Episode 89: Why we need Utopias

“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at,” Oscar Wilde wrote, “for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of utopias.”

Utopian thinking gets a pretty bad rap. It is seen as a sign of unrealistic thinking, evidence that one is naive about human nature.

And yet some would argue that visions of Utopia are the boldest of political statements and can be the most effective social critiques since it involves imaginative thinking that encourages people to solve problems rather than simply be consumed by them (as often is the case with dystopias).

This week Clay and Sarah debate the usefulness as well as the problems of Utopian thinking and ask whether we need visions of Utopia.

 

In this episode:

  • Utopia as a social critique and process of envisioning a better world
  • the dark side of Utopia – social control, human nature & fact that “your utopia is inevitably someone else’s dystopia”
  • Why we don’t think as much about Utopia as we do about Dystopian visions
  • Plato’s Republic, Thomas Moore’s Utopia and the role of contemplation in Utopian visions
  • Utopia can provide a direction more than a destination
  • What our personal utopia would look like…
  • Elon Musk – is he a modern utopian thinker?

 

Utopia is a difficult concept to grapple with, not least because we are all very aware of the dark sides of human nature.  Our propensity for greed, power grabbing and brutality to name just a few.  And we have scary examples of utopian visions from the 20th Century in Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, and Maoist China.

“Utopias are usually products of a singular imagination or small group…[and] too often consider people as organic material to be shaped, not as wilful agents,” claims the introduction to the website openutopia.org.

In his article ‘How Utopia Shaped the World’, Tom Hodgkinson agrees that, “the fundamental problem in creating perfect worlds: people don’t like being told what to do.”

However there are others who would argue that Utopian visions are incredibly important as a means not only of powerful social critique but of clarifying where we are headed as a society.

“Utopianism functions like a microscope isolating and then magnifying aspects of existing, non-utopian societies,” writes Howard P. Segal.  “In its most substantial forms, utopianism remains a provocative means of offering constructive criticism of existing society in order to improve upon it, not to abandon it.”

In fact, we can distinguish two aspects of Utopian thinking — visions of Utopia that manifest in creative works such as novels like Plato’s Republic, Thomas Moore’s Utopia, Aldous Huxley’s The Island (interestingly written as a counterpart to his dystopian novel Brave New World), songs like John Lennon’s Imagine etc.  These should be distinguished between attempts to impose political ‘utopias’ on a population, acts that remind us of many political disasters but also might include people like Robert Owen, a 19th C mill owner who set up the model of village of New Lanark in Scotland.

“Utopianism is a means of holding in our mind’s eye the possibility of a world free of oppression and domination and charting a course towards its shore.  It is less a blueprint than a direction,” writes Ed Simon.

A similar interpretation of the importance of Utopia is taken by Thomas Hey in his article “Why we still need Utopias”. “We need utopian thinking not because we are intending to produce a perfect world but because it helps us establish our own values” and steers us in the direction we would hope to travel.

Clay wrote up a version of his Utopia:

“There would have to be an infinite abundance of everything…there would be no possessions, no marriage, no liking or disliking another person…we’d have an overabundnace of love for everybody…there would be no labelling of sexual preference in other words there would be no term for gay or lesbian you’d be free to have sex with whoever you wanted, male or female…we’d have AI robots (like the ones in the tv series Humans) to do everything that humans currently have to do in terms of work…real humans would be free to create things…all labour would be done by robots and androids…our food would be tablet based…so no over eating, no need to grow food, no need to farm animals…people could tap their imagination into a super computer and use 3d printing technology to create whatever they could imagine…so if you wanted a fancy car you pretty much just imagine it into existence…there be no countries, no language difference, no political systems, no ecomonic systems…we’d engineer emotions like hate, jealousy, envy, greed, gluttony out of humans…basically we’d only be capable of love and happiness…”

 

What’s your version of Utopia?  We’d love to hear from you!