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Anti-utopia for new utopias
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In the first half of the twentieth century, utopia suffered the greatest defeat in its history: its overthrow by anti-utopia. With H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) and Zamjatin’s We (1921), but particularly with Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932) and 1984 by George Orwell (1949) – which undoubtedly represent the greatest anti-utopias of the last century – the no-place (ou-topos) of utopia was inverted from being a good-place (eu-topos) into a bad-place, from a dream to be pursued into a nightmare to be avoided.




  • The twentieth century was without doubt the century of anti-utopia and the new century cannot be defined otherwise

  • Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984 actually turned out to be early diagnoses of totalitarianism and opened the doors to an age of anti-utopia

  • The critical function of anti-utopia vis-à-vis utopia is that it represents the only possible path for a new utopia


The cause of this is to be found in the critique of the blind positivistic faith in scientific and technological progress, particularly after the Great War had shown its catastrophic potential. Its effect was to increase the tension towards the future – especially after utopia, thanks to the work of Karl Marx, was made less distant from reality and became a possible reality.


Utopia never managed to recover from that defeat. We can even maintain that, if the eighteenth century was the century of utopia, the twentieth century was without doubt the century of anti-utopia – and from this perspective it seems that so far, the new century cannot be defined otherwise.


Not only because the literary trend is all but exhausted – after those of the second half of the twentieth century, two new important anti-utopias accompany the beginning of our century (Dave Eggers, The Circle, 2013; Michel Houellebecq, Soumission, 2015) – but most of all because Huxley’s and Orwell’s masterpieces really hit the mark.


Firstly, both works actually turned out to be early diagnoses of totalitarianism. Institutionalised lying and the dehumanisation of the individual, the falsification of history and the annihilation of the past, the monopoly of culture and information, the cult of the ‘chief’ as a secular religion and punishment against heterodoxy, the total control of the individual and society through applied psychology: these are only some of the elements that emerge, albeit in different forms, in the two greatest anti-utopias of the twentieth century. They both perfectly intuited some of the characteristics that political philosophy would later identify as being defining features of totalitarianism.


Secondly, both Huxley and Orwell’s totalitarian nightmares remain really possible – besides having already become real in certain aspects – even after the age of totalitarianisms: they intuited, in different forms, “the most devastating ambivalence, the paradox that still paralyses us today” and with which the twentieth century came to a close: “the clamorous contradiction between the omnipotence of the technical means that the century had at its disposal – far greater than that reached in any other historical epoch – and its dramatic inability to achieve almost all of its goals (social, ethical, political) without having to pay a disproportionate price” (Marco Revelli, Oltre il Novecento).


And lastly – and here I speak in particular of Brave New World, in which totalitarianism unfolds in terms of ideology and applied science, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt, rather than ideology and terror (as is more the case in 1984) – those totalitarian nightmares remain real possibilities.


Besides the fact that they have already materialised in certain aspects, they are particularly pertinent when we consider that ours is a century that increasingly appears, and has already been defined by many, as the century of biotechnology, neuroscience, neuropharmacology and genetic engineering.


In other words, thanks to Huxley and Orwell’s intuition, the value of their anti-utopias goes beyond the totalitarianisms of the twentieth century and are still surprisingly and unbelievably current, a long way from having exhausted their tension towards the future, particularly in the case of Brave New World.


In this sense, they opened the doors to an age of anti-utopia that is still not over, and that will not reach its end until the unresolved knots of contemporary liberal-democracies that characterise it are unravelled.


To say that we live in the age of anti-utopia, however, does not amount to declaring the end of utopia, as though the direction that this had taken in the first half of the twentieth century were irreversible.


Besides, the authors of the great anti-utopias – particularly Wells, Zamjatin and Huxley – as well as the announcers of the end of utopia – I am referring here to Herbert Marcuse (The End of Utopia, 1967) – themselves always remained very aware of the irreplaceable need for utopia, and never ceased to pursue and chase, though certainly in very different ways, the utopic perspective.


In fact, the concrete and practical function of utopia for the future of individuals and societies – as Ernst Bloch so poignantly showed in The Principle of Hope (1954-1959) – remains unquestionably not only unique, but unavoidable and necessary, in particular in times of crisis.


The critical function of anti-utopia vis-à-vis utopia, in fact, is not that it sanctions its end but, on the contrary – and perhaps paradoxically – that it represents the only possible path for the rebirth of utopia: for a new utopia.


Concretely, its function is that “of calling attention to every possible deviation from every possible project of organisation of the life of men that loses sight precisely of its fundamental object: man himself” (Luigi Punzo, George Orwell. Antistalinismo e critica del totalitarismo. L’utopia negativa).


In other words, the function of anti-utopia is to represent the inescapable reminder of the really possible totalitarian degenerations of any future project. And the rebirth of utopia itself can only take place by constantly bearing in mind the lessons of anti-utopia.


This will be a new utopia, methodologically based on ways to avoid the really possible totalitarian degenerations, and completely renewed by the direct confrontation with anti-utopia – which thus, as we said above, represents its first step, the only possible path to its rebirth.


This operation of confrontation with anti-utopia is all the more necessary today since, to paraphrase Marcuse, all the material and intellectual means now exist to really achieve utopias; or since, to paraphrase Berdjaev, utopias are now achievable and we need to think, rather, about how to avoid them, if they carry the risk of a society that is more perfect but less free. 


The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union represents a concrete operating model for Europe. Article 3, titled “Right to the integrity of the person”, specifies in paragraph 1 that “Everyone has the right to respect for his or her physical and mental integrity”, whilst paragraph 2 reads that “in the fields of medicine and biology, the following must be respected in particular: - the free and informed consent of the person concerned, according to the procedures laid down by law, - the prohibition of eugenic practices, in particular those aiming at the selection of persons, - the prohibition on making the human body and its parts as such a source of financial gain, - the prohibition of the reproductive cloning of human beings”.


That of fundamental rights represents a new utopia for Europe, because it is methodologically based on how to avoid anti-utopia. In the words of one of the Charter’s signatories, in fact, these norms are explicitly intended to “chase away the phantoms evoked by the two great negative utopias of the twentieth century – the nightmare of the programmed production of human beings that we encounter in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and the society of surveillance and total manipulation that George Orwell imagines in 1984” (Stefano Rodotà, Il diritto di avere diritti).


In conclusion, living in the age of anti-utopia does not mean closing the doors to hope. What it means, on the other hand, is increasing our awareness that, after anti-utopia, utopia can never be the same, it can no longer be like before: there can only be a utopia methodologically based on avoiding anti-utopia.


This means, in practice, that whatever project – of a political, economic, legal, ethical, social nature – must constantly confront itself and reckon with the lesson of anti-utopia.


In other words, this means that Orwell’s 1984 and especially Huxley’s Brave New World must be constant references in the liberal-democratic debate in the discussion of every project, every utopia which, after anti-utopia, must use this as a warning to really construct a eu-topia. A eu-topia for which Europe already has a methodological model in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.


In philosophical terms, the reversal of the hope principle into the desperation principle does not intend to sanction the end of utopia, but rather to activate the responsibility principle for an accurate analysis and reflection on the ends and means, so that a possibility principle can re-emerge – in the form of a reasonable utopia – from the terrible lessons of political realism to which anti-utopia binds utopia.



Further readings:

Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, in “Official Journal of the European Communities”, 18 December 2000, 2000/c 364/01


Luigi Punzo, “Conclusioni”, in M. Ceretta [ed.], George Orwell. Antistalinismo e critica del totalitarismo. L’utopia negativa, Firenze, Olschki 2007


Marco Revelli, Oltre il Novecento, Torino, Einaudi 2001


Stefano Rodotà, Il diritto di avere diritti, Roma-Bari, Laterza 2012




Translated by Teresa O'Connell


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