This educates the imagination, the sense of what could be. The education of the reader often occurs through a naive visitor to utopia. They provide a model for our enlightenment. Great attention is paid to the texture and feel of utopian life — the way people bring up their children, socialise, their philosophy of life. Utopias are often less a political programme than a taste of the pleasures and possibilities that history could hold.
He wanted the reader to long for the kind of socialist society he had described, rather than just think that it was a good idea in theory.
Utopias are about individuals feeling their way forward, without quite knowing how. They provide no credible plan of action, no way of getting between an imperfect present and perfect future. Hence the classic model of sailors coming across the utopian island: the perfect society is stumbled across, fully formed.
The City of the Sun ends with the mariner leaving to sail away. Their heads were reaching into the future, but their feet remained stuck in times that they were powerless to change. Campanella became involved in a rebellion against the Spanish viceroy, and spent years in prison being tortured. More became lord chancellor under Henry VIII and pursued non-conformists with a ferocity quite unlike the easy religious tolerance imagined in his utopia. Those who did try to put their plans into action soon ran aground.
The British industrialist Robert Owen spent his fortune setting up a utopian community in Indiana, but it soon collapsed. The highlands of Equatorial Africa exactly correspond to the picture drawn in the book. Within a year, Freeland societies formed with the aim of putting his plans into effect. An expedition even set out to equatorial Africa — but soon encountered difficulties and turned back, and the ideas of Freeland sank without trace.
In actual fact, their plans were a mixed bag, containing sheer crankiness alongside brilliant foresight. They concocted their new societies out of their own heads; it was a leap into the unknown that often went astray.
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Sometimes, utopias become just a field for airing personal proclivities. Fourier had some bizarre ideas about sexual passions, arguing that every adult should be guaranteed a minimum of sexual pleasure. Some utopias try to give substance to their vision by way of a deluge of details. Fourier drew up plans for uniforms and the colour scheme in nurseries. In addition, utopias often perfect some of least liberal ideas of their time.
Whatever their imperfections, though, utopias often anticipated and paved the way for the future. Bacon saw skyscrapers and planes; some years later, mankind made these a fact. Other utopias had more immediate effects. New Atlantis helped to inspire the formation of the British Royal Society. Over time, utopias tended to become less hazy daydreams and more something that people would fight to be realised.
For a start, there was a shift from utopias being set on a remote island to being set in the future. Then the visions became grander. And while More and Bacon imagined their utopian societies created by God or a benevolent legislator, later utopias imagined that they were created by people themselves.
The vision of the future was a practical problem to solve. If our utopias spring out of the realities of our environment, it will be easy enough to place foundations under them. There are perhaps times when utopias take things forward, and times when utopias are ways of escaping the challenges of practical politics. In Socialism: Utopian and Scientific , Engels outlined the development of socialism from utopianism to a science.
An approach that made some sense for Fourier became an avoidance strategy for many of his followers. We could certainly use a shot of the utopian impulse at present. Today the old political landmarks are gone, and people have little idea about how to go forward. There are broadly speaking two different types of modern utopian project: escapist utopias, and mystical utopias. Both seek a dreamy happy ending, while sidestepping the problems of political life today.
Escapist utopias : Some seek to build their utopias in isolation from the modern world. There is certainly a role for cooperation, taking time with one another, and working towards common ends. But these communities set up camp by cutting themselves off from everybody else. Moreover, they often spurn the technological innovations that have made our lives so much better, and which past utopians imagined pushing further still. Ducking out of modern life is no answer. While Wells and Bacon stretched forward to the future, it seems that some today want to retreat back to the caves.
Life is too easy in the utopia of escape, and too blankly perfect — there is nothing to sharpen your teeth upon. But the true utopian impulse is about unleashing human energies on an enormous scale: bursting off the fetters that have kept people down and out. Not sitting still, but ceaseless and joyous activity.
Mystical utopias : Others today approach utopianism as akin to a religious faith. Jacoby seems to be attracted to the Jewish tradition of utopia, devoting a large chunk of his book to theories such as that of the German philosopher Ernst Bloch.
Picture Imperfect - Russell Jacoby - Häftad () | Bokus
In the s, Bloch wrote a three-volume tome, The Principle of Hope , about how hope could be found everywhere from the Bible to cosmetic ads. There is an idea of the geist spirit , constantly moving and developing through history. They offered an imageless utopianism laced with passion and spirit.
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But perhaps Jacoby is letting himself off the hook by talking about utopian longings. We hear of it in parables and hints. It speaks to us, perhaps more urgently than ever. Cosmetics ads do indeed provide a glimpse of transcendence, but in fact only take this transcendence further away. Mystical utopianism could be an excuse for passivity, sitting back and waiting for the geist to do the work. But what could these possibilities be?
Twenty-four-hour nurseries, perhaps; the bullet train extended the world over; the six-hour day. The trouble, though, is that these could be pie-in-the-sky musings, given the political situation we have at present. Not only do we lack visions of the future: society spurns possibilities that lie within its grasp. Yet new technologies are often discussed in grave tones, as if they were more of a burden than a blessing. We also shy away from experimenting with new ways of organising society; we are warned against trying anything too new or too ambitious.
The organisation of the economy, for example, is off the political agenda — economic matters are decided by bureaucrats at the Bank of England and the Treasury, rather than being opened up to popular debate. Indeed, many see utopianism as positively dangerous.
As Jacoby argues, utopianism has dark associations, as if trying to improve things puts you on a slippery slope towards the death camps. This is a way of avoiding thinking about the future. Humility is deemed to be the virtuous way. People aim to show that they are aware of the impacts of their actions and are seeking to limit them as much as possible. Those who confess their vulnerability are seen as sensitive and virtuous human beings.
Some almost apologise for breathing, counting the units of carbon dioxide emitted and planting the requisite numbers of trees to make up for it. Unless we believe that a better world is possible and desirable, the writings of More and co will read merely as historical curiosities or cute fairytales.
So, first: the future could be much better than today. Even in the most developed countries, people still sell train tickets and paint walls and clean the toilets.
Whatever happened to automation? Second: it is human beings who will build that future. The meek will not inherit the Earth. We should embrace and develop our powers, not shy away from them. Unless we see reality shimmering with possibilities, it will hang heavy around our necks. The things around us will be a dull condition of existence, rather like the pen and hay provided to a farmyard animal. We need to start to see the world as something built by human beings, and resolve that we can build it much, much better for the twenty-first century and beyond. Download a copy here.
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