The Utopian Heresy

So, I was speedreading HG Wells again in advance of teaching him, in the context of his utopianism, and I ended up wondering about utopia’s relationship to societal scale.

In Wells, dystopia is usually us, by default. By contrast to his Modern Utopia, or The Shape of Things to Come, it is existing society which bears the taint, by default comparison, of dystopia.

But there are hidden hints of dystopia too, in the monstrosity of some of his earlier scientific romances – in the Eloi/Morlock symbiosis or on Moreau’s island, for example.

Anyhow, I began wondering whether a wrong turn we’ve made, in the 10,000 years since we expanded our societal size and complexity far beyond the Dunbar number, is in conceiving of utopia as a mass or universally applicable concept, and concomitantly, of dystopia as the plight of the individual in a negatively charged mass society.

Winston Smith undoubtedly lives in a dystopia. But how much of his dystopian encounter related to his individualism, his isolated rebellion against the monolith of Ingsoc? Would it have ever been possible for Smith, like the citizens of the Soviet Union, to somehow accommodate the totalitarianism? Can we, like Camus with Sisyphus, imagine Winston to be happy?

Anyhow, at the risk of assuming a taint of libertarianism, I wonder maybe we might have got it in reverse. Perhaps if utopia was understood as an individuated pursuit to project wellbeing outwards, whether desired or no, and dystopia as an immersion in a mass societal structure in which one size cannot fit all, nor even many, we might be onto something more fruitful.

Implicit in this idea, of course, is the suggestion of scale as an aspect of the issue, alongside the individuation of the Post-Enlightenment, something which itself has fallen subject to gargantuanism too, leading to the atomisation anomie so many people now experience. Is there a sweet spot somewhere between the individual self, thinking therefore being in a Cartesian moment of solipsism, and the uncountable hordes of contemporary existence? Professor Dunbar, as a good evolutionary biologist, suggests there is, hovering around his tribal size scale of approximately 150 individuals, though of course this does get queried.

No doubt, some of the reaction to the Covid pandemic, people seeking to leave cities for the country life in the first twitch of reversing the urbanisation we’ve seen accelerating throughout recent centuries, relates as much to an intuitive desire to rescale existence closer to the Dunbar number. This does not deny the desire for a lockdown garden, nor any of the other insights the world suddenly and collectively experienced in relation to the dystopic existence of modern city living, of course. They go hand in hand, down the pastoral path.

But if we must continue to operate in terms of didactic absolutes like utopia and dystopia, then maybe it would be more useful to envisage attempts to engineer society en masse as inherently dystopian motivations, even when couched, as they always, always are, in utopian and universal terms.

Equally, if we began to conceive of dystopia as a fundamental malaise experienced by the individual in response to the impossible complexities and incomprehensible scale of globalised society, then paradoxically it restores to us some human agency. Dunbar might essentialise this as something hardwired, inherent to our sapiens software. Without necessarily challenging that, I see it coming from both ends at once, both nature and nurture, the contradiction of Dasein in the megacity.

This still leaves us with the challenges that require scaled reaction of course. How to accommodate human liberty in a pandemic, or engage a global response to the climate crisis, just to iterate two particularly pressing examples of how individuated utopic desire might contradict the need to police the dystopic boundaries of global-scale societal infrastructure.

If I had an easy answer to that mode of contradiction I’d say so, but of course I don’t. Nevertheless, it does seem to me more sensible to start understanding utopic desire as an inherently dystopian practice when predicated on a societal level as it always has been to date. Likewise, there is a utopic emancipation inherent within dystopian structure, awaiting each of us as individuals to unleash it.

This is the paradox of the utopia/dystopia framework and paradigm as I see it. This is my utopian heresy.

Leave a Reply