Towards utopia

It will soon be 500 years since the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia and the birth of a concept that has retained its grip on the imagination ever since. Matic Majcen turns to the small village of Marinaleda in Andalusia, Spain in search of a contemporary utopian project.

2016 will mark the passing of 500 years since the publication of the first Latin edition of Utopia by the English humanist philosopher Thomas More. This anniversary will doubtless be observed by a series of discussions, round tables, thematic issues of magazines, and similar events to mark the occasion, where people will reflect on the prospects of realizing the ideal society and draw parallels between today and the time at which this influential book was created. The current social crisis, which is expected to be permanent and bring an increasingly deep loss of confidence in the existing economic order, has in the meantime already clearly shown that as far as thinking about utopia goes, we are far from needing any sort of anniversary to prompt such thought. For in recent years, the concept of utopia has constantly featured somewhere in the background of the majority of arguments attempting to bring about serious social change.

Illustration for the 1516 first edition ofby Thomas More. Source:Wikipedia

But as economic liberalization, relying on the conservative political paradigm, races towards its own vision of (a reckless) utopia, the Left is in fact the one that is the steadfast bearer of the idea of egalitarian prosperity and a type of utopia based on a deeper reflection on the ethical dimensions of social coexistence. And yet it is this Left, with its lack of ideas, its fragmentation, and vacillation – as shown most clearly by the recent European parliamentary elections –, that resembles more closely a ship lost at sea than a coordinated navy, and one that on top of everything else is leaking badly on all sides. Voter abstention was widespread among the leftwing of the electorate and consequently enabled the alarming rise of the extreme Right across Europe, a painful indicator of the wandering compass of leftist ambitions.

The problem is even more strongly present in Slovenia than elsewhere in Europe. While at the European level, participation in European elections has fallen steadily since the first elections in 1979 (from 62 per cent then to 43 per cent now), in Slovenia, electoral behavior is even more apathetic: from a participation rate of just over 28 per cent in 2004 and 2009, participation fell to 24.5 per cent this year. Slovenia thus has the third lowest voter participation rate in Europe, after Slovakia (13 per cent) and the Czech Republic (19.5 per cent). Along with Latvia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Estonia, Slovenia is one of few countries to show a drop in voter participation in comparison with the 2009 elections. Especially among young people who can’t find a political face in the political arena with which they can identify, it is becoming almost fashionable not to go to the polls; commentators in the leftist press regard this majority abstaining electorate as a new force on the political map.

But is this really the case? Is it really some sort of moral victory when a person considers it unworthy of their time to go to the polls to cast a vote (even if invalid) for what they think is right? Closer to the truth is that the ideological system, which finds itself in great confusion and the morality of which has perhaps reached its lowest point, merely turns the situation to its advantage by instrumentalizing these interpretations. The problem of voter abstention and its manic reinterpretation indicates a different and more global problem of today’s Left: with the entry of younger, urban generations, the electorate is becoming increasingly overeducated, overdigitalized and, above all, raised in an excessively critical spirit. Their (in)action can be related to all these factors and is firmly anchored in a specific symbolic register. This is a generation that has difficulty understanding that social changes do not take place in the virtual world, but in the messy real world. This world is interpreted by the urban Internet generation as a network of non-material symbolic exchanges, in actualizations of language and virtual actions; it is in no way related to blisters, bruises and a sore back. Any sort of action that requires work and compromises in the real world is intolerable, since its energy cannot be encapsulated by the perfect Tweet or Instagram, while on the other hand symbolic and interpretive mania has the ability to overturn every argument. This leads to entanglement in pointlessness, which in the real world is without value.

If we wanted to look for the closest equivalent to the actual realization of the leftist conceptualization of utopian thought, we would most likely need to go to the village of Marinaleda in Andalusia, Spain, which was the subject of an excellent and soberly written book by Dan Hancox titled The Village Against the World (Verso, 2013). This small rural community, with a population of just under 3000, was pulled from the abyss of unemployment, hunger and poverty by mayor Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo and transformed into a small-scale society exempt from the economic and political rules of modern states and based instead on autonomy and an oath concerning the ideals of a communist utopia – self-management, self-sufficiency, socializing, sharing, the absence of repressive institutions, a rejection of mechanization in favour of greater employability and, above all, the rule of the people. In 1985, Gordillo announced how he had succeeded in doing this:

We have learned that it is not enough to define utopia, nor is it enough to fight against reactionary forces. One must build it here and now, brick by brick, patiently but steadily, until we can make the old dreams a reality: that there will be bread for all, freedom among citizens, and culture; and to be able to read with respect the word “peace”. We sincerely believe that there is no future that is not built in the present.”

In short, Marinaleda exists in the first place because its citizens built it with their own hands and, only long after that, because they talked on the terraces of their houses about theories of utopia and criticized the world outside.

What needs to be accepted in this actual realization of utopian thought is that this ignored utopia is in reality a significant compromise. Yes, there you can praise Che Guevara until your heart’s content. Yes, you can completely legally close the doors to multinationals that come knocking. And yes, you can take the fate of the community into your own hands so long as you consult with fellow villagers.

But this comes at a certain price. As Hancox states, living in and establishing this kind of society means giving up some things that are taken for granted in the midst of the prosperity of the western world. In one sentence: this utopia is truly a utopia, but only for those who are willing to live simply without freely choosing their occupation, as field workers who monotonously perform manual labour seven days a week.

The choice is therefore as follows: either have a highly compromised but actualized version of utopia that blurs the non-physical identity profiles of digital modernity, or continue to dream about a perfect society on paper and in writing. For the contemporary Left, both paths are dead ends – the first because the actualized utopia is far from being as perfect as it sounds on paper, and the second because a truly perfect society simply does not exist.

It will require a substantial measure of innovation and a different mindset for the Left in Europe to dig itself out of its dark hole of delusion, in which it bases its actions on the rejection and critique of the existing, convinced that it is entitled to something better than what we have now but at the same time unprepared to establish a better social environment under the existing conditions of late capitalism. It is true that younger generations today can observe the legacy of a social system, at the helm of which older generations stubbornly persist, and in front of them all the obstacles of this world. However, the true conundrum of today’s times lies not in how to imagine and realize a utopian society but rather how to approach this ideal as closely as possible and, in particular, as realistically as possible, from the point at which we find ourselves now.

Of course, this is bound to another realization: which is that, as shown in the example of Marinaleda, utopia is always just a utopia: it is perfect only in the eyes of those who are willing to see it that way. The ideal society does not exist and probably never will. There are too many diverse and opposing views, too many conflicting interests for all members of society to recognize the actual manifestation of a social structure as ideal. Thus, even 500 years after More’s book, utopia is still an unrealizable ideal lurking somewhere in the background and hiding the parable that tells us that the key to our common happiness in both good as well as bad historical circumstances is hidden in small, persistent and, above all, feasible steps progressing along the way towards universal social well-being.

Published 3 September 2014
Original in Slovenian
Translated by Dialogi
First published by Dialogi 5-6/2014

Contributed by Dialogi © Matic Majcen / Dialogi / Eurozine

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