Ruth Levitas – The Necessity of Utopian Thinking

What does it mean to say utopian thinking is necessary? On the face of it this is an odd claim, for utopia is generally associated either with idle and unrealistic speculation or with malevolent totalitarianism. Yet a little over a hundred years ago, H G Wells wrote that ‘the creation of utopias, and their exhaustive critique, is the proper and distinctive method of sociology’.[i] Wells wrote this as sociology was becoming a distinct discipline, and he wrote it as part of a critique of claims to ‘scientificity’ which systematically ignored both normativity and the future.

However, the idea of utopia as method has a lot of purchase in our present situation. It entails the imagination of holistic, institutionally specific, alternative futures and it has three modes:

An archaeological mode, which involves making explicit the idea of the good society embedded in particular political positions. I have done earlier work on this in relation to the Thatcherite New Right and to New Labour, and it is equally necessary with the ConDems ‘Big Society’ and wider policies.

An architectural mode, which involves the imaginary reconstitution of society as an alternative set of institutions and practices.

An ontological mode which makes explicit the nature of subjects and agents interpellated in these societies – and which has a particular bearing on the nature and purpose of education.

Given the tendency to associate utopia with blueprints and totalitarianism, I should say that such a method must be reflexive, provisional and dialogic. Its purpose is to expose the present to critique and the future to democratic discussion and formation. Utopia in this sense fulfils the strictures of Andre Gorz:

it is the function of utopias, in the sense the term has assumed in the work of Ernst Bloch or Paul Ricoeur, to provide us with the distance from the existing state of affairs which allows us to judge what we are doing in the light of what we could or should do.[ii]

To begin with archaeology or critique:

It is hardly an original observation that the current discourse of austerity can be read as a form of shock doctrine in which the economic crisis is an alibi for forcing through a range of neo-liberal reforms in the economy, the health service, education. The ideology of the New Right was an unholy alliance between the ‘free’ economy and the strong state – with the strong state necessary to police the outfall of the free economy. In one sense, what we have now is Thatcherism with bells and whistles. The New Right’s utopia involved a great deal of shadow work – unpaid labour, chiefly by women, although sometimes accompanied by the assertion that ‘people’ should be able to choose whether men or women did it, on the basis of their personal circumstances. The Big Society is a plan to mobilise huge amounts of unpaid labour, and to transfer substantial amounts of work from the market to the non-market sector of society – chiefly by cutting women’s jobs in the public sector. Even the voluntary sector is being told it should not rely on ‘handouts’ from the state. Toby Young’s Free School is, apparently, to be given by Hammersmith and Fulham the use of Palingswick House, currently the base of around 20 voluntary groups. Meanwhile, benefits are being cut because ‘we’ can’t afford them.

The argument that austerity is necessary because there is a shortage of money is simply false. The problem is who has it. This is, of course, a problem of bankers’ bonuses, but not only that. Inequality has increased since 1979, through consistent redistribution from poor to rich, and it’s getting worse. The top 10% have increased their share of national household income from about 20% to about 30%. (The top 1% now have about 13%). Meanwhile, the bottom 10% have seen their share drop from 4% to 1.4%. The ratio between these two groups has increased from 5:1 to 15:1. If we reduced the share of the top 10% to its 1979 proportion, it would generate enough money to lift every household in the country out of poverty at a stroke.[iii]

We do need to go further than this though and address the whole question of what constitutes productive labour and economic growth. Politicians and pundits are obsessed with growth, and a good society is one in which the economy continually expands. Even the TUC demonstration against the cuts on 26 March is calls for us to ‘march for the alternative: jobs, growth, justice’. Growth is measured by GDP – but of course GDP is actually measure of market activity. Transferring productive activity, or at least necessary social labour, from the paid to the non-paid sector actually reduces growth; and there’s an added complication of the presumed relationship between private and public sectors, in which the former is deemed to produce wealth, and the latter merely to spend it.  This is another piece of nonsense. The New Economics Foundation produced a report last year which attempted to quantify the intuitively obvious fact that the amount of social value created by different groups of workers bears no relation to pay. For every £1 they are paid, child-care workers are estimated to produce between £7 and £9.50 in value to society, and waste recyclers £12. Conversely, tax accountants destroy £47, and advertising executives £11, for every £1 they generate. Such calculations are contentious in their detail, but the overall point is clear, and nicely calls into question what constitutes productive work, worth, and social utility.[iv]

But where do we go from here? If we construe utopia as a form of constructive sociology, we need to think holistically about a better kind of society. This will involve measures of social value other than GDP, and thus a quite different notion of growth. I must say here that one of the problems about a critical take on the discourse of austerity is that ecological constraints do point to a need for reduced consumption, and arguments for a more sustainable society need to embed the idea that this reduced consumption may be accompanied by increased quality of life. You can see the dangers of this being mobilised in the neo-liberal project, as is happening with some of the discourse around well-being. However, I would argue that a better society must have the following features:

Ecological sustainability


Revaluation of what counts as production and wealth

Revaluation of care/ Total Social Organisation of Labour

Basic Income Guarantee

Focus on Quality of Life/ Wellbeing

Recognition of the intrinsic worth of education

A different kind of society would have huge implications for the place of education, and HE in particular. Vince Cable was on Andrew Marr on Sunday morning (13 February 2011): he spoke about ‘providers’ ‘supplying degrees’. As we know, the discourse around HE emerging from the Browne Report and the ConDem policies is all about education as a commodified private good exchangeable in the labour market. In some ways the fundamental philistinism of Browne is more terrifying than the social inequity. Defending the sector against cuts and defending future students against the concomitant fee rises is wholly necessary.  But we do need to be asking a wider question about what education is for – and what education and Higher Education might mean in a society constructed on these principles. The purpose of a University should not be primarily to supply degrees and credentials for the labour market, but to create an educated citizenry. And it follows that there should be no necessary assumption that HE follows directly from school, because people find out what they are really interested in at different ages. Moreover, our school and post-school education is heavily biased away from the kind of craft-based practices discussed by Richard Sennett in his recent book on craftsmanship.[v] (In particular, our music education is parlous.)

Among the myriad problems of creating an alternative discourse about a possible future is confronting the deep anti-statism of political discourse across the political spectrum. Most of the principles entail the action of a democratically accountable centralised state as well as accountable local government. As Polly Toynbee pointed out, much of the rhetoric about localism is about reinstating inequalities – for example the plan for business rates to be returned to the areas where they are generated. Another is the destruction of the legitimacy of the collective subject: During the 1984/5 miners’ strike, for example, the phrase ‘the right to work’ was transformed from a collective demand of the working class into a justification of the individual right to strike-break. And last week, at an Open Space (Participatory Democracy) event in Bristol, I was struck by the combination of widespread anger and a simultaneous understanding of action as wholly individualised (such as moving your bank account from the Big Four) rather than envisaging collective political action. I don’t have time to elaborate on the implied view of people and their relations that is embedded in current discourse, or on their alternatives. Increasingly, however, the self that is structurally interpellated by neo-liberalism corresponds to Marx’s description of alienation, where modes of paid work separate people from the process and product of labour, and encourage them to view themselves as a marketable product to invest in, and thus necessarily to conceive of their relations with one another in a the same way: commodification, or alienation, of self and of species being. We do, though, need to imagine ourselves otherwise, as the agents and subjects of the transition to a quite different kind of society: the imaginary reconstitution of self is part and parcel of the imaginary, and actual, reconstitution of society, and the role in this of education at all levels is crucial.

One writer I have found especially useful here is Roberto Unger, who talks about ‘prophetic identity’, in which education is geared to encouraging children to identify in terms of what they might become rather than where they come from. This processual sense of ourselves should be embedded in education at all levels – and not only in education. For adults, the process of self-expansion is for Unger bound up  with the social processes which he refers to as ‘democratic experimentalism’ or collective improvisation, in which collective social practices open up real possibilities for the future and for our selves in relation to that future.[vi]

[i] Wells, H. G. (1907) ‘The So-called Science of Sociology’, in Sociological Papers 1906, London: Macmillan 1907: 355-377. Reprinted in Wells, H. G. (1914) An Englishman Looks at the World: Being a Series of Unrestrained remarks upon Contemporary Matters, London, New York, Toronto and Melbourne: Cassell and Co.

[ii] Gorz, Andre (1999) Reclaiming Work: Beyond the Wage-Based Society, Cambridge, Polity Press,

[iii] See attached Table 1

[iv] A bit rich? Calculating the real value to society of different professions, New Economics Foundation, 2010

[v] Richard Sennett, The Craftsman, Allen Lane 2008.

[vi] Unger, Roberto. Passion: An Essay on Personality. New York: The Free Press 1984; Unger, Roberto. Democracy Realised: The Progressive Alternative. London and New York: Verso 1998; Unger, Roberto. The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound. Cambridge, Mass. And London: Harvard University Press 2007.


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