The Challenge of Utopia

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The Challenge of Utopia

"Your face has fallen sad now

For you know the time is nigh

When I must remove your wings

And you, you must try to fly"

- Nick Cave


There are, as the Utopian World Championship clearly shows, many different types of utopias. There's everything from vague visions that deal with general plans for establishing paradise in the distant future to specific descriptions of existing projects that address concrete improvements in our lives today. In order to sift through the maze of utopian thought, I would personally divide utopia into two main camps according to function and another two camps according to strategy.

The functional distinction is based upon the origin of the word utopia itself. As a play upon "Eutopia" -the good place and "Outopia", the non-existent place, utopia does two things: 1) It helps challenge society by demanding a clarification between realistic and unrealistic goals; 2) It helps guide society by offering articulated ideals for which to strive.
The first category can be problematic because there can easily arise dispute as to what is a realistic goal and what is an unrealistic goal. Hence, to call a person or group 'utopian' is often used in a derogatory sense to suggest that they have unrealistic aspirations. The more fantastic, vague, or idealistic a vision is, the easier it is to dismiss.
The second category can also be problematic. Even if two people can agree on how realistic a particular ideal may be, they can just as quickly disagree on the desirability of said ideal. What may be an ideal for some people may be considered a travesty for others. Certain ideals are nearly unanimous -such as the goal of peace and social harmony (in which case the problem is one of resolving conflict of interests, settling antagonism, quelling fears and so on). Other ideals present a greater problem for utopian vision because their very desirability may be in dispute. These sorts of clashes are all around us - human rights, women's rights, gay rights, free trade, socialism are some examples of areas in which there is general agreement that the concepts in question can be implemented but there is no unanimous opinion as to how they should be implemented and/or interpreted, or whether they should be implemented at all. Therefore, one can conclude that, when stretched to their full extensions, the Utopian vision of one person or group is simultaneously the dystopian vision of another.
What sort of world you want to live in? Which function is your vision intended to fill - to challenge, to guide, a combination or something else altogether? What happens when you discuss your vision with other people? What do you think when you hear about their visions? Can you engage people of contrary viewpoints in dialogue and, no matter how difficult, actually try to understand their point of view?
The second set of categories is the strategic distinction wherein one can distinguish utopia as a destination versus utopia as a process. Traditionally utopia is envisioned to be a place, or at least a goal. It is described as something ideal, a place without injustice (or with a minimal amount), a place without war and mass destruction. It is in this sense that Utopia can help create ideologies or religious doctrines whose purpose is to realize those ideals in the real world.
Without fail, the harsh reality on Earth ultimately destroys the generous goals of the group and the 'utopian' doctrine can help prevent group members from recognizing and accepting behavior and/or incidents that depart from the perfect ideal. For example, a harmonious Christian community may have trouble accepting the brutal reality of drug abuse, alcoholism, incest, or deceit amongst their ranks because they don't match the otherwise harmonious character of the individuals and community involved. One study has reportedly shown that the rate of incest is higher among Christians than non-Christians/secularized citizens. That this could be a direct by-product of Christian 'utopian' attitudes toward sex, purity, and self-control is, of course, largely speculative. The point is that utopia in the guise of a final destination is like a psychic candy store for adult children - it is the lure of a Heaven on Earth and its very allure may prove to be a factor in humankind's capacity for self-deception.
This is not to say that utopia as a destination is all negative. It was clearly this sort of utopian vision which inspired the experiments of many communities (such as Auroville, Twin Oaks, and Modern Times to name a few) and all of them have added to the rich background of human experience from which future endeavors are able to grow. Utopia, in this sense, can provide people with a hope that dreams can be realized; it can give them the impetus and courage to dare to achieve those dreams. The fact that these communal projects have been inspired by utopian goals does not mean that they are doomed to failure but it is important to note that these successes are by and large relatively small in scale. The enormous project of the Soviet Empire also claimed around 20 million lives during Stalin's rule. The giant experiment also claimed tremendous environmental costs (such as the tragedy in Chernobyl) as it plodded towards the ultimate goal of a 'truly' Communist society. Ultimately it collapsed leaving a cold reality in its place. (The bold venture of capitalism, with its spectacle of 'freedom' and fact of widespread impoverishment, may prove to follow a similar path). Though small utopian projects in this sense have no guarantee of success (i.e. Jonestown), the chance for success seems at least to be higher than large scale projects and the extent of potential disaster remains limited.
My own preference, however, is for defining Utopia as a process. It is in this sense, that we can unite the broad sweeping visions that animate our long-term activity with the short-term pragmatic demands of our daily life. By defining utopia as a process, we release ourselves from the pressure to find -and describe- the ultimate solution to all our problems in exquisite detail for all people in all places at all times. We also free ourselves from the trap of dogmatism and open ourselves up to a permanent ongoing dialogue with our environment. The gaping discrepancy between desire and reality is approached with a hands-on attitude and a necessary flexibility. utopia as destination entails an emphasis more upon rigid answers, whereas utopia as process entails an emphasis more upon evolving questions. For the first, the goal is the main objective, for the second, the journey itself is the goal/objective.
A weakness in viewing utopia as a process is partially the fact that we are unaccustomed to defining and acting according to processes. It is a lot easier to write down a list of concrete objectives, goals or benchmarks to aspire towards than it is to grapple with an ongoing dialogue of events, developments, and a shifting line-up of participants. Nonetheless, it seems to me that to engage in social change as a process is ultimately more in tune with reality and the way that things actually function. In the end, it may also prove more sustainable.
Formulating doctrines and ideologies, however complicated they may be, is easier than assimilating and coordinating the various experiences of activists doing field work but its very rigidity can help lead to excessive bureaucracy, gross inefficiency, and inhumane institutions.
By imagining social change to be a process, one is necessarily compelled to work out from smaller principles and smaller projects whose greatest challenge is to link themselves to other projects who may not necessarily be operating out from the same ideas and values. "Unity in Diversity" is the simplistic slogan of this challenge and, as with most slogans, its simplicity betrays the depth and complexity of its dynamics. To envision utopia as a process is to accept beforehand that there is not one single answer for our problems but rather many answers that will vary according to time, place, participants, and circumstance. There is not one utopia but many utopias.
More important than whichever utopian vision (or which type of vision) one chooses is the ability to learn from life, persevere despite odds, reconsider basic positions, engage the world, share knowledge, articulate viewpoints, and create a personal struggle that is as sustainable as the long term vision.


In addition to the above-mentioned ways of looking at utopia, i believe that there may be some other questions that can be asked to anyone who is concerned with the creation and/or implementation of a utopia. These questions reflect various aspects of life and society and the ways in which the individual relates to them. This is by no means a comprehensive list but hopefully it may still be able to give the utopian thinker or activist a chance to think over their ideas in another light.

A) What is your relation to truth?
• How do you get your knowledge? What knowledge is 'reliable'?
What are your sources for information? Newspapers? Research? "Experts"? Experience? What makes you so sure that it is correct? How important for your ideas is the validity of the source of your information? That is, are your ideas more philosophically-based or empirically-based?
• How do you relate to your conception of truth?
Does everyone (or most people) have to accept your conception of truth (or those things that you consider to be true) for your vision to function? That is, does your vision of Utopia require a mental uniformity to some degree? How much discrepancy between are you willing to accept? Are you willing to accept group identification according to ethnicity? Are you willing to accept fundamentalism? Do other peoples' beliefs that you are going to hell for your beliefs/behavior interfere with your utopia? Can moral or ethical truths be relative and particular to given places and times and/or are there certain universal moral and ethical truths?
B) What is your relation to change?
• How do you relate to your views as to the 'right' direction for society?
For example, what takes priority in your worldview, the relativistic respect for all cultures to be different or the fact that someone from another culture is spanking their child (or smoking hash) and you believe it should be forbidden?
• How do you relate to hi-speed technological development and its connection to European-American cultural hegemony, corporate influence over world trade/research, and resource depletion?
As it is, technology has to be paid for. Rich nations own patents and distribution while poorer nations own raw materials and cheap labor. What standard of living do you consider ideal? Does the 'Western' ideal of electricity, running water, paved roads, electronic communication, printed media, and urban culture necessarily entail the subordination (or obsolescence) of other cultures (hunter/gatherer, small farmer, nomadic cultures, herding cultures, etc)? How will diversity be preserved? How much diversity is desirable/acceptable? How do you propose to deal with reactionary elements which struggle to maintain another way of life?
• How will change occur?
Does everyone have to behave the way you do for change to be possible? For example, do you imagine that everyone will be a pacifist in a world without war? As it is, the military is the major ingredient in the budget of the United States. The U.S., being the world's biggest arms dealer, is supplying massive weapons to countries around the globe -including countries with little respect for democracy. Additionally, arms from Europe and the former Soviet Union are being marketed as well. The genocide in Rwanda, wherein more than 800,000 people were slaughtered, occurred mostly with machetes. What evidence do you have to believe that we can create a world with more peace rather than less?
Do you believe that the reason that other people don't think like you is due to a lack of education? Can you point to specific cases where education has helped? Are you aware of cases where education has not helped? Often conflicts include people of various backgrounds. Those who fill the ranks of militant organizations such as Hamas, Operation Rescue, neo-Nazi groups, and al-Qaeda do not often fit the stereotype of uneducated buffoons whose will to die for their cause is a result of their low education. That the U.S. has killed civilians and invaded, attacked, or bombed at least 9 different countries in the past 20 years alone certainly cannot be due to lack of education.

C) What is your relation to society/people?

• How are people organized around you? In what ways do you relate to people? To what extent do your utopian ideas reflect the ways in which you personally relate to people? To what extent are your ideas prepared to address widely different societies and social structures? What sort of variation have you experienced? What sort of variation is possible? How much of your worldview is dependent upon that which you receive from the newspaper or TV screen? What role can the media play in human relations? What are its limitations?

• Do you envision solutions primarily through your imagination or through your interactions with other people? Have you 'tested' any of your ideas with people around you to see how they work? For example, a popular utopian concept is egalitarianism. Have you tried living in an egalitarian context? If so, what worked well or did not work so well? What would happen if you tried the same sort of egalitarian structure somewhere else, i.e. a city neighborhood instead of a rural commune, a jobsite instead of living quarters, a multi-cultural context instead of a relatively homogenous culture?
• Do you imagine a small utopia - isolated and separated from the world or do you imagine one that is integrated in -or even encompasses- society at large? If it is an isolated utopia then how does it intend to relate to the problems in the world around it? Shall those problems be ignored? What about issues such as nuclear war or environmental devastation, which affect everybody regardless of location? If your utopia is integrated into the world at large then how does it propose to interact with the world? How will its internal mechanisms be affected by the dystopian aspects of the world? For example, how will your proposal be affected by being immersed in an economic system steered by the profit motive? How will it address cultural conflicts, the inadequacies of the school system, the dominance of corporate media and so on?
What is your relation to the fundamental 'problems' of today?
• How do you hope to resolve the problem of capital?
According to a report by the United Nations, 35,000 children die every day due to causes related to starvation. Yet a few people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet own more than the combined economies of dozens of countries put together. Even if those two men were to decide to give away all their money, the problem is still there: we live in an economic system that places profit as the highest priority. Human rights, quality of living, social and environmental needs are subordinated to the profit motive. A business simply cannot survive if it does not first and foremost place profit first on its scale of priorities. How do you foresee an alternative? The profit motive is structurally implanted in the economic system and whatever else occurs in society takes place upon the gross disparity and inequalities caused by that system. Some issues, such as political democracy, are directly tied to (the lack of) economic democracy. For example, access to campaign funds, media, lawyers, public relations, and lobby organizations are in direct proportion to how much money one has regardless of the type of political democracy that has been created. And, of course, political decisions and elections are most often in concordance with the disparity in economic resources of the various parties involved. If, on the other hand, one intends to change the essence of the system then a utopian vision might address how such an enormous undertaking could occur without having the costs (i.e. bloodshed, institutional collapse and mass starvation) exceed the benefits. How will local commerce, scientific research, international trade, and distribution of resources be affected?
• How do you address the legacy of colonialism? Colonialism, in many cases, eradicated a political and/or social culture and replaced it -albeit temporarily- with a European one. How much rights do indigenous people deserve? How much of their land should be given back? How does one regard neo-colonialist regimes who have come to power through the power structures and elite classes created by colonialism? A similar situation has been created in Iraq. Regardless of how one felt about the regime of Saddam Hussein, there is currently a blatant lack of democratic representation. Yet the country is in shambles and needs aid. Does one sent aid and thereby indirectly pay for the illegal invasion of Iraq by the United States or does one refuse to send aid and watch while people suffer? There are no easy answers. One can always demand that the U.S. withdraw its troops etc. but whatever demands one makes does not affect the glaring reality and its own demand for an immediate response. Although Iraq is a case in point, the dynamics of dealing with neo-colonialist regimes is a similar dilemma across the world. In this light, even the legitimacy of the United States government can be placed into question due to its colonialist history of theft, deceit, and bloodshed.
• What does one intend to do about democracy? What is democracy? Is democracy an ideal to be aspired towards? What are the positive aspects of democracy? What are the negative aspects of democracy? Is it possible to have 'too much' democracy? If so, who should decide how much is 'too much'? Does your vision tend towards elitism (i.e. the masses are not fit to understand the complexity of society much less run it and lead it for themselves) or egalitarianism (i.e. all people should have equal say and equal access to the decision-making apparatus)? How does one resolve the question of creating democratic structures (i.e. consensus, fair elections, etc) in unequal playing fields (i.e. economic disparity)? For example, the WTO is described as a fair system that works by consensus allowing poorer nations to have more power but the fact that they are dependent upon aid from the wealthier nations has most often left them wide open for 'arm-twisting' and back-room 'bargaining'. Likewise, the UN is lacking in democratic structure giving disproportionate power to the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council. Nonetheless, there is a strong anti-UN sentiment in the United States. It is easy to demand a more democratic UN but were that to occur the United States may leave it entirely (along with however many countries it could manage to buy out along with it). In such a scenario, the entire project could very well collapse. How about local democracy? To what extent can one reform the system as it is? To what extent can one replace it? Where is the popular force of grassroots mobilization going to come from? How will people be organized and mobilized? Can mass movements be mobilized without creating dogmatism and divisively volatile 'us-them' mentalities?

D) What is your relation to religion/identity?

• One of the main functions of religion is to provide a sense of identity for people. Yet at the same time, there is the inevitable consequence that by creating an identity for a particular group one also clearly separates one group from another group which in turn can lead to societal division and discord. Do you imagine that religion will disappear with the advent of more education and scientific discovery? Will religion still exist but play a different role than it does today? What will happen to those groups (many of which are now growing) that are fundamentalist and/or intolerant? Or is your vision in itself a religious vision? Do you hope to 'convert' people? Will your ideas 'save' people and create Heaven on Earth?

• In addition to religious identity people identify themselves according to ethnicity, gender, class, profession, and subculture. Likewise, these often constitute the battle-lines for social conflict. Does your vision hope to transcend these boundaries, ignore them, transform them or reapply them?
All of the above questions are relevant only to the extent that they are applicable to your own particular vision or activity. Hopefully they can help shed another perspective on your project and help develop a vision that may prove to test the possibilities and hopes of the world we live in. Whether you are an active participant in the creation of utopian vision, a pragmatic-leaning activist, or an observer to the process, the world is ultimately, equally ours to share. Likewise, we share the challenge of creating better world. Ride the chaos …and enjoy the ride.
"Utopia is on the horizon: I walk two steps, it takes two steps back. I walk ten steps and it is ten steps further away. What is utopia for? It is for this, for walking."

-Eduardo Galeano
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