Written by Jurek Wötzel, Head Writer
1516 was a pretty good year for visionaries because of the publication of a certain English novel, Thomas More’s “De optimo rei publicae statu deque nova insula Utopia”. Utopia for short.
Written at a time in which humanism still lay in its cradle, More’s book turned many long-standing assumptions on their heads, but, More was not the first to hypothesise a fictional society, this political idealism has its roots in ancient Greek. Plato outlined the ideal state in the Republic, followed by Aristotle in Politics, yet, it was More who gave this idealistic spirit a term: ou-topia, The non-place. Anglophones eventually gave it a new meaning: eu-topia, the good place. In everyday parlance, calling an argument utopian really means: “nice idea, but that is just unachievable”. It seems unlikely that More thought that England could turn into Utopia immediately after the book’s publication.Then we might wonder what it was that drove him to write this work. It is frustrating to find justification in immersing oneself in dreams about the optimal, if the optimal is illusionary, unfeasible, a mere thought-experiment.
The novel is centered around a dialogue between the fictional representation of More, and a sailor, Raphael Hythloday, who claims to have lived with the so-called ‘Utopians’ for a time. Recounting his life in Utopia, Raphael paints an antagonistic picture of the reality of 16th-century English life. Raphael shows Thomas how it could be different by explaining the structure of the Utopian society. There is no private property, everyone has access to healthcare, education is directed towards both mental and physical labor. Parts of it still seem utopian nowadays.
There is great value to be found in Thomas and Raphael’s conversations. Utopias bring us guidance. They make us aware of the imperfections of the present, and more so they make us aware of society’s problems. They give us a space in which we can open up a moral dialogue without overhanging ideologies of religion or the realism of science. An arena of argument that is absolutely crucial for societies to determine a desirable long-term path.
We should ask ourselves what it means to live a good life, and what role society plays in enabling us to do so. Discussing Utopias, our ideal societies, can provide that link between how societal conditions can help us enjoy our own lives and realize our social responsibilities, and it points to the ways in which current circumstances prevent us from doing this.
One example that provides food for utopian thought is automation. The striking developments in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence promise a world of extreme productivity, in which no one has to do much work. Maybe it could be this which would allow us to be a fisher in the morning and a philosopher in the evening. It could be this that allows us to use our time to actually develop and enjoy all the capacities that make us human. However, this is only possible if progress is managed in an egalitarian fashion.
The framework of representative democracy makes it easy for us to lose sight of those goals that take longer than one government term. Voting behavior is bound to stay within the realms of that which is attainable in the short-term, and so are policies made to deliver in the short-term. If a government wants to be re-elected, the voter must feel the success of policies before the next elections. The public sphere marked by discourses of pragmatism, risk-avoidance, and reactionary attitudes plays in an endless cycle.
This is why we need to keep talking about utopias; why we need to keep bringing them back on the agenda. It’s revolutionaries that push the reformers, the minds of dreamers that change the minds of realists. It is the Raphaels whose messages inspire the Thomases. Of course, it is impossible to achieve Utopia if we immediately discard the good place as the impossible place. Even if we will never reach the absolutely good place, coming close to it will already be pretty great.
Yes, heavily subsidizing renewable energies may lead to temporary economic stagnation and market inefficiencies. Yes, reforming the democratic system to make make it more participatory and emancipatory is a disruptive process. And yes, gender or race-based affirmative action programs can foster temporary feelings of injustice. But the rewards for these measures are coming.
A fight that is given up before it’s fought cannot be won.
Healthy, reasonable debate about Utopias can help to take off our blinding short-term glasses. What we need is more Raphaels, and more Thomases that give them a voice. What we need is more ambition and creativity. What we need is more Utopianism.