News from Nowhere
The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy, by Russell Jacoby, New York: Basic Books, 236 pages, $26.00
Apocalypse Pretty Soon: Travels in End-Time America, by Alex Heard, New York: W.W. Norton, 360 pages, $24.95
A utopia is, by definition, a fantasy: The word literally means "no place," and the classical utopias existed only in the imagination. Sometimes, they were enchanting literature. Political scientists may sneer at the French socialist Charles Fourier, in whose utopia the planets copulate and the oceans turn to lemonade, but the surrealists loved him.
Their enthusiasm certainly makes more sense than that of those 19th-century Americans who actually tried to found Fourierist "phalanxes." There's a reason why most utopias remain placeless, as Fourier's fans and the other utopian colonists of the era quickly discovered: It's pretty hard to design any community from scratch, let alone one that overturns dozens of social conventions. Even the colonies that succeeded for a sustained period of time—the towns founded by the American anarchist Josiah Warren, for instance—were soon either absorbed into the society around them or destroyed by the sort of outside forces that could erase any community, whether or not it was baptized by idealists.
America still has hundreds of intentional communities, some more successful than others, along with elaborate plans for even larger colonies—the "new country" fantasies that periodically flicker in the libertarian press, for example. But most new settlements today are commercial developments, not utopian communes; they're governed by condo boards and CC&Rs, not socialist or religious visionaries. The dream of a world without exploitation has persisted, but the smart money is invested in worlds without pets.
Literary utopias, on the other hand, have flourished, especially if you include the sort of writing that is concerned less with designing a new order than with simply imagining how—to borrow historian Russell Jacoby's definition of utopia—"the future could fundamentally surpass the present." Modern utopianism includes virtually every tract about the alleged New Age, every Luddite proposal to erase the last two centuries, every call for a religious reawakening, every manifesto on the transformative powers of cyberspace. It includes Web sites, science fiction novels, and essays in xeroxed zines.
Even conspiracy theories can be utopian, since a dystopia is also a kind of utopia. I'm not talking about allegations of crimes in high places (many of which, we've learned, turn out to be true); I mean the wild stuff, the tales of alien implants and Masonic mind control, of cabals always just poised on completing their long march toward global rule. From Swift to Orwell, dystopian writers have exaggerated social trends they dislike, forging those artful distortions into satires. Conspiracy folklore does the same thing for the same reason, except that most of these dystopians actually believe in the worlds they've invented.
Given all this, it's amazing to hear Jacoby claim that utopianism is "stone dead." But in The End of Utopia, he does just that.
Jacoby is a leftist intellectual with a reputation for bashing other leftist intellectuals. He's good at it: His last book, Dogmatic Wisdom, made a strong case that the left, far from "subverting" the academy, has actually been absorbed by it. The End of Utopia continues the thought. With the left reduced to a socially irrelevant faction of the professoriate, Jacoby argues, it has become less interested in transforming society than in tinkering with it. It has stopped dreaming of different, better worlds and, without those utopian fancies to fortify it, has lost its spine. "Can liberalism with a backbone exist if its backbone turns mushy?" Jacoby asks. "Does radicalism persist if reduced to means and methods?"
Apparently not, as far as at least some leftists are concerned. The good parts of Jacoby's book describe the sort of material those erstwhile radicals have been reduced to producing. My favorite is the semiotician who managed to draw out an analysis of The Cosby Show's opening sequence for seven pages. Her conclusion: "The syntagmatic structure of the opening credits might be described as a theme and variations, where Cosby is the theme and each child—and his wife—appear as variations." (And you thought the show was dull.)
But it's a long jump from the decline of the left to the death of utopia, not least because leftists are hardly the only utopians in the world. Jacoby seems unaware of this. He even drafts F.A. Hayek into the anti-utopian camp, citing the economist's sardonic reference to socialist and fascist totalitarianism as "the great utopia." But it was Hayek who called for "a liberal Utopia, a programme which seems neither a mere defense of things as they are nor a diluted kind of socialism, but a truly liberal radicalism that does not spare the susceptibility of the mighty." This is precisely the defense of utopia that Jacoby offers, but Hayek's status as a free-marketeer apparently puts him beyond the pale.
Only in his last chapter does Jacoby cite some nonsocialist brands of utopian thought, and he doesn't have much of interest to say about them. Consider, for example, his sole reference—brief, dismissive, and trite—to cyberspace. "The belief a new media [sic] will transform the cultural terrain is trotted out every generation," he writes. "Yet each new medium—radio, film or television—quickly gets integrated into the culture."
What sloppy thinking is this? A new medium can hardly transform a culture without being integrated into it. Furthermore, the three media Jacoby mentions did transform the culture—not in the way their utopian proponents envisioned, of course, but if that's what Jacoby means, that's what he should write.
More important, there still are utopian dreams attached to radio, film, and television, as anyone familiar with the micro-broadcasting and video hacking movements can attest. If anything, those currents are resurgent. By staking out radical visions of open, populist, decentralized media, they've invigorated the mainstream's media debates. To use Jacoby's terms, they provide a utopian "backbone" for the more moderate reformers' "means and methods."
Jacoby also devotes a lot of space to the argument that utopia need not be totalitarian or dull. This is a rather easy point to make, especially if you accept his broad definition of utopian writing. Nonetheless, he circles endlessly around the issue.
On one of those loops, Jacoby cites a series of "dissenting leftists" who "protested an idea of the future as an improved model of the present, where labor was not abolished or minimized, but simply better compensated." One of these protesters is Paul Lafargue, Karl Marx's son-in-law and the author of The Right to Be Lazy. Jacoby represents Lafargue's views with a quote: "If…the working classes were…not to demand the Right to Work which is but the right to misery, but to forge a brazen law forbidding any men to work more than three hours a day, the earth, the old earth, trembling with joy would feel a new universe leaping within her."
If this is the sort of utopian thought Jacoby believes is dead, his obituary is particularly ill-timed. Lafarguean attitudes actually underwent a revival in the '80s. They were widely espoused in the zine world by such writers as Bob Black and the late Fredy Perlman, and they influenced figures ranging from Simpsons creator Matt Groening (in his cartoon collection Work Is Hell) to science fiction writer Bruce Sterling (who included an anti-work political party in his novel Islands in the Net, with a leader modeled after Black). In the '90s, this "zerowork" tendency has served as the utopian backbone of the movement to reduce Americans' work hours. (You know all those articles complaining that we don't get as much vacation time as the French? You can trace those back, indirectly, to Lafargue.)
More broadly speaking, the notion that it is good to reduce toil has supporters on both the academic left, to judge from such books as Juliet Schor's The Overworked American, and the free market right, to judge from Schor's ablest critics. (Very few people attacked her book by claiming that excessive work is good. Most took her analysis to task, arguing that the average American's work hours are actually declining—and that this is good.) And on the far right, the survivalist bookseller Loompanics—the self-proclaimed "lunatic fringe of the libertarian movement"—has sold The Right to Be Lazy for years.
In other words, there's no shortage of utopianism in the world. You just have to look past the collegiate left to find most of it.
Alex Heard would never dream of so limited a search. In Apocalypse Pretty Soon, a travelogue of the apocalyptic and utopian fringe, Wired's executive editor encounters a rich cast of kooks, few of them likely to turn up in a faculty lounge. There is Marshall T. Savage, who hopes to establish high-tech colonies in the ocean, in orbit, on the moon, and on other planets. Brock d'Avignon, by contrast, would be satisfied to erect a libertarian paradise on an artificial island. Dr. Steven Greer doesn't need to build any islands: He expects aliens to bring paradise to Earth. The Rev. Clyde Lott thinks God will handle that—but only after a lengthy Tribulation. Dick and Leigh Richmond-Donahue expect a more ecological tribulation, after which a handful of enlightened enviro-survivalists will build a new world.
Never afraid to call a scamster a scamster or a nut a nut, Heard also can be respectful, even affectionate, about his subjects. "Much of the scholarship and skeptical commentary I've read treats millennialism as, essentially, a form of popular insanity, a disease, one that usually has dire consequences," he notes. But most millennialists "function peacefully with their ideas."
This is not a minor matter: In July, the FBI's Michael Vatis warned Congress that his agency "expects to see increased and possibly violent activities among certain groups related to the millennium." This fear, of course, is itself a millennial phenomenon, and given the FBI's uninspiring record in dealing with "certain groups related to the millennium," it could turn into a pretty nasty self-fulfilling prophecy.
Some fringe groups do have the potential for violence. But for most, Heard finds, Armageddon is always imminent but never arrives; it's more a comforting presence than a threat. "The key for happiness," he writes, "is for redemption to shine forever on the horizon." Hence the "pretty soon" in his title.
Heard's approach makes for delightful reading, especially if you've just slogged through something as boring as Jacoby's tome. It also raises some questions about the author. Heard is unable to adopt any of the belief systems he investigates, though in one case (involving life after death) he'd clearly like to. Yet he keeps throwing himself into these odd subcultures, investigating them with something more than voyeurism in mind. After a while, I started suspecting he too enjoys that pretty-soon feeling of changes on the horizon, even if he's too skeptical to adopt any millennial faith himself.
I suspected him, in other words, of what one might call ironic utopianism. Of all the species of utopia, this one is the least literal and the most literary: It is more speculative than prescriptive, more an anthem than a constitution. If traditional utopias reduce a complex world to one dreamer's blueprint, ironic ones enrich the world, letting us move between different social visions.
Thus, when Heard, bored with modern futurism (a meeting of the World Future Society was "like ascending the mountaintop and looking out at a carpet-and-tile showroom"), starts hanging out with d'Avignon the would-be island builder, he gets inspired, even though he doesn't expect the man to build his colony and probably wouldn't want to live there anyway. "I didn't believe he would single-handedly rehabilitate wing-tinned futurism," Heard admits. "In fact, I had a strong suspicion right from the start that he wouldn't accomplish much of anything. What interested me was the quest."
From there it is a short step to a different sort of utopia, one that you don't imagine outside the world but try to discover within it—utopia not as fantasy but as epiphany. Desmond Morris, the anthropologist, once hinted at this approach. "My greatest punishment would be to be confined in the classic conception of a utopia, where nothing ever goes wrong and everyone is permanently, boringly happy," he wrote. "The real world in which I live is already sufficiently curious, rebellious, eccentric, and evolving to give me my utopia right here and now."
You can take that as a personal credo, or you can take it as a political program. To paraphrase an old slogan, every new world is buried in the shell of the old.