Redefining the Utopian: Neoliberalism, Multiplicity and Anarchism

Redefining the Utopian: Neoliberalism, Multiplicity and Anarchism

When thinking about Utopia, everyone has a certain idea of what it means in his or her mind. The New Utopians project has, of course, as one of its aims to come to grasps with what the Utopian is[1], or should be seen as[2]. The general conclusion, however, remains that what is Utopian for one person might be considered as utterly Dystopian for the other[3]. Even scholarly works, that are supposed to give an idea of the literary genre and the concept, such as Lyman Tower Sargent’s and Jacqueline Dutton’s Introduction of Utopian Studies[4], or the Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, offer no definite understanding of Utopia[5], as Gry Ulstein in her “In Search of Universal Utopia” also points out. Perhaps the Utopian should remain that way and be appreciated for its diversity and plasticity. It is true that the canon holds on to a certain tradition of the voyage, the voyage to a secluded place unknown by the rest of the world. The most famous example is, indisputably, the journey to an island, as depicted in Thomas More’s Utopia. Another example of which is Samuel Butler’s Erewhon. The Utopian genre has shown to be quite creative with this trope, and we have been given voyages in time as in H.G.Wells’ The Time Machine and in space as in Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods. The similarities in the narrative pattern, namely the journey, in the Utopian examples are undeniable.


12/07/2014 – Protestors against the EU-US trade deal (TTIP -Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) march in London. Picture taken in Smith Square, London.

Content by Global Justice now.

In a similar manner, Dystopias also, almost consistently, present a uniform plotline. Dystopias almost exclusively paint a world that is undesirable from the perspective of the protagonist, the one, or one of the few, dissident voices facing an oppressive system. When we take the patterns as a defining constituent of what the Utopian and the Dystopian are, the definition could only be applied to the literary genre, unless, in real life, you fight against a totalitarian regime, are questioned or tortured by the bad guy who, subsequently, reveals to you all his evil conspiracies and intentions[6].

The problem, however, remains reception. When we read a Dystopian novel, we do not analyze its narrative structures (unless you are a literature student interested in narratology), and yet we do feel something, and it’s eerie, it’s unpleasant, and somewhat ungraspable. When we get a sense of what causes these reactions, we would be able to go beyond the single literary definition of Utopia and Dystopia and come to a definition of the Utopian and the Dystopian at large.

When considering all the previously mentioned Utopias, apart from Winterson’s, and I will come back to her work because it poses slightly different problems, a consistency stands out. The societies they depict are all isolated from the rest of the world or are small-scaled. Now, in my essay “Capitalism and the Impossibility of Utopia”, I said that the Utopian always “generalize[s] an individual vision […] upon a larger body”. The Utopian wants to collectivize the idiosyncratic. In my previous consideration of the Utopian, I left out the comparison with the Dystopian, which proves to be of crucial importance to understand the Utopian in terms of degree. The Utopian, indeed, projects one idea of what a society should look like upon multiple subjects, and therefore, when you, as a person, do not agree with that idea a utopian vision might appear as a nightmare[7]. Utopias, however, are always inscribed within a bigger whole. There will always be that good old world you can return to. Even if sometimes, it is very hard to return home, like in Erewhon, the physical and geographical possibilities to live in a different society are not excluded in Utopian narratives. The truly Utopian feeling, thus, does not reside in the Utopian society as such, but in the existence of diversity and the possibility of multiple communal spheres to co-exist. The very existence of a parallel world, a Utopia, is in itself the creation of multiple forms of existence. In this manner the idea that “one man’s utopia is another man’s dystopia” does not hold anymore as a valid definition of the Utopian. The Utopian is the possibility of more than merely the one perfect society imagined by a single individual. The Utopian is the possibility of multiple worlds to coexist that have been shaped not by one, but by a multiplicity of subjects. It is the possibility to think the world in in terms of multiplicity, diversity and thereby is a rejoicing of otherness, or at least a demonstration of man being interested in otherness. The Utopian is not the island, the isolated community; the Utopian is the possibility of that island to exist within a larger and very different context or a variety of contexts.

Now let’s consider Dystopian novels. When putting George Orwell’s 1984 next to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the idea of generalized idiosyncrasy reoccurs. The subject is oppressed by an omnipresent and universalized state that only functions according to its own interests. Thus, what I earlier defined as being a specificity of Utopian literature certainly also is a characteristic of the Dystopian. The idea that the Utopian tries to collectivize the idiosyncratic, therefore, does not define one or the other. The definition applies to both Utopianism and Dystopianism. The distinction, however, on the one hand should, be sought in terms of scale. “A thousand years ago your heroic forbears subjutgated the whole of planet Earth to the power of the OneState”[8]. The authorities in Zamyatin’s We make its people believe that there is no other form of society present in the world, or desirable, but the one they live in. Similarly, in Brave New World the government is unified to a global scale, or “The World Sate”, and in 1984 “Eastasia”, “Oceania”, and “Eurasia” all agree to organize their societies in exactly the same manner[9]. Even if there is another way of life possible, such as in “the Savage Reservation” in Huxley’s work, it is depicted, as the name already indicates, as undesirable or fearful territory. It is precisely from this unifying and universalizing type of societal control that the dystopian discomfort arises. When we imagine ourselves in any society depicted by these authors, we feel trapped. We are unable to escape the central powers even if we revolt, are smarter, or consider ourselves smarter, than most of the population and know how the system works. We are too small compared to the cogs of the state machine. If Orwell’s novel depicted a Utopia, there would have been no problem; in the latter case Winston Smith could just have gone to another piece of land where things are different. The reason I did not want to mention The Stone Gods as an example to come to a definition is that the novel is caught up in an oscillating relationality between the Utopian and the Dystopian. At one moment there is hope for escape, and at another moment everyone feels trapped in a world dying due to the lack of resources that our consumption society caused.

The distinction between the Dystopian and the Utopian, on the other hand, should be sought in its motivation, and here the motivation of the depicted society is meant. On the contrary to a Utopia, a Dystopia avoids otherness; it is against, and fights at all costs, human diversity, even if in some cases another possible way to live is proposed to the dissident voices, like in Huxley’s work, or in Zamyatins work, in which the revolting characters are offered an existence outside the control of the almost universal power.

Now saying that a dystopian feeling arises when we find ourselves in a world where the idiosyncratic is extended to universal measurements, and in the case of a Utopian feeling it is only extended to a communal size, is maybe not much of a conclusion. It does not help us in our daily lives. It does not help us see what is dystopian today, and what can be Utopian tomorrow, or should be seen as Utopian. Frédéric Lordon makes a few valuable remarks in an interview[10] about his work Capitalisme, désir et servitude, translated as Willing Slaves of Capital. Lordon equates the endeavour of Utopian socialism to create a new man, such as William Godwin envisaged, to the desire of capitalism to generate a man that abides to its intentions. Capitalism, according to Lordon, seeks to shape a man who desires to produce, a man who takes satisfaction in the production process; a man who’s happy regarding his status as an employee. He calls the previous project of capitalism a Utopia that is developing at the moment. He notices that the latter aims, equally, search to grasp the individual in their totality. Capitalism, in this manner, wants to get a hold of the subject in its whole being (14:08-30). The current politico-economic system tries to format bodies accordingly to its own intentions. An example Lordon gives, is that of pizza delivery services that cannot even accept a girl wearing earrings, because it goes against protocol. The current economic system wants to universalize bodies at their fullest, not only in appearance but also regarding our own desires. We have to love our condition of being part of the productive system. Lordon, in order to describe this process, uses the term Utopian. Dystopian would, however, be more appropriate, because neoliberalism, as Lordon argues, on the level of the individual tries to format bodies and minds in a manner that they can no longer think beyond the status quo and move accordingly to the wishes of CEOs and managers. Capitalism by demanding us to change according to their aims and wishes makes us believe that there is no other alternative, that there is not better option, just like in 1984 there is no better option than to suffer in Oceania. Although as a reader we are left in doubt whether living conditions in Eastasia and Eurasia are the same, the only proof we have of a homogenous politico-economic universality comes from Emmanuel Goldstein’s book The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, which was in reality written by a committee of the Inner Party. In Huxley’s Brave New World the state goes through the utmost difficulties until Mustapha Mond, the “Resident World Controller for Western Europe” (149), reveals to its rebellious citizens, John, Bernard and Helmholtz that an island of exiles exists where they would live with “the most interesting set of men and women” (155).

The state making believe that no other way of life can exist than current status quo is crucial to the persistence of Neoliberalism[11] today. Popular media largely addresses austerity matters as the only possible solution to the crises in Greece for example. Initiative taken by citizens to take control of their own lives by collectivized factories, barter and mutual aid are never shown on large-scale platforms. It has to be the voluntary initiative of an individual, Yannis Youlountas, to make a documentary, Let’s not Live Like Slaves, about different solutions to a bigger problem than just unemployment or poverty, and show how people in Greece organize themselves consciously in an anti-capitalistic endeavour.

Besides an existence as an employee, everyone, including the employer, needs to fill his or her role as a consumer. We work, not only to merely satisfy physical and mental needs, but also to keep up with all the new developments in electronics, fashion, or interior design. Capitalism needs to get injected with capital for it to keep rolling, and this is impossible if we all decide that we only need enough clothing to clothe ourselves, buy food according to our physical needs, and repair rather than buy new when something breaks. We need to consume abundantly, absurdly, and this should be an individual desire. Having the world know about the community of Exarcheia In Athens would be a serious threat, or is seen as a possible threat to the current politico-economic system.

Hence, I would suggest that Neoliberalism by trying to expand the market, to be omnipresent, and thereby discouraging radical alternatives, seeking to gain ground in even the most remote and isolated parts of the world, is inherently Dystopian in its aims. The latter, however, does not mean that the capitalistic system is inherently dystopian. It can very well be imagined that it only confines itself to a certain sphere of the world and does not try to impose its decision making upon an unknowing, or powerless public, unlike it is happening today with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP): treaty that will seriously damage the environment, social security and small-scale producers in the name of profit. A section of the TTIP, called the Investor to State Dispute (ISDS), enables companies to sue states when competition is at stake. Veolia, for example, sued Egypt for a rise in minimum wage, which would go against their estimated profits[12]. The ISDS would also put an end to the possibility of a state to nationalize foreign investment, hereby, being a fierce weapon against other countries running their affairs on the basis of a different worldview. The TTIP, therefore, can be said to go against all liberties man should have to live a life according to its own values and desires.

Rudolf Rocker. CP, Fonds Chambelland
Rudolf Rocker.
CP, Fonds Chambelland

The question then, in order to look at a brighter image of possible worldviews, which arises, is: what other politico-economic ideas do there exist to organize a society that is not Dystopian? One of the options would be to look into left-libertarianism, or its less popular name: Anarchism. In the preface to Rudolf Rocker’s Anarcho-Syndicalism, Noam Chomsky notes that Rocker’s “vision stands in opposition to all of the dominant tendencies in modern social and political thought”[13], because, he does not like “dominant currents […] aim at subordination of the public”[14]. Rocker explains that “the organization of Anarcho-Syndicalism is based on the principles of Federalism, on free combination from below upward, putting the right to self-determination of every member above everything else and recognizing only the organic agreement of all on the on the basis of like interests and common convictions”[15]. Therefore, in a society organized according to Rocker’s thought, people always take into account the individual desires of each and every citizen when it comes to decision making that affects a larger group, and thereby, as Chomsky puts it, avoids “subordination of the public”[16]. Indeed, Rocker also acknowledges the previous to be a great quality of Anarcho-Syndicalism. “The great superiority of Federalism is […] that it […] does not insist on a uniformity that does violence to free thought, and forces on men from without things contrary to their inner inclination”[17]. Although Rocker, possibly out of self-defence, firmly claims that his “objectives do not spring from […] Utopian ideas”[18], Anarchism by according a great importance to self-determination and a federal organization of society is inherently Utopian in its structure, because it hereby accepts man in its diversity and the multiplicity of life, while looking for mutual agreement when it comes to policies that affect a larger group.

The conclusion reached, that our current politico-economic system is Dystopian and that Anarchism implicates a Utopian worldview, does not insinuate that I urge people to all become Anarchists. The great value of Anarchist thought, however, is that it offers a divergent political thought that thinks life in its multiplicity and tries to shape a form of organization around that observation, instead of trying to force all the complexity of the world into a reductive pattern.

Solange Manche


Butler, Samuel. Erewhon. New York: Dover Publications, 2002. Print.

Hoving, Aster. “Be Realistic: Demand the Impossible.” The New Utopians, 27 May. 2015.

Lordon, Frédéric. “Capitalisme Désir et Servitude: Marx et Spinoza,” Dailymotion video, 14:03-30, 30 Oct. 2011,

Manche, Solange. “Capitalism and the Impossibility of Utopia.” The New Utopians, 26 May. 2015.

More, Thomas. “Utopia”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol.B. New York: Norton, 2012. 572-644. Print.

Wells, H.G. The Time Machine. London: Penguin, 2005. Print.

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-four., 24 May. 2015. PDF file.

Rancière, Jacques. On The Shores of Politics. London: Verso, 2007. Print.

Rocker, Rudolf. Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice. Edinburgh: AK Press, 2004. Print.

Vieira, Fátima. “The concept of utopia”, The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature. Ed. Gregory Claeys. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 3-127. Cambridge Companions Online. Web. 10 July 2015.

Van Leeuwen, Wouter Johan. “Utopianism as a Method.” The New Utopians, 25 May. 2015.

Winterson, Jeanette. The Stone Gods. New York: Hamish, 2007. Print.

Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We. Penguin: London, 1993. Print.

[1] Aster Hoving, “Be Realistic: Demand the Impossible.” The New Utopians, 27 May. 2015.

Solange Manche, “Capitalism and the Impossibility of Utopia.” The New Utopians, 26       May. 2015.

[2] Wouter Johan van Leeuwen, “Utopianism as a Method.” The New Utopians, 25 May. 2015.

[3] Solange Manche, “Capitalism.” The New Utopians, 26 May. 2015.

[4] Gry Ulstein, “In Search of the Universal Utopia.” The New Utopians, 7 June. 2015.

[5] Fátima Vieira, “The concept of utopia,” The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 3-27.

[6] George Orwell’s 1984 and this trope is found in Huxley again.

[7] Ayn Rand’s Utopia would be a good example. See articles by Anne Marijn Damstra and David van Oeveren.

[8] Yevgeny Zamyatin, We (Penguin: London, 1993), 3.

[9] George Orwell, 1984., 108-117

[10] Frédéric Lordon, “Capitalisme Désir et Servitude: Marx et Spinoza,” Dailymotion video.

[11] “[T]he policies and processes whereby a relative handful of private interests are permitted to control a much as possible of social life in order to maximize their personal profit” (Chomsky, Profit 7).

[12] Gerrit Stegehuis, “Investor to State Dispute Settlement.” TTIP van de ijsberg. Newspaper, 7.

[13] Rudolf Rocker, Anarcho-Syndicalism (AK Press: Edinburgh, 2004), ii.

[14] Ibid., Iii.

[15] Ibid., 60.

[16] Ibid., iii.

[17] Ibid.,70.

[18] Ibid.,1.


2 responses to Redefining the Utopian: Neoliberalism, Multiplicity and Anarchism

  1. I have found it more productive to consider what it means to be Utopian in terms not of *what* you think, but of *how* you think it. So your perception of what a perfect (or simply better) society (or University) would be like might, as you say, be dystopian in someone else’s mind. But if you think about your idea in a Utopian way, it will always be Utopian, whatever other people think. There are certain characteristics to the way in which classic Utopian writers – Plato, Morris, and of course More himself – approach their subjects. It is this, in my view, that separates Utopia from mere science fiction, from mere political writing and from mere speculation. Discuss?


  2. I think that my article tries to determine what makes us think something is Utopian or Dystopian, which is remarkably universal, or at least people seem to have a some kind of preconceptions of what the Utopian or the Dystopian is… This is the starting point I was interested in. I understand that this can be thought of as a “what” you think approach, but in many ways it’s also a “how” you think approach. The Anarchist approach is more a matter of “how” you think than of “what you think in that respect. It looks at how their worldview is structured and from the how I look back to the what again by concluding that this in an approach, or by conceptualizing their worldview as a set of social relations, that functions in the same manner as what people would categorize as a Utopian worldview, whether they desire a similar world or not. It is important to take a step back from the direct general judgement of Anarchism, because that is often corrupted by preconceptions of the kind anarchism is mere chaos.

    I think it is interesting to look specifically at this spontaneous classification of fiction in people’s minds, exactly because some elements that are classified by all as Dystopian, like in Huxley’s Brave New World the purification of human kind in jars, are not necessarily considered Dystopian by the writer, Huxley was an avid Malthusian.

    Now, when you say “this” is in my view what separates Utopia from other genres, what do you exactly mean by that? The way a subject is approached? So that means that you only want to look at expression rather than inherent meaning? I am asking this, because at first when I read your comment I thought it was very clear, and then I realized that there was more to it. Please elaborate a bit.


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