You are walking in the forest. You emerge into a clearing and a yellow brick road appears in front of you. You follow it. At a certain point the road starts rising into the sky toward what resembles a city perched in the clouds. The clouds part and you recognize seven walls ordered into concentric circles rotating around an emerald dome in the middle. You reach the outermost wall of the city and spot a spiral staircase leading to its top. You ascend the staircase. On top of the wall now, you see people with what appear to be artificial wings hovering lazily over golden canals flowing between the walls. From time to time, they scoop up a portion from the canal and drink it. Fountains spray the liquid into the air and a moment later the taste of lemonade fills your mouth. You look around and notice children walking on long, Victorian-style balconies extending from the rotating walls, studying the forms decorating their sides with curious intensity. Focusing your eyes, you recognize images of plants, minerals, planets, mechanical gadgets, musical notes, poetic verses — each wall dedicated to a specific area of learning.
You scan the cityscape again and recognize further details. Hydraulic devices labor away in the canals, producing the energy that keeps the walls rotating. You realize that the walls themselves are interlinked into a gigantic, pneumatic construct that keeps the city afloat in the sky. Suddenly, your attention is drawn to the most wonderful music you’ve ever heard emanating from the Byzantine structure in the middle. The emerald dome, which you suspect is also a giant solar panel, judging from the cell-like patterns coating its surface, glitters with sunlight. A moment later, the roof slowly lifts into the air, and a wave of angelic tones washes over you. You observe a procession fly out in an orderly fashion, with what appears to be a newly elected leader at its tail, clad in ruby red. Serenity and joy fill the air.
The purpose of this flight of fancy? For one, an exercise in utopian imagination, as well as indulging an appetite for utopian and fantastic bricolage: Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Fourier’s Théorie des quatre mouvements, Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race, Campanella’s The City of the Sun, elements of ecologically aware sci-fi, perhaps a pinch of feudal romanticism, and whatever other meanings and texts acute readers may discern. But, fundamentally, an attempt at introducing a fraught topic — utopia — by illustrating some of its typical associations: an ideal society; an impossible social formation; a fantastical narrative of a perfected otherworld; hedonic superabundance; wishful thinking. “That’s utopian!” — end of conversation. Apart from among literary studies majors, hippies, and Silicon Valley gurus, “utopia” suffers ill repute. This needn’t be so, and Ernst Bloch can teach us why.
Ernst Bloch, Concrete Utopia, and the Climate Crisis
Ernst Bloch (1885–1977), German Marxist philosopher and dissident, devoted much of his life’s work to rehabilitating and philosophically grounding the notion of utopia (Greek for “no place”). As a Marxist, he strove to salvage the notion from within Marxism itself, the latter having attempted to dissociate “scientific” socialism from its reactionary, “utopian” counterpart.1 While sharing much of the criticism directed against the “utopian socialism” of figures such as Charles Fourier (1772–1837) or Henri de Saint-Simon (1760–1825),2 mainly for their attempts at establishing blueprints of an ideal society while ignoring the socio-political dynamics of 19th-century capitalism, Bloch nevertheless felt that the Marxist tradition had unjustly thrown out the utopian baby with the bourgeois bathwater. Convinced of “utopia’s” fundamental role for human emancipatory thought and action, Bloch helps us with his philosophy to retain but sharpen our utopian inclinations and imaginings.
Throughout his oeuvre, Bloch distinguishes “concrete” from “abstract” utopias.3 The above vision, for instance, exemplifies an abstract utopia, albeit a significantly fantastical one (“fantasy” is not a necessary criterion for an abstract utopia). A concrete utopia, on the other hand, signifies that which is actually possible and realizable vis-à-vis an emancipatory ideal. Ironically, concrete utopia does not offer a “concrete” utopia, if by the latter we imagine a blueprint of an ideal society. Rather, concrete utopia is a concept that signifies potentiality, but one grounded in the real, existing socio-economic and political conditions of a given context.4 People may draw different conclusions from such a given set of conditions, but it bears keeping in mind that the indicator for what is possible or realizable in a concrete utopia is not whether something is realizable in theory, but in actuality. For instance, it may be possible in theory to achieve the climate goals of the Paris Agreement of 2015 peacefully, but reality presents a wholly different picture.
The idea then is not to concoct an abstract utopia of how we, say, in Europe, could hypothetically transform our modes of production, consumption, or mobility in accordance with the Paris Agreement in a peaceful manner, but a concrete utopia that does not ignore the vested interests and power structures that make a peaceful transition to an ecologically sustainable society improbable. What essentially distinguishes concrete utopia from its abstract counterpart is its degree of adequacy vis-à-vis the material situation at hand. Dogmatic commitment to a pacifist dream of betterment would thus forego the real opportunity — the concrete utopia — of averting irreversible damage to the biosphere, and hence to our lives.
Concrete utopia further enables us to embrace negativity and positivity side by side. Pure negation — “anti-capitalism”, “anti-fascism”, “anti-sexism” — is of limited value when it comes to thinking and living alternatives to a status quo deemed unacceptable. On the other hand, sole positivity — “be for instead of against something”, “construct instead of destruct” — mostly falls into the trap of liberal complacency and naïve progressivism, blind to the power dynamics structuring and often dominating people’s lives. Concrete utopia allows us to stay committed to both modes of thinking and acting when faced with a given issue.
When up against the consequences of global heating, for instance, it is insufficient to merely organize resistance against detrimental practices of large energy corporations that make limiting temperatures to 1.5 °C (2.7 °F) above pre-industrial levels virtually impossible. In addition to (the indeed necessary) resistance, we need to think about and transform the social relations of energy production itself. The activism of movements such as Ende Gelände,5 their tactics of civil disobedience and their successes have been important steps in the struggle, but we also need to work towards fundamentally rendering energy production socially just and ecologically sustainable, for instance by nationalizing, collectivizing, or in some other manner democratizing the energy industry. While some may denounce these suggestions as “utopian”, further wildfires, crop failures, pandemics6 and their social consequences will create a climate within which such ideas will fall on more fertile ground. Or so I maintain. Either way, concrete utopia compels us to keep our finger on the pulse, to stay attentive to the social and political conditions of the present and, with these conditions in mind, push towards the realizable as opposed to the wishful.
On the other hand, pursuing mere “positive” innovations while retaining a detrimental status quo essentially amounts to upholding an alibi for a fundamentally questionable socio-economic order [Adorno: “There is no right life in the wrong one”7]. For instance, concerning the climate problematic, technocratic solutionism and pure reliance on geoengineering are symptomatic of such innovationist attitudes. Excusing detrimental practices of fossil fuel extraction by referring to future (and extremely hypothetical) technical solutions is one manifestation of such organized irresponsibility. Nationalist acts of geoengineering, in which one nation’s self-interested manipulation of the climate is pursued at the detriment of another, is a further example. Think here, for instance, of artificial cooling via solar geoengineering, a practice which may alleviate climate-related ills within a defined territory but prove calamitous to a neighboring region. Concrete utopia thus implies the negation of unacceptable and harmful practices and immunizes us from reckless, techno-utopian hype. While the “u” in “u-topia” has also been etymologically linked to the “good” (“eu” in Greek), its implication of negation (Greek “u” for “not”) should be stressed here, as it necessarily suggests an ethic of negativity (critique/resistance/destruction) as much as one of positivity.
and Utopian Hermeneutics
Another intellectual tool Bloch provides us with, and which is inextricably linked to concrete utopia, is the category of the “not-yet”. Bloch distinguishes the (subjective) “not-yet-conscious” from the (objective) “not-yet-actual”. The not-yet-conscious represents the potential realization, in our minds, of a desired object or goal, whose traces we find scattered throughout our daydreams, wishful fantasies, religious yearnings and other instances of “forward dreaming”. The not-yet-actual, on the other hand, represents the objective potential inherent in social relations, or even matter itself. The fruitful encounter of both dimensions of conceiving and being creates the necessary condition for the realization of concrete utopia. Karl Marx’s famous line in his 1843 letter to Arnold Ruge aptly captures this dialectic: “…the world has long since dreamed of something of which it needs only to become conscious for it to possess it in reality”.8
Indeed, humankind has been dreaming dreams of peace, liberation, equality, and material abundance for millennia, leaving utopian traces in art, poetry, religion, and philosophy and we are called upon to uncover, carry forward, and actualize the objective, emancipatory potential inherent in our cultural artifacts. The not-yet-conscious thus compels us to adopt a utopian hermeneutic, i.e., a mode of reading, investigating, and interpreting our cultural environments and heritage with the aim of unearthing the buried grains of utopian sand, disregarding to what degree we may accept or reject the individual artifacts themselves. To illustrate, Bloch scholar Wayne Hudson enumerates several of the countless entities under Bloch’s utopian magnifying glass:
“a new dress, advertisements, beautiful masks, illustrated magazines, the costumes of the Ku Klux Klan, the festive excess of the annual market and the circus, fairy tales and kolportage, the mythology and literature of travel, antique furniture, ruins and museums, and the utopian imagination present in dance, pantomime, the cinema and the theatre.” 9
The list demonstrates that the utopian torch may be directed at virtually anything, from the goofy to the sincere, the trivial to the sublime, the murderous to the benign. The utopian detective’s10 task is to discern what utopian “surplus” (Überschuss) remains of a given artifact after having brushed off its excess impurities. Not always, however, does a utopian “core” have to survive. Nevertheless, the task is upon us to cultivate utopian attentiveness and uncover the gems with which the jewel castle — or spaceship, or whatever your genre of preference offers — can be built.
This utopian hermeneutic further raises the question of our relationship to the past, and specifically, past struggles. Much of humanity’s dreams — peace, non-alienated labor, freedom from oppression — have already been articulated, i.e., have already been brought into consciousness, but have not-yet-been-(fully)-actualized. Aligning with an emancipatory cause thus implies aligning with a historical lineage — an ancestry that has already dedicated, struggled, or even sacrificed itself for a specific cause. Economic/political self-determination, gender equality, climate justice — all progressive causes possess such an ancestry. It is in this sense that Bloch understands what it means to be “radical”; drawing on the Latin radix (“root”), radical is understood as situating — rooting — oneself in the lineage of those who drive history forward.
History is driven forward, however, by people and their actions. Their actions may be shaped by the objective conditions in place, but they are also fueled by people’s subjective hopes and desires. These desires can express themselves in different forms, in daydreams, religious visions, or utopian fantasies such as the one at the beginning of this piece. The latter would certainly belong to Bloch’s catalogue of Luftschlösser (air castles) and Wolkenkuckucksheime (cuckoo lands in the clouds), but this does not mean he would dismiss it in its entirety. Compelling us to adopt a utopian hermeneutic, he would argue that the above fantasy contains several elements worth salvaging — its holistic pedagogy, eco-friendly technology — while pointing out its corruptions — its reactionary romanticism and implicit authoritarianism. The question is what utopian surplus remains after we subject such artifacts to critical-utopian scrutiny. What elements of an emancipatory “not-yet” are inherent in our cultural artifacts that we can discover, carry forward, and actualize?
Bloch’s concrete utopia, as mentioned before, does not offer us a sketch of what should be.11 The content of concrete utopia is open, undetermined, and to be perpetually and collectively sought and fought for. Concrete utopia manifests in the dialectical tension between us (humans) and our material (natural, cultural, socio-economic) environments. As these are constantly in flux, as are our dreams and desires, it is up to us to grasp the latter in our minds, recognize the objective conditions within which we act, and dare to make utopia concrete.
1︎︎︎ The paradigmatic source of Marxism’s anti-utopianism is Friedrich Engels’ Socialism. Utopian and Scientific.
2︎︎︎ Charles Fourier and Henri de Saint-Simon were among the most influential, early socialist thinkers in 19th-century France, who designed radical socio-economic alternatives to bourgeois capitalism, sometimes bordering on the fantastical. See, for instance, Hobsbawm, p.16-47.
3︎︎︎ The most elaborate philosophical development of the notion of “utopia” can be found in Bloch’s three-volume magnum opus, Das Prinzip Hoffnung.
4 ︎︎︎ “Concrete utopia”, as well as Bloch’s philosophy in general, is thus situated within the tradition of Marxian dialectics, or dialectical materialism. This theory of society and history is premised on the idea that history proceeds through a dynamic process of contradictions, or class struggles. It is further premised on the notion that certain material and socio-economic conditions must be in place for certain societies to be able to emerge (e.g., slave, feudal, or bourgeois-capitalist societies). What “concrete utopia” fundamentally shares with this dialectical understanding of history is that its “concreteness” is determined by the material or socio-economic conditions at hand. It is “concrete” and not “abstract” precisely because it stands in a dialogue – or dialectic – with objective material/social reality.
5︎︎︎ Ende Gelände(German idiom for “here and no further”) is a Europe-wide climate justice movement. Concentrated on anti-nuclear and anti-coal activism, Ende Gelände activists engage methods of civil disobedience, e.g., by occupying coal mines, forests in danger of being logged for coal extraction, and highway construction sites.
6︎︎︎ For an astute analysis of what capitalist practices of resource extraction have to do with pandemics, such as the one raging at this very moment in 2022, see Malm, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency.
7︎︎︎ German original: “Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im Falschen”.
8︎︎︎ “Letter from Marx to Arnold Ruge”
9︎︎︎ Quoted in Jameson, p.2
10︎︎︎ For a fascinating analysis of Bloch’s use of the ‘detective’ in his philosophy see Dayton, p.186-201.
11︎︎︎ However, Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson ironically relates how he is reminded that “Bloch already had a concrete Utopia; it was called the Soviet Union.” See Jameson p.3, footnote 3.
Adorno, Theodor W. Minima Moralia. Frankfurt, Suhrkamp, 1969.
Bloch, Ernst. Das Prinzip Hoffnung. Frankfurt, Suhrkamp, 1959. 3 vols.
Dayton, Tim. “The Mystery of Pre-History: Ernst Bloch and Crime Fiction.” Not Yet: Re- Considering Ernst Bloch, edited by Jamie Owen Daniel and Tom Moylan, Verso, 1997, pp. 186-201.
Engels, Friedrich. Socialism. Utopian and Scientific. London, George Allen und Unwin, 1892.
Hobsbawm, Eric J. How to Change the World: Reflections on Marx and Marxism. Yale University Press, 2012
Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. Verso, 2005.
“Letter from Marx to Arnold Ruge.” Marxists, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/letters/43_09-alt.htm. Accessed 5 January, 2022.
Malm, Andreas. Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century. Verso, 2020.
Misha Kakabadze holds an MA in Religious Studies from the University of Amsterdam. His research interests lie at the intersection of religion, politics, and society. He currently holds a research fellowship at the University of Vienna, where he is preparing a PhD project on the philosophy of Ernst Bloch from a religious historical perspective.
Utopian Thinking in the dark times – Spring/Summer 2022 Research Capsule by Neo-Metabolism – Editors: Georgia Kareola, Kavya Venkatraman, Nicholas Burman – Contributors: Felix Luke, Misha Kakabadze, Oskar Johanson, Nicholas Burman, Maithri, Frédérique Albert-Bordenave – Paintings: Eric L. Chen – Wordmark: Clint Soren – Site: dolor~puritan x cargo – Published: 1 March 2022