"All power to the imagination" said the students of '68, repeating the slogan of the philosopher Herbert Marcuse. Now, more than fifty years later, we have learned to do without the ideologies and great narratives. But can we really live "without utopias"?
During the 2016 edition of Encuentro, the Spanish literature festival held in Perugia in May, we met the writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II to talk about utopia and the end of history.
“Utopia lies at the horizon: When I draw nearer by two steps, it retreats two steps. If I proceed ten steps forward, it swiftly slips ten steps ahead. No matter how far I go, I can never reach it. What, then, is the purpose of utopia? It is to cause us to advance.” (Eduardo Galeano)
It is often said that we are living in a post-ideological and post-utopian era. But can we really live “without utopias”?
I think the best definition of utopia is still that of the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano: utopia is not something that is there, but something that you are saying up to there, and it goes beyond, it shifts, it is not metaphysics, not a vocation nor a will, but a sort of concrete desire whose purpose is not to be reached, but rather to be sought. I think we can live without many material possessions, but not without utopia. We can minimize the need for “things”, but it is very hard to live without utopia.
Does the idea that history can end have anything to do with the crisis of utopias?
History never ends. The end of history is the aim of those who do not want there to be a history. Certain forms of twentieth-century utopia, in taking shape, have ended up producing monsters – to borrow the title of a famous work by the painter Francisco Goya. But what did the utopia of the Soviet revolution have in common with the Stalinist authoritarian apparatus? What was the link between the Latin American desire for a continuous and permanent revolution and the processes of deterioration, fatigue and bureaucratization? Where was socialism in Eastern Europe? The utopias crisis of the twentieth century arose from the gap between the political model and social realization, a gap so extreme to make us think that what was wearing thin was the general idea of a utopia. But that was not the case, it was the products that were gradually running out.
So what is the relationship between a utopian model and its historical achievement? And is there perhaps a way to save the revolutionary power of utopias?
There is one thing we learn working as historians: utopia develops over a short rather than long period, because over the long-term the level of deterioration is so strong that a kind of freezing of utopia occurs. Utopia gets caught up in red tape, and to change the state of things we need to come up with a new proposal for utopia. I have carefully studied the most brilliant moments of the Cuban revolution – 1960-62, ’63 perhaps – when there was a very high level of utopian construction: the factory workers, when the Czechoslovakians came to measure their times and calculate the production standards, produced more so that the standards were higher instead of underproducing so that the standards were lower. The Czechoslovakian workers who came from Eastern European bureaucracy did not understand anything and spent three months in Cuba drunk. These crazy Cuban workers who overproduced to raise the standards had a purely ideological motivation: it was Che's business style, in Cuba utopia existed in the streets. The downfall of this utopian process is that it should have stabilized quickly, but all this clashed with Che's approach, who was incapable of even conceiving of a medium-term.
Moreover, falling into the temptation of seeing the future as a straight line is typical of a positivist line of thinking of the nineteenth century. But in reality there are no straight lines, there is no linear progress. Let me give you a logical example that comes to mind: when a taxi driver in Mexico City asked me “where to?” and I replied, “XXX community,” he then asked “which way do you want to go?” and I replied “wherever there are palm trees.” The taxi driver understood immediately. There is no such thing as a straight line, it is only it is only miserable functionalism. The taxi driver had no doubt, he set off and started to look for roads with palm trees.