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Utopia now: why there’s never been a more urgent time to dream of a better world

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.

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.”

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State

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Arsène Wenger: The Innovator in Old Age

As the Arsenal manager announces his departure from the club after more than two decades, the New Statesman editor, Jason Cowley, appreciates English football’s first true cosmpolitan. 

How to account for the essence of a football club? The players and managers come and go, of course, and so do the owners. The fans lose interest or grow old and die. Clubs relocate to new grounds. Arsenal did so in the summer of 2006 when they moved from the intimate jewel of a stadium that was Highbury to embrace the soulless corporate gigantism of the Emirates. Clubs can even relocate to a new town or to a different part of a city, as indeed Arsenal also did when they moved from south of the Thames to north London in 1913 (a land-grab that has never been forgiven by their fiercest rivals, Tottenham). Yet something endures through all the change, something akin to the Aristotelian notion of substance.

Before Arsène Wenger arrived in London in late September 1996, Arsenal were one of England’s most traditional clubs: stately, conservative, even staid. Three generations of the Hill-Wood family had occupied the role of chairman. In 1983, an ambitious young London businessman and ardent fan named David Dein invested £290,000 in the club. “It’s dead money,” said Peter Hill-Wood, an Old Etonian who had succeeded his father a year earlier. In 2007, Dein sold his stake in the club to Red & White Holdings, co-owned by the Uzbek-born billionaire Alisher Usmanov, for £75m. Not so dead after all.

In the pre-Wenger years, unfairly or otherwise, the Gunners were known as “lucky Arsenal”, a pejorative nickname that went back to the 1930s. For better or worse, they were associated with a functional style of play. Under George Graham, manager from 1986 to 1995, they were exponents of a muscular, sometimes brutalist, long-ball game and often won important matches 1-0. Through long decades of middling success, Arsenal were respected but never loved, except by their fans, who could be passionless when compared to, say, those of Liverpool or Newcastle, or even the cockneys of West Ham.

Yet Wenger, who was born in October 1949, changed everything at Arsenal. This tall, thin, cerebral, polyglot son of an Alsatian bistro owner, who had an economics degree and was never much of a player in the French leagues, was English football’s first true cosmopolitan.

He was naturally received with suspicion by the British and Irish players he inherited (who called him Le Professeur), the fans (most of whom had never heard of him) and by journalists (who were used to clubbable British managers they could banter with over a drink). Wenger was different. He was reserved and self-contained. He refused to give personal interviews, though he was candid and courteous in press conferences during which he often revealed his sly sense of humour.

He joined from the Japanese J League side, Nagoya Grampus Eight, where he went to coach after seven seasons at Monaco, and was determined to globalise the Gunners. This he did swiftly, recruiting players from all over the world but most notably, in his early years, from France and francophone Africa. I was once told a story of how, not long after joining the club, Wenger instructed his chief scout, Steve Rowley, to watch a particular player. “You’ll need to travel,” Wenger said. “Up north?” “No – to Brazil,” came the reply. A new era had begun.

Wenger was an innovator and disrupter long before such concepts became fashionable. A pioneer in using data analysis to monitor and improve performance, he ended the culture of heavy drinking at Arsenal and introduced dietary controls and a strict fitness regime. He was idealistic but also pragmatic. Retaining Graham’s all-English back five, as well as the hard-running Ray Parlour in midfield, Wenger over several seasons added French flair to the team – Nicolas Anelka (who was bought for £500,000 and sold at a £22m profit after only two seasons), Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pirès. It would be a period of glorious transformation – Arsenal won the Premier League and FA Cup “double” in his first full season and went through the entire 2003-2004 League season unbeaten, the season of the so-called Invincibles.

The second decade of Wenger’s long tenure at Arsenal, during which the club stopped winning titles after moving to the bespoke 60,000-capacity Emirates Stadium, was much more troubled. Beginning with the arrival of the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in 2003, the international plutocracy began to take over the Premier League, and clubs such as Chelsea and Manchester City, much richer than Arsenal, spent their way to the top table of the European game. What were once competitive advantages for Wenger – knowledge of other leagues and markets, a worldwide scouting network, sports science – became routine, replicated even, in the lower leagues.

Wenger has spoken of his fear of death and of his desire to lose himself in work, always work. “The only possible moment of happiness is the present,” he told L’Équipe in a 2016 interview. “The past gives you regrets. And the future uncertainties. Man understood this very fast and created religion.” In the same interview – perhaps his most fascinating – Wenger described himself as a facilitator who enables “others to express what they have within them”. He yearns for his teams to play beautifully. “My never-ending struggle in this business is to release what is beautiful in man.”

Arsène Wenger is in the last year of his contract and fans are divided over whether he should stay on. To manage a super-club such as Arsenal for 20 years is remarkable and, even if he chooses to say farewell at the end of the season, it is most unlikely that any one manager will ever again stay so long or achieve so much at such a club – indeed, at any club. We should savour his cool intelligence and subtle humour while we can. Wenger changed football in England. More than a facilitator, he was a pathfinder: he created space for all those foreign coaches who followed him and adopted his methods as the Premier League became the richest and most watched in the world: one of the purest expressions of let it rip, winner-takes-all free-market globalisation, a symbol of deracinated cosmopolitanism, the global game’s truly global league. 

(2017)

Postscript

Arsène Wenger has announced he is stepping down, less than a year after signing a new two-year contract in the summer of 2017. A run to the Europa League finals turned out not to be enough to put off the announcement to the end of the season.

Late-period Wenger was defined by struggle and unrest. And the mood at the Emirates stadium on match day was often sour: fans in open revolt against Wenger, against the club’s absentee American owner Stan Kroenke, against the chief executive Ivan Gazidis, and sometimes even against one another, with clashes between pro and anti-Wenger factions. As Arsenal’s form became ever more erratic, Wenger spoke often of how much he suffered. “There is no possibility not to suffer,” he said in March 2018. “You have to suffer.”

Arsenal once had special values, we were told, and decision-making was informed by the accumulated wisdom of past generations. But the club seems to have lost any coherent sense of purpose or strategic long-term plan, beyond striving to enhance the profitability of the “franchise”.

The younger Wenger excelled at discovering and nurturing outstanding young players, especially in his early seasons in north London. But that was a long time ago. Under his leadership, Arsenal became predictable in their vulnerability and inflexibility, doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes, especially defensive mistakes. They invariably faltered when confronted by the strongest opponents, the Manchester clubs, say, or one of the European super-clubs such as Bayern Munich or Barcelona.

Wenger’s late struggles were a symbol of all that had gone wrong at the club. The vitriol and abuse directed at this proud man was, however, often painful to behold.

How had it come to this? There seems to be something rotten in the culture of Arsenal football club. And Wenger suffered from wilful blindness. He could not see, or stubbornly refused to see, what others could: that he had become a man out of a time who had been surpassed by a new generation of innovators such as Pep Guardiola and Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino. “In Arsene we trust”? Not anymore. He had stayed too long. Sometimes the thing you love most ends up killing you.

 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.