News from Nowhere

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More broadly speaking, the notion that it is good to reduce toil has supporters on both the academic left, to judge from such books as Juliet Schor's The Overworked American, and the free market right, to judge from Schor's ablest critics. (Very few people attacked her book by claiming that excessive work is good. Most took her analysis to task, arguing that the average American's work hours are actually declining - and that this is good.) And on the far right, the survivalist bookseller Loompanics - the self-proclaimed "lunatic fringe of the libertarian movement" - has sold The Right to Be Lazy for years.

In other words, there's no shortage of utopianism in the world. You just have to look past the collegiate left to find most of it.

Alex Heard would never dream of so limited a search. In Apocalypse Pretty Soon, a travelogue of the apocalyptic and utopian fringe, Wired's executive editor encounters a rich cast of kooks, few of them likely to turn up in a faculty lounge. There is Marshall T. Savage, who hopes to establish high-tech colonies in the ocean, in orbit, on the moon, and on other planets. Brock d'Avignon, by contrast, would be satisfied to erect a libertarian paradise on an artificial island. Dr. Steven Greer doesn't need to build any islands: He expects aliens to bring paradise to Earth. The Rev. Clyde Lott thinks God will handle that - but only after a lengthy Tribulation. Dick and Leigh Richmond-Donahue expect a more ecological tribulation, after which a handful of enlightened enviro-survivalists will build a new world.

Never afraid to call a scamster a scamster or a nut a nut, Heard also can be respectful, even affectionate, about his subjects. "Much of the scholarship and skeptical commentary I've read treats millennialism as, essentially, a form of popular insanity, a disease, one that usually has dire consequences," he notes. But most millennialists "function peacefully with their ideas.

This is not a minor matter: In July, the FBI's Michael Vatis warned Congress that his agency "expects to see increased and possibly violent activities among certain groups related to the millennium." This fear, of course, is itself a millennial phenomenon, and given the FBI's uninspiring record in dealing with "certain groups related to the millennium," it could turn into a pretty nasty self-fulfilling prophecy.

Some fringe groups do have the potential for violence. But for most, Heard finds, Armageddon is always imminent but never arrives; it's more a comforting presence than a threat. "The key for happiness," he writes, "is for redemption to shine forever on the horizon." Hence the "pretty soon" in his title.

Heard's approach makes for delightful reading, especially if you've just slogged through something as boring as Jacoby's tome. It also raises some questions about the author. Heard is unable to adopt any of the belief systems he investigates, though in one case (involving life after death) he'd clearly like to. Yet he keeps throwing himself into these odd subcultures, investigating them with something more than voyeurism in mind. After a while, I started suspecting he too enjoys that pretty-soon feeling of changes on the horizon, even if he's too skeptical to adopt any millennial faith himself.

I suspected him, in other words, of what one might call ironic utopianism. Of all the species of utopia, this one is the least literal and the most literary: It is more speculative than prescriptive, more an anthem than a constitution. If traditional utopias reduce a complex world to one dreamer's blueprint, ironic ones enrich the world, letting us move between different social visions.

Thus, when Heard, bored with modern futurism (a meeting of the World Future Society was "like ascending the mountaintop and looking out at a carpet-and-tile showroom"), starts hanging out with d'Avignon the would-be island builder, he gets inspired, even though he doesn't expect the man to build his colony and probably wouldn't want to live there anyway. "I didn't believe he would single-handedly rehabilitate wing-tinned futurism," Heard admits. "In fact, I had a strong suspicion right from the start that he wouldn't accomplish much of anything. What interested me was the quest."

From there it is a short step to a different sort of utopia, one that you don't imagine outside the world but try to discover within it - utopia not as fantasy but as epiphany. Desmond Morris, the anthropologist, once hinted at this approach. "My greatest punishment would be to be confined in the classic conception of a utopia, where nothing ever goes wrong and everyone is permanently, boringly happy," he wrote. "The real world in which I live is already sufficiently curious, rebellious, eccentric, and evolving to give me my utopia right here and now."

You can take that as a personal credo, or you can take it as a political program. To paraphrase an old slogan, every new world is buried in the shell of the old.

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