Utopia and dystopia are twins, born at the same moment from the shared ancestry of social critique. Although remembered as the first modern attempt to systematically imagine an ideal society, Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) began with a stark portrait of a Europe torn apart by war and crushing poverty, with the shocking prediction that if the enclosure of farmland continued, soon sheep would be eating people. This horrifying prospect made it urgent to look for an alternative, which More sketches out as an egalitarian, communal society of shared property.
More’s utopian hopes were balanced by his dystopian fears, with a new sense of human agency in the making of history leading to possibilities both hopeful and dire. In the half-millennium since More wrote, countless others have trodden both paths, painting scenarios of either earthly paradises or human-created hells.
The equipoise More achieved has been lost in our own era, in which our fantasy life is overburdened with dystopian nightmares and the utopian impulse is only faintly heard. In his 1994 book The Seeds of Time, the literary theorist Fredric Jameson mournfully reflected that “it seems to be easier for us to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness of our imagination.”
Jameson saw this cramped, blighted imaginative inability to conceive of positive systemic change as one of the hallmarks of postmodernism. The past few decades have proven him prophetic, as the dystopian imagination becomes ever more dominant in our culture. Frightening (and all too plausible) stories of climate catastrophe, pandemics, and rising authoritarianism thread their way through newscasts and popular fiction. Whether it’s Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, or countless zombie movies, we have no shortage of ways of imagining the end of the world: nuclear war, rising oceans, biotech gone mad, totalitarian dictatorship. What’s lacking is any positive road map for building a better world.
The utopian impulse is controversial across the political spectrum. Margaret Thatcher brutally summed up the conservative ethos by saying, “There is no alternative.” If Thatcher was right, then utopian speculation is feckless and doomed to failure. And some on the left would agree. Karl Marx consistently used “utopian socialism” as a term of abuse, referring to airy thinkers like Charles Fourier and Henri de Saint-Simon who drew up blueprints for ideal societies without considering, as Marx himself tried to do, the actual historical dynamics and conjuncture of forces that could realistically bring about change.
Scientific socialism, Marx insisted, was superior to utopian socialism. In that same spirit, the radical international relations scholar Immanuel Wallerstein, in his 1998 book Utopistics, warned that “utopias are breeders of illusions and therefore, inevitably, of disillusions. And utopias can be used, have been used, as justifications for terrible wrongs. The last thing we really need is still more utopian visions.”
Against both Marx and Wallerstein, there’s a venerable tradition of radical thinkers who have tried to redeem the idea of utopia in Marxist terms by insisting that the hope of a better society keeps social agitation alive. Jameson is perhaps the greatest living exemplar of this tradition. In a 2004 essay in New Left Review, Jameson insisted, “It is difficult enough to imagine any radical political program today without the conception of systemic otherness, of an alternate society, which only the idea of utopia seems to keep alive, however feebly.”
A utopian imagination isn’t sufficient in and of itself to build a better world, but it’s an essential prerequisite. Oscar Wilde expressed it best in his essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” (1891) when he declared, “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.”
History bears out Wilde’s conceit. The genre of utopian fiction, born of frustration during periods of thwarted promise, is a uniquely sensitive barometer of historical change. People start writing utopias when they feel discontented with the existing order—what Jameson identifies as the moment of stillness before the eruption of the revolutionary storm.
Building on Jameson’s work, the historian Perry Anderson, also writing in New Left Review, argued:
There is little doubt that this has indeed been a recurrent pattern. More’s own Utopia, in 1516, preceded the outbreak of the Reformation that convulsed Europe, and consumed More himself, by less than a year. The next cluster of significant utopias—Campanella’s City of the Sun (1623), Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627) and Robert Burton’s idiosyncratic digression in Anatomy of Melancholy (1621–38)—appeared in the period before the outbreak of the English Civil War and the Neapolitan Uprising of the 17th century. The greatest utopian reverie of the 18th century, Diderot’s Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville (1772), was written a generation before the French Revolution. In the 19th century, too, the remarkable set of utopian fictions in the last years of the century—Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888), Morris’s reply in News from Nowhere (1890), Hertzka’s Freiland (also 1890), to which we might add, as a pendant from the Far East, Kang Youwei’s Great Consonance (1888–1902)—precede the turbulences of 1905–11 in Russia and China, the outbreak of the First World War, and the October Revolution.
A further example is the utopian speculations of Frankfurt School Marxists like T.W. Adorno, Ernst Bloch, and Herbert Marcuse during the 1940s and ’50s, works that were early premonitions of the upheavals of the ’60s. Periods of revolution themselves, Anderson added, are accompanied by an efflorescence of utopian writing. The ’60s and ’70s were no exception to this rule, witnessing the last great burst of the utopian tradition in the feminist and queer speculative writings of Shulamith Firestone, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Samuel R. Delany, and Marge Piercy. We are still living through some of what these writers imagined.
Even after the utopian firestorm of the ’60s and ’70s died out, there were a few significant embers in the science fiction of Kim Stanley Robinson, who imagined an ecologically sustainable California in one of the greatest of modern utopias, Pacific Edge (1990). Not by accident, Robinson had done his doctoral thesis, on the fiction of Philip K. Dick, under Jameson.
What do we lose by giving up the utopian imagination? The political scientist Lyman Tower Sargent describes utopian thinking as “social dreaming.” Utopias teach us to dream collectively, to sharpen our imagination, to demand more, to ask if the injustices of the world really need to exist—or if we can figure out how to junk them.
One of Jameson’s crucial arguments is that utopias don’t offer simple blueprints to be executed but function rather as diagnostic tools for figuring out what is wrong with society. Mutually exclusive utopian proposals can still serve the same end of exposing the insufficiency of existing society. Jameson’s preferred utopia of universal employment might seem at odds with Marcuse’s scheme for universal leisure. But both proposals are meant to highlight the monstrosity of a system that ties survival to employment and maintains a reserve army of the jobless.
The function of utopia, Jameson argued in his 2004 essay, “lies not in helping us to imagine a better future but rather in demonstrating our utter incapacity to imagine such a future—our imprisonment in a non-utopian present without historicity or futurity—so as to reveal the ideological closure of the system in which we are somehow trapped and confined.”
One of the most hopeful signs of the present moment is that for the first time since the 1970s, the utopian imagination is reviving. Once-lonely voices like Robinson and Jameson are now being joined by a younger chorus calling for a universal basic income, a Green New Deal, open borders, a super TVA to modernize America’s infrastructure, and abolition of police and prisons, among other utopian schemes. Not all will pan out—nor do they need to. The utopian impulse exists to spark discomfort with the status quo and agitation.
Where it ends no one can know, because all social progress is made from the bottom up, with people hammering out alternatives amid the conflicts of political life. But the energy to create those alternatives wouldn’t exist without utopian dreams.