What do we mean when we talk about utopia? It may seem as if we have a clear conception of what this is supposed to be: a purely imagined place where everything is perfect. What's more, we intuitively know this to be a dangerous endeavour - the adjective 'utopian' has the entirely negative connotation of an unattainable state of affairs, and therefore we almost invariably assume a danger to utopian thinking.
There is a grave error here, for were it not for utopian thinking, were it not for our capacity to imagine utopias, democracy could never have been created or rediscovered, there could have been no transition to universal suffrage where all citizens are politically equal, and the civil rights movements could never have been mounted at all. There are risks entailed in imagining our own utopias, no doubt. But there are far greater risks in our denial of utopian thinking, for our fictions of utopia are inescapably bound up in our understanding of political reality.
We get the term from Thomas More's book Utopia published in 1516, more than half a millennia ago. It is significant that 'utopia' is Latin for 'no place'. The description of the island of Utopia is the focus solely of the second part of the book, with this discussion framed as accounts of newly discovered lands by More's fictitious traveller, Raphael Hythloday (whose surname can be translated "purveyor of nonsense"). It would have been quite clear to any reader of More's book - which was written in Latin - that we are not meant to have taken the description of the island of Utopia as a blueprint for social perfection. That is why Utopia is 'no place', and Hythloday a speaker of nonsense. But More means for us to think philosophically through these fictions - indeed, he is playing with Plato's Republic throughout, and does not hide this fact at all. Through Utopia, More invites his readers to think about the political problems of 16th century Europe.
Neither should we assume that those insights have nothing to say to us today. Consider this quote from Hythloday:
Though, to speak plainly my real sentiments, I must freely own that as long as there is any property, and while money is the standard of all other things, I cannot think that a nation can be governed either justly or happily: not justly, because the best things will fall to the share of the worst men; nor happily, because all things will be divided among a few (and even these are not in all respects happy), the rest being left to be absolutely miserable.
What's more, More has no expectation that what is being imagined will come to pass, and his fictionalised version of himself remarks in the story that "except all men were good, everything cannot be right, and that is a blessing that I do not at present hope to see." Thinking about Utopia, no place, is an opportunity to think differently about the real political world that we live in. So it was for More. And so it remains today.
The inevitable consequence of this recognition is that 'utopian' thinking (whether in a negative sense or otherwise) is not solely concerned with thinking about the future, but also manifests in our thoughts about the present or the past. For instance, if we view the industrial revolution in positive terms - focussing, perhaps, upon the benefits it brought to the middle class - this is a utopian interpretation of these events. We might just as plausibly look back on the industrial revolution in negative terms - as the acceleration of wealth disparity, or as the instigation of technocracy and escalating environmental harms. Indeed, one reading of the Scouring of the Shire at the end of Return of the King is precisely as this kind of accusation.
Our entire relationship with the political worlds we live in requires our imagination, as I wrote about at length in Chaos Ethics. It follows that our own utopias - whether or not we been able to express them in words - govern our thoughts about politics, because these ideal visions of how we might live are the yardstick by which we judge how we live together. We can choose to interpret the historical transitions that preceded us as utopian (as in the previous example with the industrial revolution) or we can choose to judge our present situation against our utopias (as every proponent of social reform does), but we have no way of thinking about politics without relying upon our own utopias as a point of comparison.
In a sense, what divides different political factions from one another is precisely their different utopias. Do we see utopia in an idealised past? We lean to the right. Do we see utopia in a soon-to-be-attained future state? We lean to the left. Do we lament the nonsensical demands of both left and right? We are a cynic, and have abandoned our own desires for utopia as unattainable. Yet still, we will not have escaped our utopias. Nobody can. Our imagined perfections are the very bedrock of our political judgement. When we truly appreciate this, we might even be thankful that there is no escape from our own utopias. Then, perhaps, we might try to choose utopias worth imagining.
For Chris Billows.