Utopia would seem to offer the spectacle of one of those rare phenomena whose concept is indistinguishable from its reality, whose ontology coincides with its representation. Does this peculiar entity still have a social function? If it no longer does so, then perhaps the explanation lies in that extraordinary historical dissociation into two distinct worlds which characterizes globalization today. In one of these worlds, the disintegration of the social is so absolute—misery, poverty, unemployment, starvation, squalor, violence and death—that the intricately elaborated social schemes of utopian thinkers become as frivolous as they are irrelevant. In the other, unparalleled wealth, computerized production, scientific and medical discoveries unimaginable a century ago as well as an endless variety of commercial and cultural pleasures, seem to have rendered utopian fantasy and speculation as boring and antiquated as pre-technological narratives of space flight.
The term alone survives this wholesale obsolescence, as a symbolic token over which essentially political struggles still help us to differentiate left and right. Thus ‘utopian’ has come to be a code word on the left for socialism or communism; while on the right it has become synonymous with ‘totalitarianism’ or, in effect, with Stalinism. The two uses do seem somehow to overlap, and imply that a politics which wishes to change the system radically will be designated as utopian—with the right-wing undertone that the system (now grasped as the free market) is part of human nature; that any attempt to change it will be accompanied by violence; and that efforts to maintain the changes (against human nature) will require dictatorship. So two practical-political issues are at play here: a left critique of social-democratic reformism, within the system; and on the other hand a free-market fundamentalism. But why not simply discuss those issues directly and openly, without recourse to this, seemingly literary, third issue of utopia? Indeed, one could turn the question around and say that we are perfectly free to discuss utopia as a historical and textual or generic issue, but not to complicate it with politics. (In any case, has the word not always been used by some of the most eminent political figures on all sides as an insulting slur on their enemies?)
Yet the waning of the utopian idea is a fundamental historical and political symptom, which deserves diagnosis in its own right—if not some new and more effective therapy. For one thing, that weakening of the sense of history and of the imagination of historical difference which characterizes postmodernity is, paradoxically, intertwined with the loss of that place beyond all history (or after its end) which we call utopia. For another, it is difficult enough to imagine any radical political programme today without the conception of systemic otherness, of an alternate society, which only the idea of utopia seems to keep alive, however feebly. This clearly does not mean that, even if we succeed in reviving utopia itself, the outlines of a new and effective practical politics for the era of globalization will at once become visible; but only that we will never come to one without it.
Let us begin again, then, with the textual utopias themselves. Here we encounter two alternate possibilities of analysis, which can be designated respectively as the causal and the institutional, or perhaps even the diachronic and the synchronic. The first of these has to do with the utopian world as such; or better and more precisely, with the way in which this or that ‘root of all evil’ has been eliminated from that world. In Thomas More, for example, what every reader famously takes away—as from Plato, too—is the abolition of private property. This allegedly makes both More and Plato precursors of communism. But a closer look, and an inquiry into the theory of human nature that underpins both these assaults on the institution of private property, discloses a rather different position: that the root of all evil is to be found in gold or money, and that it is greed (as a psychological evil) which needs to be somehow repressed by properly utopian laws and arrangements in order to arrive at some better and more humane form of life. The question of hierarchy and egalitarianism is, on this interpretation, primed in More by the more fundamental question of money. This kind of utopianism has had a long and illustrious descendency, to Proudhon and Henry George and on down to Major Douglas and the famous stamp-script dear to Ezra Pound; but such names already suggest that it may not be altogether correct to read the denunciation of money as the direct ancestor of communism.
More was concerned to eliminate individual property relations; Marx’s critique of property was designed to eliminate the legal and individual possession of the collective means of production; and the elimination of that kind of private property was meant to lead to a situation in which classes as such disappeared, and not merely social hierarchies and individual injustices. I would want to go further than this and assert that what is crucial in Marx is that his perspective does not include a concept of human nature; it is not essentialist or psychological; it does not posit fundamental drives, passions or sins like acquisitiveness, the lust for power, greed or pride. Marx’s is a structural diagnosis, and is perfectly consistent with contemporary existential, constructivist or anti-foundationalist and postmodern convictions which rule out presuppositions as to some pre-existing human nature or essence. If there have been not just one human nature but a whole series of them, this is because so-called human nature is historical: every society constructs its own. And, to paraphrase Brecht, since human nature is historical rather than natural, produced by human beings rather than innately inscribed in the genes or dna, it follows that human beings can change it; that it is not a doom or destiny but rather the result of human praxis.