Utopian Niche-ings and the Politics of If and Otherwise

by Abou Farmaian Assistant Professor of Anthropology at The New School for Social Research

First published on Public Seminar.

home 2014, © marco monetti | Flickr

Despite the radical role of utopian thinking in early revolutionary and social change movements in Europe, by the latter half of the 20th century utopian projects had been largely discredited as idealistic and unrealizable or as preludes to an inevitable dystopia. But there has been a revival of utopia talk and utopian initiatives recently, even in the ever critical academy which sees its task as the takedown of idealism and a ripping up of ideology. The utopian revivalism is in part a reaction to the openings people have glimpsed in the proliferation of protests, new social movements and direct action campaigns, of uprisings and revolutions around the globe. It is also a reaction to decades of hearing the Thatcherite dictum that “there is no alternative,” to Fukuyama-like “end of history” doctrines, to the left’s own cynical critiques stating that it had become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. The reaction has been to imagine and do differently and re-open the question of possibility (Rethman) to take up the call to go beyond what James Ferguson called “the politics of the antis,” a politics that stands against the big forces (anti-imperialism, anti-globalization, anti-racism, anti-capitalism, anti-etc.) without offering alternatives. Many protests and movements, such as occupy, have been criticized for not offering an alternative, but of course in their decision-making process, in their forms of organization, in their use of space and sharing of resources, these movements were enacting alternatives instead of declaring a programme.

Some members are not alone in actually living out alternative economies and alternative politics. This is happening everywhere and I’m not referring to escapist TAZ events, nor echoing a Burning Man politics of festive heterotopias. It’s not just that there seems to be a revolution per minute (rpm) around the world, but that lots of people have been trying out more enduring alternative ways of living, assembling alternative forms of life (instead of creating alternative life-forms, which is the transhumanist and biotechtopian strategy). Sometimes out of necessity, sometimes by design or by ideology (which shouldn’t be such a bad word) people are experimenting with economic and social arrangements that are not subsumed by the logic and instruments of capitalism or the forces of the neo-liberal non-state or the strictures of a strictly humanist and individualist ethos. It’s been written about under a dozen labels: horizontality (Sitrin), politics of possibility (Povinelli), real utopias (Wright), direct action (Graeber), communalism (Bookchin) and so on, but from worker-owned cooperatives to Kurdish (somewhat feminist) communalism in the midst of war to ecosocial communities in Europe and South America to indigenous autonomous zones in the Amazon to America’s on-going utopian colonies (the fellowship of intentional communities lists 1,200 of them!), the experiments are happening.

Two general arguments tend to be wielded against these experiments. One is that they don’t last, that they inevitably fail. The other is that they only work on a small and insular level and therefore are not suited to a globalizing world; they don’t scale up well. Neither is a great argument. Regarding the latter — the scale argument — I would say scale is the problem. Scale leads to what Julie Livingston calls ‘self-devouring growth,’ scale is leading to planetary disaster, scale is what allows for the concentration of power and capital, for the valuation of exchange value over use value (Harvey) — I won’t say more than this, as it would require a few more words, pages, books. But instead of asking that scale question, I wonder how we could sustain thinking about life without growth, without needing to scale up. As for the former — the failure argument — I don’t consider success in terms of what has lasted thus far; again, that seems to be precisely the problem. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean it’s working well. To the contrary, it’s because the state, the corporation, the market, democracy, education and so on (i.e. our current political, economic and social arrangements) have failed that this question is urgent today. What’s more, many communal experiments and alternative movements have lasted, under adverse conditions, for several generations (whatever its problems, Twin Oaks is one example). That’s not failure. Besides, in this current context, I would rather we be suspicious of success, not failure.

In a world headed towards some pretty bad things there is no alternative but to experimentbecause each experiment produces a socio-ecological niche; any number of these niches might be fulfilling in the short run and adaptive in the long run.

Lucy Sargisson, a scholar of utopia, has suggested that liberalism in its various forms presents itself as a “politics of the lesser evil,” winning on the proposition that it is there to prevent a greater evil and bring about a “least worst society possible.” That seems to sum up much of what’s been happening in the recent past and the result is to shut down action and shut down imagination. To not leave room for the politics of ‘if’ and ‘otherwise.’

The fantastic conjunction of those two words — ‘If Otherwise’ — was the title proposed by one of the anthropology students, Felipe Meres, for a group show that emerged out of the appropriately murky and chaotic depths of a graduate Anthropology seminar called ‘Utopia.’ The seminar hoped to take a dive into utopias, as histories and futures, with little attention to the requisite units on dystopia that seem to be prescribed in most syllabi as supposed antidotes to the chronic idealism and ideologies that are said to always and inevitably sink utopian projects. Whilst I’m generally a pessimist — at least a pessimist about success — my idea for this seminar was to question notions and temporalities of failure, to explore possibilities (if) and alternatives (otherwise). A strong interdisciplinary commitment was built into the seminar and, aside from the usual solitary research paper, a second requirement was to carry out a collaborative project that would assume a different form — a research project that would end up as performance, design, art, game… What would come of this sort of collaboration in an anthropology class structured in some ways in the conventional format, i.e. with lots of weekly readings?

The projects, which became a pop-up art show designed and installed collectively in the home room generously donated by GIDEST, are gathered on a website (designed by another student Vaida Norvilaite). It was very easy for all of us to keep defaulting to dystopia and “cynical reason,” but I read these projects as a sort of collective poetics of utopianism that seem to tread a fine line between possibility and precarity, enhancement and control, without falling to the disease of promise-threat/utopia-dystopia endemic to this domain. If you are interested, the site also includes an expansive reading list. If otherwise, please navigate elsewhere.

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