What Is Utopianism And What Can We Learn From Those Who Have Tried - And Failed - To Create It In The Past?

Ahead of our IRL bookclub discussion with the author of 'The Utopians: Six Attempts to Build the Perfect Society', we look at the concept of utopias in the wake of Covid-19

By Hannah Connolly

13 September 2021

s we slowly emerge from global lockdowns, the desire for a better future and the questioning of the structures that define our present one simmer beneath the surface. Yet, humanity, under many guises, has tried time-and-time again to establish the perfect society - but is it truly possible?

The Stack takes a closer look at Dr Anna Neima's debut work The Utopians: Six Attempts To Build The Perfect Society, ahead of our live bookclub in which we are set to discuss the ideas of utopianism and what we can learn from those who have tried to create their own in the past.

In the wake of unparalleled events in our collective histories, writers often turn to fiction to air their concerns, weaving society's worries into the fabric of storytelling. Be it the poetry of W.H Auden, warning of the destruction the looming world war would bring, Christopher Isherwood and the haunting yet spectacular Berlin Novels or perhaps The Road by Cormac McCarthy detailing a dystopian world of our own making. All of these writers, amongst countless others, consider the events unfolding around them and use them to illustrate all that is wrong, to memorialise in time a collective feeling of dissatisfaction. It is this urge to question, to challenge that has inspired countless people to turn their back on 'normal' society and instead hope for a better future.

"Practical experiments in utopianism tend to occur in waves, usually arising in periods marked by cultural and social dislocation."

Dr Anna Neima, instead of delving into the world of fiction, took a deep dive into non-fiction, holding a magnifying glass up to six attempts at creating a utopian society following the First World War. Though they may have failed in some senses, Neima dissects their influence across everything from education, environmentalism and mindfulness, drawing lessons from these groups of 'social dreamers'.

Be it the Bruderhof founded by Eberhard and Emmy Arnold which tapped into the global desire for enhanced religious reforms as one arm of utopianist interpretation in the wake of the war, to the self-sustaining mountain community of the Atarashiki-mura in Japan. Neima illustrates the lives and ideologies of these six communities across the world and though all vastly different, they shared the common goal of achieving utopian living.

Over the past 20 years alone, people from across the globe have faced countless disasters from food shortages, financial crashes to emergency level environmental catastrophes and now the Covid-19 pandemic. There is no doubt that in the aftermath of such traumatic events the way we think as communities shift. This is no new narrative in history, as a global community and as local communities the way we think changes in relation to the things happening around us.

This is outlined by Neima stating that "practical experiments in utopianism tend to occur in waves, usually arising in periods marked by cultural and social dislocation." Detailing, within the pages of her book, the new ideas that humanity summoned to avoid history repeating itself - or at least attempted to do so. Acknowledging the impacts of financial standing, class, the role of mass consumption/capitalism and the self-interest of utopian leaders and how this led to the downfall of these communities or prevented them from thriving in the first place.

“Utopias are a kind of social dreaming. To invent a ‘perfect’ world - in a novel, a manifesto or a living community - is to lay bare what is wrong with the real one” says Neima. Discussing the framework behind the attempts of 'perfect' societies in the early 20th century, means acknowledging both the First World War and the Spanish Influenza of 1918. Exploring the global inability to comprehend the fight against an invisible enemy whilst dealing with combatting a very real one - each other. The culminating factors of society at this time provide the imperfect backdrop of which the desire to create the perfect one becomes more and more desirable. What Neima highlights in The Utopians is why we must learn lessons from the past. The stories of the people that lived in these 20th century examples, through their collective theories of enlightened living, allow us to glean examples of ways to improve our society today.

"Neima dissects the influence of past attempts at utopia across everything from education, environmentalism and mindfulness, and how to draw lessons from these groups of 'social dreamers' to apply to the present."

The word utopia itself is generally credited to Thomas More and though the idea of the perfect society far predates his usage, he was the first to write it down in 1516. The Greek roots of the word translate to 'no place' and is apt when thinking about the abstract nature of utopianism and the subjective nature of its definition. Through fiction in worlds created by authors, in film and art and in the manifestos of idealists since the 16th century - spurred on by the idea of possibility - millions have dreamed about what the perfect society would look like. Through veiled attempts in the real world and for brief segments of history for a collective few the sense of utopia has been achieved, even if fleeting, but these ways of living have never reached a global level and they have never changed the global community at large.

What can be learnt from the utopias of yesterday is that though they had faults, there are elements that permeate to be ultimate truths, the sense of community, the common cause, the protection of the environment these are all aspects that work. Though, undoubtedly the early communities with utopian aspirations may not have intentionally offered solutions to huge global issues such as climate change there are elements that can help us, today. What we have are the foundations, what we do with them is up to us as a society now.

Join The Stack in conversation with the author of ‘The Utopians: Six Attempts To Build The Perfect Society’ tomorrow at 6:30pm BST for our new bookclub as we look into what our world could look like post-pandemic. Prepare your questions and get your copy of the book here.

The Short Stack

Join The Stack alongside author of 'The Utopians - Six Attempts To Build The Perfect Society' on Tuesday 14th Sept to discuss whether it is possible achieve a utopian society in the wake of Covid-19

By Hannah Connolly

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