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“The utopia recognises no necessity, no destiny, no automatically functioning social mechanism. It places all faith in human self determination through the fullest possible unfolding of the highest human capacities. The utopia recognises no static end of time, but only stages in a dynamic process of development toward the future. It does not demand heaven, but seeks a “hostel”. And each successive wayside inn must be other and better than man’s previous resting places, but it must also be located as a landmark on an earthly road, where man can build with his own tools. This is not paradise miraculously regained, but a better world remade within the scope of human power.”

- Fred Polak (cited by Jose Ramos in Alternative Futures of Globalisation‎)

Utopia is no longer the counterpart of a overloaded reality without opening or any way out; on the contrary it is that which in reality opens ways to the possible, to events, to the new, the ultimate. The spirit of utopia becomes a way of thinking about becoming as opposed to what has become; what is emerging, as opposed to what is fixed and static.


The category of the Utopian, then, besides its usual and justly depreciatory meaning, possesses this other meaning – which, far from being necessarily abstract and turned away from the world, is on the contrary centrally preoccupied with the world: that of going beyond the natural march of events.

— Ernst Bloch, “The Principle of Hope” [2]

Even among bourgeois economists, there is hardly a serious thinker who will deny that it is possible, by means of currently existing material and intellectual forces of production, to put an end to hunger and poverty, and that the present state of things is due to the socio-political organization of the world.

— Herbert Marcuse, “The End of Utopia” [3]


Utopia is Vital for Political Change

See this passage in context

Gene Youngblood:

"Dismiss at the outset any silly notion about utopia as some kind of ideal world, some kind of blueprint for bourgeois comfort, a map to happiness. To frame it that way is irresponsible and counter-revolutionary. It plays directly into social control. It says the desire called utopia — the desire for release from hierarchy, and all it implies — is hopelessly naïve and not to be taken seriously.

Well, I think that’s a betrayal of us all. It’s collaboration in our oppression. Never frame utopian desire in a negative way. The only possible solutions to the crises we face are utopian solutions. Utopia has become imperative. If it isn’t utopian, it isn’t radical enough. So we’ve got to recuperate the word and re-imagine the idea. Begin by taking it seriously — utopia is not a place, it’s a desire. The desire for radical change, for transformation at the root. That’s something that can never be permitted by power, which is precisely why the call for it around the world has restored the radical figure of utopia to political currency.

Dial the clock back to May 1968 in Paris, and the famous slogan “be realistic, demand the impossible,” where impossible meant not permitted. In other words, make a demand that, granted, would bring the system down. Like a free and open internet.

In the years following those heady days of sixties counterculture, utopia lost its potency. It became discredited with the rise of cultural studies and identity politics, and their rejection of the cultural imperialism they thought utopia was about. So that, in 1999, in defiance of this trend, Russell Jacoby could publish his brave lament The End of Utopia, by which he meant the atrophy of radical will in our time.[20] But a mere six years later, in 2005, Fredric Jameson could proclaim in Archaeologies of the Future that utopia had regained its position at the leading edge of political thought. “It has recovered its vitality,” he observed, “as a political slogan and a politically energizing perspective. It is taken seriously as a social and political project.”[21]

Utopianism is political theory. It shifts the public conversation about utopia away from content — an ideal world — to what’s represented by the idea of utopia as such. Utopia is no longer understood as not possible because it’s too ideal, but as not permitted because it’s too radical. The struggle for freedom replaces the older utopian preoccupation with happiness.

Utopia is hypothetical. It asks what if? It entices and beckons. It says, “come get me.” A population inflamed with radical will stands on the horizon and says to the audience-nation, “We’re the distance between who you are and who you must become to meet the challenge. Come get us. What do you have to do to be us?”

In standard utopian narratives that little detail is ignored. We’re just there in utopia, in this revolutionary world, with no explanation whatsoever of how we got there. The struggle is missing, and that’s why standard utopias are so unconvincing. There’s no ground truth under them. “The agency that realized the utopian condition is omitted,” Jameson observes. “The narrative overleaps the revolution itself and posits an already existing post-revolutionary society. The axial moment, the break with history, the transformation into agency just isn’t there.”[22]

That conspicuous absence begs the question, and reminds us that utopia is always and only one thing — the struggle for freedom at scale. Please understand: what’s utopian is the scale of an impossible demand, not struggle per se. It’s the utopian image I invoked at the beginning. That utopia is truly universal; to define it any other way is a betrayal of us all.

So, we’ve gone from utopia as not possible to utopia as not permitted. What’s not permitted above all else is the forging of a utopian algorithm: the people must not see how to get from here to there. That brings us to the utopian myth of a communication revolution.

Recall that inverted totalitarianism is based on controlling the social construction of realities. A communication revolution inverts the way that’s done, from top down to bottom up. It decentralizes and pluralizes the social construction of realities. I repeat: a communication revolution is the decentralization and pluralization of the social construction of realities. Period. That means it has nothing to do with technology. Of course it needs technology to happen, but the revolution isn’t in the technology just as music isn’t in a piano, just as intelligence isn’t in a brain. Technology is never the driver, always the enabler. It’s not technology that’s transformative but the culture that forms around it. And as I said at the beginning, which culture defines the internet is the great question of our time.

It was already the question in the early 1970s, when a set of technologies emerged in the United States that made a communication revolution theoretically possible — cable television, satellite distribution, portable video recording, videocassette and laserdisc publishing, and time-shared mainframe computing. With hindsight we recognize that mix as a kind of proto-internet.

The early 1970s was also the beginning of the end of the counterculture moment in America. I had been at the center of it. From 1967 to 1970, I was associate editor and columnist for The Los Angeles Free Press, the first and largest of the underground newspapers that flourished in the U.S. at that time. So I was in a position to understand counterculture as a communication revolution. Not that you had to be in my position. I mean we were all living it. We were living the first and only communication revolution that has ever happened in the United States, brief and limited as it may have been.

To understand that, think of communication not as a verb but a noun. Not something you do, but a place you occupy, a condition you arrive at. The word has two Latin roots: communis actio, common actions; and communare, a shared space. Common actions called conversation that lead to a shared space of agreement over an understanding — in our case, understandings of existence, priorities, values and relations. Humberto Maturana calls it a consensual domain.

That’s what we did in the 1960s. We built a consensual domain called counterculture and we convened there. We left the culture without leaving the country, and our cohort inverted the social construction of realities. We did it on a politically threatening scale, so of course it had to be dealt with. Counterculture had to be neutralized and assimilated. That is, it had to be commodified. The commodification of outsiderdom had already begun in the 1950s — Rebel Without a Cause, The Wild One, Jack Kerouac on prime time television — so we in the sixties were de facto delivering ourselves directly to capital. The broadcast administered a mortal dose of publicity and the end was in sight.[24]

It was a question of autonomy. Counterculture couldn’t be sustained within shopping-counter culture. We couldn’t live as a utopian enclave circumscribed by the imperial broadcast. We were looking for ways to remain in self-exile, and when technology emerged that could theoretically enable that at scale, we were alert to it. We saw it because we believed it, and we believed it because we were living it.

As the broadcast entered the dream life of the audience-nation, we dreamed of escape. Cultural hegemony might dominate our days, but it didn’t have to be our destiny. We thought we might be able to sustain in virtual space the cultural autonomy we were losing in physical space. We knew that wouldn’t be enough. The struggle wouldn’t be won or lost in the realm of representation, but as always it had to start there. It was the beginning of media activism. We understood that if we changed the media we’d change the world. I refer you to my call to arms in the journal Radical Software in 1970.[25]

Media activists saw a utopian opportunity to create a democratic media commons through operational inversion of the broadcast, from mass communication to group conversation. A paradigm shift was technically possible — from the dominator model to a partnership model, from hierarchy to heterarchy, from communication to conversation, from control to coherence.

Conversation, from the Latin conversari, to turn around together, is generative. It brings forth worlds. It’s how we construct realities. We can talk about things because we generate the things we talk about by talking about them.[26] We become a reality-community. And the closure, the circularity, of turning around together seals our cultural autonomy. We become an autonomous reality-community.

Now, that phrase is actually redundant because there’s no other kind of community. Every community is an autonomous reality-community. That is, every community is a conspiratorial conversation that generates the realities that define it as a community. Word of mouth becomes a world of mouth, the birth of a notion.

I use this otherwise unnecessary phrase to make us aware of what we’re doing today. To make explicit the fact that, in our migration to the internet, we are decentralizing and pluralizing the social construction of realities at politically destabilizing scale. Every website, blog or microblog; every networking or sharing platform; every streaming or hosting service; every virtual world, is either a reality-community or a platform that supports conversations that constitute them. Every Facebook or LinkedIn connection, every tagged Twitter micropost, every You Tube or Vimeo channel, every image posted on Flickr, every playlist shared on Spotify, every Last.fm scrobble, and every grouping in each of them creates the possibility of a conversation that coheres a community around a reality.

Optical fiber was on the horizon in the early 1970s, and that allowed us to imagine communication systems beyond the limitations of cable television. Instead of the “public access” crumbs tossed to us by the cable TV industry, we imagined socialized public utilities based on switched optical fiber networks operated by telephone companies. I refer you to the video of me calling for a National Information Utility in 1974.[27]

I was demanding the impossible, and that was the point. Impossible because a utility is a common carrier, open to everyone equally. That would subvert social control. The people would have to demand it. They weren’t going to demand something they couldn’t envision, so I offered a vision of a public communication utility with emotional bandwidth, which at the time was the six-megahertz analog bandwidth of broadcast television. In other words, two-way video would be the platform for democratic conversation at scale.

Information storage and retrieval, although essential, was seen as a supplemental feature of the communication system that media activists were imagining. Nobody thought of the computer as a communication device. It was just a library in a box. It was access to information, and a communication revolution isn’t about access to information, at least not primarily. It’s about access to people. It’s about access to conversations through which realities are socially constructed.

Operational inversion of the broadcast would give full-throated release to the scream we call silence. We were in solitary confinement. There was an urgent need to say what we had not been able to say, to an audience we never had — ourselves. Dark fiber would light up quickly. Channels of agitation and desire would multiply exponentially, turning the audience-nation into a democratic republic of autonomous reality-communities in virtual space. They would be atopias — social formations without boundaries or borders, defined not by geography but by consciousness, ideology and desire.

It would be necessary to choose among them. You couldn’t just passively receive. You’d have to work at it. From the ever-expanding universe of reality-communities, you’d have to assemble the particular universe of meaning in which you would live. It would be your media lifeworld. Lifeworld is a sociological term which means our subjective experience of everyday life. We share the lifeworld with others, but we experience only our own personal lifeworld from moment to moment. The lifeworld is your world, the world you inhabit. It’s your habitat.

So you’d assemble your media habitat, your personal lifeworld of autonomous reality-communities. It was understood that one of the possible lifeworlds you might build for yourself could be what we call a counterculture — a world whose meanings, values and definitions of reality are exactly counter to those of the broadcast. You could increasingly live the life of that world as The Build progressed, and it would bring you to the threshold of secession." (http://www.secessionfromthebroadcast.org/blog/2013/10/29/secession-broadcast-internet-crisis-social-control/)

We need Utopias for the Emerging Global Civilization

Excerpted from Charlie Stross:

“It seems to me that the post-cold war neoliberal dominated political consensus (which is a consensus of the Right, insofar as the flagship of the Left hit an iceberg and started to sink in 1917, finally hitting the sea floor in 1989) is intrinsically inimical to the consideration of utopian ideals. Burkean conservativism tends to be skeptical of change, always asking first, “will it make things worse?” This isn’t a bad question to ask in and of itself, but we’re immured a period of change unprecedented in human history (it kicked off around the 1650s; its end is not yet in sight) and basing your policies on what you can see in your rear-view mirror leaves you open to driving over unforseen pot-holes. To a conservative, the first priority is not to lose track of what’s good about the past, lest the future be worse. But this viewpoint brings with it a cognitive bias towards the simplistic outlook that innovation is always bad.

Which is why I think we badly need more utopian speculation. The consensus future we read about in the media and that we’re driving towards is a roiling, turbulent fogbank beset by half-glimpsed demons: climate change, resource depletion, peak oil, mass extinction, collapse of the oceanic food chain, overpopulation, terrorism, foreigners who want to come here and steal our women jobs. It’s not a nice place to be; if the past is another country, the consensus view of the future currently looks like a favela with raw sewage running in the streets. Conservativism — standing on the brake pedal — is a natural reaction to this vision; but it’s a maladaptive one, because it makes it harder to respond effectively to new and unprecedented problems. We can’t stop, we can only go forward; so it is up to us to choose a direction.

Having said that, we should be able to create a new golden age of utopian visions. A global civilization appears to be emerging for the first time. It’s unstable, unevenly distributed, and blindly fumbling its way forward. But we have unprecedented tools for sharing information; slowly developing theories of behavioural economics, cognitive bias, and communications that move beyond the crudely simplistic (and wrong) 19th century models of perfectly rational market actors: even models of development that seem to be generating sporadic progress in those countries that were hammered down and ruthlessly exploited as colonial assets by the ancien regime and its inheritors.

We need — quite urgently, I think — plausible visions of where we might be fifty or a hundred or a thousand years hence: a hot, densely populated, predominantly urban planetary culture that nevertheless manages to feed everybody, house everybody, and give everybody room to pursue their own happiness without destroying our resource base.

Because historically, when a civilization collapsed, it collapsed in isolation: but if our newly global civilization collapses, what then …?” (http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/12/utopia.html)

The Politics of Utopia

Ross Wolfe:

"Utopianism has always involved the imagination of a better world, a perfected society set against the imperfect society of the present. Whether as an object of speculative philosophical reflection, a practical program for social transformation, or an idle daydream, utopia has always evinced the hope that reality might be made ideal.

Underneath this general rubric, however, “utopia” can be seen to signify several related but distinct things. The term is commonly used to refer to that literary genre, deriving its name from Thomas More’s eponymous Utopia, which depicts various “ideal commonwealths.” Beyond this meaning, many commentators have identified these literary utopias as belonging to a broader impulse that exists within the very structure of human experience, of which they are but one expression.[1] Karl Mannheim, for example, described utopianism as a mentalité, writing that “[a] state of mind is utopian when it is incongruous with the state of reality within which it occurs…and at the same breaks the bond of the existing order.”[2] Others have linked the idea of utopia to more metaphysical foundations, explaining how the condition for the possibility of utopia is carried by the category of possibility itself. Understood in this way, a utopia could be an alternate social configuration that is imaginable either as a pure fantasy wholly apart from existing conditions, or as one that is potentially viable, somehow implied by those same conditions.[3] The former of these constitutes an abstract or merely logical possibility, whereas the latter represents a concrete or real possibility.

In either case, the point of reference for a utopia is the social order presently at hand. As such, utopia is historically variable, depending upon the political, economic, and institutional framework prevailing at any given time. The specific contents of a utopia (whether it has democracy or aristocracy as its political ideal, whether it favors partial slavery or universal citizenship) tend to reflect the outstanding structures and practical exigencies of its age, responding to them in any number of ways. This is why for Mannheim utopias, like ideologies, are always “situationally transcendent.”[4] Utopias reach beyond existing circumstances, but in such a manner that they nevertheless remain informed by them. In this sense, Mannheim’s definition retains a kernel of truth, despite the dubious distinction he otherwise tried to draw between ideology and utopia[5] and his confusion over the concept of “ideology” in general.[6] For the many utopian visions and utopian movements that have arisen throughout history are without a doubt the products of their time. Accordingly, they bear the mark of the material forces and social pressures that surrounded them. Even Mannheim’s somewhat faulty definition of utopia is indicative of the early twentieth-century milieu out of which it emerged, a moment in which utopianism was undergoing one of its most decisive historical mutations.

Not only are the specific contents of utopia largely determined by history, but the different forms utopianism has taken as well. This is meant in the most general possible sense — not in terms of the varying dimensions of the wished-for realities portrayed in daydreams, utopian fiction, and architectural blueprints — but rather in the human orientation toward those images of a better world. This becomes clearer when one considers the different significances utopia has been held to possess, which were outlined above. While Mannheim is probably correct to assert that “wishful thinking has always figured in human affairs,”[7] utopia’s precise relationship to reality has by no means remained constant over time. For this very reason, the intentions of the various authors of utopia have been subject to change. Some elaboration would perhaps be appropriate here in order to elucidate this point.

Surveying the discrete products of the utopian imagination over time, several notable facts present themselves. To begin with, the earliest utopias, from Plato’s Republic down through the Renaissance, assumed an exclusively literary form. These literary utopias, despite the narratives that sometimes accompanied them, never amounted to more than speculative thought-experiments whose primary purpose was to critique existing reality. In other words, they served a purely negative function. Only with the rise of certain chiliastic religious sects in the wake of the Protestant Reformation do we see the emergence of utopianism as a positive program to bring about the existence of a better world. This form of utopianism underwent a general process of secularization over the course of the Enlightenment and into the nineteenth century, absorbing liberal and radical influences along the way. By this time, entire movements had been founded upon the principle of realizing utopia. These movements, when they did not attempt to break away from existing society, often had ties to mass political movements, and sought to achieve their utopian visions either through legislative reform or revolutionary action. Of course, literary utopias were hardly rendered obsolete by these more activist strains of utopianism: they adapted comfortably to the form of the novel, drifting toward the fledgling genre of science fiction during the fin-de-siècle. Still, there was considerable overlap between the contents expressed by the newer literary utopias and concurrent utopian movements, as they often used the political ideologies of their day as the basis of their vision of a better world. It was not unusual that a major utopian author like H.G. Wells would belong to the Fabian society or that a prominent revolutionary figure like the Bolshevik Aleksandr Bogdanov would write a utopian science fiction novel.[8]

But the ideal societies depicted — either as fictional constructs in literary utopias or as realizable political goals for utopian social movements — likewise experienced a fundamental transformation around the turn of the century. In each case, thinkers began to reconsider the basic contours of utopia, to rethink the spatial dimensions it would inhabit. Whereas before utopias had occupied geographically isolable locations limited by definite spatial boundaries, the idea of a perfected society was now extended to encompass the entire globe. That is to say, all previous utopias had been envisioned as territorially self-enclosed. For Plato and Campanella a single polis had proved sufficient, for More and Bacon an island commonwealth. As late as the nineteenth century, the political formation of the nation-state, surrounded on all sides by established borders, had been enough to satisfy the conditions required for the utopias of Bellamy and Butler. Starting in the first decade of the twentieth century, however, this image of a localizable utopia no longer appeared adequate. Instead, utopia was reimagined on a global scale.

Similarly, the utopian social movements that had earlier in the nineteenth century aspired to break away from existing society now increasingly began to call for a global project of emancipation. While Fourier undoubtedly possessed an idea of “universal humanity” inherited from the Enlightenment and although Owen’s early philanthropy extended well beyond the British Isles, their followers were content to found ideal communities in isolation from the rest of modern society. These were the utopian socialists encountered by Marx and Engels.


“[The utopians] reject all political action,” the young authors continued, “particularly revolutionary action. They want to reach their goal by peaceful means and seek through the power of example to pave the way for the new social Gospel through small-scale experiments, which naturally fail.”[10] By the end of the nineteenth century, however, these criticisms were generally no longer applicable. The utopian currents which had before been so widespread had by this point largely been absorbed into the mainstream socialist and anarchist movements throughout Europe, both of which had a decidedly internationalist bent. The millennialist fervor that characterized so much of these groups’ revolutionary ambitions was carried over from earlier utopian impulses.

All three of these aspects of utopia hitherto discussed, the specific contents it prescribed, the different forms its expression took, and the scale on which it was imagined, can therefore be seen to have undergone a substantial change over time, especially during the nineteenth century. In this essay, I would like to suggest that the changes that took place during this period mirrored an underlying shift in the structure of society. This shift was in turn triggered by the arrival of an historically unprecedented social formation, one which first began to take shape in the sixteenth century in England,[11] which then matured in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and finally started to spread in earnest to the other nations of Europe in the nineteenth[12]: namely, the social formation corresponding to the capitalist mode of production. For while utopias written in precapitalist societies doubtless reflected the predominant economic relations of their given polity and the legal, political, and religious ideologies attached to them, these cannot be thought to have possessed any more than a local significance. The various social formations that existed prior to the commodification of labor under capitalism proceeded according to no inherently totalizing logic comparable to that of the latter. “[With capitalism, w]e are dealing with a new sort of interdependence, one that emerged historically in a slow, spontaneous, and contingent way,” explains Moishe Postone. “Once the social formation based upon this new form of interdependence became fully developed, however (which occurred when labor power itself became a commodity), it acquired a necessary and systematic character; it has increasingly undermined, incorporated, and superseded other social forms, while becoming global in scale.”[13] By the dawn of the twentieth century, capitalist relations had expanded to such an extent and its internal dynamic had developed to such a degree that it produced unmistakable changes in the constitution of utopia.

Moreover, utopian thought had in the meantime been mediated over the stretch of the nineteenth century by its interaction with other ideologies generated by the advent of capitalism. Foremost among these, it is here argued, was that of historic Marxism — not only that of the founders Marx and Engels themselves but also the parties that flew under their banner. The utopian social movements that existed before the revolutions of 1848 were now forced to confront damning criticisms provided by a theory that explicitly acknowledged its debts to their advances.[14] As a result, they found that their ideas had been either overcome or irrevocably altered by the appearance of this new form of revolutionary thought. Conversely, the numerous Marxist and anarchist currents that emerged out of the First International still held traces of the utopian tendencies that had initially served as one of their chief sources of inspiration. One of the difficulties posed by this paper, then, will be the comprehension of utopia’s encounter with (and partial sublation by) historic Marxism according to the categories laid out by Marx himself — the only categories the present author considers adequate to the analysis of capitalist society. This remains so despite the shortcomings of much traditional Marxism, regardless of its misapprehension of Marx’s later theory.

This study will hence be divided into two sections in order to clarify the relationship between capitalism and utopia. The first will explore the historicization of utopia, whereby the representation of a better world was removed from its position transcending space and time and transplanted into one which was immanently emerging out of historical conditions. Following this section, a second will investigate the globalization of utopia, in which the ideal societies imagined by thinkers and projected by activists began to assume planetary proportions. Throughout these sections there will be an attempt to ascertain the connection between Marxism and utopia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. From there, some concluding remarks can be offered based on the study’s results.

One of the defining features of premodern literary utopias is their ahistorical nature. By this is meant their absolute abstraction from any sense of historical process, wholly divorced from the laws of existing reality. Although they undoubtedly arose in response to a particular historical situation, in some sense the literary utopias written prior to the onset of mature capitalism stood outside of time and space. The rhetorical device relied upon to convey this was to set the depicted utopia at a great spatial distance from the author’s intended audience, even though it was said to exist in the present.


By removing utopia from the process of historical development (making it effectively static) and placing it “just over the horizon” (as an effective “nowhere” or oύ-τόπoς), utopia becomes something that is realizable anytime and anywhere.

By contrast, the early utopian movements displaced this spatial distance by remaking it into a distance in time: they instead oriented their activity toward the better future that they were seeking to bring about. Yet despite having this temporal dimension to their activity, these groups had no more a conception of history than the literary utopians, whose perfected societies were spatially remote. They viewed the new societies they were building as equally realizable in earlier times. In their understanding, it was purely fortuitous that they arrived when they did. For these utopians, the fact “[t]hat [a genius pointing the path to a more perfect future] has now arisen, that the truth has now been clearly understood, is not an inevitable event, following of necessity in the chain of historical development, but a mere happy accident,” as Engels explained. “He might just as well have been born 500 years earlier, and then have spared humanity 500 years of error, strife, and suffering.”[17]

The widespread appearance of utopian social movements at this time, of course, was not accidental. Aside from the Anabaptists and their celebrated leader in the German Reformation and Peasants’ War, Thomas Münzer,[18] nearly all the popular projects of utopian emancipation that have appeared in history date from the early nineteenth century, when Europe witnessed an explosion of groups whose goal was to radically transform society. Ernst Bloch explained the relative lull in utopianism (both literary and activist) during the intervening years as owing to the Enlightenment preoccupation with Natural Rights, which he distinguished from utopia as pertaining to the political and legal status of human beings rather than their social and economic standing.[19] Not until the expansion of a class that sold its labor as a commodity under the capitalist mode of production[20] did any utopian social movement of note appear on the scene. “Proper [utopian] socialist and communist systems, the systems of Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owen, etc., emerged in the first undeveloped period of struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie,” Marx and Engels pointed out.[21] And so, with the exception of the Anabaptist chiliasts, who represented “that class which was the forerunner…of the modern proletariat,” utopian social movements were inextricably bound up with the rise of the historical proletariat.[22] This fact alone attests to the connection between activist utopianism and capitalism.

That the utopian movements had developed an orientation toward the future was not insignificant, either. Even if they were lacking an understanding of themselves as the outcome of a broader historical process, at least their actions had acquired a directionality (however one-sided). The founders of these different sects, Engels recalled, left delightful “pictures of future society” to be realized by their followers in time.[23] What was it that allowed these figures to establish their utopian programs as projects for the future, whereas their literary predecessors had not?

For one, it was the increasing dynamism exhibited by the new form of society under which they were living, such that time-honored social institutions and traditional practices now visibly underwent a series of sudden and convulsive transformations. Longstanding social relations were often uprooted and replaced within the span of a single lifetime. Zygmunt Bauman thus rightly credited “[t]he considerable speeding up of social change” as a necessary condition for the creation of these utopian programs. This tendency, he added, “was duly reflected in the…novel sense of history as an endless chain of irreversible changes, with which the concept of progress — a development which brings change for the better — was not slow to join forces.”[24] The notion of progressive historical development was aided, moreover, by the ongoing technical revolutions taking place in the field of production. And so, despite the volatility involved in the rapid upheaval of older social forms, the memory that things had not so long ago been different granted to some the hope for a return to “simpler times,” while for others it held the promise of leading to a more perfect, as yet unseen social arrangement.

To offer the raw fact of the heightened social dynamism manifested during this period as an explanation for the futuristic outlook of early nineteenth-century utopianism, as Bauman does, is not enough, however. The latent source of this newfound dynamism must itself be ascertained.


For it is the category of value undergirding capitalist society that is the source of its dynamism; the dynamic character of value in the form of capital is built into its very concept. The dialectical tension which characterizes capital always exists in potentia as part of its logic, but begins to unfold more rapidly with the general stabilization of the workday and the increased stress placed upon the generation of relative surplus-value.[43] Since relative surplus-value demands that the technical and social basis of production be constantly revolutionized so that productivity can be increased, but at the same time the rate of surplus-value thereby gained begins to vanish as soon as these technical and organizational advances are generalized, there is an overall “speeding up” of the production process. These frequent, usually violent speedups give rise to what Postone has called the “treadmill effect” of capitalist production, involving a “dialectic of transformation and reconstitution".


Often the very groups whose stated goal was to “overcome” capital were prone to committing errors in their diagnosis of modern society, targeting inessential (though real) social antagonisms without ever penetrating to the core contradiction.

The early utopian movements, for their part, fell victim to this tendency. They mistook some of the passing symptoms of capitalism for its essence. Nourished by the firsthand experience that society was subject to transformation, they sought to pave the way for a future in which certain of the deleterious effects of modernity were eliminated. The utopian activists overlooked the fact that these effects were only the accidental byproducts of capitalist development.


The notion of utopia as a project to be actively realized in the future, however, is historically specific to capitalism. Utopian social movements, inasmuch as their existence was predicated on future-directed activity, only became possible early in the modern era.

It would thus seem that Mannheim was partially justified in writing that “in certain historical periods wish-fulfillment takes place through projection into time while in, others, it proceeds through projection into space,”[52] even though the two forms of projection often co-existed in the same period. Whether the remoteness of their utopias was conceived as spatial or temporal, however, the ideal societies imagined before the maturation of the capitalist social formation in the second half of the nineteenth century were all commonly ahistorical. Many of the literary utopias and utopian social projects produced after this point, by contrast, were rooted in a theory of history. What occurred between these periods, then, that allowed for the historicization of utopia?

The ultimate reason for the lack of an historical sensibility in earlier utopianism again lies in the structure of society as it existed at the time. Here, as before, it was the temporal dynamic inherent in the value-dimension of capital that made possible an historical consciousness on the part of society. For it was only with the further elaboration of the dialectic immanent to relative surplus-value that the concept of history as an unfolding progression of stages even became available. Postone explains: “Considered temporally, this intrinsic dynamic of capital, with its treadmill pattern, entails an ongoing directional movement of time, a ‘flow of history.’ In other words, the mode of concrete time we are examining can be considered historical time, as constituted in capitalist society.”[53]

Along with the consolidation of capitalism in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries arose the first premonitions of history as a series of distinct epochs, as seen in the writings of Vico and Hegel.


Marx and Engels opposed the idealists’ positive understanding of the present; they likewise opposed the utopians’ positive proposals for the future.[57] It would thus seem that they were only anti-utopian in a limited sense. As Adorno would later write, “Marx and Engels were enemies of Utopia for the sake of its realization.”[58] Bloch reiterated this point: “[I]t must be repeated that Marxism is not no anticipation (utopian function), but the Novum of a processive-concrete anticipation.”[59] The importance of process is apparent here. An understanding of the movement of history is necessary to recognize the conditions required to realize utopia. “Concrete utopia,” as Bloch called Marxism’s image of a better society, “is therefore concerned to understand the dream of its object exactly, a dream which lies in the historical trend itself. As a utopia mediated with process, it is concerned to deliver the forms and contents which have already developed in the womb of present society.”[60] Utopia, then, becomes “concrete” insofar as it is historicized, since historical time under capitalism is itself concrete.[61]

A utopian undercurrent therefore remained operative in Marx’s writings and in the Marxist political movements centered around them, no matter how sober and “scientific” they were purported to be. This utopianism had been thoroughly historicized, however, reflecting Marxism’s historical consciousness, which itself was tied to the recognition of a dynamic working within capitalism. Utopian goals were redefined in terms of a theory of history, by which they comprehended existing reality as an outcome of an ongoing process. From this perspective, they thus regarded the future as something that could be shaped in ways that were compatible with its movement.

All those who possessed utopian sentiments, Marxist and non-Marxist alike, had to face up to this historical critique, and accordingly, “the sense of historical determinateness [in socialism] displaced the other competing forms of utopia.”[62] Ahistorical utopian social movements, the fringe groups that sought to break away from existing society and realize utopia without regard for historical conditions, more or less disappeared midway through the nineteenth century. Most of the utopian energies that had been channeled into separatist groups were now reinvested into mass political movements, where they placed their hope in either reform or revolution of the existing society. Mannheim rightly noted that the anarchist and populist faith in the spontaneous revolutionary potential of “the people” stemmed from earlier chiliastic impulses.


Utopias written before the sudden expansion of capitalism in the late nineteenth century into regions of the world that had hitherto remained peripheral to it[69] depicted ideal societies that were uniformly localizable in terms of their spatial limits. The communities planned by the utopian movements before this time were, as noted previously, similarly limited in scope. The better “worlds” they imagined by both were in no sense worldwide. Around the turn of the century, however, their images of utopia expanded considerably, reflecting a new vision of global emancipation.

Northrop Frye noticed this trend in his essay on the “Varieties of Literary Utopias,” but misattributed its occurrence to the exponential growth of technology. This growth of technology was, of course, merely symptomatic of a more fundamental change. “[F]rom about 1850 on,” Frye wrote, “…technology tends to unify the whole world. The conception of an isolated utopia like that of a More or Plato or Bacon gradually evaporates in the face of this fact.”[70] Regarded as a proximate cause, technology was certainly a large factor in the globalization of utopia, especially when technology is understood to provide new means of communication and physical conveyance. H.G. Wells, the renowned utopian, in his minor 1902 treatise Anticipations also identified this as a primary impetus for the foundation of a world state: “[T]he essential process arising out of the growth of science and mechanism, and more particularly out of the still developing new facilities of locomotion and communication science has afforded, is the deliquescence of the social organizations of the past, and the synthesis of ampler…and more complicated…social unities.”[71] The ultimate cause for the rapid improvement of communicative and locomotive technologies during this time resided, in the final analysis, in a branch of industry essential to the circulation of capital. This branch, which is unique in the system of capitalist production in that it does not produce objective commodities, covers both “the transport industry proper, for moving commodities and people, and the transmission of mere information — letters, telegrams, etc.”[72]

Regardless of its true source, Wells saw the accelerated development of these new technologies of transportation and communication as having a major effect on the spatial dimensions of future society. “The suggestion is powerful, the conclusion is hard to resist,” he wrote, “that, through whatever disorders of danger and conflict, whatever centuries of misunderstanding and bloodshed men may still have to pass, this process nevertheless aims finally, and will attain to the establishment of one world-state at peace within itself.” In the next line, however, Wells discerned more closely its real origin: “In the economic sense, indeed, a world-state is already established.”[73] This was fully consonant with the effects entailed by further advancements in the field of transportation and communication. These technologies, which were already being revolutionized so as to expedite the circulation of capital, now reciprocally served to broaden the sphere of capitalist development in the world. For “[i]f the progress of capitalist production and the consequent development of the means of transport and communication shortens the circulation time for a given quantity of commodities,” wrote Marx, “the same progress and the opportunity provided by the development of the means of transport and communication conversely introduces the necessity of working for ever more distant markets, in a word, for the world market.”[74] The more substantial inroads capital thus made into its peripheral zones during the last few decades of the nineteenth century began to establish for the first time truly global social and economic ties of interdependence.


Premodern utopias, as Wells reminded his readers, were imagined on a much smaller scale. The societies they depicted usually mirrored the predominant modes of social and political organization of their day. Plato, writing at a time in which the city-state was the main political body for the Greeks, theorized an ideal republic in the form of a city-state. More, who lived on the mostly island kingdom of England during the age of exploration, fantasized about the island commonwealth of Utopia located somewhere in the New World. Bellamy, who wrote Looking Backward during the heyday of the nation-state, dreamt of a future socialist democracy, which, while drawing loosely upon Marxism, was confined to national boundaries.[76] Reviewing the history of utopian literature in his 1922 work, The Story of Utopias, Lewis Mumford commented on how unimaginable the ancient notion of the city-state seems to the modern mind. “Nowadays when we talk about a state we think of an expanse of territory…so broad that we should in most cases be unable to see all its boundaries if we rose five miles above the ground on a clear day,” he pointed out. “Even if the country is a little one, like the Netherlands or Belgium, it is likely to have possessions that are thousands of miles away; and we think of these distant possessions and of the homeland as part and parcel of the state.”[77]

With Wells, the vision was no longer of a city-state, dynastic state, or nation-state: it was of a world-state, as he called it. Yet no world-state existed at the time he was writing A Modern Utopia, nor has one existed since. From where, then, did Wells arrive at his idea of a world-state, of a global utopia? He already singled out economic and technological progress as an important source of this notion. This is indeed a promising line of inquiry. But there were other, more immediate sources of this vision, built upon the same premises of economic and technological development. Large political groupings, including international Marxism, were clamoring for an end to the jingoism and parochialism associated with the form of the nation-state. They contended that the spread of capitalist economic relations had rendered nationalism anachronistic.

In his article devoted to the subject, “Utopia, Nation-Building, and the Dissolution of the Nation-State around 1900,” Hans Ulrich Seeber argues that “[i]n the process of modernization normativity disappears, but the fact of economic globalization makes national structures increasingly superfluous. Worldwide modernization undermines the very national structures it created.”[78] Insofar as modernity is coterminous with capitalism, thus meaning that modernization is the same thing as capitalization, Seeber is correct. There is a socioeconomic basis to this process of “modernization” as he conceives it, of course: “Economic transactions are totally globalized and society has become an international one.”[79] What Marx and Engels had predicted had now come to pass: “In place of the old needs satisfied by home production we have new ones which demand the products of the most distant lands and climes for their satisfaction. In place of the old local and national self-sufficiency and isolation we have a universal commerce, a universal dependence of nations on one another.”[80]

Seeber notes that this newly globalized social order left its mark on the utopias imagined around this time.


Not only did the utopian imagination reflect these changes to the structure of society directly, but it also came to a consciousness of them through a critical interaction with the main ideologies of its age. One of the principal forms of thought it encountered, which engaged it the most readily, was historic Marxism. Though critical of earlier forms of utopianism, Marxist thought sublated the utopian energies that existed before it. The socialist idea, as Bloch called it,[103] was so captivating that in the minds of many it came to replace utopia entirely. “[A] kind of dedifferentiation,” notes Jameson, “begins to re-appear in the modern era which is registered in the conflation, from Bellamy onwards, of Utopia and socialism.”[104] Bauman expressed much the same sentiment when he wrote that “[s]ocialism has been, and to some extent still is, the utopia of the modem epoch".” (http://rosswolfe.wordpress.com/2010/08/25/the-transformation-of-utopia-under-capitalist-modernity/)

More Information

  1. History, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/28/the-meaning-of-utopia/