The fact that utopia means “noplace” is no excuse for attempting to conceive one. No doubt the closeness of this noplace to the Sartrian néant that separates us as “free” humans/language users from the object-world might be said to justify this construction. But the difference between the human capacity to set goals that can be worked toward, anticipating results that can be sought and verified against reality at every moment of the process, as opposed to our ability to construct fantasies of perfect harmony, is one that we cannot afford to forget. These categories do not exist in a vacuum. Today’s utopia is specifically postmodern.
We have witnessed the results of an older, modernist utopianism, that of Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot and their less sinister predecessors in the previous century. But in spite of these horrors, ultimately vanquished by the productivity of the market system (this applies even to the Soviet WWII victory with an army largely supplied by the West), the average Western intellectual retains his attachment to a utopian vision which may be characterized most simply as the “transcendence” or abolition of market society. What is most striking about this construction, however justified in terms of either political or psychoanalytic or “philosophical” theories of desire, is that what is to be substituted for the market is simply left blank. Postmodern utopianism asserts the ontological, that is, the anthropological necessity of a fantasy-transcendence of the market system. That this may in fact lead to the undermining of market society is in the era of WMD at least a possibility; but it is the utopianism itself that is truly peculiar and that deserves our scrutiny. My readers will not be surprised by my assertion that the postmodern West’s unthinking tolerance for utopian ideology is a consequence of its domination by the victimary, the not so distant echo of the Holocaust.
Utopias in themselves are infinitely boring. That utopian thinking need not in fact construct utopias might well be the major discovery of the postmodern intelligentsia. After the end of the USSR and the marketization of Red China, what more can be said about “transcending” the market system? More fool we. Nothing need be said; it suffices to reject the present social order to illustrate the power of postmodern utopianism.
The recent Occupy movement offers a spectacular, perhaps game-changing example: the absence of a “program” is trumpeted as a virtue, a rejection of dogmatism and ultimately of any potential new authoritarian center. Of course the market is precisely what cannot be dispensed with in a complex modern economy, however much it may be distorted by political considerations. But it is precisely what cannot be dispensed with that is unacceptable to the utopians; their noplace corresponds not merely to an unattainable ideal but to a completely empty concept; “socialism” is concreteness itself in comparison to the good social order as they conceive it.
No doubt one can find uses for this kind of thinking as generating an “outside” for the all-enveloping real social order, and those who continue to understand desire in terms of the individual mind are happy to engage in such analysis. The market system has a great if not unlimited capacity for absorbing the fantasies of its opponents, e.g., selling T-shirts imprinted with anti-capitalist slogans, driving new opponents to create modes of opposition that cannot be so easily recuperated. “Pure” utopianism is the ultimate such mode; however much it depends on, for example, donations of food and clothing from the productive sector of the economy, it maintains its purity by absenting itself from the market system, “occupying” a noplace within it. Protest, that is, resentment of the flawed reality of society, becomes proof of its own validity, and indeed, its point of departure in originary reciprocal morality cannot be denied. Programmatic suggestions are not the issue; the entire system is immoral and must be destroyed, following the infantile yet unimpeachable intuition that the natural human order is moral and egalitarian and thus “naturally” superior to the artificial order of civilization (Rousseau’s argument in the first Discourse).
To change the subject a bit, the reader of Girard’s Des choses cachées… is struck by a very different yet not unrelated utopian mode. The rediscovery of the true meaning of the Gospels and of Jesus’ stay on earth coincides with the failure of the systems of mimetic/rivalrous desire that govern our societies—call it in market terms competition—and the stark alternative of either mutual self-annihilation by WMD or universal acceptance of Jesus’ message of love. If we can all love each other, appreciating our real differences rather than the spurious ones invented by les doubles to falsely distinguish themselves, then we can live in peace. That is, once more, the marketplace, where rivalry and mimesis reign—but where the economy creates and flourishes, invents new needs and supplies old ones—must give way to… what, exactly? It requires little acumen to note the strange similarity between the world where distribution is somehow regulated by universal love and that described (we hope) ironically by Marx as a place where one hunts in the morning and fishes in the afternoon. Distribution, of labor and goods, just “happens.” And so once again we wonder: what is so terrible about the market that makes its indispensability so easy to deny? It is as though an entire social class spent all its intellectual energy denying the necessity of language, or art, or religion. Ah, religion…
The simplest way to understand the utopian hostility to the market system is to understand what the market system is in anthropological terms: the minimal system of exchange. This is not to say that there is an “ideal” “laissez-faire” market and that I am making a case for the end of government “interference” to prevent fraud, abuse, child labor, and what have you. Nor, in the other direction, am I suggesting that the present state of the market system in any given country is optimal. The point is that the market, liberal democracy, is in principle the least constrained system of exchange, the effective zero degree of exchange. Once this simple fact is understood, hatred of the market becomes much easier to explain: it is simply the refusal of reality. Perhaps the famously inscrutable Lacanian real is more easily understood in this manner than through individual psychology, whose explanation of human phenomena via famously obscure schemas reflects the fact that human individuals live not merely with mommy and daddy but in societies organized around the primal necessity of deferring violence.
The utopian impulse reflects the universal resentment of constraints on individual desire, constraints that emerge from the originary center of the scene and consequently implicate the entire social order as an obstacle to individual satisfaction. Utopia’s particular virulence in market society stems from the simple fact that the latter’s minimal constraints, although less severe than those of traditional, premodern society, cannot simply be attributed to one’s “condition,” e.g., as a serf, or artisan, or burgher. The marketplace dissolves the raison-d’être for these statuses without of course permitting everyone to rise to the top. Thus resentment against lords or priests becomes resentment against the system as a whole, and against those suspected of controlling it “behind the scenes.”
Yet as we have seen, these are the conditions of modern, not postmodern utopianism. The postmodern exists in the shadow of the victimary, and it is this element that makes today’s utopianism not merely “tragic” as in the 20th century, which ultimately survived quite successfully the paroxysms of fascism and communism. The horrors inflicted by these ideologies on the human community were far greater morally than materially. As a consequence of this moral damage, today’s apparently more benign utopianism is potentially capable of undermining the exchange system’s efficiency to the point where it may no longer be able to defend itself against premodern social orders hitherto kept at bay.
Modernist utopians believed in their utopias’ practical feasibility; they unrealistically dismissed the minimality of market society and thought some simpler, more communal and/or egalitarian form of organization was possible. In contrast, the postmodern or “pure” utopia has no idea about social organization other than rejection of the real. For, put in the simplest anthropological terms, desire itself is nothing other than the “rejection of the real,” and postmodern utopianism is the “pure” expression of desire.
No doubt the implementation of utopian ideology in the exemplary phenomenon we have just witnessed as Occupation, a term whose irony seems to have been lost on the unoccupied occupiers, involves an opening to self-indulgence by marginal persons attracted to the “movement” and whom the latter has by definition no way of rejecting, since it cannot set boundaries to its attack on the real. Yet what is fundamental in the postmodern rejection of the market/reality is its “purely” or abstractly victimary nature.
Mutatis mutandis this mode of opposition might remind us of the old anti-Semitism, from which it is not afraid to borrow occasional touches. Yet the purely statistical emphasis of the “99%” makes clear that the fundamental opposition is not to the “1%” but rather to the non-victimary. Designating only 1% of the population as non-victims, far from being the first step in “expropriating” them, is merely a way of making (almost) everyone a victim. The expropriators formerly threatened with expropriation were a more or less well-defined class, and one can say in partial exoneration of Marx and his friends that the idea of “socialism” having never been tried on a large scale in the modern world, its ultimate inanity was not obvious. In contrast, it is a simple tautology that unless a society becomes so equal that it becomes impossible to assign people to income levels, there will always be a top 1%. The ultimate logic of utopianism, which can never become explicit within utopian consciousness, is nevertheless made clear for those of us who can at least think ourselves outside it (taking into account that insofar as utopianism is an intrinsic characteristic of human desire we are all its bearers even when we resist its siren song and affirm the sovereign value of market society). Just as the nowhere-ness of utopia has never been clearer than in a movement that sets no goals and offers no solutions to the alienation of the marketplace other than the Being-there (Dasein) of humanity itself, so its victimary nature could not be made clearer than in the opposition of the 99% to the 1%. In sum, we are (almost) all victims, not just now, but indefinitely. By the iron logic of “capitalism,” 99% of us will be eternally trapped in the 99%. Class mobility cannot change this fact; for every rare individual who climbs into the 1%, someone must fall out of it. We can all hope to strike it rich, but never will more than 1% of us be part of the 1%.
No doubt there is no clinically “pure” utopianism even here; there is resentment against a specific class of wealthy financial speculators (“Wall Street”) who are understood to constitute an important fraction of the stigmatized 1%. But the various avatars of the “movement” have engaged in little political activism. Their point while protesting inequalities in wealth and income has been above all to establish the quasi-universality of victimary credentials. The Drumont-variety antisemite doesn’t really expect to expel or murder any Jews; no Jews were hurt in France during the demonstrations of the anti-dreyfusards, despite their cry of Mort aux Juifs! But the antisemite has nonetheless a template for action, one whose murderous potential was realized a generation later in Germany. In contrast, there is no eschatological recipe for eliminating the “1%”; victimary status has become an end in itself.
The victimary operates in postmodern society, one might think, independently of sheer utopianism. While the utopians “occupy” the city, victimary operatives in government, corporations, and universities are hard at work expanding “diversity” programs and the like. That the vast majority of these operatives, normally disdainful of those who sit in parks all day, offer the protesters a seemingly inexplicable sympathy should not however be written off as the mere expression of a similar “temperament.” Although there are undoubtedly forces in postmodern society that restrict the purview of the victimary, its lack of internal restrictions makes it potentially infinite. For unlike even the most extreme modernist critiques of “capitalism,” and Stalin and Hitler were certainly extreme, the postmodern critique is not constrained by the need to put something in its place.
John Rawls deserves our respect for his oxymoronic theoretical construct of an originary model of hierarchical human society. But victimary thinkers and “activists” do not listen to Rawls. They are more likely to listen to the Occupiers’ utopian message, which in turn can only encourage them in their domain-specific efforts to render the system more responsive to its “victims,” regardless of cost. We have seen recent EPA rulings and the like that impose vastly expensive reductions in pollutants, hazards, danger to “endangered species,” etc., following the logic that the life or health or even inconvenience of one victim is worth any number of billions of dollars from “corporations” and the like. Even under a Democratic administration, such excesses are controlled, thank God, by “crony capitalism.” But they do undermine the economy, and what is perhaps worse in the long term, they reflect a mindset that considers itself free from all attachment to the broader economy and devoted only to the protection of victims.
No doubt one of the virtues of liberal democracy is that it relies on markets in a broad as well as narrow sense to regulate the respective powers of such agencies, whose employees, like lawyers defending their clients’ interests, are not obliged to look beyond the responsibilities of their job description. But the near universal prevalence of victimary ideas in the intellectual marketplace, the universities, and the major news outlets, opposed only by inarticulate “interests” whose spokesmen increasingly appear either naive or hypocritical, lacks an adequate countervailing force. The favor, official and personal, shown to the Occupying utopians by mayors and other civic officials whose jobs are not only more complex than those of EPA analysts but who as human beings are bound to live their lives in society as a whole and not in the safe univocality of the laboratory, demonstrates a dangerously infantile negative faith in the marketplace, comparable to that of the wayward adolescent in his parents’ ability to get him periodically out of trouble. Leaving it only to “cronies” to defend the economy’s operations and the efficiencies they require forfeits all the good arguments to the utopians, and permits not merely “green” corruption à la Solyndra but the undermining of economic health, for example, in the energy sector, where Democrats are reluctant to allow any “victimization” of nature (i.e., offense to the environmental lobby) even when it would be to the benefit of their union clientele.
No doubt there exists a conservative intelligentsia, and the Republican party is not wholly incapable of putting forth rational arguments; the reentry of Gingrich into the presidential race suggests that conservatives are attracted to the man felt best equipped to argue their case. Either Gingrich or Romney has a good chance to win in 2012 and either would restrain the utopian forces, although restraining the “utopian” reality of the deficitary welfare state is a more difficult task. Meanwhile, the Occupy movement will have a much lower profile in the winter post-evacuation months, and may disappear altogether (or it may go underground, as Adam Katz suggests, on the model of SDS after 1968, although having lived through those days I have my doubts).
My fear is that OWS marks a new stage in the broad acceptance of postmodern nihilism, where the familiar victimary critique is transformed from mere complaining into a full-fledged non-praxis made available to all through emulation: just come sit with us in noplace and do nothing to bear witness to our rejection of a reality that makes (almost) all of us its victims—and sympathizers will supply all our necessities, at least for a while. Yet my fear may be excessive, and the movement may actually contribute to the electorate’s rejection of the (more) victimary party in 2012. I certainly hope so!