Back to the Future: A Prehistory of the New Utopianism

William Godwin, husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, father to Mary Shelley, and philosophical forerunner of modern anarchism, describes a recognizably futurist utopia in the first edition of his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793). Godwin outlines an ideal political and social system under which human beings will flourish after the dissolution of certain institutional arrangements. For Godwin, the state, class hierarchy, private property, and marriage are fetters on the realization of an otherwise limitless human potential. Or, rather, they are errors. Godwin pushes the enlightenment-era deification of ratiocination to a mystical extreme in presenting very real inequities as so many cases of benighted judgment waiting for a personified, yet curiously disembodied, Reason’s correction by way of debate. It was this aspect of Godwin’s project that inspired John Thelwall, the radical writer and public speaker, to declare that while Godwin recommends “the most extensive plan of freedom and innovation ever discussed by a writer in English,” he “reprobate(s) every measure from which even the most moderate reform can be rationally expected” (Thelwall, The Tribune 1796). E.P. Thompson would later echo this verdict in his The Poverty of Theory (1978), when he compared the vogue for structural—or Althusserian—Marxism among certain segments of the 1970s-era new left, to Godwinism, which he describes as another “moment of intellectual extremism, divorced from correlative action or actual social commitment (Thompson, 244).

Towards the very end of his book, Godwin does at least confront something like the material limits to action when he considers various objections stemming from “the principle of population.” How can a finite planet with finite resources—in the contemporary idiom—sustain an ever expanding earthly paradise? Godwin’s answers elicited such widespread disdain in the 1790s-era British press that he removed these chapters from the subsequent, chastened, editions of the book. Among his conjectures was that human beings, through an expansion of their reasoning capacities, will achieve an almost telekinetic mastery of matter and its laws: “if mind be essentially progressive, that power may and…infallibly will, extend beyond any bounds we are able to prescribe to it” (455). In this vein, Godwin predicts that human beings will achieve immortality and cease to reproduce, there being no rational reason to do so. Godwin offers us one template for the futurist utopia.

Many critics see in his daughter Mary Shelley’s characterization of Victor Frankenstein and his “Modern Prometheus” a critical reflection on Godwin’s speculative program for human acceleration. More relevant for our purposes is the response elicited by Godwin’s speculations in the form of An Essay on The Principle of Population (1798), published anoymously by the Reverend Thomas Malthus.

Malthus infamously argued that “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man,” with the early industrial revolution’s growing and increasingly immiserated plebeian masses in mind. Motivated by his anti-Jacobin ideological commitment, Malthus uses ostensibly empirical and proto-statistical arguments in order to counter the threat of egalitarianism, rendering utopia and social amelioration as un-scientific errors (Malthus, Essay, 61). Godwin eventually responded to Malthus’s provocation with his own, monumental Of Population (1820). While Malthus was motivated by explicitly reactionary purposes, his mode of analysis shaped the political economy of the nineteenth-century, bourgeois and socialist alike. The Malthusian emphasis on necessary austerity, to be borne by poor and working class majorities, in response to natural limits, has shaped the subsequent history of environmentalism in the twentieth century, including the eco-primitivist critique of an unsustainable modern capitalist civilization with its unsustainable standards of living.

We can read in first-generation English romantic poets William Wordsworth’s and S.T. Coleridge’s retreat into a natural and sublime solitude — their removal from London and the urban mob, in addition to their disavowal of both the French Revolution and Godwinism—something like a Malthusian recoil from a more democratic social life. Yet these same first-generation romantics famously despised Thomas Malthus, who, in rendering the natural world in terms of resources and restraints, or "misery and want," offered the antithesis to the benign and redemptive version of nature sketched by Wordsworth and Coleridge in their 1798 Lyrical Ballads, which appeared the same year as Malthus's first Essay on Population. This early romantic iteration of nature registers an aesthetic protest against incipient industrial capitalism, whose avatars drew on both Godwin's ultra-rationalist perfectibilist futurism and Malthus's perversely utilitarian arguments for austerity, oftentimes according to ideological expediency. Godwin himself moved closer to the romantic position during this period. He, for example, tempered or excised the first edition's fevered burst of futurist rationalism in his two subsequent versions of Political Justice (1796, 1798), as he grew to appreciate the importance of affect, history, and even natural limits, as we can see in his initial reply to Malthus's critique (entitled Thoughts Occasioned By The Perusal of Dr. Parr's Spital Sermon Preached At Christ Church, April 15, 1800: Being A Reply to the Attacks of Dr. Parr, Mr. Mackintosh, the Author of an Essay On Population and Others). Late eighteenth-century rationalist idealism, and its futurist utopia, in many ways produced its apparent opposites: primitivism, of a sort, and the romantic critique of capitalist modernity.

Nineteenth-century utopianism often oscillated between these two—futurist and primitivist—poles, as the followers of Henri de Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier show us. Karl Marx breaks with and builds upon his utopian predecessors in multiple ways. He appropriates the language and methods of the “scientific” political economy founded by Malthus in order to explode its claims and expose its class character. Grounded in an analysis of historical conditions and possibilities, Marx builds on the futurist and romantic strains of utopianism in a way that reveals their partial character, while offering his own version of communism as a reconfigured synthesis of both.

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and global capitalism’s seemingly inescapable “stationary state," Marxism has made a comeback among an unlikely demographic: US millennials. For example, The Washington Post recently profiled Jacobin, a leading mouthpiece of the new new left that also sponsors socialist reading circles: “this reading group and others like it around the country, fostered by a magazine founded by a millennial, is trying to take a 19th-century idea that fell out of favor in the 20th century and infuse it with new life for a comeback in the 21st century.” With this resurgence in mind, we should recall Alain Badiou's claim that “we are are much closer to the 19th century than to the last century. In the dialectical division of history we have, sometimes, to move ahead of time. Perhaps like post-1840, we are now confronted with an absolutely cynical capitalism, more and more inspired by the ideas that only work backwards: the poor are justly poor, Africans are underdeveloped, and the future—with no discernable limit—belongs to the civilized bourgeoisie of the Western world.”

It is no surprise that the utopian dichotomy sketched above has also returned with these other phenomena. However, in many instances, the futurist/primitivist binary has assumed a farcical form, which I described—in my last post—in the very twentieth-century terms of the Jetsons vs. the Flintstones. Here, I will focus on the new Jetsonism, particularly as it is exemplified and critiqued in the aforesaid leading magazine of the new new left.

In the latest issue of Jacobin, Peter Frase calls for “an enlightened Luddism” in addressing the question of technology and socialist strategy: “how to incorporate technology into social thought and political strategy without treating it as external to social relations or falling into the crude techno-utopian versus techno-skeptic dichotomy, all the while recognizing that the technical mediations of labor and capital do have some relatively autonomous existence." Despite the now widespread use of “Luddism” as a catch-all for irrational opposition to technology and the modern age—a misunderstanding actively promoted by the avatars of tech—the Luddites were, in fact, nineteenth century workers whose machine breaking was a tactical and eminently rational mode of labor resistance, enacted with wage concessions in view. Under an emergent capitalist order, these hitherto artisanal workers viewed the machine as a tool in the hand of their de facto masters and a threat to their livelihoods. Karl Marx would later make explicit what was inchoate in the Luddite’s acts of sabotage in a language redolent of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: “it is the machine which possesses strength and skill in place of the worker…with a soul of its own in the mechanical laws acting through it” (Marx, “Fragment on Machines” in The Accelerationist Reader, 53).

For Marx, it wasn’t machines as such that depressed wages or made workers obsolete, but technology in the service of the capitalist’s never-ending pursuit of profit. It is only under socialism that the forces unleashed by capital—likened to the sorcerer’s apprentice in Goethe’s poem of the same name—can be properly harnessed and developed for the benefit of a classless humankind. The Bolsheviks arguably sought to realize this vision through industrialization efforts, notably captured in Lenin’s definition of communism as “Soviets plus electrification.” Marx’s approach to technology, as indicated by my quotation from the Grundrisse above, was much more ambivalent, as Paul Heideman writes: “Marx’s legacy on technology is thus a complicated one, constituted by two sets of oppositions. First, because of its technological dynamism, he saw in capital both the damnation and the salvation of humanity. Refusing either to simply accept or reject the character of technological progress under capitalism, Marx instead dissected it, identifying its driving forces and its potential place in the process of social transformation.” Heideman, in one of the better examples of “enlightened Luddism” on offer, traces the various trajectories of the Marxian left and its relationship with technology over the course of the twentieth century—from the Wobblies' rejection of the machine to Gramsci’s romance with Fordism—before recommending Harry Braverman’s new left era critique of Taylorism as an important theoretical resource for thinking through the problems of technology, labor, and exploitation. Braverman argues that the assembly line—as well as the various scientific management techniques once lionized in the USSR for their impact on worker efficiency – is an expression of class power rather than a neutral instrument to be repurposed under a different set of social arrangements.

Braverman draws on Marxist theory and his own experiences as a metalworker in describing the systematic degradation of labor under industrial capitalism, which continues apace, in our own supposedly “postindustrial” moment.

Frase’s “enlightened Luddism” resonates with my own call for a position on technology, progress and collective emancipation beyond the “techno-skeptic vs. techno-utopian dichotomy.” The ecological crisis represents a planetary threat to human life. This threat necessitates a collective and coordinated effort beyond the purview of any purely local or backward-looking approach. The ecological crisis requires both the development of new technologies (e.g. renewables, biodegradable building materials) and the abandonment of some old ones (e.g. fossil fuels, conventional plastics). This effort is fundamentally incompatible with the capitalist growth imperative. And, as forward looking eco-socialists Mike Davis, Michael Löwy and others have argued, it necessitates an alternative mode of social organization. Rather than the intergalactic colonization that left-accelerationists offer as the proverbial launching pad for the reconstitution of communism, we might instead leverage our green state of emergency in order to exit the capitolocene and usher in a world of sustainable “red plenty.” (Part 1 of 2).

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