Colliding Utopias… and John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’

Last night I had the realisation, but to be honest it felt like a revelation, (and like all good revelations I can’t now understand why it wasn’t already obvious to me), that a great deal of the conflict in the world is caused by clashes between different groups trying to promote their own version of ‘utopia’. I had vaguely intimated this on being sent an article on John Gray, a distinctly anti-utopian philosopher, by my friend Nils Borg.

Now it seems clear to me that every ‘ism’ is inherently the result of a delusion, except perhaps, as Gray sometimes points out, ‘realism’.

The basic structure of any ‘ism’ is the assumption that a ‘perfect world’ or utopia is possible in an imagined future and we must make changes, sacrifices, and generally work toward this vision of perfection where everyone is happy, or equal, or whatever idea or collection of ideas is deemed to be the most important and the most lacking in the present moment.

The main assumption arising from this is the pernicious notion is that ‘the end justifies the means’- or put more prosaically, ‘you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs’ – real-world meaning: ‘you can’t make a utopia without breaking heads’. Current atrocities are excused by the justification that ‘it’ll be worth it in the end’ i.e. when the utopia has come to pass and everyone is happy.

Of course the problem is is that your utopia gets in the way of mine. A ‘utopia’ may be partly created, as in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, but when it is seen not to provide the universal happiness promised, this is blamed on conflicting and competing utopias which must be crushed in order for ‘our’ utopia to triumph, upon which everyone will accept that ‘we were right’ and say sorry for trying to create their flawed utopia in competition to ours.

Also, I would argue that as any utopia is inherently impossible, there will always be scapegoats for its failure, in the Nazis’ case it was the Jews, who wanted their own utopian ‘promised land’- now they supposedly have this, in the shape of the state of Israel, they are blaming the Palestinians for spoiling their utopia. There is always the feeling that ‘if only everyone else would believe what we believe everything would be all right’.  But they stubbornly refuse to believe what we believe and the utopia remains tantalisingly out of reach.

Rather than admitting this to ourselves in a rare moment of realism (the antidote to the other ‘isms’), we go on creating new utopias out of the ruins of the old ones. At the moment we have a rising tide of believers in ‘atheism’- the underlying assumption being that if everyone believes what I believe (that science has proved there is no god and thus all religions are wrong), we would create a world free of superstition and delusion: in other words another utopia which must be worked towards by proselytising and evangelising the gospel of Dawkins, Hitchens or whoever has the latest book out.

But what they fail to see is that this is just another ‘ism’, another form of utopia, and will inevitably collide with the existing religious utopias out there (as of course it is designed to do), creating more conflict and ultimately having no chance of success, as of course there is no possibility of everyone in the world thinking in the same way about anything. I don’t say this with a nihilistic glee, but with joy- who wants a world where everyone thinks the same anyway?

Even in a country which shares a dominant belief with little or no dissension from that belief- let’s say Britain in the last few centuries, which was an overwhelmingly Christian country – that belief will split and fracture into different ideologies which all posit their own particular version of utopia. So although the Christian belief has in theory ‘won’ over other utopian ‘isms’, that belief itself becomes viciously split into different denominations like Protestant, Catholic, ‘Quaker’, Plymouth Brethren, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, Episcopalian, etc. etc. Each one believes that the others have got it wrong and if they would just accept ‘our’ way of doing things, we would have our promised utopia.

Why does a belief system split like this once it becomes overwhelmingly dominant? Because once it is seen to be dominant, everyone looks around to see whether the promised land has arrived (as promised). Deciding that it hasn’t on the basis of lions not being seen to lie down with lambs etc., they go about modifying the original ideology and recruiting people to their new utopian cause- the United States of America was founded on exactly this principle- a bunch of dissenters decided that if they could just get away from the ‘wrong’ utopias in ‘old Europe’, they could create their own, purer version of the ideology, and thus bring the promised land into being, heaven to earth! And of course as we see in the peaceful and utterly equal USA of today, they were proved conclusively right (excuse the irony, I couldn’t resist…).

So what is the solution to this? Simply realise that no utopia can ever work and don’t bother to join any utopian project. So what I’m saying is ‘if we all believe in no utopia, everything will be perfect’? Have you not been paying attention to the rest of this article?

For a fantastic example of a ‘No-More-Utopias’ utopianism, check out the lyrics to John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’:

Imagine there’s no heaven

It’s easy if you try

No hell below us

Above us only sky

Imagine all the people

Living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries

It isn’t hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion too

Imagine all the people

Living life in peace…

You may say I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope someday you’ll join us

And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions

I wonder if you can

No need for greed or hunger

A brotherhood of man

Imagine all the people

Sharing all the world…

You may say I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope someday you’ll join us

And the world will live as one’

The giveaway is ‘I hope someday you’ll join us/ And the world will be as one’- as in ‘join my utopian project so we can create a world without utopias’. This is as dumb as ‘let’s start a war for peace’ (which as it happens is very often the outcome of utopian projects).

So am I saying ‘let’s all just stay in and watch ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ and do nothing and it’s good that Lennon got shot’? Funnily enough, no. It is possible to change things without being utopian, and by the way I love most of what John Lennon did and wish he was still with us.

I would give Martin Luther King as an example of someone who changed the world without a vision that could be called ‘utopian’.  He proceeded from what he saw as an already-existing fact – that all men are equal – and merely tried to show and inspire people with the truth of that. As what he was saying was true in the present moment and not dependent on some promised land being created in the future (although ironically he did actually use that phrase from time to time), his words had extraordinary power and moved people to take action which had a transformative effect on society.

One could argue that Hitler also spoke with great power and certainly persuaded large numbers of people to begin creating his vision of utopia. The problem was that what he was arguing was total nonsense: that the Aryan or German race is inherently superior to the others, and he only got away with it for the few years that he did because the German people were so desperate to be saved from their plight at that time that they would believe almost anything.

Why are utopias so seductive when a few minutes’ rational thought shows us that they can never work? I’ll leave that for another time, and leave the last word to John Gray:

“When utopia takes over power, it leads to a catastrophe”.