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278 pages, Hardcover
First published January 1, 2018
Brucie's thoughts—pretty streamersOK, you got me: I did put that epigraph in there mainly cos I just love love love the lyrical stylings of Paddy McAloon from Prefab Sprout, true, but nevertheless I do still have a bit of a point to make with it: viz., that while the utopian impulse may well be a kind of dream, it is not merely the dream of macho ideology (as in Brucie's case); rather, it is the dream of a possible escape from ideology, specifically the ideology of what Mark Fisher once memorably called "Capitalist Realism*"
Guess this world needs its dreamers
May they never wake up….
—Prefab Sprout, Cars and Girls
Lewis Lapham, Editor Emeritus of Harpers magazine, once wrote a piece (called "Paper Moons") on visiting the New York Public Library to take in an exhibit on the history of utopian thought and art. He ends his editorial in the following manner:
As UBS, the intention for each is to become free public goods accessible to everyone – not as commodities for exchange and profit, but as the foundational resources on which to build their lives. That is not to say private ownership of housing, for instance, would be prohibited – it would not, but there would be a guarantee that the state would meet an individual’s housing needs if required. Market production and the price mechanism would endure, but this would become progressively rarer in those areas classified as universal basic services. With energy, labour, and resources wanting, like information, to be free, history and extreme supply would be on the side of UBS.
As a consequence, UBS will diffuse incrementally. In transport it might resemble the UK’s ‘Freedom Pass’ – which allows free travel on local bus services for those over sixty – being extended to everyone. This is sensible – as we’ve already seen, transport sits at the intersection of post-scarcity in energy and labour with extreme supply from renewable power (energy) and autonomous driving (labour) meaning the cost of public transport will fall precipitously. This should be to the benefit of users, citizens and workers – not profiteers. The UBS of progressively expanding free public transportation is the best way of ensuring precisely that.
Similarly, in healthcare, the rise of ultra-low-cost technologies in the areas of gene sequencing, therapies and editing will mean that a few decades from now public healthcare will be cheaper to administer with each passing year. But this will only be of collective benefit if we reject the notion that edited genes are the same as pharmaceutical drugs and must be subject to patent and the profit motive. Instead, the gains of healthcare becoming a true information technology should be socialised as we eliminate genetically inherited conditions like Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and sickle cell disease – much like we did with smallpox in the twentieth century.
Even such breakthroughs, tremendous and unprecedented as they would be, would represent just the first step, as the arrival of virtually free gene sequencing – which would allow us to all but eliminate early-years mortality and locate cancers at ‘Stage 0’ – moves medicine from responsive to preventative. Again, rather than propping up the profits of private business while putting millions of healthcare workers out of a job, that should mean free, universal healthcare for everyone. The alternative of allowing market rationing amid conditions of such abundance, and for matters of literal life and death, is barbaric.
The same trends are evident in housing, education and information – understood here as media production and internet connectivity. Just a few decades from now paying for a bus, or an internet connection, or a university degree or renting a home, need not be an issue. In each instance payment might feel as counter-intuitive as it would today if you were invoiced for starting an email account or checking the accuracy of a date on Wikipedia. And why shouldn’t it?
I'm not sure if it is two blocks south, one block west, or on the other side of down, but we gotta start somewhere, folks, and get the heck on our way here. As climate scientists now tell us, that distant light won't shine forever, so we gotta bring it ever-closer to the horizon of possibility. In other words, who cares if Mr. Bastani's book is 40, 50, or 90% utopian? He points the way toward practical things that we need to be doing, and he has given us a lot to argue about. Let's talk.
on my way out of the library in early October I remembered the lines of Anatole France:
Without the Utopians of other times, men would still live in caves, miserable and naked .... Utopia is the principal of all progress and the essay into a better future.
Ask me where is the road to utopia, and I would guess that it probably can be found two blocks south or one block west, around the corner or across the street. Ask me to visualize the City on the Hill, and I would say that it is best understood as a "no place," a distant light on a far horizon, a generous idea whose time has not yet come.