The Utopian Impulse & Its Trouble With Postmodernity (Fredric Jameson) #rp17

I was a speaker of this year's re:publica, which, as every year, was an incredibly inspiring place to be and I will write more about it soon. But for now, I'd like to share my talk about Fredric Jameson's Anti-Anti-Utopianism (below also in text form) and all the further reading materials  with you. If you have any questions or comments, please let me know. Would love to get more feedback and I'm always happy to chat about Utopia.

The biggest challenge we face today seems to be our own imagination. It looks like we gave up on our future, and if we dare to think about it at all, climate catastrophe seems unavoidable. Even science fiction offers no relief. Dystopian visions are all around, and even those seem to have trouble to keep up with the speed of deteriorating reality. So, what to do. How can we get out of this?


I stole this from recent panel called Apocalypse Buffering 1., but thought I change it just a little bit.

Because I'm here to talk to you about Utopia, not so much as science fiction, but as a thinking tool that can be used by anyone, and that I hope will help us get our future back.

Utopia by definition is a 'good place that is no place'. And if one thinks about it like this, it doesn't sound very alarming, more like a rather harmless exercise of the imagination, a thought experiment. Yet, today a lot of people believe, even if maybe naïve and useless, that such imaginary exploration of difference, if taken seriously, will always and inevitably lead to disaster. If we think about Utopia, we think about it only in negative terms. It's either ridiculous or will lead to the horrors of Stalinism and Nazi Germany. It's this, our rightful fear of its totalizing powers, that made us banish Utopia. And with time it kind of almost became unthinkable.

But what if, being unable to think it, has also made us blind to see it, to recognize Utopia?
What if, nameless and hidden from our view, it still controls the world?
A world, which seems to be quickly changing, into a bad place for people everywhere.
What if, we have been trapped by what we fear?

I want to argue that Utopia is inescapable 2., and that we have indeed been trapped. But that it's not Utopia that we should fear, but our denial of its powers. Because, as I will try to show you, Utopia is not only the cause, it is also the key to get out of what Fukuyama calls the end of history.

But to make my point I first will have to clarify some terminology, because words and their meanings are important to understand the story, I want to tell you afterwards. It's the story of neoliberalism, the most successful utopian ideology to date, yet we never call it that. I will explain why, by taking you back to its beginnings, rooted in Anti Utopianism. And how this curious, but seldom acknowledged connection, resulted in our current state. Locked into the present, seemingly unable to imagine any change, despite knowing that without it, we seem to be destined to perish.

Fredric Jameson calls this predicament 'late capitalism' or Postmodernity. A time that is best described by its rampant cynicism. How to get over it, using what he calls Anti-Anti-Utopianism will be the second part of my talk.

But first let's start with clearing up some common misconceptions about Utopia.
Anti Utopianism's most powerful weapon against Utopia has always been the claim that a perfect society can only be achieved by coercion. Therefore Utopianism will always usher totalitarianism and the use of force and violence against people. 3. But it is important to remember that Utopia, by definition, is a 'good place that is nowhere', it's not supposed to be perfect. It's also very rarely just escapism that tries to deny and dream away all negativity. Far from it, by imagining alternatives, it high lights and brings into focus what it seeks to overcome.

Or as Jameson puts it: “Utopia is not a positive vision of the future so much as it is a negative judgement of the present.” 4.

Utopias are not blueprints to build societies on, they are tools for criticism, opening doors to debates about problems that often didn't even have a name before. And seen in this light, it becomes clear that Utopia has always been the driving force of human development and history. The fact that it is haunted by reversals into its dark side or Dystopia, only helps to underscore that the utopian impulse is a process, a self correcting, critical mechanism, that aims for a better rather than a perfect world.

There is one more thing: the difference between Anti Utopia and Dystopia. Those two terms often get conflated, but there is a distinction between them, and it's important to understand. According to Lyman Tower Sargent, Dystopias are imagined by their authors, to be societies substantially worse than the ones they are living in. The term Anti Utopia in contrast, and I will quote him here: “should be reserved for that large class of works, both fictional and expository, which are directed against Utopia and utopian thought.” 5.

Maybe one could also say, that Anti Utopias are about the dangers of seeing Utopias as blue prints and acting on it. Whereas Dystopias (as well as Utopias) are tools for analysis and criticism on the contemporary. 6. Which especially in our times, because Dystopias are so popular, seems to express a collective yearning for a rupture. A collective desire to somehow break free from an all oppressing, inescapable totality. But yet, this yearning, in its wish for an end and a new beginning, is in itself inherently utopian. It doesn't matter how humble it is in aspirations. It still is a wish for difference.

So, let's look at how we got here? How did we loose our ability to imagine anything beyond the status quo or global capitalism?

It started as a lot of history does, with an utopian desire to change the world. 1938, five years after the first concentration camp was build in Dachau, and at the height of Stalin's Great Purge, two refugees from Austria met at a conference in Paris. It was a gathering of intellectuals who aimed to construct a new liberalism, one strong enough to fight, what they saw as threatening the world, socialism. 7. And it was there, that neoliberalism was born. The two men, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, went on to define this new ideology through what only can be called a fierce Anti Utopianism. They believed that social democracy and its programs, like Roosevelt's New Deal, were just another form of collectivism that would ultimately lead to the same terrifying results as communism or nazism. For them, any form of state planning could only lead to tragedy and terror. And both went on to write books in which they ridiculed the socialist idea by calling it utopian.

In 'Bureaucracy', published six years later in 1944, von Mises writes:
“Nobody doubts that bureaucracy is thoroughly bad and that it should not exist in a perfect world.” and therefore “socialist utopias are entirely impracticable and must, … result not only in impoverishment for all but in the disintegration of social cooperation---in chaos.”

That same year Hayek's book 'The Road to Serfdom' was published too. It dedicated a whole chapter to attacking utopian thought, and argued that socialism, by destroying individual freedom must always lead to dictatorship. He concludes this chapter with:
“To those who have watched the transition from socialism to fascism at close quarters, the connection between the two systems is obvious. The realization of the socialist program means the destruction of freedom. Democratic socialism, the great utopia of the last few generations, is simply not achievable.”

But during those times their Anti Utopianism was still at the margin of political thought. Or as George Monbiot writes 7., it was still a time when governments tried to achieve “social outcomes without embarrassment.” Not only in the US but in most of Western Europe, full employment and poverty relief were common goals, and pursued by developing new public services, paid for by high taxes on the rich.
It was another economist, John Maynard Keynes, whose policies and ideas were on the rise and became widely adopted. Keynes rejected neoclassical economics, which claimed that the free market would naturally establish full employment, if unfettered by the government. It was an older utopian idea, and Keynes replaced it with his own. Having witnessed the hardships, of the Great Depression, his 'General Theory' stated that the economy could stay trapped in a high state of unemployment if the government didn't help boost consumption or investment. He argued that state intervention was necessary and went as far as to recommend that governments should spent money, on these interventions, even if they didn't have it. That was a radical idea, which Robert Reich later proposed “may have saved capitalism.”

But nowhere is his utopian dreaming more evident than in his conviction, that his new system of state managed capitalism could promote peace rather than war in the world. 8.

And even though the ideas of Hayek and von Mises stayed at the margins for decades to come, the very rich immediately identified the new theory as a promise of freedom from government regulation and those hated taxes. Think Tanks were born and lavishly funded to refine and promote the new ideology through out the world. And It grew and evolved, away from Hayek's belief that the state still had a role to play in preventing monopolies, to Milton Friedman, who saw them as a reward for efficiency. Those were decades at the margins but they were not spent idly.

And then it happened, something that according to Keynes, shouldn't be possible. High inflation and high unemployment at the very same time. It was the 70s and his dreams of a crisis-free 'transformed' capitalism hit a brick wall, and those who had been waiting, seized their opportunity.

Friedman recalls : “when the time came that you had to change...there was an alternative ready.” 9. Astonishingly, though, this alternative had already started to loose its name. And maybe what's odd about that slogan with which it, a couple years later under Reagan and Thatcher, finally came to power, is not only that it promoted freedom and choice by claiming that “there is no alternative” 10., but that the slogan itself celebrated something nameless.

And this namelessness, turned out to be a brilliant marketing idea. It played on gut feelings instead of trying to explain a new theory. And what, in rough times when people are disoriented and scared, could feel better than a bit of common sense? Because if something is not even worth mentioning, surely somehow that must be common sense. So, the namelessness enabled Neoliberalism to present itself as the answer to what they successfully sold as a natural law. A law that reduced humanity to self-interest and competition. Its theory then, was just like a cherry on top, the way one had to deal with the facts. In a spectacular reversal the blueprint on which to build societies on, which Anti utopians had spent years denouncing as the root of all evil, became nature itself and therefore was already given. Just like that, Anti Utopianism achieved the impossible. In one ingenious move, Utopia, this time as the best of all possible worlds, was not only declared and established but also hidden from view. Because not surprisingly, those Anti Utopians didn't claim that their Utopia was a perfect world. Instead it was merely the best and all that we could hope for. All-encompassing but not a place, this utopian enclosure was grander than any ever before. And it placed its new borders, firmly, in the nowhere of our minds.

But as any Utopia, recognized or not, it started to become haunted by strange reversals. If the world was one big competition, it was essential to figure out who was winning. Everything needed to be compared and quantified. And, suddenly the bureaucracy that von Mises had so despised and wanted to eliminate, became the foundation not only of economics but of everything.

And even worse, once privatized, banks and public services, turned out to be too vital or too big to fail, making it obvious that competition didn't ensure efficiency. But by 2008, when neoliberalism should have lost all credibility, bailing out banks while still maintaining that the same couldn't be done for actual people, it seemed that we simply couldn't imagine anything else anymore. What had been a slogan had become reality. There really was no alternative. Neoliberalism's utopian enclosure, the big wall in our heads, didn't allow for one. And almost ten years later, there still isn't.

This is where we are now, and it seems a political crisis even bigger than the economic one. We all know that it can not go on like this, but neoliberalism's Anti-Utopianism, exactly because it is Utopianism in disguise, has colonized our future. The only way to get it back, is overcoming our cynicism that things can not be otherwise.

So, let's turn to Jameson's Anti-Anti-Utopianism and see how it might help free our imagination.

Instead of explaining, I want to show you how it works by comparing it to one of the few examples of political ideas today, that still express some utopian longing. And that I am sure you are all familiar with: UBI or Universal Basic Income.

According to Jameson the radical difference of Utopia is achieved by two processes. One he calls Utopian Imagination, the other Utopian Fancy. The former builds on the reason why we set out to imagine it, and the latter how such an Utopia could be achieved. Utopian Imagination, as a kind of wish fulfillment, identifies a root of evil and imagines a world without of it, while Utopian Fancy, is the construction of this world, the details or what in a traditional literary Utopia would have been demonstrated by the guided tour. 11.

The Utopian Imagination of UBI, as a reaction to technology's achievements, identifies automatization as the root of evil and proposes a solution. The argument goes that automatization will obliterate the need for most of human labor, and that to deal with it, governments should pay each citizen unconditionally a monthly fee to cover their basic needs. But to find out if this solution could in fact produce systemic change, we have to ask if it would result in a truly different world. And the moment we look at the Utopian Fancy of UBI or the details of how this world is supposed to work, we look at a problem.

UBI lacks a global vision in a globalized world. Its Utopian Enclosure is, at least for now, envisioned and proposed depending on national or regional borders. The same borders right wing politics, ignoring the complexities and interdependencies of an already globalized world, is so fond of emphasizing today. And in times when refugees die at those very same borders, when they are seen as a threat, not as people we need to protect, could UBI, without a global vision, really accomplish systemic change? Or is it just a patch for the same old system, a prolongation of what we already have?

Despite that UBI as political program feels quite utopian, it still seems to keep our imagination trapped.

In contrast Fredric Jameson, admitting that all political programs today are destined to fail, because they have to work inside the system, doesn't even aspire to imagine one. Instead he simply sets out on a thought experiment and asks himself what the most radical demand on our system would be, that could not be fulfilled without transforming the system beyond recognition.
And he comes up with an old answer: full employment. 12.

As economists will frankly admit, capitalism runs on profits and eternal growth, and needs its masses of the unemployed to keep inflation in low. 13. If workers weren't threatened by cheaper unemployed competition they would start to demand fair share of those profits, and therefore full employment, would no doubt, transform the system radically.
But one rather quickly comes to realize that the system would have to be changed in advance, for such a change to ever take place.

And it looks like a vicious circle with no escape. But still, imagining such a future allows us to read the dark spots of our current situation as symptoms of that root of evil we identified. Jameson writes: crime, war, degraded mass culture, drugs, violence, boredom, the lust for power, the lust for distraction, sexism, racism – all can be diagnosed as results of a society unable to accommodate the productiveness of all its citizens. 14.

But what's the difference then to UBI you might ask? Doesn't UBI want to solve the same problem? It does, but the difference becomes clear when we look at the main arguments brought forward by its proponents from the left and the right. And which can be summed up to something that sounds rather familiar: There is no alternative. The focus lies not on the value of all human beings for society 15. but on an inevitable progress that simply can not be stopped.

The left might highlight the promise of new, social productiveness unleashed by the freedom of not having to worry about food or a roof over your head, but the discussions always seem to end up at the same question: Could we afford the freeloaders? The people that can't or won't compete to proof their value.

I really want UBI to rid us from our belief in this fake human nature of self interest and competition, that neoliberalism so successfully implanted in our brains and hearts, but how could this be achieved, if UBI won't change the system itself?

I believe what most of us hope, is that UBI could create alternative spaces for collaboration inside the system. But the problem becomes painfully visible, when even its defenders admit, that its success depends on the amount of money that will be handed out. Could that ever work, in times of global inflation? And even if the money will help us build those collectives and co-ops. Wouldn't we still end up being forced to compete with each other? Measuring human value by economic gains?

So, although Jameson's proposal of full employment also misses global aspirations and seems less likely than UBI to ever come true, it still offers something that UBI does not.
It makes us realize much more clearly those walls in our heads. And once we seen them, we can start to examine what they are made of and wonder if there might be any cracks.

If the problem seems to be that we can't imagine a society where all humans have value, then a good crack to start with, might be the realization that our cynicism is just the frank acknowledgement of exactly that. Because the truth is, that even if we still try to believe in them, we lost all our values by replacing them with money.

And if that's so, it might be a great idea to return to and ponder one of the oldest utopian dreams: abolishing money, and imagining a life without of it. 16. Because even if seemingly impossible, the mere thought experiment of it, not only brings an immediate aesthetic relief but unmasks all kinds of individual and social relationships, that have been disguised by the abstraction of value through money. Imagining a world without it makes visible the immense, often already unpaid human collaboration on which even our system rests. And instead of the deadlock that a supposed human nature based on competition used to create, the utopian impulse finally is released to imagine other forms of being.

What Jameson's Anti-Anti-Utopianism proposes is, that the answer to our conviction that no alternative is possible, is the utopian form itself. Not by offering a blueprint or a plan, but by insisting that difference is possible and that the break is necessary.

In our times where we are at the stage of massive protests and demonstrations, but without any conception of how a globalized transformation might proceed. Where we want to act but we don't know how. And where any political program currently offered only fuels our cynicism.
Our state of mind might be best reflected by Utopia's radical break from reality.

It's former weakness, lack of agency and plans for a working political transition, paradoxically now turn into a power. Forcing us, to concentrate on, and to think the break itself.

Anti-Anti-Utopianism does not offer immediate solutions for the problems of our globalized world, but it also isn't cynicism or capitulation and hopelessness. Instead much stronger than any rhetoric about the future of our children ever could, it helps us see what keeps us locked in the present and through it develop a fear of losing the future by locating it directly within ourselves.
It's grasping and rattling the bars of our cage in an intense spiritual preparation for an impossible future that yet has to arrive.

We may feel helpless and we don't have a plan, but we do have power.
The system of money making and profits may not need us to believe in it,
but it still needs us to believe in its eternal permanence.

1. Recommend checking out this wonderful recent panel from #TtW17 Apocalypse Buffering Thank you Ingrid Burrington for the awesome gif idea!

2. Another idea I thought I had writing without realizing that I heard it before.
Lucy Sargisson - "Utopianism in the twenty-first century"

3. Tom Moylan - Scraps of the Untainted Sky p.75 (Lyman Tower Sargent)

4. Sean Homer, Anti Anti Utopianism - Imagining Alternative Spaces (Fredric Jameson)

5. Tom Moylan - Scraps of the Untainted Sky p.72 (Lyman Tower Sargent)

6. For further reading on this I recommend all books by Tom Moylan who coined the terms: critical utopia and critical dystopia.

7. In this part of the talk I rely heavily on a fantastic essay by George Monbiot I highly recommend reading: Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems

or directly get his book about the topic How Did We Get into This Mess?: Politics, Equality, Nature

8. To really see Keynes Utopian Dreaming in action, do yourself a favour and read him in his own wordsJohn Maynard Keynes, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (1930)* and here is a quote from it,that I think shows the reason why his approach was destined to fail.
There are also various fantastic blogs and articles about Keynes online but I recommend The Ideas of John Maynard Keynes by Sam Williams who also touches on the dark sides, namely Eugenics which was a very widely accepted and promoted idea during those times

9. George Monbiot The Zombie Doctrine"

10. If I can make you read one book, let it be this: Mark Fisher - Capitalist realism: Is there no alternative?

11. If I can make you read two books, read also the one this whole talk is based on. It's fantastic and also the reason why my talk ran on the Science Fiction track, eventhough in the end because of time and to not make it too confusing (this is packed with ideas and thoughts you can chew on for years to come) I had to constrain myself and talk only politics and economics.
Fredric Jameson, The Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia

12. Jameson always argued that Utopia is incredible important but not possible, but lately been working on concepts how to make it happen anyhow. This is my favorite talk by him and I am pretty sure you'd enjoy it too.
An American Utopia: Fredric Jameson"

13. John Henley - What does full employment mean?

14. Fredric Jameson - ARCHAEOLOGIES. OF THE FUTURE. The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions p.147

15. Peter Fleming - What is human capital? Human capital theory was invented as an ideological weapon in the Cold War. Now it is helping to Uberise the world of work

16. Fredric Jameson - ARCHAEOLOGIES. OF THE FUTURE. The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions p.229

Further reading materials on Fredric Jameson and Anti-Anti-Utopianism:

Fredric Jameson - Archaeologies of the Future - The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions

Thomas More’s Utopia - in it's free and open online edition by Stephen Duncombe

Fredric Jameson - The Politics of Utopia  

Fredric Jameson - Utopia and Failure

Fredric Jameson - The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism  

Fredric Jameson - In Hyperspace

Fredric Jameson - Cognitive Mapping

Sean Homer - Anti Anti-Utopianism: Imagining Alternative Spaces

Another World - Michelle Kuo talks with David Graeber

The New Utopians - Kim Stanley Robinson and the novelists who want to build a better future through science fiction. Solarpunk

Liam A. O’Donnell - Preserving the Possibility of the Impossible  


Pekka Kilpeläinen -Reading Politically: Fredric Jameson, Ideology, and Utopia

Pekka Kilpeläinen - In Search of a Postcategorical Utopia: James Baldwin and the Politics of "race" and Sexuality

Robert T. Tally Jr.  - Power to the Educated Imagination!: Northrop Frye and the Utopian Impulse

Hyong-jun Moon -The Post-Apocalyptic Turn: a Study of Contemporary Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Narrative


Ralph Dumain (autodidact project) - Science Fiction & Utopia Research Resources:
A Selective Work in Progress

Positing Futurity: The Possibilities of Utopology

Utopia, Dystopia, and the Myth of Neoliberalism

Demanding the Impossible: Utopia, Dystopia and Science-Fiction  

Joshua Glenn - Back to utopia - Can the antidote to today's neoliberal triumphalism be found in the pages of far-out science fiction?