John Quiggin on Utopia

UtopiaOver at the Browser, a Five Books interview with John Quiggin:

What does John Quiggin’s utopia look like?

The reason I chose this topic is because of the current political situation, particularly on the left. We’ve moved from a situation where the left offered a utopian vision that inspired people, to a situation where the left is primarily trying to stave off the tribalism that dominates politics on the right. That doesn’t really seem to be enough to mobilise and engage people. We need to recapture the kind of vision and language of utopia that used to be part and parcel of left politics. But I suppose I like the idea of utopia more than the work of specifying the details.

You don’t think the whole idea of utopia now has negative connotations because of the spectacular failure of communism?

That’s obviously one of the factors in play. Even when social democrats were in competition with communism, we had much greater comfort with utopian language than we do now. But for me the real problem is the way in which neoliberal (for want of a better word) values have permeated the whole of social discussion and made any kind of thinking beyond very narrow self-interest sound unreasonably utopian.

So is your utopia a social democratic one?

Yes. There’s an important sense in which the social democracy of the postwar era wasn’t merely a compromise between communism and capitalism. It really was something new and different, which seemed to promise and to a significant extent deliver a much better society than either capitalism or communism could offer – one in which people were free of the fear of mass unemployment, of having their lives destroyed by ill health, and yet one in which freedom was a positive value. We’re seeing all that being ripped away and eroded now under the banner of austerity. It’s not sufficient to say, “Austerity is a really bad policy – here is a Keynesian macroeconomic critique showing you won’t be able to reduce debt in this way.” You need to rekindle the notion that there is a better way of life that we could achieve, though without the utopian element of a fundamental transformation of people that was part of the communist project, particularly in places like China.