Hey Thomas, what’s with the slaves in Utopia?

Recently, I stumbled across a cartoon about Thomas More’s Utopia on Existential Comics. More is telling a crowd all the good stuff about Utopia. He’s winning them over with a six hour working day and leaders chosen by the people to rule in their best interests. But he starts losing them when he reveals there’s no boozing and no fancy clothes.

To spice things up a bit, he comes out with:

Wait, what? There still slaves in Utopia?
Detail from Thomas More’s Utopia

“Wait, what? There still slaves in Utopia?” It’s funny cos it’s true. Here we are, excited about this anti-capitalist, essentially communist, society, but there are still slaves in Utopia. As readers of Utopia, as in More’s book, and of utopia, the literary genre it spawned, we need to ask what’s with the slaves in Utopia?

Slaves in utopia? It’s of it’s time

The most boring cop out answer is it’s of it’s time. It was published in 1516, slaves were alright then, you can’t judge it by modern standards, we don’t have to worry about the fact it has slaves in it.

I say wrong, wrong, wrong. We do precisely have to worry about it because slavery was never an OK idea. We need to critically evaluate our (Anglo-Euro-American) history and how it feeds into a culture of forgiving the past because ultimately we did pretty well out of it. Also, if we are tempted to be proud of a literary heritage of utopia stretching back to 1516 and make claims for the enduring relevance of this genre today, we need to look carefully at what these ideas are that are still circulating.

The abolition of private property + slaves? Squaring the circle

What’s funny about the slaves in Utopia, why it’s extra odd, is that Utopia is a radically anti-capitalist place. There’s enough of everything for everyone and citizens are socially conditioned to look down on material wealth. Gold and silver are used to make chamber pots and chains for slaves, and pearls and gems are used for children’s toys. There’s effectively no private property and yet… there are slaves. How does this add up?

I have a theory and it goes a bit like this. Colonialism.

Utopia is founded on colonial logic

In More’s Utopia, the land called Utopia wasn’t always called Utopia. It was originally called Abraxa, until King Utopus conquered and renamed the place. Good King Utopus did such a good job of civilising the natives he made the ideal society.

Not only this, but Utopus reshaped the entire physical environment to create his model of perfection. Utopia was originally on a peninsula, but Utopus ordered a huge channel to be dug to cut it off from the mainland, turning it into an island.

The sheer entitlement of these heroic acts of Utopus. They epitomise colonial logic, by which I mean the logic of dominating other people and other places in pursuit of the perfect civilisation.

With this as its foundational myth, Utopia might be anti-capitalist, but it’s still colonialist.

Colonialism is a logic of mastery

Colonialism assumes the world is divided into masters and subjects. I am reminded of Val Plumwood’s Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. Plumwood identifies a series of dualisms at the heart of Western thought – man/woman, culture/nature, mind/body – where the first in each of pairing is assumed superior to the second. Master/slave.

Certainly, More’s hero asserts control over nature when he turns the land into an island. King Utopus fits the category of “man”, “culture”, “mind”, “master”. And where there’s a master, there’s got to be slaves. So by this colonial logic, the logic of mastery, it makes sense that there are slaves in Utopia.

What to do about the slaves in Utopia?

Having concluded that the slaves in Utopia demonstrate the colonial logic at the very foundation of the genre of utopia, what do we do now? Despair?

No! Don’t despair, decolonise!

By which I mean, be alive to the colonialist tendencies within utopia. Call it out when you see it. And, even better, read loads of innovative anti-colonial utopias and think about alternative ways of reimagining the world. That’s what I’m doing anyway. Keep reading this blog to come along for the ride!

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