The Coronavirus pandemic has forced the world into uncharted territories, where businesses suffer with unpredictability, and people look at the future as an hopeless abyss. The fragile global, national and local systems are becoming more fragile, with human lives disrupted by an esoteric turmoil.
The crisis is proliferating in every step of human life, institutions, and networks. Politics has deviated from its aim of serving people. The dominant power structure does not show any sign of reforming itself. It is a prelude to a turbulent future where democratic rights and freedoms are subverted.
The reactionaries and right wingers are competing to overtake each other in promoting the politics of bigotry. There is growing sense of alienation among people. It is chaos and crisis that define everyday lives in the world today.
Every crisis breeds hopelessness and utopian visions, both in its progressive and regressive forms. Every ideology carries a certain element of utopia. The regressive utopias are based on constructed propaganda to achieve certain goals of ruling regimes and capitalist classes. These utopias lack imaginations.
The ‘American Dream’, ‘Sun never sets on the British empire’ and ‘Fair and Lovely’ are classic examples of unscrupulous and regressive utopias that promote capitalism, colonialism, sexism and racism. The regressive utopias obscure social, economic and political realities. They demolish individual needs, dreams, desires and priorities. They promote capitalism within economic systems, and totalitarianism and colonialism in politics.
The global capitalist utopian vision has promised prosperity for the last five centuries, but failed to eradicate poverty and inequalities. It accelerated the processes of marginalisation and deprivation on a world scale. There is massive growth of wealth and miseries at the same time, indicating that capitalism is based on false propaganda. There is no vision for the people within its utopian outlook. A trail of destruction defines capitalism and all its establishments.
The establishment always frames alternative social transformations as dangerous. In the annals of history, every time the masses have challenged the power structures, they were branded as radicals and criminals. The ruling and non-ruling elites have always considered socialism, communism, democracy or any progressive ideals as dangerous utopia.
History reveals that progressive utopian ideals help human beings to recover from crises. So, the human search for progressive utopias and turning them into reality take societies forward. All social, political, cultural, religious and economic transformations have followed their path in search of utopias.
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Emancipatory ideals drive progressive utopian visions. Hence, the regressive and conservative forces are always opposed to utopian ideals because they destabilise their worldview that is premised on power and privileges. Utopias can breakdown the unitary worldview of capitalism and all its affiliated philosophies.
The Austrian-born British philosopher, Karl Popper, considered himself a critical rationalist, but in reality, he was a conservative-liberal philosopher. His opposition and unstructured critique of utopianism in his books The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), The Poverty of Historicism (1957) and Utopia and Violence (1963) helped the growth of reductionist technocratic politics. His so-called ideas of scientific rationalism provided philosophical foundation to the neoliberal social democracy and rational choice in economics.
The spirit of reason, reform, criticisms, and other ideals of open society die their natural death in a capitalist system where utopias are considered as unproductive debauchery and destructive. This is the way capitalism socialises masses and organises itself as the only viable system that destroys the very arguments of Popper for an open society.
It is utopia that promotes open society and democratic culture. In fact, the very idea of human progress owes its origin to utopia. In defence of utopia, Thomas More, in his book Utopia, argued that “the only authentic image of the future is, in the end, the failure of the present.” His prophetic words established utopian traditions and continue to resonate with our times even 505 years after the publication of the book.
In reality, the capitalist utopias were hidden behind limitless rules and regulations within the darkness of bureaucracy because capitalism failed to deal with everyday challenges it produces. David Graeber, in his book The Utopia of Rules, argued that the capitalist establishment’s “refusal to deal with people as they actually are.” Therefore, it tends to promote consumer culture to convert people into customers, transforms social relationships into market-led exchange relationships and individual needs into desires.
These changes are the foundations of the faux ‘American dreams’ of prosperity, which demand individuals to surrender themselves to their unbound desires. The unbound desires create conditions for unfree labour, which is the core of capitalism and its illicit economy.
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In the face of unfettered capitalism, in alliance with right wing and reactionary politics, and climate change across the globe, it is difficult to imagine alternative utopias to end market domination over human lives. The plight, precarity and crisis that the Coronavirus pandemic has spurred offer fertile grounds for radical transformation of the world organised around capitalism. But this depends on the quality of our utopia and commitment to turn it into reality.
The struggles for democracy, universal adult suffrage, citizenship rights, women’s right and right to life, liberty and equality were utopias at one point of time. The struggle for human beings transformed these utopias into realities.
Utopias are not just about idealisms for the future to deal with different crises. They also deal with the issues of the present based on past experiences. Utopias are unseen platforms of mind, where people imagine a world better than the present one. The rejection of utopias limits human imagination for the better. It pushes masses into a corridor, where they lose the ability to imagine the meaning of their existence.
Such a process helps in naturalising and normalising the belief that ‘there is no alternative’ within an exploitative and unsustainable capitalist system. Utopias are not manifestos for change, but they create a vast open space to imagine alternatives that could facilitate social transformation.
In the history of ideas, utopianism played a significant role in shaping everyday lives. It is impossible to live with the challenges of the present and imagine the future without utopias.
The Coronavirus pandemic has revealed capitalist delusions. It has pushed human lives into disposable body bags. It has proved that death and destitution are integral to capitalism. Therefore, the mosaic of progressive utopias needs to seek social, political, economic and ecological transformations to face the challenges of today and outline a sustainable future based on peace and prosperity.
And needless to say, utopias will play an indispensable role in this critical transformation.
Views expressed are the author’s own.
Featured image by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash.
Bhabani Shankar Nayak is a political economist based in Coventry, UK. He researches and writes on political economy of religion, market, business and development.