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August 24th 2010 print

Bill Muehlenberg

Beware Green utopianism

Utopianism has always been with us. Sadly it seems we have not learned from their mistakes. Thus it looks like we are set to make them all over again real soon.

With a newly elected Green MP, and four more Green Senators set to join the existing five in July, the nation and the media are beginning to pay some attention to the Greens as a political force. And many are rightly saying that with this new found political clout comes responsibility.

That is, all the lavish rhetoric and utopian spin of the Greens now needs to fit in with the real world. Idyllic rants shouted in protest must now give way to some political realism as the tough stuff of governance is entered into. But that will not come readily.

With such a long history of the rhetoric of revolt, getting back down to planet earth is not going to be easy, and will likely not come very quickly. Consider the acceptance speech of the Melbourne Green when he was elected on Saturday. A friend and I were listening to him and we broke out laughing.

He said, "We need more love in this world, not less”. Thanks for that Adam Bandt – that should solve all our problems in a hurry. Of course what he meant by that is we need more homosexual love, since on top of his priority list is same-sex marriage.

Indeed, he sounded like some old hippy spaced out on LSD as he rambled on about how all we need is love, love, love. Yeah, that is the stuff modern politics is made of all right – utopian hippy-isms. But that is really what the Greens are all about – a bunch of aging hippies, idealists and utopians who think they will somehow usher in heaven on earth with mindless platitudes.

Those cynical about the present state of Australian politics might welcome such romanticism, idealism, and starry-eyed vision for a new world order. But the problem is, there is nothing new under the sun, and we have seen utopians come and go for a number of centuries now. And the historical record is not looking too good.

Utopianism usually fails miserably, and/or imposes huge costs on the hapless victims of it. The Greens’ blueprint for utopia falls into this very category. Thus we need to learn the lessons of history here. Instead of becoming the guinea pigs of their social experimentation, let’s recall the lessons of the past.

Many have written about the utopian urge and its consequences. I have pulled a few older volumes off my shelves, blown off the dust, and revisited their words of wisdom. The first book worth highlighting is Thomas Molnar’s 1967 volume, Utopia: The Perennial Heresy.

In this important book the Hungarian-born Catholic social thinker rightly argues that utopianism is always heretical; and that in at least two senses. Says Molnar, “utopia is to the political realm what heresy is to the theological”. The idea of human perfectibility without Christ is of course heretical, and it also flies in the face of political reality.

It is a political nonsense and a Christian heresy. This is because the utopians ignore political reality, human nature, and theological truth. They think that man is malleable and perfectible, and it is only corrupt societies keeping mankind from evolving into a perfect order.

Denying the core biblical doctrine of the Fall, the utopians believe in “an unspoiled beginning and attainable perfection,” – all by human effort alone, of course. Men can be free if we break the chains society put upon us, they believe. So they are forever seeking to remake society to create the perfect world order.

The word ‘utopia’ is Greek for ‘no place’. Quite so, for nowhere on earth will a Christless utopia ever be found. It will be attempted often – and it has been – but utopia is not the right word to describe the actual outcome. Attempts to create the New Man as in Marxism, or to create a pristine, spotless environment, as in radical environmentalism, are always doomed to failure.

Creating the perfect society by creating the perfect individual is the utopian’s quest. Says Molnar, “the very foundations of the human situation are precisely what utopians would like to uproot and reconstruct. In this sense, utopian thinkers fully deserve to be called ‘radical’ because their reconstruction of society and man demand total re-thinking about God and creation.”

But in this quest for perfection, the only way the desired outcome can come about is through enforcement, which leads, in turn, “both to loss of freedom for the members of the community and unlimited power and pride for the rulers – the Elect.”

Indeed, at “utopia’s roots there is defiance of God, pride unlimited, a yearning for enormous power and the assumption of divine attributes with a view to manipulating and shaping mankind’s fate.”

There are plenty more nuggets to be gleaned from Molnar, but I want to focus a bit further on this theme of enforcement and coercion. Eric and Rael Jean Isaac have written an entire book about this. I refer to their helpful 1983 volume, The Coercive Utopians.

This is how they begin their volume: “Most of the diverse groups we will describe are utopian because they assume that man is perfectible and the evils that exist are the product of a corrupt social system. They believe that an ideal social order can be created in which man’s potentialities can flower freely. They are ‘coercive’ because in their zeal for attaining an ideal order they seek to impose their blueprints in ways that go beyond legitimate persuasion.”

They note how the utopians especially target the economic system, which they think is deeply flawed. Thus the free market is the chief enemy of the utopians. But other aspects are also in their sights: “The utopians do more than reject our economic institutions: ultimately, their attack is directed against modern technology and science itself. In a very real sense, the coercive utopians are twentieth century Luddites.”

Hey, this is sounding more and more like the modern day Greens. And like the Greens, all utopians seek to harness the power of the state to achieve their ends. They have “accommodated their vision to a powerful central government, run by themselves, as an intermediate state.”

They close their book in this fashion: “And while they cannot build Utopia, ‘dystopia,’ the antithesis of Utopia, men have the power to create”. They quote a Czechoslovak student who said during the 1960s while visiting the US, “You simply haven’t faced up to the fact that you can’t build a Utopia without terror, and that before long, terror is all that’s left.”

Or as G.K. Chesterton put it back in 1908: “The secularists have not wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them. The Titans did not scale heaven; but they laid waste the world.” That seems to be a pretty good description of where we are heading in Australian politics, especially as the Greens take control of the Senate next year.

Utopianism has always been with us. Sadly it seems we have not learned from their mistakes. Thus it looks like we are set to make them all over again real soon.