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Everyday Utopias

An American Utopia
Political opposition exists in existing institutions and in everyday life, believes Frederick Jameson. 


One of what will be interesting to see now in the future is how the democrats – and even more the left – mobilize against the lies and hate propaganda of right-wing populism. We already see it in New York-based magazine N + 1, which in the last issue fills the gap meters with one long reflection after another, but also The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The Nation turn in the direction left after the political and ethical decay reached its mature stage The Grand Old Party.

There was also such a mobilization Slavoj Zizek put all cards on when he declared earlier this fall that he would give his support to Trump if he had been American. The reason for this, of course, was not that the Slovenian philosopher had such a sense of Trump's rallies, but because the appointment of such an unsympathetic, narcissistic celebrity as president could "make things happen" in the oligarchic party system that has overthrown US politics. Zizek is probably optimistic – and more than populist himself, when he messes with the enemy in this way – but surely it is at least that unless people come on the field with ideas other than those advocated by Trump & Co, the American dream is on very receding front.

Part of the mobilization will also include going back to the classics: Keynes, Smith, Marx – but also the descendants of the latter: Antonio Gramsci, the Frankfurt School's professional thinkers and Frederick Jameson.

Fresh classic. Jameson's essay In American Utopia is a great start in mobilization work. It's fresh – the text was originally a lecture Jameson held in 2014 – and it's one of the most central, now-living post-Marxists behind it, with a theoretical phrase that separates the academic spiral (though the text isn't exactly easy to read). Particularly nice is the new release, which, in addition to Jameson's original text, includes various other thinkers' reflections on the essay (including Zizek and Japanese Marxist Kojin Karatani).

Why should we read In American Utopia? What is Jameson pointing out that makes what he writes so suitable as a start-up for left-wing mobilization work? Well – first, that the utopia is not portrayed as a fantasy far away, but as an element of concrete social reality. Our contact with the utopian is no longer characterized by collective liberation, but rather by elements of hope, and thus change, in our immediate surroundings, says Jameson. He has this idea from the philosopher Ernst Bloch, as in The principle of hope (originally published in three books in 1954, 1955 and 1959) just tried to bring the Utopian idea down to earth and in contact with life-focused attention for what can change.

In American Utopia is a great beginning in the mobilization work of the left against right-wing populism.

Utopian potential. For Jameson, the communist idea of ​​revolution is outdated on most levels, but neither is the reformist variant known as social democracy working optimally – especially because it is subject to corruption and so bureaucratized and compounded that any type of resistance or regulation will be unclear and difficult to adjust in place.

But then there is a third possibility, says Jameson, "double power". This term, which he has from Lenin, simply means a "state in the state", that is, a system that interferes with people's everyday lives, directly or indirectly. Jameson cites a number of examples – not without humor – of existing institutions that could be such a Trojan state draft: the mafia, the mail, the internet providers. The example he falls into is probably surprising to some: the military. It is the military that, he believes, will be the most effective means of challenging a corrupt state. All the institutions have in common that they are already in some form intertwined with the social reality of the past, and thus can be more easily activated as a body of revolutionary action.

Particularly effective will be such alternative, or potential, challenges to the state if they can tie the population around a pre-existing fetish, the American philosopher argues: the Declaration of Independence, Human Rights or – why not – Snorres royal sagas.

Intimate releases. In the essay we have an intimacy, or a notion, of the utopian as something we are already in, which is absolutely necessary. Seeing other opportunities, other ways of organizing, based on existing institutions, is an obviously interesting model of thought. It doesn't have to be the military – I don't agree with Jameson on this point – but making use of existing institutions to awaken a collective fantasy in everyday life is worth thinking about.

Here we also see clearly the link to Ernst Bloch on a more elaborate systemic level, for what Jameson is concerned about is various forms of institutions or organized practices that constitute, or may constitute, a core of how civil society works – and thus, through their everyday services and officials can challenge a corrupt state.

Let's say a Trump state, to get back on the lead. If we pursue this idea further, the utopian direction and form will gain more from your ability to ally with those already around you than to hone in on some collective fantasies of liberation.

The military will be the most effective means of challenging a corrupt state, Jameson believes.

Many would regard Jameson's suggestion of dual power as provocative – and many in the comments on the article disagree – but the point here is how Jameson implants a highly potent notion of utopia that breaks with the classic collective liberation model and sets it into a liberated state. This is not a stupid place to start.


See also Espen Hamer's essay on Thomas Moore's book Utopia.

Kjetil Røed
Kjetil Røed
Freelance writer.

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