The other side of Black Mirror: literary utopias offer the seeds of better real life

The rule of cynics and nihilists has led us to a dangerous place, where everything from healthcare to wind farms is declared intrusive, big-state meddling

Imaginary perfect societies are everywhere these days, in everything from folktales to science fiction novels to grand teenage fantasies of saving the world. We have always been utopian dreamers, of course. Centuries before Thomas More coined the term “utopia”, Plato described one in his Republic. By the 17th and 18th centuries, utopias were a staple of fiction, and, a century after that, books such as Edward Bellamy’s 1888 bestseller Looking Backward and Étienne Cabet’s Voyage en Icarie inspired real-world socialist movements. There were feminist versions, from Sarah Scott’s 1762 bluestocking utopia Millennium Hall to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 vision of an all-female society in Herland. Utopia is Camelot, but also the thousand-year Reich. The Judeo-Christian account of human history begins in Eden and ends in heaven. Even modern sitcoms are often set in micro-utopias, where a group is unwaveringly loyal to its members: Stars Hollow, the cosy small town in Gilmore Girls; the eponymous bar of Cheers where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came.

In politics, though, the concept has been poisoned by the catastrophic events of the 20th century. It’s hard to sell a utopian project when the first example that springs to everyone’s mind is Stalin’s Soviet Union. In the 18th century, the harshest satire of utopia was El Dorado in Voltaire’s Candide: a wealthy, peaceful kingdom where the streets were paved with gems, there were no priests and all the kings’ jokes were funny. By 1948, it was the brutalised, impoverished, war-addicted Oceania of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Now the genre consists almost entirely of nightmarish visions of social engineering gone wrong. The best-known Christian utopia is no longer the peaceful realm of Thomas More, but Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale. Any technological breakthrough is imagined to be a licence for new atrocities, as in Never Let Me Go or Cloud Atlas, not to mention the dystopian cornucopia that is Black Mirror. Even Ursula K Le Guin felt compelled to add a poison pill to her utopia: in idyllic Omelas, the citizens’ happiness is bought by the eternal torture of a child. A steady diet of this fare has left us with an ingrained suspicion of social innovation; in our fictive experience, it always leads to the miseries of (Terry Gilliam’s) Brazil, The Giver or The Purge. We’ve all seen so many stories where the road to hell is paved with good intentions that we can’t hear about utopias without smelling brimstone.

Conservatives use this conditioned response to argue against everything from wind farms to universal healthcare – surefire paths to dystopia, if the aim is to benefit mankind. This narrative has even produced anti-utopian utopians such as the followers of Ayn Rand: people who believe humanity can only be helped by absolute cruelty and selfishness; that we can only make the world better as an unintentional side effect of making it worse.

But we know it is possible to intentionally make the world more just, kind and generous – we’ve been doing it consistently for hundreds of years. From the perspective of the 17th century, western Europeans already live in utopia. Almost all infants live to adulthood. There’s no sewage in city streets. Women own property on an equal footing with men. All children go to school. We have time to be outraged that chickens are ill-treated. What’s more, these innovations were all partly or wholly the result of government action. By working together, we’ve completed a massive utopian project.

Not only do we strive towards utopia over generations, our lives are filled with acts of everyday utopianism. We help strangers with luggage, offer seats to disabled people, cook meals for neighbours in crisis. Every time you leave a tip, you’re demonstrating a willingness to sacrifice for strangers – a willingness so widespread that the economics of entire labour sectors depends on it. For many people, it’s viscerally painful to refuse anyone who asks for help. We brace ourselves when we see a beggar not because we don’t care about strangers but because we do.

Yet we are constantly told our only “real” motives are selfish. We are warned that when we work together, we become a monolithic machine of repression; and that, if we were given true liberty, we would instantly become a primitive, cannibalistic mob. The rule of the cynics and nihilists has led us to a dangerous place. Democracy around the world is being eroded by brutish demagogues. Inequality is on the rise, and even basic provisions for the poor are being dismantled. Worst of all, we’re in the middle of a mass extinction that threatens life on Earth. The world is dying, yet we’re still being scolded that we must not try to do better, that our dreams of a better life are poisonous and our compassion is a lie.

It is time to reject this dangerous falsehood. There’s nothing shameful, childish or unrealistic in wanting a better world. We must leave behind the superstition that every attempt to solve our problems ends in Orwellian dystopia. History teaches us that good intentions are not a predictor of failure; in fact, without them, little of worth has ever been achieved. We must give ourselves permission to devise utopian schemes, and to act pragmatically to make them reality. If we are to do better, we must free ourselves to try.

• Sandra Newman is the author of The Heavens (Granta).


Sandra Newman

The GuardianTramp

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