Russell Jacoby has a good line in gloomy titles. Social Amnesia and Dialectic of Defeat were followed by The Last Intellectuals, which has now been joined by The End of Utopia. There is, of course, a good deal for the left to be gloomy about, despite the comrade who sanguinely announced at the Socialist Workers Party summer school last year that there had ‘never been more revolutionary opportunities’. Quite what it is the left should be glum about, however, needs closer specification. Has utopia come to an end because of apathy, as the book’s subtitle suggests, or because the left is in retreat, or because history is going downhill, or because it has slithered to a halt? These grounds are not mutually exclusive, but the relations between them need examining. Is the left in retreat, for example, because history is going downhill, or is it the other way round?
Apathy would seem a dubious reason for pessimism. People may not currently think much of political elections or theories of surplus value, but if you try to drive a motorway through their back gardens, throw them on the breadline or close down their children’s schools, they are likely to protest swiftly enough. It is irrational not to resist an unjust power if one may do so without too much risk and with a reasonable chance of success. Such protests may not be effective, but that is a different matter. People are also likely to be up in arms if you dump refugees on them or deprive them of their right to defend their property, which is hardly enlightened but certainly not apathetic. The evidence does not in general indicate that the citizenry is torpid or complacent. On the contrary, it suggests that they are considerably alarmed about a number of key political issues, even if most of them would be about as likely to turn to socialism for solutions as they would to Theosophy. Moreover, the penitent ex-socialist intellectuals whom this book rightly upbraids for their adaptation to capitalism are not necessarily apathetic. In fact some of them are far too little so, pushing their reformist panaceas with exasperating zeal.
Nor is it very likely that a system as perilously unstable as capitalism will escape without a major crisis over the next few decades, which is no argument for a socialist future but is certainly a case against the end of history. Pace Francis Fukuyama, we are likely to have too much future rather than too little. What is to be feared is less that history will do nothing but repeat itself, than the prospect that it will begin to unravel at the seams at a time when the left is still dishevelled and disorganized, and thus incapable of steering spontaneous revolt into productive channels. A lot more people might then get hurt than would otherwise be the case. The truly starry-eyed utopian, the one with his head buried most obdurately in the sands, is he who imagines that the future will be pretty much like the present. To say which is not of course to suggest that it is going to be better. It might well be a lot worse. The really hard-headed pragmatists are those who recognize that, as the history books declare of almost every conceivable epoch, we are in a period of rapid change, and that for hard-headed pragmatic reasons their own ideologies will thus rapidly become obsolete. This book reminds us that the end of ideology, if not quite of history, was announced by Raymond Aron and Daniel Bell as long ago as the 1950s and, with Vietnam, Black power and the student movement just round the corner, proved a singularly inept prophecy. As Oscar Wilde might have observed, to be wrong about the death of history once is unfortunate, whereas to be wrong twice is sheer carelessness.
Anyway, has the whole of the political left acquiescently thrown in its hand, as Jacoby seems dolefully to consider? What of the Brazilian landless movement, French working-class militancy, the student anti-sweatshop agitation in the United States, anarchistic anti-capitalism and a good deal else? When Jacoby envisages the whole of the left as having shifted spinelessly over from revolutionary socialism to postmodern pluralism, he is thinking for the most part, with postmodern parochialism, of his own society. The cultural turn is not, to be sure, peculiarly American; but it has certainly been more dominant and doctrinal there than among, say, the Indonesian or South African left. And if the left is on the back foot, is this simply, as Jacoby seems to imply, because it has cravenly lost its nerve? The End of Utopia, in a familiar nitty-gritty, cut-the-crap North American style, is full of a mutedly macho discourse of ‘soapy’ liberals, ‘genteel’ waffling, ‘chalky’ language and ‘toothless’ concepts, by all of which the ‘bone and muscle’ of a more virile left has been fatally infected. But the left is not just in retreat because it has lost its manhood. It is in disarray because—for example—it is not sure whether democratic, participatory economic planning really would be workable, or whether some form of market would not be necessary instead. This is not just a matter of formerly steel-hard comrades going all soggy; it is a question of genuine problems of socialist construction which Jacoby’s book passes over. These, to be sure, are not its concern; but the upshot is an unduly moralistic portrait of the treason of the clerks, and a non-materialist account of the difficulties of materialism. The problem would seem to come down to a loss of ‘vision’—a category which, in the United States, is dangerously contaminated by the idealist rhetoric of everyday politics: the crisis of the left, a Vision Thing.
Even so, this is an admirably brave intervention. In an enjoyably abrasive chapter on multiculturalism, Jacoby demolishes a number of postmodern myths. For multiculturalism, ‘the future looks like the present with more options’, and to the degree that culture subsumes everything, politics loses meaning. Ethnic identities in the United States are still sociologically robust, in that Jews tend to hang out with Jews and African-Americans with African-Americans, but cultural identities are hardly as well-defined, in that the cultural goals of such groups are fairly homogeneous. The USA is becoming a less rather than more multilingual society. Indeed few nations are so ruthlessly monolinguistic. Multiculturalism basically means wanting access to the social mainstream, thus ruling out groups like the Amish, who have no such desires. Fashionable denunciations of Eurocentrism assume that ‘Adolf Hitler and Anne Frank represent the same Europe’, and turn out often enough to be coded pleas for the accolade of the Establishment. Native American studies, for example, post a potent challenge to Euro-American hegemony, and so must become a fully accredited discipline with departmental status. In US academia, there seems no weighty political issue which cannot be translated into squabbles over funding. Intellectuals whose ‘marginality is more and more marginal’ trumpet their minority status. Cultural populism represents a similar political betrayal, as the honourable tradition of a Dwight Macdonald, scourge of exploitative mass culture, gives way to Lacanian essays on MTV and wide-eyed semiotic analyses of the opening credit sequence of The Cosby Show.
Little of this commentary is grippingly original, but all of it is timely. Jacoby is not always the most subtly nuanced of thinkers: ‘Nineteenth-century Marxism’, he writes, ‘was materialist and determinist; late-twentieth-century Marxism is idealist and incoherent’. It is partly a problem of style. There is little linguistic middle ground in the United States between the arcane jargon of academia and the commodified discourse of the media, so that the terrain which this book seeks to occupy, pitched somewhere between intellectual and common reader, the elevated and the earthy, is itself a casualty of the very processes it seeks to examine. Perry Anderson, who once identified this split between specialist and everyday discourse as one reason for the lack of a major contemporary literary realism, becomes here ‘one of the left’s savviest thinkers’, in an uneasy conjuncture of the racy and the ratiocinative. Jacoby is the kind of self-consciously plain-minded American who, one feels, would find Henry James a mite effete; ‘Pass the sherry’ is his caustic comment on one particular piece of ‘genteel-leftist’ speculation, hardly the sort of argument you might find in the pages of a Lukács or Marcuse. But this aggressively transparent idiom is, at times, uncomfortably close to the market place it denounces; and it is hard to write in this medium with the degree of subtlety the subject-matter demands. Even so, The End of Utopia represents a blast of steely commonsense in a narcissistic culture, briskly impatient with the solemn absurdities of academia, and one of several straws in a wind of anti-culturalist critique which ranges from Toril Moi’s What Is A Woman? to Francis Mulhern’s Culture/Metaculture.
In a brave final chapter, Jacoby speaks up for the continuing necessity of the utopian impulse. In the 1960s, he observes, even sober liberals pondered the possibility of a completely transformed society, and there were anxious reflections about how to deal with an increasing abundance of leisure. The contrast with the present, when ‘no society on the horizon promises a world beyond work’, is telling. The dangers of universal prosperity, Jacoby dryly remarks, no longer keep anyone awake at night. Even the most imaginative prophets of our age foretell a future with war, money, violence and inequality—a more pleasant, commodious version of the affluent enclaves of today.