On the Road to Not-here

Twice recently concerning the on-going student protests here in Quebec I’ve heard two artists (Baby Boomers both) dismiss the students’ demands for tuition-free education as “utopian!”. Their one-word argument puzzled me, because these are reasonably intelligent, educated men, yet they seem ignorant of just what brow-furrowing complexities these four syllables hold.

I’m sure they know the word was coined by “Syr Thomas More knyght”, who published a book by that title in 1516, which he described as a “fruteful and pleasaunt Worke of the beste state of a publyque weale.” More’s fictional, “beste state” was quickly criticized by his more “realistic” contemporaries, for whom “a place, state, or condition ideally perfect in respect of politics, laws, customs, and conditions” (OED 2.a) could only be “an impossibly ideal scheme” (OED 2.b).

However, if we reflect on More’s own description of his work,  one that imagines “the beste state of a publyque weale,” a “condition ideally perfect in respect of politics, laws, customs, and conditions” we might come to realize that all debate about the direction society should take is inescapably utopian. Whenever we question or debate how things—especially that “public thing,” the res publicashould be, we think counterfactually, positing states-of-affairs that in fact do not exist, but might or ought to. In this sense of the word, even the Harper government’s vision for Canada is utopian, since its efforts aim at bringing our present society into line with a merely projected one (Harper’s notion of “the beste state”) that has yet in fact to be realized. All “schemes” for how society should be are ideal in this sense, since they exist as ideas before they are actualized.  Indeed, their being conceived in the first place is the necessary condition for their eventual fruition. What is real now was only once imagined.

Such schemes for how society ought to be are ideal not only in the pragmatic sense of their being, in the first place, only imagined plans, but they are “impossibly ideal,” as well, and necessarily so. No plan ever realizes itself perfectly. This blog post, too,  falls short of my intentions. Knowing we must fail, however, doesn’t stop us from striving to bring about our vision of how things should be, moving  our here and now closer to that u-topos, that place that is not (yet) here.

Of course, the dismissiveness of our two artists isn’t one that will be persuaded by such fine conceptual discriminations. Their hard-nosed point is that the students’ demands are, in practical, fiscal terms, impossible. This thesis is debatable: at least eight different alternatives to the tuition hikes have been proposed, all consistent with the fiscal facts all parties agree on. But even this disagreement defined in these terms assumes that an appeal to facts and reason should be sufficient to decide the matter, an impossible ideal rarely met with in concrete political discourse or social struggle, but still one that underwrites any such debate in the first place, if not the very ideal of a democratic society.

So the artists are right:  the students’ demands are utopian, but then, so are the artists’ views of how things should be, and so is the democratic ideal  all parties play along with, that the matter can be hammered out, best without recourse to arbitrary fiat or truncheons. In this sense, whenever we take up the question of  how things ought to be and take the steps to get there, we’re on the road to utopia.

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