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]
A round table session from Discourses of Dissent exploring how social theory can help us understand the politics of austerity. How do theoretical justifications of austerity work to constrain public debate? How does the current government’s incongruous blend of neoliberal realism and superficial progressivism relate to what went before it? What resources can we find in social theory to critique the coalition’s agenda and it’s relationship to the wider crisis of late capitalism?
Social Theory and the Politics of Austerity
Ruth Levitas, University of Bristol – The necessity of utopian thinking
Sasha Roseneil, Birkbeck, University of London – Criticality, not paranoia: Registers of critical social theory
Karen Rowlingson, Institute of Applied Social Studies, University of Birmingham – Why doesn’t the British public seem to care about inequality or the cuts in public spending?
At the final discussion session of this week’s ‘Discourses of Dissent’ workshop in Birmingham, I raised the need for academics and students concerned about the future of the university to consolidate a positive position — something beyond simply protesting budget cuts and tuition fees. A model for such an activity is the famous Port Huron Statement of 1962, which established Students for a Democratic Society in the US. Inspired by C. Wright Mills, for the following decade the Statement provided the intellectual springboard for co-ordinating university resistance to the military-industrial complex that had colonized American campuses during the Cold War. Even the original rhetoric is worth emulating today. Here is the statement.
You may also find the Google-generated reception history of the Statement of interest.
Perhaps we need a second ‘constitutional convention’ meeting at Birmingham and Midland Institute to draft an updated version of this statement? Given the eloquence and forthrightness of the original Statement, it might be worth paying attention to how it was composed: My general sense is that, like the US Declaration of Independence, the main draft was by one hand (Tom Hayden playing Tom Jefferson) with various editorial inputs.