Cultural studies November 22, 2017
India’s installation at the London Design Biennale “Utopia by Design”, Somerset House, London, 2016
© Matthew Chattle/REX/Shutterstock

Good place is no place


What place does utopia have in 2017? It is now half a millennium since the word was invented by Thomas More as the name of his imaginary island, located in the New World and visited by the Portuguese sailor Raphael Hythloday, who describes it, in conversation with a fictitious Thomas More, as an exemplary society. Utopia, as More coined it, means “no-place”, the prefix ou in ancient Greek connoting negation, and also “good place”, eu suggesting “well” or “good”. Utopia is nowhere, and if utopian societies can be said to have any defining characteristics, then a lack of existence in the real world is probably one of them.

If utopia is conventionally nowhere, however, then in 2016 it seemed to be everywhere, as Utopia’s quincentenary was celebrated with an array of publications, exhibitions and events. These included numerous academic conferences and books, a year-long festival at Somerset House called UTOPIA 2016: A year of imagination and possibility, and Utopia500, an international project which celebrated utopian thinking as a driver of social change and promoted commemorative events throughout the year. This was a good time for writing and thinking about utopia: a utopian moment for utopian studies.

Yet dystopia (the Greek prefix dus meaning bad or unfavourable) was also ubiquitous in 2016, when the politics of division triumphed: the American election of a climate change-denier as President; Britain’s acrimonious referendum; and the strengthening of nationalist political parties across Europe. These victories seemed to remake the political landscape and made imaginable the possibility of dystopia in our own time. With the immediate future in mind, “dystopias are certainly easier” to imagine, as Ursula Le Guin writes in an essay on utopian fiction, published last year in a new edition of More’s Utopia, introduced by China Miéville and produced in conjunction with the Somerset House festival.

This has not always been the case. Utopian literature proliferated in the late seventeenth century, for example, in the wake of the Civil War. Writers such as Samuel Hartlib, John Dury and the rest of the Hartlib Circle devoted themselves to imagining idealized institutions such as schools, universities and libraries, which would give wider access to knowledge and improve humanity’s capacity to understand the world in which it lived. There is a direct line between their utopian imaginings – and those of their predecessor Francis Bacon, whose New Atlantis of 1626 projected a utopian scientific institution, Salomon’s House – and the development of real institutions such as the Royal Society, founded in 1660. Seventeenth-century utopian writers often rejected the imaginative trappings of utopian fiction, such as the mythical island and the difficult journey, precisely because they wanted to emphasize the practicality of the ideas they portrayed. They also wanted to be taken seriously; and “utopian” was already a dirty word by that time, used to describe ideas and places that were too good to be true.

In literature, as in politics, utopia and dystopia are of course inextricably linked, two sides of the same coin. It was John Stuart Mill who seems to have used the d-word first, during a debate on Irish land tithes in the House of Commons in 1868: Mill suggested that the Conservative government should be called “dystopians, or cacotopians” as “what they appear to favour is too bad to be practicable”. In Mill’s conception, dystopias and utopias both fail on the grounds of practicality, the one seeming too bad, and the other too good, to be put into action. The word “dystopia” was not widely used until the twentieth century; it seems to have become characteristic of the early twenty-first. By common consent, we live in a dystopian age, and “dystopia”, as Gregory Claeys observes in Dystopia: A natural history, “increasingly defines the spirit of our times”. Dystopian literature may seem a natural place to turn in the face of international political upheaval: in the first weeks of the Trump administration, as the New York Times reported in January, Nineteen Eighty-four leapt to the top of the Amazon bestseller list, as readers faced with “alternative facts” sought out fictional parallels.

There has always been a protectionist element to fictional utopian societies – an interest in building walls and isolating themselves from the wider world – starting with Thomas More’s island of Utopia itself. There the entrance to the harbour by which the island is accessed is narrow, and protected by invisible rocks, lying beneath the water and making navigation perilous to foreigners. Utopian societies in literature are often difficult to access, and harder still to join and to participate in as a citizen. Yet there are also significant differences between, say, Trump’s America and More’s Utopia, perhaps the most obvious being that More’s Utopians disdain capitalism and those who covet gold. The Utopians, who use gold to make chamber-pots and slaves’ chains, and mock visitors wearing expensive jewellery, would have no room for Trump Tower.

More may have given us the word “utopia”, but he – and his book – are curiously distant from much of the writing on utopia that 2016 produced. The trouble with reading More’s Utopia in search of ideas that might be useful today is that More’s book is so multilayered, jokey and ironic that it is impossible to take it seriously. Miéville’s introduction to the Verso edition insists that the original Utopia is vitally important to modern society: “We can’t do without this book”, he writes, “It gave us a formulation, a concept, we needed”. “Without utopia”, agrees Rutger Bregman in Utopia for Realists, “we are lost.” But More and Utopia are rather absent in both books, as if their contribution stopped at the production of the concept. The translation reproduced by Verso is the 1901 Cassell’s National Library version, more recently edited by David Price (the translator of the text is not named here). This translation is freely available online, and it is not, in a scholarly sense, as useful as more recent editions such as that of Penguin Classics in 2012, translated by Dominic Baker-Smith.

In the essays themselves, comparatively little attention is paid to More’s words. Nonetheless, the volume is useful for bringing together Miéville and Le Guin, two authors whose work has drawn from aspects of utopia and dystopia. There is a nostalgic feel to this – indeed, looking backwards and returning to past work is a dominant theme – alongside a suggestion that we need to reclaim the value of utopia for our own times. If we don’t do so, Miéville suggests, we risk allowing others to claim it instead, with free market capitalism creating a world that constitutes a utopia for global corporations and a nightmare for the rest of us. The utopian politics of the colonial project of America figure in this argument. Le Guin, for instance, muses on California, the “Golden State”, as having represented “a true utopia” to Europeans, “the Golden Age made accessible by willpower, the wild paradise to be tamed by reason”. This is surely a central, if sometimes overlooked, reason for modern-day disillusionment with utopia: its implication in the colonial project, with its doomed-to-failure discourse of new worlds, arcadia and paradise. Not all utopias can be trusted, and together these essays register a disillusionment with the realities that utopian thinking has provided: “We need utopia, but to try to think utopia, in this world, without rage, without fury, is an indulgence we can’t afford. In the face of what is done, we cannot think utopia without hate”. In response, Miéville advocates an “antinomian” utopia which struggles against the system for ecological justice, and in which “our best hope lies in conflict” rather than cohesion. This is an anti-neoliberal call to arms, a remaking of utopia for today.

As such, it finds a partner in Bregman’s Utopia for Realists, which starts from the premiss that “in the past, everything was worse”. Bregman argues that medieval ideal-state fictions, like the Land of Cockaigne, arose in response to an awareness that “the past was certainly a harsh place”; given this, “it’s only logical that people dreamed of a day when things would be better”. For this to be true, people living in the past would have to be aware of their relative suffering, which is a problematic assertion. It seems more accurate to recognize that utopian dreams have always existed, whether in song, art, or literature, and that people produce such dreams no matter how comparatively harsh their situation.

In Bregman’s view, though, modern society has become so comfortable that we have ceased to strive for improvement. His notion of a world which has lost the capacity to imagine a better society calls to mind the radical blogger Mark Fisher’s concept of “capitalist realism”. Fisher has argued that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than of capitalism, leading to a state of capital realism, which he defines as “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it”. Bregman, too, concludes that the predicament of the current generation is that “we can’t imagine a better world than the one we’ve got . . . . The real crisis is that we can’t come up with anything better”. We might question the truth of the first part of that statement, especially after reading the fiery Miéville, but Bregman reaches a similar conclusion, blaming capitalism for a failure to sustain the dreams it began: “It is capitalism that opened the gates to the Land of Plenty, but capitalism alone cannot sustain it”. We need to “direct our minds to the future”, return to utopian thinking, and start hoping for something better.

Hoping for something better is the utopian impulse in a nutshell, and it was the impetus behind William Morris’s creation of News from Nowhere. Morris’s classic utopian work tells the story of William Guest, who wakes to discover that he has been transported from his own London to an idealized, socialist future version of the city. The book was originally printed in instalments in Commonweal, the socialist magazine which Morris edited, in 1890; it appeared in a beautifully produced edition from Morris’s Kelmscott Press two years later. The Thames and Hudson facsimile of the Kelmscott edition, published in conjunction with the Victoria and Albert Museum, enables us to read News from Nowhere in the typeface and setting Morris preferred. In an illuminating introduction, Rowan Williams argues that Morris’s utopian vision – as with More’s Utopia and Bregman’s Utopia for Realists – may be read as a response to the development of global capitalism. At the centre of Morris’s book, Williams writes, is “the clear sense that the industrial capitalism of the nineteenth century has alienated the human working agent not only from the products of his or her labour but also from what is natural – from what is natural for human beings and from the world of concrete sensation that is the basis of how we make serious and lasting meanings for ourselves”.

Morris’s response to this perceived alienation was to create, as More did with his island Utopia, a society in which work was for the common good. Also as with More, Morris coupled this vision of a commonwealth with a satirical perspective on his own world. The narrator of News from Nowhere is amused to discover, for example, that the Houses of Parliament are still in use, but now function partially as a “storage place for manure”. As Williams makes clear, Morris’s vision of an ideal society is neither naive nor sentimental. Its purpose is to demonstrate the profound alienation that most people experience from the world which they inhabit. “He is inviting us to recognize the power of the myth that industrial capitalism has propagated – that we can endlessly enlarge our demands, shrink our imaginations and deny our dependencies.” Williams sees Morris’s book as fundamentally challenging the status quo, reminding us that “radical change does not come unless we have a positive sense of what as human beings we most lastingly need in order to flourish”. This is a basic value of utopian literature: it does not necessarily offer a checklist or blueprint for a better society, but presents us with an image of what human beings need in order to live well. In this capacity, Williams argues, Morris’s book challenges that “cor­rosive poverty of sense and spirit, and its outworking in political anxiety, apathy and stagnation”. This, too, is a utopia for realists.

Realists need dystopias, too, because they offer warnings that might also improve the future of human society if heeded in time. Claeys suggests as much in his Dystopia, which charts the development of dystopia as a psychological concept in the medieval and early modern periods, as a political reality manifested in the totalitarianism of Hitler and Stalin, and as a literary form, originating as a “reaction to popular revolutionism” and coming to “satirize . . . the extremes of utopian ambition”. This book follows Claeys’s Searching for Utopia: The history of an idea (2011), which also looked at utopia in thought, as a literary genre, and in actual attempts to found ideal communities. He finishes his new book with a dystopian vision of his own, set in a late twenty-first-century future in which the polar ice caps are disappearing and global warming has driven large populations of people from anywhere near the equator. Those who can afford to do so, “the 1 per cent or the ‘One’, who will possess three-quarters of the world’s wealth”, will attempt to isolate themselves from the resultant poverty and wars, but without success. Dystopian literature, Claeys argues, can help us to avoid this worst of all possible worlds: “The new, it warns us, is not always the better. ‘Progress’ is not automatic, and may be dangerous. What benefits the few may harm the many. Machines may devour us. So may corporations or revolutionaries”. Taken together, perhaps, utopia and dystopia remain relevant to contemporary global politics: “we need visions of alternatives – even utopias – to delineate which paths suggest the greater and which the lesser of evils”.

But is utopianism really for our times? Bregman notes that his own ideas for the continued improvement of humanity’s lot – a universal basic income and a reduced working week, among them – have been dismissed as “unrealistic”, “simply a shorthand way of saying they didn’t fit the status quo”. Utopia has always been a means of interrogating and challenging the status quo; utopian ideas are supposed to be unrealistic, but this does not mean they have no application to reality. Bregman’s ideas for improving our current state of affairs are reminiscent of the social organization of More’s Utopia itself: there, too, a uniform short working week and a basic guaranteed income obtain. Utopias are about improvement: progression, not perfection.

It is a tough job to reclaim the idea of utopia for the twenty-first century and deploy it in the battle against the neoliberal agenda. But – if we were to want to do such a thing – these are books that could help us. If there is an alternative to a neoliberal future, the imaginative effort required by utopian thinking is a necessary step to achieving that alternative. What utopias have to offer us today is not only a list of practical suggestions, which may or may not be needed in the twenty-first century, but a progressive impulse that surely is.