Capitalism and the Impossibility of Utopia: or the Incompatibility Problem

The crisis of Utopianism is often related to and explained by the critique-numbing effects of capitalism. The existing analyses of the interaction between the Utopian in literature and our current politico-economic system carefully look into the mechanisms of capitalism and its perverting consequences, while omitting any extensive observations of the Utopian. However, in order to come to the conclusion that capitalism is a threat to our creative abilities to think beyond the status quo both sides of the spectrum need to be compared and weighted out against each other. This paper, therefore, examines the structural similarities between Utopianism, based upon the literary canon and our current politico-economic system. The need for neoliberalism to absorb inconsistencies within the organization of society in order to persist can, equally, be said to be the perquisite for Utopia. The previous conclusion could explain why the Utopian as a political tool is not the most efficient, and why the Utopian today expresses itself predominantly in more concrete forms.

39_39_iwouldprefernottowebPascual SistoI Would Prefer Not To, 2011

Material: Steel

Capitalism and the Impossibility of Utopia: or the Incompatibility Problem

“I believe that as a society we have not much work left” (Stanley Aronowitz)

“Today we have the capacity to turn the world into hell, and we are well on the way to doing so. We also have the capacity to turn it into the opposite of hell. This would mean the end of utopia” (Five, Marcuse 62)

John Meynard Keynes, in 1930, predicted that a century later economic powers such as the United States and affluent European countries would be blessed with a fifteen-hour workweek[1]. Today, Keynes’ prophecy seems to be quite far from our daily reality, even if the current technological innovations, which according to Keynes would permit the achievement of three-hour workdays, are advanced enough. Instead of developing technologies that could free us from the burden of toil, we have smartphones permitting us to reply to our e-mails when commuting at seven in the morning while sipping away our coffees on the go. It is not surprising, regarding the current economic climate that academia and journalists[2] started to compare Keynes’ predictions to the current status of the employee, and their reasons for being. Although it can be suggested, as Robert Frank argues, that we are seduced by luxury, and therefore need to make more hours, David Graeber shows that practically no newly created jobs are directly related to the production of consumer goods. On the contrary, the existence of certain employments seem to be the sole result of a structural necessity, rather than being inherently indispensible for human existence. Greaber gives the example of “dog-washers [and] all-night pizza deliverymen that exist only because, […] everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones”[3]. In the latter case, the aim of employment is employment itself.

Graeber’s previous observation is extremely reminiscent of the paradoxes of labour that are critized by Thomas More in his 1516 Utopia. In his magnum opus, he imagines a world in which “all the workers in useless trades [are] put to useful ones” whereby, he states, “you can easily see how little time would be enough and more than enough to produce all the goods that human needs and conveniences require”.[4] Judging someone’s work as being useless, however, is more complex than merely conceiving it as such, because a specific occupation does not contribute to satisfying the most basic needs of society, whether intellectual or material. In addition, saying that a person’s daily occupations are insignificant might be perceived as being quite disdainful, unjust and extremely subjective. The real problem arises when individuals themselves start to consider their work as being meaningless, which Graeber observes and closely questions. To try and relativize the matter, the question of need, what a person really needs, and why we yearn for something is intricate, and will be addressed later on. Regarding the subject of work, on the other hand, the entire Utopian literary canon, from its earliest exponents onwards, already treated the subject, and generally conveys the idea that labour is hazardous to human happiness, and therefore, within the fictitious worlds it sketches, is largely avoided. In the most radical cases, such as in “The Land of Cokaigne”, work unknown, for in this earthly paradise “gees fly roasted in the spit”, and “[t]here are rivers broad and fine/[o]f oil, milk, honey and of wine”.[5] In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, on the other hand, work is realistically seen as being impossible to completely eliminate, but all the tasks that have to be carried out, in order to live comfortably without excess or luxury, are intelligently reduced to a bare minimum. The women of Herland accommodate themselves to eating fruit and nuts because “trees […] requiring far less labor in tilling the soil, bearing a larger amount of food for the same ground space”.[6] Utopian aspirations throughout the centuries already offered us, if not an alternative, at least a vision enabling us to think beyond a 35 to 40 hour workweek, and most importantly the current politico-economical system. Considering that increasing numbers of people are unsatisfied with their professional occupations[7], the question that naturally follows would be: why did we not all follow the Utopian example?

Logically, since Utopias reflect upon the societal and the economic status quo[8], the genre is historically determined. The industrial revolution, urbanization and uprisings of the 18th century would be a perfect example of this specificity. The previous changes aided in giving rise to a flood in the “belief that under the right conditions improvement was not only possible, but also natural, [which] invited […] to assume that progress was as self-evident as the laws of nature that promised democracy, equality and happiness”.[9] The latter positive stance towards the future, subsequently, was widely reflected in Utopian literature. An example is Alexander Pope’s 1713 Windsor Forest, which offers a variant upon the Arcadian ideal. In Pope’s long poem, natural resources and their exploitation are viewed as a means to bring peace to the world carrying the torch of material development to the less advanced, mainly oppressed colonies, parts of the globe.

In the 20th century hope turned into despair visible through the dystopian canon. Gregory Claeys, as a historical explanation, sees “the grotesque slaughter of the First World War” as having rendered the “vision of heaven on earth”[10] (107) impossible to think. The large predominance of the dystopian novel over the Utopian variety marks the start of a fall for the genre as a whole. Jameson in his Archaeologies of the Future brings to light how the re-appropriation of the term perverted its general perception. “During the Cold War […] Utopia had become a synonym for Stalinism and had come to designate a program which betrayed […] a will to uniformity and the ideal purity of a perfect system that always had to be imposed by force on its imperfect and reluctant subjects”[11] (Jameson ix). Surprisingly, after the threat of communism had died out, the “anti-authoritarian Left” used the adjective Utopian to designate Marxism for they viewed its culmination into a totalitarian regime as inevitable, and their aim for a worker’s paradise as highly improbable. The term Utopia has been used for political ends, and often in order to portray the enemy as having unrealistic and undesirable plans for the future. The negative aftertaste of Utopianism did, however, not stay in the realm of practical politics, but also became theorized. Karl Popper for instance declared Utopianism as “dangerous and pernicious”, and merely leading to “violence”.[12] The theoretical opponents to Utopianism sketch it to be necessarily a blueprint for a “changeless harmonious whole”[13] that leaves no space for individual freedom, and is inherently static. Lyman Tower Sargent points out the fallacy of this argument, because even in a seemingly very rigid Utopia, Thomas More’s, the islanders still are open for Christianity.[14] In the case of rigidity, the problem lies within the literary genre more than in Utopianism itself. Utopias generally give a temporary glimpse into a different world, which most of the time does not encompass a vast timespan. Today’s aversion towards Utopianism could be the consequence of these false beliefs of its opponents’ perception. Graey’s allusion to Herbert Marcuse, whom linked the “dystopian ideal” to the “end of utopia””,[15] however, opens up another possible understanding on the matter. Marcuse goes further than looking at the impact of military horrors, or the consequence of politics upon the theorization of Utopia, and questions the role of our advanced technological society in our inability to think beyond the status quo. Even if the majority of the population[16] is aware of capitalism’s fallacies, let alone its destructive consequences for the environment, today, as will be seen, writers of affluent countries seem to have become unable to think beyond the current economic system, in view of which Marcuse’s theories regarding production can offer a useful perspective.

“[I]t has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”,[17] Fredric Jameson proclaims by alluding to Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Equally, Ursula Le Guin when receiving the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in November 2014, stresses how hazardous “the profit motive” is for “the aims of art”, capitalism being omnipresent to the extent that it “seems inescapable”.[18] Both authors suggest, hereby, that capitalism plays a major role in the numbing of our Utopian aspirations, if not being the primary source for its contemporary recess. Logically, in view of Utopia being a reaction upon the socio-political climate of its times, its absence needs to be questioned in view of the latter contextual influences. However, the very nature of Utopia, from a more philosophical view, also needs to be enquired before concluding that only one factor lies at the source of the imagination drought. In order to come to grasps with the crisis of literary Utopianism, its inherently temporal mechanisms will be questioned in the light of capitalism’s specificities from Marcuse’s, E.M. Cioran’s, and André Gorz’s view points, which results in their mutual incompatibility.

Emil Michel Cioran, a great sceptic regarding Utopian aspirations, writes that “[o]ur dreams of a better world are based on a theoretical impossibility. Hardly surprising is, in order to justify them, we must resort to solid paradoxes”.[19] Surprisingly enough not only Utopias opponents agree with Cioran, but even strong supporters such as Marcuse agree with the idea of the dualisms, or structural incompatibility that Utopia encompasses. The impossibility of Utopia seems to stem from the nexus of its aims with its literary form. Marcuse claims that once Utopia becomes concrete, the new era becomes hostile to the very aims of Utopianism, namely, “to denounce certain socio-historical possibilities”.[20] In order to come to this conclusion, you would have to place yourself within the fictional world of a Utopia as the author created it; you have to let loose the possibility of individuality within the system. Certainly, theoretically, once Utopia is physically achieved it annihilates itself, for critique is no longer conceivable. This view, however, does not make a distinction between the literary and the physical world, whereas the opponents of Utopianism state the incompatibility between Utopia and the real world to be its key problem, they themselves use the same incongruity as an argument. Both the fictional and the real need to be taken into account to come to a full realization of the problem that Utopian desire poses, namely that of the idiosyncratic and the massified. Jameson stresses the impossibility of Utopia, due to the incompatibility of a collective reality to be imagined by the individual.[21] Utopianism, and its artistic rendition, is always idiosyncratic, as a consequence of which one man’s Utopia is another man’s dystopia. The later statement sells itself as an easy way out of defining Utopia, but it unveils the contradictory nature of the genre, its collective desire, and the want to generalize an individual vision of the future upon a larger body. Hence, Cioran judges the Utopian aspiration as a manifestation of our tyrannical and egocentric nature.

In addition to the shortcut Utopianism provokes regarding its idiosyncratic genesis and its collective aims, its collage-like historicity provokes a clash with the very capacities of human imagination. Marcuse views utopianism to aim for, or to desire a qualitative break with “the historical continuum”.[22] Indeed, utopianism can only take shape when it sets itself off from the status quo defining itself by offering an alternative or critique. According to Bloch, the latter aims of Utopianism are intrinsically linked to the idea of the New, which he conveys in The Principle of Hope. Bloch sees the Utopian as “the forward dream”, a movement towards the “not-yet”.[23] His conception of utopia is entirely built upon a profound belief in the New, and that in everything that surrounds us lays a Utopian not-yet which still needs to become; “it grasps the New as something that is mediated in what exists and is in motion, although to be revealed the New demands the most extreme effort of will”.[24] The problem the concept of the New raises, which can only remain a quite indeterminate and a profoundly spiritual notion, is the capacity of man to imagine something that has not yet become. Jameson, on the other hand, claims that “nothing in the mind [is] not first in the senses […] affirming as it does that even our wildest imaginings are all collages of experience, constructs made up of bits and pieces of the here and the now”.[25] Jameson concludes that the implications for Utopianism are that it can only “serve the negative purpose of making us more aware of our mental and ideological imprisonment”.[26] On the contrary to what Bloch claims to be the essence of the Utopian, Jameson considers it to be its very weakness, “for the more surely a given utopia asserts its radical difference from what currently is, to that very degree it becomes, not merely unrealizable but, what is worse, unimaginable”.[27] In order to be of social, or political value, which is the very aim of Utopia, Utopias should not go too far in their differentiation from the real, or at least need to evoke an alternative that still is thinkable within the contemporary system it criticizes. Jameson stresses the importance of the previous inability, which illuminates how the system, or how ideology at large is confining; they are structural entities “of which we are all in one way or another prisoners”.[28] Although acknowledging Utopianisms intrinsic dualisms, Marcuse and Jameson perceive it as a necessary aspiration for challenging the vices of the times. Cioran also views the Utopian to be indispensable, but within his thought it drives the historical whereby history would be impossible without Utopia.

Since, as has already been mentioned, the very nature of capitalism seems to numb the Utopian spur, it appears as if this economic system reached the pinnacle of criticism avoidance, therefore it needs to be examined how it achieves this seeming immunity. Bloch sees human knowledge to be fettered by the past, and considers capitalism to reinforce this process, because it turns “all objects into commodities and thus [brings] about the ‘reification’ of thought: reified thought, reduced to the form of commodities, expressing itself as fact-worship or ‘crawling empiricism’” (Kolakowski 430).[29] Bloch’s conception of Utopia being based upon the belief of the New, the desire to bring about the not-yet, clashes with the capitalistic reification of the past. Since the idea that the human mind is capable to imagine an entire novelty is highly questionable, Marcuse offers a more relevant interpretation of the capitalistic system and its effects upon our ability to criticize it. Aronowitz, by alluding to Marcuse, proclaims that scarcity today is manufactured.[30] Indeed, this is the manner in which Marcuse starts his essay “The End of Utopia”, by showing how “the abolition of poverty and misery is possible”[31] regarding the technological possibilities we have at hand. The fear for scarcity, therefore, has a structural importance rather than being a fundamental threat to human existence. The fear of scarcity according to Marcuse is needed to continue to encourage work and production. The latter mechanism of productive endeavour that is fuelled by a dread of shortage enables the system to provide immediate satisfaction of needs that are initially created by the authorities and are in line with their ideology. Needs are, therefore, artificially brought into being only to perpetuate the system based upon the fear to be lacking certain requirements, whereby the superstructure has to sustain misery and poverty. As a consequence, technology is not used to reduce workload, but on the contrary to keep it going.[32] The satisfaction of needs that the system provides, even if based upon artificiality, enables a “rising standard of living”.[33] Hence, “non-comformity with the system itself appears as socially useless, and more so when it entails economic of political disadvantages and threatens the smooth operation of the whole”.[34] The great achievement of advanced technological societies lies, according to Marcuse, in its ability to integrate oppositions, which “promote material and intellectual stabilization”,[35] and at the same time this integration of opposites is a prerequisite for its own success. i.e. capitalism manages to make us support inconsistencies, such as the necessity of work, and the belief in the objective truth and existence of poverty and dearth. The main factor behind the consent that the superstructure gives rise is deeply inscribed within the dominant ideology, which for Paul Ricoeur represents the “point of view from” which we think “rather than thinking about” .[36] Capitalism, being entirely dependent upon ideology in both Ricoeur’s view and Marcuse’s, Utopian aspirations would be ideal in opposing the current politico-economic system for its nature enables to go beyond it. According to Riceour, the individual is trapped in a cyclical thinking pattern caused by ideology, which Utopias would be capable of breaching by judging the former reasoning.[37] Within this framework Utopianism is seen as a counterforce that has differentiating qualities to render the unconscious conscious by indirect or satirical criticism. Subsequently, Utopianism would be an ideal means to bring to light all the shortcomings of our current society, and yet within contemporary literary production its presence is becoming scarce.

Instead of asking how Utopianism distinguishes itself from capitalism, it can equally be analysed on what levels they correspond to each other. Indeed, in terms of integrating paradoxes and inconsistencies both societal forms of organization, structurally, function in a similar manner, and demand a belief, conscience or unconscious on behalf of the people in ideological terms. When aware of the problems that Utopianism raises, such as the incongruity between the individual and the collective, or its immediate self-annihilation when realized, the literary genre does not appear as the practical political weapon par excellence. On the contrary, once aware that capitalism just like Utopianism have similar underlying mechanisms makes the latter appear as a less efficient strategy to fight the former. An informed public will not choose to supersede one absurdity[38] by another in practice. The dystopian turn, perhaps, already marked a realization of structural inefficiency vis-à-vis its positive variant. André Gorz, although not analysing the Utopian per se, in The Immaterial offers an understanding why there seems to be, whether conscious or unconscious, a realization of the fallacies of Utopianism regarding other methods of opposition. Gorz explains that capitalism in order to perpetuate itself had to expand beyond the domain of material production and innovate, which necessitates a radically different labour force, namely, a knowledge-based one.[39] The system in its current state is dependent upon experiental knowledge, which differentiates itself from formal knowledge. Experiental knowledge is the product of “the universal intercourse between human beings”,[40] whereas formal knowledge is quantifiable such a math-based or applied sciences that are measurable. The individual obtains the former capital via societal activities such as sports, or other forms of leisure or entertainment. Employers now seek for employees who have well-developed intelligent and independent entrepreneurial personalities. According to Gorz, the progression of capitalism into cognitive capitalism[41] is at odds with the economic underpinnings of the system. In economy, he explains, value can only be measured quantifiably, whereas the new worker of today has a chance on the job market for qualitative reasons.[42] The latter dualism creates fissures within the logics of the system, and gives rise to an educated mass able to “emancipate itself from capital”.[43] Gorz gives the example of a new proletariat[44] he observes the emergence of, particularly, among IT specialists[45] who developed and still innovate free software “solely motivated by their desire for self-unfolding”.[46] These virtual public spaces without being driven by profit interests create an open-access port for discussion, self-enrichment, and critique based upon “voluntary cooperation”.[47] Gorz’s idea of an increasing educated population, not only blooming regarding formal knowledge, but equally experiental knowledge which stirs and encourages collective experience and an interest in the other, could offer a clarification of the decrease in Utopian literature. The Utopian being now much more implemented within the practical, such as IT specialists trying to free public space from being privatized, self-sufficient eco-communities like Free and Real[48], or the Marxist settlement of Marinelada in Andalusia[49].

The crisis of Utopianism in the literary domain is often brought into relation with capitalism. Certainly, when looking into Marcuse’s theories regarding advanced technological societies, the Neoliberal productive machine appears to numb critical thinking. Structurally, a more fundamental similarity between Utopianism and capitalism might also explain a decrease of literary output within the field. Due to the critical mass that gradually arose with the transformation of capitalism in the last decades, the underlying dualisms of the current politico-economic system and Utopia renders the latter a less efficient tool of radical opposition than it used to be before the dystopian turn. Utopianism today seems to express itself in the here and now, and is intrinsically not Utopian anymore, because it breaches the boundary between the real, the fictional, and the attainable. The incompatibility of our advanced capitalistic society and the Utopian stance, however, do not annihilate the importance of alternative thinking or trying to challenge the ills of the times. On the contrary, Utopianism most likely lies at the basis of the practical implementations of different societal forms of organization of which we observe the emergence of today, and should therefore, even if containing similarities with capitalism itself, not be neglected. The more pragmatic expressions of Utopian desire, hence, mark a new stage of Utopianism or concrete Utopia.

Solange Manche

[1] John Meynard Keynes, “Economic Possibilities”, Essays in Persuasion (1963): 358-373.

[2] The Economist. “Why is everyone so busy?” The Economist Print Edition, 20 Dec. 2014.

The Guardian. “Whatever happened to Keynes’ 15-hour working week?” The Guardian Economics, 1 Sept. 2008.

[3] David Graeber, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.” Libcom, 20 Aug. 2015.

[4] Thomas More, Utopia (New York: Norton, 2012), 605.

[5] “The Land of Cokaigne.” Utopia Reader (York: New York UP, 1999), 74;75.

[6] Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Herland (New York: Dover Publications, 1998), 98.

[7] David Graeber, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.” Libcom, 20 Aug. 2015

[8] Kennet M. Roemer, “Paradise Transformed”, The Cambridge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 97.

[9] Ibid., 82.

[10] Gregory Claeys, “The Origins of Dystopia”, The Cambridge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 107.

[11] Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future (London: Verso, 2005), ix.

[12] Lyman Tower Sargent, Utopianism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford Press), 91.

[13] Ibid., 92.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Gregory Claeys, “The Origins of Dystopia”, The Cambridge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 108.

[16] Here, equally, the population of the Western world will be taken into account.

[17] Fredric Fredric and Stanley Aronowitz. An American Utopia, Produced for the CUNY graduate centre, 20 Mar. 2014.

[18] Ursula Le Guin. “Speech receiving the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.”

[19] Emil Michel Cioran, History and Utopia (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2015), 89.

[20] Herbert Marcuse, Five Lectures (Toronto: Penguin Press, 1970), 62.

[21] Fredric Fredric and Stanley Aronowitz. An American Utopia, Produced for the CUNY graduate centre, 20 Mar. 2014.

[22] Herbert Marcuse, Five Lectures (Toronto: Penguin Press, 1970), 62.

[23] Lyman Tower Sargent, Utopianism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford Press), 96.

[24] Ernst Bloch, “Introduction”, The Pinciple of Hope (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986), 4.

[25] Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future (London: Verso, 2005), 14.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., 16.

[28] Fredric Jameson, “Progress Versus Utopia”, Science Fiction Studies 9-2 (1982): 153.

[29] Leszek Kolakowski, “Ernst Bloch: Marxism as a Futuristic Gnosis”, Main Currents of Marxism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), 430.

[30] Fredric Fredric and Stanley Aronowitz. An American Utopia, Produced for the CUNY graduate centre, 20 Mar. 2014.

[31] Herbert Marcuse, Five Lectures (Toronto: Penguin Press, 1970), 64.

[32] Ibid., 65.

[33] Herbert Marcuse. Towards a Critical Theory of Society (London: Routledge, 2001), 40.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Lyman Tower Sargent, Utopianism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford Press), 105.

[37] Ibid., 105-5.

[38] The absurdity is also born from the satirical aspects that Utopian literature includes.

[39] André Gorz, The Immaterial (London: Seagull Books, 2010), 51-52.

[40] Ibid., 40.

[41] Cognitive capitalism is the form of capitalism based upon knowledge and specifically experiental knowledge

[42] André Gorz, The Immaterial (London: Seagull Books, 2010), 89-90.

[43] Ibid., 110.

[44] The new proletariat is perceived by Gorz as inherently more critical, or more likely to oppose the system, then those who are abundantly renumerated by the system.

[45] André Gorz, The Immaterial (London: Seagull Books, 2010), 115-8.

[46] Ibid., 122.

[47] Ibid., 123.

[48] Hyperlink to video De Correspondent: https://decorrespondent.nl/551/In-Griekenland-is-er-leven-na-de-crisis/31068686-d00e4ae9

[49] Hyperlink to article on Critical Theory: http://www.critical-theory.com/story-marinaleda-communist-village-world/

and Documentary Marinaleda: The Land of Utopia

Bibliography

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—. Archaeologies of the Future. London: Verso, 2005. Print.

—. “Progress Versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?”, Science Fiction Studies 9.2 (1982): 147-158. JSTOR. Web. 07 March 2015.

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Kolakowski, Leszek. “Ernst Bloch: Marxism as a Futuristic Gnosis”, Main Currents of Marxism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978. Print.

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The Economist. “Why is everyone so busy?” The Economist Print Edition, 20 Dec. 2014. Web. 05 April. 2015, http://www.economist.com/news/christmas-specials/21636612-time-poverty-problem-partly-perception-and-partly-distribution-why

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“The Land of Cokaigne.” Utopia Reader. Ed. Gregory Claeys and Lyman Sargent. New York: New York UP, 1999. 71-77. Print.

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