Why did most of the utopias begin?

The ideas are there, but we're not there yet Why utopias fail

During the crisis of the Copernican change, the first utopian drafts were formulated by monks, statesmen and philosophers. Out of the crises of industrial society grew the radical liberal, socialist or communist philosophies of progress that should enable everyone to develop their full potential. Capitalist growth has increased prosperity in our part of the world immeasurably, but also global inequality, ecological dangers, wars, and economic catastrophes. Today this progress is destroying the foundations of our lives, and there is a growing realization that only radical changes can ensure life and survival.

But what happened to the utopian concepts? Do we need new utopias or are the old ones enough? And what prevents people from fighting for their interests?

Mathias Greffrath, born in 1945, is a sociologist and journalist. He lives in Berlin and works for taz, ZEIT and radio, among others. In recent years he has dealt with the social and cultural effects of globalization and climate change in essays, radio plays and commentaries.



A society with full employment, in which the regular working hours for messengers and managers alike are now only four hours a day thanks to modern technology, and all work that destroys the body and paralyzes the mind has been automated.

A society with polytechnical all-day schools in which the students, in addition to their scientific knowledge of nature, society and the body, also practice practical, manual, artistic and social skills in a breadth that enables them to pursue three to four different qualified professions.

A society in which elected large families live together and raise their children together, and the elderly do not dawn in hospices but die in the communities in which they lived.

A society in which people place more value on time prosperity and self-employment than on constantly acquiring new gadgets - which is one of the reasons why they spend less work on consumption and more on music and leisure.

The infrastructures of this society are shared, but everyone has what they need to live. The management of public affairs rotates in short rhythms. Communities and religions live peacefully side by side in a state that sees itself as part of a global ecumenical society, on a planet that draws its energy from the sun. A solar world society is in the making.

This is not the future program of a red-green party. The image of this society is composed of reports from the island of Bensalem in the Pacific, from the sun city on Tapobrane in the Indian Sea and from the island of Utopia. In the century after the discovery of America, the English Chancellor of the Exchequer Thomas More wrote down his vision of Utopia, the scientist and politician Francis Bacon fantasized his Nova Atlantis, and the Calabrian monk and social revolutionary Tommaso de Campanella conceived the solar state.

In More's "Utopia", private property, money and feudal privileges have been abolished (picture alliance / dpa / photo: Bifab)

In More's "Utopia" private property, money and feudal privileges are abolished; the theologian Campanella values ​​education and a pantheistic love of the world; the ministers of his sun city are called wisdom, love and power; Bacon's islanders have flying machines, "have the means to produce artificial rain or snow and artificial mountain air. They grow new types of plants and fruits in greenhouses, they shorten the ripening process, mix the animal species according to their needs, mineralize their baths, and produce artificial building materials" , can choose their own death at the end of a full life.

Crises favor utopias

Crises loosen the social imagination. The utopian images of ideal societies emerged in a century of upheaval and uncertainty. In the crisis of feudalism, cities declared themselves liberated zones, peasants revolted - and were ultimately forced under the yoke of feudal bondage, worse than before. Christian mercenaries robbed and murdered in the New World, their stories of peoples who got by without money and violence, relativized the norms of the old world. - "Oh century, oh science, it is a pleasure to live. Studies flourish, spirits stir. Barbarism, take a rope and prepare for exile." This is how the poet Ulrich von Hutten wrote it to the humanist Erasmus, two years after the first report from Utopia was written.

Plastic waste in the sea (picture alliance / epa / Mike Nelson) Humans appear in the Anthropocene - the consequences of a new era
Humans have changed the planet so fundamentally that researchers are proclaiming a new geological epoch. The age of the Anthropocene forces us to completely rethink terms like "nature" and to develop an appropriate ethic.

Humanism - the age of people. A new era had begun, the horizons were open. Another world was possible - in my mind.

Nine-tenths of the people in Europe were still very poor, uneducated and enslaved, happy if they could survive from year to year when these dreams of the good life were put on paper. But the utopian anticipation of a world without need and oppression, as well as the much older myths of the golden ages, the fairy tales of the land of milk and honey, the descriptions of paradise inspired the social struggles of the epoch, the uprisings of the peasants, the rebellious townspeople, the early Christian revolts the Anabaptist.

Images and fantasies precede thoughts, and thoughts precede demands and political practice. From the sailors' tales of prosperity, peace and happiness in distant places in unclear latitudes, the task book of Europe was created. The somewhere - or nowhere - of utopias became the not-yet of the Enlightenment.

Fantasies of escape

Two centuries after the dreams of the utopians, the French Revolution broke out. "General happiness" was no longer a dream, but an article in the Revolutionary Constitution of 1793. It did not last long. Technology and science worked the utopian program small in the factories of early capitalism, but the bourgeois constitutions sanctified private property. The right to work was removed from the constitutions, the struggles to enforce it were put down, and where there were still commons, remnants of common property, they were violently privatized. Three steps forward, two backward.

And utopias again - born out of powerlessness. Those of the 19th century were mostly defensive and backward-looking. No grand designs for a different society, but fantasies of fleeing the brutalities of exploitation and misery in the first industrial cities, invitations to emigrate from a society in which the demand for equal rights was bombarded. Étienne Cabet's novel about the island republic of Icaria told of a society with a community of property in which everyone contributes the same amount of work and everyone has the same right to the product of the work.

Cabet tried to implement his cooperative ideas in model settlements in Texas. In Indiana, the generous British manufacturer Richard Owen's project "New Harmony" was supposed to prove that a society without private property, without church and marriage, "which destroy happiness", is possible.

These and other cooperative foundations remained alternative islands in the sea of ​​capitalism - all only for a short time. They failed for many reasons: intolerant leaders, arguments about principles, but above all the low productivity and the hard life of an artisanal peasant mode of production that could not compete with the products of the large machines, and the hostility of the surrounding bourgeois owner society . Where the spirit of equality survived, as with the Shakers and the Amish, these communities were held together by strong religious bonds.

Karl Marx Monument in Chemnitz (AP Archive)

The Marxian dream

Only the development of science, technology and large-scale industry driven to the extreme by capitalism would, according to Marx's historical prognosis, increase the wealth of society in such a way that there would be enough for everyone - only when capitalism had fulfilled its mission worldwide, it would Revolution bring the realm of freedom, only then will equality be more than the distribution of the poor "old shit", as Marx wrote drastically.

Marx's utopia: a society that is based on the knowledge of science, in which the human dignity of each individual is the condition of the freedom of all, in which the necessary work is done as rationally as possible and in which the realm of freedom grows in proportion how the working day gets shorter - this vision inspired the European labor movement, especially the German one.

In the course of the 19th century, with bloody struggles and setbacks, the workers' education associations became powerful unions and parties. August Bebel coined the term `` future state '': It was no longer a utopia, no sometime or somewhere, but the self-confident announcement of a party that believes in the progress of industry and science (with bold anticipation even on regenerative energies and automation), fought for the way into bourgeois society with its club houses, newspapers and trade unions, imagining that they were on the way to taking over the majority in parliaments, socializing production and restricting state power to an efficient administration. The votes for the SPD increased, from election to election, they thought the wind of history was behind them. Another world was within reach.

Stagnation and war instead of freedom and equality

The story didn't go according to plan. In a nutshell: The socialist revolution did not come about in the industrialized West with its parliamentary regimes, but in the feudal, largely agrarian Russian Empire. Only from the ideological testimonies of the first years of Soviet communism does the splendor of a global mission to mankind shine, which inherits all enlightenment and all utopias, which eliminates all hunger and all exploitation. We know what became of it: party rule without democratic balance, white and red terror, Stalinist dictatorship, dogmatism, unproductivity, the new feudalism of the nomenklatura, stagnation, world war, cold war.

In the welfare states of Europe after the Second World War, instructed by the global economic crisis and fascism, the ritual dispute between workers' parties and liberals over the share of the national product was transformed into a "leveled medium-sized society". In an exceptional boom that lasted 30 years, the counterculture of the labor movements dissolved into the standardized individualities of a consumerist international. The welfare state created unprecedented security, including promises of promotion for the children of the lower classes. These were exceptional years of prosperity that was still largely based on the imperialist plundering of the "Third World", and to this day on the miserable working conditions, the starvation wages in the former colonies, the asymmetrical trade relations in the expanded markets of globalization.

Whether corona, economic or climate crisis: It is difficult to currently develop visions and utopias (dpa / picture alliance / Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert)

After the crackdown on the reform movements in Eastern Europe, the CIA coups in Latin America and the new dictatorships in the former colonies, the "utopian energies", as Jürgen Habermas wrote in 1985, were "exhausted". When Soviet communism collapsed, it had never been an attractive other world, the American philosopher Fukuyama diagnosed the "end of history". The age of the "great stories" is over.

The supporting institutions of our society have become "U ‑ topias"

The age of a utopia began that is more radical, more spiritual than any other utopia has ever been: the belief in infinite growth, an infinite increase in material goods, in the transformation of all human activities and needs into goods, in the transformation of everyone Time gap into a market gap. Belief in a reality that disregards the materiality of the world: of bodies that are vulnerable and mortal, of the vulnerability of the biosphere, of the finiteness of minerals. This "technocratic idealism" is driven by global oligopolies, which have to grow in order not to perish, and the floating trillions of finance capital that are constantly submitting to new provinces of our living environment: the family economies and the middle class, the institutions of state and communal services of general interest, previous generations fought for and financed: health, education, transport, leisure, culture; the landscapes, the folklore, the music.

The supporting institutions of our society have become "U ‑ topias" in the literal sense. To non-places: the nation from the vessel of society to the geographical location of global competition, the parliament from the place where citizens decide how they want to live, to the notary's office for the investor imperative. Cities, regions, factories become transit areas, revitalized or evacuated according to the logic of capital, families become places where human capital is raised and purchasing power is generated.

Anthropocene: The Corrupted Epoch

Anthropocene - a new epoch term has been popular for a few years. Anthropocene - the age of man. The term was coined by geologists, it says: The horizon before which we act is no longer open. Not a new time, but a depraved epoch. It has been on record since the Rio Conference in 1992: We are approaching the planetary limits beyond which the equilibrium and repair systems of fauna and flora, of the atmosphere and oceans threaten to collapse. Anthropocene, Age of Humans: Unlike the proclamation of humanism at the beginning of our modern times, it is not a happy term, not a signal to set off, but a beacon to limit the damage.

We live in permanent crisis mode

It's late. As early as 1973 the Club of Rome published its report on the limits of growth, in the same year the pamphlet "Small is Beautiful" by the English economist Ernst Schumacher, who advocated a return to small units, sustainable technologies and consumption restrictions. Ten years later, the first popular books on global warming were published.

The simple realization that "infinite growth, no matter how efficient and resource-conserving it is, is not possible on a finite planet" did not penetrate - anyone who argued like this put the question of the system and himself into the political niche. Denial of facts grew into the dominant mode of politics.

Anthropocene - that is a term of crisis. The impacts come closer and follow one another more quickly. Saturated goods markets and an excess of idle capital initially triggered waves of speculation and then the global financial crisis of 2008, and the politicians shouted: Everything has to be different, we need a new concept of growth, the market cannot regulate everything; Nobel Prize winners thought about a new concept of prosperity. Politics didn't come out of it. Shortly afterwards the alarm calls from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, after which it was said: Everything must be different, and quickly. In Paris in 2015, all countries in the world agreed to meet on climate protection - a historic surprise, but the commitment lagged behind, and the expansion of the markets wiped out all efficiency gains.

In the same year, millions of war and climate refugees set off northwards, and demographers calculated that by 2050, 37 percent of all under 18-year-olds in the world will be at home in Africa, around a billion in absolute numbers. It is inconceivable that they will stay there, inconceivable that they can live there as we do now. Anthropocene, that means: We live in permanent crisis mode.

Financial crisis, climate crisis, migration crisis - bankruptcies, heat waves, refugee flows. The realization grew that the problems of the Anthropocene can only be tackled globally - and the painful experience repeated itself that global agreements are difficult to make and have little value - let alone solutions.

Corona as a symptom of a global way of life

And now there is something new: In this year's pandemic, a global threat will be experienced for the first time not just as a knowledge, but as a simultaneous occurrence and as a collective fate - simultaneously and across the entire planet.Outside of the White Houses and Fox News of all countries, the willingness to blame individual states, cultures or politicians is relatively low. The problem is experienced as a systemic one, as a symptom of a global way of life. What is also new is that the nation states act, if not always cooperatively, at least in a highly coordinated manner. And finally, what is new: In the individual countries, citizens are experiencing that stricter framework conditions cause radical and massive changes in behavior, that governments can find the ruthless primacy of politics over the economy at surprising speed, that individualized consumer citizens are capable of solidarity and radical sacrifices are.

The social distance during the corona crisis is stressful for many. (picture alliance / abaca / Alfred Yaghobzadeh) Corona Contact Restrictions - About the effects of renouncing on society
Contact restrictions in times of Corona mean waiver. Children are not allowed to play with other children, adolescents also lack direct contact with friends, adults cannot travel. But what impact and meaning does this renunciation have on the individual and on society?

Crisis as an opportunity

The state of emergency became the hour of euphorics hungry for salvation. Skeptical sociologists diagnosed a "change in world history towards a world of solidarity", orthodox economists the "end of the neoliberal era", political romantics saw in the delights of the decreed renunciation of consumption the death knell for capitalism - without consumption no growth, without growth no capitalism - and the start of a life with fewer compensation purchases, less work and more time.

Cosmopolitan theologians and philosopher who helped with life saw in the forced vacation from the hamster wheel, in the experience of near death, the chance of reflecting on the essentials, a global wave of confession and purification.

Crises are times in which people are more willing than usual to perceive world events and basic diagnoses, to prune and perhaps think about connections. About the price of textiles and the working conditions of the seamstresses in Bangladesh, hundreds of thousands of whom are unemployed during the crisis because C&A and H&M and Primark and Zara have closed; About the unionless lawlessness of the service workers who bring food, electronics and dowels into our homes; about the Romanian prerequisites for the price of the Lower Saxon neck steak; about the futility of children from precarious milieus, which did not start with a five-week absence from classes; About the extent of the announced mass layoffs and bankruptcies of medium-sized companies, which are now supposed to be "corona-related", even though they were still a foretaste of Automation 4.0 in January. And it is not just in the face of news of vaccine patents or of people in countries where there is one doctor for every 70,000 citizens that the question of what global public goods are - or should be - becomes alarmingly concrete.

Overview on the subject of coronavirus (imago / Rob Engelaar / Hollandse Hoogte)

Every crisis is an opportunity - for those who take advantage of it. In everyone new thoughts arise, the balance of power can change, structures loosen or harden. In times of crisis, windows of opportunity open - not for everyone, and not for a long time either.

We live in societies of inequalities, we are endowed with different levels of agency, but we face forks in different ways when it comes to shaping the "new normal". Just a few are mentioned here:

If corona unemployment develops as feared, if it is perpetuated by a surge in automation: Do we want to release a few million people with a meager but unconditional basic income into a life of sterile, unsociable passivity, or do we remember the recipe of the venerable labor movement : general radical shortening of the working day?

If the vaccine is a long time coming, will we fill the teacher gap with Microsoft and Apple products, make digital learning the norm, or will we hire more teachers, shrink classes, use tablets to make school a social place close?

Will we solve the nursing emergency of the next decades with robots and cheap auxiliary workers, which will then be lacking in Eastern Europe, or will we think about how we can relieve families, how we can free care from profit?

Are we satisfied with improved supervision of the north German slaughterhouses or do we use the chance of Corona to think about cutting down the Amazon forest for fodder soy plantations, about the connection between our eating habits and the exploitation of Romanian fathers? And not only about the slaughterhouse workers from Romania, but also about the truck drivers from Belarus, the cleaning women from Moldova and the construction workers from Bulgaria - that is, about Europe?

Climate protection icon Greta Thunberg: Without her, "Fridays for Future" would not have existed, believes the philosopher Stefan Gosepath. (Getty Images Europe / Stefano Guidi)

We often hear that we need new visions, new utopias, a new great narrative. Well, times have become more sober. Today's humanists do not write fairy tales of ideal islands. You sit in offices somewhere in Brussels or Geneva and write brief templates with dashes or PowerPoint presentations. One from last year was called "Beyond Growth" - and was shown at a conference of the OECD, the union of the richest democracies in the world.

She advocated a radical alignment of economies with the ecological limits of the planet. For state investments not with a watering can, but targeted in future-relevant industries; for massive public investments in infrastructure and education. A common good-oriented exemption of the stock corporations from the sole profit purpose and a participation of the employees in the company orientation. Digital platforms would have to become public law, such as post, rail and other infrastructures. A different land law can make cities more habitable and small farm businesses profitable.

The whole thing is a tool kit for another Anthropocene and a future state. A utopia? At the end of the many indented lines that mark the way into a New Era, there is the laconic sentence: "Nobody thinks that it would be easy." Education that educates itself organizes itself - as work. Follow The Science, says Greta Thunberg. And Gottfried Keller says: The last victory of freedom will be sober.

The risk of a collective nervous breakdown

Somewhat more poetic is the vision of the future that John Maynard Keynes noted in the crisis of the 1930s. The technological unemployment that he saw coming would be only a temporary phase, but in two or three generations it would have made Europe so rich that people would be faced with the greatest change in living conditions: a 15-hour week, three hours a day would be enough to produce the things of good survival. Keynes saw the danger of a collective nervous breakdown because, as he writes, we have been brought up for too long "to strive for something and not to enjoy something". He added: And who could sing ... For a long time the old Adam would be so powerful in us that everyone would look to work. But "three hours should be enough".

Keynes did not want to abolish capitalism, rather an enlightened variant of globalization can be found in his beautiful essay on the "economic opportunities of our grandchildren". For a while, he writes, we would still have to work purposefully - until general prosperity made it possible for all people to live in which work is subordinate to the art of living.

From this perspective there could even be an enlightened variant of globalization: capital, as its defenders say, always goes where it is most needed. So it could go where there are still no solar cells, machine tools, electric vehicles and tractors. And, as Keynes dreamed of, European humanity could come to rest. The overexertion and lifetime our grandfathers and mothers invested in European wealth could be given back to our children and the rest of the world.

John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), one of the most famous English economists of the 20th century (imago images / leemage)

The aristocratic Keynes, however, probably did not expect a civilization with 92-inch screens, in which the eight-day trip to the Emirates is part of regular consumption, the textiles come from shops that say "something new every day", a civilization in which people fight each other half-dead when a new iPhone has a vernissage, in which the little ones get a 1.23 m long electric Lamborghini Aventador for Christmas, with a futuristic look and real noises. A civilization that needs something like this certainly needs infinite growth and the perpetuation of the 40-hour week.

Home as an alternative to utopia

The opposite of utopia is not dystopia, but home. Not the homeland of origin, and not the homeland that has to be created first, whose image of longing drives hope, as in Ernst Bloch's great picture book of utopias of all millennia and dimensions. But home as the basis and the network of relationships on which I depend, which - quite literally - keep me alive, which I need, to whom and with whom I want to be.

To feel at home, or "to land on this earth", as the French philosopher Bruno Latour says, that would mean closing the awareness gap between my tax and the number of hospital beds here and elsewhere, between my three-euro T-shirt and that Family income in Myanmar, the iPhone 12 and children in the Congo, the demise of the small bookstore on my street and Amazon, the electric car and the salt lakes on the Altiplano of Bolivia, the turkey steak on the grill and the summer temperature.

Server racks and binary numbers (Picture Alliance) Interviewer Leif Randt - The better world as a marketing task
Where will utopias arise in the future? For example, in marketing agencies, on behalf of customers - this is how the writer Leif Randt paints it in a fictional email interview.

We live in a time of many times

Home is a network of my dependencies, my affiliations, my affections. Feeling at home, that can be the mixture of Thuringian sausage and Nashville Country at a Christmas market in a small town on the Elm in the evening after the Hatha yoga class. We live in societies that are made up of societies, in a time from many times, in a space much further than the place we are currently, connected to many places. "We stand", says Latour, "on the same soil, the climate refugee who comes from Iran, where half of the soil will soon no longer be tilled, and we - the producers of CO2 - we are literally on the same soil, and he's slipping away from under us - here and there ". Home, that is the project to settle the space in which we have always been. This room is not an island, it is not lockable. And the topology, the local history that has to be learned here, has no beginning and no end. At the height of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant spoke of the "interest in the world's best", of a recognized feeling of the "connection of our existence with worlds beyond worlds and systems of systems" even beyond the horizon of our lifetime, of a very worldly network of bodies and Relationships. Nothing but me or something far ahead of me, not a metaphysical elysium, not a goal at the end of the progressive racecourse, but something very present on the verge of the future, with a legacy that we can accept or reject, that we believe to be overtaken or of to which we are committed: for example these old stories of islands with four hours of regular working hours in a solar world society.