Utopia in a Burning World
This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of rereleased essays.This one revisits my impressions of the stakes after attending an environmental demo, and was published on September 20, 2019.* Nothing much has changed, except for the worse.
Today* I joined thousands in London’s centre on a strike against climate change, a protest in solidarity with many more across the world. It was a glorious expression of working class outrage against capitalism’s death cult, a scream of anger at those who would see our future steadily narrow and narrow to that worst of all certainties. That future is something I have been thinking about a lot — the limits and necessity of hope during an age desperate for revolutionary upheaval, where no such action seems possible. The challenge, however, is to go beyond these cliches about impasse, and to still be able to say something meaningful about a catastrophe that tests the limits of what a human mind can conceive—a world scorched of ourselves
My last big project, working with Cinnamon Press, was an anthology of utopic fiction titled Citizens of Nowhere. It feels odd to reconcile my politics with my passion for the genre begun by Thomas More’s Utopia over half a millennium ago. His book outlined the most that can be achieved by a society in lieu of revealed, divine truth. I do not believe in the divine and I do believe we can far surpass More’s part-satire, part-ideal, part-commentary, but even as someone who gave up my Christian belief, I remain in awe of this Catholic saint's act of imaginative faith.
I am also continually inspired by his rejection of the moral basis of the theft of the commons, capitalism’s foundational sin (a demonstration of clarity that reaches beyond the times in which he lived.. We could all do worse than to recover something of More’s essential spirit, as the stunning Ursula K. Le Guin understood in her fantastic introduction to Utopia’s Verso edition.
As a Marxist I don’t hold to blue prints, and see the failed utopianism of liberal politics (the politics that claimed utopia as its essential feature) for the historical disaster it became. Nonetheless, I am convinced that bridging that gap — the chasm between a set of interlocking systems bent on world destruction and the ability to still imagine an ideal society — remains vital. As the great Marxist utopian William Morris understood, imagining is not the same as planning. It has more to do with understanding and transgressing the limits of the present than bounding the possibilities of the future.
The world is burning. It is not hard to imagine dystopia; we need only open our eyes to the steady drumbeat of reaction and human slaughter. The creep of fascism is everywhere apparent, itself a political manifestation of a stagnant capitalism afflicted by low profitability, a system that can only revitalise itself in a cataclysm of blood and misery our species is unlikely to even survive (if it so comes to pass). Meanwhile, the power of workers, the necessary historical agents of transformation, is everywhere fragile, disorganised, harried.
The dystopias of Huxley and Orwell are now quaint, and updating them would be an exercise of morbid nostalgia at best.
For me, however, the best fiction does not tell us what is before our eyes, it excavates, scours, reveals. The dystopias of Huxley and Orwell are now quaint, and updating them would be an exercise of morbid nostalgia at best. A certain kind of horror has more than dystopia to communicate about the terror of our moment: especially the innovative indie novels and short stories that transcend our sense of ourselves in a dying world. For that reason I included George Daniel Lea in Citizens of Nowhere, as he often suffuses his horror writing with utopian themes. For horror writers with plenty to communicate about our impasse in all its forms (personal, societal, existential), also read James Everington, Kit Power, Phil Sloman, Laura Mauro, Kristi DeMeester, Christopher Slatsky, Kristine Ong Muslim and Madeleine Swann.
Utopia, more than its child dystopia, uncovers something relevant. It has plenty to say, even if this moment proves the critical one, that juncture beyond which we do not go. Even if the Mephistophelesian pact of modernity is our extinction, utopias insist that there was a chance at shared liberation, of collectively getting it right. It demands we project our values outward, realise them as something to be shared.
Capitalist ideology is full of prescribed inner hopes, of self-creation myths, but utopia asks us to imagine the recreation of society as a whole and ourselves only within that context. Utopia is potentially an antidote to an age so narcissistic it could destroy the basis of our existence just to maintain a status quo that no longer serves the even medium-term interests of its dominant class.
To see that utopia is hope projected outward, it to also see that it is the only attitude to take in a burning world. Whether or not we can overcome this challenge is unknown; we are faced not only with apocalypse, with horror at its furtherest bounds, but a moribund establishment that continues to fuel the end times with idiot abandon. But if we do better, it can only be with new stories about new societies; to overcome our times requires the type of imaginative recklessness that aptly characterises More’s genre.
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