From one utopia to another

By Anselm Jappe: [In this article, Jappe turns the tables on the apologists for capitalism who denounce “utopia” as the seed of Stalinist terror and as contrary to “human nature”, by pointing out that the capitalist “utopia” of homo oeconomicus is the most important utopia in the history of the world and that, despite its ideological disguise as “natural” and “eternal”, it has almost always had to be imposed by force on reluctant populations who rejected its invasion and destruction of their traditional ways of life]

– Twenty years have passed since High Speed Trains first began to spread their steel net across France. Amidst the chorus of approval both organized and spontaneous, however, the contrarian voices of a few small groups were heard expressing their reservations about what they called “the despotism of speed” (1). They did not formulate objections in detail, but eloquently denounced the society that has produced the possibility, in their view aberrant and useless, of travelling all the way across France in a few hours. Evidently, all that is needed to formulate such a universal, and universally negative, judgment against the way of life that is expressed by the HST (High Speed Train) is to be convinced that another, very different way of life is possible. Anyone who evokes such a possibility is often branded a “utopian”, a word that immediately calls to mind the “utopian socialists”, whose most famous representative is Charles Fourier.

This pamphlet against the HST was answered by another essay, collectively authored by a group of people also devoted to criticizing established society in the name of a different conception of life in common. They openly proclaimed the utopian pedigree of their position, and its debt to Fourier in particular, and came to the defense of the HST, which according to their view fulfilled one of Fourier’s predictions about the glorious future of “harmonious” humanity: enormous tame lions, Fourier’s “anti-lions”, would transport travelers from one end of France to the other in barely two or three hours, and even a trip from Montmartre to Izmir would only take thirty-six hours.

These contemporary utopians did not go so far as to refer to the anti-lion in order to provide a justification for genetic engineering or cyborgs, nor did they mention the transformation of the sea to lemonade, another one of the predictions made by the utopian from Besançon. Nonetheless, this polemic between the proponents of these two approaches (who may not even admit the existence of any common ground between them) at least shows that “utopia” is not always found on the side of the critique of the established order, but can often be used to defend that order.

Utopia usually not only evokes the idea of a society that is radically different from the current one, but also one that is much better, which in itself implies that the existing society is not good. As everyone knows, Marx and Engels claimed to have overcome “utopianism”, which they considered to be an infantile stage of socialist thought, and to have replaced it with a “scientific” conception. Over the last few decades and after the collapse of traditional Marxism, we have occasionally seen the reappearance of positive references to “utopia” on the part of the left, as is demonstrated, for example, by the Dictionary of Utopia published in 2002 (2). More often, however, utopia gets a bad press, and in both everyday language and public discourse this term serves primarily as a way to discredit one’s adversary. In the best cases, it amounts to “dreaming of things that might be nice but are impossible”, or “being naïve, lacking a sense of reality”. Quite often, however, the term assumes a more extreme meaning; it is said that utopian thinking leads directly to terrorist dictatorship. It is assumed that anyone who imagines a collective form of existence that is radically different from the existing one must be tempted to use violence to impose it even on those who do not want it, and the resistance that the latter, along with the real situation itself, offer to those who think it is possible to remodel society will quickly and thoroughly provoke an escalation of the terror. Thus, according to this view, Stalinist and Maoist crimes are essentially due to attempts to transform certain utopias into realities. From this perspective, “utopia” is usually defined as “abstract”: it is a matter of purely mental constructs, of philosophies conceived in a vacuum by men who may be endowed with great logical powers but who also have very little concrete experience with real men and the real world. Utopia is therefore characterized as not taking man’s true nature into account and also by its pretension to improve that nature on the basis of a preconceived idea of how it should be. Thus, the utopian knows better than men themselves about what is good for them. As long as he is daydreaming in his attic (like Fourier) or in his prison (like Campanella, the author of The City of the Sun), the utopian is still innocent, but when historical circumstances allow him to try to refashion reality in accordance with his abstract ideas, tragedy is guaranteed. Violence is assumed to be immanent to utopian theory itself and its disdain for real men and their defects; bloody efforts undertaken to translate theory into reality merely actualize the violence inherent in the utopian perspective. This rejection of utopia presupposes an anthropology that smacks of disillusionment and even pessimism, but also gives the appearance of being strictly realistic, and can be summarized by Kant’s observation that, “Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made nothing entirely straight can be built”, which the English author Isaiah Berlin chose as the basis for the title of one of his books. Other liberals, mostly English, have sought the origin of utopian totalitarianism in Plato (Karl Popper) (3) or in the medieval millenarians (Norman Cohn) (4). From these authors, one clear message emerges: the very principles of utopia are totalitarian, and logically result in proclamations like that of the Russian revolutionaries (“We shall force men to be happy”) and in the attempt to create the “new man”, which produced one of the greatest catastrophes in history. Artistic vanguards also participated in this totalitarianism that originated in the belief that the time had come to remake the world, as Jean Clair (5) and Boris Groys (6) have claimed. For the latter, the avant-garde artists of Russia, far from having been Stalin’s victims, were the precursors of the revolutionary tendency that considers the world to be putty in its hands, like a completely new work of art conceived beyond all tradition, any sense of boundaries and all common sense.

This anti-utopian thought assumes the role of defender of the complexity and ambiguity that is the constitutive essence of human existence against the abstractions of reason and the ravings of the fevered imagination. It claims to protect “human nature”, immutable or at least refractory to all rapid change, from those who propose to reeducate and correct it.

It is very typical of this polemic to catalog certain features of statist totalitarianism that so overwhelmed the 20th century, but which are also equally applicable—despite the intentions of its partisans—to the social order they support, liberal democracy and the market economy. Anti-utopian thought presents itself as the champion of man such as he is, with all his limitations, against all those who want to force him to be different. And yet, if there is one utopia that has been effectively established during the last two centuries, it is undoubtedly the capitalist utopia. “Liberal” capitalism has always presented itself as “natural”, since, in the view of its supporters, it only fulfills the eternal aspirations of men, who always and everywhere pursue their own separate individual interests. As has been repeatedly proclaimed since Adam Smith and Mandeville in the 18th century, man is basically egotistical, but if the competition among egoisms is not disturbed, this competition will ultimately give way to the harmony of the “invisible hand”. Thus, capitalism has done nothing but follow the innate propensity of all men to “maximize” their benefits and pleasures, and is therefore the only society that does not violate “human nature” in the name of a higher principle.

If that is true, why is it that capitalism has almost always had to be imposed by force on recalcitrant populations? Whether we consider the English peasants and artisans who were transformed into the first proletarians of the factories of the 18th century, or today’s Latin American indios, it is clear that men have on many occasions rejected the benefits of “progress”. For a socioeconomic order that, as is usually claimed, stands in the closest relation to human nature, capitalism has had to wage a tenacious battle to force men to obey their own “nature”. The entire history of capitalism is full of complaints about the “conservative” character of populations that were subjected to efforts to convert them to its advantages, about their attachment to tradition and their unwillingness to change their way of life. Almost everywhere, in Europe as well as the rest of the world, ordinary folk defended their communal ways of life regulated by slow and natural rhythms, solidarity and the reciprocity of the gift, by codes of honor and the quest for prestige instead of abstract wealth, by a moral economy (Edward Thompson) and common decency (George Orwell). Naturally, these ways of life were by no means exempt from injustice and violence, but people almost never willingly renounced them in order to embrace that so “natural” way of life based exclusively on the quest for individual advantage, the only value that really exists in capitalist society. Besides open rebellions, an infinite number of banal actions testify to the resistance, often silent, that almost everyone musters at one time or another every day in opposition to the invisible utopia of a completely capitalist society. Marcel Mauss was one of the first to analyze this phenomenon in his famous essay, The Gift (1924), which has since been followed by many similar studies.

Since its first formulations towards the end of the 17th century, capitalism has been effectively based on a particular view of man and on a very distinct anthropology: that of homo oeconomicus. At first, however, this view was by no means natural, and only began to appear to be natural after it was inculcated by violence and seduction over the course of several centuries. Homo oeconomicus is the most important utopia ever to be successfully imposed in history, and the duration of its rule and the geographical extent of its expansion have far outstripped the murderous statist utopias denounced by the utopia of the market. Anyone who wants to criticize the evils of our time does not need to embrace “utopias”: it is enough, to begin with, to denounce the “black utopia” of a world that is completely subordinated to economic rationality, a utopia that has ruled us for more than two hundred years. Perhaps it is “naïve utopianism” to believe that humanity can live without private property, hierarchies, domination and exploitation, but there can be no doubt that to believe that life can continue to be based for much longer on money, the commodity, and buying and selling, is a terrible utopianism, whose consequences are already obvious.


Translated into Spanish by Federico Corrientes and Jose Manuel Rojo and published in the journal of the Surrealist Group of Madrid, Salamandra, No. 19-20, 2010-2011.

Translated into English from the Spanish translation available at:


1. Alliance pour l’opposition à toutes les nuisances, Relevé provisoire de nos griefs contre le despotisme de la vitesse à l’occasion de l’extension des lignes du TGV (1991), a pamphlet that was republished in 1998 by Éditions de l’Encyclopédie des Nuisances, Paris (Contra el despotismo de la velocidad, 1991, Ed. Virus).

2. Under the direction of Michèle Riot-Sarcey, ed. Larousse.

3. The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol. 1: The Spell of Plato, Princeton University Press, 5th revised edition (1971).

4. The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, Oxford University Press, revised and expanded edition (1970).

5. La responsabilité de l’artiste. Les avant-gardes entre terreur et raison, Gallimard, 1997.

6. Staline, oeuvre d’art totale, Jacqueline Chambon, 1990 (in Spanish, Obra de arte total Stalin, Ed. Pre-Textos, 2008).

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: