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Saturday, June 4, 2011


Mannheim begins with a definition. "A state of mind is utopian when it is incongruous with the state of reality in which it occurs." Such states of mind he describes as "situationally transcendent" or "unreal." Situationally adequate or congruous ideas are those which, in effect, fit perfectly the way things currently are. Most people, most of the time, go through life operating with "situationally adequate" ideas. That is to say, they accept as given the social and economic order in which they are embedded, and negotiate the ordinary passages of daily life without any sense of incompatibility between their world and their understanding of their world. [Don't get edgy -- we will get shortly to the folks who don't do this, among whom I suspect are numbered many of the readers of this blog.] So, for example, I walk out of my apartment here in Chapel Hill to run some errands in the little faux village that is my community [Meadowmont Village, constructed seven or eight years ago from scratch as a deliberate effort to create the feel of an old-fashioned small town. Never mind.] I walk first to the bank across the street, where I deposit a check, and then withdraw some cash from the ATM. Then I cross the parking lot to the Harris Teeter supermarket, where I shop for some things for dinner. I may be a Marxist, an anarchist, and an atheist, but none of that come into play as I run my errands. My notions of where I am, who I am, and what I am doing are "situationally congruous" and "adequate." I.e., I make my deposit, get my cash, and buy my groceries easily and smoothly, leaving my mind free to think anarchistic or Marxist or atheistic thoughts.

But at least in the society of the past several hundred years, Mannheim notes, there are also a number of ideas abroad that are not "situationally congruent" or "adequate" to the social reality in which they occur, and the two main categories of such ideas are ideologies and utopias. Now those in positions of dominance at any given time in a society will deny the very possibility that their world can change in any fundamental way. "They will label as utopian," Mannheim observes, "all conceptions of existence which from their point of view can never in principle be realized." [p. 196] Economists will deride as utopian the very idea of a society in which decisions concerning the allocation of capital are based on considerations of common need rather than profitability. Agricultural experts will dismiss as utopian any suggestion that a modern society could provide for its food needs without the massive use of pesticides and additives. The defenders of the existing order tend to blur the distinction between ideas that are unrealizable in any state of affairs, such as the idea of a society in which there is no deferral of gratification whatsoever, and ideas that are simply unrealizable in the present social order, such as the idea of an economy governed by the principle of production for human needs rather than production for profit. Mannheim rather acerbically observes that "the reluctance to transcend the status quo tends toward the view of regarding something that is unrealizable merely in the given order as completely unrealizable in any order, so that by obscuring these distinctions one can suppress the validity of the claims of the relative utopia."

[I am quoting these passages simply to give you the flavor of Mannheim's discussion, so that you will perhaps be prompted to seek out his book and read the entirety of what he has to say, but it ought to be clear already both that these remarks, written first in 1929, describe perfectly the character of the public discourse in contemporary America, and also that his analysis is much more profound and insightful even than that of the many radical critics who are writing now. In my judgment, we really have lost something in the past half century, especially in disciplines like Sociology, Political Science, Economics, and Philosophy.]

As an application and illustration of his conception of utopian thinking, Mannheim now analyzes the core orientation toward time itself of four kinds of such thinking, which he calls the "orgiastic chiliasm of the Anabaptists," the "liberal-humanitarian idea," the "conservative Idea," and the "socialist-communist utopia." All of you will familiar with the liberal-humanitarian, conservative [in the old sense], and the socialist-communist frames of mind, but you may be somewhat puzzled by orgiastic chiliasm. When Mannheim was writing, there were no prominent examples of this form of thinking in his world, and he was forced therefore to reach back to a group of Protestant sects of the 16th century who came to be referred to as Anabaptists [since they denied the need for the rite of baptism.] However, recently there has been a revival of orgiastic chiliasm in the form of the beliefs of End-Timers eagerly awaiting the Rapture, so you will probably have no difficulty understanding that particular mental orientation.

"The only true, perhaps the only direct, identifying characteristic of Chiliastic experience is absolute presentness. ... For the real Chiliast, the present becomes the breach through which what was previously inward bursts out suddenly, takes hold of the outer world and transforms it." Chiliasm, from the Greek for "one thousand," is originally the early Christian belief that Jesus will return to earth and rule for one thousand years [hence also referred to as millenarianism.] For the Chiliast, the moment of return of Jesus to earth is the only moment that matters. It is a moment will can come at any time, without warning, without a series of events leading up to it. It is a moment into which the divine, the transcendent, will erupt, completely changing the world forever. The Chiliast is conscious of simply marking time, waiting with perfect confidence and infinite patience for The Moment. Time for the Chiliast is anisotropic [meaning the denial that every moment of time is of equal weight or significance with every other moment.] The Chiliast thus does not have a politics, in any recognizable sense of that term. The Chiliast has no interest in altering the configuration or characteristics of secular society, for those configurations and characteristics have no significance or importance for The Moment. The Chiliast does not "make preparations" for the Second Coming. He is prepared, permanently and perfectly, for the arrival of The Moment.

Insofar as Chiliasm expresses itself politically, it does so in "revolutionary outbursts," but this revolutionary impulse is not programmatic or rationally oriented toward secular ends. Rather, it is expressive. As Mannheim says, the Chiliast "awaits only that moment when the external concatenation of circumstances coincides with the ecstatic restlessness of his soul." [p. 218]

Tomorrow, the liberal-humanitarian orientation toward Time.


Disgruntled Goat said...

I wonder where Jewish messianism fits in to this scheme. Like the chiliasm of the Anabaptists, it is focused on the moment at which God is supposed to transform the world. No institutional or political transformation is needed to bring about the desired changes. However, certain difficult religious rituals must be performed before the world is ready for the end of days, which requires cadres of religious people to work hard for a very long time to prepare for it. For example, a purification rite must be completed that involves the slaughter of a perfectly red heifer, the mixing of its ashes with water and the sprinkling of the heifer-water on the priests to be purified. Many Jewish communities have focused much energy on breeding a heifer of sufficiently pure redness. Other costly preparations include the creation of the items to be used in the Temple, which often need to be made out of solid gold. So there's a lot of energy and organizing going on towards these goals, but by and large they are not social or political.

levinebar said...

re: Disgruntled Goat:
There are many streams of Jewish Messianism, one of which has come to be called "Christianity". Some streams assert that the Messianic age will come when we have achieved perfect Justice in this world, some that it will come when we're close to destroying this world. The former drives many to engage in politics and the latter drives many to withdraw from them.