How did this get a negative connotation?

By Deane Barker

This is the idea that a perfect society can somehow be created where there is no suffering, poverty, conflict, etc. This society will need to be engineered in some way, and can usually only exist through cooperative effort.

This is antithetical to many groups in both political and religious contexts, and, as such, the word is often used pejoratively to imply that someone’s beliefs or policies are frivolous, silly, or sinister.

  • Many political groups equate utopianism with increased government control, and the submission of the individual to community. Right wing groups in the United States sometimes refer to Left wing social policies as “utopian.” They believe that utopia cannot be achieved due to the fundamental nature of man, and the simple fact that different people hold different values and desire different things.

  • Many religious groups – particularly evangelical Christian groups – oppose utopianism (or what which they characterize as such) on the grounds that a perfect society cannot be achieved outside of God due to Man’s inherent sinfulness. Striving for “heaven on Earth” is heretical in the sense that true perfection can only be achieved through union with God, and any attempt otherwise is an attempt to replace God with Earthly substitutes.

The word “utopia” was invented in 1516 by Sir Thomas More. It’s a made-up word that he formed by combining the Greek words for “no place.” (More on Utopia in postscript below.)

Why I Looked It Up

I can’t remember exactly, but I did have a politically conservative friend that mentioned it several times in relation Democratic policies.


Added on

In The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Saint Thomas More and his 1516 work Utopia is discussed.

Utopia beings with a searing indictment of England as a land where nobleman, living idly off the labor of others, bleed their tenants white by constantly raising their rents, where land enclosures for sheep-raising throw untold thousands of poor people into and existence or starvation of crime, and where the cities are ringed by gibbets on which thieves are hanged by the score without the slightest indication that the draconian punishment deters anyone from committing the same crimes.

This depiction of a ghastly reality […] is set against an imaginary island, Utopia, who inhabitants are convinced that “either the whole or the most part of human happiness” lies in the pursuit of pleasure.

Utopia is a visionary, detailed blueprint for this application, from public housing to universal health care, from child care centers to religious toleration to the six-hour work day.

For [Thomas More, the author], those conditions would have to begin with the abolition of private property.

More tried to imagine what it would take not for certain individuals to be enlightened but for a whole commonwealth to do away from cruelty and disorder, share the goods of life equitably, organize itself around the pursuit of please, and tear down the gibbets.

(If not clear from context, “gibbets” is an archaic term for “gallows.”)

Clearly, Utopia would be considered communism or socialism in today’s political climate – either pejoratively or literally, given the desire to abolish private property. Thus, usage of the word “utopianism” might be a reference to a specific political system, not just a state of living.

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