At first glance, Utopia seems like typical reality TV fare: Telegenic, good looking Americans who are forced to live together and are, within a few hours, either naked, drunk or brawling (or all of the above). The show centres on 15 “settlers”—each with a certain skill—who are given an undeveloped parcel of land in Southern California—no electricity, no plumbing etc.—with the task of creating a new, harmonious society. They are given seed money of $5000, after that money is finished they must replenish the kitty through their own enterprise. This “social experiment” will carry on for one year. Now, if reality TV is what you’re into, then there’s a lot for you here. Go nuts, I ain’t gonna judge, man.
But as I’ve watched Utopia, I have realised it doubles as a fantastic insight into why we can’t have nice things. I wasn’t shocked when Utopiaexperienced a fractious start, there is always an initial settling period with these things (combined with the nefarious social engineering typical of reality TV producers). What did disappoint me, as the days dragged on, was that not one of the contestants was able to transcend their own convictions at any point. Reasonableness continually floundered as each person — convinced of their own intellectual, moral, and ideological superiority — eschewed compromise around every corner. I understand that I can easily be accused of reading too much into a reality show, I probably am—butUtopia is very much a microcosm of our broken political culture. I think it would be lazy to merely ascribe the actions of the Utopians to them being typical reality airheads. Their behaviour is consistent with the airtight selfishness I see every single day.
Who hasn’t dreamed of utopia, late at night or in the shower? Whenever I remember that the eighty-five richest people on Earth have more wealth than the 3.5 billion poorest, I usually allow myself a little Utopian daydream. So I have nothing against reverie, but when you try and export your fantasies wholesale into the real world populated by people with their own complex inner lives and beliefs and pasts — then, my friend, you are an idiot. The nature of politics and belief is such that I am convinced— in my heart of hearts — that my ideas are the best. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t believe them. And I need my beliefs to act as my guide stones, otherwise I’d just be a floating turd in humanity’s toilet. I lean (heavily) to the left in my political alignment, so my Utopian visions reflect my inclinations. But I know enough to know that I don’t know everything and, also, that I can’t have it all. I know that I have countless weaknesses: I’m prone to procrastination, I can be reticent, I am too idealistic. I need other people. And while I feel that my convictions could add to a beneficial outcome, I know that it must be tempered with compromise.
To believe that you are the only one who cares is an all too common mistake. Most people would like to live in an idyllic, great society and their ideologies, no matter how stupid it may seem to you, present the different paths they believe lead to a better world. Where it all falls flat (in the real world, not just in Utopia) is in the misunderstanding of what “utopia” means and entails. Even Thomas More—the man who literally wrote the book on utopia (and coined the term itself)—never envisioned a world without conflict or malady. In his model, there was war and banishment and slavery. More got the word “utopia” from the Greek meaning “the good place”. Even in the very etymology of the word, utopia is not about my idea of a perfect society or even about a perfect society at all—it’s about a good, mutually beneficial societal entente.
The most commonly uttered phrase on Utopia so far (always said after the person hasn’t got their way) has been, “This is not my utopia”. I, my, mine, me: Societies — successful ones at least — are never formed with first person pronouns and possessives at their core. The contestants on Utopia all want to birth a society according to their own preferences and idiosyncrasies. That’s not the road to utopia, I’m afraid. And easy as it is to just laughUtopia off, to roll your eyes as the one contestant seriously suggests that a woman’s menstrual cycle is linked to the moon—there’s something in this God awful show that is unnerving and all too recognisable. Utopia is a show where the signal of reason is constantly swallowed by the cacophonous noise of pseudo-intellectuality and myopic conviction.