This blog collects perspectives on the election you won't find anywhere else, by political experts, based in the School of Politics and International Relations at The University of Nottingham.

Friday, 30 April 2010

But what do they believe in?

"Perhaps party manifestos or leaders speeches could contain a short utopian vision of a better world..."

Utopias tell us about people’s visions and dreams of a good life. People who create utopian visions think about what’s wrong with their world. They identify core problems with the present and cast their minds forwards to imagine a world in which these problems have been solved.

They tell us what’s wrong with the now. And they take responsibility for trying to offer alternatives: they tell us about the about the good life. They offer social and political criticism, vision and detailed alternatives. Perhaps party manifestos or leaders speeches could contain a short utopian vision of a better world.

This could give us an idea of the kind of world desired by our potential leaders. It might help us to see the differences between them more clearly. Nowadays, utopias are mostly written by musicians and creators of fiction – here’s one from Alanis Morrissette...

...and another from Bianca Paras...

...and the science fiction write Kim Stanley Robinson has written several, exploring climate change, testing different scenarios and imaging in different futures for humans and the natural world.

Modern politicians tend to shy away from them, partly because utopia has become a term of derision: unrealistic, excessively idealistic or naive In a vox pop session on Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning someone said that The Good Society “sounds like a good idea but is unrealistic”.

And that’s a real stumbling block for utopias in our society. Politicians don’t want to look silly. In fact, the whole point of utopias is not their realization. Utopias are imaginary spaces in which to think about what’s wrong with the world and how it could be made better.

They are (literally) noplaces. ‘Nice ideas’ that are unrealistic can have a real value. They can help us to think about where we would like to be, offer inspiration and perhaps catalyse action.

It’s a big mistake to think that utopias are visions of perfection that can be created in the real world. Dangerous things happen when people think like this. Some people would say that Hitler had a utopian vision, for example.

A despicable one: a world purged of ‘imperfections’. This was a utopia that justified mass murder. And the same pattern informs some religious fundamentalism today. So utopias can be a really dangerous and deadly political tool. 

But, used carefully, they can be illuminating, inspiring and exciting. They can help us to work out what kind of world we want to life, and what a good life might look like. I think that could be useful.

Lucy Sargisson

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