How to Redefine Utopia to Become Utopian

By | July 20, 2021

Guest post by Tom Moylan

We left—onto the freeway shoulders—

under the tough old stars—

In the shadow of bluffs

I came back to myself,

To the real work, to

“What is to be done.”

Gary Snyder, “I Went into the Maverick Bar” from Turtle Island.

We all know that the world we live in (in all our intersectional diversity) is beset by a cluster of interrelated crises that are cascading toward even greater destruction, threatening the life of the planet itself. In these dark times, radical action is needed more than ever so that we can face these crises and build a better world for all humans, all nonhumans, and nature itself.  This is where the praxis of being utopian, becoming utopian, is called for. In using the word utopia, I’m not talking about its popular mis-conceptualization as useless wishful thinking or its systemic anti-utopian formulation as top-down authoritarianism. Rather I’m talking about a deeply transformative impulse, based in a dynamic mix of suffering and hope, that refuses to settle for the terms and conditions of our enclosed present and then insists on reaching out, in communal efforts, to create that better world.

I discuss these matters in Becoming Utopian: The Culture and Politics of Radical Transformation, which Bloomsbury was so good to publish this year. Drawing on my personal and political experience from the 1960s onward and developed in my writings from the 1990s onward, I offer a running argument through the book for the need to know more about this process of addressing the present in the name of the not yet realized better future.

In this way, the book is a capstone to my lifelong vocation of trying to make a difference, trying to make the world a better place (though it is a capstone from which more work is yet to come). And so, I write from an autobiographical position that begins in my childhood in Chicago in an Irish immigrant, working class family, rooted in a conservative Catholicism that nevertheless stood against the greed of mammon and the arrogance of power, but then moves through my expanding life on the streets of the city, in classrooms, in meeting rooms of activist movements, and in the engaged political life of the public sphere. Throughout, I speak to my developing sense of duty to make that difference in the world,  a duty that is informed by and grows through the thought and practice of a post-Vatican II Catholicism to begin with but then segues into a secular Left political standpoint, informed by New Left and socialist feminist politics and anarchist and Marxist theory. And helped along by reading a lot of science fiction!

And so, I learned the name utopia. But as I read and studied and went deeper into the world of utopian thought and practice, I learned that we can draw on a utopian problematic that gives us a set of categories by which we can know and intervene in the world in a radically different manner. I learned that a utopian method of negative critique and positive anticipatory vision (rooted in hard reality, not castles in the sand) could inform and drive creative practice, theoretical thinking, and existential and political action. I learned that this utopian project is best done with others, not in some private garden of delight but in a collective/communal way of being that prefigures a better future right within the hard times of the present.

I learned that becoming utopian is something we (whoever we are) all can do. I learned that becoming utopian is something we must do over and over, throughout our lives. I learned that becoming utopian is something that any realized political system or movement must do over and over. This is so that the tendency toward loss of energy, compromise, cooptation, outright suppression and repression can be overcome again and again.

I learned that becoming utopian brings with it a double consciousness, of the terrible old world we live in and the better new world we strive for. I learned that becoming utopian is a process that works within a double temporality, wherein we live and work in the dark moment of the present but do so in the terms of an not yet achieved future of which the present is its past. And so I share all this in Becoming Utopian.

Becoming Utopian book cover image

Tom Moylan is Glucksman Professor Emeritus at the University of Limerick, Ireland. Founder of the Ralahine Centre for Utopian Studies and an internationally recognised scholar and teacher, his previous books inclide Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Uropian Imagination (1986).

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