November 2016

It’s the 500th anniversary of Utopia — what’s yours?

Four philosophers concluded that the concept of utopia is outdated. We don't agree. Do you? These days public debate is either rude and provocative or it is being censored and contrary opinions are shut down solely on moral grounds — social media being most affected by both extremes.

Maybe this explains why spaces where thought experiments and free, respectful debates are encouraged show great popularity these days. This is the case with Germany's largest annual philosophy festival, PhilCologne, held last week in Cologne.

We (Silke and Micha from Smart CSOs) were attracted by this year's festival themes and speakers and attended two of its evening colloquiums.

The first one gave us a fantastic and inspiring insight into a proposal aimed at improving democracy through higher citizen participation in political decision-making. In times of democracy crisis and dramatically rising populism, political scientists Claus Leggewie and Patrizia Nanz propose the institutionalisation of so-called future councils. These are well-facilitated spaces where citizens are officially asked to help improve political decisions that are highly important for our future, concerning questions of sustainability etc. Their proposal was so inspiring because it is well developed, radical and at the same time realistic (it based on empirical experience). The type of proposals that are so much needed these days. See here for more information on the proposal (in English).

After the inspiring first evening we were curious to see if the second evening could top the first one. Its theme raised huge expectations: the grand evening of utopias.

500 years ago English philosopher Thomas More invented the concept of utopia when he wrote his novel Utopia about a vision of an egalitarian society living on the island Utopia. The festival organisers used this anniversary to ask if the time is ripe for new utopias or if the power of the concept is forever gone?

Unfortunately, unlike the first evening we attended, the so-called ‘grand evening’ was largely disappointing. It fell completely short of delivering on its promise: None of the four speakers was able or willing to enter a constructive or inspiring conversation about why we need new utopias, what these utopias shall address or how they could look like.

One of the speakers, German philosopher Ottfried Höffe, said that his utopia was a World Government. He immediately added that he sees that we are anyway on the right path towards such institutions: only a question of time! Also with regard to other needed incremental improvements, in his opinion, we are on track.

The second speaker, Wolfgang Buschlinger, believes that it doesn’t make sense anymore to explore any grand narratives or utopias. In our individualistic world there would be no way to develop common utopias. We should better focus on improvements here and now and forget about the long-term visions.

The third speaker, the tech-savvy young philosopher Janina Sombetzki, mainly argued that we should keep a critical spirit with those who envision a brave new robot world. Like all speakers before her, she wasn't keen to discuss the question if the time is ripe for new utopias.

The facilitator of the evening got a bit desperate.

Eventually, the last speaker brought at least some enthusiasm about the concept of utopia to the evening panel. Peter Zudeick, a follower of Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, had his moment of passion when he defended that there are still big issues in our world that remain fundamentally unresolved, like Capitalism. He argued that we are far away from living up to the ideals of brotherhood, solidarity and freedom. When Zudeick said that indeed we still are in need of utopias, a spark of hope appeared for at least some interesting discussion. But none of the other panellists showed the slightest interest to engage into this conversation.

What a disappointment. Is the time for utopias really over?

Utopia is generally defined as ‘a fundamental critique of the socio-economic conditions and institutions of the present as well as the development of a fictitious comprehensible alternative regardless of what can be achieved under the current political and societal conditions’. So, a utopia can be a vision for a better world that might seem unrealistic at a time and might indeed never be achieved. But, importantly, it can break the boundaries of current thinking and open new doors for creative imagination and exploration of pathways that go beyond the narrow perspective of contemporary political discourse. The great challenges of our times cannot be resolved within the boundaries of current thinking. We need radical imagination, we need utopias.

After that failed debate, we thought that the Smart CSOs community can do better than the four philosophers. We would like to invite you to the Smart CSOs Facebook page to have that conversation about utopias that didn't happen in Cologne:

Is the time ripe for new utopias or is the power of the concept forever gone? What is your personal utopia?