Utopia - 500 years on

Reflecting on Thomas More's classic work on the occasion of its 500th anniversary, Jeremy Seabrook contends that it is 'full of troubling and incendiary ideas' that are as relevant as ever.

TO call any idea, project or suggestion 'Utopian' is today regarded as an insult. A society which prides itself upon living in the 'real world', facing the asperities of life fearlessly and not flinching from harsh truths, is bound to find anything that savours of idealism the empty fantasies of dreamers, of people in flight from an acknowledgement - of what, exactly?

For the outlawing of alternatives claims to base its 'realism' on the irreducible facts of human psychology - that greed, egotism and self-seeking are the principal motors of all human activity; a recognition which confers upon capitalism privileged status in any conceivable system, since it knows the mysterious art of turning these characteristics into wealth, progress and universal good.

Those who insist that we must all live in this much-touted 'real world' are in fact inhabitants of the most inflated and implausible fantasy ever imposed upon a credulous humanity. For this version of 'reality' represents a savage, uninhibited attack upon the fabric of the planet that sustains us: whatever the truth about 'human nature', the truth about the nature of capitalism is clear for all to see and scarcely needs further rehearsal - rising sea levels, reduction in biodiversity, growing inequality and devastation of the patrimony of the treasures of the earth.

Five hundred years ago, Thomas More invented the word 'Utopia' with his book of the same name, published in Louvain in the Netherlands. It is an early imaginary account of an alternative to the common wisdom that the future must be forever an extrapolation from everything that exists in the present.

One fascinating aspect of the work - which is brief and was originally written in Latin - is the way in which, for all its imaginative outlining of a future in which there is no private property and in which the ostentatious display of gold and silver has been reduced to infantile playthings, it is also rooted in the 16th century. The very 'discovery' of Utopia, which is an island off the coast of South America, suggests the fabulous stories which the conquistadors were bringing back from the 'new' world. This early, pre-Reformation moment also evokes, for the first time, a sense of the relative values of human societies: the existence of other systems of belief offered possibilities of change which the medieval world could never have considered, preoccupied as it was with faith in a Christian life and afterlife and its iconography of paradise and hell, of everlasting bliss or perpetual punishment. The humanist conception of More's Utopia is prescient, and many of the practices he outlines have become the staple of visionaries for the half-millennium since it was published.

The work is both playful and ambivalent. It was necessary that the island should be remote and its customs outlandish to those of early-16th-century England, lest it should be seen as too strong a critique of the existing order; so More is at pains to distance himself by making the narrator a returned traveller from the island, so that his account of life there cannot be directly attributed to More.

The book is divided into two parts, the first being a more general discussion on aspects of what constitutes a good society - the merits of equality, abolition of private property, communal forms of living, eating and dressing, and a renunciation of luxury; and the second, a review of the values and mores of the society of Utopians. Even the names of places and people are satiric: 'utopia' means 'nowhere', and the name of the expounder of the philosophy of Utopia, who travelled with Amerigo Vespucci on the latter's voyages of 'discovery' of an ancient 'new world', means a 'speaker of nonsense'.

Part One of Utopia is a discussion between Raphael Nonsenso and More, a lawyer and a Cardinal on what constitutes a good society. Many of the elements that made the 16th century disastrous for the poor are also present in our own age, even though inflected by altered times. More refers to enclosures which replaced the cultivation of the land for sheep in the interests of the wool industry, displacing farmers and labourers who became thieves and beggars. 'These placid creatures, which used to require so little food, have now apparently developed a raging appetite, and turned into man-eaters. Fields, houses, towns, everything goes down their throats.' This complaint has its analogy in a world that encloses and privatises the necessities of life - water, nourishment, even care of the vulnerable.

More laments the eviction of those who are plunged into poverty and who become thieves simply to survive. '[W]hen they grow up and commit the crimes that they were obviously destined to commit ever since they were children, you start punishing them. In other words, you create thieves and then punish them for stealing!'

Raphael deplores the deforming of Christian doctrine by ingenious preachers: '"We'll never get human behaviour in line with Christian ethics," these gentlemen must have argued, "so let's adapt Christian ethics to human behaviour."' The same could be said about capitalism, that most efficient engineer of human souls, which renders economic necessity indistinguishable from human destiny. Raphael is 'quite convinced that you'll never get a fair distribution of goods, or a satisfactory organisation of human life until you abolish private property altogether' - a proposition not quite lost in the modern world, as evidenced by John Lennon when he provocatively sang 'Imagine no possessions.'



The text of Utopia is encumbered with curious details on warfare and slavery (which exists both as a punishment for wrongdoing and as a fate of prisoners of war), and practices which appear to us less bizarre than they must have been then - prospective brides and grooms appear before each other naked before marriage, on the principle that you don't buy goods according to their wrappings. The quality of Utopian life is somewhat ascetic and puritanical for the modern sensibility ('the demoralising games people play - dice, cards, backgammon, tennis, bowls, quoits', while 'adulterers are sentenced to penal servitude of the most unpleasant type').

But in spite of some strange archaisms, the fundamental critique of inequality, social hierarchy and the worship of wealth (gold is worthless in Utopia, fit for the manufacture of chamberpots) sets out propositions which have haunted all subsequent visions of an alternative to egotism and greed, the profit motive and money-culture. Whenever attempts to implement change - whether by revolution, by experiment or small-scale example - have failed, this is triumphantly greeted by conservatives of all stripes as 'proof' that only what exists is plausible and that efforts at radical change are both doomed and mischievous.

Many of the attributes of social and political alternatives that resound down the centuries are to be found in Utopia. Francis Bacon's novel New Atlantis (1627) - in which a ship sailing from Peru to China is blown off course and arrives at the island of Bensalem, where the crew discover a Christian society combined with dedication to scientific discovery - describes a place so captivating that it 'makes sailors forget all that was dear', and few return to their home. Gerrard Winstanley asked in his New Law of Righteousness (1649): 'Was the Earth made to preserve a few covetous proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the Earth from others, that these may beg or starve in a fruitful land; or was it made to preserve all her children?'

The economic and social violence of industrialism gave a new impulse to the idea of Utopia. Even though Marx scorned the 'castles in the air' of utopian socialism ('They still dream of experimental realisation of their social Utopias, of founding isolated "phalansteres", of establishing "Home Colonies", of setting up a "Little Icaria" - duodecimo editions of  the New Jerusalem'), he nevertheless founded his future society on an equally potent myth: through 'scientific' socialism, the proletariat would inherit the earth, not by the grace of God but by their own strength and irresistible force. William Morris in his 1899 News from Nowhere - a place that echoes More's original designation - takes up the theme of transformation when he asks: 'But now, where is the difficulty in accepting the religion of humanity, when the men and women who go to make up humanity are free, happy, and energetic, and most commonly beautiful of body also, and surrounded by beautiful things of their own fashioning, and a nature bettered and not worsened by contact with mankind?'

The radical change required to bring about these visions depended essentially upon a change of heart or, in the case of Marx, a change of consciousness on the part of his agents of emancipation. For the most part, Utopias have been placed either in some remote spot of the earth or in a future following some seismic social upheaval. Both have remained dreams.

But such dreams testify to an enduring human desire for a better world that is also this one. In our time, utopian visions appeal increasingly to the imagination of a new generation and are being rescued from the cynicism of the agents of bogus 'realism'. And this time, the awkward and implausible transition to that world is no longer dependent upon wholesale spiritual or religious conversion or on the organisation of any particular social class; although both of these remain important strands in the formulation of newer utopias. For in a wasting world in which the fragility of the biosphere risks being overwhelmed by human activity (anthropogenic, as it is now known, in order to exonerate the rich from setting in motion a system that threatens to efface the life-support system that sustains it), there is new urgency in the utopian project.

If the Utopias of the past were sustained by a commitment to social justice and greater equality, these things were sacrificed to the necessities inscribed in the history made by the powerful and successful. This time it is different: the lineaments of a utopia necessary for a peaceful co-existence of all humanity for an indefinite future are no longer an aspiration, a concept belonging to visionaries and framers of abstract ideals; they have become essential for survival - an even more compelling motive than the desire for justice or the will of the proletariat. Where Marx offered the alternative between communism and barbarism, we are faced with a 'choice' between nihilism and survival.

The rhetoric of the 'real world' - which in its present guise means the bottom line, the balance sheet, the quantity of profit to be wrung from a combination of labour, technology and natural resources - is a despairing fiction, from which deliverance will not be found in an intensification of the mystical addiction to wealth. A catastrophe which threatens the long-term viability of the human habitat is a more forceful motivation for the only utopia that can deliver the world from a fate already foretold in rising seas, migrations and restless upheavals, virulent nationalisms and malignant otherworldly ideologies. Placing trust in other worlds - whether in the form of the colonising of distant planets or of a tremulous and uncertain life after death - is an act of faith which most of the living are unwilling to undertake.

It is a savage irony that Thomas More, who had sight of such relativities, was a highly orthodox Catholic who persecuted heretics, before he, in his turn, was arrested and executed for his failure to swear an oath of succession repudiating the Pope and accepting the annulment of Henry VIII's divorce of Catherine of Aragon and his self-election to the head of the Church in England. More's life from 1478 to 1535 was testimony to the mutability of a country in which Protestantism displaced the Catholic church in a far-from-Utopian transformation; but his book remains full of troubling and incendiary ideas that are as vibrant half a millennium after its publication as they were in the turbulence of early modernity.                 

Jeremy Seabrook is a freelance journalist based in the UK. His latest book is The Song of the Shirt (published by Navayana).

*Third World Resurgence No. 316, Dec 2016, pp 53-55