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Precisely that — rocking the boat — has, however, been the underlying aim of the great utopias that have shaped Western culture.It has animated and informed progressive thinking, providing direction and a sense of purpose to struggles for social change and emancipation.
However, anti-utopianism may also become atavistic and beckon us to return, regardless of any cost, to an idealized past.
In such cases, the utopian narrative gets replaced by myth. To many people the answer to both questions is a resounding no. They may even provide some kind of purpose to our strivings as citizens and political beings.
And yet imagining it, as philosophers, artists and politicians have done ever since, is far from pointless. “Utopia,” his fictional travelogue about an island of plenty and equality, is told by a character whose name, Hythloday, yet another playful conjoining of Greek words, signifies something like “nonsense peddler.” Although More comes across as being quite fond of his noplace, he occasionally interrupts the narrative by warning against the islanders’ rejection of private property.
Living under the reign of the autocratic Henry VIII, and being a prominent social figure, More might not have wanted to rock the boat too much.
Their rejection of the past, and of established practice, is subject to its own logic of brutality.
And not only has the utopian imagination been stung by its own failures, it has also had to face up to the two fundamental dystopias of our time: those of ecological collapse and thermonuclear warfare. Yet these are not challenges but chillingly realistic scenarios of utter destruction and the eventual elimination of the human species. By conjoining the Greek adverb “ou” (“not”) and the noun “topos” (“place”) the English humanist and politician Thomas More conceived of a place that is not — literally a “nowhere” or “noplace.” More’s learned readers would also have recognized another pun.The pronunciation of “utopia” can just as well be associated with “eu-topia,” which in Greek means “happy place.” Happiness, More might have suggested, is something we can only imagine.From the vantage point of the utopian imagination, history — that gushing river of seemingly contingent micro-events — has taken on meaning, becoming a steadfast movement the sought-for condition supposedly able to justify all previous striving and suffering.Utopianism can be dreamy in a John Lennon “Imagine”-esque way.While the French Revolution had its fair share of such visions, they reached an apotheosis in 20th-century Marxist politics.Despite his own personal rejection of utopianism, Lenin, high on his pedestal addressing workers in October 1917, came to be the embodiment of all three forms of utopia.Add to that the profoundly anti-utopian nature of the right-wing movements that have sprung up in the United States and Europe and the prospects for any kind of meaningful utopianism may seem bleak indeed.In matters social and political, we seem doomed if not to cynicism, then at least to a certain coolheadedness.Anti-utopianism may, as in much recent liberalism, call for controlled, incremental change.The main task of government, Barack Obama ended up saying, is to avoid doing stupid stuff.