What Does Utopia Mean Today?

From children’s communes to nationalising Amazon, and asteroid mining to menstrual extractors, we review recent publications which explore the Utopias of the 21st century.

Thomas More's map of the Island of Utopia, 1563.

In her wonderful 2017 pamphlet Communism for Kids, the German writer Bini Adamczak imagines children breaking with capitalism and trying out various utopias instead. In an afterword, she makes clear what utopias she is referring to; the dead utopias of state socialism, the communitarian utopias of anarchism, the techno-utopias of ‘fully automated luxury communism’, where ‘when people open their mouths, grape juice pours directly onto their tongues, and roasted pigeons made of tofu fall from the sky’, and her preferred utopia of democratic collectivity. She explains that she wrote the book in 2004, during the ‘end of history’, when neoliberal capitalism was unquestioned, but it became popular in the 2010s, after the financial crisis, when it became essential to imagine what a different society could be like. Here in the Tribune culture section we like the word ‘utopia’, and in this ‘Red Library’ we’ll look at some recent images of a redeemed world.

Before we do, though, we have to remember that in the twentieth century, in Adamczak’s words, ‘socialism disgraced itself, painfully and poignantly’. Two recent books depict what were once utopias in their old age. In New Town Utopia — a companion to his film of the same name — Christopher Ian Smith’s tarnished ideal is the New Town of Basildon, created in Essex in the 1940s as a social democratic refuge for working-class East Enders, where they could enjoy green space, modernity, and skilled employment, in a town with no slums. The book juxtaposes sour poetry and short stories by the people who grew up there, for whom being better than the East End during the Great Depression is not enough. Photographs show the democratic spaces of the town subsiding into dereliction and pawn shops. If this is just a decline from ‘utopia’ into melancholic normality, Sarhat Petrosyan and Katharina Roters’ haunting Utopia and Collapse shows something much more drastic. The Armenian town of Metsamor was planned near the end of the Soviet Union around a nuclear power station, as an atomic ideal city, planned with parks and Palaces of Culture for workers producing apparently infinite energy. Now, it looks practically post-atomic — and though Petrosyan and Roters are keen to show how much residents have carved out liveable spaces in utopia’s wreckage, the book is sharply cautionary. Both books, though, have just enough hints of what Basildon and Metsamor could have been, warning against easy condemnation.

So how do we know any new utopia won’t fail just like these? According to Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski, because we now have the technology to make it work. Their informative and provocative People’s Republic of Walmart launches off from an essay by the philosopher Fredric Jameson on ‘Wal-Mart as Utopia’, describing the American mall conglomerate as a functioning, integrated planned economy, like a Soviet Bloc without shortages. They take this as a cue to plunge into a history of economic planning, showing how its wildest dreams are now realised by the computerised distribution systems of Walmart and Amazon. They argue these technologies that are now used for ruthless exploitation can be turned over to human emancipation. A more ambitious version of similar ideas can be found in Aaron Bastani’s long-awaited Fully Automated Luxury Communism. Bridging the gap between Bastani’s two lives as autonomist intellectual and Labour-left hype man, the book is a fearlessly goofy combination of Antonio Negri, Alvin Toffler, and Alan Partridge. Automation, the internet of things, and cheap renewable energy are, for Bastani, guarantees that utopia is now practically possible, though he argues we’ll have to mine asteroids for the resources to do it properly.

Because Rozworski and Phillips stay at the level of economics, it doesn’t matter that they have little to say about what their utopia would be like on a human level; but this is the flaw in Bastani’s otherwise admirable book. For him, utopia is a twenty-first century Californian tech developer’s life, only distributed to everyone, a world of Tesla cars, 3D printed steaks, and synthesised single malts; there is nothing really social or communal about his ‘communism’. Another recent utopia has much more to say about this. Helen Hester’s Xenofeminism develops the ideas of the Xenofeminist Manifesto, which she wrote along with other members of the collective Laboria Cuboniks. Xenofeminism stands against ‘nature’ in favour of ‘alienation’ and ‘cybernetic communism’. Here, Hester is keen to show how this is practically possible, via technologies that are democratic and accessible — her main example in the book is the ‘Del-Em’, a menstrual extractor developed in the 1970s, which could abolish an age-old pain and discomfort almost instantly. In writing about how these extractors were passed around self-help groups, Hester depicts a communal utopia in microcosm.

We’ll leave the last word to the terrific Romanian journal Kajet, whose most recent issue focuses ‘On Utopias’. What distinguishes Kajet’s editors from other utopians is that, as residents of Bucharest, they’re surrounded at all times by the traces of a particularly disastrous state-socialist utopia. Because of that, they know full well what utopia can become, which makes their insistence on its necessity all the more powerful. In the journal’s photo essays, memoirs, stories, manifestos, there’s a common thread. ‘We have been tricked into distrusting the existence of an alternative modernity’, something enforced by both ‘tanks and banks’. Their alternative is a ‘new futurology of the East’. Because who knows better what not to do?