All political philosophy boils down to two basic ideas about human nature – the utopian vision and the tragic vision. Either man is a perfectible animal and we can build a society free of inequality, injustice, poverty and discrimination, or these grand dreams will always fail because of man’s failings. The first idea inspired the Jacobins and Bolsheviks; the latter has informed the views of conservatives from Edmund Burke to Roger Scruton.
Arguably the greatest political philosopher of his era, Scruton’s misfortune is to have lived during a time when, despite the evident failures of Communism, the masses have embraced the utopian vision like never before. As a youth he witnessed the 1968 student revolution in Paris which, although superficially a failure, has been so fantastically successful in imparting utopian ideas throughout the political-media class that deviation from its principles is socially unacceptable and in some cases a “hate crime”. For, as Professor Scruton points out, secular ideologies can be just as intolerant of heretics as any religion; indeed, the religious, believing in salvation in the next life, are less prone to believing in utopian ideas about this one.
Utopian ideas are doomed to fail because, as Scruton points out in his new book, The Uses of Pessimism, they hail from “unscrupulous optimism”, the subject of this book. Optimists are political thinkers who “ignore or despise the findings of experience and common sense. The millions dead or enslaved do not refute utopia, but merely give proof of the evil machinations that have stood in its way.”
The utopian fallacy is just one of several that form the basis of modern Left-wing thinking. Among the others is the “born-free fallacy”, based on Rousseau’s idea that without social constraints we are all free, when in fact there can be no freedom without obedience.
There is also the “zero-sum fallacy”, which states that someone is poor and unhappy because someone else is rich and happy. And the “best-case fallacy”, the line of optimistic utopian thinking which chooses to ignore the likely outcome of a policy in favour of the intended outcome; among the many examples are the liberalisation of divorce and abortion laws, which led to more abandoned children and domestic abuse – the complete opposite of what was promised.
And the optimists are behind two related utopian ideas that dominate their age. The European Union, like Soviet Communism, is “an unachievable goal chosen for its abstract purity, in which differences are reconciled, conflict overcome and mankind soldered together in a metaphysical unity, can never be questioned, since in the nature of the case it can never be put to the proof.
All the crimes committed on the way to it are deviations, perversions or betrayals, things that the ideal was designed to prevent.” Indeed – and when these super-states descend into ethnic acrimony, then “nationalism” will be to blame, not the absurdity of the super-state. Organic nation-states, in contrast, have allowed men “to create institutions that hold their leaders and representatives to account for everything that affects the common interest”.
It is an “unplanned expression” and for that reasons “offensive to those who live by the plan”. The utopian vision is also behind that other modern grand illusion, mass immigration.
As Scruton notes: “Since the 1960s western countries have adopted policies in the matter of immigration that no person schooled in the elementary truths of pessimism would have endorsed. Anybody who has studied the fate of empires, and the difficulties of establishing territorial jurisdiction over communities that differ in religion, language and marital customs, knows that the task is all but impossible, and threatens constantly to break down in fragmentation, tribalism or civil war.”
The utopian policy of mass immigration even had its human sacrifice, says Scruton: a vilified Conservative MP by the name of Enoch Powell “whose ruination is joyfully undertaken, as the much-needed proof that my illusions are invulnerable, since they are shared”.
Powell offered a noble, somewhat romantic vision, of England. In contrast the new multicultural state would have no common loyalty or history, and “would inevitably deprive the British people of their geographical, cultural and political inheritance”.
This an immensely important and enlightening work for an age of wilful delusion.