No Time for Utopia

Most political thought is “ideal theory”: its arguments are based on an idealized world in which important aspects of reality are abstracted away. Abstraction isn’t necessarily a bad thing – in the contrary, it is often necessary in science – but it isn’t self-evident that the results of abstractions and idealizations are (always) applicable to the real world, and if theory doesn’t descend from the ideal world to reality it turns into an intellectual game without practical relevance; or worse, as the case of neoclassical economics illustrates. In that case abstraction and idealization resulted in a “theory” that explains nothing, but that is extremely useful as a tool to serve the ruling (financial, industrial, and political) elite. In such a case, ideal theory turns into ideology in the Marxian sense of that term:1 a collection of values and ideas that serve the interests of a ruling class, and that spread throughout society because of the dominance of that class.2

Ideal theory in social and political philosophy tends to involve three kinds of abstractions.3 Firstly, it assumes ideal actors. That is, it assumes that all members of a society have certain characteristics that real people don’t. What these characteristics are differs a bit from theory to theory, however. Most theories assume that all actors are rational, and many assume egoism (i.e. people are only concerned with their own self-interest), but the most important and most common assumption is that of compliance: most theories assume that people (in a relevant sense) comply to the ideal. This idealization is closely related to an idea that permeates Western moral philosophy and that became most explicit in Kant: the task of ethics is just to figure out what is right, because when people know what is right they will act accordingly.4 But this is a nonsensical assumption, of course – real people don’t always comply. Real people don’t always do what is right (and most certainly not what is best). Real people are not ideal actors.

Secondly, ideal theory is Utopian in the sense that it describes and argues for ideal situations and ideal solutions, without seriously considering whether those are actually achievable. Almost all political thought – both left and right – is “guilty” of ideal theory in this sense, but this kind of Utopianism also influences more practical political decision-making. In a situation where there really are only two options that are both bad but to different extents, refusing to support the less bad option because it is not ideal (or not good enough) is an example. However, refusing to support the lesser evil when there really are better options available is a different situation,5 and unfortunately it isn’t always clear what is realistically possible and what not. Nevertheless, a principled rejection of every policy and every solution because it is not ideal (or not good enough) is Utopianism, and if it too often leads to the adoption of the greater evil, it is a rather counter-productive and stupid form of Utopianism.

Thirdly, ideal theory is Utopian in a second sense in focusing on ends rather than means, or in end results rather than intermediate stages. This kind of Utopianism is rather obvious in neoclassical economics and its political arm, neoliberalism, for example: the free market is supposed to make everyone more prosperous in the long run, and poverty in the short run is ignored (that in reality only the rich get richer in a free market because trickle-down is a myth is also ignored,6 of course, but that is mostly due to the first kind of idealization mentioned above).7 On the other end of the political spectrum the same kind of end-state Utopianism can be found among political ideologies that reject small, incremental improvements on the ground that only wholesale, revolutionary change is acceptable.8

Ideal theory – like other kinds of abstraction and idealization – can be very useful. Science without abstraction and idealization is impossible. Any law in physics or chemistry, for example, is an idealization that abstracts away whatever is contextually irrelevant. In political thought ideal theory can be useful in other ways, however. The ideal, especially in the two Utopian senses, can serve as a benchmark: it makes it possible to assess how good or bad real societies are (relative to the ideal). And the ideal can serve as a myth empowering the dis-empowered. For example, Lenin’s sketch of communist society after “the dying away of the state” as a society that is characterized by freedom, equality, and lack of exploitation, and that is guided by the principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” is as appealing as it is Utopian (even though Marxists believe it is “scientific” rather than Utopian) and has given generations of communists something to believe in and something worth fighting for.9

However, ideal theory risks turning into ideology, making it harmful more than useful (except to those who benefit from that harm). All three kinds of idealization can have this effect. The first kind of idealization abstracts away reality and makes it possible to approach the subject matter with apparent mathematical precision, but that scientific appearance only obscures the fact that the “theory” is no longer about the real world, and is an extremely useful tool in marketing the “theory” and its recommendations. The result is a mere appearance of scientific rigor masking political propaganda. Neoclassical economics is, of course, the best example of this, but due to “economic imperialism”10 similar ideological nonsense has become fairly common in social and political philosophy as well.

The second and third kinds of idealization (i.e. the two kinds of Utopianism) can also turn ideal theory into ideology. If rejecting the lesser evil and rejecting small improvements only serve the interests of the rich, the powerful, or some other kind of advantaged group, then any collection of values or beliefs that support that rejection is ideology. It is sometimes argued that the rejection of political violence by liberals, centrists, and other political moderates is ideology in this sense: a principled rejection of violence has the implication that political activism is no serious threat to the status quo and thus can be ignored. By rejecting violence, activists take the moral high ground, but simultaneously give up their most powerful means of protest and resistance. Because this (supposedly) only serves the interests of those who profit from the status quo (i.e. the dominant class), the principled rejection of violence is ideology.

Violence is a complex topic, however, and although this argument certainly has some force, but it has at least two important weaknesses. Firstly, it depends on the assumption that non-violent protest is mostly ineffective. There may be historical support for this assumption, but even if non-violent protest has been mostly ineffective in some or even most historical circumstances doesn’t imply that it is ineffective in all circumstances. There may be political fights in which non-violence is more effective. In other words, the effectiveness of violence versus non-violence is an open question.

Secondly, the argument depends on consequentialist reasoning. It suggests that all that matters to assess the moral status of political violence is effectiveness as a means towards an end – that is, the expected consequences of violence versus non-violence. While consequentialism is common in moral reasoning, approximately three quarters of moral philosophers reject it11 and argue for an alternative such as deontology or virtue ethics.12 Some deontologists (or duty ethicists), for example, might argue against (political) violence on the ground that there is (supposedly) an absolute moral rule that prohibits the killing of other human beings.13 And I have argued against political violence myself in The Hegemony of Psychopathy because violence is “monstrous”, which could be interpreted as a virtue-ethical argument.14

This notion of the “monstrosity” of violence was based on Nietzsche’s warning that “who is fighting monsters has to watch out that he doesn’t become a monster oneself.”15 My point was that in fighting cultural psychopathy (the pathologically selfish worldview imposed by neoliberalism and mainstream economics), one has to watch out not to become “psychopathic” oneself, because then, rather than fighting the enemy, one becomes the enemy. Because the willingness to use violence is a willingness to dehumanize and objectify one’s target, every act of violence is a kind of psychopathy by choice, and therefore, the willingness to use violence against others (at least partially) defines the enemy.16 It should be obvious that this argument only applies to the use of violence in the struggle against the hegemony of (cultural) psychopathy, but it can also be argued that the monstrosity objection is ideal theory because it abstracts away a key aspect of the real world – it ignores climate change, and consequently, assumes that there is enough time for a protracted struggle. The root of this idealization is the Utopian assumption that the fight can be successful to the extent that it can (eventually) achieve its ultimate goal of replacing the hegemony of psychopathy with something more humane. But given what science tells us about our foreseeable future, this is a lost cause. If there is to be a fight against hegemony, it can only hope to avoid hell, or even merely to somewhat reduce hellish conditions on Earth.

The most important way in which ideal theory cripples the left (or any position that doesn’t favor the status quo) is not by denying it the use of violence (which it may deny itself for wholly independent reasons anyway), but by promoting sectarianism. While most people have very similar core values, they weigh those core values very differently.17 Some people prioritize fairness or equity; others find freedom more important; yet others think purity or loyalty are the pre-eminent core values; and so forth. Moreover, different people have different ideas about how these values are best realized, what should be done if two values (or “sub-values” – i.e. specific variants of these core values) come in conflict, and so forth. And consequently, different people have very different ideas about the ideal society, and some of these different ideas evolved into different political ideologies, such as socialism and anarchism, each with its own Utopia.18 The ideal-theoretical focus on idealized end-states puts these Utopias center stage, and thereby splinters the left (and far right) into a collection of tribes that each worship their own totem, their own vision of the ideal society.

Trotsky once aptly remarked that “the sectarian is satisfied with logical deduction from a victorious revolution supposedly already achieved.”19 Indeed, the ideal-theoretician or Utopian sectarian (and all Utopianism is sectarian and vice versa) reasons from the ideal (as if it is already achieved) to the present, and infers her whole theory from that ideal. But as the ideal isn’t real – an possibly not even realizable – that theory is a sandcastle, and what’s worse, each sect fanatically defends its own sandcastle, based on (i.e. inferred from) its own ideal. This is, of course, extremely useful to those who profit from the status quo, which is what makes Utopianism ideology.20 A splintered left can never be a threat. Even if a majority of people in a society agree that change is necessary but cannot agree on what changes should be made, then nothing will change. In this way, ideal theory supports conservatism and social inertia.

In a famous sectarian attack on competing sects, Lenin called the ideas of those to the “left” of him an “infantile disorder”,21 but it would be more appropriate to say that the real “infantile disorder” plaguing the left is the sectarianism rooted in Utopian ideal theory. Marx, Engels, and their followers (including Lenin) aimed to overcome this disease by turning socialism into a science, but much of that “science” (i.e. Marxism) is outdated, confused, or just plain wrong.22 Nevertheless, Marx and Engels made a serious effort to get acquainted with (and contribute to) the most up-to-date science of their day, and there is much to admire in their general idea of overcoming Utopianism by turning to science. It seems to me that the path forward, not just for the left but for humanity as a whole, is to do just that: to try to overcome Utopianism and ideal theory. Rather than focusing on the ideal and deriving a theory from that, we should focus on what is possible and what is attainable, and only then ask ourselves which of the really possible alternatives is the best. Utopian ideals are counterproductive; what we need are realistic scenarios.

Overcoming Utopianism in this way has been made especially urgent by the climate crisis. There are no ideal solutions to or outcomes of that crisis, just greater or lesser Dystopias. It is, of course, possible to sketch ideal scenario’s of environmentally friendly futures in which everyone is happy and healthy, but as such a scenario does not sketch a possible future it is pointless or even counterproductive. We have no time or excuse for Utopias anymore. Instead, we should address climate change without resorting to ideal theory. We can only do that after having a good (or decent, at least) grasp of the null-scenario or “business-as-usual” scenario, however. That scenario sketches the most likely future or futures if we don’t quickly and drastically reduce CO₂ emissions and make other necessary changes. Assuming that that scenario has unwelcome consequences, the next question would be how those consequences can be avoided, or in other words, what alternative or alternatives to the null-scenario there – realistically – are.

I won’t try to answer these questions in this article. Rather, this is the first part of another series. Unlike the Crisis and Inertia series, the episodes in this new series will not share the title of this introduction, because they will to a much greater extent be independent articles. As suggested in the previous paragraph, the next article (or articles) in this series will address the null-scenario. To some extent I have already addressed that topic in Stages of the Anthropocene, but the focus there was on the (very) long term, and as on the long term only total CO₂ emissions really matter, I didn’t pay much attention to “details” that may be very important on the shorter term. Later episodes will (hopefully) discuss whether and how catastrophic climate change can be avoided or minimized, what the margins for alternative scenarios are,23 and how alternatives can be realized.24 For now, here are some quick predictions: (1) the null-scenario will lead to a collapse of civilization within decades, (2) the margins for prevention of the null-scenario are so narrow that there really is only one alternative and that one alternative is almost as Dystopian as the null-scenario itself, and (3) realizing that “Lesser Dystopia” will be very difficult. Let’s see whether I’m overly pessimistic.25

Links to articles in this series:
On the Fragility of CivilizationPredicting global societal collapse within decades.
The Lesser DystopiaWhat is necessary to avoid that collapse?
Enemies of Our ChildrenWho and what are preventing the necessary change of course?
The Ethics of Climate InsurgencyOn violence as a means to prevent catastrophe.
The Possibility of a RevolutionCan a revolution establish the Lesser Dystopia?
The 2020s and BeyondA scenario for the coming decades.
What to Do?Some closing reflections on what we should and can do.

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  1. To be distinguished from the more common use of the term to denote political ideologies such as socialism, anarchism, fascism, and so forth.
  2. On neoclassical economics as abstraction and ideology, see: Lajos Brons (2017), The Hegemony of Psychopathy (Santa Barbara: Brainstorm), especially pp. 45-55. See also the various posts in the “economics” category of this blog. On ideal theory as ideology, see: Charles Mills (2005), “‘Ideal Theory’ as Ideology”, Hypatia 20.3: 165-184.
  3. See: Laura Valentini (2912), “Ideal vs. Non-Ideal Theory: A Conceptual Map”, Philosophy Compass 7.9: 654-664; and Mills (2005), “‘Ideal Theory’ as Ideology”.
  4. See also: Dao and Second-Order Consequentialism. Max Horkheimer made a very similar point about Kant (and Western ethics) in his “Materialism and Morality”. See Max Horkheimer (1933), “Materialismus und Moral”, in Gesammelte Schriften Band 3: Schriften 1931-1936 (Frankfurt: Fischer): 111-149.
  5. In such a situation, “lesser-evilism” becomes an ideological tool to coerce people into accepting the status quo.
  6. On the myth of trickle-down economics, see for example: John Quiggin (2010), Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us (Princeton: Princeton University Press). On free trade ideology, see also the blog post with that title.
  7. On the ideological implications of counterfactual idealizations and abstractions in economics, see also the blog post Economics as Malignant Make Believe.
  8. I’m explicitly referring here to groups/ideologies that reject small improvements on this ground. Groups/ideologies that want revolutionary change but that do not reject small improvements are not (equally) “guilty” of ideal theory in this sense.
  9. See: Vladimir Lenin (1917), State and Revolution, especially section V.4, “The Higher Phase of Communist Society”. The slogan “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” (which is quoted by Lenin) comes from Karl Marx’s (1875), Critique of the Gotha Program.
  10. The infection of other sciences with mainstream economic concepts, methods, and assumptions.
  11. According to a survey by Philpapers. See: On the other hand, almost 70% opts to switch in the Trolley Problem, which is the typical consequentialist solution.
  12. Deontology focuses on moral duties rather than consequences. According to virtue ethics moral character (i.e. being the right kind of person) is more important than doing the right thing.
  13. But not every deontologist, would support this argument, of course. Immanuel Kant, the most influential deontologist of all, for example strongly favored capital punishment for killers, and thus thought that killing human beings is sometimes a moral duty (which implies that for Kant there was no absolute rule against killing).
  14. Brons (2017), The Hegemony of Psychopathy.
  15. Friedrich Nietzsche (1886). Jenseits von Gut und Böse: Vorspiel einer Philosophie der Zukunft [Beyond Good and Evil], §146. My translation. The fragment continues with the much better known sentence: “And when you look in the abyss for too long, the abyss will look back into you.”
  16. This is a very short summary of the “monstrosity” argument. See pages 78 to 84 of The Hegemony of Psychopathy for the full argument.
  17. See: Jesse Graham, Jonathan Haidt, and Brian Nosek (2009), “Liberals and Conservatives Rely on Different Sets of Moral Foundations”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 96:1029–46; Jonathan Haidt (20), The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon); and Ravi Iyer, Spassena Koleva, Jesse Graham, Peter Ditto, & Jonathan Haidt (2012), “Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Dispositions of Self-Identified Libertarians”, PLOS One 7.8: e42366. See also the section on culture in episode 4 of the Crisis and Inertia series.
  18. Notice the difference between “ideology” as political ideology (i.e. socialism, anarchism, liberalism, fascism, etc.) and “ideology” (in the Marxian sense) as the collection of values and ideas that serve the interests of the ruling class.
  19. Leon Trotsky (1939). “Independence of the Ukraine and Sectarian Muddleheads”, in Writings 1939-40 (New York: Pathfinder): 44-54.
  20. In the Marxian sense of “ideology”. See previous note.
  21. Vladimir Lenin (1920). “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder.
  22. Which doesn’t mean that all Marxist thought is wrong, of course. In the contrary, there is a treasure trove of useful ideas to be found in the writings of Marx, Engels, and their followers. It just means that there are plenty of bad ideas as well.
  23. If they turn out to be very narrow – which wouldn’t surprise me at all – then there really is only one alternative to climate disaster. The question, then, is how that alternative measures up to the null-scenario – that is, which of the two should we aim for?
  24. Recall that the (anti-ideal-theoretical) aim is for realistic scenarios – that is, scenarios that are possible and attainable – and a scenario that cannot be realized is not a realistic scenario in this sense. Consequently, it may be possible that a later episode in this (planned) series concludes that a scenario sketched in an earlier episode needs to be discarded after all.
  25. I hope I am.

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