New Internationalist

Simply… The Road To Nowhere

Issue 213

new internationalist
issue 213 - November 1990

UTOPIA

Simply... the road to nowhere

Fred makes a cocoa for himself and flicks idly through some of the books he bought in his idealist youth.


The word 'Utopia' derives from ancient Greek and means 'no place' or 'nowhere'. It is here, in Western culture, that dreams and schemes of the perfect society live. At first Utopia hid in imaginary places or islands in a still-unknown world beyond the great oceans.


But slowly places lost their mystery. The idea of progress took hold. The brutality of industrial life appalled many people. Utopia projected itself into the future instead.


Scientific discovery and the disillusionment of the twentieth century made the future look less interesting than the nature of time Itself. So, intellectually unfashionable but undaunted, the idea of Utopia abandoned the world altogether and was launched into space.


Here it still lives in the 'fantasy' titles on bookshop shelves or in the movies, the subject of a growing body of feminist writing.


It has lost none of its imaginative power or ability to communicate ideas. The world would be a less interesting, sadder place without it.

 

Thomas More
UTOPIA
1516

[image, unknown] This book introduced the term to the English language. The island of Utopia contains 54 semi-independent cities, but society is still largely governed by rural, agricultural life. Its people move regularly between the countryside and the cities, Everyone has a right to everything. Vegetarian monks striving for holiness gladly take on most of the nasty work. Only criminals may slaughter animals so that the population at large is not brutalized. Intended as a critique of contemporary English society, Utopia has since been claimed as the work of 'the first socialist'. Thomas More went on to become Lord Chancellor of England and was executed for opposing the marriage of King Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn.

 

William Morris
News from Nowhere
1889

[image, unknown] In 1888 Edward Bellamy, an American socialist, published a book called Looking Backward. It portrayed Boston society in the year 2000, with the oppression and inequality of industrial capitalism long gone and with a military-industrial army working in huge monopolies rallying to the banner of nationalism. It foresaw electric light, credit cards, shopping malls and electronic broadcasting. It was hugely successful. The English socialist William Morris was so appalled that he published News from Nowhere as a riposte to Bellamy. It is set in England in the twenty-first century. A revolution has taken place following a demonstration in Trafalgar Square in 1952. There is no government and no private property. People work because they want to. Lyrical in tone, the book ends with a boat trip along the River Thames. Bellamy was the more prescient; but he is almost forgotten, while the work of William Morris is still widely read today.

 

Ursula le Guin
The Dispossessed
1974

[image, unknown] Earth has been abandoned as a polluted desert. Shevek, the protagonist, lives on Anarres, a bleak moon of the much wealthier Urras. The demands of survival have enforced a form of anarchism on Anarres. Shevek is a brilliant physicist working on a Theory of Simultaneity. It will break through the limitations of time and space. He travels to Urras to pursue his researches, only to find that the 'propertarians' wish to exploit his theory to their own advantage. He joins a general strike by those who have been dispossessed on Urras and tells them: '(on Anarres) we have nothing but our freedom. We have nothing to give you but your own freedom'. Later he tells a friend: 'My ideas in my head aren't the only ones important to me, My society is also an idea. I was made by it. An idea of freedom, of change, of human solidarity, an important idea'.

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