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Reviews in American History 28.3 (2000) 455-459

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Back to the Future

Kenneth Cmiel

Russell Jacoby. The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in the Age of Apathy. New York: Basic Books, 1999. xiii + 236 pp. Notes and index. $26.00 (cloth); $14.00 (paper).

Russell Jacoby's The End of Utopia is an impassioned plea for political utopia. We have lost, Jacoby argues, the ability to dream a radically different future. Jacoby decries the left's current failure to imagine an alternative form of life. Widespread apathy about our political life, he claims, is one byproduct of this failure of imagination. Only a revival of utopianism will help us beyond this impasse.

The End of Utopia explores in depth what a number of people have recently claimed--now that the Cold War is over we appear to be living in a post-ideological age. Jacoby knows that we have heard this before. In the late fifties and early sixties there was much chatter about the "end of ideology." Yet the political explosions of the sixties quickly made that talk ludicrous. Distrust of politics now seems deeper, according to Jacoby, more troubling. History is repeating itself, but pace Marx, first as farce and then as tragedy.

Jacoby only briefly mentions conservatives. He admits that people like Newt Gingrich in the early nineties expressed ideas that had a utopian ring to them. They are quickly dismissed, however, as not worth considering. Jacoby's real targets are elsewhere. The End of Utopia is an extended critique of what the author considers timid, tired liberalism and the faux radicalism of posturing academics.

Each chapter of the book takes on a central theme of contemporary progressive thinking. Multiculturalism, mass culture, the decline of utopian thinking among left intellectuals, and the fetishism of culture in contemporary intellectual work all come under review. With each, Jacoby moves briskly through the contemporary intellectual landscape.

Jacoby's arguments about multiculturalism provide a window into his perspective. He readily concedes that there are very real benefits to developing more diverse institutions and sensibilities. "The literature on multiculturalism," he writes, "includes much that is reasonable and necessary" (p. 47). Yet Jacoby also believes that there are excesses. First, contemporary [End Page 455] multicultural thinking tends to grossly overstate how different each cultural group is. More assimilation is going on than is acknowledged, and even liberals in this debate are often fuzzy-minded about how different we all are. Second, current multiculturalism often assumes a static and permanent outsider status to everyone on the margins. There is no hope for large historical transformation. Third, the relentless culturalism of the debate excludes more hard-nosed economic analysis. And finally, on campuses, the debate is, at times, manipulated into a battle for more resources. Discussions of marginalization "often evince rank bad faith," Jacoby asserts (p. 63). "Once upon a time revolutionaries tried, or pretended to try, to make a revolution; they harbored a vision of different world or society. Now dubbed radical multiculturalists, they apply for bigger offices" (p. 64).

Jacoby on multiculturalism captures much of the whole book: distrust of purely cultural analysis; despair that the market is not more frontally assaulted; dismissal of tired and worn-out liberals; disdain for parochial academic radicals; disgust with the meagerness of the movement's goals. The same themes turn up whether Jacoby is attacking multiculturalism, contemporary understandings of mass culture, the liberal cultural analysis inspired by Clifford Geertz, or the more radical cultural studies now prominent in the humanities.

Jacoby wants something grander, something utopian. Certainly he wants hostility to the market to be very prominent in this utopia. But he also thinks that other intellectual resources are needed. Contemporary culturalism, either liberal or radical, has abandoned universalism, which would allow us to leap beyond discrete cultures. It has discarded any sense of totality, which would help us think of the whole instead of the parts. And it simply lacks imagination, which could help dream a different future. It should be no surprise that Jacoby several times praises 1960s student radicals. It should also be no surprise...


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