Bah, utopia!

An idea that promises heaven but delivers hell.

It’s worth noting that utopia is a secular idea that emerged from a specific cultural context: the decline of a religious world view in Western Europe.1 Utopia promises an earthly–not heavenly–paradise. Human beings can build the ideal society here on earth, without the assistance of a higher power.

 

What’s surprising is the degree to which Asian societies have embraced the utopian ideal.

 

You could argue that we’ve always believed in the perfectibility of mankind. Not for us the idea of original sin. Thousands of years ago, Confucianism was already teaching us that if we only tried harder, we’d be able to create perfection here on earth.2

And we even have our own utopian legends, such as the legend of the Peach Blossom Spring in China, an earthly paradise on a mystical mountain at the mouth of a river. It was discovered by a fisherman from the outside world, who never found it again after that first time.

Utopia and discovery seem to go hand-in-hand. In fact, Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia at the dawn of the Age of Exploration (America had been discovered a few years earlier), when European sailors embarked on voyages to distant lands where, they imagined, life was better. It’s the same impulse that explains the never-ending lines outside the U.S. embassy–we’ve never stopped believing that life is better elsewhere.

The Age of Exploration gradually morphed into the Age of Colonialism, and the utopian ideal was put in service of imperialist aims. The following excerpt from an essay by a colonial administrator is revealing:

As an undergraduate at Oxford, I was first stirred by a new vision of the future of the British Empire. In that vision, it appeared no longer as a number of infant or independent communities revolving around this ancient kingdom but as a world-encircling group of related nations, some of them destined in time to outgrow the mother country, united on a basis of equality and partnership, and united at least mainly by moral and spiritual bonds.3

Compare the above with the words of a Japanese ultra-nationalist leading up to World War II:

As the Greater East Asian co-prosperity sphere rises, we will place the imperial capital of Tokyo at the apex, construct the greatest schools and grandest research institutes, gather the greatest minds…to learn about how we can improve the quality of life of all living things, and …think about ways to harmonise the multiple characteristics of the different countries in order to make the best use of the differences.4

With all the enthusiasm of our hypochondriac dads trying out one more cockamamie remedy in their quest for perfect health, there isn’t a social experiment that we haven’t tried in the quest for Utopia. Our own home-grown colonialism? Think Japan’s Greater East Asian co-prosperity sphere. Hyper-Maoism? Hello, Khmer Rouge and the LTTE. Communism? See China, Vietnam and North Korea. Socialism? Nehru practically wrote the book.

I’ll see your dollar and raise you five.

*Paraphrasing Oscar Wilde. The actual quote reads: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.”