What Makes a Utopia Inconvenient? On the Advantages and Disadvantages of a Realist Orientation to Politics

BENJAMIN L. MCKEAN

AMERICAN POLITICAL SCIENCE REVIEW, Volume 110, Issue 4

Abstract: Contemporary politics is often said to lack utopias. For prevailing understandings of the practical force of political theory, this looks like cause for celebration. As blueprints to apply to political practice, utopias invariably seem too strong or too weak. Through an immanent critique of political realism, I argue that utopian thought, and political theory generally, is better conceived as supplying an orientation to politics. Realists including Bernard Williams and Raymond Geuss explain how utopian programs like universal human rights poorly orient their adherents to politics, but the realists wrongly conclude that utopias and other ideal theories necessarily disorient us. As I show through an analysis of utopian claims made by Michel Foucault, Malcolm X, and John Rawls, utopias today can effectively disrupt entrenched forms of legitimation, foster new forms of political identity, and reveal new possibilities within existing institutions. Utopias are needed to understand the political choices we face today.