Étienne Balibar | Uncovering Lines of Escape: Towards a Concept of Concrete Utopia in the Age of Catastrophes

Étienne Balibar

Uncovering lines of escape: towards a concept of concrete utopia in the age of catastrophes.

Introductory Lecture for Utopia 13/13, “A History of the Future,” 13 Seminars at Columbia, 2022-2023, directed by Bernard E. Harcourt, September 28th, 2022

Allow me to begin with a quick explanation of my title. Some of you will have recognized a Deleuzian terminology, but perhaps you wonder why I transform the standard translation of Deleuze’s “ligne de fuite”[1] from “line of flight” into “line of escape”. In fact, the translators hesitated, and there is a note at the beginning of the English edition of A Thousand plateaus. I was attracted towards the Deleuzian formulation by the very ambivalence of the French expression, that “escape” indicates better than “flight”. This ambivalence or dilemma lies at the heart of many uses of the word/category “utopia”. Perhaps it was already there in the moment of its invention, in the name of the imaginary island harbouring a “perfect” society, that was described by Thomas More in his book from 1516 (the same year as Machiavelli’s The Prince, often presented as its polar opposite, but that Gramsci called a “revolutionary utopian manifesto”). It is indeed plainly visible in the opposition of judgments that, either critically reject certain political programs or visions of the future as “utopian”, or explain that there can be no genuine emancipatory politics without an essential component of “utopian conversion” (in the words of Miguel Abensour). Things become more interesting and more complicated at the same time when we observe that, for example, the Marxian reading of “socialist and communist utopias”, as we find it in the Communist Manifesto, with its characteristic combination of admiration for the bold imagination of an alternative to capitalism proposed in the works of the great “utopian socialists”, and radical critique of their apolitical character (in the sense of ignoring the conditions for the realization of the “revolution” that their projects in fact presuppose), has been largely replaced today by the idea that, of all the great Socialists of the 19th century, Marx is the most utopian of all, because of his “transcendental” idea of a radical transformation of the (social) “world”, as opposed to any partial reform or evolution. This is deemed to be properly the impossible (with, often, the correlative idea that, if you try to “force” the impossible into the real, you generate horrors and catastrophes, as contemporary history would have “proved”), but it remains also invoked as the symbol of a connection deemed necessary between such ideas as emancipation, revolution, totality or “world”, and a complete reversal of the existing order of things. So, the opposite values that are called by the category “utopia”, never remain neatly separated, applied to different objects or practices, or vindicated by opposite “camps” : they signal the ambivalence of certain modalities of critiquing the current state of affairs, perhaps the intrinsic reversibility of these modalities which take the form of anticipations.  The ambivalence relates to the ontological question of what is supposed to be the real, the possible (and the impossible), and it relates to the pragmatic mobiles and consequences of a desire of otherness, or a will to change the actual conditions of life into their opposite. Deleuze’s formula, which in his discourse always denotes processes or moments of “deterritorialization”, the dissolution of the ”codes” that regulate our inclusion within the existing symbolic relations, certainly hints at just this complexity. I chose the translation that maximizes the tension between the antithetic meanings that can become paradoxically combined : utopia as a way to escape the real, with its non-negotiable “material conditions”, and utopia as a multiplicity of ways to escape from the prison (the “iron-cage”, in Max Weber’s words) that for many (or perhaps all) of us is the current society.

Now it seems to me that – in order to examine the contents of what contemporary discourses and programs offer us in terms of “concrete utopias”, i.e. alternatives to the capitalist system with its forms of exploitation and domination, sometimes also its exterminist consequences, and in order to assess at the same time their viability and their radicality – we need to take into account another preliminary obstacle, perhaps a fundamental objection, which has to do with the kind of imaginary of the future that is linked to the very notion of utopia or a utopian program in our intellectual tradition. Very abstractly, we could put it in the following manner: utopias are blueprints for a better future, or, in the words made famous by the book published between 1944 and 1959 by the great German philosopher Ernst Bloch, in which he resumed and expanded the intuitions of his earlier essay on The Spirit of Utopia (1918), they emanate from the assertion of a “principle of hope”, and they express at the same time the substance of that hope (which is, negatively, the liberation from evil, or from a bad life, and positively happiness, or autonomy, or human dignity) and the “forms of consciousness” (combining desire and will) that anticipate the better future, or allow to construct it. But this makes sense only if, objectively and subjectively, we can assume that there is a future, in the strong sense of the term, meaning a future that is not just the continuation, or the repetition of the present, a mere succession of similar moments or “ages”. For such a future which genuinely abolishes the present (although “dialectically” arising from its limitations, or insufficiencies, or contradictions), the same Bloch used the name Novum, the absolute novelty. If there is no sense in imagining the possibility of such novelty, or to put it more esoterically, in the words of another thinker of the same generation, Reinhard Koselleck, if radical novelty is not part of the “horizon of expectation” (Erwartungshorizont) of our present, then the conversion to utopia and the idea of utopia itself are meaningless. And, as a consequence, the utopian idea will have become what, thinking in particular of the contemporary idea of “revolution” (or the schemes of revolution based on classical models such as the French Revolution), the same Koselleck called a “future past”, i.e., a representation or imagination of the future that itself irreversibly belongs to the past, and cannot be sustained any longer. Since, to borrow an idea attributed by Althusser to Hegel, “no one can leap beyond the limits of her time”. This idea is like a bucket of cold water that we would be pouring onto our dreams, i.e. on our capacity to hope.

However, there are different ways to try and overcome the nihilistic objection that –plagiarizing a formula once used by Marx with respect to “history” – there existed once a future, but there is no longer one. Bloch himself uses a speculative argument, based on the idea that the openness of the future, together with its correlatives, the radical incompleteness (or insufficiency) of the present, and the inner tension, the “drive” or “pulsion” (Trieb, same word as in Freud) which pushes time itself towards the invention of the future from within the incompleteness of the past, are intrinsically linked to our experience of life, and to our condition as living beings who are not only “minds”, “intellects”, but also and primarily bodies. So, the abolition of the future, the horizon of expectation within which utopias “locate” their representation of a different life and the affect that drives them, would mean that life itself is terminated. It would mean that we are dead. It is the experience of life that generates the representation of time, not the representation of time that determines the power to live, however troubled and even tragic the latter can be. But this is a very abstract reasoning, apparently timeless, which in fact relies on categories elaborated in a certain philosophical and cultural framework. It has clear theological roots, since it represents in particular a “secularized” version of the Jewish-Christian idea of creation, or the continuous creation and recreation of the world with its immanent temporality. But above all it reveals the intrinsic relations that the classical utopian narratives established with the modern philosophies of history, whose central category (and also permanent problem) is progress. These relations admittedly are very complex, they exhibit many modalities and varieties, and it is not my object tonight to explore them in detail, which would deserve a lot of time and erudition. But I can’t leave them completely aside because there is a possibility that the contemporary situation in the world (or many parts of it, precisely the parts where the huge majority of humans are living) exhibits what, in terms borrowed from Gunther Anders, we could call the “obsolescence of the idea of progress”: this is not simply the feeling that there is no progress, or there is regression instead of progress (as we could illustrate with many immediate examples in our societies, e.g. when a Supreme Court abolishes a fundamental freedom for women to control their own bodies and the use of their bodies for pleasure and reproduction, which had become widely considered a basic human right and a token of modernity). It is not even the idea that – in such and such domain of life, work or government – progress appears unlikely or right away impossible, but it is the idea that progress in general, as the substantial content of time, has become meaningless, an empty conventional idea. If it can be argued that the “utopian spirit” had an intrinsic connection to the broad notion of progress which was inseparable from the representations of history and collective action in Western modernity, either as one of its illustrations, or as a counterpart to its perceived limitations, then the obsolescence of the idea of progress also entails that the utopian way of thinking has become obsolete – unless it is completely redefined. Koselleck’ s argument could be reformulated in the following manner: modernity (especially after the great turning point marked by the civilizational changes that resulted from the British “industrial revolution”, progressively exported to the whole world in its capitalist form, and the French-American “democratic revolutions” that conferred a political meaning to the old idea of “natural human rights”) entirely organized its vision of time and history around the axiomatic justification of the idea of progress – not as an article of faith or a belief, but as a transcendental condition of possibility of history itself. Utopias, on this basis, appear as radical implementations, or as alternatives to the dominant ways of implementing progress. But, again, if progress itself loses its inevitability, even its intelligibility, then utopias have no ground on which to construct themselves, they become just as archaeological as the myths of the ancient civilizations. They can still be admired and contemplated as aesthetic fictions, but not reactivated or reinvented as anticipations, active imaginations of new ways of life, as a social practice to be initiated. But is it the case? I mean, is it the case that we no longer live in the horizon of progress, and if that is the case, in which modality exactly? A universal statement, with a “totalitarian” character, could be very misleading here, since it runs the risk of transforming what ought to be an interpretation rooted in careful description of the world we live in, with its “excessive” characters that are a crucial part of the political problem, into a kind of “prophetic” revelation about the end of history as we knew it.

Allow me to try and make what could be a relatively long discussion as short as possible. I have essentially two points : 1) albeit utopias can relate to the idea of progress in a variety of modes, which are consistent with the polysemy of this idea itself, it is with the conviction that progress also means catastrophe that the utopian intention, a contrario, acquired its compelling character; 2) although we have a strong and very anxious feeling that we live today in a context of “imminent” catastrophes which threaten our lives and liberties, deriving from the “extreme” developments of an unbound capitalism,  the major “catastrophes” that we are concerned with seem to involve a conditions of impossibility for the formulation and implementation of “utopian” projects. This is at the same time a paradox and an embarrassment. We seem to be caught in a circle.

Let me elaborate. If we limit ourselves to what I would call the modern utopias, the “postrevolutionary” utopias of the 19th and 20th centuries (whether presented in the form of doctrines, or literary fictions often combining science fiction with political and social fiction, or in the form of collective experiments), it seems that they can become related to the grand narrative of progress, which presents the history or development of human institutions as a continuous transition from imperfection to perfection (or greater perfection), in pretty much the same manner in which, generally, political ideologies have reacted to this notion, which had become so to speak “naturalized” by Western modernity (including and perhaps above all, the history of colonization). That is to say, they present themselves either in the modality of additional progress, or in the modality of a withdrawal from the line of progress, resisting as it were its “necessity”, or in the modality of a deviation with respect to the line of progress, opening the possibility of a “bifurcation” in the realization of the objectives of modernity (both in terms of material goods, prosperity, and in terms of moral values, freedom and equality). The “possible world” which they delineate or try and bring to actuality is either a world that “accelerates” progress in its visible course (and this is where science fiction in particular often becomes an indispensable ingredient), or which tries to “neutralize” and “reverse” some of its destructive effects (particularly the destruction of sentiments, communitarian bonds, interpersonal solidarities, resulting from the general commodification of life and the rigid division of labour), or which tries to “invent” another modality of shaping the human, particularly in the form of new modes of education. This is not to say that these modalities remain totally separated from one another, on the contrary they are quite regularly offering combinations of these different attitudes, for instance a combination of the idea of technological progress and financial innovation with the idea of a religious revival, a resistance to the “secularism” of European modernity, as you can see in the doctrines and practices of the Saint-Simonians, who are very typical from this point of view. Ultimately, I believe that this is due to the fact that the key issue at stake in utopian imagination, especially the “socialist” utopias, is a quest for the retrieval or the replacement of the lost community, or the equivalent of the social relations that modern individualism based on the absolute privilege of private property has destroyed (although, since things are never simple, there can exist a “ultra-individualism”, an idealization of ruthless competition that also exhibits “utopian” dimensions). But at this point I believe that we must introduce an additional phenomenological character, which brings in the theme of “catastrophe”. If we have in mind the etymological meaning (a “catastrophe” is a turning upside down of the situation or the institutions) as well as its common uses, we could say that utopias are “catastrophes against a catastrophe”, or they tend to turn the world upside down to avoid its destruction. This is inspired to me by the reading of a book published some time ago (at the moment of the great “catastrophe” of the socialist experiment, or the “really existing socialism”) by Susan Buck-Morss, which I strongly recommend: Dreamworld and catastrophe: the passing of mass utopia in East and West (2000). Buck-Morss draws inspiration from her familiarity with the work of Walter Benjamin, who himself proposed a “messianic” interpretation of 19th century socialist and bourgeois utopianism. What I believe we can draw from these references is the idea that utopias are not just modulations of the idea of progress with diverging orientations, they incarnate an intrinsic excess with respect to progress, or they invent, illustrate, “schematize” an opening of the limits of the possible, “beyond” the limitations that are observable in the “real”, i.e., the dominant human, social relations, which itself can be interpreted as a reaction against the “catastrophic” destruction of these possibilities. This was true as well on the side of the “political catastrophes”, when the egalitarian ideals of the democratic revolutions became transformed into an increasingly hierarchic and discriminating social order (and one should think here in particular of the crushing of the hopes of emancipation of women from the old domestic order prompted by the modern revolutions, which in reaction leads to the strong feminist component of romantic utopias), and on the side of the catastrophic effects of the industrial revolution on the condition of workers, their subjection to the dictatorship of the capitalist entrepreneurs, the dehumanizing division of labour, the abject poverty. Messianism, which presents an interruption in the course of history, and utopia, which imagines an alternative to the dominant forms of life, are not exactly the same theme, but they become associated through their “negative” relationship to the catastrophic developments of progress itself. This does not “liberate” the utopian constructions from their close relationship to the representation of history as progress, but it introduces a dramatic modality which is not simply rooted in social critique or moral discontent, but in the feeling of urgency to prevent the doom (Fourier’s description of the effects of “civilization” is a good illustration of this), whereby the element of hope, on which somebody like Bloch entirely focuses, become compounded with an element of anxiety, or fragility and risk. All of this, perhaps, could illustrate the intrinsic articulation of the utopian “gesture” with the idea of negativity : utopias do not content themselves with a “negative”, “critical” attitude of rejection of the existing order of things, they want to “concretely”, “empirically” or “experimentally” offer alternatives, embark on projects (something that, as we know, an “anti-utopian” thinker like Marx wanted to avoid at all costs, focusing on the critique of capitalism and the demonstration of tis internal contradictions, which make an alternative inevitable, but don’t try and imagine how it will work (or, as little as possible). But utopias at a closer look incorporate the negativity into their projects or “dreams” of another world, they reverse or internally negate the pending catastrophe, or they want to confer a concrete reality to the “negation of the negation”.

Now it would seem that this is particularly relevant in an age like ours, which is replete with catastrophes on a grand scale, the scale of globalization itself. Which would very well correspond to the fact that we observe around us, and we feel within ourselves, a renewed urgency to invent alternative modes of relating to one another, emancipated from the brutality and inhumanity of the dominant, neo-capitalist and neo-imperialist institutions. The mutual strengthening of despair and hope, negativity and capacity to create, is more than ever on the order of the day. And still, as I suggested, there is an additional twist in the catastrophes of our age, which would seem to block this dialectics, and make, in a sense, the hope itself hopeless. “No future left”, as I said, or a reproductive tendency of the global disorder with a new magnitude, in excess to our capacity to exceed the limits of the “existing”, the ”arising”. Whence this nihilistic appearance of the world, that is likely to produce not utopian alternatives, but pulsions of individual and collective destruction, another degree of nihilism, something utterly different from the utopian orientation? My answer will be: it comes from the extreme dimensions of the contemporary “catastrophes” themselves, and their completely blocked articulation with the idea of politics, of transformation, of collective agency.

I have three major “catastrophes” in mind. There is the environmental catastrophe due to global warming, biochemical pollution and their effects, of course, but it seems to me that its effects on the “utopian dimension” of politics, are best understood if we compare it to others, whose “historical-political magnitude”, I would say, is of the same order. Nonetheless, the three are heterogeneous, and I will have to return to the question whether it helps to see them as consequences of the same cause, more precisely “capitalism” as a mode of production, exploitation and domination. I call them the nuclear catastrophe, the climatic catastrophe, and the digital catastrophe. Allow me a few words on each.

The nuclear catastrophe is the one we had “forgotten”, that current war in Eastern Europe is bringing back to our attention. Two great thinkers of the past century are especially helpful here, I mean Gunther Anders with his series of writings on the “nuclear techno-politics” that arise from the discovery, use, and generalization of nuclear weapons after WWII, combined with the development of “civil” uses of the nuclear energy, and Edward Palmer Thompson with his 1983 essay on “Exterminism, the Last Stage of Civilization”, prompted by the “Euromissile crisis” (whose analogies and differences with the situation created by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its Western response are well worth studying). What they have in common is a double conviction that the mortal dangers involved in the existence of nuclear arsenal in the hands of superpowers and an increasing number of other states are not essentially deriving from the nature of the political regimes or the moral and intellectual capacities of their leaders, but from the very instability of the “equilibrium of terror”, and that the whole fabric of society, especially its regime of communications or public sphere, is altered by the reconstruction of the state authority around the potential use of that technological violence, which changes the very concept of war, because it is by nature self-destructive or suicidal. To which we should of course add the huge question of how the two extremities of warfare in the current world (potential nuclear extermination and actual multiplication of murderous so-called “low intensity” conflicts everywhere) are linked in a chain, and the equally huge question of how the “sovereign” disposition of nuclear weapons combines with the “counter-insurgency” policies aiming at “internal enemies”, studied by Bernard Harcourt, in militarizing the society in unprecedented manners. This catastrophe is biopolitical in the sense in which Foucault analysed the logic of extermination involved in the tradition of “sovereign” power. I would say that its temporal phenomenology relies on the modality of “imminence”: the nuclear catastrophe is essentially an ”imminent catastrophe”. On purpose I resume the famous formula launched by Lenin on the eve of World War One: “Imminent catastrophe and how to prevent it” (sometimes rendered as : “The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It”), which, as we know, was followed by the proposal to “transform the imperialist war into a revolutionary civil war”, whose highly dystopic characters only manifested themselves over time, when it became clear that the “revolutionary civil war” remained largely caught in the logic of the imperialist war itself. Now the nuclear catastrophe which we are facing today (and this has been the case in a more or less “invisible” manner for decades now) is not “imminent” in the sense that it will arrive tomorrow unless a political but also utopian counterforce is mobilized, it is imminent in the sense that it can arrive at any moment, whatever forces are mobilized against it, because there is no way to eliminate the exterminist weapons themselves in a foreseeable future. And the consequence on the regime of utopian alternatives, which I find very disturbing, is not just that the “possible alternative” seems very unlikely, beyond our reach, but that the existing state of affairs in most parts of the world, a regime of unstable or pseudo-peace, itself appears as utopia in the ordinary negative sense of the term, a state of affairs that is unrealistic. We live in a utopia, and we don’t know it, or we are not really aware of it.

The climatic catastrophe is the one that, on the contrary, literally obsesses our minds, because year after year, almost day after day, we discover and we experience new dimensions of its destructive effects on the environment which conditions our lives, our relatively stable coexistence with others, of course in an extremely inequal and socially, racially discriminatory manner, but without any possibility for any part of humankind to dissociate itself, except in some absurd dreams for the rich to emigrate to another planet: megafires and mega floods, melting of the polar ice caps and rise of the ocean level, desertification of subequatorial zones, shrinking biodiversity (the “6th mass extinction” of species), pollution of air and waters, etc. At the same time, with a mixture of anger, disbelief and despair, we witness the strategies of denial, delay and camouflage that make it possible for governments to ignore in practice and draw no consequences from the scientific previsions and recommendations that they have themselves missioned. And, I must add, we observe with equal disarray the incapacity of militant forces across the world to gather momentum and acquire the minimum of internationalist organization that would allow them to make a difference in a political arena, perhaps the most important in today’s world, which does not concern this or that nation, this or that class and race (although, I repeat, the current and future effects of the catastrophe are anything but equally distributed), but the Human Species as such, hence calling for its transformation into an actual subject of its own history, as Dipesh Chakrabarty among others has argued. I would say that this is a cosmological catastrophe, in the sense that it affects not our “community”, the form in which it is organized and governed, but the planetary environment itself, thus making at the same time the human species an efficient agent of destruction and an impotent agent of reparation in the natural world. Its modality is irreversibility (at least partial, but to a very significant degree, so that the possibilities of cancelling the effects of the climatic change appear marginal at best). This comes from the fact that the causes of the catastrophe (particularly the massive use of fossil energy, but also the biochemical revolution in agriculture and food industry) have started to act a long time ago, a time that is not recuperable, and from the fact that he consequences are disproportionate to the causes: in the last 50 years, the Amazonian forest has lost 20% of its size, at a rate constantly accelerating, one of the consequences being that the earth as a whole now emits more carbon than its trees absorb. One could imagine that a revolution in Brazil and neighbouring countries (which of course has international conditions as well) allows it to stop the deforestation. But this will not resurrect the trees, just as the poles and the glaciers will not freeze again… Irreversibility thus means that the catastrophe is behind us as much as it is with us in the present or ahead of us in the future. Utopias or policies with a utopian dimension, especially in the sense that they embody a radical alternative to the current “civilization” (e.g. economic policies based on “de-growth”, something that proves not only anathema to the dominant economic order, but hardly acceptable to the huge majority of the working poor in the world) seem to arrive too late. Or, at best, they could have a delaying effect or a mitigating effect on the course of the catastrophe, but they will not install a radically new situation – which is a very disappointing perspective seen in the light of the principle of hope, unless we try and imagine that the devastated environment (with its social counterpart) is a “miraculous” opportunity to invent (or impose?) a society based on “poverty” rather than “property”…

Finally, there is a third catastrophe, with devastating effects on the articulation of utopia, politics, progress, and history. This is perhaps the most ambivalent of all, because it is not univocally perceived as a negative phenomenon, much the contrary. In a sense – I will return to this – it is rather perceived as a realized utopia itself, but here lies the greatest paradox. Let us call it the digital catastrophe. I choose this term as an intermediary between the digital revolution, an essentially positive term which combines the idea of a qualitative leap in the use of computers and internet communications, and the idea that an increasing number of activities (not only productive, but scientific or more generally intellectual, and also relating to the services and consumptions of everyday life) are radically transformed by the use of information technologies relying on digital encoding and treatment (to culminate in the expansion of artificial intelligence), and the digital disaster, an idea that can be applied either locally and partially (e.g. to designate the effects of a crush, a cyberattack or mass hacking on some vital activity, such as electricity supply, or classified intelligence, or health protection), or globally (e.g. if you submit that the exponential development of calculation capacities will require gigantic consumption of energy and raw materials such as “rare” metals, thus multiplying the ecological devastation due to “extractive” industry). I make this choice because I am above all interested here in the anthropological dimension of this catastrophe, which is really creating “new humans”, or a new “human condition”, as a consequence of the penetration of procedures and instruments of “artificial” communication and the automated governance of conducts into every moment of our intersubjective relations (including, of course, affective life), which themselves shape or construct personal identities and individual lives. Work, research, education, sexual encounters, artistic life and leisure, security, there will be and, in fact, there already is no exception to this total “subsumption” (to borrow a Marxian category). I have no doubt that this catastrophe has intimate links with the development of capitalism, and more precisely with a new capitalist age, which is not only based on a technological revolution, but also on a “great transformation”, a new level of commodification of our lives, where not only means of production and objects of consumption are produced as commodities, but services, and above all moments of our physical and mental “care of ourselves” (to put it in Foucauldian terms) are commodified and incorporated in financial circuits, such as Google or Facebook. And I also agree that this is connected to a new civilization of surveillance engineered by capitalism and the big state machines administering this capitalism, as explained by Shoshana Zuboff and others. But my main point concerns the anthropological dimension itself, as, again a chain of consequences which are not commensurable with the cause: the production of a “new human”, and the new world in which this human lives: this is now sometimes called the metaverse, a “double” of our material universe which seems to have the capacity to “take command” of it, or also the “augmented reality”, which is not so much characterized by the emergence of another virtual world than by the increasing presence and active “participation” of the “representatives” of the virtual world, be they robots or simply images or messages automatically generated, in the world of our usual activities. Here the alteration of the perception of history (and historical temporality) works in the opposite direction : neither “imminent” nor “irreversible”, we could say that this catastrophe is permanently anticipating its own development, or it is essentially planned (even if not by a single centralized or paranoid planner) to unfold beyond any quantitative or qualitative limit. And the consequence on the status of utopias and utopian thinking is just the opposite of what I suggested to observe in the case of the other catastrophes: not a neutralization or reduction to impotency, but a kind of maximization of the utopian desire which is also its appropriation by the “anonymous” powers of the system. But of course these anonymous powers incarnate themselves in the discourses and entrepreneurial activities of managers and financial magnates (the Zuckerbergs and Elon Musks), and, above all, they can be enthusiastically accepted and interiorized by their own targets, i.e. all of us as actual or potential “digitalized sub jects”. This generates a form of mass “material voluntary servitude”, not based on religion or ideologies, but on the very use of our digital instruments. And it dovetails with a special kind of utopian thinking, that has always existed but acquires a much greater attractivity, which we can call accelerationism in general, for which interesting “manifestoes” have been produced in the recent period. In a sense it confronts social and political utopias with the paradox that they are not perceived as ahead of their time, but rather continuously lagging behind its acceleration. Or it places utopian imagination before the dilemma of inventing (and imposing) the discriminatory uses of our digital technology that – perhaps, I have no certainty about that – could maximize their emancipatory effects, increase the “capacity to act” of the subjects (not the machines), for instance their capacity to communicate with many other humans at the same time, without increasing exploitation, data mining or surveillance… perhaps this is a contradiction in terms. But if the choice is between being “totally subsumed” into the surveillance system and throwing away our computers and smartphones, it might prove very difficult to implement.

This was perhaps a bit too long on the negative side, but I thought it was indispensable, not only to prompt a discussion on the mutation of the age-old articulation of utopia with progress and catastrophe, but to suggest a positive line of reflection – I am not proposing a new utopia myself. It is prompted in fact by the contrast that we can identify between the global character of the catastrophes which seem to either cancel the utopian capacity or expropriate it in the service of a more absolute system of domination, and the partial character of the “concrete utopias” that Bernard Harcourt has asked us to put at the centre of our attention in this seminar. I would gladly resume the neologism that my late friend Immanuel Wallerstein had used as title of one of his books, published in 1998: Utopistics. Or, Historical Choices of the Twenty-first Century. Let’s try and practice some “utopistic” methodological reflections, or simply list the questions that need to be addressed to overcome at least some of the paradoxes involved in the previous descriptions.

The first proposition that I defend is the following: our starting point must be the fact that, while on the side of its most abstract presuppositions (in particular the phenomenology of time and the concept of history inherited from modernity on which it is based), the category “utopia” appears increasingly fragile, or destabilized, on the other side there should be no doubt that utopias exist more than ever, in a practical form, or they are implemented “in the field” in many different forms. With greater or smaller success, greater or lesser capacity to gain support from their “outside”, which is also a condition for their capacity to last or to survive, an important question which is particularly emphasized in the work of Eric Olin Wright (who speaks of viability), but not the same question as possibility or impossibility. To exist is to emerge in the real, and to struggle for survival, not to exist forever. All the more because a utopia that has “lived” for some time in determinate conditions never disappears without leaving traces. So, at some point, we must operate this “conversion” that the theorist Miguel Abensour is asking us to perform, but not a conversion from the satisfactions or dissatisfactions of the existing world towards the hopes and endeavours of the ideal world, but from the “global negativity” of the catastrophes to the “partial – therefore concrete – positivity” of the real utopias which are already part of our world.

Second, I put this idea in relation with the fact that, for sure, real or concrete utopias are “anticapitalist”, i.e. they think or dream of themselves in terms of an opposition to the basic structures of the capitalist society: the commodification of vital goods and services, the continuous extension of inequalities, the recuperation of all the ancient forms of domination based on anthropological differences (such as race, age, gender) in the service of the modern individualism, etc. But they have a tendency, which – far from judging negatively in the light of some abstract Marxist “theory of history” – I find very interesting : to address the structures of exploitation and domination not from the point of view of the “causes”, or the “ultimate cause” (what my masters used to call the “determination in the last instance”), but rather from the point of view of the consequences, the ”effects” with their own logic and specificity. In other terms, the “questions” that they try to “resolve” are not those “transhistorical” questions of the evolution of mankind that, in a famous passage of his 1859 “Preface to the critique of political economy”, Marx had called – very imprudently – the problems of Mankind, for which history has already prepared solutions, but questions that are immediately accessible, I wanted to say visible in the framework of everyday life, even if, of course, they have ramifications that can be traced to the global conditions themselves : questions of power relations, of social roles and functions, of modes of consumption, of distribution and distributive justice, of attitudes towards and within labour… This installs apparently a gap between the idea of concrete utopia and the idea of “revolution”: they both try and “turn the world upside down”, although not at the same level or scale (but we should not forget that revolutionary moments in history, including the moment of the Soviet revolution and other socialist revolutions, were always also great moments for the implementation of concrete utopias, albeit not always for very long, because the revolutions had a tendency to suppress the utopias which they need for their own development, thus destroying one of their own conditions of possibility). Another consideration that we can attach to this difference is the fact that concrete utopias orient themselves in a direction almost antithetic to the method followed by the inventor of the name: Thomas More in his “Utopia”, a theory which is completely based on the progressive reduction of the evils of modern society to a single fundamental cause, namely the institution of private property. In a sense, Marx himself and the modern socialists with him never really moved away from this inspiration, except that for them of course “property” had become a more complex structure, inscribed in relations of production and not just legal forms. And finally this would explain why, in my previous presentation of the great catastrophes that we are facing today, I was not so keen on reducing their logic to the single notion of “capitalism”, or “the domination of capital”: not because I would deny that exterminism, global warming or digital subsumption are connected to capitalism, or that we may not hope to confront them efficiently without indicting capitalism, but because I believe that the chances to create alternatives do not reside at the abstract level of putting an end to the capitalist mode of production, they reside in the capacity to address the questions of war and peace, aggressivity and armaments, ways of life and distribution of resources, modes of interaction with the digital equipment…

Third, I will submit that “concrete utopias”[2] ought to be considered as heterotopias, in a sense derived from Foucault’s analyses in the now celebrated essay “of Other Spaces”, that he had presented to an audience of progressive architects early in his career (1966), then brushed aside, and finally resurrected in his last months (1984). This translation into a different language, however, calls for several methodological precautions. One of them has to do with the complex question of shifting from a temporal perspective to a spatial perspective, which is Foucault’s rationale for dropping the name “utopia” and propose the name “heterotopia”. But in fact the association of the idea of utopia with an imagination and a preparation of the future, an anticipation of the time to come is not the originary meaning of the idea of utopia, it is rather a secondary interpretation which, as I recalled, has a direct relationship to the dominance of a certain modern (and western) concept of history as progress. The more intrinsic idea, to which Foucault precisely returns, is linked to alterity, alteration and alternative, a life governed by other norms than the dominant norms. And Foucault’s idea is that otherness, even radical otherness, the deviation from the dominant norms, is not so much to be found hypothetically in the future, a ”possible world” to come, but rather in this world, inasmuch as it is essentially heterogeneous, making room for otherness or deviancy within its own “spaces”. Now this leads to a second critical remark. Foucault uses the category “space” in a broad metaphoric sense, which oscillates between “structure”, or “institution”, and the description of environments, territories and regions. The “heterotopias” that he mainly offers us are not, in fact, the result of choices, experiments in a life liberated from certain social norms and dominant relations of power (at least this is not how he introduced the category to begin with) : they are in fact rather places where the dominant norms “isolate” and “control” their own deviancy (like prison houses and lunatic hospitals, or brothels), or produce the appearance of absolute freedom (like, very interestingly, theatres). We may of course, move to another, more extensive, use of the category heterotopia to denote the “actuality” of concrete utopias which are born somewhere around us, and call us to join them. This will mean that we exchange the phenomenology of internal exclusion for the phenomenology of scission, secession, or, as Hardt and Negri  proposed to call it (bringing back a religious, and in fact messianic language), exodus. It will not cancel the element of ambivalence that inhabits every reflection on the articulation of autonomy and separation, or enclosure. It is probably a basic materialistic axiom that, the more isolated a community, or a practice, or an experience tends to be, the more dependent its proclaimed autonomy can become with respect to “external” conditions that are not its own choice. This is very clearly illustrated by the history of such utopias-heterotopias as, for instance, the communist experiment of Chiapas, based on the alliance of a movement of Mexican so-called indigenos with a group of former Marxist intellectuals and activists, which has now succeeded to resist the assault of the Mexican  state for 30 years. Or perhaps even better by the example of “autochthonous” peoples in the Amazons, who – with enormous difficulties, it must be said – resist the deforestation and the expropriation of their native territories, because they are not only inventing a form of politics rooted in other representations of the relations between man and nature than the one imposed by the colonial and capitalist world, they are also very consciously proposing a “cosmopolitanism” based on the mutual recognition and convergence of interests of the autochthonous communities and the global resistance against the environmental catastrophe. The results are uncertain, but the method based on the unity of opposites, or the opening of the heterotopia towards its own “other”, is very clear.

Finally, I would like to bring in the idea that the understanding of the notion of community (or solidarity) is the key to the interpretation of the properly political character of “concrete utopias” which develop in the institutional-spatial horizon of this world rather than in the hypothetic-temporal horizon of the future (although this can be, of course, their specific ways of liberating the possibility of a future that is genuinely “other”). The category of the community is antinomic par excellence, so it should be no surprise that the construction of utopias in the form of “autonomous communities” concentrates what Fredric Jameson rightly describes as the intrinsic “antinomies” of utopian imagination and practice. This is not only a question of an ideological conflict between the solidarities, the self-reliance of the utopian communities based on the “rules” that they establish for themselves, , and the universalism of the human “values” that they promote ideologically – a conflict that the Saint-Simonians tried to resolve by instituting a “religion of Humanity” as ideological cement of their communities of brothers and sisters, and Marx in a more secular manner (apparently at least) in describing the proletariat as a “universal class” whose very alienation, because it is radical, excludes a particularistic interest. It is rather a question of, again, the ambivalent articulation of autonomy and enclosure. I would put it brutally in the form : is there ever a guarantee that a “secession” from the dominant norms will not create a prison for its own members, or some of them (for instance the next generation, the children of those who invented the utopian community, for whom it is not a choice, but an heritage)? And my tentative answer would be: no, there is no guarantee. For this reason, a concrete utopia struggles against itself as much as it struggles against the enemy, or the dominant order. For this question, we might want to turn towards other crucial “concrete utopias” of our time, from which we all draw inspiration, e.g. the Black Lives Matters movement, and its resurrection in different conditions of the “Black Power” movement of two generations ago. Which also leads me to introducing a formula frequently used by my colleague Jacques Rancière in his discussions of “communism”, inspired by a combined reading of Marx’s early works (the 1844 critique of “alienated labour”, where there is no rejection of utopian socialism) and the contemporary utopias of the French proletariat, but also, more indirectly, by a reactivation of the Surrealists’ alliance of the Marxian motto “transformer le monde” (to change the world) with the poet Arthur Rimbaud’s exclamation “change la vie” (let life change, be different) : Rancière’ s formula, which I find very adequate to our critical and foundational reflection on “concrete utopias”, is (I quote of memory) : communist (or utopian) communities are communautés de lutte et communautés de vie, communities where struggling and living are not separated. The struggle inspired a different life, and the invention of a new way of life gives the struggle its strength and methods. That doesn’t prevent “community” or “solidarity” from being problematic, but it indicates in which sense the problems are addressed, what kind of other politics is applied to their resolution.


[1] Both in his Dialogues with Claire Parnet and in A Thousand Plateaus, which are the two places where this notion is presented in a systematic manner.

[2] or realistic utopias, in the terminology of Eric Olin Wright, we could also have a use for the formula “pragmatic utopias”, which draws the attention to the fact that they are always experimental, engaged in practical experiments.