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Law and the Utopian Imagination seeks to explore and resuscitate the notion of utopianism within current legal discourse. The idea of utopia has fascinated the imaginations of important thinkers for ages. And yet—who writes seriously on the idea of utopia today?

The mid-century critique appears to have carried the day, and a belief in the very possibility of utopian achievements appears to have flagged in the face of a world marked by political instability, social upheaval, and dreary market realities. Instead of mapping out the contours of a familiar terrain, this book seeks to explore the possibilities of a productive engagement between the utopian and the legal imagination. The book asks: is it possible to re-imagine or revitalize the concept of utopia such that it can survive the terms of the mid-century liberal critique? Alternatively, is it possible to re-imagine the concept of utopia and the theory of liberal legality so as to dissolve the apparent antagonism between the two? In charting possible answers to these questions, the present volume hopes to revive interest in a vital topic of inquiry too long neglected by both social thinkers and legal scholars.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804790819
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 05/21/2014
Series: The Amherst Series in Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought
Pages: 200
Sales rank: 1,176,395
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Austin Sarat is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College.
Lawrence Douglas is James J. Grosfeld Professor of Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought at Amherst College.
Martha Merrill Umphrey is Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought and Chair of Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought at Amherst College.

Read an Excerpt

Law and the Utopian Imagination

By Austin Sarat, Lawrence Douglas, Martha Merrill Umphrey


Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9186-1


Law and the Utopian Imagination: An Introduction


In 1922, toward the conclusion of his first book, Story of Utopias, the American sociologist Lewis Mumford wrote, "Our most important task at the present moment is to build castles in the sky." In 1929, in his classic work Ideology and Utopia, the German sociologist Karl Mannheim offered a similarly emphatic defense of the importance of utopian thinking: "The complete elimination of reality-transcending elements from our world," Mannheim wrote, "ultimately would mean the decay of the human will. ... The disappearance of utopia brings about a static state of affairs in which man himself becomes no more than a thing." A scant two decades later, a very different tone sounded in the pages of three of the most influential social thinkers of the midcentury. Writing independently, Karl Popper, Lionel Trilling, and Isaiah Berlin essayed critiques of utopianism that, taken together, delivered a broad indictment of utopian thinking. Far from locating in the utopian imagination a vital force for human betterment and social progress, these midcentury thinkers powerfully argued that utopianism paves the way to totalitarianism and that its logical endpoint is not the peaceful community of equals but the death camp. In particular, these thinkers laid bare the particular antagonisms between utopianism and liberal legality—finding in the former a dire threat to the salutary commitments of the latter.

Who, then, writes seriously on the idea of utopia today? The answer would seem to be: almost no one, and least of all scholars of the law. The midcentury critique appears to have carried the day, and a belief in the very possibility of utopian achievements—bracketing for a moment the question of their desirability—appears to have flagged in the face of a world marked by political instability, social upheaval, and dreary market realities. True, one can find in the manifestos of exuberant dot-commers elements or vestiges of utopian thinking—fervent expressions of belief in the Internet's promise of radical equality and unfettered self-expression. One can likewise locate aspects of utopianism in statements of the loose affiliation of groups associated with the "occupy Wall Street" movement. Still, it seems fair to say that utopianism finds itself in a generally moribund state—discredited by a series of critiques penned in the middle of the last century, and marginalized by the dislocations of current political and market processes.

This volume can be seen, then, as a project of exploration and resuscitation. Instead of mapping out the contours of a familiar terrain, our contributors seek to explore the possibilities of a productive engagement between the utopian and the legal imagination. Is it possible to reimagine or revitalize the concept of utopia such that it can survive the terms of the midcentury liberal critique? Alternatively, is it possible to reframe the concept of utopia and the theory of liberal legality so as to dissolve the apparent antagonism between the two? In charting possible answers to these questions, the present volume hopes to revive interest in a vital topic of inquiry too long neglected by both social thinkers and legal scholars.

* * *

The term "utopia" first appeared in Sir Thomas More's eponymous novel of 1516, but the concept predated More by two millennia, finding its first and most influential elaboration in the pages of Plato'sRepublic. Over the centuries the utopian imagination has produced a rich and varied literature, including such classics as Samuel Butler's Erewhon, Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, and B. F. Skinner's Walden Two. Some of these works were no doubt meant to serve as criticism of existing social and political structures; to this day, scholars cannot agree on whether More intended utopia—Latin for "no where," a place the reader is guided through by a character named Raphael Hythloday, or "dispenser of nonsense"—as a bona fide vision or an ironic critique of Elizabethan institutions. Yet whatever the answer to this question, there is no denying that countless real-world social experiments have been launched under the capacious rubric of utopianism.

Our purpose here is not to inventory such experiments; our concern is with the nature of the utopian imagination that has endorsed and stimulated such ventures. In imagining an ideal or perfect community, the utopian imagination has typically eschewed nostalgia. It finds its ideal not in a prelapsarian, Edenic state of innocence; instead, the utopian imagination has tended to fix its gaze on the future, finding its realization not in the dissolution of social arrangements and institutions but in their dialectical transcendence or radical improvement. Certainly one can find aspects of prelapsarian thinking in the utopian imagination—More's vision of the abolition of private property harks back to Plato, just as Plato locates one model of utopia in the lost island of Atlantis—but still the larger fact remains that utopias are not points of return: they are destinations that must be fashioned and engineered. In More's novel, for example, Utopia is an island, but an artificial, not a natural one. Originally a peninsula, the island was created through an ambitious and arduous project of land removal, meant to insulate the community from threats—military and otherwise—from the mainland.

Such engineered communities assume a wide variety of forms in the utopian imagination; still, it is possible to speak of certain commonalities and shared features. Utopias are, first and foremost, communities of harmony and order. In Utopia and Its Enemies, political theorist George Kateb described utopias as sharing conditions of "perpetual peace, guaranteed abundance, and conditioned virtue." Work is rewarding and leisure is stimulating. There is no want, strife, or dissension. Virtuous behavior guarantees conditions of peace and plenty for all, while conditions of peace and plenty make possible the cultivation of virtue.

Perhaps the most remarkable example of utopian harmony is found in the pages of The Republic, where Plato famously defines justice as "minding ... one's own business" and performing "the one function in the community for which his nature has best suited him." Justice, in this account, is no more than the harmonious performance of tasks, as Plato posits an affinity between the structural harmony of the parts of the state and the internal equipoise of the well-balanced individual soul. Just as justice "in the state meant that each of the three orders ... was doing its proper work ... we may henceforth bear in mind that each one of us likewise will be a just person, fulfilling his proper function, only if the several parts of our nature fulfill theirs." As this passage suggests, it is not the tripartite soul that delivers a template for the state in The Republic; rather, it is the harmonious statis of the well-balanced tripartite state that provides a model of the soul—a fact that emphasizes the conditioned nature of virtue in a utopian state. For although Plato speaks of persons fulfilling their nature, he recognizes that the inhabitants of his utopia will need to be "induced to make themselves perfect masters each of his [sic] own craft."

We likewise find a link between peace, plenty, and conditioned virtue in More's Utopia. More's community provides little in the way of privacy; members of the community work under the watchful eye of omnipresent magistrates; absent are places for social gathering. Taverns, brothels—any place that might make for "secret meeting" are banned. Here, then, Utopia appears as a "no where" in a second sense—as a place where there is nowhere to hide, nowhere for a member of the community to escape the benevolent yet sweeping gaze of the magistrates.

Perhaps the most extreme example of a utopia in which harmonious living amid circumstances of material plenty is achieved through conditioned virtue is to be found in B. F. Skinner's Walden Two. As the spokesman for the community simply puts it, "We want a government based upon a science of human behavior":

We have no truck with philosophies of innate goodness—or evil, for that matter. But we do have faith in our power to change human behavior. We can make men adequate for group living—to the satisfaction of everybody."

In Walden Two, harmonious and commodious living can be achieved and maintained through a science of behavioral conditioning and engineering.

Given the exceptional lever of order needed to achieve and maintain communities of perpetual peace, guaranteed abundance, and conditioned virtue, we might be tempted to assume that law would play a particularly robust role in the utopian state. As perhaps the most potent tool by which social order is imposed and vouchsafed, law would seem to play an important if not necessary role in the completion of any utopian project. And yet if anything, the utopian imagination has typically displayed hostility toward legal forms and processes.

Some utopias, certainly, contemplate an active role for law in the promotion of a life of peace and plenty. More's Utopia envisions a community without private property that, in order to sustain itself, must eliminate "everything that causes, promotes, and fosters intrigue, luxury, [and] jealousy." Here law plays a crucial role: the banning of taverns is but one example of social regulation achieved through and enforced by law. More important, the system of assemblies, councils, and magistrates that promulgate and enforce the law are themselves crucially subject to it. In the words of one commentator, More's island utopia is very much a "law state."

Not so Plato's Republic. The guardians of Plato's utopia are philosopher kings, true "lovers of knowledge" who refuse to "linger among the multiplicity of things which men believe to be real" and instead strive "with a passion" to lay hold "upon the nature of each thing." Indifferent to self-aggrandizement or the acquisition of material goods, the philosopher king selflessly dedicates himself to promoting the commonweal. It would be absurd to tie the hands of a ruler whose only ambition is to shape a better and more perfect order. The rule of law has no place in a world ruled by philosopher kings. At best law would be irrelevant, a redundant summary of the guardians' own designs of governance. At worst it would be an encumbrance, a regrettable fetter on the guardians' ability to creatively steer the ship of state on its ideal course. Law is a system born of imperfection, a device needed to restrain rulers who cannot be trusted to restrain themselves. "Genuine guardians" pose no such threat of abuse of power; they "will be the last to bring harm upon the commonwealth."

Of course, in The Laws, Plato tells a very different story. Here Plato defends a community ruled by magistrates who, like the ordinary citizens of the community, are ruled by and subject to an elaborate system of laws. As the "Athenian Stranger" who stands in for Socrates in the dialogue asserts, "Mankind must either give themselves [sic] a law and regulate their lives by it, or live no better than wild beasts." However, as this statement suggests, here we have ceased talking about the creation of an ideal community. Plato quite clearly sees the state described in The Laws as second best. We accept the law faute de mieux—a necessary tool in a world in which the philosophical truth that anchors The Republic is "nowhere to be met with, except in faint vestiges." The true utopia dispenses with regulation by law.

Skinner's Walden Two likewise essays a vision of utopia free from legal control. For Skinner, law is nothing more than a primitive form of behavioral engineering. Based as it is on the "use of force or the threat of force," law is a system of coercion "incompatible with permanent happiness." Walden Two, by contrast, is based on an "effective science of behavior" that largely replaces law's reliance on negative reinforcement (namely, "handcuffs, iron bars, and forcible coercion") with techniques of "positive reinforcement." As the spokesman for the community explains, when a person "behaves as we want him to behave, we simply create a situation he likes or remove one that he doesn't like. As a result, the likelihood that he will behave that way again goes up, which is what we want." In Walden Two, people behave in a sociable manner not because they are threatened with force if they fail to do so, but because they have been conditioned so as to make such behavior feel voluntary. The science of human behavior has rendered law—an outmoded and inefficient form of behavioral conditioning—obsolete.

* * *

If the utopian imagination has displayed hostility to legal forms and processes, the liberal imagination has answered in kind, fervently rejecting utopian thinking. Liberals are not alone in taking issue with utopian thought; Schopenhauer's philosophy of suffering and Nietzsche's philosophy of power sternly call into question the attractions of a world of mindlessly happy people enjoying conditions of peace and plenty. Nor have liberal critics of utopia necessarily concerned themselves with law or with norms and procedures of liberal legality. Precious few legal philosophers or theorists have explicitly written on the subject of utopianism. And yet some of the most influential liberal thinkers of the last century—Karl Popper, Lionel Trilling, and Isaiah Berlin—essayed sweeping critiques of utopianism, critiques that implicitly offer a robust defense of liberal legal forms. Put another way, if utopian thinkers find law an obstacle to the creation of the perfect community, liberal thinkers locate in law a necessary bulwark against the inevitable excesses of utopia.

At first blush, it might seem odd that anyone should see utopian thinking as sinister. One might, pace Nietzsche, view a community of harmony, peace, plenty, and virtue, as dull—but dangerous? Yet Popper, Trilling, and Berlin found dangers aplenty. In both his famous work of 1945, The Open Society and Its Enemies, and in a shorter lecture of 1947, "Utopia and Violence," Popper laid bare the perceived connections between utopianism and totalitarianism. While acknowledging the lure of utopianism ("indeed, an all too attractive theory"), Popper insisted that a belief in the perfectibility of society endorses all possible methods toward its achievement, for no means—even the most violent—can be abjured when perfection is the goal. Given the purity of the imagined endpoint, the utopian must be "very thorough in eliminating and stamping out all heretical competing views"—a thoroughness that endorses all manner of force toward the end of the radical transformation of society. Democracy can be smashed, rights suppressed, and enemies ruthlessly eliminated in order to "execute the Utopian blueprint."

Democratic societies, while also committed to social engineering, aim at incremental, piecemeal change. Channeled through legal norms of due process and regulated by the rule of law, democratic social engineering is devoted to the more modest project of improving institutions rather than fundamentally reshaping the very fabric of society. The proper goals of politics and law, for Popper, find elaboration in simple maxims: "Work for the elimination of concrete evils rather than for the realization of abstract goals. Do not aim at establishing happiness by political means. Rather aim at the elimination of concrete miseries." In the final analysis, the difference between the liberal and the utopian ethos finds elaboration in "the difference between a reasonable method of improving the lot of man, and a method which ... may easily lead to an intolerable increase in human suffering."

Lionel Trilling's 1950 work The Liberal Imagination extended Popper's critique. In this book of essays, Trilling did not in the first instance concern himself with the differences between liberal and utopian thought. Rather, Trilling addressed a strand of utopianism that he located within liberalism itself. For Trilling, liberalism represented a singular achievement in the history of political thought, with its greatest contribution the creation of the idea of universal human rights. For Trilling, the liberal notion of human rights constituted, to borrow language more recently used by Samuel Moyn, a "minimalist" ideal—it was dedicated to securing basic principles of justice and protecting the life and dignity of persons.


Excerpted from Law and the Utopian Imagination by Austin Sarat, Lawrence Douglas, Martha Merrill Umphrey. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Law and the Utopian Imagination: An Introduction Lawrence Douglas Austin Sarat Martha Merrill Umphrey 1

The One and Only Law: Walter Benjamin, Utopianism, and the Second Commandment James R. Martel 23

Law, Utopia, Event: A Constellation of Two Trajectories Johan Van Der Walt 60

"What about Peace?": Cotton Mather's Millennium and the Rise of International Law Nan Goodman 101

Globus terraqueus: Cosmopolitan Law and "Fluid Geography" in the Utopian Thinking of Immanuel Kant and Joseph-Pierre Proudhon Diane Morgan 126

Dystopian Narratives and Legal Imagination: Tales of Noir Cities and Dark Laws Shulamit Almog 155

Index 179

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