Posts Tagged ‘problems with utopias’

Rutger Bregman: Utopia for Realists

December 23, 2020

     Here was a really interesting and thought-provoking book that I also found really annoying. The author’s flippant tone and peppering of a would-be serious text with lots of throwaway facts, combined with the current habit or necessity for chopping everything up into short gobbets to fit with our reduced attention-spans, did not get me off to a good start.

He presents a series of perspectives on our world, all of which call for serious consideration. Things are so much better now than they were in the past (he says), but is the current situation the best we can do? Bregman finds today dystopian, and I have to agree; he’s shaping up his main argument, which is our lack of vision, and again, I find myself in agreement.

Universal Basic Income is quite thoroughly explored and documented, and would surely have been a considerable help during the current pandemic, had it already been in place. But more money for everyone will drive more growth and more consumption, with all the negative consequences. Similarly his deconstruction of the myth of GDP as a measure of progress is much-needed but again he reveals himself over-enamoured of the great technological leaps forward of recent years as if they are value and effect-free.

He does acknowledge that economic growth has resulted in more stuff, rather than more leisure time, but again the ecological destructiveness of this key point is glossed over, as is the major significance of the effect of women being drawn into the workforce over the past half-century. While I am fully in favour of the right of anyone and everyone to work and develop a career, the way in which the system has silently ensured that it now takes two working adults to keep a family going – yes I am aware of sweeping generalisation here, but the main idea is true – and we have mostly silently accepted this in exchange for extra shiny-shiny, the implications of this major transformation for the future of the planet merit some reflection, surely?

I liked it when he got on to the fact that the best-paid jobs don’t actually create anything of value, but merely shunt money around (whilst skimming off a sizeable percentage and trousering it, not that Bregman mentions this too loudly). Automation has created a surplus of labour at the bottom of the social pile, driving wages down: again, we have seen the effect of this all too clearly during the pandemic.

Bregman’s most astonishing assertion is that world poverty would be ended by the complete opening of all borders to people and migration. I am not in a position to challenge his data, which I’m sure is valid: again, the cost is more stuff, more consumption, more pollution…

My main gripes were the simplistic approach, in the pop-science and pop-philosophy mode currently fashionable, and Bregman’s almost total lack of recognition of the environmental and climate implications for any of his basically growth-based, ‘capitalism-taming’ approach. At the same time, I am forced to recognise my own intellectual snobbery here: all these ideas do need much wider dissemination and consideration. But the hectic pace of the book allows no real time for sober reflection.

I found Bregman’s analysis of issues very interesting. Many, if not most people would accept it and would probably welcome the changes he moots. But – and here is the crux – most people don’t have the time or the inclination to read such a book, modify their thinking and still less, act on it. So we are again in the position we often find ourselves in at the end of a utopian novel: the place is wonderful, I’d like to be there, live there, but how the hell do I actually get there? The transition is the issue to crack: how do you overcome the resistance of the powerful and murderous vested interests who would oppose change? In Ursula Le Guin’s marvellous novel The Dispossessed, the Annaresti have to leave their planet (conveniently there is a habitable moon close by) in order to build their alternative society…

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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