Utopia in Sheffield (we have to start somewhere)
As part of Sheffield's Festival of Debate - with a great subtitle: "Why not give a toss?" - there is a programme of utopia workshops. The facilitator, Darren Webb, explains below why they're running them:
Why bother with utopian thinking? For those people in our city who seek a significant change in the way society is run, there are fewer more dispiriting put-downs than being labelled ‘utopian’. Isn’t utopian thinking just fanciful, cloud-cuckoo-land idealism with no real link to the struggles of the present? What use is utopian thinking to the work of responding, in the here and now, to the dire political and economic context we find ourselves in? And hasn’t ‘utopia’ been discredited by its association with totalitarian regimes, whose march towards a vision of a better world ended in dictatorship and violent coercion?
While recognising the dangers, we also want to highlight the possibilities offered by utopian thinking – the project of imagining and building a vision of a better world. Questions of how we piece together a shared vision of a better future, and of finding solidarity amidst difference, are fundamental, especially in a landscape in which political identities seem more and more fragmented.
Utopian ideas can have a positive impact. Utopian visions can mobilise movements for social change. More generally, utopian thinking can offer inspiration and a goal, giving life and focus to political practice.
When we are told again and again that ‘there is no alternative’, utopian thinking says, ‘Yes, there is’.
Can we build a grassroots utopia? Can we identify shared principles, motivations, aims, practices, ethics, goals? In our daily lives, is it possible to re-animate thwarted desires, suppressed longings, untapped possibilities, and can we ask what a society would look like in which these were satisfied and realised? Could we work collectively together to develop a shared vision of the kind of society we’d like to create? And can we then use this vision – this shared vision of an alternative way of living and being – to help mobilise and drive forward our collective struggle for radical change?
There are big challenges to face. Not only the associations with coercive regimes and the fear of building castles in the air, but more practical challenges too. For those who campaign for social change or whose work involves the care, support and empowerment of people, the immediate concern is – quite rightly – a defensive response to the endless series of attacks and cuts. And there are more routine, ordinary factors that can impede the possibility of utopian thinking: rent and bills, managing our relationships, work, studying, or the dehumanising treatment involved in claiming benefits. The washing up has to be done, so the revolution must wait.
But we have to start somewhere.