This essay was first published in Griffith Review: Imagining the Future. You can purchase a copy here.
In ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’ (1891), Oscar Wilde wrote that ‘A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.’ Certainly it used to be a popular spot. Time was when all manner of social reformers, romantic nationalists and religious cranks were to be found lounging on its sandy shores or supping cocktails in its bamboo bars. It was the place to be, and to be seen to be. Now it’s fallen off a bit. Reviews of the accommodation are mixed and the seafront is well past its prime. As with the UK holiday camps I was compelled to go to as a little feller, no one seems quite able to decide if the merriment is genuine or an instance of collective mania.
Thomas More’s Utopia, which celebrates its quincentenary this year, gave us not just the word ‘utopia’ but also much of the ambiguity with which it is associated. The name of the country is a joke; it means ‘no place’. But the Greek word ou – the u in utopia – is phonetically close to eu, as in euphemism, which would turn the word from ‘no place’ to ‘good place’. Whether this ambiguity (or pun) came about through accident or design no one can say with any certainty, and this has led to a long debate about what More’s intentions were. The text itself only adds to the confusion. On the one hand, the book’s philosopher-narrator, Raphael Hythloday, delivers an unambiguous indictment of sixteenth-century European society, comparing it unfavourably to the island of Utopia; on the other, his name means ‘dispenser of nonsense’ and his adventures come wrapped in a joke correspondence between More and several real-life friends. And while More himself concludes the book with the suggestion that there are many aspects of Utopia ‘I would wish rather than expect to see’, the notion that this man of property, lawyer and fundamentalist Roman Catholic would look kindly on a communalist state with very few laws and no Christian revelation is tenuous to say the least. Surely not even the younger More – the humanist scholar and friend of Erasmus – would have countenanced the practice of stripping naked before one’s future spouse in order to check that everything was in good order!
My old history teacher, a serious Tudorphile, invited his students to regard Utopia as neither a blueprint for a perfect society nor a whimsical instance of blue-sky thinking, but as a satirical inversion of sixteenth-century Europe. There are aspects of Utopia More would have loved because there were aspects of his own society he would have loathed, and there are aspects of Utopia he would have loathed because there were aspects of his own society he would have loved. Fair enough. But this still doesn’t get to the problem of which bits he loved and which bits he loathed. Unlike Swift, who leaves us in no doubt about the relative merits of the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnms, More leaves open, or appears to leave open, the question of Utopia’s desirability. Ambiguity was a favoured humanist trope and its provenance no mystery: in Tudor-era Europe the wrong opinion was liable to earn you a radical haircut. But with no clue at all as to More’s intentions – satirical or otherwise – what are we to make of his ‘ideal’ commonwealth?
To modern eyes that commonwealth will seem both progressive and repressive; and which aspects of it we regard as which will depend, to a great extent, on our politics. It is a welfare state in which food, clothes, housing, education and medicine are free; in which everyone has a trade and works a six-hour day; in which divorce and euthanasia are allowed; and in which people are invited, though not compelled, to eat tasty meals in communal halls and spend their leisure time gardening or listening to lectures. But it is also a society in which premarital sex is punished with lifelong celibacy; in which no one can travel without a permit; and in which an atmosphere of mutual surveillance keeps everyone on the straight and narrow. Its foreign policy, while broadly defensive, allows for interventions against oppressive regimes. As for its economic arrangements: the Utopians are enlightened enough to disdain the fetishisation of gold, which they use to make chains to weigh down their slaves, but not so enlightened that they disdain, um, slavery.
It’s a pretty mixed picture, in other words, and so too is the concept of utopia itself, which has flowed beyond More’s horseshoe-shaped island, with its natural bay and sovereign borders, and out into the vast ocean of history and culture. From the great formal utopias of Campanella, Bacon, Bellamy, Morris and Wells; to the political eruptions of the late eighteenth century; to the Shakers and the Amish and the garden city movement and the philosophical underpinnings of modern Israel: utopia, and utopian thinking, is everywhere, even when we are unaware of it. Its organising principle may be God or science or education or socialism or sex, or some combination of any of these things; and it tells us as much about the discovery of the New World, the Age of Enlightenment or the French Revolution as any tract or manifesto ever could. And while, today, the word ‘utopian’ is more likely to be pressed into service as a pejorative term meaning ‘hopelessly impractical’ than as an adjective describing an inhabitant of More’s island, it is clear that More, in depicting that island, has given us an idea to conjure with. ‘Progress is the realisation of Utopias’, Wilde goes on to say in his essay. Not true. But not quite nonsense, either.
In one sense, More’s Utopia represents a stage, or the beginning of a stage, in the history of the thing it names. For there were plenty of utopias before Utopia. There are Heavens on Earth and paradises and Elysiums and Gardens of Eden and Fortunate Isles. In the ancient world it was ‘the golden age’ that took the part of the ideal society: a perfect state from which humankind had fallen and at which it would arrive again. The idea appears in Hesiod and, later, in Virgil and Ovid. Abundance is its defining feature: it is a world in which people live like gods; they do not want for anything, save perhaps for something to do other than to lie around eating and drinking. And if, as has been speculated, it represents some species-memory of communal, hunter-gatherer living, its details are invariably fantastic. Ears of corn that produce whole loaves of bread; grapes that yield hundreds of gallons of wine; rams whose fleeces change colour in the field: most versions of the golden age read as if they were conceived and written by a genetic engineer on acid.
It was Plato who sought to sober things up, to replace the multi-coloured ruminants and towns surrounded by rivers of perfume and self-filling glasses with political theory. The Republic presents, not a golden age, but an anxious fantasy of organisation in which democracy is tossed aside in favour of an aristocracy of the wisest. And while it may seem odd to call it ‘utopian’ – to a modern, liberal-minded readership The Republic looks more dystopian than utopian; certainly the Nazis favoured it – it is this tradition of the ideal commonwealth that More was, so to speak, repackaging for an early-modern readership, or that portion of it that could read Latin. For all its (wilful?) ambiguity, Utopia is a thought experiment: a philosophical intervention, however playful, in the world of ideas. It’s a political fiction, not a myth, and certainly not an idle vision of luxury and rude abundance.
In some ways, then, Utopia points backwards to a particular philosophical tradition. But in other ways the book points forward to, or out at, a specific historical moment: the beginning of what we now call ‘age of discovery’. The Republic is a dramatic dialogue: nobody goes anywhere. But in More we find a different conceit: a man who has travelled across physical space to a land where things are done differently. The precise location of Utopia is unknown (in the correspondence that opens More’s book, it is revealed that Raphael Hythloday did indeed vouchsafe that piece of information but that an ill-timed cough obscured his words). Nor, I think, does it particularly matter if More had, say, the Americas in mind. The point is that he made the connection between the New World and a changed world. However quietly, the idea of the Just City emerged from the sealed realm of speculation and faith and out into the world of possibility and potential.
Thus we find that while ancient ‘utopias’ exist at the margins of imagined time, early-modern utopias tend to exist at the limits of known space. Ceylon, for example, is most likely the model for Tommaso Campanella’s The City of the Sun (1623), in which a Genoese sailor on one of Columbus’ voyages describes the eponymous theocracy in (I’m sorry) glowing terms. Similarly, Francis Bacon’s island of Bensalem in New Atlantis (1627) is located in the Pacific Ocean, the Europeans who discover it having lost their bearings off the coast of Peru. The South Seas, shipwrecks, castaways – all become ubiquitous in this period of utopia’s history, and the excitement and romance of discovery is accompanied by large doses of the erotic and the exotic. In Henry Neville’s The Isle of Pines (1668), the sexually prodigious protagonist and his four obliging female companions manage to populate an entire island somewhere in the southern hemisphere, while in La Terre Australe Connue (1676), Gabriel de Foigny, the first man to refer to ‘Australians’ by that name, imagines a country populated by large, hairy, red hermaphrodites. Vegetarian hermaphrodites!
Notwithstanding de Foigny’s flights of fancy, it is plain that these early-modern utopias are often full of political longing and full too of a sense of human potential unknown in earlier iterations of the genre. Bacon’s New Atlantis in particular is a paean to the idea of progress. Though nothing like a political program, it identifies knowledge, and especially science, as the key to a radically altered society. In this way it anticipates the utopias of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – utopias in which the idea of science has gone beyond Baconian musings on telephones and radiograms and become an organising principle – an organising political principle. With the scientific revolution, speculation yields to possibility, and the utopian elsewhere to the utopian future.
And that, of course, is where the problems begin.
The most commonly encountered ‘line’ on utopias is that they are good in theory but bad in practice. Utopia, it is argued, should be properly regarded as a form of imaginative resistance to power – as a kind of social poetry. But take it as a blueprint for a real society – indulge for a moment the dangerous fantasy of human perfectibility – and you place one foot on the highway to hell. ‘By all means regale us with your fantasies,’ the utopian writer is told; ‘but don’t expect us to take you seriously.’
The problem with this ‘two cheers’ approach is that it is very difficult to separate the imaginative aspects of utopia from its political utility. For what’s the point of a hypothesis if you’re not going to design an experiment to test it? What is utopia worth, in the end, if we decide that it is politically ineffectual? It’s not as if the utopian genre has bequeathed to us a treasury of indispensible literature. Notwithstanding the magnificent satirical utopias of Jonathan Swift and Samuel Butler (Gulliver’s Travels and Erewhon, respectively), utopias tend to be quite boring. In narrative terms, they are largely static: someone gets lost, or falls asleep, and finds himself in a faraway land that is different enough from his own society to demand a bit of elucidation. That’s about it, in most cases. Since utopias tend to be perfect worlds, they tend also to be worlds without tension, and worlds without tension are inherently uninteresting to readers used to consulting art for an exploration of the human condition, fraught as it is with contradiction. This is why the great dystopias of Orwell, Koestler, Huxley and Zamyatin are so much more successful as art: because, in showing how human perfection is bought at the cost of the individual human – how equality is achieved at the cost of freedom – they fulfil the role of narrative fiction as the form in which the individual is granted a certain structural privilege.
But of course those great dystopias were not responding to imperfections in the utopian genre; they were responding to political reality – to the political experiments of the twentieth century, to what Eric Hobsbawm calls ‘the age of extremes’. As for the wariness of utopia per se: that, too, is a response to those experiments. Political utopias are dangerous for the same reason literary ones are boring: they must deny the individual her uniqueness in order to retain their coherence. In one sense, indeed, the perfect society is always already a kind of dystopia; there is something implicitly repugnant about it. The late Christopher Hitchens couldn’t contemplate heaven without thinking too of North Korea. Similarly, we cannot contemplate utopia without thinking of the death camp and the gulag.
And yet there is (or at any rate was) an irrepressible and unmistakeable desire for freedom at the heart of the utopian project; and central to this desire for freedom is notion of human beings as good. It is remarkable, for example, how many utopian writers regarded crime as the result, not of personal sin, but of economic circumstance. From the protestant reformer Gerrard Winstanley, the leader of the seventeenth-century Diggers, to the great social reformer Robert Owen, one of the few utopians to put his ideas into practice, a concern with the social causes of crime, and the human desire to escape those causes, is deeply ingrained in utopian thinking. Even Raphael Hythloday inveighs against the barbarity of capital punishment for the crime of theft, and the country he describes has no legal system or penal code to speak of. Again, whether More approved of these arrangements nobody can say for certain; but the fact that the issue was raised at all was progress of a kind.
There is naiveté in these ideas, of course; and in the related construction of the noble savage – the primitive New World indigene unsullied by civilisation – there is the unmistakeable taint of racism. But the notion that humans are the product of their environments and not to be despised for their failures is in no way a contemptible one. The great revolutions of the late eighteenth century were predicated on the radical notion that changes in the human condition could be wrought by large-scale social reconstruction; and while the results were mixed (to put it mildly), the ideas they liberated into the political sphere represented a big step forward for democracy and a kick in the pantaloons for the hereditary principle and other Hanoverian habits of mind.
The American and French revolutions were both influenced by utopian thinking and incubators of it. In Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson we find both rationalism and romanticism (a cocktail favoured by many utopians), while in the chaotic wake of the French Revolution we discover all manner of utopian dreaming, from the libertarian fantasies of Charles Fourier to the scientific socialism of Saint Simon to the Enlightenment passions of Condorcet, who hoped to save the principles of the original revolutionaries – an end to tyranny and religion; a society built on knowledge and reason – from the political thuggery of the Jacobins. Written under the shadow of the guillotine (he had opposed the execution of the king), Condorcet’s Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind (1795) is one of the most poignant utopian documents we have, not because its contents are especially moving, but because its author is unaware that the tyranny he is witness to is not the betrayal of utopianism but also, in part, a consequence of it. He is utopia’s advocate and its victim. His hope that science will ‘tame the future’ is moving and alarming in equal measure.
Whether utopias belong, or are more at home, in the Romantic tradition or the Enlightenment one is a question on which opinions differ. My sense is that they belong in both – that in utopianism the idea of humanity in its ‘natural’ prelapsarian state comes together with the notion of determined progress. Of course, there are many Enlightenment figures that explicitly disavowed utopia, just as there were many Romantics (Nietzsche, for example) who were chary of progress. (The British philosopher John Gray maintains that a belief in progress is itself utopian – but that’s another can of worms.) But my strong sense is that most modern utopias have a foot in both of these camps – that utopia is where the philosophy of progress and the idea of primitive innocence meet. It is a travelling forwards and a travelling back, an embrace of both the future and the past.
Marxism is a case in point – and the most important case as well, for it was in the name of historical materialism that by far the most important experiments in utopian organisation were made. On the face of it, Marx was an anti-utopian; he dismissed what he called ‘utopian socialism’, which he saw as arising out of the ashes of the Enlightenment and disillusion with the French Revolution. Saint-Simon’s belief that workers and bosses would unite for the common good of humanity struck him (not unreasonably) as hopelessly idealistic, since it denied the inevitability of the class-war and the moving power of capital-h History. But for all that he stressed the role of history in determining human consciousness, Marx was a product of his time as well, and his belief that capitalism was bound to yield to socialism was unmistakeably utopian. Marx disdained to describe the coming system, choosing instead to focus (brilliantly) on the contradictions of the one he lived in and for which he blamed, not just his carbuncles, but the great mass of human misery. But Marx had given the ending away, and in the hands of Lenin the future became, not something to wait for, but something to be realised.
Well, we know where all that led. But from the debris of that shattered dream we can salvage one idea at least: the idea that whatever system we have now is highly unlikely to be history’s last word. For what Marx was able to appreciate is that it is the present that is in many ways delusional, and that only our habituation to it makes it appear otherwise. Applying the dialectical method, he saw that the dominant ideology depended for its efficacy on the distortion of social reality; and he speculated that capitalism, a system in which wealth is created socially and appropriated privately, would yield eventually to the ancient truth that we all know, in our bones, to be true: that the world belongs to everyone and everyone alone. In this sense, certainly, Marx was ‘utopian’: he looked at the world and he turned it on its head.
The problem for Marx, and for other utopians, is that this process of inverting reality doesn’t necessarily get you any nearer the truth – not least because the person doing the inverting brings her own ideology and assumptions to the process. Utopias are saturnalias: in turning aspects of reality upside-down they hope to set society right-side-up. But what we choose to invert is a political decision, and it is more likely to reproduce the prejudices and assumptions that exist at any one time than it is to move us beyond them. The radical critic Terry Eagleton recognises as much when he describes utopias as ‘epiphanies of the beyond which bear witness to the fact that we can never attain it … Anything we can speak of must fall short of the otherness we desire.’ We only have to look at the books and movies that passed for science fiction in the 1950s to recognise that nothing dates as fast as a vision of the future, and utopias are no different. The Spanish hero of Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moon (c. 1570) climbs into the stratosphere on a light-framed craft pulled by twenty-five swans, while Edward Bellamy, in Looking Backward (1887), waxes lyrical about the possibility of getting orchestral music on the telephone. Thus does the human mind keep trying, and failing, to achieve escape velocity.
And so, when Theodore Adorno exhorts us, in Minima Moralia, to ‘contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption’ the important questions ask themselves: ‘What redemption? Redemption for whom?’Utopias are nearly always predicated on a firm idea of human nature, but whose idea of human nature do we propose to predicate our utopia on? Hobbes’? Rousseau’s? Swift’s? (God forbid!) The radical takes the view that the standpoint of redemption is the one identified by Winstanley and Marx: that nature should become again ‘a common treasury’ for humankind; but even within that great tradition there are cavernous differences of opinion and perspective. William Morris’ News from Nowhere – an important text for many socialists – was written out of disgust at Bellamy’s vision of socialism in Looking Backward; and we’ve already touched on the deep contempt in which Marx held the French ‘utopian’ socialists. Slavoj Žižek asserts that communism failed because it was a fantasy generated by capitalism itself, a ‘utopian’ version of what is wrong with it. One doesn’t have to accept his rather crass suggestion that in order to get to the Promised Land is it necessary to repeat the revolution endlessly to appreciate that he has the ghost of a point.
If we are ambivalent about utopia, then, it is because utopia is ambivalent about us; it is necessarily predicated on a partial notion of human nature, and in the end it finds it impossible to reconcile equality and liberty, because liberty means the freedom to think and act differently. Perhaps – perhaps – the ‘cyber-utopians’ can find a way to square this circle, beginning as the they are, or as many of them are, from the position that the new technology allows us, at once, to express our individuality and to organise ourselves into new social formations. Paul Mason, in his recent book Postcapitalism makes just such a case, and makes it brilliantly, and suggests as well that capitalism may well prove unable to survive in a world of information-sharing and cheap reproducibility. I’m enough of a utopian to hope he’s right.
For all their sinister tendencies, utopias are part of our humanist legacy. They are ways of saying – or of trying to say – we believe in the possibility of radical change; we don’t need to accept what you call ‘our fate’. And if our ability to turn the world on its head is limited by our subjectivity, it’s still a pretty nifty trick – no other animal does it, so far as we know. That the utopian urge should have proved so conducive to the most disgusting human behaviour is one of history’s bitterest ironies; but this does not discredit utopianism, or it should not discredit it completely. We live in a world in which the richest seventy-five people have as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion: I think we can say, with confidence, that there’s room for a bit of improvement yet. Tell the kid with limbs like sticks that a world in which the pie is divided between everyone, equally, is pie in the sky; she’ll tell you that the mind needs to feed on something, especially when the body has nothing. If a bit of ‘nonsense’ will help us to glimpse, even if only imperfectly, the stupidity and unfairness of the system we live in, well, then, I say weigh anchor.