Realism and Utopia

Realism and utopia are often seen as opposite poles. Realism, it is thought, is concerned with what is and utopia is concerned with our wishes about what we would like to be. However, once we fully examine the issue we can see that this way of thinking is mistaken. A properly developed critical theory needs to be both fully realistic and fully utopian. In certain situations it can be realistic to think that a total change in society is necessary to resolve certain problems, and it is wishful thinking to think that certain problems can be fully resolved within the context of present society.

Having a realistic view means that theory should begin by analysing real people as they exist in actual societies at an actual point in history, rather than starting by trying to find timeless, abstract universal principles and building up a theory from that. To be realistic is to emphasise the importance of history in the shaping of our concepts, realising that the frameworks and values that we currently use to understand the world are not eternal and will have gone through a process of historical change and are likely to change further in the future. There is no ‘view from nowhere’ from which universal ethical principles can be deduced, as morality is always grounded in a historically specific form of society. Realism is an attempt to see our present situation clearly, to not be deceived by either ourselves or by the structures or agencies that assert an influence over us.

In order to be realistic we have to have some way of assessing our desires, how these may have been shaped by the way things currently are, and how they may be under a different situation. The first way we can do this is by analysing how ideological factors may be leading our thinking astray. Ideological illusions arise because they serve a certain function in the world. Societies can be thought of as self-reproducing mechanisms with certain conceptions, if enough people believe them, enabling that particular form of society to continue reproducing itself. Ideologies make it possible for groups of people to believe things that go against their own individual interests, but that help serve the continued functioning of a form of society as a whole. When we speak of real interests we are talking about an idea of what would be good for someone to want, understood from a specific theoretical and systemic point of view. A study of ideology seeks to understand how people’s desires may be being shaped by interests that are not their own. We can do this by looking at who does what to whom in a society, by analysing which groups in society benefit from which kinds of actions within that society. To put forward the idea of real interests does not necessarily involve a claim to having perfect knowledge, merely a recognition that people’s current desires rest on certain beliefs and that the judgments people use to form these beliefs can be mistaken – just as they can in any other area of knowledge or belief. The concept of ideology enables us to examine how certain forms of society foster certain kinds of thinking and how these kinds of thinking serve to reproduce hierarchies of domination within that society.

Just as we can be led astray by ideological thinking it is also possible to be led astray by our own desires and wishes. Therefore, an important task of a realistic theory is to make sure that we are not falling foul of wishful thinking. But to be against wishful thinking is not to be against wishes in general. Everybody has wishes and desires, this is necessary and healthy. What has to be avoided is wishing thinking, the thinking that something is true merely because we wish it to be true. This should not be confused with the self-limiting of our desires, or a call to reduce aspirations. Being realistic does not mean uncritically accepting that the way things currently are is the only possible way things could be, but it does mean holding a certain sense of critical self-awareness when it comes to examining how our desires can shape what we regard as possible.

Utopian thinking, as the exploration of what does not currently exist, is about finding out, exploring and clarifying what we actually want without being bound by the limits of what currently exists. Utopia is often associated with the impossible and while some kinds of impossibility, such as the physically or logically impossible, only have use for creating fictional works, other kinds of impossibility show us where the possible points of rupture between this society and another could be. When it comes to social relations ‘impossible’ is a theoretical and not an empirical term, what is possible or impossible is not fixed once and for all. In the social world what people think is possible to a large extent determines what actually is possible. This is why utopian thinking is valuable, not as the construction of pre-made blueprints to be put into action by people of the future, but as a project to explore our most radical interests, to find out what our most radical desires are – even if the realisation of these desires may require a dramatic restructuring of the present society.

Realism is about ruthlessly stripping ourselves of illusions, but one of the strongest illusions is the one that the current system of society is the inevitable and inescapable result of a process of nature, rather than the product of a historical struggle between opposing groups and classes.

Further reading:
Raymond Geuss - Philosophy and Real Politics (Princeton University Press)
Raymond Geuss - Realism, Wishful Thinking and Utopia (Lecture)
Music Credit: "Floating Pentagram" by Luke Sanger