Imagining the Future   /   Spring 2008   /    Essays

Being in Utopia

Ruth Levitas

The term “utopia,” coined by Thomas More in 1516, is a pun on eutopia/outopia—the good place that is also no place. The lay meaning of “utopia” has come to be a perfect but impossible society, and the term “utopian” to refer to an unrealistic dream or dreamer. In this discourse, one of the most frequent objections to utopia is that it demands perfection of its inhabitants, and that this is inconsistent with the necessarily flawed nature of real human beings. Utopia may also then be seen as dangerous, for attempts to impose it will mean forcing fallible humans into the procrustean bed of an externally imposed system, resulting in totalitarian repression and violence.

A recent example of this is British literary critic John Carey’s introduction to The Faber Book of Utopias, published at the turn of the millennium:

The aim of all utopias, to a greater or lesser extent, is to eliminate real people. Even if it is not a conscious aim, it is an inevitable result of their good intentions. In a utopia real people cannot exist, for the very obvious reason that real people are what constitute the world that we know, and it is that world that every utopia is designed to replace. Though this fact is obvious, it is one that many writers are reluctant to acknowledge. For if real people cannot live in utopias, then the utopian effort to design an ideal commonwealth in which human beings can lead happier lives is evidently imperilled.11xJohn Carey, ed., The Faber Book of Utopias (London: Faber and Faber, 1999) xii.

Carey then cites Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun in which selfishness is unknown, Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s The Year 2440 in which citizens voluntarily pay more taxes than they need to, and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward in which the shame attached to deceit is so great that criminals would rather accept punishment than lie to save themselves. Carey reflects: “it is clear that if these are human beings, then the people we have been living among all our lives belong to some other species.” He goes on to cite Soviet Communism as a vision which “fits precisely (and, as events have proved, disastrously) into a utopian mould,” referring to Lenin’s claim that the “higher” phase of Communism will involve transformed human subjects—leading, in Carey’s view, to cruel and unnecessary punishments and murder.22x Carey xiii–xiv.

Carey’s argument can be countered in its details: if those we live among display selfishness, there is also a great deal of selfless and cooperative behavior observable in most societies; in the more affluent countries in the world, there is considerable charitable giving over and above enforced taxation, as well as the donation of time in volunteering; and indeed, there are people for whom, and circumstances in which, lying is felt to be worse than punishment, as dramatized in the film about German resistance to Nazism, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. The general point is moreimportant than the specific examples and is generally countered by the observation that what we understand as “human nature” is what seems to be normal among the human beings we encounter, but that, in fact, that nature is historically and socially determined and variable. The skills, habits, tastes, beliefs, and social practices of human beings in the bronze age differed markedly from our own, as did the customary ways of being of pre-conquest indigenous peoples in the Americas, Australia, and Africa. To say this is not to claim that there is no such thing as human nature, nor that it is infinitely malleable. As Marvin Harris says, “a culture-bearing species whose physiology was based on silicon instead of carbon and that had three sexes instead of two, weighed a thousand pounds per specimen, and preferred to eat sand rather than meat [or vegetables] would acquire certain habits unlikely to be encountered in any Homo sapiens society.”333xMarvin Harris, “Sociobiology and Biological Reductionism,” Sociobiology Examined, ed. Ashley Montagu(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980) 319.But it is characteristic of human nature to require completion by and through culture.

To leave the argument there, however, is to miss a central element in the utopian project. Carey also argues that the “imaginative excitement” of utopias “comes from the recognition that everything in our heads, and much outside, are human constructs and can be changed.”44xCarey xi. But it is more than that. Utopias take their force not just from the assertion that people in other times and places might be different, and thus happy in a very different society, but from their demand that we imagine ourselves otherwise, free from the “wounds and scars…[from] living here, down here, below.”55xAbbey Lincoln, “Down Here Below,” Abbey Sings Abbey, Verve, 2007. H. G. Wells, in A Modern Utopia, meets his double on the planet twinned with earth, in a chapter called “My Utopian Self.” He says, My Utopian self is, of course, my better self…. He is a little taller than I, younger looking and sounder looking; he has missed an illness or so, and there is no scar over his eye. His training has been subtly finer than mine; he has made himself a better face than mine.66xH. G. Wells, A Modern Utopia (London: Penguin, 2005) 167.

The conversation is not “recorded”—Wells evidently found writing this too difficult— but it is described as telling the story of hurt, loss, damage, failure, and humiliation that has made the narrator less than he might have been. It exposes the difficulty of the damaged self entering into utopia: “Here is a world and a glorious world, and it is for me to take hold of it, to have to do with it, here and now, and behold! I can only think that I am burnt and scarred.”77xWells 172. The chapter ends pessimistically: “We agreed to purge this State and all the people in it of traditions, associations, bias, laws and artificial entanglements, and begin anew; but we have no power to liberate ourselves. Our past, even its accidents, its accidents above all, and ourselves, are one.”88xWells 173. In William Morris’s News from Nowhere, written some fifteen years earlier, the visitor William Guest is similarly encumbered by having to take his old self with him; he is ominously told: “You will find it a happy world to live in; you will be happy there—for a while.”99xWilliam Morris, News from Nowhere (London: Longmans Green, 1891) 152. In Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, Connie embraces what the change would mean for her daughter’s self, even at the cost of losing her:

Suddenly she assented with all her soul to Angelina in Mattapoisett, to Angelina hidden forever one hundred fifty years into the future, even if she should never see her again.… She will be strange, but she will be glad and strong and she will not be afraid. She will have enough. She will have pride. She will love her own brown skin and be loved for her strength and her work.1010xMarge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1976) 141.

Imagining ourselves otherwise is a central element of the utopian project. But to tease out what that really means, one needs to reflect on the meaning of utopia, and the nature and function of utopian speculation. A great deal of writing about utopia ignores the problem of definition and the now quite substantial literature on this question.1111xThis is true of Carey himself in The Faber Book of Utopias. See also John Gray, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2007); and Russell Jacoby,Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005). The examples above—both Carey’s and my own—are from utopian fiction. Some commentators, such as Krishan Kumar, regard utopia as primarily a literary genre following from More’s 1516 text, making a distinction between utopias as entities and utopianism as a broader category of political thought.1212xSee Krishan Kumar, Utopianism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991). This is to define utopia in terms of form and con- fine it to a primarily Western tradition—and exclude those descriptions of the good life and the good society that permeate all cultures, mythologies, and religious traditions.

Alternatively, utopia may be defined in terms of content, such as equality, or har- mony, but this is problematic since, as is so often remarked, one person’s utopia is another’s hell. Within the formal literary genre there are white supremacist utopias such as The Turner Diaries, very different socialist utopias such as Looking Backward and News from Nowhere, and feminist utopias such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland. Utopia may also be defined in terms of location, in the future rather than the past. Some writers have also sought to define utopia in terms of function. For Karl Mannheim, a utopia is defined by its transformative function: “only those orientations transcending reality will be referred to by us as utopian which, when they pass over into con- duct, tend to shatter, either partially or wholly, the order of things prevailing at the time.”1313x Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979) 176. This position is directly opposed to that of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, whose objections to the political movements of Owenism, Fourierism, and Saint-Simonianism were precisely that they inhibited political change by distracting the working classes from the real necessity of class struggle.

It is plain, however, that utopias and utopianism may differ in form, content, location, and function, so that while all these are important aspects of utopianism, they will not serve for the purpose of definition. Indeed, it is probably better not to attempt to classify cultural expressions as utopias/n or not utopias/n at all, but to recognize that there are utopian elements to many cultural forms. That leaves the question of what that element is. And, broadly speaking, it is the expression of longing for the restoration of lack, for that which is missing, the expression of the desire for a better way of being and a better way of living, which is by no means confined to literary descriptions of ideal societies or political programs. Whether the source of this lies in human nature itself and an innate propensity to venture beyond, as is argued by Ernst Bloch in his magisterial The Principle of Hope, is debatable. But if not universal, this human yearn- ing and longing for, and reaching to, a better life is certainly common and immensely variable in both form and content, both where literally described and where existen- tially implied.1414xFor a full exposition of this argument, see Ruth Levitas, The Concept of Utopia (London: Philip Allan) The Schubert song “An die Musik” is but one example of the latter mode, with its praise of music for its capacity to transport the self into a better world: that art that “hast mich in eine bess’re Welt entruckt.

Verbal descriptions of better worlds are more easily misread in terms of their inten- tions than Schubert’s song. The mistake with the latter might be to understand it only as metaphor. The error with literary utopias is to take them too literally and to interpret them as goals. There may indeed be instances where authors of utopian fictions believe the society they are describing to be perfect, and/or intend it as a political program. However, most authors from at least the late nineteenth century do not suffer from this level of hubris. Reflexivity and the understanding of historical contingency are a product not of postmodernity but of modernity itself. Thus Marx’s reluctance to delineate the institutional forms of communist society—to “writing recipes…for the cook-shops of the future”1515xKarl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, ed. Frederick Engels (New York: Random House, 1936) 21.—stemmed from the recognition of this contingency both in terms of social formations and human capacities, needs, and desires. Morris, who in later life was an active figure in explicitly Marxist political organizations, felt the need to say rather more than simply “food is good at the hope workers café” and did set out a utopian vision in News from Nowhere, published originally in serial form in Commonweal in 1890.

News from Nowhere was written as a counterpoint to Looking Backward because it was “essential that the ideal of the new society should be kept before the eyes of the mass of the working-classes, lest the continuity of the demands of the people should be broken, or lest they should be misdirected.”1616xWilliam Morris and E. Belfort Bax, Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome (London: Swann Sonnenschein, 1893) 278. Yet Morris also argued that “it is impossible to build a scheme for the society of the future, for no man can really think himself out of his own days.”1717xMorris and Bax 17. He thought utopias dangerous precisely because they could only be an expression of the temperament of authors and their times, but risked being interpreted as goals. And just as News from Nowhere’s subtitle is “an epoch of rest,” suggesting (as the text does) other epochs to follow, Wells opens A Modern Utopia with the claim that such a work must eschew static perfection and embed change:

The Utopia of a modern dreamer must needs differ in one fundamental aspect from the Nowheres and Utopias men planned before Darwin quickened the thought of the world. Those were all perfect and static States, a balance of happiness won for ever against the forces of unrest and disorder that inhere in things. One beheld a healthy and simple generation enjoying the fruits of the earth in an atmosphere of virtue and happiness, to be followed by other virtuous, happy and entirely similar generations until the Gods grew weary. Change and development were dammed back by invincible dams for ever. But the Modern Utopia must be not static but kinetic, must shape not as a permanent state but as a hopeful stage leading to a long ascent of stages.1818xWells 11.

By the late twentieth century, this consciousness of contingency and change had given rise to utopian writing that typically embedded pluralism, reflexivity, and internal contestation—described by Tom Moylan in Demand the Impossible as “critical utopianism,” and exemplified by such writers as Marge Piercy and Ursula Le Guin.1919xSee Tom Moylan, Demand the Impossible (London: Methuen, 1986).

Utopia is perhaps better understood as a method than as a goal. At its core it has the desire for being otherwise, both individually and subjectively and (sometimes) socially and objectively. But its expressions are a method of exploring and bringing to debate the potential contents and contexts of human flourishing. Wells, indeed, argued not only that utopia was a method, but that it is the essential method of sociology: “the creation of utopias—and their exhaustive criticism—is the proper and distinctive method of sociology.”2020xH. G. Wells, “The So-Called Science of Sociology,” An Englishman Looks at the World (London: Cassell, 1914) 204. Rather than refer to a “utopian method,” which immediately mobilizes large amounts of the cultural baggage and misunderstanding surrounding the term “utopia,” I now refer to this as the IROS method, IROS being the Imaginary Reconstitution of Society. This is not the invention of a method, but the naming of what is entailed in utopian speculation, utopian scholarship, and transformative politics.

IROS has three aspects. The first two of these are an analytical, archaeological mode and a constructive, architectural one; the third is, for want of a better term, ontological, or concerned with the nature of being. The architectural mode is precisely what characterizes the literary form of utopia and gives it its sociological character in Wells’s work: it involves the institutional design and delineation of the good society—and, in the case of intentional communities, its partial concrete instantiation. The archaeological mode complements this, for it involves the interpellation of absent or implicit elements in political, literary, or artistic utopian “accounts.” Its similarity with archaeology lies in the excavation of fragments and shards and their recombination into a coherent whole. The point of such archaeology is to lay the underpinning model of the good society open to scrutiny and to public critique. And the ontological mode is concerned precisely with the selves that inhabit utopia, or that utopia needs to allow—the inhabitants of the “brave new world/That has such people in’t.”2121xWilliam Shakespeare, The Tempest, 5.1. These modes or facets of the utopian method are analytically separable from one another but are also intertwined: they do not, for example, break down into literature and communitarianism as architecture, political discourse analysis as archaeology and psychology, and philosophy and theology as ontology. Rather, the distinctive characteristic of the imaginary reconstitution of society is its holism—just as for Wells, this was the distinctive characteristic of sociology. Wherever we start in the process of imagining ourselves and our world otherwise, all three modes must eventually come into play.2222xIn the first published account of the IROS method written in 2002, I identified only the first two of these modes: see “The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society: Society as Method” in Utopia Method Vision: The Use Value of Social Dreaming, ed. Tom Moylan and Rafaella Baccolini (Berne: Peter Lang, 2007) 47–68. The third mode was first added in my Inaugural Lecture at the University of Bristol, “The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society or Why Sociologists and Others Should Take Utopia More Seriously,”

Archaeology and architecture are most evidently concerned with the concrete institutional character of an alternative society. And here the stricture that utopias should not be taken literally needs to be qualified. For if the purpose of a utopian method is to bring to debate the potential structure of an alternative society, in a public version of Wells’s exhaustive criticism, then literal criticism is indeed appropriate. The consideration of alternative modes of social organization has never been more necessary. The global problems that we face include not just poverty, inequity, and violence, but the potential destruction of the basis of all our livelihoods, the capacity of the planet to sustain human life at all. The environmental constraints of climate change and resource depletion mean that how we live will have to change, and it is better that alternatives be considered and debated rather than emerge in ways that simply protect the interests of the most powerful.

The objective critique of institutional proposals needs, however, to be tempered by the understanding that utopian speculation, whatever its form, operates also on another level—and one that is equally necessary to transformative politics. Taken literally, even if one does not agree with Roger Scruton that News from Nowhere is a piece of pie-eyed sentimentality, it would be hard not to endorse Raymond Williams’s comment that any future socialist society will be more complex rather than simpler than our own. For Miguel Abensour, glossed by Edward Thompson, the point of utopia is its disruptive function and the opening up of a space in which we can experience the possibility of being otherwise—of having different wants, needs, and satisfaction: “And in such an adventure two things happen: our habitual values…are thrown into disarray. And we enter into Utopia’s proper and new-found space: the education of desire.”2323xIn Edward Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (London: Merlin, 1976) 790–1.

In this process, we come to desire in a different way—or rather, where the literary text is concerned, it provides a space in which we are able at least to imagine ourselves desiring differently. Herbert Marcuse addresses the utopian project in its political and psychological rather than literary form, in terms of the transformation of needs, wants, and desires: his new reality principle demands the end of introjected compulsions to consumption and domination. Such claims are directly concerned with the third aspect of the utopian mode, the transformation of self and the imagination of ourselves otherwise.This is always a utopian project in the sense of envisioning a better way of being and a subjective transformation, although it is not always utopian in the sense of implying objective social transformation. And where both are present, the connection may be differently construed. In the kind of ideal society that Colin Davis describes as a perfect moral commonwealth, social harmony flows from individual perfection and moral restraint. Conversely, for Robert Owen, character is a product of circumstance: social harmony and right education produce happy and cooperative people. Imagining ourselves otherwise is both common and complex; pace Carey, real people do it all the time. Anthony Giddens coined the term “narratives of self ” to refer to the process of reflecting on who we are, might have been, and might be. He linked this to the condition of late modernity, in which, “the self becomes a ‘reflexive project,’ sustained through a revisable narrative of self identity”—the beginnings of which are apparent in Morris and Wells.2424x Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991) back cover.

The stories that we tell ourselves about who we are, how we have come to be so, and what our options are for the future are not necessarily liberatory. Indeed, they may bring to mind Bloch’s comment that the wishes of the weak are often only those that the powerful wish them to be. Thus there is the overwhelming cultural pressure to monitor and control our bodies through diet and exercise, which involves imagining the perfectly honed and healthy—and especially not obese—self; health and longevity are an individual responsibility, and physical imperfection, illness, and death itself a mark of failure. There are endless managerial texts that essentially present technologies of self, prescribing conformity to models of personal behavior and response promising financial and social success, with titles such as The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People; The Rules of Management; The Rules of Work; and The Rules of Life. These are modes of imagining that are not, in Mannheim’s terms, utopian, for they offer us only a more comfortable fit between our disciplined selves and the demands and satisfactions offered by the world we currently inhabit. The “Mind, Body, Spirit” sections of bookstores are replete with pre- scriptions for being otherwise. Most of the self-help literature that offers solace for abounding human misery does not currently connect with a project for social change. You may not be able to change a bad situation, but you can change how you respond to it. And in some guises, if you change how you respond to the world, everything your heart desires will come to you.

Religion also offers ways of being otherwise. Arguably theology has paid more attention to the human condition and its possibilities than has social science. Again, much institutional religion prescribes ways of being that do not challenge the status quo. But its appeal lies in the offer of release from existential struggle, whether it be through the Christian promise of unconditional love and grace or the Buddhist practice of meditation and mindfulness that produces acceptance of the impermanence of everything, including our own lives. For Marx, religion was not only the opium of the people, but the heart of a heartless world, the spirit of spiritless conditions. Bloch took this wholly seriously, understanding religion as the repository of alienated aspects of human longing and power—aspects that needed to be repossessed. In many ways, the quest for utopia can be seen as a secularized quest for human and social redemption. It thus necessarily embraces the question of what human beings might become—not just as creatures of the societies in which they live, but as their creators.

On the opening page of The Principle of Hope, Bloch wrote, “the emotion of hope goes out of itself, makes people broad instead of confining them…. The work of this emotion requires people who throw themselves actively into what is becoming, to which they themselves belong.”2525xErnst Bloch, The Principle of Hope (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986) 3. Just such a process is set out in the work of Roberto Unger. What Unger sets out in the key texts Democracy Realized and The Self Awakened is a particular form of the utopian method rooted in social practice, and entailing both insti- tutional and existential transformation. Democracy Realized, subtitled The Progressive Alternative, is a summary statement of Unger’s hopes for a gradual move from the global neo-liberal status quo to a world that is more democratic and more economi- cally just, through a process he describes as democratic experimentalism. Here Unger’s arguments are pitched in terms of the institutional structures of society and a process of change of those economic, social, and political structures and processes through step-by-step improvisation and collective learning. Hope and imagination are central to this. Imagination is needed in the short term (for institutional improvisation) and in the long term, to provide a sense of direction and “a larger vision of society and history that can help inform and inspire its work.”2626xRoberto Mangabeira Unger, Democracy Realized: The Progressive Alternative (London: Verso, 1998) 15. Unger argues that this active process of improvisation creates possibility, both objectively and in the capacities of human beings to change themselves and their circumstances. Democratic experimentalism is perhaps the “architectural” mode of IROS—although Unger would find this too rigid a metaphor: “programmatic thought is sequence, not blueprint, music, not architecture,” echoing both Bloch’s claim that music is the most quintessentially utopian form and David Harvey’s contrast between spatial and processual utopianism.2727xRoberto Mangabeira Unger, The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007) 117. See David Harvey, Spaces of Hope (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000).

Unger describes his approach as radical pragmatism, sharply distinguished from the pragmatism of, for example, Richard Rorty, which regards the perfection of the institutions of American democracy as the goal of the good society. Unger’s critique applies to resistance to institutional change more widely—and to the consequences of this for identity: “The source of the denial of the alterability of social life is a species of institutional fetishism,” and “institutional dogmatism…amounts to a species of idolatry. It nails our interests, ideals, and collective self-understandings to the cross of contingent, time-bound institutions.”2828xUnger, The Self Awakened, 49, 23. Part of the role of imagining alternatives is to resist the forces working in favor of conformity by contradicting the taken-for-granted character of the real. And if what we understand as human nature is simply what we are like now, shaped by present circumstances, we are, in Unger’s view, always more than this—always more than Carey’s “real people.” “We never completely surrender,” writes Unger.2929xUnger, The Self Awakened, 40–1. His description of living for the future as “a way of living in the present as a being not wholly determined by the present conditions of its existence” is akin to the Christian claim to be citizens of one kingdom while dwelling in another.3030xUnger, The Self Awakened, 40. But Unger, like Bloch, re-ascribes grace to the human subject, and the Kingdom of God to a possible human future.

The single idea that resounds on every page of this book is the idea of the infinity of the human spirit, in the individual as well as in humanity. It is a view of the wonderful and terrible disproportion of that spirit to everything that would contain and diminish it, of its awakening to its own nature through its confrontation with the reality of constraint and the prospect of death, of its terror before the indifference and vastness of nature around it, of its discovery that what it most shares with the whole of the universe is its ruination by time, of its subsequent recognition that time is the core of reality if anything is, of its enslavement to orders of society and culture that belittle it, of its need to create a world, a human world, in which it can be and become itself even if to do so it must nevertheless rebel against every dogma, every custom, and every empire, and of its power to realize this seemingly impossible and paradoxical program by identifying, in each intellectual and political situation, the next steps.3131xUnger, The Self Awakened, 26–7.

For Unger, this is necessarily a gradual process. He looks to “the intimation of a different world, in which we would become (slightly) different people, with (slightly) revised understandings of our interests and ideals.”3232xUnger, Democracy Realized, 12. The idea that the imagination of ourselves as somewhat different is commonplace, something that real people do, and that can be encouraged through social and political engagement, runs directly counter to the view that “human nature” makes radical transformation and utopian hope “unrealistic.” Utopia is shaped by the double pressure of what it is possible to imagine and what it is possible to imagine as possible. Consequently, Fredric Jameson has suggested that an imagined world whose inhabitants would be radically other is one in which we would not be ourselves, and this evokes the terror of annihilation. For utopia not to risk rejection as contrary to human nature, Unger’s gradual opening of institutional and human change may be critical.

One reason why it is important to “keep society open to alternative futures and inspire in politics and culture a contest of visions” is that this in itself allows people to understand their own potential to change.3333xUnger, Democracy Realized, 168. It enables the emergence of “prophetic identity,” that is, self-understanding in terms of who we might become (both individually and collectively) rather than who we now are, and in particular where we come from. Philip Pullman makes a similar point about the dangers of fixing a sense of self in terms of religious “identity,” which is only one aspect of our origins and complex, shifting being in the world.3434xPhilip Pullman, “Against Identity,” Free Expression Is No Offence, ed. Lisa Appignanesi (London: Penguin, 2005) 105–15. In particular, we should also educate our children to be prophets, through the development of their capacities, which—like all education— entails hope, transformation, and a move beyond what now is and what we now are. The point, says Unger, is simply this: to “raise up our humanity.”3535xUnger, The Self Awakened, 2. We have the potential to become real people who can live in utopia; potentially, we already are those people. The utopian project is not imperiled by our incapacity to change and become otherwise, but impelled by our capacity, need, and desire to do so.