Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Let’s talk utopia

It’s utopian thinking, not grim pragmatism, that best informs and inspires the struggle for a better society, argues Mike Marqusee

July 17, 2011
8 min read


Mike MarquseeMike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and books on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan. More at mikemarqusee.co.uk


  share     tweet  

In 1818, Shelley visited his friend Byron in Venice, where his Lordship was camped out in a decaying palazzo, ruminating on the city’s faded glories. Their conversations – on human freedom and the prospects for social change – formed the basis for Shelley’s poem Julian and Maddalo, in which the mild-mannered English rationalist Julian (Shelley) puts the case for hope, and the brooding Italian aristocrat Maddalo (Byron) argues for despair. ‘We might be otherwise,’ Julian insists, ‘we might be all / we dream of: happy, high, majestical’ were it not for our own ‘enchained’ wills. To which Maddalo replies bitterly: ‘You talk utopia!’

That snap dismissal echoes down to our own day. We’ve been taught to fear utopian thinking, which is denounced as not only impractical but positively dangerous: the province of fanatics. In ignoring the lessons of history and the realities of human nature, utopian idealism results, inevitably we are told, in dystopian outcomes. It’s a modern version of the myth of Pandora’s box: a warning against being too enquiring, too ambitious.

Fear of utopia, a mighty weapon in the arsenal of the ruling powers, has a long pedigree. Since Burke, at least, conservatives have warned that tampering with established institutions, encouraging people to expect too much, leads to disaster. The ‘failure’ of every social experiment, from the French revolution onward, is seized on as evidence of the perils of utopian thinking. Anti-utopianism was a staple of cold war liberalism and was resuscitated as the ‘end of history’ thesis following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Increasingly we have been told that a utopian denial of realities lurks in even the most modest demands for regulation and redistribution. When it comes to the apparent dearth of alternatives, I’d argue that social democracy’s long retreat into the arms of neoliberalism is as great a factor as the demise of the Communist bloc.

While there are dangers in utopian thinking, the much greater danger is its absence. The reality is that we on the left don’t ‘talk utopia’ nearly enough. We need the attraction of a possible future as well as a revulsion at the actual present. If people are to make the sacrifices required by any struggle for social justice, then they need a bold and compelling idea of the world they’re fighting for.

Critical tool

Utopian thinking is more than just model building: it is a critical tool, a means of interrogating present conditions. We have to exercise that supremely political faculty, the imagination, if we are not to be prisoners of a prevailing consensus.

Utopias provide a perspective from which the assumed limitations of the present can be scrutinised, from which familiar social arrangements are exposed as unjust, irrational or superfluous. You can’t chart the surface of the earth, compute distances or even locate where you are without reference to a point of elevation – a mountain top, a star or satellite. Without utopias we enjoy only a restricted view of our own nature and capacities. We cannot know who we are.

We need utopian thinking if we are to engage successfully in the critical battle over what is or is not possible, if we are to challenge what are presented as immutable ‘economic realities’. Without a clear alternative – the outlines of a just and sustainable society – we are forced to accept our opponents’ parameters. We cede the definition of the possible to those with a vested interest in closing the aperture into a better future. The neoliberal slogan ‘There is No Alternative’ had to be answered by ‘Another World is Possible’, but we need to know and say much more about this other world.

In our utopian activity, let’s learn from past errors. It’s important to remember that a significant strand of utopianism, including Thomas More’s book, is linked to western colonialism. This took many forms, from dreams of imposing a new order on ancient or (allegedly) empty lands (of which Zionism is a modern case) to Romantic and Orientalist fantasies.

In their critique of Utopian Socialism, Marx and Engels made two charges. First, that the method was wrong: a socialism imposed from above, reliant on altruistic benefactors. Second, that it was not sweeping enough, that it failed to recognise the need to replace the system as a whole.

Vital guideline

Marx described communism as ‘the negation of the negation’ – and our utopianism must remain at least in part a giant negation: of exploitation, inequality, greed, prejudice. Marx is criticised for not telling us more about what comes after the negation, but he did leave us with a still vital guideline: From each according to his/her ability to each according to his/her need.

In our utopia the meaning of work will transformed; there will be no more precious commodity than a person’s time. ‘Choice’ will be redefined, salvaged from consumerism, and there will be a deeper sense of ownership than the individualist version touted by the current system.

Utopia is the good society, not the perfect society. A perfect society would be a static entity. Our utopia is one that is evolving, revising its goals and policies as circumstances change. It’s an open not a closed system. Which means identifying its governing principles, its driving processes, may be more important than postulating fixed structures.

A utopia without dissent and argument is a nightmare: a community of interminable sweetness and harmony is not for me. In fact, argument will flower on a higher plane, grounded in a shared public domain to which all have real and equal access – politics in the best sense, with no professional politicians.

We cannot leave our utopian activity to think-tanks. Nor should it be about some artificial ‘pre-figuration’, an exercise in isolated purity. It has to involve getting your hands dirty: finding places for the utopian in the everyday and learning from the everyday the meaning of utopia.

We need to draw on the utopian elements in our midst. The NHS is far from perfect, but it operates under egalitarian principles deemed ‘utopian’ in other fields and enjoys a significant degree of autonomy from the market, which makes it a kind of mini-utopia within British daily life – one reason the government is determined to destroy it. We need to find ways to connect to the utopian yearnings that move millions of people, and which both the right wing and the advertising industry know too well how to exploit. We have to offer something more participatory, concrete and at the same time dynamic, more of a process, a journey, than an end product polished by the intelligentsia. In doing that, we can draw on a rich tradition going back to the biblical prophets and found in almost every human society. In England alone, we can look to Langland, Winstanley, Thomas Spence, Ruskin, Morris and John Lennon – not forgetting More himself, in whose Utopia ‘gold is badge of infamy’.

Humbler relationship

Our utopia must imagine a new, humbler relationship between humans and their environment. The techno-utopias of the past with their dreams of total human mastery over nature now feel distinctly dystopic. On the other hand, the idea of an endlessly renewable energy source, a staple of science fiction, has moved from idle fantasy to urgent necessity. The climate change crisis is a good example of utopian thinking proving more realistic than its ostensibly pragmatic opponents. In the light of imminent catastrophe, utopia becomes common sense.

It is the anti-utopians who are guilty of arrogance and presumption in dismissing systematic alternatives as contrary to human nature (or economic ‘laws’). The utopians are more historically grounded. They know that capitalism had a beginning and will have an end. In contrast, neoliberals practise the pejorative form of utopianism: imposing an abstract blueprint on the human species (and the planet), subordinating diverse human needs to the single compulsion of private profit. We are encouraged to entertain limitless, if narrowly defined, aspirations for ourselves as individuals, but our aspirations for our society are strictly ring-fenced. While it is held to be fatal to ignore economic realities, ecological realities can be indefinitely deferred.

For William Blake, the work of utopia was a daily duty of the citizen. At the end of his Vala or the Four Zoas, he envisioned a world in which ‘the dark religions are departed and sweet science reigns’. It’s now up to us to imagine a world free of the dark religion of neoliberalism, in which the sweet science of human solidarity prevails.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Mike MarquseeMike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and books on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan. More at mikemarqusee.co.uk


Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright