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The utopian novel had become one of the most effective means of frightening people off it.
It is sometimes said that the twentieth century began with utopian dreaming and ended with nostalgia, as those alternative futures once envisioned seemed by then almost entirely discredited. However, it was never quite so straightforward. The challenge to envisage how to live differently, in ways that seem better than the present, never entirely disappears.
The most prominent American utopian studies scholar, Lyman Tower Sargent, notes that dystopian scenarios increasingly dominated the speculative literary form as the twentieth century progressed. In the UK, the equally eminent utopian studies scholar Ruth Levitas concurs, pointing out, for instance, that as sociology became institutionalized in the academy, it became ‘consistently hostile’ to any utopian content.
What stands out in speculative fantasies of the future arising towards the end of the twentieth century are their darkly dystopic leanings, whether in books, cinema, comics or elsewhere. The best known would include the mass surveillance depicted in the Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin’s satirical novel We (1921).
Set in the future, it describes a scientifically managed totalitarian state, known as One State, governed by logic and reason, where people live in glass buildings, march in step, and are known by their numbers. England’s Aldous Huxley called his dystopic science fiction Brave New World (1932), where again all individuality has been conditioned out in the pursuit of happiness. Bleaker still was George Orwell’s terrifyingly totalitarian 1984 (1945): ‘If you want a picture of the future,’ Orwell wrote in 1984, ‘imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.’
These imaginings serve primarily as warnings against futures that are often read, as with Zamyatin and Orwell, as condemnations of Soviet society. The happiness expressed in Huxley’s ‘utopic’ universe depicts a deformed or sinister version of the route where all utopias end up, as totalitarian regimes, in which free will is crushed. As the Marxist political scientist Bertell Ollman later noted: ‘From a means of winning people over to the ideal of socialism, the utopian novel had become one of the most effective means of frightening people off it.’
Post-1945, public intellectuals for the most part broadcast the view that democracy and utopic thinking were opposed, the latter declared both impossible and dangerous. The influential émigré and British philosopher of science Karl Popper argued in his classic essay ‘Utopia and Violence’ (1947) that while ‘Utopia’ may look desirable, all too desirable, it was in practice a ‘dangerous and pernicious’ idea, one that is ‘self‐defeating’ and ‘leads to violence’. There is no way of deciding rationally between competing utopian ideals, he suggested, since we cannot (contra Marxism) scientifically predict the future, which means our statements are not open to falsification and hence fail his test for any sort of reliability.
Indeed, accusations of ‘totalitarian’ thinking were the chief weapon of the Cold War, used by Western propaganda to see off any talk of communism. In the USA it was employed to undermine any left or labour movement affiliations, as through the fear and financial ruin inflicted upon hundreds of Americans hauled before Senator McCarthy’s House of Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s – over half of them Jewish Americans.
Nevertheless, suggesting how complicated and volatile moments of renewal can be, this passed into an all-too-brief moment of joyous hope that spanned the sparkling 1960s and, especially among women, continued well into the 1970s, before an even darker mood of imminent catastrophe took over across the political spectrum at the close of the twentieth century. The ’60s was the decade in which consumer markets were booming, with profits and wages both rising as social democracies consolidated their welfare systems, in determined repudiation of any need for workers’ revolution. The rise in oil prices and subsequent recession, which would pave the way for ideological and economic backlash from the right, determined to overturn social democratic reforms and union power, had yet to occur.
In the meantime, the twenty years of popular protest movements stretched from the rise of the New Left in 1956 to the beginning of the decline of such movements in 1976. This period encompassed student and workers’ occupations and confrontations, many of them determined to disrupt the prevailing order of just about everything, with joyful moments of political engagement very much to the fore.
The eyes of the world would be riveted on the three weeks of student and workers’ uprisings in France in May 1968. Yet there were other struggles that actually lasted far longer, as in Italy, where the combined labour, student and community struggles in Trento, Turin and Milan continued for eight years, making Italy’s unionized workforce the best protected and most democratically organized in Europe. Above all, the spirit of the ’60s rejected the authoritarianism, cultural conformity and extreme moderation of the post-war years, including that found within the Old Left, whether communist or social democratic.
The decades of restraint and respectability were replaced by a defiant commitment to direct action and participatory democracy, with the rise of collective resistance. It all fed into the vivid counter-culture of ‘free love’, music and play, producing its own alternative magazines, fashion, music, clubs, experimental theatre and living spaces, seeking a world dedicated to peace, the elimination of poverty, and all forms of discrimination. The most radical fantasists of May ’68 were recycling a slogan coined by the libertarian French Situationists: ‘Be realistic – demand the impossible!’
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We want … to take the good aspects that we experience of our private lives and spread them around to invade and transform the public arena.
Though less enthralled with demanding the impossible, feminists in the women’s liberation movement resonated with another ’68 slogan, ‘Form Dream Committees’, as they began imagining anew how to change every aspect of life, whether rethinking the nature of domestic labour and the distribution of work, challenging all existing presumptions around gender, sexuality, intimacy and desire, or more generally striving to envisage differing cultural and economic structures.
Capturing the opening beat of second-wave feminism in the USA, the American poet Adrienne Rich affirmed optimistically that radical women were now ushering in a renaissance that would prove ‘far more extraordinary and influential in shifting perspectives than the earlier European Renaissance from theology to humanism’.
Yet, for quite a while, those of us once more identifying as feminist, myself included, were still ignorant about that earlier ‘awakening’ of women. It took years for us to excavate the buried diversity of proposals others had presented as the twentieth century kicked off. And, despite the intervening changes over the decades, so many of the dilemmas of the past re-emerged, simply because none of them had been solved. These included all the old impasses around women’s sexuality and reproductive rights, how to share caring among men, women and the wider community, how to secure equal training and wages for women, and what to do to end men’s violence against women, while at the same time fighting for a transformed democratic economic and social world, one attentive to existing differences and discrimination, where unpaid domestic work would be valued as highly as waged work.
As the British economist Sue Himmelweit suggested in What Is to Be Done About the Family? (1983), a book I edited: ‘We want … to take the good aspects that we experience of our private lives and spread them around to invade and transform the public arena, at the same time as getting public recognition of the political nature of personal relations … Visions of a future society have to … ensure that the production of things does not have more social importance than the production of people.’ Grand hopes!
Intentionally utopian, second-wave feminists were at first seen as, and often claimed to be, ‘demanding the moon’, yet before too long we had collected many victories in placing women’s issues onto government, trade union and left agendas. These agendas, almost always for the very first time, included demands on reproductive rights, domestic violence, sexual harassment, safety in the street, and much more. Our new awakening, like the old, not only produced an upsurge of activism on all fronts, but women’s widespread cultural blooming throughout the 1970s.
We might be singing with ironic delight of women’s journey from dusting to dust, in the ‘Housewife’s Lament’, or consuming lesbian delights, reading Rubyfruit Jungle – ‘Oh, I wouldn’t say I was gay. I’d just say I was enchanted.’ At other times there was celebration of the distinct difference of women’s lives in the energy and wonder of black women’s writing and theatre, perhaps listening to Ntozake Shange’s words in For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide when the Rainbow Is Enuf: ‘my spirit is too ancient to understand the separation of soul and gender / my love is too delicate to have thrown back on my face’. Many women were creating their own music, theatre, writings and visual displays, either collectively or individually. They were energized by the movement, as well as by the women’s publishing houses, poster workshops, alternative community presses, newspapers and theatre groups emerging around the world.
This accompanied experiments in collective living and the establishment of many other spaces for everyday resistance, including communes for shared child-raising, women’s centres, squatting advice centres and numerous other collective community spaces, many of which I participated in. Followers of Foucault would call these ventures ‘heterotopias’ – the production of shared spaces of ‘otherness’ through the disruption of the usual conventions. These alternative feminist, left adventures were local, yet through networks and campaigns for exchanging experiences they aimed to shift government policies as well.
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Reject utopia as a blueprint while preserving it as a dream.
If usually more cautiously conceived than earlier utopian fantasy, being far from perfect or conflict-free, there was nonetheless some full-blown feminist utopian writing back then as well, fleshing out visions of alternative futures.
Perhaps the best-known and most successful example is Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974), which she herself described as an ‘ambiguous utopia’. In her complex fiction, the world of Anarres, unlike the others in the text she depicts, maintains itself without coercive institutions or governments, as a type of anarcho-syndicalist society. Yet this seemingly admirable society is not without economic hardship. Le Guin further depicts the dangers of stagnation, incipient hierarchies and centralized bureaucracies always threatening to emerge from within in the absence of the constant effort to maintain its socially based, less individualistic revolutionary ideology.
Similarly, Marge Piercy’s Women on the Edge of Time (1979) presents two parallel stories. The first describes the abusive situation of an impoverished and suffering Latina woman, Connie, incarcerated in a psychiatric ward in New York of the 1970s, who, along with other inmates, is trying to resist the presiding doctor’s scientific experiments. The second story grows out of Connie’s hallucinations, transported to a different world in the year 2137, where both race and gender oppression have been superseded and technology serves only to benefit the community – though it is a world still threatened by the encroachment of corporations from the outside. In Piercy’s utopic vision, the personal and political are interwoven: new forms of polyamorous intimacy emerge in a society where gender differences are no longer so significant, since malebodied people are able to produce milk and three co-mothers raise each child. Perhaps too faultless in conception, Piercy’s idyllic space is created precisely to contrast with the experience of the most injured and helpless women in capitalist society, juxtaposing as well the beneficial and oppressive uses of technology, while offering no necessary happy (or despairing) conclusion.
One point about these and other recent feminist utopias is that their authors were writing about potentially better futures, at the very same time as they were trying in their everyday lives to embody at least some of the aspects of the alternative, caring societies they depicted. This is why contemporary utopian theorists, such as Angelika Bammer and Tom Moylan, describe them as ‘partial’ or ‘critical utopias’. ‘They reject utopia as a blueprint while preserving it as a dream’, Moylan argues, knowing that trying to live differently will always be contingent and diverse, rather than conforming to any one pattern.
Alas, the initial confidence behind feminist activism inevitably diminished in the harsher political climate of the 1980s, when early gains were being followed by significant and continuing defeats for women overall. Our movement fragmented and shrank, then, along with the rest of the activist left, as the political tide turned against any form of redistributive politics.
The rise and rise of inequality from the close of the 1970s impacted especially hard on the women in low-paid (often caring) jobs, while gradually undermining the public resources that might be called upon for assisting those performing unpaid caring work at home. Thus, though more women now had paid jobs and an independent income, feminist dreams of making employment more compatible with home life were all largely negated – our demands for shorter working days and more social resources for all in need of care, along with democratic involvement in its provision, had all ended in defeat. As the working day continues to lengthen and insecurities on all sides deepen, research has comprehensively shown that it is women, globally, who are disproportionately disadvantaged by what have become continuing government cutbacks. Women’s individual struggles to maintain essential care and protection for their families and communities in this context often occur at the expense of their own wellbeing.
As I argued in Making Trouble, ’70s feminists often hoped to live our whole lives in the shared embrace of an inclusive movement, working in solidarity with others to build a fairer world, while resisting both assertive individualism (long associated with ‘masculinity’, though hardly confined to men) and the depredations of market forces. Yet, even with hopes of changing the world receding in the last decades of the twentieth century, a less confident dissidence often remained, ready to be ignited or shared with younger generations, if and when opportunities arose. The once-optimistic Adrienne Rich, for instance, was now passionately condemning the inequality she saw accelerating since the 1980s, yet her lyrical protest and fierce yearnings for a better world remained as powerful as ever, expressed here a few years before she died:
Wherever I turn these days, I’m looking, as from the corner of my eye, for a certain kind of poetry whose balance of dread and beauty is equal to the chaotic negations that pursue us. Amid profiteering language, commoditizing of intimate emotions, and public misery, I want poems that embody … another principle. A complex, dialogic, coherent poetry to dissolve both complacency and despair.
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The problem to be solved is that of breaking out of the windless present of the postmodern back into real historical time, and a history made by human beings.
Shards of hope lived on in most former activists and visionaries, along with continued agitation for better times, if more fragmented in form. Nevertheless, by the end of the twentieth century, apocalyptic scenarios had reappeared from the left and right alike, peaking in the largely politically stagnant 1990s.
It was Fredric Jameson who in the early 1990s wrote the oft-repeated adage, ‘Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.’ It is less often recalled that he then added, even more dramatically: ‘We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world.’ Vividly depicting ‘a situation in which the historical imagination is paralysed and cocooned, as though by a predator’s sting’, Jameson saw the then-reigning intellectual ‘postmodern’ nihilism as an expression that people could no longer see themselves as part of the making of history, or envisage anything other than an endless repetition of the world we now occupy: ‘The problem to be solved is that of breaking out of the windless present of the postmodern back into real historical time, and a history made by human beings.’
In the UK, certainly, much of the 1990s did feel stale and stuck. Governments globally were accepting rather than resisting the corporate conquest of state resources, apparently indifferent to the ballooning inequality. As Jameson noted, academic fashion seemed to mirror the same capitalist conceit that all previous grand narratives of change should be jettisoned, leaving us only to mourn, as many did, the radicalism of former times. Ignoring specific local sites of continued activism, such as the ultimately defeated Liverpool dockers’ strike of 1993, or the very significant mobilization of gay communities around HIV/AIDS, the often melancholic mood of the left in the 1990s suggested that all political communities and practices of solidarity had been vacated, with no solid social or political resources remaining for resistance.
The feminist anti-nuclear peace camp at Greenham Common was abandoned in 1991, after ten years of occupation. In the mid 1990s, the impressive feminist political theorist Wendy Brown argued in her book States of Injury (1995) that ‘our historically and culturally configured fears, anxieties, disorientation, and loss of faith about the future’ encourage the formation of ‘political identities founded upon a sense of personal injury, and the need for protection, rather than generating any more progressive political vision of the future’.
Whether hatched in Hollywood or popular culture generally, especially coming from North America, the dystopic imagination had become ubiquitous in fantasies of the future in the early twenty-first century. Such visions dominate blockbusters such as The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner or Robocop; appeared in bestselling novels, including Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), Margaret Atwood’s trilogy MaddAddam (2003–9), Dave Eggers’s The Circle (2013), Nathaniel Rich’s eerily prescient Odds Against Tomorrow (2013), Edan Lepucki’s California: A Novel (2014), or Chang-rae Lee’s Such a Full Sea (2014). Indeed, reviewing Such a Full Sea, Ursula Le Guin noted that over the last thirty years all literary writers, from whatever genre, were now visiting Dystopia and writing similar, rather dull books: nearly always a place where the privileged few live in total luxury, completely sequestered from the impoverished majority who are seen as wild and primitive. Yet in her view such situations were ‘too self-contradictory to serve as warning or satire’.
The American writer Adam Sternbergh, having himself ‘dipped into these murky waters’ in Shovel Ready, says more chillingly that ‘the biggest problem with imagining dystopia seems to be coming up with some future world that’s worse than what’s happening right now’, pointing to events such as the routine police shooting of unarmed black men in the USA, the Israeli army’s onslaughts on Gaza and the orchestrated brutality of ISIS. Sternbergh hopes that we have reached ‘peak dystopia’ as he throws out the challenge to his fellow writers: ‘If we can all conjure so many worlds gone wrong, it shouldn’t be beyond our reach to imagine a single world gone right’.
However, recalling Jameson’s words, we can see all too easily why these dystopic images remain ubiquitous: their consistent portrayals of a narrow, endlessly privileged few, who live in highly policed and segregated seclusion from the poor, excluded, disdained and fear-provoking masses on the outside – always trying to break in – can indeed be presented as a mirror of how we live now.
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A world of barricades and partition, in which entire populations seem to be living – and dying – in a different history from mine.
We have only to open our eyes to the horrors facing those currently fleeing their homelands to escape the ravages of war or other types of breakdown, nowadays herded into nightmare camps or willing to board flimsy, overcrowded vessels putting their lives at risk. These are the migrants entering what Frances Stonor Saunders aptly calls ‘death zones, portals to the underworld, where explanations of identity are foreclosed’, adding in her heart-breaking essay ‘Where on Earth Are You?’: ‘I don’t understand the mechanisms by which globalization, with all its hype of mobility and the collapse of distance and terrain, has instead delivered a world of barricades and partition, in which entire populations seem to be living – and dying – in a different history from mine.’ Migrants fleeing war zones, seeking asylum or simply a better means of survival in the affluent West are indeed living a different history, in a different world, like those seeking entry to Britain and barely surviving in the wastelands of temporary shelters no sooner established than they are bulldozed down, as experienced by those struggling to survive in the Calais Jungle, including many children, travelling alone.
Sadly, I am not at all sure that we have reached peak dystopia, when the fictional imaginings seem to mirror the cruel realities for so many outside the increasingly fortified enclaves of privilege around the world. Neo-liberalism has had one remarkable success, despite all its own contradictions and disasters. Its extraordinary victory has been ideological: it has convinced so many that its version of predatory, corporate capitalism is inescapable; that political resistance is inevitable. Yet in reality, commercialism and market forces, however hegemonic, are never seamless. However, those spaces where alternative economic and social relations prevail are constantly muted out, making it harder to notice their potential for resistance or hope. Although we regularly hear from left theorists that ‘commodification has reached into every nook and cranny of modern life’, reshaping our consciousness and ‘private life’, others have questioned its totalizing grip on the present.
In Britain, the social scientist Colin Williams, for instance, not only questions such pessimism but reveals that even in the metropolitan heartlands of commodification ‘there exist large alternative economic spaces of self-provisioning … where the profit motive is absent’. Such non-commercial, even anti-commercial, practices can have symbolic value as sites of resistance to the assumption of inescapable commercialism.
Similarly, the dissident Marxist feminists Katherine Gibson and the late Julie Graham have indicated that market transactions are never completely hegemonic when the overall economy consists of varying types of transactions. This is what feminists have always highlighted in revealing the variety and extent of unpaid care work. Gibson and Graham also mention other alternative economic practices, from gift giving and volunteering to barter and theft, alongside the occupation of public spaces, both for play and for socializing, as well as for nurturing a politics of defiance.
Certainly, searching for spaces of resistance and ways of keeping hope alive is what most contemporary utopian scholars say they are doing. They reject classical understandings of utopia offering blueprints for engineering human happiness, while applauding universal desires for a better way of living, closer to those of Morris or Carpenter. Thus, almost all the contemporary utopian theorists I have mentioned, especially Sargent and Levitas, align the concept of utopia not with final goals or end-points, but rather with desire: the collective longing for ‘the improvement of the human condition’, as well as the opening up of spaces ‘for public debate and democratic decision – insisting always on the provisionality, reflexivity and contingency of what we are able to imagine’. As Fredric Jameson also spells out, what they reject are any ‘single-shot solution to all our ills’, wanting instead ‘reflections on multiple fictional futures’ that just might ‘serve the quite different function of transforming our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come’.
Like most scholars reflecting on the present, such diverse theorists as Henri Lefebvre, Fredric Jameson or Russell Jacoby have drawn inspiration from the Jewish refugee and renegade Marxist Ernst Bloch and his three-volume The Principle of Hope (1954–59), affirming the significance of any form of expectant consciousness for imagining different futures. Written from his exile in the USA as he observed Nazi atrocities and the killing fields in Europe in the 1940s, he clung to threads of fantasy for conceiving of a different Europe, whether in children’s play or cultural productions of every kind, insisting that historical change lay in ‘the working, creating, human being who reshapes and overhauls the given facts’.
Similarly, in his equally prodigious prose, the heretical French Marxist Henri Lefebvre spent his long life, spanning most of the twentieth century, searching for antidotes to both left party dogmas and bourgeois ideology, exploring the cultural practices of ‘everyday life’: ‘The most extraordinary things are also the most everyday, the strangest things are often the most trivial’, he wrote in the opening volume of The Critique of Everyday Life (1961). Soon Lefebvre was both providing inspiration for, and rejoicing in, the writings of the French Situationists (such as Guy Debord’s ‘society of the spectacle’ or the Belgian writer Raoul Vaneigem’s ‘revolution of everyday life’).
Lefebvre also welcomed those students and workers who took to the streets in May ’68. His interest was to celebrate not only the collective joy and excitement of those days of revolution, but all attempts to ‘take back the city’ or decommodify urban spaces, as in the white bicycle practices of the anarchists of Amsterdam, the ‘Provos’. In such situations, space is not just a background canvas, but becomes constitutive of the utopian.
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Making hope practical, rather than despair convincing.
Thus, even as neo-liberalism promotes its very own ‘utopian’ fantasy that everyone can succeed in life, despite grossly unequal beginnings, social movements arise determined to reclaim radical public spaces and overcome the personal isolation and misery neo-liberalism spreads in its wake. In our current ominous times, the question remains, to borrow the words of Raymond Williams: how are we to succeed ‘in making hope practical, rather than despair convincing’? The need is certain, as expressed by the North American cultural critic Henry Giroux, when he writes: ‘The growing lack of justice and equity in American society rises proportionately to the lack of political imagination and collective hope’. Clearly, nurturing hope requires paying attention to any and all sites of resistance and alternative practices whenever they arise, while always trying to broaden the space for political education that encourages democratic participation in political life.
Yet for more than two decades we have seen gusts of radical energy regularly breaking into ‘the windless present’, with their joyful moments of collective optimism, elation and sense of agency. Such coordinated resistance in Western democracies is often traced back to the international anti-corporate globalization movement, the World Social Forum (WSF), which emerged in Seattle in December 1999 out of the protests against the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) latest negotiations. Also known as the Global Justice Movement, the WSF has met annually since its first formal meeting in Porto Alegre in Brazil in 2001, meetings attended by civil society organizations and participants from movements around the world, both formal and informal. Its founding principles, articulated in Porto Alegre, firmly declared that ‘Another World Is Possible’, stating as its enduring goal to seek out and build alternatives to the current corporate globalization practices of neo-liberalism.
One well-known catalyst in the occupation of urban spaces that followed came from the massive street protests in Athens against the harsh effects of austerity in 2008 – imposed due to Greece’s inability to repay or refinance the government debt amassed within the common currency agreement of the European Union (EU). Following police violence and the death of a young student, widespread rioting spread quickly to other Greek cities. It lasted for several weeks, helping to generate solidarity protests across Europe. These protests were supported by and served to sustain what would eventually become the electoral success of Syriza, headed by Alexis Tsipras, which was founded in 2004 as a radical left party hoping to unite left groups and movement politics in one broad electoral coalition.
Nevertheless, it was the protests in 2010–11 that really became part of a worldwide surge in global resistance, as Paul Mason captures vividly in his book, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions (2012). Least expected, and therefore of the greatest impact globally, were the spectacular uprisings that became known as the Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia in December 2010, before spreading to Oman, Yemen, Egypt, Syria, Morocco and continuing through the region over the next months. The most dramatic of these popular uprisings was the one that brought millions onto the streets in Egypt in January 2011, where they stayed until they overthrew their own Western-supported authoritarian ruler, Hosni Mubarak.
In Spain, the Indignados, as they became known, occupied Spanish squares in their millions in the summer of 2011. Before long some were to put their energies into political formations capable of contesting elections, and in particular into the left populist party Podemos, headed up by their popular figurehead Pablo Iglesias. Similarly, in cities across Portugal hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets, some of them affiliated with the broad radical party Left Bloc, which was, like Syriza and Podemos, a party more open to movement politics.
In the Middle East, tragically, a series of political manoeuvres would finally result in the head of the military, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, gaining control of Egypt and re-instating a rather familiar form of repressive subjugation. In what some have referred to as the ‘Arab Winter’, the wave of initial revolutions and protests fighting for democratic reform faded the following year, as demonstrations were met with violent responses from authorities. The subsequent power struggles within the Arab world and the spread of fundamentalist Islamic militias, still murderously ongoing in Syria, has meant that only the uprising in Tunisia resulted in any sort of transition to constitutional democratic governance.
Nevertheless, it was the Arab Spring in particular that provided the greatest source of inspiration for the sudden appearance of other occupations around the globe, including the Occupy Wall Street protest in Zuccotti Park, which lasted for two months from September 2011. Occupations mushroomed around the globe, even outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London: ‘What would Jesus do?’ the squatters penned provocatively, knowing that Christianity’s founding Jewish rebel and prophet was no friend to money lenders and cared deeply about the poor, the sick, the discarded and destitute. It was the harsh austerity regimes imposed by the governments of Western democracies in order to refinance the banks that so angered these new activists, witnessing ever-deepening inequality while knowing that wealth kept right on flowing upwards into the pockets of the 1 per cent. ‘We are the 99 per cent’, was the popular chant of the Occupiers.
Whether all too briefly on the streets fighting tyranny and corruption in the Middle East, or denouncing the devastating effects of the financial crisis in the West, these protests all seemed potentially world shattering for those participating in them. Yet we know today that none of these disparate upsurges of resistance have achieved their goals, however forcefully they broadcast their message about the inequities and injustices of the present. Nevertheless, in Spain and Portugal the movements have found some level of representation at state and municipal levels (via Podemos and Left Bloc), or even, as in Greece, helping to elect Syriza to parliamentary victory.
Syriza came to power, as Tsipras hoped, with the assistance of the radical protest movement, its party colours standing for left, Green and movement politics. However, despite a national referendum rejecting capitulation to continuing austerity in 2015, the majority in Syriza have seen no alternative to remaining within the single currency, while so far failing to secure any significant debt relief from the EU’s banking institutions or to prevent imposition of the harshest austerity and forced sale of national assets.
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This is not only a struggle about income disparity and corporate control of democracy. It is about corporate control of art, too, including the art of being alive.
A revolutionary multitude can indeed make an impact around the world and, at certain moments in history, overthrow dictators, but they cannot install progressive governments without the most strenuous coalition building in order to establish or connect with a political party that will implement their demands. Even then, as we see in Greece, nothing is guaranteed, at least not without powerful regional or other coalitions that might assist indebted nations to survive the imposition of punitive fiscal and market forces.
Still, there have been other small but significant victories coming from these movements of resistance. These include the number of women moving from lifetimes of radical activism into positions of significant authority, such as Manuela Carmena who was elected mayor of Madrid at seventy-one, in coalition with the anti-austerity party Podemos, in 2015. That same year, another movement radical Ada Calau, who had campaigned to protect householders in mortgage arrears, was elected mayor of Barcelona, representing a new ‘citizens’ movement’ backed by these new left parties.
But what matters most for those stressing the significance of a politics of hope over one of resignation or despair is primarily the consciousness acquired through the exhilarating joy of resistance itself, the sense of shared agency expressed in helping to build any alternative, autonomous spaces, for as long as they might last.
It is important, too, to record the impact of these new movements upon older radicals who visited sites of protest and unexpectedly found their former faith restored. Thus, one of the earliest New York women’s liberationists, the late Roz Baxandall, who ventured into Zuccotti Park just five years before she died, found something to delight her: ‘The Occupiers have dreams and a vision, too: of a just, peaceful, diverse, democratic world, where democracy serves more than global capitalism and the greedy one percent.’ Similarly, Michael Taussig, an Australian anthropologist now living in New York, was busy taking notes during the months in which thousands of people occupied the park, describing his visits there as like going to a street fair: ‘There were so many smiling people, radiant with happiness, mixed with a few grim, concentrated ones … This is not only a struggle about income disparity and corporate control of democracy. It is about corporate control of art, too, including the art of being alive.’
Another anthropologist, the anarchist David Graeber, having been involved in protest networks for decades, remains even more certain that participation in moments of direct action and horizontal decision-making bring to life a new and enduring conception of politics, while providing shared hope and meaning in life, even if their critics see in the outcomes of these movements only defeat:
What they don’t understand is that once people’s political horizons have been broadened, the change is permanent. Hundreds of thousands of Americans (and not only Americans, but Greeks, Spaniards and Tunisians) now have direct experience of self-organization, collective action and human solidarity. This makes it almost impossible to go back to one’s previous life and see things the same way. While the world’s financial and political elite skate blindly towards the next 2008-scale crisis, we’re continuing to carry out occupations of buildings, farms, foreclosed homes and workplaces, organizing rent strikes, seminars and debtor’s assemblies, and in doing so laying the groundwork for a genuinely democratic culture … With it has come a revival of the revolutionary imagination that conventional wisdom has long since declared dead.
Discussing what he calls ‘The Democracy Project’, Graeber celebrates forms of political resistance that in his view move well beyond calls for policy reforms, creating instead permanent spaces of opposition to all existing frameworks. For Graeber, one fundamental ground for optimism is that the future is unknowable, and one can live dissident politics in the present, or try to. This is both despite, and also because of, the insistent neo-liberal boast that there can be no alternative to its own historical trajectory: which has become a linear project of endless growth and the amassing of wealth by the few, toil and the struggle for precarious survival for so many.
Furthermore, Graeber points out that historically, although few revolutionaries actually succeeded in taking power themselves, the effects of their actions were often experienced far outside their immediate geographical location. In a similar reflection on unintended consequences, Terry Eagleton suggests that even with the gloomiest of estimates in mind, many aspects of utopic thinking may be not only possible but well- nigh inevitable:
Perhaps it is only when we run out of oil altogether, or when the world system crashes for other reasons, or when ecological catastrophe finally overtakes us, that we will be forced into some kind of co-operative commonwealth of the kind William Morris might have admired.
Even catastrophism, one might say, has its potentials.
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Impossible to operationalize at the scale of a metropolitan region, let alone for the 7 billion people who now inhabit planet earth.
It is the ongoing catastrophe of racism in the USA, so regularly resulting in police shootings of black men, which produced the vibrant radical movement Black Lives Matter in 2013, following the acquittal of the white vigilante George Zimmerman for his arbitrary murder of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida. The movement was initiated by a Facebook post written by activist Alicia Garza, which she calls ‘a love letter to black people’, in which she wrote ‘I continue to be surprised at how little black lives matter’, closing with the words ‘Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter, black lives matter.’ Black activists quickly began spreading this message against police brutality and widespread virulent racism on social media, eventually resulting in mobilizations and dozens of groups forming across the USA. In recent years, the movement has regularly organized mass protests in cities across the country against the assault on black lives, which have had an international impact, while remaining a decentralized, non-hierarchical network.
Whether primarily defensive in nature, or determinedly alternative in the spaces they establish, I welcome those diverse campaigners who insist ‘another world is possible’, whatever the ups and downs of resistance. More people nowadays are aware of the enduring struggle of eco-warriors, especially via the moving words of writers such as Rebecca Solnit, surveying the overlooked resilience of activists around the world, often modelled on the Zapatistas in Mexico. Just as stirring are the books and lecture tours issuing from other environmental activists, such as Naomi Klein, with her increasingly influential insistence that we must shatter the deep denial around the imminent threat of climate change. The recent rise in support for Green Party politics, ecofeminism and other environmental movements all illustrate a significant resistance to the corporate agenda of endless growth, not only highlighting mounting environmental degradation, but conveying the possible pleasures of new patterns of ethical consumption.
In Britain, the philosopher Kate Soper has been at the forefront of arguments for an ‘alternative hedonism’, suggesting that the promotion of sustainable consumption is also a call for a more pleasant lifestyle. Resisting ubiquitous commercial promotion by moderating our patterns of consumption, Soper suggests, could enhance our more immediate ‘sensory pleasures through the enjoyment of better health, more free time, and a slower pace of living’. In this sense, those involved in the politics of consumption can be critical voices for rethinking the nature of happiness and wellbeing.
More generally, it is easy to applaud the open and egalitarian attempts to create what some now call ‘everyday utopias’, as explored recently by Davina Cooper in her survey of alternative spaces in the UK, spaces set up to enable people in the present to practise ‘the change they wish to encounter’. They may not always succeed, and Cooper details for instance the difficulties encountered in setting up a Local Alternative Trading Scheme first established up in the East Midlands. Here skills rather than money were exchanged for products and services, but tensions emerged due to the differing amounts of time people were willing or able to commit. Cooper’s point about utopian practices is that they are not trying to offer totally transformed spaces, since they are too connected to the world as it is now. Nevertheless they reflect transformations of thinking with some evidence that alternative practices are always possible, and often worth attempting.
Further afield, one finds other anti-consumer collectives, such as the ‘free shop’ Skoris in the neighbourhood of Exarcheia in Athens. The free shop was opened in 2009, a time when many people were finding it ever harder to survive the harsh deprivations of the global recession, in the hope of transforming certain patterns of private consumption into collective practices of exchange, while fostering ‘a sense of community and identity, which in turn paves the way for collective action’. Those who founded Skoris had earlier been involved in other forms of alternative producer and consumer cooperatives and exchange practices, including solidarity trading with the Zapatistas and other radical producers, as well as supporting the ongoing squats of private and public spaces in the years after 2008 as ‘ruptures and cracks’ began appearing across Greece. These were the years in which the autonomous Greek left confronted the ever-mounting economic and political crisis via ‘forms of utopian praxis from below rather than parliamentary (Syriza- style) politics’.
Yet, while welcoming the significance of subversive utopian practices in revealing possibilities for change, at least for some, however little or large and however uncertain their futures, I remain more cautious about their political impact. I am always looking out for ways of linking any particular radical demands or practices with the solidarity and alliance necessary to build even stronger bases of resistance, one capable of pressuring governments and international bodies to fight against corporate capitalist interests for genuinely redistributive policies. Celebrating the participatory democracy on display in Zuccotti Park, for instance, David Harvey touches on some of these issues in Rebel Cities, when he writes: ‘Principles are frequently advanced – such as “horizontality” and “non- hierarchy” – or visions of radical democracy and the governance of the commons, that can work for small groups but are impossible to operationalize at the scale of a metropolitan region, let alone for the 7 billion people who now inhabit planet earth.’
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We need to be aware that genuine democracy is itself a utopian ideal, which does not undermine its significance.
It is always obviously daunting to envisage moving on from the urgent particular to elaborate any broader, let alone global, perspective. Moreover, as many experienced feminists know so well, even within a single movement, conflicts and tensions around disclosing the many divisions between us can hasten the end of any notion of a movement’s unity – intersected as they are by hierarchies of race, class, sexuality, religious affiliation, age, physical capacity and more. From the input of women of colour, queer women and all those organizing around their distinct struggles, sometimes with other women, we found this out before academic feminists applied deconstructive tools to interrogate all identity formations and to question who is excluded in the maintenance of any collective belongings.
It was also clear that the absence of formal leadership never entirely eliminates the problems of hierarchy, however informal, that arise with differing levels of confidence, eloquence or defensiveness within a community. The result tends to be that some people rather than others participate more easily and gain greater respect and influence, excluding others who more often than not are traditionally more disadvantaged. This can lead to the emergence of conflicts and sectarian divisions, making any form of consensus building impossible. As the American Jo Freeman complained in her influential essay, ‘the tyranny of structurelessness’ is a constant threat. We need to be aware that genuine democracy is itself a utopian ideal, which does not undermine its significance. Having for decades surveyed women’s role globally in leading grass-roots struggles of resistance, demanding basic ‘democratic rights’ for food, shelter and healthcare, or resisting tyranny and violence, the impressive American feminist scholar Temma Kaplan writes:
Despite democracy’s many failures, it remains a stirring dream, a fantasy, an ideal that has taken various institutional forms over time and generated hopes for creating equitable social, economic, and political arrangements now and in the future.
Whatever the strengths and shortcomings of direct democracy and decision-making by consensus, it will always be necessary to keep listening out for silenced voices, always important to work to extend and refresh forms of democratic engagement. Thus, we need to keep seeking alliance and solidarity, wherever we can find them – however outrageous, strange or quirky. This is because people are drawn into collective resistance in a multitude of unpredictable ways, usually fighting for shared personal issues rather than energized by formal political parties, whether mainstream or radical. We saw this in the sudden appearance of SlutWalks, protests arising to counter the policing of women’s dress and behaviour, denouncing violence against women and the continuing ubiquity of rape-cultures. These walks caught on in city after city around the globe, and emerged as one of the most successful and creative forms of feminist action of the past twenty years. New forms of resistance are also evident in the vibrant organizing of trans activists against the repressive gender norms that have stifled them and triggered the violence they have routinely suffered. This has been expressed in the creation of safe queer or trans spaces in recent years, alongside the words to speak of the complexities of non-gendered positions and small legal and other victories conferring greater social recognition.
Equally, however, we need to maintain support for the most progressive party formations, whether through membership or looser alliances, even knowing the compromises necessary in the treacherous terrain of seeking and maintaining electoral success. Both national and transnational progressive alliances, at government levels, will surely be necessary if we are ever going to see a fairer distribution of the world’s resources, and less environmentally polluting uses of them.
This thought is clearly why the two ageing socialist politicians, Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, unexpectedly proved lightning rods for left radicals, old and, especially, young. Corbyn’s winning the leadership of the Labour Party so decisively in September 2015 was such a joyful victory for many on the radical left, with his jubilant acceptance speech: ‘We don’t have to be unequal, it doesn’t have to be unfair, poverty isn’t inevitable’, before racing off to Parliament Square to address a pro-refugee rally.
Corbyn managed to attract a membership that turned Labour into the largest social democratic party in Europe. However, his history of left militancy, combined with his lack of experience in party leadership and unfamiliarity with the cunning diplomatic skills for maintaining unity, meant Corbyn from the beginning faced unrelenting attacks from across the media, determined to delegitimize him, as well as from many of his own MPs. It all highlights again, for me, the urgency of building coalition politics with all progressive forces.
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It means trying to live differently in the here and now.
It should come as no surprise that most of the goals we dream of will usually elude us, at least partially. However, to confront rather than accept the evils of the present, some utopian spirit is always necessary to embrace the complexity of working, against all odds, to create better futures. A wilful optimism is needed, despite and because of our inevitable blind-spots and inadequacies, both personal and collective.
For many of us, it means trying to live differently in the here and now, knowing that the future will never be a complete break with the present or the past, but hopefully something that may develop out of our most supportive engagements with others. To think otherwise inhibits resistance and confirms the dominant conceit that there is no alternative to the present. Thus, I want to close this chapter repeating the words of the late Latin American writer, Eduardo Galeano, which seem to have been translated into almost every language on earth, though I cannot track down their source:
Utopia is on the horizon. I move two steps closer; it moves two steps further away. I walk another ten steps and the horizon runs ten steps further away. As much as I may walk, I’ll never reach it. So what’s the point of utopia? The point is this: to keep moving forward.
Our political dreams can end in disappointment, but are likely, nevertheless, to make us feel more alive, and hence happier, along the way, at least when they help to connect us to and express concern for those around us. Happiness demands nothing less.
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From Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy, copyright © 2017 Lynne Segal. Published by Verso Books.