Utopia and Its New Enemies: Intellectuals, Elitism, and the Commonwealth of Learning


Anti-intellectualism is fashionable among intellectuals today as a means of disavowing “elitism.” Such positions typically fail to distinguish, however, between privilege as a personal attribute and a structural one. They imply that desirable social leveling is achieved by asserting “equality,” or by denying the existence of any “transcendent” position from which social orders can be judged. This essay argues instead that no true social equality is possible without universalizing material conditions of intellectual life—a position anticipated by Thomas More’s Utopia, where all citizens are educated alike, but also fed, clothed, housed, and nurtured according to their needs, and—crucially—accorded equal access to the leisure that examined life requires. At the same time, More’s text recognizes the difficulty of imagining the details of utopian social order in a “corrupt” present through the contradiction between the “ordered” life of the Utopians and the “liberty” that Hythloday associates with philosophy. This unresolved contradiction insists that we understand Utopia as praxis rather than goal. Utopia’s content argues that total material social transformation is required to achieve equality, but its ironic form cautions us to approach such transformation dialectically—moving from a world of privileged collectives to a world of common—universal—“privilege.”