Utopia and dystopia are twins, born at the same time from the common ancestor of social criticism. Although we remember the first modern attempt to systematically imagine an ideal society, the work of Thomas More Utopia (1516) began with an austere portrayal of a Europe torn by war and crushing poverty, with the shocking prediction that if the farmland enclosure continued, soon the sheep would eat the people. This terrifying prospect made urgent the search for an alternative, which More outlines as an egalitarian and communal society of shared property.
More’s utopian hopes were outweighed by his dystopian fears, with a new sense of human action in building history leading to both promising and dire possibilities. In the half-millennium since More wrote, countless others have taken both paths, painting scenarios of earthly havens or man-made hells.
The more achieved balance has been lost in our time, in which our imaginary life is overloaded with dystopian nightmares and the utopian impulse is only faintly heard. In his 1994 book The seeds of time, literary theorist Fredric Jameson sadly reflected that âit seems easier to imagine the deep deterioration of earth and nature than the collapse of late capitalism; perhaps it is due to a weakness of our imagination.
Jameson viewed this cramped and messed up imaginative inability to conceive of positive systemic change to be a hallmark of postmodernism. The past decades have proven this to be prophetic, as the dystopian imagination becomes more and more dominant in our culture. Creepy (and overly plausible) stories of climate catastrophe, pandemic, and growing authoritarianism weave their way through news broadcasts and popular fiction. Whether it’s Cormac McCarthy’s The road, Margaret Atwood MaddAddam Suzanne Collins trilogy The hunger Games, or countless zombie films, there is no lack of ways to imagine the end of the world: nuclear war, rising oceans, biotechnologies gone mad, totalitarian dictatorship. What is missing is a positive roadmap to build a better world.
TThe utopian impulse is controversial across the political spectrum. Margaret Thatcher bluntly summed up conservative ethics by saying: “There is no alternative”. If Thatcher was right, then utopian speculation is rash and doomed. And some on the left would agree. Karl Marx constantly used “utopian socialism” as a term of abuse, referring to light thinkers like Charles Fourier and Henri de Saint-Simon who drew up plans for ideal societies without considering, as Marx himself tried. to do so, the historical dynamics and conjuncture of forces that could realistically bring about change.
Scientific socialism, Marx insisted, was superior to utopian socialism. In the same vein, the radical specialist in international relations Immanuel Wallerstein, in his book of 1998 Utopistic, warned that âutopias generate illusions and therefore, inevitably, disillusions. And utopias can be used, have been used, to justify terrible wrongs. The last thing we really need are even more utopian visions. “
AAgainst Marx and Wallerstein there is a venerable tradition of radical thinkers who tried to redeem the idea of ââutopia in Marxist terms by insisting that the hope for a better society keeps social unrest alive. Jameson is perhaps the greatest living example of this tradition. In a 2004 essay in New review on the left, insisted Jameson, “It is hard enough to imagine a radical political program today without the conception of a systemic otherness, of an alternative society, which only the idea of ââutopia seems to keep alive, however weakly. . “
A utopian imagination alone is not enough to build a better world, but it is an essential prerequisite. Oscar Wilde expressed it best in his essay âThe Soul of Man under Socialismâ (1891) when he said: âA map of the world that does not include utopia is not even worth it. to throw a Humanity is still landing. And when Humanity arrives there, it looks and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of utopias.
History confirms Wilde’s vanity. The genre of utopian fiction, born out of frustration during times of thwarted promises, is a particularly sensitive barometer of historical change. People begin to write utopias when they feel unhappy with the existing order – what Jameson identifies as the moment of stillness before the Revolutionary Storm erupted.
Drawing on the work of Jameson, historian Perry Anderson, also writing in New review on the left, argued:
There is no doubt that this is indeed a recurring trend. More is clean Utopia, in 1516, preceded the outbreak of the Reformation which upset Europe and consumed More himself by less than a year. The next group of significant utopias – that of Campanella City of the Sun (1623), Bacon New Atlantis (1627) and Robert Burton’s idiosyncratic digression in Anatomy of melancholy (1621-38) – appeared in the period leading up to the outbreak of the English Civil War and the Neapolitan uprising of the 17th century. The greatest utopian reverie of the 18th century, that of Diderot Bougainville Travel Supplement (1772), was written a generation before the French Revolution. Also in the 19th century, the remarkable collection of utopian fictions of the last years of the century – Looking back (1888), Morris’s response in News from nowhere (1890), by Hertzka Freiland (also 1890), to which we could add, as a pendant from the Far East, the Great Consonance (1888-1902) âprevious the turmoil of 1905-1911 in Russia and China, the outbreak of World War I, and the October Revolution.
Another example is the utopian speculations Frankfurt School Marxists like TW Adorno, Ernst Bloch and Herbert Marcuse in the 1940s and 1950s, works that were the first premonitories of the upheavals of the 1960s. The periods of revolution themselves, Anderson added, s ‘accompanied by an efflorescence of utopian writing. The 1960s and 1970s were no exception to this rule, witnessing the last great shine of the utopian tradition in the feminist and queer speculative writings of Shulamith Firestone, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Samuel R. Delany and Marge. Piercy. We are still living some of what these writers imagined.
Even after the utopian firestorm of the ’60s and’ 70s died out, there were some significant embers in the science fiction of Stanley Kim Robinson, who envisioned an environmentally sustainable California in one of modern utopias, Pacific Rim (1990). Not by chance, Robinson had done his doctoral thesis, on the fiction of Philip K. Dick, under Jameson.
What do we lose by giving up the utopian imagination? Political scientist Lyman Tower Sargent describes utopian thinking as a âsocial dreamâ. Utopias teach us to dream collectively, to sharpen our imaginations, to demand more, to ask ourselves if the injustices of the world really need to exist – or if we can figure out how to throw them away.
One of Jameson’s crucial arguments is that utopias don’t offer simple blueprints to be executed, but rather function as diagnostic tools to determine what is wrong with society. Mutually exclusive utopian proposals can always serve the same purpose of exposing the inadequacy of existing society. Jameson’s favorite utopia of universal employment may seem at odds with Marcuse’s plan for universal recreation. But both proposals aim to underline the monstrosity of a system that links survival to employment and maintains a reserve army of unemployed.
The function of utopia, argued Jameson in his 2004 essay, “is not to help us imagine a better future, but rather to demonstrate our total inability to imagine such a future – our imprisonment in a non-utopian present without historicity. nor future – thus as if to reveal the ideological closure of the system in which we are somehow trapped and confined.
One of the most promising signs of the present moment is that for the first time since the 1970s, the utopian imagination is reborn. Once lonely voices like Robinson and Jameson are now joined by a younger chorus calling for a Universal Basic Income, a Green New Deal, open borders, a super VAT to modernize America’s infrastructure and abolish the police and prisons, among other utopian projects. . Not everything will work, and they don’t need it. The utopian impulse exists to arouse unease in the face of the status quo and unrest.
No one can know where it ends, for all social progress is made from the bottom up, with people crafting alternatives amid the conflicts of political life. But the energy to create these alternatives would not exist without utopian dreams.