Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Utopia Then! (1)

In a series of superb, ongoing blogposts Anthony Galluzzo breaks down two competing strains of Utopian thinking into the the Flintstones versus the Jetsons. The essence of the argument is an old one but in its present form it harks back to the pre Neoliberal period, and attempt to reclaim certain Lost Futures, re-conceptualize the past thirty years as itself an interregnum which comes to an end in 2008, allowing us to fully get on now with the abandoned projects of yesteryear.

Partly this debate comes across like an academic equivalent of the mods and punks versus the hippies, which is because that’s what it is. Cold, sneering modernists determined to break with the past, rationalists who love mass culture and forms of production against emotionally incontinent organic food lovers and tree-huggers, promoters of the locally produced, the small scale, craft and artisan based.

Galluzzo’s a high flying young academic from Smartsville USA, I am a TEFL teacher, so I won’t pretend I can add much to the debate. Utopia though has been on my mind lately. Partly because I have just finished a Dystopian novel set, as Frankie Boyle would have it, 18 months in the future and have also been writing a Utopian riposte. In thinking about I ended up (as I often do) going back to the Seventies. And Film.

Hegemony aims at making certain terms unthinkable through making them unsayable, erasing them from the social field so they sit trapped in your brain, wilting and diminishing, starved of light and air. One of the things that has been most interesting since the crisis, especially noticeable to people of my age (45) or thereabouts I’d imagine, has been the return of certain terms from exile, not a full return of course these are still in some senses hard words to use in polite or mixed company, to physically utter, but the sense of their obsolescence, their calling up a register of vanished, vanquished concerns and revealing the speaker to be either a clueless atavism or some kind of Stalinist fanatic has cracked open. I am talking about the three C’s here primarily; Class, Capitalism and most extraordinarily of all Communism.

Much the same goes for the word Utopian in a positive register.

The term Utopia is fearful one for all kinds of reasons, for all kinds of different groups. Perhaps the most tedious of these are disillusioned Leftists, morbidly attached, post some banal political disappointment, to a sense of their own superior realism, permanently pursing their lips and attempting to inject a note of centrist caution, brandishing Kant's “from the crooked timber of man, no straight thing was ever made” or Voltaire’s “the perfect is the enemy of the good”. Utopia being essentially at its most benign a form of playful fantasy best confined to children’s books, at its most dangerous a recklessly improvident delusion, any attempt at concrete realization always ending in tears, in ruins or the Gulag.

Neoliberalism is interesting in the sense that it has always occupied the position of a “double-truth”, founded on the impossibility of one Utopian project, the illusory Utopia of a centrally planned economy in the case of the USSR, or in America and Western Europe’s case the Keynesian, Fordist, Social Democratic compact, it is nonetheless obliged to offer up another Utopia in its place, a real Utopia. It’s only in its late phase when the Utopian promise of a shareholder democracy runs aground that the current claim for the status quo, a “realism” that we must manfully accept the least worst and that no matter how much worse it gets we should be grateful for anything at all takes hold.

It was possible in the 70s for the Right to stake out a Utopian vision, one that was expanded in the 90s and that successfully captured and directed Utopian desire.* That fell apart in 2008 and it doesn't have another compelling vision to offer, all the Utopianism now and the mounting sense of a real Utopia that can address the current, what we might call, Utopian deficit, is broadly on the Left. All the Right has is power. That’s not nothing of course but if power alone were enough no change would ever have occurred. And can the kinds of commitment needed for radical change occur without Utopianism as its animating force?

Next post will be on the contradictions captured in Boorman’s epic farrago Zardoz, a film with much to recommend it not least Geoffrey Unsworth’s beautiful cinematography.

And Sean Connery in a fuchsia crocheted mankini.

* cue the disillusioned Leftist eager to lapse back into his pleasantly self-righteous bar-bore bad faith, " and that has been precisely the problem!"

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