Gregg Easterbrook’s The Progress Paradox and Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature are two books both about how much better life has gotten, relative to how it used to be. But they treat the word “utopia” in very different ways. First, Pinker:

Utopian ideologies invite genocide for two reasons. One is that they set up a pernicious utilitarian calculus. In a utopia, everyone is happy forever, so its moral value is infinite. Most of us agree that it is ethically permissible to divert a runaway trolley that threatens to kill five people onto a side track where it would kill only one. But suppose it were a hundred million lives one could save by diverting the trolley, or a billion, or–projecting into the indefinite future–infinitely many. How many people would it be permissible to sacrifice to attain that infinite good? A few million can seem like a pretty good bargain.

Not only that, but consider the people who learn about the promise of a perfect world and yet nonetheless oppose it. They are the only things standing in the way of a plan that could lead to infinite goodness. How evil are they? You do the math.

The second genocidal hazard of a utopia is that it has to conform to a tidy blueprint. In a utopia, everything is there for a reason. What about the people? Well, groups of people are diverse. Some of them stubbornly, perhaps it essentially, cling to values that are out of place in a perfect world. They may be entrepreneurial in a real and a world that works by communal sharing, or bookish in a world that works by labor, or brash and a world that works by piety, or clannish in a world that works by unity, or urban and commercial in a world that has returned to its roots in nature. If you are designing the perfect society on a clean sheet of paper, why not write these eyesores out of the plans from the start? (pp. 328-329).

The forces of modernity–reason, science, humanism, individual rights–have not of course, pushed steadily in one direction; nor will they ever bring about a utopia or end the frictions and hurts that come with being human. But on top of all the benefits that modernity has brought us in health, experience, and knowledge, we can add its role in the reduction of violence (p. 694).

Now Easterbrook:

In the Middle Ages, Europeans dreamed of a utopia called Cockaigne. Said to exist on a distant isle, Cockaigne was a place where unlimited food appeared whenever anyone wished for it. Roast meats, grilled fish, stuffed goose, and fruit pies could be had in any quantity simply by thinking of them; rivers flowed with wine; no matter how often drained, cups magically refilled themselves with beer; some buildings were even made of food.1 You could sleep as long as you wanted: days on end, if you wished. You could have sex with whomever would agree, as often as you wanted, without pregnancy or any legal complications. Everyone wore clothes made from fine fabrics in bright colors: in the Middle Ages, fine clothing being what the typical person most longed to possess. Everyone’s pockets bulged with gold. Most of all no one had to work, for no work needed to be performed. Food grew itself; plates washed themselves; fires tended themselves.

Small wonder that men and women in an age of poverty, drudgery, food shortages, and condemnation of sex dreamed of a realm of drinking, eating, sleeping, free love, and never being called to toil. Musicians of the Middle Ages sang songs of Cockaigne; mothers hushed children to sleep with tales of how they would someday be transported to this land; many must have reflected, bitterly, on how merciless was fate to allow men and women to imagine such a kingdom but never experience it. Historical asterisk? With the exception of exemption from labor and a few details like washing the dishes, hundreds of millions of Americans, Europeans, Canadians, Japanese, and Australians today reside in Cockaigne (pp. 311-312).

I lean towards Easterbrook’s approach. No, the world isn’t perfect, and some people still get dealt a shitty hand, even in rich countries. But to describe the gains humanity has made in the past five centuries merely in terms of improving statistical trends doesn’t do them justice, I think. It leaves too much room for someone to say, “ah, but what about the evils of consumerism?” (which is largely a product of the fact that ordinary people are no longer struggling for mere existence, and because of this can engage in patters of consumption that used to be possible only to the very rich.)

And I dislike making “utopian” a dirty word, because all too often I see accusations of “utopianism” made simply on the basis of someone being enthusiastic about how much progress we’ve made so far, and optimistic about our ability to make more progress in the future. The problem with the Communists and the Nazis wasn’t their beliefs about how much better the world could be. Rather, it’s that real utopias (or the closest thing we have to real utopias) are founded on doing the opposite of what the Communists and Nazis did, that is to say they’re founded on limited government power and respect for individual rights.

  • leftwingfox

    I tend to side more with Pinker on this one. There’s also the idea of “The perfect being the enemy of the good”, both in a sense of preferring revolution to mitigation (much the way Slavoj Zizek describes it in this RSA video), but also in that idealistic utopias which are not grounded in reality result in dystopias as they get closer to practicality (Christian Dominionism, Sharia Law, Soviet Communism, and Objectivist anarcho-capitalism) .

    I feel that seeking improvement does not require seeking perfection. The practical utilitarian reduction of want and harm is a much more effective means of continual improvements without ideological preconceptions diverting efforts away from evidence based approaches.

  • Annatar

    This was a really interesting post. I will be checking out both of those books.

  • Clarissa

    Pinkers theory seems good. Of course if a nuclear exchange takes place, whether set off by accident or design, and destroys civilization in an afternoon…hits on say 150 major cites would probaly be enough for total breakdown…then he might have to reconsider his malarkey.

  • piero

    I also tend to side with Pinker. I find Easterbrook’s assertion that “with the exception of exemption from labor and a few details like washing the dishes, hundreds of millions of Americans, Europeans, Canadians, Japanese, and Australians today reside in Cockaigne” laughable. It is fallacious to compare the hopes and desires of people from different historical periods. Following Easterbrook’s logic, the Middle Ages were Cockaigne from the point of view of a Neanderthal tribe.

    Obviously, science and technology have allowed an exponential growth of productivity, and hence the availability of cheap goods to the majority of the population in developed countries. But productivity is only one side of the well-being coin: the other side is distribution, and this is hardly ever addressed.

    True, I have access to things a medieval king couldn’t even dream of (for example, the computer I’m using right now). But I have no access to quality health care, for example; a quarter of my salary goes to pay my daughter’s tuition fees; a quarter goes to medicines and medical bills; a quarter to rent and general bills. The rest goes to food and clothing. As you can imagine, it’s been a few years since I bought a new pair of shoes. Yet statistically I’m privileged, because I earn about double my country’s average salary. Meanwhile, some people can afford several houses, several luxury cars, exclusive medical centres, etc. In what sense this situation can be called Cockaigne escapes me.

    Also, perhaps Easterbrook could care to explain why the most developed economy in the world also happens to be the one with the largest proportion of its citizens in jail.

  • Anat

    Anyone who thinks the west is anything approaching Cockaigne was asleep during the main activities of the Occupy movement. Or is being willfully blind to the many who can’t make ends meet or are barely doing so while having no security in continued access to their current level of income.

    • piero

      I agree. Easterbrook’s Cockaigne and Fukuyama’s end of history belong in the same place: their arsholes (or, to be more polite, in the dustbin (or garbage can, for the benifit of American readers) of ideas.

      Not only are there millions of people in the developed countries that have to struggle daily to make ends meet, but even the most powerful and wealthy are subject to suffering and pain. Witness Steve Jobs.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      I was awake during the Occupy movement, and I disagree. Your comment tells me you don’t quite grasp how bad things were in the Middle Ages. Or how bad things are today in the poorest parts of the world, for that matter.

      To look at another area: I’m pretty fucking appalled by some of the things that have happened in America in the last 12 years on the civil liberties front. But I still recognize that most Americans enjoy ridiculous amounts of freedom, and it’s important to recognize that once in awhile.

      • Anat

        Lots of people have the freedom to die in the street.

      • piero

        I would say no amount of freedom is ridiculous, as lomg as it does not encroach upon the freedom of others. But there surely are ridiculous (and obscene) amounts of wealth. You can easily search Google Images for pictures of gold-plated Ferraris or diamond-studded iPads.

        This is the world we live in: a world where some people can afford a gold-plated Ferrari or a solid silver Mercedes while a vastly greater number die of hunger. The USA and Europe enjoy a high standard of living precisely because other people are so poor. It should be obvious: if the global gross product is fixed, those who have more must be ripping off those who have less. There’s no way to circumvent such simple arithmetic.

        It has been calculated that to provide the whole world with st least the per capita energy consumption of Poland (a rather low figure), world energy production would have to increase 30-fold. Yet the USA consumes 7 times as much energy per capita as Poland. Thus, it is impossible for any other country to even approach the level of obscene wealth and waste the USA enjoys.

        It is quite ironic that as African children die of hunger, American adults die of obesity-related illnesses, such as heart failure. Is there no way a race of intelligent beings can see how ludicrous this is and put an end to it?

        • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

          I should clarify that I didn’t intend any negative connotations with the word “ridiculous”–the sense is the same as the sense in “ridiculously lucky.”

          • piero

            I see. You meant “ridiculous” as “inordinately huge”. Still, my misgivings apply: what is an “inordinately huge amount of freedom”? Don’t take me wrong: I agree with you that people in Europe, Australia and the USA enjoy a much greater level of freedom than people from most other countries. What I’m questioning is whether there could be an “excessive” level of freedom-

  • http://thebronzeblog.wordpress.com Bronze Dog

    Easterbrook’s Cockaigne reminds me of one of my old undergraduate classes where Maslow’s hierarchy of needs came up. Like most people, I was familiar with the general idea, but I read a bit I hadn’t seen before, describing what is meant by hunger: Most of us only really know appetite, not prolonged hunger. A hungry man only thinks about food, spends his day looking for food, dreams about food, and imagines a paradise where food is plentiful.

    If you were to ask a modern person to dream up a utopia, they might focus on the idea that people would devote themselves to the arts, scientific discovery, and other “high” pursuits (alongside some “low” pursuits). Many probably wouldn’t even think to mention plentiful food, because that’s often taken for granted if you’re reasonably stable in a first world country.

    It does make me wonder if we’ll find innovative new ways to be unhappy if we do get better off.

    • piero

      “we’ll find”? What do you mean by “will”? Just look at the sky-rocketing sales of antidepressants.

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