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The Revival of Utopian Literature

Mischa Snaije By Mischa Snaije Published on October 19, 2017

These days, a lot of us are experiencing feelings of intense disillusionment, impotence, and downright hopelessness. For the first time in history, people overwhelmingly believe that their children will be worse off than they are. It’s a shockingly ubiquitous pessimism. We witness every day the inability of our political leaders to produce the radical changes we so desperately need. Stranded between a dehumanizing neoliberalism and the authoritarian alternative (led by Putin, Erdogan and the likes), it feels as though we are at an ideological dead end, what Francis Fukuyama called the “End of History”.

The urge to disengage and escape is an understandable response to this predicament. But it would be shortsighted to conclude that we have lost the ability to generate new ideas to better society. In recent years, there has been a flurry of non-fiction books outlining bold new visions for the world of tomorrow. These books share a distinctly utopian flavor, daring us to imagine a society in which everyone is guaranteed the means to subsist, the freedom to travel anywhere, and abundant time to pursue meaningful activities.


What We Have Achieved

The “neo-utopian” literature often starts with a sobering reminder of how far we have already come in alleviating human suffering. In 1820, 84% of people lived in absolute poverty, versus a mere 10% today. No matter how you look at it, the dovetailing of industrialism and capitalism has lifted billions of people out of poverty, and has made possible technology straight out of science fiction.

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The Dutch polymath Rutger Bregman starts Utopia for Realists with the story of the medieval utopia Cockaigne, a “Land of Plenty” in which "rivers ran with wine, roast geese flew overhead, pancakes grew on trees, and hot pies and pastries rained from the skies.” He points out that if the author of Cockaigne could see Western societies today, with 24/7 fast food, climate control, and endless entertainment, he would think he reached his Eden. Bregman’s intention is not to toot the horn of the “neo-liberal system”, but rather to remind us of the undeniable achievements it has allowed.

David Mitchell puts it best in the Peep Show: 

“It's only the miracle of consumer capitalism that means you're not lying in your own shit, dying at 43 with rotten teeth.”

Perhaps its time to give up on the anarchist fantasy of ‘burning it all down’, and start thinking about how our current systems can be reformed for the better.


The Bleak Paradise

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All the books I have encountered start with a basic premise: our society is in a rut, a kind of collective, dreamless coma. The Internet, which once promised to unite humanity, is turning us into bitter, predictable units to be watched over by Big Brother. And we are constantly confronted with the costs of our gluttonous consumerism: climate change, obesity, crippling debt… Bregman calls the developed world today a “Bleak Paradise”, in which its inhabitants can satisfy any earthly desire with a few clicks, but lack “a reason to get out of bed”. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future gives us statistics that perfectly capture this oxymoron: globally, you are today more likely to commit suicide than die in a conflict, and obesity has become a bigger health problem than hunger. The real crisis today seems to be that Western societies have already fulfilled the material utopias of the past, and are unable to come up with anything better.

Capitalism may have made Cockaigne a reality for many people, but it has utterly failed as a utopian vision for society. Putting our trust in the Free Market has created more inequalities than ever before, and has given us a morally bankrupt society in which cash is the only good, and humans are unsurprisingly treated as products to be sold. We are witnessing a mass exodus from parties representing the neo-liberal status quo, towards fringe parties that are proposing alternative visions for society.


The Horizon of Possibilities

Because of our collective failure to produce new utopias, history seems poised to repeat itself in a sickening heave. Comparisons to the political polarization of the 1930s are not such a stretch these days. The far-Right has successfully appropriated radicalism, twisting it into a perverse utopia of an ethnically pure, isolationist world. The Left has become bogged down in identity politics, often discussed in cryptic language that comes across as annoyingly sanctimonious. But more importantly, they have no story to tell, no grand narrative that everyone can get on board with.

Neo-Utopian authors all agree that we need to produce new utopias that are accessible to all, and we need political leaders to implement them. In Futurability, Franco Berardi theorizes that the path to new utopias starts with the realization that alternate systems already exist, merely obscured by the current power structures. Some of these ideas, lying dormant on the fringes of ideas, are gaining considerable traction in the current discourse on utopias. The two that have most captured the social imaginary are the 4-Hour Work Week, and Universal Basic Income.


The 4-Hour Work Week

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Like most utopian ideas, this one is not new. Already in the 1930s, British Economist John Maynard Keynes predicted a future in which machines would take care of most tasks, leaving us free to enjoy lives of leisure and meaningful work. In his bestselling book The 4-Hour Work Week, Tim Ferriss puts forth the attractive notion that with the right information, and proper planning, this utopian ideal of a drastically shorter work week is achievable within our lifetimes.

Ferris spends the first part of the book systematically deconstructing the basic assumptions we hold about work. He starts off by echoing David Graeber’s famous insight that in today’s knowledge economy, most jobs are entirely bullshit, reducing us to a “tolerable and comfortable existence doing something unfulfilling”. He argues that even the “deferred dream of retirement” is premised on the notion that people are just grinding for decades through boring jobs, waiting for their liberation from the shackles of work.

For Ferriss, work need not be alienating or all-consuming. The advice he dispenses is centered on achieving three things: passive income, mobility and leisure time. Some of his tips are highly practical, such as using a batch system for responding to mails, or arguments for convincing your manager to value your productivity over your presence. One that I have personally espoused is cultivating what he calls “selective ignorance”, which entails cutting out news from one’s life, thereby saving on both time and needless anxiety.

The merit of The 4-Hour Work Week, and the reason for its widespread success outside of the Silicon Valley bubble, is that it can be adapted to different circumstances. A lot of non-fiction books in this genre are aimed at young, educated people who can quit their jobs and travel the world. But Tim Ferriss avoids this pitfall, by providing tools that can be applied to varying degrees, including within the framework of a 9-5 office job. Often, they entail more of a broad shift in attitude, such as letting go of the ingrained idea that wanting to work less is a form of laziness. Overall, The 4-Hour Work Week does what a good Utopian blueprint should do: rather than offering rigid rules for a privileged audience, it offers flexible guidelines designed to help anyone achieve a more fulfilling work life.


Universal Basic Income

Universal Basic Income (UBI) is perhaps the trendiest utopian idea currently on the market. UBI is the idea that governments should pay all citizens, whether employed or not, an unconditional sum of money every month that covers their basic needs. In short, it would be free money, with no strings attached, and none of the stigma that comes from being on welfare. Politicians have started embracing it as a campaign promise in recent elections, and pilot projects in Canada and Finland have thrust it into the limelight.

The interest in UBI stems party from the increasingly alarmist rhetoric surrounding the impacts of automation on the labor market: recent studies estimate that machines and AI software could take over 50% of jobs in the coming decades, mostly from low-skilled workers. In this light, UBI would be a welcome safety net for people whose jobs could be replaced by machines, and has been endorsed by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk

In Inventing the Future, Srnicek and Williams argue that attempting to protect jobs from automation would be a losing battle. Instead of fighting this trend, “the replacement of human labour should be enthusiastically accelerated as a political project of the left”, with UBI as a safety net. But the idea has also received support from some libertarians, who UBI as having the potential to replace the welfare state.

At first sight, UBI seems too good to be true. Our more conservative instincts might also warn us against the potential pitfalls of UBI: surely, giving free money to everyone would remove any incentives to work? And wouldn’t such a scheme be hugely expensive? In Chapter 2 of Utopia for Realists, aptly titled “Why We Should Give Free Money to Everyone”, Bregman debunks all these objections. He quotes a number of studies that disprove the idea that people stop working when they receive free handouts. And he convincingly shows that although a UBI scheme would require a significant investment from taxpayers, it would eventually pay for itself through savings made on welfare state, health issues connected with unemployment, and the innovations that a more flexible labour market would enable.

UBI tends to attract polarizing responses, usually of a speculative nature since the data available cannot yet tell us what impacts it has on productivity, wellbeing, or the labor market. The Finnish experiment has been criticized for being too small to be significant, and targeting only unemployed people. A referendum in Switzerland last year defeated the adoption of a UBI scheme, so we are still far away from knowing what it would look like on a national scale. But every month, the idea becomes more entrenched in the public discourse, and new pilot projects are popping up everywhere to measure its effectiveness. Only time will tell whether it will be the utopian policy that authors like Bregman or Srnicek claim it could be.


Reclaiming Utopias

Ideas like a 4-hour work week or a UBI are easily dismissed as being unrealistic fantasies, out of touch from the realities of politics. But it is important to remember that ideas that seemed utopian at the time, like the abolishment of slavery or women’s right to vote, were proven right by history. Dismissing an idea on the grounds of its utopian nature can also be a form of censorship: by calling an idea utopian, you are trying to silence it.

It’s also important to keep in mind that utopias are malleable things, which can easily take on a life of their own. After all, the atrocities of Nazism and Communism were all committed in the name of a utopia. As a general rule, utopian ideas should be accessible to everyone, and should be more of a vague outline than etched in stone. Utopias that privilege certain groups over others, or are based on a teleological end have the nasty tendency to incite violence.

In a way, our collective dissatisfaction with politics has a heartening side: it means that we know we can do better, and that we are willing to embrace ideas that will give us a more just and fulfilling society. The publishing world is churning out books that offer new blueprints for the future, and that demand to be read and considered seriously. In our time of ideological echo chambers and slacktivism, the difficulty is to alchemize these ideas into something concrete. Bregman ends his book with a simple but powerful truth: achieving utopias requires a delicate balance of wild imagination and pragmatic realism.


Further Reading


In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell

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Intolerance and bigotry lie at the heart of all human suffering. So claims Bertrand Russell at the outset of In Praise of Idleness, a collection of essays in which he espouses the virtues of cool reflection and free enquiry; a voice of calm in a world of maddening unreason. From a devastating critique of the ancestry of fascism to a vehement defence of 'useless' knowledge, with consideration given to everything from insect pests to the human soul, this is a tour de force that only Bertrand Russell could perform.


Utopia or Bust by Benjamin Kunkel

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"The deepest economic crisis in eighty years prompted a shallow revival of Marxism," writes Benjamin Kunkel of the 2008 recession--and the shallowness was undoubtedly a result of the complex, sometimes difficult nature of contemporary Marxist thought. Enter Kunkel's Utopia or Bust, which leads the uninitiated reader through the biggest names in critical political theory today. Written with the wit and verve of a novelist, Utopia or Bust engages with the revolutionary philosophies of Slavoj Zizek, the economic analyses of David Graeber and David Harvey, and the cultural diagnoses of Fredric Jameson. Discussing the crisis of capitalism alongside the idea of full employment and the right to work, Utopia or Bust is not only a tour through the world of Marxist thought, but also an examination of the state of Western society today.


How Will Capitalism End? by Wolfgang Streeck

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In How Will Capitalism End? the acclaimed analyst of contemporary politics and economics Wolfgang Streeck argues that capitalism is now in a critical condition. Growth is giving way to secular stagnation; inequality is leading to instability; and confidence in the capitalist money economy has all but evaporated. Capitalism's shotgun marriage with democracy since 1945 is breaking up as the regulatory institutions restraining its advance have collapsed, and after the final victory of capitalism over its enemies no political agency capable of rebuilding them is in sight. The capitalist system is stricken with at least five worsening disorders for which no cure is at hand: declining growth, oligarchy, starvation of the public sphere, corruption and international anarchy. In this arresting book Wolfgang Streeck asks if we are witnessing a long and painful period of cumulative decay: of intensifying frictions, of fragility and uncertainty, and of a steady succession of 'normal accidents'.

I'm a French student in an Erasmus masters program in European cultural studies, currently working in Prague. My background is philosophy and history, which represent my interest in big ideas, ... Show More

1 Comments

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Valerie Waterhouse
A thoughtful and thought-provoking article on the state of western democracy. Thank you. David Graeber's statement that 'most jobs are entirely bullshit', reducing us to a “tolerable and comfortable existence doing something unfulfilling” -- especially chimed with me. There is some overlap here with my article on Pier Paolo Pasolini,  who was loudly denouncing the evils of consumerist society back in the 60s and 70s, and offering up his own zany vision of semi-utopia