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Synthesis/Regeneration 53   (Fall 2010)

Eutopia Against Utopia

by R. Burke

Green Politics Is Eutopian, by Paul Gilk, Wipf & Stock, 2007, 235 pp., ISBN 13:978-1-55635-776-3

The word "utopian" has different connotations to different people. To some it conjures up images of a realizable and desirable ideal of what human society might become. To others it suggests unrealistic fantasies which are unattainable delusions. In Green Politics is Eutopian Paul Gilk counterposes the two meanings as a framework for his discussion of matters of social reorganization. To the first meaning he ascribes the word "eutopian" and for the second he uses "utopian." A key insight of his work is that it is precisely civilization as it has existed for thousands of years that is "utopian" in the negative sense of the term. Green politics as he sees it demands that we turn from "utopia" to "eutopia" before environmental, economic and social crises destroy civilization.

Much of the intellectual framework for Gilk's essays comes from what he loosely terms the anarchist political tradition. He defines this as a current of thought that favors a decentralist and community based alternative to the capitalist world-system. Many of the writers which he includes in this category would probably not have considered themselves to be anarchists, and were advocates of much that the current anarchist movement might viscerally reject.

...it is precisely civilization as it has existed for thousands of years
that is "utopian" in the negative sense of the term.

For example, in this category he places the work of Lewis Mumford. While Mumford was undoubtedly influenced by the work of Peter Kropotkin, a pillar of contemporary anarchist thought, he himself was an advocate of world government and saw centralization and decentralization not as mutually exclusive but as existing in a polar relationship in which the pertinent question was the proper balance between the two. Ironically, given his use of the word "utopian," much of the ideas that Gilk draws upon are in the provenance of what has often been termed "utopian socialism." His negative appraisal of civilization echoes the work of that wonderful surrealistic social prophet Charles Fourier, whom Gilk does not mention in his book. These terminological confusions and quibbles aside, Gilk unquestionably draws on the ideas of a number of social and economic thinkers with vital insights whose works deserve to be taken seriously by the Green movement.

In discussing the "utopian" nature of civilization Gilk reveals it to be based on an impulse to separate itself from and dominate nature, an act of hubris which inevitably entails its downfall. It is this unrealistic and futile project that underlies much of what we take for granted in the existing state of affairs and manifests itself in crises such as global warming. In contrast, it is those who seek to change this state of affairs in the direction of the integration into, and cooperation with, nature who are the true realists.

Those who champion the "utopian" project of civilization Gilk describes as practitioners of what C. Wright Mills once termed "crackpot realism." A further problem which complicates the matter is that, until recently at least, much of the anti-systemic movements which have opposed established society have themselves accepted many of the "utopian" assumptions on which civilization is based. Though identifying himself as a socialist, Gilk recognizes that historically socialists have often acted in ways which aggravate rather than solve the dilemma in which contemporary humanity finds itself, particularly their fetishization of growth, productivity, and technological progress.

While Gilk himself lives a lifestyle that might be termed "voluntary simplicity," living in a log cabin in the woods of northern Wisconsin without electricity or running water, he cannot be dismissed as an advocate of primitivism. Rather he is an advocate of the more reasonable approach that might be termed "appropriate technology." He asks us not to unthinkingly embrace every technological advance but to question which technologies we choose to use and to what degree and in what conditions we employ them. He even considers the degree to which civilization itself might have played a "cosmic function" by bringing humanity to the point where it is able to consciously create the "eutopian" society he advocates.

...socialists have often acted in ways which aggravate rather than solve the dilemma
in which contemporary humanity finds itself.

A serious spiritual dimension is apparent in his writing. Paul Gilk identifies himself with the religious rather than the secular left. He criticizes the nervous championing of secularism by progressives and points out that embracing a spiritual aspect to political and social change does not imply eroding barriers between church and state or advocating theocracy. Activists such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X were able to affirm deep spiritual values while functioning effectively in secular politics.

Indeed it might be added that the world left has made little progress in advancing its goals since the days in which these thinkers were alive. Gilk positions himself as a member of the progressive wing of mainstream Christianity. There are similar trends within the realm of alternative and esoteric spirituality. Anarchist author (and Sufi scholar) Peter Lamborn Wilson has termed this "the hermetic left." This is a current of thought with roots in shamanistic traditions which has historically expressed itself in figures such as Giordano Bruno, Charles Fourier, William Blake, and Rudolf Steiner.

In the nineteenth century this became intertwined with the current of "revolutionary romanticism." Influences in the twentieth century include Frankfurt School theorists such as Benjamin and Marcuse as well as the surrealist movement. Wilson has contributed to a recent collection of essays entitled Green Hermeticism, published by the Lindisfarne Press, in which the relevance of the hermetic tradition for the green movement is discussed. Creating an ecologically sustainable alternative to the capitalist world-system necessitates the development of a spirituality with a less antagonistic relationship to the natural world. As Mumford himself has pointed out, it was the spread of a mechanistic world-view which paved the way for the development of capitalism and the ecological damage it has produced.

Given his background, it is surprising then that Gilk is not quite clear on exactly what he wants in terms of actual political and economic structures. This is a pity, for many of his anarchist and "utopian socialist" forebears have much to say on this subject and offer specific demands, such as a guaranteed universal income or Guild Socialism. Lewis Mumford put forth similar demands. It would be interesting to find out how much of Mumford Paul Gilk actually accepts. He does approvingly quote E.F Schumacher but largely as part of a debate about stability versus permanence.

What is heartening is Gilk's rejection of the imperative to grow and expand.

We know he is a socialist but he says little of what kind of socialism he wants. Norman O. Brown and Herbert Marcuse are mentioned but not dealt with in any systematic way. That these figures remain worthwhile for study there is little question, but there is no in-depth exploration which would tell us why this is so and how these thinkers should be understood. For that matter, we are not completely told why they remain relevant.

What is heartening is Gilk's rejection of the imperative to grow and expand, his willingness to question an endless round of production and consumption. Without being a primitive he forces us to question the degree to which we rely on technological fads in the unending quest for an ever receding perfection. This is an intellectual quality which is to be admired. Issues like this need to be examined as we begin to emerge from our postmodern impasse. For that reason Green Politics is Eutopian is a worthwhile book to read.

R. Burke is an artist and teacher. He is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and the Surrealist Movement.

[10 sep 10]

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