British writer William Golding (Photo by Bettmann / Contributor)

William Golding and the curse of the dream

We must resist the lure of utopianism

Artillery Row

“Aren’t there any grownups at all?” “I don’t think so.” The fair boy said this solemnly; but then the delight of a realized ambition overcame him. In the middle of the scar he stood on his head and grinned at the reversed fat boy.

The introduction to Lord of the Flies should be reminiscent for all of us, if not of the novel itself, then because of how often we find ourselves in situations where adults go missing. They may not go missing physically as in Lord of the Flies, but adults can be psychologically and socially absent. When the adults go missing, bad things happen. The results are not confined to anarchic secondary school classrooms, but felt far and wide — including in political movements. 

Political movements without adults fail to recognise the usual limits of possibility. Often emerging in the wake of a significant crisis such as the First World War, utopians ignore the practical for the possible. Utopianism is not defined by a singular ideology — both religious and secular organisations can legitimately be called “utopian” — but what binds these movements together is the desire to reimagine the world around them, devoid of compromise and re-enacting an image of perfection. As Anna Neima writes in The Utopians:

Utopias are a kind of social dreaming. To invent a “perfect” world-in a novel, a manifesto or a living community, is to lay bare what is wrong with the real one.

The desire of utopianism to create something brand new is often paradoxically led by those stating their own humility. Does utopianism really provide humility in guiding mankind towards its destined and natural path? Whilst some such as Isiah Berlin have argued utopianism assumes that man has a fixed, unalterable, common goal that binds us together, that is perhaps not quite true. Utopianism is a story about the way mankind should be, and all stories need a good “villain”. Movements seeking to create paradise on earth, especially those denouncing the world as it is, often find “enemies” within and outside the movement. Those “enemies” deny mankind the chance to fulfil its true nature by challenging the eternal truth that would free us all. 

When utopian ideas are put into practice, they are liable to descend into chaos through a desire for perfection. The drive of perfection threatens not just the progress already made, but also leads to its leaders forgetting themselves. As they breed radicalism, initially innocent and even beautiful ideas turn in on themselves and create something dangerous and ugly.

These dangers are often overlooked in our culture. The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 are all well-known, but novels focusing on utopianism sit in the background.

The Spire is a work of utopian fiction that is especially good at describing such dangers. In The Spire, Dean Jocelin is determined to build an almighty spire on top of an already finished church to glorify God. Not content with what he has, Jocelin repeats this mantra:

In this house for a hundred and fifty years, we have woven a rich fabric of constant praise. Things shall be as they were; only better, richer, the patterns of worship complete at last.

The church does not have the foundations to support such an addition. In the drive to make something beautiful, Jocelin forgets and threatens what he originally had. 

Focusing on his faith and with an angel at his back, Jocelin continues to demand the spire be built even in the face of parishioners and builders who doubt him. By focusing on the necessity of improvement, the beautiful idea of worship and glory to God turns into a dangerous and aggressive notion. Demanding faith in the impossible spire from those who doubt, Jocelin relies upon a repetition of his rhetoric of glorification and destiny to counter the naysayers. As he is unable to recognise physical limitations on his spiritual convictions, his spire threatens to envelop and destroy the church entirely. 

Whilst Jocelin accuses others of being blind, he himself remains blind to the reality of his faith and the possibilities that emerge from it. Even as the ground physically moves underneath him, and his building master warns him, “there comes a point when vision’s no more than a child’s plaything,” Jocelin does not relent. Utopian visions ignore the wise opinion of others and even exorcise them when they threaten the project of perfection. The Spire highlights the dangers of desiring not just improvement, but divinely inspired perfection. 

Hierarchy of identity has not disappeared but merely shifted

We need not only look to literature to understand the danger of utopianism. One tragically real example of this can be read in Vincent Lloyd’s article about his recent experiences at the Telluride association. Lloyd, a black professor who directs his university’s black studies programme and leads anti-racist workshops, was accused by his own students of making students feel unsafe because he “didn’t immediately correct views that failed to treat anti-blackness as the cause of all the world’s ills”. Describing how his programme, comprised of enthusiastic and bright teens, descended from a pluralistic harbour of free thought into a seminar demanding dull uniformity, Lloyd paints an ugly picture. 

The progressive nature of the programme at Telluride created an environment that undermined its founding mission, a rich environment for intensive learning, which was replaced by a demand for easy answers packaged in “anti-racist” thoughts. Lloyd convincingly described the combination of the seminars and workshops:

If the seminar is slow food, the anti-racist workshop put on by college-age students is a sugar rush. All the hashtags are there, condensed, packaged, and delivered from a place of authority.

The desire to understand oppression and be rid of it created an intense atmosphere where anyone who strayed away from those values was side-lined. Lloyd disturbingly writes how during the initial “transformative justice” workshop, students snapped their fingers when they liked an idea and silence ensued when they did not, almost as if a cult-like mentality were developing. Participation was quickly eviscerated except for those who had the perceived right to speak and the correct ideas. This dynamic continued until there was a revolt against Lloyd, the leader of the seminars, as he was deemed insufficiently radical and an enemy within. 

Utopian movements, in their tendency to seek perfection, adopt a hierarchy. Hierarchy exists in most areas of our life, political or otherwise, and we recognise hierarchy in our daily lives. In political groups and movements that seek perfection, our baser instincts for hierarchy still emerge. As Paul Crawford has argued in The World Turned Upside Down, Lord of the Flies is an example not of escape as some may claim but the sad truth that our baser instincts can take over when attempting to construct a hierarchy. 

The parallels of class in the leadership of utopian social and political movements today are not dissimilar from the leaders of the deserted islander children. Jack and Ralph, the two boys who assume leadership positions in Lord of the Flies, cite their backgrounds and mock Piggy’s differing accent. Golding’s description of Piggy and his outsider status, even before he arrived on the island, remains a useful one when thinking about where we turn for leadership: 

Ralph turned and smiled involuntarily. Piggy was a bore; his fat, his ass-mar and his matter-of-fact ideas were dull, but there was always a little pleasure to be got out of pulling his leg, even if one did it by accident. Piggy saw the smile and misinterpreted it as friendliness. There had grown up tacitly amongst the biguns the opinion that Piggy was an outsider, not only by accent, which did not matter, but by fat, and ass-mar, and specs, and a certain disinclination for manual labor.

In modern utopianism, hierarchy of identity has not disappeared but merely shifted. Our beliefs about not only who is worthy of leadership, but the reasoning behind who is a leader, remain curiously fixed. Whilst traditional and strict notions of class are less dominant than they used to be, the emerging professional class now cite a long list of their accomplishments and history of activism in a bid to lay claims to leadership roles. Someone’s background and perceived accomplishments still play a role in selecting who we feel is uniquely qualified to lead movements. 

Not only does this tell us something about who we turn to when seeking leaders, but the novel gives us imagery of how utopian “leaders” act towards those outside of the fold. Rules and order in the novel are dispensed with in favour of baser desires. The result is a crumbling of the order established early on by the boys. Instead of agreeing to rules democratically, and keeping an ordered discussion via possession of the conch, the conch is destroyed and chaos ensues with the outsider Piggy eventually becoming the hunted one. Authority moves away from the structures attempting to ensure consensus, equality and fairness, towards mob rule. 

The once proudly anti-racist organisation was chastised by the EHRC

These themes emerge in utopian movements today. Take for example Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. Put up on a pedestal by an activist base focusing on his supposedly impeccable “anti racist” and “anti-capitalist” credentials, Corbyn maintained hierarchy — it was just reallocated towards those who had been sufficiently anti-Blair to qualify under the party’s new purity test. 

The net result was a party riven with division. Branch meetings became toxic, MPs felt like captives in their own party, and the activist base turned on itself. As loyal Corbynites were singing the leader’s name at the party conference, Jewish MPs like Luciana Berger were readying themselves to leave. Far from being a symbol and actor of unity, Corbyn helped lead a party where established rules and order were not only questioned but actively broken down. This culminated in a racism scandal, where the once proudly anti-racist organisation was chastised by the EHRC for its handling of racist complaints. 

Utopian movements, whatever their flavour, struggle against competing demands: the demands of political reality and the vision of the self-prescribed utopia. Leaders have to take on the mantle of the “saviour”. They have the answer, the one true answer to people’s struggles. It is that vision that, whatever detractors may say, needs to be implemented. Those who deny the prescription become enemies within; they become not just opponents but the ones who are halting the necessary progress for true freedom to emerge. Once you combine these elements, you have toxic political movements, immune to reason and willing to smash norms to achieve their goals. Rather than praising the saviour, we should always beware of those who claim to create a new “paradise on earth”. 

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