Utopia Revisited

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Tim Mack

Tim Mack

Book review by Timothy C. Mack

Utopia by Thomas More. Supplement by Ursula K. Le Guin, introduction by China Miéville (Verso Books, November 2016).

When Verso Books in London released a new edition of More’s Utopia nearly 500 years after its first publication, it produced a bit of cultural shock. For many, the term utopia has come into some disrepute as a reactionary or even a delusional social goal, while among others, especially the technocracy of Silicon Valley, it is viewed as just another easily achieved social building project—all it would take is their unlimited funds.

This latter approach, the techno utopia, has been quite popular over the last decade, driven in part by the aura of success in all endeavors that surrounds the “boy kings” whose disposable income often exceeds their experience in effective social engineering. This leaves the question of whether a cultural or technological strategy is most effective to pursue when contemplating a “brave new world.”

This new edition of More’s classic avoids the opt-out of the middle course, which can be summarized as “Let’s do both!” The more radical path is that taken by China Miéville, a highly lauded science-fiction writer and essayist. A professed Marxist, he is also an advocate of aggressive social change—what might be called a bare-knuckle futurist. In contrast, Ursula K. Le Guin, an even more highly lauded science-fiction author and essayist, takes a broader and more nuanced approach to the obstacles and opportunities facing making the world a better place.

As for More himself, his 1516 vision of an isolated and previously unknown island of peace and harmony, communal property, and fully educated women has remained a standard among utopian writers to this very day. Living on an island myself, I confess a special fondness for this concept, and it is hard not to view my own island (Whidbey in Washington state) as exhibiting a few of those very qualities.

But to the book in question: I assume that many readers of this review have read some or all of Utopia and there is little to be said concerning the quality of the translation from the original Latin into English. In spite of its dated style, it remains quite readable, and a rereading is never wasted time. However, the new introduction and companion essays are what provide the new edition its added value.

Miéville is skeptical of the possibility of successful utopias for a number of reasons. One major concern is the perennial siloing of contradictory concerns, such as environmental issues versus urban poverty issues, or economic issues. For a cheerful example, he quotes the then-leader of Earth First, who said that the best response to the 1984 Ethiopian famine would be to “let nature seek its own balance and let the people there just starve” (as in the Voluntary Human Extinction concept). In the same year, the Union Carbide disaster at Bhopal was proceeded by the penalizing of plant workers for refusing to break safety routines and company neglect of failed safety systems. In these cases, one factor (environment or economics) dominated other considerations.

Miéville believes that much of the public talk of utopias is for the purpose of social pressure release, to mollify opposition advocacy or political resistance, and that utopia often contains apocalypse, because “there is massive profit in injustice.” In other words, the urge toward a better world will nearly always be offset by the urge toward a greater bottom line.

Le Guin turns her focus away from the popular Silicon Valley impulse to build a distant but perfect society—on Mars, on artificial islands (or abandoned oil rigs), or even in our own homes with 3-D printers supplying all we will ever need at little expense. She call this approach the “quick techno fix,” or a rationalist utopia. That approach often leads to “a monotheocracy, created by executive decree and maintained by willpower; as its premise is progress, not process, it has no habitable present, and speaks only in future tense.”

In contrast to the activities of a machine-like state, which are determined by its structure, a more organic approach to utopia would operate in the other direction, its structure determined by its processes. Meanwhile, she feels that most techno utopias to date have been “bright, clear, strong, firm, active, aggressive, lineal, progressive, creative, expanding, advancing and hot.”

Le Guin supports the contrasting choice taken in More’s book by the utopian society of Islandia, which she terms a “warm” society with a definite but flexible class structure, chosen elements of industrial technology, and an unwillingness to play its part in world history. Of course, in a work of literature it could do so, in contrast to the Native American cultures of Old California or Japan, who were brought to globalism by political and cultural force. Le Guin characterizes this as the choice between freedom without happiness or happiness without freedom; in other words, a no-win situation.

Le Guin agrees that every utopia also contains its dystopia, but that this is a sign of the transformational nature of a living society, in the spirit of the yin/yang symbol on the flag of South Korea. Both the bright and booming city and the dark and quiet forest have their value when they interact and live in harmony. The alternative is a non-dynamic stasis that allows for no change; the “perfect” society, but one without balance or stability. She characterizes this as a contrast between humanity’s domination of the globe through technology and unlimited growth and a focus on human adaptability and thus our long-term survival. This requires an “acceptance of impermanence and imperfection, a patience with uncertainty and the makeshift, a friendship with water, darkness and the earth.”

Accordingly, Le Guin’s essays do not dictate a blueprint for the ideal society, but address how to “enlarge the field of social possibility and moral understanding.” It is her belief that “the imagination is the single most useful tool that humankind possesses. … All of us have to learn how to invent our lives. … If we don’t, our lives get made up by other people.”

Le Guin argues that “human beings have always joined in groups to imagine how best to live and help one another carry out the plan. The essential function of human community is to arrive at some agreement of what we need, what life ought to be, what we want our children to learn, and then collaborate in learning and teaching so that they will go on in the way we think is the right way. … Larger communities, such as cities, open up room for people to imagine alternatives, learn from people of different traditions and invent their own ways to live.”

Perhaps one of the appeals of the techno utopia is its “paint by numbers” quality, where the parts are assembled with the aid of the instructions (or by the technocrats) and thus all will be well. But the suggestion in these discussions of More’s Utopia is that all is often not well and that the business of building the future is a lot more complicated than it is often presented to be. In this view, the most complicated elements of the future are the people in it, and that is where the primary focus should be.

Timothy C. Mack is managing principal of AAI Foresight Inc. Contact him at tcmack333@gmail.com.