I campaigned strongly to remain in Europe believing that love, compassion, tolerance and trust are the foundation upon which we can best build our lives. For me as for many others, the union of nations – each sovereign within the greater alliance – working together to tackle borderless issues such as climate change and the refugee crisis was the natural option that arose from this fundamental belief in my fellow human beings. I knew that the EU wasn’t perfect: the creeping rise of fascism across Europe and the corporately driven neoliberal agenda of the union were big issues which ultimately split many voters on the left. As a Green Party member and supporter I stood with Caroline Lucas, Natalie Bennett and the Green MEPs in calling for remain with tough reform.
When the country voted out I was devastated and cried uncontrollably.
Then I had to pick myself up and realise what we’d done and what we were now going to do. Walking in the sea on the south coast, where I am closer to France than to London, the first thoughts that came to me were that the priority now is to continue to unite in love, to be committed to collaboration, and to make links and join with others – in this country and across Europe and the world – who also believe that a better way is possible and who are living their lives as consciously as possible in love. There are many such communities in the world and I’ve always admired them from afar – little conscious utopias existing on the fringes of mainstream society committed to living differently, living vibrantly, living love. This unprecedented cataclysm in the direction of the life of the UK sharpened my focus on what matters to me most. But of course, the seductively romantic image of a perfectly loving utopian community is an illusion.
My next realisation was that the enormous gaping chasm of uncertainty that we now face, where just a few days ago there was the rough outline of a reasonably achievable life plan, means that suddenly everything is open, everything is possible, everything has shifted. Whilst I recognise that staring into the void is a terrifying prospect for many, for me it feels deeply liberating, exciting and empowering – an awakening to the true and hidden potential that exists within every moment, if only we were brave enough to crack it open from time to time. This, to me, is the embodiment of the yogic goddess Kali, the destroyer. She is fierce and fearsome with her garland of human skulls, her skirt of severed limbs and her sword raised above her head. Yet she also holds up a hand with an open palm in the gesture meaning ‘fear not’. She destroys the illusion of the certainty and stability of the present moment and in her wake creates the new an unexpected. She is change. Creation and destruction in their perpetual dance of time. I do not fear her, and I do not fear change or the unexpected. I embrace the vibrant potential that has been unleashed.
I also understand that the void that’s been opened has the real risk of being filled with darkness – the swooping far-right feeding on the chaos and destruction, the fear that people are understandably feeling, the racism that has been increasing since the referendum as a result of the divisive campaigns based around immigration and xenophobia. This is a real and present possibility that we are facing, and it has been written about extensively elsewhere. It is a reality we must face rather than deny and we must unite in love to prevent this possibility from arising. The open chasm of possibility is waiting to see which direction we will choose. I believe that the subjective agency of each of us in co-creation with one another and the universe is vital at this point to bring about the light. Times of possibility always contain the potential for opposites to emerge – it is not inevitable that we will move humanity in a positive direction from here, but neither is it inevitable that we won’t. As ever, the collective will and the collective energy is ours. We must decide in every moment to be the love. Or we will hold the door wide open to hate.
From this, I am starting to cultivate a kind of Buddhist perspective of non-judgement: given that there were strong arguments for and against on both the sides of leave and remain, the outcome we now face is neither intrinsically good nor intrinsically bad, it just is what it is. Thus collectively we must grasp very quickly that we have both the power and the responsibility to shape the outcome according to our hearts. And it really is our hearts we should be listening to on this. What actions, small or large, can we choose to take in each moment to be an expression of the lovelight that we are? Anyone who’s been cultivating a spiritual practice in the times leading up to this needs to know – NOW IS THE TIME YOU’VE BEEN WAITING FOR. Wake up to the love you are in this moment, the love you are in every moment, and BE THE LOVE you are: the love you want to see emerge from this void of uncertainty and potential. This awakening is open to you now. Whoever you are or wherever you’re from, whether you’ve ever even had a spiritual practice or not. If you’re reading this YOU ARE AWAKE. If you are a sentient being or an inanimate object or in any way composed of vibrating atoms and molecules YOU ARE LOVE. Now we must face the reality we’ve been given and step up to take our place as co-creators of this time.
The EU referendum campaigns on both sides were mostly, I believe, a combination of two different but related toxic utopian ideologies. The most mainstream of these has been the toxic utopian ideology of nostalgia. A toxic utopian ideology of nostalgia works by creating a mythology of ‘the way things were’ and functions through the subjective and collective illusion of the memory of things being better in the past. Psychoanalysis teaches us that memory, like all types of narrative, is slippery, open to revision and ripe for fiction. Collective mythologies of the past can be created and manipulated through stories and images harking back to a ‘great’ history that could be recovered if only things in the present weren’t like they are now. The narrative requires a villain, and it is often the racially or religiously ‘other’ who is made to stand for all the ills collectively experienced by the nostalgic group. This kind of toxic utopian nostalgia was a very successful strategy for the election and rise of the Nazi Party in the 1930s, and unfortunately it’s been rekindled again recently in some of the high profile campaigns for Leave, such as Nigel Farage’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster campaign. However, an equally toxic utopian nostalgia for neoliberalism could also be said to have been at the centre of the official Remain campaign.
Less mainstream is another kind of toxic utopian ideology, which is apocalyptic. A toxic apocalyptic utopian ideology works by creating a narrative that projects forward to a mythological future which is deemed certain to come about if only things in the present weren’t as they are now. This functions by manipulating people’s hopes and fears for the future, in the same way as the nostalgic utopia manipulates the narrative of memory or history. The apocalyptic narrative suggests that the better future is inevitable if the right changes are brought about and therefore all means are necessary and acceptable to obtain it. It’s what violent and bloody revolutions are founded on. The scapegoats of this kind of ideology are usually ‘the establishment’ and ‘the mainstream’ – vague and nebulous entities that are assumed to hold all the power and must therefore have it wrested from them. David Icke’s campaign for Brexit based on his One World Government conspiracy theory could be an example of this. Yet there’s also a utopian, but less toxic, future-oriented ideology in the left’s remain and reform campaign.
Both the toxic nostalgic utopian ideology and the toxic apocalyptic utopian ideology have many points in common and operate in basically the same way. Both serve to take our focus away from the present moment and direct it outwards to either the past or the future by manipulating popular narratives. Once we step out of the present moment, we are no longer standing in the power of our own consciousness and we are no longer standing in love. To sacrifice the present for the future (or the past) is to step out of being in alignment, weakening our potential to be the love and light we are in the world. Once we accept a path of violent revolution we have lost the way to utopia. For utopia is a process: the journey rather than the destination. To take the path of violence, hatred and anger won’t lead to a non-violent outcome in the end, however far we walk down it. The path we take is the way we are going. Both ideologies also operate by being divisive – setting ‘us’ up against ‘them’ as fixed oppositions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ without recognising that all dualities are illusion.
The focus of each of these utopian ideologies is the end-point, the teleological outcome of a better world that would be obtained in the end. For this, the sacrifice of the present moment and the sacrifice of the other seem small prices to pay for the greater good that’s supposed to be coming. The desired outcome is always located elsewhere, in a time other than the present moment.
But as soon as we sacrifice the present moment and as soon as we sacrifice our connection with all beings – including those we are unable to recognise as like ourselves – we have sacrificed it all. Most significantly, we have sacrificed ourselves. No longer aware of the present moment, focused only on the fictions of a desired past or future, severing our connections in this moment with all that is and all who are, we become toxic ourselves and feed into the general heady mix of toxic utopian ideology. It’s easy to slip into. Yet there is a way out.
Utopian philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885 – 1977) spent the majority of the twentieth century considering the problems and the possibilities of utopia. He was writing in Germany at the time of both the first and second world wars and had first-hand experience of the ways that the Nazi ideology was based upon a toxic utopian nostalgia. Bloch was a Marxist himself, although unorthodox, and he had messianic mystical beliefs which also fed into his own utopian philosophy. In some ways, these combined beliefs helped at times to turn Bloch’s own utopianism into a toxic ideology: despite stating clearly that utopia is a process not an outcome, Bloch advocated the carrying of a gun as a necessary step towards obtaining a socialist utopia. I have explored this paradox in more detail in a recent essay. However, Bloch’s personal seduction into an outcome-based utopia aside, his philosophy itself is very clear about utopia as that which is ‘in the process of being’ rather than a future-oriented teleological end-point.
For Bloch, it is the dialectic and dynamic interrelationship between subjective agency and objective reality that keeps ‘utopia’ in constant flux and motion, always just a little bit beyond our current reach. The process works like this: we have a dream of something better, we take action to implement that dream and bring it into reality, in its contact with reality it necessarily becomes something slightly less perfect than it was in our initial dream of it, so having obtained it, we then have a new vision of something even better and so on. It is a process of desiring something better that can never fully be satisfied. It requires subjective agency, or individual/collective will and action, to bring it about: it is not an inevitable outcome of an objective process that would happen with or without us. We are a part of its co-creation. Just as it doesn’t come into being exactly as we wished it: the objective world around us also shapes the limitations and possibilities of what it can be. It’s a co-creative process that only works as an interrelationship between us and the universe we inhabit. We call it in and take action to bring it about; the world shapes it according to the circumstances of the time. We see that it’s not quite the perfect thing we imagined, so we keep working towards something better. It’s a continual process. Not an outcome.
Therefore, we need to be mindful of our actions and intentions in bringing it about, because every step we take is the path itself. Awareness of the present moment and our interconnectedness with all things and all beings is the most heart-centred way to engage with the utopian process, and only absolute vigilance will prevent us from being seduced into a toxic ideology.
The question that arises from utopia being a process not an outcome is ‘how do you know when you’ve achieved it?’ I think there are two answers to this. The first is, ‘we only know that we haven’t’ – because we always know that the process is still unfolding, therefore we haven’t reached the end of it and we never will. The second is slightly more tangible. Ruth Levitas argues that the crux of Bloch’s utopian philosophy, and what it has in common with other, different, utopian ideas is the concept of non-alienation. For Bloch, as for other utopian thinkers, utopia comes down to the non-alienation of self from other (the inter-relation and interdependence of subject and object) and the non-alienation of self from the world (the subjective from the objective). Essentially, as the bracketed terms indicate, I believe these are the same thing: non-alienation or non-separation of self from non-self. As was so central in the arguments for the EU referendum, each individual self is autonomous and dignified within the interrelationship of the collective whole. That so many people felt this was lacking is a telling symptom that we are definitely not yet in utopia.
Through my own research I have come to understand utopia as a space, rather than a place. Thomas More’s coinage – ‘utopia’ – literally translates as no-place, whilst having homophonic echoes of eutopia (no pun intended) which would mean good place, or perfect place. For this reason, and for many of the reasons of toxic ideology stated above, many people take this to mean that utopia is fantasy, unobtainable, unrealistic. Bloch didn’t think so and neither do I. But it does require a realignment of what we understand by utopia. If utopia is in the past or the future, or if it requires us to disconnect from ourselves, the present moment, the world or all beings, it does not exist and never will.
If however it is something we experience in the awareness of the present moment, in the gaps and silences between words and thoughts, in the spaces and interactions between one being and another or the world, then it is here and now and we can let go of all our striving.
I believe that it is in cultivating utopia now in each and every moment, as the energy that moves our actions and decisions, that we can experience utopia for ourselves and also play the greatest part in bringing about a positive change on the earth for all beings.
Utopia is not in the future or the past it is now. Now we are called to live it.