Overview:

Why utopian ideologies are unlikely to take us all the way to utopia.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

We live in an unhappy valley between two heavenly peaks.

Conservative political ideologies look to the past. They imagine a golden age, a mythical era of stability and contentment, now lost to decadence and corruption.

Liberal political ideologies look to the future. They envision a futuristic utopia of peace and prosperity, the ideal end state of humanity, but held back by bigotry and greed.

Obviously, these ideologies have stark differences when it comes to why the world is unsatisfactory and who the villains are. But either way, true believers are stuck in the dissatisfied middle, always longing for another, better time. The more fervently we believe in either of them, the more the present suffers by comparison.

Some people might want to add another similarity to the list: utopian ideologies, whether on the left or the right, are dangerous. There’s something about the dream of a perfect world that often serves to justify violence in this one.

For the greater good

Consider the example of Lenin and the Bolshevik revolutionaries who created the USSR. In the 1917 February Revolution and subsequent October Revolution, they overthrew two repressive governments ruled by the Tsarist royal family. They demanded elections, which happened on November 25, 1917. This could have been a tale of democratic triumph… but when the votes were tallied, the Bolsheviks came in second. They responded by dissolving the parliament by force and taking over anyway. We know how the rest of the story goes.

Lenin and the communists disdained democracy because they believed, in accordance with Marx’s theories of class struggle, that communism was the predestined end of history and that their ultimate triumph was inevitable. So, if they lose an election, why not ignore it and seize power anyway? It was only slightly speeding up what was bound to happen in the end. To them, it was like reading the first chapter of a book and then skipping to the conclusion.

On the other end of the spectrum, yet seeking a similar outcome for similar reasons, are the January 6 insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol at Donald Trump’s behest. They believed that, because he would “make America great again” (a utopian slogan, albeit a degraded one), anything and everything was permissible to ensure he got a second term. That included overturning the election by force, taking members of Congress hostage and even lynching the Vice President. It was only by luck that their plans failed and that America didn’t fall to a coup d’etat like Russia did.

When you look at these examples and others, it’s tempting to conclude that the tree of utopia will always be watered with the blood of the innocent. Many thinkers have proclaimed that utopianism is fatally susceptible to Pascal’s Wager: because its advocates believe the payoff is infinite, they’ll inevitably conclude that creating (or recreating) an earthly heaven is worth any price. That makes utopianism inherently dangerous.

But hold on a minute. Is utopianism really the only ideology that has this problem?

Utopia isn’t sexy

Ordinary, grubby, non-utopian politics has wrought horrors of its own. Countless atrocities have been committed by those who had no aspirations of creating heaven on earth—people who just wanted to make money, or who just wanted to see their offspring take the throne, or who just wanted to ensure the lesser races they subjugated would keep to their place.

If utopians are guilty of violence, they’re not uniquely guilty of it. The problem isn’t lofty goals. The problem is that humans are all too willing to resort to violence to achieve our goals, no matter what they are. Yes, blood has been spilled in the name of utopia. But rivers of blood have also been shed in the name of monarchy, of empire, of colonialism, of racial supremacy, of religious zeal, of spreading democracy, of free-market capitalism, or any other belief or ideology you’d care to name.

Still, those thinkers have a point. Perhaps there is a danger in utopianism—but it’s not the vision of a perfected world. Rather, it’s the belief that reaching that world is simple. It’s the belief that there’s just one obstacle that has to be cleared away, just one thing holding us back, and if we remove that obstacle, utopia will spring up around us like morning dew.

I believe it’s absolutely possible to create a better world. But I don’t believe it will be simple.

It won’t be a single moment of glory where workers rise up and seize the means of production, or the capitalist heroes go on strike against the ungrateful moochers. It won’t be Hollywood, with cool one-liners and explosions. It won’t be sexy.

Most progress is boring

On the contrary, progress is almost always achieved through slow improvement and incremental reform. We fixate on the rare instances of revolutionary change, because those are exciting. However, those moments are the exceptions. The mundane truth is that most progress is quiet, subtle, and unspectacular. It’s the accumulation of small changes that each make the world a slightly better place.

It’s not the wars that the good guys win, defeating the villains through heroic violence. It’s the wars that never happen because of better diplomacy.

It’s not crowning the king or electing the chosen one who will rule wisely and save us all. It’s tweaking the system to make it more transparent and more responsive, so that we can elect the same fallible, self-interested, occasionally corrupt people as always, but end up with somewhat better policies.

It’s not vanquishing the fascists in a climactic street fight or winning the crowd over with a rousing speech. It’s the old guard dying peacefully of natural causes, passing on the world to the slightly smarter, more compassionate next generation.

No one wants to be a stepping stone

There’s one more cautionary note for overzealous revolutionaries. Everyone who believes in utopia believes their ideology is the vessel that will take us there. No one ever believes that their ideology is just a stepping stone to something better that will eventually replace it. But, realistically, that will be the case for nearly all of them. Nothing is outdated faster than an ideological manual.

Just as most progress happens slowly, most utopian dreams and ambitious philosophies make, at most, a small improvement to the course of the world. Nearly all of them are born in response to a specific set of circumstances, and when those conditions change, they die out. If there’s a belief system or a political platform that will take us all the way to that far shore, it’s likely that it hasn’t been invented yet.

I don’t mean any of this as a knock against progressives who dream of a better world. On the contrary, I’m in their corner. I’m a utopian by nature. But I’m also a skeptic by temperament. Too many grand philosophies have wrecked on the rocks of human nature—or worse, dissolved into tyranny when people stubbornly refused to conform to their assigned ideological roles.

We should do what we can to make the world a better place, but we should try to stay humble about it. It’s fine to cast our sight toward that heavenly peak, so long as we bear in mind that we’re unlikely to reach it in our lifetimes. We need to make peace with living in this messy, perilous time of potential and despair, of plans made and left undone—in the middle of history, rather than at its end.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...