Mike Marqusee: Let’s Talk Utopia

Mike Marqusee: Let’s Talk Utopia

This is an extract from ‘Let’s Talk Utopia’ by Mike Marqusee, one of a collection of essays in Utopia, edited by Ross Bradshaw (Five Leaves Publications, Nottingham, UK, 2012)

For those interested in the “Another World is Possible” essay competition, this extract is offered not as an example of the style or content they should follow – those are matters for entrants to the competition to decide for themselves. Instead, it may provide ideas, inspiration and a refreshing alternative to routine patterns of thought.

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. The “failure” of every social experiment, from the French Revolution onward, is seized on as evidence of the perils of utopian thinking. Increasingly, we have been told that a utopian denial of realities lurks in even the most modest demands for regulation and redistribution.

While there are dangers in utopian thinking, the much greater danger is its absence. The reality is that we 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.

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. 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 opponent’s parameters. We cede the definition of the possible to those with a vested interest in closing the aperture into a better future. The neo-liberal 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.

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. A utopia without dissent and argument is a nightmare. I don’t want to belong to a community of interminable sweetness and harmony.

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, neo-liberals 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. The anti-utopians who insist There is No Alternative end up denying the rest of us workable solutions to urgent problems.

The poets and prophets of the past gave us visions of a golden age of abundance, where the curse of labour had been lifted, where vines were laden with lustrous grapes, figs were like emeralds and streams gushed fresh water. Somehow, we need to find our own symbols of shared, sustainable abundance in a world starkly divided into rich and poor.