utopia and dystopia

Marina Gusmão, The caretaker of the birds (or would she be the killer), Watercolor.


Utopian imagination is not enough in itself to build a better world, but it is an essential prerequisite

Utopia and dystopia are twin sisters, born in the same moment of the shared ancestry of social criticism. Although remembered as the first modern attempt to systematically imagine an ideal society, the work Utopia (1516) by Thomas More began with a poignant portrayal of a Europe torn apart by war and crushing poverty, with the shocking prediction that if the enclosure of farmland continued, sheep would soon be eating people. This terrifying prospect made urgent the search for an alternative, which More outlines as an egalitarian, communal, and property-sharing society.

More's utopian hopes were balanced by his dystopian fears, with a new sense of human agency in the making of history leading to both hopeful and dire possibilities. In the half millennium since More wrote, countless others have trod both paths, painting scenes of either earthly paradises or man-made hells.

The balance gained by More has been lost in our own age, in which our fantasy lives are overloaded with dystopian nightmares and the utopian impulse is only dimly heard. In his 1994 book The Seeds of Time, literary theorist Fredric Jameson ruefully reflected that “it seems easier for us to imagine the complete deterioration of earth and nature than the collapse of late capitalism; perhaps this is due to some weakness of our imagination.”

Jameson saw this limited, crippled imaginative inability to conceive of systemic change as one of the hallmarks of postmodernism. The last few decades have proved prophetic, as the dystopian imagination has become increasingly dominant in our culture. Scary (and all too plausible) stories of climate catastrophes, pandemics, and rising authoritarianism made their way into the news and popular fiction. be in The road, by Cormac McCarthy, in the trilogy by Margaret Atwood MaddAddam, our Hunger Games from Suzanne Collins, or in countless zombie films, we are not short of ways to imagine the end of the world: nuclear war, rising oceans, biotechnology going crazy, totalitarian dictatorship. What we lack is any positive roadmap for building a better world.

The utopian thrust is controversial across the political spectrum. Margaret Thatcher brutally summed up the conservative ethos by saying “There is no alternative”. If Thatcher was right, then utopian speculation is impotent and doomed to failure. And some on the left would agree. Karl Marx consistently used “utopian socialism” as a term of abuse, referring to frivolous thinkers like Charles Fourier and Henri de Saint-Simon who drew up plans for ideal societies without considering, as Marx himself tried to do, actual historical dynamics and the conjuncture of forces that could realistically bring about change.

Scientific socialism, Marx insisted, was superior to utopian socialism. In the same spirit, radical international relations scholar Immanuel Wallerstein, in his 1998 book utopistic, warned that “utopias are creators of illusions and, therefore, inevitably, of disillusionment. And utopias can be used, have been used, as justifications for terrible mistakes. The last thing we really need are even more utopian visions.”

Against Marx and Wallerstein, there is a venerable tradition of radical thinkers who have tried to redeem the idea of ​​utopia in Marxist terms by insisting that the hope of a better society keeps social unrest alive. Jameson is perhaps the greatest living example of this tradition. In a 2004 essay in New Left Review, Jameson insisted, “It is hard enough to imagine any radical political program today without the concept of systemic otherness, of an alternative society, which only the idea of ​​utopia seems to keep alive, however small.”

Utopian imagination is not enough in itself to build a better world, but it is an essential prerequisite. As Oscar Wilde best expressed it in his essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” (1891), when he declared: “a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even fit to be looked at, because it leaves out the only country in which Humanity is always disembarking. And when Humanity disembarks there, looks outside, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of Utopias”.

History confirms Wilde's presumption. The genre of utopian fiction, born out of frustration during periods of disillusioned promise, is an especially sensitive barometer of historical change. People start writing utopias when they feel discontent with the existing order – what Jameson identifies as the quiet moment before the revolutionary storm erupts.

Building on Jameson's work, historian Perry Anderson, also writing in New Left Review, argued:

There is little doubt that this has indeed been a recurring pattern. her own Utopia de More in 1516 preceded the outbreak of the Reformation which convulsed Europe, and which consumed More himself, in less than a year. The next group of significant utopias – the city of the sun (1623), by Campanella, New Atlantis (1623), by Bacon and Robert Burton's Idiosyncratic Digression in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621-1638) – emerged in the period before the start of the English Civil War and the Neapolitan Revolt of the XNUMXth century. The greatest utopian daydream of all time, Bougainville Voyage Supplement (1772) by Diderot, was written a generation before the French Revolution. Also in the nineteenth century, the extraordinary set of utopian fictions of the last years of the century – Looking back (1890) by Bellamy, Morris's reply in News from Nowhere (1890) Outdoors (also 1890) by Hertzka, to which we may add, as a contribution from the Far East, The Book of Great Unity (1888-1902) by Kang Youwei – preceded the 1905-1911 turmoil in Russia and China, the outbreak of World War I, and the October Revolution.

Yet another example is the utopian speculations of Frankfurt School Marxists such as TW Adorno, Ernst Bloch and Herbert Marcuse during the 1940s and 1950s, works that were early premonitions of the revolts of the 1960s. The periods of revolution themselves, Anderson added. , are accompanied by an efflorescence of utopian writing. The 1960s and 1970s were no exception to this rule, witnessing the last great explosion of the utopian tradition in the speculative queer and feminist writings of Shulamith Firestone, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Samuel R. Delaney, and Marge Piercy. We are still experiencing part of what these authors envisioned.

Even after the utopian flame of the 1960s and 1970s died, there were still considerable sparks in the science fiction of Kim Stanley Robinson, who envisioned an ecologically sustainable California in one of the greatest modern utopias, pacific edge (nineteen ninety). Not by accident, Robinson had done his doctoral thesis, on the fiction of Philip K. Dick, under Jameson's guidance.

What do we lose by giving up the utopian imagination? Political scientist Lyman Tower Sargent describes utopian thinking as "social dreaming". Utopias teach us to dream collectively, to sharpen our imaginations, to demand more, to ask if the world's injustices really need to exist – or if we can figure out how to get rid of them.

One of Jameson's crucial arguments is that utopias do not simply offer blueprints to be executed, but function more as diagnostic tools to discover what is wrong with society. Mutually exclusive utopian proposals can still serve the same purpose of exposing the inadequacies of existing society. Jameson's preferred utopia of universal employment may seem at odds with Marcuse's scheme of universal leisure. But both proposals seek to highlight the monstrosity of a system that links survival to employment and maintains a reserve army of unemployed people.

The function of utopia, Jameson argued in his 2004 essay, “is not to help us imagine a better future, but rather to demonstrate our complete inability to imagine such a future – our imprisonment in a non-utopian present without historicity or future – so as to reveal the ideological closure of the system in which we are somehow trapped and confined”.

One of the most hopeful signs of the current moment is that, for the first time since the 1970s, the utopian imagination is revived. Once-lonely voices like Robinson and Jameson are now being joined by a younger chorus calling for universal basic income, a New Deal Green, open borders, a super TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) to modernize American infrastructure, and the abolition of police and prisons, among other utopian schemes. Not everyone will evolve – and they don't need to. The utopian impulse exists to arouse discomfort with the status quo and social unrest.

Where it ends, no one can know, because all social progress is made from the bottom up, with people hammering out alternatives amid the conflicts of political life. But the energy to create such alternatives would not exist without utopian dreams.

*Jeet Heer is a journalist for The Nation and author, among other books by Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (Pocupine's Quil).

Translation: Marina Gusmao Faria Barbosa Bueno.

Originally published onThe Nation.



See this link for all articles


  • About artificial ignoranceEugenio Bucci 15/06/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Today, ignorance is not an uninhabited house, devoid of ideas, but a building full of disjointed nonsense, a goo of heavy density that occupies every space
  • Franz Kafka, libertarian spiritFranz Kafka, libertarian spirit 13/06/2024 By MICHAEL LÖWY: Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer
  • The society of dead historyclassroom similar to the one in usp history 16/06/2024 By ANTONIO SIMPLICIO DE ALMEIDA NETO: The subject of history was inserted into a generic area called Applied Human and Social Sciences and, finally, disappeared into the curricular drain
  • Strengthen PROIFESclassroom 54mf 15/06/2024 By GIL VICENTE REIS DE FIGUEIREDO: The attempt to cancel PROIFES and, at the same time, turn a blind eye to the errors of ANDES management is a disservice to the construction of a new representation scenario
  • Letter to the presidentSquid 59mk,g 18/06/2024 By FRANCISCO ALVES, JOÃO DOS REIS SILVA JÚNIOR & VALDEMAR SGUISSARDI: “We completely agree with Your Excellency. when he states and reaffirms that 'Education is an investment, not an expense'”
  • Volodymyr Zelensky's trapstar wars 15/06/2024 By HUGO DIONÍSIO: Whether Zelensky gets his glass full – the US entry into the war – or his glass half full – Europe’s entry into the war – either solution is devastating for our lives
  • PEC-65: independence or patrimonialism in the Central Bank?Campos Neto Trojan Horse 17/06/2024 By PEDRO PAULO ZAHLUTH BASTOS: What Roberto Campos Neto proposes is the constitutional amendment of free lunch for the future elite of the Central Bank
  • A look at the 2024 federal strikelula haddad 20/06/2024 By IAEL DE SOUZA: A few months into government, Lula's electoral fraud was proven, accompanied by his “faithful henchman”, the Minister of Finance, Fernando Haddad
  • Introduction to “Capital” by Karl Marxred triangular culture 02/06/2024 By ELEUTÉRIO FS PRADO: Commentary on the book by Michael Heinrich
  • Hélio Pellegrino, 100 years oldHelio Pellegrino 14/06/2024 By FERNANDA CANAVÊZ & FERNANDA PACHECO-FERREIRA: In the vast elaboration of the psychoanalyst and writer, there is still an aspect little explored: the class struggle in psychoanalysis