Utopia, not futurism: Why doing the impossible is the most rational thing we can do

Murray Bookchin at the Toward Tomorrow Fair, mid-1970s. All photos by Lionel Delevingne.

by Murray Bookchin

On August 24, 1978, Murray Bookchin gave a lecture at the Toward Tomorrow Fair in Amherst, Massachusetts. Also speaking at that year’s gathering were several prominent thinkers, including R. Buckminster Fuller and Ralph Nader. In his speech, Bookchin argues against the ideology of futurism and for ecological utopianism. In the Q&A session, he points out that he is not against technology itself, he is against technocracy, and he also describes, in detail, his political vision for the future.

The speech is surprisingly relevant in today’s context: it’s as if he predicted the rise of fascist ideology and lifeboat ethics in the 21st century, and it feels like a direct rebuttal of Elon Musk-esque technocratic futurism on both the right and the left.

Because his speech is so applicable today, we decided to republish it here, making it accessible to a wider audience. It has been transcribed and edited lightly for flow, brevity, and grammar, and we have divided it into sub-sections for ease of reading. The text is published with the permission of The Bookchin Trust.

This morning at eleven o’clock, I tried to explain to you why I was not an environmentalist, but rather was an ecologist. And I tried to give you some idea, at least from my point of view, what ecology meant, as distinguished from environmentalism. The point that I tried to make most fundamentally is that environmentalism tries to patch things up, applies band-aids, cosmetics, to the environment. It sort of takes hold of nature, strokes it, and says, ‘Produce!’ It tries to use soil, pour chemicals into it and if only they weren’t poisonous everything would be great. Whereas ecology believes in a genuine harmonization of humanity with nature. And that harmonization of humanity with nature depends fundamentally on the harmonization of human beings with each other. The attitude that we’ve had towards nature has always depended on the attitude we’ve had towards each other. Let’s not kid ourselves, there is no such thing as a ‘pure nature.’ 

The simple fact now is that I’m not only not an environmentalist, I’ve got some hot news—I’m not a futurist. I’m not a futurist at all. I’m a utopian. I want to see this word revived. I want to see us use it. I want to see us think utopian. Not think futurism. And it’s these questions that I’d like to talk about, if I may.

Murray Bookchin at the Toward Tomorrow Fair, 1977.

What is futurism?

What is futurism? Futurism is the present as it exists today, projected, one hundred years from now. That’s what futurism is. If you have a population of X billions of people, how are you going to have food, how are you going to do this… nothing has changed. All they do is they make everything either bigger, or they change the size—you’ll live in thirty story buildings, you’ll live in sixty-story buildings. Frank Lloyd Wright was going to build an office building that was one mile high. That was futurism.

The simple fact is, I just don’t believe that we have to extend the present into the future. We have to change the present so that the future looks very, very different from what it is today. This is a terribly important notion to convey. So a lot of people are walking around today who sound very idealistic. And what do they want to do? They want multinational corporations to become multi-cosmic corporations [laughter from the audience]—literally! 

They want to bring them up in space, they want to colonize the Moon, they can’t wait to go to Jupiter, much less Mars. They’re all very busy, they’re coming around, they even have long hair and they even have beards, and they come around and they say ‘Oh, I can’t wait to get into my first space shuttle!’—that is the future.

This is regarded as ecology and it’s not ecology. It’s futurism! It’s what Exxon wants to do. It’s what Chase Manhattan wants to do. It’s what all the corporations want to do. But it is not utopia, it is pure futurism. It is the present extended into the future.

A mass society, and how do we keep in touch with each other? We don’t even have to look at each other. We’ll look at television screens. I’ll press a button, I’ll see you on the television screen, you’ll be on Mars, for all I know, and we’ll have a wonderful conversation with each other, and we’ll say ‘Gee whiz! We’ve got an alternate technology!’ The point is it isn’t a liberatory technology. I may know people in the future for years and years—play chess games with them, have interesting intellectual conversations with them—and never touch them once. If that is what the future is going to look like, I’m glad I’m fifty-seven years old and don’t have that much to go. I don’t want it. [laughter from audience] I am very serious. 

The anti-nuclear movement.

Now I’d like to touch a few nerves. I don’t believe that the Earth is a spaceship.1 I’m asking you to think about what it means to think of the Earth as a spaceship. It does not have valves. It does not have all kinds of radar equipment to guide it. It is not moved by rockets. It hasn’t got any plumbing. We may have plumbing. But it is not ‘a spaceship’. It’s an organic, living thing, to a very great extent, at least on its surface, built of inorganic material. It is in the process of growth and it is in the process of development. It is not ‘a spaceship’.

We’re beginning to develop a language which has nothing whatever in common with ecology. It has a lot to do with electronics. We talk of input. ‘Give me your input. Plug in!’ [laughter] Well, I don’t ‘plug in’, I discuss [applause]. Machines ‘plug in’. Radar is the language that produced it and the military is the language that produced the words ‘plug in’.

‘Give me your input’. That is not what I want. I don’t want your output, I want you. I want to hear your words. I want to hear your language. I’m not engaged in ‘feedback’ with you [laughter], I’m engaged in a dialogue, a discussion. It isn’t your ‘feedback’ I want, I want your opinion. I want to know what you think. I don’t want to have a circuit plugged into me where I can get your ‘feedback’ and you can get my ‘input’. [laughter]

Please, I’m making a plea here, and if you think I’m talking about language, I think you would be wrong. I’m not talking about language, I’m talking about sensibility. A plant does not have ‘input’ or ‘output’. It does something for which electronics has absolutely no language—it grows! It grows! [applause]. And let me tell you another thing, it not only grows, it does more than change; it develops. We have a big problem with all these words which reflect a way in which we think, and that’s what bothers me.

This is the sensibility of futurism. It is the language of futurism, in which people themselves are molecularized and then atomized and then finally reduced to subatomic particles, and what we really have in the way of an ecosystem is not growth, and not development, what we have is—plumbing. We run kilocalories through the ecosystem. And we turn on valves here and we turn off valves there. 

Now, this may be useful, I don’t deny that. We should know how energy moves through an ecosystem. But that alone is not an ecosystem. We’re beginning to learn that plants have a life of their own and interact with each other. That there are subtle mechanisms which we cannot really understand. They can’t be reduced to energy, they can’t be reduced to kilocalories, we have to look at them from a different point of view. We have to view them as life, as distinguished from the non-living, and even that distinction is not so sharp and clear as many people think. 

Most futurists start out with the idea, ‘you got a shopping mall, what do you do then?’ Well, the first question to be asked is, ‘why the hell do you have a shopping mall?’

So this is the language of futurism, and the language of electronics, which reflects a very distinct sensibility, that bothers me very, very, much. It is not utopian—and I’ll get to that afterwards—it is the language of manipulation. It is the language of mass society. Most futurists start out with the idea, ‘you got a shopping mall, what do you do then?’ Well, the first question to be asked is, ‘why the hell do you have a shopping mall?’ [laughter] That is the real question that has to be asked. Not ‘what if’ you have a shopping mall, then what do you do.

Out there in the great vast distance, which people feel we should colonize, moving out into spacecraft, or somehow relate to the distant universe and listen to the stars, but we haven’t even begun to listen to our own feelings. We haven’t even begun to listen to our own locality. This planet is going down in ruin, and people are talking about means of projecting space platforms out there, talking of a global village,2 when we don’t have villages anywhere on this planet to begin with. We don’t have them. We don’t have any villages, we don’t have any communities, we live in a state of atomization, and we expect to electronically communicate with each other through global villages. This bothers me because it may be good physics, it may be good mechanics, it may be good dynamics, it may be good anything you wish, but it is not ecology. It is not ecology.

What is ecology?

The most fundamental mistake begins with the idea that things change. Now, you know, to change may mean something or may mean nothing. If I step away here and walk three feet away, I have ‘undergone change’. I’ve moved three feet away, but I haven’t done a damn thing so far as I’m concerned, or so far as you are concerned. It is not ‘change’ that I’m concerned about. What I’m concerned about is development, growth. I don’t mean growth in the business sense, I mean growth of human potentiality, I mean growth of human spirit. I mean growth of human contact. That is ecological. To develop is what is really ecological. To change can mean anything. The question is, what is the end toward which you want to develop? What is the goal you’re trying to realize, and then, afterward, whether or not you have developed to that goal. So mere input and output and feedback, mere motion means nothing—the real problem is discussion and dialogue, recognition of personality, growth and development, which is what biology is concerned with. It is not concerned merely with change.

Lastly, it must be made very clear that if you believe that the Earth is a spaceship, then you believe that the world is a watch. You and Sir Isaac Newton agree perfectly, the world is a clock, just as a spaceship is a lot of plumbing with a lot of rockets, with a lot of dials, with a lot of pilots, and all the rest of that stuff. And if you believe in addition that the beauty, today, of change is that you can move all over the place in a helicopter, which will pick up your geodesic dome,3 or use some type of electronic communications to relate to somebody who is three thousand miles away, whom you may never see, then we are not changing, in the developmental sense, anything at all, we’re making things worse, and worse all the time. And that is a matter, also, of very great concern to me.

Ecology—social ecology—must begin with a love of place. There must be home. Oikos—home—ecology—the study of the household. If we do not have a household—and that household is not an organic, rich community—if we do not know the land we live on, if we do not understand its soil, if we do not understand the people we live with, if we cannot relate to them, then at that particular point we are really in a spaceship. We are really out in a void. 

Ecology must begin with a very deep understanding of the interaction between people, and the interaction between people and the immediate ecosystem in which we live. Where you come from, what you love, what is the land that you love. I don’t mean the country or the state, I’m talking about the land that you may occupy. It may even be a village, it may be a city, it may be a farmstead. 

But first and foremost, without those roots that place you in nature, and in a specific form of nature, it is a deception to talk about cosmic oneness, it is a deception to talk about spaceships, it is a deception even to talk about ecosystems without having this sense of unity with your immediate locale, with your soil, with your community, with your home. Without that community and without that sense of home, without that sense of the organic—of the organic and the developmental rather than the mere inorganic and ‘change’ in which you merely change place—you are changing nothing, the problems are merely amplified or diminished, but they remain the same problems. 

What isn’t ecology?

It is for this reason that futurism today plays an increasingly very very reactionary role, because it works with the prejudice that what you have is given. You have to assume what exists today, and you extrapolate into the future, and you play a numbers game. And then you go around and you logistically manipulate here and there, and implicit in all of this is the idea that you are things to be manipulated. There are all kinds of technicians who are going to decide through their knowledge of electronics, through their ‘know-how’, through their ‘feedback’ and their ‘input’, where you go, what you should do: and this is becoming a very serious problem today, particularly when it is mistaken for ecology, based on the organic, on the growing, on the development as an individual, as a community and as a place.

You then finally reach the most sinister numbers game of all: who should live and who should die. The ‘population game’. The terrifying lifeboat ethic, in which now in the name of ecology, today views are being proposed that are almost indistinguishable from German fascism.

There are those who are made to drown, they happen to live in India. Conveniently, they happen to have black or dark skin, and you can identify them. And then there are those who occupy another lifeboat, that lifeboat is called North America. And in that lifeboat, you have to conserve what you have, you see? 

You have to be prepared to develop an ethic, you have to be prepared to develop the stamina to see people die. Of course you’ll regret it, but scarce resources and growing population, what can you do? You’re out there on the ocean, the ship is sinking, so instead of trying to find out what was wrong with the ship that makes it sink, and instead of trying to build a ship that will make it possible for all of us to share the world, you get into a lifeboat, just like you get into a spaceship, and at that particular point, the world be damned. And that is a very sinister ideology. 

I speak as one who comes from the thirties, and remembers, very dramatically, that there was the demographic ecology, if you like, in Germany, no different from some of the demographic ecology I have been witnessing today.4 Remember well that the implications of some of these conceptions are extremely totalitarian, extremely un-ecological, extremely inorganic, and tend, if anything, to promote a totalitarian vision of the future in which there is no human scale, in which there is no human control.

Another thing that troubles me very deeply is the enormous extent to which social ecology or ecological problems are reduced simply to technological problems. That is ridiculous. It’s absurd. The factory is a place where people are controlled, whether they build solar collectors or not. It makes no difference. [Applause] The same relationships will exist there as under any other circumstances of domination exist. If ‘household’ means that women take care of the dishes, and men go out and do the manly work such as make war and clean up the planet, and reduce the population, where have we gone? Nothing has changed. What will a ‘spaceship’ on earth look like? What will it be? Who will be the general to give the orders, who will be the navigator to decide which way the ‘spaceship’ goes?

Please bear in mind what the implications of these things are. If people live in cities that are one mile high, how the hell can you get to know each other? How can you have a feeling for the land in which you live, when the landscape that you see goes up to a horizon twenty, thirty, forty miles away? On top of the World Trade Center, I have no feeling for New York. If I were just an ordinary, simple product of the United States Airforce, and I were ordered from the World Trade Center, way up there, to bomb Manhattan, looking down upon it, I would see nothing. I would press the button and it would be meaningless. Up would go the great bomb, the great flash, the great cloud. It wouldn’t have any meaning to me. Down on the ground, when I look up at the Empire State Building or the World Trade Center, I feel oppressed. I feel that I have been reduced to a lowly ant. I begin to feel the demand for an environment that I can control. That I can begin to understand. But when I see plants growing around me, when I see life existing around me—human life, animal life of all its different forms, flora—then I can relate. This is my land.

Think human

What we have to do is not only ‘think small’, we have to think human.5 Small is not enough. What is human is what counts, not just what is small. What is beautiful are people, what is beautiful is the ecosystems and their integrity in which we live. What is beautiful is the soil which we share with the rest of the world of life. And particularly that special bit of soil in which we feel we have some degree of stewardship. It is not only what is small that is beautiful, it is what is ecological that is beautiful, what is human that is beautiful. 

What is important is not only that a technology is appropriate. As I have said before: the Atomic Energy Commission is absolutely convinced that nuclear power plants are appropriate technology—to the Atomic Energy Commission. The B1 bombers are very appropriate technology—to the Air Force. 

What I am concerned with is, again, what is liberatory, what is ecological. We have to bring these value-charged words, and we have to bring these value-charged concepts into our thinking, or else we will become mere physicists, dealing with dead matter and dealing with people as though they are mere objects to be manipulated, in spaceships, or to be connected through various forms of electronic devices, or subject to world games, or finally, set adrift on a raft or a lifeboat in which they kick off anyone who threatens to eat their biscuits or threatens to drink their distilled water—and that becomes ecofascism. That becomes ecofascism, and it horrifies me to think that anything ecological—even that word ‘eco’—could be attached to fascism.

First and foremost, we must go back to the utopian tradition, in the richest sense of the word. Not to the electronic tradition, not to the tradition of NASA, not to the tradition of Sir Isaac Newton, in which the whole world was a machine or a watch. 

You can travel all over the country and learn nothing, because you’re carrying something that’s very important with you, that will decide whether you learn or not, and that is: yourself. Move to California tomorrow, and if you’ve still got the same psychological and spiritual and intellectual problems, you’ll be sweating it out in San Francisco no differently than you do in Amherst or New York. That is the important thing—to recover yourself, to begin to create a community. And what kind of community imagination can begin to create. 

What does it mean to be utopian?

‘Imagination to power’, as the French students said. ‘Be practical, do the impossible’, because if you don’t do the impossible, as I’ve cried out over and over again, we’re going to wind up with the unthinkable—and that will be the destruction of the planet itself. So to do the impossible is the most rational and practical thing we can do. And that impossible is both in our own conviction and in our shared conviction with our brothers and sisters, to begin to try to create, or work toward a very distinct notion of what constitutes a finally truly liberated as well as ecological society. A utopian notion, not a futuristic notion. 

It finally means this: that we have to begin to develop ecological communities. Not just an ecological society—ecological communities, made up of comparatively small numbers of groups, and beautiful communities spaced apart from each other so that you could almost walk to them, not merely have to get into a car and travel sixty or seventy miles to reach them. It means that we have to reopen the land and reuse it again to create organic garden beds, and learn how to develop a new agriculture in which we’ll all participate in the horticulture. 

If you don’t do the impossible, we’re going to wind up with the unthinkable—and that will be the destruction of the planet itself.

We have to look into communities that we can take into a single view, as Aristotle said more than 2200 years ago—and we have yet to learn a great deal from the Greeks, despite all their shortcomings as slave-owners and as patriarchs—a community that we can take into a single view, so that we can know each other. Not a community in which we know each other not by virtue of sitting around and talking over the telephone, or listening to some honcho talk over a microphone, or listening to some bigger honcho talk over a television screen. It has to be done by sitting around in communities, in those town meetings, and in those structures which we have here in the United States as part of the legacy, at least—the best legacy of the United States—and start thinking utopian in the fullest sense of the word.

We have also to develop our own technologies. We can’t let other people simply build them for us. They can’t be transported from God knows where to us. We have to know how to fix our faucets, and create our own collectives. We have to become richly diversified human beings. We have to be capable of doing many different things. We have to be farmer-citizens and citizen-farmers. We have to recover the ideal that even a Ben Franklin—who by no means can be regarded, in my opinion anyway, as anything slightly more than a philistine—believed in the 18th century: you can both print and read, and when you printed, you read what you printed. That’s what we have to bring to ourselves. We have to think not in terms, merely, of change; we have to think in terms of growth. We have to use the language of ecology so that we can touch each other with the magic of words and communicate with each other, with the magic and the richness of concepts, not of catchphrases that are really snappy [snaps fingers]—’input’, ‘output’.’Dialogue’ is longer, but it has a beautiful ring to it. Dia logos, speech between two, talking between two. Logos—logic, reasoning out creatively, dialectically, and growing through conversation, and growing through communication. This is what I mean by utopia. We have to go back to Fourier, who said that measure of a society’s oppression could be determined by the way it treats its women. It was not Marx who said that, it was Charles Fourier…. We have to go back to the rich tradition of the New England town meeting, and all that was healthy in it and recover that and learn a new type of confederalism.

Today, the real movements of the future insofar as they are utopian in their outlook—insofar as they are trying to create not an extension of the present, but trying to create something that is truly new, that alone can rescue life, human spirit, as well as the ecology of this planet—must be built around a new, rich communication, not between leader and led—but between student and teacher, so that every student can eventually become a teacher, and not a dictator, a governor, a controller and a manipulator. 

And above all, we have to think organically. We have to think organically—not electronically. We have to think in terms of life and biology, not in terms of watches and physics. We have to think in terms of what is human, not what is merely small or big, because that alone will be beautiful. Any society that seeks to create utopia will not only be a society that is free, it also has to be a society that is beautiful. There can no longer be any separation—any more than between mind and body—between art and the development of a free society. We must become artists now, not only ecologists, utopians. Not futurists, not environmentalists. 


Murray Bookchin was asked two relevant questions from the audience, which were inaudible in the recording. The first questioner asked if he was against technology. 

Murray Bookchin: No, that is not at all true. I see a very great use for technology. What I’m talking about is a technocracy. What I’m talking about is rule by technicians. What I’m talking about is the use of various types of technological devices that are inhuman to people and inhuman in their scale, and cannot be controlled by people. The beauty of an ecological technology—an ecotechnology, or a liberatory technology, or an alternative technology—is that people can understand it if they are willing to try to devote some degree of effort to doing so. It’s simplicity, wherever possible, it’s small-scale, wherever possible. That’s what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about going back to the paleolithic, I’m not talking about going back into caves. We cannot go back to that and I don’t think we want to go back to that. 

In the next question from the audience, Bookchin is asked to, very concretely, describe his political vision. There is laughter after the question. 

I’m going to be really hard rocks about this and get down to it and not just tell you that I’m giving you some vague philosophical principles. I would like to see communities, food cooperatives, affinity groups, all these types of structures—town meetings developed all over the United States. I’d like to see neighborhood organizations, non-hierarchical in their form, developed all over the United States, from New York City to San Francisco, from rural Vermont to urban California. When these particular organizations develop rapidly and confederate, at first regionally, and hopefully, nationally, and perhaps even internationally—because we are no longer talking about the United States alone, we’re even talking about what’s going on in the Soviet Union to a very great extent—I hope they will then, through one way or another, by example and through education win the majority of people to this sensibility. And having done this, demand that society be changed, and then afterward we’ll have to face whatever we have to face. The only alternative we have after that, if we don’t do that, will be as follows: we will be organized into bureaucracies, bureaucracies in the name of progress, as well as bureaucracies in the name of reaction, as well as bureaucracies in the name of the status quo. And if we’re organized in the form of these bureaucracies, whether we use solar power or nerve gas, it makes no difference, we’re going to wind up, ultimately, with the same thing. In fact, the idea that solar power or wind power or methane is today being used instead of fossil fuels, will merely become an excuse for maintaining the same multinational, corporate, and hierarchical system that we have today. 

So I propose that those types of organizations, and those types of social forms, be developed all over the country, and increasingly hopefully affect the majority of opinion, to a point where the American people, in one way or another, make their voices heard, because they are the overwhelming majority, and say they want to change the society. And if America turns over, the whole world will change, in my personal opinion. Because this happens to be the center, literally the keystone of what I would call the whole capitalistic system that today envelops the world, whether it be China, Cuba and Russia, or whether it be the United States, Canada and Western Europe. That is, very concretely, what I propose. 

Daydreams are dangerous. They are pieces of imagination, they are bits of poetry. They are the balloons that fly up in history.

I’d like to make this very clear, the American people first will begin to change unconsciously, before they change consciously. You’ll go around to them and you’ll say, what do you think of work? And they’ll say it’s noble. You’ll ask them what do you think of property? And they’ll say it’s sacred. And you’ll ask them, what do they think of motherhood, they’ll say it’s grand, it’s godly. What do you think of religion and they’ll say they belong to it and they are completely devoted to it. You’ll ask them, what do they think of America, and they’ll say, either love it or leave it.  You’ll say, what do you think of the flag and they’ll say it’s glorious, Old Glory.

But then one day something is going to happen. One day, the unconscious, the expectation, the dream, the imagination, the hope that you go to bed with as you sink into the twilight hours of sleep, or the early morning when you daydream, just after the alarm clock has gone off and you’ve shut it down—those expectations and dreams that lie buried in the unconscious mind of millions upon millions of American people are going to break right into consciousness. And when they break right into consciousness, heaven help this society. [audience cheers] I’m very serious. 

That is the strange catalysis, the strange process of education; everyone today is schizophrenic, we’re all leading double lives, and we know it. And not only are we leading double lives, those ordinary—so-called ‘ordinary’—people out there are also leading double lives. And one day, that double life is going to become one life. Maybe it’ll be for the worse. But maybe it’ll be for the better. At that particular point, maybe something like May, June 1968 in Paris will start. All over the place, all kinds of flags will go up that don’t look like the flag we’re accustomed to seeing. [laughter from audience] Maybe black or red, I don’t know. At that particular point, millions of people will stop working, and they’ll start discussing.

Then you’ll have that terrifying situation called mob rule. But that will happen, and that’s what happened here in 1776, they believed in the King, right up until July 1776. In the meantime, they were having doubts. They didn’t even know they didn’t like the monarchy. But one day they woke up and said, the hell with King George. And they ran ahead, and they wrote the Declaration of Independence, and it was read to the troops. At that particular point, the Union Jack went down and the Stars and Stripes went up. This is the way people actually change. People change unconsciously before they change consciously. They begin to float dreams—daydreams are dangerous. Daydreams are pieces of imagination, they are bits of poetry. They are the balloons that fly up in history. 

Transcribed and edited by Constanze Huther.

Murray Bookchin was a political theorist, philosopher, and activist. He developed the philosophy of social ecology and the political theory of libertarian municipalism, or communalism, which has influenced the growing ‘municipalist’ movement around the world. He was the co-founder of the Institute for Social Ecology, which is still active today. Bookchin died in 2006. The full audio version of this speech is available from the University of Massachusetts Special Collections and University Archives here.  

This text is ©2019 and published with the permission of The Bookchin Trust. For permission requests contact: bookchindebbie@gmail.com.

All photos are by Lionel Delevingne, taken between 1975-1978, reprinted with permission from the Lionel Delevingne Photograph Collection at UMass Amherst. Thank you to Eleanor Finley for obtaining the scans.

Degrowth is utopian, and that’s a good thing

by Giorgos Kallis

What we dream about the future affects how we act today. If utopias express our desires, dystopias distill our fears. Utopias and dystopias are images we invoke to think and act in the present, producing futures that often look very different from either our dreams or our nightmares.

An oft-repeated criticism against the green movement is that it is dystopian and catastrophist (some call this ‘Malthusian’) when it comes to its diagnosis, and utopian when it comes to its prognosis. On the one hand, greens warn of a scary future of planetary disaster, and on the other, offer a peaceful dreamland where people bike to their artisanal work and live in picturesque houses with well manicured food gardens and small windmills. Nowhere to see is a realistic political plan on how we could ever escape from the current capitalist nightmare, and move to something remotely close to an egalitarian and ecological future.   

I won’t deny that some green writings, especially in the 1970s and 80s (but also still today) merit this critique. But in the meantime, there has been a lot of new thought, under the labels of ecosocialism, degrowth, or environmental justice that cannot be caricatured and packaged in this simplistic mold. And yet this is what geographer Matt Huber does in a recent article published at the Socialist Forum, entitled Ecosocialism: Dystopian and Scientific. Huber argues that there are two types of green socialism, one that is utopian and unscientific, and one that is realistic and scientific, his.

Tired dichotomies

Democratic socialism is a project in the making, and it is important to avoid tired dichotomies and divisions of the past, especially between green and not-so-green socialists. I find a lot to agree with in Huber’s socialist climate politics and would fully sign on to his concluding agenda in the Socialist Forum piece, where he defends an ‘inspiring and positive political program that can win the masses of the working classes … built on the decommodification and universal access to [their] needs, but also a more radical and democratic vision of organizing production to integrate ecological knowledge’ based on ‘public transport, green public housing … and public ownership of energy’. Yet, before that Huber argues that ‘degrowth oriented ecosocialists’ (his term), like us are too utopian, and not scientific. And here I disagree.

What I want to argue is that, first, being utopian is not a problem as Huber makes it seem it is, and second, we are scientific, at least as scientific as Huber can claim his position is.

Dialectical utopias

To begin with: what does Huber mean by ‘utopian’ and ‘scientific’?

By utopia, Huber, following Engels, understands a social arrangement that does not and cannot exist (a place that has no place, a u-topos). If such an arrangement cannot exist, then it is a waste and misdirection of our energies, Huber implies. 

Forgive me the heresy, but thinking about utopias has progressed – fortunately – a lot since Engels’ time.

Forgive me the heresy, but thinking about utopias has progressed – fortunately – a lot since Engels’ time. David Harvey, who Huber certainly reads, wrote a wonderful book on cities and utopias almost 20 years ago (Spaces of Hope). Harvey says we should oppose utopias that are meant as models or blueprints – not so much because they are unrealistic, but because the realization of a perfect ideal tolerates no objection and crushes everything that stands in its way. Harvey recognizes, however, the value of ‘dialectical utopias’ – contradictory and incomplete images that express desires about the future, that challenge and make us reflect, that generate conflict with prevalent visions and open up new syntheses.

Ernst Bloch famously called utopias the education of desire. As Hug March and I argued, the future prefigured in the degrowth literature is indeed a dialectical utopia that wants to reshape desires.  When French activists and intellectuals launched the word ‘degrowth’ in the early 90s, they intentionally meant it as a missile slogan that would generate a conflictual antithesis to the prevalent, and taken for granted, imaginary of growth-based development. The hope was – and is – that this conflict would catalyze a new synthesis – maybe not the bio-region of low-tech eco-communes utopia that Huber sees in degrowth writings, but at least some unpredictable new future other than one which would look exactly like capitalism, only with the workers in command.

Unscientific socialism?

Huber claims this vision is ‘unscientific’. A scientific socialism, Huber tells us, is one ‘grounded in analysis of what kind of socialist society is possible given historical and material conditions’. So far so good. Only one problem: who is to judge what is really ‘possible’?

Huber, for example, seems to think that something close to the energy or material consumption of an average American, secured for everyone in the world, is possible (Huber is against wasteful capitalism, and implies that unnecessary production and consumption could be curtailed, but is not clear what he classifies as waste –and in any case, insists on the point of ‘abundant energy’, which one can only think means at least as much energy as it is currently consumed, if not more). Energy should come from renewable energy, or why not 80% renewable and 20% nuclear, which is fine, Huber claims – and food from robotic agriculture. Moreover, we will do all this without exploiting anyone, taking everyone’s concerns democratically into account, somehow minimizing damage, or at least making those on the receiving side of such damage concede to it ‘democratically’.

I am a scientist too, and I think this vision is unrealistic. To use Huber’s terms, it is ‘materially impossible’.

I am a scientist too, and I think this vision is unrealistic. To use Huber’s terms, it is ‘materially impossible’. I explain why here or here in more detail. The emissions, land use and material extraction involved in a scenario like Huber’s make impossible a sort of American standard of energy abundance available for everyone (or more precisely, it can be possible but just for a few at the expense of many others, as it has been actually till now).

And if we were to take really into account everyone’s concerns (those who live next to mines where the lithium for the batteries and the uranium for the reactors will come from, those who will have to be relocated or see their landscape destroyed to put windmills, etc) and actually compensate them for the damages our consumption causes, then production would be inevitably much, much lower than it is today on average. (Not to mention how much the economy would slow down if we were to devote time to reach decisions on such matters truly democratically).

The past is not proof of the future

Granted, I might be wrong, and Huber right. But who is to judge whose science about what is possible is right and whose is wrong? And what makes Huber so sure that he is right and scientific while others are not? Any science—scientific socialism including—is bound to be incomplete, uncertain and debatable. There are different, contested views, of what is possible – crucially, these views cannot be separated easily from our desires about the future.

Huber, for example, thinks it is undesirable to live with less energy. His argument is that since agricultural work is drudgery and no one wants to do it, societies without fossil fuels to power tractors had to and will have to have slaves. First, it is questionable whether the historical and anthropological record supports the claim that all societies without fossil fuels were slave-based.

Second, even if many were, this does not mean that we cannot have a future society without fossil fuels, with more manual work and without slaves. The fact that something did not exist in the past is not proof that it cannot happen in the future – if it were, then we wouldn’t be discussing socialism to begin with.

The fact that something did not exist in the past is not proof that it cannot happen in the future – if it were, then we wouldn’t be discussing socialism to begin with.

Third, no one that I know in the ecosocialist, degrowth or other environmentalist communities that Huber seems to have in mind has argued for a total substitution of fossil fuels by manual labour. It doesn’t  help to take the arguments of others to their extremes just to prove that they are impossible and unscientific. The claim of those who support decentralized renewables or peasant agro-ecology for example is much more nuanced and is based on the recognition that a sustainable future would involve both cleaner energy and less energy use, as well as less use of chemicals in agriculture. Agro-ecological, lower-intensity models that would involve more human labour than is currently the case in countries such as the U.S., are advocated. But these arrangements are generally envisioned as a mix of old and new, peasant and industrial experiences, not a total overhaul of modern techniques or a return to a pre-capitalist mode of living.

Engels was right and it turned out materially possible for capitalism to produce plenty of goods at a fraction of the time they needed before. But that doesn’t mean that it is today possible to power ever-growing energy use with renewable and nuclear energy, with no harm done to others (or with harm done at levels that can be ‘democratically’ tolerated by others). These are different times and different arguments, and the fact that siding with a ‘pro-technology’ (so to speak) argument at one moment in time may have proved right, does not make all similar arguments always and everywhere right or ‘scientific’.

Degrowth: radical abundance

Capitalism produced (more than) enough, quite soon after Engels’s time, but there is still poverty amidst an overabundance of goods and productive possibilities. This should make us pause for a moment. The problem may not be that we are not producing enough, but as Marx and Engels were among the first to note, that we are not distributing equally what we are producing.

As Jason Hickel argues in ‘Degrowth. A call for radical abundance’, the continued enclosures and dispossessions that sustained capitalism have always been justified in the name of growth. The story we are constantly being told is, as Malthus first put it, in the service of his argument in defense of capitalist growth (yes, Malthus was a defender of growth, not of limits to growth), is that ‘there is not enough for everyone to have a decent share’. The artificial scarcity created in turn by enclosures makes everyone live in need, and therefore work harder to stay afloat, which is essential if the engine is to keep going and growing. So the problem isn’t that we don’t produce enough, but that we can’t share the abundance that we already have.  

Huber’s vision of sharing and public luxury is not as far as he thinks from a degrowth vision. I would only add that this has to take place in a context of private sobriety – a sobriety that actually socialist revolutionaries of all times have espoused and lived in their everyday lives. It is what Enrico Berlinguer, leader of the Italian Euro-communists called ‘revolutionary austerity’. It is the sort of personal austerity that real revolutionaries of all times have practiced in their personal lives.

Relative versus absolute scarcity

Defending Berlinguer’s revolutionary austerity does not make one accomplice to Thatcherite austerity. On the contrary, what is Thatcherite is the liberal assumption of a God-given right of each and everyone to mobilize all resources possible in their pursuit of their individual (or collective) goals. According to this ingrained liberal view, we cannot tell people that we could perhaps live better with less, because it is people’s god given right to want more and more, as much as those richer have. What is more revolutionary instead than Gandhi’s plea to ‘live simply so that others may simply live’?

Huber agrees that there is so much waste going on within capitalism, and so much work expended just to goods and services whose purpose is no other than to pay for rents and profits. Then just ending profits and rents could reduce resource use significantly. Why insist on robots and nuclear plants if we could live with less and sustain a decent material standard of living for everyone?

Note also that what counts as ‘decent’ living is always socially determined and it makes little sense to defend an average, or middle class standard of living. A poor person today does not die from diseases that royals died in bygone eras. But if your loved one dies from a curable disease that a rich person can pay to treat, this creates a real sense of scarcity.

Crucially, this scarcity is relative. If housing was public and cheap, Hickel argues, then people could live with well with a fraction of their salary – and produce and consume much less than they do now. To imagine an absolute scarcity, and use it as a justification for mobilizing ever more work and ever more resources in the name of making everyone have what the rich persons of their epoch happen to have, is a fundamental myth that sustains capitalism. 

Bending material reality is not scientific

Huber also has a second take on the meaning of ‘scientific’. He writes that ‘let’s get real, or ‘scientific’ … we are not going to win the masses of workers with a socialist program based on … ‘drudgery for all’. Science here seems to refer to realism about how can ‘we’ (sic) win the masses of workers. There are problems with this formulation too.

Even if there were a mass of workers that wouldn’t be mobilized to anything that sounds like ‘less’, that still wouldn’t make it materially possible to have ever more stuff.

First, even if Huber were right and there were a mass of workers that wouldn’t be mobilized to anything that sounds like ‘less’, that still wouldn’t make it materially possible to have ever more stuff. Huber argues that given that the workers will never buy into a degrowth utopia then ‘the key to an ecosocialist future is finding some way to replicate the labor-saving aspects of the fossil economy with clean energy’.

This actually seems to me a very unscientific, and utopian in the bad sense – having to ‘find some way’ to make something possible, independently of whether it is materially possible or not. Rather than consider integrating your political strategy to what is materially possible, the call here is to bend material possibility, one way or the other, to what you came to think as the only possible political strategy.

Fixed desires

But, second, like the statement on material possibility, the idea that some of us can know with certainty the limits of political possibility – that is, know what the workers really want – is also problematic. Who is to say that workers everywhere and always would only be attracted to visions of ‘more’?

Our mayor, Ada Colau won the municipal elections with the support of a substantial fraction of the working class. Her program emphasized dignity and equality, not growth and material affluence.

I live in Barcelona, and our mayor Ada Colau won the municipal elections with the support of a substantial fraction of the working class. Her program emphasized dignity and equality, not growth and material affluence. Colau wanted to stop evictions and secure decent housing for everyone, she did not have to promise air-conditions and cheap charter flights for all (I am not saying that Huber advocates these, but Leigh Phillips, a provocateur who Huber for some reason enthusiastically cites twice, does).  

Third, Huber implicitly assumes that what workers want is fixed, and that desires cannot be shaped through reflection and dialogue. This leaves no space for new ideas or new desires and makes one wonder, how is it that workers come to want what they want, and how does this ever change in time? If we follow Huber’s logic then we can only cater to what exists, never shape the possible – this to me seems a quite restricted view of the political.

Politics has a make-believe quality. Pre-defining what is possible leads to self-fulfilled prophecies. If we assume that we cannot even utter our dreams of a different future, because they are unrealistic and impossible, then of course ‘workers’ will want what they currently want and alternative dreams will remain unrealistic and impossible.

But fourth, and more importantly, it is not clear why, for Huber, ‘we’ who write these things are not part of the working class, and can’t understand what ‘they’ want. If the working class is those who have to sell their labour in order to survive, then it is not only coal miners and Joe the plumbers that make the working class, not even only nurses and teachers, but also we University professors and the precarious post-docs and students that read our musings. Those among us who desire some sort of a degrowth future are not some weird romantic animals, different from the rest of working people – we are not people who live from rents, we are workers like anyone else who have to work in order to make it from month to month.

Of course there are different experiences, and different power positions within a broadly defined working class, or the 99%. We shouldn’t be blind to our positionalities, for example, as academic urbanites, with a decent income, a health insurance, flying regularly and so on. But the desires of education workers or precarious youngsters are as legitimate as those of factory workers. And our desires do not necessarily have to be different either (actually keeping them different is essential for the hegemony of capitalism). And they are increasingly not different, as the incomes, social protections and privileges of the professional middle income groups are collapsing.

Chris Carlsson and Fransesca Manning write about a new ‘nowtopian‘ experience of class, shared among parts of the precariat which finds work and meaning outside wage labour, in urban gardens, social centres or pirate programming. Nowtopians formed the backbone of the occupied squares. Waving away dreams like theirs as unscientific (and implicitly, elitist) is not doing the building of a broad movement any service. 

Reducing complex debate into outdated binaries

In conclusion, both material and social conditions are much more complex and uncertain than Huber allows for. Huber, I am afraid, is reducing a complex debate into simple binaries of the sort ‘(post)-industrial future’ versus ‘back to slavery’ (if not back to the caves).

The choices ahead are much more nuanced than that and will involve different hybrids of advanced and simplified techniques and modes of living. Consumption will have to go down and production will need to be cleaner – fortunately this can be experienced as an improvement in living if the commons are reclaimed and shared equally. The discourses and visions that will mobilize the 99% to an eco-socialist future are bound to be context-specific, but I firmly believe they can be constructed in a Colau-style fashion around ideas of sufficiency and sharing the commons equally, while securing a dignified life for all.

If something disappoints me, and motivated me to write this essay, it is the feeling that no matter how hard some of us work to advance and refine a certain strain of green-left thought (call it degrowth, ecosocialism or else), we are bound to be caricatured as a blend of socialist utopians of the 19th century and neo-Malthusians of the 1970s (never mind the stark differences between these two sets of ideas).

We owe ourselves and the few people who might read us a more informed and refined debate than a repetition of tired dichotomies from the 1970s. Reality is complex, what is possible and what not is hard to know, and the roads to ecosocialism (or however else you might want to call an egalitarian and sustainable future) are many.

Aaron Vansintjan commented on a previous draft and helped me improve this text.

Giorgos Kallis is an ICREA professor of political ecology and ecological economics at ICTA-UAB in Barcelona. He is the author of Degrowth (2018, Agenda Publishing). A collection of his essays and media articles, ‘In Defense of Degrowth,’ can be downloaded free of cost.

Pulling the magical lever

Image: Pixabay

by Rut Elliot Blomqvist

Ideas about the importance of the imagination in an age of political and ecological crisis are popping up everywhere: in the arts, in activism and other forms of politics, and in a wide range of academic disciplines and fields. This blog is one example.

In addition to creative efforts to imagine other futures, we also need critical analyses of such visions. This is because imaginative responses to crises cover a broad spectrum of politics and worldviews—and even our dreams of a better future can be constrained by the political structure and ideologies of the present. A critical approach to utopian imaginaries is essential for any rethinking of political futures; without it, we risk being trapped in the same old stories even as we see ourselves as thinking outside the old story box.

Even our dreams of a better future can be constrained by the political structure and ideologies of the present.

In this essay, I discuss one category of future visions: techno-utopianism. There are plenty of techno-utopian fiction and nonfiction stories to choose from. Three that have caught my attention and that have some interesting similarities and differences are British campaigner and lobbyist Jonathon Porritt’s design fiction book The world we made, futurist Jacque Fresco’s The Venus project, and the movement for Fully Automated Luxury Communism.

To see how viable these visions are, I’ll analyze their narrative and argumentative logic and also connect the basic assumptions in these visions to the modernization hypothesis—the idea that human history is a process of evolution towards modernity through economic development and technological progress. Several schools of thought in the critical social sciences have emerged in reaction to this widespread conviction about progress. World-systems theory is one of them, and it retells the story of modernization (or of ‘the modern world system’) by taking the colonial expansion of Western Europe as a starting point. This expansion wasn’t driven by some automatic force of modernization but by the accumulation of resources in privileged areas and the consequent impoverishment of peripheries. This perspective should lead us to ask whether institutions and artefacts that are often taken for granted in attempts to reimagine politics—like the technologies that are central in techno-utopianism—are compatible with or inimical to environmental sustainability and social justice.

With this critical perspective in mind, we will now turn to the three stories and their connections to political movements.

The World We Made: Alex McKay’s Story from 2050

Jonathon Porritt, a British environmentalist with a background in the UK Green Party and Friends of the Earth, has written a 300-page design fiction imagining concrete steps from the year 2014 to an imagined sustainable future in 2050. Design fiction aims to inspire new forms of design and engineering (and sometimes also political policy), and its possible functions in relation to environmental issues  are currently being investigated by researchers at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden.

Porritt’s report from the future, which is divided into sections of a few pages each, is permeated by a positive rhetoric that emphasizes solutions and does not linger on conflicts. He motivates this in the postscript by stating that ‘yet more tales of doom and gloom are not going to make a difference’ (p. 275). Where ecological and political crises are acknowledged—for instance concerning droughts and mass protests in the once abundant Fertile Crescent (pp. 22-27), or issues with profit maximization (pp. 54-57)—the story always moves on to hopeful conclusions about how a united world comes to its senses and decides to act in the nick of time. The narrator Alex McKay, a male community college teacher in an unspecified anglophone country (presumably the UK), writes in the preface to the report that humanity has found ‘a renewed sense of purpose as a family of nations’ (p. 1). The book conceptualizes the agent of historical change, or the protagonist in a story of action for sustainability, as an abstract, united humanity which realizes its potential for goodness and acts through the existing political institutions of the 2010s. In terms of political change, we just need the general public to protest a bit (pp. 32-36) and ‘get today’s political classes to think beyond the next election’ (p. 275). Other institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, large corporations, and powerful industries—not to mention the underlying institutions of money and industrial technology, artefacts that are presented as natural phenomena and barely subject to cultural analysis—are conveniently tamed or turn out to work for the common good. This is emblematic of a tendency in many accounts of climate change (and is a central point of disagreement in the debate over the concept of the Anthropocene): to imagine a generalized human ‘we’ as first the villain causing climate change and environmental degradation and then the chastened hero who takes responsibility for the situation.

His wish to stay away from ‘doom and gloom’ means that he also stays away from a rigorous analysis of the political and ecological crises of the present.

In doing so, The World We Made fails to analyze the complex, intertwined political and economic causes behind global environmental change, climate change, global inequity, and the lack of transformative action in current political institutions. This is at least partly due to Porritt’s choice of rhetorical strategy. His wish to stay away from ‘doom and gloom’ means that he also stays away from a rigorous analysis of the political and ecological crises of the present. Consequently, as a work of fiction The World We Made can be criticized for poor characterization of both protagonists and antagonists and the lack of a coherent explanatory backstory. The cultural and material motivations of those who participate in ecological destruction and the exploitation of other people are absent, as are explanations for how institutions that are inimical to sustainability suddenly turn out to be useful tools for political change. To compare this to another well-known narrative in speculative fiction, it is as if Boromir in The Lord of the Rings were hailed for his brilliant idea of using the One Ring to do good and then everyone goes with him to Minas Tirith, they win the war with hardly any bloodshed—Sauron accepting to keep financial profits and slavery at a minimum—and the ominous aura surrounding the Ring turns out to be a stupid doom and gloom thing which luckily no one bought into.

The proposed solutions to ecological and political crises in Porritt’s design fiction take the form of leaps of faith—often faith in technology as a kind of magic—based on best-case scenarios. As six years have passed since The World We Made was published, some of those best-case scenarios have been literally disproven. The most absurd example is the contrast between Porritt’s imagined reformist and peaceful outcome of the Arab Spring (p. 22) and today’s situation with the Syrian civil war, ISIS, the political crisis in Libya after Gaddafi was ousted, enforced EU borders and the EU deal with Turkey to keep refugees out, and so on. To this criticism we can add a world-system understanding of the ‘green’ technologies which Porritt sees as our global salvation (pp. 15-21, 274-275): since industrial technologies in the past have been built on the exploitation of resources and labour in impoverished peripheries, we have no reason to believe that a non-exploitative force of technological progress will suddenly kick in and modernize us all out of this mess. As I will return to towards the end of this essay, these technologies need to be analyzed in connection to their role in the world system as a whole and not only on the basis of the local benefits they offer the people who control them.

The Venus Project

If there are tendencies to view technologies as magic in Porritt’s thinking, it is nothing compared to what is presented in the political vision of the Venus Project. The project was founded by futurist Jacque Fresco and is an important source of inspiration in some environmentalist circles.

The Venus Project is described on the website as ‘a single man’s vision of the future where war is obsolete, there’s no lack of resources, and our focus as a species is global sustainability and the preservation of the environment.’ The key to this is the progress of modern technology. In Fresco’s vision, humanity will use ‘the latest scientific and technological marvels’ to ‘reach extremely high productivity levels and create abundance of resources.’ The scientific method will guarantee progress in all areas, from energy to social relations. In an interview in The New American, Fresco explains how:

  ‘Nobody makes decisions in the Venus Project, they arrive at them,’ Fresco said. For example, a soil sample would go to ‘Central Agriculture’, which would analyze it, and make a determination as to what the best crop to grow in that soil would be. ‘We intend to use surveys to arrive at decisions rather than make decisions.’

This objective scientific analysis will unleash the full force of technological progress. It will give us clean nuclear power through the development of Thorium reactors. We can also expect a system of fully automated construction with gigantic 3D printers building everything humans need. We will live in circular cities planned and managed by computers and organised around a ‘central dome or theme center’ housing ‘the core of the cybernated system, … computerized communications, networking systems’ (which is reminiscent of the utopian tradition of imagining the ideal city). There will be permanent space stations, serving as gravity-free research environments and supplying information about the earth’s ecological status to the supercomputers which run human society. The complex transportation system of the united planetary civilization will include hovercars, hovering conveyors called transveyors replacing other vehicles in cities, and hovering aircraft ‘controlled by electro-dynamic means eliminating the need for ailerons, elevators, rudders, spoilers, flaps or any other mechanical controls.’

If the scientific method and technological progress are the heroes of Fresco’s story, the main villain is money. In an interview on the website of the Venus Project, Fresco says that he can’t see peace and equity happening ‘in a monetary-based system where the richest nations control most of the world’s resources.’ The proposed alternative is a ‘Resource Based Economy’ in which ‘all goods and services are available to all people without the need for means of exchange such as money, credits, barter or any other means.’ It will be achieved through the application of the scientific method and the declaration of all resources ‘as the common heritage of all Earth’s inhabitants.’

There doesn’t seem to be any need for rigorous arguments supporting the ability of technology to create resources or in other ways transcend the laws of physics. As a result, the Venus Project’s imagined technologies are a lot like the Star Trek Replicator: a machine creating matter out of pure energy, where neither the source of this energy nor the way the machine works is defined.

The term for this type of science fiction world-building, where no effort is made to prove the feasibility or viability of future technologies, is soft science fiction.

The term for this type of science fiction world-building, where no effort is made to prove the feasibility or viability of future technologies, is soft science fiction. On the pop-culture site tvtropes.org, soft science fiction is illustrated by how it would explain time travel: ‘You sit in this seat, set the date you want, and pull that lever.’ Techno-utopianism, it seems, is soft science fiction: you pull the lever of technological progress and post-scarcity comes about. In Global Magic: Technologies of Appropriation from Ancient Rome to Wall Street, the anthropologist and political ecologist Alf Hornborg describes this as a form of fetishism; he argues that ‘technology is our own [modern] version of magic’ as it is ‘widely imagined to have autonomous agency’. He also contends that this fetishism ‘serves to mystify social relations of exchange’. Only by disassociating modern technology from global relations of exchange, and viewing it as a quasi-living thing which can act and has a purpose in itself, can we conceive of globalized technologies as creating wealth rather than accumulating it for the few.

Fresco’s vision relies entirely on a fetishized conceptualization of technology and a disassociation of ‘technological marvels’ from the system of exchange which he sees as a root cause of injustice and environmental destruction. This is made possible by his viewing money as a social institution but technology as a natural—or even supernatural and magical—force. This ambiguous attitude to modern institutions, with a critique of modern political economy and a celebration of modern science and technology, makes the Venus Project a fascinating techno-utopian vision to study. Maybe Fresco’s critique of money can still be useful for environmentalist movement building?

Further research on similar political visions and the opinions of Fresco’s followers suggests otherwise: it seems Fresco’s cabalistic critique of the monetary system he would overthrow lends itself to conspiracy theories. The Zeitgeist Project, created by Peter Joseph, one of Fresco’s most passionate disciples, is a telling example. Peter Joseph has made three Zeitgeist films covering issues of debt, interest, and how banks create money—and affirming the conspiracy theory that the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks were an inside job. And that’s not the only connection between the Venus Project and conspiracy theories. In Sweden, where I live, many who swear allegiance to Fresco’s vision are involved in the movement Vaken (Awake) which believes in a number of conspiracy theories and is based on the idea that only a small group of spiritually enlightened people can access an ‘esoteric worldview’ and see through these conspiracies. Although neither the Zeitgeist project nor Vaken explicitly talk about banking and money in terms of a Jewish conspiracy, the step is not far from their combination of conspiracy theories and a critique of banking and money to the openly anti-semitic narrative told by many contemporary national socialists and ecofascists.

Fully Automated Luxury Communism

Source: Novara media

If we leave out the affinities with conspiracy theories, there are striking similarities between Fresco’s vision and the techno-utopian post-scarcity vision of a new trend in (predominantly Anglo-American) leftist thinking: Fully Automated Luxury Communism (FALC). The two basic premises for this vision are the concept of automation and, instead of Fresco’s critique of money, political change achieved through the seizing of the means of production by the working class.

The productive capacity of technologies is simply taken for granted—you just pull the lever.

In the same soft science fiction manner as in the Venus Project, the productive capacity of technologies is simply taken for granted—you just pull the lever. Aaron Bastani, co-founder of Novara Media and proponent of FALC, states matter-of-factly that ‘[t]here is a tendency in capitalism to automate labor, to turn things previously done by humans into automated functions’. In this same Guardian article, we learn that ‘[t]he ideology [of FALC] springs from a tangle of well-observed trends. Generally, the rate of technological progress and labour productivity is rising, but wages are stagnating and factories are shedding jobs’ (emphasis added). In a similar manner, an article in Forbes contends that ‘[t]he rate of technological progress and worker productivity is on the rise’ and that ‘[r]obots, AI, machine learning, big data, etc. could basically make human labor redundant and instead of creating even further inequalities it could lead to a society where everyone lives in luxury and where machines produce everything.’ In sum: technological progress is a fact, automation is a well-observed trend, and this is stating the obvious. We all know the Earth is not flat; we all know automation is coming and technology creates abundance.

But although ideas about automation and the end of work are spreading in Western and Westernized societies, these trends are in fact not as uncontested as it would sometimes seem. Both empirical research on the industrial energy technologies that are necessary for automation and theoretical analyses of ideas about the end of work and technological progress shed doubt on automation as an unstoppable natural force. I’ll return to the former topic in the next section.

Critical analyses of ideas about automation have been around since the concept began to spread in the 1990s. A central text is George Caffentzis’s ‘The End of Work or the Renaissance of Slavery? A Critique of Rifkin and Negri’ which argues that the ‘“end of work” literature of the 1990s … creates a failed politics because it ultimately tries to convince both friend and foe that, behind everyone’s back, capitalism has ended.’ Caffentzis concludes that this kind of politics is ‘hardly inspiring when millions are still being slaughtered’ by the same processes of accumulation that have supposedly been subverted by the liberatory power of industrial technologies. This analysis recasts so-called labour-saving technology as a tool for the control of labour rather than the liberation of it. In Fossil Capital, Andreas Malm identifies the same logic in the shift to steam power in the British empire: steam engines and fossil fuels were adopted by factory owners not because they saved labour but because they allowed for more efficient control of labour.

But FALC does not simply view technological progress itself as what brings about the end of capitalism—the movement demands socialization of the industrial means of production. In The utopia of rules: On technology, stupidity, and the secret joys of bureaucracy, David Graeber (though he subscribes to anarchist philosophy, not to statist luxury communism) provides a similar argument. He contends that capitalist ownership of the means of production means that automation has been used to save labour-time locally by displacing it to countries where unions are weaker and wages are lower. However, like FALC, he claims that it would be possible to use such machines to liberate labour if the means of production were owned collectively. The question is then whether the local benefits provided by industrial technologies can be made universally available.

The local accumulation of resources in places like Western Europe and North America becomes a universal historical trend of development towards ever more prosperous societies.

When the experience of automation and technological progress in privileged countries is situated in the larger context of the world system, there is reason to doubt this possibility. FALC relies on a Marxist version of the modernization hypothesis. It accepts theories about ‘post-industrial society’ as the stage of development that inevitably follows after industrialization and interprets the decline in domestic industrial production in privileged parts of the world as an indication that all countries can move to a post-industrial stage. The local accumulation of resources in places like Western Europe and North America becomes a universal historical trend of development towards ever more prosperous societies.

But to get a better idea of how feasible the visions of FALC, Fresco, and Porritt are, we need to unpack their ideas about societal production and reproduction. What gives life to these futuristic societies? By means of what energy are they constructed and maintained?

Three perspectives on change, one magical lever

Image: Pixabay

Solar energy is one of the most central animating powers in all three imagined futures. Bastani’s thinking is a case in point:

A world which has completely decarbonised production at some point in the twenty-first century is not the wet dream of tech optimists, but seemingly inevitable when you look at the falling cost of PV and wind technologies as a consequence of experience curves,

and therefore,

‘the idea that the answer to climate change is consuming less energy—that a shift to renewables will necessarily mean a downsizing in life—feels wrong.’

Falling prices and Bastani’s intuitions are the arguments offered for the viability of solar PVs as a replacement for fossil fuels. It is assumed that PVs are a fossil-free and practically unlimited source of energy. Such an assumption relies on the belief that the process of transforming the flow of energy from the sun into an electric current, storing that energy, and putting it to use in industrial production is at least as efficient as (or more efficient than) photosynthesis. This is the dominant view of solar PVs and it has been around at least since the Brundtland report on sustainable development, published in 1987. A contemporary leftist version of it is developed in ‘Solar Communism’ by David Schwartzman. This perspective on solar PVs has traction across the political spectrum.

If we want to create a ‘hard’ science fiction story about a solar-powered future, we would need to base the world-building on something more than vague statements about how abundantly the sun shines on the surface of this planet and how the wonders of technological progress will harvest this energy and create post-scarcity. We should instead consider the net energy that can be derived from solar power—or the energy return on energy invested (EROI). We should trace the sources of the energy that goes into the construction of the technology, and follow supply chains to investigate the resource extraction that is necessary for the construction and maintenance of the technology.

There is plenty of scientific controversy regarding the EROI of photovoltaics. The EROI is commonly calculated to around 11-12 to 1, meaning that you can get 11-12 times as much energy back from PVs as you have put into the construction of them. Some calculations (one article by Ferroni and Hopkirk and one by Ferroni, Gueko, and Hopkirk) suggest the EROI of PVs to be much lower—perhaps even lower than 1 to 1, which would make solar PVs a so-called ‘energy sink’ that costs more energy to construct than you can get in return. By comparison, the first oil fields which fuelled the booming industrial expansion of the 20th century had an EROI of around 100 to 1. (The energy investment amounted to little more than poking the earth with a stick, and the return was a high-energy fuel.)

In addition to the EROI, our hard science fiction story about solar power should include the sites of extraction and processes of refinement of the materials needed for solar panels and batteries (such as silicon, lithium, and rare earth metals). This would indicate that the construction of PVs generates pollution and CO2 emissions and exploits large areas of land somewhere in the world system—generally just not in the backyard of the privileged. A horrible story about one of the central locations in this extraction is told in an article in The Guardian: in Inner Mongolia, ‘China’s second-largest coal producing region, the main global supplier of rare earths and the site of large natural gas supplies’ (emphasis added), traditional Mongolian herders and their sheep are getting sick from pollution and are being displaced. When herders have protested, Malm writes in Fossil Capital, Chinese authorities have cracked down on them brutally, even murdering at least one herder.

Our hard science fiction story about solar power should also factor in that there is no such thing as perfect recycling and that many of the necessary materials are scarce, and hence consider that extraction should be expected to peak very fast in a solar-tech-powered version of present global civilization. This means that a high-tech luxury solar utopia modelled on the energy-intensive lifestyles of privileged groups in the current world system is not feasible. Solar-powered industrial techno-utopias should not be understood as alternatives to the current system but rather, with Hornborg, as ‘an expression of the global processes of capital accumulation which fossil fuels have made possible.’

Looking for non-magical utopias

Such soft science fiction imaginaries of magical sustainability and equity are examples not of a liberated imagination but of an imagination limited by the same fossil-fuel dependent system that it seeks to criticize.

The ideological positions may be very different in Porritt’s pro-capitalist sustainable development thinking, the Venus Project with its critique of money and possible affinities with nazism, and the movement for Fully Automated Luxury Communism, but the device of the fetishized magical lever of solar power (along with other magical industrial technologies) is equally central in all three stories. These techno-utopian imaginaries are constrained by a mainstream view of industrial technology as detached from social relations and resource flows, and the offered visions of the future can thereby conceptualize industrial technology as emancipatory. Such soft science fiction imaginaries of magical sustainability and equity are examples not of a liberated imagination but of an imagination limited by the same fossil-fuel dependent system that it seeks to criticize. Sadly, this means that the three techno-utopian visions that I have discussed here can’t be used as inspiration for the creation of anything but an upper-class gated community sucking out resources and labour from peripheries and keeping the unfortunate poor out. Their putative but ineffectual concern for the wellbeing of all people and all life makes them nice apologetic narratives to turn to for those of us who live in privileged parts of world society.

While there is a need for visions of a better future, these types of techno-utopian imaginaries—regardless of how well-meaning—will ultimately do more harm than good. In the face of current political and ecological crises, it is not comforting or empowering to be told to pull a magical lever. The rise of fascism, expanding neo-colonialism and extractivism, and runaway climate change and mass extinction call for more complex strategies and stories of change.

Rut Elliot Blomqvist is a co-editor at Uneven Earth, a musician and songwriter, and a PhD student at the University of Gothenburg. Elliot’s research explores the intersection between fiction and political theory in utopian and dystopian thinking about global environmental change.

This piece is part of Not afraid of the ruins, our series of science fiction and utopian imaginings.

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Science Fiction Belgrade

© Aleksa Gajić, Technotise: Edit & I, 2009

by Srđan Tunić

This essay is the second in a “mini-series” of two essays on the critical potential of science fiction. The first essay considered how science fiction can function as social critique and discussed different literary techniques and devices. This second one will expand the story in reference to concrete examples—works by Enki Bilal and Aleksa Gajić, grounding the analysis in the Balkan context. (And if you continue reading to the end, there may be a surprise waiting for you there … )

In an article (“Vreme kao ključna odrednica SF žanra”) written in the midst of the Yugoslav Civil War (1991-1995), the Serbian science fiction (SF) writer Milovan Milovanović stated that most local SF stories seemed disconnected from the everyday situation of most people in the Balkan region at that time. According to him, in order for elements of novelty in SF stories to be accepted by readers, you need a realistic historical background and not just escapism. Even though SF imagines the future and diverges from the present, it always springs from specific places and histories (see also this chart of how historical trends in SF have changed over time):

For example, when the threat of nuclear war hung over the world during the 50s of this [20th] century, what else could the favorite topic for SF writers have been? Later on, at the beginning of the 70s, it was raising ecological awareness, due to the widespread knowledge that the world was mostly disappearing into a vortex of a biological catastrophe. This is not just related to the frequency of specific topics at specific times; it refers to a way of thinking that was totally different at the beginning of the [20th] century, the 40s, 60s, or today. The world today is not the same as it was five or ten years ago and that is strongly mirrored in SF literature.

Belgrade, as the capital of all versions of the union of South Slavs in the twentieth century, holds a prominent place in representations of state power and as a battleground for diverse imaginings of the future.

This is where Belgrade (and the Balkans in general) enters the story. Belgrade, as the capital of all versions of the union of South Slavs in the twentieth century, holds a prominent place in representations of state power and as a battleground for diverse imaginings of the future. This text will discuss its images and interpretations through two contemporary comic book authors working in the SF genre—Enki Bilal and Aleksa Gajić. Whilst the former has been based in France for a long time, with Yugoslav heritage, the latter lives in Serbia. Both feature Belgrade in their comics and films, and both work predominantly for the French market. The artworks in question are Bilal’s Bunker Palace Hôtel (1989) and Le Sommeil du monstre (The Dormant Beast in English, aka the Hatzfeld tetralogy, 1998-2007), and Gajić’s Technotise (comic, 2001) and Technotise: Edit & I (film, 2009).

Back in 2023 Belgrade … © Enki Bilal, The Hatzfeld Tetralogy, 1998-2007.

The prominence of Belgrade as a setting in the authors’ works has been recognized by Gajić himself. In an interview with Deborah Husić from 2011 (in English), the use of Serbian language in the film Technotise: Edit & I was mentioned as one of the novelties (or what Darko Suvin would call novum), because, as the artist noted, “usually everything happens in Tokyo, Paris, Berlin or New York.” Aleksa Gajić responded that he did not want to make compromises for the market:

Usually, authors have this strong need to flatter the audience in order to be accepted. Meaning, they will answer to all ‘expected’ patterns from the public. As a matter of fact, most of the films we are watching today are made having these patterns in mind. I really wanted to run away from these things with Technotise. I wanted Belgrade to be like that, let them talk in Serbian, and let them express local jokes and natural urban expressions in an SF story (emphasis added).

Why are there no UFOs in Lajkovac?

SF was mostly associated with western geography and popular culture.

Zoran Živković, one of the pioneers of modern SF in Yugoslavia during the second half of the 20th century, famously stated that “leteći tanjiri ne sleću u Lajkovac”, meaning that UFOs do not come to a typical Serbian village. This came to be know among the sci-fi community as “Zoran’s law”. This metaphor indicates both that SF set in a local context was rare (or non existent) and that SF was mostly associated with western geography and popular culture (for a further discussion, check out Milovanović’s guide to SF, in Serbian). This, unfortunately, does not take into account contributions from the former USSR/Russia, or other non-western countries. In this geographical (or geopolitical) discussion the worlds of manga and anime, which originated in Japan but have spread to other parts of Asia, also play an important role today.

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade in 2074. © Aleksa Gajić, Technotise, 2001.

The world depicted and the context (reality) from which it departs (or reacts to) are tied together.

The lack of grounding in local history and settings—or the lack of UFOs in Lajkovac—pinpoints the escapist nature of many SF works of former Yugoslavia and Serbia. However, this “law” started to change in the late 1980s and early 1990s, simultaneous to the breakup of the SFR Yugoslavia (which is discussed in “Leteći tanjiri ipak sleću u Lajkovac” by Ivan Đorđević, and “American Science Fiction Literature and Serbian Science Fiction Film: When Worlds Don’t Even Collide” by Aleksandar B. Nedeljković). The example of UFOs in Lajkovac highlights two aspects of SF I consider relevant to this analysis. First, that SF narratives have their own internal structures and logic; and second, that there is a dynamic and productive connection to be made between a narrative and its author—and potentially between a narrative and its local historical and geographical origin as well. That is to say that the world depicted and the context (reality) from which it departs (or reacts to) are tied together.

This is closely related to the discussion in the previous essay, “Science fiction between utopia and critique,” of how authors can employ different perspectives and literary traditions—utopian, dystopian, alternative histories—to both imagine a different society and show a (critical) reflection of our own. With these concepts in mind, we will now look at the oeuvres of the two artists.

The dystopias of Enki Bilal

Enki Bilal’s work in general features darker SF topics and overtones, which could be identified as dystopian, often tackling issues such as totalitarian regimes (theocracy and fascism), colonialism, corruption, identity crisis, schizophrenia, and despair, but often with an ironic tone. A great source (in Serbian) on Bilal’s work is a special issue of the magazine Gradac, edited by Miroslav Marić; in the following, references to critical discussions and quotes from interviews with Bilal, unless specified differently, are derived from this special issue of Gradac.

Bunker Palace Hôtel (1989) is the first feature film Bilal directed, co-written with his long time collaborator Pierre Christin. It is set in Belgrade in an alternative reality, or the no-time of uchronia, with a combination of French and Yugoslav actors, but targeting the French market. Some commentators characterize this film as a critique of the socialist regime in Yugoslavia (which Bilal has denied), as well as an announcement of the overall breakup of the Eastern bloc in Europe. Initially, Bilal wanted the film to take place in the USSR, with Belgrade as his second option. In an interview from 1988, he clarifies his choice:

If you insist, the film talks about a [political] system that mostly resembles fascism. I wanted the film, where one cannot see which country or time is in question, to be filmed in a somewhat oriental, extraordinary setting for the French [audience]. To have a bit of exoticism. And I am very happy to film here, because the Yugoslav actors contribute to that exotic impression.

Following the (omnipresent) leader. © Enki Bilal, Bunker Palace Hôtel, 1989

Savamala part of Belgrade. © Enki Bilal, Bunker Palace Hôtel, 1989

Railway system, Savamala. © Enki Bilal, Bunker Palace Hôtel, 1989

He also incorporates a fictional Slavic language, used by the rebel characters, in this “exotic” feeling. People’s names vary between western and Slavic (Holm, Clara, Nikolai, Zarka, etc) however, there is no explicit naming within the narrative of the film of the rebels, the state, the city, languages, ideologies, nationalities or time. The film follows the SF trend of alternative histories (uchronia), with dystopian elements and an exploration of the question: What if the Nazis had won the Second World War (WWII)? (a question echoing in SF since Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle). If we accept this line of thinking, using the image of (the then) socialist Yugoslavia as a mirror/reference society becomes more complex and troubled.

Everything is retro, or “retro-futuristic”, which is a familiar setting within certain SF subgenres.

We need to understand the alternative history setting of the Bunker Palace Hôtel itself. Any reference to the then contemporary society is mostly avoided—cars, technology, architecture, clothing. Everything is retro, or “retro-futuristic”, which is a familiar setting within certain SF subgenres. In the film we can see well-known buildings from the pre-WWII decades, such as eclectic, art nouveau and modernist architecture: mainly the French Embassy, Svetozara Radića street, Savamala’s train system, and the BIGZ and Geozavod buildings. Additionally, one can see anachronistic technological inventions, post-dating the actual society, one of which is humanoid androids. Researcher Jelena Smiljanić calls this vision an “(…) onirist post-socialistic Belgrade, intermingled with Bodriarian (sic) simulacrums (…) creating a simulated hyper-reality” (Onirism was a surrealist literary movement in Romania during the 1960s, while in psychiatry it refers to a mental state in which visual hallucinations occur while fully awake). All of this taken together creates the retro-futuristic and surrealist setting of Bunker Palace Hôtel.

Different visions are present in Le Sommeil du monstre, or The Dormant Beast in English, also known as the Hatzfeld Tetralogy, which is one of Bilal’s latest comic series produced between 1998 and 2007. Set in 2026, it portrays what seems to now be a near future with advanced technologies in a dystopian, global setting. The narrative is revealed through two intertwined processes. Three main protagonists—Nike Hatzfeld, Leyla Mirković-Zohary and Amir Fazlagić, all orphans from the Yugoslav civil war—are trying to reunite with each other. The second narrative is Nike’s recollection of his childhood, taking us from the day of his birth in 1993 to the midst of the siege of Sarajevo. Bilal’s position shifts from one of the insider to a broader cosmopolitan global perspective; but it is his portrayal of the Balkans that I will primarily address here.

Belgrade: Hotel Moscow. © Enki Bilal, The Hatzfeld Tetralogy, 1998-2007

Belgrade: Terazije. © Enki Bilal, The Hatzfeld Tetralogy, 1998-2007

Sarajevo. © Enki Bilal, The Hatzfeld Tetralogy, 1998-2007

Belgrade and Sarajevo are two of the dystopian locations featured in Le Sommeil du monstre, presented (as in Bunker Palace Hôtel) in a retro-futurist mix where the old and the new are messily joined together. All cities in the series have a strong feeling of decay; as comic book author Zoran Penevski said related to Bilal, “it is the world of a narrative apocalypse.” In an interview for Serbian magazine Vreme, Bilal stated that Belgrade had changed little since when he moved to Paris in 1960. When he was asked in another interview why he avoided presenting contemporary times (war scenes in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina or the NATO bombing of Belgrade), he answered:

It is strange but when I’m portraying a brutal scene, I feel very uncomfortable placing it in the present. While if I position myself 20-30 years [into the future], then I can enjoy the creative process (…) I am visiting the future in order to come back to the past and the present. (emphasis added).

The narrative of a painful past and a not so optimistic future unwinds in the series, while the breakup of SFR Yugoslavia is still fresh.

The narrative of a painful past and a not so optimistic future unwinds in the series, while the breakup of SFR Yugoslavia is still fresh. Just after the Hatzfeld Tetralogy came out in 1998, Bilal said that his interest in Yugoslavia was triggered by the violent events of the war, the violence that triggered a “monster of remembrance”. The concept of reflective nostalgia coined by Svetlana Boym could be applied here, a nostalgia that does not tend to reconstruct the past but to instead be skeptical or critical of it, since the return to a imagined better past is impossible. In this case, it was the author’s creative way of purging the disturbances caused by the war.

A dystopian mode is prevalent in the Hatzfeld Tetralogy, where the future brings a continuation of conflicts, but there are also some utopian sparks. Among those, Bilal also plants a powerful image of human segregation according to religious affiliation (and nationalism). According to an essay by Aurélie Huz and Irène Langlet, the avoidance of national or religious categorization of the main heroes (storytellers) in this comic pinpoints not only a state of uncertainty about identities after the dissolution of the joint state, but also Bilal’s own critique of segregation. If one accepts the argument that those very divisions contributed to the violent dissolution of multicultural life and shared space in SFR Yugoslavia, embedding similar divisions into a future society, for example in Paris (“Catholics only”, “Salafists only” in the comic), Bilal voices concern and a warning that history may repeat itself. This is why the question “Are you Serb, Croat or Muslim?”, posed several times, remains unanswered in the story.

© Enki Bilal, The Hatzfeld Tetralogy, 1998-2007

The utopias of Aleksa Gajić

In contrast to Bilal, Gajić’s work has more humorous and light tones, a trademark of both his comics and animation work. He mostly works in the epic, fantasy, cyberpunk and SF genres, or something he calls “optimistična futuristika” (optimistic futuristic). These aspects of his work are discussed by Pavle Zelić and Anica Tucakov. Gajić’s bachelor degree project was a comic titled Technotise, with Darko Grkinić as a writer, and this later served as a starting point for Technotise: Edit & I (in Serbian: Tehnotajz: Edit i ja), which became known as the first Serbian feature-length animated film. In both works a utopian vision prevails, providing a predominant insider viewpoint of the portrayed societies.

State of Pobednik (the Victor) at Kalemegdan fortress, Belgrade. © Aleksa Gajić, Technotise, 2001.

The Kula Sibinjanin Janka (The tower of Janos Hunyadi) or the Millennium tower, Zemun municipality. © Aleksa Gajić, Technotise, 2001.

© Aleksa Gajić, Technotise, 2001.

The adolescents portrayed lead a hedonistic, middle-class life, centered around sex, drugs, hoverboard competitions and going out.

The Technotise comic (created in 1998, published in 2001) pays attention to two different time periods, both of which deviate from the present. At the very beginning there is a short episode from 1739, but most of  the comic is set in 2074. It traces the adventures of a group of adolescents, led by Edit, in Belgrade. It is mostly set on the Great War Island (Veliko ratno ostrvo), a natural reserve between rivers Sava and Danube which are surrounding the city from two sides, and in Zemun, an old municipality where Gajić lives. The adolescents portrayed lead a hedonistic, middle-class life, centered around sex, drugs, hoverboard competitions and going out. Their names are a combination of foreign (Edit, Broni, Herb, Woo) and local (Sanja, Bojan), their looks and habits are seemingly typical of (western) teenagers but they are also contextualized through Serbian language, backgrounds and references. The film Technotise: Edit & I (2009) kept the main characters and semi-utopian quality with a more developed retro-futuristic, cyberpunk image of Belgrade. Real locations were shot and then futuristic details were added. In an interview (in Serbian) for B92 portal Gajić explains:

Belgrade 2074 is a city where the future came without an urban plan. Yes, the buses are floating above the streets, but also run late, so there are traffic jams. Facades are futuristic but also run down. The locations are altered, but still recognizable, so you cannot mix our capital with some other city. I made an effort to give this SF film a dose of plausibility, because I think that’s the way for the viewers to believe the story (…) That’s why the main hero is a regular girl with common problems that anybody can identify with and understand. At the same time, I haven’t given up my desires—I made a film I would like to see myself.

Recalling the different “gaze” positions I developed in the previous essay in this mini-series, the worldbuilding technique used in the film can be seen as an example of the present projecting itself directly into the future. A not-so-perfect setting reveals the social awareness of the film, pushed to another plane. Whilst it triggers humor, it can also remind viewers of the unresolved issues present in the Serbian and Belgrade society of 2009: Roma people collecting garbage in the city (here competing with robots), robots begging for new graphic cards, “eternal students” using tricks to pass exams (“bubice”), adolescents living with parents, telenovelas, old buses and police cars (Zastava 101 models), a rural grandfather yelling that children need to go back to the countryside and so on. Gajić draws attention to these references to the present in interviews by Sonja Ćirić and Ivana Matijević. Through its projection of present issues into the future, the film turns these present issues into a heritage that weighs down on the future and shows that the future does not automatically free itself from the problems of the present. However, optimistic tones are still prevalent, echoing a tendency in feature films of the New Belgrade School in post-2000 Serbian society, where authors are grasping the “(…) opportunity of this new start, constructing a virtual city made up of cultural and genre idioms”, as Nevena Daković shows in “Imagining Belgrade: The Cultural/Cinematic Identity of a City on European Fringes”.

© Aleksa Gajić, Technotise: Edit & I, 2009

Kalemegdan fortress and riverside, the confluence of Sava and Danube rivers. © Aleksa Gajić, Technotise: Edit & I, 2009

The Post of Serbia at Savamala (pre WWII design of Momir Korunović). © Aleksa Gajić, Technotise: Edit & I, 2009

Belgrade’s transformations triggered by the social upheavals of the 1990s and a feeling of a new start in the 2000s are most visible through film. Daković states that this cinematic cityscape is closely linked to space, time and matters of (transcultural) identity:

The cinematic cityscape is thus a complex identity performance. In the case of Belgrade, it presents a rich succession of identity conflicts and shifts, encompassing identities spanning from exotic Orientalism to virtual cosmopolitanism, with a nodal contrast articulated as Orient-rural-Balkan vs. Occident-urban-Europe. Belgrade’s city identity constantly vacillates between these poles, spilling over borders, moving between and among the times and spaces of the various identity constituents (emphasis added).

The cityscape changed from a socialist idyll, through the ghetto of the 1990s, to a “pure locus of the possible”—a cosmopolitan identity after the democratic elections in the 2000s.

In the context of post WWII Yugoslavia, and then Serbia, the cityscape changed from a socialist idyll, through the ghetto of the 1990s, to a “pure locus of the possible”—a cosmopolitan identity after the democratic elections in the 2000s. SF imaginings of Belgrade can therefore provide an understanding of contemporary positions and identities when the author’s projection is deeply grounded in the local context of Belgrade and Serbia, but also provide a means for temporary escape from the reader’s (or viewer’s) own body and society.

One of the major criticisms of Technotise in Serbia was that the film treated SF in a more humorous way, which was also a creative break with the majority of SF productions. Another critique was that it used youth slang and references to contemporary Serbian society. This situating of the film’s narrative, according to the author, was both a personal choice and a break from acknowledged patterns and habits of the genre, especially SF that is mostly set in highly developed technological societies in the West or Japan. A Serbian film critic, Dimitrije Vojnov, said in an interview that “in a (Serbian) cinematography so loaded with the past, the future rarely manages to reach the screen, and when it does, it is an ironic reflection of the present or past”, thus noting how Gajić diverged from a mainstream.

In preparation for his next film, Prophet 1.0 (Prorok 1.0), Gajić said that he wanted to present “the future in a Serbian, not American or Japanese, way.” And in explaining what is “Serbian” about Edit & I, he referred to the collaborators, financing, language, and topics. To this list, I would also add the Serbian locations. Curiously enough, this seemingly patriotic declaration does not include any loaded traditional or nationalist topics or statements within the artworks’ narratives. This mix between an international outlook and national (or local) grounding is connected to the affinity between SF and both “escapist” and critical situated knowledge, as I discussed in “Science fiction between utopia and critique.”

© Aleksa Gajić Prorok / The Prophet, 2016

The identity of the (future) city—the identity of its ma(r)kers

These two dimensions of SF—the escapist and the critical—are present in the works of both Bilal and Gajić. Around two decades have passed between the UFOs that do not land in Lajkovac and the emergence of locally grounded SF in a Serbian context. In the cases of Bilal and Gajić, it is important to understand why they decided to contextualize their narratives in locations that they are physically and/or emotionally attached to. In both cases the topics were mostly a matter of personal preferences, which led to works that differ from the ones that the two artists do for the (mostly) French market. Bilal had already made a name for himself in the 1970s and 1980s, allowing him to treat contemporary, more politically engaged and personal topics with greater ease. But Gajić’s work for the French market differs from Technotise, which departs from and clashes with the market’s popular tropes, and this made him pause his international work during the film’s production. In facing many challenges while making the film, he said: “If the film doesn’t succeed, the repentant son will go back to France. After all, swords, magic, slaughter and the rest… it’s not so bad at all!” and “If I wanted money, I would have probably made a movie about little animals and wizards” (interviews with Peđa Popović and for Domino magazine, in Serbian).

Comic relief—a village grandpa in the middle of futuristic city. © Aleksa Gajić, Technotise: Edit & I, 2009

Bilal and Gajić, in the narratives and messages of their artworks, have found ways to resist the official nationalist rhetoric that is so prominent in Serbian politics.

I would argue that both Bilal and Gajić, in the narratives and messages of their artworks, have found ways to resist the official nationalist rhetoric that is so prominent in Serbian politics. They are not, however, hiding their national identities in their work about Belgrade and the Balkans, into which they bring a strong sense of engagement and lack of concern for market pressure. The question then becomes: whose eyes are we looking through? What differentiates people from one another? The contextualization of stories takes place through specific characters, names, settings, cities, histories, and references, but at the same time avoids demonstrative national images, such as flags and other national symbols, religious affiliation of heroes and so on. In Bilal’s case, as already mentioned, characters refuse to identify with the causes of war, in protest, whilst Gajić finds politics overwhelming in Serbian society and prefers to find ways to create artworks that entertain and make people laugh. He views this as a more noble and honorable cause than being serious and scared.

Could this escapism embed in itself any Balkanism, as defined by Maria Todorova? In academia, the concept is defined as a discourse where the Balkans were (and sometimes still are) presented and constructed as the“other” of Europe, a negative stereotype, inverted mirror. In her book Imagining the Balkans, she states that creators of Balkan images from the Balkans itself are very self-conscious of the imposed discourse:

Unlike Western observers who, in constructing and replicating the Balkanist discourse, were (and are) little aware and even less interested in the thoughts and sensibilities of their objects, the Balkan architects of different self-images have been involved from the very outset in a complex and creative dynamic relationship with this discourse (…).

Hotel Moscow, Belgrade. © Enki Bilal, The Hatzfeld Tetralogy, 1998-2007

Another researcher, Maria Palacios Cruz states that “the Balkans seen from the Balkans” in film seem more concerned with being accepted than subverting the West’s images of the Balkans itself, thus reproducing criteria, stereotypes and divisions. Gajić’s escapism in the futuristic Technotise does not eliminate reality bites of SF Belgrade, nor does it avoid a sense of cosmopolitanism; after all, it provides a sort of hope. Bilal made a somewhat exotic Belgrade setting in Bunker Palace Hôtel, whilst in the comic series it is clear that the main characters are resisting nationalist narratives and paving an unstable road of their own, avoiding stereotypical media discourses. In Bilal’s own words:

I am not rejecting my own roots. When I say that it is dangerous to look inside oneself too much, in your own past, memories, remembrances, nation, religion, your territory, it is. That gaze is dangerous but I find it necessary. It is crucial to carry it with oneself and move with one’s own roots.

Conclusions: SF as cosmopolitanism?

Daković characterizes new film directors in post-2000 Serbia as employing escapism, cosmopolitanism and postmodernism. The cinematic cityscape of Belgrade is based on a “‘glocal’ identity [which] is made up of local elements with global appeal, local themes in a global expression and local events of inevitable global consequences”, quoting the definition by Paul Virilio. Or, as a beer ad in Serbia says: “global, but ours”.

Inside the Bunker Palace Hôtel. © Enki Bilal, Bunker Palace Hotel, 1989

Binarisms (local – global, national – international, patriot – cosmopolitan) come with a whole set of contextualized inclusions and exclusions. One’s attachment to a local stance might be seen as conforming to nationalism, even xenophobia, or as a resistance to the processes of globalization – or simply as staying faithful to the politics of location, as outlined by Donna Haraway in her theory of situated knowledge. Thus, one’s identification with a city might even be a means of resisting national identity (for more on this topic, see this study by Ivana Spasić in English). On the other side of an imagined pole stands cosmopolitanism, which is grounded in openness and universalism, criticized for being an elite stance associated with pro-Western and pro-European political ideologies in the Balkans.

In the Serbian context, after a global phase during socialist (or Tito’s) Yugoslavia, SF entered a (re-)traditionalist period grounded in nationalist political projects and imaginarium from the mid-1980s. This more traditional aspect of the genre contains many elements previously mentioned as characteristic of fantasy. Anthropologist Ivan Đorđević in his “Antropologija naučne fantastike: tradicija žanrovskoj književnosti” (Anthropology of Science Fiction: a Tradition in Genre Literature) says this production is in essence local, where certain traditional elements, taken selectively and strategically, create an image of how a culture sees itself at certain times (This perspective could be compared to Andrew Liptak’s article about nationalism in militaristic SF). Đorđević notes that a crucial distinction is made between Us and Them (Europe, the West, or the world in general), revealing the central gaze of traditional narratives as being nationally tailored. In this way, SF visions carry fears of losing one’s “roots”, or allowing cultural assimilation; that is, if the future is generally understood as cosmopolitan, with universal (most likely western) tendencies for humankind. This view of the imaginative role of SF echoes antiglobalization discourses.

Remembering 05th October 2001, The Parliament building. © Aleksa Gajić, Technotise: Edit & I, 2009

The imagining of science-fiction Belgrade operates between tensions and opposites.

Overall, the imagining of science-fiction Belgrade operates between tensions and opposites. Just as in general SF, it provides universal knowledge claims about the future (and our global present), while at the same time situating the narratives in local history, social issues and geography. On a geopolitical level, it it susceptible both to Balkanism—accepting the Balkans as the “other” of Europe—and to Europeanism or Westernism—the construction of universalist global imaginaries. However, it is also a space for personal narratives and alternative visions, offering locally grounded stories, enriching the SF field. As such, it offers utopian and dystopian settings, escapism and social critique.

As Nevena Daković writes, “The transcultural identity and imaging of Belgrade is the result of a fusion of Balkanism and Europeanism, of local and global aspects in a city that is multi-layered and multi-faceted”. Which identity of the city will be used, in which setting and time (dystopian or utopian), heavily depends on the need to escape or construct alternatives in the present moment.


  • Technotise and Technotise: Edit & I courtesy of Aleksa Gajić.
  • Bunker Palace Hôtel from Pinterest.com and WorldCinema.org.
  • The Hatzfeld Tetralogy from TapaTalk.com, JogLikesComics.blogspot.com, Passion-Estampes.com, and Pinterest.com.

For more info on SF in Serbia (and Yugoslavia) available online:



Belgrade Cooperative building—the center and mirror of city visions

Hey! (waving) Are you here for… HELLO! Are you guys here for the time travel tour?! Glad I found you so quickly, this place is crowded, follow me. Is it just you or are we expecting others to join us as well? Okay, good, we’ll have some extra space for us then, c’mon. Dobar dan – welcome to Experience Belgrade Through Time, the most popular time travel tour you can find in Serbia. As a promotional tour, we offer taking you to a selected point in the city and watch it how it changed during time. Once you book one of our full tours, you will be able to choose among other exciting programs going all the way back to the Roman times. Now please give me the vouchers, take a seat and put on the security bells. You learned a bit of Serbian already? Ah, rakija, of course. This tour will last for two hours and this time I’ll take you to a wonderful building you could find at Savamala district. Been there? Oh, it’s a must! Let’s go!

Stop 1: 1907

Source: Goethe-Institut Belgrade, Urban Incubator.

This is one of the city’s pearls, look at the beauty of it—decoration, monumentality, how it voluptuously imposes itself to the area, charming everyone. Let us have a glimpse inside… This building we usually call Geozavod, was actually made for the Belgrade Cooperative bank, by our famous architects Andra Stevanović and Nikola Nestorović, whose other works you could see in the area. It is one of the prime works of architecture in this period, mixing academic and Art Nouveau styles, Renaissance and Baroque decoration, and the first one using reinforced concrete in Serbia. Just move aside, izvinite… Saw these workers? The area was surrounded with new buildings, ponds and beaches, as one of the entry points where both merchandise and people arrived in Belgrade. Alas, after World War II, the cooperative bank was no more, the building had different and changing tenants, and underwent architectural changes. Luckily, it was never bombed! Speaking of bombs, let us go the our next stop

Stop 2: 1989

Source: Bac Films.

Čoveče, do you recognize this one? How could it be? The building really underwent a bit of a deterioration, like the whole Savamala district, becoming a place filled with old glory, noise, shady characters and almost forgotten. Or simply unpopular to hang out to. But this one is actually from a surreal movie by a French artist born in Belgrade, do you know who he is? I’ll give you a tip, he made comics… Nikopol? Immortel? (beep beep) What’s this? Nevermind, the movie Bunker Palace Hotel took place in an alternative reality, at the very end of socialism of Yugoslavia, Belgrade being its capital. In the movie, it’s a hotel, but actually a bunker for members of a ruling regime, hiding from a mysterious threat… I won’t tell you more, please do see the movie, and if you like film history, check out Kinoteka’s tours as well!

Stop 3: 2012

Source: Mapio.net

Look at the old lady, all run down, but still standing proudly. Nostalgic gem, memory of times passed, but not too long so nobody would remember its past glory. Ah, the building was used for rave and techno parties from the 1990s, imagine that – marble and electronic music, glass paintings and stroboscope. Somewhere from late 2000s, artists started coming to the area, making it present and interesting for Belgraders again. Do you hear the music? That’s one of the festivals, happening just behind the corner, do you see all the young people? Is the area coming back to life? I remember those times when I was young, thankfully nowadays we could live longer to testify about it. We were a bit afraid back then, afraid of the specter of gentrification, an army of yellow machines tearing down the area we we trying so much to nurture… Let us not interfere here, we need to follow the laws of time travel—stay unspotted, do not change anything.

Stop 4: 2016

Source: Dzodan

After years of being neglected, finally rise and shine! In 2014 the building underwent a major redevelopment as part of Belgrade Waterfront project, which has its seat there. What do you think, do you like the neglected charm or new life? During these years the area started changing drastically—many buildings were torn down and streets disappeared, while others, like Belgrade Cooperative gain a new chance, as part of the investment plan. These skyscrapers behind it are blocking the view towards the river, and many inhabitants found it very controversial—who would live here, when gentrification made it so expensive for all the local people? We… who? Security guard? Oh, do not pay much attention to that guy at the corner, there’s always a busybody at the corner… but we may still go further up the street a bit.

Source: Ne davimo Beograd

(beep beep) Why is this beeping again? Sranje, look at that mass of people, full trust upward… Huh, I’m sorry, I haven’t paid attention to what lies ahead. It seems I took us right in the middle of the protest against Belgrade Waterfront! These people are supporters of Don’t Drown Belgrade initiative. Yes, we’re safe on this altitude. And this was not a violent protest. You can find some data about it in the hand-outs. And that big yellow duck over there – that’s their symbol! “Duck” in Serbian could mean a joke, a scam. Let us move away from here, I can hear the helicopters approaching, and I need some space to maneuver to the next station.

Stop 5: 2074

Source: Black, White & Green studio

Huh, peaceful again. Watch out for the tram. You see, we’re in animated setting! Another artist, comic book author Aleksa Gajić, made a vision of Belgrade which is both old and new, with old-fashion, socialist trams, early 20th century architecture and futurist inventions. The trains are levitating, Belgrade Cooperative has a virtual reality dome, and the Belgrade looks… what do you think, familiar, nostalgic? Nicer than it really is? This was made in 2009, it is interesting to see how people back then imagined our times. (beep beep beep beep) Ok, this is it, the promo tour is ending, I wish to have spend more time with you, for that please do check our full tours, we’ll be able to travel for a whole day, there’s so much to tell about this city… If you have a half of minute of your time, check out the evaluation form and rate me as your guide… thank you, you too, vidimo se neki drugi put!


I would like to thank professor Nevena Daković at the University of Arts in Belgrade for her help in writing the original paper, Charlotte E. Whelan for proofreading and Rut Elliot Blomqvist for excellent editing.

Srđan Tunić is an art historian, freelance curator and cultural manager based in Belgrade, Serbia. A fan of science fiction, this is his first text about it. Contact: srdjan.tunic[at]gmail.com

This piece is part of Not afraid of the ruins, our series of science fiction and utopian imaginings.

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