‘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.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play!
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill