Utopianism is what the landlords have time for…


The Land of Cockaigne, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1567

From New Left Review:

The diagnosis first:

To put it briefly . . . What will never again be built any more, cannot be built any more, is—a society, in the old sense of that word; to build such, everything is lacking, above all the material. All of us [Nietzsche means us ‘moderns’] are no longer material for a society; this is a truth for which the time has come!

We moderns no longer provide the stuff from which a society might be constructed; and in the sense that Enlightenment was premised on, perhaps we never did. The political unfolding of this reversal of the ‘social’ will be long and horrific, Nietzsche believes, and his vision of the century to come is characteristically venomous (which does not mean inaccurate): the passage just quoted devolves into a sneer at ‘good socialists’ and their dream of a free society built from wooden iron—or maybe, Nietzsche prophesies, from just iron on its own. After ‘socialism’ of this sort will come chaos, necessarily, but out of the chaos a new form of politics may still emerge. ‘A crisis that . . . purifies, that . . . pushes together related elements to perish of each other, that . . . assigns common tasks to men who have opposite ways of thinking . . . Of course, outside every existing social order’. And the upshot is as follows:

Who will prove to be the strongest in the course of this? The most moderate; those who do not require any extreme articles of faith; those who not only concede but actually love a fair amount of contingency and nonsense; those who can think of man with a considerable reduction of his value without becoming small and weak themselves on that account . . . human beings who are sure of their power and who represent, with conscious pride, the strength that humanity has [actually] achieved.

Of course I am not inviting assent to the detail (such as it is) of Nietzsche’s post-socialism. His thought on the subject is entangled with a series of naive, not to say nauseating, remarks on ‘rank order’ as the most precious fruit of the new movement. But as a sketch of what moderation might mean to revolutionaries, his note goes on resonating.

Utopianism, on the other hand—that invention of early modern civil servants—is what the landlords have time for. It is everything Carlo Levi’s peasants have learnt to distrust. Bruegel spells this out. His Cockaigne is above all a de-sublimation of the idea of Heaven—an un-Divine Comedy, which only fully makes sense in relation to all the other offers of otherworldliness (ordinary and fabulous, instituted and heretical) circulating as Christendom fell apart. What the painting most deeply makes fun of is the religious impulse, or one main form that impulse takes (all the more strongly once the hold of religion on the detail of life is lost): the wish for escape from mortal existence, the dream of immortality, the idea of Time to Come. ‘And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away’. What Bruegel says back to the Book of Revelation—and surely his voice was that of peasant culture itself, in one of its ineradicable modes—is that all visions of escape and perfectibility are haunted by the worldly realities they pretend to transfigure. Every Eden is the here and now intensified; immortality is mortality continuing; every vision of bliss is bodily and appetitive, heavy and ordinary and present-centred. The man emerging from the mountain of gruel in the background is the ‘modern’ personified. He has eaten his way through to the community of saints.

The young man on the ground at right, with the pens at his belt and the bible by his side, we might see as none other than St Thomas More, awake but comatose in his creation. And the lad gone to sleep on top of his flail? Who but Ned Ludd himself?

Utopias reassure modernity as to its infinite potential. But why? It should learn—be taught—to look failure in the face.

“For a Left with No Future”, T. J. Clark, New Left Review