Utopian Left? Not So Fast

By now you’ve probably seen the viral video of Brand vs. Paxman, the call for revolution vs. the status quo. You may have even read the commentary1 why many – particularly feminists – should be hesitant to jump on the so-called ‘Brandwagon’. But I, like many others, can set my skepticism about Brand’s dubious remarks about women aside (for a moment – and only a moment) and appreciate a mainstream character, on a mass medium, calling for an ‘outside of the box’ solution for the problems that currently plague society.

In many ways, the whole interview highlights how deep these problems are. Paxman spends more time being incensed that Brand does not vote and wants a revolution than analyzing the actual underlying issues. At the end of the day, Brand is asking for 1) our political institutions to be responsive to its citizenry, ALL of its citizenry (not just the well-organized and well-resourced elite); 2) drastic collective action to curtail the impending ecological disaster that we are heading toward; and 3) an end to the widening economic disparity that characterizes the United Kingdom and the United States.

Paxman, defender of the status quo, engages in an argumentative strategy that many other defenders of the status quo like to employ. Namely, they claim a monopoly on realism about politics, political systems, and political solutions – it is either their way, or an anti-democratic utopian vision that is likely to end in destruction and violence. This plain false dichotomy is what keeps many people who understand there is a problem rationalizing their inaction by viewing their apathy or belief in the status quo as a settlement for the ‘lesser evil’. In other words, the logic goes as follows: yes, I understand that there is a fundamental problem in the current constitution of society, but those radical lefties are too naïve, and their ideas will never work.

But it is precisely that logic that should be conceptualized as utopian. Demanding a change because our current system for distributing burdens, benefits, and resources is not working and will lead us into economic and ecological disaster is not a utopian position. My view is that this prospect for disaster is not a ‘fixable’ outgrowth, but a structural problem necessitated by our current political and economic system. It is this view that underpins the call for radical change, the urgency of this radical call, and the refusal to ‘compromise’ within our current paradigm. If that is revolutionary, so be it. But it is not utopian.

The strategy of deeming proposed solutions that do not fit well with the status quo as utopian is nothing new. In 1998, Francis Fukuyama claimed that socialism and radical feminism, as systems of governance, are doomed to failure because our best psychological theories about human nature imply that only a particular form of government is suitable for society, by which, of course, he meant a liberal democracy with a market economy. Economists also engage in this kind of rhetoric – they claim that by distributing resources in a particular way (usually a more just way), government skews incentives for rich folk and either curtail growth or start down a path of economic collapse. Finally, the US government is particularly good at getting it wants when it claims that the terrorists will get us if we don’t accept 1984-esque affronts on our privacy and liberty. And when we demand our privacy and liberty? The retort is usually that we are living on a different planet, out of tune with the ‘real-world dangers’ of terrorism today. These strategies are all cut from the same cloth.

It’s a shame that Brand plays into this by at one point calling his vision ‘a global utopian system’. Actually, what the radical left is calling for is not the unachievable, but a solution that will satisfactorily deal with the impending crises in accordance with principles of fairness and justice. What we want is the recognition of the idea that another way is possible and desirable, and we need to figure it out together. That is not too much to ask – just like it is not too much to ask Brand drop the sexist bullshit when he begins his revolutionary banter.

  1. For an analysis of such commentary. []

Raj Patel is currently a graduate student in the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University in the UK. His research interest is in the relationship between science and politics, with a special emphasis on how social scientific knowledge interacts with systems of democratic governance. Follow him @patellian Read other articles by Raj.