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Imagining Utopia

Members of the Kaweah Cooperative Commonwealth stand in front of the Karl Marx tree in what is now Sequoyah National Park (photo c. 1889).

I’ve been attracted to utopian thinking for as long as I can remember. The concept of utopia implies for some “perfectability” but I never really took it that way. Seen in that light, it’s easy to see why some now hold utopia with suspicion, seeing it as harboring totalitarian nightmares of total control, an entirely prescribed and regulated life. For me, utopia has always been a kind of beacon, a challenge to think big, an opportunity to cast aside the patently stupid institutions and assumptions that plague our everyday lives and to imagine a life that proceeds under different structures. This doesn’t mean that the humans living in such an imaginary alternative society are suddenly perfect, or always good, or even that they all are committed to the same vision. Just that we could do a helluva lot better than this madhouse when it comes to imagining, and then implementing, a social system that facilitates human and ecological well-being.

There are hundreds of utopian visions in literature and history. Utopias as imaginary places are usually commentaries on the real world from which they emerged. Some go back to Plato’s Republic, but a more common starting point is Thomas More’s Utopia, written in 1516. Plenty of analyses have been written about utopia as a concept and as an historic phenomenon. One of the better treatments is Marie Louise Berneri’s Journey Through Utopia, in which she identifies the authoritarian Utopian State as a concept running through much of the literature. A desire to orchestrate good behavior through various hierarchical arrangements, analogous to a mechanical system with predictable results ensured by regulated consistent behavior, is a dark shadow over many utopias.

Berneri, in her introduction, quotes Herbert Read’s “test of art” as the antidote to this totalitarian tendency:

“If you want to express the difference between an organic progressive society and a static totalitarian regime, you can do so in one word: this word art. Only on condition that the artist is allowed to function freely can society embody those ideals of liberty and intellectual development which to most of us seem the only worthy sanctions of life.”

German anarchist Erich Mühsam‘s “The Artist in the Future State” echoes this critique, recognizing that a society is only as free as the artists within it. The readiness of Communist dictators Stalin, Mao, even Fidel Castro, to purge their countries of dissenting artists and writers, either through incarceration, exile, or murder, is well documented. All of this is to highlight the departure of one-party totalitarian systems, whatever label they use for themselves, from anything remotely utopian. But the common left-liberal meme in the early 21st century is that utopia conceptually leads to totalitarianism, as if any attempt to think big about how differently we might organize our lives can only produce nightmares. This refrain is repeated ad nauseum in the mass media and in the blogosphere these days, and seems to be largely taken for granted.

At the core of this line of argument is a deeper dispute over human nature and history itself. Instead of seeing the systems we live under as products of human choices, class struggles and attendant social conflicts, and recognizing thereby that the systems could be different than they are if things had gone differently at any number of historic junctures, the utopia-leads-to-dictatorship arguers assume that this is already the best we can hope for, and any efforts to radically overhaul it can only lead to something worse. Humans are fundamentally selfish and venal, and any claims to altruism, solidarity, or a broad social good are cynical lies to advance the personal interests of those cloaking themselves thusly. In other words, the status quo for all its inherent injustices and dysfunctionalities, is still far better than any deliberate attempt to create a more fair, egalitarian, and just society.

The other way to dismiss utopian thinking and argument is to claim that it is naïve and unrealistic. To this I can only say that in my opinion utopian thinking is far more realistic” not to mention urgently necessary” than any attempt to maintain society on the current trajectory of ecological suicide, social anomie and isolation, and an endless treadmill of increasingly self-destructive and pointless work to enrich a tiny minority of the world population at everyone else’s expense.

It’s very irritating to have utopianism conflated with totalitarianism. Not just irritating, it’s historically false. Long before the Russian or Chinese revolutions, before 20th century Communism existed (which some of us would argue was a variant on capitalism anyway, just a state-capitalism rather than a private corporate one), there was a rich vein of utopian socialism going back to the late 18th century, and developing a broad following during the early decades of industrialization in the first half of the 1800s. Some of its better known proponents (who by the way did not share the exact same ideals, but held variations of new approaches to property and social organization) were Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, Etienne Cabet, and Henri de Saint-Simon.

Charles Fourier (1772-1837) is

“distinctive in the generous, indulgent, and epicurean, rather than Spartan or stoical emphasis, given in his vision of the future and of human nature. In Fourier’s phalansteries, work, as well as the rest of life, was to be organized according to the grand psychological principle of “˜passionate attraction,’ whereby the passions rather than reason were to be harnessed to ensure the maximum gratification of sexual, social, and other instinctual desires, and the commensurability of aptitudes with socially necessary labor”¦ Labor itself would be organized according to the principle of “˜attractive association’ in “˜compound groups,’ with the aim being that “˜attractive labor’ would make work as free, and as interesting as possible. Individuals would rotate tasks up to eight times daily, work no longer than two hours at any job, and have as many as forty activities in all. A typical day would involve five meals, attending a concert, visiting the library, hunting, fishing, and cultivation, with manufacturing occupying no more than one-quarter of the total labor.”

(“Socialism and Utopia” by Gregory Claeys in Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World, New York Public Library/Oxford University Press, 2000)

Interesting for folks here in Northern California was an attempt to create a similiarly inspired communal society near Cloverdale called Icaria Speranza in 1881. The French founders of this community were followers of Etienne Cabet, who had been a revolutionary in France in 1830, later expelled, and finally ended up with a group of followers in Louisiana, then St. Louis (where he was evicted from his own group) and later in Iowa before a break-away group landed in Cloverdale. French revolutionary refugees, first from the failed revolution of 1848, and then later from the suppressed Paris Commune of 1871, were the main source of Icarians. The communes, like dozens of other examples, failed, this one succumbing to a weak economy in the mid-1880s, and the rising pre-eminence of families over the community. When they dissolved in 1886 the land was divided among the participating families.

Radical newspapers published at Speranza Icaria in Cloverdale, California, 1885.

Another fascinating chapter of California utopian efforts starts in that same era, the late 1880s. Burnette Haskell, who had been editing The Truth as the newspaper of the San Francisco labor movement, and had been a founder of the Coastal Seamen’s Union, led a group of San Francisco radicals to the mountains to start a new community, dubbed the Kaweah Cooperative. From the original filing of papers in 1885 to its sudden incorporation into a new national park called Sequoia in 1890, the Kaweah Cooperative Commonwealth sought to build a utopian settlement among the biggest trees in the southern Sierra Nevada. Like many communal efforts, they were torn apart by jealousy, lack of resources, hunger, and uniquely, the daunting difficulty of building an access road into the mountains.

The most important utopian novel of the 19th century in terms of mass appeal was Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward,” which inspired a widespread social movement of Bellamyites, all trying to create something of his very 19th century vision of planned socialist communities. But a more important novel from the same era was William Morris’s News from Nowhere, the best utopian novel ever written by many accounts. In it the protagonist awakens in an utterly transformed greater London, no longer the dark and dirty hellhole of untrammeled 19th century capitalist industrialism, but a bucolic, semi-rural, artisanal culture well rooted in its natural rhythms. No longer a world dedicated to useless toil, but instead one founded on self-directed, useful work, and in that regard a worthy successor to the utopian socialists of the early 19th century.

And there are dozens of amazing utopian and dystopian novels, many in the science fiction and speculative fiction genres, that have extended the field in many directions. A proper look at Utopia would require a good survey of this rich vein of literature, too.

Anyway, I wrote about this to contextualize my frustration with two shows at the San Francisco International Film Festival. The first was on Saturday night under the title “Pirate Utopias.” The catalogue blurb claims the humorous and innovative shorts elaborate “a systematic approach to pleasurable non-productivity,” but the nine short films shown had absolutely nothing systematic about them, little connection to one another, and none whatsoever to the idea of utopia, pirate or otherwise. A couple of shorts “Embrace of the Irrational” and “Release” each had something to offer, but in no way respond to the claims of the descriptive blurb. That program felt like a real rip-off, and I wanted to ask for a replacement ticket to make up for it.

Then on Sunday night a big packed house in Theater One showed up to see local friend and filmmaker Sam Green’s latest offering, “Utopia in Four Movements.” This was a non-film, a product of many journeys, a lot of film shooting, and a good deal of grant money (one presumes, from the long list of foundations thanked in the program notes). Green traveled with crew to China, Cuba several times, and probably a number of other locations, but in the end he didn’t seem to have much of an idea of what to do with it. My strong impression is that he doesn’t really have much to say about the idea of Utopia. He certainly doesn’t say anything during the 90 minutes he walks around on stage giving a memorized talk with his series of stills and short video vignettes, all accompanied by the talented Quavers, a small ensemble from Brooklyn, and Dave Cerf’s audio soundscapes engineered from the back of the room. There were dozens of friends and acquaintances in the audience and it was striking to have so many come up to me afterwards with a puzzled look wondering what I’d thought about it, or whom I heard from later because they ran out as fast as they could, disliking the show intensely.

I like Sam personally, and it’s always difficult to lambaste a friend’s creative work. As the show concluded, I looked down at my blank notepad where I had intended to scribble critical thoughts as the show proceeded. I hadn’t had a critical thought. There was really nothing to sink my teeth into. Several people told me they felt like they’d watched a motivational speaker, and everyone concurred that it had been surprisingly superficial, and lacked any politics. My first thought was that it had been deliberately very impressionistic, and deliberately eschewed any effort to intellectualize or analyze or explain. But as the cacophony of negative reactions rose around me, I couldn’t help but join in.

Why had he done such a weak piece on such a potentially rich topic? The four “movements” are 1) Esperanto (which is conspicuously absent from any of my half dozen books on Utopian movements in history); 2) “The Revolution” (which by Green’s presentation would seem to be mostly about Stalin and Mao and his Little Red Book, though he also included a black American woman living in exile in Havana, but she’s not given any space to address questions of utopia, socialism, revolution, or much of anything); 3) Capitalist globalization (presented here as the largest mall in the world, built in China, and nearly entirely empty except for some costumed Teletubby mascots running around amidst the empty escalators, security carts, and random visitors); and 4) (and most mysteriously) forensic anthropology (where mass graves are being exhumed in Rwanda, Bosnia, Guatemala, Argentina, etc.)

I’m sorry but this is a bizarre way of framing the question of Utopia. It strongly reinforces the conflation of utopianism with totalitarianism, cynically removing some of the most hopeful trends in history from the picture entirely. How can you address Utopia and show the May 1968 slogan “sous les pavés, la plage” (beneath the paving stones, the beach) as an isolated thought, without developing anything further about May “˜68, either in the 10-million strong strike in France, or the massive upheavals that took place all around the world? How could you make the mass hysteria of Maoism in 1966 the symbol of utopianism instead of a thoughtful probing of the multifaceted Spanish Revolution during its brutal Civil War in the 1930s, when anarchists rose up against fascists and their “own” nationalist government, as well as the international Communist movement who started a civil war within the civil war to squelch the possibility of another path than that of the 3rd International’s Comintern? Why include a lengthy treatment of the quirky, prescriptive, and ultimately quixotically pointless effort to create a universal language in Esperanto? And then to randomly point out that billionaire George Soros was raised in an Esperanto-enthusiast family? So what? Finally, what the hell does forensic anthropology and the excavation of the victims of mass murder (many facilitated or at least put in motion by earlier socially disintegrative interventions by British and U.S. imperialism after all) have to do with utopianism? Green throws it all in there in an inexplicable, intellectually incoherent jumble. He tries to escape his bleak view of humanity by putting some footage of the recent 350.org demos at the front of his exposition (“These people are the real utopians”?? Green is obviously not a part of it), and at the end he brings in Rebecca Solnit and her book “Hope in the Dark,” as though all we can do is hope as individuals, and there are no social actors, and certainly no paths of social activity that could actually take us in another direction from the genocides and defeats his presentation focused on.

Sad to say, “Utopia in Four Movements” was a quintessential slacker/hipster approach to history. A 90-minute traipse through images and juxtapositions that lack any narrative or intellectual or political point, often historically distorted, and in any case reinforcing a culture with an extremely short attention span. Each image and concept remains unexamined, the director engaging in a wink-and-nod relationship with the audience, assuming that by showing certain things everyone will understand and acknowledge the deeper critique implied (whatever that is” it actually reinforces the dominant culture’s glib dismissal of utopian political thinking). It’s another post-modern exercise in American anti-intellectualism, a refusal to do the hard work of digging through history, finding the lost nuggets that shed light on how our (mis)understanding of utopia was created. Instead, he just phones it in, relying on his unmistakeable personal charm, the success of his previous film on the Weather Underground, and an American audience unlikely to demand a deeper, more nuanced, more historically grounded treatment of the topic, to carry him through.

Sorry Sam. I wish I could endorse this project, but I think it should be buried. Utopia deserves a far more serious and thorough treatment, and by going shallow and glib, you’ve reinforced the dead-end thinking that keeps so many confused about how to change our condition. Life is what we make it, and we COULD make something quite different than this sorry mess. Utopia is one way to free our imaginations and ultimately our activities.

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