Attempts to create blueprints for real-world utopias have unilaterally failed. Utopian socialist Charles Fourier, for example, believed that by introducing “boreal citric acid” into the world’s oceans they could be turned into lemonade, thereby ridding them of the sea monsters — which he saw as a major threat to international commerce. He also envisioned kindly “anti-lions” delivering mail. Robert Owen was more sensible, at least until his embrace of spiritualism, but his proto-socialist communities barely lasted more than a few years.
The idea that one could write recipes for the cookshops of tomorrow in fiction seems even more unlikely, especially given the origins of utopian fiction in the very book (Sir Thomas More’s Utopia) that gave the genre its name. Utopias are, by definition, no-places. The imagined communities we find in fiction are more likely to function as critique of existing political projects and emotional calls to arms emerging from specific cultural contexts than as blueprints, to the point that criticizing them on the basis of plausibility or desirability seems absurd. Yes, it would seem to be far better to live in Iain M. Banks’s Culture, where the only difficulty in your life might be deciding which pleasure to indulge in next, but we are far from having the technology to do so. Nobody would argue that Banks’s Consider Phlebas is a great book because anything in it has the remotest chance of actually happening. Similar things could be said of Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Huxley’s Island, Callenbach’s Ecotopia, or Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar.
What then, can we make of novels in which the plausibility of a revolutionary project and the desirability of its outcome are, to a greater or lesser extent, key features? Have Yanis Varoufakis, Carl Neville, and Kim Stanley Robinson missed the point by writing three remarkably similar books, all released within a year, which depict worlds markedly better than our own but still realistically flawed? I would say no, and venture that the sheer proximity between their worlds and ours accomplishes something that previous utopian texts often fail to deliver on, particularly when read in 2021, at the high point of capitalist realism (and, arguably, the beginning of humanity’s extinction).
Varoufakis might be familiar to many from his short but pivotal term as Greece’s Minister of Finance and his presence in social democratic spaces since then. Another Now: Dispatches from an Alternative Present is his first foray into fiction and is, though by no means perfect from a literary or political standpoint, surprisingly enjoyable. The plot is simple: a scientist creates a means of communication with a parallel Earth where socialism, or at least what Jacobin publisher Bhaskar Sunkara would term “class war social democracy,” has been achieved. He and his friends, who represent various political tendencies, must decide whether they want to travel to this new world.
Huge swathes of the book are taken up by the particulars of Earth-2 and its economics. His proposals are detailed enough that they could be put into practice, though readers will have varying tolerance for the pages spent describing them. Some aspects of Varoufakis’s alternate Earth are already present in our own: a lesser-known but significant part of Varoufakis’s career was spent as the “economist in residence” at the video game publisher Valve, a company that has a virtual monopoly on PC-based games thanks to their Steam platform. The company famously operates without hierarchies or set job roles, a system that Varoufakis imagines becoming widespread in his alternate earth. The novel reflects more traces of the short time he spent working with the creators of League of Legends than impressions from his stewardship of an entire country’s economy — his solutions are often digital (open-source innovations and blockchains), and the heroes of his revolution are computer hackers rather than community organizers.
His ideas for a transition to this system are less convincing, but they are hardly outside the realm of possibility. The point of departure between our world and the better one is the 2008 financial crisis. In “our” reality, we allowed money to be funnelled into failing banks; on the alternate Earth, activist groups and hacker collectives conducted a more vigorous campaign against finance capital, though they largely stayed within the bounds of the law. Although he goes into great detail exploring the economic particulars of his new world, when it comes to how things got that way, his imagination ends at Anonymous, WikiLeaks, Extinction Rebellion, and Occupy, groups which may have turned out to be little more than damp squibs in our reality.
Conversely, Carl Neville’s Eminent Domain can’t be criticized for a lack of radicalism, either in terms of form or content. Like Another Now, alternate universes play a major part (it is set within the same multiverse as Neville’s earlier dystopian book, Resolution Way), but there the similarities end: Eminent Domain is postmodern post-cyberpunk filtered through John le Carré. Older men who have seen a little too much and compromised all too often have meetings deep within the wood-paneled, smoke-filled rooms of Britain’s intelligence apparatus, but instead of Queen and Country, the book’s George Smiley analogue — an ex-revolutionary called Barrow — serves a luxury acid-communist People’s Republic of Britain (PRB) that is part of a largely communist world.
Of the other nows imagined in these three books, Neville’s is the furthest left, and perhaps a little authoritarian. The desire to have personal property is categorized as “Infantile Possession Syndrome”; every citizen wears patches that monitor their health; many prefer to be known by serial numbers instead of names. At the same time, the country formerly known as the United Kingdom (or “F.U.K”) has a host of social customs one would typically find only in the most this-is-the-future-liberals-want Facebook post: drugs are free and plentiful, its citizens are mostly nonwhite, and orgies have replaced sex between couples.
Pleasantly, Neville doesn’t commit the liberal mistake of making the PRB a dystopia presenting itself as utopian, which would imply that there is no alternative to neoliberal capitalism. It’s clear that the PRB is superior to the dystopian Britain in Resolution Way, and to the actually existing United Kingdom — unless you are one of the diminishing number of people benefiting from capitalism. It is not, however, a society without its own internal tensions, so the PRB we see in 2018, when the book is set, is very different from the “autarchy” that came before it, and the PRB in 2028 will be different still thanks to the dialectical tension between the old guard who remember the revolution (not always fondly) and a new generation of designer-drug-fried radicals-among-radicals, some of whom are trying to open portals to the world of Resolution Way.
The third and perhaps most balanced book is Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. It arrives at a world significantly better than our own, but by no means a utopia, in a roundabout way, being primarily concerned with climate change — the titular ministry operates under the Paris Agreement, but quickly takes the position that reducing carbon emissions and capitalism are incompatible, therefore the entire global system needs to change. Like Another Now, its solutions are generally technocratic (the real nail in capitalism’s coffin turns out to be Bitcoins generated by sequestering carbon). But, as Gerry Canavan’s review of the book points out, the Ministry’s “black wing” isn’t above acts of violence, including kidnapping the entire World Economic Forum meeting and subjecting them to reeducation. They are subject to acts of violence in return, and a large part of the novel is spent dodging faceless, nameless, seemingly motive-less attackers.
Like Eminent Domain, it has elements of a spy thriller, a systems novel, and a cyberpunk adventure (though it hews closer to William Gibson’s later realist novels than his earlier work) and adopts a fractured narrative composed of a bricolage of conventional third-person narratives, essays, meeting notes, and personal testimonies. However, nothing about it seems experimental — these are techniques that John Dos Passos was using in best-selling novels in the 1930s. It’s remarkably easy to read for a work with such scope, which is not a slight against it, or against the more challenging, but no less satisfying, Eminent Domain.
A much larger part of the novel — possibly the most affecting and effective part — chronicles the friendship between Mary Murphy, the head of the Ministry, and Frank May, a PTSD-scarred survivor of a heatwave that killed 20 million people in India, who at one point holds Murphy hostage, demanding that she do more to save the world. A cynical reader would accuse Robinson of trying to shoehorn a love story (and theirs is a love story, albeit a chaste one) into a book that would otherwise be filled with meetings, chases, and city-destroying disasters. A more generous reader might venture that, like the characters in Another Now, Mary and Frank represent two sides in the climate debate, incrementalism and radicalism respectively, but that would only be part of the picture. Instead, as the book draws to a close it focuses more on the pair taking nature walks into the Alps or eating orange slices dipped in chocolate on the streets of Zurich. (The descriptions of Switzerland are so evocative that I no longer feel I missed out on vacation last year.) These are the ordinary utopias, the everyday anarchism that David Graeber for one would point to as evidence that much more ambitious political projects are possible.
This is something that seems gravely necessary. For all the great work that critical theory has done to show that all of our certainties are highly contingent and that barely perceptible discourses lie behind the most benign-seeming cultural artifacts, the world at large is resigned to capitalism and unperturbed by a very tight population bottleneck coming at some point this century, most likely in their own lives. The left generally has hope for something that is not this, but is so poor at communicating what the not-this might look like that only a tiny percentage of the population can tell you what it is that socialists, broadly defined, actually want.
Capitalist realism and climate melancholy are powerful, intertwined forces. While critical theory isn’t a baby I’m looking to throw out with the bathwater — ruthless criticism of all that exists is a worthwhile pursuit — it is most necessary when a contented population needs to be woken from their slumber. Today the basic insight of critical theory, that we are being lied to, is everywhere, and the impulse to distrust the powerful has been warped into toxic forms by QAnon and vaccine denial. We all know how bad things are right now, and even conservatives have criticisms of capitalism that aren’t a million miles from our own. It is possible that in our haste to avoid another sea of lemonade incident we’ve forgotten that the cookshops of tomorrow will at some point need recipes, or at least an easily understood explanation of what food might be served.
All three books stress that there is no magic bullet for ending capitalism. A multiplicity of tactics is needed, from legislation through to debt and labor strikes to potentially violence (in Eminent Domain, the appropriately named Barrow flashes back to digging mass graves for landowners). Milton Friedman, not a leftist by any means, famously wrote in his preface to 1982’s Capitalism and Freedom that “[o]nly a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” These books can produce those ideas, and we shouldn’t discount their ability to do so — Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s agrarian-utopian socialist novel What Is To Be Done? was second only to Das Kapital in its influence on the Russian Revolution, and particularly on a young Lenin, who read it five times in a single summer.
The only claim that capitalist realism makes, to quote Margaret Thatcher, is that there is no alternative. These three books, unlike the vast majority of novels in their genre, contain depictions of better worlds that are to a greater or lesser extent plausible, directly contradicting the loathsome baroness squatting on our shoulders and whispering in our ears that we should just give up. For readers, seeing a better world on the page and knowing that it could happen does something that critical utopias and critical theory can’t. It throws down a gauntlet, reminding readers that everything in politics was once just ideas, little different from fiction. That, to once again returning to Graeber, “the ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is just something we make, and could just as easily make something different.”
Over three very different books, each author seems to be saying to their readers, “See? I made a better world — why can’t you?”
Gareth Watkins is a writer and journalist currently living in Manchester, UK, whose work has appeared in MEL Magazine, Vulture, Tribune, and others.