Payoshi Roy | Lessons from Utopia 14/13

“We are what we do to change who we are”

“Revolution is born of Joy”

Eduardo Galenao

Why Look to Concrete Utopias?

In his first essay introducing Utopia 13/13, Bernard E. Harcourt writes that much like Foucault’s lectures on Penal Theories and Institutions, these seminars needed no introduction. Driven by his deep need to answer the question “What more can I do?” and to galvanise others towards praxis, Harcourt observes: “In sum, we do not need more theories of krise und kritik or Zeitdiagnose, we need praxis and utopia.”[1] Yet as Harcourt recognizes, the stumbling block isn’t that people do not want to “do”, it is that

so many of us are so overwhelmed, so depressed. We feel so hopeless today, in the face of these seemingly insurmountable crises, that it is hard to even imagine where to start. We desperately need positive constructive thinking. We urgently need to look around, identify, and pursue concrete utopias.[2]

Identifying the paradox that theorists and practitioners[3] find themselves in, he notes:

In a way, the problem today is that, on the one hand, calls for revolution feel too utopian (and somewhat dangerous, given that the far-right is much better armed and equipped) and, on the other hand, liberal progressive policy-making has become too anti-utopian and ossified, much as Soviet-style socialism had become in the 1960s. [4]

Gary Wilder, both in his book Concrete Utopianism and during the seminar, laments a similar sentiment that he labels the fatalistic pessimism of the “left”.[5] In many ways then, the search for concrete utopias is perhaps a desperate appeal for hope: in the face of insurmountable odds, a search for a sign that transformative change is indeed possible, that our endeavours are not boats against the current borne back ceaselessly into the past.[6] We look therefore to concrete utopias as blueprints or manuals that could guide our praxis, but more significantly we look to them as lighthouses that would sustain our praxis, as we struggle to stay afloat in the stormy ocean of our compounding crises. At the end of Utopia 14/13, the question then is: do we leave the seminar with our hope restored? Crucially, do we leave with a critical theoretical understanding of how (borrowing from Bruno Latour[7]) we can live in the end of times?

Shades, Strains and Hues of Utopic Thinking and Praxis

The approaches covered over the course of the seminar could perhaps be divided into three primary categories: (1) utopic practices within a capitalist world; (2) concrete utopias as spatial societies or communities; and (3) theories or definitions of utopia.

We examined certain practices with utopic dimensions that hold the emancipatory potential of creating radically different forms of social, economic and political organisation. These include mutualism as a form of interconnected economic cooperation[8], coöperism as an economic, social and political theory of interdependence and participation[9], cosmopolitanism from below as a utopic practice of solidarity and respect[10], and degrowth, a process of dis-alienation and generating meaning within oneself[11]. The rich conversations generated in these Utopia 13/13 sessions shed light on how each of these practices held the potential for systemic change or pose a significant challenge to the hegemonic forces of oppression that operate on us today.

We also interrogated projects that were physical and functional utopias or concrete utopias. Some of these concrete utopias including Cooperation Jackson, or the process of unionising at Columbia University and Starbucks, which had transformed the communities involved in these endeavours. [12] We studied their praxis to inform our theory of utopia which would in turn inform our praxis.

Some speakers and contributors also interrogated the conception and definition of concrete utopia or utopia itself. This was an exercise in deconstructing theory in order to inform our analysis and therefore our praxis. At the very outset of our exploration of the definitional scope of utopias, Etienne Balibar emphasized that we must not understand utopias as totalising solutions. Balibar therefore urged a definition of utopia as punctual engagements based on available resources that may themselves be vulnerable to faults and require future rectification.[13]

Throughout, however, our understanding of utopia retained an eye towards the future. In the epilogue to Utopia 10/13, Bernard Harcourt writes[14]:

“What I am calling “concrete utopias,” with a gesture to Ernst Bloch and Étienne Balibar, nevertheless differs from those other uses of the term (and of the term “real utopias” as well). I am focusing on actually-existing political initiatives, projects, and experiments that relate to a possible utopian future. These instances of “concrete” utopias are not intended to capture fully the ultimate ambition or utopian vision that is envisaged; they are, rather, actual manifestations of efforts that are ongoing today, that have been realized (by contrast to some of the “real utopias” of Erik Olin Wright that have not been realized), and that can be considered successful in the sense of transforming a community and/or social relations, such as for instance Cooperation Jackson, ongoing union organizing efforts at Columbia, worker cooperatives, or eco-cooperatives like Longo Maï—all actually-existing experiments and initiatives that show the possibility of transformation.”

It is only towards the end, in Utopia 11/13, that our conception and definition of utopia underwent a paradigm shift. In Utopia 11/13, through her extraordinary critical analysis of the history of utopias, Laëtitia Riss implicitly responded to the Frankfurt School’s ambivalence toward utopia and Martin Saar’s warning against the totalitarian tendencies of self-proclaimed utopic movements. In the process, Riss challenged our conception of utopia.[15]

A Paradigm Shift: The Conception of Utopia as a Present Fleeting Moment of Radical Rupture

Laëtitia Riss argues that both a historicist and futurist conception of utopia would be incorrect. Acknowledging the reality that the end of contradictions is not achievable, Riss argues that utopias are nothing but moments of intervention, or a radical rupture, that disturbs the history of the present, creating space for political action that then creates a different history.[16] Utopic interventions, much like science or speculative fiction, lay bare the pathologies of power and the injustices of our present, thereby compelling political action. This political action disrupts the flow of the present and reopens the possibilities of history. Utopic interventions therefore secure an alternative history, different from the consequence of the natural progression of circumstances prior to the utopic intervention. The merit or worth of the altered history is not determinable and arguably not the concern of the utopic intervention. The purpose of the utopic intervention is simply to disrupt the present.

Seen from this lens, utopia is neither a non-place (or an imaginary good place), nor a history of the future. It is simply a moment in the present.

Riss’ understanding of utopia is a powerful reminder of the consequences of our inaction.  Riss reminds us that the thoughts of sure defeat and overwhelming crises that paralyse us are sure to come to fruition, should we do nothing. Action and intervention, on the other-hand, is bound to create change and may alter or prevent the predicted worst excesses of our present from being realised. Further this waltz of history, utopic intervention, politics, and altered history is a continual iterative process and grows with us as our own imagination of what is possible grows.  In many ways this understanding of utopia harks back to Kendal Thomas’ comment at Utopia 1/13 that utopia must be conceived not as a place but as an active “practice” or an action[17].  Riss clarifies that not only is utopia an action or intervention, but one that must necessarily be made in the present, whose eye is not towards the future but merely toward disrupting the present.

Utopising the Present: A Shield Against Despair and Despondency

This conception of utopia serves to safeguard against the despondency and disillusionment that comes with the inability to realize systemic solutions such as the abolition of prisons or the end of capitalism. However, the rich potential of Riss’ exposition of utopia does not lie solely in this function. Countless fire-fighters are naturally spurred to action by the injustices they encounter on a daily basis. It is not a conception of utopia that sustains their praxis, but a deep intolerance for injustice, and a deeper empathy towards people in pain. But it is the insidious force of routine defeat and the apparent futility of effecting even incremental change that leads the daily fire-fighter towards paralysis and defeatism. It is here that Riss’ definition plays a valuable role. As Riss suggests, utopia is merely the act of intervention. It is neither a stage, nor a solution, nor a temporary goal. It is but a moment of disruptive potential. The individuals who carry out the intervention do not hold sway over the outcome. They possess theoretical knowledge that interventions can instigate political action and, eventually, lead to a revised history. Divorcing the act of disruption from the hope of a defined solution, protects us to some degree from the despair of being unable to effect quantifiable change.

The Radical Potential of Utopising the Present: Utopising the Individual

It would be deeply unjust to believe that all Riss’ reading of utopia does is to protect us from despondency and thereby sustain our praxis. In her exploration of utopia as a moment of disruption, Riss has accomplished something that is far more radical and revolutionary than an astute historical analysis and re-interpretation of utopia as a theoretical construct. Riss is only too well aware that we exist in a world defined by hyper-capitalism and that as the Frankfurt School has long argued, there will never be an end to contradictions.[18] She therefore moves away from the imagination of utopia as a static end, or utopic practices having a desired futuristic potential, and compels us to question what utopian transformation truly entails. She redirects our focus from the external gaze peering through a window at an idealized society, to the internal process of individual transformation that drives societal change over time. Riss identifies that nothing forces individuals to confront the stark reality of their world more than a radical moment of rupture. This transformative moment of rupture, rather than its desired consequence, is the true essence of utopia.

It is as Françoise Gollain reminded us, in her moving reading of André Gorze at Utopia 4/13, that the war against capitalism needs to begin with a battle against one’s alienated self.[19] The essence of Gorze’s conception of degrowth was the individual’s ability to reclaim one’s own thoughts and thereby determine one’s own subjective meaning.[20] If one were to take Riss’ reading of utopia to its logical end, what we find is that not only does the present need to be utopised, but the individual needs to be utopised. Not only do we need to free utopia from the clutches of the future, we also need to free utopia from the scale of society. It is a fleeting moment, in the present, and in an individual.

Though utopic transformation, like de-growth, takes place within the individual, it would be a mistake to understand either as an individualistic pursuit. As Gollain elaborates in André My Teacher, the political project of radical systemic transformation also requires personal transformation.[21]  She eloquently states:

re-appropriation of both production and consumption on the one hand, and the reflexive attempt to liberate ourselves from our subjective alienations on the other, are both involved in a political project of radical transformation. Dis-alienation arises both from a political and social action and from a process of personal transformation.

Gorze himself insisted that the individual process of disalienation be part of a shared imagination. [22] So too with utopic interventions and individual transformations.

Utopic Practices from Earlier Sessions: Radical Transformation of the Individual

As we delve deeper into the concept of the utopian moment of disruption and the transformation of the individual, we are drawn back to the utopian practices we have examined throughout this year. If we were to scrutinize the utopian dimension of mutualism, coöperism, unionizing, or even cosmopolitanism, we would discover that, at its essence, each of these practices involves the radical transformation of the individual self. At the core of mutualist endeavours such as cooperative housing societies, garment workers unions, or even a book club as Sarah Horowitz would have it, lies the critical act of varied disparate individuals forming a solidarity wherein the welfare of the individual stems from the welfare of the collective. This involves a radical transformation of the individual from an “I” to a ‘We’.

It is this transformation that Bernard Harcourt calls for with coöperism. In the context of unionising, Alyssa Battistoni in her essay Spadework speaks of how the act of organising and unionising transformed her from an individual to an organiser and eventually to a political being. Though work may not love one back, love, comradeship and fulfilment is found in a collective shared experience. [23]  In the same session, Helen Zhao, an elected student worker of the Columbia Students Union, poignantly observed that one of the “best” consequences of unionising had been the birth of the politics of care and empathy that union members now shared with each other.[24] Seyla Benhabib’s cosmopolitanism pushes for a forging of new solidarities and an extension of empathy towards people and identities on the principle of respect and dignity without the interdependence of mutualism or unionising. [25] She writes:

Just as the attack on Kashmiri Muslims who are increasingly robbed of their Indian citizenship must be organized locally as well as transnationally, so too, must the struggle against the beating of a handicapped African migrant in Italy be organized transnationally as well as locally.  Cosmopolitan solidarity with the other goes beyond the old dichotomies of east and west, north and south to defend “the right to have rights” (Arendt 1949 and 1979) on a global scale.

Once again, the act of an individual in the global north extending solidarity to a Kashmiri Muslim requires a radical transformation of self. It is therefore clear that at the heart of a presentist or concrete utopic imagination is the radical transformation of individuals.

The “Political Home”: Genesis of Praxis and the Utopic Intervention

Derricka Purnell, in her observations on the role of radical lawyers in progressive politics, spoke of the pivotal function of the “political home.”[26] According to Purnell, the radical transformation of one’s actions and politics does not solely depend on what one does or what political beliefs one subscribes to. Rather, it is fundamentally defined by the spaces where one finds a political home and engages in honest and critical conversations with fellow comrades. It is in our political home, where our theory and praxis is challenged and therefore transformed. As utopic thinkers and practitioners, whether through writing or action, we are constantly in conversation with each other. Each session in Utopia 13/13 has been in conversation with the other sessions, and Utopia 13/13 remains in conversation with other 13/13 seminars and the larger discourse. Dialectical conversation forces individuals to constantly interrogate themselves, opening a window of opportunity for transformation and for us to emerge with clarity of theory and sharper praxis. It is only in these conditions that one will be truly capable of mounting utopic interventions. Therefore, a political home, where individuals are vulnerable to criticism and open to the possibilities of radical change, is crucial for the existence of a utopia (utopic intervention). If utopia is the radical transformation of individuals in the present moment, its genesis lies in the dialectical process enabled by the political home.

Cornel West, in his inimitable style, captures the essence of the political home and the radical transformation of the individual through his analogy to jazz.[27] Independent instruments and different styles and element of music–such as the blues (catastrophic lyrics), swing (different conceptions of temporality and historicity) and coalitional improvisation, when in dialectical conversation with each other–allows the instruments and genres of music to break free from their assigned roles and rigid rules to be transformed themselves, and create truly radical music: the utopic intervention of jazz.

Strengthening the Potency of Utopic Interventions

The common thread of dialectical exchange among the various utopic practices we have discussed, emphasizes that it is our differences that leads to transformation. However, I believe there is another critical dimension to political homes and transformation born of dialectic conversation. Transformation cannot occur merely by having critical conversations within echo chambers, however radical these chambers may be. What is necessary is a constant interrogation of our privilege and the limits of our perceptions. We are profoundly changed when exposed to worlds outside of our own. In analysing the utopic gap as formulated by Charles Fourier, Riss writes, the idea of utopia was not to withdraw from the world. It was to “give it the chance to take in the expanse and to come back shaken by its experience of otherness”[28].  She further observes that for the first utopians, Thomas More’s journey to utopia was as much a social satire as it was a journey to the good place or no place. The ideal/intervention we imagine is necessarily limited by our own imagination. This imagination is therefore, as Riss analogizes, a mirror held up to its creator. Similarly, our interventions are inherently limited by our imagination, and are merely a reflection of our own reality. Thus, isolated utopic interventions born of echo chambers can only reflect the gaps in our own reality. While they alter history, they carry limited potential for progressive transformation. However, exposure to the realities of other worlds beyond our own enables us to conceive of something beyond ourselves. By subjecting conceptions born of such exposure to critical interrogation within our political homes, utopic interventions of greater potency can be achieved.

Concluding Lessons from Utopia 14/13

I return then to the question that we asked of ourselves in the beginning of this utopic endeavour: How can we live in the end of time? To test the answer that I leave this seminar with, I must provide some context of what the question means to me.

For those of us residing in hollow, superficial democracies hijacked by divisive right-wing political factions, the overwhelming feeling of frustration and despair is inescapable. As defense lawyers who contest the state’s persecution of dissent, and the marginalization and execution of demonized identities, we are time and again confronted with a subservient judiciary that demonstrates a studied refusal to examine the prosecution’s case, let alone subject it to the slightest of scrutiny. Meanwhile, as the central government rewrites and eradicates sections of history textbooks, erasing cultures it finds undesirable and solidifying a hegemonic Hindu society, the televised lynching and shooting of Muslim men is celebrated in public. As the impending 2024 general election looms large, heralding the BJP’s anticipated third term in parliament, one is forced to witness the metamorphosis of what was once a utopic vision of India (Thomas Moore style), into a Hindu state where constitutional and democratic institutions have been wholly co-opted to further Hindu interests. This transformation is not merely a product of fatalistic predictions. On the contrary, one fears that the reality at hand may prove to be even more dire. In light of this reality, I am compelled to reframe the question: How does our understanding of utopia help me live and work in Modi’s India?

The lessons that Utopia 13/13 provide are clear. Utopia is not a terminus, but rather an incisive and disruptive break in the present. Each utopic intervention has ripple effects that we can neither fathom nor measure. However, they irrefutably strain the fabric of status quo. To refrain from intervention would be to deny the possibility of the sunlight filtering in through the tear. As Riss passionately urges: The absence of utopia is even more perilous than its prudent dismissal, because it erases not the future but the places from which it is possible right now for a transforming critique to emerge.  To give into despondency, would be to allow the right-wing imagination to flourish. The lesson therefore is to lean into our political homes, which I am grateful to have and hold, and allow the critical interrogation of our own biases and prejudices to shape our utopic praxis and interventions. It is also to remember that we must train our eye towards utopising the individual and building a shared consciousness of individual transformation as opposed to setting our hopes and disappointments on systemic changes in our lifetimes. In the end I return to Noam Chomsky who despite the weight of relentlessly struggling against power for over 90 years, told us with the greatest equanimity:

A lot of that has changed. There’s plenty that’s wrong. And there has been a reaction. The reaction has been to try to control and enforce a better indoctrination of the young by various means. I’ve talked about them before. It’s a constant struggle. During the struggle there is progress. Steps that have been made that give us a basis to build towards a better future. There are new and hard and harsh problems that arise along the way. That struggle is never going to end as long as human society exists. After some victories, we will find new problems. We can respect those who have worked and struggled to create the progress that has been made. And recognise that the best we can do it stand on their shoulders, walk in their footprints and see what we can achieve for the future.[29]


[1] Bernard Harcourt, Welcome to Utopia 13/13, A History of the Future, accessible at Utopia 13/13 (

[2] Ibid

[3] Most of us are a bit of both or attempt to be.

[4] Bernard Harcourt, Epilogue on the Frankfurt School and Ernst Bloch, Utopia 13/13, March 12th 2023,  accessible at Bernard E. Harcourt | Epilogue on the Frankfurt School and Ernst Bloch – Utopia 13/13 (

[5] See Gary Wilder, On Concrete Utopianism, Utopia 7/13, accessible at 7/13 | Fred Moten, Nadia Abu El-Haj, Kaiama Glover, and Gary Wilder on “Concrete Utopianism” – Utopia 13/13 (

[6] F.S. Fitzgerald,  The Great Gatsby, 1925.

[7] Laetitia Riss, To Utopise the Present, The Historical Dream of Utopias, February 28th 2023, accessible at Laëtitia Riss | To Utopize the present: the historical dream of utopias – Utopia 13/13 (

[8] Sara Horowitz, Mutualism: Building the Next Economy from the Ground Up (New York: Random House, 2021) Pg 51

[9] Utopia 14/13, Cooperation: A Political, Economic, and Social Theory, accessible at 14/13 | Book Launch for *Cooperation: A Political, Economic, and Social Theory* – Utopia 13/13 (

[10] Seyla Benhabib, Cosmopolitanism Reconsidered, March 30th 2023, accessible at Seyla Benhabib | Cosmopolitanism Reconsidered – Utopia 13/13 (

[11] Francoise Gollain, Utopia 4/13 “Degrowth”: History, Theory and Praxis, YouTube, available at 4/13 | “Degrowth”: History, Theory, and Praxis – Utopia 13/13 (

[12]  See Utopia 2/13 On Cooperation Jackson with Kali Akuno, accessible at 2/13 | On Cooperation Jackson with Kali Akuno – Utopia 13/13 ( and Utopia 3 1/13 Union Organising and the Future of Work, accessible at 3/13 | Union Organizing and the Future of Work – Utopia 13/13 (

[13]  Etienne Balibar, Uncovering lines of escape, towards a concept of concrete utopia in the age of catastrophes,  accessible at Étienne Balibar | Uncovering Lines of Escape: Towards a Concept of Concrete Utopia in the Age of Catastrophes – Utopia 13/13 ( See also Bernard Harcourt, Epilogue to Utopia 1/13, 1st October 2022, accessible at Bernard E. Harcourt | Epilogue to Utopia 1/13 – Utopia 13/13 (

[14] Bernard Harcourt, Epilogue on the Frankfurt School and Ernst Bloch, accessible at Bernard E. Harcourt | Epilogue on the Frankfurt School and Ernst Bloch – Utopia 13/13 (

[15] Laeititia Riss, To Utopise the Present, the Historical Dream of Utopias, February 28th 2023, accessible at  Laëtitia Riss | To Utopize the present: the historical dream of utopias – Utopia 13/13 ( (Hereinafter Riss)

[16] Laeititia Riss, To Utopise the Present, the Historical Dream of Utopias, February 28th 2023, accessible at  Laëtitia Riss | To Utopize the present: the historical dream of utopias – Utopia 13/13 (

[17] Bernard Harcourt, Epilogue to Utopia 1/13, 1st October 2022, accessible at Bernard E. Harcourt | Epilogue to Utopia 1/13 – Utopia 13/13 (

[18] See Utopia 10/13, The Frankfurt School on Utopia, accessible at 10/13 | The Frankfurt School on Utopia with Rahel Jaeggi and Martin Saar in Berlin – Utopia 13/13 (

[19] Francoise Gollain, Utopia 4/13 “Degrowth”: History, Theory and Praxis, YouTube, available at 4/13 | “Degrowth”: History, Theory, and Praxis – Utopia 13/13 (

[20] Ibid.

[21] Francois Gollain, Andre my Teacher, Utopia 4/13, 3rd November 2022, available at Françoise Gollain | André, My Teacher – Utopia 13/13 (

[22] Francoise Gollain, Utopia 4/13 “Degrowth”: History, Theory and Praxis, YouTube, available at 4/13 | “Degrowth”: History, Theory, and Praxis – Utopia 13/13 (

[23] Bernard E. Harcourt | Introduction to Utopia 3/13: Organizing as Utopian Form – Utopia 13/13 (

[24] Utopia 3 1/13 Union Organising and the Future of Work, accessible at 3/13 | Union Organizing and the Future of Work – Utopia 13/13 (

[25] Seyla Benhabib, Cosmopolitanism Reconsidered, March 30th 2023, accessible at Seyla Benhabib | Cosmopolitanism Reconsidered – Utopia 13/13 (

[26] See Utopia 8/13 Role of Law in Progressive Politics, accessible at 8/13 | Amna Akbar, Derecka Purnell, and Cornel West on the Role of Law in Progressive Politics – Utopia 13/13 (

[27] See Utopia 14/13, Book launch for Cooperation: A Political Social and Economic Theory,  accessible at 14/13 | Book Launch for *Cooperation: A Political, Economic, and Social Theory* – Utopia 13/13 (

[28] Laeititia Riss, To Utopise the Present, the Historical Dream of Utopias, February 28th 2023, accessible at  Laëtitia Riss | To Utopize the present: the historical dream of utopias – Utopia 13/13 (

[29] See Utopia 6/13, Practical Utopias, accessible at 6/13 | “Practical Utopias” with Noam Chomsky and Che Gossett – Utopia 13/13 (