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31 October 2017

How liberals can reclaim Utopia

In the face of populist fantasists and authoritarians, we must draw inspiration from Cicero and Jefferson and reaffirm the wonders of democracy.

By Philip Collins

Politics at its best is founded on extraordinary hope. The utopian impulse is the hope that things can get better. Politics today, however, doesn’t exactly feel enchanted. As populism surges, the inspiring words seem to have gone missing, and so has utopian hope. It is vital for the good health of liberal democracies that their politicians do not descend into drab, technocratic language. Democracy is itself a utopian idea, and it needs to be argued for in words that come alive.

In 1516, Thomas More published his strange and remarkable Utopia. Oddly for a lifelong wearer of a hair shirt, More was fond of jokes, and the title of his best-known book is a tease. Does More mean eutopia, “the good place”, or does he mean outopia, “no place at all”? He adds to the sense of play by giving his narrator the name Raphael Hythloday, which translates as “speaker of nonsense”. The clue to the riddle of Utopia is found in the subtitle, “De optimo rei publicae”, which means “Concerning the Best State of the Commonwealth”. If we describe this as the perfect state of the union, we also begin to see the connection between More’s Utopia and the American republic.

The connecting tissue is supplied by Cicero. In 14 philippics directed at Mark Antony in 44 BC, Cicero set out a defence of the Roman republic that, via More, has been passed down to us. Cicero argued that peace can only be guaranteed with justice if citizens live at liberty. There can be no freedom except in a republic, and the citizen of the free republic is the man engaged in politics. This is the society dramatised in More’s Utopia, and it is the vision of a free society that influenced the classically educated founders of the American republic.

Thomas Jefferson’s 1801 inaugural address – which called for “equal and exact justice to all men” – is a litany of republican virtues. Jefferson balanced minority rights against the will of the majority and introduced a phrase that has had many presidential echoes: “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” On 19 November 1863, Jefferson’s pithy account of the republic was bettered by Abraham Lincoln. “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” is a simple phrase that it can take whole books to make complicated. As the son of a Kentucky frontiersman, Lincoln was the embodiment of the Roman idea that virtue derived not from noble birth but from public service. Lincoln’s plain description of “a new nation, conceived in liberty” repeats Cicero’s argument that the only constitution in which a citizen can flourish is a republic.

John F Kennedy picked up the theme in his 1961 inaugural address (“Ask not what your country can do for you…”). The “ask not” construction was an echo of Jefferson’s belief, taken from Cicero, that taking part defines American citizenship. In his 2012 victory speech in Chicago, Barack Obama echoed Cicero, Jefferson and Kennedy with his demand for an active citizen body. Democracy is more a culture and a pattern of behaviour than a framework of constitutional laws.

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Politics today does not appear to owe much to this noble tradition. Democracy is gripped by three concurrent crises: of prosperity, fear and confidence. Larry Summers, the former US treasury secretary, has noted that, when America was growing at its fastest, living standards were doubling every 30 years. China has doubled its living standards three times in the past 30 years. The growth of China threatens to break the monopoly that the democracies have enjoyed over capitalist prosperity. Just as this lesson was sinking in, developed capitalism suffered the self-inflicted wound of the financial crisis. For two decades in the US and one in Britain, real wages have stagnated.

As economic confidence has declined, liberal democracies have confronted an even more basic threat. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq collapsed into military disaster. Successive problems in Ukraine and in Syria appear to have passed power from the hands of democrats to those of eager tyrants. Russia and China are devising their own rules for the world diplomatic order. Most potent of all is the fear of terror. In the 1907 novel The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad described the invisible but palpable fear that governs a society under the threat of terrorist attack.

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After a century of progress, democracy appears to be in retreat. Turkey, which once seemed to meld moderate Islam with democracy, is descending into corruption under a leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has begun to tear up secular liberalism. In Bangladesh, Thailand and Cambodia, opposition parties have boycotted recent elections or refused to accept their results. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has openly declared that national needs trump liberal values. In Poland, the Law and Justice Party is accused of trampling on the country’s constitution to establish an “illiberal democracy”. In Russia, Vladimir Putin, a former KGB operative, has been both prime minister and president twice. He has muzzled the press and imprisoned political opponents.


Populism is present in the established democracies, too. Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump are connected by their claim to represent the people. They all pretend that politics is easy and that there is no need for complicating procedures. It is no accident that populists such as Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Alexis Tsipras in Greece and Trump have proved hopeless in office. The failure is baked into their arrogance.

Populism is Utopia’s dark shadow. The pretence that politics is easy is a common move in literary Utopias that erase all conflict. In Utopia, all desires have been satisfied. All the virtues miraculously consort in a land of no scarcity and abundant happiness. In William Morris’s News from Nowhere, the House of Commons has been transformed into a storehouse for manure. Politics has been cancelled because of the fantasy that all good things can be had at once. Robert Nozick put this point colourfully in his 1974 book, Anarchy, State and Utopia, when he suggested that no society can be imagined in which Hugh Hefner, the Buddha and Ludwig Wittgenstein would all be equally happy. To live in Utopia is to be amid perfection already achieved and it is never long before the leader tires of the constraints that are built into the constitutional apparatus. He is therefore bound to attack the free press, minority rights and judicial oversight as institutions that are seeking to defy the will of the people.

This is why the utopian account of how change will come about is so fatuous. In More’s Utopia, a traveller, a speaker of nonsense, finds the perfect society in functioning order in the ocean. In the place of where an account of change should be, the utopian populist substitutes the supreme leader. Albert Camus once said that democracy is the system for people who know that they don’t know everything. The populist utopian has all the answers. The omniscient figures have been, variously, priests, philosophers, intellectuals, scientists, or the party. Plato believed in the rule of the sages, the Stoics in the power of reason, the 17th-century rationalists in metaphysical insight and the 18th-century empiricists in science. The populist believes in himself.

What the populist knows, above all, is that the people have been cheated of their birthright by the elite. In the utopian literature, the safest refuge from the corrupt present is the blessed past. Populism is a promise to return to popular wisdom before it was corroded, if not by the elite then by the immigrants. President Trump has proposed the deportation of undocumented immigrants and wants a wall to keep out the Mexicans. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders wants to repeal hate speech legislation. In Poland, Jaroslaw Kaczynski has sought to make the use of the term “Polish death camps” illegal.

There was an egregious example of this during the 2016 US presidential campaign. It has become a tradition of American politics that every president goes to the civil war battlefield at Gettysburg to pay tribute to the American republic. The most notable address after Lincoln’s was in 1963. President John F Kennedy asked his predecessor Dwight D Eisenhower, a resident of the town, to stand in for him. Kennedy had to go down to Dallas, from where he never returned. Eisenhower’s address, three days before Kennedy was assassinated, was a hymn to the American republic, as all the Gettysburg speeches are.

Or, rather, were. On 22 October 2016, weeks before his election as president, Donald Trump delivered his own Gettysburg address. After opening in the conventional fashion, by associating himself with Lincoln’s battle against division (“hallowed ground… amazing place”), Trump decried Washington and Wall Street for rigging the game against “everyday Americans”. He called Hillary Clinton a criminal, claimed massive voter fraud without any evidence and denounced unspecified corruption. Trump chose the site of the greatest speech about the virtues of the republic to ask citizens not to trust their own government: “We will drain the swamp in Washington, DC, and replace it with a new government of, by and for the people. Believe me.”

Confronted with this nonsense, we must summon defiance and reassert that democracy is the great philosophical success of modern times. There were no full democracies anywhere in 1799. Throughout the 19th century, more than a third of the world’s population lived in countries ruled by imperial powers and almost everyone was governed by despots. The first wave of modern democracy was crushed by the malignant populists of the 1930s. The great flourishing came in the second half of the 20th century. Today, every second person lives in a democracy.

We need to make again Cicero’s utopian case for liberty and justice in the republic. We need Jefferson’s uplifting words about the capacity of politics to restrain men from injuring one another and its protection of the rights of minorities. We need Lincoln’s imperishable formula of a government of the people, for the people and by the people, and to take heed of Kennedy’s warning that good government is done with the people, rather than to the people. And we have a reminder from Obama that hope must connect to power. These are all unforgettable cadences that commend the political virtue of granting power to the people. They are the voices of Utopia.

Philip Collins writes for the Times and is the author of “When They Go Low, We Go High: Speeches That Shape the World – and Why We Need Them” (Fourth Estate)

This article appears in the 25 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Poor Britannia