Lynne Segal | Verso | November 2017 | 32 minutes (8,100 words)
The following is an excerpt from Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy, by Lynne Segal (Verso, November 2017). This essay is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.
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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. Read more…