Utopia after Trump

In 1516, England was ruled by an authoritarian narcissist who was redistributing the wealth of England to himself and a handful of his obscenely wealthy friends. Thomas More responded by writing the philosophical tract Utopia. He made up a place that was no place—literally, the word “utopia” comes from the ancient Greek meaning “not a place”—and narrated the tale through a man whose last name means “nonsense.” The tract dared to imagine a world better than the one More lived in.

Exactly five hundred years later, the United States has a president-elect who is an authoritarian narcissist with plans to redistribute American wealth to himself and a handful of his obscenely wealthy friends. Perhaps it’s time to once again look at this story of No Place told by a man called Nonsense and imagine a better world for ourselves.

Of Course, It Won’t Work

For years, I taught Utopia in a European Lit survey course. Inevitably, our discussion would start with some student saying, “It’ll never work.” There was always a finality to this discussion, like the assessment that we won’t build a Utopia means that we should discount the book entirely, we should stop thinking of alternatives, stop using our imaginations, and all just go home. Even though I knew this comment was coming every semester, I’d get bummed out every time I heard it. Because it’s not I like don’t know that Utopia isn’t going to happen. It’s not like I thought that, by passing around a 500-year-old book, I could convince Americans to give up smart phones and cars and internet porn and instead adopt a repressive, agrarian society. It’s not like I’d want to. Even Thomas More didn’t want England to be Utopian. That’s why his narrator is named Nonsense.

Instead, Thomas More was presenting a dialectic. A dialectic is a form of classical philosophical rhetoric which starts with a common idea, presents its opposite, and moves toward a blending of the two. So Utopia starts with all the contemporary problems of Henry VIII’s England, constructs a society that would be the opposite of it, and asks the reader to think how he could take the two bad ideas and form them into one good one. Utopia makes the reader ask hard questions about Henry VIII’s England like, how good of an idea is it to take all this farm land that so many people had been farming, give it to a few rich aristocrats, and turn it all into sheep pastures that make the aristocrats even richer while the workers starve? How sustainable is that? How long before the workers start questioning your sovereignty? How long before they revolt and start chopping kings’ heads off?

The answers to those questions, history tells us, are that the monarchy’s wealth grab wasn’t a good idea, it wasn’t sustainable, and, midway through the next century, the English people chopped their king’s head off. So, while Utopia may not work, neither did Henry VIII’s England.

Then and Now

The parallels between England 500 years ago and now can be fun to point out. Henry VIII was a hot mess of a man who was handed everything he had by his rich, powerful father. Despite this, he thought God ordained him to be an authoritarian ruler. He lashed out at anyone who spoke against him (to the extent of having Thomas More beheaded). He maintained his power by scapegoating and bullying the poor and powerless. He was abominable toward women, running through a series of wives and believing his wealth and status entitled him to do whatever he wanted with women’s bodies. He was a stupid, petty, violent, self-obsessed man. He was a horrible person to have in charge. He was mostly miserable, despite having the world handed to him. All of these things—with the exception of More’s beheading—can be said of our current president-elect. Most importantly, the closer the world comes to either ones vision of how it should be, the more doomed it is.

In the 1500s, wool was a very profitable commodity. This was a big impetus behind Henry VII’s, and then Henry VIII’s, push to enclose farmland that had once been held in common and make it the private property of different members of the aristocracy. While today this might seem reasonable—it’s good business, right?—it was unfathomable for More. Greed was a cardinal sin to him. To force the majority of the population into poverty so a small minority could nurture their greed was, to More, the sign that his culture had lost its moral compass.

Now, greed is an organizing principle of our society. Our prevailing ideology has no problem with forcing the majority of the world to live in poverty while a small minority hoard the vast reserves of wealth. Our global economic system is constructed to ensure this inequality perpetuates. At no point in human history has wealth inequality been as drastic as it is now. According to Oxfam, as of 2015, the 62 richest people in the world have more wealth than the poorest 3.7 billion people. This means that, if the poorest half of the world is living on two dollars a day, the richest 62 are living on $120 million a day. These numbers make no sense to me. I’m confused on so many levels. I can’t get my head around this.

A big question in More’s mind was, how does the aristocracy bankrupt the population and still keep power? Or, more to the point, when you force the majority to live in poverty, how long before they take up arms and revolt? The answer, history tells us, is right away. Small and large revolts happened perpetually for the next 150 years, until, in the 1660s, the English Civil War effectively shackled the power of the monarchy.

Similar questions can be asked today. How long can the 1% continue to exploit the 99% before the revolution happens? Again, the answer is that small and large revolts are happening all the time, all over the world. Who knows how long it’ll be before these revolts shackle the power of the oligarchy. Maybe it’ll never come. A hundred years ago, robber baron Jay Gould famously said, “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.” Maybe the 1% will always follow that model. Maybe 50% of the 99% will always take that job. Maybe this is what the United States’s gigantic military is really about.

The other concern More had with the enclosure laws and the raising of sheep for wool was an environmental one. Spanish shepherds had recently overgrazed their pastures, effectively turning them into deserts that could no longer support sheep or farming. More feared the same thing would happen in England. And, if the enclosure had continued unabated, More’s fears would’ve been realized. This would’ve left even the English aristocrats with plenty of money but no food to buy.

The core of More’s concerned were expressed best in the twentieth century by economist Karl Polanyi. When trying to understand the root causes behind World Wars I and II, Polanyi exposed the fatal flaw of what he called economic liberalism and we mostly call capitalism: that it treats land and labor as commodities. By definition, land and labor are not commodities. You can’t expect pasture land to replenish itself faster because wool is profitable. You can’t expect workers to live in poverty for as long as their supply of labor is greater than the demand for it. Expecting land and labor to act as commodities, Polanyi said, leads to annihilation.

This is our second great problem today: we’re treating land as a commodity. In doing this, we’re destroying the ecosystems that allow humans to survive. We can always deny global climate change, but at this point, that’s no more logical than denying that the earth is round. And while, rhetorically, we’ve been talking about saving the Earth for a couple of generations, it’s not really the Earth that needs saving. The Earth will go on just fine without us. What we really need to save are human habitats. And because our economy is global, our problem is much larger than More’s. He was just talking about England. We’re talking about the world, now. The environmental decisions we make over the next few decades will basically determine whether or not there will be any habitats capable of sustaining human populations for the last quarter of this century.

More Utopia

In short, the problem for this century is simple: our economic system and our ecosystem are doomed. Their downfalls are linked. This isn’t inevitable, but it’s real and it needs to be dealt with today. It really needed to be dealt with forty years ago, but today’s the soonest we can start. Generally speaking, there are two approaches we can take.

On the one hand is denial. We can pretend that global climate change isn’t happening. We can ignore the rising seas and rising temperatures, the increasingly more severe storms, the melting ice caps, the entire cities where people can’t breathe the air, and so on. We can treat them all like they’re natural or not a part of us. Likewise, we can ignore the growing wealth inequality, the increased automation of our workforce, the decreasing opportunities to make a decent living, and the devastating violence that comes with this. We can adopt a pseudo-religious faith that markets will take care of themselves. We can delude ourselves into believing that a billionaire who doesn’t pay his workers or his taxes will bring back our mythical past of a plentiful middle class. When he doesn’t bring it back, we can blame anyone who doesn’t look or think like us. We can hasten our end by fighting each other.

On the other hand, we can be more like the Utopians. We can believe in more communal values. We can work toward the common good as much as our personal good. We can abandon our private property fetishes and start sharing more of our resources. We can pull a Robin Hood and reverse the current wealth redistribution so that 1% of the population doesn’t hoard it all. We can stop considering the market first in our collective decisions and instead consider our habitats and our social relations. We can move beyond old voting models and consider ways to make more consensus-based decisions. We can examine the institutions that divide us and dismantle them. We can come up with new solutions and maybe create a future in which humans are not doomed to near-extinction by the twenty-second century.

All of this reminds me of a reading I went to at Bluestockings in Greenwich Village several years ago. One of the writers performing that night, Mickey Hess, held up a copy of Thomas More’s Utopia. The front cover had just the author’s last name and the title on it: More Utopia. Hess said, “More Utopia? I didn’t know there was a sequel.”

Mickey Hess’s joke is our hope for the future. More Utopia is exactly what we need right now. We need new visions of how the world can be, new utopian dreams. Maybe they won’t be perfect. Maybe they won’t work at all. Maybe our first defense is to call them impossible. We can’t be sure.

The one thing we can be sure about, though, is that what we’re doing right now isn’t working. If we don’t change, the twenty-first century will be a brutal fight to bring back a world that’s already too far gone.


Featured image by ▓▒░ TORLEY ░▒▓ via Flickr.