Reflections on ‘Utopianism’

By | August 3, 2016

I have in previous blogs expressed strong reservations about using the notion utopianism, discerning in the use of the term a latent predilection for totalitarian blueprints. One of my blogs was challenged by Steve Hall, who argued that we precisely lack and need an injection of utopian thinking. Those who follow Steve on twitter will appreciate that he doesn’t take prisoners; but just possibly I have been too confident in my capacity to dodge his bullets. I have since been reading Riots and Political Protest, which he wrote with Simon Winlow, James Treadwell and Daniel Briggs and published in 2015. It is an excellent study that has caused me to question – at least – how I have articulated my stance re-utopianism.

I stand by my suspicions of detailed blueprints for a future society that dot all the ‘i’s and cross all the ‘t’s. There are dangers here. What I have commended in their stead is a strategy of permanent reform, which allows for and promotes (progressive, left-leaning) ‘alliances’ for reform and change that build pressure for a ‘gestalt’ switch and revolutionary social transformation (reform + reform + reform … revolution). That such ‘pressure’ would precipitate a ramping up of class-driven state oppression, and subsequently repression, is clear. This must be anticipated.

I would however want: (1) to disassociate this strategy of permanent reform from the kind of ‘piecemeal social engineering’ advocated by Popper, or the refined, insipid, constipated liberal pluralism of Berlin; and (2) to allow for my concept of ‘foresight sociology’ to reach out to and embrace examples of what Tony Giddens called ‘utopian realism’. I need to say a little more about each of these.

Steve and his colleagues are undoubtedly right to contextualize and distance themselves from two philosophers who were understandable products of their times and who over-reacted, Popper unambiguously in The Open Society and Its Enemies, Berlin in default mode in his ‘aesthetically pleasing’ essays. To advocate permanent reform is not to settle for ad hoc interventions.

In extending Burawoy’s four sociologies to six, introducing ‘foresight’ and ‘action sociology’, I allowed not only for a sociological commitment to anticipate ‘alternative futures’ (foresight sociology) but for vigorously contesting capital-buys-power and other forms of domination rationalized in the guise of neoliberal vested- interest ideologies (action sociology). Foresight sociology bears a kinship relation to Giddens’ utopian realism’ (if not to his application of it via the moribund New Labour’s ‘third way’ politics). In light of Simon and Steve et al’s text, I am inclined to stretch the tentacles of foresight (and in its wake, action) sociology further. I accept that there is indeed a need to open up the notion of alternative futures and ‘contestation’ to consider the ends as well as the means for displacing financial capitalism’s neoliberal status quo (the more so because the circumstances are so unpropitious). We need to be able to envision and advance a non-abstract or concrete, credible and appealing notion of a ‘better’ society.




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