Do we need new utopias?

An ongoing collection of quotes on utopianism

This question has been on my mind for over a year now. In a time that seems to become more dystopian each day, it might be rather normal to yearn for new positive visions. I’m also not very fond of the utopian visions of Silicon Valley’s libertarians (Musk, Brin & Page, Zuckerberg, Kurzweil, etc.). Furthermore, ten years of Merkel here in Germany might play a role.

So I’ve been investigating the topic of utopia, read books (fiction and non-fiction), essays, articles, etc. It has been quite easy because of the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia, last year. But I’m still finding it hard to answer the question if utopias are what we need right now, and if yes, what kind of utopias. Because the track record of past utopias is not exactly stellar.

So in the spirit of thinking out loud, I’m collecting the most interesting quotes here. Seeing them together might produce some fresh insights.

Books

Howard P. Segal — Utopias — A Brief History from Ancient Writings to Virtual Communities

This book started my journey into this question about the future of utopia. Segal is a history professor and expert on utopias and provides a insightful overview over the history of utopianism.

In effect, utopianism functions like a microscope: by first isolating and the magnifying aspects of existing, non-utopian societies allegedly needing drastic improvements, it enables us to see more clearly their political, economic, and psychological mainstreams. […]
For, in its most substantial forms, utopianism remains a provocative means of offering constructive criticism of existing society in order to improve it, not to abandon it. …]
Given the human propensity toward selfish and exploitative behavior, achievement of the kind of planning and control required by utopia would inevitably result in “dystopia,” or anti-utopia.

Ursula K. Le Guin — The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed is maybe my favorite book on utopias. In this science fiction novel from 1974, Le Guin invents two planets. One is a stand-in for Earth, the other is an anarchist colony, that represents the fulfillment of the utopian dream. Le Guin then brilliantly shows the problems of both societies. The book is eloquent but also very harsh answer to anyone believing that “if we only would…”

Thinking about it here, it seems that Le Guin took the learnings about the typical utopian communities in America (as described here) and extrapolated them to society-scale. I can’t recommend this book enough.

Talks

Madeline Ashby at FutureEverything 2016 in Manchester

The truth is that your utopia is someone else’s dystopia. And the only reason people worry about the popularity of dystopias is because they’re worried that someday the dystopia will happen to them.

Essays & Articles

China Miéville — The Limits of Utopia

Utopias are necessary. But not only are they insufficient: they can, in some iterations, be part of the ideology of the system, the bad totality that organises us, warms the skies, and condemns millions to peonage on garbage scree. The utopia of togetherness is a lie. Environmental justice means acknowledging that there is no whole earth, no ‘we’, without a ‘them’. That we are not all in this together. […]
Apocalypse and utopia: the end of everything, and the horizon of hope. Far from antipodes, these two have always been inextricable. […]
We must learn to hope with teeth. […]
What utopias are are new Rorschachs. We pour our concerns and ideas out, and then in dreaming we fold the paper to open it again and reveal startling patterns. We may pour with a degree of intent, but what we make is beyond precise planning. Our utopias are to be enjoyed and admired: they are made of our concerns and they tell us about our now, about our pre-utopian selves. They are to be interpreted. And so are those of our enemies. […]
We need utopia, but to try to think utopia, in this world, without rage, without fury, is an indulgence we can’t afford. In the face of what is done, we cannot think utopia without hate.

Ed Simon — Five Hundred Years of Utopia

Utopianism, then, is a means of holding in our mind’s eye the possibility of a world free of oppression and domination and charting an ever-closer course towards its shore. Less a blueprint than a direction, Utopia is an ideal against which we can compare our own society — a fiction that can help us understand where we fall short and where we can go from here.

Akash Kapur — The Return of the Utopians

We can think of these two ambitions — reinvented sex and a remade economy — as the twin pillars of the utopian project. […]
The utopian has a better story to tell; the meliorist leaves us with a better world.

Jeet Heer — Farewell to Dystopian Lit, Here Come the New Utopians

The enemy of utopia isn’t dystopia, but oligarchy. […]
“Anyone can do a dystopia these days just by making a collage of newspaper headlines,” Robinson told science fiction short story writer Terry Bisson in 2009. “But utopias are hard, and important, because we need to imagine what it might be like if we did things well enough to say to our kids, we did our best, this is about as good as it was when it was handed to us, take care of it and do better.”

Tobias Jones — Free love or genocide? The trouble with Utopias

Utopianism is like the manifesto we would write if no one were watching, if all the rules could be rewritten by just one, benevolent dictator. […]
In the end, one’s attitude to utopianism usually depends on one’s understanding of progress, since progress is, as Wilde wrote, just “the realisation of utopias”.

Please feel free to recommend more study material (books, essays, talks).

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