500 years after Thomas More’s powerful critique, the interest in utopia seems not to have wained.
In fact, you can make the case, as Tobia Jones [ht: ja] does, that the end-of-history realism of the 1990s has finally given way to a new search for utopia:
Everything looks different now. George Bush Sr’s new world order is frightening and deeply disordered. Religion, which sociologists predicted would slowly slide out of view, is the dominant political issue of the early 21st century, a form of utopianism that just won’t go away. Meanwhile capitalism, which was the motif of triumphalist freedom, seems less noble after Enron, Madoff, Libor and RBS. If anything, people are even more fed-up with the laziness, injustices and profligacy of consumerism than they were back in the 1990s.
It is precisely the combination of ongoing economic instability and grotesque levels of inequality that has undermined capitalist triumphalism and created the space for new kinds of radical dreams.
That’s why I am curious to see what will emerge from Julia O’Connell Davidson and Neil Howard new series on utopia thinking and “Utopia 2016: A Year of Imagination and Possibility” current being staged by Somerset House, King’s College London, and the Courtauld Institute.
The question, as always, is where the new utopian inspiration will come from. More, while replete with criticisms of the existing order, never attempts to offer an answer. But Ursula Le Guin does, repeatedly throughout The Dispossessed (pdf):
“It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers in what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. We know it, because we have had to learn it. We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.”
That “shared pain” is the precisely the ground for utopian critique.
It just so happens a new London exhibition, Things Fall Apart, is based on a series of posters from the 1930s designed to criticism racism and colonialism and to attract Africans and African-Americans to the racial harmony promised by the communist utopia.