In horrific times like these one should not forget to have utopias ready as part of one’s intellectual tool box
Jelena Vidojević is a political scientist and the co-founder of the New South Institute
“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which humanity is always landing. And when humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of utopias.”
(Oscar Wild, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, 1891)
Over the last couple of decades, particularly since the global financial crash of 2008, capitalism has exhibited increased instability and susceptibility to crisis, beyond its usual occurrences. Its relationship with democracy has also become more delicate and fragile. The fundamental underpinnings of the post-war settlement appear to have been significantly shaken to the core.
The symptoms of crisis are numerous and often mutually reinforcing, they can be found, to varying extents, in both Global North and Global South countries. The Intensification of financial crisis, the continuous growth of “surplus populations” due to severe issues within the waged labour and informalisation of the labour market, political and social disorder, erosion of democratic institutions, ecological devastation, and frequent public health disasters, are among its most evident and widespread manifestations. The 1970s neoliberal revolution has given us dystopia, justified on the grounds that “there no alternative”. What we are witnessing today appears in hindsight, as a continuous process of gradual decay, protracted yet seemingly inexorable. Precarity became “the condition of our time”, while the promise of progress, or even maintaining the status quo can no longer be taken for granted. Among ordinary people there is a profound sense of helplessness and despair. There are compelling arguments, such as William Robinson’s, suggesting that the current crisis holds an “apocalyptic potential” and that we seem to be approaching a historic exhaustion of the conditions for capitalist renewal. In the face of wars in Europe and in the Middle East it is difficult to disagree.
Over the years, critiques of the neoliberalism have managed to produce a rich and sophisticated body of work that identifies and analyses the implications of the latest turn capitalism has taken. They have reached very similar conclusions regarding the devastating consequences it has brought about. Neoliberal reforms are rightly held responsible for a wide range of social and economic ills. They have weakened the welfare state, made societies more polarized and divided, and moreover, they have significantly diminished state capacity in general.
The “blueprints” for reforms, that emerged after the 1970s, but also in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crash, made little difference in preventing further decay. They were (more or less) uniform across various contexts, leading to political and institutional regression. Responses have been overly particularistic, uncoordinated, ad hoc, and mechanistic, contributing further to the growing disorder. This trend is observable in both the countries of the Global North and those occupying a peripheral position in the world system. As James Ferguson (The Uses of Neoliberalism, 2010) astutely argues, critical accounts of neoliberalism have settled into a politics of denunciation, “the politics of the anti-“, wherein political identities are constituted or consolidated not by concrete programs of governance or public policies, but by mere opposition. We see this deadly logic at work in the recent pogrom by Hamas on and in Israel. It is difficult to see how such violence expresses anything more than nihilism. Equally disconcerting is the lack of enthusiasm and/or effort when attempting to answer the question in what kind of society we do want to live, and how to build a genuinely progressive institutions that will be able to address the challenges of our time.
The urgency to counter pervasive dystopian fears that the current polycrisis has given rise to, has never been greater. Historically, moments of profound political and economic uncertainty, when “order of things is unsettled”, often sparked social dreaming, and envisioning of utopias – a vision of a different and better future, a world in which we do want to live. It seems that what we need is a revival of utopian thinking.
Our collective political imagination must transcend the existing conceptual frameworks that no longer offer sustainable solutions. Surprisingly, solutions to some of the challenges we are facing are within our reach, but only if we manage to overcome the “blind spots” that hinder us from clearly seeing what is already here. Also, looking backward can inspire us to look forward. When we lose sight of the past, we also lose sight of the idea that there were alternative pathways forward, other roads not taken. This loss leads us to perceive our present reality as static and inflexible, akin to a rigid determination. All this should become a part of our thinking about the desirable future. The concept of utopia can assists us (maybe even guide us) in charting paths forward, granting us the courage, curiosity, and conviction to experiment with new and improved methods of organising not only public sphere but also our private lives.
In her latest book, “Everyday Utopia”, K. Ghodsee revisits the social dreams of earlier utopian thinkers formulated in various historical and cultural contexts, and explores various examples of how their ideas were adapted in the real world. This exploration aims to encourage creative thinking about how we can raise and educate our kids, how we define and manage our personal relationships with material possessions, as well as our connections to friends, family and partners. Moreover, Ghodsee suggests that these concepts can be translated into a set of public policies contributing to the creation of more cohesive and harmonious societies. This kind of thought experiments can be extremely helpful. Erik Olin Wright’s remarkable contribution within The Real Utopias Project, represents another invaluable source of information.
For utopias to fulfil an empowering and inspiring role, they must be grounded in the genuine potential for redefining and redesigning core institutions and institutional structures. Grounded utopian thinking offers a way through and past and the nihilism of much contemporary politics.