There are many cruel and routine lies we tell to children but perhaps the most indicative is this: if you tell anyone your wish, it won’t come true. Whether it’s your birthday or you’ve just seen a shooting star, you’re not supposed to articulate your desires, because if you do, they’ll blow out like candles on a cake. This parable was probably invented by parents trying to avoid the trauma of not being able to give their children what they want but we carry it with us to adulthood, when it is repeated to us by our leaders. Don’t tell anyone the sort of world you would like to see – at best you’ll be disappointed and at worst you’ll be arrested.
“We want more.” This week, exhausted by the news, I dragged myself out of the house to a book fair, where I came across a new collection of utopian fiction by radical women. That was the first line and it stopped my breath in my throat. When basic survival seems like a stretch goal, caught as we are between the rich and the rising seas, hope feels like an unaffordable luxury. The precise words I used to the bookseller were: “Shut up and take my money.”
There has never been a more urgent time for utopian ideas, precisely because the concept of a better world has never felt further away. Right now, world leaders are deciding how many cities are going to sink before something is done to reduce carbon emissions. They are meeting in Paris, which very recently saw the opening scene of a new act in everyone’s least favourite dramatic franchise, “War in the Middle East”. The world may well be heading into yet another economic crisis; robots are apparently poised to automate away the few jobs that aren’t underwater. We seem to be living in a dystopian trilogy scripted by a sadistic young adult author and I very much hope that our plucky young heroes show up to save the day soon, even if there’s a clunky love triangle involved.
Right now dystopian fiction is everywhere, and for good reason. Dystopias are easy to relate to, and easy to construct: to paraphrase the novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, you might as well pick five news headlines at random, make a collage, and there’s your plot. Utopias are harder. Utopias require that we do the difficult, necessary work of envisioning a better world. This is why imagination is the first, best weapon of radicals and progressives.
Utopian stories existed long before the word was coined by Thomas More in the 16th century to mean an ideal society, or “no-place”. Plato’s Republic has some claim to being the first but there are as many utopias as there have been communities that dreamed of a better life. It is no accident that the early 21st century is a great age of dystopian fiction. The ideology of late-capitalist patriarchy has become so all-encompassing that it no longer looks like ideology. Fredric Jameson observed, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” – and the reason for that is not that capitalism is the inevitable destiny of humankind but that we have spent our lives being told that even thinking about any other future makes us ridiculous.
Just because dystopia is easy doesn’t mean it’s useless. There is value in pointing out oppression. A great way of shutting down dissent is to insist that it’s not enough to be against things without also deciding what it is that you are for. From the anti-war movement to Occupy Wall Street to the reimagined Corbynite Labour party, everyone on the left are used to hearing this – that we cannot point out what’s wrong with politics without instantly suggesting an alternative. This is nonsensical. If you were being beaten up by a gang of armed thugs, you would be within your rights to demand that they stop doing so without listing alternative places they might land their blows – “not in my face” is enough. It is difficult to think clearly about a better world when you’re trying to protect your soft parts from heavy boots. Difficult, however, is not the same as impossible.
Most leftists do have an idea of the sort of world they would prefer to see. Many of us have several. It’s just very hard to get us to talk about it, for the simple, human reason that we’re worried we’ll be laughed at. The standard response to anyone who suggests that perhaps we might like to live in a society where half the world’s wealth wasn’t controlled by less than 100 people is ridicule – even though the only truly ridiculous idea is that the current economic system is sustainable.
We don’t say what we want for the same reason that we were told as children not to tell anyone else what we wished for – because it’ll be awkward and painful if we don’t get it. Because when a dark future seems all but inevitable, hoping for better seems like setting yourself up to get hurt.
But the nature of utopia – the very meaning of the word – is that it is “no place”. The journey is more important than the destination, but without a destination in mind there is no journey.
When I think about utopia, I think about my grandmother. My mother’s mother left school at 13, lived through the Maltese blockade and was obliged by religion and circumstance to marry young, suffocate all her dreams of education and adventure and spend her life taking care of a husband and six kids. Half a century later, I can choose when and whether to have children. I can choose to live independently from men. I regularly travel alone and there are no legal restrictions on getting any job I’m suited for.
The kind of independence many women my age can enjoy would have been almost unimaginable half a century ago – but somebody did imagine it, and that is why we got here. A great many somebodies, over centuries of struggle and technological advancement, asked how the world could be different for women and set about making it happen.
Exactly a century ago, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland envisioned a society of women in which production was communal, motherhood was valued, relationships were equal and rape and violence were unknown. Reading Herland today, it is striking that for every proposition that came true – women are now allowed to divorce their husbands and participate fully in political life – there are two more that seem as far-fetched now as they did in 1915. Motherhood is still not valued as work. Women are still expected to organise our lives around the threat of sexual violence. But all that can change as long as we continue to ask for more.
Anyone who doesn’t believe that a better world is possible if we dare to dream it should take a look at the recent history of women’s liberation. The way I see it, I owe the women who came before me not just to live as freely as possible, not just to demand that women of all classes and backgrounds are able to access the freedoms I enjoy, but to demand even more.
For as long as I have been a feminist, I have been asked – usually by grumbling men – when, exactly, we will be satisfied; when women and girls will decide we have enough. The answer is contained in the question: because the instant that we do decide that we are satisfied, that there can never be a better world than this, is the instant that the future shuts down and change becomes impossible.
Utopia is the search for utopia. It is the no-place by whose light you plot a course through a harsh and unnavigable present. By the time you reach the horizon, it is no longer the horizon but that doesn’t mean you stop going forwards.
Right now, the future seems dark and frightening and it is precisely now that we must continue to imagine other worlds and then plot ways to get there. In the midst of multiple global crises, the only truly ridiculous proposition is that things are going to stay exactly the same.
Human societies are going to change beyond recognition, and from the conference table to the streets, our best shot at surviving that change starts when we have the courage to make impossible demands – to face down ridicule and say: “We want more.”
This article appears in the 25 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State