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Between the ideal state and the mall

Utopia – From Thomas More to Walter Benjamin
Forfatter: Miguel Abensour
Forlag: Univocal (2017)
Author Abensour goes back to Benjamin and More to remind us what it means to think that another world is possible.


Through a series of books, French philosopher Miguel Abensour has tried to rediscover the art of thinking utopian. If Utopian thinking has faded since the Enlightenment, it is not only because it has been written off either as naive rationalism or as a philosophical escape from reality; it's just as much because it's 20. century saw how utopias could lead to fanaticism. In many places the dream of a perfect society became an elevated goal – which has since sanctified every means. Utopian fanaticism can manifest itself both religiously and secularly. The slowest purges in secular attempts to create an ideal society, such as Pol Pot's agrarian utopianism in Cambodia, remain in that 21. century repeated by religious and fundamentalist movements such as IS. If utopianism can be dangerous, another and opposite danger arises when we try to banish the utopian from politics: Without the dream of the optimal, political life becomes the basis of pragmatism or pure real politics. Conflicts of interest overshadow any question of what kind of society we really want – or maybe could have.

Disillusioned Plato. The first part of Mores Utopia which is often overlooked, refers back to Plato. In these first attempts to unite philosophy and statesman art, Abensour finds the paradigmatic example of the collision between utopian ideals and a brutal reality. Plato's accounts of his own career as political advisor in the city state of Syracuse (today's Syracuse in Sicily) under the tyrant Dionysios are well known. In spite of all good will and all ideal demands, Plato fell into disrepute and returned home deeply disillusioned at the possibility of changing a corrupt society. What Plato saw as the general happiness – a pursuit of a just and equitable society – could not compete with the sensual annoyances of private happiness and the status struggle between the richest.

Abensour reminds us that Plato's problems did not end here: In his seventh letter, Plato complains that Dionysius cuts and pastes in his own philosophy and has created his own "Platonism", which he uses to glorify and justify his own policies. Here is also More's warning: No wise counsel comes if the one who receives the counsel is not himself wise. Writing utopias becomes an alternative to giving advice directly.

The sloping road. The distance to the actual and practical is a prerequisite for thinking of the possible, but in this distance also lie the dangers of utopianism. If utopianism is taken too literally, we end up rejecting it or using it incorrectly.

Abensour draws on Benjamin's lesson in plain language: To the extent that the consumer society succeeds in making people happy, it also becomes totalitarian.

Historically, Mores has Utopia tried to be read programmatically by both Catholics and Communists – he got streets named after him in Moscow and was canonized in 1935. When Abensour reads Mores Utopia in its indirect and cautious way, it becomes clear that the book, quite in the style of Plato's dialogues, is written as a witty intellectual trap, with layers upon layers of satire, reservations and irony. The indirect, "instantaneous" reading not only becomes a way to save Utopia from criticism or misapplication, but Abensour also shows that it is by far the only correct way to read a utopian text. Through careful and ambiguous interpretations, we must see what lies ahead behind the dream images of a perfect society.

Although Moore must be read with a pinch of salt, bid Utopia on some basic values ​​that no utopia can be imagined without: a good society is a society where no one lacks the essentials. What is emergencyvendig only appears when the need arises. The self-sustaining drive has nothing to do with it, but where people are fighting for their lives for what is really luxury and privileges, something fundamental has gone wrong. In such a society, even the simplest utopian depictions can shed light on the state of society – and put human passions in stark relief.

If Utopia presents itself as a collective dream, as a society we all deeply want – or should want – some strange questions arise: Because is there really any collective desire? Isn't happiness something individual? Can a society be happy? Can we distinguish between what we should dream of and what we really are dream about?

The delirium of capitalism. In Walter Benjamin, Abensour finds the means to think through utopia as a collective dream interpretation. I Benjamin unfinished Passage work he describes the lavish arcades of Paris, luxurious shopping malls that appeared in the 1800th century in the first mature flowering of capitalism. Here not only the taste of the masses is shaped, but the whole modern sensibility led by strollers such as Proust and Baudelaire. In a way that also reflects our time and late capitalism, Benjamin finds a place here that showcases all people's dreams in a sumptuous game of tantalizing images, enticing product selections and possible encounters. At the same time – and this is the essential – the shopping center is a world that has stopped dreaming, where the stimulus of the moment is enough. Abensour draws on Benjamin's lesson in clear text: To the extent that the consumer society succeeds in making people happy, it also becomes totalitarian. For one who is trapped in the delirium of capitalism, in the continuous exhibition of the world, time and space collapse in an endless and unmanageable fantasy mahogany – and we can no longer dream of Utopia, the place that does not exist. Benjamin's utopianism involves watching over the dream at a time when it is about to fade. At the same time, he will see through our dreams in the hope that we can wake up.

In a sense, capitalism offers the false version of happiness that in its true version would really be desirable: Perhaps as prostitution stands in relation to love. Not without reason, Benjamin was obsessed with Baudelaire's description of modern society as universal prostitution. Ridiculous winks and alluring charm cover exploitation and desperation. Abundance and wealth are and will be a picture of happiness, but present themselves in a false version and on false premises.

In a time marked by global capitalism, where all other utopias are rejected as totalitarian, the world appears as post-historical – and thus without future projects. Just as Benjamin went back to the 1800th century and More went back to Plato's philosophical kings, Abensour goes back to Benjamin and More to remind us what it means to think that another world is possible.

Anders Dunk
Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

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