Posts Tagged ‘transition to utopia’

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…

Reflections on utopias (2)

August 21, 2018

Boring

There are other problems with utopian novels, in terms of their structure; certainly the novel which started me off raises a number of them. Utopian novels are often rather, or very dull. Rarely do they have more than the most basic of linear plots; there’s very little character development, almost no suspense or excitement; lots is left unexplained because it cannot be explained. What you have is a didactic text, not a novel as we know it, Jim. There’s almost no subtlety. Thus, it cannot be explained how our hero is escaped from the Paris blockade; he’s conveniently hypnotised to sleep while it all happens, after having promised he will never ask about it. When the author thinks we may have had enough of the Oxford student telling his linear story, he shifts to having his Cornwall vicar continue the same linear story. And then, in the mysteriously appearing manuscript, Aleriel himself continues his linear narrative. Subtle it isn’t, dull it becomes. We are never told why it’s so important that the Venusian doesn’t reveal himself to the Martians when he travels around their world…

Two exceptions

If you’re going to describe a perfect world, then what ought to have been a novel soon becomes a geography or history or sociology textbook. Some writers – better writers – realise that a real plot is going to make their novel rather more interesting. I’ll mention two examples. Austen Tappan Wright’s tour-de-force (over a thousand pages) Islandia has a wide range of characters including someone from our world who explores and comes to feel that the utopian society he visits is preferable to his own; he develops real, and romantic relationships with characters from that world, which is under threat in various ways, and he offers his help and skills in various ways as these plot strands beyond his own are played out… in other words there are plots and people to interest us

Ursula Le Guin takes a similar approach in her anarchist utopia The Dispossessed: the home planet Urras is our capitalist earth and Anarres its moon is the breakaway would-be utopia, here a work-in-progress rather than something complete, where everyone, and particularly anyone dissatisfied can see and if they choose reach the glittering alternative: there is a complex dynamic between the two worlds which moves the story along. Do you want the gritty, poor and hard-won utopia or the flesh-pots of capitalism? (I oversimplify, grossly); if you are living in one, does the other seem more attractive? Is it really? What can and should you do about it? Le Guin’s novel is possibly the supreme achievement in the genre, raising, as it does, so many real questions that pertain to us and our society, and making us think deeply about them. Furthermore both these authors succeed in creating a range of fully developed and convincing characters with whom the reader engages: their fates matter to us, played out against the backdrop of their fascinating worlds.

What is the point?

Many writers, including a fair number of cranks, have pictured their visions of a perfect society. As a form, the utopian novel often does not work, at least as a novel, for reasons I’ve listed above. They are of academic interest, perhaps. Some writers do better – see the last two examples. But ultimately, the visions are unachievable, it seems to me, without our giving up a great deal of what we cherish dearly as part of our human nature. Equally, though, we find it very difficult to imagine our species in any way radically different: Brave New World faces us with that possibility very forcefully: the inhabitants of that society are almost all completely happy. Why, then, do we recoil?

There is the issue of transition: whilst writers can imagine a utopia, to convince us that it’s possible to get to it from where we are now, is a much taller order, which fewer writers attempt. Instead we are parachuted into a new world. And no matter how desirable a new world might be, is it achievable without great violence, upheaval and bloodshed? Look at what happened with the Russian Revolution. That’s not to say that to make an attempt is not worth it, merely to underline the difficulties. My utopia will be someone else’s dystopia.

Finally there is the problem of stasis. For better or worse, so far in human history we have known intellectual and material progress, as our minds, understanding and knowledge have developed. There is a dynamism, a power in this which cannot exist in a utopia, which is by nature perfect: there is no further progress to be made. Venusians are eternal. Would we not then be faced with the problem of entropy? Would things not inevitably but slowly disintegrate? Can utopia only ever be a dream?

Further musings and reflections available here and here.

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