Is Ours a Post-Utopia World?
It is five hundred years since Thomas More published his book Utopia in Leuven, Belgium, under the patronage of his fellow humanist Erasmus. The text is a fictional account of an island nation more perfect than the conflict-ridden European countries of the time, rife with inequality and corruption. Utopian society practiced communal ownership and religious tolerance, came close to gender parity and strove to provide for the well-being of all its citizens. A word coined by More based upon Greek, the term utopia—meaning “no place” (ou-topos) or, in an alternative interpretation, “good place” (eu-topos)—came to signify an idealized perfect community that does not exist in the present and whose coming into being is often projected into the future.
After enjoying great success and spawning a veritable avalanche of proposals for perfect societies in the centuries that followed, utopia has, of late, acquired something of a bad rap. Perhaps this had to do with the understanding of communism as the ultimate utopia. The creation of a classless society where all workers shared in the decision-making process about and in the profits of their labor, therefore being able substantially to reduce the amount of time spent in useless toil, seemed to be the culmination of centuries of utopian thought. But the results of actually existing communism disheartened many supports of utopianism. From Stalin’s purges to the massacres perpetrated by the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, historical communism fell short of its theoretical ideal.
Five hundred years after the creation of utopia, is it time to finally ditch the concept and get real? Many thinkers believe so. In his ominously titled volume Black Mass. Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia British philosopher John Gray, for instance, argues that utopias work as normative models used to justify violent acts perpetrated by religious or political groups and concludes that they necessarily lead to totalitarian political regimes. French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy also distances himself from utopian thought in an interview published in my co-edited book Existential Utopia. For Nancy, utopia is, at best, a beautiful albeit unreachable fantasy and, at worst, a distraction from our efforts to address real problems.
In literature, as in philosophy and political thought, utopia seems to have been replaced by much bleaker views on society. While the focus used to be on imagining a better community in a different place, at a future time, or both, the twentieth century witnessed the rise of dystopian narratives. From George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) to the popular Hunger Games trilogy (2008-10) by Suzanne Collins, from catastrophic climate change scenarios like the one described in J. G. Ballard’s The Drought (1965) to gender-relations nightmares such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmade’s Tale (1985), dystopias are here to stay. To be sure, dystopian thought shares utopia’s goal of criticizing present society. But while utopias show how the world can be improved by comparing it to a better one, dystopias draw attention to the ills of our time by exacerbating them, imagining what would happen if our worst fears came true.
It is worth pondering the reasons for our move into a post-utopian world. Utopia feeds upon what German thinker Ernst Bloch called the “principle of hope,” the idea that the current situation can improve thanks to human ingenuity. It is not by chance that the concept was born at the dawn of modernity. Utopian thought is tied to a linear understanding of time and to a belief in human-led progress towards an increasingly perfect polity, ideas that started to coalesce during the Renaissance. Unlike utopia, dystopia has abandoned the “principle of hope.” Remaining at the deconstructive, destructive level, it pointedly criticizes the problems of our time without offering alternative options or possible solutions. It is a fitting correlative, in the sphere of the imagination and of speculative thought, to a society on the verge of ecological disaster. If utopia signaled the belief in new beginnings, dystopia belongs in a world that sees itself as being not only at the end of history but at the end of all existence.
What are the political implications of abandoning the “principle of hope” and of embracing dystopia as our official creed? Current technocratic democracies are one possible instantiation of a politics of hopelessness. Economic imperatives determine political choices made by a managerial class of legislators. Instead of real decisions about the common good, a concept that, in and of itself, should be open to debate, politics is reduced to the administration of the status quo. We are told that our lives cannot be otherwise and political action is turned into a mere reaction to events—the 2008 economic crisis, climate change, and so on. The current “business as usual” model of politics prevalent in the European Union is an example of hopelessness turned into technocracy, as was the political platform of Hillary Clinton in the US elections. Promising nothing but a continuation of the same, a glaring unwillingness or inability to tackle current problems, both the European Union and Clinton were jolted out of complacency by the Brexit vote in the UK and by the victory of Donald Trump in the US.
The correlation between the Brexit and Trump phenomena has been pointed out by a variety of commentators. They represent an alternative instantiation of the politics of hopelessness that I would define as authoritarian reactionarism. Though arising from the same wellspring as technocracy, authoritarian reactionarism does not defend the status quo but advocates instead for its overhaul. Still, its seemingly radical political action—the UK leaving the EU; the US building a wall on its Southern border and preventing Muslims from entering the country, etc.—does not spell out real political change. Corporate interests will remain intact after Brexit, and the billionaire Donald Trump is clearly not interested in lifting destitute Americans out of poverty. Political action is in this case also a reaction, albeit not so much to current events, as in technocracy, but to hopelessness itself.
The rise of authoritarian figures within other democratic regimes around the world—Recep Erdoğan in Turkey, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines—is a political expression of the electorate’s hopelessness that leads it to turn to extreme figures and ideology when all else has failed. The enduring popularity of Vladimir Putin in his native Russia is, mutatis mutandis, another expression of a hopeless political climate. As Russians so often acknowledge, Putin is bad but the alternative could be much worse.
Straightjacketed between technocracy and authoritarian reactionarism, between hopeless, reactive stasis and hopeless, reactionary change, we would do well to go back to More and his five hundred-year-old utopia. The communitarian society he described might bring back some hope to a world in dire need of the belief that a better future is still possible.
This essay was first published in The Philosophical Salon: Speculations, Reflections, Interventions (OPEN HUMANITIES PRESS; London, 2017)