A friend’s recent email made me think again about why I have never really believed in irreversible progress­, and certainly not in the emerald cities of political ideologues. Whether it’s scientific socialism or the end of history, left or right, all those mirages vanish in the light of actual lives, and especially the traces they leave in human thought. One thing you can learn from literature is how consistent are human experiences, feelings and ideas. And then another friend sent me a link to this video of the Ukrainian city of Pripyat, almost 30 years after the city was abandoned after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Here, the Soviet Union never ended: it is just endlessly dying. But anyone who thinks this was just the failure of one false ideology might also consider Detroit, perhaps one of the shortest-lived great cities in history, a capitalist dream gone sour.

The ruins of lost civilisations have long fascinated their successors. Pripyat and Detroit are today’s Angkor Wat, Kubla Khan and Troy. They are open for re-use, Their meaning can be rewritten. They can be romanticised, beautified or used as morality fables by a successor ideology. In me, they inspire precisely that caution about total solutions that Isaiah Berlin warned of at the end of his life. That’s already a lot of wisdom and a tough lesson: the best can be the enemy of the good.

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