Ghosts, Fantasies, and Hope

Ghosts, Fantasies, and Hope

Russell Jacoby’s Picture Imperfect

Picture Imperfect:
Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age
by Russell Jacoby
Columbia University Press, 2005 211 pp $24.95

For most of my politically conscious life, the idea of social transformation has been the great taboo of American politics. From the smug 1950s to the post-Reagan era, in which a bloodied and cowed left has come to regard a kinder, gentler capitalism as its highest aspiration, this anti-utopian trend has been interrupted only by the brief but intense flare-up of visionary politics known as “the sixties.” Yet that short-lived, anomalous upheaval has had a more profound effect on my thinking about the possibilities of politics than the following three decades of reaction. The reason is not (to summarize the conversation-stopping accusations routinely aimed at anyone who suggests that sixties political and cultural radicalism might offer other than negative lessons for the left) that I am stuck in a time warp, nursing a romantic attachment to my youth, and so determined to idealize a period that admittedly had its politically dicey moments. Rather, as I see it, the enduring interest of this piece of history lies precisely in its spectacular departure from the norm. It couldn’t happen, according to the reigning intellectual currents of the fifties, but it did. Nor—in the sense of ceasing to cast a shadow over the present—can it really be said to be over, even in this age of “9/11 Changed Everything.”

That the culture war instigated by the 1960s revolt shows no signs of abating thirty-some years later is usually cited by its left and liberal opponents to condemn it as a disastrous provocation that put the right in power. Yet the same set of facts can as plausibly be regarded as evidence of the potent and lasting appeal of its demand that society embrace freedom and pleasure as fundamental values. For the fury of the religious right is clearly a case of protesting too much, its preoccupation with sexual sin a testament to the magnitude of the temptation (as the many evangelical sex scandals suggest). Meanwhile, during the dot-com boom, enthusiastic young free marketeers fomented a mini-revival of sixties liberationism, reencoded as the quest for global entrepreneurial triumph, new technological toys, and limitless information. Was this just one more example of the amazing power of capitalism to turn every human impulse to its own purposes—or, given the right circumstances, might the force of desire overflow that narrow channel? If freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, as Janis Joplin-cum-Kris Kristofferson famously opined, this could be a propitious moment to reopen a discussion of the utopian dimension of politics and its possible uses for our time. After all, the left has tried everything else, from postmodern rejection of “master narratives” and universal values to Anybody But Bush.

Russell Jacoby, one of the...