By David Roseman

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Oh, yes it is! Oh, no it isn't! However futile this form of arguing may be, it is regrettably in common use, particularly it seems in the ideological battlefield of utopia.

In pursuit of my interest in the future of humanity, I recently joined an Internet correspondence list run by the Society for Utopian Studies, and thereby came to attend a conference on "Nowhere" at the University of Warwick, Coventry, UK. My overriding impression of interchanges on the web, and of listening to the presentations at the conference, is that very few participants, including myself, know what other people are talking about when the word utopia is used. Individually each of us may have a clear idea, somewhat as did the caterpillar when talking with Alice. Collectively, however, confusion reigns. We all seem to be either caterpillars or Alices.

Two of the leading lights at the conference were Ruth Levitas, the keynote speaker, and Lyman Tower Sargent, who gave the wrap-up address. Indirectly, he made this same point, and directed the attention of the audience to her 1990 book, "The Concept of Utopia", now out of print in the UK. He gave the impression that he had had the book re-published in the USA. It may be available through Amazon Books on the web. More in hope than expectation, I applied to borrow the book from the UK public library system. Bingo!

I have to agree with Mr Sargent. If you are studying Utopias, or constructing Utopias, and you haven't read Ruth Levitas's book, "You ain't seen nuttin yet!". Before I extol its benefits too much, I should just mention two limitations as I found them. Firstly, it was written by an academic for academics. The jargon is not readily grasped by a layman. It was hard work, if worth it.

Secondly, although it becomes clear that the author is personally committed to the pursuit of a better world, that was not the purpose of the book. She was seeking a new definition of Utopia, primarily, it seemed to me, to enable the Society of Utopian Studies to survive. Her arguments, convincing though they may be, lead to the self-sustaining position that the field of Utopian Studies is free to consider anything anywhere which can be described as an expression of human desire. She concludes: "The definition of utopia as the desire for a better way of being can work only in conjunction with a generally greater degree of conceptual rigour in the identification of different kinds of utopia relevant to the different questions which, it is to be hoped, scholars will continue to ask. Conceptual clarity is not only a more attainable goal than conceptual convergence, it is also a more appropriate one"

I endorse much of this statement. It is the final phrase that grates. It may well be valid in a strictly academic context. If it is true, however, as she claims, that many practitioners in the field of Utopian Studies are also committed to the pursuit of a better world, then I would say that conceptual convergence of a subset of utopias mapped onto the real world should be one of their goals too. She off-loads this aspect into the political arena, (a pragmatic point) but are we not all political animals, including academics?

I shall first try to summarise her argument by quoting snippets from her book, particularly the introduction and the final chapter.


"Utopia is about how we would live and what kind of a world we would live in if we could do just that."

"Utopia is then not just a dream to be enjoyed, but a vision to be pursued.

"......there is much confusion about exactly what makes something utopian,"

"This book sets out to clarify the meaning of the term utopia and provide a new definition............definitions are tools, not ends in themselves."

"The object is not to impose orthodoxy, encourage a greater degree of conceptual clarity."

"Utopia as colloquially understood contains two meanings: a good, but non-existent and therefore impossible, society. This elision stems from the Thomas More's book "Utopia", first published in Latin in 1516. The title like many of the names in the book, is a joke. It contains deliberate ambiguity: is this eutopia, the good place; or outopia, no place - - and are these necessarily the same thing? The pun has left a lasting confusion around the term utopia,"

[Here is as good a place as any to introduce the title of this paper. More wrote in Latin, even, it is said, thought in Latin. So why did he give his book a Greek title?. Let me digress. When presenting a mathematical paper, it is expected to be in a clear logical order. Some would say it would not be mathematics if it weren't. That, however, is not how mathematicians think. They dabble, they hop and skip, they assume conclusions before they can prove them. It is only when the final work is presented, for peer review say, that the logical order becomes essential.

So I believe was it with More. I understand, for example, that the second part of "Utopia", was written before the first. More significantly, More significantly, (to make a pun of my own) did not originally call his Island kingdom "Utopia", he called it "Nusquamus". This is taken from the Latin word "nusquam", meaning "not anywhere". Thus I would claim, More was essentially a outopian, rather than a eutopian. By this, I mean that, although he admittedly did portray somewhere else, he was more concerned with ideals that could apply "not anywhere in particular" {Ou topos} than the idiosyncrasies of a particular good place far away {Eu topos}.

Moreover, he by no means implied the impossibility of his creation. There are grounds for believing some of his ideas for utopia would have passed into law if he had not crossed Henry VIII. Derogatory nuances of impossibility appeared later. Some historians, suggest that the similarity of the word eutopia to outopia, the pun itself, was not even More's original observation, but that of his friend Giles, who is reputed to have written the relevant poem, making the pun, found on the flyleaf of the original publication.

Whatever the underlying truth, as Ruth Levitas says: "conceptually, More's legacy has not been an unmitigated blessing."]

"there is a flourishing variety of approach.....characterised by a conceptual plurality which is anarchic to the point of confusion."

"this to explore the usage by the increasing number of scholars who wish to take utopia seriously."

"A new definition of utopia is offered, which recognises the common factor of the expression of desire for a better way of being."

"......for the developing field of utopian studies our broad definition allows the inclusion within this domain of a wide variety of material and approaches."

"If utopia arises from desire, the transformation of reality and the realisation of utopia depend upon hope,"

"The dream becomes vision only when hope is invested in a agency capable of transformation. The political problem remains the search for that agency and the possibility of hope; and only if we find it will we see our dreams come true."


In condensing almost two of her chapters into one page, I do not claim to have done justice to Ruth Levitas's book, but I hope you get a little of the flavour. In the main body of the book she painstakingly analysed a multitude of different manifestations of desire in literary works that have been considered to be utopian, dystopian, or anti-utopian, by their authors or commentators, but not necessarily by all of each. She successfully demonstrated the confusion that has existed for centuries about what is or is not utopian. What I wish to do now is to propound an approach in support of her recommendation that any study of utopia, or construct of utopia, should be conceptually clear. I do this further, not as an end in itself, rather as means, I hope, of helping people to distil their own ideas, or those of others under review, into a form whereby it may become easier to identify those ideals of a utopian society that can produce hope, even expectations, and hence what agency may be required to have a successful impact on reality. I will be unashamedly plagiarising Ruth's terminology, for which I give due credit. The interrogatory structure is my own. For any errors and misinterpretations of her ideas, or anyone else's, I take full responsibility.

In studying a utopia, particularly one constructed by oneself, one should ask a series of inter-related questions. Not until all the questions have been asked, and I suggest answered, should one be content that one's analysis is complete. If your Utopia is to slake the thirst of humanity, consider: Why?, What?, Who?, Whether?, and if so, How?,and finally When?, and Where?


"Why?" is the first question to ask. By "why" I mean for what "superior" reason is the utopia being expressed. I distinguish between reason and function. By reason, I mean what overall or over-riding purpose does the utopia claim to serve for humanity. There may not be one, but if there is it should be explicit, and if there is not that should be made clear. Typical potential reasons have been happiness, survival, heaven on earth, universal prosperity, or peaceful co-existence.

The latter usually refers to co-existence among nations, but there is another form of co-existence that has become prominent in recent decades. That is the apparent incompatibility of humanity with nature. We hear much of pollution, of global warming, of the felling of rain forests, of the creation of desserts, all examples of humanity damaging its environment. Modern utopians therefore have a new string to their bow: Ecotopia. This is often expressed through dystopian forecasts: "If we continue the way we are, disaster will ensue". However expressed, it is an issue that can not be neglected except perhaps by those expecting divine intervention.

Nor should a modern ecotopian ignore the other side of this coin. In its turn, the environment is quite capable of independently damaging humanity. In the long run this is a certainty. The Solar System will not survive for ever. Four billion years is perhaps too long a time frame to galvanise contemporary utopians into action. Nevertheless, there are precedents for short-term global changes. Study of ice cores taken from polar regions, in conjunction with study of tree rings, demonstrates the occasional dramatic change of global temperatures well within the life span of a person. Closer to home, during this past century, a huge meteor exploded over Siberia with more force than a multiple nuclear device. Do we really wish to depend on the survival of the lucky? The development by utopians of contingent co-operative ideals for surviving major environmental changes would seem an appropriate avenue to explore.

You may not feel it essential to explicitly express an overall reason why, but if one does not, the construct is vulnerable to challenge. Others are thereby free to invent reasons why your construct is not conducive any purpose of their own. A half-way house is possible. If you really wish to avoid giving what management theorists could call a "mission statement" for your utopian construct, you could explain what dystopian features of society you believe would continue, or result, if your proposed ideals were not to be realised. This could, however, become a lengthy digression.



More essential, and practical, is the question "What?" To what extent is the utopia being expressed in terms of content, form, or function? By "content" is meant any detailed illustration of a Eutopia, ie an actual place, real or imaginary. There still does not necessarily have to be any rationale, it may just be portrayed as it would be.

The utopia as expressed may confine itself to, or include, a description of its form, a constitution say, or format for an ideal-based community, leaving it up to the reader to imagine what day-to-day life may be like. By this means it can be envisaged that utopian communities do not have to have exactly the same local laws. They could have the same subset of ideals, but be free to legislate independently on details. On the other hand, if the utopia is to be universal in every detail that should be made clear. One should also say, particularly in this latter situation, whether the form proposed is to be the "final solution" or whether the utopia is itself open to further modification.

Finally, an important (original?) contribution from Ruth Levitas, one should ask oneself: "What is the particular utopia for?" Is its function to compensate readers for an unattainable lack, somewhat as do soap-operas such as Dallas, or promises of Valhalla; to abjure them for having too much; to criticise or praise contemporary society; or to prevent or catalyse change? In all cases, such functions in some way seek to influence the aspirations of the readers.

A major common aspiration addressed by many utopians, politicians, and sociologists alike has become known as "The Scarcity Gap". It refers to the perceived gap between wants and satisfactions. The gap may be perceived by all, but there is considerable debate about what are wants and what are satisfactions. Some writers solve the problem, even dismiss it, by postulating a utopia of abundance. Whatever the want, it will be satisfied. Such utopians tend to concentrate on what can be called bodily needs, food, shelter, and physical health, postulating technological advances for their gratification. There are also mental needs: self esteem, the search for knowledge, mental health, loving relationships, and, for some, even spiritual perfection.

Note I have suddenly switched from the word "wants" to the word "needs". That in itself is worth of comment by any budding utopian. Is a want, a need? Then there may be "real" needs and "socially created" needs to separate and define. A utopian further needs(sic) to consider whether wants/needs are to be limited in any way.

This latter contemplation will probably be tied closely to the question of gratification or satisfaction of the needs: basic, limited, or unbounded. It is claimed that even today there are enough resources in the world to satisfy sufficiently everyone's basic bodily needs by improved distribution. That immediately raises two new concepts. How does one decide what is sufficient, and how is such rationing determined? Is it "equal shares for all" or "to each their individual needs"?

Even the scheme of gratification should be addressed. Is gratification a "right" or a "privilege"? Is there a pile of goodies somewhere from which people help themselves by right? Do people somehow have to earn their gratification, by being rewarded for providing a service to others, continually or for part of their life span? Alternatively, may they be allotted the means, and given the opportunity, to satisfy their own needs to what ever extent they are able or willing? What if they fail?

Then finally, given that there is no current way of all people producing everything they may want or need individually, there is the question of co-operation and the medium of exchange for gratification of needs. Thus, organised work and money, remuneration, or some equivalent, (or lack of them) appear in the equation.



To whom will the utopia apply? What will inhabitants of a utopian society think of it? This has to be one of the more important questions, particularly for any utopian who wishes the utopia to be realised in practice.

For example, in today's terms will utopia be a classless society? If not will it be class conscious, in the sense of discriminating amongst classes on unrelated or irrelevant issues? Will it be a hierarchical society? If so, how will the hierarchy be constructed? Who will decide, and how? If not, will communal activity be anarchic, or somehow organised, and if the latter, by whom? How authoritarian will it be?

If one accepts that any utopia, to be a utopia, has to provide something "better", is raising everyone's standard of living sufficient, while maintaining or widening previous differentials? Should there be an attempt at more equality of outcomes, or just more (equal) opportunities for all? Is a better way of being more than just a better, or more equal, standard of living? How does Art or Culture fit in?

In almost any conceivable utopia there will be some universal ideals, on which some minimal set of laws will be based. But to whom will the laws apply? It is often implied, even in today's societies, that all citizens will be equal before the law, but not all societies have the same laws. Any particular utopia should make it clear how it approaches this diversity. Is it acceptable, or not? Is it essential, or not?

A utopia should also make it clear where the balance lies between freedom of the individual and any universal or local legal constraints of society. For example, there could well be distinctions made among private behaviour, public behaviour, and how any behaviour affects others. Alternatively, a utopia may insist that there is only one set of moral-cum-legal codes and they apply to everyone, everywhere, all the time.

Most past Eutopias have been written by men, often about male issues. Feminist utopias may have tried to redress the balance, but in any modern construct it should be made clear how it applies to all those aspects of humanity over which we have no choice such as gender, place of birth, childhood, age, race, or any solely genetic heritage. Those aspects over which individuals do have choices too should be considered, such as religion, personal relationships, procreation, etc.. It is a rare utopian that discusses the subject of death, under any of these categories. Yet, to date, that is something over which we have little choice eventually.

Finally, what does a utopian society do about disputes between people. The whole question of alienation is addressed by many utopian writers. People dislike other people. There are always we and they. We are OK, they are not OK. Alienation is everywhere. Utopians in general would like to move everyone towards, co-operation, free association, and harmony, in other words, to implement what may be called the reciprocity principle of mutual respect.

There have been several different approaches. The pessimists (realists) say that alienation is part of the human condition. It has to be accepted and legislated for, or rather against. They may nevertheless distinguish between alienating or disrespectful thoughts, words, and deeds.

Others examine current structures that tend to reinforce alienation and suggest they should be, or will have been, removed from society. In such Eutopias, there may be no social classes, no hierarchies in the work place, no nation states, or no money, or some sub- or super-set of banned alienating structural systems.

In other utopian forms, the suggestion may not be to abolish such structures. Their utility is accepted; they are a means of getting things done. The object is not, say, to remove work, but to remove the discomfort or dislike of work. Not, say, to remove classes but to remove class consciousness. Not say, to remove organisational or political hierarchies, but thereby to grant the people involved no permanent status in society at large, high or low.

Nevertheless, few Eutopias claim to be able to abolish disputes completely. There are disputes within the law, or where the law is unclear, to be resolved, where both parties (individuals, groups, or even nations, if the latter exist in the utopia) consider themselves in the right. Equally important, there is the implied dispute where parties transgress the laws. Is the difference between the ways of resolving these two types of dispute the distinction between civil law and criminal law in utopian communities? If not, is there any distinction and, if so, what is it?

What distinction does utopia draw between law-abiding citizens and criminals? Do criminals even exist in utopia? If not, why not? Where does the concept of justice fit into utopia? Is it there by definition, or does it have to be constructed? If there, how is it to be applied? Is there to be atonement, retribution, or rehabilitation? Which, with what priority, and in what combination?



Over the centuries the adjective "utopian" acquired the nuance of "impossibility" or "fantasy". It will therefore be useful to ask whether each particular construct is considered possible or not. There are two principle aspects to address. The first covers the laws of nature. If a utopia flouts physical, chemical, biological, or other such universal laws, then it will be hard to claim it possible, past, present, or future. One can sometimes partially surmount this obstacle by relying on science and technology for achievements not yet possible but are not provably impossible. A not exclusive characteristic of such utopias will no doubt be the continuing search for knowledge, unless its creation is dependent on supernatural intervention.

Secondly, are the utopian ideals compatible with the human condition, now or as envisaged when the utopia was or will be? Does "human nature" exist? If so, is it immutable, or changeable, and if the latter, will it accept or adapt to the utopia successfully. There is sometimes a tendency among utopians to take more pride in being "right" (on their own terms) than in being "successful" (on everyone else's). This is not to say that impossible Eutopias are not the province of utopians. Such can well have one or more of the utopian functions, compensation, criticism, change, or an attempt to educate desire.

In considering both the above aspects of possibility, there are three, not two outcomes. The utopia may be either possible, or at least possible to imagine its possibility, or impossible. It can not be inconceivable. It has been conceived! The desire has been expressed. What one is considering is whether the utopia can cross the threshold between desire and hope. Although a particular set of betterments is your heart's desire can you hope ever to achieve it? If so, whether realistically?



To coin a phrase, now we come to the $64,000 question. As we have seen above, utopias can be almost all things to almost all people. The spectrum is vast. Yet if utopia is to cross the boundary between its expressed desire for a better way of being and actual hope for its possible achievement, there has to be some agency whereby the realisation occurs. Unless the utopia is acknowledged to be impossible, and merely a way of influencing the aspirations of readers by way of myth, fantasy, or parable, then some mechanism should be explored. At the very least, the absence of such a mechanism should be admitted.

Suggested mechanisms have been many and various. Divine intervention, for example, is common place among the deist utopians, or millenniumists. Some secular optimists may point rather to the inexorable rational progress of humanity. Patience and forbearance is all that is required as agents. Then there are political ideologues, of emerging, new, or well established political parties, who tell us that we could already be in better possible world. The only agency needed is for the electors to vote for them. Utopia would be here tomorrow, or at worst "within the next parliament".

Less political, but related, as a potential agency, is "The Law". Slavery was abolished, universal emancipation occurred, even the use of seat belts in vehicles became compulsory, not because there was consensus, but because they somehow became law. It seems to be characteristic of humanity that, with few exceptions, once a law is enacted it is accepted sufficiently well to make it "obvious", or at least acceptable, that it should be the law. I understand that of the 17 or so amendments to the USA constitution only one has ever been repealed: Prohibition!

If "progress", whatever that means, is not enough, there is always revolution. This may be natural in the sense that current society could be predicted to collapse under its own internal inconsistencies or corruption, as Soviet communism did in the late 1980s. This had also been forecast for western capitalism. Indeed, it appeared capitalism may well have been about to collapse in the 1920s and 1930s until governments decided to intervene in various ways. Whether for the utopian better is a question economists and historians could debate. Alternatively a revolution, peaceful or violent, may be class driven. The "proletariat" or "student power" spring to mind, as candidates. Any other volunteers?

If there is a "how?" we may also like to know "In how many steps?" Can we go straight in one fell swoop, or will there be intermediate stages involving twists and turns? If so, how many? Is the same agency applicable to each step? How does one judge when one has arrived? Alternatively, is the pathway to utopia itself always subject to change, even changes of direction? If so, is there an agency for change designed into its utopian ideals?



"When?" may seem a strange question to ask. Surely all utopias are about the future, you may think. Yet how often does one hear the comment "Fings ain't what they used to be!". It is legitimate, and can be effective, to set a utopia in the past: A Golden Age, Arcadia, the Garden of Eden etc. to which humanity should strive to return. Ghandi is reputed to have done this effectively in his struggle for the independence of the Indian sub-continent. Its function was to catalyse change by uniting both the progressive and the traditional in the indigenous society. If a utopia is set in the present, however, it may be sometimes be more appropriate to call it an ideology. Even when the future is the intended domain, remember the cherry stones: this year, next year, sometime, never? Heaven is usually reserved for an afterlife, encouraging the concept of our "just passing through".



To answer the question "Where?", there are only two approaches: here or elsewhere. Eutopias have often been remote islands, valleys, or lost continents. More recently, they have been set throughout the cosmos. Even when one wishes to mean "here on earth", one possibility is to take oneself, and one's fellow Utopians, to some remote place avoiding the "contamination" of the rest of society. It should be made clear whether the utopia is intended to be isolationist, or all encompassing, or somewhere in between.



I would claim that if a utopian construct has produced answers to most of the questions posed above there would be sufficient clarity about its content, form, or function to be able discuss it rationally. Would one, however, be able to judge it by any other standard than internal consistency? If its author claims it would do what the author intends, then how can one dispute it? Oh, no it wouldn't! Oh, yes it would! is hardly a very effective dialogue. Logical analysis may be able to prove that some of the premises from which the author is working are false, or at least inconsistent. That would be useful; but if they are empirical, even if based on historical experience, or are assertions, that are merely matters of opinion, what can one do?

If those who study utopian literature are really as committed, as it is claimed, to the betterment of humanity, then I suggest their role should also include a search for convergence. Whether utopians are regarded as crackpots or visionaries (or both, or neither) they have thought and do think deeply about their subject. How effectively is another matter. By distilling the answers to the questions posed above, rather than merely accepting or challenging them, I suggest that a relatively small set of fundamental ideals would emerge that could be acceptable to many of today's utopians in and out of politics. That could be a basis for making some first steps toward realistic approaches to fundamental issues that have always bedevilled society.

I do not think this should be impossible. The Utopian Pathway Association has painstakingly developed a rudimentary constitution distilled from several very different approaches to utopian constructs. The common ground may appear to be limited, but I hope you would agree that that any such sub-set of ideals, that were accepted universally, howsoever implemented parochially, would be a "giant step for humanity".


At this stage, I would hesitate to suggest that one could judge which parochially implemented eutopias were better than others. I would, however, like to suggest one test that could signify that utopian ideals had been realised. Not that the Eutopia will be universal, but that there would be sufficient agreement on the fundamentals of civilised society that all such communities, and law-abiding individuals within them, would be able to develop so that they felt they were living a utopian life, even though detailed rules may differ regionally. This would be a globalisation of fundamental ideals without producing stultifying uniformity.

With no more evidence than one long-neglected coined word, that test is what I would like to believe More had originally in mind: "Not anywhere in particular, but everywhere in general": NUSQUAMUS!

back to "Utopia".

Copyright © 1999 David Roseman