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‘The first step towards building an alternative world has to be a refusal of the world picture implanted in our minds … In the culture of globalisation, as in … hell, there is no glimpse of an elsewhere or an otherwise. The given is a prison.
‘For from a different vantage point, the variety of resistance – individual and collective, single and multiply-issued, organised and disorganised, visible and fugitive, loud and quiet, ordinary and extraordinary – is what’s remarkable, that is, what ought to solicit more than the mere remark. And among some quarters it does.’ – John Berger
As John Berger reminds us, the first step towards an alternative world is refusing to accept that what we have is the best we can do. Utopians have been dismissed as foolish and naïve dreamers, but they are central to human flourishing. The belief that the world could be fairer, and life better, spurs us on and creates the space in which change is possible. In the modern world, a restrictive notion of progress has muffled our imagination with deleterious consequences for all of us.
Utopian dreams are a catalyst for the oppressed and marginalised. They remind us that other worlds are possible, and give us the hope, which, in the words of the author and activist Rebecca Solnit, makes action possible. Utopia is immediate and polemical – a prompt to dream and to act. It effects immediate changes in the real world, now.
Recent thinking in anthropology suggests that it was the development of our imaginations, and then consequently our ability to construct social structures and institutions, that allowed complex societies to evolve. Large societies and the glue that holds them together are all made up: nations, tribes, religion, money and the law-enforcing powers of a judge are arbitrary products of our collective creative thought. There are times, speculates London-based anthropologist Maurice Bloch, when the arbitrariness of those systems becomes apparent. Examining some of the changes currently taking place in the world, he believes that we are developing ‘an awareness of the imaginary nature of the institutions that we live in’.
Thomas More’s Utopia, first published 500 years ago this December, provides a timely reminder of the enduring power of imagination and its ability to shape the world we live in. More’s utopia followed a well-known trope: the traveller who recounts their experience of a land in which a range of problems have been solved. It’s a format that exists or has existed in every culture in some form. Plato’s Republic, which More had read and was influenced by, is often cited as one of the earliest utopian works.
There are also germs of utopian fiction in ancient descriptions of paradise, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, the Elysian Fields or the lost city of Atlantis. We glimpse utopia in classical Greek and Latin literature, the Old Testament, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Hinduism. Tao Hua Yuan, or Peach Blossom Spring, a fable by T’ao Yuan-Ming (365-427) set its utopian world in a hidden grove behind peach blossom trees. There are oral utopian traditions among Aboriginal people in Australia, the first nations in Canada, the Maori in New Zealand, and Native Americans. What More did was not new, but by naming his imaginary world he gave the concept form, shape and an irresistible ambiguity (meaning both no place and good place) that has captured the human imagination ever since.
Utopia is one of those books that almost everyone thinks they know, but few have actually read. Re‑reading it today, what is striking is just how contemporary it feels. From concerns over access to land, to the corruption of an out-of-touch elite and the unscrupulous behavior of kings in starting aggressive wars and dishonestly raising money, it is striking how the conspiracy of the wealthy endures. In Utopia, More attacks the irrational barbarity of capital punishment for theft. For Hythlodaeus, the traveller who tells of life on the island of Utopia, the only way to reduce the number of thieves is to reduce the number of people who must steal or face starvation.
By contrast, More offers an alternative vision of European society rooted in the humanist tradition. On the Island of Utopia there is no private property; houses are allocated by lot and people move home every ten years. The doors of houses swing open so that people may come and go as they please, gardens are shared, meals are communal and age is respected. The working day lasts just six hours, which is enough to provide for everyone’s needs. Time after meals is spent reading or making music. There are public lectures every morning and manual labour is valued. Society is equal, and gold and silver have no more respect than their intrinsic value deserves, ‘which is obviously far less than that of iron’.
Utopia has increased in popularity in times of great flux. Publications of Utopia increased around the time of the French revolution, and again at the turn of the 20th century. In his 1930s treatise on hope, the philosopher Ernst Bloch explored the ways we both hide and express our hopes in dreams and fairy tales, music, love and even sport. All of these, Bloch argues, are expressions of hopes that cannot yet be realised. His central idea was that of the ‘not yet’, the universal feature that makes us human. Alternative visions in their myriad forms are really ways that we embarrass the present, making the familiar seem strange and revealing possibility.
Because utopia is located ‘elsewhere’, it could be argued that utopian visions are necessarily disempowering. The utopian world is always just beyond reach, and unattainable. But what if that is its point? In the words of the Argentinian filmmaker Fernando Birri, recounted by the author Eduardo Galeano: ‘Utopia is on the horizon. Every step I take towards her, she takes a step back and the horizon runs ten steps further away. So what purpose does Utopia serve, then? Well, it serves the purpose of making us move forward.’
To take those steps towards utopia we also need to recognise and celebrate the fragments of utopia that are all around us – the myriad of ways people are organising together to create a better, more humane, world. For Rebecca Solnit, whose Hope in the Dark was reissued in 2016: ‘The grounds for hope are in the shadows, in the people who are inventing the world while no one looks, who themselves don’t know yet whether they will have any effect.’
If utopianism begins by thinking imaginatively about how we want to live, it can begin with the everyday and the particular. In the words of Ruth Levitas, co‑founder of the Utopian Studies Society Europe, utopia is ‘the expression of the desire for a better way of being or living.’ It is ‘a quest for wholeness, for being at home in the world’.
All this means that we can, and we must, be bolder in imagining how the world could be. What we have, is, after all, the product of our imaginations. Which is not to discount power, oppression and vested interest, but to recognise the subversive and practical power of imagination. There is rich territory for us to occupy with bigger, brighter, more confident vision.
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament