Publico interview on More’s Utopia

I was interviewed by the Portuguese newspaper Publico in light of a lecture I’m giving in Lisbon next week on More’s Utopia. Here the English text:

– Do we have the conditions today to read and interpret Thomas More’s Utopia in a different way  than we did during the 20th century?

I believe we do. More’s Utopia has long been read in the context of the Cold War. Marx, Engels and Kautsky all considered More to be a communist hero. After the Russian Revolution, Lenin ordered the alteration of a monument to the Tsars, the Romanovs dynasty. It was modified to honour the thinkers who had contributed most to the liberation of mankind. More was among this select group. We can say that More belonged to the hall of fame of communism. As a result, Utopia has been interpreted politically in two different directions. For the socialists and communists who took More’s Utopia as an inspiration for their movement, it was important to stress the realism of the Utopian alternative and to underplay the book’s satirical and ironic subtext. To show that another world was possible. For the other side, the cold war critics, it was also important to stress a literal interpretation of More’s Utopia, this time to point towards the totalitarian aspects of the society sketched by More. The famous author Solzhenitsyn, for example, argued that More had already foreseen that communism required forced labour and enslavement. Now that the Soviet Union is gone, it is possible to reconsider More’s work in a less politically charged context. Of symbolic significance here is that Vladimir Putin ordered the monument to the revolutionary thinkers to be destroyed some years ago, and installed a replica of the original eulogy to the Romanovs.

– What can the book teach us?

It is a very smart, radical and humorous book. The core message, I would say, is about intellectual engagement with politics. The storyteller in the book, Raphael Hythloday, is frustrated with the social problems he sees in 16th century England. He has radical ideas: if you want to prevent theft and crime, don’t just resort to ever-harsher punishments, do something about the root-causes of crime and eradicate poverty. But nobody is prepared to listen to radical ideas, Raphael complains. Then, in a rather mysterious dialogue, Raphael is told to change his tune and to adapt his critique to the desires of his audience. Not long after, Raphael starts to talk about the non-existing island of Utopia. The lesson here is that ordinary arguments for improvement of society often fail to convince people since everyone is used to the status quo. Instead, the intellectual needs to appeal to the imagination of his audience and make them believe that alternatives are indeed possible. Of course, More uses humour and satire to undercut the credibility of the Utopian society. Not for nothing, the Greek name of the storyteller, Hythloday, translates as ‘peddler of nonsense’. The idea is much more to stimulate the imagination, then to prescribe one single solution, as More’s critics have long argued.

– How was it possible that the island of Utopia contained ideas of a democratic society, concerned with egalitarianism, and other completely anti-democratic ideas? Is it a reflection of the time in which the author writes? Would it have been possible for More to go further? Or was his intention to leave us a book open to interpretations?

In some aspects – slavery, patriarchy, and colonial violence – Utopia is not unlike sixteenth-century Europe. In other aspects, Utopia anticipates some of the accomplishments of modern welfare states. And again in further aspects, the highly organized and omnipresent nature of the state in Utopia reminds us of twentieth-century totalitarian regimes. Here the much-debated question arises as to whether More himself saw Utopia as an ideal society. At several points in the text, More explicitly tells his readers, not to take the stories of Raphael too literally. Some of the aspects of Utopian society are described as absurd by More, while he proposes that other aspects might serve as an inspiration to change things in our own societies. In other words: he leaves it to his readers.

– Is utopia dangerous, leading us to believe that it is possible to change society following a closed model?

There are two types of utopianism. There is utopia as a blueprint, a closed model of a new society, created by an expert of some kind. That type of thinking about politics easily turns into something undemocratic. There is another version, what is sometimes called iconoclastic utopianism. Here the most important goal is not to establish a waterproof model of a new society, but to create an imaginary from which it is possible to criticize and improve the present. That type of utopian thinking has been critical to democratic politics for the past hundreds of years. More’s Utopia, is of course part of the second strand. Not for naught is it called utopia, or non-place. It is not a closed model. Instead it is more like the famous stories of Jonathan Swift: partly satirical, partly serious.

– Are utopia and rationality opposites?

Not necessarily. In fact, there is a connection between utopian thought and the rationalist idea that society can be completely controlled by human design. There is a deeply technocratic aspect to some types of utopian thinking. But the opposite is also true, whether it is primitivists living in a commune somewhere in the pristine nature, or spiritual sects building their own micro-society, utopianism can be a revolt against technocracy and rationalism.

– To implement utopia is a contradiction?

It is a funny paradox, as soon as one begins to implement utopia, it is no longer a utopia. This contradiction also pervades the work of Marx. He refused to write recipes for the cookshops of the future, while at the same time proposing a communist utopia that he left almost undefined. Marx believed, of course, that his utopian alternative needed to arise out of societal conditions. The great drama of communism is not so much that utopia was realized, but rather that it was endlessly deferred. Really existing socialism was meant to be a transition phase to communism. In the Soviet Union there was a cruel joke that the point of transition from socialism to communism ran along the walls of the Kremlin.

– Which of the different utopian models that came after More do you find more interesting?

There are many utopian currents that are very fascinating. I found it intriguing to discover that the communities proposed by the utopian socialist Fourier, the so-called phalanstères, contained ideas about equality between the sexes and free love. There is a prefiguration of Woodstock, of the hippy communities of the sixties and seventies, already in the nineteenth century. In a more contemporary vein, a lot of the science fiction literature is clearly utopian. I grew up reading children books in which the planet had been partly destroyed by nuclear war and now the women had decided to take over and installed an environmentalist matriarchy. Utopian ideas are everywhere.

– What do you think of the movements that exist today? Do you think that they organize themselves mostly against capitalism or that there are valid alternative systems? What we see today is more of the kind of utopia as critique than the utopia with a blueprint?

If you look at movements such as Occupy or the Indignados, you’ll find that they are more in keeping with the spirit of More than that of the blueprint tradition. I don’t mean to say that these movements are satirical. But rather that the direct democratic organizing method of these movements should not be seen as a functional alternative to our present, deeply troubled democratic system. Anyone that participated in these movements, knows that the public assemblies are not the most efficient way of organizing. Yet they are a very effective way of imagining a more democratic world; for participants to realize what it would be like to really take part in a democratic process. And from that point on, one can strive for concrete improvements.

– Is there a utopian dimension in capitalism (or neoliberalism)?

Both neoliberalism and capitalism have deeply utopian aspects. The Austrian economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek, considered by many as the founding father of neoliberalism, wrote one of his most influential texts on utopianism: The Intellectuals and Socialism from 1949. Hayek argued that neoliberals should learn from the socialists and be unabashedly utopian. The notion of a frictionless free market, without intervention from the government, is a utopian idea: it cannot be realized. Because government bureaucracy, think of the famous market regulations of the European Union, is actually needed to maintain a functioning market. The utopian quality of neoliberalism is politically very effective. Any type of market failure can always be blamed on government intervention, leading to renewed attempts to free the market. Similar things can be said about capitalism and the notion of limitless economic growth.

– The fact that capitalism is a more omnipresent system compared with a political regime creates different problems when attempting to oppose it? Do you think it is possible – following the logic of utopia as critique – to aspire to create a “better” capitalism instead of changing the system?

I think many are convinced that it is futile in this political climate to make a distinction between revolutionary and reformist politics. It is now easier, as the cultural critic Fredric Jameson said some time ago, to imagine the end of the world in some great disaster, than the end of capitalism. The opposition between reform and revolution was another part of the inheritance of the Cold War. Presently, I think attempts to think transversally in terms of radical reforms, reforms that alter the balance of power in favor of emancipatory politics, are more relevant for our time. For our generation, long term ideals of a better system have given way to more immediate concerns, on how to deal with the crisis we’re in when it comes to the climate, the economic system, or the situation in the Middle East.