“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp
Or what’s a heaven for?” Robert Browning
For many, we live in a time of despair. We are cooking the planet and ourselves. Most of us get it and yet the greenhouse gasses keep being poured into the atmosphere despite all the fine promises of politicians. Democracy is in crisis as governments of all stripes follow the neoliberal economic game plan, ignoring the wishes of the people, both at the ballot box and on the street. Workers are becoming more and more isolated as union numbers drop and income disparity goes up. The prospects of young people having good jobs with benefits are actually less than for their parents. Monsanto and Big Pharma play around with genes and drugs without proper oversight and public accountability. Is it any wonder that there are so many dystopian novels being published, from Margaret Atwood’s ‘Maddaddam Trilogy’ to Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’, not to mention all the young adult series, set in future dystopias, that have inundated bookstores and movie theatres? Art is reflecting our forebodings and fears.
So why would anyone indulge in utopian thinking in times like these? Isn’t it frivolous to engage in fantasizing about a time and place that is impossible when there are so many urgent problems facing us here and now? Actually in times like these it is even more important for people, for communities, to think about the kind of world they want, to come together and discuss their best possible worlds. There are a number of reasons for this.
One is that it is we have to remember to hope. Not as a tenet of faith or with eyes wide shut. On the contrary, our eyes need to be open very wide. In my union’s training for organizers we used the principle: ‘anger, hope, action.’ This meant that first people had to be aware and angry about their situation, the next step was that we had to give them hope that there was a way forward, a way to rectify their situation, and then be able, with them, to develop a course of action, to come up with a plan. There is a huge difference between organizing one little workplace and solving all the world’s problems but the principle still holds true.
Another reason is provided by an article written by Bertall Ollman in The Monthly Review: “Speculating about the future …unrestrained by any analysis of the present can be a very liberating experience. By this I mean it not only feels good but can help some individuals break out of an unthinking acceptance of the status quo just by showing that there is something else, if only in our imagination.”
A third reason is that we often cannot see the forest for the trees. We get so bogged down in relatively meaningless minutiae or run from one crisis to the next because we lack a vision of what we want and how it fits into and relates to the whole. A clear vision of a healthy, happy, and harmonious world would give us hope.
Mark Kingwell in his book, ‘The World We Want’ elaborates “Utopias do not exist – that is precisely their function. They are not blueprints for political reality but expressions of unreal possibility, meant to arouse hope and focus action. Imaginative disruptions in the smooth functioning of political thinking, they are the rude intrusions of wishes or fantasies into the otherwise normal course of business as usual, the otherwise unbroken course of deciding who gets what within the existing rules. In this sense, utopian thinking finally takes seriously the deep meaning of that ordinarily cynical definition of politics as the ‘art of the possible’.”
William Morris, the founder of the Arts and Craft movement was one of the most influential proponents of utopian socialism in his time. His book ‘News from Nowhere’ (1890) spelled out his vision of the New Jerusalem. But let Leon Rosselson in his song ‘Bringing the News from Nowhere’ tell you more about Morris:
“When our desires are free he said we will need no schools or prisons
No Parliaments or leaders to coerce with their laws
No property or money to raise false divisions
And there may be an end to the endlessness of wars
And there will be sharing and work will be a pleasure
When things we make are born out of beauty and of need
In a world made whole we can all be creators
Not winners or losers in the game of Grab and Greed.”
Utopias have fallen in and out of favour over the past 100 years or so. In BC, Finnish settlers set up the community of Sointula on Malcolm Island in 1901 based on utopian socialist principles. Some other colonies were based on religious ideals. In the 1960’s and 1970’s young people began both rural and urban communes expressing a desire to live more in harmony with the Earth and with other humans. They wanted to create little utopias whether it was in a big old house in Kitsilano or on a few acres in the Kootenays.
Some were more successful than others but eventually all ‘failed’ after a few years. They didn’t endure for a whole variety of reasons. Exploring those reasons would take another whole column. I put ‘failed’ in quotes though because in some ways they didn’t fail. One school of thought about social change says that in order to have a smoother transition to a post-revolutionary stage we need to have models of institutions of how we would live in that new world. These experiments in alternative living have left us a rich legacy that we should be examining more closely.
In addition to researching the history of utopias and the philosophy underpinning them, it would be a useful exercise for people interested in changing our society to sit down and indulge in some “wishful thinking”. We are selling human potential so short; we as a species could accomplish so much. We could solve all the problems mentioned in my opening paragraph. Utopias aren’t like heaven though, it isn’t as simple as dying and “poof” you enter the Pearly Gates. Utopias are imagined by human hands and minds. New societies are built by those same hands and minds.