Utopia reborn

“Progress is realization of utopia”, so believed Oscar Wilde. Utopia is no flight of infancy; it is the roadmap of the future and the lifeblood of societal change.

Utopia reborn

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“Progress is realization of utopia”, so believed Oscar Wilde. Utopia is no flight of infancy; it is the roadmap of the future and the lifeblood of societal change. Modern ideas like shared living, equality, justice and a yearning for a better society have influenced both philosophers and political leaders. Utopia may be universal but in the contemporary world, Latin America is considered to be a fertile ground for utopian projects, movements and experiments. For many, utopia is a process of making a better tomorrow.

Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes writes, “we have clung to utopia because we were founded as a utopia.” Memory of a good society “lies in our origins and also at the end of the road, as a fulfilment of our hopes.” Hundreds of social, political and ideational experiments are currently under way in Latin America. Political leaders never fight shy of experimenting with both progressive and regressive development strategies, even untested new policy measures. Civil societies and ordinary citizens are experimenting with alternative forms of governance creating both public and institutional spaces for democratising and deepening democracy.

There may be failures and frustrations but that has not stopped them from imagining alternative utopias. Latin America is building what Zapatistas of Mexico would say, “un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos” (a world where many worlds fit in). Latin American thought leaders have made seminal contributions in the fields of inquiry like resistance and liberation movements, race, pedagogy, coloniality and indigenous epistemologies. To a great extent, the political space that the new left in Latin America has created is largely the product of utopian visions and its new imaginations.


The new left in its various avatars has drawn inspiration from the core premise of Marx, “things don’t have to be the way they are.” Globally, the left is facing a dilemma that American cultural critic Grecil Marcus sums up beautifully: “your own history was lying in pieces on the ground, and you had the choice of picking up the pieces or passing them by.” Only the Latin American left seems to have picked up the pieces and the result is there for all to see. The origin of the Latin American left is distinctly Latin American.

One has seen the demise of the ‘Bourbon’ left and the ‘doctrinaire’ left and the ‘infantile’ left too has been buried. It is not easy to define the new left. The left is a combination of small parties and groups, trade unions, social movements and indigenous organisations. Its emphasis is inclusion and reform, not revolution. The centrality of democracy is another feature. It is democracy deepening, not mere democracy’s expansion.

F L Schuster and Armando Bartra therefore suggest that we speak of ‘lefts’ in the plural. New terms have emerged such as ‘liberal left’, ‘interventionist left’ and ‘extractivist left.’ The new left has different historical trajectories and ideological nuances than the conventional left. The multiplicity of social bases and political agendas are specific to individual countries. Hence, while the new left is radically different from the traditional left, ideological diversities and historical trajectories of the new left themselves are different.

Just as Hugo Chavez was no Fidel Castro, Chile’s Gabriel Boric is no Lula. In pure academic terms, describing recent and current Latin American leaders and parties as “leftist” doesn’t pass a rigorous analysis. The worldviews and policies of left leaders are so different from one another. Years before getting elected president of Colombia, Gustavo Petro praised Hugo Chavez as a “great Latin American leader”.

However, while campaigning for president, Petro dismissed Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro as a “very conservative member of the most regressive factions in global politics.” Lula too has been critical of Maduro saying he supports free elections in Venezuela so that it can see “the alteration of power.” President of Chile Gabriel Boric too has been critical of Maduro’s leadership. He said that the “policy of exclusion doesn’t offer authentic or lasting results.” Mexico’s Zapatista movement is the most iconic antiglobalisation guerrilla movement.

It acquired global attention as it swept the battle for public opinion. The Zapatista movement became the lighthouse that illuminated the left. The Zapatistas have a lot to offer to the left. They don’t reject democracy but they define it in the indigenous cosmological term. They have offered a decolonial definition, “we are all equals because we are all different.” In their limited areas of influence in Chiapas, they have practiced the ‘socialisation of power” by extending it to all spheres of social existence like schools, hospitals, communities and other enterprises.”

Today many of the old ideas have lost their marbles. In the present age, the magic of ideas is fizzling out. The left needs better stories. The age of theory is coming to its end. Both liberalism and socialism are going through a phase of decline and exhaustion. The post-fascist universe is expanding. There is a social meltdown. The new left in Latin America knows that ‘how to do nothing’ is not an option. The left’s appeal has grown thanks to the support it has garnered from social movements, political-cultural struggles and their fight against social stigmas.

The Zapatista revolution has been a movement of movements. In their own small way, they have proved that other models are possible. As Peter Rosset, Maria Elena Martinez-Torres and Luis Hernandez-Navarro contend, “the Zapatistas gave the new movements new forms, methods and ideologies with roots in the history of subaltern indigenous communities.” The left needs new stories to tell and new cards to play. It must give voice to stories that have been silenced. Democracy is broken today.

The traditional leftist thinking that the working class was the agent of change and that the intellectuals were the radical agency of change has no traction. Where is the working class today, much less their faith in the revolutionary mission? The proletariat is now the new precariat. The universities no longer prepare students for citizenship.

There was once romance with revolution. Today, ‘Love is a Revolution’ as the title of Renee Watson’s book suggests. It will be naïve, if not foolish, to expect that the students of elite universities will transform into a new working class as the University of California, Berkeley, once actually believed.

(The writer is director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delh)