This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.
When Thomas More wrote his genre-defining book Utopia in 1515, he tapped into a stream of thought that ran from the world of Plato. The strong current of utopian thinking that influenced the politics, religion and art of the modern world continues to flow today, in both its hopeful and dismal tributaries.
More’s version of the popular traveller’s tale captures the ambivalence that accompanies ideas of utopia: is it a fantasy to be dismissed or a hope to be enacted?
The text is slippery, moving between satire and sincerity in ways that are difficult to distinguish. The name of More’s main “informant”, Raphael Hythloday, for example, can be translated from the Greek, as “knowing in trifles” or “nonsense”. And, of course, “Utopia” itself means “no place”.
But within the playful tone of Utopia is a detailed account of a cohesive and contented society that contemporary Europeans would have recognised as a direct inversion of their own precarious real world.
16th-century Europe can be seen, in contrast, as the other side of the Utopian coin; what we would call dystopia.
The world is witnessing another iteration of this well-established twinned trope in Donald Trump’s campaign to be America’s next president.
Both the utopian and the dystopian are deployed in Trump’s speeches. His acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention lacked More’s subtle irony, instead offering a powerful blend of hope and horror.
Since then, at an August rally in Willmington, North Carolina (infamous for the suggestion that the “second-amendment people” could do something about Hillary Clinton choosing liberal-minded judges), Trump warned that a Clinton presidency would “destroy the country”.
He repeated this imagery of violent domestic chaos in the first of the presidential debates with Clinton, lamenting with the African-American demographic his perception of their reality: “You walk down the street, you get shot.”
Trump extended this vision to the international scene in the second debate, mentioning: “… carnage all over the world.”
Trump invokes the language of salvation
This current and anticipated cataclysm, however, is framed by the sloganised promise that, as president, Trump would “Make America Great Again”.
Ordinary electioneering is also boosted to the level of millenarian prophesy in statements like: “I have a message for all of you: the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon – and I mean very soon – come to an end. Beginning on January 20, 2017, safety will be restored.”
Like Karl Marx, Trump exhorts us to radical change but remains vague on the details of his achieved utopia.
In The German Ideology, Marx envisaged communism as a kind of paradise for enlightened gentleman farmers. Freed from the confines of subsistence, one could: “… hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner.”
Trump’s utopia, however, is construed more along the lines of negative freedom. Specifically, not being shot when one walks down the street or the absence of illegal immigrants.
It seems a critique of the dystopian present, rather than a promise of a utopian future, is the cultural force that has propelled Trump so far.
Two writers who have not been reticent to set out the details of 21st-century utopias are Paul Mason and Rutger Bregman.
Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future argues that the global finance system will be exhausted. Accordingly, proliferation of information technology will propel us beyond market-driven production. The resultant utopia will be, like More’s imagining, broadly socialist in conception.
While money is abolished in More’s Utopia, Mason sees it radically reduced in an economy of “free stuff” (enabled by thorough automation and knowledge circulating freely). One important and ongoing use of money in Mason’s postcapitalist utopia, however, will be the universal basic income.
This is a utopian notion that seems to appeal to even those outside the circle of re-constructed Marxism. Libertarians like this idea because it would remove the perceived ethical paternalism of the welfare system. Instead, the state would be merely a provider or guarantor.
The individual is then free to spend this guaranteed income in a way s/he sees fit. This could be a life of hunting, herding, fishing and critiquing – or not.
The universal basic income is also central to the vision Rutger Bregman presents in his book, Utopia for Realists. While there are two key dystopian figures in Mason’s narrative – neoliberalism and climate change – Bregman’s utopia is more upbeat in its account of the present.
He notes that we are living in the world of neoliberalism’s triumph. But rather than despair, this leads Bregman to the conclusion that if ideas have changed the world before, they can again. Neoliberalism is simply a set of ideas, not a force of nature. The task is therefore a political one: change the ideas that organise our reality.
Bregman draws explicitly from the stream of utopian thinking and culture. Referring to the medieval dream of “Cockaigne” – where “rivers ran with wine, roast geese flew overhead and pancakes grew on trees” – he points out that in the context of the long history of human suffering and deprivation, we have already arrived in this land of plenty.
Repurposing a quote from William Gibson (a novelist familiar with the utopia-dystopia dyad), Bregman might say: Utopia is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.
To the universal basic income Bregman adds two other requirements in order to achieve a global utopia now: open borders and a 15-hour workweek. The shorter working week would directly reduce CO2 emissions and distribute work and benefits more widely when the free movement of people is allowed.
His arguments for these three policy shifts are moderate rather than revolutionary. Indeed, in his account of the history of the universal basic income, Bregman tells how then-president Richard Nixon almost instituted the policy in 1968.
This might be of interest to Trump, given his law-and-order narrative is modelled on Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign.
It is a sign of desperate times that such divergent stories, Trump’s apocalypse and Bregman’s global Cockaigne, can speak so compellingly to the present through the ancient language of utopia.