The end of last year and the beginning of 2022 are seeing the emergence of a wide offer with utopia and utopianism as its banner: large exhibitions of corporate foundations, university lectures, debates and seminars in major cultural centers. But there is no innocent utopia... so, what course are they setting out on?
The multiple meanings of utopia
Utopia in feudal decadence
The island "Utopia" of Thomas More.
First pages of Bacon's "Nova Atlantis", utopian manifesto of the developing bourgeois world.
Utopia is, originally, a literary genre for the exposition of political ideas born in the clash between the bourgeois values which the modern state was beginning to incorporate at the end of the 15th century and the feudal ideology. The first great modern utopias, that of More in 1516 and that of Campanella in 1599, are nothing more than ways of updating the Christian-feudal ideal of the city of God as opposed to the centralizing and moderately mercantilizing policies of the English and Iberian monarchies.
The genre will triumph, however, when it shifts its class meaning and begins to formulate those same values against which it was originally created, while maintaining its millennialist background and form. Bacon's Nova Atlantis, published in 1626, will elevate the first elements of what will later become the nation to a new version of the heavenly Jerusalem. Bacon's utopian world is... A scientific institute directed by the servants of God seeking "the knowledge of the secret causes and motions of things," the goal that would later become the program of Newton and Adam Smith.
The socialist utopia in the face of the first capitalist development.
Explanation and blueprints of a phalanstery
However, the model of utopia that everyone has in mind and that shapes the contemporary imaginary will not be that of the first revolutionary convulsions of the bourgeois world, but that of utopian socialism, which is a response to the birth of capitalism and the emergence of the first modern proletariat.
Unlike its Renaissance and Baroque models, utopian socialism does not pretend to be merely evocative and appealing, but presents its proposals as part of a feasible, rational and immediately applicable plan.
The Marxist critique of this new form of utopia which we can find in the grandiloquent and detailed social plans of a Saint-Simon or a Fourier, emphasizes that these first "socialists" presented their alternatives of social organization as if they were announcing a new clockwork mechanism, taking the main social metaphor of the baroque bourgeoisie to its literal form.
The socialist utopian is an aspiring "social engineer" abstracted from material historical tendencies in order to propose, out of nowhere, a complex system to impose on reality as if the latter were only the result of ignorance and inertia. The utopian sees himself as a messiah come to solve social contradictions by applying the lights of reason while ignoring any conflicts of interest between the classes defining society.
Utopia, in the end, rejects social transformation where it really takes place, in the struggle of the workers, in order to try to impose it on a historical reality whose nature it fails to understand. Socialist utopianism, a walking aid during the infancy of the class movement, would later, when the working class was already formed, have a reactionary meaning which disarmed the workers by derailing them towards ahistorical engineering plans.
The later bourgeois academia will try to respond by putting in the same bag all utopian thought, no matter how contradictory the objectives and models of the different utopias may be. For the bourgeois academia, utopia would speak of a desirable but unattainable ideal. The point is not that "utopia" does not exist, does not take place at the moment it is enunciated, but that what defines it is to be "impossible", that is to say, unacceptable for the class power established at a given moment.
In this logic, utopianism would have two aspects, in one it would create models that would "contribute ideas of improvement" to the owners of society and whether the latter adopt them or not, it would not question the established order except in an intellectual or moral way.
In the other case, utopia would be any proposal for social change that would question the system, something that for them, as for any dominant ideology, is by definition "dangerous" and "doomed to failure". The latter is what they mean when they affirm that communism is a utopia: simply that they will give no quarter to anything that leads to it or presents it as a necessity and a possibility here and now.
From Utopia to Utopian Experiments
Project of "New Harmony", Owenite colony in the USA (1825-1827)
However, the utopian socialists had no intention of limiting their social projects to being mere "inspiration" for the well-meaning bourgeoisie of their time. They wanted their adoption as the system of a new social order. In order to do so, the utopian socialist needed to "demonstrate" the viability of his project in the face of criticism and to make it clear that it was not a "utopia", a mere imagination without material existence. Hence Owen's or Fourier's obsession with creating "experimental" colonies.
With them and especially through their epigones, a new meaning of utopia will emerge, which paradoxically is no longer a non-place (ou-topos) but a more or less isolated place claiming to be the embryo of an alternative social order: the "utopian community" or "practical utopia".
Suffice it to recall now that these "experiments" were antipodal, if not antagonistic, to the revolutionary orientation of the first workers' movement, as we saw with Icarian communism in the face of the 1848 revolution.
In time, this opposition would develop. In short: the "utopian communities" were never an alternative to capitalism, but a -sponsored- competitor of non-utopian forms of workers' organization, especially of the collectivities generated by the workers' movement until the defeat of the Spanish Revolution, but also of its communal expressions, such as those we studied in the Russian Revolution.
The pandemic and its... utopias?
Piel Island. The auction of its only pub was one of the recurring stories in the British press during 2020 and 2021.
The pandemic with its lockdowns brought home the inadequacy of the housing conditions in which the vast majority of workers live across Europe. Lack of minimum space, lack of natural light and even of affordable air conditioning are not only common, it is the trend, the future promised by accumulation, a not at all utopian future that is further accelerated by the Green Deal.
The media, always eager to provide escapist news, lavished stories about lost islands and job offers in remote areas. The dream of "a bit of green" was so widespread that these "color notes" became a recurrent and successful genre of "clickbait". Soon, the same media in all countries began to talk about an alleged "march to the countryside" of teleworkers and speculate about its impact on the overwhelming rural depopulation.
Little did it matter that, after the first year of the pandemic, the numbers of rural teleworkers, which had never been large, fell again. Pandemic escapist fantasies still had an audience and more than a few companies saw an opportunity to create a market.
The ultra-proprietary utopia of the metaverse and web3.0
While the media were discovering to their amazement the surprising success of "boring video games" in which the player mowed the lawn for hours or managed a junkyard in endless games, Facebook was looking for a way to enter the world of corporate videoconferencing in which Zoom had become, overnight, the new standard.
The political crisis suffered by the company precipitated things: and led to a rapid change of name and orientation. "Meta", as it is now called, will try to bring the social networks it now leads into three-dimensional virtual spaces - metaverses - similar to a video game. A return to the Second Life bubble of 2007?
More like a recognition that for the next 15 years what was called "the most boring video game in history" managed to extract millions of dollars every year from a user base that was not overly large and to monetize an infrastructure that was impossible without large capital infusions. It is only natural for the masses of capital looking for a destination to be interested now that Facebook promises to move millions of people to the new environment. They see it as a profitable outlet.
The conveniently reborn "digital utopia" is the way to sell the move to the mass of consumers it requires. And the whole propaganda apparatus, academia included, is set in motion. There is and will be no shortage of head honchos of the Philosophy of consciousness to tell us that the virtual experience is both real and as material as the physical one.
But beware. We are no longer even in the pure escapism of the 2000s and its promise of an apparently decommodified "virtual life". It is now fully commodified. The new utopia is formatted in the matrix of Ayn Rand's anarcho-capitalism and cryptocurrency fanatics.
The latest triumph of the latter has been to turn cryptocurrencies' core technology, blockchain, into the basis of a speculative market for digital art. Blockchain is actually a system -only apparently- distributed to generate and store the record of the transactions that take place in a market. Each market, a crypto... but also, potentially, a certificate of purchase. That's what NFTs are, purchase certificates for virtual objects - drawings, designs, etc. - that would supposedly make them unique and herald a virtual world in which everything would be owned by someone.
In the NFT community, we are witnessing the logical conclusion of a generation that is so alienated, so deeply dissatisfied, that it is considering abandoning the physical world altogether. At least the metaverse is something new, maybe in it they will find some place where they can be rich or important. ...NFTs are, fundamentally, an investment in the metaverse. The NFT community is anticipating the arrival of fully immersive virtual worlds that will take precedence over the physical world, or at least exist in parallel.
One of the most sophisticated crypto-investors I met in New York cheerfully informed me that humanity is approaching a singularity in which our digital selves (the metaverse version of ourselves) will become more important to us than our physical selves. And once this singularity is reached, he explained, we will have no problem spending real money on digital assets, because our digital lives will matter to us as much or more than our physical lives.
When stagnation goes virtual, Palladium Magazine
The result is a new digital utopia... consisting of commodifying human relationships on the Internet as much or more than face-to-face relationships already are. That is to say, more than a utopia, it is taking one step further the capitalist dystopia in which we already live. Something that, obviously, can only be welcomed by the propaganda media of the system. Just today the New York Times opened its front page with one of the "background issues" raised by the new utopia of the metaverse: from whom will we buy our virtual clothes?
The new islands of the anarcho-capitalist "utopia".
At the same time that Second Life was testing the foundations of the metaverse, Randian billionaire Peter Thiel contributed the first 500,000 to "Seasteading", a foundation directed by Milton Friedman's grandson and dedicated to developing technology to create artificial islands.
Its original objective was to create floating cities on the high seas, outside the territories of the states, in which to locate private housing developments that would "compete with the states by reducing taxes and regulations" and open to modular "social experiments" among which they recurrently cited one of the fetishes of Anglo-Saxon libertarians inherited from Friedman himself: universal basic income.
Almost 15 years later, the cost of infrastructure and engineering has made it clear to them that, as of today, their anarcho-capitalist maritime utopia could only be built profitably in territorial waters. And even then, it would be too expensive to house workers to exploit. So they have reduced their ambition from independence to "autonomy" from states and from "complete economies" to financial and residential centers. In other words, the utopia showed its bottom and Seasteding has remained as a technology to create "Charter Cities" and tax havens on demand.
The refocusing had its moment of glory when the foundation sold to the French state a project to create artificial islands in French Polynesia. It was a modest pilot: accommodation for 250 people some 720 meters off the coast. But at the end of 2017, the deal expired without the parties renewing it. Focused on taking on the U.S. Republican party, Thiel and his friends seem to have abandoned the project's momentum.
This does not mean that utopia as a tool to sell massive urban investments can be considered dead. Marc Lore and Telosa, his "equitist" city, are a good example. But one need only stroll through architecture magazines and count the number of times the word utopia is repeated, generally linked to the New European Bauhaus.
From ahistorical utopia to antisocial utopia
The history of contemporary utopia could not be more significant. We have gone from the ahistorical utopia of a Fourier to the anti-historical and anti-social utopia of the Silicon Valley libertarian millionaires, their metaverses and their real estate investments.
It could not be otherwise. In the end, the evolution of meanings and promises under the word utopia reflects the expectations that the system itself is capable of generating, albeit in the long term, so it cannot escape the growing antagonism between (capital) growth and (human) development.
So... there is no utopia. The future is not at stake in reforms or proposals, in urban investments or digital escapes. But here and now. Not in circles of visionary millionaires or environmentally friendly urban planners, but among the workers. Not by dreaming alternative worlds, but by organizing ourselves and fighting for what is necessary and possible: to decommodify work and society and socialize production.