Is this even possible?!

Author: André Boße |
Photo: Nadine Redlich
Thinking in terms of utopia means looking forward with courage. For some time now, that has been harder and harder for us to do. Even though the future urgently needs shaping. What kind of utopia will do justice to the world of today?

Utopia, this beautiful alternate locale, is not so far away from Germany. Just a few hours to the south, in fact: Venice, Italy. This city was “built on the sea, and from there it grows upwards into the sky”. That’s how Jörg Metelmann puts it. The historic centre of Venice arose on 118 small islands. A crazy idea – one could almost call it urban-planning presumptuousness. And yet, that’s exactly what utopia is about: it has to differentiate itself positively from what we consider normal; it is allowed – and obliged – to look and grow beyond the conventional. Metelmann, a cultural scholar at the University of St Gallen, is currently spending a research semester in Venice, and when he talks about the city, you can sense how the utopian magic affects him, how it inspires his “sense of possibility” – a sense of what could be (better).

Unfortunately, though, Venice is reaching the tipping point, in terms of preservation. Day in and day out, far, far too many people are trampling this utopia into oblivion. There are 54,000 people living in the historic centre of Venice, and every year they are literally set upon by 30 million tourists. Many of these tourists come for just one day, arriving at the city on monstrous cruise ships that inundate Venice with travellers eager for photos, trinkets and espresso. While it is true that the largest ships will soon be required to dock somewhat outside the Venetian Lagoon, in an industrial harbour, this won’t change the situation that much. “I thought, This can’t actually be happening,” says Jörg Metelmann of the spectacle. “This is beyond the realm of all that is possible.”

Here, utopia becomes a deficient reality. And Venice is not an isolated case: On paper, the New Testament is a lesson in mercy and humility. It’s absurd, then, how for years the Catholic Church has used the New Testament to support its claims to power. The ideas of Marx and Engels on capitalism are, in many respects, sound. However, the communist states that were founded on these ideas are not. In the course of human history, all manner of nonsense and numerous atrocities have been carried out by means of utopias. It’s no wonder, then, that we postmodern humans are less and less interested in envisioning ingenious and desirable scenarios, not to mention rolling up our sleeves and working to make such visions a reality.

“If you can dream it, you can do it,” Walt Disney once said. In Germany, on the other hand, people are more likely to quote former chancellor Helmut Schmidt: “If you have a vision, go to a doctor.” Schmidt’s words have become a kind of carte blanche for us to refrain from occupying ourselves with supposedly unrealistic things. Because it smacks of sickness. Better to be as down to earth and serene as the typical Cologne resident: “Es kütt, wie es kütt” – “It comes as it comes.” Past, present, future: all one, all the same. Really, now?

Headache? No – an idea.

Anything but a master plan!

We ask Harald Welzer for help. The social psychologist’s focus is on Western societies’ future-weariness. And it makes him wonder: “Stagnation would be understandable if we were doing well. But that’s not how it is. Everybody is constantly agitated, there’s outrage all around, the general mood is bad.” Welzer pauses to laugh heartily. “Hyperconsumption ensures that we have everything – and yet we feel like shit. That’s the joke!”

Welzer’s analysis has struck a nerve in Germany. His book “Alles könnte anders sein” (“Everything Could Be Different”) is selling well. His triple leap in thought goes, rather pointedly, like this: (1) The consumer prosperity generated by capitalism is destroying Earth. (2) So, we must oppose it with a society that is not oriented solely towards growth and consumption. (3) Which means that we can be better off afterwards than we are today – because, as already mentioned, money and prosperity alone do not make us happy. Does this thinking into the future still have anything to do with a utopia, as conceived by the builders of Venice or by Walt Disney? Or is it the desperate attempt to escape the apocalypse right before it is too late? Welzer snorts – he has his difficulties with the end of the world. He notes a bizarre “lust for zombification”, and he can explain it: “To say that everything is coming to an end – that’s the cheap way to escape utopian thinking.” He demands that we get to work: civil society, companies and especially politics, which Welzer says has completely lost its imagination. “Modernity was once an epoch of utopias. That has completely run its course.”

Utopia: the term became known and effective in 1516 thanks to the British statesman and humanist Thomas More. In his book “Utopia”, he describes an imaginary island as an ideal alternative to the feudal and papal state of his day, which in his view was not beneficial. “More constructed a space that does not exist,” Welzer explains. Young children do this every day when they play with Lego or Playmobil sets. In terms of conceptual history, this spatial utopia was followed by temporal one: “This sort of utopia plays out out in a familiar place,” says Welzer, “but creates a scenario that has not yet come into existence.” Marx offered an idea of this sort of utopia. A science fiction film such as “Blade Runner” serves as its counterpart: the temporal dystopia, the future in grey.

“What we need today is a new, third form of utopia,” Welzer says. This would no longer serve as a master-plan utopia. Thomas More still had such a master plan when he described his island called Utopia. The communists also had one when they set up the German Democratic Republic. And, unfortunately, the Nazis had one, too. “History has taught us the bitter lesson that master-plan utopias give rise to disaster and calamity,” says Welzer. “We should leave this concept alone.” In its stead, Welzer proposes a small, concrete and realistic utopia update that “builds on what we have already achieved in terms of civilisation – for example, the welfare state, or labour law”. Somehow, this sounds fragmented at first, but this type of utopia is located in the here and now. It is based on this current society, connects to our actual successes and challenges – but does not despair. Instead, it works out solutions for the future and envisions them.

Patience, please

“Imagineering” – that’s what cultural scholar Jörg Metelmann calls the technique of imagining things that are both desirable and practicable. He has borrowed the word from Walt Disney, saying that it helps to think about reason and utopia in a unified way. “First of all, this term contains the idea of implementation, with its technical aspects such as efficiency and responsibility,” he says. This is what we Germans – as engineering experts – are used to. For example, autonomously driving cars: Even before they are on the road, lawyers, ethicists and insurers have already clarified many liability issues. And that’s a good thing! “What causes us greater difficulties is the second level of the concept, namely that of imagination,” says Metelmann. In a society in which almost all supposed experiences of happiness are permanently possible through consumption, the ability to imagine a different life suffers: “We lack the imagination necessary to envision a world that is no longer driven from outside in the form of consumer offers, but rather in which desires develop from within, out of ourselves.” In other words, the ability to ask yourself not “What do Amazon, Google & Co. think I should want?” but rather “What is important to me?”

From here, the world looks very different.

That sounds abstract. Until you talk to Sima Gatea, who is working on turning this form of value utopia into reality. She grew up in Toronto, comes from a family with North American and Arabic roots, studied in Heidelberg, and is a coach for “social innovation” and a partner in SINGA Deutschland, an organisation whose mission is bringing locals and newcomers together at the local level – in order to start a business, for example. “Our goal is an open society that promotes natural networks, so that people who have something in common get to know each other much faster,” explains Gatea. It is strange that local communities often define themselves by who lives where, for how long, and where someone originally comes from. “Name, passport, origin, skin colour – none of that matters when you discover that you can agree on common interests, experiences or goals.” In addition to her work at SINGA, Gatea is committed to Europe, giving language lessons to asylum seekers and helping refugee families. She is perfectly aware that there are people who, at first glance, pursue a completely different utopia, one organised around the motto “Borders are closed, we are one people – and you are not!” Which brings us to the question: Is it permissible to reject the utopias of others if they do not fit into one’s sociopolitical scheme? Or do we have to be prepared for a competition of utopias?

Harald Welzer makes a case for the latter. His approach? Good storytelling. “It’s about taking utopias and combining them with a positive story. For example, those who constantly link the idea of a sustainable future with concepts such as abstention, loss and prohibition – they’re playing into the hands of those who are opposed to a utopia of sustainability.” Sima Gatea’s approach goes beyond the “utopian arms race”, searching for common ground: to her, terms such as border, homeland, passport or citizen are technocratic, and are too quick to concern themselves with specific details. “The basis of a utopia is our values, and I believe that we share them with more people than we generally realise.” Who can’t agree on the worth of justice and equality? The value of patience, listening to one another and being valued as a human being? “It is interesting,” she says, “that exactly these values are demanded from all sides. So why not try to form a society on the basis of these common values?”

Sound utopian? That’s exactly the point.