In The Task of Utopia, Erin McKenna argues in favor of a “process-model” of utopia. This vision is built largely upon the work of John Dewey, who dreams of democracy “as a method of living by which individuals are fully engaged in the experience that is their lives.”
We must move away from considering “end-state” models of utopia as a perfect, static, society and instead embrace our role as critical builders and shapers of our future world and selves.
For one thing, a static utopia is simply unattainable: “Social living is an ongoing process, not a perfected life. No harmony is lasting. Each satisfying moment passes over into a new need for which we must alter our world and/our ourselves to meet.”
But more deeply, a static vision strips people of their agency, takes away what really makes us alive. If an end-state utopia were achieved, there would be nothing for people to do, they’d have no role to play in perfecting themselves or perfecting their future. Any change could only represent a move away from perfection.
While that may be a small price to pay for establishment of utopia, McKenna argues that “the unfolding of the future is not determined separate from us, but is intricately connected with us.” Nearly by definition, an end-state utopia is not sustainable: across generations, people must continually work to sustain utopian institutions, but without a process-model there is no way to prepare future generations for this important task.
This idea fits well with Dewey’s model of democracy which, as McKenna writes, “requires that we recognize how our participation affects what the future can be. It requires that we recognize that there is no-end state at which we must work to arrive, but a multiple of possible future states which we seek and try out. John Dewey’s vision of democracy prepares us to interact with our world and guide it to a better future by immersing us in what he calls the method of critical intelligence”
Notably, Dewey sees democracy as a process rather than an end state: “democracy is not participation by an inchoate public, nor is it a perfected end-state to be attainted. It is the development of critical intelligence and a method of living with regard to the past, present, and future.”
Dewey urges us to consider ourselves as connected, interdependent beings. Connected and dependent not only on those who care for us as children, but broadly connected and dependent our past and present societies. Our individual selves are shaped by collective history and defined by innumerable interactions, and we each have a role to play in affecting the current lives of others and shaping the future contours of society.
As McKenna explains:
Our social situation is not something that simply happens to us, however. We appropriate and integrate our environment into experience. Whatever our situation, we participate in its future development. It does not develop separately from us. Our activity partially defines our social situation, and our social situation goes a long way to guiding our activity. There is an interplay of the determinant and indeterminate by which we realize the potential of the future. We are a perspective, influenced by our experience, through which we organize our participation and structure the community so that future experience is meaningful to us.
We create ourselves from our environment, and we create our environment through our selves.
This places a great responsibility on each of us to work for utopia. We must constantly and critically examine ourselves and our world, imagining better possible futures, and actively working towards and adjusting these visions.
We must each, as Dewey writes, learn to be human.
There is something compellingly beautiful about this vision; about the idea of a society which seamlessly integrates the individual and the whole, the past and the future. A society in which we all see ourselves as intrinsically interconnected and interdependent, working together to perfect ourselves, each other, and our shared experience.
Yet, perhaps this is far too much to hope for. The biggest complain about Dewey, most notably from Walter Lippmann, is that this vision is too unrealistic, too naive about the biases of people and the abuses of power.
As McKenna herself writes:
Even if the process model can prepare people to be the critical citizens it needs (a huge task in itself), how can it ensure that they actually will participate and take on their responsibilities? The process model asks a great deal of people in terms of time and effort. Apathetic or lazy citizens will not take up the critical stance easily. Where the end-state vision does not ask enough of people, or give enough responsibility to them, the process model may ask and give too much.
But, McKenna for one, finds reason to hope:
While the process model may require more of people than we are prepared to give now, visions on this model can provide us with insight into the means available to change our attitudes and action and show us the possibilities of the future if we are willing to try to change and become Dewey’s integrated individual…Utopia visions are visions of hope that can challenge us to explore a range of possible human conditions…the first step in understanding the responsibility each of us has to the future in deciding how to live our lives now.
For those less inclined towards hope, perhaps one can at least find some grim humor in this concluding note from McKenna’s final chapter:
One can hope that here, in the United States, the elections of 2000 have awakened people to the importance of their responsible participation in the political process.
The process model asks a lot, indeed.