Out of Utopia?

Hans Achterhuis on Welfare and Happiness

The words ‘welfare and happiness’ set the tone for the book with which the Dutch philosopher, Hans Achterhuis, would achieve public recognition in 1980. But those words did not stand alone. The title of the book, which gave rise to intense debate about the way in which the state was expected to improve the lives of its less fortunate subjects in particular, was The Welfare and Happiness Market (De markt van welzijn en geluk). ‘Clients’ should be offered assistance that would make them more able to stand up for their rights. Consciousness-raising and empowerment were supposed to transform them from deprived and dependent beings into assertive individuals who were better able to defend their own interests.

In The Welfare and Happiness Market Achterhuis demonstrated that this approach had the opposite effect. The ‘clients’ just became more dependent on their social workers, who for their part profited from this continuing dependence. Social work created its own ever-growing market, concluded Achterhuis, inspired by the Austrian-born but Mexico-based philosopher and theologian Ivan Illich. Achterhuis’s analysis greatly influenced Dutch social work and academic training courses for social workers, a number of which would disappear from the scene in the years of economic crisis that followed.

The Welfare and Happiness Market exemplifies the way in which Achterhuis practises philosophy. Without exception his books engage in intensive discussion of the problems and spirit of the time. In his essays he refers with equal ease to eminent thinkers from the history of philosophy and to recent newspaper commentary or news reports. His sceptical mind is usually one step ahead of the prevailing opinion that he is debating. This makes Achterhuis one of the most remarkable of Dutch philosophers and a prominent personality in public debate.

But he has not always been so sceptical. In 1975, in his widely read volume Philosophers of the Third World (Filosofen van de derde wereld) he still aligned himself enthusiastically with such ideological heroes of the time as Frantz Fanon, Mao Tse Tung and, even then, Ivan Illich. And two years before that, in his book The Postponed Revolution (De uitgestelde revolutie) he had pinned his hopes on the Third World to force a global revolution in economic relations and especially in lifestyle, with Mao’s China and Castro’s Cuba as models.

But a lot of philosophising later there is not much of that left. In 1998 Achterhuis published his voluminous study The Legacy of Utopia (De erfenis van de utopie), from which the text that follows this article is taken. Achterhuis starts this insistent plea against the lure of utopia with a confession: ‘The fascination of utopias is not strange to me (…) and in the past failure to adequately recognise the dangers thereof has undoubtedly let me down.’ However, he recounts, ‘when I was working on the chapter on Mao in “Philosophers of the Third World”, I had a nightmare. I dreamed that I personally had landed up in the Chinese Cultural Revolution (…) In retrospect I think I should have paid more attention to this dream. It would have given me more insight into the Cultural Revolution than all the texts I could read about it as an interested outsider’.

In this book, then, utopia operates as something to be feared rather than as something auspicious for the future. Referring to an impressive number of historical and contemporary utopias (from Thomas More to Ayn Rand and from Campanella to Huxley) Achterhuis shows how they are invariably fuelled by a dream of controllability that cannot help but lead to a totalitarian form of society. Utopia turns into dystopia almost by itself, he discovered with a shock when he read Ecotopia, the American author Ernest Callenbach’s ecological utopia. ‘Why would I never want to live in Ecotopia?’ Achterhuis wondered, after reading the book at one sitting during a journey on an American Greyhound bus. That question became the starting point for his book.

Achterhuis reached his conclusion after a lengthy diversion via books about the ambiguous status of work in the modern world (Work, a Peculiar Remedy / Arbeid, een eigenaardig medicijn, 1984) and the way in which modern economic thinking has begun to focus more and more on the spectre of scarcity (The Realm of Shortages / Het rijk van de schaarste, 1988). Third World thinkers were gradually supplanted by a succession of other authors that Achterhuis discovered: Michel Foucault, René Girard and Hannah Arendt. More and more, too, his work is inspired by Albert Camus, the author he had studied in the 1960s for his doctorate.

In his book on utopia Achterhuis shows extreme reserve regarding any blueprint that claims to be able to establish the ideal society by means of positive measures. He demonstrates how badly that can turn out with reference not only to the implications of the many proposals put forward in the wealth of utopian literature. On a completely different level he also attacked this way of thinking in his pamphlet The Politics of Good Intentions (Politiek van goede bedoelingen, 1999), in which he fiercely criticised the Western interventions in Kosovo. Those who allow themselves to be led by humanitarian benevolence alone, without a cool, hard analysis of the political situation, run the risk of causing more casualties than there would otherwise have been, he argued.

In politics, concluded Achterhuis, uncompromising goodness can easily become a road to Hell. In his extensive study of violence (With Maximum Violence / Met alle geweld, 2008) he was forced to draw the equally sober conclusion that a culture or society completely free of violence is an illusion that can easily end up as the opposite of what it is trying to achieve. Even so, as he had already written in his short study Utopia (Utopie, 2006), which can be read both as a summary and as a critical revision of his big book on the subject, we cannot manage without images of an ideal society – if only to give direction to the actual steps we take in the long piecemeal engineering that is politics.

Remarkably enough, Achterhuis had already identified the positive side of the future dream in The Legacy of Utopia – not in the blueprint of a social ideal but in the promise of future technology. As a professor at the technologically oriented University of Twente, Achterhuis started to focus on the philosophy of technology in the 1990s. Gradually the distrust of technology inspired in him by the 1970s shifted to a more positive standpoint in which he not only recognises the merits of technical-scientific progress, but also states that culture and society are not subject willy-nilly to its evolution.

This idea is brought out in the following passage from the book, which has been somewhat abridged for this publication. In it Achterhuis opposes the vision of the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who – just like Aldous Huxley in his dystopian novel, Brave New World – sees technological development as a danger to humanity. Technology, concludes Achterhuis – with reference to George Orwell – can certainly free humanity from a neediness that for its part might well be called ‘inhuman’. As technical promise, utopia has rights which are better denied it as social promise.

By Ger Groot
Translated by Lindsay Edwards

First published in The Low Countries, 2009

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