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  • Two Cheers for Blueprints, or, Negative Reasons for Positive Utopianism
  • Antonis Balasopoulos (bio)

It is well known that the decline of programmatic or so-called blueprint utopias and utopianism came on the heels of a widespread and concerted attack against them during the first two decades of the Cold War. In the writings of thinkers like Hayek, Popper, Talmon, Kolakowski, and many others, program became synonymous with hubris.1 It was construed as a dangerous effort to regulate the diversity of human subjectivity and the complexity of the social organism, a repressive will-to-order and predictability that tainted utopias by associating them with Totalitarianism. In Popper’s exemplary exposition:

The Utopian attempt to realize an ideal state, using a blueprint for society as a whole, is one which demands a strong centralized rule of a few, and which therefore is likely to lead to a dictatorship. [. . .] [Utopia] claims to plan rationally for the whole of society, although we do not possess anything like the factual knowledge which would be necessary to make good such an ambitious claim.2 [End Page 489]

Yet, though this view of how Utopia, to recall Robert C. Elliott, became “a bad word,” is accurate in itself, it also reflects only the negative or destructive side of Cold War anti-utopianism, a trend whose logical inconsistencies and ideological biases have already been ably dissected in the work of Russell Jacoby, Marc Olssen, and Darren Webb, to name but a few.3

What one could term the “positive” or “productive” side of anti-utopian denunciations of the dogmatically programmatic character allegedly inherent in utopias went well beyond the exigencies of generating a geopolitical and ideological enemy image. It involved an effort to reconcile western subjects to seismic and highly consequential shifts within postwar, late-capitalist societies themselves. If, as I have argued elsewhere, utopian fictions (and, indeed, nonfictions) before the Cold War period can be read as fictions of organization—of everything from architecture and urban planning, to production, sexuality and biological reproduction, clothing, or diet—it is also the case that in them, “organization” is a response, a reaction to traumatic historical experiences of disorganization, from the decline of the ancient city-state in the case of Platonic utopianism; to the impoverishment and dislocation of rural communities in the era of Thomas More; to the experience of the fracturing of religious community during the religious, civil, and international wars that marked the seventeenth century; to the dramatic impact of early nineteenth-century industrialization on artisanal and agrarian communities, on family cohesion and on the rhythms of the premodern working day.4

My argument is, then, that the anti-utopian denunciation of blueprint and program was not simply motivated by the liberal capitalist attack against the planned and highly regulated character of economy and society in the countries of so-called actually existing socialism. It was also motivated by the ideological need to normalize and legitimize the transition, within western capitalist societies themselves, to what Scott Lash and John Urry called “disorganized capitalism.” Lash and Urry’s book, originally published during the decade of the triumphant rise of neoliberalism, in 1987, launches its investigation by tellingly quoting the passage of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto that focuses on the creatively destructive aspects of capitalist social transformation: the bourgeoisie, Lash and Urry observe, is a class “with vested interest in change, crisis and chaos”; the social world over which it presides is one “which swings wildly out of control, menacing and destructive.”5 In their introduction, the authors outline the basic features of the postwar shift from the organized capitalism of the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to its disarticulated successor formation during the rise of [End Page 490] neoliberal governance. Under the rubric of “disorganization” (which is to say, of a mutation within the western capitalist economic and social order), they include de-industrialization and the decline in the absolute and relative size of the working class in the core capitalist economies; the rise of flexible forms of labor organization in the place of defunct Taylorist principles; the weakening of trade unionist organization; the increasing decoupling of large monopolies from the control and regulation...