Utopians are ruining everything

By Vera Bradova. Original post here.

Utopianism has, rightly, acquired an unsavory reputation. Since my preoccupations on this blog concern the creation of a place of refuge from Babylon, as well as the opening of a crack in the system where another world is born, I thought it prudent to shine a light on it. If only so I avoid falling into that abyss.

Utopianism is underlain, as I understand it, by the hankering for social perfection and the lure of ideal worlds. It typically involves four aspects:

  • privileging of ideals over messy human realities, of future over the present, of pure geometries over wabi sabi, of ideas over nature
  • imposition of top-down design
  • refusal of responsibility and of paying close attention to untoward consequences; “ends justify means”
  • social pressure or propaganda to induce people to “like” the results

Most of the people who’ve brought ruin to the modern world have been utopians, from Lenin to Mussolini to Pol Pot, from communists to neo-liberals, from early modern architects to Brutalists to more recent ego-excesses of the various Frank Gehrys. (I am not counting among them the literary creation of new worlds. Dreamers need to safely bat ideas around, and fantasy and sci-fi novels make that possible.)

Utopians delight in arm-chair design. They fall in love with their creations. When they try to implement them and other humans balk, things get ugly.

Utopian memes have misled people into thinking that top-down design of ideal societies is the right strategy for creating a better world. Even permaculture has been infected, imposing top-down landscaping designs upon the land with predictably disappointing results. I have called the opposite of top-down design “unplanning.” Unplanning imitates nature, envisioning and applying human processes that are rooted in adaptive, feedback-responsive steps.

I think in terms of “better.” A whole lot better than THIS. And while optimal is hard and ideal is impossible, better is often very doable. And when “better” seeds new “attractors” (vortices of energy) into being, a sudden phase shift into something quite different becomes possible.

The world I am dreaming into existence cannot come into being via utopian schemes. It evolves from small beginnings. It arises through a myriad of adaptations made by millions of people. There is a vision, but the vision itself co-evolves with each step each human takes. We make the path as we walk. Following in the footsteps of Candide, we cultivate our gardens. And invite others to join us there.


Frank Gehry: ruining the world, one building at a time

10 Comments Utopians are ruining everything

  1. AvatarAlain Ambrosi

    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.

  2. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Dear Alain, the p2p blog has always been pluralistic and is open to contributions with people that we do not necessarily agree with. As you can guess, I strongly disagree with this one, but it hopefully can also stimulating thinking.

  3. Øyvind HolmstadØyvind Holmstad

    Isn’t the article about the difference between imposed vs. emerging dreams? But I agree the word Imposed should have been added to the title, making the title “Imposed utopians are ruining everything”. This is obviously a bad thing. While emerging utopians are a good thing.

    Please see the discussion thread of the original essay, which is about emergent vs. imposed design.

    So personally the article has stimulated me to differ between these two utopian schemes, emergent vs. imposed.

    I’m sure Vera will become more specific about this in future essays. Please check her blog. She’s doing extremely important things.

  4. AvatarOrsan

    “Most of the people who’ve brought ruin to the modern world have been utopians, from Lenin to Mussolini to Pol Pot, from communists to neo-liberals, from early modern architects to Brutalists to more recent ego-excesses of the various Frank Gehrys.” Don’t know Vera’s work, but this catagorization is extremely problematique. On the one hand Lenin, is a very realist politician, self-believed leader, impossible to see him as a utopian, forger about having an utiopia for himself he fought against utopians. Here is the real utopian and his rethreat before Lenin:http://monoskop.org/images/4/48/Bogdanov_Alexander_Red_Star_The_First_Bolshevik_Utopia.pdf The others like Mussolini, Hiltler, PolPot, Stalin, all are ‘distopians’, barbaric in nature, even pycophatic, no relation to utopia at all, exploiting emotinal politics.

  5. AvatarOrsan

    actually opposite: realist and cold bloded ones like Churchil, Teatcher, Hitler, Stalin, Bush(es), Clintons, Obama, Putin,… also large businessman like Ford, Rhodes, Rockefellar,…

  6. Øyvind HolmstadØyvind Holmstad

    Yes, you are right about all these people!

    But for Frank Gehry I believe it’s different. I think he’s honestly wanting to make the world a better place with his buildings. And I’m sure he’s a very nice man. It’s just that his design is imposed. And as architecture is the physical incarnation of the values of society, he’s promoting an imposed utopianism with the best of intentions.

    You cannot see any patterns or any of the 15 transformations in Gehry’s buildings. Emerging design is full of both. So an emerging utopianism must value the 15 transformations, patterns, agile design, biophilia, self-organization and so on, to become the physical incarnation of true utopianism.

    Many believe that architecture is separate of society, just an expression of art. It’s not. Architecture is the physical incarnation of society’s values.

  7. Avatarvera

    Thank you for your thoughts. I know my take is somewhat different. For example, Thomas Moore, who wrote Utopia, perhaps tongue in cheek, was no utopian, but a nasty customer who delighted in torturing religious dissidents in his own private torture chamber and in sending them to the pyre. He was beheaded because he stubbornly refused to recognize the legitimacy of Henry’s second marriage. If Thomas had tried to implement his Utopia, it would have been another blood bath.

    William Morris was quite different. He not only spun utopian ideas in a book, he — as Øyvind mentions — embodied them in his own craftsmanship. He is a spiritual giant and an exception. (So were, in their own way, the Shakers.)

    The reason I am juxtaposing these unlikely so-called “realists” is because they all promised a very very bright tomorrow to people, got their support, and then proceeded to devastate them. Primarily because they carried dystopia, not utopia, inside them. Just like Thomas Moore.

    Øyvind, I don’t know much about Gehry, but he seems to be all about ego. Recently someone criticized him, and he publicly shot them a finger. The pics are all over the internet. These modern architects are famous for being so caught up in their own creations that they get ticked off if someone complains the roof leaks and needs to be rebuilt. Ego before livingness!

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