The Only Realism: Utopia Within, Utopia Against, Utopia Beyond

By David M. Bell 

There’s a lot said against utopia. 

Or rather, there’s little said against utopia itself, because utopia-itself is the end of discussion. To deploy the word is to win the argument—or at least set its terms—without further debate. “That’s utopian!” Fin. Done. Utopia is a containment zone for positions that are beyond the pale. 

This is a strategy not just of the right, but of many ostensibly on the left: those serious, sober, not-like-the-other-leftists who will denounce neoliberalism, bandy around the phrase ‘capitalist realism’ and talk about shifting the Overton window. What they won’t do is question the axis along which that window runs—the range of ‘acceptable policies’, not possible worlds—condemning the political to a shrunk-horizon realism of their own. Too often they seem at home here: quite content that the biological family, prisons, cops, jobs and borders remain constitutive features of the world; happy to rearrange this world rather than instigate a new one; concerned with ‘winning over the people’ and not forming new peoples. Yet even such minimal ambition is denied them as they, protestations ignored, find themselves condemned as beyond the pale utopians. 

‘Beyond the pale’, by the way, is a reference to The Pale: the area of Ireland under English rule during the Late Middle Ages, named for its fenced, or ‘paled’—border. The status quo: (re)produced through colonialism and borders. There are worse places to be sent beyond, and if this is our fate we may as well embrace the label that goes with it, and all it can entail. 

Yes, we are utopians and yes, we want utopia. 

Utopianism has never simply been ‘beyond’, though. Thomas More begins Utopia, from where the concept takes its name, not on the titular island but in Antwerp, where the thrust of the text is pitched against constitutive features of his world: enclosure, private property and the insistence on policy as the proper mode of politics chief among them. When the reader finally arrives in Utopia, they find it is in fact an extrapolation of organisational forms within More’s own day (the monastery, chiefly). 

I’m not here to preach monastic virtue (though the beer can be good), but rather to call for a fidelity to these three modes of utopianism, and for an attentiveness to what happens when they operate together. For utopianism: within, against, and beyond. 

Within: Seeds Beneath the Snow

Utopianism operates within the here-and-now by practicing (in both senses of the word) wondrous ways of living and relating in the cramped spaces of possibility afforded by our present. It creates prefigurative utopias that partially enact new worlds through the holding-in-common of property; the instantiation of nonhierarchical forms of collective decision-making; the proliferation, rejection and remaking of gender(s); the ability to move as and when one wishes; the communization of care; and the expansion of non-carceral forms of justice and accountability (among much else). It is the refusal of power as a zero-sum game, producing a mutual power-with and not a proprietary power-over. It favours neither individual nor collective, knowing that the opposition between them is false: ‘individuality’ is shaped by the collective, and collectives are strongest where this individuality flourishes.

In all this it is freedom: the expansion of possible relationships into which one might enter, the expansion of ways of being in the world, the possibility of something new and unexpected emerging. It is the joy of experiencing the most preliminary morsels of that which we do not yet know we might be(come); the potency of what the anarchist writer David Goodaway has called ‘the seeds beneath the snow’.

It is found in squatting, occupations, picket lines, creative practice, public sex, looting, the survival and transformation of Indigenous modes of living, autonomous territories, nonstate trans healthcare networks, and a thousand other places where the grip of dominant hierarchies is loosed and capital (however temporarily) struggles to penetrate. It is also frequently depicted in fiction: think, for example, of the utopian spaces, structures, identities and cultures of queer-of-colour possibility depicted in FX’s queer ballroom drama Pose. For many, these ways of living and relating are matters of survival, and they are often pioneered by those to whom this world is most hostile.

Against: Making the Present Impossible

It is because of this hostility that utopianism is against our world. To think that it might be possible for utopianism to strike a deal with capital and the state, to become ‘policy’, or to operate happily alongside this world is to abandon it. The purpose of utopianism is utopia, not reform. (This is to not to vilify any-and-all reform, but to insist that it is not utopian.) Those who believe in ‘utopia for realists’ but conflate ‘the real’ with ‘what we have’, or place their faith in isolated islands of utopia, are as fatal to utopianism as any declared anti-utopian. Nor can true utopians be content with the suggestion that utopian beyond might ‘expand our horizons’, but who are cautious about moving into truly unknown political territory. 

Simply, utopians must be against the world because the world is against them. Anti-utopianism is not simply an intellectual orientation: volumes of Karl Popper and pejorative deployments of ‘utopian’ by normie leftists are but minor parts of the many, varied and cruel violences and co-options wrought through colonization, capital and the state. Anti-utopianism trains people for this world and brutalizes those who will not, or cannot, conform. ‘Common sense’ obscures the violence, telling us that things are impossible just because

Yet what remains is, for many, itself unrealistic, impossible. There is no traditional family for the genderqueer child of transphobes, no private property for the destitute, and no salvation in liberal reconciliation for the colonised. Utopianism is thus not a struggle for the unrealistic, the impossible; but a struggle over (im)possibility and the (un)realistic. It is the art, as Tom Moylan has noted, of making the present impossible. It is not reform, but abolition. It is not idealism, but materialism.

Where the within of utopianism operates qualitatively in the cracks of the present, opening up new possibilities in spaces always under threat, the ‘against’ operates quantitatively by holding and expanding these cracks. It knows that isolated attempts to create a once-and-for-all utopia within the confines of the present could survive only by making peace with the violences of the present, and that even the most positive aspects of prefigurative utopias can be made to produce value for capital. A harrowing question from Helen Dunmore’s The Siege hits home. “If spring can come, if things can be different, how can you bear what your existence has been?” In struggle, the snow doesn’t just melt, spring doesn’t just come, the seeds don’t grow by themselves. We have to clear and nurture.

So the against takes the form of resistance to, struggle against and sabotage of surveillance, co-option, policing, labour, the value-form, hierarchical classificatory models and the myriad ways in which such violences co-constitute one another. It allows utopianism to express a tendency to totality, and this expansion outwards in space and time is essential to the survival of utopianism within and the possibility of a utopia beyond. 

Of course, the violences of our world are reproduced by even the most ardently utopian subjects within prefigurative utopias. Think of those squatters who receive recognition for their brilliant strategizing, but who fail to do their share of reproductive labour; and of their comrades who bestow this recognition on them while failing to equally recognise those who do that cleaning and care work (a hierarchical division of labour that runs along and perpetuates existing lines of oppression). Utopianism, in this sense, needs to operate against itself as it operates against the world. 

Within and Against

The within and the against might be restated as the affirmative and the negative, or organisation and struggle: the attempt to construct a new world and the destruction of this one. In the former category we might place squats, occupations or the autonomous zone of the EZLN; in the latter we might think of no borders struggles, anti-prisons organisation and police monitoring groups fit more squarely in the latter. But only in language do such divides truly exist (and the English language perhaps particularly so): in practice there is significant crossover, both in personnel and method. Each mode answers questions raised by the other: ‘ok, we abolish prisons, what then?’; ‘that squat’s all well and good, but how do you take the struggle to the present rather than isolate yourself from it?’. At times, the modes become utterly indistinguishable:  when those in struggle develop new, less gendered modes of care within their movements are they negating the present or affirming the alternative? Is a squatted building an instantiation of a new world or a negation of the property rights of its ‘owner’? Is ‘No Borders’ a struggle against the present or a description of the worlds those in struggle create within the present?

The Beyond

The answer is ‘both’, of course. But there’s a third answer too: they are descriptors or prefigurations of a world beyond ours. 

Thinking up and through such beyonds allows us to (partially) experience utopianism not in the cramped space of the present, but in a world where it can stretch its wings. This might be at the level of totality, where more or less every feature of society is utopian (what Ruth Levitas calls ‘the imaginary reconstitution of society’). Or it may be where particular aspects of prefigurative utopias from the here-and-now are generalised across a fictional society that is not, otherwise, utopian.

Imagining, depicting and exploring such beyonds is the third mode of utopianism. Literary fiction is the most common mode of transportation, but music, film, art and daydreaming (or some combination thereof) can also transport us. The fuel for each, however, is extrapolation: the expansion, intensification, generalisation (and accompanying transformation) of prefigurative utopianism in the here-and-now.

Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, for example, explores a society in which communized forms of care as prefigured by feminisms-of-colour are central. Anarres, in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossesed, takes mutual aid to planetary principle. Samuel Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand takes the queer joys of non-biological family and public sex in 1980s New York City (the world of Pose) and reconfigures it on an intergalactic scale, yet situates it in a Universe where structural violence persists (in this it forces recognition of the fact that extrapolating from a discrete number of utopian practices in the present will not instigate a utopia).

For Miguel Abensour, these beyonds ‘educate our desire’ such that we ‘desire more, and desire better’. As they draw on practices in the present they nourish them, shape them and inspire them. They also inform the operation of the against, estranging us from the everyday by revealing it not as the only possible world and encouraging us to reflect on the violence that holds it in place. Some go further, forcing the reader to imagine the struggle required to realise the depicted beyond: the prisonless and workless utopian England of William Morris’ News From Nowhere, for example, comes about through violent revolution (as does the society in Woman on the Edge of Time), depicted in bloody detail by Middle England’s favourite designer. 

Extrapolation, of course, is not prediction; and nor does it provide blueprints. The beyond is not some Aristotelian telos that is knowable in advance and unfolds through utopianism. There is a certain apophaticism to utopianism, which is to say that we can only know a utopia by what it is not. To truly go beyond, as Fredric Jameson notes, and as Afropessimists such as Frank Wilderson III and John Murillo III insist, is to grapple with what we cannot imagine (Afropessimism though, would reverse that overused dictum of Jameson’s: that it is ‘easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’ – ‘the world’ being built on the impossibility of Black life).  And so we can only be certain in our negativity: utopia will not have states, borders, cops, private property, prisons, the nuclear family as norm, the domination of work over life, nor class.

Gender and race are more complicated: they will certainly have been abolished as hierarchical systems for structuring society, but what of their creative aspects? Is there race without racism? And what might the term ‘disability’ come to mean (if anything) in a world where the relationship between a person’s bodily capacities and that world can no longer be one of violence?

In other words, while extrapolation enables us to gain a sense of how we might replace that which has been abolished, we cannot determine in advance what will flourish on a larger scale, especially when all moving parts are taken into account. It is telling that the conditions which More’s Utopia is pitched against remain enemies of utopia 504 years later, while so much of More’s imaginary island itself appears dystopian and/or ridiculous. 

To make this more concrete: we can, for example, begin to answer how those who cause harm will be held accountable or punished in a world without police and prisons by pointing to the work of community accountability projects and feminist revenge street movements. Yet any answer proffered at the level of totality can only be tentative: perhaps the desire for revenge will have disappeared in a world where accountability is the norm; perhaps there will be a myriad of options available to those harmed; perhaps the abolition of gender and race as hierarchical structuring categories will complicate the question—never mind the answer—in ways we cannot even begin to comprehend. The precise ratio of affirmation and negation is ultimately to be determined through struggle, not cognitive exercise. 

Within, Against and Beyond

Utopianism’s three modes don’t exist in isolation, but rub up against and modify one another. Their specific contributions can be analysed separately, as with the ingredients of a cake, but as the flour, egg and sugar alter each others’ behaviour in the oven; so the within, against and beyond affect each other in struggle—each pole in the constellation pushing the others to achieve what they cannot alone or as pairs. Utopians themselves should be true to this subjectivity: knowing the joys immanent to this world, hating the world for denying them, and partially inhabiting a world in which they are expanded to their fullest extent. Perhaps this world will not even be called Utopia, the idea falling victim to itself: Utopia’s history is, after all, bound up with what Cedric Robinson refers to as coloniality’s ‘terms of order’. The Utopia of More’s book is hierarchial, misogynist, dependent on slavery. It becomes Utopia only after colonization, having previously been Abraxa. And Anarres, the anarcho-communist ‘ambiguous utopia’ of The Dispossesed is imperfect, intentionally (Le Guin made it flawed, and made those flaws the subject of the narrative) and unintentionally (the limits of Le Guin’s imagination revealing themselves, as Samuel Delany has noted, in its biphobia and heteronormativity). And of course in any new Utopia Abraxa there will be discontent too. We’ll be within, against and beyond in that world, too. That is the beautiful, desperate burden of utopianism: the only realism we should accept.

David M. Bell is a writer interested in struggle within, against and beyond this (and any) present. He is a member of the Out of the Woods collective, whose Hope Against Hope: Writings on Ecological Crisis was published by Common Notions in 2020; and is the author of Rethinking Utopia: Place, Power, Affect (Routledge, 2017). He lives in Nottingham, makes music as Zeittraum and has lots of ideas for novels but none of the discipline required to write them. 

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