The rule of cynics and nihilists has led us to a dangerous place, where everything from healthcare to wind farms is declared intrusive, big-state meddling
Imaginary perfect societies are everywhere these days, in everything from folktales to science fiction novels to grand teenage fantasies of saving the world. We have always been utopian dreamers, of course. Centuries before Thomas More coined the term “utopia”, Plato described one in his Republic. By the 17th and 18th centuries, utopias were a staple of fiction, and, a century after that, books such as Edward Bellamy’s 1888 bestseller Looking Backward and Étienne Cabet’s Voyage en Icarie inspired real-world socialist movements. There were feminist versions, from Sarah Scott’s 1762 bluestocking utopia Millennium Hall to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 vision of an all-female society in Herland. Utopia is Camelot, but also the thousand-year Reich. The Judeo-Christian account of human history begins in Eden and ends in heaven. Even modern sitcoms are often set in micro-utopias, where a group is unwaveringly loyal to its members: Stars Hollow, the cosy small town in Gilmore Girls; the eponymous bar of Cheers where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came.
In politics, though, the concept has been poisoned by the catastrophic events of the 20th century. It’s hard to sell a utopian project when the first example that springs to everyone’s mind is Stalin’s Soviet Union. In the 18th century, the harshest satire of utopia was El Dorado in Voltaire’s Candide: a wealthy, peaceful kingdom where the streets were paved with gems, there were no priests and all the kings’ jokes were funny. By 1948, it was the brutalised, impoverished, war-addicted Oceania of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.