams, Utopias are shared and offer promises of actual realization. But such Utopias are not likely to be perfect, rather they are times and places that wisely accommodate the imperfections of people and their societies.

Picture Imperfect is a joy to read and an inspiration. His is a first rate mind, highly conversant with the religious, philosophical, intellectual and political traditions that inform the varieties of Utopian visions, including the anti-Utopian views. (It made me want to read Popper, Arendt, Buber etc. again.)  A short review can hardly address many of the questions he raises about religion, culture, politics, language and representation. Yes there are certain warranted criticisms. Jacoby clearly noted that Marx was a Utopian, and an “iconoclastic” one at that.  But there is a uncomfortable truth here and that “truth” must be considered. How did it happen that the move from the realm of necessity to freedom took a detour to Stalin’s gulags, purges and murders? Much the same question might be asked of Mao and his “cultural revolution” and “great leap backward.” While Jacoby justifiably critiques Arendt, Berlin and Popper, he needed to examine what led to implosion and deformation of the Utopian moment of Marx. Even Arendt moved from her earlier position on “radical evil” to a meditation on its banality, no less horrible for that. While leftists might be sympathetic with Jacoby’s analysis, we would like to see more of his take on why things went amiss.

Jacoby argued that anti-utopian thought, as well as the “iconoclastic” Utopians, were distinctively Jewish, and the distinctly messianic themes of the “iconoclasts”. But the line from Plato to More was hardly Jewish, nor were the French philosophes or German idealists and Romantics whose hopes and fears of the Enlightenment also shaped Utopian thought. Jacoby practically suggests that the critiques of anti Utopian thought, as well as the iconoclasts were reserved for the chosen people.  For a scholar critical of the Nazis, such sectarianism, even if benign, can be disconcerting. One can argue that there are Utopian discourses in other religious traditions.  Indeed many Christian sects oppose war, poverty and human degradation. For many of the secular left, the plurality of religious traditions is often lumped together and reduced to nothing but Evangelical Christianity. It might be further noted that many fundamentalists share the same critique of modernity as does the secular left. As Thomas Frank cogently argued, the folks in Kansas, and other places that supported W, are facing real pain, but secular politics does not speak a language they can understand so as to explain the causes of their suffering. They seek a “better world” but expect it either to follow the Rapture or blossom in the next life. To be sure their “better world” seems more like a “blueprint” Utopia, overburdened with rules, regulations and prohibitions that deny the freedom and fulfillment Utopias promise--and perhaps what's worse, would end sex as we know it.

The present age of cynicism and withdrawal from the society is not conducive to Utopian thought. What is left of the left is highly fragmented. The narcissism of “petty political differences” often precludes a united stance so as to weaken all. Similarly, the  demoralized academic left has had to weather a number of storms beginning with the marginalization of leftists from the disciplinary mainstreams. The fall of the USSR was alleged to discredit Marx and Utopianism. This has led many academics to question the legitimacy of the academic left. Moreover, the late and not very great postmodern fad rejected any kind of grand narratives as totalizing, which in turn left little space for Utopian imaginaries of a just world and good life.  Finally, while progressive academics may support social movements, most such movements seek limited reforms rather than the “better world [that] is possible” as proclaimed by the WSF. Still, such movements proclaim goals of freedom, equality, democracy, justice and plenty that do remind us of the realities of the present and the possibilities of that better future.

While we might well despair, and disdain Utopian visions, I would argue that there are countertrends.  The Social Forum movement, while hardly the motor of world transformation, nevertheless represents a growing social force and a growing space where Utopian aspirations can be expressed. We can see how in the face of neo-liberal imperialism, aka American domination, a variety of left movements have sprung up and indeed, now color Latin American politics. Chavez and his Bolivarian revolution many not be Utopian, but turning oil profits into schools, hospitals and clinics does provide a better life for ordinary people in Venezuela.  I would note that the excesses of Bush’s religious zeal, matched only by his incompetence and ineptness from 9/11 to Katrina, prompted a mobilization of progressive forces. When three to four hundred thousand people protested the Iraq war in Washington, it was invisible in the American MSM, but widely covered on the various alternative news sources available on the Internet.  Might this be the dawning of an age of idealism?  It is too early to judge, but if it should happen, then surely a future historian will see that one reason this happened was the work of Russell Jacoby. As he warns us, “without a utopian impulse, politics turns pallid, mechanical, and often Sisyphean; it plugs leaks one by one, while the bulkheads give way and the ship founders. To be sure, the leaks must be stanched. Yet, we may need a new vessel, an idea easily forgotten as the waters rise and the crew and passengers panic.” But Jacoby gives us what Benjamin promised, "Only for the cause of those who have no hope is hope given us."


[1] Beethoven’s 9th, the Ode to Joy may do it for some, the Beatles Imagine for others. For some folks, science fiction offers hints at societies far more advanced than ours.