It seems to me that one of our besetting problems these days is that there’s a shortage of utopias on offer.
Utopia — a fictional country with a perfect socio-political and legal system — is, of course, fiction. It’s a polemical tool that is best used as a lens for examining our ideas about how we would like to live. A road map showing how to get there from here is optional; nor does utopian speculation generally provide a guide to the vexatious question of relations between utopia and the outside realm of the imperfect (should such a thing still have the bad grace to exist).
As a vehicle for fiction, utopias are piss-poor: they don’t lend themselves to dramatic tension because they’re perfect, and they’re also annoyingly persistent — it’s not utopia if it comes and goes in a couple of decades. (Indeed, what makes the SF of Iain Banks so interesting is that he does have a utopia, in the shape of the Culture — which, unfortunately, only works due to it being, well, science fiction.)
Anyway: it seems to me that the post-cold war neoliberal dominated political consensus (which is a consensus of the Right, insofar as the flagship of the Left hit an iceberg and started to sink in 1917, finally hitting the sea floor in 1989) is intrinsically inimical to the consideration of utopian ideals. Burkean conservativism tends to be skeptical of change, always asking first, “will it make things worse?” This isn’t a bad question to ask in and of itself, but we’re immured a period of change unprecedented in human history (it kicked off around the 1650s; its end is not yet in sight) and basing your policies on what you can see in your rear-view mirror leaves you open to driving over unforseen pot-holes. To a conservative, the first priority is not to lose track of what’s good about the past, lest the future be worse. But this viewpoint brings with it a cognitive bias towards the simplistic outlook that innovation is always bad.
Which is why I think we badly need more utopian speculation. The consensus future we read about in the media and that we’re driving towards is a roiling, turbulent fogbank beset by half-glimpsed demons: climate change, resource depletion, peak oil, mass extinction, collapse of the oceanic food chain, overpopulation, terrorism, foreigners who want to come here and steal our
women jawbs. It’s not a nice place to be; if the past is another country, the consensus view of the future currently looks like a favela with raw sewage running in the streets.
Conservativism — standing on the brake pedal — is a natural reaction to this vision; but it’s a maladaptive one, because it makes it harder to respond effectively to new and unprecedented problems. We can’t stop, we can only go forward; so it is up to us to choose a direction.
Having said that, we should be able to create a new golden age of utopian visions. A global civilization appears to be emerging for the first time. It’s unstable, unevenly distributed, and blindly fumbling its way forward. But we have unprecedented tools for sharing information; slowly developing theories of behavioural economics, cognitive bias, and communications that move beyond the crudely simplistic (and wrong) 19th century models of perfectly rational market actors: even models of development that seem to be generating sporadic progress in those countries that were hammered down and ruthlessly exploited as colonial assets by the ancien regime and its inheritors.
We need — quite urgently, I think — plausible visions of where we might be fifty or a hundred or a thousand years hence: a hot, densely populated, predominantly urban planetary culture that nevertheless manages to feed everybody, house everybody, and give everybody room to pursue their own happiness without destroying our resource base.
Because historically, when a civilization collapsed, it collapsed in isolation: but if our newly global civilization collapses, what then …?