We all know the word “utopia.” It means a place that doesn’t—and can’t—exist. A “pragmatopia” is a less violent, more humane and equitable place—a place where beliefs and social structures support relations based on partnership.
We all know the word “utopia.” It means a place that doesn’t—and can’t—exist. Thomas More coined the term in his 1516 satire-fantasy Utopia by combining the Greek outopia (no place) and eutopia (good place). So then, as now, “utopia” communicated the idea that a better society is impossible— that, literally, it is no place.
We need a different word to describe the vision of a better future. In The Chalice and The Blade, I proposed pragmatopia—from our words “pragmatic” and “practical,” and the Greek topos, or place. This pragmatopia or possible place is our world as we change our beliefs and social structures. It won’t be a perfect place. But it will no longer be a world of top-down rankings of domination—man over woman, person over person, nation over nation, and humankind over nature. It will be a place where beliefs and social structures support relations based on partnership—on mutual respect, mutual benefit, mutual caring. It will be a far less violent, much more humane and equitable place. And if we expand our vision beyond old ideas of what this place looks like, we can begin to build it now.
The “Failure” of Progress
Many people today are discouraged, alienated, and cynical. Look at the progressive social movements, and look at our planet, they say. Democracy was supposed to cure the world’s ills, but it’s not stopping authoritarian regressions. Communism was going to make the world better, but Lenin’s Russian Revolution and Mao’s Cultural Revolution brought more violence and repression. Capitalism and “free trade” certainly aren’t an answer: they’re trashing nature’s life-support systems and reconcentrating wealth and power in megacorporations. People’s search for new and old religious faith shows that secularism isn’t the answer, but replacing Western secularism, science, and technology with Eastern religion, or returning to pre-scientific Western times doesn’t offer a solution either. Eastern religions maintained oppressive conditions by supporting caste systems and beliefs in predestination; the religious Middle Ages were brutally violent; and today’s fundamentalist religious cultures, both Eastern and Western, are creating some of our planet’s most serious problems.
If no culture thus far—whether capitalist, communist, rightist, leftist, technologically developed or undeveloped, Eastern or Western—has been able to change patterns of violence and inequity, the argument goes, our problems must stem from human nature. We must be fatally flawed by original sin, selfish genes, or some other unalterable defect.
However, if we look at modern progressive movements not as failures, but as incomplete processes, there is realistic hope for the future. We can then explore what our next steps should be and get on with the most important human enterprise: constructing social systems that support rather than inhibit and distort our enormous human capacities for consciousness, caring, and creativity.
Language and Reality
To create new realities, we need new words: social categories that describe new possibilities. As Robert Ornstein writes in The Psychology of Consciousness, every society’s language provides categories that mold consciousness, and these categories play a major role in how we view the world—and how we live in it.
Categories describing societies are particularly important because they either expand or constrict our consciousness of what is possible. For instance, as long as people believed monarchies were the only possibility, which they did until the “divinely ordained” right of kings and princes to rule their “subjects” was challenged, they couldn’t imagine a different political system.
Categories such as democracy, capitalism, socialism, and communism expanded the scope of our thinking. But none of the conventional social categories describe the totality of the institutions, assumptions, beliefs, relationships, and activities that constitute a culture. Religious/secular and Eastern/Western describe ideological and geographic differences. Right/left and liberal/conservative describe political orientations. Industrial, pre-industrial, and post-industrial describe levels of technological development. Capitalism and communism describe different economic systems. Democratic/authoritarian describe political systems in which there are, or are not, elections.
None of these categories addresses the most important question for our future: What configuration of beliefs and institutions—from the family, education, and religion to politics and economics—will support relations based on mutual respect, accountability, and caring rather than topdown rankings backed up by fear and force?
The Partnership Model and the Domination Model
Two basic social configurations transcend our current categories: the partnership model and the domination model. Unlike earlier classifications, the domination and partnership models take into account the central importance of the primary human relations—the formative childhood relationships and the relations between the male and female halves of humanity—in molding our attitudes and behaviors. We now know from neuroscience that the brain’s pathways are largely laid after birth. It is thus in our earliest relationships that we first learn respect for human rights or acceptance of human rights violations as normal, inevitable, even moral. These relations also teach us important lessons about violence. When children experience violence from parents or others in their families, or observe violence against their mothers within their own families, they learn it’s acceptable to use force to impose one’s will on others. If children grow up in families where females serve and males are served—and, as is the case in many world regions, where females get less food and health care—they learn to accept economic injustice in all spheres of life. Social categories that fail to consider the cultural construction of childhood and gender relations do not provide the information we need to build more peaceful and equitable societies.
Hitler’s Germany (a technologically advanced, Western, rightist society), Stalin’s USSR (a secular leftist society), Khomeini’s Iran (an Eastern, religious society), and Idi Amin’s Uganda (a tribalist society) were some of the most brutally violent and repressive societies of the twentieth century. There are obvious differences between them. But they all share the core configuration of the domination model. They are all characterized by top-down rankings in the family and state or tribe maintained through physical, psychological, and economic control; the rigid ranking of the male half of humanity over the female half; and a high degree of culturally accepted abuse and violence—from child- and wife-beating to chronic warfare.
The partnership model has a different core configuration: a democratic and egalitarian structure in both the family and the state or tribe; equal partnership between women and men; and a low degree of built-in violence because force is not needed to maintain rigid rankings of domination. Cultures with this configuration can be tribal, such as the Teduray of the Philippines; agrarian, as are the Minagkabau of East Sumatra; or industrial and postindustrial, like Sweden, Norway, and Finland. These are not ideal societies, but their beliefs and institutions support respect for human rights in families and the family of nations. Nordic nations are democratic cultures where there aren’t huge gaps between haves and have-nots. They have laws prohibiting physical punishment of children and a strong men’s movement disentangling “masculinity” from domination and violence. Here women play important leadership roles, constituting approximately 40 percent of legislatures. Accordingly, stereotypically feminine traits and activities such as nurturance, nonviolence, and care giving are considered appropriate for men as well as women. The people of these societies are supported by fiscal policies such as funding for universal health care, elder care, childcare allowances, paid parental leave, peace studies, and environmental protection. And these nations are regularly at the top of the UN national quality-of-life charts.
These more partnership-oriented societies offer living proof that a more peaceful and equitable way of life is possible. Indeed, as I have detailed in The Chalice and The Blade and elsewhere, there is strong evidence that the original direction of civilization was along the lines of the partnership model. What has happened once can happen again. We can change our society once we come to understand that the way a culture structures primary human relations is foundational for its entire system of beliefs and values.
Lessons for Activists
Ironically, those trying to push us back to the “good old days” when most men and all women still “knew their place” in rigid rankings of domination recognize the social importance of these primary relations. Be it Hitler in Germany, Khomeini in Iran, the Taliban, or the rightist-fundamentalist alliance in the United States, these people give top priority to “getting women back into their traditional place” in a “traditional family”—a code word for an authoritarian family where women are subordinate and children learn that it’s extremely painful to question orders.
Yet many people working for democracy and equality still view “women’s rights” and “children’s rights” as secondary. And this despite the fact that the UN reports that violence against women and children is the most widespread human rights violation worldwide, and that the ranking of male over female is a basic model children learn early on for equating difference with superiority and inferiority, which is then generalized to different races, religions, and ethnicities.
It is not coincidental that the 9/11 terrorists came from cultures where women and children are terrorized into submission. Nor is it coincidental that the rightist-fundamentalist alliance in the United States first organized as a powerful political block around a “women’s issue”—the defeat of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
We too need a new integrated political agenda: a politics of partnership that makes the human rights of the majority—women and children—a top social priority. Key levers for this kind of fundamental change are being created right now; for example, the Spiritual Alliance to Stop Intimate Violence (SAIV) is an international initiative of the Center for Partnership Studies to bring a strong—still missing— moral voice to end violence against women and children.
In sum, if we are serious about social justice and peace, we not only need a new vision of what a pragmatopia really looks like. We must also join together to help construct the solid foundations on which this better society can be built.