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What More Means Now:

Utopia, Occupy, and the Commons

Sarah Hogan


Essay Cluster: Presentism Without Shakespeare (#1)


Editor's Introduction to "Presentism Without Shakespeare": The essays in this cluster explore the promises and limitations of presentism outside the field of the methodology's flourishing: Shakespeare Studies. As defined by one of its most prominent practitioners, Ewan Fernie, presentism is “a strategy of interpreting texts in relation to current affairs which challenges the dominant fashion of reading Shakespeare historically” ("Shakespeare and the Prospect of Presentism," Shakespeare Survey 58 [2005]: 169). Fernie and other presentists have insisted that Shakespeare means “now,” not simply “then” – and they have traced the ways that Shakespeare’s plays retain and currently spend their cultural capital. What purchase does presentism have, however, when Shakespeare is not its object of focus? Is Shakespeare our only contemporary from the Renaissance?

Abstract:This essay surveys the ways in which Thomas More’s Utopia continues to speak across centuries, most recently to the topic of Occupy Wall Street as a utopian social movement. Specifically, it considers how the mainstream media and Occupy itself have mobilized More’s book to articulate the movement’s own criticisms and/or its shortcomings, with crucial distinctions in their methods of reading — between universalism and historicism, respectively. At the same time, an overall, shared tendency to denounce More’s fictional world — the alternative society verbally sketched in Book Two — is shown to cut across both pro- and anti-Occupy invocations of Utopia. Occupy, as a result, is examined here as the latest phase in modernity’s increasingly complicated, ambivalent relationship to utopianism (and Utopia). Ultimately, the essay argues that the movement registers the profound social costs of our widespread anxiety about utopian discourse, while proposing that the utopian objective of a sustainable commons might once again offer a compelling alternative to the corporate, capitalist order. Throughout, the essay also suggests that contemporary readings outside the academy make urgent an alternative, historically-minded presentism engaged with the meanings of Utopia then and now.


Blessed Thomas More is more important at this moment than at any moment since his death, even perhaps the great moment of his dying; but he is not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred years' time. (Chesterton 63)

[O]ur readings of the past are vitally dependent on our experience of the present. (Jameson, The Political Unconscious 11)


On November 2, 2011, Occupy Oakland took to the streets behind a barricade of cardboard, plexi-glass, and foam shields emblazoned with the images of book covers like Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, David Harvey’s Limits to Capital, and Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games.1 This was just over a week after Scott Olsen, a 24-year-old Iraq War Veteran, had his skull fractured by a police projectile in a clash between law enforcement and protestors. Occupy’s literary armor functioned on literal and symbolic levels, then, as both safeguard and vanguard, defensively protecting bodies from state violence, strategically placing radical ideas smack dab in the middle of social struggle, and positioning culture at the forefront of a democratic movement. This mass action, known as book bloc (a playful reinvention of black bloc), was first seen in Italy the previous fall, when students wielded novels like Wu Ming’s Q to protest Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s privatizing education reforms. No stranger to local public education cuts, Occupy Oakland’s bookish take on direct action mobilized literary culture, knowledge, and the world of ideas against police brutality and in the name of political and economic transformation. What ensued were quite striking scenes of a state “disarming” protestors of their books, many of them clearly of college age, along with the arrest of more than 80 protestors. In the months following these early protests, Oakland’s City Council signaled a desire to ban book bloc as a “tool of violence,” a measure that seems all the more absurd because Occupy’s shields, already a tool of defense, represent intangible ideals (Kuruvila). To rephrase a popular Occupy slogan, you can’t ban an idea.

Among the titles featured in Oakland was a reproduction of Ursula Le Guin’s 1974 soft sci-fi classic The Dispossessed. When Wired magazine recently asked Le Guin how she felt about Occupy’s reading, she had this to say: “I am proud and happy that a book — and actually a book printed quite a long time ago now — is still making some waves and being of some use to people thinking about this stuff” (“Geek’s Guide”). It requires no great stretch of the imagination to understand the continued relevance of The Dispossessed, the story of an anarchist-physicist’s disillusionment with an alien world of plenty but gross inequality, even if Le Guin’s book originally allegorized topical events like Vietnam and the Cold War. In fact, Le Guin’s novel remains extraordinarily timely given its eco-socialist criticisms of mass consumption and social inequality. While she admits in the interview that her book was never a “blueprint for action,” Le Guin hopes that her ambiguous utopia — like all good novels — nevertheless offers “moral guidance,” and thus invites a presentist reading that extends her book’s life into the 21st century. Book bloc and Le Guin remind us that texts are often meant to mean in contexts beyond their publication, and that they are already at the center of social struggle, exerting power and mobilizing action, already being re-read in presentist ways, whether academics enter this conversation or not.

This extension of relevance beyond historical context seems especially inevitable with respect to utopian and dystopian texts, given their explicit politicization and prognostications.2 If references in the mainstream media and blogosphere provide any measure, Thomas More’s Utopia is another text that continues to speak — this time across centuries — to the topic of Occupy Wall Street as a utopian (or in some conservative accounts, dystopian) social movement, thus inviting us to consider how a non-Shakespearean text might offer a new perspective on presentism as a critical reading strategy. Even more importantly, the examination of popular references to More provides an occasion for considering how our intellectual and cultural histories shape experiences in the present. The genre-pioneering Utopia — and its long, controversial history of reception — exerts a pressure on the present movement, just as contemporary sensibilities, our imperfect historical narratives, and the weight of interpretive tradition inevitably shape the modern critic’s engagement with More. Consequently, this essay will pursue More’s meanings now, examining how conservative reactions to the Occupy movement often hinge on a knee-jerk, dismissive understanding of both utopian literature and praxis. What this conservative reaction overlooks, however, is Occupy’s own ambivalent relationship to the utopian tradition; though quick to adopt the critical discourse of utopias, Occupy was just as resistant to the programmatic thrust of utopian fictions, and alert to the by-now popular rejection of the repressive, totalizing tendencies of the discourse. Yet here I also want to suggest that Occupy was not too utopian. Rather, it was not utopian enough.

At the same time, this discussion will consider how contemporary readings outside the academy, and from a range of political perspectives, make urgent an alternative, historically-minded but no less politically-engaged presentism, concerned with the meanings of Utopia then and now. In pursuing this query, I will not merely make apparent my own “situatedness in the present” (Grady and Hawkes 2), and my unabashed involvement in Occupy, but argue that a central task for presentism is precisely to make the past relevant, to make it speak to us, our students, and the non-academic public (5).3 If this work of relevance-making often happens by way of ideological distortion, there are other, more ethical and empirical means to this end. Purposeful encounters with the past have the power to disrupt and denaturalize our myopic sense of the present, thus pointing us to the possibility, even inevitability of future change. I will persist in arguing that More wanted nothing less for his text; in orchestrating a radical play of perspectives that estranges his current social system, More invites readers to weigh their present against his worlds, both ideal and historically real.


What kind of explanatory power does a Tudor text like Utopia offer in the present? At first glance, the parallels seem rather apparent. For instance, Occupy’s performative character — or, its enacted alternative to corporate, capitalist social relations — embodies the quintessential trait of utopian discourse, leveling a critique of the current world order through the representation of systemic difference. Just as More’s book reimagines dispossession as a desirable state of being, in Occupy the commons are reclaimed in park encampments, while dispossession and joblessness are problems redeployed as alternative, if temporary possibilities for radical social reorganization (an idea captured on many Occupy posters declaring, “I lost my job but found an occupation”). In its experimental character modeled on direct democracy, consensus-building, and the commoning of private or state property, Occupy translates the literary no-place into a lived, placed, social reality.

But a quick look at the public sphere surrounding Occupy reveals that interpretive mobilizations of Utopia usually depend on the position one takes on Occupy, and at the same time demonstrates just how ambivalent our age remains about the feasibility, even possibility of a radically different social order. Critics of Occupy, for instance, have sought refuge in the all-too-familiar and all-too-easy Cold War strategy of equating anti-capitalism — and communism and socialism in particular — with a utopianism that they claim is inevitably totalitarian.4 An October 2011 New York Post opinion editorial, for example, rabidly characterizes the “vagabond” encampment in Zuccotti Park as a “‘Lord of the Flies’ descent from utopia to petty power struggles” (Goodwin). For others, Occupy Wall Street merely adds to the arsenal of historical evidence that “ad hoc” and “enclave” utopias “always fail,” a lesson apparently learned by anyone who “has read George Orwell” (Whittington).5 In such accounts where “[i]dealism dreams of utopia but usually winds up creating hell” (Henley), the ideological legacy of literary antiutopias (albeit in their conservative appropriation) is felt just as palpably as the failures of twentieth-century Communism.6 More explicitly rears his head in some such accounts of Occupy’s utopianism-revealed-as-dystopianism, but in tellingly selective ways.

Denunciations of the movement almost exclusively reference one of the two possible meanings of More’s titular neologism, never the good place, eu-topia, but always the unviable no place, ou-topia. Or, alternatively, they hinge on the undesirable failings of the society overviewed in Book Two.7 Ron Dart provides something of an exception to this tendency in a more moderate, though ultimately admonishing critique of the movement. His “Occupy Wall Street/Vancouver and Thomas More/Erasmus” condemns the simultaneous “idealism and cynicism” of Occupiers, a shortcoming he aligns with Raphael, to reserve his favor for the reform-minded persona of More. In doing so, Dart collapses the textual character of More with the author and goes on to assert that “Book 1 of Utopia is a must read,” because the conversational frame distances the author from the misguided views of Raphael. Dart locates a still relevant lesson in Utopia: contemporary readers should learn to sail the ship of state, rather than pitch their tents in a park. To some degree, this mobilization of Utopia reflects an assessment of the book’s ironic, ambiguous form that became popular in the 1960s, and would become the basis for what George Logan characterizes as a “full-fledged counter-tradition to the humanistic interpretation” of Utopia (135). This counter-tradition emphasizes the text’s playfulness while rejecting the island-state’s repressive social order.

What these anti-utopian critiques of Occupy share in common, then, is a reliance on decontextualization that — unconsciously or consciously — ignores the critical, moral thrust of Book One as social commentary as well as the structure of debate that posits Hythloday as a vehicle for More’s own self-fashioning, offering instead an interpretation that reads the book (and the entire genre after it) as already anti-utopian.8 The economic and political failures of Henrician England so passionately condemned by More’s stranger are selectively edited out from these modern applications of Utopia. Instead, More’s book is only relevant to the extent that it invokes a timeless lesson about the irrelevance of utopias — literary or actualized; they have no place in the contemporary order, as outmoded, disproven, idealistic dreams. More’s book is read, in other words, as a self-defeating text that undermines the appeal of its own radical vision either by emphasizing the Utopian society’s undesirable or implausible qualities, or by assuming the fictional reformist More speaks for the author and thereby for the text itself. The conservative reading that seeks to explain Occupy’s “failures” by way of its utopianism thus relies on the intentional fallacy or takes More’s Utopia to be universally representative of all utopian texts and politics.

Proponents of Occupy are meanwhile quick to embrace the title of Utopians and provide another presentist interpretation of Utopia, one that favors Book One over Book Two and Raphael over the persona of More. These references emphasize historical contextualization and the book’s serious social commentary. In responding to the charge that Occupy Edmonton is “too utopian,” early modernist and blogger Carolyn Sale recuperates the utopian label through a sustained discussion of Hythloday’s passionate attack on enclosure, here explained as an ongoing strategy of global capitalism in the 21st century.9 Channeling Hythloday’s critique of the sixteenth-century’s dispeopling sheep, Sale writes,

In my view, Occupy is continuing that battle against the enclosure of land and resources that allows a few, a very few, to benefit at the expense of the many, a few, a very few, to live a beautiful life with wealth stolen from the rest of us, while so many suffer – so many go without homes, and without adequate food, and without proper education, without the very things they would need to fight back against their oppression.

The relevance of More’s book to the crises of contemporary capitalism is stressed at the level of both rhetoric and context. Utopia offers Sale a language of moral economy that, when combined with historical perspective, enables her to characterize profit as theft. Significantly, postcolonial Shakespeare scholar Ania Loomba repeats this same characterization in a newspaper article about her involvement with Occupy. In the interview, she draws a parallel between Raphael’s critique of the “conspiracy of the rich” and the rhetoric of the 99%, associating Wall Street bankers with Tudor “parasites,” all while mobilizing More’s cultural capital as a wise humanist to dismiss the charge that the movement is mere foolery (Sun). For Loomba, just as for Sale, Utopia narrates a long history of capitalist exploitation and theft, representing its beginnings and thus its historical nature.

Parallels between More’s authoring context and our own moment go some way toward explaining why and how Occupiers revive More’s book. Consciously or not, this revival is in keeping with a long line of Marxists and fellow travelers, from Karl Kautsky to Fredric Jameson, Richard Halpern, and Chris Kendrick, who have examined Utopia for its critical perspective on emergent capitalism.10 A.L. Morton describes the context that More sought to imaginatively negate:

The early sixteenth century was a black enough time: enclosures, widespread unemployment and beggary, prices rising far more rapidly than wages, savage repressive laws against the exploited, constant wars between the national states springing up out of the ruins of feudal society, corruption, if not greater than before, at least enjoying fuller opportunity. And out of it all there arose a general sense of bewilderment and despair. Everything known and secure seemed to be in question. . . . (48-9)

If the crises of contemporary capitalism can be traced back to more historically novel conditions of over-production, globalization, and de-regulated finance, the present crisis’s effects of unemployment, eviction, stagnant wages, and inflation are precisely those conditions Raphael long ago traced to the “conspiracy of the rich” (108). These are social problems More’s book satirizes and inverts; the dispossession wrought by enclosure — what Marx would later call “primitive accumulation,” a driving force in the early development of agrarian capitalism and an ongoing process of capitalist expansion even today — ironically becomes the condition of desirability in Utopia, a purposefully property-less state.11 But crucially, these sixteenth- and twenty-first-century crises are not merely circumstances to be analogized; they are conditions of both an emergent and developed economic system that generates but individualizes wealth through practices of creative destruction and theft, whether this happens by way of land enclosures, risky speculation, or most commonly, the exploitation of labor. Just as Hythloday condemns the greed and inequality of nascent capitalism and absolutist monarchy, Occupiers too adopt a language of both moral economy and systemic social critique to explain the crises of unemployment, foreclosure, economic disparity, and political disempowerment in twenty-first-century America.

Occupiers can adopt the language of Utopia precisely because they understand that the book’s very status as a historically situated fiction makes it relevant in the here and now. While it may seem paradoxical to assert that More’s book must be contextualized and modernized to fully understand its power, Utopia itself encourages this duality of perspectives, especially through its debate structure, ambiguity, and inconclusive ending. At the risk of sounding anachronistic, we might even say that More’s book assumes a kind of presentist reading. Though his 1516 work offers a staunch, if playful critique of sixteenth-century enclosures and absolutist abuses, the book’s open, unresolved debates — about capital punishment, the scholar’s role in the state, and the merits of communal property — insert readers into the scene of conversation in Peter Giles’s garden. Decades ago, J.H. Hexter argued that More’s composition of the dialogue after the discourse of Book Two recoded his description of the Utopian way of life into a rhetorical arguing point rather than a programmatic solution to England’s ills (42). This reading is nowhere clearer than in Utopia’s conclusion, famously ending in media res with the fictional persona of More distancing his views of the just society from Hythloday’s glowing appraisal of Utopia. “When Raphael had finished his story,” the fictional persona of More relates,

I was left thinking that quite a few of the laws and customs he had described as existing among the Utopians were really absurd. . . . But I saw Raphael was tired with talking, and I was not sure he could take contradiction in these matters. . . . So with praise for the Utopian way of life and his account of it, I took him by the hand and led him in to supper. But first I said that we would find some other time for thinking of these matters more deeply, and for talking them over in more detail. And I still hope such an opportunity will present itself some day. (110)

More’s doubts, quietly suggested in the book’s closing, linger with readers, and like the book’s legendary ambiguity of names and its self-negating litotes, call into question the authority of Hythloday. In postponing debate for another time, Utopia inclusively gestures out to its readers, reframing the entire dialogue as a prequel to their latter-day discussion. By extension, a third society, that of the reader’s, inevitably enters into More’s juxtaposition of the vices and virtues of sixteenth-century England and his imaginary Utopia, leaving contemporary readers to consider the historical paths we chose to pursue in adopting particular social formations. In essence, this invitation to thought remains the utopian function of More’s Utopia in our context. If More’s book goes to great lengths to connect the fiction of Book Two to the abuses, corruption, and hardships of Henry VIII’s England, it also represents the quest for a just and simultaneously feasible social order as presently undecided, and thus, a future concern. Consequently, the central dispute of More’s Utopia, whether the commons offer a compelling alternative to the injustices of a class society, remains an open, relevant debate for many modern readers.

That third society, our own, nevertheless does share certain characteristics with Renaissance England, history in the West having sided with More’s skepticism about communal living. Precisely because we have inherited and perpetuated the economic system that More witnessed in its earliest stages, the book’s satire continues to offer an estranging, relativizing viewpoint on the very historicity of capitalism. Because Occupy-friendly invocations of More emphasize his book’s function as a historical intervention and as a vehicle for social estrangement (rather than, say, deracinating the text, universalizing the genre, or characterizing Utopia as a good-faith vision of the perfect world), their interpretation shares more in common with the academic method of presentism. Importantly, this comparison — between the facile anti-utopianism found in conservative rejections of Occupy and the contextualizing, functional interpretation found in Occupy’s appeals to More — also suggests that a historical mindset can distinguish critical presentism from mere ideological appropriation.

Though practitioners of academic presentism in its most basic contours “interpret . . . texts in relation to current affairs” (Fernie 169), a cardinal rule of presentist theory is that all reading, all staging, unavoidably refracts historical events and texts through a contemporary lens. For presentism, this blindspot on the past becomes an authoring space for textual reconsideration and reanimation. There is no shame in a criticism imprinted with its own historical concerns, if self-consciously alert to them. As Hugh Grady and Terence Hawkes explain in their manifesto-like introduction to Presentist Shakespeares, a perspective on the now can function as a “trigger for investigation,” amplifying the “urgency and insight” of Shakespeare’s plays in a new context (4). Consequently, presentist interpretations, though far from ossified into a singular formula of study, often gravitate toward a reception studies model, historicizing shifts in Shakespeare criticism over the last few decades. Along with performance studies and explicitly political methodologies like gender and queer studies, postcolonial criticism, and Marxism (these being to some degree “always already . . . presentist” [Gajowski 2]), reception studies remains a dominant practice of presentist reading because — to repurpose David Scott Kastan’s defense of the new materialism — it places a “sharper focus on the material relations of discourse to the world in which it circulates” (18). For presentists, this world is our own one of endlessly reproduced Shakespeares, not merely the originary scene of early modern London. Pesentist criticism thus puts the contemporary or cultural investments of critical practice on display and, simultaneously, undercuts the false equation between presentism and bad historicism.12

The best presentist readings are alert to charges of anachronism and ideological distortion, and consequently, kept in check by historicist impulses. If, as Kastan has argued, it is in Shakespeare’s “historical specificity . . . [that] we discover ourselves as historical beings” (16), a presentism narcissistically disinterested in the institutions of Elizabethan and Jacobean England risks reinforcing the oft-critiqued humanist appeal to Shakespeare’s universality. It also risks undermining the well-founded theoretical premises of cultural materialism and new historicism that highlight the mutually constitutive interplays between cultural practices and material institution, and perhaps most dangerously, reifying our sense of history as a steady stream of the same. “One of the problems with a presentist view of history,” warns Robin Headlam Wells, “is that comparative judgement becomes impossible” (52). From this view, we might say that presentism in its cruder forms threatens all that is utopian, or estranging, in our encounters with the alternative ways of life from the past. But rather than conceive of historicism and presentism as oppositional practices, presentist Shakespeare scholars tend to employ a dialectical practice.13 “Like all current critics who call themselves ‘presentists’ that we are aware of,” explain Cary DiPietro and Grady in a recent essay on the post-9/11 Titus Andronicus.

we believe that interpretation needs to involve awareness of historical difference but also that the nature of historical difference is itself an open question connected to our consciousness and discursive environment in the here and now, so that ‘historicism’ and ‘presentism’ are always (already) interconnected. (45)

To put it another way, history is never fully other from the present, and often the task of presentism is to consider how pasts — narrated and material — weigh upon us, in terms of our epistemologies, cultures, and institutional formations. Presentism is arguably a quite utopian perception of the role of criticism: the scholar’s task is to bring two different, but also uncannily similar worlds into conversation and comparison in much the same way as a fictional traveler like More’s Raphael Hythloday.

Yet, while pro-Occupy interpretations of Utopia remain closer to critical strains of presentist reading than the conservative tendency to denounce and dehistoricize all utopian literature and praxis in the same breath, what is notably absent in even Occupy-friendly invocations of More is a discussion of the Utopian system described in Book Two. Content is again selectively repressed here, even when authors are more careful to historicize More’s sixteenth-century book, precisely because the Left itself has a rather vexed relationship with the utopian tradition.

For instance, Loomba’s remarks on More mirror a critical disenchantment with more celebratory readings of Utopia.14 Following More’s legacy, she embraces the title of humanist while offering the following rejoinder to the media’s unflagging demand for concrete demands:

It’s alright sometimes to express a deep critique of the structure within which you live, and to get people thinking . . . it’s a mess when students who are brilliant can’t afford education, when people who really want to work can’t get a job. There’s something deeply wrong, and for me, [it’s] enough to be able to say that. (Sun)

The operative word here is “sometimes”; despite the final affirmation, Loomba’s comments register an anxious undertone— one already suggested in her exclusive focus on Book One’s criticisms. Her remarks reflect both the contemporary critical assessment of Utopia and the uncomfortable impasse Occupy met in envisioning long-term, non-oppositional alternatives. In a later interview, Loomba develops this suggestion, arguing that Occupy “has to be an imaginative movement . . . it can’t be only about physical occupation. If it’s going to last and if it’s going to really make a change it’s going to have to do many more things than just physically squatting places. It has to go and conceptually occupy a lot of spaces” (Fuchs).

All of which is to say that there is a symbolic exchange in these acts of interpretation, in which critics and exponents of Occupy read Utopia through the movement and simultaneously read the movement through More’s book, as well as the (counter)traditions associated with it.15 Distinctions should be drawn, of course: More’s text is deracinated in the conservative critique of Occupy, which tends toward universalism, while historicism is precisely the perspective employed in Occupy-friendly invocations. Yet, paradoxically, there is a shared tendency in both camps. Through either recognition or purposeful repression, both anti- and pro-Occupy readings register the undesirable elements of Utopian life and the progressive, forceful critique of Tudor injustice that the book provides.

This mutual rejection of Book Two is certainly understandable. It is not merely that Utopia, the island state, offers a less than compelling model for implementation; after all, Raphael’s ambivalent “solutions” (if they were ever that to begin with) could hardly be expected to offer redress in the face of contemporary problems. Rather, these appropriations can be seen as symptomatic expressions of our age’s troubled relationship with utopianism and the state. This zeitgeist-like suspicion ranges from the “critical” and “ambiguous” utopias of New Wave Science Fiction and recuperations of the genre like Steven Lukes’s “anti-utopian utopianism,” to full-scale assaults on the possibility of historical change, captured most clearly in pronouncements like Margaret Thatcher’s now notorious assertion that “[t]here is no alternative” to capitalism and Francis Fukuyama’s diagnosis of western liberal democracy as the “end of history.”16 Even Occupy’s adoption of Le Guin’s novel, originally subtitled An Ambiguous Utopia (rather than, say, the blueprint utopias of the nineteenth century) suggests that it too remains uneasy with certain strains of utopian thought and praxis.

There is, of course, good reason to distrust utopian visions and social movements, and not just from a conservative standpoint vested in the powers that currently be. Russell Jacoby examines the intellectual legacy of antiutopianism in his analysis of Hannah Arendt’s, Karl Popper’s, and Isaiah Berlin’s writings on democracy, where the model orders of early utopias are often equated with a will to domination. Utopianism here becomes virtually synonymous with National Socialism or Soviet totalitarianism. Post- theories, too, rarely embrace utopianism as a political or literary discourse because the concept of utopia and its literary forms are so intimately connected with the Enlightenment and a distinctly Eurocentric humanism.17 This skepticism is just as prominent in the field of Renaissance studies, where most new historicist, Foucauldian, or post-structural studies on More consider Utopia as a less than radical text, emptied of its good intentions by its colonial form and policies and its fantasy of instrumental rationality, state power, regulation, and repression.18

From one perspective, Occupy might be seen as the latest phase in modernity’s increasingly complicated, ambivalent relationship to utopianism (and Utopia). Surely, it was a radical movement mobilizing and vocalizing an inspiring resistance to the corporate Neoliberal State and its attendant inequalities and lack of opportunities. But Occupy was also in search of a post-Cold War paradigm, rejecting the solutions offered by the twentieth century (including both Communist party politics and liberal democracy) and rejecting an older tradition of utopianism that can be traced all the way back to More. What Occupy’s example shows, in other words, is not merely that present political debates can distort, refract, or author our readings of Utopia; our anti-utopianism or critical utopianism influences how we understand and act in the world, and to some degree, presents problems for any collectivity invested in realizing radical transformation of society and state.

To the extent that Occupy is a utopian social movement, it is a far cry from the programmatic “blueprint” utopia that became a favorite whipping boy in the twentieth-century turn against utopia — in anarchic and liberal critiques as much as in the anti-communist, mid-twentieth-century variety. In Jacoby’s two books on the topic, The End of Utopia and Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age, as well as in Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future, the anti-utopian character of our age is identified as a major obstacle to radical social movements and leftist thought. To combat this tendency, Jameson and Jacoby rally the Left back to utopian thought by way of strategic redefinition. Utopia is resuscitated by what Jameson — in the tradition of Jean Paul Sartre — dialectically calls an “anti-anti-utopianism” (Archaelogies xvi), and what Jacoby refers to as “iconoclastic utopianism,” a mode of utopian thinking or an impulse he traces to Frankfurt School intellectuals like Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and (perhaps more convincingly) Ernst Bloch and Herbert Marcuse (85). In Jacoby’s account, in particular, the reputation of utopia has been sullied by the blueprint utopian tradition, a static, self-limiting style of utopianism that strives for social engineering. Writing on the failures of this tradition, Jacoby states,

[B]lueprints not only appear repressive, they also rapidly become dated. Even with the best of wills, they rapidly tether the future to the past. In outfitting utopia, they order from the catalog of their day. With their schedules and seating arrangements, their utopias stand condemned not by their capaciousness, but by their narrowness, not by their extravagance but their poverty. History soon eclipses them. (32)

Occupy shares Jacoby’s nervousness about the blueprint utopia’s tendency toward excessive regulation and the brief shelf-life of any future plan. It adopts a more iconoclastic, anti-discursive, experimental, and decentralized approach to utopian social change, rejecting vision for action and the future for the present. Occupy, significantly, is a present-tense directive. This kind of refusal to delay the historical process or fix the future to a static vision offers one way of explaining Occupy’s resistance to articulating a precise series of “objectives” or “demands,” though its criticisms of economic inequality and financial and political corruption were loud and clear.

In attempting to theorize why Occupy took the form of a “movement without demands,” Jodi Dean and Marco Deseriis have identified at least three different lines of resistance whereby members of the movement refused to publicize what they desired. These included: 1) the anti-representational objection, which feared that demands would be articulated too soon, thus cutting short a collective dialogue before it happened and hampering the movement’s inclusivity; 2) the autonomist objection, which saw the protest and camp occupation as its own mode of existence, or as the current system’s alternative, because it was “prefigurative of a new, more democratic and more egalitarian world”; and 3) the co-optation objection, which worried that demands would domesticate the radical potential of the movement and cater to existing institutional structures or the mainstream media. As they explain, “The problem that cuts through all the objections to demands is the movement’s inability to deal with antagonism. So the very question of demands brings to the fore the fact of division within the movement, a division that many — but not all — have wanted to deny.” Dean and Deseriis write as insiders, committed to envisioning a second phase for Occupy, but they ultimately refuse to see Occupy’s experiment in direct democracy as itself a sustainable “alternative reality” (a standard defense in the anti-representational perspective).19 In an article in The Utopian from late 2011, historian Sheri Berman also cautioned against the tendency to conflate even global protests of discontent with periods of revolutionary transformation, prognosticating that the European summer and American fall would not be as transformative as the Arab spring if the movements remained mired in an oppositional rhetoric that failed to articulate alternatives.

Paradoxically, the Occupy movement’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness can be attributed to the same source: its persistent inclusivity. Among the ranks of occupiers were members who identified with often-incompatible long-term political perspectives and strategies like anarchists and socialists, Ron Paul supporters, anti-Fed activists, union members, and Democrats. At first, the movement’s refusal to articulate (to itself, as well as the public at large) goals or a vision of progress certainly enabled growing numbers of participants to join in direct action. It also created a space for the formation of a new collective subjectivity drawn together by frustration with contemporary capitalist practices. But while the plurality of its voices allowed for mass mobilization in the fall of 2011 that exceeded anything the US Left had seen in the last decade, OWS consequently reached something of an impasse over crucial issues like whether the contemporary economic crisis is a consequence of reformable corruption and greed on Wall Street and in Washington, or more systemic issues related to the very mechanisms of capitalism. While Occupy never went into complete hibernation, the winter of 2011-12 certainly cost it momentum, resulting in dwindling numbers and a fading media profile since the eviction of encampments at Liberty Park and elsewhere. Two years later, Occupy remains active in some cities, successfully organizing mass-scale bank transfers, medical debt bailouts, home foreclosure occupations, local marches, and protests at elected officials’ speeches or campaign headquarters. It has also certainly reshaped public debate, making income inequality a matter of conscious national concern.20 But the movement has fractured to such a degree that Occupy’s supporters must consider what can be done to reinvigorate the Left’s actions on a mass scale.

In short, there was a tension of desire in Occupy: it tried to mobilize antagonism, political pluralism, and individual expression as the basis of a new solidarity and consensus-established action against the corporate takeover of the state. Intentionally or not, Occupy’s internal governance seemed premised upon both an anarchist opposition to large-scale, state-based formations and upon a post-Marxist call for an alliance (or “chain of equivalence”) of interests beyond a priori, essentialized class categories — especially in its 99% rhetoric and its insistence on a leaderless, communitarian space of endless articulation or debate.21 What I am suggesting is that this tension was also a symptom of a culture-wide anxiety about utopian visions and discourse, and that this anxiety diluted Occupy’s (and in general, the Left’s) potential to convincingly articulate how it might offer a more desirable, sustainable alternative to present social arrangements. In its very existence, Occupy actually represented (because it enacted) an alternative way of being principled around the commons, but it was, ironically, unwilling to rhetorically advocate for a series of objectives, or for a future, imagined around an economic system principled on a commons, generated for — and not just by — the people. Overcoming internal obstacles on the Left, then, (as much as unfriendly police and local, state, and federal officials) will likely also involve relaxing our widespread anxieties about objective-oriented planning and the utopian representation of systemic difference. After all, planning remains the enemy of neoliberal doctrine.22

In early 2012, Dean and Desiiris suggested a similar way to move beyond this contradiction: the Left could recognize the importance of placing demands upon itself so as to form a common will. They provide a strategy that brings us back to More, and ironically, to what may still be of provocative interest in Book Two. They propose that Occupy find a commonality of aims (rather than just a commonality of grievances) by recovering and rejuvenating the idea of the commons. They acknowledge that such a demand could alienate elements of the movement, but argue that it also has the potential to maintain the autonomous, ground-up character of the leaderless movement while remodeling a relationship to land, water, labor, education, energy, and information that is outside the capitalist incentive toward profit maximization. This proposal seems a useful way to re-harness the radical potential of Occupy; demands that create possibilities for self-organization — as commons could — have the capacity to appease those who desire autonomous organization, along with the Neo-Keynesian and/or socialist elements who desire a more equitable, sustainable economy. Dean and Deseriis argue that rhetorically and strategically it is time to “rethink” the model of the commons and to pose alternatives that are both historical and new. In a way, they also offer an alternative to a post-Cold War consensus that assumes that both utopian and anti-capitalist visions must take a non-democratic or static form.

This rough, early vision of a twenty-first-century commons is a far cry from the monarchically instituted organization described by Raphael, but it is an objective that emerges through a critical and recuperative perspective on past utopian and commons traditions, both lived and literary. There is little that is nostalgic about Occupy; as Slavoj Žižek explains, it is not a communist movement “if communism means a system which collapsed in 1990” (68). Nor is it fair for critics to assume that Occupy is an implausible, doomed utopia, especially if utopia is only understood to mean a system authored in 1516. But the practice of critical history will likely have a role to play in imagining future change, and More’s book may again be of use here. Though his Utopian island is often understood as a seemingly unchanging, spatially distanced alternative to the English way of life, the inconclusive ending (or More’s postponement of an unresolved debate), injects a rarely recognized temporal dimension into the book. Indeed, its debate form creates an unfolding, restless dynamic that ultimately locates Utopia outside of the text itself, in an always deferred future. More’s book leaves readers with the lesson that the only way to get closer to this changing destination is through representation. On the path to Utopia, we must imagine radical otherness and then critically engage that vision.

In our largely anti-utopian and anti-communist age, these forms of representation and their distinctions will need to be explained. Presentists can be of service here. Those of us who study the early modern period, the utopian tradition, or culture more generally can insist on the historical limits placed on past visions and, simultaneously, the historical changeability of utopian and social forms. I am not suggesting that Occupy transpose Holbein’s frontispiece of the Utopian island onto a book bloc shield, or that Renaissance literary critics imagine themselves as the vanguard of the Left, but we do have a role to play in providing an interpretation of the current conjuncture, informed by our historical and cultural expertise. The future is always a fiction, after all, and will require the construction and analysis of narratives that imagine not just the end of capitalism and its attendant bought-and-paid-for democracy, but what comes next and how we get there.

In short, the form of reception studies that predominates in our field of early modern studies at this juncture could widen its scope and do more to examine non-academic presentism, adopting some of the strategies of cultural studies to analyze the lessons we can learn about our present historical conditions as much as the texts from our period of study. To fail to explore popular (mis)understandings of the past concedes terrain to a public sphere that is often more ideological than empirical. If cautious historicism provides a partial antidote to this condition, a purely historicizing perspective – set on reconstructing the events and ideals of early modern England – is remarkably reticent on the significance of history to contemporary subjects. Mere historicism fixes the academic’s gaze on the past, rather than on considering how this knowledge is of the utmost relevance to contemporary debates. Combining the practice of reception studies with historicism can also help us elucidate what distinguishes critical presentism from ideological appropriation.

By conducting this short survey on More’s meaning now, I have hoped to have provided some perspective on both the task of presentism and the path ahead for Occupy’s supporters. If Occupy is to have a second coming, it will likely need to combine utopian aims with its oppositional rhetoric. My sense is that future alternatives can be found through the process of critically analyzing past alternatives — written and experienced — so as to reinvent them in a contemporary context. Occupy has already raised rejoinders to two strains of More-inspired conservatism: the sense that change begins with leaders not direct action, and the belief that an economic system predicated on “the hope of gain” (More 40) compels people to work and creates social stability. By taking a cue from Raphael, and gesturing toward other, sustainable ways of being, it can also confront the most daunting obstacle of all: the idea that there is no viable alternative to the present.


1Some of the other titles on the scene included Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, and Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch.

2Consider, for instance, the way Orwellian neologisms like “Big Brother,” “newspeak,” and “doublethink” remain part of everyday discourse.

3Grady and Hawkes here invert Stephen Greenblatt’s opening to Shakespearean Negotiations: “I began with the desire to speak with the dead” (1).

4Fredric Jameson discusses this tendency in the opening of Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia (xi).

5Whittington appears to be referring to both Animal Farm and 1984. His commentary received two million facebook “likes.”

6See Irving Howe’s “The Fiction of Antiutopia,” wherein he argues that mid-century dystopias are not rooted in a conservative tradition of thought, but rather stem from the fears of disillusioned leftwing writers, a good case in point being Orwell’s critique of totalitarian-collectivism from the stance of a democratic socialist (67).

7For instance, see Sean Collins’s October 23, 2011 comments in the USA Sentinel, “Wherein ACO Confuses #OccupyAlbany for a Riot.”

8See Greenblatt’s elegant chapter on More in Renaissance Self-Fashioning, in which Utopia’s interlocutors are interpreted as the split between More’s public self (the lawyer and undersheriff — voiced in the character of Morus) and his inner-self (the humanist, Catholic More) struggling to decide whether to serve the crown, and thus, also linking More the author with Raphael.

9Sale might have in mind David Harvey’s discussion of “accumulation by dispossession,” which considers the long history of ongoing enclosures in the process of capitalist development (72).

10See, for example, Karl Kautsky’s Thomas More and his Utopia, Louis Marin’s Utopics: The Semiological Play of Textual Spaces, Fredric Jameson’s “Of Islands and Trenches: Neutralization and the Production of Utopian Discourse,” Richard Halpern’s The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation: English Renaissance Culture and the Genealogy of Capital, and Christopher Kendrick’s “More’s Utopia and Uneven Development” and Utopia, Carnival, and Commonwealth in Renaissance England.

11For a sustained discussion of “so-called primitive accumulation,” see Marx’s Capital: Volume I (873-940). James Holstun and Richard Halpern also explore how Utopia recodes peasant dispossession as the basis for its imaginary state.

12For an example of this tactic at its best, see Catherine Belsey’s “Historicizing New Historicism,” a study of the peculiarly American sensibilities of Stephen Greenblatt’s influential, pioneering example of new historicism, Renaissance Self-Fashioning.

13See, for instance, Grady’s Shakespeare’s Universal Wolf: Studies in Early Modern Reification (7).

14Trends in More criticism, in fact, suggest that the scholarly community — even on the Left — is nowhere closer to a consensus on Utopia’s political orientation than it was in the Cold War-era debates with virulent anti-communists. By some accounts, More’s work is draconian; by others, it is saintly. Such debates mirror those about Thomas More, the man. For a good overview, see Peter Wenzel’s “‘Utopian Pluralism’: A Systemic Approach to the Analysis of Pluralism in the Debate about Thomas More’s Utopia.”

15Jameson again seems relevant here: “texts come before us as the always-already-read; we apprehend them through sedimented layers of previous interpretations” (The Political Unconscious 9). This claim seems especially true of influential works like More’s, which spawned social experiments like Vasco de Quiroga’s New Spain, a literary genre, and a counter-tradition, the dystopia.

16To be fair, Fukuyama has since distanced himself from his now twenty-year-old prediction that western liberal democracy and laissez-faire economics would represent a teleological endpoint in the historical process. Instead, he speaks now of a “Future of History,” though still holding course that the Left offers no “plausible progressive counternarrative” that supports the middle class. See “The Future of History: Can Liberal Democracy Survive the Decline of the Middle Class?”

17For example, Homi Bhabha repeatedly rejects utopian discourse throughout The Location of Culture. Utopianism is here equated with the “dream of modern progress” (324), with a “totalizing . . . vision of Being and History” (29), and with the “social virtues of historical rationality, cultural cohesion, [and] the autonomy of individual consciousness” (61). Bhabha is overwhelmingly critical of these utopian “virtues,” to the point of dismissing them (and their strategic possibilities) altogether. In his account, utopianism is another manifestation of imperialist ideology, committed to fixing and homogenizing the global order — both spatially and temporally. In perhaps his most damning rejection of utopianism, he claims that “for those who live . . . ‘otherwise’ than modernity but not outside it, the Utopian moment is not the necessary horizon of hope” (26).

18I am thinking here of critical studies of Renaissance utopias such as Greenblatt’s chapter on More in Renaissance Self-Fashioning; Holstun’s A Rational Millennium; Jeffrey Knapp’s An Empire Nowhere: England, America, and Literature from Utopia to The Tempest; Denise Albanese’s New Science, New World; Amy Boesky’s Founding Fictions: Utopias in Early Modern England; Marina Leslie’s Renaissance Utopias and the Problem of History; and Robert Appelbaum’s Literature and Utopian Politics in Seventeenth-Century England.

19For an example of this anti-representational perspective that categorizes Occupy as already an alternative reality, see Ghassan Hage and Gerhard Hoffstaedter, “Occupy Wants What Occupy is: Another Reality.”

20See Rich Morin’s Pew report, “Rising Share of Americans See Conflict Between Rich and Poor.”

21These strategies are all endorsed in Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (xix, 56, 136, 176).

22In The Communist Horizon, Dean describes neoliberalism as “born out of opposition to planning” (156).

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Sarah Hogan is Assistant Professor of English at Wake Forest University. She is currently at work on a book, Spatial Dreams, Social Plans: Early English Utopias and the Capitalist-Imperialist Imaginary. Her writing on historical, lived, and literary utopias has also appeared in The Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, The Journal of Early Modern Cultural Studies, and The Rumpus.

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