Bernard E. Harcourt | Introduction to Utopia 1/13

By Bernard E. Harcourt

In the concluding passages of Critique, Norm, and Utopia: A Study of the Foundations of Critical Theory, Seyla Benhabib offers a roadmap for a new conception of utopia. Benhabib traces what she calls “the demise of the philosophy of the subject” and suggests that this demise “changes the meaning of utopia in our societies.”[1] Previously, the concept of utopia had been associated with the potentiality of one particular group in society, one collective singularity, one universal class—the proletariat for instance for Marx, or art or philosophy for the early Frankfurt School of Horkheimer and Adorno. That changed, though, in the late twentieth century (with the Habermasian turn to communicative ethics), giving rise to what Benhabib identifies as a new politics of empowerment, new social movements, and a conception of difference and its value. These new social movements have formed “communities of need and solidarity in the interstices of our societies.”[2] Of these, Benhabib writes:

Such utopia is no longer utopian, for it is not a mere beyond. It is the negation of the existent in the name of a future that bursts open the possibilities of the present.[3]

Benhabib was writing in the mid-1980s and published her book with Columbia University Press in 1986. It was a very different time. The Berlin Wall still stood solidly. The Soviet Union was a superpower. The World Trade Centers in New York City were a major tourist attraction. There was no “War on Terror” yet, no wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, or now in Ukraine. There wasn’t yet a rise in neo-fascism. We had no appreciation at the time of global climate warming. It was a different time indeed.

“To burst open the possibilities of the present…” Today, those possibilities are burst open, and we have to seize them, now. Now. We have run out of time to speak of a future. We cannot wait any longer. We need now to be immersed in the present, to create a history of the future.

Our task this year at Utopia 13/13 is to explore what we are calling “concrete utopias”: not just “real utopias” in the sense of articulated, formulated, well-thought-through blueprints of a utopian condition, but “concrete utopias” in the sense of really-existing, functioning, already-working practices, institutions, models and exemplars of a just society.

Why return to a fraught concept like “utopia” in this late stage of history in the early twenty-first century, you may ask? The reason, paradoxically, is that we are so comfortable today using the term “dystopia.” We can so easily identify and label aspects of our present existence as dystopic.

The election in Italy, just this week, of a new prime minister from the party of the Brothers of Italy—an openly nationalistic, nativistic, xenophobic party, the direct descendent and heir to the National Fascist Party of the 1920s and 30s and to the Republican Fascist Party of the mid-1940s—is clearly a dystopia.

The morning of our seminar, the New York City council Committee on Criminal Justice held hearings on a proposed bill “Introduction 549” which would ban solitary confinement in New York City jails. Our colleague, Jelani Cobb, spoke to protesters outside. Solitary confinement is a dystopia. It is in fact a heterotopia, in Michel Foucault’s words—or what he called a “heterotopia of deviation,” one in which “individuals, whose behaviors are deviant in relation to the required mean or norm, are placed.”[4]

We can easily and we do identify dystopias all around us. And they are concrete dystopias, not imaginary, not possible, but actual, really-existing practices and institutions that are dystopic. That is what makes it so urgent today for us to identify really-existing, concrete utopian projects. Because they too surround us. We need to be focusing on them to identify and expand them, grow them, support them, love them, embrace them.

And the fact is, there are concrete utopias taking place all around us—not just dystopias. It is time, high time we start focusing on those. Not simply to trace the history of utopia, nor the history of what Karl Mannheim referred to, in Ideology and Utopia, as “counter-utopias”—the history of what Mannheim called “mutually antagonistic counter-utopias.”[5] Not to delve in some imaginary. But to “burst open,” in Seyla Benhabib’s words, the reality (in my words, not just the “possibilities”) of utopian elements in the present.

But how then do we deal with the fraught theoretical luggage and anxious history of the term “utopia,” particularly within critical circles? The place to start is with Étienne Balibar.

Étienne Balibar has had a tense, but extremely productive relationship to the concept of utopia, in part because of his proximity to Louis Althusser and to Marx’s critique of utopian thinking. Several years back, in a chapter titled “After Utopia, Imagination?” in a collected volume titled Political Uses of Utopia: New Marxist, Anarchist, and Radical Democratic Perspectives (2017), Balibar took a somewhat negative view of utopia: “utopia—be it individualist or collectivist—traps us and the imagination within the alternative of realism and unreality.”[6] At the time, Balibar mostly embraced the pejorative meaning of the term—the one associated with the unreality and complacency of distant utopian futures. Balibar concluded his discussion in the following terms: “It seems to me that the main problem facing us at the turn of the century consists of taking leave of utopia while setting free the powers of the imagination.”[7]

A few years later, Balibar returned to the topic in his essay “Régulations, insurrections, utopies: Pour un « socialisme » du 21ème siècle” which we discussed at Revolution 3/13. The essay would form the conclusion to his collection of writings, Histoire interminable, Ecrits I, Editions La Découverte, 2020.[8] There, Balibar took a far less pejorative view of utopias, even embracing the concept of “concrete utopias”—“concrete” being the term Balibar used.

In that essay, Balibar set forth different modalities and conceptions of socialism, and noted that they all had a utopian element: “All the preceding hypotheses—whether they are “programs”, “regulations” or “insurrections”—include a utopian dimension,” Balibar wrote; and he emphasized: “not so much in the current, largely pejorative sense, evoking a future so harmonious or perfect (a città ideale) that it immediately appears as unattainable, which leads to political practices oscillating between impotence and dictatorship; but in the sense that they would go against the current of the dominant social relations.”[9]

Balibar embraced a notion of concreteness:

“the essential thing is not the anticipation of the future, but, in the present, the exercise of a concrete thought of difference and of an imagination that invents counter-conducts, makes a counter-culture emerge following “paths that branch off” (Borges), experiments with alternative ways of living, of relating or of working. From this point of view, there is no opposition between utopias, especially those which are well and truly at work in history, and what Foucault called “heterotopias”, freeing up “other spaces” on the margins of conventional spaces. The resistances or the struggles in so far as they imply a dissidence in relation to the norm that imposes the State and the market (but also the family, the religion, the school) are carried by utopian (and poetic) forces to which they give body.[10]

The future of socialism, for Balibar, included “the development of concrete utopias, that attempt new modes of life and of communication.”[11]

So it is only fitting that, for our inaugural seminar, we begin in discussion with Étienne Balibar and lay some theoretical guideposts for this year’s exploration of concrete utopias.

Welcome to Utopia 13/13!


[1] Seyla Benhabib, Critique, Norm, Utopia: A Study of the Foundations of Critical Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 351.

[2] Benhabib, Critique, Norm, Utopia, 353.

[3] Benhabib, Critique, Norm, Utopia, 353.

[4] Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” trans. Jay Miskowiec, Diacritics 6, no. 2 (Spring 1986): 22-27, at 25.

[5] Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge, trans. Louis Wirth and Edward Shils (New York: Harcourt, 1936 [1929]), at 187.

[6] Étienne Balibar, “After Utopia, Imagination?” in Political Uses of Utopia: New Marxist, Anarchist, and Radical Democratic Perspectives, eds S.D.  Chrostowska and James Ingram (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017).

[7] Balibar, “After Utopia, Imagination?”

[8] Étienne Balibar, “Régulations, insurrections, utopies : pour un « socialisme » du xxie siècle,” in Histoire interminable (Paris : La Découverte, 2020), pages 264 à 298.

[9] Balibar, “Régulations, insurrections, utopies,” 292 (my translation).

[10] Balibar, “Régulations, insurrections, utopies,” 292 (my translation).

[11] Balibar, “Régulations, insurrections, utopies,” 278 (my translation).