This was my opening preamble for Utopia Against the World, an event I organised at the end of March. You can download the programme here.
Where is utopia today? Or, perhaps, what is utopia today? What, and where might it be tomorrow? Who is it for? Who is it not for?
Despite its vocal protestations against the concept, perhaps utopia is most terrifyingly realised in today’s neoliberal global order, which so confidently presents itself as the only game in town. ‘It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’ goes the saying: a chilling signifier of the extent to which capitalism has soaked itself into almost every fibre of the social imagination, leaving us – depending on who you read – with the ‘slow cancellation of the future’, or ‘the end of utopia’ . And it’s true that we don’t have many utopias anymore: even utopia is dystopia, as the recent Channel Four series ‘Utopia’ so edgily reminded us. In a world where calling someone ‘political’ is rude; and where to call someone ‘ideological’ is seen as beyond insulting, perhaps we should all just pack up and go home. But isn’t there a danger that all this lamenting of the dominant anti-utopianism might simply end up reinforcing it?
But of course the end of politics is really just the disavowal of politics. ‘The post-political is the most political’, as the saying goes. And as Slavoj Zizek has repeatedly pointed out, the denunciation of ideology is the ultimate ideological move. Thus, perhaps the anti-utopian position is in actual fact the most utopian position possible: the triumphant call of a victorious utopianism. If you’ve achieved perfection, you don’t need any alternatives. If you live in utopia, you don’t need to produce any utopian visions. Just look around you! Abundance! Plenty! The end of history!
Can we avoid this double bind where utopia leads to anti-utopia, and anti-utopia is revealed as utopia fulfilled? How might we look for a different kind of utopianism in this era ‘after the future’? Do we, as some have suggested, look back to failed, forgotten or aborted schemes of the past? Social democracy? State socialism? Communism? Do we dream of some prelapsarian state: a slow-paced agrarian idyl where we can escape the noise of our daily existence: utopia as a permanent vacation. Or do we look beneath, rather than beyond, the present, to the trickles of hope that run through everyday life and occasionally pool together in all manner of times and places: an Andalusian pueblo, a queer film festival, a squat in Berlin? Perhaps we could look to science fiction visions so fantastic they seem utterly beyond the bounds of the possible? And of course the question can’t just be about where we might look, but also to who might we look? What kinds of subjects are pushing beyond the present? And what kinds of subjects might exist in utopia?
If there is to be a revival of utopia and/or utopianism, it clearly needs to escape perfection, and few of the practices and forms I mentioned above orient themselves to perfection. This is not to say, however, that utopia purged of perfection is without its difficulties. Some of these spatial experiments are small-scale and by nature they cannot do much to challenge the power of capital. Perhaps they even reinforce it on occasion. Others seem a little – well – unsexy compared to the luxuries that capitalism can tease and tantalise us with. Compost toilets? Growing your own food? Building your own house? Are these the price for utopia? And can we ever really purge perfection? Might it not sneak up when we’re least aware, transforming our utopias into dystopia? Might they have had that dystopia inbuilt from the start? To pre-empt (and paraphrase) Judie Newman’s discusison of Amy Waldman’s short story Freedom a little, might utopia ‘begin as a joke and end in disillusionment’?
And what is the function of these utopias? Is it to offer us models of how we might live differently today and/or tomorrow? Or is it to unpick our certainty in how we currently live, restoring to us a sense of the arbitrary nature of our present and estrange us from those habits that seem so natural? Might these two tasks – of making our present seem bad and offering us an alternative to that present – be simultaneous? Is it utopia against the world, or utopia for the world?
What’s for certain is that if we don’t think about different forms of utopianism – even if we disavow the term – we’ll end up with another utopian vision: that of the ruins porn fanatics: those millenial disasterbators whose utopia arises from disaster; secularised versions of the eighteenth century utopians who believed that a thousand years of communist utopianism would come around following the apocalypse, only here it’s climate change rather than an act of God that ushers in the promised dawn. If I may be permitted to mix my biblical metaphors a little, utopia here functions as a reincarnation of Noah’s Ark – populated by the righteous and sailing on as bankers disappear beneath the waves. Except as it plays out in reality it won’t be utopian, it’ll be dystopian. The only arks will be the rich’s gated communities and it’ll be the planet’s poorest who disappear beneath the waves.
I don’t want to pre-empt what today’s speakers will talk about too much here, but in searching for – and questioning – spatial resistance and spatial alternatives to capitalism – our search for utopia (or maybe our rejection of the term) will take us to the island of Freedom, populated by former detainees of Guantanamo Bay; to the anarchist planet of Anarres; to intentional communities of various kinds; to couhousing experiments; to Beijing Queer Film Festival; to squats in Berlin and elsewhere; to up the road in St. Anns; and of course to Marinaleda, the self-styled ‘communist utopia’ village in Andalusia.