Broadmarsh Shopping Centre, Nottingham/Wikimedia
A few weeks ago1 I walked around a shopping centre in the Midlands asking people what they wanted the world to be like in the future. To my surprise I got no ressentiment, racism or bigotry; no regressive pastoralism or nostalgia. Instead, people relayed to me grand and wonderful ambitions for the world. Peace, the end of money, the abolition of all inequality, unalienated social relations, ecology, advanced technology, the abolition of individual nation states, full enjoyment. Of the 18 people I spoke to, almost everyone I asked2 had an idea of a future world, and moreover a future that was radically different from the present.
The Broadmarsh centre is a truly depressing place, where discount clothes shops, charity shops and Poundlands crouch sadly inside a 70s tiled interior the council have been itching to bulldoze for two decades; but here the project of modernity endures still. I have long been bored by postmodernity, a period when the project of human progress feels like it has drifted out of history and into an airconditioned vacuum of possibility, where the only change seems like it will come from steady technological advancement, propelled along the smooth rails of immutable capitalist economic relations into some version of the 90s but with better phones and a cyberpunk sheen. Lots of people’s utopias were technological, but were not characterised by the hypercapitalist dazzle of cyberpunk; rather, technology tended to form part of a peaceable, unalienated, collectivist techno-utopia, more akin to Kim Stanley Robinson or Marge Piercy than Bruce Sterling. The late-modern anaesthetizing of political imagination remained incomplete, tempered perhaps by the ongoing global crisis and the end of the 90s neoliberal deal.
People’s ambitions for the future were strikingly similar. Almost everyone cited either or both of peace and equality as their primary ambitions. Utopia can function as a critique of the present, as much as a plan for the future: as one man put it: “There’s a lot of rich people who own a lot of the world’s money, and too many who don’t own anything. Peace, tranquility and equality. As it should be now.” The striking frequency with which people outlined desires for the future characterised by peace and equality suggested that the threats of global conflict and mass immiseration loomed large enough to have a somewhat unifying effect on desire. Less frequent but still significant was the hope that ecological collapse be averted too: “One thing I think we need to be concentrating on at the moment is what’s happening to the planet, with the carbon emissions and everything. We need to make a lot more of an effort to sort out the planet and how we’ve damaged it; to plant more trees and have a lot more green in the world.” But it was the regularity of “peace” and (more surprisingly) “equality” that was the most striking. Capitalism’s effacement of all other systems in a way makes the project of utopia fairly straightforward: simply abolish it, and replace it with a system inverting all its failures.
After peace and equality, the third most frequent futurist desire was for human warmth. The younger people I talked to in particular spoke about how it would be “If more people could just talk to each other, if people could just walk up to each other like you did just then, and it wouldn’t be awkward; if you could just walk up to someone and ask them how their day’s been.” People talked about “empathy”, “acceptance” and “respect for all humanity”; “People getting on. Perfect harmony, really.” Again this can be read as an inversion of the present experience of social atomisation: as one young teenager (who wanted world peace) observed, “people now are not social”. The desire for warmth and disalienation fitted with the general wish for collectivism; smoothing down the barriers between different people, different social strata. But it was also something more fine-grained, to do with the affective texture of experience; something harder to articulate as part of a political program, but nonetheless almost as prevalent and powerful as the desire for peace and equality.
The desire for disalienated sociality seemed to be somewhat in conflict with contemporary communications technology; the teenage girl who thought people now were not social proposed the abolition of the internet as a solution to this, and one young man hoped that there would be no more social media. But this conflict did not appear to be indicative of wider anti-technological regressive impulse; rather, it felt more like a reaction to the anxiety and alienation induced by the surveillant, competitive, quantifying character of contemporary communications technology. Indeed, more advanced technology played a central role in many utopias.
A group of teenage boys were very keen for there to be cyborgs and hoverboards, wanted to be able to cryogenically freeze themselves to skip forward in time, and wanted medical technology to enable us to live forever. An old lady similarly wanted cures for all serious diseases. As well as medical technology, a lot of people hoped for innovations in transport, specifically flying cars and jetpacks. The desire for advanced technology was connected to a desire for a world arranged so as to enable full enjoyment. One man wanted humanity “to build in a way that encompasses all age groups, so it can be fun for everyone to enjoy. I think the world would be a fun place if we all could enjoy it.” Another young man wanted cities with “a bit more colour ... more places for people to play, so everyone can be out of their houses.” The teenage boys’ vision of the future was so appealing - as well as hoverboards etc, there’d be no money, everything given out for free, total equality, and world peace - that one of them lamented: “Why were we born now? Why not a couple of hundred years down the line?”
This impatience for the future needs to be taken as the foundation for politics. The ease - and often delight - with which the people I spoke to discussed the abolition of the present state of things and the creation of a new, radically different world unseated the idea that the future has not become unimaginable, and suggested that on the contrary it remains a potentially potent locus of desire and excitement. The nature of the worlds outlined, and their inversion of capitalism, was also really encouraging. Fear of the seething ressentiment and bigotry twisting the desire of others too often restricts people on the left from advancing political projects that explicitly aim at building a more wonderful future. Politics tends to focus on the negation of the present, or at best the achievement of a nebulous ‘revolution’, as if this was a desirable endpoint for our activities. What we want is a better world. What we want is peace, equality, ecology, the end of alienation, a world of pleasures. The empowerment of these desires, their weaponization, is the power of our politics. Utopia now.
2 With the sole exception of the security guard who tried to chuck me out for not being there to shop: “I won’t live until then! What’s wrong with you? I’m not interested in what will happen!”