One Chance in a Hundred? – Denial and Diversion – A Challenge for the Imagination – The Power of Utopias – Marx and Utopia – Fascist Dystopias – A Favorable Moment ? – Mutiny on Starship Earth
Let’s be optimistic! Let’s bet there’s one chance in a hundred that the Earth will still be habitable at the end of the 21st Century! Think I’m kidding? Try answering the following questions honestly:
Do you honestly think that weapons of mass destruction are likely to stop proliferating? Do you truly believe that pollution is going to stop getting worse? Can you really imagine that forests will stop disappearing? That the climate will stop heating up?
Can you actually foresee an end to:
arctic permafrost disappearing?
100-year storms becoming normal?
100-year floods becoming commonplace?
climate refugees multiplying?
oil spills expanding?
global unemployment rising?
Can you honestly foresee an end to:
public services deteriorating?
armed conflicts proliferating?
drone terrorism raining down?
indigenous terrorism rising up?
wars dragging on forever?
political refugees multiplying?
corporate crime expanding?
prisons overflowing with poor people?
money dominating politics?
money dominating media?
money dominating everything?
bank debt impoverishing students?
bank debt impoverishing countries?
drug-wars killing innocents?
real wages declining?
useless wealth piling up?
Can you actually foresee an end to:
rich people withdrawing into gated communities?
drugs wars intensifying?
drug prices rising?
violence against women increasing?
rape running epidemic?
women being degraded?
child poverty escalating?
women’s rights declining globally?
civil rights disappearing?
government security hardening?
law enforcement militarizing?
police killing with impunity?
government spying proliferating?
Can you actually foresee an end to:
nuclear accidents recurring?
nuclear weapons proliferating?
nuclear winter looming?
small farms dying?
farmers committing suicide?
biofuels replacing food crops?
species going extinct?
world hunger increasing?
the struggle for water intensifying?
animals and fish disappearing?
Need I go on? You know as well as I do that each of these trends will lead to foreseeable disasters if left unchecked. Now imagine all these trends interacting in horrible synergy… Not a pretty picture. Small wonder we rarely allow ourselves to actually visualize such a future and imagine ourselves – or our children and loved ones – living in it. I dare you to close your eyes and try it, right now, just for thirty seconds…
Hard to stay focused on that picture? Like people living in the shadow of a volcano, we get through the days more or less blithely thanks to the powers of Denial and Diversion. Unconsciously we tell ourselves that if we don’t look, the problem will go away. And the best way not to look is to divert ourselves. Today’s marketplace provides a full spectrum of diversions for whiling away your time on our way to extinction!
Feel the need to turn your eyes away from imminent global catastrophe? No problem! Shopping is a sure-fire way to take your mind off the horror; so are TV and losing yourself in work. Grass is great if it helps you laugh at the absurdity of it all. But if pot makes you paranoid, stick to booze. Alcohol is still the champ for momentary forgetting. Do you have medical access to anti-depressants? Tranquilizers? Perkidan? Opiates? They’re the drugs of choice for the discreetly desperate. On the other hand, for the rush, nothing beats coke.
Of course, extreme sports are also a thrill, and a lot of people get their kicks competing for more and more money, more and more power. Gambling also gives you a great rush – until your money runs out. Speed can be cool, too, if you like the fast lane, but don’t knock old standbys like heroin if you just want to forget. Alas, the downside of the opiates is they inhibit sex, which satisfied customers consider the best bet for an inexpensive, healthful, peaceful diversion. On the other hand, some guys get their rocks off by beating up on their family or on people from other groups.
So let’s finish off this list with the cheapest drug on the denial/diversion market: group identity. Identities come in a variety of attractive packages oriented toward down-market consumers in need of distraction. Among the more popular brands, religion, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation and identification with sports teams all help us to forget ourselves.
However, if we do dare peek out from under our security blankets of denial and diversion, what do we see? We are the heirs of the 20th century, the bloodiest so far in history. Future historians, if there are any, will see the 20th century as an orgy of mechanized mayhem, featuring brutal totalitarian dictatorships, two bloody world wars, aerial bombardment of civilians (including with nuclear weapons), scientific genocides, and the industrial devastation of vast swaths of the earth. Violence was the epidemic that plagued the last century, and violence threatens to overwhelm this one. Our violent century got off to a fast start on September 11, 2001 – a tragic pretext for the planet’s dominant high-tech military superpower to proceed with plans to invade oil-rich, strategically important countries while cowing its allies. Moreover, several more unstable states have acquired atomic bombs. A booming trade in conventional arms is fueling all the civil wars, slow-motion genocides and intractable regional crises inherited from the bloody 20th century. Eight more decades of the 21st century with no peace in sight. Add this cancerous epidemic of violence into the negative synergy of all the other destructive social and ecological tendencies spiraling out of control, and one chance in a hundred to get us out of this mess by 2100 begins to look like generous odds.
Call me an optimist.
Now let’s look on the bright side of things. For the sake of argument, let us agree that there is one chance in a hundred for a livable world in 2100. If that one chance does exist, shouldn’t we be able to imagine it happening, if only as a kind of Sci Fi story? After all, writers like Cyrano de Bergerac dreamed up space-travel centuries ago, and modern Sci Fi writers imagined it with great accuracy long before the first Sputnik. So why shouldn’t 21st century visionaries be able at least to imagine a possible future in which Starship Earth is saved from self-destruction? To envision a way to get from here to there, that is from free-market ecocide – ecological suicide – to a sustainable society based on cooperation and mutual aid?
So let’s put our imaginations to work. What kind of realistic scenario can we imagine for saving a planet from the thralls of a powerful social and economic system moving it inexorably toward all-too-predictable catastrophes? If we exclude Divine or Extra-Terrestrial intervention from our fantasy, then we need to imagine the emergence of some kind of positive revolution in human relations. In other words, we need to envision a radical change in the way humans work, run things, relate to each other and to other living things, before we can imagine the planet being rescued from extinction.
So why not dream? Only when humans pay attention to their dreams can Humanity awake from the sleep-walk of neurotic denial and shake off the nightmare of capitalist barbarism. But is the emergence of such a positive global revolution in human affairs even imaginable today? The simplest way to answer these questions is to temporarily suspend disbelief and join with me and others in imagining visions of possible roads to this Utopia. If we can put our heads together and realistically dream up such a positive human revolution, then perhaps our one chance in a hundred truly exists. Since the Fall of 2017, International Study Group and Collaborative Writing Project has been attempting to face that challenge: carrying out a thought experiement to see if another world is really possible. This book is an invitation to join us.
Whatever the odds may be, betting on an Ecotopian future seems to be our only chance of winning. The handwriting was already on the walls of revolutionary Paris in 1968: “All Power to the Imagination!” “Take Your Dreams for Realities!” Indeed, perhaps dreaming together is the most useful thing we can do in the midst of all the conflict and confusion around us: to dream of possible Utopias and to imagine materially possible roads to get there. For without a dream, without an imaginable goal, no sustained forward movement is possible.
At this point in our discussion I hear parental voices whining: Isn’t dreaming up Roads to Utopia an impractical waste of time, like playing Dungeons and Dragons or Second Life? Maybe, Mom and Dad, but what if play is the only way out of the industrious mess you (and your parents) got us into? How can people change the world without a positive vision, a direction, a goal?
In any case, the human imagination is a powerful thing, and Utopian thought has been a major influence on human society at least since the Greek philosopher Plato outlined his ideal society in The Republic – a two-thousand year-old book which continues to inspire political thought to this day. During the Catholic Middle Ages, Saint Augustine’s Utopian City of God set the ideal pattern for a Christian polity. In 1516, at the dawn of the capitalist era, the term Utopia (the word means No-place in Greek) was coined by Thomas Moore, an idealistic churchman (and later high official at the Court of Henry VIII). Moore saw private property, enforced by legal violence, as the root cause of the poverty and injustice in Tudor England. He spun a traveler’s tale of a faraway land – Utopia – where nobody starved because every able person shared in society’s work for just six hours a day – anticipating the French 35-hour work-week by five centuries. Moore’s outspoken idealism later cost him his head (and earned him a sainthood) when he refused to approve of King Henry VIII’s divorce.
Meanwhile over in sunny France, François Rabelais, the unfrocked monk and medical doctor who wrote the comic novels Gargantua and Pantagruel, created an anarchistic Utopia in his fictional Abbey of Thélème, whose only rule was “Do What Thou Wilt” – an ironic reversal of strictly regimented monastic life. Utopias based on religious visions of human holiness and wholeness have inspired vast peasant revolutions down through history. In Germany in 1563, the city of Münster was turned into a radical commune by Anabaptists under Jan of Lyden; in 17th century England, the Diggers and Levelers shared out the land and wealth; and in China, beginning in 1851, the Ta’i-p’ing rebels occupied major provinces for over a decade. All were inspired by dreams of fellowship and equality.
In the early 19th century, the Dickensian poverty of the dawning Industrial Age provoked a new response in the Utopian socialist proposals of Fourier and Saint-Simon and in the successful experimental socialistic communities created for his workers by the philanthropist Robert Owen. Their ideas received a wide audience among the newly literate artisans and wageworkers. In 1888 the American socialist Edward Bellamy published Looking Backward, a Utopian novel about a dreamer from Boston who awakens in a future society where people live secure, fulfilling lives with no use for money, under a rigorously rational socialist regime. This anti-capitalist best-seller initiated millions of young Americans into thinking along lines that were entirely new to them and radicalized a number of future American socialists like Eugene V. Debs, Daniel de Leon, Charles Kerr, and the great defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow. The novel’s popularity spawned socialist clubs all over the country and helped unite splinter groups into a growing nationwide socialist movement in the 1890s.
In England, the poet and graphic artist William Morris, founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, became converted to Marxian socialism around 1880. Morris was uncomfortable with Bellamy’s utilitarian Utopia, with its obsessive productivity and state control, and so in 1890 he answered it with his own successful novel, News from Nowhere. Morris’ dreamer awakes in an idyllic post-revolutionary London, free of industrial pollution, where the inhabitants, handsome, sane and happy, live next to nature and work only for pleasure. This novel had an enormous influence in England.
A half-century later, British socialist George Orwell wrote his satirical dystopian (anti-Utopian) novels Animal Farm and 1984, which opened the eyes of millions of readers to totalitarian Communism’s phony claims on the Utopian dream. During the later 20th century a number of North American science fiction writers tried out Utopian scenarios. Robert Heinlein, Margaret Atwood, Ursula Le Guin, Marge Piercy, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ernest Callenbach and others have created futuristic Utopias that give us critical perspectives on the present as well as plausible, detailed, brilliantly imagined histories of future societies in which everything from ecology to sex has been revolutionized. Translated in many languages, these thought-provoking, prophetic, sometimes inspiring, Utopian novels have been read by millions.
Utopian thinking has this paradoxical advantage: imagining a possible future society gives us historical perspective. It frees us from the ahistorical prejudice that the present system is somehow immutable or natural. Only from the perspective of our unlikely Utopia can we look backwards at the catastrophic present, pretend we are historians in the year 2100 (assuming that there will be historians then!) and ask the essential question: how did we get from there to here, from catastrophic crises to a better world? For us future historians to answer that question, we need to look back to early 21st Century globalized capitalist society and identify the technological/material and ideological/spiritual elements, latent within it, which would have enabled an utopian outcome: the emergence of planetary social movements capable of overcoming capitalism and creating sustainable post-capitalist societies. These are the elements we will need to nurture if our one-in-a-hundred chance for survival is to become a reality.
Back in the 19th century, Karl Marx was among the first philosophers to assume this Utopian perspective and “look back” on the present as history. The Utopian future imagined by the early French socialists allowed Marx to “look backwards” and see 19th century capitalism as a transitory stage of human society – a stage preceded by feudalism and possibly followed by socialism. Marx came to view history as a succession of class struggles between exploited majorities and small, but powerful, elites – slaves against masters, serfs against landlords, commoners against nobles, workers against capitalists, Billions against Billionaires in our day. These struggles could lead either to a new society or to the mutual destruction of the contending classes.
The basic difference between the “Utopian” socialism of Owen, Fourier and St. Simon and Marx’s socialism was this. The Utopians proposed ideal model societies without worrying too much about how they could be realized (except for the philanthropist Owen, who founded actual communities). Marx based his on actual struggles. Indeed, beginning in the 1830’s, the Utopian dream of socialism began expressing itself in the practical struggles of the working people of different lands. The new class of property-less wage-workers (“proletarians”), instead of waiting for philanthropists to set up ideal communities, were beginning to unite, struggling against the employing classes, and even organizing internationally – with socialism as their avowed goal. These workers, with their vast numbers, concentration in factories, key role in the economy, and growing self-awareness, seemed to have the potential strength to take power away from the capitalist owners and to unite all the world’s producers in creating a global cooperative commonwealth.
It is often forgotten that for Marx, the essence of socialism was democracy – the government of the majority based on free speech, free press, free assembly. To Liberté (freedom), socialism added practical Egalité (economic equality) and Fraternité (brotherhood) – in other words democracy carried into the economic sphere. Marx lived to see this vision put into practice by the (mostly anarchist!) workers and craftsmen of Paris, who in 1871 armed themselves to save their besieged capital from the invading Prussians and proceeded to elect their own self-governing Commune to run their political, economic and military affairs. In its brief existence, the Paris Commune proved once and for all that common people are able to govern themselves without their “masters.” Unfortunately this practical Utopia was confined to the city of Paris, and after three months it was surrounded and drowned in blood by counter-revolutionary armies mobilized by the Prussian and French masters, who united to crush the common people.
In the 20th century, popular revolutions succeeded both in taking and in holding power in two vast countries: Russia (1917) and China (1949). Unfortunately, these regimes separated socialism from democracy, and new masters (bureaucratic party elites) took power and turned the Utopian dream of socialism into a totalitarian nightmare of forced labor. Paradoxically, this counter-revolution from within was even more devastating for the common people than the terror of the old masters’ counter-revolution from without. Worse still, the horror inspired by such Communist dictatorships has left succeeding generations cynical and fearful of any Utopian and socialist dreams.
Conservatives have exploited this natural fear by condemning all Utopian movements (including democracy!) as leading necessarily to totalitarianism. Margaret Thatcher’s slogan “There Is No Alternative” (TINA) was designed to rule out any hope for a better world. The example of totalitarian Communism has given socialism a bad name, just as the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades gave Christianity a bad name and Fundamentalist violence is giving Islam a bad name today. Thus, “Utopia” and “socialism” continue to be Bugaboos, despite the obvious and urgent need to replace capitalism with something better before we all roast or fry.
Futuristic novels can even inspire actual deeds. In the 1980s the racist right in the U.S. was galvanized by a novel called The Turner Diaries by Andrew MacDonald, the leader of the white separatist organization National Alliance. The novel depicts a violent racist revolutionary struggle in the United States that escalates into global genocide, leading to the extermination of all Jews and non-whites. For the author and his fans, this was not a negative outcome, but rather the fulfillment of his dream of a White world.
The Turner Diaries soon became the Bible of the Nazi-Christian armed militias that still flourish in the United States. Some of these folks took MacDonald’s paranoid fantasies for actual facts. The Turner Diaries was the bedside reading of Timothy McVeigh, the young ex-soldier who killed more than 400 people with a homemade bomb when he blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. He was apparently inspired by the episode where Turner describes how the racist right “Organization” dynamites the FBI Building. Which goes to show that life sometimes imitates art. Not to be outdone by the Christian fundamentalists, on September 11, 2001 bin Laden’s fundamentalist Moslems killed over 3,000 in New York.
Meanwhile, since around 2000 the Left Behind series of apocalyptic novels have been topping the bestseller lists in the U.S. – a publishing phenomenon that has generated films and other spin-offs. The novels describe the adventures of a group of evangelical Christians who survive the rise of the Antichrist – including plagues, judgments, and the final battle of Armageddon (Left Behind Vol. 11). These novels have a born-again Christian audience of millions linked by talk-radio and fan clubs, where current events are interpreted in terms of the Apocalypse scenario derived from the 2nd Century Gospel of St. John.
It’s a sad commentary that wackos, racists, survivalists and end-of the world fundamentalists seem to be the only subcultures with a vision of the future – albeit a frighteningly negative one. As Naomi Klein succinctly puts is: No Is Not Enough. Our strife-torn world cries out for positive visions. We desperately need an imaginable Utopia. It isn’t enough for good people merely to protest, to struggle eternally against the latest outrage. Of course we must resist war, racism, sexism, police-state repression and a host of other evils. But what we most need today is a positive goal, a vision of a possible future without which our awareness of the endless evils of this world only makes us passive and cynical.
Such a vision – at once Utopian and realistic – is needed to strike the imagination and spark hope. For without hope no positive revolution is possible. One chance out of a hundred isn’t much of a hope, agreed. But we know where despair leads: depression, drugs, anomie, religious and nationalist fanaticism. Moreover, our historical moment, although dark, may well be favorable for floating a new revolutionary vision of a more humane society for a simple reason: since the collapse of totalitarian Communism, followed by the disgrace of social democracy and neo-liberalism, there are no more competitors in the field.
During the 90’s, Russian bureaucratic Communism – in practice more nightmare than dream – evolved into Mafia capitalism and lost its appeal. In Europe, “reformist” social democracy was definitively discredited as Labour and Socialist parties were revealed as Left-wing covers for free-market privatization for the rich and austerity for the rest of us, and many dissapointed workers turned to the far right. And since the Crash of 2008 the American model of free market neo-liberal capitalism has definitively lost its sheen. Once proclaimed as “the end of history,” the neo-liberal vision is increasingly tattered, while the specter of nationalistic crony capitalism is rising in its place.
Only yesterday, greed was good and CEOs were gods – even after the dot.com bubble burst, massive embezzling by top management was exposed (remember Enron?), looted retirement funds collapsed, and big modern countries like Argentina found themselves bankrupt after submitting to IMF economic shock-therapy. Then came the crash of 2008. The speculative bubbles blown by “too-big-to-fail” banks and brokerage houses burst, and John Q. Public got stuck with the bailout bill. Today, the diehard free-marketeers are hardly more credible than the diehard Communists. The world is waking up from the American Dream with a nasty hangover. As Naomi Klein put it in the Conclusion of her This Changes Everything: Capitalism and the Climate, “It is slowly dawning on a great many of us that no one is going to step in and fix this crisis; that if change is to take plae it will only be because leadership bubbled up from below.”
Only yesterday, reactionary New Philosophers in Europe and neo-con pundits from US right-wing think tanks had a monopoly on politically correct thinking. Today they are seen as tiresome, not trendy. Critical books on capitalism have become best sellers. The world of the 99% ers is in crisis. We have entered a century of breakdown and contestation. It will either end as a century of Utopias or it will end in catastrophe.
The men in suits who rule the world today have no plan for the future. Their main preoccupation is holding onto their power and wealth by any means necessary. Their perspectives are limited to inflating quarterly balance sheets and winning biennial election campaigns. If they don’t see any further into the future, it’s also because they unconsciously understand that there will be no future – since they are busy killing it. They are the officers of a ship drifting rudderless toward a rocky shore, busy looting the cargo, locking up the passengers and crew below decks and fighting among themselves for the booty.
The name of that vessel is Starship Earth. Its only hope is that the passengers and crew can figure out a way to get organized and take over the bridge before it is too late. “Mutiny on Starship Earth:” great title for our Utopian scenario – if we can imagine a plausible one.
Such is the nature of our Utopian Bet. Even with the odds against us, it’s a bet we can’t refuse. Because like it or not, we are all in the same boat – passengers and crew alike – far out at sea and drifting toward shipwreck. One chance in a hundred may seem like pretty slim odds, but look at it this way: The bad news is that we will soon have nothing to lose but the dismal spectacle of a dying world – made uglier every day by increasing injustice, suffering, and stupidity. The good news is that we have a finite chance to save a beautiful planet with all our friends on board. Nothing to lose against an infinity of life and beauty. Mathematically speaking, it’s zero against infinity – pretty good odds in my book.
Talk about a bet you can’t refuse!