Distinctions That Define and Divide   /   Summer 2021   /    Essays

Is There a Place for Utopia?

A wheel that needs reinventing.

S.D. Chrostowska

Fin de siècle, 1999, by P.J. Crook; Pamela June Crook/Bridgeman Images.

“IS THIS DYSTOPIA?” Sometimes a simple stencil of bold red letters sprayed across a lamppost in a shabby part of town under lockdown stops us in our tracks. As though its message were addressed exclusively to us.

It might be some part of the phrasing that for a moment holds all our attention. For me, it was the word this. Was the dystopia our society, now and here? Or was this the contemporary world as a whole? And did it matter which? Is there a real difference between these alternatives?

The question on the streetlight was patently rhetorical. It acted as a dramatic provocation by implying an answer so evident it hardly needs stating and is not expected. Yet at least one passerby whom it similarly arrested was compelled to respond. What the querying hand had left tacit another felt bound to spell out, making definitive what had merely been intimated: Scribbled in black marker was a resounding—an unequivocal—“Yes!”

But let us return to the reflection that “IS THIS DYSTOPIA?” seemed designed to provoke. It was, of course, a simple yes-or-no question. Under the new dispensation and prevailing social conditions, the presence of that critical word dystopia all but presupposed an affirmative reply. Simple questions are easy to dismiss and underestimate. If this one gave me pause, it is because confronting the actual state of the world, here or everywhere, evokes (betrayed) utopian aspirations, highlighting our epic lack of success.

If this is dystopia, which way to utopia? Is it reasonable to hope for utopia, to continue and renew our hopes for its realization, in a place where more and more of us each day struggle to survive, let alone, to pursue happiness? Is there an appropriate, reality-congruent, pragmatic utopian thinking we should adopt that might get us out of this mess? Under the circumstances, when the best we can realistically hope for is slowing down irreversible and often unintended widespread damage, does it still make sense to think utopian thoughts?

Throughout modernity, utopia has been a handy term of criticism among educated elites. Early modern and Enlightenment political philosophers, theorists of the social contract, were wary of being taken for writers of utopias.11xConsider, for instance, Thomas Hobbes’s worry in Leviathan: “I fear that this writing of mine will be numbered with Plato’s Republic, [Thomas More’s] Utopia, [Francis Bacon’s New] Atlantis, and similar amusements of the mind.” Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: With Selected Variants from the Latin Edition of 1668, ed. Edwin Curley (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1994), 244n15, trans. mod. (The reference to More and Bacon is absent in the first, English edition of 1651.)  In polemics and politics, utopia branded the adversaries of those who thought themselves realists for desiring and fighting for the possible, only to be stigmatized as utopian in their turn. In 1849, within a year of the French Revolution of 1848 and the bloody June Days Uprising, the socialist revolutionary Auguste Blanqui, accused of inciting popular violence, defended himself thus against the charge of utopianism:22xI draw no systematic distinction between utopia and utopianism.

Utopia! impossibility! devastating word nailed to our foreheads by our enemies that means “murderer”! homicidal appeal to the egoism of the living generation, which does not accept being cut down in bloom and buried in order to fatten future generations…! This weapon is terrible, we know a thing or two about it; but it is disloyal. There are no utopians, in the overdrawn acceptation of the word. There are thinkers who dream of a more fraternal society and seek to discover their promised land in the shifting mists of the horizon.33xAuguste Blanqui, Œuvres complètes, vol. 1: Écrits sur la révolution: Textes politiques et lettres de prison, ed. Arno Münster (Paris, France: Galilée, 1977), 257. Unless otherwise noted, English translations are my own.

Two decades later, in prison, and haunted by the brutal suppression of the Paris Commune as by its promise of a more fraternal society, Blanqui would pen his “astronomic hypothesis,” Eternity by the Stars, finding a desperately utopian vision in the shifting mists of the heavens.

A similar enthusiasm for the Commune sustained two German thinkers who, in 1848, had met the “nursery tale of the spectre of communism” then haunting Europe with a jointly authored manifesto of the Communist Party. In it, they had distanced themselves from visionaries too busy dreaming to act historically and wanting initiative when it came to agitating for change.44xKarl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, trans. Samuel Moore (London, England: Pluto, 2008), 31, part 3, sec. 3, “Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism.” “Since Marx,” twentieth-century philosopher of utopia Ernst Bloch observed in his magnum opus, The Principle of Hope, “mere utopianizing, apart from still having a partial active role in a few struggles for emancipation, has turned into reactionary or superfluous playful forms. These do not lack a seductive quality of course, and are at least useful for diversion, but this is precisely why they have become mere ideologies of the existent, beneath a critical-utopian mask.”55xErnst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995), 583. The work was written in the US in 1938–1947, revised in 1953 and 1959, and published in 1954–1959. Such historical glimpses go to show that utopian thought had its peaks and valleys even—even especially—for its exponents.

A century after the revolutionary wave of the Spring of Nations had swept across an “Old Europe” of principalities, kingdoms, and empires, the liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin, posing as a man of sense in the postwar years, merely stated a commonplace when he equated utopianism with escapism, anachronism, and impracticality. He laid out the reasons for his dislike of the homo utopiens, the generic utopian thinker, as follows:

What is it that we mean when we call a thinker Utopian, or when we accuse a historian of giving an unrealistic, over-doctrinaire account of events? After all, no modern Utopian can be accused of wishing to defy the laws of physics. It is not laws like gravitation or electromagnetism that modern Utopians have ignored. What then have addicts to such systems sinned against? Not certainly the laws of sociology, for very few such have as yet been established, even by the least rigorous, most impressionistic of “scientific” procedures. Indeed, the excessive belief in their existence is often one of the marks of lack of realism—as is shown on every occasion when men of action successfully defy them and knock over yet another false sociological model. It seems truer to say that to be Utopian is to suggest that courses can be followed which, in fact, cannot, and to argue this from theoretical premises and in the face of the “concrete” evidence of the “facts.” That is certainly what Napoleon or Bismarck meant when they railed against speculative theorists.66xIsaiah Berlin, “The Sense of Reality” (c. 1953), The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and Their History, ed. Henry Hardy (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), 36.

For Berlin, acting on utopian ideals was, if not an outright demerit, at any rate a potential liability. Yet he could not deny its power to effect a radical break, letting in new and practical ideas for the betterment of society. “The passionate advocacy of unattainable ideals may, even if it is Utopian,”—or, more accurately, because it is utopian—“break open the barriers of blind tradition and transform the values of human beings.”77x Berlin, “Political Judgment,” The Sense of Reality, 53.

Utopia has not gone away as a term of abuse. In its old haunts, its notoriety seems secure. It has, however, become something of a buzzword. That its positive invocations have, in our age, filtered into mass and commercial culture testifies to the idea’s growing social relevance. To say that they are, most of them, skin-deep and gratuitous is not to dismiss all such uses out of hand. Utopia on a can of organic tomatoes or a bag of California-grown artisanal cannabis might mean its producer truly believes their product contributes to improving society, for buyers of their brand anyway. Björk’s 2017 album, Utopia, is a surreal treatment of bona fide utopian images.

Each place utopia makes an appearance is different. Despite the word’s entry into market vernacular, its positive connotation—as the opposite of dystopia—is still not generally a given. Yet there is plenty to suggest that something of what it stands for has acquired, if not cachet, then at least greater visibility and sex appeal it did not used to have. In view of these developments, it is no longer credible to associate the idea of utopia with intellectual elitism. Judging by its popularity as a transcultural signifier of a positive, forward-looking attitude of well-being, the meaning of the term has lost much of its former focus. It is diluted, diffuse, nebulous, floating above ideal political systems and programs of social engineering, to which it once exclusively referred. Yet for that very reason, utopia today has occasion to awaken the social imagination in contexts where it would otherwise remain unknown.

New Contexts for Utopia

How has the trace of something that previously, in the Cold War era, set off alarm bells and called up images of failed totalitarian experiments, come to pervade everyday life without raising an eyebrow? Utopia’s wider acceptance has as much to do with neutralizing or rendering innocuous its incitement to transformation as with its evocativeness. We have the Weltgeist to thank for it. For the world spirit so arranged things that the “utopia” of the free market could colonize whole areas of life, from entertainment to fitness to sex. Utopia has lent its name to everything from 1980s video games and yoga studios to the latest multispeed vibrators. Looking around us, capitalism more than deserves the title of “cauldron of utopias,” its concoction a witches’ brew of satisfaction guaranteed. Because it operates through commodity fetishism, its utopias do not pose a threat to the established economic order, being themselves perfectly fungible and reconcilable. Once they are attached to commodities, radical utopian ideas and values, such as social harmony, health and well-being, joy and pleasure, lose their link to the will actually to remake social bonds.

A hard look at the situation is enough to turn believers into cynics. To those who oppose it, the diversion of socialist utopias to capitalist ends or the appropriation of utopian elements for financial gain does not justify abandoning all utopian thinking. And even if we feel utopianism as a conscious striving for social perfection to be unsalvageable, and we must indeed let it go, we may be simultaneously setting the bar for ourselves higher, not lower. For it is now clear that, to get out of the present dystopia, humans must be prepared for almost superhuman sacrifice and effort. We must be ready, in other words, to do the impossible: create a synonym for utopian. The ambition puts us back, willy-nilly, on the track of utopian thinking. Only the particulars of the destination have changed, been obsolesced—some would say regressed, adding that there is little that is recognizably utopian about the new end. It does not much resemble the utopias of old and might seem more moderate by comparison, but the impossible task to be accomplished is, all the same, the embryo of a just and harmonious society. The project’s unwitting, higher-level utopianism demonstrates an important truth about utopia, namely, that it is never really about devising a precise social blueprint to satisfy all. Today, the only feasible blueprint is a “blueprint for survival,” as The Ecologist called it fifty years ago.88x“A Blueprint for Survival” was the title of a reformist manifesto for radical social restructuring, first published as an issue of The Ecologist in 1972, in advance of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held that same year. It was coauthored by the journal’s editors (Edward Goldsmith, et al.) and announced the formation of the initially national Movement for Survival (MS), on whose eventual internationalization the authors staked their hopes. The Ecologist 2, no. 1 (1972): 1, 23. Forestalling social breakdown and catching up to the harm already inflicted on the environment is as ambitious a plan as we can hope to carry out. However otherwise emancipatory or utopian such a precise and modest-sounding goal may be, it is, by its very nature, limited. But so are all particular utopias.

One of the most stubborn misconceptions about the utopian genre of thinking, of which Bloch left us such a breathtaking inventory—from the freedom of the Cynics to the sensual hedonism of the Cyrenaics, from athletics to alchemy, from Zionism to ordinary daydreams—is that utopia consists in an imaginary place depicted in greater or lesser detail. This is the legacy of Thomas More’s Utopia, which gave the Platonic ideal state a new twist.

The twentieth century’s retooling of utopia has done a lot to complicate this picture. More may have presented his island of Utopia as actually existing but inaccessible to most—attainable in principle, hence doubly attractive. Yet, contrary to received wisdom, Utopia itself was a jocoserious creation, rather than an earnest proposal for a model society, much less a guideline for development. Emphasis on the dialectical character of More’s invention, then, fought against its vulgarization, on display in utopia’s heyday in the nineteenth century. Especially following the failed utopian experiments in society-building that were Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, and Maoist China, historians and theorists on the left, such as Bloch and Miguel Abensour, called into question the narrow conception, held by its twentieth-century critics, of utopia as an abstract rational model imposable on material social realities, be it at the price of mass suffering. Moving away from the totalizing visions that defined it in past centuries, utopian world-making thus became a heuristic device, an organon, critical and self-reflexive, provisional and open-ended.

Building on these novel conceptions, utopia came into its own as a sociological method. In Ruth Levitas’s holistic analytic, rather than descriptive, approach—the “imaginary reconstitution of society”—utopia was to be understood in terms of desire, instead of the narrower hope. Conceptualizing utopia as method—in contrast to goal, concrete destination or telos, precise plan for empirical execution, or, at the other extreme, ideal for contemplation, regulative idea—presupposes looking at human society as a problem in need of a solution, a perspective that best responds to current realities.

The question about the fate of utopia today is not so much whether there is enough hope as what are the ends to which hope is directed. Suffice it to say that not every socially inspired hope or action is utopian. The dichotomy between hope qua reasonable expectation and utopia qua wishful thinking or fantasy was recognized by the godfather of utopia himself.99xThis is the distinction between sperare (hope or expecting) and optare (desire or wishing) at the end of More’s Utopia, where the author’s fictional stand-in, Morus, concludes: “I freely confess that in the Utopian commonwealth there are very many features that in our own societies I would wish rather than expect to see” (quae in nostris civitatibus optarim verius, quam sperarim). Thomas More, Utopia, ed. George M. Logan and R. M. Adams, trans. Robert M. Adams, rev. ed. (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 107; Thomas More, Utopia: Latin Text and English Translation, ed. George M. Logan, Robert M. Adams, and Clarence H. Miller (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 248. The denigration of hope for its passivity, rooted in monotheistic theology, is all too familiar. The pantheist philosopher Baruch Spinoza conceived of this affective-cognitive state as mingled indissolubly with fear, hence pain, as lined with sadness, and as contrary to reason and virtue—not only not good, but sinful. As such, hope interfered with what he called striving (conatus) for self-preservation, with the augmentation of the human mind’s power to think/imagine and the human body’s to act virtuously (perseverance being the principle or essence of all things, not just humans). Spinozan hope is a sign of “a defect of knowledge and a lack of power in the mind.”1010xBenedict de Spinoza, “Ethics,” in A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works, ed. and trans. Edwin Curley (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 225 (II/246, P47). The relevant passages are on 228 (II/250, P54), 161–162 (II/150, P12, P13).

Just when one thought that nothing could further ruin its chances as a psychic resource for action, the atheist thinker Raoul Vaneigem, whose lifelong utopianism is nourished by his interest in heretical and millenarian movements, scorned hope once and for all as “the leash of submission,” maintaining the hopeful in inaction.1111xRaoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (London, England: Rebel, 2001), 58. In this strongly negative light, hope is vain, inefficient, fixating on an object and fantasizing about it while leaving its attainment to others or to God, rather than taking steps to put it within reach. Nonetheless and more fundamentally, without hope, the lived, mediate future would not exist at all. As Eugène Minkowski argued, aspiration (hope along with desire) constructs an “ample” future before us, irrespective of our reasoned attitude—pessimism or optimism—toward it. Permitting us to look far into the future, hope frees us from “the embrace of expectation” (whose linear prolongation it is not). It ought not, therefore, be spurned as vain, naive, instinctive, or a proof of inexperience.1212xEugène Minkowski, Lived Time: Phenomenological and Psychopathological Studies, trans. Nancy Metzel (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1970), 94–96, 100. First published in 1933.

Hope keeps company with anxiety as an escape from anxious expectations.1313xIbid., 101. During the crises of capitalism and climate, despite the “vast bureaucratic apparatus for the creation and maintenance of hopelessness” to which we are captive, there has been no shortage of alternative futures, not all of them alarmist or postapocalyptic.1414xDavid Graeber, Revolutions in Reverse: Essays on Politics, Violence, Art, and Imagination (London, England: Minor Compositions, 2011), 31–32. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, interest at the White House in Thomas Piketty’s bestselling history of growing wealth and income inequality (his recommendations to save capitalism from capitalists being limited to the “useful utopia” of a global progressive and redistributive taxation of capital) gave the left reason to hope that change was coming.1515xThomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), 515. Marxists proposed a high-stakes, provisional, “minimum utopian program,” and left-leaning libertarians put on the table “realistic” ideas for social reconstruction in a “return of utopia.”16 16xBenjamin Kunkel, Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis (New York, NY: Verso, 2014), 16; Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There (2016), trans. Elizabeth Manton (London, England: Bloomsbury, 2018) (subtitles of other English editions: How We Can Build the Ideal World and The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and a 15-Hour Workweek).  For “party communists” and “disaster communists,” international revolution as nonnegotiable is back on the table.17 17xKai Heron and Jodi Dean, “Revolution or Ruin,” e-flux 110 (2020), https://www.e-flux.com/journal/110/335242/revolution-or-ruin/.Visions of a new social order after capitalism abound.1818xE.g., David Schweickart’s After Capitalism (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002); Gar Alperovitz’s “America Beyond Capitalism: Reclaiming Our Wealth, Our Liberty, and Our Democracy,” Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly 25, nos. 1–2 (2005): 25–35, and What Then Must We Do?: Straight Talk about the Next American Revolution (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2013); Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias (London, England: Verso, 2010); Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (London, England: Allen Lane, 2015). If these are not signs of hope, what is?

We have seen time and again how the public emanation of hope can activate desire for a better world. In North America, from the civil rights movement to Black Lives Matter, from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech to Senator Barack Obama’s 2004 address at the Democratic National Convention, hope has been a potent stimulant. In Obama’s discourse, hope became “audacious” to demarcate it from “blind optimism,” that “almost willful ignorance.”1919xBarack Obama, transcript of Keynote Address, 2004 Democratic National Convention, Fleet Center, Boston, MA, July 27, 2004, http://p2004.org/demconv04/obama072704spt.html. It was no longer just ordinary, quotidian hope. It was manifest, providential hope, spiritually and practically potent. “Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope! In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation. A belief in things not seen. A belief that there are better days ahead.”2020xIbid. That 2004 speech, which brought hope home, greasing the wheels of Obama’s race for the presidency, struck frankly utopian notes—utopian not only with hindsight, relative to the presidencies that preceded and, especially, that followed his, but utopian in the sense of expecting radical measures to improve life for a majority of the American people. The message put out by Obama in books, posters, and paraphernalia for the general election season of 2008 wedded hope to a presidential hopeful and thus to a tangible political opportunity which lasted eight years, until 2016. Despite or because of the train wreck of Donald Trump’s single term in office, it was reasonable to suppose that peak hope would be reached in the run-up to the 2020 election. The projected Democratic victory would rescue the country—and world—from utter chaos. And then the pandemic hit.

An unfit Republican in the White House proved that hope is not enough to save us. The election of his challenger, Joe Biden, proves the impotence of utopian slogans, be it MAGA, or (more to the progressive Democrats’ taste) MEGA, Make Earth Great Again. What, then, we might ask, is the relationship of utopian hope to desire for real change, and, even more important, their relationship to will, to agency? Since imagination does prosper in hopeful idleness, some amount of some kind of hope—though on its own an insufficient motor—seems to be an indispensable ingredient of utopia-oriented transformative action. To the motivating spirit of negation within despair we can add the stimulating energy of angst and anxiety as generative of hope; these passions can be said to set the agenda of our age and its structure of feeling.2121xAnarchist Uri Gordon identifies anxiety-based forms of hope operative in the prefigurative politics (stressing means-ends unity) of contemporary social movements in response to environmental collapse in a toxic, no longer revolutionary, future. Uri Gordon, “Prefigurative Politics between Ethical Practice and Absent Promise,” Political Studies 66, no. 2 (2018): 521–537. “If utopia arises from desire” for a better way of life, writes Levitas in The Concept of Utopia, “the transformation of reality and the realization of utopia depend on hope, upon not only wishful thinking but will-full action. The presence of hope affects the nature of utopian expression,” yet does not entail realization. The utopian dream, desire for utopia, “becomes vision only when hope is invested in an agency capable of transformation” or seeing transformation as its task.2222xRuth Levitas, The Concept of Utopia (Witney/Oxford, England: Peter Lang, 1991), 230–231. Levitas’s account here simplifies what is actually a reciprocal relationship between hope and desire: hope being activated by utopia-spinning desire, and vice versa. But she is right to insist that, to be invested in transformative agency, to have a shot at socially transformative effects, utopian hope and utopian desire, dream, or wish must work in tandem. No matter which of these two affective entries it uses, utopia can supply an impetus to action as its wish-turned-hopeful-vision incites the will.

Releasing Utopia

Understood as a myth, utopia presupposes the existence, in fact the proliferation, of different versions of the good society, modified with each telling. Such an understanding is threatened from two sides. On the one hand, there is the abovementioned stereotype that utopia contains a more or less detailed plan for an imaginary society presented by its creator as more or less perfect. On the other hand, utopia is dogged by the belief that, as an image of a just and happy society, it should be practicable and submit to attempts to realize it. If the image, as a particular ideal, does not necessarily demand realization, the experiment, a real social possibility, does not necessarily require perfection, accepting compromise with ideals as the cost of realization. Plato can be said to have bequeathed us both alternatives: While Kallipolis in the Republic and the “first-best” state in the later Laws (the more democratic of the two, with common property across the board) stand as ideals, the “second-best” regime of Magnesia represents a major compromise with the flawed reality of human nature. Reconciling the ideal and the real seems impossible, and utopia—Plato’s as much as anyone else’s—appears forever caught in an endless oscillation between them, however useful this may be for critical reflection on the existing social order.

Has the time finally come to release the concept, especially in common parlance, from swinging between idealization and realization, which has for so long plagued it? I invite the reader to consider embracing utopia—worn out though it may be—at once as indeterminate speculation about a qualitatively better future for human society and as a hypothesis, by assuming it to be possible. With this assumption, we hold on to a holistic expression of the highest earthly aspirations of humankind, aspirations we have no good reason to abandon when their realization seems further off than ever. These two facets of utopianism—that is, the speculative and the hypothetical, or utopia as conjecture about, and utopia as possibility in, the future—amount, in fact, to the shift, discussed earlier, from identifying utopia with concrete visions and practices aimed at their materialization, and toward understanding utopia as provisional conjecture about a future that would be qualitatively better, as different from anticipation of what lies ahead. Utopia in this second sense is the imaginative genesis of surmise about how the world might be substantially improved (not what it would be at its best), rather than just what might become of it. The change in conception is not as drastic as it may seem at first blush. Utopia retains its narrative roots (even its artistic blossoms, if “hopepunk” and the more straightforwardly utopian “solarpunk,” new turns in speculative fiction, are any indication).2323xThe “hope” in “hopepunk” is “Hope as resistance, hope as the antidote to apathy, hope as a motivating force to inspire action in the face of overwhelming odds.” Its fans see hopepunk—a creative protest and a much-needed positive alternative to both climate-apocalyptic science fiction and technological dystopia—as a potent destresser and a public service. Rebecca Diem, “Hopepunk and the New Science of Stress,” Tor.com, March 2, 2020; Aja Romano, “Hopepunk, the Latest Storytelling Trend, Is All about Weaponized Optimism,” Vox, December 27, 2018. It also remains, as ever, critical of the status quo. What it gains, however, is social-theoretical grounding.2424xThis is not to be confused with utopian social theory, one of the three faces of utopianism, or social dreaming, identified and discussed by Lyman Tower Sargent in “The Three Faces of Utopianism Revisited,” Utopian Studies 5, no. 1 (1994): 21–28. His first attempt at classification divided utopianism into utopian thought or philosophy, utopian literature, and communitarian movements or experiments. Sargent, “The Three Faces of Utopianism,” Minnesota Review 7, no. 3 (1967): 222.

Social speculation about a possible, radically other and better future (without committing to any determinate version of it) cannot be equated with reformism or with fiction disconnected from reality. It consists in dialectical play with what social analysis turns up as trends and forces, desires and concepts (conflicting or contradictory) affinities and tensions at any given moment at work in society. It starts from the present by asking: To what better futures can existing tendencies lead us? That is starkly different from the question: Toward what super-dystopia is the world likely headed? Its point of departure is thus not an imaginary, wish-list future to be reverse-engineered, only to reveal that the present lacks the resources to build it. This means that utopia-as-speculation describes not a real, practical possibility (let alone expectation), but a hypothetical one. In this mythic guise, it is neither abstract nor concrete; neither fantastic nor experimental; an extrapolation neither from normative principles nor directly from history. The utopist assumes nothing about utopia except its future possibility. A more metaphoric way of putting it would be that, instead of testing our hope by trying to seize this or that elaborate utopian project, we extend hope by letting go of such projects for good.

To the extent that the state of the natural world today provides a shared premonition of doom, the historical moment affords a collective horizon of experience on an unprecedented scale. Never has there been greater consensus about what is wrong with the world, what is rotten and missing in it. Never, then, have there existed more fertile conditions for a universal desire for utopia. Yet the place of desire per se on the path to a better future, as the majority tend to envision it, has shrunk on the basis of the premise that present desires need to be radically constrained if humanity is to survive, still less to attain lasting happiness. Unless we want utopia to mirror economic austerity, such a plan is misguided and unsatisfactory as a way of modeling this radiant future. And that is simply because the transformation of our desires does not hinge on their repression or reduction, or, to put it differently, on having the same desires, only less pronounced or fewer.

We can think of learning to live within our means in the interest of the general good as the training of desire on the espalier of our resources. Desire and its gratification have two sides: that structured by lack (compensatory, reserved, regressive), and that founded on expenditure and abundance (extravagant, expansive, progressive). The first side gives direction, the second force. Desire’s training, or “education”—such as happens in survival—requires reorienting it away from its alienated form, as desire for commodities, and toward its nonalienated form, as desire for sensual and intellectual enhancement through social and creative activity. For all these reasons, utopia’s aesthetic and political connections to survival are worthy of attention.

Indeed, utopia can be many things at once. My intention in arguing for a different composite version of it is punctual and undogmatic. On the one hand, utopia is any embodied desire, here and now, for a good society; a desire capable of giving form to individual and collective action and thus becoming prefigurative of such a society, which nonetheless remains latent and dynamic, rather than being elaborated as a social plan. On the other hand, utopia is a futureward myth that activates hope and orients, without purporting to normatively determine, action. A can-do attitude depends on having a purpose. Utopias, even those cast centuries into the future, should furnish only revisable goals.

Historically speaking, utopia is a wheel that, if it is not to come off and put society as such in peril, requires reinventing every few generations. This is the tenor of Slavoj Žižek’s break with its earlier, “false” conceptions, the unrealizable ideal and the realizable libidinal utopia of capitalism (satisfying ever new desires): “The true utopia is when the situation is so without issue, without a way to resolve it within the coordinates of the possible, that out of the pure urge of survival you have to invent a new space. Utopia is not kind of a free imagination. Utopia is a matter of innermost urgency. You are forced to imagine it as the only way out, and this is what we need today.” As Žižek also noted, “It’s a matter for survival. The future will be utopian, or there will be none.”2525xSlavoj Žižek in the documentaries Žižek!, dir. Astra Taylor (Hidden Driver Productions, Documentary Campaign, US, 2005); and Slavoj Žižek: The Reality of the Virtual, dir. Ben Wright (Ben Wright Film Production, UK, 2004). This is practical, “Real utopia” in the Lacanian sense of “Real.” To conclude would go against the openness and mobility of immanent utopian horizons. The only way to end is by inviting the readers to attend to their longing for a qualitatively better world both despite and because of the doubtful survival of the one we currently inhabit.

Excerpted from Utopia in the Age of Survival: Between Myth and Politics by S.D. Chrostowska, published by Stanford University Press, ©2021 by S.D. Chrostowska. All rights reserved; used by permission.