We live, contends Russell Jacoby, in an age of exhaustion. As global capitalism conquers markets, so does it colonise imaginations. With a depleted capacity to envisage a future radically dissimilar from the present, the utopian spirit withers. Lacking any transcendent vision of a better future, leftists lose their revolutionary impulse and, without insistent gingering, liberals in turn become limp.
In seeking symptoms of the malaise, Jacoby scours the contemporary American academy, and duly finds "utopianism" absent. College kids no longer protest, they are concerned only with achieving good grades in pursuit of careers. The particular venom of Jacoby's attack is reserved for fellow academics of the left, who have retreated from universalist projects for human betterment only to flounder in the relativist eddies of multiculturalism and postmodernism.
Much of the book is devoted to excoriating such moves. Multiculturalism is derided for its celebration of "difference" at a time of growing cultural homogeneity. Distinctiveness is aggressively promoted, Jacoby suggests, in denial of the material reality that "all Americans, from African-Americans to Greek-Americans, buy the same goods, look at the same movies and television, pursue the same activities and have - more or less - the same desires for success".
What, then, do moves to "include more voices in the curriculum or different faces at the office" betoken other than empty symbolism? For Jacoby, this retreat to the gestural offers another "index of the exhaustion of political thinking". Ultimately, multiculturalism's proponents just want "a piece of the action": their own insertion into an academy that proliferates new fiefdoms without any fundamental overhaul. The professors, Jacoby protests, are as self-interestedly careerist as their pupils.
Other intellectual trends are similarly scorned. Cultural studies comes under fire for its thrall to popular culture, and the banality of analyses that endlessly proclaim opportunities for consumer "resistance", where Jacoby sees only stupification. Postmodernism and post-colonialism are predictable targets. Appealing to his imagined audience's shared distaste for "jargon", Jacoby heaps sarcastic scorn on those whom he terms "post-coherent thinkers". He randomly plucks decontextualised sentences from the likes of Nancy Fraser and Gayatri Spivak, and triumphantly concludes that "(T)he inability to write a sentence and the inability to make a frank political judgement might be related". "Mindless relativism" coupled with an overwheening aestheticism has demolished any capacity among leftwing intellectuals for decisive judgement that might galvanise them into action.
But what kind of political programme does Jacoby seek? Nowhere does he make explicit his own utopian vision. To the extent that he fails to offer any glimmering of a different future himself, his polemic partakes of the same enervation that it critiques. Why does he seek to hitch a radical politics to the banner of "utopianism" in any case? If many on the left are suspicious of universalist projects seeking to impose "betterment" from above, this disillusion may spell less the end of radicalism than its recasting. (No bad thing given the chasm between past utopian visions and their practical outcomes.) Keen to disavow this disappointing historical record, Jacoby is also limited as an observer of the present. Had his purview extended beyond the American academy, he might have found evidence of activism and resistance. As globalisation deepens social and economic inequalities, the kind of quietism Jacoby bemoans may look wildly misdiagnosed. But the catalyst is surely less likely to be utopic imagining of a brighter future than lived experience of a palpably worse present.
In many ways, then, Jacoby succumbs to profound conservatism in the name of utopianism. His invective against postmodernism is both methodologically and intellectually unconvincing. Meanwhile, the utopian thinkers he valorises speak unclearly to the 21st century, while Jacoby's calls for a resuscitation of "imagination" hark back to a pre-industrial Romanticism. Jacoby can find no common cause with contemporary "utopians", since their imaginings are so little to his taste. He wants to transform the texture of how we work, live and love; so does Bill Gates. But Jacoby sees no invigorating potentialities in technology, only the mechanistic connection of individuals to vast "data banks" that will further erode the capacity for reflection, and lead ever further from the achievement of "freedom". Is it utopia or nostalgia Jacoby pursues?
Susan Carruthers is senior lecturer in international politics, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.
The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy
Author - Russell Jacoby
ISBN - 0 465 02000 3
Publisher - Basic Books
Price - £15.95
Pages - 236