09/10/2013 02:47 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2013

Everyday Utopias: Local Music and/or Political Hope

Everyday utopias prove that people still want, and maybe need, bigger utopias. It's a good thing, too.

I spent a chunk of the last few days wandering around one kind of everyday utopia, a music festival, admiring the work of people I know or at least recognize when I see them around town. These days, locals write the soundtrack of my inner life as surely as the Pixies and Operation Ivy did 15 years ago.

What makes a utopia -- a place apart, a picture of a different way to live -- is that ordinary people, with gifts, a work ethic, and day jobs, get to be celebrities. When I see them play, I feel they are touched by the gods as ancient Greeks thought athletes were.

Where I live, a little progressive enclave in North Carolina, lots of people get a slab of the local-greatness pies. Besides musicians, I can tell you who grows the best pea greens or the most amazing berries. The guy from Durham who makes the best peanut butter around is kind of a celebrity. Around here, people get admired for making things or sharing them.

It's so easy to make fun of this kind of artisanal sub-culture, which has its ridiculousness like anything else. It's also easy to say that "everyone a celebrity" is the cultural pathology of our times: Paris Hilton + Facebook + a precarious economy = even the nut-butter guy has to have a personal branding strategy, and everyone is counting "likes."

Of course that's true around the edges, and of course most of the people doing this stuff have some modest privilege, if not more than that. But what interests me is what people do with a little privilege, when they get just a bit free of the shackles of the acute need and raw vulnerability that have shaped so much of human history. Some of them make things -- beautiful, revealing, tasty, strange things -- and share them around. You could say they enrich the economy of human togetherness. They lend weight, personality, a local history, to sounds and words and flavors. In doing that, they make an economy that dignifies the place, and lights it up.

This isn't the zero-sum celebrity of millions of people watching one person. It isn't the pseudo-celebrity of a billion disparate, desperate tweets and videos in search of a throng. It's closer to the socialism that Romantic radicals like William Morris (a socialist and fabric designer, mostly forgotten now, except by historians of those two fields) imagined: communities of free and equal men and women building a world where everyone's skill counted and could be celebrated, where the ideal was work that elevated those who did it, because it was beautiful.

It wasn't just William Morris's romantic socialism that wanted to fill everyday life with the dignity of useful and beautiful work. American democrats like Walt Whitman used to be all about this: for Whitman, the test of democracy was whether everyone and everything could to have a kind of grandeur: the most ordinary people, the saddest and most painful circumstances, the nastiest work. Abraham Lincoln agreed, less florally but in his own poetic voice. John Stuart Mill said that liberty mattered because it would give free play to the human personality, unleashing life as a kind of self-expressive art. Lyndon Johnson said just about the same thing in a speech on "the Great Society": a country should be measured by the lives it enabled its people to live. Whether you were a socialist or a liberal -- two kinds of democrat -- enriching everyday life and work was the ultimate point of politics. It was the mark of what a democratic age could mean.


A utopianism of everyday life isn't a political question today, except in one way: partisan divisions in U.S. politics often come down to differences in how people see dignity and everyday greatness. A lot of the American right is centered on a somewhat different idea of the dignity of ordinary life: that hard work matters, competence and consistency are precious, and people who hold together their families and help neighbors in hard times deserve the greatest respect.

These aren't incompatible ideas, but they have different emphases. The conservative model of everyday greatness isn't the artisan or rock star, but the soldier or firefighter, who becomes a dad. What strikes me, though, is the similarity in the wish. People want their lives to be good, and for others to be able to see the goodness. I don't mean morally perfect, or self-righteous -- just worth living, good uses of the talents and time we have, lives we wouldn't mind being remembered by for a few decades after we're gone.

At their best, both the progressive cultural ideal (artisan/rocker) and the conservative (firefighter/dad) are democratic in a key sense: they could be open to all. They don't need to be zero-sum. (Obviously a lot more needs to be said here, about ego and fame on the one hand, and gender, equality, and diversity on the other; but none of that should be fatal.) Looked at from the time of Walt Whitman and William Morris, we seem to be building utopias, but in private: in exurbs and revived enclave towns.


In my enclave, we are mostly part of what tacticians call the Democratic base. You should see the Obama stickers! You should hear the canvassers knock as an election gets close. But the sad irony is that neither political party has much interest in building a world where the everyday utopias of their supporters could come to life. The parties are dominated by two kinds of economic elites: the Democrats by the elites of meritocracy, the Ivy League lawyers and consultants and culture mavens, plus the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs; the Republicans by the elites of finance capital. Both elites sit atop systems that are (pardon my sounding like an old-fashioned Marxist for just a line) objectively, structurally hostile to the ways their voters are trying to lead good lives.

Consider Mitt Romney. He is not only a boss. His wealth comes from breaking up companies, industries, and the communities that depend on them, and sending capital, human and otherwise, chasing fresher opportunity. Of course, as jobs disappear in one place, they appear somewhere else; but the change means, for example, leaving settled family and community, probably moving somewhere like Arizona or Nevada, and learning a new "skill" that likely involves lower wages, less security, and less respect than what you were doing before. (I'm assuming the move is from making things to selling things, or from owning your own business to working for a much bigger outfit, which is how these changes tend to go, even when they so-to-speak succeed.)

On the liberal side, meritocracy is as ruthless a sorting device as finance capitalism, the difference being that it tends to catch people in adolescence rather than middle age. It pulls its beneficiaries out of their provinces and deposits them in a few dozen cultural and professional capitals, where they run into one another at Whole Foods and try to remember names from sophomore year. The sorting means that, for many kinds of dignified and secure work, you need to clear many hurdles, starting early and continuing for a long time. That could mess up any kid, but especially those who don't clear the hurdles.

Our economy does a lot of sorting. It creates winners and losers, over and over, and it comes dressed in ideas, about the rationality of markets and the merit of merit, that tell the winners they are winners and the losers they are losers. In this way, our economy destroys solidarity -- surely the losers deserve what they got? -- and sows anxiety everywhere. It gets a lot out of people, much of it through greed and fear.

A divided, fearful economy turns even love against solidarity. My people, structurally if not spiritually, are the meritocrats. They love their children. (High SAT scores don't mean you don't bleed when pricked.) They struggle and spend (on tutoring, enrichment, test-prep) to ensure that the sorting breaks their children's way. You do that for the people you love.

But the point is, hate the game, because a game that presses people into greed and fear on behalf of those they love just plain deserves hating. There's a reason 3 percent of Harvard undergraduates come from the bottom quarter of the economy, and 75 percent from the top quarter, and that reason is not that the system is working as advertised. (The finance types are at least as committed to manipulating the system, and much less likely to be ashamed of it; but because they are not my people in any respect, I won't try to describe what they do.) The deeper problem is that in our economy, life prospects are so marked by money that the phrase "top quarter" scans easily; we all know how things are stacked.)

So, our big economy is the enemy of our little utopias.

Artisans, the meritocrats are coming for your children with standardized tests. Those other titans of your party, the Silicon Valley liberals, won't rest until they have herded your music, your home brews, and your nut butters into their portals, monetized you and made you count "likes" like an autistic astronomer ticking off the stars. They want your anxiety and ambition to make you sillier, more opportunistic and grasping than you ever have wanted to be.

Traditional parents with honorable jobs, the financiers are coming for you. We learned everything we needed to know about this in the last election. They are coming for your jobs, your towns, and your industries. In return, they will assure you that they, like you, respect hard work, and they will prove it by asking for a second helping of yours. This kind of symbolic respect, this assurance that your candidate mistrusts and secretly dislikes the same people you do, is what much of our politics has been come down to.

Neither the meritocrats nor the financiers are bad people (with inevitable exceptions that just come with the human terrain). They have worked hard, mostly; they are grateful to the people who have helped them; and they love and want to help their own families. They tend to believe that they deserve the good things they have, and although it is right to fault this attitude, it's a hard one to overcome. What they do is a function of a highly unequal economy, full of churn, displacement, and destruction. Saying that they are coming for your children only means that your children will grow up in the same economy that sort these two elites.

Why do they dominate the two parties, defining the alternatives that sometimes feel like non-alternatives, and give no space to the everyday utopias of either side? This is the easiest part, and a sad part too. As long as politics is lashed to private money, the people with money will be the constituents who matter. Not cultivating them would be irresponsible because winning takes money.


In the last couple of years, I have been a very minor participant in two moments of resurgent progressive activism, Occupy Wall Street (where I volunteered at the People's Library) and North Carolina's Moral Mondays movement (where I was arrested in a peaceful group act of civil disobedience). Both of these happened (Moral Mondays continues) at the same time as popular movements elsewhere in the world. Some of the people in Zuccotti Park identified with the protestors in Tahrir Square and the rest of the Arab Spring, and with the people's movements that galvanized Argentine society a decade earlier. I have the impression that most of the people involved in North Carolina's interracial progressive movement don't link themselves with the activists who came into the streets in Turkey and Brazil at the same time, demanding more open and responsive governments and, especially in Brazil, more attention to the needs of the non-wealthy (the 99 percent, you might say). I suspect the second attitude is more typical. Americans are trained to think that protestors in other countries are demanding democracy, or trying to achieve democracy, while we, here, have a very fine democracy.

This understandable parochialism discourages American activists from seeing the links between popular movements elsewhere and the ones at home. In particular, it might get in the way of seeing that we have some common challenges. The terrible events in Egypt have made it easy to say that the young liberals and leftists who were briefly at the vanguard of the Tahrir movement asked for too much, were too revolutionary. But the opposite might also be true. They might not have been revolutionary enough, because they had no vision of a decent society or a good life to offer, nothing to tie together Egyptian hopes once Mubarak was gone. That problem is hardly unique to Egypt.

How might progressives restore the idea of a world worth building back to politics? I would begin with a few broad values that are alive in the personal and community-level places where people pursue good lives.

I would begin with the idea of an economy that does not get so much work out of people on the basis of greed and fear, that does not turn people into such stark competitors that loving your children has to mean edging out your neighbors. I would ask how a prosperous economy could also make more room for sharing, free creation, and activity for its own sake, which are so much of what people seek out when they have to freedom to do it.

I would begin with respecting the human wish and need for security. The everyday greatness of the parent and householder prizes this above all: take care of your family, keep them safe, provide. But our economic visions, whether the constant market churn of the finance capitalists or the endless competition of the meritocrats, both disrespect this need.

I would begin with a call for a politics that is not lashed to money, because only that kind of politics will make room for agendas that do not put either the finance capitalists or the meritocrats first.

Democratic movements have called for these sorts of changes before. Now, in an anti-utopian time, it is easy to say that the hope was fatally unrealistic, that we cannot know what a better world would look like, or how to get there. In fact, we do know something about that world, because so many of us, "left" and "right," are building bits of it every day, in whatever corners of our lives give us the freedom to do that.

Little utopias need big utopias that they can live in. Everyday utopias need economies that don't undercut them. We should ask our ever-disappointing politics to learn from our ever-hopeful lives.