Why The Left Needs Utopia

by Paul Walker-Emig

9 December 2016


We are entering a new utopian age. That may seem counterintuitive to suggest as the most right wing government since Thatcher leads the UK into a bleak post Brexit future, Trump prepares to enter the White House flanked by a team of white supremacists in the US, and the far right finds itself in ascendency across Europe, but it is happening.

Signs that a new utopian era is emerging can be read in the way we encounter these events as impossible: Brexit; Trump winning the Republican candidacy, and going on to defeat Clinton in the US presidential elections; even Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership contest. These all represent realities we collectively refused to conceive of as possible, until we awoke the next morning to find ourselves living them.

Impossibility, of course, is the territory of utopia.

Something new is emerging, and it doesn’t fit the framework within which we’ve been thinking. The hostility to Corbyn’s election from within the Parliamentary Labour Party, and the now transparently terrible decision of the Democratic Party to go with Clinton as its presidential candidate — followed by an apparent inability to comprehend its defeat — suggests that the centre left in particular is dragging its heels when it comes to adjusting to this change. It believes too faithfully in the End of History, steadfastly committed to the idea that political success depends upon accepting a number of ‘realities’ that we can broadly file under the heading of neoliberalism. It is a profoundly anti-utopian position that precludes the need or even possibility of imagining alternatives. One based paradoxically on the utopian assumption that we have already found the best, or least worst, system in liberal democratic capitalism.

We now know that this represents electoral suicide. Anyone seen to be defending the status quo will be punished by an electorate that, in the wake of the 2008 financial crises, is acutely aware that the system represented by the ‘realists’ at the political centre will not deliver for them. Liberal democratic capitalism has been stripped of what utopian efficacy it had (save for those privileged enough to enjoy the utopian islands of tax havens and gated communities) and that means it is finished. History is not over, the future is open, and that makes utopianism a necessity.

Unfortunately, it’s the right that has most readily embraced the coming of the utopian age. Hijacking the language of the left as they talk about taking on global elites and smashing the establishment, they’re the ones most loudly proclaiming that there is an alternative, that things don’t always have to be the way they are, that we can have a better life. They promise to return us to an imagined utopian golden age, to make their respective nations great again. Of course, ‘us’ does not include everyone: who is in and who is out being a perennial concern of utopia; immigrants those most obviously banished from the new utopias being drawn up in the US and Europe. You might question to what extent even those deemed to be ‘in’ will be served by their curiously elite anti-elite leaders, but you cannot deny that the stories those leaders have been telling have proven to be compelling.  

If the left is to effectively respond to this challenge it must reembrace its own utopian tradition. As it stands we have a left that is sorely lacking in imagination – epitomised by the Labour coupsters who tried to take on Corbyn without any ideas to challenge him, and a Democratic party that thought an avatar of the establishment was the perfect response to Trump’s populism. But imagination is what utopianism requires. For years the left has suffered for its willingness to debate the right on their own terms. Utopianism will not be stuck in that mire; it moves beyond it. The electorate demands anti-establishment politics that offer an alternative. Utopianism necessarily delivers it.  In other words, utopianism is a mode of thinking that offers precisely what the left is lacking and what is necessary in the new political climate.

To accept the coming of the new utopian age will require the left to harbour a deep suspicion of anyone who begs for ‘realism’ or makes appeals to ‘electability’. Instead, its strategy should start with a reclamation of the populist, anti-business, anti-establishment rhetoric that the third wayers abandoned as part of their project to be ‘taken seriously’. The right has proven that this language is effective. This rhetoric should be combined with a series of ostensibly impossible utopian demands and proposals: a universal basic income; the abolition of tuition fees; a radical cap on working hours accompanied by higher wages; the end of tax havens; the abolition of inheritance; why not even, to borrow a couple of ideas from the great theorist of utopia Fredric Jameson, the nationalisation of finance and severe taxation, or outright appropriation, of powerful corporations? Not all of these ideas will resonate with the electorate, but it is clear that now is the time to give what was previously unthinkable voice and test the viability of new approaches and ideas.

The proper response to the racist, populist dystopias of the right can only be a leftist utopianism that can promise a better life for all without the caveat of exclusion for any part of the working class (though we shouldn’t be afraid of a little hostility towards the rich). Without a utopianism that looks to the future, the left will find itself positioned as the defender of a politics that is dying.

To build a utopian vision for the left will mean to have utopianism hurled at us as an insult by those members of the political class and mainstream media who cannot comprehend that the politics they know is over. Let them insist that we are dreamers, because to dream is precisely what we need to do to win.  

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