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(sup) An Ethnography of Nowhere: Notes Towards a Re-envisioning of Utopian Thinking

From Stevphen Shukaitis <patrioticdissent@hotmail.com>
Date Thu, 4 Sep 2003 15:47:26 +0200 (CEST)

A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E

An Ethnography of Nowhere: Notes Towards a Re-envisioning of Utopian
By stevphen shukaitis

“We have no interest in abilities apart from the revolutionary use that can
be made of them, a use which acquires its sense in everyday life . . .
Wherever the new proletariat experiments with its liberation, autonomy in
revolutionary coherence is the first step toward generalized
-Raoul Vaneigem, from “To Have as a Goal Practical Truth” (1981: 218)

Face it. Anarchists on the whole have not articulated any sort of coherent
alternative vision of what a society not based on capitalism and the state
might look like. We have produced copious amounts of political, economic,
and social critiques – but a comparatively smaller amount of work has
focused on developing alternatives to what we’re critiquing. Least of all
has there been any clearly sketched out version of how a liberatory economy
might function. This has not to say there has not been thought or work put
into these subjects, which there clearly has been. But when faced with the
question “I understand what you’re against, what are you for?” far too often
radical activists and organizers on the whole are stymied; at best we end up
mumbling something about a world of autonomous or semiautonomous communities
based upon mutual aid, self-organization, and voluntary association. And
those are all very well and good, and could form the basis of a liberatory
society - but for many people such statements mean virtually nothing. It’s
one thing to say that we want a world where people manage our own lives, the
environment isn’t destroyed, and life is life desolate and alienating – but
it’s another to start talking about what such might actually look like. And
starting to actually create forms of cooperative practice, to re-envision
utopian thinking as lived reality, is another.
It is a common observation among radicals that the order of the world
easily becomes naturalized, normalized, and reified. Why do things work they
way they do? Because that’s how they operate. Perhaps the most striking way
to examine how this phenomena works is by trying to imagine alternatives, or
even to imagine how previously existing social orders (such as Bronze age
Greece or the classical Greek and Roman eras) operated. Chances are what
you’ll find is that most people have a relatively easy time imaging what a
different political order might look like, how a different religion might
work, and perhaps even how a family might be structured differently. But
chances are they will find it difficult to imagine how a different economic
arrangement or society not based around the state would work. Try it a few
times. Ask someone how an economy would run if not based on private
ownership. Ask them describe economics relations in Greece. Ask them how
society would operate without a state. Chances are they will find it very
difficult to describe, which is odd considering that for thousands of years
of human history there was no state or a market economy. But yet such has
become so normalized that thinking outside of such is nearly impossible for
many people.
Clearly if one wants to seriously put forward the idea of revolutionary
social change one has to move conceptions of how such an alternative
arrangement might work out of the realm of inconceivable thought and into
the realm of possibility. This can help to explain why it is musicians,
writers, and artists who have been commonly drawn to radical politics – the
flexibility of creativity makes it easier to imagine that alternative social
arrangements are possible. The task at hand for those of us who advocate
radical social change is making that sort of flexibility and utopian social
vision seems like an achievable possibility to the vast majority of the
population – and that will happen not through saying or proclaiming that is
so, but through a concrete demonstrations that such forms have existed and
present a realistic alternative to the current social order. It is this task
that Pierre Bourdieu spoke of he said that, “We need to invent a new
utopianism, rooted in contemporary social forces, for which – at risk of
seeming to encourage a return to antiquated political visions – it will be
necessary to create new kinds of movement.” (2002: 67)
And that is the role of visionary thinking: to seize the creative latitude
and inspiration of existing forms of non-hierarchal organizing to create
webs of knowledge, skills, and experience that can be constantly redefined
according to the needs of situation and time.

But Why Utopian Vision?

To this there will be many objections: Isn’t utopian thinking just a
frivolous waste of time better used with pragmatic forms of organizing and
action? Isn’t there a danger that one could recreate the same class based
structures of power and domination in one’s vision that exist now, as
Foucault was fond of constantly objecting with an almost defeatist tone?
Isn’t it classist to be engaged in this kind of visionary thinking? These
are objections with varying degrees of validity. It would be silly to say
that one should be spending time coming up with utopian visions instead of
engaging the day to day struggles to alleviate the wretched conditions which
face large segments of the world’s population. But it also equally true that
even when there exists a period where revolutionary change becomes possible
unless one has some idea of what sort of arrangement one wants to create, it
is all the more easier for such situations to recreate the same oppressive
structures or become dominated by the most malicious “liberators.” The
Russian, Cuban, and Chinese experiences should be sufficient examples of
The point here is not that one should have a blueprint for exacting details
of a new social order. Such would be silly and more destructive than
helpful. But unless one has at least a rough idea of how such an alternative
social arrangement might work it would extremely difficult to convince
others that such is desirable or achievable. Marx knew that he was going to
fish in the morning and hunt in the afternoon, but other than the
functioning of a post-capitalist society was at best anyone’s guess, at
worst the decision of those with the most guns. The question then becomes
how one can best approach the task of creating a utopian vision in a way
that does not recreate current forms of domination and brings the utopian
vision put forth into the realm of possibility in a way that show avenues
for how that order can be brought into existence in the here and now. It is
part of trying to sketch out the functioning of what Raoul Vaneigem
described as generalized self-management, or when the logic and methods of
the worker’s councils could be extended over society as a liberated whole.
The problem is that you can’t study utopia. The study of utopia is the
ethnography of nowhere. There is no ready made existing liberatory society
which one can go and study, takes notes on, and then return and try to
recreate here. It is also debatable even if one could find such an existing
situation that trying to recreate such out of the context where such emerged
would be the best of ideas. And that’s the problem of utopian vision, is
that it doesn’t exist anywhere – that’s implicit in the word. But there have
existed a multitude of examples of cooperative structures and non-hierarchal
social practices that have existed through out history. Little slices of
liberation and non-alienated experience – what Pierre Clastres describes as
the “vast constellation of societies in which the holders of what elsewhere
would be called power are actually without power; where the political is
determined as a domain beyond coercion and violence, beyond hierarchal
subordination.” (1977: 5) And that’s the starting point of reformatting a
non-vanguardist approach to the creation of utopian social theory.
The typical approach to considering radical social and economic change is
to select a set of values and ends and then try to create some social
structures based upon those values. For example, we could say that we want a
society based upon solidarity, mutual aid, voluntary association and so
forth – so what would social institutions look like based upon those values?
One example of this sort of approach is found in the example of Parecon, or
participatory economics. Parecon and its founders should be praised for
articulating a vision, as at the very least regardless of what you think of
their ideas they at least offer up some sort of overall vision which can be
looked at and evaluated as to whether or not such would ultimately be
desirable and effective. However, I think that when you look at this
formulation (and not just Parecon in particular) you can see the flaw in
this approach.
The problem is that such an approach to envisioning radical alternatives is
that it begins with abstract concepts and ideals as its founding basis, and
then proceeds to try to fit life to those ideals. The danger of beginning
with abstract values and goals as the basis for trying to plan social
reality is that it’s very easy to get caught up in ideological conflicts
through such a process, to get involved in conflicts over theoretical
systems and interactions that may or may not occur when the new vision hits
the pavement of actual existence. Conversely, such a process of going from
abstractions can overlook very real pragmatic issues that can be glossed
over in abstract models. And perhaps most important is that people don’t act
like theoretical constructs – they act like people, whose behavior can never
be fully described by any model of any kind. Among the areas which modern
economics can be criticized for is that it is very good at creating abstract
models of how an economy functions, but such do not describe (and really
cannot describe) the actual functioning of the world. Similarly, if the
radical intellectual or theorist cannot formulate alternatives from a
position separated from social struggle and their experiences. From such a
position radical social change is itself an abstraction.
Another general style of approaching social change might be summed up as
doing so through focusing on the methods of achieving this change, such as
with syndicalism. Such are often very useful for particular social milieus
and arrangements, but often do not correspond to any broader reconstructive
vision and are difficult to use applicably beyond the specific circumstance
of their formation. For instance, what good does the call to take over the
factories mean if you live somewhere where there aren’t any factories? What
if you don’t want factories at all? This criticism can be directed at much
of the “canon” of anarchist theory, which for the large part is from the
19th to early 20th century European thinkers. Not surprisingly, we live in a
much different and more complex world then 1890s Europe – so it would be
absurd to think that our notions of social change and strategy for working
for such might not need some radical rethinking.
The alternative approach that I would put forward for creating a radical
visions would be to look at the existing forms of cooperative economics and
social practice that have existed through out human history and around the
planet, and to try to draw out their underlying logic into a more
generalized pluralistic vision. Such an approach draws from an ethnographic
practice and approach (though trying to dispense with the more noxious forms
and tendencies that such has exhibited by the less ethical of researchers).
This would not be just a shift in one’s approach, but the beginning notes of
what very well could be an extensive and on-going project. Thus instead of
asking “how can we run the economy so that it creates solidarity?” or “how
can we manage individual interests and communal interests?” the question
becomes looking at different existing forms of practice and drawing from
them, rather than trying to impose upon them. The role of vision through
this becomes not declaring what should be based upon utopian abstraction,
but trying to figure out what could be based upon the experiences contained
within existing forms of social relations.
Just sit back for a second and list some of the examples of cooperative
structures that you can think of: local community gardens, multitudes of
cooperative an worker collectives, the Mondragon, time stores and labor
exchanges, collective farms from India to Russia, the Kibbutzim,
neighborhood assembleas from Argentina to New England, the ejidos and
autonomous communities in Chiapas, gift economies and exchange clubs, free
stores, squats, alternative currency systems, cooperative water management
in Bali, communes and intentional communities, practices and concepts such
as guanxi (China) and the potlatch (Kwakiutl), and so forth. Perhaps the
question should not be whether a world based on cooperation and without
hierarchy can possibly work, but why the many examples of how such
structures haven’t been looked at in terms of creating a more holistic
version before?

The Non-Vanguardist Social Researcher and the Task of Utopian Vision

“Rather than value being the process of public recognition itself, already
suspended in social relations, it is the way people could do almost anything
(including in the right circumstances, creating entirely new sorts of social
relations) assess the importance of what they do, in fact, do, as they are
doing it.”
-David Graeber, from Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False
Coin of Our Own Dreams (2001: 47)

The question task then becomes looking at the different existing forms of
cooperative enterprise and social structures and asking they might fit
together into a more general social vision or system. How might the
different elements interact? If one applied the logic of the Argentinean
neighborhood assemblies to the economic structure of a factory in Prague,
what might that look like? How would these different cooperative structures
work between communities, between regions, and globally? How would it be
possible to best coordinate resources and create forms of cooperation across
regions while maintaining the highest possible level of autonomy? How can
one start creating these types of structures now in a fashion where they
form a sustainable community infrastructure?
This approach has multiple benefits. The first and most obvious is that
since you are starting from cooperative structures and practices that have
existed, one does not have to argue that such are possible. Clearly they
are. They have existed and continue to exist through out the world. As noted
by frequently by Chomsky, the prospect of a workable alternative is a
greater threat to the system than just opposition. For instance, why was the
US government so threatened by the Black Panthers? There are many reasons,
but one of the generally least mentioned ones is that through their
breakfast programs, community clinics, and other programs the Black Panthers
started creating an infrastructure that showed that those communities didn’t
need the state to take care of them – they could do it for themselves. The
threat of a workable alternative cannot be underestimated. The task of
radical vision is not of the “great thinker” or learned sage, but of the
ability to listen attentively to the desires and experience of those who
struggle for their liberation – and to learn from them. This is the task not
an of an elite vanguard, but a role that we all can take part in, as
diplomats of struggle, pagans, prophets, and dreamers bringing utopia into
our lives every day.
Secondly, from that position it becomes possible to conceive of anarchism
not as a philosophy that was invented by a specific set of 18th century
patriarchal bearded white guys, but as the struggle and practice for the
creation of freedom and liberated experience that has existed through out
human history. This is not to say that one should go around declaring that
Balinese tribes are really anarchists and just don’t know it – but that one
can learn from the vast historical experience of the cooperative
institutions and practices which have existed. Such grounds utopian theory
and hopes not in wild speculations, but in the lived realities of daily
experience, in the extension of what people already know to a broader
Utopian theory is not then abstractions and ideals that are designed to be
imposed upon the world, dreams that will come into existence after the
revolution, but is the collected experience of cooperative structures that
can be generalized into a broader vision. This broader vision, however, is
not an imperial vision or one that exists in some abstract universal space.
It is a utopian theory that is more a process of coordinating, collecting,
and connecting the experience and knowledge created through experience in a
way that can be adapted and applied in varying situations and contexts in
pluralistic fashion. The task of the utopian theorist is that of acting as a
diplomat between struggles, sharing wisdom and experiences, connecting and
synthesizing ideas created through everyday experience.
This is not to suggest that we can envision radical alternatives in a
“value free” or neutral manner, at least not in any fashion resembling such
claims usually made by the social sciences. It would be silly and possibly
dangerous to pretend that our choice of liberatory social relations to study
would not be based upon personal concepts of freedom, solidarity, autonomy,
and so forth. The point is to avoid the error of giving precedence on
abstract values of pragmatic organizing or of divorcing pragmatic efforts
from a larger liberatory vision. The goal becomes to highlight the
liberatory nature of existing social relations and practices and to draw
from them new ideals and theories: to create liberatory visions not in terms
of definitions themselves, but through looking for the causal relationships
in such forms of practice.
There are many possible avenues that this type of an approach and project
could take. And to emphasize the point, the goal would not be to formulate
the “one true and correct plan” for radical social change, but to amass the
experience and knowledge of existing projects and cooperative forms – to
gather a knowledge base that can be drawn from according to the needs and
particulars of the situation and setting. This is the task not of creating a
rigid or deterministic blueprint for social change, but developing a toolbox
of knowledge and skills that can be utilized and adapted in changing
circumstances. These type of conversations and projects are beginning to
crop up with greater frequency as that post-action let down leaves many with
a sense of wanting to create sustainable forms of resistance, projects which
are grounded within our communities and the daily lives.
What this gets to is reformulating one's approach to the task of utopian
thinking and vision. The challenge is not to contemplate and brood in some
library until one is finally structure with a grand vision of truth and
wisdom that will enable the creation of a vision to lead and direct the
masses in the radical struggle for freedom. The task of utopian vision is to
examine the already existing liberatory practices, structures, and forms
which exist and have existed through the course of human history, and to
draw from them a broader vision of how particular forms of freedom might be
generalized into an overall social vision. The task is to network and
connect multiple and divergent struggles and practices in a mutually
complementary and beneficial manner. The goal is not to lead the masses, to
create a new human nature or state of being, but to identify existing forms
of freedom, and to draw out the underlying logic and generalize them into a
pluralistic reconstructive vision.
Through this process knowledge and vision are created through experience,
through the result of human experience and creation. The goal of utopian
thinking should not be to come up with impractical schemes of a how a future
society might work or to formulate plans that preclude them from starting to
be creates now. When Marx labeled his socialist predecessors as “utopian”
that was his objection, that they had plans and dreams which were
unobtainable, and therefore to a large degree useless in trying to alleviate
the totally unnecessary suffering brought about by capital and the state.
While neo-liberals like to pretend that the market is autonomous and
self-supporting, working off of principles inherent to itself, such conceals
the inventory of ideas, practices, and values which underlie it and allow it
to adapt to continually changing circumstances. Similarly, the long-term
success of building movements against the state, capital, and all forms of
oppression, is to create those reserves of knowledge, experience, and ideas
that will enable us constantly redefines the specifics of non-hierarchal
organizing based upon the changing circumstances of time and place.
The struggle for liberation isn’t about creating unrealizable plans or
visions, but about bringing ideas about cooperation and non-hierarchal
organizing into our daily lives. Utopian thinking becomes looking at forms
of liberatory social relations, extending their logic, and beginning to
implement such notions and ideals within the way which we live our lives
now. We create the space for revolutionary thought and action by creating
those spaces where community grows, where our lives and political and
struggles can be sustain in an ongoing fashion. It is the task of bringing
what Durruti called “the new world we carry in our hearts” into existence as
a tangible reality, even if only in a piecemeal fashion. The reformulation
of utopian thought is not finding a better way to imagine a future
revolution, but drawing from human experience in finding way to live
liberation now.


Pierre Bourdieu and Gunter Grass. “The ‘Progressive’ Restoration: A
Franco-German Dialogue,” New Left Review 14 (March-April 2002), 63-77.

Pierre Clastres. Society Against the State: The Leader as Servant as Servant
and the Human Uses of Power Among Indians of the Americas (New York: Urizen
Books, 1977)

David Graeber. Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of
Our Own Dreams (New York: Palgrave, 2001)

Raoul Vaneigem. “Toward Truth as a Practical Goal,” The Situationist
International Anthology. `Ed/Trans. Ken Knabb (Berkley, CA: 1981), 216-219.

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