I’ve been spending a couple of afternoons reading Marxism, or more specifically reading Marcuse and Kolakowski, because in the course of writing an article about how the utopian genre has changed over time, I’ve reached the phase (post world wars) where people start saying utopia is dead or has ended. Some of the people arguing this are Marxists.
I have always avoided reading Marxism. I think mainly because I have never been able to. It is a particular genre which is both very schematic and very serious in a heavy kind of way and I’ve often found that my mind keeps wandering while I read it. But this time, I had a purpose reading it, and I got through the texts without incident. I even had a laugh when at the end of Marcuse’s The End of Utopia there is a Q&A between Marcuse and some young earnest students enquiring about stuff like: “To what extent do you see in the English pop movement a positive point of departure for an aesthetic-erotic way of life?” It transported me directly back to my early youth in leftwing grass roots movements of various sorts. Oh, the seriousness with which self-indulgent questions were asked. I particularly enjoyed an exchange where Marcuse seem to reach a point of exhaustion when a student refers to the way “agents of manipulation know how to internalize bureaucratic and governmental mechanisms of domination” as examples of violence. No, Marcuse insists, violence is when someone clubs you – is not being manipulated through TV-programs. You can in fact, he reminds the student, just turn the TV off whenever you want. I think I enjoy this exchange because this is where Marxism comes alive for me and becomes about humans bumping into each other while having a think about how to achieve a better world.
In any case, reading Kolakowski afterwards made me think about who the Left is today. In The Concept of the Left from 1968, Kolakowski struggles to define ‘the Left’ which, he concludes, does not really exist as an organized movement but merely as “an unclear, fragmented negative consciousness opposed to the Right” (Kolakowski 1968: 80). The Right, in his definition, is any conservative force or position seeking to maintain or idealize elements of the current situation or revert to previous actual conditions. That made me wonder if there is actually any political Left today? The Left, he wrote, should be defined not only by its negation of the existing reality, but also by the nature of its ‘utopia’ (Kolakowski 1968: 69). Utopia, in his definition was “striving for changes which “realistically” cannot be brought about by immediate action, which lie beyond the foreseeable future” (Kolakowski 1968: 70). It seems to me (but then I’m not a Marxist so haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about these things) that most political movements I can think of fight over to which moment in the historical past to revert to rather than expressing any vision that truly rejects the actual social forms. And that rather that revolutionizing them, they want to tweak them, or purify them, accelerate them.
And as I read all this about rejecting the status quo and expressing a vision for the future which cannot at the moment realistically be brought about – I get the treacherous thought that the Left today may be found among the CEOs in Silicon Valley. And that utopia rather than taking the shape of a novel, a micro community or a revolutionary mass movement can be found in the shape of a meal-replacement product like Soylent or a Satellite constellation like Starlink. Might it be so that the 21st century utopia is a commercial product?