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"The Politics of Utopia" by Fredric Jameson

"The Politics of Utopia" by Fredric Jameson

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Published by Zippinski
essay in NLR, 2004
essay in NLR, 2004

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Published by: Zippinski on Oct 19, 2009
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03/31/2013

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new left review 25 jan feb 2004
35
fredric jameson
THE POLITICS OF UTOPIA
U
topia would seem
to offer the spectacle of one of thoserare phenomena whose concept is indistinguishable fromits reality, whose ontology coincides with its representation.Does this peculiar entity still have a social function? If itno longer does so, then perhaps the explanation lies in that extraordi-nary historical dissociation into two distinct worlds which characterizesglobalization today. In one of these worlds, the disintegration of the socialis so absolute—misery, poverty, unemployment, starvation, squalor,violence and death—that the intricately elaborated social schemes of utopian thinkers become as frivolous as they are irrelevant. In the other,unparalleled wealth, computerized production, scientific and medicaldiscoveries unimaginable a century ago as well as an endless varietyof commercial and cultural pleasures, seem to have rendered utopianfantasy and speculation as boring and antiquated as pre-technologicalnarratives of space flight.The term alone survives this wholesale obsolescence, as a symbolic tokenover which essentially political struggles still help us to differentiate leftand right. Thus ‘utopian’ has come to be a code word on the left forsocialism or communism; while on the right it has become synonymouswith ‘totalitarianism’ or, in effect, with Stalinism. The two uses do seemsomehow to overlap, and imply that a politics which wishes to changethe system radically will be designated as utopian—with the right-wingundertone that the system (now grasped as the free market) is part of human nature; that any attempt to change it will be accompanied by vio-lence; and that efforts to maintain the changes (against human nature)will require dictatorship. So two practical-political issues are at play here:a left critique of social-democratic reformism, within the system; and onthe other hand a free-market fundamentalism. But why not simply dis-cuss those issues directly and openly, without recourse to this, seemingly
 
36
nlr 25
literary, third issue of utopia? Indeed, one could turn the question aroundand say that we are perfectly free to discuss utopia as a historical and tex-tual or generic issue, but not to complicate it with politics. (In any case,has the word not always been used by some of the most eminent politicalfigures on all sides as an insulting slur on their enemies?)Yet the waning of the utopian idea is a fundamental historical and politi-cal symptom, which deserves diagnosis in its own right—if not somenew and more effective therapy. For one thing, that weakening of thesense of history and of the imagination of historical difference whichcharacterizes postmodernity is, paradoxically, intertwined with the lossof that place beyond all history (or after its end) which we call utopia. Foranother, it is difficult enough to imagine any radical political programmetoday without the conception of systemic otherness, of an alternate soci-ety, which only the idea of utopia seems to keep alive, however feebly.This clearly does not mean that, even if we succeed in reviving utopiaitself, the outlines of a new and effective practical politics for the eraof globalization will at once become visible; but only that we will nevercome to one without it.
Banishing evil
Let us begin again, then, with the textual utopias themselves. Here weencounter two alternate possibilities of analysis, which can be desig-nated respectively as the causal and the institutional, or perhaps eventhe diachronic and the synchronic. The first of these has to do withthe utopian world as such; or better and more precisely, with the wayin which this or that ‘root of all evil’ has been eliminated from thatworld. In Thomas More, for example, what every reader famously takesaway—as from Plato, too—is the abolition of private property. This alleg-edly makes both More and Plato precursors of communism. But a closerlook, and an inquiry into the theory of human nature that underpinsboth these assaults on the institution of private property, discloses arather different position: that the root of all evil is to be found in gold ormoney, and that it is greed (as a psychological evil) which needs to besomehow repressed by properly utopian laws and arrangements in orderto arrive at some better and more humane form of life. The question of hierarchy and egalitarianism is, on this interpretation, primed in Moreby the more fundamental question of money. This kind of utopianismhas had a long and illustrious descendency, to Proudhon and Henry
 
jameson:
Utopias
37George and on down to Major Douglas and the famous stamp-scriptdear to Ezra Pound; but such names already suggest that it may notbe altogether correct to read the denunciation of money as the directancestor of communism.More was concerned to eliminate individual property relations; Marx’scritique of property was designed to eliminate the legal and individualpossession of the collective means of production; and the elimination of that kind of private property was meant to lead to a situation in whichclasses as such disappeared, and not merely social hierarchies and indi-vidual injustices. I would want to go further than this and assert thatwhat is crucial in Marx is that his perspective does not include a con-cept of human nature; it is not essentialist or psychological; it doesnot posit fundamental drives, passions or sins like acquisitiveness, thelust for power, greed or pride. Marx’s is a structural diagnosis, andis perfectly consistent with contemporary existential, constructivist oranti-foundationalist and postmodern convictions which rule out presup-positions as to some pre-existing human nature or essence. If there havebeen not just one human nature but a whole series of them, this isbecause so-called human nature is historical: every society constructs itsown. And, to paraphrase Brecht, since human nature is historical ratherthan natural, produced by human beings rather than innately inscribedin the genes or
dna
, it follows that human beings can change it; that it isnot a doom or destiny but rather the result of human praxis.Marx’s anti-humanism, then (to use another term for this position), orhis structuralism, or even his constructivism, spells a great advance overMore. But once we grasp utopianism in this way, we see that there area variety of different ways to reinvent utopia—at least in this first senseof the elimination of this or that ‘root of all evil’, taken now as a struc-tural rather than a psychological matter. These various possibilities canalso be measured in practical-political ways. For example, if I ask myself what would today be the most radical demand to make on our ownsystem—that demand which could not be fulfilled or satisfied withouttransforming the system beyond recognition, and which would at onceusher in a society structurally distinct from this one in every conceiv-able way, from the psychological to the sociological, from the culturalto the political—it would be the demand for full employment, universalfull employment around the globe. As the economic apologists for thesystem today have tirelessly instructed us, capitalism cannot flourish

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