Ours is not a time of utopias. But that is precisely why we need to talk about Utopia again. We are enchained, locked behind the bars of an eternal present, a condition that is taking away our freedom both to look back and to look ahead of us—because, according to the current mainstream view, the past has a duty to die off and the future doesn’t have the right to live. To push back against this, we must seek light in our cave by using two very human faculties, which are now taking on a subversive role: memory and imagination. These two must be cultivated together, not pitted against each other: this is what I want to argue here. It’s also crucial to add that our reference points must not be yesterday, but what came before yesterday; not tomorrow, but what will come after tomorrow.
The immediate past is what has led to the current present: as such, it must be subjected to criticism. The immediate future is in the hands of those who are ruling the present: we must take it away from them. We must never forget that when we think about political concepts, we must keep them tied as strongly as possible with the existing struggles. The journey to the coast of the mythical island of Utopia can only be undertaken through a stormy sea, and there is no way to reach it if we hide away in pleasant Caribbean coves.
Ours is the time of dystopias.
We are facing the incoming steamroller of a historical process that has been moving ahead on its own, without anyone in the driver’s seat—because it doesn’t need a driver. It has an autonomous logic of development and crisis (these two are interchangeable), according to the Laws of Motion of capitalism, whether old or new. The Leviathan of technology after the 20th century is no longer a subject, but an instrument, just like Hobbes’s political Leviathan was in the 17th century. Back then, it served the original accumulation of the wealth of nations, i.e. that of the capital-world, while today it serves to exploit the last of the earth’s resources. Hobbes’s Behemoth of civil wars, the foil against which the Leviathan was invented, is nowhere to be seen.
There are, indeed, conflicts—it’s not possible for them not to exist in deeply divided societies such as ours. But they are false conflicts, something that can be seen in the actions of those playing them out, just like false claims reveal themselves in spoken communication. The falsity consists in the fact that they do not have the effect—nor, indeed, the aim—of putting into crisis the objective mechanism that ensures the permanence of the present forms of life, in their original specific presence, imposed and accepted as a whole. Utopian discourse today has the task of working to distinguish, to dissociate, to separate this imposition from its acceptance. Utopian thinking can do one of two things: either it manages to be antagonistic to garden variety critical thinking, or it is likely to become a Sunday-school-type philosophy of consolation.
Utopia, in my view, means something beyond: an earthly beyond. I hesitate to say a “worldly” one, because “the world” today is identified with this world—precisely with what repulses me and pushes me to look for something other. In this way, I feel close to every type of transcendent measure or dimension. Without identifying with the theological forms these usually take, this is where I find, and make use of, a way of thinking and speaking, applied to the political realm, which, metaphorically or allegorically, hints at something other than what is here, other than “this.” There is antagonism in this very choice. However, if one makes the opposite choice, that of a rigorous immanentism, there is no way out of the subordination to “what is,” exactly as it is.
For the time we are living in, for the contingency that we are experiencing, it is not possible to imagine a political utopia: it is necessary to conceive a theological-political utopia. If—as we shall see—what interests us is the “concrete utopia,” in Bloch’s terms, then the realm of political theology, rather than the merely political, is the one able to secure that realistic not-yet-here that we are seeking. We should not be coy about this, and say it clearly.
In the Magnificat, we read that the powerful will be brought down, the lowly will be raised up. This is the theological part. How to bring down the powerful, how to raise the lowly: this is the political part. One would be wrong to object that this is too simple. It is the task of political thought to reduce the complexity of history so that it can be a ground for action, not only by those who grasp it on an intellectual level, but also by those who suffer it on an existential level.
This world. This time. For utopian discourse, it is necessary to agree on the meaning of these expressions. The world and time are our enemies. One of the main difficulties—perhaps the greatest—in speaking today of “the beyond” is the general habituation to the current state of things, a mass resignation, culturally motivated to boot, regarding the supposed impossibility of—as they used to say not that long ago—“changing the world.”
It’s not that the word “change” is absent from current discourse. Indeed, in order to give rise to the false type of movement which is the amassing of democratic votes, one is absolutely required to say it—or, even better, shout it from the rooftops. Which is interesting, because it means that people are not happy with how things are, with how they have gone up to this point, with those who have ruled over them. But instead, people are trusting the rulers to come, thinking they will make things change. This is the deception of the currently existing democracies. Offering the illusion of change is the smartest way yet devised of keeping everything as it is. No need for biblical monsters to govern the people, like Hobbes argued. It’s enough to give them reassuring pets, which unsurprisingly are now a constant presence in our homes, like children used to be in the past.
“Change” has become a word that is a mark of weak thought: a non-thought that records, reproduces, reflects the non-society it is produced in. Margaret Thatcher was not wrong after all when she said that society doesn’t exist, only individuals do. She described this world of neoliberalism driven by economics and finance to the letter. As a wise man once taught, you have to know the enemy better than the enemy knows himself.
This is “how things are.” It’s always the masters, and those who represent them, who are telling you “how things really are.” The dissenters are nursing a generous belief in the fable of man as a naturally sociable animal. However, centuries of anarcho-capitalism have left us with a human species that is rather different: namely, the one we have. That’s where utopian discourse stumbles and falls. One has to marshal much more than a weak idea of change: one must put forward a strong concept of transformation. A transvaluation of all forms: of production, trade, consumption, of forms of power—now and forever—and, especially for our current context, of forms of communication—a dramatic problem nowadays. And, consequently, a questioning of the current forms of life, those which people don’t choose but are subjected to, those that are not enjoyed, but suffered, those that are experienced every day, not as something done “to” us but “against” us.
This is a world that produces the highest peaks of technological futurism, and at the same time leads to the lowest of human decadence. Note that I’m not saying that the former causes the latter. On this subject, we must be neither apocalyptic nor wrongly “holistic.” Technology is not the Antichrist to be fought before it takes over our souls. If anything, the use of technology simply enables those in power, that is, the class of owners, to manage and manipulate wealth and power. A post-human destiny looms, the dystopian prospect of intelligent machines and stupid humans, of artificial intelligence and natural idiocy. The salutary focus on the coming environmental disaster, as a problem that concerns everyone, should not be allowed to obscure the discourse about who bears responsibility, which belongs only to some.
The state of things, that which needs to be transformed, always works this way: a total mobilization for the general good is useful, because particular responsibility, although clearly present, remains safely hidden away, unseen, unacknowledged. To acknowledge this is the first step to take for a subject of the transformation. The second step is to start a process of unmasking which would lead to a clear denunciation of consequences and apportioning of remedies. Utopian discourse can only work within these conditions.
This is the reason why, before venturing out into giving answers about the future, a number of questions about this present must be addressed. Why are we in this desperate condition, in which on one side we see ruling classes not up to the task, and on the other side a mass of individuals who are not revolting? Why are all these homunculi running countries, and at the same time all these crowds chasing demagogues? The problem is not the conflict between the elites and the people, but that between the disqualified elites and the disoriented people. Accordingly, the criticism of this world must be accompanied by a criticism of this time. I am fully aware that those who have ears will still not hear. Not one of those who have any power is willing to listen—some out of arrogance, some out of servility.
However, this is not just one person’s voice speaking: it’s a fact of our reality, whose consequences are making themselves felt more and more. There needs to be an awareness—a political and cultural one, a collective one—of how devastating the reaction against the 20th century was, a century forcibly cut short in the ‘80s. Until this happens, we must be aware that even speaking about utopia is a utopian prospect. “Reaction” is indeed the right word to use, because it was a historically reactionary event, hiding under the mask of liberal ideas, democratic forms and ethical bromides. The political and intellectual work of the unmasking of our time is just as essential as that which focuses on unmasking this world.
A monograph issue
The new issue of the bimonthly “Infinitimondi” magazine is in distribution from October 7. This monograph issue is devoted to the concept of utopia. The idea for this topic was born from the debate featuring Antonio Casu and Mario Tronti. It was pursued further in the talks held in Campania featuring Peppino Cacciatore and Pino Cantillo. It then returned to Rome for a debate with Alberto Olivetti and Pietro Folena. From there, the project expanded to involve the many who have made this issue possible: Fulvia Bandoli, Piero Bevilacqua, Francesca Brezzi, Maurizio Cambi, Domenico Fortunato, Giulio Giorello, Enzo Rega, Iaia De Marco, Michele Mezza, Alfonso De Nardo. (www.infinitimondi.com)