What is Utopia? What is Utopian Political Thought?
Defining utopia and utopian political thought presents a fundamental problem. When Thomas More invented the word “utopia” in 1516, he created a frustrating and fruitful sort of ambiguity. “Utopia” has a contested nature, because it means both “good place” (eutopia) and “no place” (outupia). Since More’s original Utopia, all thinkers who follow in his footsteps face a set of serious questions. Is utopia a real place that can be attained by the efforts of human beings? Or is it someplace that will always be out of reach? Compounding this ambiguity, More’s Utopia was not just a savage critique of the injustices of his times. Nor was it simply speculation about a state that, if made real, would create a just community. More’s work was also a lighthearted entertainment for his friends. The book is full of puns, some good, some lame. The name of the castaway sailor who returns to report on the wonderful country of Utopia means “speaker of nonsense.” There is a playfulness that lies at the heart of More’s Utopia. If utopia is a desire or a dream, More reminds us to approach it with a light heart.
Homo utopicus: The Mindset of the Utopian Animal
Utopia begins with politics. Utopia might not end with politics, but the nature of political life, the distribution of power among individuals and in society, and the legitimacy of authority over the community lie at the heart of utopian thought.
We can begin with two propositions from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. First, in his classic work The Politics, he declared that humans are “by nature a political animal” (1996: 13). If he is correct and we are political animals, then politics must be the central pivot of our lives. Politics is really the only thing that sets us apart from the animals. The organized struggle for power and authority conditions our lives and our societies. Second, if Aristotle is also correct that the good state is based on friendship (1996: 75), then politics becomes the art of working together and moving toward some realization of the common good. No state can be fully legitimate unless it is based on the actions of those who are equal, since true friendship is based in equality.
The political animal, then, is an autonomous individual who is able to think and act freely as a person. The political animal is not an individualist, valuing personal goals above all else. But the political animal is able to think and act and, most critically, decide whether or not to accept the values and goals of an existing society. Obviously, the extent of an individual’s autonomy cannot be fixed. It will vary depending on many circumstances. But, to address honestly the central problem in utopian thought, the place of the individual in the perfected community, utopian thinkers must come to grips with the political animal.
Taming the dangerous and self-destructive tendencies of the political animal becomes the critical task of all forms of politics. Taming becomes even more important in utopia, since utopia strives for a kind of justice, order and societal well-being far beyond the somewhat ramshackle arrangements that have characterized most of human political history. Utopian thought demonstrates a revulsion against political forms arising from what the American constitutional framer Alexander Hamilton called “accident or force” (2003: 1). The utopian mindset questions everything, not simply to tear things down but to make us look at the world in new and exciting ways. The utopian asks how we can create a community in which authority, whether exercised by something we can recognize as a government or through social norms, is accepted as legitimate and good. So, utopian thought questions all social and political organization. As Plato said in his Seventh Letter, all existing states are “bad – nothing can cure their constitution but a miraculous reform assisted by good luck” (1973: 114). His contempt for the imperfect political systems of his own times led him to create a model for many future utopias, the community of total commitment, subsuming individual desire to the good of the whole.
Utopia is a humanistic enterprise. It is based in the belief that society can be understood by human beings and changed for the better. Any utopian theory worth discussing must recognize the value of our fellow beings and our moral relation to them. Recognizing a common good extending beyond the self, the family, or a particular religious or ethnic community remains the greatest and most utopian aspiration of all.
“Utopia” is a contested term for which “no fixed definition as such is attainable” (Claeys and Sargent 2017: 2). But in order make the systematic study of utopia and utopian thought possible, the term must be defined in a manageable way, keeping in mind there are exceptions to any rule. The idea of utopia is highly plastic and can be made to fit almost any political, economic or social system. It extends in all directions and can encompass any human endeavor. As Ernst Bloch said in his classic work on utopian theory The Principle of Hope, “so far does utopia extend, so vigorously does the raw material spread to all human activities, so essentially must every anthropology and science of the world contain it” (1986: 624). The danger here should be obvious: we can make utopia mean almost anything and attach utopian ideas to almost any human action. We must beware of a utopianism that is “watered down to the point that it can be found everywhere and nowhere” (Ingram 2016: xx). In that light, it is absolutely necessary to provide a rigorous definition of the concept to avoid confusion. However, creating an overly narrow definition risks removing much of the richness inherent in the study of utopia.
Utopianism might be described as a continuum. On one side, we see efforts at reform, exemplified by the “realistic utopia” advocated by the great philosopher of liberalism John Rawls (2001). At the other extreme, we find bold visions of the complete overhaul of society, first seen in Plato’s (possibly) perfect community delineated in Republic. Gregory Claeys says utopia “generally represents … a guided improvement in human behavior towards a substantially better condition, usually where society is considerably more equal and people are much better behaved” (2017: 265). The idea of a better, more just world seems to be a natural human aspiration. Utopianism is the desire to attain that better world here and soon, not in some distant future or after-death state.
In all its many forms, utopia critiques the existing order and, in doing so, “contributes to the open space of opposition” (Moylan 2014: 1). Utopia can be ambiguous, questioning its own very possibility. Utopian writers can demonstrate the dangerous potentials of utopia in dystopian works. Utopian ideas contribute to feminism and queer theory. Utopia may be found in small spaces outside of social norms, as in the heterotopia described by Michel Foucault.
Lyman Tower Sargent defines a utopia as:
Ruth Levitas provides a definition that helps explain the place of utopia in political thought:
Utopia provides a platform to criticize our times and to work toward something better. Any utopian work or theory provides an alternative to present social, economic and political organization. The “Imaginary Reconstruction of Society” must be followed by efforts to really reconstruct society. It is not enough to criticize; we must also provide answers to our seemingly insurmountable problems. But simply reading More’s second book of Utopia, where he gives the reader a report on the close to perfect society of the Utopians, without reading the first book, where he delineates the injustice and imperfection of England in his own times, misses the point. The mixed critique at the heart of utopia remains its critical feature, even when, in the present, dystopian speculations seem to have replaced utopia. Utopian dreams still insinuate themselves into our current dystopias. As Lucy Sargisson has noted, contemporary works mix “eutopian and dystopian possibilities for the human race” (2012: 12).
Types of Utopia
Krishan Kumar suggests that four primary elements constitute utopia. First, he says that utopia contains the “element of desire,” which he describes as an “escape from toil and suffering.” Second, utopia means “harmony.” In utopia, “everyone is at peace with himself and with other men.” Third, all utopias provide “hope.” Utopia is the “promise of a new dispensation” where “justice and freedom reign.” Finally, utopia is organized by self-conscious “design.” Kumar says that these four elements combine to give us “a map of quite different possibilities for speculating on the human condition” (1991: 18–19).
Kumar and Sargent, among others, link these elements to several enduring features of utopian dreaming. All societies seem to have Golden Age stories, tales of a time when people lived in harmony with one another, with the gods (or God) and with nature. But these stories inevitably delineate the beginning of the current age of oppression and violence. The Garden of Eden is the most obvious such example, but similar stories can be found in the myths of the Greeks, Romans, Hindus and Chinese. During the so-called Age of Discovery, European explorers sought an earthly paradise in the “new world.” Others in this period searched in Africa and Asia for the legendary kingdom of Prester John, a mighty Christian monarch who ruled a just state and would join with the kings of Europe to drive back the threat of Islam. Other traditions look to the lost immortal and enlightened realm of Shangri-La, the perfection of Atlantis, or the simple pastoral life of Arcadia. But not all utopians have such high aspirations. Some dreamed of a fleshly paradise or a “body utopia,” often called Cockaygne, where food fell from the trees and work was banned. In such utopias, often identified with the dreams of the poor in medieval Europe, harmless license, gluttony and sexual freedom abounded. Finally, utopian dreaming can be seen in the longing for the end, the advent of the millennium. In the Christian tradition this has come to mean a time when true justice will be established. The dream of an end to the mundane world and the revelation of new and liberating truths crosses cultural boundaries. This desire has produced groups who withdraw from the world, such as the Essenes of the first century CE and today’s religiously inspired intentional communities. It can be seen in the many forms of monasticism found around the world. But this dream has also produced nightmares in the form of groups such as the Fifth Monarchists of the sixteenth-century English Revolution, who believed the reign of Christ could be brought forward by violence. It has produced apocalyptic cults such as the followers of Jim Jones, who were driven to mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978.
Zygmunt Bauman points to nostalgia as a key feature of contemporary utopia. He says that “‘retrotopias’ are currently emerging: visions located in the lost/stolen/abandoned but undead past” (2017: 5). Such retrotopian ideas can be seen in political discourses that praise the “good old days” or the “greatest generation” and call for the restoration of traditional values (whatever they might be). The rise of ISIS, European neo-fascists, the American alt-right, or even Donald Trump’s promise to “make America great again” all show the power and danger of retrotopian ideas.
The ideal (but not necessarily perfect) city stands out as one of the defining characteristics of traditional utopian dreaming, planning and action. Plato’s cities in Republic and The Laws and the actual experience of the ancient Greeks in civic design provide a template that inspires utopian thought to this day. Utopian ideal cities share a number of characteristics. First, the community will have a founder, an individual or group of committed people who receive the credit for the design of its institutions and its very existence. The greater distance in time from the founding to the present in a utopia, the stronger the power of the rules, norms and traditions left behind by the founder(s). The founder will have the kind of personal virtue that allows him or her to reconstruct a society on good principles. Perhaps this is why in utopian literature founders are often mythical or quasi-mythical figures. Second, an ideal city will be practically self-sufficient. This dream of a community that can provide all its needs and wants (which in utopia should be in balance, both for the whole society and for the individual) is rooted in the prejudices of ancient moralists who saw trade and commerce as corrupting. Third, the ideal city will resist change, since change is seen as decay. The Spartans were the object of admiration across ancient Greece, since their institutions seemed to have remained unchanged from time immemorial.
Claeys sees equality as central to utopia. Referencing More’s Utopia, he says utopia seeks “to balance strife by privileging the communal, usually by making property and social classes more equal. … Imagined or practiced humanely, it can teach us the enduring value of love, respect, the cultivation of the individual, even the eccentric and unique” (2011: 8). Making property common or giving all citizens in the community a moral claim on the products of earth and factory provides a common organizing feature of many utopian works. From More to Ursula K. Le Guin, utopian authors create methods of distribution and structures of work that allow all to contribute to the common good and take from the common store. But the equality at the heart of utopia is an equality not just of ownership but of duties as well. Utopia allows for no free riders.
But while equality is a key feature of many utopias, hierarchy and class structures provide another and contrasting feature. In early utopias such as Plato’s, “we hear little or nothing about … the great mass of people who attend to the economic and general life of the community”...