Credit: Flickr/Lucas Theis. Public Domain.
We need utopian thinking.
If this claim had been made 25 years ago, people would have said I was mad. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the idea that utopia equals totalitarianism gained widespread acceptance, and utopianism was regarded as a form of totalising thinking destined to end in terror. Margaret Thatcher famously declared that “There is no alternative” to the neoliberal project, and Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the “End of History.”
One of Fukuyama’s key assertions was that “we cannot picture to ourselves a world that is essentially different from the present one, and at the same time better.” His basic claim was that the time for utopian projects, and even the possibility of utopian thinking, was over. But this strikes me as nonsense. Why can’t we picture and construct a world transformed?
Myself and Max Munday are organizing a series of workshops to begin the difficult task of constructing a shared utopian vision with activists, campaigners, artists and others working for social change. The first worskhop – organised as part of Sheffield’s “Festival of Debate” – provided an opportunity to share experiences, explore political and ethical motivations, and identify aspects of existing practices that point towards a better way of being.
This might seem a bit pompous or grandiose, but as we put it in our publicity blurb, “We Have to Start Somewhere.” I’m well aware of all the criticisms that have been leveled at utopian thinking: there’s the fear that utopianism ignores or negates human plurality and difference; that it quashes individual freedom; that it draws up blueprints of a world in which everything and everyone is uniform and regulated; and that utopia can only be realised through suppression and coercion.
There are also concerns that attempts to realise utopian visions will always fail amidst myriad unintended consequences; that utopias are the wish-fulfillment fantasies of individuals oblivious to the dynamics of class struggle; that utopianism is an elitist project that denies the possibility of workers constructing and determining their own future; and that ultimately, utopianism is a complete irrelevance—those who construct the future won’t give a damn about the pictures we paint today.
However, none of these criticisms strike me as convincing.
Firstly, the idea that utopias quash freedom and suppress difference is based on a misreading—and sometimes a deliberate misrepresentation—of the utopian genre. While there are plenty of utopian visions that are terrifying and about which we should be fearful, the history of utopian ideas is rich and varied, and there are plenty of other interpretations from Charles Fourier to William Morris to Ursula Le Guin that celebrate freedom and difference.
Secondly, although more emphasis has been placed on the diversity of interests and identities than on commonality over the last 30 years of political thinking and action, it’s important to ask whether difference inevitably leads to fragmentation, whether diversity is incompatible with solidarity, and whether plurality precludes the possibility of a shared vision. I think it’s important to stress that visions of the good can accommodate difference. In seeking to picture and construct a world transformed, what happens if we take as our starting point the possibility of shared interests?
Thirdly, it’s certainly true that utopian ideas have often been the fantasies of individuals. Utopian thinking has largely been the preserve of the privileged, and utopianism could be described as a bourgeois genre of writing. But what if we embarked on a collective endeavour to imagine and construct grassroots utopias?
This is especially important because a lot of what we currently do in our work, our groups, and our campaigns, is reactive and defensive. We respond to forces that often seem beyond our control; we defend hard-won ground against the encroachment of austerity; and we devote a lot of time to criticising and resisting.
Political action is often localised, organized around preventing further cuts, further privatisations, and further dehumanisation. It often feels like we are defending ourselves against an onslaught, and this is necessary, important work. We do have to defend and resist.
At the same time, our practices are grounded in ethics, principles, desires, convictions and dreams, and wherever possible we try to ensure that our actions are consistent with those ethics and convictions; we try to prefigure the world we’d like to inhabit in what we do today and how we do it. So the germs of utopian visions are always there, present in many of our everyday practices.
However, the drive for a world transformed often gets lost amidst the pressures of daily life. With so much to defend and resist, there is seldom if ever the time or space to think and act beyond the level of short-term, local resistance. Another world is possible, but everyday life means it remains forever deferred. We never seem to have the resources or opportunities to turn our dreams into reality.
Against that background, utopian visions can do various things: they can inspire, mobilise, and give direction to a struggle. They can provide a critical viewpoint from which the inadequacies of the present become more starkly visible. They call into question the existing order of things and render the present mutable and open to change. They liberate the imagination and make it clear that alternatives can be thought of and fought for. They make us feel uncomfortable—angry even—with the way things are, and they lead us to question whether things really have to be this way.
They provide a goal and a spur to action and act as a catalyst for change in a way that social criticism on its own cannot. As William Morris once said, “these dreams for the future make many a man a socialist whom sober reason deduced from science and political economy would not move at all.” Or as the “Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination” puts it:
“More information is not going to motivate us to act,
neither are representations or pictures of politics,
what makes us move is tasting dreams of what could be,
stepping into the cracks where another world is coming into view.”
Crucially, the very process of working together to construct utopian visions can have transformative effects. Through exploring and reflecting on our ethics, motivations, desires and dreams, we get to know them better. Through sharing with others we can learn, refine, develop and enhance the principles that drive us, and we can gain a clearer picture of how they can guide our daily practices.
It’s not just the end result—a shared utopia—that is useful and important; it’s the journey too, the process of utopian construction as a collaborative endeavour. By working together to build a different world slowly and carefully, we might come to understand this endeavour as something like a shared, reciprocal, respectful, and iterative process of collective learning—a form of utopia in itself.
Can we build a grass-roots utopia? Can we identify shared principles, motivations, aims, practices, ethics and goals? Can we identify in our daily lives thwarted desires, suppressed longings, and untapped possibilities, and can we ask what society would look like if these things were realised?
Can we work together to develop a shared vision of the kind of society we’d like to create? And can we then use this vision—this alternative way of living and being—to help mobilise and drive forward our collective struggles for radical change?
I think we can, and I want to try.
Over the past few years, and especially since the economic crisis of 2008, utopia has started to come back in from the cold. More people are beginning to recognise the need for alternative visions. The articles appearing on these pages are testimony to this fact.
2016 was the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia, which saw a flurry of celebrations and events. This year is the centenary of the Russian Revolution. People are starting to write books about communism again. Utopia as a radical project is slowly being rehabilitated. Let’s work together to make utopia our home.