“If you actually succeed in creating a utopia, you’ve created a world without conflict, in which everything is perfect. And if there’s no conflict, there are no stories worth telling – or reading!” – Veronica Roth
A bunch of Neanderthals sitting around a fire jumping at shadows were primarily concerned with not being eaten by something fast and fanged. No doubt, one day the caveman with the biggest cranium cast his gaze about and dared to say, “I have a dream”, outlining his bold utopian vision of building a fence around the encampment that would keep the wolves at bay and let everyone get a good night’s sleep. One of the charming qualities of sentience is the ability to envision a better future for our species, and we’ve been strategizing on how to achieve that goal ever since we knapped our first flint. What is technology after all, except our method for reducing the natural fear and anxiety about where our next meal is coming from, bolster confidence in our ability to fend off predators, and make room in our busy days for dating or a quick nap? Thus our consistent obsession with creating heaven on earth, an existence we imagine to be free of doubt, cruelty, injustice, and wage slavery. From an evolutionary perspective, the optimal tactic is to strive for the maximum return with the minimum effort, which largely explains why more often than not our utopian visions involve a return to a glorious, idealized past, rather than reaching for a purely hypothetical state of being that we can create from the fruits of our imagination. It’s easier to return to a utopian past than it is to create a utopian future. Whether you foresee a backslide to the 1950’s, proof that Atlantis existed, confirmation that a master race of ancient aliens were busy manipulating our genetics and doling out advanced technology to primitives, or pining for the innocence of the Garden of Eden, what you are actually doing is firmly planting your utopia in a mythologized “Golden Age” that once existed, but through carelessness or hubris was simply misplaced.
Even robust utopian ideologies seemingly fabricated from whole cloth blithely suggest that they are rooted in a natural predecessor e.g. communism makes reference to the glory days of “primitive communism”, estranged from us through our alienation from the means of production. Rousseau’s fantasy about the “noble savage” imagined there was a majesty in the lifeways that preceded us, when in fact there was basically a whole lot of trying not to get impaled, killed by plague, or eaten. We’ve even romanticized the predator-prey relationship from the predator’s perspective, presuming that the predator derives some benefit from “the thrill of the hunt”, presumably because we can only assume that tearing through the tall grass and ripping something’s throat out when you want a snack has to be better than dying a monotonous death in a cubicle. Go ask your average lion. They would prefer the food came to them rather than having to chase it halfway across the veldt.
There is a certain lazy utility in regarding ourselves as degenerates, fallen angels that squandered our tickets to paradise, desperately trying to claw our way up out of the mud and murk to reassert our special dispensation to righteously rule over all the animals, minerals, and vegetables. Practically, this involves asking folks to reclaim what was originally theirs, rather than demanding they conceive of an alternate universe and the path to get there. Hence the ancient Greeks lauded the mythological perfection on earth of Hyperborea, or discussed the relative genius of Atlantean social order. Medieval monks quickly latched on to the notion of the idyllic Kingdom of Prester John where man and monster lived in harmony, and hidden deep in the Himalayas we still hope Shangri-la exists. If only we could tap into the ethos, the technology, or the moral superiority of bygone eras, or consult the Nine Wise Men of Ashoka, or bring back the twilight zone of Ward Cleaver’s suburban everytown, perhaps then we could be truly happy. We find comfort in the notion that the rise and fall of civilization is cyclical, because one simply needs to wait around long enough for the golden age to return, rather than actively applying our hearts and minds to building what should be instead of what might have been.
This is of course a trap. We imagine our predecessors to have had “secret knowledge”, be it how to organize society or how to marshal forgotten wisdom in the service of sweetness and light, but ignore the fact that hindsight wears a pair of rose-colored glasses. There is comfort in the notion that brilliant progenitor civilizations walked the earth before us and had this whole existence thing figured out, since this implies that utopia (however we happen to conceive of it) is and has been achievable in the distant past, and thus can be attained again in the near future. It is a peculiarity of modernity that we look back at our ancestors, and think that sparing the absence of our dubiously enlightened sense of individualism, they led more “authentic” human lives, or as succinctly observed by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “The ‘whole foods’ shopper feels that by buying organic he is ‘engaging in authentic experiences’ and imaginatively enacting a return to the utopian past with the positive aspects of modernity intact”. Similarly, we can attribute the collapse of ancient utopia to the same ignorance and evil of those who do not share our current vision of the perfect society. Our conceptions of Utopia, particularly those that hark back to reconceptualized blueprints of the great civilizations of the past only demonstrate both our actual unwillingness to change as well as our fundamental laziness. George Orwell rightly pointed out that “Nearly all creators of Utopia have resembled the man who has toothache, and therefore thinks happiness consists in not having a toothache. Whoever tries to imagine perfection simply reveals his own emptiness”, thus envisioning paradise as a resurrection of an earlier perfection would seem to be an exercise in infantile wish fulfillment, as if wonder could exist without work. Until humanity can realistically and honestly ask itself what a society would look like that truly served the best interests of all mankind and conflict was not suppressed, but productively managed , it would seem that Gunter Grass was accurate when he noted that, “Melancholy and utopia are heads and tails of the same coin”.