Return to Utopia

February 2, 2016

I’ve written about utopias at various times, in relation to specific books I’ve read, and more generally, too; I’ve been doing some more thinking recently. Utopias have changed over time: originally they were static worlds, because perfect, and if something is perfect, then any change is per se a deterioration. But stasis has its own dangers, too – that way entropy lies. So, more recently there has been more of a sense of a utopia as a work in progress, with at least some projects or activities allowing the dynamism that we recognise as a human attribute to flourish. In Yefremov’s Andromeda, for instance, it’s contact with alien civilisation that’s the great excitement of the moment. Huxley’s Brave New World – which is a utopia – is fixated on maintaining stasis at all costs, but this seems to matter less as the realisation grows that the inhabitants may be happy, but are not human…

Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward is a highly organised and regulated socialist utopia in the United States (!); this apparent contradiction got me thinking about the balance between individuals and groups. Because a utopia is a perfect society (or working towards that state) it seems to me that the role and fulfilment of the individual of necessity has to take a subordinate place to the functioning of the society as a whole, and this is an idea that does not sit easily with us in the West at our particular stage of (capitalist) development. An individual utopia just does not seem to be a possibility (at least, I have yet to encounter one in fiction). And utopia is therefore compulsory for all its inhabitants – you cannot just opt out, for there is nothing to opt out to, if you see what I mean; furthermore, if it is a state of (near) perfection, then its members presumably accept that compulsion and consequent limitations on their freedom as individuals. This brings us back to that hoary old chestnut, freedom from versus freedom to…

Inhabitants of Anarres, in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, seem used to being organised by each other in an anarchist state, accepting rotated allocations to society’s more demanding and less pleasant tasks; it’s possible to imagine that humans might behave like that one day, but how do we get there, from where we are now? Transitions to utopia are often the least successful part of an author’s imagining. And what happens to misfits, the awkward ones, those who don’t or won’t or can’t fit? Huxley exiles them to islands; Marge Piercy in Woman on the Edge of Time, has her utopia execute criminals who can’t be reformed…

So, a utopia inevitably for us, posits a tension between what is best for individuals and best for the group. And, if the entire world is not part of the utopia, but only part of it is, such as in Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, or Austin Tappan Wright’s monumental Islandia, then the utopia is constantly looking over its metaphorical shoulder to see what the outsider threats might be.

The original, utopian hedonism of the 1960s was naive and its intentions soon subverted by the system which cashed in on rampant individualism in every way possible: if society is a mass of individuals all in pursuit of their own particular happiness or fulfilment, then there are myriad opportunities to sell stuff to each one of them… and that is what happened, on a grand scale, and is still happening: the idea that we might first consider what might be good for the bigger whole – all of society – has become alien territory, and utopia has receded.

I think that is why, to me at least, utopia remains and always will be the stuff of dreams: there are too many of us humans, all programmed to have so many different wants and needs; even if we could share resources out so that everyone had enough – and there is enough to be able to do this – I still can’t see us thereafter agreeing to sublimate ourselves to a greater good. Maybe I’m just having a bad day…

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