Utopian Vision and Social Progress
Introduction to IJWP, December 2019
This issue of International Journal on World Peace has three very different articles: one on utopianism and peace, one on the nature of “enlightenment,” and one on the history of power struggles and human rights in Colombia. All of these articles are, nevertheless, related to the idea of social progress. Some ideas of “progress” are based on group advancement, where power is used by one group to conquer a group who has something they want, while others are based on a vision of production and development in which all people live together peacefully with abundance.
In our lead article, “Places of Peace: Utopia and a World Without War,” Dennis Hardy states that “Few would dissent from a general thesis that the human condition can be improved.” Utopian writers speak of an alternative place where life is better for them than what exists at present. However, no two individuals have exactly the same idea of what utopia is. “Utopian writers approach their subject with different assumptions. Fundamental to these is how they view human nature.”
For some visionaries, utopian societies employ slaves to carry out menial work to make life comfortable. For others, utopia involves the glories of war, the destruction of traditions, museums, and anything opposing the utopian vision. Most people today, however, would hardly call such utopias “progress.” There are more utopian visions in favor of peace than war.
Some utopian communities rely on a charismatic leader, some look back to a golden age, others attempt to progress through science. In holding a mirror to society, utopianism reveals that there are better ways to organize our affairs than the way things are now.
Our second article by Katyayani Singh and Anoop Swarup looks at the progress described by Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. It argues that Pinker provides an inadequate explanation for the progress that has occurred in the West. Singh contends that there is a positive role for religion in providing science with the values that make humane progress possible. Many social scientists have jettisoned religion because of the harm that the misuse of religion has caused. Singh argues that Karl Marx’s critiques of the evil uses of religion does not negate its positive and necessary value. “Religions take on the more difficult task of teaching self-restraint and love, by enabling individuals to develop a consciousness of the value of everything, and a respect for it that drives people to serve the whole. Pinker missed this point.” Religion can provide a utopian vision that shows a path for science to progress.
Singh states that in real progress the means and ends should be integrated. She quotes Mohandas K. Gandi’s description of seven deadly sins:
- Wealth without work.
- Pleasure without conscience.
- Knowledge without character.
- Commerce without morality.
- Science without humanity.
- Worship without sacrifice.
- Politics without principle.
The end—the utopian vision of peace—can not be achieved if the means include these deadly sins, and overcoming them is addressed by spirituality and religion. Singh states that as more faith was put in science, humanistic values declined. Humanism is valued by Pinker, however, its foundation is in the spiritual values of Western civilization. They provide a platform for science to make the dramatic progress praised in Enlightenment Now.
Singh suggests that most human beings will support the core value of “non-killing.” Killing is more than homicide; it includes suicide, war deaths, and the death penalty, all of which justify killing or taking one’s own life. Killing is often justified as a means to an end. “Most of the political ideologies such as capitalism, communism, existentialism, and utilitarianism are built on the principle that ends are justified by means.” “It is right to abandon old values that justified violence as a means to an end and we should not eject the universal human values like nonkilling promoted by religions in earlier civilizations.” Science can help reframe human values in the 21st century by adopting the value of non-killing. This would be a real “Enlightenment Now.”
Our third article, “Colombian Violent Conflict: A Historical Perspective,” is a reminder of the difficulties of creating peace when the pursuit of power is decoupled from concepts of civilizational progress. Leonardo Luna traces the socio-political history of Colombia over the last century, beginning with “La Violencia” of the 1920s. What we see is a constant cycle of oppression and exclusion by power-holders, revolutionary activity by excluded groups, peace treaties, and the rise of groups who become oppressors when they gain power.
Colombia is a country where power has been traditionally tied to ownership of land. The landowners and the church made up the ruling political class and peasants had little opportunity to advance, let alone survive in the agrarian economy without land. One can understand the emotional power of the Marxist analysis recounted by Singh: “the manipulation of religion by power holders in history has caused its very essence to be lost.” Those who are systematically excluded from an economy have little to lose and much to gain by turning the tables on power.
“La Violencia” eventually created enough social pressure to bring the liberal party to power in 1930, and by 1936 some land redistribution began. However, this led to a duopoly of the conservative and liberal parties called El Frente Nacional, which held the reigns of power while other groups were still shut out of the political process, creating a new breeding ground for armed revolutionary groups by the 1960s. This included the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), influenced by the revolution in the Soviet Union, the National Liberation Army (ELN), influenced by Cuba, and the People’s Liberation Army (EPL), influenced by China. This stimulated the United States to side with the government against a regime takeover by one of its communist enemies, turning the power struggle within the country into a Cold War battle for client states, with most internal groups serving as clients of different global interests.
In the 1970s, left-wing guerilla activities were followed by tighter government security laws and right-wing paramilitary militias attacking suspected guerillas, causing the formation of a new united coalition of socialists and liberals under the banner of the Permanent Committee of Human Rights Defense. Belisario Betancur was elected President of the Republic in August 1982, promising to address the human rights situation. And, in 1984 a new peace agreement, the Uribe Agreement, in which the former rebels agreed to a cease-fire was created. This led to a new Patriotic Union (UP) political party that gave the rebels a legal voice.
Then came the rise of new wealth and power based on the highly lucrative drug trade in the 1980s, and the power battles that divided the country once again before a new 1991 Constitution was passed and the M-19 group handed in their weapons.
These cycles of new ruling groups followed by agreements with rebels from oppressed groups who made it difficult for those in power to remain in power very long. After two more cycles of opposition and agreements in the 2000s and 2010s, came the most recent 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian government and FARC-EP that focuses on six major areas: rural reform, political participation, the end of the conflict, illicit drugs, a restorative justice system for those who participated in the conflict, and verification mechanisms to monitor all of the parties’ commitments to the peace process.
This century of struggle in Colombia has been a slow, arduous power negotiation process without a utopian or spiritual social component. The history of Colombia and many other nation-states in the last century raises the question of whether a government can provide solutions to power disputes when its own raison d’être is power. Can giving power to revolutionary groups create peace? Or, is peace and good governance generated by a value-based social vision that puts political power in the service of the entire society?
Steve Pinker is right that we live in a world where science and critical thinking has significantly contributed to material progress. However, as Katyayani notes, humanistic values have experienced decline in the same period. Science has offered such great hope that many have viewed it as a savior, and scientism (as a secular religion) has tempted people to reject traditional values and utopian visions wholesale in exchange for creature comforts without progress towards social peace. Both Dennis Hardy and Katyayani Singh have argued, successfully I believe, that real progress is something higher than the progress described in Enlightenment Now.
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