Interview: Ruth Potts

Spring 2018 #21
written by
Ruth Potts with Jonny Gordon-Farleigh
illustration by
Matthew Carey Simos

Last year you celebrated the 500-year anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia, evoking the importance of the political imagination within social change. The idea of utopia has largely been used to dismiss social change as unrealistic – not only for ideological reasons but in terms of feasibility. How do you see the role and power of utopian thinking in our current political climate?

I think we now need utopian thinking more than ever. The mistake people often make with utopia is to see it as a destination, a fixed end point. Instead, utopia is the process of first imagining, and then believing that we can organise the world differently, which empowers us to take steps towards it. Actually, I think the dismissal of utopia is a form of social control. To dismiss utopia is to say that the way things currently are is the best that we can possibly do and we should just accept it. But when you look around today it doesn’t take much to see that from rising levels of inequality to a shifting climate it’s the way things are currently working that is unacceptable. We need to find new ways to imagine how we might live differently, and then get together to make the change happen. What happens when we do this, and people are doing it everywhere, is we provide examples of everyday utopias that give the lie to the notion that other ways are not possible. 

I take inspiration from the writer John Berger who said, “a step towards an alternative world has to be a refusal of the world picture implanted in our minds ... In the culture of globalisation, as in ... hell, there is no glimpse of an elsewhere or an otherwise. The given is a prison.” And “rom a different vantage point, the variety of resistance – individual and collective, single and multiply-issued, organised and disorganised, visible and fugitive, loud and quiet, ordinary and extraordinary – is what’s remarkable, that is, what ought to solicit more than the mere remark. And among some quarters it does.” 

What this says to me is that utopia is all around us if we choose to look for it. While there is a dominant system in the way our society and the economy are organised, which has serious and profound impacts on many people’s lives, it does not mean there are not those who are experimenting with new ways. That other worlds also exist. Everywhere. The belief that the world can be fairer and life better creates the spaces in which change is possible. I think more than anything else, it is the hope that inspires us to act. Utopia is about affecting real change in the world right now, and believing in the potential in each and every one of us.

Much of the pushback against utopia, or at least assumptions, is that it's about creating a blueprint for social change. How does your approach avoid these problems? 

I take inspiration from the sociologist Ruth Levitas, who has done more than anyone alive today to articulate what utopia is for. She is very clear that utopia is not a blueprint but the act of imagining. She says that blue is the colour of utopia as it’s always on the horizon, it’s always in the distance and we move towards it. It’s the colour of longing and the not yet. It’s not about a detailed description of what will be, but a movement towards what we could have. What she describes as utopia is “a quest for wholeness, for being at home in the world.” And that process of imagining allows us to see the imaginary nature of the structures and systems that we live in, and the systems of power that uphold them. I find recent anthropological thinking really helpful here. It suggests that it was the development of our imaginations and, consequently, our ability to construct social structures that enabled complex societies to evolve. All of the things we think of as natural forms and givens – religion, marriage, money – are products of our collective thought which are then formalised over time. Maurice Bloch, an anthropologist based at the LSE, believes that there are times when the arbitrary nature of our systems become apparent. He thinks that at the moment, in a time of huge social change, we are developing an awareness of the imaginary nature of institutions. What this does is open a space in which change is more possible. The other thing about utopia, from that perspective, is if we look back on the 500 years since Thomas More published his book the popularity of the text has increased around times of great social change. It was really popular around the time of the French Revolution and again at the turn of the 20th century. In these times of profound social change, we reach for forms that help us reimagine and recreate the world around us. 

Utopia is the process of first imagining, and then believing that we can organise the world differently, which empowers us to take steps towards it.

What we have now hasn’t always been so. This is where we can draw on so much. We can look back historically, and draw inspiration from the co-operative movement, the myriad of working-class movements around the world who have organised around cultures of self-help and mutual aid – and continue to do so today. There is a wealth of practice that can inspire us. 

One of the important things to remember about Karl Marx’s Capital is that he is historicising capitalism, which is to say it’s a historical phenomenon with specific origins. Though it may now be the dominant form of economic life, it implies there were many economic systems before it and many systems that still contest it. 

Absolutely. It also suggests that we don’t have to have all the answers before we begin. It’s not setting out thinking we know, or can control, everything, but that the models and forms we use can and should continuously evolve. We don’t always know which experiments will work, but the process of trying transforms social relations. It is the process of change that is most important. I find Rebecca Solnit’s thinking useful. She says, “the grounds of hope is in the shadows, those who are inventing the world do not yet know whether they will have any effect.” We don’t need to know what we are experimenting with will work, but that it is hugely important we try other ways of organising everyday life because we are transformed by the process. 

So we’re talking about the process of change, allowing it to be prefigurative. But it doesn’t seem that only right wing politics has a problem with change, many left wing movements also resolutely hold on to particular political visions, closing themselves off to change. So it’s not an exclusive problem. 

It can be difficult to let go of old forms. In the UK, and more broadly, we are living with political institutions that emerged in very different historical moments, and have tended to formalise and become rigid. I see dynamics like the success of Corbyn as a desire for a different form of politics, rather than a particular characteristic of Corbyn himself. For me, what is most exciting about what is happening politically right now are the movements that are taking power at the local level, and using that to transform power. Especially the new municipal movements taking off around the world, like Barcelona en Comú that are transforming politics, so it is based on everyday participation. In doing so, politics is becoming feminised, becoming more co-operative and more thoughtful. As the municipalist movement spreads, it reflects back and influences conventional politics. That’s what is really transformative – the shift towards active and engaged politics of the everyday where everyone is welcome to take part.

The shorter working day and working week have been promoted by think tanks like nef for many years, mostly in relation to their wellbeing benefits. Research of the 6-hour day in Scandinavian countries have also shown profits go up by 25% and that economic productivity can often double. While some workplaces will retain the same wages, it’s not a guarantee across the whole economy. Surely campaigns for the shorter working day also have to be part of a broader strategy for economic democracy?

Of course, any campaign for a shorter working week has to be part of a broader strategy for economic democracy. When my colleagues at nef initially made the proposal for a 21-hour working week, back in 2010, they weren’t just arguing for a reduced working week. They argued it was essential to redistribute existing paid work, to reclaim flexibility and to rebalance society. Change would have to be incremental, of course, and would be part of a plan to redistribute wages across the economy giving us freedom to participate in our communities in a wider range of ways. There are clear benefits for the society and the environment – as we work less, we also consume less with positive impacts for wellbeing and the environment. It’s about shifting the culture, so that a shorter working week becomes the norm. 

It’s really important to remember that campaigns like this are not new. Patterns of work and the degree of control we have over our working lives have shifted hugely over history. If you think back to John Maynard Keynes, writing in Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren in 1930, he thought we would be working a 15-hour week by now. He thought that having solved the problems of production, we would invest in education and the arts – activities he believed ‘abundance would not stale.’ This also takes us back to More's Utopia, where people worked six hours a day which was enough to provide for everyone's needs. The question then is, what is work for, and how do we distribute it? How much is enough? How do we create opportunities for meaningful work for everyone? That, necessarily, involves economic democracy.

Embracing or eschewing materialism often seem like the only political options. However, in The New Materialism you explore a way of developing a respectful and appreciative relationship with the ‘world of things’. Could you explain how makers are (re)creating a new story of stuff?

There is a degree by which materialism has become synonymous with consumerism – wasteful, debt-fuelled, and ultimately unsatisfying. One of the things I have been looking at, writing with Andrew Simms, is the idea that it’s not that we’re looking in the wrong place for satisfaction, but that perhaps we’ve got the relationship with the material world badly wrong. We make the case that a new materialism, in which we grow a more deeply satisfying and respectful relationship with the world of things through making and processes of care and repair could help us find ways for all us to thrive whilst living within environmental limits. It offers practical answers to key economic and environmental challenges: how do we generate good quality ample jobs, rebuild hollowed out economies, and create ways to provide everyday goods and services without damaging the environment? 

This new materialism is already emerging. Look at the phenomenal rise of hackspaces, Fablabs and makerspaces around the world. MakeWorks in Birmingham and Scotland use new technologies to connect people who would like to make things with existing small-scale manufacturers. Building Blocs in Edmonton provides affordable workshop space for makers creating employment and relocalising production. The benefits of this reconnection with making, go beyond the economic and social benefits: it's about reanimating our communities. There is also something quite profound that happens when we make things. We understand limits, give and take and collaboration. It enables us to shape the world around us in meaningful and pleasurable ways.

How about the decentralising tendencies of these movements? 

Going back to Keynes again, he argued that as far as possible goods should be home spun and local, and knowledge global. What we’re seeing is the potential to relocalise production, with all the benefits of quality employment, remaking a range of relationships at the local level – while sharing knowledge globally. 

There is also a really important connection between the loss of social capital and the loss of local enterprise. In 2010, two US academics published a longitudinal study on the impact of Walmart’s opening in a local community. They found that when a Walmart opened, in quite a wide geographical area around the store, you didn’t just see the loss of small business, you would also see a decline in social capital. People would be less likely to vote, less likely to know their neighbours, less likely to trust a stranger. All the indicators of a healthy community fell away. The process of decentralisation, of reconnecting at the local level, is about rebuilding local economic democracy and community. When we talk about the commons, we’re talking about processes of relating which are about rebuilding social capital. Open source technologies provide new conduits for what people have always done: sharing knowledge and skills. By cultivating cultures that are not proprietorial and recognising the value of collaboration, they are transforming power in really interesting ways. 

Systems thinking and design-led approaches are becoming more prevalent in informing our strategies for social change. Systems – often closed, deterministic, and abstract – usually create more complexities and problems than they solve. How can systems thinking – used by social movements – be more open and effective? 

In terms of what you’ve outlined from a design perspective, we would start with ‘wicked problems’ that are complex, multi-dimensional, inter-related, and for which there is no magic bullet solution. When we think about design at Schumacher College, we think of a philosophy of design that works with people rather than imposing a solution – responses that work with the distributed intelligence of the system. When we think about systems thinking, I find it useful to start with the concept of ‘autopoiesis’, which is the idea that any system recreates within its own boundaries. This comes to your point about systems being fixed, closed, and deterministic. Writing in 1998 Beth Dempster introduced the idea of sympoiesis, which fits with my understanding of the interrelatedness of the world. The idea of sympoieses is that systems have boundaries, but those boundaries are always porous. A system creates itself in interrelation with other systems. So that understanding of open, dynamic and interrelated systems seems to be quite fundamental when we’re thinking about how social movements can make better use of systems thinking. I think it’s that sense of openness and interrelationality of systems that is hugely important. 

From a design perspective, groups like the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination have also taken up permaculture principles and applied them to social systems. That’s quite profound and powerful. And if you look at the Transition Town movement, it was launched in a way that was intended to enable it to scale out rather than scale up – to be replicable. Its light touch framework can be used by groups and also adapted to make it their own. It has transformed, for example, from a movement in response to peak oil in the UK to being used as a response to social challenges in Brazil and Spain. I’m not sure it explicitly sees itself as design thinking, but the thinking that informed the launch of the Transition Town movement was “how can we create something that has enough of a framework for people to organise around, but be flexible enough for local circumstance?” 

The Transition Network also have a cheerful disclaimer: you take part in a project with the knowledge that it might not work. There is also the Quaker system, which allows groups to revisit what they are doing and then make the suitable adjustments for systems to evolve. There are groups like Climate Camp in the UK, for example, that exist for a period of time and then re-emerge through new groups like Reclaim the Power. The people who came through this movement take the practices – consensus / nonhierarchical organising – and translated them into other projects. This is what is exciting about the new municipal movement – it emerged from the 15M and Occupy movements. These movements were dismissed because they didn't last, but they have now become embedded in local politics and are transforming it.

Ruth Potts is a co-founder of bread, print & roses, was artistic adviser to Utopia 2016 and is a co-editor of Red Pepper. She teaches ecological design thinking at Schumacher College.

Spring 2018 #21

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