“Don’t surrender to the utopia of having no utopia.” -Gilberto Valdes
History is rich with utopias, even if few historians have recognized them. They are mostly disguised; as small mysteries, as terrifying upheavals, or as malfunction, as regrettable anomaly. Feared and condemned by experts and other authorities, utopia timelessly haunts the local and global peripheries. Every conceivable countermeasure is deployed to prevent any kind of utopian becoming. But the threat of utopia is ineradicable. No power can uproot the possibility that the whole world can suddenly turn on its head. Utopia is invincible. No matter what, everything is just a hair’s breadth from something entirely different.
I would like to suggest a project of utopia: not the dream of a better world, but the radical and fearless creation of a better world, now. An economics of utopia seeks to leap beyond the desperate system of bargaining between labor and capital, between core and periphery; utopian economics responds to history and theory with the detailed, organized, joyful creation of visionary and prophetic economic alternatives.
“To our lack of alternative proposals they offer the continuation of the nightmare” - Sup. Marcos
There is no sense in hiding any longer from the rapacious trajectory of systemic capitalism. Today, the economy is become death, destroyer of worlds; a relentless project of expansion through assimilation, dispossession and extermination. No one escapes degradation: The hubris and paranoia of the developed metropolis is no way more desirable or redeemable than the violence and corruption of the underdeveloped colony. On the contrary, if anything, there is more humanity in the slum than in suburbia. But the death economy races forward -- record growth, record debt; it’s all part of the same package that makes the market society flourish and suffer. (In the alienation economy, these always go together.) Life was born free and everywhere it is on sale.
No one person is at the controls of this lab rat race. “Maybe there’s nobody to shoot”, one of Steinbeck’s characters pondered astride a bulldozer in The Grapes of Wrath. We understand that there’s a system, but there must be something real -- people, buildings, something! Is The Man really a myth? The economic system to the average person seems like a vast and complicated forest without trees. Caught in the vice of this paradox, most of us resign ourselves to watching the deserts grow. After all, how do you cut down a forest with no trees?
The only option is to plant a new forest. Now. Utopia has become the only realistic prospect for transforming a world whose reality is controlled, humiliated and path dependent.
My intention in this place is not to propose a personal utopia but to emphasize the importance of utopian thought, desire and action. I think that utopia is one of the most important concepts we can contemplate, and that certainly the immediate creation of a better world is the most meaningful thing we can participate in.
Utopia is no trifle; it is not to be tried haphazardly -- utopia must be nurtured carefully, compassionately and fearlessly. When everything else is ready, utopia will emerge, as the Situationists promised, gradually at first, and then suddenly.
In an essay titled ‘Underdevelopment and Its Remedies’, Immanuel Wallerstein writes:
“We have been historically constrained not to engage in utopistics: first by arguments of authority... then, by arguments of impossibility... Nonetheless, those who have power engage in utopistics all the time. That is how they conceive the new structures that emerge out of historical transitions, structures that maintain our hierarchical world. In a sense, I am not calling for the launching of some new activity called utopistics, but for the democratization of a very old activity.”
We must recover our capacities for utopian discourse. An astute taste for utopia must be cultivated, rejuvenated from the depths to which society has banished it. The real possibility of utopia needs to enter our language and inform our communication so that we can live it together and spread the word (and the action) to others. Wallerstein continues:
“[W]e have to engage seriously in the project of inventing the future system -- not by a philosopher-king, but collectively. We need to debate priorities and the nature of institutions that could implement them. If we want equality, that means equality in what, and when, and exactly how? It is not that these issues have never been discussed, but that they have never been collectively and widely debated...”
We need a new forest, and soon. The severe maldevelopment of the global economy can be seen even from space. Nearly everywhere, the commodity is emperor, nearly everywhere, as Emerson foresaw, “things are in the saddle, and ride mankind.” At the end of the day in the global village, the story is tragically familiar and redundant; wealth and power are ruthlessly accumulated, ecology is converted into garbage and humanity is driven into misery. The death march economy accelerates to the rhythm of the stock ticker and the nightmare continues...
“The hegemony of capitalism has convinced normal people that their essence is greed and convinced intellectuals that there is no such thing as an essence.” -Anas Maloul
“What do we do?”
“Stand up fight back!”
The utopian movement will deliver. To fragmentation and alienation we will bring essence and rhythm. An essence is a tricky thing -- you cannot own it, and for the most part it can’t be spoken either. An essence can only exist in action, in becoming. Like rhythm.
Forward, utopians! Which essence shall we choose to become today? Let us choose one that will strike fear into the foundations of the system that oppresses us. And let us choose one that will frighten us as well -- after all, we can’t build a utopia out of overconfidence or pride. Out of the aether of all essences, let us pick -- equality.
“Along a little path in the forest the real movement is finding itself by pointing to a great utopian objective: go beyond rights to the full reality of the deed.” -Alfredo Bonanno
Who of us today understands equality enough to somehow embody it? We are mired in an increasingly virtual swamp of laws and rights and have lost ourselves. Terrified of equality, the powerful bullies lay upon the dispossessed the blindfold of rights.
Seeing on paper our right to equality, we sometimes forget that it is just ink on paper. But the hustle can’t last forever. The hologram of equal rights implodes beneath the weight of real inequality, it collapses into its homogenous and self-referential non-existence. Then the walls are scaled again; equality is demanded by being enacted. Power leaps.
But who today understands equality, who can comprehend its essence? A million reductions masquerade as essences, some of them quite convincingly.
An Indictment: Moral Objectivism and Cultural Relativism, Guilty of Fraud
Between the Scylla of cultural relativism and the Charybdis of moral objectivism we are sent off to navigate towards equality. These two conceptual contrivances have become a recurring bane of ethical discourse. They poison our thought.
Moral objectivism says that there is only one truth. It is a whirlpool with an insatiable mouth at the bottom, drowning and devouring all disparities into its uncompromising unity of vision and purpose. Cultural relativism says that everything is truth. It is a beast with a hundred heads. Even if some might kill us, we must stomach them all, warned that if we cut one head off, then at least two will grow in its place.
The whole situation is a trap. We will not find what we are looking for in the violence of these two monsters. For too long our ethical consciousness has been tangled in these mutually intolerant totems. Instead of equality we get a theoretical headache and fatigue.
Each of these monsters would demand a conceptual monopoly over our morality. If we don’t find either monster appealing, it seems as if we must base our morals on a compromise between them; on some reduced point of a spectrum between poles. And if we don’t want any part in this spectrum then it seems that we must surrender our morality altogether.
We have been trapped into this, and we are continually trapping ourselves into it.
If we believe in them, the lesson of the monsters is that we must reject essences and embrace reductions. But moral objectivism and cultural relativism are reductions posing as essences. And the essences they pose as are monstrosities! They reduce truth to a battle between two unimaginative contrivances, one which tolerates suffering one that justifies it. In holding as essential that which is really monstrous, these concepts trick us into rejecting essences on principle. In this, they deprive us of the only thing that can ensure us what we demand.
What is so essential about an essence? We live in postmodern times; can’t we grow up and learn to abide by a deconstructed world of fundamental uncertainty where fragmentation is the only universal? No, we cannot abide there. We reject reductions and all other alienations. We demand essence. Because we demand change.
Equality as an essence and a utopia demands specificity, context and embodiment. It cannot be reduced to any concept, much less a concept that can be universally applied to any situation. It is not vague or general. Equality as a concept, as a right for example, is an excrescence. Equality as a deed is an essence.
There is nothing of being in the pedantic negotiation between cultural relativism and moral objectivism. These fake essences smell of dust and manipulation. Concepts will not fill our hearts when our stomachs are empty, they will not warm our souls when we must brace against cold winds that threaten death.
The essence that we need has been purloined by these monsters who tell us to reject it, who tell us to stake our spirits on a see-saw. We must slay them both.
We who insist upon the essence of equality will not hang ourselves on this pitiful pendulum between constructs. They are ashes of a desperate history. We seek fire to forge a new one.
“There are some things for the understanding of which, a new being is necessary,” wrote George Gurdjieff. If we desire equality enough to try and really understand it, we cannot do it sitting down, simply said. The grand old concepts of equality will continue to beleaguer our movements, shouting from the clouds the concepts of the past and never listening back. But the utopians among us will hear a different drummer, and they will live to spread the message of rhythm: As every dancer knows, actions speak louder than words. Equality is either embodied or it is surrendered, either enacted or sent to conceptual exile to be forgotten or occasionally dredged up by concerned scholars and other gravediggers.
What is the history of equality? It was not written or read into existence.
I will be quite clear. Today, equality begins with resistance, with a declaration of essential war against all structures of inequality, external and internal.
A Word on Methodology
“[T]he truth is that if you’re in the business of effecting change, then we have to take the risk of envisioning the future. It’s not a scientific exercise, I’m sorry, but we have to engage in the artistic, political exercise of envisioning the future.” -Eqbal Ahmad
It’s not math. One does not “solve” the problem of inequality as one solves for an algebraic equation. Peoples, cultures, ecosystems and histories are not variables to be reordered into a mathematically balanced geometry.
We live in the era of the machine, whose pantheon is science and technology. Machinists and technocrats encroach and enclose increasingly around our world; our economies, our concepts, our moralities. So alas sometimes even those who oppose the status quo think that through methodical science, they can calculate everyone’s way towards equality, this concept which none of us understands. By all means long live utopian science! But control the machine and quarantine the technophilia!
“There are no atheists in foxholes,” said those who knew. We will not find many scientists there either. Nothing less than a powerful essence, a complete utopia, can motivate the radical changes which not only dignity but survival demands. A future must be risked, and we must dare to demand utopia, indeed, to become it.
The Principal Objective (let’s be honest here)
The central problem to which utopian economists must devote themselves today is very simple: A few have far too much and too many have far too little. Almost all of politics revolves around this. The rules are simple in this problem. “We can have democracy,” wrote Louis Brandeis, “or we can have the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. We cannot have both.”
There are other sources of the problems that plague our many worlds, but this basic economic inequality takes the lion’s share. “Possession,” as John Lennon wrote, “is nine tenths of the problem.” The consequences of the problem are quite obvious, easily observable and predictable: alienation, fragmentation, suffering, waste, and structural violence.
It is a simple problem with a simple answer:
Power shrieks, orders are shouted, truncheons fall, doors slam shut and lock.
But the problem only grows and the answer only gets more obvious.
“The fundamental duel which seemed to be that between colonialism and anti-colonialism, and indeed between capitalism and socialism, is already losing some of its importance. What counts today, the question which is looming on the horizon, is the need for a redistribution of wealth. Humanity must reply to this question, or be shaken to pieces by it.” -Frantz Fanon
All fortresses will fall upon themselves eventually, but we simply cannot wait any longer. It is not a question of patience, but of survival. We are in the grips of a destructive system that permeates our ecology as much as our economy, our spirits as much as our wallets, a system that will not settle for anything less than absolutely everything. Cecil Rhodes spoke for the system when he said “I would annex the planets if I could.” We who are cornered, who have everything to lose, can only risk losing it. The utopian praxis is fundamentally risky.
“I really think that the notion of taking risks has to enter into our lives,” Eqbal Ahmad said: “If we do not take risks, we cannot serve the common good. The risk is not often taken, but the willingness to court it has to be there.”
The question of getting there inevitably brings us to the old game of means and ends. On this, the aspiring utopian Alexander Berkman wrote from prison:
“It all depends, as you see, on what your purpose is, what you want to accomplish. Your aims determine the means. Means and aims are in reality the same: you cannot separate them. It is the means that shape your ends. The means are the seed which bud into flower and come to fruition. The fruit will always be of the nature of the seed you planted. You can’t grow a rose from a cactus seed. No more can you harvest liberty from compulsion, justice from dictatorship.”
But what means for redistribution remain in a world economy of patented seeds? What if there is really nothing “outside the system”? If our means determine our ends, what happens when every means is controlled and contaminated? At that moment utopia becomes our only choice, whatever the cost. We burst out of the endless complicity of the system by creating the new world this very instant.
Getting there also will also involve us in the antagonism between “revolutions” and “reforms”. This debate has consistently failed to produce anything innovative. Without further ado we will throw it to the dogs at the academy along with moral objectivism and cultural relativism. Reform and revolution, insofar as they masquerade as essences on poles of a political spectrum, are also guilty of fraud, of obstruction of utopia. John DeMartino reminds and suggests that
“insofar as there is no essential source of all oppression, there is no basis for privileging any one kind of political campaign as necessarily fundamental, true, or deeply efficacious -- in a word, as revolutionary.... Rather than undertake exhaustive battles over which contradiction is the irreducible source of all oppressions, activists, can instead seek space for cooperation in broad campaigns for justice.”
Reforms are traditionally criticized by utopians with good reason. Apologists who seek to ameliorate the most brutal aspects of the system in order to preserve it deserve to be exposed as collaborators. But while a revolution implies a more significant change in the existing order, there is nothing essential or historical that guarantees that all “revolutionary” change is for the better. The Zapatistas have said wisely that a revolution only secures the territory in which life can change.
From a utopian perspective there is no essential difference between revolution and reform; they are simply different tactics for changing life. At best, they can work together, (like the good cop and the bad cop, to use a terrible analogy) to push a new world into being. To this end, whether actions come in the form of reforms or revolutions is of far less consequence than whether the results are substantive and the actors are accountable.
“If the workers took a notion they could stop all speeding trains;
Every ship upon the ocean they can tie with mighty chains.
Every wheel in the creation, every mine and every mill;
Fleets and armies of the nation will at their command stand still.” -Joe Hill
Leaders are of little consequence to utopia -- they are at best an inevitable side effect of the social movements from which they draw their power. Leaders may have the capacity to inspire, but ultimately it is the movement that makes or breaks utopia. Gandhi and Che may be great role models, but it is the movements in India and Cuba that count. All this hubbub about lack of leadership is dystopian nonsense, the psychic debris of a repentant paternalistic nostalgia for change-from-on-high. But there is no deus to save us from the machina. There is only movement, rhythm and the possibility of something entirely different.
“Social movements are the most unpredictable of historical phenomena,” writes Eqbal Ahmad: “No one, no scholars have yet found a formula for predicting revolutions or upheavals.”
Social movements spring from the primordial aether of collective human subjectivity, they are inherently unpredictable and unstable. This is both their fundamental strength and weakness; the source of both their vulnerability and their invincibility. They cannot be preemptively created or destroyed.
Given these organic conditions, social movements must maximize the strength of their unpredictability with decentralized, effective and joyful subversion on every front, and minimize their instability with alternative structures that can provide the necessary support and services for utopian becoming.
“Create, wait, watch and let the fake fall...” -Blackalicious
While the utopian movement should not (indeed, cannot) surrender itself to the tyranny of any universal blueprint, it is just as essential that it not reject the necessary work of administration. While there are no sanctioned steps, we must find a way to dance together and keep the music playing. New rhythms must rise before old drums can be safely destroyed.
The creation of new, alternative structures is what Eqbal Ahmad called “the fundamental characteristic of revolutionary warfare: to be successful, the revolutionary movement must outadminister the enemy before it starts to outfight it.” Outadministration is the real utopian objective; elections, strikes, and the armed struggle are merely complementary, if sometimes unavoidable gestures. Our semi-repentant fetish for “the revolution”, generally conceived of vaguely as some kind of violent upheaval, distracts us from the real work of the utopian movement: the creation of alternative schools, hospitals, courts, banks, media, spiritual centers, sports teams -- everything.
Most of us are unaccustomed to this kind of work; there will of course be plenty of trouble along the way. The course of utopia never ran any smoother than the course of love. But just as we will persevere in love in spite of all danger, so the movement will persevere in spite of the turbulence of utopian becoming, because the collective spirit demands nothing less. As Rosa Luxembourg wrote, “Let us put it quite bluntly: the errors committed by a truly revolutionary workers’ movement are historically far more fruitful than the correct decisions of the finest Central Committee.”
The most powerful social movements are intrinsically utopian; the movement becomes the new world. Within the utopian movement, the microutopian economics creates itself -- social relations are reconstituted, and participants are resurrected from exploitation and dependency into creativity and collective self reliance. Utopian systems of production, distribution, communication and coordination are all nascent within the social relations of the movement.
Utopia itself is never institutionalized -- it is continually recomposed through a counterpoint of structure and surprise. A new world is created, and gradually at first, but then suddenly, the old and fake hierarchies become irrelevant and will fall, if necessary with a little help from our friends. None of this is at all improbable. It has happened many times before.
Understanding Equality: Back to the Essence
“Soul exposed, no material protection,
Low and behold we’re going back to the essence.” -Blackalicious
We have talked and thought about equality as an essence. We know that it cannot be understood as a concept, but that it demands real and specific application and embodiment. But this doesn’t bring us all the way to understanding it. If the deed is the path to understanding equality as an essence, where must we go to comprehend the essence of equality?
“Detras de nosotros, somos ustedes.”
“Somos iguales porque somos diferentes.”
These Zapatista axioms capture perfectly the recognition of the essence of equality. The essence of equality, I think, exists in the elemental interconnectedness of all life. “Behind ourselves, we are you.” This is not to be confused with the vulgar understanding of equality as sameness. Nothing could be further from equality than homogeneity. On the contrary, “we are equal because we are different”.
Nothing could be further from the dominant moral code of dystopian economics than this fundamental interconnectedness. The alienation economy thrives on competition, on fragmentation, on winners and losers, on a collective perception of the world that is composed entirely of objects for use or abuse. As Eqbal Ahmad said, “[t]he history of humanity is replete with the rejection of the Other. It is replete with callousness toward the Other, toward the habit of and traditions of and the intellectual outlook of that which is not you or not yours.”
This history has reached a fit of pique in our fresh but already overripe millennium. The decentralized conquest of neoliberal globalization increasingly disintegrates priceless and irretrievable nature and culture into lifeless objects. Beauty and uniqueness are humiliated beyond recognition through the relentless exploitation of buying and selling. Never perhaps, has the essence of equality been more desperately needed.
Perceiving the world as composed of interconnected subjects instead of competing objects shatters the foundations of this history along with its vulgar pretensions of “equal rights”. The rejection of objectification and the embrace of intersubjectivity turns the classical economic constructs of incentives, utility and preference functions on their heads. What is the incentive to win if it means that part of me must lose? Why would I try to maximize my own utility at the expense of collective utility (as maximizing personal utility must do)? What will my preference to consume be if, behind myself, I am what is to be consumed?
A feverish shiver runs up the spine of capitalism.
But just as this understanding liberates us, it also leaves us with no escape. As Martin Luther King Jr. knew, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. No matter where we go, no matter who we are, behind ourselves, we are them, inextricably bound up with the destiny of every life. “[T]he world does not spare me,” wrote Aime Cesaire: “There is not anywhere in the world a poor creature who’s been lynched or tortured in whom I am not murdered and humiliated.” To understand is to resist. To recognize the essence of equality in your interconnectedness is to commit yourself to untiring struggle for the elimination of inequality everywhere. There are no limits, there is no turning back. As Eugene Debs had the courage to tell the courtroom: “While there is a lower class, I am in it. While there is a criminal element, I am of it. While there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
When we return to the essence, the conceptual strength behind every hierarchy collapses. Every incentive for exploitation becomes unthinkable. Utopia begins the moment we understand. Alienation and greed are turned on their heads. For all this time they always have been only a hair’s breadth from something completely different. “Superiority? Inferiority?” asked Frantz Fanon: “Why not the quite simple attempt to touch the other, to feel the other, to explain the other to myself? Was my freedom not given to me then in order to build the world of the You?”
Without the Other
What is cold and what is hot?
Are they there when we feel them not?
What is dark and what is light?
Do they exist without our sight?
And us, my friends, would we be real,
If cold and hot we did not feel?
What would our perception be
With neither light nor dark to see?
Listen sisters, listen brothers,
All is none without the other --
Spread the word and then take cover!
All is none without the other!
The other is not only a part of us: we are nothing without it. The other not only complements and completes us: without it we do not exist. A system of production and exchange that homogenizes, that assimilates, that dispossesses, oppresses and annihilates otherness, is nothing less than a suicide economy.
In today’s hyper-capitalist societies, individuals have been turned into vacuums desperate to be filled. This is the strength and precondition for the system, but also its fundamental and ineradicable vulnerability. The kamikaze business model fills the vacuum with routine, commodities and spectacle. We must fill it with rhythm, new values and utopia.
We must offer consumers and producers a world beyond consumption and production, a world, as the Zapatistas say, where many worlds fit. As social movements sow new values and fresh understandings, a new economy will harvest itself. Resistance is contagious. Utopian economics is not a dream, not a specter, not a toy or a tool: It is real, inherent, ready and willing, waiting just beneath a surface tension that is crying out to be broken. A new system is not inevitable, but it is only a hair’s breadth away. All that is lacking is the collective courage to seize the day.
Propulsive Utopia, by Alfredo Bonanno
Confronting Empire, interviews with Eqbal Ahmad
The Making of the Battle of Algiers, by Eqbal Ahmad
Counterinsurgency, by Eqbal Ahmad
The Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon
Black Skin, White Masks, by Frantz Fanon
The Rebel, by Aime Cesaire
Global Economy, Global Justice, by John DeMartino
Underdevelopment and its Remedies, by Immanuel Wallerstein
Localized Economies, by Anas Maloul
Back to the Essence, by Blackalicious, from the album “A2G”