The Utopia Thieves

What follows is the first chapter of a book to be called The Utopia Thieves, first published as a near-final draft on Medium on the 26th of April, 2021. The other chapters follow this one via successive daisy-chain links. Comments are welcome!

The book comprises 11 chapters, viz:

  1. The Utopia Thieves
  2. The Conquest of Scarcity
  3. The Modern Revolution
  4. The Crisis of Complexity
  5. The Roots of Rentier-dom
  6. The Big Push: Planning for Transformation
  7. A Textbook Reaction
  8. Stagnation and Scarcity Reborn? The ‘ecological’ origins of neoliberalism
  9. How to Pay for Progress
  10. Punishing Kindness
  11. The New Statesperson

The Introduction and Conclusion are still to follow. Chapter One now begins.

IN 1928, halfway between the two World Wars of the twentieth century, the British economist John Maynard Keynes stared into a crystal ball, and spied out the economic landscape of a hundred years hence.

In the resulting essay, ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’, Keynes painted a picture of a semi-utopian world of automation and robots in which ordinary people would find their week’s work done after fifteen or twenty hours on the job, after which they could devote themselves to the pursuit of leisure, health and self-improvement.

A future foreshadowed already in much of the architecture and photography of the era, such as Dr Paul Wolff’s famously glamorous depiction of the opening of the Opel Baths in Wiesbaden, designed under the Weimar republic, in 1934.

According to the English political essayist George Orwell, writing in 1948,

In the early twentieth century, the vision of a future society unbelievably rich, leisured, orderly and efficient — a glittering antiseptic world of glass and steel and snow-white concrete — was part of the consciousness of nearly every literate person. Science and technology were developing at a prodigious speed, and it seemed natural that they would continue to go on developing. . . .

These perspectives lasted into the 1960s, the decade of space rockets and the jet aircraft that had replaced the chugging biplanes that had been the norm as recently as the 1920s and the early 1930s. Which is to say, well within living memory at that time.

Accelerated Progress: A modern passenger jet airliner, Boeing 707B VH-EBL, posed beside a replica Avro biplane of the type in use 45 years before, at the 45th anniversary of the founding of the Australian airline Qantas, 10 December 1965 (Qantas Heritage Collection image 4605–361)

As the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, Harold Wilson, declared in 1963, the world of the sixties was being remade by “the white heat of the scientific revolution.”

Those sentiments were shared across the water by the US President John F Kennedy. It’s worth taking twenty minutes out of your day to watch the following speech made by JFK on a hot day in 1962, the one in which he urges America to put astronauts on the moon and “do the other things”:

The other things included waging a war on poverty (a metaphor that would later be devalued by the war on drugs and the war on terrorism) and, also, supplying every large American city with a state-of-the-art rapid transit system.

From 1960s proposals for a rapid transit system in Auckland, New Zealand. As we drive on the left in New Zealand, this would seem to have been based on an American original from the same era. Reproduced in Dove-Myer Robinson, Passenger Transport in Auckland: A Report . . . , Auckland Regional Authority, 1969.

Sixty years after Kennedy’s inauguration and a hundred years on from the start of the 1920s, not too many people talk about progress in terms of “white heat:” or, indeed, at all.

Save in fiction, we never went back to the moon. Only Washington DC and San Francisco got the intended transit systems. And the war on poverty was deemed a failure by Ronald Reagan, though in reality it was more successful than the later ‘wars’.

Popular culture, today, is also a mine for images of Dystopia, not Utopia, as it otherwise still tended to be in the sixties (e.g., the Jetsons). The future is, instead, something that we have come to fear.

At the same time, the ‘eternal present’ of neoliberalism counsels that the poor will, indeed, always be with us and that progress, still more so the idea of movement toward Utopia, is an illusion for that reason as well.

In the words of Cédric Durand,

Locked in the eternal present of neoliberalism, captured by the incessant whirlwind of market injunctions, our societies have lost the sense of history. The future is reduced to two equally depressing options: eternal repetition of what is already here, or apocalypse.

It goes without saying that this state of affairs, which has endured since the days of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, has been like Kryptonite to progressive political forces.

Kryptonite, if you’re a comics fan — or even if you’re not — is of course the substance whose emanations paralysed Superman and even threatened to kill him. It’s a good metaphor for the paralysing effect of a lost “sense of history” on the left.

As far back as 1978, which is to say even before Thatcher and Reagan came to lead their respective countries, the British historian Eric Hobsbawm chose the title ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted’ for what was then his latest essay.

The title was a nod, almost surely, to the sorts of allegorical paintings that had been popular around the year 1900, expressing optimism in the new century.

Giuseppe Polizzi da Volpedo, The Fourth Estate. Public domain artwork reproduction via Wikimedia Commons.

We have since racked up abundant evidence to confirm Hobsbawm’s thesis. Such as, for example, America’s wage compression since 1970, amid escalating costs for big-ticket basics such as tuition, medicine and housing: the so-called ’50 trillion dollar heist’ lately totted up by the RAND corporation, a by-no-means left-wing think tank.

We also seen an economy increasingly inclined to treat workers, and human beings in general, as disposable items. Workers now have to compete with robots and if they can’t, well, that’s their problem — or so it would seem.

Utopia has thus been replaced by the future depicted in the 2013 film Elysium. More worryingly, liberal and progressive politicians, parties and movements have repeatedly shown themselves to be paralysed Supermen indeed: ultimately incapable of breaking the chains of neoliberalism’s mental slavery.

In a book which first came out in the Netherlands at about the same time as the film Elysium, called Utopia for Realists in English, the economist Rutger Bregman called on us to break the spell ourselves. According to Bregman, “It all starts with reclaiming the language of progress.” (p. 258)

But if the language of progress has gone missing, I think we really have to ask how, where and why we lost it before we can hope to find it again.

While everyone should read Bregman’s book, I think we do need a companion volume — so to speak — in which the loss of the language of progress is more fully accounted for.

Bregman suggests that neoliberal free-marketeers had a ready-made Utopia of their own to insert when the rapidly progressive economy of the post-World War II decades began to splutter, in the face of the oil price hikes of the 1970s.

Problems that were really more to do with rapidly rising energy prices than anything else were, rather opportunistically, blamed on those who had planned the post-War economic miracle, and planning duly done away with.

After which, the stalk of a modern industrial and scientific economy, which, it was too seldom acknowledged, always required an ‘entrepreneurial state’ to back its most long-term projects, began to wither as the juices of capital flowed into the flower of financial excess instead.

However, we really need a richer story than that to chart the course from Wilson to Thatcher, and from Kennedy to Reagan.

What really predisposed our modern society — only twenty years after Wilson and Kennedy — to accept neoliberalism’s always tacitly and often overtly anti-progressive, anti-industrial and anti-scientific remedies for its growing-pains?

Was there some kind of deeper loss of confidence in scientific and industrial progress itself? A deeper loss of confidence, which then predisposed society to reject all earlier talk of Utopia and Progress and put on the hair shirt of neoliberalism.

Before we dig more deeply into that question, let’s focus on what the concepts of Progress and Utopia really mean. Namely, the conquest of scarcity. Essays will follow with an emphasis on New Zealand.

(This series uses British spelling. Precise references will shortly be added in an additional document, but most of the things I refer to can be found online anyway.)

Click here for Chapter 2

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Chris Harris

Chris Harris

I am an urban historian from New Zealand with a special interest in New World cities. Somewhere along the line I picked up a PhD on planning and economics.