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Dreaming of a better world isn’t utopian

This article is over 13 years, 10 months old
In the first part in our new series Kieran Allen looks at what forces can build a new society
Issue 2213
Thomas More
Thomas More

The possibility of removing capitalism is back on the agenda.

None of us can predict when workers will move, or when serious struggles will break out.

But the ideological justifications for capitalism are being torn apart.

Bill Gates is valued at $40 billion. Meanwhile, two billion people don’t have electricity.

In the distant past you could have said that’s because Gates was born into blue blood and we have red blood.

In the 19th century you could have said Gates worked very hard for his money – although hardly to the level of $40 billion.

More recently you could say he deserves his money because he’s a risk taker.

Except we now know that there’s no risk at all for capitalists – because companies go running to the state when their “risks” don’t work out.

The justification for capitalism is beginning to fall apart. So the system increasingly relies on cynicism and fatalism.

They basically say to us: We know that you know our system’s crap – but there’s nothing you can do about it.

It’s the same as Margaret Thatcher’s famous statement: “There is no alternative.”

Sometimes this is echoed on the left. Slavoj Zizek, the left wing philosopher, has said that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

So what we say about the alternative to capitalism is very important.

The culture of modern capitalism suggests that every alternative is utopian – an impractical dream of a perfect world.

I want to differentiate the socialist solution from utopia.

The word utopia comes from the title of a book by Thomas More published in 1516.

More used Utopia, a place the exact shape of Britain, as a mirror to hold up against the existing society.

He asked how some can be rich while others live in squalor and imagined a communal society.

After the birth of capitalism, this tradition re-emerged with the utopian socialists.

Robert Owen in Britain and Charles Fourier in France were among the most prominent.

They demanded equality between men and women and the right to education for children.

Utopian socialists marked a shift from using utopia as a literary device to attempting to create practical alternatives.

People set up communes to live a non-capitalist life, hoping that their example would lead people to look for change.

The revolutionaries Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’ attitude to this is interesting.

Engels wrote an article in 1844 praising utopias in the US as showing an alternative way of living.

But later they were more critical.

Essentially they said that there are two fundamental problems with utopias.

Firstly, they result from a few individuals taking action, not the mass of people.

This is because they express a deep scepticism about the working class.

Secondly, Marx and Engels said the utopians assumed that a different society could emerge on the same basis as capitalism did.

Capitalism emerged as merchant cities developed, primitive accumulation grew and capitalists became strong enough to break through feudalism.

The utopians think that we can do the same with socialism – we can set up islands of socialism and eventually overwhelm the capitalists.

But Marx said it can’t work like that. Capitalists had vast power and money when they took on feudalism – workers are poor.

And a real alternative to capitalism will have certain continuities with the existing system.

If we have a revolution in Britain, most of us would probably go to our same jobs a week afterwards – although life in workplaces would start to radically change.

The notion that there is a horrible period of capitalism, then a revolution, then a perfect world a week later doesn’t make sense.

One continuity between capitalism and socialism is the people.

Utopianism assumes that a new people, perfectly formed, will build a new society.

But the people who will make a revolution are people shaped by capitalism.

The crucial thing in understanding the alternative to capitalism is that it is not something invented by a few intellectuals.

It arises from the real movement of the working class.

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