The Limits of Utopia
By China Miéville
Earth: to be determined. Utopia? Apocalypse? Is it worse to hope or to despair? To that question there can only be one answer: yes. It is worse to hope or to despair.
Bad hope and bad despair are mutually constitutive. Capitalism gets you coming or going. ‘We’ can fix the problem ‘we’ made. And when ‘we’, geoengineers, fail, ‘we’ can live through it, whisper ‘our’ survivalist bad consciences, the preppers hoarding cans of beans.
Is there a better optimism? And a right way to lose hope? It depends who’s hoping, for what, for whom – and against whom. We must learn to hope with teeth.
We won’t be browbeaten by demands for our own bureaucratised proposals. In fact there is no dearth of models to consider, but the radical critique of the everyday stands even in the absence of an alternative. We can go further: if we take utopia seriously, as a total reshaping, its scale means we can’t think it from this side. It’s the process of making it that will allow us to do so. It is utopian fidelity that might underpin our refusal to expound it, or any roadmap.
We should utopia as hard as we can. Along with a fulfilled humanity we should imagine flying islands, self-constituting coraline neighborhoods, photosynthesizing cars bred from biospliced bone-marrow. Big Rock Candy Mountains. Because we’ll never mistake those dreams for blueprints, nor for mere absurdities.
What utopias are are new Rorschachs. We pour our concerns and ideas out, and then in dreaming we fold the paper to open it again and reveal startling patterns. We may pour with a degree of intent, but what we make is beyond precise planning. Our utopias are to be enjoyed and admired: they are made of our concerns and they tell us about our now, about our pre-utopian selves. They are to be interpreted. And so are those of our enemies.
To understand what we’re up against means to respect it. The Earth is not being blistered because the despoilers are stupid or irrational or making a mistake or have insufficient data. We should fight our case as urgently as we can, and win arguments, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves: whatever the self-delusion, guilt, or occasional tears of a CEO, in a profit-maximizing world it’s rational for the institutions of our status quo to do what they do. Individuals and even sometimes some organizations may resist that in specific cases, but only by refusing that system’s logic. Which the system itself of course cannot do.
The fight for ecological justice means a fight against that system, because there is massive profit in injustice. This battle won’t always be over catastrophic climate change or land expropriation: in neoliberalism, even local struggles for fleeting moments of green municipal life are ultimately struggles against power. The protests that shook the Turkish state in 2013 started with a government plan to build over Gezi Park, one of the last green spaces in the city.
Rather than touting togetherness, we fight best by embracing our not-togetherness. The fact that there are sides. Famously, we approach a tipping point. Rather than hoping for cohesion, our best hope lies in conflict. Our aim, an aspect of our utopianism, should be this strategy of tension.
There is bad pessimism as well as bad optimism. Against the curmudgeonly surrender of, say, James Lovegrove, there are sound scientific reasons to suggest that we’re not yet – quite – at some point of no return. We need to tilt at a different tipping point, into irrevocable social change, and that requires a different pessimism, an unflinching look at how bad things are.
Pessimism has a bad rap among activists, terrified of surrender. But activism without the pessimism that rigor should provoke is just sentimentality.
There is hope. But for it to be real, and barbed, and tempered into a weapon, we cannot just default to it. We have to test it, subject it to the strain of appropriate near-despair. We need utopia, but to try to think utopia, in this world, without rage, without fury, is an indulgence we can’t afford. In the face of what is done, we cannot think utopia without hate.
Even our ends-of-the-world are too Whiggish. Let us put an end to one-nation apocalypse. Here instead is to antinomian utopia. A hope that abjures the hope of those in power.
It is the supposedly sensible critics who are the most profoundly unrealistic. As Joel Kovel says, ‘we can have the accumulation of capital, and we can have ecological integrity, but we can’t have both of them together’. To believe otherwise would be quaint were it not so dangerous.
In 2003, William Stavropoulos, CEO of Dow – who has, recall, no responsibility to the chemically maimed of Bhopal – said in a press release, ‘Being environmentally responsible makes good business sense.’
And that, in the pejorative sense, is the most absurd utopia of all.An earlier version of this piece was given on 20 April 2014, as a keynote at the Earth Day Conference of the Nelson Institute, University of Wisconsin-Madison. I’m very grateful to Paul Robbins and all at the Institute.
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