Happiness Is Notoriously Difficult To Describe

George Kateb
George Kateb
Preface to the Paperback Edition of George Kateb’s Utopia and Its Enemies (1972, 1963).

“Of course, no honest person claims that happiness is now a normal condition among human beings; but perhaps it could be made normal, and it is upon this question that all serious political controversy really turns.”

“Happiness is notoriously difficult to describe, and pictures of a just and well-ordered Society are seldom either attractive or convincing.”

–George Orwell

I used to think that the idea of a utopian way of life made sense; and, even more, that such a life was a genuine alternative to the life now lived. I am now much less confident about these assumptions. The growth of interest in utopia int eh last few years forces one to look at such assumptions again. There is now a certain literalism about the matter of utopia that was lacking a little while ago. On the one hand, the creation of communes; on the other, the intensified feeling that it is the fate of the world to become a unity–these nourish as they derive from the revival of utopia. With this revival, which is not only academic or literary, utopia’s practicability and desirability take on some more seriousness. In this brief preface I can merely indicate the change in me induced (in part) by the real existence of utopian aspirations.

Does the idea of a utopian way of life make sense? Should the characteristics of the perfect or near-perfect society be specified? Should a sketch of utopian men, women, and children be made? Allowing for changes in utopian people and their environment, should even a minimal account of utopia be at the same time a substantial account? I do not know the answer to these questions with certainty. But I now feel less sympathetic than I did when I wrote Utopia and Its Enemies to the notion that utopia should be thought to have a positive identifiable content. Every description (not only B. F. Skinner’s) and every experiment, soon turn out to be, on close examination, diminishing, confining, stultifying. The world should not be made to yield itself entirely to the imagination or practice of any individual or group

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. In every set of arrangements much is lost, though much may be gained. If utopia implies a fairly definite set of arrangements, if it lives on the belief that it is the best possible set, then it necessarily condemns itself to narrowness and exclusion. There are too many conceivable “bests” to permit any to establish itself in such a way as to make radical departure from it unlikely. In the past, openness to possibility spoke through the literature of utopia. It maybe be that the world has grown so rich in actuality and near-actuality that any effort to legislate for a whole society, in the name of utopia, to set forth in detail, a utopian way of life, may in fact be repressive.

I do think, however, that the first two of the three utopian ends I discuss survive the doubts I have just expressed. It is not repressive to insist that utopia be defined so as to excluded ware and scarcity. It is not repressive to want war and scarcity to disappear from the glove. The minimal conditions of decency in the real world are the minimal conditions of decency in the perfect world. The world would be utopia if war and scarcity were abolished–provided, of course, it were not a Brave New World in any of its numbers peaceful and affluent variations. That much we can cling to in utopian idealism. To include more in the definition of utopia itself–to include conditioned virtue, as I have in this book–risks a terrible closure. Rather, we should think of utopia as a world in which individuals and groups had the freedom, will, energy, and talent to make and remake their lives unencumbered by insufficiency and the fear of violent death.

Does utopia, as I have reduced it, present a genuine alternative to the life now lived all over the world? More specifically, is it reasonable to suppose that a world without scarcity is within human reach? Can everybody’s basic material needs be satisfied? Is the suffering now so widespread corrigible with a rational reorganization land allocation of work resources? There is as yet no answer, nothing approaching an answer, to this question. Some, like Herbert Marcuse, suppose with an unwarranted ease that the reason there is scarcity is that advanced capitalism steals, hogs, and wastes the world’s resources. Scarcity will end if capitalism is replaced. Others imagine that nothing can be done to improve the world’s concision in the long run: that things will get worse. Population will outstrip the means of subsistence; irrecoverable resources will be exhausted; the natural environment will first become corrupted and then unlivable. One via is magical; the other apocalyptic. It seems to me that those who are guided by the idea of utopia must courageously examine the question o whether the material basis for a world without scarcity can ever come into being. The place of conjecture in such an examination will, of course, be large. The truth may be that there cn be no utopia, but there can be an apocalypse. The morality of futurist thinking would then consist in trying to ward off or delay the apocalypse, not in dreaming about perfection, or even about a world without scarcity.

George Kateb
Amherst College
December, 1971

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  1. Colin Allen August 28, 2015 at 6:40 am

    I don’t think it’s reasonable to suppose that a world without scarcity is within reach. Resources are geographically and temporally patchy — necessarily so, as long you can’t grow/find/manufacture everything you might need everywhere anytime. This is true of necessities like water as it is of luxuries (raspberries; but remember, that one person’s luxury can be a another’s subsistence diet — the history of lobster in Maine). Such patchiness requires transportation (either of people to goods, or goods to people) and storage (of goods, for food in winter, etc.). Furthermore, people are not distributed exactly proportionately to resources — and they can’t be because (e.g.) sunshine and water for growing food or materials for clothing are distributed differently in time and space, so you sometimes have to move one to the other — water to California, e.g. — to overcome scarcity on various scales, local, regional, national. As long as these conditions hold, there will be scarcity in some places, sometimes seasonal, sometimes decadal, driving short- and long-term migration and incentivizing better transportation of people and goods, and incentivizing efforts to “improve” local conditions by building aquifers and warehouses, or introducing crops that have been bred or engineered for the local climate, etc. Just the kind of technology-driven modification of the environment under the banner of “progress” that I think you dislike.

    War, that’s another matter — its causes are perhaps more ideological than economic, although economics plays some role through competition for resources.

    1. Douglas Storm August 29, 2015 at 7:46 am

      The utopian idea that we might all agree that scarcity IS something to eliminate–perhaps not realizable and thus deserving of the label–is viable. Committing to the idea that we might seek an equilibrium through the justice of “enough” seems worth the effort. All of what you detail, the difficulties of even subsistence, has been exacerbated to the point of catastrophe by “technology-driven modification”–there can’t be water shortages of the kind we’re facing without the problematic “success” of that modification. All successes of this kind promote growth that creates the burden and requires the “fix.” The utopian points in two directions–the technological (continuing to fix all of our previous fixes–which are of course failures) “advance”, or the resignation to simplicity and subsistence–though we might glory in this type of existence if we hadn’t be trained to fear and hate work (labor/toil). What we’re seeing now is, I think, the cynical machinations of power and wealth to push the world’s systems towards failure–to force the catastrophe, to hit the reset button, to let utopia come on the other side. Because it is often catastrophe that precipitates the imaginary utopia. And as Kateb points out in the opening chapter of this book…we are in the middle of living in the world as it is; to “make” utopia means to instigate a violent change.


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