The New Statesperson

The Utopia Thieves: Progress, Ecology and Neoliberalism — Chapter 11

Chris Harris
4 min readApr 26, 2021

THERE is an old argument in economics dating back to the time of Adam Smith, about whether the economy is self-righting or requires a ‘statesman’. Models of the economy as self-righting invariably take a static and simple form.

But when powering ahead with progress and technological complexity, the idea of a guiding hand begins to seem more relevant. As Rachel Slade concludes her 2018 book Into the Raging Sea, a chronicle of how innovations in ship design have often run ahead of safety regulation and effective management,

Humankind may chart a noble course but progress, like every voyage, requires strong situational awareness and a vigilant helmsman.

Another idea concerning modernity is that, far from the doomsterist view of industrial civilisation as a sort of fossil-fuelled blip between two eras of scarcity, the true history of humanity may actually only be just beginning.

Before the Industrial Revolution, people tended to viewed history as a more or less cyclical thing: a timeline that cycled between periods of opulent but increasingly corrupt civilisation, which ultimately declines and is conquered by more vigorous barbarian tribes, who then build a civilisation of their own.

A series of early allegorical paintings by the early nineteenth century artist Thomas Cole, called The Course of Empire, quite literally illustrates the principle. The one in which the rural and downtrodden wreak their revenge on the inhabitants of an opulent city is the liveliest in the series and not, of course, entirely without some continuing relevance even today, if America’s appetite for disaster movies in which Los Angeles or New York gets it is anything to go by.

Destruction, by Thomas Cole (1836). Public domain artwork via Wikimedia Commons.

The idea of the future as an era in which the tendency for civilisations to decline and fall had at last been overcome — a future that was also fundamentally better than all past eras, a veritable Utopia — first originated with a number of nineteenth-century visionaries, or ‘transcendentalists’, who were keenly aware of all that was new in Industrial society. People such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote in 1844 that:

We think our civilization near its meridian, but we are yet only at the cock-crowing and the morning star. In our barbarous society the influence of character is in its infancy. As a political power, as the rightful lord who is to tumble all rulers from their chairs, its presence is hardly yet suspected.

(By character, Emerson appears to have meant the democracy of an informed, universally literate and well-educated electorate, something that had barely existed hitherto or even by 1844. Less obscurely, ‘meridian’ referred to the middle of the day.)

And Samuel Butler, who first proposed a theory of Darwinian machine evolution toward greater and greater complexity in the pages of an 1863 issue of the Press newspaper of colonial Christchurch, New Zealand, of all places.

Marx, too, of course. And even the more disreputable Friedrich Nietzsche, who nevertheless had his moments and who was, perhaps, like Marx and Hayek, not as crude as some of his followers. Thus, another quote on a potentially transcendental future from the late philosopher Derek Parfitt:

Life can be wonderful as well as terrible, and we shall increasingly have the power to make life good. Since human history may be only just beginning, we can expect that future humans, or supra-humans, may achieve some great goods that we cannot now even imagine. In Nietzsche’s words, there has never been such a new dawn and clear horizon, and such an open sea.

Provided, of course, that we don’t blow ourselves up through a late persistence of ancient atavisms, hostilities and Malthusianisms too far into the thermonuclear age.

And provided, also, that we do permanently secure our sources of energy in simultaneously abundant and nonpolluting forms. Indeed, that is perhaps the most fundamental requirement for the avoidance of a ‘fossil-fuelled blip’ and the fundamental, permanent, conquest of scarcity through renewable forms of energy and safer, less exhaustible forms of nuclear power, from feasible but underdeveloped thorium technologies to the more elusive goal of thermonuclear fusion where we are, at least, fifty years ahead of where we were fifty years ago. And, perhaps also, on the brink of opening up a new field of potential energy supply from so-called low-energy nuclear reactions (LENRs), which definitely seem to be real, though still somewhat mysterious at present.

It seems that today, in contrast to the 1970s, there is an increasing amount of good news on the energy front, at least. An issue over which the uncertainties of the 1970s triggered the whole neoliberal malaise, a veritable crisis of belief in progress, in the first place.

This is the last chapter in my draft book — a conclusion is still to follow.

Jump back to the start of Chapter One

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Chris Harris

I am an urban historian from Aotearoa New Zealand. With an engineering background, I also have a PhD in planning and economics.