Rehabilitating utopia and saving the future

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By Ben Courtice

August 29, 2010 -- Blind Carbon Copy [BCC] -- Socialism was conceived as a creative and idealistic movement, but lost its way for most of the 20th century. Recapturing this imaginative energy can help find solutions to such huge threats as climate change. This article started as a short impromptu speech I gave to launch the third edition of the Australian Socialist Alliance's Climate Charter.

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Socialism used to be a rallying point for idealists, utopians, dreamers and those who were simply hopeful. It carried an almost millenarian promise of redemption and salvation. More importantly, it allowed its advocates to exercise their imagination. If socialism was to democratically realise the wishes of the common working people, why should they be restrained in their wishes?

There are pitfalls in utopian imaginings. George Orwell once said that “'Socialism' and 'Communism' draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist and feminist in England.” Inevitably, some utopian visions have been codified (and ossified) into cult dogma.

When the left banished utopia

But the 20th century left did not in the main succumb to utopian cults. Rather, it lost most of its creative imagination. The state socialist countries of the Eastern bloc as much as the social-democratic and labour movements in the West all succumbed to (or promoted) a grey economic reduction of the socialist vision.

Admittedly, even among the most authoritarian of the Stalinist parties, they never truly killed off creativity. The Communist Party of Australia had workers’ theatre. The USSR had Shostakovich and the Bolshoi Ballet and more. But the creative urge was de-coupled from the political project: it became a pressure relief valve for the masses. In the west, union campaigns for shorter work hours were probably the most creative movement, but the liberatory potential of freeing people from work was largely negated by the greater focus on wage rises and the related growth of consumerism.

The culture and dreams of working people have thus been privatised by the old, official “left”. State socialism and social democracy sought to out-compete the capitalists in economic growth and consumerism - without success. Clearly, if the aim was to enable working class people to be overweight, bored couch potatoes in front of a very big TV, capitalism won that competition.

Che Guevara’s example

The outstanding exception in the 20th century left’s retreat from creativity and humanism was Che Guevara’s economic theories. Fortunately there is now a detailed English account of Guevara’s practice as a government minister in Cuba, Helen Yaffe’s excellent Che Guevara: the Economics of Revolution (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

Che based his ideas on creating the new “socialist man” (person) who would be motivated by solidarity and community, not personal advancement. For a long time it was generally assumed that this idea was another facet of the romantic idealism that was seen as the total of Che’s contribution. But the real Che was no naïve romantic. He was a scholar of Marx and heir to Marx’s profound humanism.

Che’s idealistic programs such as encouraging voluntary labour were backed up by a creative, yet thorough system of economic management. His system was developed in opposition to, and as a critique of, the dominant system of management in the Soviet economy. Che predicted that the market mechanisms that were corrupting Soviet socialist planning would inevitably lead to a restoration of capitalism.

Sadly, although the Cuban revolutionaries have never forgotten the lessons that Che discovered, they have not yet been able to put them fully into practice either. Nor have these ideas been spread among the international left as they deserve.

A new urgency

The failings of economistic 20th century leftism have allowed capitalism and consumerism to run rampant to the extent that the biosphere of the planet is beginning to experience a catastrophic breakdown, best known in the form of climate change (although broader than that most pressing problem).

Climate change and the ecological crisis are demanding a reinvigoration of the left’s imagination. No longer can workers settle for demanding pay rises and economic advances. No more can the left settle for reactive campaigns calling to stop this or that crime, or to save this service from cutbacks. These are the defensive posturing of a movement that has put their visions of a better future off indefinitely as impractical or impossible just now.

Climate change demands action now. It demands solutions. They are feasible, and we can fight for them, but they are a radical departure from the consumerist life. This life is what the Western working class knows. It is largely what the third world masses aspire to. It is the dominant mass ideology. It’s a powerful ideology because it gives the appearance of having left behind the grim poverty of yesterday, and it gives the appearance of some return on the hours of workday drudgery that pay for it.

But at heart, consumerism is truly a hollow ideology. Even the commonplace sayings of the consumer era refute it. Consumerism says “you are what you buy” – but everyone knows, as the Beatles sang, “money can’t buy me love”. It can’t buy very much happiness either. There is an intrinsic gap in the ideological hegemony of the consumer ideal.

Forward to utopia!

Practical solutions to climate change open up vast arenas of possibilities for future social organisation. If we can’t afford to continue industrial agriculture, we will have to return to more localised, community based agriculture. How will it be run? Cooperative community gardens? Or individual plots? Will it be shared? Bartered? Food is a vital part of our inherited culture and recreation, as much as it is a simple necessity. A ration of bread or rice might go a long way to solving basic needs, but why would people settle for just that?

The popularity of garden shows, home gardening and so on is attested to by the growth of home improvement stores, the home make-over TV shows. They are trying to cash in on the desire of some people for a little control over their food, and a recreational pastime that is unalienated because it also serves a practical purpose.

Look at the food industry as it is now. For one small example, supermarkets sell two or three varieties of apple, just those that are easy to store, pack and market. Growing these monoculture crops is ecologically unstable, if not outright damaging. But in history there have been thousands of fascinating varieties of apples. For an orchardist there is a wealth of options for learning and experimenting and discovering.

For those whose inclinations and inspirations do not hinge on gardening or food, there are other areas of creative endeavour that are just as important. If we are mostly phasing out private motor cars, what will happen to the popular petrol-head culture? The quasi-hippy gardening subculture might suggest they can get lost and good riddance, but this would be mistaken. Enthusiasts for machinery and engineering are valuable.

We have to re-invent our transport system without fossil fuels. What mix will there be for electric, biofuel or pedal powered propulsion? Already, there is a market for high performance, lightweight (and still expensive) bicycles. It is marketed as another form of conspicuous consumption, but if we re-connect it with the real reason for bicycles – the cleverest method of transport yet invented – then this, just as much as high-speed trains, or electric car racing, is a field of discovery and creative competition for mechanically minded people. Will we build new electric vehicles, or convert old combustion-powered vehicles to electric drive? That could keep a lot of mechanical enthusiasts very busy for some time!

How can we re-imagine the urban environment? Without so many cars, what will happen to all the wide asphalt road spaces, the endless car parks and driveways? Could we see fast-food drive-throughs renovated as community kitchens, the carparks turned into gardens? Would children and pets be able to run and play on roads once again?

More broadly, without so many expensive commodities, what could happen to the work day? On average, people would not need to work so long either to produce, nor to pay for, all those SUVs, plasma TVs, double-door refrigerators, turbo-charged gas barbecues and other items of conspicuous consumption that clutter modern marketing. What an incentive: who would choose a plasma TV over a three-day weekend?

A modest beginning

The urgency of the environmental crisis means we have to be radical. And to be as radical as the reality of this threat is to be radical indeed. The science of climate change is grim and scary. That threat provides some motivation, but it’s not enough. Nuclear war was a terrifying threat for decades but it did not motivate the world’s people enough to disarm the warmongers.

A utopia, or if you like, a creative vision of what we want, is essential. We can’t be defined by what we are against.

It must be a practical utopia. There must remain a thread connecting even the mundane concerns of the worker/consumer of today with the vision we propose. In this respect, something as simple (and traditional) as the demand for the shorter working week is a valuable lever of struggle (and the victories in obtaining a 36 hour working week for many construction workers in recent years is a small victory to point to already).

Equally, demands for comprehensive public transport networks have a dynamic that acts against the auto industry (which is the quintessential consumer industry).

The Climate Charter of the Socialist Alliance, with its 10-point climate action plan, is one attempt at a road map to a new society. It goes well beyond simple opposition to evils of the current system. It proposes transitional demands (to use an old term) that are logical and sensible at face value – but which fundamentally undermine consumer capitalism if they are implemented.

The climate charter is now in its third edition. As one of main initiators and contributors to the first edition, I am convinced it should not be read as a finished document, as the ultimate solution to the environmental crisis. It is a summary of the problem, and a working plan to begin solving it. As such, it should be taken as a starting point for launching campaigns and for researching more detailed and creative solutions (or policies) to campaign for.

As the famous Joel Pett cartoon asks (see above), what if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?

The workers of the world still have a world to win; it is not worth saving it otherwise. Practical utopianism will be the future of progress, if there is to be a future worth having.

[Ben Courtice is a Melbourne-based climate activists and member of the Socialist Alliance. This article first appeared at his blog, Blind Carbon Copy.]