Utopias — visions of a better future — are incredible tools for informing and inspiring social change. Their reputation, however, is extremely poor, at a time when we need such a radical restructuring of society that everyday life will soon become unrecognisable — or collapse entirely. This is a deeply dangerous time to lose our ability to imagine a better world. We desperately need new visions for life and society in order to halt “business as usual”, and actually attempt to navigate the climate and ecological emergency (as well as overcome pervasive inequality, alienation and meaninglessness). To explore how we might reclaim utopia, let’s trace its downfall under modernism and postmodernism, before synthesising the two under the emerging “metamodern” paradigm…
Modernism Goes Haywire
Our digitalised, globalised, industrialised world is largely the product of modernism. The Great Modernist Project, borne of the enlightenment, is a utopian project built on the values of reason, progress, growth and science. All we need to fix the world’s problems are more, more, more of these values – so the story goes. And this story has brought us very far indeed, to modern medicine, global communications – to the moon and back, even. The notion that modernity is the pinnacle of civilisation is captured in books like Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress”.
Yet to live out the modern story any longer now amounts to an act of suicide: the modernist utopia is rapidly plunging into system-wide destabilisation and destruction. A capitalist system that depends on growth for stability is ravaging our life-support systems to the extent that near-future human extinction looks increasingly probable…
To make matters worse, the latest manifestation of the modernist utopia, neoliberalism, is a deeply tyrannical one: it subsumes all other utopias by putting them to work for the almighty free market. Solutions are suffocated as genuine utopian projects are commodified, commercialised and sold to the highest bidder. Just take Mark Zuckerberg’s dream to connect the world that morphed into what is essentially the world’s biggest advertising company. This is no accident: neoliberalism has been an astoundingly successful program to allow capital flow as freely as possible – straight into the hands of already-wealthy elites. This exploitation of the poor by the rich is made possible by ubiquitous propaganda (ads, workplaces, commercial public spaces) which degrades our innate utopian impulses and replaces it with ye olde suburban dream: car, house, spouse, kids.
As Thatcher quipped “there is no alternative”. And we believe it! That’s capitalist realism. We freed the market but paid the price of enslaving our imaginations. This is Deadlock One: Modernity raveges our utopias for their economic potential and works to flatten all society into a homogenous consumerist desert, bereft of community, ecology or creativity.
As Abdullah Ocalan offers: “Modernity’s history is a history of four centuries of cultural and physical genocide”.
The post-modern attitude defines itself as an antithesis to modernism. It berates the modernist utopian project and uncovers its hideous injustices and destructive tendencies. Postmodernism seeks to explain everyone’s worldview as a product of their social and cultural conditioning: inherently limited, biased and relative. Ultimate truths and absolute values are torn down and hacked apart. Postmodernism’s great project of deconstructing modernism has resulted in an allergy to actively upholding its own values by attempting to build a society on them. Such utopian projects are seen as naïve at best, and at worst, totalitarian or Machiavellian: who are you to tell me the world should be like this? Look what happened last time we shot for utopia! Colonialism, communism, capitalism… stop the madness! Can’t you see utopias are dangerous?!
This is where postmodernism makes an incredibly important point: while it works for a priveliged few, for most people, modernism sucks.
To quote the postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida: “let us never neglect this obvious macroscopic fact, made up of innumerable singular sites of suffering: no degree of progress allows one to ignore that never before, in absolute figures, have so many men, women and children been subjugated, starved or exterminated on the earth.”
As a result of such reasoning, postmoderns are unable to provide, and unwilling to propose, viable and harmonious alternatives to the modern neoliberal system. It’s too dangerous; we’ve been burnt too many times. Despite the immense value in blocking modernity’s tirade of growth-obsessed “progress”, postmodernism offers no alternative paths forward. This is Deadlock Two: postmodern skepticism is preventing us from reaching for fair, free and just utopias at a time when we desperately need to be doing exactly that.
How can we move beyond the postmodern skepticism of utopias?And do so in a way that retains a staunch criticism of eternally held modernist values, but continues to reap their countless life-enhancing benefits?
The answer lies in synthesising the modernist enthusiasm for utopian projects with the postmodern recognition of the sheer multitude of vastly differing perspectives in today’s world.
To reclaim utopia as a workable concept, we first need to admit that utopias provide genuinely useful narratives for improving the world, particularly in the face of unfolding ecological and social collapse.
A utopia is an extrapolation of my deep values and ideals into an imaginary society. It’s an exploration of what the society-wide real-isation of these values might look like. The exercise of envisioning utopias, then, can be incredibly motivating one when it brings home the possibility of a world which embodies our deep values. Finding these dormant potentialities can inform and inspire our efforts to change the world. Every utopia is a mirror we can hold up to the present and see how it could be different.
To arrive at utopias thus calls for deep value-work. The key task is to ensure that our utopian visions are derived from our deepest, most authentic, ideals and values, which requires a courageous and unflinching quest to get beneath the extrinsic values handed to us by our social environment and education. The intrinsic values beneath this “dirt layer” are rich and unabashedly utopian, but are often repressed and hidden by our upbringing. A useful guide might be the values of childhood: play, creativity, nature, family, curiosity, exploration, and wonder.
Getting down to these deeper values allows us to construct utopias that resonate with our blocked desires and emotional needs, going beyond the alienation and psychological repression of today’s society. But now we need to check ourselves, as we stray towards the modernist tendency of reifying such values as absolute, eternal — and good for everyone. Because they aren’t. Not everybody wants to play, and we shouldn’t force them. (Rather, we should help them unblock the emotional insecurities that prevent them from playing in the first place.)
After constructing utopian visions from our deep values, we can draw on the postmodernism recognition that any utopia is just a narrative, a fiction based on personal ideals and values that are arbitrary, relative and culturally conditioned. Really, we have no truly authentic values, but this shouldn’t stop us pursuing our most authentic values, exploring them through imagination, intuition, reason, co-creation, emotion, and introspection. The postmodern trick is to do this with a critical self-irony; a humourous view of our own perceived self-importance. This humour acts an antidote to the seriousness with which modernists pursue their idealist projects. As a result, none of our utopian values are to be taken as “true” or absolute, but that doesn’t diminish our enthusiasm for them. We can proceed with a light touch, playing with others in the creatively unfolding present – not forcing the world to fit our grand plans.
This brings us towards a metamodern conception of utopia. To briefly unpack that term: Metamodernism is the cultural phase that comes after postmodernism. It “oscillates between modernism and postmodernism”¹, synthesising the best aspects of each while working to remove the destructive ones. It comes in large part from the work of enigmatic Nordic philosopher Hanzi Freinacht and his books on Metamodernism (and I feel obliged to drop here that I have never encountered a better map for understanding modern society).
Crucially, in the metamodern view, ”you are both a modern believer in science and progress and a skeptical, ironic critic of your own naive belief.”. You know your worldview is horribly skewed and incomplete, but you try and build a better world anyway (because you have to), making constant checks that you are integrating these efforts with other’s perspectives. You’re in solidarity with everyone – the traditionalists, modernists, and postmodernists – by attempting to see through their eyes and help them develop psychologically. This care-driven interaction helps you develop, too, making co-development a cornerstone of metamodernism. (Hanzi breaks psychological development up into four ladders of state, depth, cultural code and cognitive complexity… but no space here, read the book!).
The metamodern attitude holds great import for our reclamation of utopia: it allows us to move forwards once again in our attempts to construct a better world on the basis of reason and evidence (modernism), but now with a continual self-criticism working to stop our inherently limited perspective from oppressing others (postmodernism). Our reasoning and interpretations of evidence are continually acknowledged to stand on a bedrock of unfounded assumptions. But instead of stopping us, as the postmodernist view would like, this fact keeps us in good humour and motivates us to arrive at better assumptions through value-work, deconstruction, reflection and dialogue. We co-develop. With improved assumptions and more complex thinking, we can then return to our modernist projects— and the oscillation repeats.
In a metamodern view, then, utopian narratives are recognised from the outset as limited, insufficient and imperfect. But instead of being a weakness (as the postmodernists might say), this becomes a strength when we move away from utopias as fixed blueprints for society, and towards open-ended utopias — always provisional and willing to change to accommodate the needs and perspectives of others.
A utopia might be “just” a narrative, but then again, narratives are all we have. There is no god-given story. We have to write our own — and narratives that involve radically more functional, democratic and harmonious societies are vital. Now more than ever.
Utopia as Experiment
When we arrive at a utopian vision, then, we are not, like the modernists, saying this is how the world should be. Rather, we are simply presenting an unfinished proposal for a better world. While limited to a particular worldview and developmental perspective, the proposal of a world in line with one’s deepest values is the best that anyone can provide. Everybody’s utopia is valid, from their personal perspective. This doesn’t mean we should try to build everyone’s utopia (Hitler’s, for example), but we do need to sympathise with everyone’s limited ability to understand the world and themselves, particularly given the confusion, oppression, trauma and violence that so many experience. We need to respect that it is only out of personal suffering that warped and oppressive utopias emerge. Only the utopian proposals that actively seek to avoid harm — to any beings — should make it to the table.
The most harmonious path forwards seems to be engaging in collective experiments to live out our utopian proposals. Co-discovery of our deep values and ideals and active attempts to live by them, in a context of actively welcoming critique and constructive criticism, allows us to move ever closer towards a regenerative and ecological society, where the focus is on internal wellbeing, psychological development and sustainability. Such experiments can help us to eradicate the systemic structures of domination and hierarchy that lead us to oppress ourselves, one another, our animal siblings, and the natural world. Only then can we reconnect with the naïve idealism of modernism, informed by the thorough social critique of postmodernism. Only then can we build utopias which accommodate and integrate the vastly differing worldviews, values — and utopias — of today’s world.
A metamodern utopia is a provisional synthesis, a utopia of utopias. Always open, always changing, and always, always imperfect.
Our utopian experiments should be exercises in pragmatic idealism.
Pragmatic because we are engaging in real-world dialogues, conversations and experiments, in a search for sustainable, just and harmonious social systems. Idealism because we use our values and ideals to arrive at visions of these systems before trying them out. Each utopia is a hypothesis that can be tested; each test is a result that informs our efforts to restructure society. Spaces to conduct these experiments — squats, community projects, ecovillages, TEAL organisations, social/protest movements, direct & digital democracy projects, fearless cities, conferences, autonomous zones, art collectives, opensource projects, autonomous digital nations and crypto-economies — are essential now more than ever. They deserve all our support and involvement, as well as critique and criticism.
Support for these collective utopian experiments comes from cross-cultural studies which show a high degree of shared values². This common overlap in wholesome intrinsic values is the basis on which we can collectively attempt to build a better world. Postmodern recognition of different subjective values is important, but this shouldn’t paper over our deep shared values, and hold back our attempts to harmonise social systems in accordance with them.
Demanding the Impossible
Utopias are dangerous, but explored in this way, we gravitate towards their deep relevance to social change: as an experimental method to inspire and guide it. Far more dangerous is a failure to try and build utopias, to suffocate in the quicksand of relentless criticism and implicitly allow the current world-system’s acceleration towards biological, and possibly even human, extinction. But as modernity collapses, opportunities for utopian experiments abound; they will play a crucial role in the deep cultural and social changes needed to navigate this global crisis.
So let us be bold – unapologetically and radically bold – in our visions for a better world. Let us become radical, visionary and shameless utopians.
Sheryl Medlicott concludes: “go forth as climate change utopians, keeping alive the possibility of innumerably various alternative futures and demanding the impossible.”⁴
This moment asks for nothing less.
- The Listening Society — Hanzi Freinacht. Metamoderna.org
- The Values of Everything — George Monbiot.
- China Mièville.
- Sheryl Medlicott — A Provocation to Practice Utopianism in the Face of Climate Crisis