Only the Extraordinary Can Save Us

This is a large book on a monumental topic. In recent decades, Gregory Claeys has established himself as one of the leading scholars of the utopian tradition. Across numerous works, from articles and monographs to edited collections and anthologies of primary texts, he has helped to map the complex history of utopianism in European political thought from the early modern world into our own age. This book is a milestone in his career-long quest to make sense of utopianism, its past and its future, its dangers and its possibilities.

“A spectre is haunting humanity – the ghastly dystopian image of its own extinction” (3). So opens Utopianism for a Dying Planet. It sets the urgent tone that pervades the rest of the book. Claeys’s wager is that in order to chart a better future – indeed in order to survive as a species – we need to attend carefully to the past as well as the present, balancing tradition and innovation. We can learn lessons from past utopias, both positive and negative, but we also need to think for ourselves. We need to build our own utopia, “indebted to its predecessors, but like no other” (4). New challenges require political originality, imagination, and boldness.

The book encompasses three main themes, each of which could be a monograph in itself. First, Claeys presents an account of the best way to understand utopia. This involves an extensive engagement with rival theories and historical accounts of utopianism, a discussion of the multiple features of any workable notion of utopia, and an outline of his own preferred version. He defends what he terms a Neo-Morean republican utopianism, a position characterised by communal ownership of property, relative social equality, and strong bonds of belonging and mutual respect. Today, he contends, any defensible variant should be centred on environmental sustainability. Utopianism is necessary to save us from the capitalist death-drive for endless economic growth and consumerism. Second, Claeys traces the history of utopianism through the intricacies of European (and later American) intellectual culture and political practice. While starting with the Bible and ancient Greece, he pays most attention to the political thought of the last half millennium, his historical narrative focusing on the idea of luxury and the relationship between consumption and socio-economic development. The final part of the book sketches Claeys’s own account of what utopianism offers to confront the impending catastrophe of climate change – here he tells us what it can say to the inhabitants of a dying planet. No wide-eyed celebrant of utopia in all its manifold forms, Claeys is clear that many visions (and practical examples) of ideal societies have been misguided or dangerous – indeed, some of them have helped to produce the very socio-political conditions that we need to transcend. But, he insists, utopia still offers a vital, even necessary, intellectual-political orientation for addressing the existential crisis facing humanity. He concentrates on the need to eliminate consumerism as a way of life – for both individuals and societies – and the adoption of a richer mode of human sociability. He is adamant that although this requires a major shift in sensibilities, economic systems, and social organisation, it would be a mistake to call for a return to austere Spartan conditions. Modernity cannot be wished away. Rather, what will have to be jettisoned in the name of human survival can be compensated for by the development of a more satisfying, rounded form of life. Utopia will only motivate people to act if it offers an attractive vision of the future. Utopianism for a Dying Planet is an exemplary work of utopian imagining.

For Claeys, utopianism has two main functions. The futurological function involves the imaginative construction of viable alternative futures, either by drawing on past utopian visions or by extrapolating current trends. “It allows us to reach beyond the horizons of everyday life and push back the boundaries of the possible” (9). It suggests concrete plans, templates, blueprints, a catalogue of ideas for social reconstruction. The alterity function is, Claeys suggests, chiefly a psychological feature that allows us, even impels us, to keep imagining new ways of being – this is most commonly articulated in terms of utopian “hope” or “desire.” Claeys maintains that utopianism proper is not, contra its legion of critics, a perfectionist or millenarian doctrine. Such visions of the future exist, of course, and they are sometimes confused with utopianism, but they should be viewed as constituting different traditions of thought. For Claeys, utopianism is best understood as a secular vision centred on the power of collective human action to change the world for the better. In his extensive analysis of the multiple ways of understanding imagined futures, he takes aim at some of the dominant figures and preoccupations of contemporary utopian studies. For example, he is deeply sceptical about the value of Ernst Bloch’s highly influential work. Claeys argues that Bloch represents an intellectual and political dead-end, his intricate, often elusive, attempt to fuse mysticism and Marxism furnishes a weak foundation on which to construct forms of utopianism capable of challenging political inertia and consumerism. Drawing together multiple threads, Claeys settles on a comprehensive, albeit unwieldly, definition of utopianism. It is, he writes,

… the projection of both imagined and real groups which embody the feeling of belonginess. Formally it is expressed as literature, theory, or intentional community. The functions of utopia are to represent a necessarily unattainable state of betterment, which always recedes before us but provides us with critical alternatives to the present, and to describe ideal past or projected future societies. In its content it promotes enhanced sociability defined by friendship, neighborliness, acquaintance, communality, and solidarity, commencing with an attitude of benign neutrality but aspiring to stronger and more egalitarian, but still consensual, bonds. These goals are summarized in the concept of belongingness, which is the opposite of alienation that is defined by the sense of not fitting into and feeling a part of our environment. In the degree to which we achieve it, the dominant principles of dystopia, loneliness and fear, are reduced (73).

Claeys’s account of the historical development of utopian thought, which occupies the bulk of Utopianism for a Dying Planet, is excellent. He identifies various theological and folkloric elements, traceable back to the ancient world, and then charts how a new secularised version began to emerge in the Renaissance. He divides his historical account into several phases. The first of these began with the 1516 publication of Thomas More genre-naming humanist text, Utopia. He is clear that from the outset European utopianism often assumed, even demanded, imperial conquest and the subjugation of other peoples around the world. The second began in the late eighteenth century, when utopianism came to be associated with the future, and with ideas of progress – in Reinhart Kosselleck’s apt phrase, utopia was “temporalized”. Utopianism wound through the emerging ideologies of liberalism, socialism, and Marxism. It was during the eighteenth century, moreover, that ideas of unlimited economic growth and the virtues and vices of consumption helped shape debates over political economy, often couched in the language of luxury – they soon became a central focus of utopian thinkers. The third phase, Claeys suggests, began in the late nineteenth century, and was marked by the “advent and dissemination of large-scale collectivist solutions driven by science, technology, and industry” (17). It also saw the explosion of literary utopianism, triggered by the remarkable world-wide success of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888). A fourth phase occurred in the late twentieth century, with dystopian fears about the Anthropocene supplanting utopianism.

This schematic division of utopian phases doesn’t do justice to the richness and subtlety of Claeys’s historical analysis. He effectively synthesizes huge swathes of work produced by historians of political thought and literary scholars during the last half century or more, while approaching the material from his own distinctive vantage point. He traverses the literatures on humanism, commercial society, political economy, the emergence of liberalism and socialism, and the evolution of Marxism, with clarity and formidable erudition, all the while framing them in relation to his overarching concerns with enhanced sociability and sustainability. This part of the book is a tour de force of historical exposition.

For many scholars, Frank and Fritzie Manuels’ Utopian Thought in the Western World (1979) has been the standard account of the tradition. Though Claeys’s historical narrative is much shorter than their sprawling text, it is both more cogent and more even-handed. It is more cogent in the sense that Claeys is explicit about his interpretive framework, using his account of utopia as enhanced sociability to guide his analysis. It informs the selection of key thinkers, movements, and texts, and gives a clear shape to his interpretation. The Manuels’, on the other hand, open their survey with the remarkable statement that they won’t attempt to define utopia. This lack of conceptual precision colours their selection and coverage, which at times seems arbitrary (Hobbes, for example, is accorded considerable space, without an adequate account of why he should be considered a utopian thinker). Claeys’s analysis is more even-handed in the sense that he provides thorough coverage of the development of utopianism from the early modern period into the present. The Manuels’, on the other hand, let their strong preference for Renaissance, and early modern French, political thinking distort their interpretation; while their account of this material is often impressive, their discussion of utopianism in nineteenth and twentieth century Britain and the United States is notably thin and uneven. Finally, there is an important difference in methodology. Claeys adopts a contextualist approach, of the kind now familiar to historians of political thought, while the Manuels’ often (though inconsistently) rely on psychological, and sometimes psychoanalytic, explanations to account for how the thinking of particular individuals developed and the form it assumed. Overall, then, Claeys offers a more balanced account of the development of utopianism across different national contexts, as well as the interplay between them. Utopianism for a Dying Planet is the book I would recommend to scholars and students seeking to understand the historical development of modern Euro-American utopian political thought.

At one point Claeys argues that John Stuart Mill should be seen, against conventional readings of his work, as a vital utopian thinker. This is not because of his famed conception of liberty, or even his idiosyncratic commitment to socialism. Rather, it is because he was the first liberal thinker of note to endorse a stationary state model of society, one that cut against the dominant belief (then and now) in the desirability of endless growth as the driver of progress. Claeys’s aim is not to downplay the significance of Marxism, or socialism more broadly, in order to carve out and defend a liberal utopian tradition. He contends that liberalism and socialism have important lessons for contemporary utopianism, but that both traditions need to be superseded, insofar as they largely remain committed to visions of incessant economic growth. (It is a shame, though, that he doesn’t engage with Marxist theorists, such as John Bellamy Foster and Jason W. Moore,  who have sought to integrate ecological concerns into the tradition). The need to move beyond existing ideological positions is something that Claeys makes clear in his discussion of post-consumerism in the final part of the book. He sketches a large number of suggestions, ranging from the modest to the transformative, to both limit the damage that humans are doing to the environment and to foment a greater sense of belonging and enhanced sociability. Many of these are inspired by the utopian tradition, from the elimination of concentrations of wealth and the communal ownership of (much) property, a four-day week, universal basic income, and free healthcare, through to subsidizing festivals and providing free public transport to encourage communal belonging and counter social alienation. Claeys mixes a catalogue of prescriptions for socio-economic and political reform, moving far beyond the limits of a Green New Deal, with what he calls a “neo-Fourierist” desire to encourage enjoyment of being together with others. He does not think there is a single key to unlocking a sustainable future; rather, building a more equitable and enriching life together will require transformation on multiple levels, from individual subjectivity to global political and economic institutions. He is aware that this is a very tall order and may prove impossible to realize. But, Claeys insists, if we don’t change humanity will surely be doomed by carelessness and greed. We face a stark choice: utopia or catastrophe.

Everyone interested in the past, present, and future of utopianism will find something of value in this book, as well as things to argue against. Here I want to focus on one point where I diverge from Claeys. Throughout Utopianism for a Dying Planet, and in his others writings on the utopian tradition, Claeys is adamant that it is necessary to draw a distinction between utopianism and science fiction. They are different genres, with different aims and ambitions. In Utopianism for a Dying Planet he makes the point in several places. Science fiction, he writes, is “generally excluded” from his analysis (18n38); elsewhere, he contends that utopian fiction “is a form of fantasy fiction but is closer to the realistic or realizable end of the spectrum, compared with the more extreme fantasy of science fiction” (27). This move follows, in part, from his commitment to the enhanced sociability model of utopianism; he wants to exclude science fiction narratives because, on his account, they do not engage extensively with this topic. As such, they are not serious instances of utopianism. I am not persuaded by this boundary-work.

Indeed Claeys admits that the line is hard to hold. This is most notable in the twentieth century and through to the present. After all, many of the most prominent utopian (or dystopian) writers of the era, including H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Ursula Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson, are at once canonical science fiction writers and regarded as among the most important contributors to the utopian tradition. (Margaret Atwood is a more awkward case, because she long denied – implausibly – that her work was science fiction, even as it was widely read and analyzed as a prominent example of it). This isn’t just a matter of locating writers in the appropriate genre, or of recognizing the utopian claims of much science fiction. Rather, it speaks to both a conceptual point about the character of utopian thought and an historical point about what happens to utopianism in the twentieth century.

The excision of science fiction leads to an overly narrow account of the development of the utopian tradition in the twentieth century. It means that much of the most innovative and influential writing on imagined futures is sidelined or redescribed as if it didn’t form part of the genre which helped to shape it. Indeed, I would suggest that during the twentieth century, and especially its second half, utopianism and science fiction became largely inseparable. The utopian tradition, in other words, was reconfigured. Science fiction was and remains the dominant register in which visions of the future, or of alternative worlds, whether utopian, dystopian, or something else, are imagined. It is where the “futurological function” has found its most widespread and powerful expression. The massive expansion in the popularity of science fiction, in literature, film, television, and computer gaming, was itself a reflection of the ever-growing dominance of technoscience in societies throughout the world. Science fiction is the principal reflective literature of twentieth century technological modernity – its most authentic literature, as J. G. Ballard often commented. Of course, there were utopian texts – Huxley’s Island (1962) is a famous example – that challenged the value of technoscientific visions of society.  But like William Morris’s  classic News from Nowhere (1890), they form part of a minority tradition, a counterpoint to the dominant trends in twentieth century techno-utopian thought.

The main themes of the utopian tradition from the twentieth century onwards have been the reconstitution of self and society through technology. During the last century or so utopian thinking, and its dystopian double, was far more likely to focus on the possibilities of space flight, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and so forth, that on the benefits of rejecting technological modernity and all its possibilities. Often, work in this vein has been dystopian. But much of it – from Wells’s technocratic visions through the socialist-transhumanist biology of J. B. S. Haldane and J. D. Bernal to the worlds of Ursula Le Guin, Kim Stanley Robinson and Iain M. Banks – has embraced various utopian technoscientific visions. Perhaps this intellectual shift signaled the end of an earlier phase of utopian writing, focused on questions of luxury and enhanced social belonging (though I think this is arguable). But even if it did, it meant that a new phase in utopianism had emerged that reflected, and sought to harness, many of the dominant intellectual, political, and cultural trends of the societies in which it was produced. This is the world to which Wells, Le Guin, Robinson, and an army of others, were responding, whether to warn of its profound dangers, map its contours, or to search for the possibilities of emancipation it contained. And it is this literature that has had the most to say about the Anthropocene.

There is no doubt, though, that Utopianism for a Dying Planet is a very important contribution to the study of the utopian tradition, as well as a notable statement of contemporary utopian thinking about how best to face the catastrophic consequences of modern consumerism. It is a fine testament to a Gregory Claeys’s exceptional scholarship and wide-ranging political imagination.

About the Author

Duncan Bell is Professor of Political Thought and International Relations at the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of Christ’s College.