Quaker Utopias

Posted December 30, 2009

Categories: Art, Articles

What would it look like if Quakers ruled the world? The World Bank would be renamed the International Frugality Fund. All political institutions would run on the principle of consensus. And there would be meetings. Lots and lots of meetings. It would be like living in a huge group house.

Some people love process, agendas, facilitated discussion, and moments of silence. They would flourish in this Quaker utopia. Other folks avoid meetings at all costs. For them, Quaker World would be a dystopia, and they would find themselves permanently outside of consensus. After all, one person’s utopia is another’s nightmare. In Plato’s Republic, for instance, the philosopher is king. But poets have to shut up or go into exile.

Can you imagine writing a novel or making an upbeat film about a Quaker utopia? Kind of a snoozer. Utopias tend to be rather static. Dystopias, on the other hand, are much more popular with the creative class. Darker visions of the future — 1984, Blade Runner, The Handmaid’s Tale — showcase the most dynamic of tensions: between renegade individual and conformist society.

In one respect, though, our dystopian narratives conform to one general rule: they take place in the developed world. The future looks like totalitarian England or rain-soaked Los Angeles or cyborg Tokyo. As Henry Kissinger once famously and fatuously said, “The axis of history starts in Moscow, goes to Bonn, crosses over to Washington, and then goes to Tokyo. What happens in the South is of no importance.” Science fiction writers seem to have unconsciously absorbed Kissinger’s axiom.

Not Alex Rivera, though. In a radical change of perspective, this Rivera has set his new film Sleep Dealer south of the border, in Mexico.

“We’ve seen the future of Los Angeles, in Blade Runner,” Rivera tells Foreign Policy In Focus senior analyst Mark Engler in Science Fiction from Below. “We’ve seen the future of Washington, DC, in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. We’ve seen London and Chicago. But we’ve never seen the places where the great majority of humanity actually lives. Those are in the global South. We’ve never seen Mexico; we’ve never seen Brazil; we’ve never seen India. We’ve never seen that future on film before.”

In Rivera’s future, the borders are closed and manual workers “commute” to their construction jobs and taxi driving stints by way of robots. Their communities, except for the occasional streak of ultramodernity, remain underdeveloped. Wars, meanwhile, are fought largely at a distance, through remote-controlled drones. The world of Sleep Dealer is tied together by electronics and divided by walls. It is a dystopian vision well-suited to the Bush era when Rivera was producing his movie.

Many of the features that Rivera describes — the underdevelopment of the Global South, the Pentagon’s use of remote-controlled drones — have continued into the Obama era (for a new website devoted to cataloging America’s air wars, check out Our Bombs). And the global situation is certainly far from optimistic.

For some Americans, Europe represents a utopian vision. It already has some of the social democratic features, such as stronger safety nets and Greener laws, which progressives are pushing for in the United States. For conservatives, however, Europe is the worst kind of dystopia. Francis Fukuyama located his “end of history” in Brussels and what he imagined would be a metastasized bureaucracy.

But the tone in Washington has shifted. President Obama’s upbeat rhetoric and his focus on a better future have stimulated a certain amount of utopianism. After eight years of being on the defensive, progressives can at least dream of a nuclear-free world, universal health care in the United States, and a shift to a Greener planet.

This week, we indulge in some optimistic futurology of our own. FPIF contributor Richard Register imagines a world of sustainable cities.

“It’s puzzling that almost no one connects the largest things we build — our cities — to the largest problems that we’re experiencing, much less connects them to solutions to those problems,” Register writes in Cities Can Save the World. “We can do more, much more, to redesign our cities for pedestrians and bicyclists, taking up very small areas of land in more compact development. Taller buildings with rooftop gardens and solar greenhouses can be linked by pedestrian connections between rooftops and terraces above ground level, making city centers intimately accessible to people on foot. As we add population and ecological architecture in pedestrian/transit centers, we can gradually eliminate the unsustainable suburbs.”

Europe is having just such an argument about its future. The European Union has nearly doubled its size in the last six years. It stands on the verge of expanding further and having a greater voice in global affairs. But the Lisbon Treaty, which would give Europe a real parliament and a new foreign minister position, has gone down to defeat in referenda in Ireland, Netherlands, and France. Is the EU’s latest treaty designed to create a more perfect union or a more bureaucratic super-state remote from the people?

As FPIF contributor Paul Hockenos points out, the criticisms of the Lisbon Treaty as maintaining or even increasing the “democratic deficit” in the European Union are wide of the mark.

“The parliament would have full budgetary discretion, which will put it on an equal footing with the executive branch, the current locus of power run by the national states,” Hockenos writes in Learning to Love the European Union. “And, among other issues, it will finally be able to take on the EU’s scandalous agricultural subsidies, the sacred cow of agribusiness giants France, Germany, Spain, and Italy. Also, civil society and social movements will win a new voice through direct all-European ‘citizens’ initiatives.’ These changes would constitute meaningful progress toward the creation of a Europe-wide public sphere and demos, the prerequisites for a real European politics.”

Throughout Europe, Hockenos points out, left-wing critics of globalization and right-wing nationalists have teamed up to fight against the Lisbon Treaty and the European Union’s attempts at self-improvement. The Europe of the Lisbon Treaty is certainly no utopia. But nor is it a dystopia. That great European Voltaire once wrote that “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” We need utopian visions, just as any journey needs a horizon, and we need cautionary dystopian stories, so that we can see more clearly the logical consequence of our worst actions. Politics, as the art of the possible, must wind its way between these poles. The challenge, in this age of dystopian fictions and utopian dreams, is to find precisely where along the spectrum to pin our hopes.

It Begins With Me

Art and meetings are not entirely antithetical. Consider the work of German-born artist Andrea Geyer. She has documented war and genocide and colonialism through photographs, videos, and text. And sometimes she gathers people together in a museum setting to give a sort of presentation.

“I’ve used the setting of the educational lecture or the lecture room a few times,” Geyer tells FPIF contributor Niels van Tomme in Poetic Document Making. “For me it’s also about psychology, about engaging an audience in a museum context. To achieve that I play with the experiences we all share. When you set up a school situation, people get silent; they listen. There is a certain comfort when sitting in a slide lecture: you’re in the dark with your own thoughts and you’re being told something.”

Finally, check out our final Fiesta! contribution, the fabulous poet Naomi Ayala performing her poem Within Me in this video clip from the Split This Rock poetry festival. The poem begins with this powerful couplet:

War begins right here on my street.
It begins with me.

FPIF, May 25, 2009

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