“A map of the world that does not include Utopia,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.”
“Progress is the realisation of Utopias.” Can you imagine Peter Mandelson saying that to the CBI? Would Gordon Brown produce such a quip at the World Economic Forum? Even Barack Obama might have problems with this level of political lyricism. Progress might be the realisation of ambition, enterprise, or even dreams, but not utopias.
Utopianism tends to be a pejorative term these days. It’s associated with religious and political myths which we now might find naive and old-fashioned: be it the New Jerusalem of Christianity or the promised revolution of Marxism. The quotation from Wilde comes from his 1891 essay ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism‘, a political polemic with a curiously evangelical and redemptive tone.
We’ve witnessed too many failed or dangerous utopias to be taken in by such rhetoric anymore. How many of the 20th century’s worst atrocities started with a vision of a perfected world? And even when they haven’t ended in totalitarianism, utopian mindsets have collided with the wall of reality sooner or later. The global financial crisis of the last eighteen months has put paid to the neoliberal belief that history “ended” with the rise of free market capitalism.
Today we’re inclined to agree with the political philosopher John Gray, who writes that “utopia is the projection into the future of a model of a society that cannot be realized.”
And yet, somehow, I still have some sympathy with Wilde’s vision. Even once we accept the danger of utopianism and see through its mirages, we still need to chart a course for our societies to follow. We will always need some sort of compass to guide us.
The sociologist Stephen Lukes came up with the idea of a ‘concrete utopia’. Unlike John Gray’s definition, the concrete utopia is based on ‘the knowledge of a self-transforming present, not an ideal future’.
There is no doubt that we are currently in a ‘self-transforming present’. Thanks to a century and a half of industrialisation powered by fossil fuels, the world’s climate is changing – not somewhere else or at a future date, but right here, right now. The biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression has shaken all economic and political orthodoxies. And as inequality has risen in developing countries, so too has social instability and unrest. If we do nothing about these things, the present will transform itself for the worse. nef has calculated the costs of carrying on with ‘business-as-usual’ until 2050: the UK will be faced with a £1.6 to £2.5 trillion bill for climate change, and a £4.5 trillion bill for social problems arising from income inequality.
In order to steer clear of these threats, we’ll need something like a concrete utopia. Our new report The Great Transition attempts to put in place some clear steps towards the kind of economy which works for people and the planet. The Great Transition is undoubtedly utopian in spirit: we call it ‘the tale of how things turned out right’. But its recommendations are based right here in the present moment. There are things we can do immediately to tackle climate change, restore economic stability and create a more equal human settlement.
For the concrete utopian, it isn’t enough just to draw utopia onto Wilde’s map. First, you have to do some scouting, to see if that country actually exists, to glimpse its shores, even from afar. At nef, we’ve been able to do so through the vast array of practical projects we’ve been involved with over the years. Timebanking, complementary currencies, new methods of participation and democracy, Transition Towns, our BizFizz project for budding entrepreneurs, co-productive public services and barter economies all constitute, as we said in our pamphlet From the Ashes of the Crash, part of a ‘sleeping architecture of a new, diverse and resilient local financial system’, human-scale and low-carbon. And it’s on these foundations that we’ll start to build our concrete utopia.
If you’d like to glimpse the beginnings of the Great Transition, and help make it a reality, make sure you head along to The Bigger Picture: Festival of Interdependence, this Saturday 24 October, at the Bargehouse, South Bank, London.