New Internationalist

In search of Utopia

Issue 438

Fed up with city life, climate activists Isabelle Fremeaux and John Jordan set out across Europe in search of Utopian communities. This is what they found.

The future is not what it used to be. Our Utopian imagination has atrophied in the stifling atmosphere of apocalyptic predictions: a climate catastrophe, energy shortages, mass extinctions, economic meltdowns, resource wars and intensifying social injustice. It is a lot easier to imagine the world ending than changing for the better. But it is exactly when Utopia becomes unimaginable that it is most needed. Not as an escapist Neverland, nor as a universal system or perfect future, but as the constant wrench in the gut that reminds us that we do not have to accept the crumbs of the present.

Isabelle Fremeaux and John Jordan
Can Masdeu, a squat near Barcelona, where fresh food flows and unexpected friendships are nurtured. Isabelle Fremeaux and John Jordan

We had had enough of our lives in London: a couple in a flat, constantly staring at computer screens, always hooked into the internet, never using our hands to make things, rarely touching living systems, consuming too much energy, and working too hard. Despite being activists in the direct action ecological justice movements, we felt there was a chasm between our words and our deeds. Our protests had always been models of non-hierarchical, ecological life – reclaim the streets parties, the rebel clown army, summit mobilizations, and so on – but they were just temporary, cracks in capitalism that closed up as soon as we returned home.

We wanted to find a way to change our lives radically, despite capitalism. So three years ago we set off on a journey, seven months on the road visiting eleven Utopian communities across Europe. We wanted to taste other ways of loving and eating, producing and sharing things, deciding together and rebelling, ones that lasted longer than sparks in the dark.

Out of this trip would come inspiration for our dream of setting up our own utopian community, and a film-book to share the experience with others. Combining travel- writings with a DVD, the book would be a travelogue, analyzing the communities, their practices and their histories, whilst the attached film, shot during the journey, would take the form of a poetic road movie in the tradition of Utopian literature, set in an imagined post-capitalist future.

Halting the suicide machine

When we set off in the summer of 2007, the world was in a very different shape than today. Our first outline of the project said that the film would explore ‘a fictional era following a global economic and ecological collapse’. That fictional era became frighteningly real as our journey bracketed the first winds of the financial hurricane.

Our first night was spent dodging the police to illegally build an eco-village

Our first night was spent dodging the police to illegally build a week-long eco-village, the Camp for Climate Action, on the edges of Heathrow airport. Despite the camp’s temporary nature, the Climate Camp movement redefined the Utopian spirit for us. It was both the creation of a deeply democratic and ecological community, and the launch pad for direct actions that aimed to halt the suicide machine, in this case the building of a third runway. It was essential for us to start our journey in a space that combined creation and resistance. They are the entwined threads of radical change, and we have to bring them back together after two centuries ravaged by the split between those who want to create an alternative society and those fighting the existing one.

By the time the circus tents, wind turbines and field kitchens had been packed away, news filtered through that the sub-prime mortgage bubble had begun to burst in the US. A week later, on the top of a Devon hill, at the Landmatters permaculture co-operative, where life is lived by following nature’s patterns, we stayed in off-grid benders with wi-fi but no running water. By building cheap low-eco-footprint housing on their own agricultural land, Landmatters had challenged British planning law, proving that living off the land need not just be the domain of the rich or large-scale industrial farmers.

Isabelle Fremeaux and John Jordan
Flag of Christiania, the ‘Freetown’ where everyone is different. Isabelle Fremeaux and John Jordan

The choppy channel and a long drive across Spain brought us to an anarchist school, self-managed as a non-hierarchical community of children and adults, where even the 18-month-olds participated in decision-making assemblies. Managing every aspect, from cooking to curriculum, the children taught us how freedom and responsibility are dependent on each other. The myth of individualistic ‘freedom’ melted away when we saw seven-year-olds resolve conflicts in the playground by holding consensus-based meetings. These children understood and responded to the needs of each other whilst being absolutely aware of their own free wills and desires. This was education for empathy, learning to know the other as much as the self, the kind of education desperately needed as we enter a period of collapse, where blaming ‘the other’ becomes the norm and authoritarianism rises.

Moving south through parched and dusty landscapes, we reached the frying pan of Andalusia, where the precarious agricultural day workers of Marinaleda reminded us that progress is made through disobedience. Jobless, landless and with nothing to lose, in the 1980s they had evicted the priest and police from their village of 3,000 souls. Since then they had used direct action and sabotage to expropriate 12,000 hectares from the local duke, built several co-operative factories, organized a self-built housing system for $20 a month and set up a TV station, surfing illegally on Discovery Channel’s wavelength. Within a generation, the village had gone from being one of the most desolate places in Europe to one of its most radical. The town hall motto ‘Marinaleda – A Utopia towards peace’ had become a lot more than an empty municipal slogan.

No keys, no mortgage, lots of time

Autumn approached, and we turned east just as the shocking scale of the sub-prime debts began to reverberate through the financial system. For a month, we savoured the freedom of life without mortgages, passing through two stupendous squats. At Can Masdeu, around a crumbling old leper colony on the verdant hills that overlook Barcelona, activists had opened the overgrown terraces to dozens of elderly gardeners from the working-class districts of the city. Fresh food now flowed from the gardens and unexpected friendships were nurtured. Further east, nestled in the valleys of France’s Cévennes, was La Vieille Vallette, an entire hamlet squatted and peppered with gothic gargoyles and sprouting medieval towers, built with the punk energy of its resident arti-culteurs (a merger of farmer and artist), proud to own no house keys.

Sharing lives with people with virtually no money but plenty of time and space to experiment with and create alternative forms of everyday life, we pondered the culture of private home ownership that was pushed during the 1930s. The theory was that if workers were indebted to a mortgage, they were less likely to go on strike. At a time of crisis, not unlike the one we find ourselves in now, the prison of debt was the perfect plan for keeping the status quo.

Whether it’s the economy or our ecology, the limitless obscenity of capitalism demands impossible rates of return on the resources that it exploits, amassing debts that can never be repaid

We could have just as easily traced out our trip with a map of ecological collapse. As we crossed through the coastal cities of the Southern Mediterranean, we heard that the recession of the Arctic sea-ice was more violent than ever. The instalments of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change fourth assessment report were gradually released as our van pumped its carbon into the atmosphere. They read like the plot of a dystopian sci-fi novel: almost everything frozen on Earth was melting, deserts were spreading, seas acidifying, hurricanes intensifying.

We headed for the mountains, via an organic farm, Cravirola, where private property had been abolished. Then on to Longo Mai, the grandmother of post-1968 communities, where one night we promised each other that we never wanted to live anywhere where we could not see the stars. With its own 24-hour radio station, flocks of sheep, free wine, herbalists, bakery, three regular political journals and decades of international activist organizing, this place was just one node in an archipelago of eight other Longo Mai communities spread across Europe. It gave us hope that radical collective living could last on a large networked scale. But those that worked the land there spoke of droughts and of the difficulties of farming now it was becoming impossible to predict seasons anymore. It was a clear reminder that we haven’t got much time to waste and that the question is no longer simply how we overcome capitalism, but how we simultaneously survive civilization’s decline and build resilience.

Putting the ‘coeur’ back into courage

Isabelle Fremeaux and John Jordan
Good medicine: workers in Jugoremedija, Serbia, have occupied a pharmaceutical factory and run it themselves. Isabelle Fremeaux and John Jordan

The snow began to fall as we drove closer to the edge of Europe. By the time we arrived in the frozen shells of Serbia’s bankrupt factories, the cracks in the capitalist system had spread. The blood flow, credit, was drying up. Whether it’s the economy or our ecology, the limitless obscenity of capitalism demands impossible rates of return on the resources that it exploits, amassing debts that can never be repaid. ‘Overshoot and overspend’ is the inevitable mantra of civilization. But in Zrenjanin, Serbia’s industrial heartland, we saw people daring to take back what was rightfully theirs, refusing privatization and job cuts. In two of the town’s factories, workers had occupied their own workplace. It had all begun when workers at Jugoremedija, a local pharmaceutical factory, won a three-year-long strike, reclaimed their plant from its corrupt new owners and managed it themselves with considerable commercial success. The example of such a complex process being owned and run by its workers inspired others to refuse privatization in the name of ‘transition to democracy’ and follow suit.

When crisis enters the psyche of a culture, a crossroads of possibilities appears. One way involves being paralysed by fear, the other being moved by courage. With its roots in the French word ‘coeur’, courage means literally being in touch with one’s heart. If all we change are the outer structures of society, the danger is that old patterns of power will return. Our emotional landscapes need transforming as much as our ways of life. It was at ZEGG, in the shell of an ex-Stasi base in the depths of deprived eastern Germany, that we experienced how even our most entrenched emotional structures can be transformed. Conflicts over money, power or sex (often all three simultaneously) have destroyed numerous utopian communities. The founders of ZEGG believed that humanity could never live in peace whilst we continue to fear our erotic selves. Through techniques that built radical forms of trust and transparency, lasting 30 years amongst 100 people, they have practised ‘free love’, conquering jealousy and believing that the expression of greatest love is to enable her or his beloved to be as free as possible.

Our minds blown, our bodies tired of travelling, we rested at our final destination for a month, but it was hardly enough time to open up the complexities of Christiania, the squatted and self-managed ‘Freetown’, set up 40 years ago in sprawling barracks nested amongst lakes, a stone’s throw from Copenhagen’s city centre. Apart from the desire to run their own society with their own rules and reject private property, the only thing that seemed to unite the 1,000 Christianites was a desire to live somewhere where everyone was different. It was a perfect conclusion to our journey: the understanding that Utopia is the right to choose your own Utopia; that the problem has been singular solutions, blueprints and abstract ideologies; that what we need at this key moment of history is a previously unimaginable multitude of radical creative solutions.

Ten days after we returned to London, the financial house of cards tumbled. According to the Financial Times, it was to be ‘the day that the dream of global free-market capitalism died’. A stream of mega-bailouts, trillions of dollars, began flowing from taxpayers to bankers. In the end they chose to save the financial system not the climate, at the expense of the poor and the planet. We couldn’t help wonder what decisions would have been taken if the world’s economies had been run like that of Christiania, by consensus democracy.

The subversive power of happiness

Such utopian experiences are where we should turn for inspiration. The future belongs to them, because they are already living it. They are not demanding change but creating it directly. Whilst never perfect and often difficult, they are the laboratories that are remaking our world from its edges. Places where we can experience lives that re-orientate our culture away from the features of collapsing empires that archaeologist Ronald Wright describes as ‘sticking to entrenched beliefs and practices, robbing the future to pay the present, spending the last reserves of natural capital on a reckless binge of excessive wealth and glory’.

Happiness has always been dangerous to capitalism, and perhaps we won’t move on until we realize that Utopia is not ‘no place’, but ‘this place’

We have to open time and space to rehearse these other ways of being and doing, producing and relating, governing and feeling, and the more of us who do it the more likely we are to contaminate the wider social sphere. Christianity rose up from tiny groups working at the edges of the Roman Empire. Capitalism evolved from feudalism in a similar way. Post-capitalism will do exactly the same.

But even if the future turns out to be a dystopian nightmare, simply trying to live in the present differently and building rebel friendships will be worth it. Satisfying our own material and personal needs is in itself an act of resistance, as Charles F Kettering, director of General Motors Research Laboratories, made clear when he wrote an article on the eve of the 1929 stock market crash entitled ‘Keep the Consumer Dissatisfied’. In it he argued that the key to economic prosperity was the organized creation of dissatisfaction. If everyone had exactly what they wanted, they would never buy anything new.

Happiness has always been dangerous to capitalism, and perhaps we won’t move on until we realize that Utopia is not something out there. It is not ‘no place’, but ‘this place’. It is about belonging now, here, and here now. It is about being so thoroughly in the present that the future belongs to us. It is what Ernst Bloch called the ‘Utopian Moment’: the split second before anything is done, where everything is possible… Why wait?

The film-book Paths Through Utopias will be published by Editions Zones in France in February 2011, and later in the UK. It will be toured around Europe with a pedal-powered cinema in the summer of 2011. www.utopias.eu

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