Imge edited by Web Investigator – Ordos in Inner Mongolia is China’s largest ‘ghost town’, a Utopian ambition curtailed by harsh reality. Photo courtesy Raphael Olivier from his series on failed Utopias.
The world feels caught between infinite possibility and limited resources. Thomas More and T R Malthus can help
You burn bright with hope. You live in a joyous arc of optimism, a rhapsody of can-do spirit. Not just you. Daily, earnestly, together, we plot human uplift. We teeter on the brink of bliss and then, splat, we land in its creamy centre. Plug the words ‘utopian’, ‘Malthusian’ and ‘dystopian’ into Google Ngram, and see. Use of the word ‘utopian’ has risen markedly since the 1920s. It levelled off in the 1970s, then has been rising, sometimes steeply, since the mid-1980s. In contrast, the dismal word ‘Malthusian’ barely exists in Google’s ‘lots of books’. And ‘dystopian’ has risen only slightly since 1970. True in English, the pattern is similar in Italian, French and German. So, if you’re reading this with ease, according to Google, you’re obsessed with utopia. Or maybe it’s the case that, since the 1980s, we’ve been obsessed by utopia’s absence, using a hopeful-sounding word to mark our sense of loss.
Thomas More’s Utopia was published in 1516, just over 500 years ago; 250 years later, in 1766, Thomas Robert Malthus, author of An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), was born. More and Malthus, and their works, have become so significant and symbolic that people talk about them without knowing exactly what they’re talking about. Frequently, ‘utopianism’ now implies the improvement of our condition while ‘Malthusianism’ means the opposite: doom. Many people have used ‘Utopia’ (originally in Latin), ‘utopian’ (coined in 1551) and ‘utopianism’ (1649) to describe societies they’d like to live in – or that seem too good to be true. For not quite so long, ‘Malthusian’ (1805) and ‘Malthusianism’ (1833) have described societies in which most people would rather not live. (In 1868, John Stuart Mill proposed ‘dystopian’ to describe the kind of person who planned utopia’s opposite.) Yet the men were larger than their reputations. More was more than slightly dystopian. Malthus was not above suggesting how to improve society. At one level, they were engaged in a common project: each attacked what he regarded as the misplaced optimism of his contemporaries.
Utopianism and Malthusianism are not just synonyms for optimism and pessimism. They stand for divergent views of whether the obstacle to increasing human happiness is human nature, or rather the rest of nature. More thought that humans were the problem. Malthus acknowledged the problem of humans, but concluded that material nature itself presented a greater impediment. Today, we live in an odd moment. Both More’s pessimism about human nature and Malthus’s pessimism about nature itself reign, but few want to admit it. The UK and US voting publics have responded to promises to restore some past greatness – utopias for some, consequent dystopias for others. In fact, most people in either nation (or beyond) prefer to outsource their small measure of utopianism not to politicians but to technical experts, the folks who make matter, non-human nature, serve humans. These technocrats include the computer wizards in Silicon Valley who run Google, which can record our chatter about utopias, but not our suppressed Malthusian worries about human life on the planet. We want to live in futuristic betterment but at the same time dread being shot back into premodern bare want. For every promise that some place can be great, there is a parallel claim that if some people are not excluded from it, the greatness will falter and fail. Somehow, the greatness is finite.
To see human nature and the rest of nature as out of sync is important – if done consciously. Today it is easy to find repudiations of neoliberalism, the doctrine, ascendant since the 1980s of Margaret Thatcher’s UK and Ronald Reagan’s US, that private activities produce public good and personal happiness more effectively than any public investment or oversight. Nearly 40 years on, we finally query the wisdoms of a neoliberal society. But without knowing exactly what it got wrong, it’s impossible to do better. The Tudor humanist More and the Regency clergyman Malthus, of all people, can help us. They are experts on our moment. Together, their key works turn a spotlight on the much disparaged, pre-neoliberal 1970s, when things could have gone differently. The 1970s represent the last serious discussion of whether and how humans can manage the rest of nature for the greater good. We need that forthright mix again, bitter Malthusian tea served, nevertheless, with a sweet lump of Utopia.
‘Moral philosophy’ sounds like a mirthless business but, conceived (correctly) as the branch of human knowledge specialising in happiness, it has greater appeal. More and Malthus were moral philosophers, two of the specialists in ethics who ponder the criteria for human happiness. What is it? Who has it? What are its true manifestations versus its false appearances? How much of it is there and how far may it be spread? Which versions are unjust to some if desirable for others? What materials are necessary to make and maintain it?
More approached these questions from traditions of religious exegesis and humanism. Malthus operated within the newer dictates of political economy, originally a branch of moral philosophy because it proposed that economic activities could make people happy. Like us, More and Malthus lived through crises of accelerated societal debate and change. Such historical crises are occasions to stress-test old definitions of happiness and propose new ones…