Advance: Searching for Utopia(s) in the Age of Trump and ISIS
16 October 2016
In December 1516, the printing presses of Louvain brought to life what would become one of the quintessential Humanist texts of the Renaissance: Utopia. Written by Thomas More, it was originally published in Latin, the universal language of the learned in Renaissance Europe. Although book circulation was much slower then, the work had become notorious by early 1517. Imagined as a dialogue between More and the sea explorer Hythlodaeus, Utopia wittily satirises European society for its thoughtless pursuit of fame and wealth, its lack of Christian charity, and its proclivity for injustice. This was accomplished through the presentation of a fictional non-European island where a Christian-like society lives happily through the establishment of honest institutions and good social customs.
Over the course of 2016, much has been done to commemorate More’s Utopia. Among these initiatives were the utopia2016.com website and an article by Terry Eagleton arguing that, even if we would not adopt all of Utopia’s proposed reforms today, More’s work remains ‘astonishingly radical and influential’. However, most of Utopia‘s commemorations occurred around the same period as two of the greatest watersheds of 2016: the Brexit result and Trump’s presidential victory. As a result, the Utopian quincentenary dwindled out with almost no further consideration. Most Western intellectuals were, and still are, coping with the enormous shift of power experienced across the globe.
In October 2016, the BBC aired what has recently become one of the most unsettling diagnoses of our times: HyperNormalisation. Directed by Adam Curtis, this documentary was originally streamed in English, the current universal language of science and business. In this eerie film, Curtis detachedly presents a worrying thesis: since the 1970s, policy-makers, bankers and ‘technological utopians’ have renounced any aspiration to run the ‘real world’, creating instead a ‘fake world’ that is governed by corporations and kept stable by politicians. Curtis’s audiovisual behemoth provides a negative view of our present political situation by connecting an far-reaching array of subjects: a bankrupt New York in the 70s with the unification of the Middle East, the declining Soviet Union with suicide bombers and the creation of cyberspace, ISIS, Brexit… and Trump. While the scope of historical events that Curtis presents is too wide for a standalone documentary, Curtis’s arguments remain very appealing.
One could wonder why I juxtapose an old Humanist book with a Postmodern documentary that, at times, seems to unfold like a field day on Wikipedia. However, recent books, like Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna’s 2016 Age of Discovery, have shown the similarities between our digital age and the Renaissance. Five hundred years ago, tremendous social forces brought out a flourishing of the Arts and Sciences in Europe, but they also drove division, violence and pandemics across the whole world. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. What binds these two periods more than anything else is the birth of a new way to communicate: the printing press for the Renaissance, the Internet for our times.
Needless to say, a great schism also separates these two epochs. More’s Utopia displays the playful spirit of Renaissance Humanism. The title of the book is itself a game: using the ambiguities of the Greek language, it simultaneously means the ‘good place’ and the ‘no-place’. Fiction is used optimistically to imagine an ideal island that serves to elicit the conversation for a better Europe. Curtis’s HyperNormalisation, on the contrary, uses a voiceover by David Attenborough along with an archive of old digitised video clips, songs and texts to condemn the politically pernicious unrealness brought forth by technocracy and the digital. His documentary takes its title from Alexei Yurchak’s 2006 book Everything was Forever, Until it was No More: The Last Soviet Generation, which denounces the unreality of the Soviet regime just before its downfall. Renaissance hope is thereby confronted with Postmodern despair, reflecting in the process the essential difference between utopia and dystopia (etymologically, ‘bad place’).
The dystopia Curtis stages in his documentary is not an isolated one. Dystopias abound in the news: ISIS, Syria, Russian aggressions, US drones, Chinese hackers, overflowing inequality… dystopias have also crept into the world of entertainment, with a staggering number of television series ironically capitalising on the portrayal of social corruption (House of Cards; Mr. Robot), post-apocalyptic worlds (The Hunger Games), and Machiavellian dragon realms (Game of Thrones). These dystopias have at their roots the same tropes of power and money; at their most drastic, thesy also suggest a hopelessness, an incapacity for further advance (here we may find a connection between such existential feelings and the recent crisis of an over-marketed Hollywood system clearly displaying signs of creative exhaustion while still embracing the profitable system of sequels and reboots.
This comes as a recent evolution. For decades, Fukuyama’s boast about the end of History had a certain appeal across the Western world. First devised in the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall, The End of History and the Last Man argues that the advent of liberalism would preclude the need for further socio-cultural advance. The Western world relied on this assurance during the 1990s and built up a tower of welfare. It went on after 9/11, although more warily, and when the crash of 2008 occurred it carried on with austerity weighing down its steps. By the end of 2000s, as both world terrorism and economic meltdown became pervasive threats, the powerful, post-World War II idea of democracy endured. However, as Curtis points out, all necessary forces were already set in motion for the advent of technocracy. Coincidentally, the growing need for political ‘managers’ took place at the same time that smartphones became a universal commodity, effectively blurring the limits between the real world and a digital entity.
Then came 2016, Brexit, and Trump. Many liberal intellectuals, befuddled by the turn of events, promptly started summoning the old religious notion of the Apocalypse (probably nuclear), to the extent that President Obama had to dispel this eschatological belief in a late 2016 interview. But in 2017 the world is still threatened by ISIS, economic recession, famine, religious persecution, discrimination, hacker breaches, natural disasters and pandemics.
HyperNomalisation rightly states that it is partly the ‘technological utopians’ who have brought us to this place of political unrest. Still, the documentary fails to offer solutions: first and foremost, because it shows almost no sign of hope, but also because it implicitly still believes in the two postmodern principles of technocracy: Rawls’s idea of liberal neutrality, of a State devoid of any value system and Lyotard’s suspicion of any metanarrative, or utopian ideal, as a political guiding principle. When first put forth, these premises seemed altogether rational. After World War II, the Western Bloc wished to avoid another confrontation brought forth by allegedly great ideas, like those that produced Nazi Germany. In time these technocratic precepts, too, settled into myths.
The need for cultural narratives that point at powerful and all-encompassing utopias is a fundamentally human one. The danger of technocracy is that it spreads disenchantment over any ideal that is not based on machine-like processes. Utopia turns itself inside out into dystopia. Technocracy, like the ‘Nothing’ in The Neverending Story, that impersonal entity slowly consuming the fictional land of Fantastica and its inhabitants. Ironically, the ideal of democracy based on human freedom is not necessarily spared from this technical Moloch. In HyperNormalisation, technocracy and the digital gradually destroy political institutions, leading to a world where facts and forgeries are worth the same. This is all the more relevant after a year like 2016, when “post-truth” became word of the year.
The undermining of utopias and powerful cultural fictions also accounts for a good deal of the tediousness and boredom felt across the Western Bloc, the social polarisation magnified by our deficient welfare system, and, at a deeper level, the disconcerting appeal of ISIS on Westerners. These are all important details behind the political shifts in the UK and USA: although they vary in validity and nature, what Brexit and Trump share with ISIS is that they provide utopias. Not very inclusive utopias, of course, as they are based on narrow concepts of nation, race and religion, but utopias nonetheless. They provide a path that can be advanced on. In such cases, reaching the ‘good place’ is systematically dependent on the return to an allegedly glorious past.
And so by the end of 2016 and the quincentenary of Thomas More’s Utopia, the ideal of a global world, a notion cherished in the Renaissance, had become visibly diminished among a host of new technical advances. While ‘there’s never been a better time to be alive’, 2017 starts on a symptomatically pessimist tone. The best of times, the worst of times. In early 2017 nobody is talking about Utopia. Perhaps it would be dangerous to, one might jest: five hundred years ago, More’s book became wildly popular across Europe, but as the Reformation gained strength, fictions became dangerous. After October 1517 and the publication of Luther’s 95 theses, the fanciful creation of utopias became a suspiciously heretical activity for decades. Slowly the cosmopolitan aspirations of Renaissance Humanism died down and were replaced by a myriad conflicts based on race and religion, embodied in the nation-state. Five centuries later the Trump presidency, the implementation of Brexit, and the populist waves across Europe seem to echo these tensions.
At the onset of 2017, as serious analysts have started using such language as ‘we are on the verge of darkness‘, Fukuyama’s boast is certainly no longer tenable: we must advance. But which way? In this moment of rejection of institutional politics and the global rise of populist movements, we might do well in celebrating More’s Utopia again. Indeed, Utopia appears almost timeless, hearkening back to Plato while foreshadowing our contemporary tensions.
Now that dystopias like Curtis’s HyperNormalisation have penetrated the worlds of culture and politics so deeply that they have also become normalised, we must have hope. Hope is not just a source of comfort, but also an invitation to action. In these concerning times, utopian thinking can inform our strategies for building a better future. After all, and as Thomas More first demonstrated, the need for utopian and inclusive visions of society is not escapist wishful thinking, but an acknowledgment of the complexities of human nature, which cannot be addressed solely by technocracy or the digital.
Ernesto Oyarbide has a dual “Licenciatura” in Spanish Philology and Journalism from the University of Navarra, Spain. He is currently reading for a Dphil in Early Modern History and is keen on writing about the history of ideas, human relations, cosmopolitanism, and everything digital.