Utopianism as a method

The dominant modernization discourse often reduces utopianism to a totalizing scheme for the complete replacement of an existing social order. The reduction of the concept of utopia to its blueprint aspects, serves the interests of the dominant governing elite. The goal of this essay is to correct this one-sided definition of utopianism and to propose new utopian tactics. These new utopian tactics will be based on the writings of Ruth Levitas, Pierre Bourdieu and BAVO.

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Utopianism as a method

In Seeing Like a State (1998) James C. Scott states that utopian visions about the future of the ruling elite played an essential role in the disastrous high modernist schemes to improve society. ‘Where utopianism goes wrong is when it is held by ruling elites with no commitment to democracy or civil rights and who are therefore likely to use unbridled state power for its achievement’.[1] Scott thus reduces utopianism to a totalizing scheme for the complete replacement of an existing social order, and it is because of these totalizing tendencies that utopianism is declared dangerous.

Scott is not the only one to stress the blueprint aspects of utopianism. His description of utopianism fits into the grand narrative of modernization. In this narrative Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) is the first example of an attempt to propose the reorganization of society and its institutions, by education, by laws, and sanctions.[2] The description of Utopia as a blueprint is mostly based on the second part of the story (book 2), which entails a detailed description of a communitarian alternative society. Although this part of the More’s iconic book has inspired many thinkers to reimagine society, the reduction of the concept to this narrow definition is problematic and not without consequences.

In Acts of Resistance Against the New Myths of Our Time (1998) Pierre Bourdieu speaks out against the dominance of the ‘neo-liberal’ discourse. ‘Everywhere we hear it said, all day long – and this is what gives the dominant discourse its strength – that there is nothing to put forward in opposition to the neo-liberal view, that it has succeeded in presenting itself as self-evident, that there is no alternative’. Bourdieu sees this ‘pragmatic’ anti-utopian discourse as a deliberate attempt of the governing capitalist elite to suppress political critique and opposition. [3]

Although the way these dominant discourses serve the purposes of the governing elite is without question, the question whether these are deliberate attempts of the elites is more difficult to answer. The belief that there is no alternative and that this is the most ‘pragmatic’ way of governing and envisioning society, has its roots in the traumatic events that shaped the twentieth century. Drastic schemes to improve society must be kept in check, because the consequences, as proven by communism and fascism, could be disastrous.

The result of the dominance of this attitude is that it has become more difficult to criticize society. In the introduction of Cultural Activism Today: The Art of Over-Identification (2006), the editors describe one of the major consequences of the ‘pragmatic’ discourse:

One of the most symptomatic manifestations of this onslaught on any real critique, i.e. critique that does not limit itself to mere window dressing, is no doubt today’s insistence on constructive critique. What has become completely unacceptable is to “merely” criticize, that is, to critically diagnose and analyse society’s contradictions without at the same time offering a concrete alternative or solution for the predicaments analyzed.[4]

This analysis leads BAVO to conclude that the only viable way out of the trap of the insistence on ‘constructive’ criticism, is the tactic of over-identification. Activists, artists, thinkers and writers should over-identify with the ruling elite and take their immanent laws to their most extreme, dystopian consequences.

The art of over-identification seems like a promising strategy. It combines one function of utopianism, the deliberate imagining of alternative worlds, with the critical reflection such imagining precipitates on the presumed world of the author and his/her readership. By showing the consequences of a certain dominant aspect of a society, one is able to sidestep the dominant discourse and it provides a precise tactic of offering critique. There are however alternatives.

In an article published in the Journal of Political Ideologies (2007) Ruth Levitas describes the dominant description of utopianism in our contemporary society and its consequences, as follows:

Utopia is widely understood as an imagined perfect society, or “wishfully constructed place”. Such imaginings are supposed to be unrealistic: the Concise Oxford Dictionary describes “a Utopian” as an ardent but unrealistic reformer. The question “whether human beings actually want it”, taps into another cultural trope: that utopia is dangerous, for it entails the imposition of systems on reluctant populations.[5]

Levitas regards this definition of utopianism as emblematic for the strong anti-utopian strand that is running through politics. Challenges and alternatives can always be labelled ‘utopian’ – that is unrealistic and dangerous – while the ideological/utopian claims of one’s own position are placed beyond scrutiny.

According to Levitas the function of utopian thinking in our contemporary society should be twofold. First it involves, in its archaeological mode, a way of uncovering a utopian core in current political positions. Thus facilitating critique, engagement and dialogue about these implicit utopias. Secondly, in its architectural mode, it involves the construction of alternative models. These models, however, should not be seen as concrete proposals to be implemented.

Instead of focusing on the proposal aspect of utopianism we should view it as a method. By reformulating utopian thinking in this way, we can rescue utopianism from the constraints placed upon it by the dominant definition of it being both unrealistic and dangerous. The advantage of utopianism is that one does not need to focus on practical problems; instead one can formulate an ideal society and focus on one’s deepest wishes. A wealth of utopias should be able to offer a kaleidoscope of wishes for the betterment of society.

[1] James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (Yale 1998), 89.

[2] See for a more detailed description: W.J. van Leeuwen, ‘How modern was Utopia? The medieval roots of utopian thinking’, The New Utopians (Utrecht 2015)

[3] Pierre Bourdieu, ‘the Myth of “Globalisation” and the European Welfare State’ in: idem, Acts of Resistence Against the New Myths of Our Time (Blackwell 1998), vert. Richard Nice, 29.

[4] BAVO, Cultural Activism Today: The Art of Over-Identification (Amsterdam 2006), 19.

[5] Ruth Levitas, ‘Looking for the blue: The necessity of utopia’, Journal of Political Ideologies 12-3 (2007), 296-297.

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