Utopia has always been one of Fredric Jameson’s defining concerns. No intellectual thread has been more continuous in his work, from Marxism and Form through to A Singular Modernity, whose final words read: ‘What we really need is a wholesale displacement of the thematics of modernity by the desire called Utopia. We need to combine a Poundian mission to identify Utopian tendencies with a Benjaminian geography of their sources and a gauging of their pressure at what are now multiple sea levels. Ontologies of the present demand archaeologies of the future, not forecasts of the past’.footnote1 Yet though present everywhere, this is a concern that for the first time comes into full focus in the essay published in nlr 25. ‘The Politics of Utopia’ offers his most comprehensive meditation to date on a subject central to his work.

Utopias, Jameson remarks, have always come in two dimensions—existential and institutional, visions of another human nature or an alternative civic order. Criss-crossed by traces of the manifesto, the constitution, the mirror of princes, of the prophetic or satiric, they occupy a peculiar political space, flourishing not in times of revolutionary upheaval as such, when popular demands concentrate on a short-list of immediate practical priorities—so to speak, bread, land and peace—but in the calm before the storm, when institutional arrangements appear unchangeable, but minds have been set free by some still unseen tectonic shifts to reinvent the world. Born at moments of the suspension of politics—if suspended in the sense of the legendary sword—utopias so conceived retain, for all their potential luxuriance of detail, at root a stubborn negativity, an emblem of what, despite everything, we cannot grasp or imagine, and which the characteristic oscillations and oppositions within the utopian repertoire bespeak.

There are two reasons, Jameson now suggests, for that paradox, to which he has often alluded, but not hitherto explored: on the one hand, the ideological astigmatism that comes from any possible class position from which a utopia might be imagined; and on the other the constitutive fear that every human subject must feel at the dizzying notion of a loss of all familiar—habitual or sexual—coordinates of the self, in any complete systemic change. So it is that if we ask today what a utopian political programme might look like, perhaps—in the spirit of Adorno’s suggestion that emancipation be negatively defined as that state where no-one went without food—a contemporary answer might be: that condition where no-one, anywhere in the world, went without work; a demand capable in its modesty of overthrowing every social, economic and moral institution we know.footnote2

If such is a rough outline of the argument of ‘The Politics of Utopia’, two of its themes invite variations. The first is a striking passage in which Jameson locates the emergence of utopias in periods of stillness before revolutionary tempests. Historically, there is little doubt that this has indeed been a recurrent pattern. More’s own utopia, in 1516, preceded the outbreak of the Reformation that convulsed Europe, and consumed More himself, by less than a year. The next cluster of significant utopias—Campanella’s City of the Sun (1623), Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627) and Robert Burton’s idiosyncratic digression in Anatomy of Melancholy (1621–38)—appeared in the period before the outbreak of the English Civil War and the Neapolitan Uprising of the 17th century. The greatest utopian reverie of the 18th century, Diderot’s Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville (1772), was written a generation before the French Revolution. In the 19th century, too, the remarkable set of utopian fictions in the last years of the century—Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888), Morris’s reply in News from Nowhere (1890), Hertzka’s Freiland (also 1890), to which we might add, as a pendant from the Far East, Kang Youwei’s Great Consonance (1888–1902)—precede the turbulences of 1905–11 in Russia and China, the outbreak of the First World War, and the October Revolution. In the 20th century, again, the trio of great exile utopias written in Los Angeles and Boston—Adorno’s Minima Moralia (1943–45), Ernst Bloch’s Principle of Hope (1938–47) and Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1955)—were composed long in advance of the explosion of the late sixties.

In all these cases, Jameson’s hypothesis holds good. What of its tacit corollary, that during revolutionary whirlwinds themselves, the voices of utopia fall silent? That seems more doubtful. In each great upheaval, arresting visions of a radically different future continued to be produced. During the English Revolution, we have only to think of Winstanley’s astonishing Law of Freedom, or Harrington’s Commonwealth of Oceana, which has claims to have been one of the two most influential political utopias of all times. During the cycle of the French Revolution, there was Babeuf’s Conspiracy of Equals under the Directory, and the lightning-flash of Fourier’s Theory of the Four Movements, written as Napoleon was triumphing at Jena. The Russian Revolution saw apparitions of a peasant utopia, eerily ambiguous in the country’s greatest writer, Andrei Platonov, and ingenuously affirmative in its most original sociologist, Alexander Chayanov.footnote3 As for the eruptions of 1968 and after, this was the time of the feminist utopias that Jameson evokes in his conclusion: Shulamith Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex (1970), Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974) and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), composed as the us was finally driven out of Vietnam. Festivals of the oppressed, in Lenin’s phrase—it could just as well be Bakhtin’s—revolutions typically combine explosions of the immediate with saturnalia of the ultimate, rather than the one necessarily excluding the other.

Where do these precedents leave us today? Jameson, after pointing out that apparently stationary political circumstances are capable of generating an intense utopian productivity, notes on the other hand that ‘most of human history has unfolded in situations of general impotence, when no revolts seem even conceivable, let alone around the corner’, yet also when no utopian images of the future ever surface. He invites us to wonder which of these two constellations might now be our own. In asking ourselves this question, two dicta—at opposite ends of the stretch of time that has elapsed since the last great period of political turmoil in the world—are worth recalling. In 1967, on the eve of an international chain of revolts the like of which had not been seen for over a century, Herbert Marcuse—utopian thinker par excellence of the dead season before it—gave a talk in Berlin. Its title was ‘The End of Utopia’. What did he mean? The true substance of utopianism, he argued, was not to be found in the creation of a realm of freedom beyond the realm of necessity, leaving an irreducible residue of unfree labour, as Marx had envisaged. It lay rather in the disappearance of alienated labour altogether, in the more plenary freedom imagined by Fourier, in which work and play became indistinguishable. That once extravagant prospect was now quite feasible. ‘All the material and intellectual forces’, he declared, ‘which could be put into effect for the realization of a free society are at hand’.footnote4 Mobilization to release these forces in a social revolution no longer required any great leap of the imagination. In that sense, utopianism had run its course.

Three decades later, Immanuel Wallerstein, founder of one of the most influential critical theories of world capitalism in the interim, considered the question in 1998. The answer he gave in his book Utopistics was the same, but its import was the opposite. ‘Utopias’, he wrote in his opening sentences, ‘are breeders of illusions and therefore, inevitably, of disillusions. They can be used, and have been used for terrible wrongs. The last thing we really need is still more utopian visions’. In lieu of these, Wallerstein proposes a more modest notion—intending by the term ‘utopistics’ no more than a ‘sober and realistic evaluation’ of different feasible ways of organizing society, judged according to their degree of ‘substantive rationality’.footnote5 He ends by sketching an order he reckons superior to the one we live under today: an economy whose units resemble non-profit institutions like public hospitals, a less unequal if still class society, an ecology that charges costs of damage inflicted on the biosphere to the polluter. Whatever its merits, this is scarcely the end of utopia Marcuse had in mind.