It is generally accepted that to label a political argument as utopian is to condemn it. And yet, political arguments commonly have some utopian refrain. There is something in the possibilities of utopian thinking that seems too rich, too exciting, too open-bordered to pass up. And – even in an age in which we are told politics has become more moderate, less bold, obsessed with ‘evidence-based policy’ rather than ‘how we might live if we could do exactly that’ – we come across utopian thinking even in the oddest places.
Imagine a beautiful island in uncharted emerald seas. On that island, everyone gets a wage that reflects their productivity, leaving just enough profit for the entrepreneur to invest in their company and remain competitive. This allows each and every firm to provide goods and services at the cheapest price to a nation of consumers who seek out the best value for money in all things. There is little waste. Everybody can know about the state of the markets for jobs and goods and services, and everybody is free to change their working and purchasing preferences. This makes everybody happy. Society is a great agglomeration of little acts of decision-making in the marketplace that has its own positive overall effects in producing a near-perfect balance between wages, prices, and investment. All of this free and competitive interaction keeps inequalities in check, and if there are some people considerably poorer than everyone else this is not morally troubling because they had roughly the same opportunities as everyone else. One can always work harder; one can always be ambitious; there is no red tape or government diktat to stop you. In fact, on this island (let’s call it Mercadia), the government does as little as possible, checked as it is by vibrant and free associations of citizens as well as a range of economic interest groups. Everyone obeys the rule of law which is there to ensure that contracts are honoured, that private property is respected, and that people are not harmed by the actions of others. There is also minimal social provision to make sure the most vulnerable are not left to suffer. Elections allow everyone to participate in the way they are governed and to provide a reassuring legitimacy for the state. There is good governance and a free market society. The economy grows, and it grows in a stable fashion.
This island does not exist, nor has it ever existed. But I would wager that this characterisation is quite familiar to readers. That is because it is the utopian premise embedded in the politics and policy-making of a great many governments in the present-day. It is also – with some tweaking – the great assumption of ceteris paribus (all things being equal) that enables economists to make predictions and process massive amounts of data. Economists often start (implicitly or explicitly) by assuming that all humankind is composed of utility-maximising and rational individuals who strive in fairly ‘flat’ social landscapes within which they can access knowledge, be mobile, and exercise unconstrained choice. This is our contemporary flat earth theory, a mystical terrain with few contours but those established by factor endowments and market catchment areas. Utopian it might be, but Mercadia exerts a great deal of ideational power not because it is a realistic destination for humankind but because it is located at the helm of a powerful ideology.
Being a dream held in the hearts of so many of those who wield power means that Mercadia evades one of the main concerns that people have with utopias: a lack of realism. There is nothing so reassuring for a utopian than a hold on power that can create facts on the ground: building a model factory/community, a new society of settlers in a supposed terra nullis… or working for the World Bank which claims that our dream is a world free of poverty.
The policy advice of the IMF and World Bank, the ‘Washington Consensus’ on economic strategy, the invigilation of national economies by credit rating agencies and international banks, the locking in of law-like rights for international capital all provide a strong-armed and integrated political project based in the faith that today’s utopia can become tomorrow’s reality.
Bizarrely, those who argue that progress towards this utopia is halting, socially deleterious, highly contested, unstable, and environmentally insane and that therefore we need to seek different grand visions are commonly criticised for not facing facts or being realistic. ‘Utopian’ is often a derogative term aimed at the Left when they claim that ‘another world is possible’. It is something of an irony that liberal marketeers call those who see the realities of capitalism ‘utopian’ when they themselves are constantly airbrushing capitalist globalisation as a progressive, consensual, and positive-sum project that tends towards equilibrium.
Perhaps, then, the problem with Mercadia is not that it is an unrealistic or realistic utopia but that it is an ugly one, backed by highly concentrated forms of power. Indeed, a common feature of utopian thinking is that it is invested in relatively heavy aesthetic qualities. The notes and symbols of music and art infuse utopias in order to make them persuasive. After all, it is not easy to appeal to a public with images of a world not yet known without using that abstraction to one’s advantage. Crispin Sartwell analyses the ‘artpolitical’ as a system of imagery that can be put to work in very diverse ways: the poetic cominglings of discourse and rhetoric, stylised caricatures of political agency, the norms and evocations of public imagery, the soundtracks to mobilise and so on. When these face forwards (a great deal of the artpolitical is melancholic as well) and focus on abstract or removed conditions of living, then they do heavy work indeed. One can see examples in the arts of Twentieth Century modernism, in the science-fiction TV of 1950s America. One can also see it in dystopias of Oceania, the Brave New World, and the Metropolis.
In the aesthetic sense, what matters is how persuasive the political aesthetics are and this is centrally a product of the strength of their appeal. All manner of unrealistic political projects, leaps of imagination, and stretched logics can be nuanced through a well-penned verse or film. And, it is up to us how much our response to these evocations might allow us to indulge a degree of political utopia on the grounds that it is both difficult to let the beauty go and that perhaps its messaging is not entirely fantastic. Without some minimal possibility in the interstices between art and politics, we do close down what we might call the political imagination to little more than something like planning.
It is striking how poorly the Mercadian utopia does in this aesthetic respect. It is all brute power and no finesse. It does not want to seduce us as much as scare and depress us. It is commonplace to talk about the Mercadian project as one that eviscerates politics, replacing it with the supposed sciences of orthodox economics and the managerialism of dainty market regulation. But, accompanying this anti-aesthetic is a narrative – sharpened since the crash of 2008 of austerity – in which aspirational narratives of any kind have been largely corralled into something resembling a crushingly moderate paddle-faster-to-stay-afloat. It is all hard work, the seeking of minimal security, fear, and obedience. These are, palpably, the points of reference of Mercadia’s political ambassadors. Imagine this utopian project without the means to dominate; surely it would wither away before one could say ‘tighten our belts’.
There is, then, a pervasive shutting down in political imagination under the tyranny of a singular utopia that is based in rational science, and (market) force. This is not an entirely metaphorical point: the politics of ‘austerity’ and ‘competitiveness’ have generated decisions directly to erode the political imagination by narrowing of school curricula, constraining the funding agendas for research in the Social Sciences and Humanities, and reducing public funding for the Arts.
At this point, one might expect a launching into some alter-alt-reality, but it does not seem clear how one would do this. The realities of the political wreckage that we live in mean that we have to scramble for dirty pearls in the detritus, the hardy but tarnished ideals of socialism (isn’t it fascinating that, in spite of repeated shrill announcements of its historic death, this ideological tradition just will not die?) and other utopias without a popular base of power and an aesthetic popular resonance. An eloquent aesthetic sensibility of this condition can be found in http://salvage.zone/. For now, we can at least recognise the ‘desert of the real’ that is contemporary global capitalism and refuse the bland seductions of mercadia. And keep an eye open for beauties yet to be born.