"IS THIS DYSTOPIA?" SOMETIMES A SIMPLE stencil of bold red letters sprayed across a lamppost in a shabby part of town under lockdown stops us in our tracks. As though its message were addressed exclusively to us.
It might be some part of the phrasing that for a moment holds all our attention. For me, it was the word this. Was the dystopia our society, now and here? Or was this the contemporary world as a whole? And did it matter which? Is there a real difference between these alternatives?
The question on the streetlight was patently rhetorical. It acted as a dramatic provocation by implying an answer so evident it hardly needs stating and is not expected. Yet at least one passerby whom it similarly arrested was compelled to respond. What the querying hand had left tacit another felt bound to spell out, making definitive what had merely been intimated: Scribbled in black marker was a resounding--an unequiv-ocal--"Yes!"
But let us return to the reflection that "IS THIS DYSTOPIA?" seemed designed to provoke. It was, of course, a simple yes-or-no question. Under the new dispensation and prevailing social conditions, the presence of that critical word dystopia all but presupposed an affirmative reply. Simple questions are easy to dismiss and underestimate. If this one gave me pause, it is because confronting the actual state of the world, here or everywhere, evokes (betrayed) Utopian aspirations, highlighting our epic lack of success.
If this is dystopia, which way to Utopia? Is it reasonable to hope for Utopia, to continue and renew our hopes for its realization, in a place where more and more of us each day struggle to survive, let alone, to pursue happiness? Is there an appropriate, reality-congruent, pragmatic Utopian thinking we should adopt that might get us out of this mess? Under the circumstances, when the best we can realistically hope for is slowing down irreversible and often unintended widespread damage, does it still make sense to think Utopian thoughts?
Throughout modernity, Utopia has been a handy term of criticism among educated elites. Early modern and Enlightenment political philosophers, theorists of the social contract, were wary of being taken for writers of Utopias.(1) In polemics and politics, Utopia branded the adversaries of those who thought themselves realists for desiring and fighting for the possible, only to be stigmatized as Utopian in their turn. In 1849, within a year of the French Revolution of 1848 and the bloody June Days Uprising, the socialist revolutionary Auguste Blanqui, accused of inciting popular violence, defended himself thus against the charge of utopianism:(2)Utopia! impossibility! devastating word nailed to our foreheads by our enemies that means "murderer"! homicidal appeal to the egoism of the living generation, which does not accept being cut down in bloom and buried in order to fatten future generations...! This weapon is terrible, we know a thing or two about it; but it is disloyal. There are no Utopians, in the overdrawn acceptation of the word. There are thinkers who...