During my stretch in the Soviet Union (1986–1991), there was a popular joke making the rounds among the Russians. It seems there were two subsistence farmers, Ivan and Mikhail, both equally poor. Then one day, Ivan somehow acquires a cow. His life immediately improves. Instead of the wife, the cow pulls the plow; the cow gives milk; it produces calves for meat and the market. Quickly, Ivan far outpaces Mikhail.
One night, starving and miserable, Mikhail drops to his knees and prays. “Oh, God,” he implores, “Ivan and I were always equal. And now look at him — rich, like boyar. So God, please, make us equal once more.” There’s a sudden thunderclap and suddenly Mikhail hears the Voice of God. “Your prayers will be answered,” says the Lord. “You shall once more be equal again.”
Mikhail practically screams with joy. “Great!” he exclaims. “You’re going to kill Ivan’s cow!”
And that, in a nutshell, is the monstrous “equality” myth currently going by the name of “socialism,” but which has been with us in one dystopic form or another since Plato’s The Republic: Utopianism — or, as Mark Levin phrases it in his brilliant new book, Ameritopia: The Unmaking of America, “deception disguised as hope . . . abstraction disguised as progress” — that most potent and dangerous antithesis of individual liberty.
Those who only know Levin from his popular national radio show may think of him as a razor-sharp mind perpetually brimming with passionately high dudgeon, ever ready to telephonically defenestrate impenetrable doctrinaire liberals and right-wing conspiracy nuts alike – a kind of cross between Bob Grant and Hugh Hewitt. But to know only the radio personality is to know only half the man.
The other half — the methodical, eviscerative attorney whose command of the facts is unquestionable — is the Levin behind such bestsellers as Liberty and Tyranny, his 2009 “conservative manifesto” that presciently foretold the rise of the Leviathan state under Barack Obama, and the mortal threat it poses to the United States of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers.
Ameritopia, then, is both prequel and sequel to the earlier work, an analysis, thick with citations, of both the intellectual roots of utopian societies — from Plato to Thomas More to Hobbes to Marx — and the foundations of the American idea as limned by Locke, Montesquieu, and Tocqueville. (One of the surprises of this slender volume to the casual reader will be the extent to which the Framers were influenced by Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws.)
A partial antecedent to Levin’s work is Paul Johnson’s classic Intellectuals, that deliciously excoriating extended riff off Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, in which the great historian smashes a host of liberal icons, including the wretched Rousseau (surely, with the possible exception of the lunatic Marx, the worst man who ever lived), the hypocrite Bert Brecht, and the vicious Lillian Hellman, of whom Mary McCarthy famously said: “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”
But Levin’s book has heroes, too, and thus is constructed as a kind of rebuke to the Hegelian synthesis that Marx hijacked for his crackpot Communist Manifesto. There is the thesis — that Utopia is somehow practical (history has proven otherwise) or desirable (explaining its enduring appeal among the power-mad and the feeble-minded) — and the antithesis — that personal freedom and public liberty are the surest ways to pursue the happiness posited in the Declaration.
But there can be no synthesis, because as Levin vividly and eloquently concludes, only one side in this argument can be right. Society, correctly regarded, is not the Hobbesian war of every man against every man, nor (in the self-evidently false Marxian contention) the “history of class struggles.” It’s rather as Levin writes:
In truth, man is naturally independent and self-reliant, which are attributes that contribute to his own well-being and survival, and the well-being and survival of a civil society. He is also a social being who is charitable and compassionate. . . . To condemn individualism as the utopians do is to condemn the very foundation of the civil society and the American founding and endorse, wittingly or unwittingly, oppression.
In the wake of the Soviet failure, it’s been easy for contemporary conservatives to dismiss recrudescent utopianism as the childish fantasy it so obviously is, either through a juvenile willingness to trade liberty for security, or out of the resentful revenge of Mikhail upon Ivan, even at the cost of his own economic future.
But it’s time we took these people seriously. Because behind all utopian schemes are the “masterminds,” as Levin dubs them, the manipulators who peddle this bill of goods while eyeing the seats of power for themselves. Barnum was right — there really is a sucker born every minute. But unlike the neo-Marxists, he never turned that observation into the foundation of a political system.
Far from hiding in the shadows, the “masterminds” are now out and proud; indeed, one of them is the president of the United States. What began with Bill Clinton’s attack on Ken Starr — which was really an attack on his own Justice Department and thus his own government — has morphed into a questioning of the Constitution itself, not only from Obama (who has openly criticized it as a “charter of negative liberties” and complained about its restrictions) but also from the media wing of what the late Andrew Breitbart referred to as the “Democrat-Media Complex.”
Thomas L. Friedman, a columnist for the New York Times and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, is even more forthright in his dismissal of constitutional republicanism and advocacy for utopian tyranny. . . . ‘There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today. . . . One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But . . . it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward into the 21st century. . . ‘ Friedman’s declaration underscores not only the necessary intolerance utopians have for constitutionalism, but their infatuation with totalitarianism.
Levin is spot on here. In order to work, utopianism must always end in totalitarianism, since flawed human beings inevitably disappoint their intellectual betters; perhaps this accounts for the desperation with which the Left has tried to pin fascist figures such as Mussolini and Hitler on the right. (They try to get around this historical unpleasantness by redefining to their advantage who is and is not a “socialist.”) But the leopard cannot be, so to speak, sheep-dipped; Friedman’s open admiration for the Chinese Communists no longer even bothers to conceal their fundamentally coercive — if not to say murderous — nature.
But coercive leftists are and coercive they must always remain, predators in the raiments of a kindly Grandma, their teeth sharp and their jaws salivating as they contemplate a new generation’s prey. In Levin’s tour d’horizon of Plato, et al., one is repeatedly struck by the casual attitude espoused toward human life (even by a Catholic saint, More); in practice, utopianism has proven even worse than its apologists could ever have dreamed.
Ameritopia is not simply a work of popular scholarship, however. Like Liberty and Tyranny, it is a call not to arms but to awakening — to the realization that utopianism is a mortal peril masquerading both as collective altruism (its “moral” component) and as a paternal shelter against the terrors of the night.
In Goethe’s Faust, Part One, there is a memorable scene outside the Auerbachs Keller in Leipzig, in which Mephisto frees a group of students from a demonic spell with the words: “Loose the bonds of illusions from your eyes! And remember how the Devil joked.”
How quickly we forget that the Devil yet jokes, and how binding the utopian illusions remain. Here we are, barely 20 years since the demise of the Evil Empire, and on one side of the political divide there is absolutely no stigma attached to the last century’s most spectacular moral and political disaster.
In the coming utopia that will be the second Obama administration, unless it can be stopped, we will all be Ivan’s cow.