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The New Utopianism

Is it now individualism - not ecologism - that is hopelessly ‘utopian’?
The New Utopianism
He was using his power to get sex. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

The term “utopia” is used in two distinct ways:

1)       As a term of criticism; as in: “Your ideas are utopian; they are uselessly over-idealistic, they could never work.”

2)       As a term of positive appraisal; as in: “These utopian ideas give one real hope: the utopia they describe would be worth aiming for.”

The standard view is that it is utopian in the first sense to seek to radically transform our society. This unfortunately tends to rule out the possibility of utopia in the second sense. And I believe it is that possibility which we have great need of, at the present time.

Why? Because without it, we are probably finished. I mean: we are now in a situation which makes it the case that without radical transformation, without radical hope, we are doomed. Mere reformism will not be enough to save us from climate catastrophe and its causes: rampant fossil fuel interests; uncontrolled capitalist accumulation and commodification; the hegemony of economic growthism; continual production of artificial ‘needs’ (e.g. by advertising); and a profound failure to challenge the resultant individualist ‘aspirational’ consumerism, even on the so-called ‘Left’. Most ‘Leftisms’ are hopelessly in hock to growthism. And to a ‘deprivation model’ which means that their prescription for society is simply: more of the same, shared out a bit better. ‘Ferraris for all’, as the book has it. Yes, that really is the title of a book that someone has written and published. That such books exist is a testament to how desperate our predicament is. That the egregious ‘Spiked’ magazine likes the book a lot tells you most of what you need to know about what is within its covers.

So my claim is that the standard view is exactly wrong. The true utopianism in sense (1) now is: belief in anything like the status quo. For instance, belief in liberal political philosophy, in economic growth, and so forth. What is needed is the ambition to aim at a version of utopianism in sense (2): a radical democratic ecologism, serious about a post-growth future and about relocalising our world. Our ambitions need now to be utopian (in sense (2)): only such ambitions stand a chance of going far enough in the direction of change.

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"We are now in a situation which makes it the case that without radical transformation, without radical hope, we are doomed."
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Liberal-individualist, pro-growth, pro-‘fairness’ doctrines, well-intentioned though they usually are, are now the `hopeless’, over-the-top kind of utopianism (in sense 1). This is a deliberate inversion of what liberals and conservatives have always said about socialists, Greens etc. This historic irony, this inversion, is one that it is vital we recognise now, take seriously, and implement. Such that we can be bold enough in transforming society from its current, disastrous neoliberal growthist pathway.

We need to create a culture of sufficiency, a culture of enough. The possibility or indeed actuality of such culture(s) is a constant theme of utopian experiments and writings, and rightly so. For, if we are to have a chance of doing enough to save our descendants from being fried, we need to actualise such a culture as a key part of that doing, as a radical alternative to growthism. ‘Enoughism’, as in the ‘voluntary simplicity’ movement, manifests a genuine love and care for our fellow humans: those poorer than ourselves today, and those at risk of complete destruction and immiseration in the future. Inegalitarian Rawlsian liberalism needs to give way to egalitarianism and the fetish for fairness needs to give way to something much ‘warmer’: love/care. We need to imagine futures without the desire for growth. We need to imagine simpler futures, where we might finally (as I like to put it) build down the threats that at present are hanging over the future itself.

This can no longer be tenably castigated as unwisely utopian. On the contrary, to state again the extraordinary truth, a truth that we need to start to take in and get used to…it is the standard pro-justice/fairness/‘development’/growth agendas that are hopelessly utopian. They pretend that a fairer version of business-as-usual is maybe going to be enough. And here, I am echoing the philosopher Rai Gaita: “[P]lacing the weight that I do on our humanity and on love rather than on, say, the obligated acknowledgement of rights, is more hardheaded than the longing to make secure to reason what reason cannot secure, all the while whistling in the dark.” [1]

There is no real chance, I believe, of our taking significant enough action fast enough to save the future, if we do not love the future ones - our descendants, deep into the future - with all our hearts.  Love them as our loved ones now (starting, but not ending, with our babies and kids). For without such love, we will simply take much of what they need from them, as we are currently doing. We will consign the(ir) world to bleakest misery, and ‘sell’ such misery back to ourselves as being simply us taking what we deserve or ‘need’, a ‘fair’ share. We ought rather to be in awe of our wondrous power over them — and therefore utterly respectful of their vulnerability and beauty. We ought to give our all for them. For us not to be myopic, they need to be real to us.

These are utopian demands (in sense (2)). Demands for an exercise of imagination, of ‘self-restraint’, and of changing our polities and our very world, of a kind that we are not used to. But: anything less is selling the future short. For we have reached a point where we are profoundly imperiling the future and only a radical course correction will save it.

It’s high time for (that type of) utopianism.[2]



[1] P.xxi of his A common humanity (2000); cf. also the closing chapters of that work.

[2] Thanks to Nuno Coelho and Barbara Goodwin for comments that have improved this piece.

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Han Ibsen on 02/02/2017 5:38pm

@C Downes, Is population reduction not just shifting reponsibllity onto future generations when change needs to happen now? I'm going vegan and stopping flying

C Downes on 02/02/2017 5:09pm

I can't help but feel that this need to love our descendants might be at odds with the fact that overpopulation is one of main reasons we are 'doomed' in the first place. For a truly utopian society, perhaps we should encourage people to have fewer descendants, rather than love them more.

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