In times of despair, utopias are preferable to dystopias

There's something touching in how sales of 1984 have risen since Trump. Amazon is out of stock. Other dystopian novels, like Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, are doing well. It's one way to deal with a shock to the system: buy a book; then, basically, let it sit since it probably won't have much to do with what's spooking you on CNN. It's about the illusion of control.

If you prefer denial, always an option, you could try utopias instead, though they aren't selling as briskly. There's Utopia itself (1516) by Thomas More; Erewhon (1872); News from Nowhere (1890). Glen Newey writes in the London Review that utopias proliferated in the 19th century but today "dystopias come a dime a dozen." If you're a rebel, go utopian this season. Of course, there are utopian books -- and actual utopian experiments.

So I've been reading Chasing Utopias, by Canadian writer David Leach, a book about an experiment. In 1989, age 20, he lived on an Israeli kibbutz for a year. He isn't Jewish but never mind. For 50 years after Israel's founding, a kibbutz, or collective farm, was where youth went to find themselves. It often worked. But that utopian dream crashed as Israel transformed; so 20 years later, Leach returned to see if the magic had died, or just moved along.

There were never many kibbutzim: a few hundred perhaps but they punched above their weight symbolically. They were idealistic and egalitarian: no private property, equal incomes, collective decision-making, and all the kids lived together, separately from parents, since birth.

By 2010, when Leach revisited, most had privatized. No children's quarters. Equality had vanished, incomes weren't identical. Kibbutz members paid fees, like condo owners. Partly, it's because Israel abandoned socialist models and became aggressively capitalist.

But the deeper impediment lay in the fact that those idealistic communities were often built, literally, on land that had been unceremoniously taken from Palestinians. Kibbutz members could dig below their homes and find ruins from the village that had been razed. That might be unnerving. Leach describes a kibbutznik who spent the rest of his life trying to force Israelis to confront the ugly reality under their feet. One person's utopia is another's dystopia -- a good reason not to separate the categories rigidly.

The book comes most alive in its second half when Leach, abandoning nostalgia, looks for ways that the idealism of the kibbutz may have funneled into new utopian projects elsewhere in Israel, like a Palestinian architect's plan for a 37-kilometre "bridge" linking Gaza to the West Bank, with benefits for everyone along its way. He sees the "vision of utopia … rising again."

Hence my preference for utopias; they keep chugging ahead into the future, unlike dystopias, which are meant to forewarn but can as easily depress and demobilize. Both are probably complementary and often flip sides of each other, like a kibbutz winery built over Palestinian olive groves. Dystopias are warnings, utopias are yearnings. Utopias are often well-intended, exhaustively thought-out, yet become disasters. Dystopias are always inadvertent; no one sets out to create a hell, the aim was often a utopia. That's the charge usually levelled at communist experiments -- in Cuba, China or the Soviet Union.

One of my favourite utopian books is Fanshen (1966) by U.S. writer and farmer William Hinton. It describes a Chinese village in 1948, as the revolution sweeps through, trying to transform from feudalism to communism, via the deliberations and decisions of its peasant population. They were definitely chasing Utopia. It's fascinating, inconclusive and real. Hinton called it a documentary.

In later years, he returned to the village often, as it stumbled or advanced. He said the problems weren't only "objective"; they lay in ways that the people trying to construct utopia were themselves shaped by nonutopian reality -- which they could only transcend within limits. So they'd always be inadequate to the task and you should never be surprised by shortfalls, tawdry human failures (including destructive illicit affairs) and screw-ups.

When humans have evolved more, so will their utopias. By then, if the species survives, they might do rather well, so that utopias of our era could start looking unambitious.

Meanwhile do you despair? Retreat into literature and write book versions only? Or go ahead and fail, but be ready to get up and start the chase again. That could be the utopian motto: Go Ahead and Fail.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Enokson/flickr

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