Twentieth-Century Anti-Utopianism and its West German Antidote

This talk picks up a melancholic thread in assessments of the end of the Cold War, when the triumph of liberal democracy and capitalism over “really existing socialism” led academics and public intellectuals to pronounce the end of utopian ambitions. Margaret Thatcher captured this idea in her claim that “there is no alternative.” Some West Germans, however, resisted this logic. Facing the ostensible dissipation of radical social and political alternatives, they refused to abandon hope for a superlative existence. But they also recognized that old paradigms of utopian thought had lost their currency. They jettisoned the conviction that society marched incrementally and inexorably toward an ideal form. Instead, they developed a new temporal sensibility that stressed action in and for the present. Scholars have varyingly called this posture presentism, catastrophic time, cataclysmic time, or emergency time. Beginning in the 1980s and ‘90s, this attitude generated a diverse series of grassroots projects, which touched West German political, aesthetic, and intellectual life. These were not simply reformist visions for a future deferred. Though their purviews were modest, these projects aimed for nothing less than the total transformation of those jurisdictions. They operated as what one theorist has labeled “utopias in the becoming.”