Shaping debate on religion in public life.

No Place like Home: Rethinking the Politics of Utopia

12 Apr 2018

Tim Howles considers how the environmental crisis might revive our conceptualisation of utopia and our political agency.

Like many of us, I will very soon be voting in council elections. The party-political literature that has begun to drop through my letter-box tells me that my vote can bring about change. One candidate invites me “to make Brexit Britain what it can and must be.” Another suggests that together we can create “a society with enough space for everyone to flourish.” And a third, deploying what I can only call quasi-biblical language, invites me to raise my eyes to the “sunny uplands that await us” (if only I will vote for him, of course).

Can we believe these promises? What possibility is there for meaningful change in our society?

A number of contemporary thinkers in the continental tradition, including Isabelle Stengers, Peter Sloterdijk and Bruno Latour, have shown that utopian themes continue to structure the discourse of modernity. But, crucially, this vision of utopia is not one that is able to stir up or energize meaningful political or social action in the present moment. Why? Because although in one sense this utopia is framed as a task or objective that must be realised by our own co-operative efforts, in another sense it is understood as a destination that has been already fixed and determined, such that our role in bringing it about is negated.

This putative teleology of utopia can be traced everywhere we look in modern society. Thanks to the natural sciences, the “laws of nature” that underwrite the world of matter have been or are being decoded: thus, we can look forward to a utopia of progressively greater human technological and industrial mastery over the material world. Likewise, the “laws of social existence”, the framework within which humans function collectively, have been or are being described by the work of social scientists: here, too, we can look forward to a deterministic understanding of who we are and why we act the way we do in society. And, above all, we who inhabit the West live with the powerful sense that we are operating under the aegis of the “law of market forces”, the ineluctable and inexorable reality of the global economy, which frames the individual choices we make about consumption and value, whether we are conscious of its power over us or not.

Everywhere we look, we are being catapulted forward into a brighter future. But this is along tram-lines that already appear to have been laid. With his customary coquettish glance, Bruno Latour makes the point by suggesting we would do well to understand the etymology of the word “utopia” itself: the destination to which our history is so confidently channeling us is a place of “no-place”, since it literally offers us nowhere to go.

Is it any wonder, then, that our political engagement is characterised by apathy and disenfranchisement? Is it any wonder that, in the absence of any possibility of genuine political agency, we are seeing the rise of nationalist or populist movements, where our own sense of disenfranchisement can be transferred onto one who promises to wield agency on our behalf? (This is precisely the argument of Jan-Werner Müller in his excellent recent survey of “populisms”).

The religious imagery underlying these contemporary utopian discourses is readily apparent. Within modernity, the flow of human history is envisaged as moving in one sure and certain direction, as if towards an eschatological consummation that is fixed and certain (even if we cannot know the time of the end itself). This is why John Milbank and others have characterised modernity as a mode of “secular apocalyptic” that is premised on the anticipation of a “transcendentally-donated” end-state (as explained in this excellent audio discussion held last year at the LSE, which is well worth a listen).

This is a worrying diagnosis. But thankfully, the same continental thinkers I mentioned above have something else to say. As paradoxical as it might seem, they all point to the contemporary environmental crisis as something that might serve to recalibrate our conceptualisation of utopia and re-energize the sense of human agency in the present moment that it has served to freeze.

What’s the idea here? Their observation is as follows. At the time of the Anthropocene, how can modern people continue to believe in a future that is fixed and secure? Nature itself is rising up and threatening our own survival. Like Pi with his tiger in the lifeboat, this is a dangerous and unpredictable situation. But it is also one that compels us to act in new ways. We must negotiate anew to secure our future existence on the planet. Original forms of political and social action are required—and not just between humans, but between humans and all sorts of nonhuman agents and agencies. The utopia of modernity has been revealed as an artifice. But a new understanding of utopia is perhaps possible, one that will be based on a genuine expression of the plural world we inhabit. This, surely, is a vision of utopia worth working towards.

It is here, perhaps, that theology itself might be able to contribute something. Of course, it is true that Christian theology posits a fixed and final end, an eschatological consummation of all things that will be brought about by the transcendent agency of God. The flow of history is certainly contained or framed in some way by that sure and certain end. What can be more reductive of human political and social action in the present moment than that, we might say? But surely the important point here is that, within Christian theology, the end comes … at the end. And, as many theologians have pointed out, to know that the end is at the end is simultaneously to unleash an extraordinary energy in the present moment. This is what German political theorist Carl Schmitt called “katechontic theology”, with reference to “the one who restrains” (katechon) in 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7, that strange and mysterious promise of an end delayed and retarded, precisely so that the present moment could be held open for something good to emerge. This was the idea that Schmitt thought was the real contribution Christianity could offer to the political and social organisation of the contemporary world.

And so perhaps it will be the contemporary environmental crisis, with its complication of the future we thought was ours to bring about on Earth, that will (paradoxically) supply the context in which a different kind of future might be conceived. Although the path ahead looks uncertain, perhaps that is precisely the blessing the crisis brings to us. For in disrupting the myth of progress that modernity has narrated to us for many years, human beings may finally be in a position to build a future, a utopia, that is finally worthy of the name.

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