In search of utopia

Does utopian thinking offer a route out of today's political doldrums?

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

A collection of leftist theorists is seeking to breathe new life into the old idea of utopia. They argue that the utopian tradition, which began in 1516 with Thomas More’s Utopia, could suggest a route out of our twenty-first century doldrums.

US academic Russell Jacoby has just published Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age, a followup to his The End of Utopia, calling for a return of utopian passion to politics and public life (1). US literary theorist Frederic Jameson’s new tome, Archaeologies of the Future, traces the utopian impulse in literature (2). On this side of the pond, academic Dylan Evans has lamented the ‘loss of utopia’ (3).

There is no doubt that we’re living in anti-utopian times. The political imagination is, if not dead exactly, certainly in a coma. Politics today is about fiddling, making a tweak here or there but not changing anything much. We can’t conceive of a future much better than the present. Perhaps we imagine that computers will be quicker and mobile phones cleverer, but there is little notion that human beings could live vastly more fulfilled and improved lives than our own. There is no sense that history holds possibilities that we haven’t yet imagined.

Utopian impulses persist, of course, but these impulses are for the most part expressed in banal ways. If you Google ‘utopia’ one of the top returns is Utopia Group, purveyor of ‘bathroom furniture, contemporary taps and modern sanitaryware’ that apparently ‘allow you to express your own individuality and design flare to your bathroom’. Others are ‘’, a company offering gay and lesbian holidays in Australia; a Medieval fantasy computer game that is ‘the world’s most popular interactive multiplayer game’; and Utopia Optics, ‘a unique brand of eyewear geared towards the lifestyles of action sports athletes’.

TV programmes follow couples looking to build their ‘dream house’ in the wilds of Scotland or France, while others feature families’ houses or gardens getting a magic makeover. Women nip and tuck their loose bits into shape or go on raw food diets. Others seek transcendence through drugs. ‘The restless search for bliss’, was how one aficionado described the ecstasy scene: ‘New World. New Sound. New life. Everything felt so right.’ (4) The perfect house, the perfect body, the perfect night…that’s about the size of today’s utopias. None of these efforts leaves any trace on the world around you. However wonderful your new sitting room or your night out, it has no impact outside of your own life.

Why seek inspiration from the utopian tradition, as opposed to any of countless other moribund political traditions? There might be a good reason. Utopias tended to be written at times when the imagination overstretched the available means. They were about people feeling their way ahead, before there were yet any route markers. Thomas More came at the dawning of modernity, when the Middle Ages was receding and a new society stretching its limbs. Charles Fourier and the utopian socialists came at the dawn of the working-class movement, when some realised that bourgeois promises of freedom were inadequate but hadn’t yet worked out what to propose in their place.

Today the old political programmes are dead letters, and there is a dearth of decent ideas about how to go forward. Jameson describes utopias as ‘hallucinatory visions in desperate times’ (5). Perhaps those old dreamers can teach us something.

Utopias: from More to Wells

Different utopias see the future in very different ways, but there are certain common themes. Utopias imagine a time when human passions are channelled to productive ends, rather than being bowed and cramped. They imagine the removal of the bonds that tie people down – be they kings, corrupt landlords, or market capitalism – and the inauguration of a new realm of freedom.

Work lies at the bedrock of most utopias. Work should be the most creative part of the day, yet people have often worked out of a sense of obligation or necessity, writing off the working hours as belonging to somebody else. In utopias people work when and how they want, and they do it with enthusiasm and pride. Fourier said that the reason men abhorred work was because it stifled the spirit: the answer was to find a system in which they ‘constantly and passionately prefer work to idleness’ (6). He suggested that workers should be allowed to gravitate to the tasks they liked, and form work groups with groups of friends or lovers. The City of the Sun, a utopia by the Renaissance humanist Tommaso Campanella, reports that ‘everybody wanted to be the best at the work, to make it conform to custom and to make it less arduous and more fruitful’ (7). They would go to gather grapes ‘with music, trumpets and banners’ (8).

Many utopias abolished strict professions. People might excel at music, engineering or science, but any all-rounded member of a utopian society would be able to do many things. A model day in Fourier’s phalanx included: hunting, fishing, gardening, tending pheasants in the morning; and working at the fish tanks, sheep pasture, and two greenhouses in the afternoon. In addition to this there were five meals, mass, two public functions, a concert, and a spell in the library. Campanella argued that all activities could be the focus for debate, even the organisation of sewage systems. Neither cooks nor plumbers would work by rote, but instead would experiment and discuss the value of different approaches.

Intellectual work too could be freed from its isolation. In New Atlantis, published in 1626, Francis Bacon outlined scientific discoveries enriching the world, and honoured scientists as public heroes (9). Campanella had the discoveries of science and geography painted on the walls of the City of the Sun: learning would be a natural delight, and children would pick things up while running around outside, rather than by ‘slavish memory’ of ‘lifeless things’.

Bacon’s utopia was written some 400 years ago, but he envisioned a glittering array of possibilities for technical and scientific development. Plants would be ‘much greater than their nature, and their fruit greater and sweeter and of differing taste, smell, colour, and figure, from their nature’ (10) – a possibility that we’re perhaps just starting to realise with GM. There would be engines for controlling the weather, and towers half a mile in height and caves 600 fathom deep. In Campanella’s vision, people would all live to at least 100, and sometimes to 170 or 200. In his 1905 A Modern Utopia, HG Wells proposed pushing automation to its limits, using science ‘to show a world that is really abolishing the need of labour’ (11). There would be ‘faultless roads’, ‘swift trains’: ‘travel must be in the common texture of life.’ (12). People would travel as the need and desire took them: you might spend the summer in the Alps, for example, then the autumn in New York and the winter in the Caribbean.

Society is taken apart and put together again. Jameson describes this process well: ‘like the inventors, [utopias offer] a garage space in which all kinds of machines can be tinkered and rebuilt.’ (13) The description of utopia is designed to reveal the cracks in the author’s own society. ‘You English’, lectures Raphael Hythloday, narrator of More’s Utopia, as he criticises the irrationality and immorality of sixteenth-century England. Citizens of the City of the Sun are similarly contemptuous of the then Italian city-state. ‘They laugh at us’, reported Campanella, ‘because we regard artisans as ignoble and call those noble who learn no art and remain idle’ (14). Utopias tell the reader that things could be different. They are a vantage point from which the present is judged and found wanting. Set-ups that people take as natural – ‘the way things are’ – are shown to be foolish, temporary arrangements that will soon be overturned. This educates the imagination, the sense of what could be.

The education of the reader often occurs through a naive visitor to utopia. More’s Utopia is recounted by the traveller Raphael over dinner to two sceptical peers, one of whom is called More; the details of the City of the Sun are recounted by a mariner to a knight; New Atlantis is narrated by a traveller who washed up on the island by chance. The travellers’ initial scepticism, internal conflicts, then conversion to utopian ways serve to ease the reader through. They provide a model for our enlightenment.

Great attention is paid to the texture and feel of utopian life – the way people bring up their children, socialise, their philosophy of life. Utopias are often less a political programme than a taste of the pleasures and possibilities that history could hold. ‘Life could feel very different’, is the message William Morris wished to impart with his News from Nowhere (15). He wanted the reader to long for the kind of socialist society he had described, rather than just think that it was a good idea in theory. The last line of the book reads: ‘if others can see it as I have seen it then it may be called a vision rather than a dream.’

It’s a blurry vision, though. Utopias are about individuals feeling their way forward, without quite knowing how. They provide no credible plan of action, no way of getting between an imperfect present and perfect future. Jameson notes the ‘distance of utopias from practical political’ (16). It’s a ghostly sense of latent possibilities, which Morris describes as a ‘shadowy isle of bliss’. Hence the classic model of sailors coming across the utopian island: the perfect society is stumbled across, fully formed. The benevolent legislator who created More’s Utopia dug a gulf isolating it from the mainland, setting it up as a dreamplace apart from corrupt society. Indeed, the word ‘utopia’ comes from a fusion of the Greek words for ‘no place’ and ‘good place’. It’s an oasis, shimmering in the imaginations of parched desert travellers, but eluding their grasp. The City of the Sun ends with the mariner leaving to sail away. ‘Wait, wait!’, begs the knight, gripped by the vision of this city. ‘I cannot’, replies the mariner.

It’s telling that the authors of utopias often lived unromantic and frustrated lives. Their heads were reaching into the future, but their feet remained stuck in times that they were powerless to change. Campanella became involved in a rebellion against the Spanish viceroy, and spent years in prison being tortured. More became lord chancellor under Henry VIII and pursued non-conformists with a ferocity quite unlike the easy religious tolerance imagined in his utopia. Fourier was washed this way and that by the French Revolution’s Terror and Napoleon’s coup d’état, without ever managing to influence the course of events. He spent huge sums sending his plans to France’s main men but his visions fell on deaf ears.

Those who did try to put their plans into action soon ran aground. The British industrialist Robert Owen spent his fortune setting up a utopian community in Indiana, but it soon collapsed. Meanwhile, in 1890 a Viennese economist Theodor Hertzka published a utopia called ‘Freeland: A social anticipation’, envisioning workers’ councils who organised their own labour and enjoyed the fruits of their work. He issued a rallying call: ‘This book is…the outcome of earnest, sober reflection, and of profound scientific investigation. The highlands of Equatorial Africa exactly correspond to the picture drawn in the book. In order that “Freeland” may be realised as I have drawn it, nothing more is required, therefore, than a sufficient number of vigorous men.’ (17). Within a year, Freeland societies formed with the aim of putting his plans into effect. An expedition even set out to equatorial Africa – but soon encountered difficulties and turned back, and the ideas of Freeland sank without trace.

It’s not just that the world wasn’t ready for utopians’ perfect plans. In actual fact, their plans were a mixed bag, containing sheer crankiness alongside brilliant foresight. They concocted their new societies out of their own heads; it was a leap into the unknown that often went astray. Sometimes, utopias become just a field for airing personal proclivities. Campanella says that his utopians ‘detest black, which they regard as the colour of filth, and for this reason they hate the Japanese, who are fond of that colour’ (18). He didn’t like Aristotle – and so we find that utopians ‘are opposed to Aristotle, whom they call a pedant’ (19). Fourier had some bizarre ideas about sexual passions, arguing that every adult should be guaranteed a minimum of sexual pleasure. Some utopias try to give substance to their vision by way of a deluge of details. Campanella informs us that city palaces’ external walls are eight-span thick; the inner walls are three-span; and the dividing walls are one-span. Fourier drew up plans for uniforms and the colour scheme in nurseries.

In addition, utopias often perfect some of least liberal ideas of their time. More had slavery in Utopia; and though Bacon’s scientific visions are dazzling and bold, his social vision was conservative as hell: he spends several pages describing a very dull set of rituals that accompany mealtimes. One description of a procession states: ‘The windows…were not crowded, but every one stood in them as if they had been placed.’ (20) Meanwhile, Wells proposed rule by a master elite and eugenics for the elimination of feeble folk; and Campanella proposed that people organise their sex lives by the stars, saying that couples should choose a time for intercourse when Mercury and Venus are east of the Sun (21).

Whatever their imperfections, though, utopias often anticipated and paved the way for the future. German revolutionary Frederick Engels noted that many of Fourier’s plans were mad, but he praised their visionary boldness: ‘we delight in the stupendously grand thoughts and germs of thought that everywhere break out through their phantastic covering….’ (22) Sometimes the dreams of one generation became the practical reality for the next. Bacon saw skyscrapers and planes; some 300 years later, mankind made these a fact. The picture of work that we find in More, Campanella and Fourier became the emerging communist movement’s slogan, ‘From each according to his ability to each according to his needs.’ In State and Revolution, VI Lenin describes a future in which people would work freely and take freely from the products of labour: a pie-in-the-sky fantasy had become the programme of a regime about to take power. Other utopias had more immediate effects. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward stimulated the growth of the US nationalist movement and hastened social reforms. New Atlantis helped to inspire the formation of the British Royal Society.

Over time, utopias tended to become less hazy daydreams and more something that people would fight to be realised. For a start, there was a shift from utopias being set on a remote island to being set in the future. Then the visions became grander. Wells saw his as a ‘world state’ rather than an isolated community: ‘Old utopias were…as localised as a parish councillor’, he criticised (23). And while More and Bacon imagined their utopian societies created by God or a benevolent legislator, later utopias imagined that they were created by people themselves. The vision of the future was a practical problem to solve. In 1922, the US critic Lewis Mumford judged in The Story of Utopias: ‘Our most important task at the present moment is to build castles in the air…. If our utopias spring out of the realities of our environment, it will be easy enough to place foundations under them.’ (24)

There are perhaps times when utopias take things forward, and times when utopias are ways of escaping the challenges of practical politics. In Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Engels outlined the development of socialism from utopianism to a science. Utopians were trying to conjure up the perfect society out of their own daydreams: ‘The solution of the social problems, which as yet lay hidden in undeveloped economic conditions, the Utopians attempted to evolve out of the human brain…. [T]he more completely they were worked out in detail, the more they could not avoid drifting off into pure phantasies.’ (25) Scientific socialism, by contrast, sought to locate the resolution to social problems in the real movement of history. An approach that made some sense for Fourier became an avoidance strategy for many of his followers.

Utopianism for today

We could certainly use a shot of the utopian impulse at present. Today the old political landmarks are gone, and people have little idea about how to go forward. Past utopians’ brave leaps into the future could act as inspiration. However, there are limitations with today’s approach towards utopias. There are broadly speaking two different types of modern utopian project: escapist utopias, and mystical utopias. Both seek a dreamy happy ending, while sidestepping the problems of political life today.

Escapist utopias: Some seek to build their utopias in isolation from the modern world. A spate of ‘intentional communities’ has sprung up in rural reaches of America and Europe, based on low-tech principles, with people working together and pooling their efforts and resources. No doubt these communities offer a more humane relationship among group members, in contrast to the ‘dog-eat-dog’ ethic of modern work life. There is certainly a role for cooperation, taking time with one another, and working towards common ends. But these communities set up camp by cutting themselves off from everybody else. Moreover, they often spurn the technological innovations that have made our lives so much better, and which past utopians imagined pushing further still. Ducking out of modern life is no answer. Premodern idylls aren’t idyllic: they are based on needless drudgery and wasted effort. While Wells and Bacon stretched forward to the future, it seems that some today want to retreat back to the caves.

In any case, the utopian instinct shouldn’t be about peace and quiet. Lewis Mumford warned against the ‘utopias of escape’: ‘for it is an enchanted island, and to remain there is to lose one’s capacity for dealing with things as they are…. Life is too easy in the utopia of escape, and too blankly perfect – there is nothing to sharpen your teeth upon.’ (26) Escapist utopias are about a quiet life, rather like going back to the womb or creating a Garden of Eden. But the true utopian impulse is about unleashing human energies on an enormous scale: bursting off the fetters that have kept people down and out. Not sitting still, but ceaseless and joyous activity. As Wells argues: ‘a modern utopia must be not static but kinetic, must shape not as a permanent state but as a hopeful stage, leading to a long assent of stages.’ (27)

Mystical utopias: Others today approach utopianism as akin to a religious faith. Jacoby seems to be attracted to the Jewish tradition of utopia, devoting a large chunk of his book to theories such as that of the German philosopher Ernst Bloch. In the 1950s, Bloch wrote a three-volume tome, The Principle of Hope, about how hope could be found everywhere from the Bible to cosmetic ads. There is an idea of the geist (spirit), constantly moving and developing through history. Jacoby says: ‘Like the future, God could be heard but not seen. “Hear, O Israel”…. They offered an imageless utopianism laced with passion and spirit.’ The focus here is on yearning and inchoate striving. Jacoby argues that these ‘iconoclastic utopias’ hold more relevance to today than the ‘blueprint utopias’, which give a plan for how things should be organised.

Certainly, Fourier’s colour schemes for nurseries were of little use then, and are entirely pointless now. But perhaps Jacoby is letting himself off the hook by talking about utopian longings. He writes that ‘a future of peace and happiness – a world without anxiety – may not be describable. We hear of it in parables and hints. It speaks to us, perhaps more urgently than ever.’ (28) It’s good to have faith in the utopian impulse, but blind faith gets us nowhere. Some of those parables and hints are going somewhere, and others aren’t. The question isn’t whether the utopian impulse exists, for it will so long as human beings are alive: the question is whether this impulse takes us forward or just tightens our chains. Cosmetics ads do indeed provide a glimpse of transcendence, but in fact only take this transcendence further away. Mystical utopianism could be an excuse for passivity, sitting back and waiting for the geist to do the work.

Perhaps a better way forward is suggested in Jacoby’s conclusion: ‘To connect a utopian passion with practical politics is an art and a necessity.’ He broaches the idea of designing the perfect school, to set up against the failed schools of today. Three cheers for Jacoby’s idea that ‘history contains possibilities of freedom and pleasure hardly tapped’ (29). But what could these possibilities be? Twenty-four-hour nurseries, perhaps; the bullet train extended the world over; the six-hour day. It’s good to imagine the different possible ways in which we could organise things. The trouble, though, is that these could be pie-in-the-sky musings, given the political situation we have at present.

Ours is a society that doesn’t even believe in the possibility of changing things for the better. People tend to think that things just are as they are, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Whether it’s late trains or parliamentary legislation, we often just shrug our shoulders and say ‘typical!’. The world isn’t experienced as alive with possibilities, but as a stillborn fact of life. We don’t try to design the world in our own image. Instead, we’re seen as guests of the planet, humble managers of ecosystems. So long as this is the case, speculations about worldwide bullet trains won’t be worth the paper they are written on.

Not only do we lack visions of the future: society spurns possibilities that lie within its grasp. The potential of GM, for example, Bacon’s dream of centuries past, now lies within reach – for creating plants of dramatically new tastes and qualities that can be grown in completely different conditions. Yet new technologies are often discussed in grave tones, as if they were more of a burden than a blessing. We also shy away from experimenting with new ways of organising society; we are warned against trying anything too new or too ambitious. The organisation of the economy, for example, is off the political agenda – economic matters are decided by bureaucrats at the Bank of England and the Treasury, rather than being opened up to popular debate.

Indeed, many see utopianism as positively dangerous. As Jacoby argues, utopianism has dark associations, as if trying to improve things puts you on a slippery slope towards the death camps. That’s where the attempts to perfect society end up, cynics say: in Stalin’s gulags or in Auschwitz. This is a way of avoiding thinking about the future. It’s about retrenching in the here and now, limiting ourselves to managing the present. If changing things will only end in tears, there’s no hope for human beings trying to make history. There’s little point in thinking about how things could be, or planning over a timescale of centuries.

Humility is deemed to be the virtuous way. People aim to show that they are aware of the impacts of their actions and are seeking to limit them as much as possible. Those who confess their vulnerability are seen as sensitive and virtuous human beings. Some almost apologise for breathing, counting the units of carbon dioxide emitted and planting the requisite numbers of trees to make up for it. We’re approaching Wells’s vision of global travel as a way of life, yet there is constant breast-beating about cheap flights.

A first step, then, might be to counter today’s anti-utopian climate. Unless we believe that a better world is possible and desirable, the writings of More and co will read merely as historical curiosities or cute fairytales. Unless we regain a sense that human beings can and should be master of their destinies, Jacoby’s outlines for the perfect school could just end up in the wastepaper basket.

So, first: the future could be much better than today. We need to say with the French utopian thinker Henri de Saint-Simon: ‘the golden age of humanity is not behind us; it is to come, and will be found in the perfection of the social order.’ This isn’t as good as it gets, not by a long shot. Even in the most developed countries, people still sell train tickets and paint walls and clean the toilets. Whatever happened to automation? People’s time and efforts are cheap, and are being wasted flagrantly. Second: it is human beings who will build that future. The meek will not inherit the Earth. We should embrace and develop our powers, not shy away from them.

Unless we see reality shimmering with possibilities, it will hang heavy around our necks. The things around us will be a dull condition of existence, rather like the pen and hay provided to a farmyard animal. We need to start to see the world as something built by human beings, and resolve that we can build it much, much better for the twenty-first century and beyond.

Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-utopian Age, by Russell Jacoby, is published by Columbia University Press, 2005. Buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA

Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, by Frederic Jameson, is published by Verso 2005. Buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA

(1) Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-utopian Age, Russell Jacoby, Columbia University Press, 2005

(2) Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, Frederic Jameson, Verso 2005

(3) The loss of utopia, Guardian, Dylan Evans, 27 October 2005

(4) Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House, Matthew Collin, Serpent’s Tail, 1998, p301

(5) Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, Frederic Jameson, Verso 2005, 233

(6) The Utopian Vision of Charles Fourier, Jonathan Cape, 1975

(7) City of the Sun, by Tommaso Campanella. Download a copy here

(8) City of the Sun, by Tommaso Campanella. Download a copy here

(9) New Atlantis, by Francis Bacon. Download a copy here

(10) New Atlantis, by Francis Bacon. Download a copy here

(11) ‘A modern utopia’, in The Quest for Utopia, (ed) Negley and Patrick, McGrath, 1971, p236

(12) ‘A modern utopia’, in The Quest for Utopia, (ed) Negley and Patrick, McGrath, 1971, p230

(13) Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, Frederic Jameson, Verso 2005, p14

(14) City of the Sun, by Tommaso Campanella. Download a copy here

(15) News from Nowhere and Other Writings, William Morris, Penguin, 1998

(16) Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, Frederic Jameson, Verso 2005, p15

(17) ‘Freeland’, in The Quest for Utopia, (ed) Negley and Patrick, McGrath, New York, 1971

(18) City of the Sun, by Tommaso Campanella. Download a copy here

(19) City of the Sun, by Tommaso Campanella. Download a copy here

(20) New Atlantis, by Francis Bacon. Download a copy here

(21) City of the Sun, by Tommaso Campanella. Download a copy here

(22) Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Progress Publishers, 1970, Frederick Engels. Download a copy here

(23) ‘A modern utopia’, in The Quest for Utopia, (ed) Negley and Patrick, McGrath, 1971, p230

(24) The Story of Utopias, Lewis Mumford, New York: Boni and Liveright, 1922, p307

(25) Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Progress Publishers, 1970, Frederick Engels. Download a copy here

(26) The Story of Utopias, Lewis Mumford, New York: Boni and Liveright, 1922, p307

(27) ‘A modern utopia’, in The Quest for Utopia, (ed) Negley and Patrick, McGrath, 1971

(28) Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-utopian Age, Russell Jacoby, Columbia University Press, 2005, p144

(29) The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy, Russell Jacoby, New York: Basic Books, 1999, xi

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today