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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]

Discussion 1

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/)

The consequences of a lack of Utopia

Arran Gare:

"What we are experiencing is a world in which the utopian element of culture has been eliminated.

Karl Mannheim through his historical research observed in Ideology and Utopia (1959, 253 & 262), initially published in German in 1929, predicted the effects of this:

- Whenever the utopia disappears, history ceases to be a process leading to an ultimate end. The frame of reference according to which we evaluate facts vanishes and we are left with a series of events all equal as far as their inner significance is concerned. The concept of historical time which led to qualitatively different epochs disappears, and history becomes more and more like undifferentiated space. All those elements of thought which are rooted in utopias are now viewed from a sceptical relativist point of view. ... [T]he complete elimination of reality-transcending elements from our world would lead us to a "matter-of-factness" which ultimately would mean the decay of the human will. Herein lies the most essential difference between these two types of reality-transcendence : whereas the decline of ideology represents a crisis only for certain strata, and the objectivity which comes from the unmasking of ideologies always takes the form of self-clarification for society as a whole, the complete disappearance of the utopian element from human thought and action would mean that human nature and human development would take on a totally new character. The disappearance of utopia brings about a static state of affairs in which man himself becomes no more than a thing. We would be faced then with the greatest paradox imaginable, namely, that man, who has achieved the highest degree of rational mastery of existence, left without any ideals, becomes a mere creature of impulses.

These predictions have been realized with the postmodern condition, with the depoliticization of young people and deconstructive postmodernists celebrating fragmentation and intellectual incoherence as liberating. These postmodernists have been followed by posthumanists who portray humans as nothing but information processing cyborgs, not essentially different from artificially created cyborgs which, with the advance of AI technology, are destined to supersede humanity (Gare, 2021). Jacoby summed up the response of intellectuals to this in chapter four of his book, The End of Utopia: ‘Intellectuals: From Utopia to Myopia’."


Discussion 2

A Metamodern Critique of Utopia

Hanzi Freinacht:

"Even long before Thomas More’s coinage of the term “utopia” through the 1516 “social-science-fiction” novel with that word as its title, utopias (by whatever name these dreams may have taken) have exerted an influence on the sociological imagination of people around the world: how could society be different than it is? Not just different. Radically, dramatically, breathtakingly different, for the better — in a manner that breaks out of the confines of ordinary existence and into the tremendous, that which lets the spirit soar?

“Utopia” was an astute play-on-words, a literary sleight-of-hand on More’s side: The word translates to “no place”. The perfect land of yonder was nowhere to be found. No doubt, More must have been inspired by the European “discovery” of America about two decades earlier: If there are indeed faraway lands on shores so different — could there be, under the sun, genuinely other ways of life, even of large-scale, urbanized life? Ways of life that would seem worthy of the human spirit and not just another grim parody of a society’s own values and goals?

* Utopia: The farther away, the closer you get

We all have an inherent tendency to believe that great changes in ourselves, our archetypal “hero’s journey” of inner transformation, requires us not to look under the nearest rock or in the neighboring village, but travel to a faraway shore— be it the Far East, the vestiges of a glorious past, the rollercoasters of psychedelic weirdness, or mind-bending koans in the shape of quantum mechanical equations — for the transformation to occur in full and earnest.

We tend to believe that a more profound transformation requires a proportionally longer stretch of travel (and, of course, then “outer space is the final frontier”). By the same logic, More places his land of sociological perfection, Utopia, at the farthest reaches of the known world, so far away that it practically becomes “nowhere”. To be perfect is to be far away.

It’s not unlike women in early fantasy writers like J.R.R. Tolkien: the feminine appears as mysterious, pure, distant, ephemeral, light, and beautiful creatures, barely real at all but all the more wonderous for it. In writers on the other side of the spectrum, like Charles Bukowski (who probably met with a lot more women than Tolkien but perhaps under less emotionally nourishing circumstances), the feminine is flawed, dirty, horny, oscillating between the alluring and the repugnant, and always all-too-human.

No utopian dream is possible without distance: In film and literature, fantasy and social realism are each other’s opposites. Distance and utopia depend upon one another. Utopian projects all attempt the impossible: to place fantasy at the heart of the grueling complexities of an admittedly social-realist life, revolutionizing it by magically imbued technology, by fate or by faith, by revealing some kind of secret passage from the “ordinary world” of actual reality to the extraordinary realms of potentiality… Or — at the very least — enchanting an otherwise disappointing life with the sense of clarity and hope of what is, after all, truly possible.

In fact, Utopian dreams paradoxically seem to gain momentum from moments of social realism. From the plight of workers and peasants in destabilized and backward Romanov Russia, to the sparks of the fever-pitched communist frenzy of the Khmers Rouges as the guerillas were stuck starving, sweating, and malaria-stricken in the jungle, to the popularity of millenarian and Age of Aquarius messages among the discontents of today’s globalization — a harsh here-and-now has been fertile soil for a wonderous yonder-and-tomorrow.

Likewise, More’s Utopia would likely never have been written, had not the author found the institutions of his own day and age lacking. Again, Utopia comes alive because of our distance to it — of course, combined with the insight that the world is changing, which grants sense of possibility, an untapped keg of potential.

Such change can be circular (“after this Iron Age we shall enter a new Golden Age”) as is the case on the far-right political spectrum, or it can be one of progression into the unprecedented (“something will arrive after capitalism, something more worthy and humane!”), such as on the Left of the political imagination.

The nowhereland of Utopia thus grows from the very-here-and-now-land of “my life bloody sucks and yours probably does, too”. Through the suffering and belittlement of everyday life, there is, of sorts, a baptism of fire — one that leaves a pure but hardened kernel in the human soul: Life can be different; it must be. The current status quo is barbaric; viewed from a future vantage point, it would be criminal. It must be brought to an end — even if the path to toppling it is dangerous. And since society is changing, since it is going somewhere, the road seems to lead away from here and into the realm of what’s possible. The misery of here-and-now is a pointer towards the glory of yonder, of the future.

* Utopia: Off with their heads!

Perhaps More never meant for his Utopia to be more than a parody-by-reversal of his Renaissance or Early Modern England — a looking glass through which the imperfections and unenlightened practices and norms of his society became apparent. Likely, More himself intended for the distance to be kept; his tone is hardly one of a fiery revolutionary. But already in his days, Protestant leaders were fanning the flames of peasant revolts against all authority on the European continent.

The longing for and premonition of Utopia seem to propel the human spirit to more than More’s wry commentary and critique of social irrationalities and injustices: these motives behoove us to dream, to create, to experiment, to rebel, to subvert, to start anew — but also to risk our lives… and those of others: to kill, to search and destroy.

Beyond More’s spirited novel Utopia, there are the real utopias; serious, entirely unironic attempts to defeat the mundane world we know and to somehow conclusively transcend it once and for all. At once unimaginably bold and vain, such intentions have animated humans in their worst and finest hours, often both at once. Oh, wet communist dreams of a just society! Oh, the elevated spirit of Rousseau, who first noticed that modern life needn’t be this way — that another world is possible! And this Enlightenment thinker was read religiously by the Jacobins of the French Revolution, the architects of The Terror.

The modern ideology of conservatism grew as a direct response in early 19th century Europe to the French Revolution and the utopian dreams of the time. The conservative mind points out — and really has a point in doing so — that all societies have grown organically and not according to schemes, never entirely according to the plan of an architect. Anarchists have their own way of saying something similar: If the project is to recreate society in the mental image of a few visionaries or leaders, it always leads to disaster. Our postcolonial heritage around the world is a case in point — certain plans of new societies and social orders have been pressed upon the world by Europeans, in turn destroying entire cultures.

Utopias have been based on spiritual premonitions gleaned from our peak moments and epiphanies, on rational calculations of what would make sense and should reasonably be within the realm of possibility — and sometimes Utopia is born at the strange crossroads between the religious and the rational: spirit and mind, magic and science, faith and social engineering. Utopian societies set up by Europeans in America always gathered around certain religious denominations — projects that to this day define American culture and its heritage in the birthing planetary culture of our day. Since Antiquity, hermetic and gnostic traditions have mingled with the sense of wonder that technology brings — the mystical with the rational, the ghost in the machine, what Erik Davies called the “trickster of technology” has beckoned us towards Utopia. In today’s world, this technologically mediated hope for a drastic transformation takes forms such as fully automated luxury communism and other visions of post-scarcity, the singularity, transhumanism, and the techno-libertarianism of hackers.

When utopian projects have been acted upon in reality, in real, historical, societies, they have inevitably collapsed — if not destroying their entire populations, at the very least ruining the institutions of society and causing great harm.

Perhaps most importantly — and I am far from alone in pointing this out — this is due to the static nature of Utopian visions: a destination describing how things should be arranged in society. Even more perniciously, there are societies — from socialist people’s republics to downright delirious cults — who declare themselves to be so well on the path to Utopia that they in practice already are the Utopian society; and hence, “nothing can be wrong with it”. But naturally— there is always trouble in paradise. And every such trouble must then be explained away with some exception (because, by definition, this already is the perfect society, right?): class enemies, contra-revolutionaries, traitors, unbelievers in our midst, dark cabals, conspiracies against the public! And what do you do with those? The Queen of Hearts has the answer.

So you can’t have Utopia without “the deject”. The stuff you’re getting rid of. The stuff you’re “throwing away” (that’s what the word “deject” implies). The more light, clear, and fever-pitched the Utopian dream, the darker and more abominable the deject seems to the Utopian mind — and the more murderous an undercurrent comes with it.

* Utopia: It’s weaved into every modern person’s mind, ever

And this brings me back to the idea of Modernity and its inherent connection to Utopia. Modernity is, fundamentally, as I argue in my upcoming book The 6 Hidden Patterns of History, the principle of triangulation: comparing your viewpoint to mine, we can either verify or falsify my claims. This principle originates (pre-conceptually) in the arts of the Renaissance in Northern Italy of the fifteenth century: the arrival of mathematical correct perspective in paintings and illustrations. Here, the natural universe is torn away from the social or cultural world: The king is going to be smaller if he is “farther away” in the painting, even if he happens to be socially more important than other characters in the painting. Everything — and everyone — is placed within a 3D space with one disappearing point at the center of the painting.

Now, what I mean is that — in the mind of its followers and enactors — “Utopia” is such a “point towards which everything else seems to point”. Everything, including the picture of the here-and-now, is situated in space in relation to this point at an infinite or unknowable distance. The structure of the Modern mind itself thus implies some kind of Utopia, some kind of end-point, always present in the worldview itself— albeit one always disappearing into the distance.

Interestingly enough, then, even conservatives and anarchists — who are nominally critics of grad schemes — formulate utopias, as these ideologies are also spawns of Modernity. The conservative formulates the utopia of progress according to society’s already existing institutions (libertarians like Johan Norberg and centrists like Steven Pinker also represent similar views in today’s public debate), and anarchists formulate how people could collaborate their way into a society that is kindlier, more just, working in accordance to the shared will (and goodwill) of the many.

All said and done — Utopia is bound up with modernity itself. As long as the modern project exists, Utopia will keep beckoning, in spiritual, secular, or tech-spiritual forms.

But the modern project, of course, does not lead to Utopia. It’s a mirage. One that has been very understandable and perhaps historically necessary, but an illusion in the distance, no less. Rather, modernity with its “progress narrative” leads to its own demise — to civilizational collapse — due to inherent systemic limitations we shall refrain from discussing here. The striving towards Utopia only accelerates that process of decay.

A static vision of the future, of society perfected, cannot materialize. And the Modern mind, by its very way of structuring reality, drives towards this impossibility. Bold and adventurous as this striving is, it can only lead to collapse. Utopia always was, and always will be, a failure — a road to hell paved with good intentions, as the saying goes."


The failure to revive Utopian Thinking after Marxism

Arran Gare:

"Ernst Bloch, who sought to explain the failure of Communists in Germany in competition with Naziism in the 1920s and 30s, and by the post-Marxist, Cornelius Castoriadis, who grappled with the failure of Marxism in France after WWII.

Bloch (2000) focused on the importance of inspiring hope, which the Communists had not provided. He argued for an ontology of not-yet-being, reintroducing openness to the future. The task for political action is to grasp what was in process of becoming, thereby to unearth in the heart of actuality a striving towards potentiality.

Castoriadis focussed on the role of social imaginary as the foundation of all institutions and the importance of the radical imagination for questioning, taking responsibility for and transforming these institutions. His concern was to free us from the social imaginary of gaining total technological control of the world and to revive the social imaginary of gaining autonomy.

Consistent with Bloch and Castoriadis, and perhaps a more fruitful examination of utopian thinking, has been provided by the work of Paul Ricoeur (Adams, 2017). In his Lectures on Ideology and Utopia (1986), Ricoeur examined the current cultural crisis associated with the absence of a utopian element in culture. As with Castoriadis, Ricoeur argued that every society has a social-political imaginary. Ideology, he argued, is the sedimented meanings of this social imaginary. It affirms society in its identity. However, a utopian element in this imaginary is also necessary.

As George Taylor, who edited the English translation of this work, summed up Ricoeur’s conclusion:

- The utopia puts in question what presently exists. ... We are forced to experience the contingency of the social order. The utopia is not only a dream, though, for it is a dream that wants to be realized. ... A society without utopia would be dead, because it would no longer have any project, and prospective goals.’ (p.xxi)

For it to function as a project, it is necessary to provide intermediary steps leading from the past to the envisaged future. This is now lacking. As Ricoeur observed in dialogue with Richard Kearney, (1984: 30):The problem today is that apparent impossibility of unifying world politics, of mediating between the polycentricity of our everyday political practice and the utopian horizon of a universally liberated humanity ... [W]e are without paths to utopia. This work was undertaken by Ricoeur as part of his general research on imagination. In a series of books, Ricoeur undertook major studies of symbolism, metaphors and narratives. Each of these is required to imagine effective utopias. Symbols, associate with words, inspire people. Metaphors, associated with sentences, are required to radically reconceive the world and our place within it. Producing narratives is required to reflect upon and re-plot the inchoate narratives we are living out that prefigure the narratives we are configuring (Ricoeur, 1984). These inchoate narratives are the narratives we have been socialised into and through which we link our present with the past and the future, and which enable us to understand the narratives we construct and recount. Unless utopian images of the future are related to ideals of the past embodied in these inchoate narratives, they will not inspire or genuinely engage people. Recovering these inchoate narratives in new emplotments, refiguring them to face up to current circumstances and then refiguring our lives accordingly, enables us to liberate ‘the unfulfilled future of the past.’ (Ricoeur, 1996, 8).

As Ricoeur elaborated:

- It is principally the founding events of a historical community which should be submitted to this critical reading in order to release the burden of expectation that the subsequent course of its history carried and then betrayed. The past is a cemetery of promises which have not been kept. It is a matter of bringing them back to life like the dry bones of the valley described in the prophecy of Ezekiel (Ch.37). (p.8f.)

Ricoeur has not had much impact on political culture, however. As Peter Thompson (2013: 1-20), suggested, utopia has not been totally eliminated from people’s thinking, but it has been privatized. Why should hope have been privatized? The privatization of hope conforms to a pattern of modern culture in which science is taken to explain the objective world, and all that is left beyond this is subjective experience. The objective world grasped through mathematics and science in order to make predictions, is nothing but a world of mechanisms devoid of meaning, and the subjective world is an inexplicable intrusion into thismeaningless world. It is another manifestation of Cartesian dualism, which afflicted orthodox Marxism with its base/superstructure model of society, strongly influenced by classical economics, and its denigration of the significance of the superstructure except as a product and instrument of the base. It is assumed more straightforwardly in neo-classical economic theory where the only value is the subjective experience of individuals, expressed in what they choose to sell or purchase. In opposition to scientism, Idealists defended symbols, metaphors and narratives, privileging Spirit over Nature and upholding the primacy reality of communities. However, Idealism blinded people to their place in nature and became implausible with the advance of evolutionary theory in which humans were seen as nothing but the gene machines which have won out in the struggle for survival. Against the background of these Cartesian assumptions, including the mechanistic view of nature, the power of symbols, metaphors and narratives were neutralized. History was debunked, then incorporated into public relations and advertising with complete cynicism towards the quest for historical truth. This dismissal of historical truth was parodied by George Orwell in 1984. Going beyond Orwell, Aldous Huxley in his dystopian novel Brave New World portrayed a society that had accepted Henry Ford’s claim that history is bunk. As Melanie Klein has shown in No Logo (1990), fake histories presenting ways of life to be bought have now been incorporated into advertising, selling high-consuming ways of living as the only end worth striving for. This devaluing or corruption of symbols, metaphors and narratives is manifest in the collapse of the humanities in the new, transnational business corporation model of universities where to survive, cultural studies departments have embraced their role as components ofthe entertainment or advertising industries. In the clash of the two cultures described by C.P. Snow, the arts and humanities have been resoundingly defeated. The very idea of a utopia as defended by Bloch, Castoriadis and Ricoeur, is no longer taken seriously.'


More Information

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

See also for the related terms of:

  1. Eutopia
  2. Protopia