First published in Canvas: May 17th 2012

In April 2011, the Chinese media regulator (SARFT) took the unprecedented step of banning depictions of time travel in native feature films and television shows, stating that such output “disrespects history.” Hugely popular before the ban, time travel dramas such as Myth had centred around a person falling asleep, only to find themselves travelling back in time to ancient China where, after some adjustment, they find love and happiness. The rationale for the ban, said film critic and journalist Raymond Zhou Liming, was “that whatever isn’t possible in the real world belongs to superstition.” Clearly, he claimed, the authorities decided that time-travel, a common device in Chinese historical drama, allowed the protagonist to reorder reality, undermining the consensus that people are happy with the ruling Communist system.1

Though such a extreme measure is not perhaps unexpected, the Chinese are not alone in being told that there is no alternative to the economic philosophy their government has chosen. As far back as the 1870s, the world-famous philosopher Herbert Spencer claimed that there was no alternative to free market capitalism.Since the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, the British people have been told by successive governments that ‘there is no alternative’ to the free market. “It amounts simply to this,” Thatcher once said. “A nation’s continuing health and prosperity depend on the continuing health and prosperity of its industry…And who suffers? We all do if we refuse to face reality until it comes face to face with us. Then there is no alternative.”2

The question of whether humans are still willing or capable of imagining alternatives to capitalism, is therefore pertinent. Undoubtedly, no utopian work has captured the imagination of the public to the extent of those published in the late 19th century. While Spencer claimed that there was no alternative to capitalism, numerous writers challenged his assumptions by imagining just that. Though the concept of utopia was not new: early examples of utopian literature include Thomas More’s Utopia in 1915 and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in 1726, it was in the 1870s and 80s that the genre reached its zenith: all at once, dozens of novels appeared. The common thread between them: the protagonist, after enduring a deep sleep, awakens in a far off future, in which the injustices of capitalism have been overcome.

The most famous utopian work of this era is Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. Immediately popular on its publication in 1887, it sold more than a million copies. More than 150 ‘Bellamy groups’ were formed to propagate and discuss Bellamy’s ideas, which were further elaborated in the a sequel, Utopia. In addition, over a hundred unofficial sequels were written by various authors, some written in support, and some which sought to trash Bellamy and his ideas.3 Bellamy did not intend this, however. “In undertaking to write Looking Backward,” he wrote, “I had, at the outset, no idea of attempting a serious contribution to the movement of social reform. There was no thought of contriving a house which practical men might live in, but merely of hanging in mid-air, far out of reach of the sordid and material world of the present.”4Read more…

In Looking Backward, a young American, Julian West, falls into a deep hypnosis, and wakes up one hundred and thirteen years later, to find that the United States has been transformed into a socialist utopia. Through a series of discussions with his guide Dr Leete, West comes to understand how society has changed. “It was the sincere belief,” he is told “that the only stable elements in human nature, on which a social system could be safely founded, were its worst propensities. They had been taught and believed that greed and self-seeking were all that held mankind together…In a word, they believed…that the antisocial qualities of men, and not their social qualities, were what furnished the cohesive force of society.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, artist and writer William Morris was in the midst of writing his own utopian novel, News From Nowhere (1890) In stark contrast to Bellamy, who revelled in the notion of a technological state socialism, Morris’s time travelling protagonist William Guest awakens in a pastoral, garden state, a libertarian socialist paradise where work was undertaken purely for the joy it derived. “There are some socialists,” commented Morris in his review of Looking Backward, “who do not think that the problem of the organisation of life and necessary labour can be dealt with by a huge national centralisation; that on the contrary it will be necessary for the unit of administration to be small enough for every citizen to feel himself responsible for its details, and be interested in them.”5

The back and forth nature of the utopian genre saw other classics emerge, notably John Macnie’s The Diothas (1883) and annonymously publsiehd The End of Romance, Also published were non fiction treatsies, most notably Laurence Gronlund’s The Co-operative Commonwealth and August Bebel’s Woman and Socialism. Bebel, in particular reflected the feminist current of many utopian novels: the promise of female equality. In a chapter entitled ‘Women and the Future’ Babel listed her demands for a future society. “In the new society woman will be entirely independent, both socially and economically. She will not be subjected to even a trace of domination and exploitation, but will be free and man’s equal, and mistress of her own lot.”6

The rise of socialism at the turn of the century demonstrated the growing strength of alternative movements. In Britain, the Labour Party was formed and began to contest parliamentary seats. In America, the rapid growth of the Socialist Party saw the party attract more than a million votes in the hotly contested 1912 presidential election. And in Paris, the 1900 Worlds Fair was organised on the idea that war would be unnecessary in a world based on internationalism. However, the First World War, shattered much of that optimism. The British promised returning soldiers a ‘Home Fit For Heroes,’ which never arrived, and the American’s imprisioned the majority of the Socialist leadership. The Paris Peace Conference of 1919, designed to bring lasting peace on posperity, only led to further misery.

The inter-war period heralded the popularisation of a new genre: the dystopian novel. Notable examples include Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948). All three writers imagined societies that had become totalitarian: the end of privacy, free thought and intimate relationships, and the entrenchment of social inequality. Huxley and Zamyatin envisaged as a consumerist culture which kept the population distracted, while Orwell saw an oppressive state which controsl all information. “…I believe,” Huxley wrote of 1984, “that the world’s rulers will discover…more efficient…instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be…completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude…In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World.”7

Unlike utopian fiction, which envisaged the supercedion of the capitalist system, dystopian fiction relied on an exagerated and distorted capitalist society for its setting. Characteristic of the latter, was dehuminisation and inequality, particularly directed towards women. In Marge Piercy’s Woman On the Edge of Time (1976)Consuelo Ramos, a recently released mental patient, communicates with a young woman, who comes from a future utopia where the political and social goals of the sixites radical movements have been fulfilled. At the same time, she becomes aware that her actions will determine whether this future, will come to pass, or whether an alternative dystopia will emerge, in which a wealthy elite subdues the population and dehumanises women into purely sexual objects. “Women’s utopia’s,” said Piercy, “are very concerned with overcoming loneliness, because what is utopia? Utopia is what you don’t have. It is the fantasies about what you lack and you feel you lack in society.”8

Likewise, in Margeret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), women have become subugated by a hyper-religious society that has robbed them of their sexual freedom, and has separated them into a series of castes: some women are ranked highly in society, others are programmed to breed, and some are even cast out of society as ‘unwoman’: sterile, feminist, or politically deviant. This society, howeveer, ultimately collapses and a more equal society is re-established. “People would blithely say ‘It can’t happen here,” recalled Atwood, “That is the most chilling statement that anybody can make, because all of this can happen anywhere given the right amount of social disruption and turmoil.”9

The fall of communism in 1989 made it harder to break from this orthodoxy. In ‘The End of History, Francis Fukuyamaheralded the triumph of liberal democracy over communism, and the end of ideological conflict between rival political systems. Since then, most critics have restrained themselves to advocating structural reforms, rather than wholesale changes, whilst calls for the overthrow of capitalism have become monopolised by discredited socialist and Marxist movements. “The passing of Marxism-Leninism,” Fukuyama declared, “first from China and then from the Soviet Union will mean its death as a living ideology of world historical significance.”10

It appears that since the end of the Second World War, humans have become more receptive to dystopian ideas. The success of Hunger Games (2008),which many have speculated will surpass 1984 as the most popular dystopian novel of all time, prompts us to as whether people are simply incapable of imagining a society where the greed, self interest and avariciousness of capitalism has been overcome.11A rare exception is Ralph Nader’s Only the Super Rich Can Save Us, (2009) a practical utopian novel inspired by the works of Bellamy, in which several of the worlds billionaires come together to save American capitalism from itself. Unlike Bellamy however, the book did not inspire a nationwide propagation movement. Do people simply no longer believe in utopia? Or do they, like Herbert Spencer, believe there is no alternative?

Further Reading

2 ‘Speech to Australian Institute of Directors, September 15, 1976
3See for a list of the most notable responses.
4Bellamy, Edward, ‘How I Came to Write Looking Backward’ The Nationalist, Vol. 1 No. 1 (May 1889), pp. 1-4
7Huxley’s review of 1984 can be read at
8Interview with Marge Piercy,
9Interview with Margaret Atwood,
10The End of History, accessed at,


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