Representations of Utopia in New Left Art and Politics

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This Courage Called Utopia

This Courage Called Utopia:

Representations of Utopia in New Left Art and Politics

The Occupy movement that has swept the world last year has been vehemently criticized for not proposing a clear list of demands or a coherent alternative to the present. And yet the movement managed to radicalize an entire generation, introduce millions of people to the experience of direct democracy, and create a global network of activists still active today in assemblies, direct action campaigns and alternative media, thanks largely to the evocative post-capitalist utopia represented in its encampments and mass manifestations on the streets. What was this utopian vision? More generally, what types of utopias can we imagine today or which notions of progress are still operative today? And how do utopias allow people to engage in transformative action? These are the questions I will try to engage in this paper by looking at three instances of utopian representation in New Left art and politics, two from literature and one from radical politics.

It has often been said that we are undergoing not only a socio-economic crisis of systemic proportions, we also suffering from a crisis of imagination. Our ability to devise social models and institutions outside the logic of growth and profitability has been atrophied by decades of being told There Is No Alternative. Even left-leaning intellectuals, who have made a name for themselves writing about utopia, have demonstrated an uncanny “resistance to representing the future” (Jacoby cited on Kumar 2010:561). An attitude of erudite skepticism towards the authoritarian dimension of utopia has eclipsed the courage to imagine a life beyond capitalism. This position may be commendable, but it shuns the responsibility, however difficult, of mapping out the coordinates of a better society that might animate our collective desire (and constituent power) to struggle for its realization. Whatever threat of closure haunts utopia, we still require positive visions of future fulfillment if not to guide, at least to inspire radical political action. This is true especially in times of crisis such as these, when the “end of history,” the idea that the future is only more of the present, lets off a scream of outrage.

Taking the need for utopian representation seriously, this paper looks at three attempts to map out “this desire called utopia” (Jameson 2005): Ursula Le Guin’s classic “ambiguous utopia,” The Dispossessed (1974), Marge Piercy’s seemingly conventional but at the same time revolutionary text, Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), and finally the encampments built in the initial stage of the Occupy movement. Interestingly enough, all three examples offer glimpses of an anti-authoritarian utopia – a decentralized, egalitarian society where the principles of competition and accumulation have been replaced by mutual aid, self-government and resource conservation to produce an almost spiritual synergy between people, nature and culture.

The anti-authoritarian sensibility of the New Left has always functioned as a powerful counterpoint to our highly technocratic, profit-oriented culture. These three utopian representations, however, are not a direct product of the ‘68 counter-culture with its masculinist guerilla tactics, on the one hand, and susceptibility for hip consumerism, on the other. Le Guin and Piercy’s work as well as the Occupy camps are far more powerfully shaped by the ecofeminist backlash to ’68 macho revolutionary culture (especially the non-violent direct action movements of the 70s and 80s) and the de-growth democratic socialism of forgotten thinkers like Ivan Illich, André Gorz and Murray Bookchin. If we were to identify a notion of progress still operative today it would have to be this version of anti-authoritarian socialism. Its triumph is not the result of some ideological victory over contending political visions, for the anti-authoritarian Left is still minoritarian. Rather, representations of utopia adopt often an anti-authoritarian form because of a seamless congruence between utopia and prefigurative politics, a core element of the left libertarian program meant to anticipate the society to come through intentional communities, alternative economic arrangements, and aesthetic practices. No matter how weak in terms of strategy or organization, the courage to offer a sensuous taste of utopia has earned this vision of socialism “from below” more enthusiasm than any other political tactic could have. We see this manifested clearly in the case of Occupy, which I discuss in greater detail in the final section of the paper. The camps may not have helped the movement develop concrete strategies for winning the war of maneuver against the forces of accumulation, but without the zones of utopian sentience that were the camps it is hard to imagine the anti-capitalist rhetoric of Occupy gaining as much traction as it did.

Utopia: dead or suspect

The term utopia stems from Thomas More’s conflation of the two Greek terms eutopia (“somewhere good”) and outopia (“nowhere”): Utopia is the good place that is to be found nowhere. There is a paradox here that all students of utopia have had to grapple with. We are afraid of losing utopia, but also reluctant to imagine it.

Pronouncements that we have come to the “end of history” (Fukuyama 1992) or that we are now dominated by “capitalist realism” (Fischer 2009) frighten us with their ontological firmness and moral unassailability. Having buried the body of actually existing socialism and absorbed the dissenting elements of the autonomous left, there does not seem to be much room left in these neoliberal times for utopian thinking or the radical politics it requires. Hence, our exasperation with just how easy it has become to imagine the end of the world as opposed to that of capitalism.

But even those in the business of imagining the end of capitalism, i.e., left intellectuals, have a difficult time drawing out the contours of utopia. After the Second World War and all throughout the Cold War, we find an entire intellectual tradition skeptical of the authoritarian (both fascist and socialist) strain in utopia. “Jewish utopianism,” as Russel Jacoby termed it, “listens for, but does not look into the future” (cited in Kumar 2010:561). Ernst Bloch (1986), who perhaps delivered the widest definition and most rigorous exploration of utopia, covering art, popular culture, technology, architecture and science, recognizes the utopian desire as an indelible part of our ontological condition, but is careful to differentiate between dream and the impulse to make reality into a dream. What is empowering and useful about utopia is not its plausibility, but the critical attitude towards the dominant order it cultivates inside us. For Adorno, cantankerous as usual, utopia needs to remain primarily negative, an “eternally dissatisfied force which destroys the conditions of the present” ( As for Jameson, “it is a mistake to approach Utopias with positive expectations, as though they offered visions of happy worlds, spaces of fulfillment and cooperation” (2005:12). Such idyllic representations belong to liberal political theory made for bourgeois comfort, not to the kinds of revolutionary interventions expected from utopians. One easily gets the impression here that there is almost something distasteful about making utopia into a positive vision of radiance and fulfillment. If it is to be taken seriously by these canonical (all male) authors, utopia must remain immanent and immaterial.


Of course, utopian programs should not be taken literally or, at least, with a grain of salt considering their bent for transcendence and ideological closure. But we should also resist the tendency common in erudite circles to lament the disappearance of utopia while, at the same time, scolding the courage to represent it. Representational concreteness does not always end in stasis and systematization. Sometimes its affective import can be an effective tool for struggle. The advantage of utopian representation, no matter how imperfect or implausible, is to provide an immanent critique of the present and, more importantly, to allow people to become emotionally invested in the promise the future still holds. The possibility to mentally inhabit and sensorially imagine how alternative institutions, social relations and value structures might look and feel like in real life is crucial to embolden the collective desire for radical change, including the political work needed to realize that change. To completely do away with the spatial dimension of utopia, to only treat utopia as an imaginal machine, a heuristic device or a negative force is to lose the specificity of utopia. This confuses utopia, an exercise in prefiguring the “good place,” with utopianism, the anticipation of or action for utopia ( Utopianism without utopia is solipsistic.

Traditionally, the task of representing utopia has fallen in the territory of art (or literature), with science fiction being generally recognized as the literary home of the utopian imagination. But it has also been the terrain of revolutionary praxis and intentional communities. The reason why the literary utopia has triumphed over other genres is, to borrow a phrase from creative writing, because literature shows, rather than tells how the guiding principles of the good life play out against the rich tapestry of lived existence. Whereas political theory (e.g., Hobbes’ Leviathan, Rousseau’s Social Contract, or Marxist thought) contains strong elements of utopianism, it is only in literature that we find detailed and evocative accounts of how people dress, work, celebrate, and organize themselves in different socio-political arrangements (Kumar 2006:176). If political treatises are primarily concerned with demonstrating the legitimacy and truthfulness of their proposed vision, the literary utopia is free to live out the dream of a better future in its most minute detail. This is not to say that literary utopias do not also provide an immanent critique of their “nonutopian, parent societies” (Moylan cited in Keulen 1991:22), only that they “perform better than any other form what utopia mostly aims to do, namely to present a ‘speaking picture’ of the good society, to show in concrete detail what it would be like to live in such a society, and so make us want to achieve it” (Kumar 2010:555).

The literary utopia has always thrived in times of great upheaval, like the late 19th century, when various expressions of resistance emerged in opposition to corporate power structures and their dehumanizing forms of control, or the period immediately after the ’68 revolts, when the need to exploit humanity and nature to generate ever greater levels of affluence produced a “Great Refusal” precisely among the demographic expected to become the politico-managerial elite of the future. In times of political closure, however, like the Second World War, the Gold Age of postwar reconstruction, or even the recent period of neoliberal ideological convergence, utopia has always been absorbed into, if not entirely resolved by, affirmative ideologies, like Fascism, Socialism or Advertising (Moylan 1986:7-11). (Of course, all ideologies contain an element of utopian desire, but that desire is brought back into the fold to reinforce the legitimacy of the given order.) Fortunately, the present period of turmoil has reawakened an appetite for utopian representations, not exactly for literary utopias but for their aesthetic cousin, the “concrete utopia.” Bloch described this as the moment when history opens up to reveal concrete utopian possibilities (Moylan 1982:159). Others have called it the radical event (Haiven 2011). Despite their rarity and fragility, neither the literary nor the concrete utopia has been spared criticism.

Bloch was afraid that the completeness of the literary utopia would destroy its usefulness. Whereas in every other cultural instance utopia appears as a “tendency” or “latency,” in literature it appears as a finished goal that disarms, rather than empowers through its completeness and definitiveness (Moylan 1982:160-1). Jameson goes even further to argue that utopian fiction is a sign of our ideological closure. Limiting the utopian imagination to science fiction is a reflection of “our own incapacity to conceive [of utopia] in the first place” (2005:4). I want to suggest a different way of looking at utopias that might compel us to be more receptive to the purpose and power of literary utopias.

Literary utopias are not intended to offer a blueprint for perfection or point out a clear revolutionary path for getting there. Their role is to measure the distance between what actually is and what could be and, in that gap, insert a vision of the future that stimulates in the readers a desire for change and faith in its possibility. Especially, the “critical utopias” of the 1970s, which I focus on in this paper and which are much more textually open and politically progressive (as well as historically cautious) than utopian novels of the 19th century, take very seriously the task of helping us think through historical contradictions, be it at the level of ideological contestation or as part of revolutionary praxis (Moylan 1986:48-52). The primary mode for assessing literary utopias should be how well they allow us to imagine a better society and how much they stir our collective desire for it.1

Even harsher criticisms befall the concrete utopia. Instances of concrete utopias occur when the flow of history is broken to reveal new possibilities for action, new forms of social cooperation and, in general, new obstreperous temporalities (Haiven 2011). Radical events, like the French Revolution, the Paris Commune, May ’68, or the 2011 Year of Revolt, that gave birth to the Occupy movement have different historical conditions and ideological orientations, but they all share a commitment to direct action, to “acting as if one is already free” (Graeber 2009:203), acting outside established channels of political contestation to shape the conditions of one’s existence. This exercise of embodying the change one wants to see in the world, known as prefigurative politics, is a form of representing utopia. It allows people to work out the details of the future society in the here and now. Since the 1960s, however, prefigurative politics has acquired a somewhat dubious reputation, its political credentials and aesthetic qualities constantly scorned both from the Right and the Left.

A constant complaint with prefigurative politics is the lack of a coherent ideology and the absence of a clear strategy for building the mass social movement needed to oppose the forces of domination. Since direct action is usually organized around single-issue campaigns like “Free Mumia” or “Strike Debt” that lack the coordination of a central organ or a common strategy, prefigurative politics, the complaint goes, limits itself to spontaneous and disparate acts of resistance of little consequence for our material reality. Furthermore, the aesthetic qualities of these forms of action, which borrow from medieval carnivals, guerilla theatre, pagan spirituality, and even some New Age elements, not to mention punk and black bloc tactics, have an alienating effect on most people. Without the support of a relevant constituency, be it workers, minorities or even local communities, prefigurative politics becomes notoriously susceptible to state repression or cooptation. In most cases, this vulnerability has not given way to a heightened antagonism with the dominant forces, but led activists to insulate themselves from capitalist society to build self-sufficient communities that would lead by example. Unfortunately, this separatism only further exacerbated their cliquish lifestyle choices, condemning them to obscurantism in the eyes of the wider public. We saw instances of this also in the Occupy camps although, as we shall see, the very same tactical and aesthetic choices that made the encampments such as affront to public opinion and a “health and safety” hazard for city officials are also what gave the movement its unique utopian dimension and, ultimately, its popular strength.

Once again, in discussing concrete utopias, I wish to focus less on the strategic, long-term efficacy of prefigurative politics than on its equally strategic and long-term affective impact. Where prefigurative politics trumps all other forms of political intervention, especially those emphasizing organizational discipline and ideological purity, is in its ability to collapse the distance, so germane to politics, between people and experts, public and private, speech and action, present and future, strategy and utopia, and create a strong experiential topos. If we take this thoroughly immanent quality seriously, we realize that prefigurative politics lacks none of the features its detractors claim it does: “It is not opposed to organization. It is about creating new forms of organization. It is not lacking in ideology. Those new forms of organization are its ideology” (Graeber 2002:68). It is not devoid of strategy. Its strategy is to not defer utopia for a single more day. It is not the victim of apolitical lifestylism. Its transformation of everyday life is crucial for working out the political details of the free and egalitarian society we aspire to. Its aesthetics are not esoteric, but welcoming all of differences to create a “carnival of resistance.” Of course, this is very much a work in progress “full of all sorts of stumblings and false starts” (ibid. 72), but at least it allows people to experience a culture of democracy they rarely have access to and which will leave an indelible mark on their sense of human possibilities. In the words of renowned proponent of prefigurative politics, David Graeber: “It’s one thing to say, ‘Another world is possible’. It’s another to experience it, however momentarily” (ibid. 72).

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