A new political imagination: creating realistic utopias (part II)


Patricio Cabello | Andrés Lomeña

Dec, 2021

Every day new challenges arise and grow in severity against the backdrop of a globalised world: war, inflation and supply chain crises are new flare-ups in a system that has failed at its core. If anything ties all these events together it is the complex relationship between the kind of energy needed to survive and the kind of energy that threatens to destroy the planet. For political economics professor Helen Thompson, the root of our precarious and conflict-ridden reality is oil, the one energy source clearly involved in the rising tensions between national, geopolitical and economic interests. Energy security and dependence constitute a very old global balancing act that is now being exposed for all its flaws. According to Thompson, phenomena such as Ostpolitik are best explained not from a political perspective, but rather through new resources discovered by the USSR. Human history with all its imbalances of power has been recounted innumerable times without explaining humankind’s relationship to the resources that have actually shaped every decisive step taken by the world’s nations, from alliances to failures. The time has finally come.

Oil will not be the only major player in the coming decades, especially if the calculations made by climatologists regarding global warming become a reality. The issue of environmental emigrants will be just another news story among reports of wars over access to clean water or extreme heat waves, which, as predicted by science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, will continue to evolve, becoming much more lethal and persistent. The “global north” seemed to know very little about this until recently. The warm and gentle breeze, “the wind that shakes the barley”, that graced the green fields of the “old country” now blows over dry and barren pasture lands. Ulrich Beck’s theory of the “boomerang effect” has come to fruition more than twenty years after its inception.

Photo_ Tuncay_ CC BY 2.0

At this juncture, we cannot give in to discouragement, but instead must look at the world in all its complexity, including the non-human factors of the equation (something that we clearly should have learned from the COVID-19 pandemic). Likewise, we should no longer incorporate already well-known historical contexts into our understanding of current violent conflicts, but rather a historical perspective contextualised over an extended period of time. This is the famous longue durée, which cannot just be a rhetorical tactic, but must be a fundamental piece of the puzzle to explain the world, as stated by Jo Guldi. In this way we will understand that the struggles for land (peasant revolutions, grievances around private property and housing) are not so separate from the imminent climate catastrophe, a new struggle for all land—for the entire planet.

How, then, do we face these times without giving in to despair? To take in and process conflicts that occur over long periods of time we need infrastructure, specifically infrastructure to organise information. For this, science, media and politics must act as complementary elements of a new approach to the engineering of information. Let us consider, for example, the announcement made by DeepMind, Google’s artificial intelligence subsidiary, on the open access (if it really does end up being open, and free of charge) that it will grant to researchers so that they can analyse recently discovered 3D structures of almost every protein in the universe. This research milestone is a significant, constructive tool with enormous potential. Similarly, other sectors of society also require information-based infrastructure that is thorough and freely accessible. The media, despite having adapted to survive in the digital realm, has created new enclosures without adequately addressing their own lack of credibility and loss of trustworthiness in the eyes of the public (unfortunately, post-truth and fake news continue to be passed off as news). Finally, politics necessitates new vehicles of communication, a new approach to education and a reformulation of the public sphere that does not reduce public deliberation to ashes through polarised confrontation and fanaticism.

Politics necessitates
new vehicles of communication, a new approach to education and a reformulation of the public sphere that does not reduce public deliberation to ashes through polarised confrontation and fanaticism.

All of these tensions feed into each other, and the shortcomings of one part of the system impact its other components. When systemic failure is almost complete, people come to deeply reactionary conclusions which have been popularised by authors like Jason Brennan and his defence of an “epistocracy” (the power of those who know). We know that bad solutions are nothing new: Brennan’s epistocracy ressembles a stylised and contemporary version of Plato’s antidemocratic values. Insinuating the possibility of a qualitative vote, weighted according to one’s knowledge, is akin to opening the door to moral and epistemic corruption, not to mention fascism disguised as a childish, pragmatic elitism. What recently happened in Chile with the referendum to approve or reject the new constitution, drafted by 155 popularly elected individuals, is very close to that nightmare. The constitutional proposal calls for the definition of a host of rights, hitherto denied and surrendered to the expansion of privatised healthcare, education and pension funds. Therefore, it is not only the usual defenders of market “freedom”, but also intellectuals with ties to supposedly progressive sectors, who have arisen from their tombs to create—with intricate arguments and the support of the mainstream media—an apocalyptic image of social change in which all of the middle class’ nightmares come true: the abolition of private property, environmental dictatorship and widespread scarcity.

Of course, regenerating democracy is an uphill battle. If democracy wants to survive the meddling and attacks (via lawfare or more traditional methods) of populist movements, it must return to its most basic principles and embrace other allies, such as cosmopolitanism, a concept as mistreated as pacifism. We must save our vocabulary (democracy, equality, liberty) from its enemies who impoverish, simplify, betray and vilify the meanings contained therein, turning these fundamental pillars of thought into mere ideological artefacts.

This issue of metapolis ties these issues together and presents a sort of choral telling of the times in which we live, seeking to discover new narratives, casting predictions and imagining paths for social transformation and the construction of a new democracy.

David Bollier opens this issue with a discussion of the commons, one of those terms that, as previously mentioned, has been warped and co-opted for the benefit of the elite. New worlds are possible through the commons and what Bollier calls the pluriverse of social movements that seek out alternatives. These initiatives return autonomy and independence to communities: alternatively managed food-production (permaculture, agro-ecology), the creation of public spaces and even alternative currencies (though not cryptocurrencies). There are so many possibilities and they all benefit from the wealth of care, as care is the backbone of our society. In line with what Italian economist Mariana Mazzucato has discussed, Bollier reconsiders the value of things, keeping in mind that certain elements of society have been stripped of their value simply because they do not yield a high enough economic benefit. The author reminds us of the tragedy of the commons and how economist Elinor Ostrom was able to redefine the problem to avoid giving it any exclusively Hobbesian connotations. Finally, Bollier discusses living systems and the gift economy in his notion of governance, where it is necessary to cultivate a culture of commons. This culture must also be supported, cared for and shared, as is our intention with this publication.

Photo_ Drew Selby_ CC BY 2.0
In this next article, Sofia Coca calls for stronger cultural mediation. The platforms she uses to encourage such encounters seeks to recodify social relationships, something that is not incompatible with finding a common language. Mediation is an exercise of translation, and translation is necessary as long as we refuse to let ourselves be led astray by the evil of automation and algorithms, which sell themselves as super-effective substitutes for supposedly superfluous and passé professions. This cultural mediation has social objectives and because of it we have been able to understand the most important changes happening in the digital sphere. The old mantra “You can make free culture with proprietary software” has shown itself to ultimately be false. This resonates, once again, with the words of Audre Lorde: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” The idea of cultural mediation functions as an open forum of participation and its greatest advantage is that it means knowledge and learning cease to be unidirectional. Moreover, cultural mediation also requires constant care.

Romualdo Dias sheds new light on the potential of utopian imagination to expand our political horizons. Only insofar as we dream—or only when we practice a certain metaphysical leap towards an imagination separate from factual realism—does change become possible. This change can be cultural (as in 1968) technological (with all the implications that come with technology) or socio-political. In any case, there is an emancipatory force born of transcendence, in the margins, and only with this force can we proceed to materialise experiences and proceed towards immanence. Of course, those who believe in serendipity or the preeminence of the material will have reservations regarding this concept, but cognitive systems (as well as systems of thought, ideals and even ideologies) indicate a clear direction and define an agenda that loses relevance when people turn their backs on the idea of utopia, thinking that it is too naïve or unviable. Utopian hope is hope that is essentially impossible but that becomes reality. The concept of utopia is, therefore, an example of political alchemy that teaches us what we often believe to be unlearnable. For this reason, Romualdo connects the idea of utopia with education, crucial in the process of awakening the conscience to a greater immanence, or in other words, a realism that is expanding towards what is possible but as of yet realised.

Appealing to sincere happiness, again, may seem naïve, but hope is a mandatory principle for imagining utopias, and utopias are part of the most mundane reality.

Antonio Penedo undertakes a fascinating journey through the cyberspace of yesteryear to present digital poetics that account for all the economic, social and political transformations that have occurred in recent decades. Such a task is not easy, especially when the author attempts to integrate Darwinist arguments and scale the dizzying heights of transhumanism. It remains to be seen what paths science, technology, genetics and human development will follow, but red flags have been raised in relation to obligatory digital literacy, an expression that does not allude to learning a specific program, but rather the development of active digital practices of comprehension, synthesis, transmission and creation of ideas. The software that we need involves systems of symbols, a new grammar, as forms of communication continue to be of vital importance, though we believe that we have progressed beyond McLuhan’s global village and his central idea that the medium is the message. Progressives’ use of semiotics must begin with a deep understanding of the technologies that modify what we understand as knowledge, communication, democracy and life. We do not need to commune with Donna Harraway’s cyborgs in order to catch sight of the maelstrom we are caught in as the direct consequence of many different technological innovations.

In the following article, Mariano Gómez Aranda daringly describes how the pandemic could change the political imaginary of the future. To face the future, first we must approach the past, and with this in mind Gómez Aranda looks back on the Black Plague in an attempt to draw conclusions from a historical perspective. The text conducts an in-depth analysis of the ideas of thinkers from that era, such as Ibn al-Jatib, whose medical and scientific knowledge was influenced by theology. In the 21st century, we may very well think that our secular societies are not capable of errors such as those recorded in the 14th century, but vaccine denial today is still related to certain religious beliefs that do not fit with the observations and warnings of epidemiologists. Ultimately, we must learn that societies, including those who consider themselves secular or advanced, have not entirely freed themselves from certain obtuse points of view that contradict science. Given the philosophical ideas presented in this article, we can say that perhaps the coronavirus is, in the end, a problem of dogma for which many try, difficult as it may seem, to find a harmonious compromise somewhere between cutting-edge scientific developments and religious faith rooted in pre-scientific times. Given this situation, the unexpected return of dogmatism portends the return of other problems that had ,seemingly, died out.

Judith Butler and Jean Wyllys conclude this issue with an article on dissident solidarity. This particular type of dissidence directly connects with Butler’s most recent work, in which she has focused on the power of non-violence. The authors concretely address the ultraliberal authoritarianism that has gained force in different countries, as well as the reactionary far right that sees the LGBTQIA+ movement as a threat to the idea of family and nationalism. Special attention is given to recent events in Brazil, but also to the actions of individuals who could be labelled as anarcho-reactionaries, such as Elon Musk, ready to assist coups d’état in dependent countries in order to lay fertile ground for his own business interests. The political elite are trying to abolish certain laws in order to restore the status quo. Thus, political and sexual dissidence is persecuted with force, and the closet is becoming a place of imprisonment and shame once again. The inclusive feminism being promoted here deals with sex of course, but also race and national borders. Feminism, after all, aims to defend those who are most vulnerable. The ontology of an exclusive ontology (trans-exclusionary feminism, for example) breaks with the principles of this egalitarian and comprehensive feminism. Unity is the only possible political agenda. Marxists, progressives, feminists, queers—all of these forces are steering the same boat. There is no other option because otherwise they will capsize. This feminist call to action does not simply consitute a dissident voice with which to talk about a set core of, often exagerated, key topics, but rather to address the need to focus on fundamental issues that concern the most marginalised: housing, healthcare, employment and food security.

Photo_ A0chan_ CC BY 2.0

To conclude this issue’s selection of articles, we uphold the idea that we cannot allow the climate of generalised pessimism to be a paralysing force, nor should it enshroud the moments of joy that are entailed in the process of real transformation towards a better world. Appealing to sincere happiness, again, may seem naïve, but hope is a mandatory principle for imagining utopias, and utopias are part of the most mundane reality. These six metapolis articles aim to transport us to that horizon of possibility, demonstrating that despite the inertia of the forces that seek to stop us, we can still succeed in creating a new political imagination.