Unplugging the Dystopian Engine: U-TOPIA

This essay was originally submitted to the Griffith Review Volume #73, and was unsuccessful (2021).

“What do our visions of utopia look like today? How can we disentangle the practical realities from the pipe dreams? What are the dangers of utopianism? How do questions of sustainability, gender equity and economic justice shape our visions of an ideal society, a new politics? Can imagination save us in the end?”

How would you personally describe Utopia, and why do we seek it? To reach Utopia we must first assess our own needs, being water, food, shelter as described in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – from here we can work on our social needs, being community, a sense of belonging, and love. As far as psychological needs, everyone has their own definitions and morals of what a good person sounds and acts like. 

This will affect their own ability to reach utopia, ie. perfectionists may struggle, and narcissists will thrive.

As described in Henry Giroux’s Utopian thinking under the sign of neoliberalism; towards a critical pedagogy of educated hope (2003), ‘a utopia is an imagined community or society that possesses highly desirable or nearly perfect qualities for its citizens.’ When we break this down further, we look to the meanings and constructs behind our understanding of ‘society’ and ‘community’.

These are human social constructs. A group of individuals can be classified as a community, and by extension a football team, a choir group, an artist collective, a construction crew, a ballet company, a parliament, a book club; could all be considered a ‘community’, as long as it is more than one individual following a set of agreed systems. We have historically referred to societies in both a geographic sense, and as an association – a university can be seen as a society, and a community, due to the singular belief that knowledge, learning, and self-fulfilment are at its core.

Utopian, as an adjective, is “modelled on or aiming for a state in which everything is idealistic.” It is unclear if Sir Thomas More intended his term to be dissected in this way from his original publication in the sixteenth century – or that Plato expected it to become something of a philosophical and psychological discussion, outside his publication The Republic and The Laws in the mid-300s – but over time the duality between utopia and dystopia has become blurred.

Dystopia, as an adjective, is that “relating to or denoting an imagined state or society where there is great suffering or injustice.”

In the last ten years, or more, it seems these two adjectives have swapped meanings. We currently live within a dystopian society, and some may argue we always have. Utopia has always been considered something fictitious, but in some historical cases, we have actually reached it by a hairsbreadth a couple of times – with some economic theorists noting Scandinavian nations being modern utopias, as ranked by the World Happiness Report (2019).

Lyman Tower Sargent (2010) notably argues the damaging aspects of Utopianism – “by its nature, utopian societies are inherently contradictory because ‘societies are not homogenous’” in Utopianism: A very short introductionfor the Oxford University Press. When Adam bit the apple, he did it out of love and trust of Eve – who in turn, trusted the Eden Snake. The first sins of humanity were our trusting in others, and that is what broke utopia. It is with this broken trust that dystopian elements have been allowed to grow in today’s society.

Dystopian societies, at their source, have been characterised by dehumanisation, tyrannical governments, environmental disasters, and other characteristics associated with social decline. There’s a reason these elements are used in the literary landscape, because writer’s take from what they know. 

So then, how do we attain utopia within a dystopia? 

Utopian thinking enables us to perceive the big picture, including the things that upset or even repel us, in a usefully optimistic light. It gives us the courage and confidence to see the distance between reality and our dreams as a space of opportunity rather than defeat.

To be morally fulfilled we have to be a good person as evaluated by the individual. For most this means being aware of the tragedies in society and understanding our limitations in helping. If we get too caught up in the “needs of the many” we start to neglect the needs of ourselves, creating an imbalance whilst being socially and politically aware.

Without conflict, there is no growth, but with the aftermath of enduring an American dictator, the #MeToo movement, hate crimes against Asian cultures, the Black Lives Matter movement, an increase in transphobia attacks, violence against women, and constant fluctuating economic and diplomatic relations – it is hard to see utopia as anything more than a literary pipe dream, created by whimsical writers and theorists.

“Kindness and good nature unite men more effectually and with greater strength than any agreements whatsoever … since thereby the engagements of men’s hearts become stronger than the bond, and obligation of words.” Sir Thomas More, Utopia

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a push for self-care, and mental health awareness. Societies are encouraging individuals to seek new forms, such as yoga, art therapy, psychologists, and generally undertaking activities that are “good for the soul”. These white flags have come from friends, family, governments, social media, and entertainment.

Without community belonging, not all our psychological needs are met through the pursuance of social media. Reliance on consumerism has led to a generation of bragging and the flaunting of perceived success, being caught in the cycle of socialised envy. Consumerism is a path towards utopia, by the community reaction to our success, we have achieved a sense of community and wealth that is unsustainable. 

Does this mean that our concept of utopia is not necessarily a community-based platitude, but rather a state of being? If enough individuals undertook a form of personalised utopian thinking, as a community, or society, could we enact enough change to pivot back to a utopian landscape? Let’s dive deeper.

In “The Necessity of Utopian Thinking”, Jost Hermand writes, “a genuine utopia is neither a senseless anarchy, nor an other-worldy church-state; it is a community based on an equitable social system in which one individual’s aspirations do not conflict with the greater good.” (1975)

One of the earliest conceptions of a utopia was made by Plato, in The Republic (ca. 370-360 BC). The same philosopher went on to distinguish the many forms of love, including that of friends, romantics, faith, and the self. In 1887, W.H. Hudson published A Crystal Age. This story followed an amateur botanist who fell down a crevice, awoke centuries later in a world where humans live in families, in harmony with each other and animals; but where reproduction, emotions, and secondary sexual characteristics are repressed, except for the Alpha Males and Females.

Art and politics have shared equal footing over our history, and has occurred in historical epochs and cultures, becoming a form of controversy and even a force for political and social change. According to Boris Groys, “art has its own power in the world, and is as much a force in the power play of global politics today as it once was in the arena of cold war politics.” (MIT Press, 2009).

Notable dystopian works in more recent years, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008) – with the Capitol attack being the most visually similar display in our history – and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985), whose themes continue to pop up in recent histories, including broadcast media and popular culture. 

Much like the tale of Pandora – where all of the world’s evils were unleashed unto the world, but she closed it before Hope could escape – utopia is not a socialised construct, but one that needs to be personally worked upon within a dystopian system. 

What can we learn from these writer’s and theorists? As previously mentioned, utopia comes down to a socially accepted “common good”. 

Typically, what fuels human nature is fear, and the second-hand emotion: anger. This emotion is always reactionary, an event must cause feelings of rejection, loss, or threat to generate anger. Displays of anger are only socially acceptable when they are met with a group that agrees and justifies the action. In the first stage, this could be seen as a utopian thinking (although somewhat toxic), but it links a community together in a perceived social and thematic “greater good”. It devolves into dystopian thinking when that threshold is used to control outlying beliefs. 

The largest reason why people seek organised religion is to achieve a semblance of inner Utopia. Modern religious systems, such as Christianity, could be seen as a dystopian engine with utopian thought at its birth (Story of Eden).

We need only look to Constantinople for this. A pagan society was sacked by Christian followers, which resulted in the destruction of the Library of Alexandria (and majority of human written history) because it went against a group’s perceived “greater good”. Pagans were faced with a decision, convert or die. A system based on free love and family, turned into a tyrannical association.

“There are socialist, capitalist, monarchical, democratic, anarchist, ecological, feminist, patriarchal, egalitarian, hierarchical, racist, left-wing, right-wing, reformist, free love, nuclear family, extended family, gay, lesbian, and many more utopias. Utopianism, some argue, is essential for the improvement of the human condition. But if used wrongly, it becomes dangerous. Utopia has an inherent contradictory nature here.” Sargent (2010)

Modern feminist movements seek the equal inclusion of all genders (to abolish economic and gender-specific restrictions), this has allowed women to gain roles in corporations, and for men to take on previously considered “feminine” roles. We have a long journey ahead, and this is echoed in many other movements – but utopian thinking has triggered them all. 

Many theorists believe that utopianism has come to an end, but in fact it continues to be written, and intentional communities founded in the hope that a better life is possible. (Routledge)

From art to religious history, social and government movements, how does the concept of a personalised utopia fit in?

What so many utopian myths have in common, is that the “Garden of Eden” is not irrevocably lost to mankind. After being cast out, we have an ingrained desire to return to utopia. But as discussed, Eden was in their love, and happiness.

“Home is where the heart is.” Our language is filled with examples that describe utopia, and writers, poets, essayists, and theorists, have used them since the dawn of time. What can be considered modern utopian? The arrangement of great music; in how it sends shivers down your spine and causes gooseflesh to erupt. Catching the eye of a crush, and their slight smile at you. The taste of a great meal as it rests on your palette. Rich sunlight as it warms your body, and the scent of ocean air fills your lungs. The laughter of a newborn, the finished product of a painting that’s taken days to complete. Completion of a university degree. Breaking trauma bonds and healing mental illness.

“Utopia is a collective shift of perception away. Abundance is all around us. Only our efforts at tower-building blind us to it, our gaze forever skyward, forever seeking to escape this Earth, this feeling, this moment.” Charles Eisenstein

In psychology there is known the S-ART Framework, which is aligned with mindfulness. It stands for Self-awareness, Self-regulation, and Self-transcendence. If you are unfamiliar with mindfulness, it is a systematic mental training that develops self-awareness, an ability to effectively modulate one’s behaviour, and builds a positive relationship between the self and others. Though in recent years it has developed a scientific name, and spin, you may know it as meditation and has been practices by Buddhist’s and cultures for many years.

There remains no correct, or specified means of training mindfulness, but the key concepts remain engaging a state of non-judgement, non-reactive, present-centred attention and awareness that cultivates enduring traits of cognitive, emotional, and behavioural tendencies. These mechanisms include intention, motivation, emotion regulation, reconsolidation, and prosociality. 

This process effectively aims to calm the mind and emotions. Some find meditation in other areas – such as the gym, where the world falls away and all the individual is aware of is the inner workings of their muscles and their controlled breathing – this act of mindfulness is being completely present in a moment, and not being distracted by the external environment (including factors and obligations that cause stress or anxiety). In comparison, others find meditation in the act of painting, or other artistic exploits. Generally speaking, when you focus the mind on one task, anxiousness and pressure dissipate. 

Another word for this would be the achievement of inner utopia. By accessing this inner peace, we work towards dismantling the dystopian engine for future generations, and by extension create a more realised community-based Utopia.

To counteract the points made before, in how humanity is fuelled by the dystopian engine of fear, we must fuel utopian thinking with love, because that is utopian.

Self-discovery, education, insight, and development of the individual will help break down the gears of the engine, and systematically weaken the current dystopian element of society. Utopianism was neither concerned with past or future utopian societies, but the prospect of at some point, in life or death, that the possibility to exist in happiness was possible. 

Utopian thinking can be seen as an insult to some, in this day and age, as it is lofty, unrealistic, or naïve. But with such an unforeseen future ahead, in the aftermath of a global pandemic, drawing utopian thinking inward is a way to ensure a future that grows for the benefit of all.

However, utopian thinking has its restrictions, and we’ve showcased how some utopian thoughts can get muddled when politics is involved. An individual’s perceptions and perspectives will always alter the greater good and utopian ideal of a situation, and so how do we stop the creation of a new dystopian engine?

We use the core aspects of utopian thinking in everyday life. “Do unto others, as you wish to be treated,” – “In harming none, do what ye wilt,” – “if number one is happy, two and three will follow,” – “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?”

We can either fuel the engine for another century, or work on ourselves to establish a utopian future within ourselves.

Utopia is not a fiction it is within us. Our ability to love, to sacrifice, to learn, to lead, to show empathy – not just for others, but also for ourselves.

Self-love is Utopian.

Editor-in-Chief, The Independent Press Co.

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