The critics of utopian thinking are legion. Attempts to imagine a radically better world are often dismissed as irrelevant or as dangerous. The argument that utopianism is perilous was especially prevalent during the Cold War. Thinkers such as Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper maintained that a traceable line ran from utopian dreaming to the concentration camp and the Gulag. Nazism and Soviet communism were regarded as expressions of a totalitarian logic inherent to utopian desire: the creation of new societies required violence and repression. Utopianism, the critics charged, had to be excised from the political imagination.
But this caricature failed to capture the richness and variety of the utopian tradition, a complexity which is the subject of Douglas Mao’s Inventions of Nemesis (2020). Attentive to both the promises and the pitfalls of utopian thinking, his argument is that utopian thought has always focused on achieving justice, defined broadly as “a condition of right arrangement” or “a condition in which each receives what’s due to them”. It is motivated by fierce indignation (or nemesis) at the wrongful ordering of things, at manifest injustice. From Plato to the present, the insistent search for the just society, rather than for human perfection or happiness, has shaped utopian ambition.
Mao discusses an impressively long list of utopian thinkers, including Plato, Thomas More – the man who invented the term “utopia” in the 16th century – Margaret Cavendish, William Morris, HG Wells and Ursula Le Guin, as well more obscure examples. He puts utopian fiction writers into revealing dialogue with an equally impressive range of political philosophers. Unusually for a literary critic – Mao teaches English at Johns Hopkins University – his most frequent reference points are the liberal theorists of justice who, following in the footsteps of John Rawls, have exerted significant intellectual influence in the last half-century.
Speculative writers sketch imaginative outlines of alternative societies both to criticise the existing order and to identify other ways of living. Late 19th-century utopians railed against the abject poverty and inequalities shaping their societies. For the US writer Edward Bellamy, whose utopian novel Looking Backward was published in 1888, this meant contrasting Gilded Age America with a vision of a highly-centralised, regimented industrial socialist order, designed to support its citizens from cradle to grave. Looking Backward sold millions of copies around the world and spawned clubs across the US dedicated to discussing his ideas. In Britain, Morris, horrified by both the injustices he saw around him and by Bellamy’s proposed alternative, wrote his own socialist utopia, News from Nowhere (1890), which imagined a bucolic decentralised community and was steeped in nostalgia for the pre-industrial age.
Mao strikes a note of ambivalence about the value of utopia throughout his book. He worries about the stifling homogeneity and threats to human individuality embedded in many utopian projects. Although he maintains that utopianism is “important to political life”, he does not claim the label for himself. The nearest Mao comes to endorsing a particular vision of utopia is in his sympathetic portrayal of the “metautopianism” elaborated by the unlikely duo of Fredric Jameson, a Marxist literary critic, and Robert Nozick, a libertarian philosopher. Both have written of utopia as a pluralistic framework in which utopian communities organised along radically different lines might coexist. In a coda, Mao turns to the American science fiction writer Octavia Butler and her ingenious short story “The Book of Martha” (2003), in which this idea is pushed to its limit, with utopia restricted to the world of inner experience – everyone, in Butler’s words, “would have their own personal best of all possible worlds” while dreaming intense, realistic dreams. No one vision of the good would have to be imposed on anyone else in the external world. It isn’t clear, though, what lessons can be drawn from this tale for thinking about collective action and the types of mobilisation necessary for realising political change.
Focusing on the history of utopian thought, Mao says little about its contemporary forms or its possible future direction. During the past couple of decades, utopianism has made a striking return in Anglophone political thought and speculative literature. Dark times call for radical ideas. The financial crash of 2008 and the imposition of austerity regimes to stabilise capitalism in its wake, the political success of right-wing authoritarianism, and above all the existential threat of climate change: all have led to a redoubling of efforts to imagine alternative ways of organising society. The greatest challenge facing utopian thought today – as explored rigorously in Mathias Thaler’s forthcoming No Other Planet: Utopian Hope for a Planet-Changed World – concerns how to think about the future in the face of possible species annihilation. What does utopianism mean in the age of the Anthropocene?
The dystopian imagination has had much material to work with in recent years. Death and destruction have been envisaged, in film and literary fiction, through a host of apocalyptic scenarios, from rogue artificial intelligence turning on its creators, through to terrible biotech accidents, nuclear conflagration or climate collapse, and global pandemics on a scale that would far exceed the Covid-19 crisis. Valuable as such warnings undoubtedly are, dystopianism is ultimately limited as an intellectual and political response to the problems facing humanity, at least if it isn’t complemented by constructive visions of sociopolitical change. And it carries its own dangers: a diet of horror can encourage fatalism and resignation. Such concerns have long animated utopian writers who insist on the importance of hope, of imagining better worlds, as essential for motivating and directing radical political action.
The most prolific and high-profile advocate of utopian speculation in the shadow of climate disaster is the American writer Kim Stanley Robinson. In a succession of novels, he has imagined, with great ingenuity and humanity, how people might respond to environmental transformation – how they might live, and how they might die, as the Anthropocene unfolds. His fictional futures have explored how a combination of bureaucratic innovation and political violence could greatly reduce carbon emissions (The Ministry of the Future, 2020), creative urban adaptation to global sea level rises (2017’s New York 2140), the terraforming other planets for human habitation, and the protection of animal species in hollowed-out asteroids, awaiting the time when a denuded Earth can be rewilded, as in 2312 (2012).
Running through these acts of imagination is the sense that dystopianism is radically insufficient, that human creativity, political solidarity and hope is necessary to confront the future. Robinson is far from alone in using fiction to explore alternative forms of society. A new generation of novelists such as Malka Older and Ada Palmer have taken up the challenge of writing constructive futures in a world facing disaster. So too have a growing number of philosophers, social theorists, activists and think tankers intent on injecting utopian desire back into political debate.
Technology plays an ambiguous role in contemporary utopianism, as it has throughout the history of the tradition. It is figured as both threat and promise. Emerging technologies – from genetic editing to AI – have intensified anxieties and ambitions, prompting fears of calamity, as well as hopes that human ingenuity can avert impending disaster and usher in a better world. The libertarian dream-weavers of Silicon Valley present one kind of solution: only technology can save us. The problems created by the desire to tame nature and put it to human use can be solved by further technical innovation. It is little wonder that so much tech money has been channelled into transhumanist projects to enhance human capacities and expand lifespans (at least for those who could afford it).
But they are not the only ones who believe that technology can be harnessed to remake the world. Many progressive speculative thinkers, including Robinson, place ambitious new technologies at the core of their imaginative visions. Some contemporary feminist utopians look to biotech to dissolve patriarchal social relations. As the “Xenofeminist Manifesto” proclaimed in 2015: “Our lot is cast with technoscience, where nothing is so sacred that it cannot be re-engineered and transformed so as to widen our aperture of freedom.” And while many people worry that new industrial technologies, from driverless cars to AI doctors, threaten mass unemployment and social dislocation, others, such as John Danaher, author of Automation and Utopia (2019), view technology as a means to free people from the drudgery of labour and encourage human flourishing. As it has been for centuries, the future remains a battleground for conflicting nightmares and desires. The stakes have never been higher.