17 August 2014

Redrawing the Utopia-Dystopia Roadmap

According to the historian of political ideas, Gregory Claeys, utopias and dystopias lie at opposite ends of a spectrum of human possibilities. Utopias represent the hope for a communitarian coming together of mutually caring people, happy to share equitably, and willing to make sacrifices if called upon to protect the common good. By contrast, dystopias embody the horrors of a fractured society, wherein some have come to wield unchallengeable power over others, and individuals are left in a state of fear, distrust and isolation.

Although conventional thinking treats ‘utopias’ and ‘dystopias’ primarily as genres in fiction, Claeys connects this pair of concepts to the wider activities of political advocacy and social experimentation. This insight shows that attempts to build utopias and guard against dystopias should be considered not simply in terms of appeals to our imagination through storytelling, but also of appeals to our reason through political theory, and appeals to our concerns with improving our lives through new social practice.

The function of utopian advocacy is therefore about guiding people towards a far more communitarian form of human association, utilising a combination of political arguments to set out why it would be preferable to organise for solidarity and democratic cooperation; community practices to demonstrate how alternative social arrangements can work; and fictional drama to rouse interest in the better future that we can yet build.

This can be supplemented by dystopian warning in the form of: political critiques to challenge both the complacency that allows power inequalities to corrode social bonds, and the dangers of pseudo-utopian revolutions that would bring about even worse oppression; community protest to confront misguided reforms that seek to dismantle shared protection; and dark tales to expose the nightmare that may be in store for us unless we join forces to avert it.

Historically, with the exception of the likes of Francis Bacon, William Godwin, and H. G. Wells, few advocates have attempted to use all three approaches to map out the path for society to follow. But some of us have tried to do precisely that more recently, because if those promoting the communitarian ideal in literature, political theory and practical reform are theoretically aligned and strategically united, they stand a much greater chance of success.

Contemporary advocates for a more communitarian form of society may, therefore, want to consider drawing on the political formulation of Communitarianism, the community empowerment practices promoted under the banner of Together We Can, and the dystopian novels Kuan’s Wonderland and Whitehall through the Looking Glass, to present a joined-up set of directions to show where we need to get to, how we can move forward in practice, and why staying where we are is not an option.

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