Notes: Utopia is Dead

The original cover illustration for Thomas Moore’s “Utopia,” from 1516, courtesy Wikipedia

In 1516, Thomas More — a lawyer and councilor to the notorious English king Henry VIII — published a little book called Utopia. More’s account, written in the form of a Socratic dialogue, centered on a fictional island, on which a country reminiscent of an updated vision of Plato’s perfect Republic had been discovered by a mysterious world traveler named Raphael. The book was not, strictly speaking, about the future. Utopia was a place that was imagined to be far away in space, not time. Nevertheless, the word “utopia” has become synonymous with the vision of a perfect, future society.

More’s fictional Utopia had not evolved organically to perfection. It was designed, in meticulous detail, by a man named Utopos — a foreigner who had conquered the place and its “ignorant savages” centuries earlier, transforming them in the process. Considering that the real “New World” and its “ignorant savages” had been discovered by Europeans just a few decades previously, this aspect of More’s Utopia reveals a great deal about Europe’s future vision for that New World and its peoples. In its all-but-inevitable conquest of the Americas, which still lay a few decades in the future, Europe imagined that it would play a role like that of Utopos, the designer of a perfect civilization. As we now know, their impact was the very opposite of utopian: existing human societies in the real New World were rapidly destroyed by the European lust for gold, profit, and geopolitical power.

Meanwhile, back in More’s innocent, fictional Utopia, the politics might strike us as socialistic, or even idealized communism; in fact, they sound something like the universe of Star Trek. There is no money in Utopia. Not even gold is considered to be valuable; the ultimate pleasure in life is not the ownership of possessions, but good health. There is no hunger or poverty: “Recognition of individual merit is combined with equal prosperity for all.” The Utopians have learned to work the land effectively, on an island of relatively scarce resources and poor soil quality. In fact, they are so efficient that people work only as much as they want to, at their chosen trades, and are otherwise free to spend their time in “some congenial activity” (though not “in idleness or self-indulgence”). Utopian society is even wealthy enough to donate a significant fraction of its total exports to the help the  in other countries.

At first glance, More’s Utopia sounds like a future Scandinavia, where the idea of a basic “citizen salary” (a social payment that a citizen receives regardless of whether she works or not) is gaining traction as a social experiment in some countries, and where up to 1% of the national GDP is already committed to overseas development aid. But one should not jump to the conclusion reached by More’s fictional alter-ego, “More,” who concludes that “there are many features of the Utopian Republic that I should like … to see adopted in Europe.” (p. 132)

For example, there is plenty of slavery in More’s Utopia. The slaves are convicts, or poor people from other countries who have volunteered to be owned, in order to have work. And there is absolutely zero tolerance for premarital sex. “The Utopians are particularly strict about that kind of thing, because they think very few people would want to get married — which means spending one’s whole life with the same person, and putting up with all the inconveniences that this involves — if they weren’t carefully prevented from having any sexual intercourse otherwise.” (p 103)  And by the way, monogamy is a strict requirement in Utopia: marital infidelity, or even attempted seduction, is a crime. The punishment: slavery.

More’s depiction of the perfect society is quite unconvincing today; but the influence of his book on Western society was enormous and lasting. The idea of utopia became so ingrained in the Western tradition that even computer modelers, centuries later, use that word to describe the best possible outcome of their future-trend simulations. But like More’s “More,” thinking out loud about Europe’s prospects in the final sentence of his surprisingly modern-feeling work of fiction, the word “utopia” has also come to mean a fantasy future that one “hardly expects” to become real.

*

Fast forward five hundred years. Along the way, we pass dozens, growing to hundreds and finally thousands of imaginary utopias, all written, drawn, and — beginning in the early 20th century — rendered into motion pictures by the mind of man.

For it is principally men who have busied themselves with thoughts of a future utopia over the past five centuries. As late as 1998, in a comprehensive book-length study of Ecological Utopias by the Dutch political scientist Marius de Geus, there was not a single female thinker or author, in all of history, with a model of utopia that he considered important enough to mention, let alone analyze. (In fact, only three women are quoted or cited by name, as commentators on the concept of utopia, in the whole book.)

De Geus made a useful distinction between two types of utopias, and that distinction was still highly relevant twenty years later. On one side, there are utopias of abundance, where technology advance has provided ever-increasing access to resources, machines, and opportunities, such that everyone is living a life of comfort and even luxury.

On the other side, there are utopias of sufficiency, where humanity’s material appetites and desires have been tamed, minds are enlightened, and nobody is in need because nobody wants (or gets) more than their modest, sustainable share. Thomas More wrote the first of these “sufficiency utopias”: his Utopians wore simple clothes, eschewed excess, and avoided killing animals. The iconic modern example of the genre was Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 novel Ecotopia — a green-politics dream of a book that inspired a generation of activists and innovators and that, like Thomas More’s Utopia, gifted the world not just with a provocative future vision, but with a useful new word.

Most “ecotopias” — whether they are fictional stories like More’s and Callenbach’s, or theoretical constructions of green-tinged social and economic theory such as those put forth by the modern “degrowth” movement — fall into this second, “sufficiency” category. But de Geus, an environmentalist professor whose concern was to help rectify “a blatant lack of new ideas … concerning the future of our society,” considered this green tendency toward sufficiency-utopia thinking a flaw: “ecotopian thinkers underestimate the advantages and pleasures of luxury and comfort,” he wrote, “and are inclined to exaggerate the positive aspects of austerity and moderation.”

De Geus’s academic writing style tends to be dry, and one wants to shout, “What an understatement!” But then he continues, even more drily:

“Their general assumption is that by living more simply, attaching less value to material goods, by simplicity, frugality, and doing without luxury and affluence, a happy and environmentally friendly life is possible. This assumption appears to disregard the fact that most people in contemporary society are extremely fond of ease, convenience and comfort.”[1]

Now one wants to shout, “Exactly!” This misplaced belief in both the corrective and the attractive power of a sufficiency utopia has been the Achilles heel of the environmental movement for decades. It is demonstrably true that some people find joy and satisfaction in a monastically-inspired or a consciously-chosen simple life; but most people, very evidently, do not.

In fact, most people in this world do live a simple life: material simplicity is all one can afford on $3,000 or less per year (the approximate median annual income for the world as a whole).[2] Visions of downscaling our material way of life have so far proven appealing to a tiny minority of relatively wealthy people, whose annual incomes — even when modest by the standards of their surrounding societies — are nonetheless great enough to place them in the top one percent of all humanity. (By example: earning a salary of just under $35,000 in the United States, a level that might be considered “lower middle class,” still places that wage-earner in the top one percent, globally).[3]

It is empirically verifiable that the “abundance utopia” is far more attractive to the vast majority of humanity. It is also the official policy goal of most nations. Prosperity, opportunity, the pleasures of technology and travel and entertainment for all: this is the vision that guides the overwhelming majority of the world’s governments, organizations, institutions, and decision-makers. In fact, this dream of a world that is universally wealthy (while acknowledging that some people will always be more wealthy than others) has long since moved out of the domain of science fiction and into the halls of government, the boardrooms of investment banks, and the central offices of aid agencies and large foundations. It is no longer seen as “utopian” — a word derived from the Greek for “no place.” It is seen as humanity’s all-but-inevitable destination.

This is why I believe it is time to declare: utopia is dead. As a concept, it has been absorbed into the globalized industrial culture and has evolved into, or replaced by, a different dream. This new dream still encounters scoffers and critics and enemies, but it has nonetheless has been formally endorsed by 193 heads of state, at a United Nations summit meeting held in 2015.

We call that dream “sustainable development.”

[1] See “Median GDP per capita: how much does the typical person earn in different countries?”, by Hauke Hillebrandt, Giving What We Can, 25 May 2016, https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/post/2016/05/giving-and-global-inequality/

[2] Marius de Geus, Ecological Utopias: Envisioning a Sustainable Society, International Books, Utrecht, The Netherlands, 1999, p. 242.

[3] See: http://www.globalrichlist.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 

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