Utopia Lost





‘A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at’ – Oscar Wilde


The famous image of Sir Thomas More hangs in my grandparents house, and for as long as I can remember, the stare of that painting said something to me.  Recently, flicking through my library I came across an old copy of his novel Utopia, the word deriving from word play on the Greek of no place, and good place.  More’s utopia was one of an unattainable place, both spatially and temporally.  He concludes with ‘however, there are many things in the commonwealth of Utopia that I rather wish, than hope, to see followed in our governments’.  These wistful words, grapple with the fact that his utopia can never exist, yet still remains a noble cause.

Yet as we move deeper and deeper into the twenty first century, many of our Western societies history has refuted the hope placed in a utopia and by extension another way of organizing outside of liberal capitalism.  Naturally modern tensions within capitalism still arise, but they are not over any fundamental conflict, simply about equality, employment, wages, inflation – all within the framework of the modern, liberal welfare state, far from arguments over what a utopia could look like.[1] In American liberal sociologist Daniel Bell’s book The End of Ideology he claims that the old nineteenth-century ideologies were ‘exhausted,’ undermined by the horrors of Soviet communism and the success of liberal capitalism.  Such calamities as the Moscow Trials, the Nazi-Soviet pact, the concentration camps, the suppression of the Hungarian workers, formed one chain of events; such social changes as the modification of capitalism, the rise of the Welfare State, another. At the end of the 1950s, Bell stated, ‘the old passions are spent’ and ‘the old politico-economic radicalism … has lost its meaning.’ The situation seemed clear: ‘The ideological age has ended.’ As Bell put it, ‘… In the Western world, therefore, there is a rough consensus among intellectuals on political issues: the acceptance of a Welfare State; the desirability of decentralized power; a system of mixed economy and of political pluralism.’[2] Since 1989, two centuries after the French Revolution (history has a strange unconscious at times) a large gap has been created that has been interpreted at the ‘end of ideology’. Today, utopian ideas through both their historical and cultural variations are seen to lead to a desperate degeneration, and the world has lost the ‘principle of hope’ to use Ernst Bloch’s famous phrase.[3]

 So in this formulation, it is really since the fall of ‘really existing socialism’ that the concept of Utopia has come under a full frontal assault, much of it because of the confusion and conflation with leftist ideology. It has been argued that abominations such as the Gulag and Auschwitz were a product of a belief in a utopian absolute truth and excess of reason. Of course we can easily dismiss this idea, as it is akin to saying that the belief in universal truths has caused so much damage, so we renounce it.  However, since we cannot imagine another universal truth we simply warn the public of the dangers they entail. It is a case of ‘If our God failed, then no other may succeed.’ What is more plausible is that the excesses of totalitarian regimes did not come from a belief in a universal truth, but that the belief ‘history’ would ultimately tell if the political programs were correct. 

It was reported that after the fall of the wall, that the east suffered from a lack and a disappointment. And even though the idea of utopia was fatally flawed in this example, as Peter Thompson has argues, the apparent reality of really existing capitalism itself is that it contains no future dimension, no ideology – other than that of what works.[4] Here I would like to modify Thompson’s argument, and say that capitalism does not contain no ideology, but it is the ideology, and its ideology is to carry on with what we have. Hence, the problem becomes clear: on the one hand, we have come to accept democracy and the people’s interests as the ultimate ground for political legitimacy. But on the other hand, we have also eliminated all forms of discursive and direct intervention as negative and anti-democratic, thus exiling once again philosophy and thought from the polls, recreating the gap that de Tocqueville sought to overcome. What deserves our attention is the epistemological naiveté from which democratic thought suffers – we reject discursive interventions by assuming that the citizens are clairvoyant. We are unconditionally committed to democracy without realizing that political laissez- faire and negative freedom are also a form of ideology and that the citizens are not as immune as we think from mediation.                 

But it was pre-dating the fall of the wall that the idea of utopia was under full frontal attack. Philosophically, the 1945–1989 period saw the rise of the great liberal anti-utopians: Karl Popper, Hannah Arendt and Isaiah Berlin. These three thinkers saw danger in utopian thinking of any sort, lumping together forms of future societies that had radically different content, so Nazism and Marxism were placed in the same basket. ‘We no longer hope for an eventual restoration of the old world order with all its traditions,’ wrote Arendt in the opening to Origins of Totalitarianism. ‘Two world wars in one generation, separated by an uninterrupted chain of local wars and revolutions, followed by no peace treaty for the vanquished and no respite for the victor’ means that the ‘essential structure of all civilizations is at the breaking point.’[5] Isaiah Berlin claimed that any attempt to realise utopian projects must end in suffering, disillusionment and failure.  For Berlin and others, the concept of utopia is incompatible with a robust, liberal democracy.  He goes on to argues that what is Utopia for ‘the Valhalla of the Germans is necessarily different from the idea of the future life of the French, because the paradise of the Muslims is not that of the Jew or Christians, because a society in which a Frenchman would attain to harmonious fulfillment is a society which a German might prove suffocating.’[6] What they created, as the political philosopher Russell Jacoby has argued that their argument linked in totalitarianism with utopianism.  And it would be this liberal criticism that would become ‘the conventional wisdom of our time; it damned utopianism as the scourge of history.’[7]

This was followed up by ‘end of ideology’ thinkers such as Raymond Aron in France and Daniel Bell in the United States who would confirm and collaborate the anti-utopian position.  They would also expand the category of a utopian to include all those who had a plan, and make unjust chain of equivalence claims that utopians were linked with violence.  Implicitly, or explicitly utopians were Marxists and vice versa, blurring the truth. The fact that much of the twentieth century mass violence had little to do with utopians.  The principal actors of World War I were far from utopians, and even Adolph Eichmann and the Nazis would struggle to be aligned with a utopian thought, which Arendt herself came to recognize later in her career. 

This is not to hide from the fact that the record of utopian-inspired politics, including socialism and communism, is decidedly mixed. Yet it would be a gross distortion to attribute twentieth century violence mainly to utopians. Unfortunately, this attribution has become an enduring legacy of liberal anti-utopians from Popper to Berlin. Using a notion of totalitarianism that blurs the distinction between Nazism and Stalinism, they identify utopianism—also labeled ‘historicism,’ ‘positive liberty,’ and ‘ideology’—as the source of modern totalitarianism. To the degree that this is accurate, it addresses Stalinism and authoritarian communism but not Nazism, fascism, murderous nationalism, lethal racism, and religious sectarianism—the stuff that increasingly provokes modern bloodletting. My point here is not to defend Marxism (that is for another time!), but at least to think about the defense of utopianism as a noble project. It is also to expose some of the confusion around the idea of utopia which becomes unfairly linked with the great violence of the twentieth century, which could and should easily be put down to political forms, bureaucrats and nationalists, rather than big dreamers.

To remind a ruling ideology of its contingency, of its incapacity to be total and perfect, we need utopia. Philosopher Paul Ricoeur believes that utopia too can be abusive but it is needed for the welfare of a society.[8] Utopia is the counter-understanding of the world of ideology. What is the best political system that would allow for a legitimizing narrative (ideology) and for a dissenting narrative (utopia)? Utopia is a could, a may be, only a possibility and it may seem more urgent to address the is. But one cannot understand, let alone overcome the status quo without the presence of an alternative. So to neglect utopia as political philosophy often does is dangerous because it undermines hope and it is tacitly conservative. Utopia is the possibility of dissent; it is the engine and the force of progress.

The German philosopher Jurgan Habermas has partly attributed the weakness of public culture in Western liberal democracies to the exhaustion of utopian energies, or the diversion of these energies away from mainstream politics.[9]  As Mannheim wrote  over 80 years ago, utopian politics are necessary in that in every era we need to realise the ideas and values which were condensed in the unrealised and unfulfilled tendencies of the previous age.  These elements then come together to make shifts in the existing order.  This appeals to the call that we need more ideas, not necessarily just action in utopian creations.  He goes on to say that :

The concept of utopian thinking reflects the discovery of the political struggle that certain oppressed groups are intellectually so strongly interested in the destruction and transformation of a given condition that they unwittingly see only those elements in the situation which tend to negate it . . In the utopian mentality the collective unconscious guided by wishful representation and the will to action, hides certain aspects of reality.  It turns its back on everything which would shake its belief or paralyze its desire to change things.[10]


What we are witnessing today an actively unpolitical younger generation which has taken the life out of the political institutions and is turning them into zombie categories.  The Western variant of anti-politics opens up the opportunity to enjoy one’s own life and supplements this with a self-organised concern for others that has broken free from large institutions.  It is organised around food, the body, sexuality, identity and in defense of the political freedom of these cultures against intervention from outside.  If you look at these cultures closely, what seems to be unpolitical becomes politicized. This anti-political, anti-utopian move in the end masks the real ideological underpinnings behind the mechanisms of liberal democracies.  It is our modern era that has all but lost this idea of a place beyond history. As the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has pointed out, it is easier to imagine the end of the world rather than a utopian political system outside of capitalism.[11]  But to paraphrase Brecht, since the human condition is based on history and structures rather than an inherent inscription in our DNA, it follows that the idea of utopia is innately produced in our recent history.




The history of the loss of utopia can be drawn all the way back to More, but within this article I wish to focus on the twentieth century variety of it. Visions of ideal societies have recurred throughout history but such societies were nearly always placed in an irretrievable past. The paradisiacal dreaming of humanity was in the realm of religion and mythology rather than in history or science.  But after the bourgeois emancipatory struggles of the French revolution the fiction of the ideal society became something which became more tangible. In the post revolution period, Jean Jacques Rousseau was writing of a communitarian, egalitarian society as if it was historical fact, which Marx and Engels would also follow in their theory of primitive communism, which all men believed could be relived at a more complex level. More’s non-existent land was given a veneer of science and situated in a non-existent future. Further, its cementation as a modern idea came through literature, even becoming a genre in itself led by distinguished authors like Samuel Johnson, Francis Bacon, Marquis de Condorcet and William Morris.

 Utopianism was also replicated in the twentieth century, a time replicate of utopian ideals from Leninism and Castroism, German socialism, the revolts of May ’68, the creation of new, independent states and even the Isreali kibbutzim. And running parallel, there has always been a strong strain of utopian thought in literature, from HG Wells to even Ayn Rand in literature and Niemeyer and Corbusier in architecture. However our modern era favors dystopian literature, and postmodern, ‘death of the narrative’ architectural design.

 The cultural signifier are surely a sign of the idea of utopia is almost falling off the radar in modern thought. Intellectually, it can be traced to the thought of, and continued reverence of Arendt, Popper and Berlin. I do not wish to weigh all the blame on these thinkers, as the historical horrors and structural failings of utopianism along with the surprising resilience and strength to strength nature of liberal capitalism has played a larger role.  However, these intellectuals are marker points, signifiers of the loss of utopianism and the near victory of liberal capitalism. We can see this is our recent ‘utopian’ political ideas are simply the deepening of the welfare state, or some sort of New Deal Nostalgia, not exactly utopian in anyone’s book.  As highlighted in the seminal text ‘Industrialism and the Industrial Man’, ‘the age of utopias is past.  An age of realism has taken its place.’[12]Francis Fukuyama’s much discussed The End of History and the Last Man partly addressed this issue. In an article that preceded the book, Fukuyama stated that ‘the triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.’  The ‘ultimate triumph of Western liberal democracy,’ he wrote, does not lead ‘to an `end of ideology’ or a convergence between capitalism and socialism … but to an unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism.’[13] The liberal philosopher Richard Rorty puts it, ‘We liberals have no plausible large-scale scenario’, for him there was no future.  But this was a positive thing because the big ideas were where humanity went wrong in the past.  He provocatively asserts that ‘I hope that we can banalize the entire vocabulary of leftist political deliberation’ and come to the conclusion that ‘bourgeois democratic welfare states are the best we can hope for.’[14]

This was also observed by H. Stuart Hughes in his work at Harvard in the post WWII period.  He was reporting on the mood of European intellectuals, stating that these people has realised ‘with considerable sense of shock’ that they preferred capitalism to communism.  For Hughes, it was the lack of conviction and ideas that had come out of communism had signaled the end of utopia.[15] This idea was followed by many commentators in the fifties.  For example, Judith Shklar wrote that radical idea had ‘gone totally out of fashion’ and the ‘minimum of utopian faith’ required to transform society had all but gone.[16] And one of the most regarded scholars of the twentieth century Seymour Lipset agreed.  For Lipset ‘politics is now boring’. `The only issues are whether the metal workers should get a nickel more an hour, the price of milk should be raised, or old-age pensions extended.’ Lipset recognised the end of utopian dreaming, in fact it was the triumph of liberal democracy in the West which ended ‘domestic politics of those intellectuals who must have ideologies or utopia to motivate them to political action.’[17] This was followed up in Bell’s The End of Ideology, published in 1960, which looked at the younger generation in a world that had all but destroyed utopianism. For Bell, this new generation, with ‘no meaningful memory’ of old debates, finds itself in a society that has rejected ‘apocalyptic and chialistic visions.’ ‘There is a restless search for a new intellectual radicalism,’ but nothing is found. Ideology is ‘intellectually devitalized’; politics offers ‘little excitement.’ Social reforms do not provide a ‘unifying appeal.’ ‘Whether the intellectuals in the West can find passions outside of politics is moot.’

But two years later Bell brought out a slightly revised edition of The End of Ideology registering a small shift in political realities. Between 1960 and 1962 something had appeared on the scene: a new left.  In closing his new book, he added that it was important to keep an eye on the ‘new Left’, which he saw as lacking historical memory.[18] For good reason. In the early 1960s history was speeding up and radicalism found a new life; ideological conflict was intensifying, not weakening. Fidel Castro swept into Havana in 1959, and two years later the United States broke off relations with Cuba. Castro and his comrade-in-arms ‘Che’ Guevara appeared to many as romantic heroes, inspiring revolution throughout the Americas. Students protesting segregation in the southern states galvanized support from youth in the North. A new politics was spreading across the land. The historian Todd Gitlin captures the feeling of this time.  Walking in New York he ‘ saw a poster tacked on a telephone pole.’ It announced a rally against nuclear weapons with a speech by Erich Fromm and music by Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. ‘The previous year, I might have passed such a notice with barely a glance, but this one was irresistible.’[19] Something had changed, and not simply for Gitlin. That night the arena was jammed with six thousand people.  This was not only a strong revival of utopian thought, it was one that became possible again.  The impossible had reared its head. The same was happening in Europe at this time. Graffiti plastered all over Paris claimed ‘be realistic, demand the impossible’ and ‘it’s the dream that’s real’ reviving Marxist though to a new post-industrial level in which imagination was a key in revolting against capitalism. Michnik at least half agrees. ‘For my generation,’ he has written, ‘the road to freedom began in 1968.’ He admits that ‘at first glance,’ rebelling students in Berkeley and Paris, on one side, and those in Warsaw and Prague, on the other, shared little. The former rejected democratic liberties and championed the Communist project; the latter championed democratic liberties and rejected communism. ‘Nevertheless, I think there were also some common threads: the anti-authoritarian spirit, a sense of emancipation, and the conviction that `to be a realist means to demand the impossible.’‘

Yet the utopian spirit would only last for a short period, as the coming neo-liberal revolution of Reaganism and Thatcherism that came only shortly after the ferment of the sixties, they would do anything to crush it. There is no more anti-utopian slogan than Thatcher’s ‘There is no alternative’ which was a successful attempt to bring any dreams crumbling down.  This was perhaps most signified by the Sex Pistol’s nihilistic call of ‘No Future’, which became a catch cry for a generation that saw no way out only a decade after the possibility of utopia seemed achievable again. Yet even as Thatcher and Reagan tried, it was the events of 1989 mark a decisive shift in the Zeitgeist. For many it was as if the long night of repressive communism had been finally lifted.  But regardless of ones opinion of communism, without another dream to temper it, the victory of dreamless liberal capitalism severely wounded utopianism. Many observers claim that the events of 1989 could be read not as the end of history, but its beginning.           

Regardless of how one views this historical turning point, what it meant was the intellectual and moral victory of liberalism, over the grave of utopianism. The excesses of Stalinism, Maoism were disastrous for the left in that they gave rise to the victory of this moralizing force pioneered by Berlin and Popper. The events of 1989 are also also deeply connected with both the popular and scholarly reading of texts such as 1984 in which the defining theme seems to be that utopia, in particular communism is a destructive and doomed project, even though Orwell might have argued otherwise.  Here we can see how actual history and intellectual history are nearly one in the same in creating the dominance of and anti-utopian weak liberalism. Orwell, like Huxley was far from being an anti-utopian, both men participating in communal experiments to push the edges of human imagination in how we could live.  Then how could they be held up as standard bearers of anti-utopianism?

Hence, what we find ourselves in these days is what Mark Fisher has called ‘Capitalist Realism‘.[20]  This phrase invokes the idea that our present liberal, democratic capitalism is the only realistic option, becoming the only horizon left. Capitalism as a revolutionary movement is in constant state of crisis and the overcoming of crisis which has the additional feature of absorbing conflicts, and ridding us of new conceptions of history.  History can not be reinvented, but just given solutions until the next problem comes along. Here we see the elliptical formation of our current historical moment.  Although temporal movement is still possible, the current historical moment remains constrained because of past historical moments which have tempered utopian thinking.

One of the other key impasses that utopian thinking has come from in the twentieth century after the fall of the wall is the manner in which it is prone to being incorporated into institutionalised politics.  One paradigmatic example is Germany’s Deep Green movement’s entry in parliament in the 1980s, and its cooption and eventual loss of strength.  Another is the once former radical NGO Greenpeace’s almost benign, liberal stance on environmental problems. This is rooted in the form in which the utopian alternative appears, as a radical alternative from the currently inscribed future, but when institutionalised the narrative character of the utopia is displaced by hegemonic state liberal capitalism.  It shifts from a narrative category to programmatic tenet.  To put it another way, the utopian ideal becomes subsumed by the current socio-political framework.  Indeed, the only way in which claims can be staked as to the alternative nature of the utopian vision is with reference to existing indexes of value. When framed in terms of possible alternative futures, utopian discourse thereby finds itself dislocated by virtue of its representational form: the meaning of what that future stands for can only be made apparent in, and bastardised by, the terms of what already exists.

 A further challenge that ‘the end of history’ throws up to utopianism is that the concept is made synonymous with the idea of a preferred, but presently non-existing state. This runs side by side with the ease in which utopian ideas suffer political exclusion on their apparent lack of real politick   in the face of seemingly more pressing and achievable realities. This dislocates any form of utopianism because the very idea of utopia implies the existence of a radically different organizational form whose trajectories cannot be aligned with the current state of things.  But of course, logically, utopia can not be understood in the present. Rejection in the present thus appears to be an underlying criterion for the attribution of success to a fully utopian vision. However the ideological win of an ideology that only works in the present and lacks a future damns the utopian vision.

Another dislocatory challenge emerges in conjunction with attempts that are made to avoid incorporation and exclusion in the course of mobilising utopia as an analytic strategy. It transpires in attempts to position utopian discourse—in the words of the Norwegian criminologist Thomas Mathiesen—as a ‘competing contradiction’.[21] Utopian discourse here takes on two characteristics. First, it creates a condition of incommensurability between the established vectors of institutionalised politics insofar as it projects a principle that contradicts the status quo at one or more strategically salient points. Theodore Adorno’s terse maxim comes to mind here, that ‘(t)here is tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no-one shall go hungry any more’.[22]




Although Fukyama has been derided by so many, mostly because his book is well cited but unread, he foresaw what his claim looked like.  He wrote that

the end of history will be a very sad event. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor   philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.’[23]

He went on to write that

In our grandparents’ time, many reasonable people could foresee a radiant socialist future   in which private property and capitalism had been abolished…. Today, by contrast, we            have trouble imagining a world that is radically better than our own, or a future that is not     essentially democratic and capitalist. Within that framework, of course, many things could   be improved … homeless … minorities … jobs…. We can also imagine future worlds that     are significantly worse that what we know now…. But we cannot picture to ourselves a   world that is essentially different from the present one, and at the same time better.[24]

Fukuyama stated a verity that many refuse to acknowledge. Today the dreams of the mainstream radicals is not that different from the present.  It is as if radicalism no longer believes in itself.  In the past utopians acted in a manner in which they aimed to fundamentally reorganize society. This vision is only a spectre of itself, and the language has been one of ideological liberalism with little vestige of utopia. At best radicals and leftists envision a modified society with bigger pieces of pie for more customers. They turn utilitarian, liberal and celebratory. The left once dismissed the market as exploitative; it now honors the market as rational and humane. The left once disdained mass culture as exploitative; now it celebrates it as rebellious. The left once honored independent intellectuals as courageous; now it sneers at them as elitist. The left once rejected pluralism as superficial; now it worships it as profound. We are witnessing not simply the defeat of the left, but the loss of utopia. For example the Eastern European left does not reach for a new society beyond capitalism; rather, it supports parliamentary democracy, rule of law and a market economy—the familiar institutions of Western Europe and North America.

What remains in our so-called post ideological age, is pure ideology – a vapid liberalism.  We can see this clearly the rise of our anti-political age.  Liberal parliamentary democracy is losing its shine, and there is a loss of support for major parties, and increase in anti-political candidates like Australia’s Clive Palmer.  Even Tony Abbott campaigned on the negative, anti-political platform.  Surely a sign at the stagnation of liberalism, as least without utopian thought to temper it.  The win of liberalism over any utopian project has also meant that the liberalism we are left with is a stagnant, uninspiring idea.  It is as if we choose between Keynes or Hayek, and go from there.

Like any vague term it suffers from misconceptions about the idea. The most common conception is the utopia of the ideal, in Lacanian terms something that is surplus-enjoyment, over-rationality.  However, I propose a different mode of imagining utopia, something which is at the limits of the imaginary, a horizon rather than an unknowable place. This utopian demand is produced when conditions are deadlocked to a degree that symptoms cannot be resolved within existing co-ordinates, such that new space must be invented. An alternate modality of utopia can be constituted around the very impossibility of its realisation, rather than the jouissance imagined in the ideological utopia of the ideal. This mode retains the demand for a better world but finds the drive for change in the limitation of imagination rather than its location in a specific ideal. If, for example, a dominant mode of contemporary environmentalism displays the tragic utopianism of the ideal harmony with nature, an alternative mode could momentarily exist in a discombobulation of ideology stemming from a collective and traumatic realisation that existing devices cannot prevent ecological disaster. This realisation – an evocation of the Real – has the potential to disrupt the consistency of capitalism in a way that new modes of understanding can flourish.

                  As Žižek, discussing the lack of alternatives to capitalism, states in the documentary Žižek!;

                  ‘We should reinvent utopia, but in what sense? There are two false meanings of utopia;  one is this old notion of imaging an ideal society which we know will never be realised. The other is the capitalist utopia in the sense of new perverse desires that you are not only allowed but even solicited to realise. The true utopia is when the situation is so without issue, without a way to resolve it within the coordinates of the possible that out of the pure urge of survival you have to invent a new space. Utopia is not kind of a free imagination, utopia is a matter of inner-most urgency, you are forced to imagine as the only way out, and this is the utopia we need today.’

The distinction between the two modes of utopia can be found in Thomas More’s original conception, using Greek terms to bring together ‘no place’ and ‘good place’. This suggests both a tragic and comedic face to utopia. Utopia can be tragic – a place we will never reach – or comedic; utopia lies in the constituent impossibility of its realisation. This latter form does not cling to an alternative conception of society but, rather, relies upon the build-up of energy around the very limits to our imagination. Imagination, of course, is not limited to the fancy of the individual. Rather, imagination is always a social creation; the limitations of our imagination are always the limitations of the ideological terrain.

Therefore, utopia is the most authentic when we can not fully imagine it. It is not an idea that helps us imagine a better future, but because we have no capacity to imagine such a future it reveals the bankruptcy and ideological feedback loop of modern liberalism in which our most energetic leaps into radical alternatives a solely projections of our own social, historical and subjective moment. A true idea of utopia should come out of subjectivities that can not be recognized in the present, but both real and non-existent. Although this seems oxymoronic, by thinking of utopia in this way we can remove the subjective content of utopia, and replace it with a desire for a future state of being. The possibility of such utopias, in the spirit of Derrida’s invocation of the Messianic, thereby depends entirely upon actions in the present that can materialise those utopian futures: a principle mobilised to congeal disparate anticipations of the future into an intellectual system that can, in the face of its recurring failure, generate further such acts of anticipation. The goal is not to replace one idea with a ‘better’ one, but let a new ‘truth’ emerge from an existing struggle of ‘truths’ one which is outside our current ideological formation.

A utopian drive lies in the impossibility of imagining an alternative future to capitalism despite the inability to resolve its great horrors: such a demand is embodied in Jameson’s oft-repeated remark that capital limits our imagination such that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than a change in the mode of production.[25] Rather than attempting to suture the contradictions of capital, a utopian demand occurs when the subjects of capitalism are compelled to imagine a new mode of being in order to avoid the trauma of the breakdown of the ideological frameworks which have contained the horrors of capital.

What we should remember, for those interested in social justice is the distinction that Mannheim made so many years ago. The distinction between ideology – which represents the interests of the ruling class and dominant sectors, versus utopia which represents the interests of the dominated. It appears that the ruling class have all but won, out only option out is to reinvent and reinvigorate utopian demands.  The only possible option is to demand the impossible. Yet something must be stated: the choice we have is not between reasonable proposals and a unreasonable utopianism. Utopian thinking does not undermine or discount real reforms. Indeed, it is almost the opposite: practical reforms depend on utopian dreaming—or at least utopian thinking drives incremental improvements. Utopian dreaming is the only hope left for humanity.  Its historical loss could go down as the beginning of the end.




Adorno, T. W. (2006). Minima Moriala: Reflections from a damaged life. London, Verso.

Arendt, H. (1973). The Origins of Totalitarianism. Harcourt, Harvest.

Bell, D. (1960). The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties. Glencoe, Free Press.

Berlin, I. (1991). The crooked timber of humanity. New York, Alfred A. Knopf.

Bloch, E. (1986). The Principle of Hope. Cambridge, MIT Press.

Fisher, M. (2009). Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? New York, Zero Books.

Fukyama, F. (1989). “The End of History?” National Interest 16.

Fukyama, F. (1992). The End of History and the Last Man. New York, Free Press.

Gitlin, T. (1993). The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. London, Bantam Press.

Habermas, J. (2010). “The Concept of Human Digniity and the Realistic Utopia of Human Rights.” Metaphilosophy 41(4): 464-480.

Jacoby, R. (1999). The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy. New York, Basic Books.

Jacoby, R. (2005). Picture Imperfect. New York, Columbia University Press.

Jameson, F. (2003). “Future Cities.” New Left Review 21(May-June).

Kerr, C. (1960). Industrialism and industrial man : the problems of labor and management in economic growth. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

Lipset, S. M. (1981). Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics. Garden City, Doubleday.

Mannheim, K. (1954). Ideology and utopia : an introduction to the sociology of knowledge London, Routledge.

Mathiesen, T. (1974). The politics of abolition : essays in political action theory. Oslo, Universitetsforlaget.

Ricoeur, P. (1986). Lectures on Idology and Utopia. New York, Columbia University Press.

Rorty, R. (1989). Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Thompson, P. (2013). Introduction: The Privatization of Hope and the

Crisis of Negation. The Privitization of Hope. P. Thompson and S. Zizek, Duke University Press. Durham: 1-21.

Zizek, S. (2008). Living in the End Times. London, Verso.




[1] Of course this is a very Western centric view, in many nations all over the world liberal capitalism has not completely won, or indeed is still up for question.  One obvious example to this is the tiny island of Cuba which has amazingly resisted the great empire to the north for over fifty years, and is still set on implementing its own form of communist utopia.  Further, to the south of Cuba nations such as Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia have recently shifted course away from liberal capitalism and have created new visions of the future. But for the sake of space, I shall keep my focus on the west.

[2]Bell, D. (1960). The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties. Glencoe, Free Press.

[3]Bloch, E. (1986). The Principle of Hope. Cambridge, MIT Press.

[4]Thompson, P. (2013). Introduction: The Privatization of Hope and the

Crisis of Negation. The Privitization of Hope. P. Thompson and S. Zizek, Duke University Press. Durham: 1-21.

[5]Arendt, H. (1973). The Origins of Totalitarianism. Harcourt, Harvest.

[6]Berlin, I. (1991). The crooked timber of humanity. New York, Alfred A. Knopf.

[7]Jacoby, R. (2005). Picture Imperfect. New York, Columbia University Press.

[8]Ricoeur, P. (1986). Lectures on Idology and Utopia. New York, Columbia University Press.

[9]Habermas, J. (2010). “The Concept of Human Digniity and the Realistic Utopia of Human Rights.” Metaphilosophy 41(4): 464-480.

[10]Mannheim, K. (1954). Ideology and utopia : an introduction to the sociology of knowledge London, Routledge.

[11]Zizek, S. (2008). Living in the End Times. London, Verso.

[12]Kerr, C. (1960). Industrialism and industrial man : the problems of labor and management in economic growth. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

[13]Fukyama, F. (1992). The End of History and the Last Man. New York, Free Press.

[14]Rorty, R. (1989). Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

[15] cited in Jacoby, R. (1999). The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy. New York, Basic Books.


[17]Lipset, S. M. (1981). Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics. Garden City, Doubleday.

[18]Bell, D. (1960). The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties. Glencoe, Free Press.

[19]Gitlin, T. (1993). The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. London, Bantam Press.

[20]Fisher, M. (2009). Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? New York, Zero Books.

[21]Mathiesen, T. (1974). The politics of abolition : essays in political action theory. Oslo, Universitetsforlaget.

[22]Adorno, T. W. (2006). Minima Moriala: Reflections from a damaged life. London, Verso.

[23]Fukyama, F. (1989). “The End of History?” National Interest 16.

[24]Fukyama, F. (1992). The End of History and the Last Man. New York, Free Press.

[25]Jameson, F. (2003). “Future Cities.” New Left Review 21(May-June).


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