Saturday 22 February 2014

Whatever happened to Utopian Thinking?

A senior academic at London University has advised me that it would be ‘strategic’, in terms of my ‘career development’, to remove from my personal website a comment by a former student questioning the role of capitalist market forces in Higher Education.

McCarthy, Tough on the Causes of Equality
However tempted to ask this professor if s/he realises that s/he sounds like Senator Joseph McCarthy, I instead asked myself whether we have all forgotten how to visualise a better world in which financial markets did not rule us. For if we stop trying to visualise utopia - a good community with mutual respect, state-funded edifying entertainment, and universal education and healthcare, for example - we really are in trouble. Imagining how wonderful life could be for homines sapientes is a prerequisite of actually achieving social progress.

Emmet Brickowski, hero of the Lego Movie
What makes today’s absence of utopian thinking so sad is that people are not stupid. There is a widespread, heartfelt understanding of what our problems are. Three popular movies I have recently seen (Hunger Games, the Lego Movie, and Elysium) all portray imagined future dystopias. In all three, no-holds-barred capitalism has trashed the environment beyond repair, created a cynical, gated ruling class, desperate to hang onto its privileges, and reduced everyone else to abject poverty. 
In all three movies, inspirational working-class heroes stand up against the tyrannical über-rich and bring down their evil governments. But then the film ends. Not one has the remotest concept of a fairer economic system and happier society to put in place of persecutory rule by capitalist Bad Guys.

Fighting for Healthcare, Hollywood-style
The gated community in Elysium is called after the ancient Greek islands where the fortunate deceased spent a blissful eternity. The repeated experience of founding new colonies made the Greeks think hard about the circumstances conducive to human flourishing.  From Hesiod’s Golden Race, and comedies in which all the slaves were liberated, to the philosophers’ ideal polities (Plato’s Republic was just one of several), the Greeks were constantly debating the nature of the ideal community. 

My favourite ancient utopia is Iambulus’ Islands of the Sun, where work, government and intellectual life are fairly shared by everyone: ‘They alternately serve one another, some of them fishing, others working at the crafts, others occupying themselves in other useful matters, and still others—except for the very aged—performing public duties in cyclic rotation… Every branch of learning is diligently pursued by them.’ 

The best thing about being a Sun Islander is that everyone had a tongue with two tips, which meant s/he could carry on two conversations simultaneously with two people, ‘responding to the questions of one with one prong of the tongue, while conversing familiarly about current events with the other.’  

Such a tongue would allow me to talk to university Management in a ‘strategic’ way and ‘develop my career,’ while still engaging with everybody else in optimistic discussion about how we might one day, just possibly, manage things better. On the other hand, perhaps I’ll continue talking utopia to everyone indiscriminately and to hell with ‘career development’.


  1. In a rational world a "senior academic" such as the one you mention would not be employed in a university as they manifestly have no clue as to what a university is and why it exists. They also seem to be incredibly stupid, but then again that has never been a barrier to reaching the highest ranks of academia...Keep up the excellent work. The more of us that actively resist the time-serving lickspittles the harder it will be for them to define reality to their advantage.

  2. Thanks, Colin! Support much appreciated!

  3. Uhm...isn't that a "forked tongue" there? In that Sun Island thing.
    Not that that's a problem really.
    Just asking.
    Overall point yes. Definitely.
    Education as a business is a form of enslavement by enrollment. Where the yearning of the young for a good life is channeled into an increasingly constricted path that leads inevitably to a lifetime contract of service to financial predators.
    Like slavery, the mistake people make is once the outer form of it's been removed, the actual dynamic must be gone as well. But no. Would-be slave masters figure an angle, a workaround, and go there.
    The utopia I see is one where there are no people capable of enslaving others, or preying on others.
    Not because it's illegal, though.
    Simply because they aren't there anymore.
    The bright formlessness of that isn't exactly a vision of a better world, it's the vision of where a better world begins.