In defense of pragmatic ‘real utopias’

We badly need more utopian speculation. The consensus future we read about in the media and that we’re driving towards is a roiling, turbulent fogbank beset by half-glimpsed demons: climate change, resource depletion, peak oil, mass extinction, collapse of the oceanic food chain, overpopulation, terrorism, foreigners who want to come here and steal our women jobs. It’s not a nice place to be; if the past is another country, the consensus view of the future currently looks like a favela with raw sewage running in the streets. Conservativism — standing on the brake pedal — is a natural reaction to this vision; but it’s a maladaptive one, because it makes it harder to respond effectively to new and unprecedented problems. We can’t stop, we can only go forward; so it is up to us to choose a direction. Having said that, we should be able to create a new golden age of utopian visions. A global civilization appears to be emerging for the first time. It’s unstable, unevenly distributed, and blindly fumbling its way forward. But we have unprecedented tools for sharing information; slowly developing theories of behavioural economics, cognitive bias, and communications that move beyond the crudely simplistic (and wrong) 19th century models of perfectly rational market actors: even models of development that seem to be generating sporadic progress in those countries that were hammered down and ruthlessly exploited as colonial assets by the ancien regime and its inheritors. We need — quite urgently, I think — plausible visions of where we might be fifty or a hundred or a thousand years hence. – Charlie Stross *

Some days ago we published a critique of utopia by Vera Bradova.

Alain Ambrosi responded, and we agree with this sentiment, in the following way:

I am surprised to read this on a blog which promotes the commons and commoning . Thomas More who forged the term ” Utopia” witnessed in his own life the first movement of enclosures in England (XVI century). His book Utopia is an explicit criticism of the Tudor aristocracy and private property and it promotes use value over exchange . He was beheaded for that. Before he wrote this book he was not a “dreamer” but a jurist, a philosopher and a man of state. William Morris who was inspired by More several centuries later was an artist and businessman, not simply a dreamer but a doer. His book “News from Nowhere” is more a criticism of his time than an imposition of “top down design”. David Bollier and others who define the commons today as “a pragmatic utopia” are direct descendants of the early utopians. I am surpised to see that the only utopians cited here are Stalin, Pol Pot, Lenin and Mussolini (why not throw Hitler in with them too?) – arguably very pragmatic dictators rather than the founders of utopianism.”

From our own point of view, and fate wants me to write this as I’m participating in Erik Olin Wright’s ‘Real Utopias’ project here in Madison, Wisconsin, utopias are a very necessary part of the social imagination, to defend us from the dictatorship of very real neoliberal capitalism, which is presented to us in the context of “There are no alternatives” (TINA), to which we respond, “There are manyh (p2p) alternative” (tapas).

Here is an excerpt from Gene Youngblood, on the necessity of utopias:

* Utopia is Vital for Political Change, by Gene Youngblood:

“Dismiss at the outset any silly notion about utopia as some kind of ideal world, some kind of blueprint for bourgeois comfort, a map to happiness. To frame it that way is irresponsible and counter-revolutionary. It plays directly into social control. It says the desire called utopia — the desire for release from hierarchy, and all it implies — is hopelessly naïve and not to be taken seriously.

Well, I think that’s a betrayal of us all. It’s collaboration in our oppression. Never frame utopian desire in a negative way. The only possible solutions to the crises we face are utopian solutions. Utopia has become imperative. If it isn’t utopian, it isn’t radical enough. So we’ve got to recuperate the word and re-imagine the idea. Begin by taking it seriously — utopia is not a place, it’s a desire. The desire for radical change, for transformation at the root. That’s something that can never be permitted by power, which is precisely why the call for it around the world has restored the radical figure of utopia to political currency.

Dial the clock back to May 1968 in Paris, and the famous slogan “be realistic, demand the impossible,” where impossible meant not permitted. In other words, make a demand that, granted, would bring the system down. Like a free and open internet.

In the years following those heady days of sixties counterculture, utopia lost its potency. It became discredited with the rise of cultural studies and identity politics, and their rejection of the cultural imperialism they thought utopia was about. So that, in 1999, in defiance of this trend, Russell Jacoby could publish his brave lament The End of Utopia, by which he meant the atrophy of radical will in our time.[20] But a mere six years later, in 2005, Fredric Jameson could proclaim in Archaeologies of the Future that utopia had regained its position at the leading edge of political thought. “It has recovered its vitality,” he observed, “as a political slogan and a politically energizing perspective. It is taken seriously as a social and political project.”[21]

Utopianism is political theory. It shifts the public conversation about utopia away from content — an ideal world — to what’s represented by the idea of utopia as such. Utopia is no longer understood as not possible because it’s too ideal, but as not permitted because it’s too radical. The struggle for freedom replaces the older utopian preoccupation with happiness.

Utopia is hypothetical. It asks what if? It entices and beckons. It says, “come get me.” A population inflamed with radical will stands on the horizon and says to the audience-nation, “We’re the distance between who you are and who you must become to meet the challenge. Come get us. What do you have to do to be us?”

In standard utopian narratives that little detail is ignored. We’re just there in utopia, in this revolutionary world, with no explanation whatsoever of how we got there. The struggle is missing, and that’s why standard utopias are so unconvincing. There’s no ground truth under them. “The agency that realized the utopian condition is omitted,” Jameson observes. “The narrative overleaps the revolution itself and posits an already existing post-revolutionary society. The axial moment, the break with history, the transformation into agency just isn’t there.”

That conspicuous absence begs the question, and reminds us that utopia is always and only one thing — the struggle for freedom at scale. Please understand: what’s utopian is the scale of an impossible demand, not struggle per se. It’s the utopian image I invoked at the beginning. That utopia is truly universal; to define it any other way is a betrayal of us all.

So, we’ve gone from utopia as not possible to utopia as not permitted. What’s not permitted above all else is the forging of a utopian algorithm: the people must not see how to get from here to there. That brings us to the utopian myth of a communication revolution.

Recall that inverted totalitarianism is based on controlling the social construction of realities. A communication revolution inverts the way that’s done, from top down to bottom up. It decentralizes and pluralizes the social construction of realities. I repeat: a communication revolution is the decentralization and pluralization of the social construction of realities. Period. That means it has nothing to do with technology. Of course it needs technology to happen, but the revolution isn’t in the technology just as music isn’t in a piano, just as intelligence isn’t in a brain. Technology is never the driver, always the enabler. It’s not technology that’s transformative but the culture that forms around it. And as I said at the beginning, which culture defines the internet is the great question of our time.

It was already the question in the early 1970s, when a set of technologies emerged in the United States that made a communication revolution theoretically possible — cable television, satellite distribution, portable video recording, videocassette and laserdisc publishing, and time-shared mainframe computing. With hindsight we recognize that mix as a kind of proto-internet.

The early 1970s was also the beginning of the end of the counterculture moment in America. I had been at the center of it. From 1967 to 1970, I was associate editor and columnist for The Los Angeles Free Press, the first and largest of the underground newspapers that flourished in the U.S. at that time. So I was in a position to understand counterculture as a communication revolution. Not that you had to be in my position. I mean we were all living it. We were living the first and only communication revolution that has ever happened in the United States, brief and limited as it may have been.

To understand that, think of communication not as a verb but a noun. Not something you do, but a place you occupy, a condition you arrive at. The word has two Latin roots: communis actio, common actions; and communare, a shared space. Common actions called conversation that lead to a shared space of agreement over an understanding — in our case, understandings of existence, priorities, values and relations. Humberto Maturana calls it a consensual domain.

That’s what we did in the 1960s. We built a consensual domain called counterculture and we convened there. We left the culture without leaving the country, and our cohort inverted the social construction of realities. We did it on a politically threatening scale, so of course it had to be dealt with. Counterculture had to be neutralized and assimilated. That is, it had to be commodified. The commodification of outsiderdom had already begun in the 1950s — Rebel Without a Cause, The Wild One, Jack Kerouac on prime time television — so we in the sixties were de facto delivering ourselves directly to capital. The broadcast administered a mortal dose of publicity and the end was in sight.

It was a question of autonomy. Counterculture couldn’t be sustained within shopping-counter culture. We couldn’t live as a utopian enclave circumscribed by the imperial broadcast. We were looking for ways to remain in self-exile, and when technology emerged that could theoretically enable that at scale, we were alert to it. We saw it because we believed it, and we believed it because we were living it.

As the broadcast entered the dream life of the audience-nation, we dreamed of escape. Cultural hegemony might dominate our days, but it didn’t have to be our destiny. We thought we might be able to sustain in virtual space the cultural autonomy we were losing in physical space. We knew that wouldn’t be enough. The struggle wouldn’t be won or lost in the realm of representation, but as always it had to start there. It was the beginning of media activism. We understood that if we changed the media we’d change the world. I refer you to my call to arms in the journal Radical Software in 1970.[25]

Media activists saw a utopian opportunity to create a democratic media commons through operational inversion of the broadcast, from mass communication to group conversation. A paradigm shift was technically possible — from the dominator model to a partnership model, from hierarchy to heterarchy, from communication to conversation, from control to coherence.

Conversation, from the Latin conversari, to turn around together, is generative. It brings forth worlds. It’s how we construct realities. We can talk about things because we generate the things we talk about by talking about them.[26] We become a reality-community. And the closure, the circularity, of turning around together seals our cultural autonomy. We become an autonomous reality-community.

Now, that phrase is actually redundant because there’s no other kind of community. Every community is an autonomous reality-community. That is, every community is a conspiratorial conversation that generates the realities that define it as a community. Word of mouth becomes a world of mouth, the birth of a notion.

I use this otherwise unnecessary phrase to make us aware of what we’re doing today. To make explicit the fact that, in our migration to the internet, we are decentralizing and pluralizing the social construction of realities at politically destabilizing scale. Every website, blog or microblog; every networking or sharing platform; every streaming or hosting service; every virtual world, is either a reality-community or a platform that supports conversations that constitute them. Every Facebook or LinkedIn connection, every tagged Twitter micropost, every You Tube or Vimeo channel, every image posted on Flickr, every playlist shared on Spotify, every scrobble, and every grouping in each of them creates the possibility of a conversation that coheres a community around a reality.

Optical fiber was on the horizon in the early 1970s, and that allowed us to imagine communication systems beyond the limitations of cable television. Instead of the “public access” crumbs tossed to us by the cable TV industry, we imagined socialized public utilities based on switched optical fiber networks operated by telephone companies. I refer you to the video of me calling for a National Information Utility in 1974.

I was demanding the impossible, and that was the point. Impossible because a utility is a common carrier, open to everyone equally. That would subvert social control. The people would have to demand it. They weren’t going to demand something they couldn’t envision, so I offered a vision of a public communication utility with emotional bandwidth, which at the time was the six-megahertz analog bandwidth of broadcast television. In other words, two-way video would be the platform for democratic conversation at scale.

Information storage and retrieval, although essential, was seen as a supplemental feature of the communication system that media activists were imagining. Nobody thought of the computer as a communication device. It was just a library in a box. It was access to information, and a communication revolution isn’t about access to information, at least not primarily. It’s about access to people. It’s about access to conversations through which realities are socially constructed.

Operational inversion of the broadcast would give full-throated release to the scream we call silence. We were in solitary confinement. There was an urgent need to say what we had not been able to say, to an audience we never had — ourselves. Dark fiber would light up quickly. Channels of agitation and desire would multiply exponentially, turning the audience-nation into a democratic republic of autonomous reality-communities in virtual space. They would be atopias — social formations without boundaries or borders, defined not by geography but by consciousness, ideology and desire.

It would be necessary to choose among them. You couldn’t just passively receive. You’d have to work at it. From the ever-expanding universe of reality-communities, you’d have to assemble the particular universe of meaning in which you would live. It would be your media lifeworld. Lifeworld is a sociological term which means our subjective experience of everyday life. We share the lifeworld with others, but we experience only our own personal lifeworld from moment to moment. The lifeworld is your world, the world you inhabit. It’s your habitat.

So you’d assemble your media habitat, your personal lifeworld of autonomous reality-communities. It was understood that one of the possible lifeworlds you might build for yourself could be what we call a counterculture — a world whose meanings, values and definitions of reality are exactly counter to those of the broadcast. You could increasingly live the life of that world as The Build progressed, and it would bring you to the threshold of secession.”

7 Comments In defense of pragmatic ‘real utopias’

  1. Avatarvera

    I am delighted my post has spurred on so much discussion. Perhaps it came off my keyboard too hastily: I was fuming against all those people who feel so certain of their “vision” and who also succeed in getting the power to do it, that they then proceed to impose it on us all, regardless of objections, regardless of feedback, regardless, indeed, of the reality they *actually* create. Let Frank Gehry’s flipped finger — it’s all over the internet — be the symbol of this way of creating “better” worlds. Let all the leaking roofs, crumbling concrete, ugliness, destruction of public spaces, and general inhabitability of modern architectural creations underline the point I am making.

    Now back to utopia. In my post, I said that I am all for literary utopias, where speculation runs rampant and new vistas open up to human imagination. What I am against is taking that speculation and trying to hoist it upon the hapless humans that happen to be within the utopian’s power orbit.

    As a consequence, I cannot get excited about a project (I took a peek at Real Utopias) that churns up policies to hoist upon people to change their behavior in the direction of the utopian’s desire. That has been called “social engineering” in some circles, and aptly so. It essentially tries to manipulate people in the direction the utopian manipulator wants them to go, and through top-down methods no less.

    That, my friends, is not autonomy. That’s not freedom, nor is it respect. That’s not the right algorithm for getting there.

  2. Avatarvera

    @Reed; the first utopia (though it was not known by that word) was Plato’s Republic, and it was pretty totalitarian. Utopias are what the utopians wants them to be. I understand that your own utopia is not like that; nevertheless…

    “For the people to monitor and control the executive functions of societal organization is a structural challenge.”

    Ha! The understatement of the century. 🙂

  3. Avatarvera

    @Reed, I don’t do twitter. But I’ll leave you a message at your blog you linked to above. Looking forward to our conversation.

  4. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Just for the record, there is no “central bank” that is owned by zionists. This is factually incorrect. I would normally not accept comments of that nature, but since Reed stresses that his comments are not meant to be anti-semitic, we will leave them as is.

  5. AvatarReed Kinney

    Dear Michel Bauwens,

    Thank you for allowing me the benefit of the doubt. I apologize that some people were offended by my assertions. I do not understand why you would upload the “Commons” lectures as if they represent a viable option to the world crisis when that organization is causing that same crisis. We are in a “hard ball” world. Youngblood makes a good assessment, See:

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