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]