This is a blog of the radical left. It is about historical and present realities of labour, race, gender, class, climate change, and the environment. It is about the crises of capitalism as well as the crises of anti-capitalism.
The global left today is in every way an intellectually powerful and credible force, yet in the arena of state politics it is roundly dismissed for its dearth of what liberals like to call “viable alternatives.” What exactly is meant by this ubiquitous phrase remains unclear to me, but it certainly does imply that the status quo is viable, if not, perhaps, just.
Understandings of justice in that sense are not all that define the political spectrum: a significant difference among leftists, liberals, and conservatives on this question of viability has a lot to do with time frame. To those of us who take a longer view of human history – those of us, for instance, who have the courage to wonder what the planet will look like one or two centuries from now – global capitalism looks like an obvious scam. The left, in that sense, is more concerned about what we bequeath to future generations; capitalism is demonstrably more myopic.
A central and unique problem the left faces today, then, is that we are attempting to establish an empathetic relationship with future generations at a time when it is increasingly difficult to portray them in film and literature. Science-fiction, as we have understood it throughout much of the twentieth and latter nineteenth centuries, is now a dead genre. And if not dead, then severely struggling. The exploration of new terrestrial and extra-terrestrial worlds – a central trope of speculative pulp since at least the time of Homer – is rightly a tough sell for contemporary audiences, and recent attempts at it have looked cheap and stale. The excitement surrounding new medical and information technologies in many ways appears to be driving our interest in transhumanist superheroes such as Iron Man, but these action films celebrate isolated modernized bodies, not the societies of the future. Beyond that, we have the occasional Orwellian dystopia, and the more spectacular disaster film.
This crisis of futurelessness has extended well beyond pop culture. Academic discourse remains mired either in laments for the present, or judiciously topical and utterly boring policy prescriptions. Even left-wing intellectuals often take explicit pains to distance themselves from utopian thought, lest they be lumped into the conclusively discredited camp of thinkers who have imagined a better version of things.
“The essential function of utopia,” said Ernst Bloch, “is a critique of what is present.” I believe it is also more than that. To narrativize the past and future is a part of what it has meant to be a socially engaged human being throughout history. That we lack a coherent discourse about the future today therefore strikes me as a defining and inhuman aspect of twenty-first century life. Inevitably, it will be difficult to reverse this trend. But if we are to build an equitable, just, and sustainable society, then we need to undertake actions that are at odds not merely with dominant, patriotic historiographies, but also with the colonial future-myths of the past. Significant challenges to the historical narratives of white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy are in fact being done by radical academics today, but far too little of that work has been undertaken with the explicit intent of contributing to radical social movements. In order for those revised histories to become politically meaningful, we also need to begin generating visions of the future that cast ourselves as active players perpetually struggling for social justice. We need to unlearn passivity. Like the present, the future will be a built environment, emerging from a matrix of ideas, interests, and negotiations. Utopia should be seen simply as a safe discursive space for those conversations.
It is also true, however, that the reasons for the disappearance of utopianism have been entirely valid. Traditional utopias, from Thomas More’s to Gene Roddenberry’s, have all been located within the new frontiers of their time, and as such they have all encompassed the cultural and ethical foundation for Western colonial expansionism. By the same token, mainline utopias have typically celebrated the frontiersman, while women have often been sidelined: treated as chattel, common property, and subordinated housewives. The largest utopian movements in history have all been led by charismatic men, and have all been cultish and authoritarian. Utopianism has also fallen off in part because it became so closely identified with patently unrealistic understandings of technology – indeed, Star Trek was the last truly hegemonic utopian vision that the West has known.
But despite the colonialism, capitalism, secessionism, patriarchy, white supremacy, the nerdy technophilia and general stupidity of the traditional utopianism described above, I see no reason that we should not attempt to construct a new prefigurative cultural discourse that is anti-colonial, feminist, queer, environmentalist, anti-oppressive, anti-authoritarian, and anti-capitalist. What I am advocating, then, is a left-wing utopianism – a dialectical utopianism – that breaks every rule of the utopias of yore, and that strives towards a cogent and visionary rhetoric that stands in stark opposition to the cynicism of the right. Some such discourse has begun to emerge in recent years, for instance, in urban studies journals that have run proposals for new and long-term urban transportation schemes. But again, that discourse has been extremely limited and largely unwilling to engage with radical social movements. Social movements, in turn, are struggling to find ways to assert their demands in positive, rather than negative, terms; ways to fight for better social housing, for instance, as opposed to complaining about its gradual dismantling by the state.
Another important problem with the traditional utopia – certainly, for instance, More’s Utopia – is that it is a static place. It is static because it is perfect, yet because it is static it cannot be democratic. I suggest that rather than dismissing utopianism on the basis of this paradox, we instead sustain a constantly changing conversation on the structure of a constantly changing utopia. This demands an understanding of how community functions, how norms and discourses are shaped over the long run, the role of the lived experience in the formation of ideologies. We should not feel embarrassed about discussing the forms of governance, labour, architecture, infrastructure, art, and bureaucracy that would exist in an ideally democratic world. We should not be afraid to openly discuss social structures that foster ideologies of solidarity over ideologies of resentment. These discussions can be imaginative and fun. That the visions emerging from them will never be achieved to a tee does not mean that we should refrain from striving toward them.
It is my objective here to occasionally propose glib and simplistic solutions to complex problems, in hopes that my own harebrained ideas might be challenged by better harebrained ideas. Utopian blueprinting will occupy a tiny but important fraction of this blog – critique and proposal must, of course, be part of the same process – but by contributing to prefigurative conversations, I also hope that the left can collectively begin to dismantle what David Graeber identifies as capitalism’s pervasive “machinery of hopelessness.”
The title of this blog is borrowed from The Communist Manifesto. Marx and Engels were extremely critical of the earlier-nineteenth century utopian socialist movements for renouncing revolution, for replicating bourgeois mores, for indoctrinating the impoverished. But, they write, utopian socialist literatures “contain also a critical element. They attack every principle of existing society. Hence, they are full of the most valuable materials for the enlightenment of the working class.” Today, I would argue, utopian discourses are necessary not so much for the enlightenment of any particular class, but simply for the construction of a political discourse that extends beyond the short-sighted and fatalistic rhetoric of austerity, exploitation, and environmental degradation.
I studied the history of the Americas and political science in undergrad. I sat on the editorial board of the McGill Daily for two years, and I have organized campaigns in the past for federal electoral reform, for governance reform at McGill, and for the funding of McGill’s campus-community radio station, CKUT. I have been influenced significantly since 2000 by the struggle to liberate Palestine, and lived in East Jerusalem and the West Bank throughout the first half of 2008. More recently, I have participated in the Quebec student movement and Idle No More. Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.