The 21st century society is a dystopian one. No matter what part of the world we live in, our lives are marred by a sense of doom — an apocalyptic foreboding of endings. If one section of the world is threatened by terrorism, be it in schools, workplaces, airports or shopping malls, the other is hyper-aware of political instability; if economy is collapsing somewhere, then the threat of environmental destruction is threatening lives and livelihoods in another. Even aesthetics, arts and culture seem rather tedious and are dominated by the neoliberal bottom line, which insists on dumbing it all down and says that if it doesn’t sell and appeals only to the lowest common denominator of society, it’s not worth anything. Does that mean that the 21st century society is doomed for misery and utopias are a thing of past?
The answer is a resounding no. The biggest problem that lies ahead of us is not the energy crisis or food security — though they are very serious concerns — but getting rid of this dystopian melancholy that permeates every thought and action of ours, hindering our capacity to look for solutions. This fatalism can only be cured by cultural energy which actually helps us in making any sense of the problem and our approaches to dealing with it — sort of creating a utopian escape route. Society in general, and thinkers in particular, need to consciously imagine this.
Thomas More first coined the term in the early 16th century to describe his ‘good place’. Perhaps, the first known example of utopia was Plato’s Republic, which was a social and political manifesto desirous of a perfect state. It is not just Plato but the idea of utopia as the driving force behind any radical social and political ideological change has been here all along. Take the French, Russian, Chinese and Iranian Revolutions or the Taliban takeover in the 1990s of Afghanistan, for example. All these political movements were attempts to radically reconstruct society along lines set out in the ‘utopian’ thought of their thinkers such as Plato, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx and Ruhollah Khomeini, who thought society would benefit from a new, hitherto untried method.
In the present-day world, which is characterised by a sense of impending doom and pessimism, there still are traces of utopia around us, perhaps, because people will never cease to look for ways to run away from misery, poverty, disenfranchisement and apathy. The Islamic fundamentalism, the Christian Revivalism, the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the efforts to save the planet, the quest to go back to socialism in Latin America are examples of our utopian desires. However, utopia is not as simple as imagining a good place because the challenge to change the world comes with its own set of risks and unseen scenarios as was witnessed in the case of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan — a nightmarish dystopia which represents the mirror image of the good place.
How does one deal with that? Picasso once said that that everything that you can imagine is real and we, too, can deal with this probability with imagination and idealism. Just because utopia originates in the human imagination does not mean it cannot work in reality. If history has taught something, it is that Utopian thought may have originated in fiction and philosophy but it has always managed to find popularity in the social and political discourse.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 4th, 2012.