Article: My Own Private Utopia

by Peter Beilharz (Sichuan University)

Clarice Beckett, Across the Yarra (1931). NGV, Melbourne.

Utopia has always been part of my world, ever since I started thinking about it. Was this 1968? A little after, later in high school. Utopia seemed ubiquitous; the possibilities of new worlds abundant. Hell, or dystopia was there nightly on TV, in the reports on the war in Vietnam. Utopia, the dream of better worlds was a theme emerging in my reading, in the world of the imagination, and in a strange sense, intuitively in my everyday life practices. There were prospects of social alternatives, left, left and maybe even centre.

I first met the idea of utopia in the library at Croydon High School in 1971 – libraries might even count as utopias in themselves. My brilliant teacher, the labour historian N W Saffin, bid me to read Edward Bellamy’s utopian romance Looking Backward, 1888 and then William Lane, The Workingman’s Paradise, 1892. I left my parental home the day after my HSC results came in the mail, and set up a new home with my brother, Fred, in Lilydale, then still kind of rural, end of the line, where the railway station still had a snug, or tiny standup bar. We called our place Frog Hollow or Serene House, depending on what day it was. We shared the house, and most everything else. We shared incense and patchouli, beans and rice, cigarettes and other smoking devices, flagon wine, cider and beer, shirts and coats and boots, books and vinyl. There was endless music, played loud on a small turntable plugged into Fred’s bass amp. We both produced and consumed music, following round and playing with bands like Chain and the Aztecs in the city and the eastern suburbs. Some of these experiences were ecstatic.

Radical politics and prog rock were all mixed up together then. One of Chain’s best period songs, unrecorded, was called ‘My Arse is Black with Bourke Street’, a celebration of the Vietnam Moratoria. I hadn’t at this stage understood that Hendrix was also popular with the armed forces in Vietnam, or had been a paratrooper himself. I was young. There was much to learn, not least about those who thought and lived differently to me. For us, it was War? What is it good for? Or, War is Over – If you want it. That was the Lennon/Ono poster pasted to my bass drum head.

So we were hippies, always getting into trouble for the way we looked, ‘girly longhairs’. We were surprised by how much stick we got, from wrinklies but also from sharpies – Melbourne’s peculiar version of ‘skinheads’– minding our own business there. We learned that visuals, looks alone, were sufficient to prompt moral panic. For we were busy, and not only lazy, working hard at the creation of culture, of reading, writing and study. The Protestant Ethic shadowed us even then. We were reading the Russian classics and Kerouac, magazines like Downbeat, Melody Maker and Go Set for music, Simply Living and Social Alternatives, Nation Review and Revolution for politics. Revolution: A good idea, perhaps.

Music gave way to Marxism, for me, sound to print. My road took me from Rusden Teachers College to Monash, where music and Marxism came in equal measure. Utopia was always there. The library was a cavern. We read Gramsci: we read Marcuse. With Gramsci we argued about the idea of prefigurative socialism; with Marcuse, and with Michael Leunig, we worried that we were all soon to disappear under an avalanche of consumer goods, and spend the rest of our lives chasing the rodents in the ratrace. We read Huxley, and Orwell; we worried about brave new worlds, and about the possible arrival of Big Brother. Utopia was everywhere, for better and for worse.

I spent more time thinking about utopia, and reading its literature. In 1992 I published a book called Labour’s Utopias. It had at least two larger arcs, or axes: first, that we each and all had some kind of personal utopia, or idea of the good society; second, that when it came to Marxism, revolutionaries and reformists differed not only on the questions of means, but also on possible ends. Some socialists wanted to head back, to the past; others on, and up, to more and more modernity. Some wanted to outperform capitalism, others to go back to the simple life. Some dreamed of the utopia of meaningful and creative activity, others of hedonism, abundance and laziness. Some, like Marx, dreamed of the utopia of creative labour; others, like Trotsky, of Faustian futurism, where the transformation of human nature itself was the goal without end.  

I was drawn to Fourier, and to Marx’s playful tease of him in The German Ideology. Could we really seek to be multiple in our identities and skills and capacities, huntsman-herdsman-fisherman-critic or a modern version thereof? I was attracted to Kropotkin and to William Morris, even if his attack on Bellamy was a caricature. The popularity of the theme of alienation in Marx made it clear: humans might also aspire to a state of non-alienated labour. I came to argue that contrary to the orthodox reception, Marx’s own work was guided by differing images of utopia. There were at least five of them, shifting from green to grey across the path of his life and his accommodation to industrialism. Then there was everything that came after and alongside Marx, in anarchism and other social alternatives. Labour’s Utopias stuck to what followed from Marxism: Bolshevism and Social Democracy, Fabianism at a tangent. The literature on utopia was also booming. Sci-fi and feminism led the way. The scholarly work of the Manuels, J F C Davis and Krishan Kumar flourished; soon there was even a journal called Utopian Studies.

The tipping point in this story of socialist utopia was 1917. The Soviet experiment sought the impossible: utopia in power. Marxism became a critical theory, via the Frankfurt School, while at the same time it became a state ideology, with Lenin and Stalin. This was a utopia beyond refusal, which meant immediately that it had to be refused. Zygmunt Bauman had warned in Socialism – the Active Utopia that this would endanger the dream of socialism, where utopia was a possible endgoal, not an actual state to be achieved. After the Russian Revolution utopia and dystopia became something of a hinge. Dreams and nightmares became inseparable. Marx had warned that the road to hell was paved with good intentions. There was Vietnam; and then there was Afghanistan, and Kampuchea. Utopia was getting a bad name.

And in the antipodes? Saffin had bid me read Looking Backward, but also Humphrey McQueen’s A New Britannia.  McQueen was incendiary, a double banger. First, we were now to consider that the Australian labour movement’s history was racist. Second, we had to confront the claim that its dreams were petty bourgeois. In Australia, as in the United States, the hope of labour was less the utopia of free labour, than the dream of the exit from labour. I wrote another book in 1994, called Transforming Labor. For in the meantime there was technocratic Labor, or the short history of social democracy in Australia, and then the ALP-ACTU Accord, these running together with the impulse to globalisation, neoliberalism and deregulation. One theme of Transforming Labor was that the ALP and the labour movement were both the agent and the victim of these larger global transformations.

Labor’s brave new world upset the pattern of earlier routine tropes, white fantasies of bush and beach (all these of course eliding the fact of stolen lands). Utopia became privatised. There are many more local stories that could be told here, from William Lane to Mildura and Canberra, from the utopia of the basic wage to the pursuit of the dream of harmony through Arbitration and other such state experiments. Hugh Stretton once told me the story of R H Tawney’s visit to Adelaide. Stretton: What would utopia look like? Tawney – this is it, right here – you are in it. Maybe all this was fogged by the image of the Lucky Country, intended by Horne as a joke, just as was Lane’s sarcastic reference to the workers paradise, never quite what others made it out to be.

What happened across all those years?  Even in the seventies all my friends were getting married. The kids I went to school with got jobs out of Matric or Leaving, raised families, built homes, maybe voted for Whitlam, created their own modest utopias in the outer suburbs. Their horizons, and ours, were to work hard, to seek to secure a home, to make a life at work and at home. There were endless jokes back then that utopia was in the backyard. This was a modest place, Hills Hoist, charcoal BBQ, esky, maybe a paddling pool if there were children. Then the postwar boom came to an end; yet material affluence expanded endlessly, for those able to access and secure it. This was the Antipodean version of the American Dream.

This utopia of work became overshadowed by the scale of suburbia and the dream of real estate as an alternative income strategy, rather than simple labour. ‘Wyewurk’, where D H Lawrence had worked, having written Kangaroo, was then a dream of freedom from shitwork, or at least from the dull tedium of repetition. Now the alternative to working is to become a serial landlord. Houses, like property portfolios grew in size, sprouting outdoor kitchens and lap pools, indoor cinemas, jet skis and SUVs to spare. It looked like Marcuse had been right all along: we were awash in consumption, or in the dream of sharing in the promise of its cornucopia. Shitwork, on the other hand, has proliferated, as casualisation extended and multiplied, proletariat become precariat. Some of us have more than one home, and others no home at all.

And me? I was one of the lucky ones, to have a secure job for many years, baby boomer to hippie to professor. Now I live in a small white cube in the city, sometimes working in another bigger city, in Chengdu. We have no backyard, but can rent a car or share BBQ facilities on the Yarra. At least I no longer have to mow the lawn. Or wash the car.

Have I given up on the idea of utopia? Bauman’s final book was called Retrotopia. When you can no longer dream forward, then you may dream back. Authoritarian Populist utopias all point back. Brexit, Make America Great Again. Our local engagement with Covid looks back, to a return to business as usual, inequality and precarity as usual; more lost opportunities. The future looks scary, except perhaps to those who have nothing to lose, or who feel safe in the bubble. Utopias will remain on the horizon, for we know that we can do better, but also that there are those who may be ready to force matters in the direction of their own utopias. This is nothing new: Hitler and Heidegger had utopias too. Who is to dwell in these new worlds, or old? The story of utopias is not over yet.

As for me, I’m too old to change, to give up on my own private utopia. The younger people around me seem to be acting out hopes that look like mine, when I was young. The very youngest people in my life so far know all the possibilities, and little of the limits of our times. The principle of hope still has its carriers.

Peter Beilharz is Professor of Critical Theory at Sichuan University. His most recent books are Intimacy in Postmodern TimesA Friendship with Zygmunt Bauman (2020) and Circling Marx (2020).

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