The City Of Dreams

In defense of the utopian impulse…

There are still perfect moments. Not too many of them, but they happen. In my last one, I was sitting on a balcony in the quiet part of the French Quarter, eating a pistachio muffin and sipping an iced coffee. I was with an old friend, and we were talking excitedly about things we had read. There was a breeze, and we could see boats going by on the Mississippi River. In the distance, we heard the sound of a trumpeter playing on a streetcorner. I was wearing a comfortable shirt, it was spring, and there were flowers around. Music, food, sunshine, friendship, plants, old architecture, proximity to a body of water, and intelligent but unpretentious conversation: To me, these are all the elements needed for total peace and satisfaction.

I’m sure you have your own list of ingredients for a personal paradise. (Some people like snow, they tell me.) They rarely come together all at once, and when they do, it’s usually only for a moment. But what a moment! Kurt Vonnegut has a lovely quote that describes these sorts of times: “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’” Unfortunately, that isn’t what I usually murmur. Because underneath the feeling of bliss there is always a certain amount of frustration and anxiety. And what I end up murmuring is: “Since this is so nice, what is humanity doing with itself?”

The perfect moments do not end up being entirely perfect, then. They end up being exasperating, because I can’t help but be angry that such nice experiences are possible, yet aren’t ubiquitous. On a planet capable of being so extraordinarily beautiful and pleasant, why are so many things so absolutely rotten for so many people? The ingredients of the good life are not complicated. It’s a trumpet, a muffin, a river, and a nice day, basically. And yet we have a world filled with border walls, solitary confinement, drone strikes, gang violence, car accidents, student debt, preventable diseases, Walmarts, and Donald Trump. There’s so much loneliness, so much misfortune. So many children who never see a friendly face, so many old people who wait each day for a visit. In the U.S. alone, 40,000 people get desperate enough to take their lives every year. No, that’s wrong: 40,000 people succeed in taking their lives; for every suicide there are 25 suicide attempts, and God knows how many other people who hover on the brink. How could things go so horribly wrong when they seem so easy to make right?

Illustrations by Christopher Matthews

It’s very difficult to be comfortable in one’s personal “perfect moments,” when one realizes just how many people don’t even get many bearable moments, let alone perfect ones. And in some respects, one person’s pleasures are built on other people’s discomforts. The street musician playing the trumpet is underpaid and struggles to pay for the basics (I’ve talked to him about it), because tourists treat him as part of the scenery. I buy my muffins at the coffee shop around the corner, where the workers probably don’t make too much more than the Louisiana minimum wage of $7.25/hr when it takes about $20/hr to afford a decent apartment here. Some of the world’s most delicious food is made in this small city, but it’s made by people who toil and sweat and suffer and get very little thanks for it. (This is not to mention all the animals that die so that we can feast on them.) It seems almost grotesque to talk of perfect moments, because to perceive them that way requires insulating ourselves and ignoring everything around us. The French Quarter, for instance, is visited by hundreds of thousands of people each year, who come to stroll under the oaks of Esplanade Avenue and look at the fabulous Spanish colonial architecture. When you’re rumbling along in the St. Charles streetcar, looking at the antebellum mansions and smelling the magnolias, you can genuinely think you’re in a kind of Eden. But this is also a city where ⅓ of people are in poverty, where 150 people are murdered every year, and where the incarceration rate is the highest of any state in the country (which is, in turn, higher than any country in the world). What looks like a city of charm and luxury is actually a city of drastic racial and economic inequality, built by slaves and sustained by injustice.

It’s certainly enough to put you off your muffin. But I don’t think becoming aware of reality means that we have to lessen our enjoyment of the world’s wonders. That way lies an unhelpful negativity: “Isn’t this garden beautiful?” “I guess it is if you don’t think about how all the time spent making it could have been spent trying to end mass incarceration.” Instead, I think it’s possible to pair feelings of joy/appreciation with corresponding feelings of realism/responsibility, and we can view perfect moments not as an ignorant indulgence, but as a vision of the kind of experience that we ought to make accessible to everybody. They’re little glimpses of what we should be fighting for, and it’s actually important to have reminders of what the good life might consist of, and to have reassurances that it’s not actually fantastical to think we can achieve heaven on earth. We already have heaven on earth, it’s that we only have it fleetingly, and it’s not available to everybody.

Basin Street is a street

Where the folks, they all meet

In New Orleans, the land of dreams

You’ll never know how nice it seems

Or just how much it really means

—Louis Armstrong, “Basin Street Blues” (1928)

It’s important to use present-day experiences as source material for dreams of social transformation, because nowadays, it can be difficult to imagine a future that is substantially different from the present, except in ways that are horrific. It’s not that nobody can imagine things changing. It’s that the two possibilities seem to be either “like this, only more so” and “civilizational annihilation.” Granted, you still hear one or two moonbeams insisting that “a better world is possible.” But even that is a phrase rather than a vision, a chant meant to reassure us that we haven’t given in yet. The most creative imaginings of possible futures are bleak. Several times, this magazine has published articles on the regrettable trend toward dystopian film and fiction, which even the Star Trek franchise has succumbed to. The observation “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” is tragically accurate.

The future wasn’t always like this. Once, long ago, people devised extraordinary utopias. From the original one—Thomas More’s 16th century satire—to the Victorian-era visions of H.G. Wells and William Morris, to the feminist science fiction novels that dared to dream of a world without men, in times past there were countless available tomorrows, only some of them depressing. George Scialabba, in his lecture “Slouching Towards Utopia,” notes the strange contrast between the popular literature of the 19th century and that of our own time. The bestselling books of the 1800s were exhortations to moral progress, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Henry George’s Progress and Poverty, and Edward Bellamy’s utopian Looking Backward. (By contrast, over the last century, Scialabba says, it was probably The Da Vinci Code, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Hite Report.) The success of Bellamy’s novel is particularly noteworthy. As a novel, there’s not much to it: A Bostonian falls asleep and awakens in the year 2000, where he is shown around a future socialist society. But Bellamy goes into detail about the operations of future-Boston, presenting a world in which labor is minimal, goods are distributed equally among all, crime is treated as a medical issue, and everyone retires at age 45.

Bellamy’s future so captivated his contemporaries that hundreds of “Bellamy Clubs” sprung up around the country, dedicating themselves to actualizing his vision. Unlike Karl Marx, who refrained from actually offering clear ideas of what a future society would look like and how it would work, Bellamy had dared to make the fantastical seem somewhat feasible. He made it possible to actually conceive of socialism existing, so that the word was no longer an economic abstraction. Scialabba quotes some of the passages from Bellamy that so inspired the public:

“Do you mean that all share equally in the national wealth?” Julian asked incredulously.

“Certainly,” replied the doctor. “And in return, we require precisely the same measure of service from all: namely, the best service it is in his power to give.”

“And supposing all do the best they can,” said Julian, “[and] the amount of the product resulting is twice as much from one man as from another?”

“That has nothing to do with the question of desert,” the doctor answered. “All who do their best, do the same. A man’s endowments, however godlike, merely fix the measure of his duty. [And although we reward excellence and diligence with public praise and increased responsibility,] you must not imagine that we consider such things a motive likely to appeal to noble natures. Such persons find their motives within, not without, and measure their duty by their own endowments, not by those of others.”

Needless to say, this is not the sort of thinking that makes its way to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List in our own time. (As I write, the #1 slot is held by The President Is Missing, a thriller novel cowritten by Bill Clinton and James Patterson.) But, literary shortcomings aside, the utopian novels of old were useful in that they helped people see what their societies looked like “from the outside.” They allowed readers to, as the title says, “look backward,” and think about how history would judge them. Strangely, in our own time, there seems to be less of a sense that we exist “in history,” less speculation about how our social priorities will look to people in 100, 200, or 1,000 years. (Sadly, this is in part because so many people doubt that human civilization will last that long.) Scialabba says that these sorts of questions are worth asking, though, since “unless we have reached the end point of humankind’s moral development, it is pretty certain that the average educated human of the 23rd century will look back at the average educated human of the 21st century and ask incredulously about a considerable number of our most cherished moral and political axioms, ‘How could they have believed that?’”

Click to see the Current Affairs Utopian City!

Imagining different worlds can help us here. We can think about what we would put in our dream city, if we had it. How would people be provided for? What would the streets look like? What would people do all day? What would education consist of? You can see the dream-city that the Current Affairs editors came up with in the accompanying illustration. We thought about the things we love, and the things that make people happy, and we imagined a place that had them all. Where the libraries and diners are open all night, and there are attics and treehouses and balconies, and there are secret gardens, lazy rivers, slides galore, and friendly animals. Where the police are only police in the most nominal sense, but spend most of their time giving people directions, helping drunk people home, and de-escalating conflicts. (Importantly, when conjuring utopias, we shouldn’t imagine worlds without conflict itself. We’re not trying to change human beings, we’re trying to change the world they live in, and the ambition is not to make sure people never quarrel, but that they don’t engage in war or murder, and resort to solving their differences through rope-twirling competitions or enormous games of Battleship played on pools with foam boats.) It seems silly, I know. But there’s no reason for it to: Slides do exist. Nothing we’ve depicted is actually impossible, it’s just that people are pessimistic and worn-down.

There are some good reasons why utopianism has acquired a bad reputation. Because it’s thought that a harmonious existence is impossible, utopian thinking is seen as a recipe for disaster, because it gives license to try to fundamentally restructure society in a way that will result in the destruction of our fragile progress. But that’s why utopias should be ideas and suggestions rather than formal designs. Oscar Wilde told us that “a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.” (Strictly speaking, this is not the case. The London Tube map is attractive and useful, and does not provide directions to utopia. The Boston subway map, on the other hand, will show you how to get to Wonderland.) “Maps” are exactly what utopias are useful as. A map is not a blueprint: You don’t have to obey it exactly. It’s a guide, and you still get to decide where you’re going and how you’re going to get there.

If others can see it as I have seen it, then it may be called a vision rather than a dream.

—William Morris, “News from Nowhere” (1890)

In a way, it’s actually far crazier not to be a utopian. After all, the world has a such abundance, human beings are so bright and creative and energetic, that it has never seemed clear to me why there should be any serious deprivation. George Orwell said that socialism was such an obviously good idea that it’s astonishing it isn’t universally endorsed:

The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everybody; the idea that we must all cooperate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that no one could possibly fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system.

Orwell concluded that socialists themselves were in large part responsible for the unpopularity of socialism. They did a bad job selling it, and many embraced twisted and inhumane regimes that parodied the egalitarian socialist ideal. In our time, we can rectify this by taking these discussions out of the realm of theory, and thinking about them the way Bellamy did: by looking at our own time, figuring out what could be better, and using our creative capacities to make people not just affirm intellectually, but truly feel, that the vision is sensible and plausible rather than insane. Why shouldn’t there be a communal Lego-pile? Why shouldn’t there be Medicare for All? Does the world lack in resources? Of course it doesn’t. What it lacks is confidence and imagination.

Of course, in response to the question “Why should things be so awful when they could be so very good?” you could also give the Steven Pinker response: Actually, things are going quite well, if you look at the data: Life expectancy is up, lynching seems to have stopped (or at least been turned over to the public sector), we haven’t had a civilization-ending war in a while. Capitalism has built houses and saved babies, etc. And admittedly, there are features of our time that are impressive. The technology, well, it might not be flying cars,  but it’s pretty amazing. (Besides, flying cars would clog the skies and murder all the birds.) We got space age video phone-calls and barely noticed how astonishing it was, and for $9.99/mo with Spotify, I can listen to the entire catalog of human beings’ recorded musical output. (Though I still prefer the jukebox at Harry’s, the bar on the corner by my building. It only has about 30 CDs-worth, but somehow it’s so well-selected that it seems to render Spotify completely superfluous. Fats Domino, Jimmie Rodgers, Ella Fitzgerald; what more do you need?)

There are a few problems with the Pinkeresque response, though. For one thing, it presents a factually false picture of the world: One reason there are fewer wars now is that we’re all pointing nuclear weapons at each other. Mutually assured destruction is not “peace” any more than two people pointing guns at each other, each afraid to make a false move, is a “non-violent” situation. This view also involves downplaying the existential threat of climate change, which here in a city below sea level is very hard to treat as a mere small bump on the road to progress. Another problem with the cheerful assessment is that it tends to evaluate the existing state against “things as they used to be” rather than “things as they ought to be.” This results in the conflation of “better” with “good,” meaning that even if U.S. infant/maternal mortality is far higher than it needs to be, as longer as it’s better than it was during the Great Depression, we will seem to be making “progress.” Finally, the rosy view ignores a whole pile of factors that are getting worse and about which people’s complaints are quite justified: suicide rates, consumer debt, police militarization, public services, immigration policy, incarceration. Progress isn’t spread evenly across society; for the wealthy, we live in a better time than ever. In Detroit, on the other hand, our era looks not just like decline, but like an abject, catastrophic failure. The whole reason that millennials are angry and are embracing socialism is that so many of them work crappy jobs doing work they find pointless, while drowning in debt and with no hope of retirement. Some people’s student loans are as high as $1,000,000! Say what you want about prior ages, at least their student loans were consistently under seven figures.

We can still agree with the optimists that hope isn’t dead. The evidence is in the brief everyday instances where everything comes together perfectly, and in the visions we can string together out of those instances. No city is a city of dreams, not even New Orleans, but that doesn’t mean we can’t dream of cities, taking everything we love about the places around us and wondering what it might look like if it were permanent and open to all. By letting our imaginations go where they may, we can begin to move toward, well, not a perfect world, but a world with a lot more perfect moments. 

This article originally appeared in our print edition. Get your copy today in our online store or by subscribing

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