Utopianism and social change: Materialism, conflict and pluralism.

Author:Martell, Luke

Utopianism aims for something better. To get somewhere better involves change, so, among other things, utopianism is about social change. This article focuses specifically on limits to Utopias' and utopianism's ability to contribute to social change. It looks at two types of Utopia, current and future, and their fortunes within left Utopias. I will discuss two areas in which there are possible limits to utopianism's ability to contribute to social change. The first is in its possible avoidance or even undermining of engagement with material reality and of conflicts that lead to change. This is as a result of utopianism being idealist or stepping aside from society. The second area is where Utopia is an end and has been achieved, so change is no longer possible or relevant and is ruled out. This raises issues of totalitarianism, liberalism and pluralism, as it seems to be implied that something different from the Utopia is not possible or desirable.

I wish to argue two things. First, materialist and conflict criticisms of utopianism can be answered from a materialist and conflict perspective. Against a view of Utopias as idealistic and avoiding reality, I argue that they provide a material and conflict basis for change. So from a materialist and conflict, and not idealist, perspective, Utopias are about change rather than undermining it. Second, I wish to argue that Utopias need not be final ends. They may be liberal and pluralist, involving criticism and diversity, which lead to change and make Utopias processes and not ends.

In sum, rather than rejecting the materialist and conflict approach of criticisms and defending idealistic utopianism, this article is a materialist and conflict reply to materialist and conflict criticisms that are negative about the role of Utopias in change. It is also a reply to liberal and pluralist perspectives on Utopia, similarly not by rejecting liberal and pluralist dimensions but by arguing that utopianism can encompass them. This article supports the role of utopianism, future and current, in change.

Future and current Utopias

Thomas More (1892) is credited with inventing the word Utopia', the title of his 16thcentury novel. It refers to components from Greek that mean something that is good (eu) but not (ou) a place (topos). So it means a good place that is no place. It is a better society that does not exist, at least not yet. Utopia is what is wished for and the wish for it is utopianism (for a recent perspective on More and Utopia, see Levitas 2016).

Utopianism is seen to occur when we think about a future happy life not as a private, individual aspiration, just for an individual life, but on a public, societal level. A Utopia can be a prescription or blueprint for an ideal society in the future or a different place. It can also be in the past, in a time, real or imagined, we are nostalgic for that does not exist any more, and maybe did not if we have romanticised the past. Utopianism is also related to the present because concern about how things are makes us think about a better future (see Bauman 1976; Levitas 2011).

Ernst Bloch (1970) in The Principle of Hope and other works saw utopianism in a variety of often everyday things: myths, literature, fairy tales, theatre, art, architecture, music and religion, as well as social and revolutionary thought. These contain not only personal wishes but, in addition, also an aspiration to fulfil hopes, also about social change. So utopianism is about anticipation of something better and it becoming possible and is in both visions of the future and practices of the present.

There are two ways in which Utopias and utopianism are about social change (see Bauman 1976; Goodwin and Taylor 2009; Levitas 2011; Sargisson 2012). First, utopianism is a basis for critical assessment of the present. An idea of an ideal society is something against which we can evaluate the present. We can see where the present does not match up to what we think society should be. This is a footing for critique and change. Goodwin and Taylor (2009) say that critical utopianism is a foundation for constructive utopianism. So, second, utopianism is an ideal for the future that involves a wish for the future. This helps drive change away from the present to something different. Something that supports criticism, idealism and a wish for a better world can help social change. While some emphasise the critical role of Utopias (see Levitas 2011; Moylan 1986; Sargisson 2012), utopianism cannot be just about criticism or even change as this lacks something to distinguish it from other critical or political projects. Being about the goals or alternative, their design, and not just an aspiration for something different is what makes Utopia distinct.

Utopianism involves making a plan for what a future society could look like. A danger of not having enough of a plan is that we overturn the existing society without a good idea of what the alternative might be and how it would work (see Leopold 2016; Mill 1989). Too detailed or rigid a plan may not allow us to adapt to unforeseen circumstances or allow collective democratic determination of how society should be organised. But if we are to change to a better society, it is important to have some idea of what that would be like and how it would operate in away that would make it better than the current society. Otherwise large-scale change is a big risk. Having a plan also stops people misusing a political idea in the future because the society we should have has not been set out, as it could be said happened in so-called communist societies. One way we can have a plan is by a model being tested in small-scale experiments in its main features in current societies. These also show people that an alternative is possible and so can encourage change. They are an experiment and also a demonstration (as A.S. Neill said about Summerhill School: see Hemmings 1972: 71; Neill 1962: 4). So both future and current Utopias are important for making sure that change to a better society works out well.

I wish to look at future Utopias, ideas of an ideal society in the future. These are often speculative and on a macro-scale. I also want to discuss current Utopias, projects now that can be seen as Utopian because they are very different to mainstream society and attempt a Utopian alternative. Current Utopias are often actual and micro. Current Utopias include co-ops (see, for example, Cornforth 1995), sharing economies (Parsons 2014), intentional communities (Ben-Rafael et al., 2013; Kanter 1972), alternative education (Gander 2016; Hern 2008; Neill 1962), urban social centres (Chatterton 2010; Hodkinson & Chatterton 2006), alternative food cultures like freeganism (Clark 2004; Edwards & Mercer 2007) and ecological communities (Chatterton 2013; Ergas 2010). Current Utopias can be in reclaimed land (like the private land claimed for common use by Marinaleda, a Communist village in Spain: see Hancox 2013), in built architecture (like new towns or estates), squats, occupations and gardens, including community gardens and landscaping (see Crossan et al., 2016; Miles 2008). They are found in a localist turn in the anti-austerity and alter-globalisation movements (Chatterton 2010; della Porta 2015; Pleyers 2010). There has been a growth of interest in current utopianism, so it is important to assess criticisms of utopia in this context.

These aim to make an ideal or better place not just through conventional future-oriented means of change such as parties and protest but also by creating counter-cultures and alternative societies in the existing society. Current alternatives may be attempts to build Utopias bit by bit here and now. They are attempts at a better society in practice and can be prefigurative. By practising a society, now they create a basis for that society being implemented more widely in the future. In this sense, they address the issue of transition to a better society, which future Utopias can tend not to. Current alternatives include traditionally counterposed approaches of gradual change, revolution and more anarchist initiatives alongside party politics and social movements. Current Utopias have been tried in the past and I include historical attempts in this category.

Small alternatives within the existing society can be a reaction against large-scale total Utopias that everyone has to conform to (as Pleyers (2010) identifies in the alter-globalisation movement). They maintain Utopian ideals by existing alongside wider society, avoiding the dystopian total way Utopia has been envisaged otherwise. I will return to the issue of Utopias existing in a pluralist way alongside other forms. By occurring within or aside from current society, present alternatives are in another place, even if that place exists. If utopianism is about a better world that does not exist, then projects that try to create this and get micro-institutions of it in place are utopianism, experiments in Utopia or even Utopias, in that they are putting into practice structures of an alternative ideal society (Goodwin & Taylor 2009; Levitas 2013, among others; see within-society initiatives in present or past time as Utopias).

The Mayor of Marinaleda, Sanchez Gordillo, says,

We have learned that it is not enough to define Utopia, nor is it enough to fight against the reactionary forces. One must build it here and now, brick by brick, patiently but steadily, until we can make the old dreams a reality: that there will be bread for all, freedom among citizens, and culture; and to be able to read with respect the word 'peace'. We sincerely believe that there is no future that is not built in the present. (Hancox 2013: 3)

For him, Utopia should be a positive practice rather than merely oppositional and to be built now rather than something just for the future. Pursuing Utopia is partly about Utopia now as a form of social change.

Left Utopias


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