How to fight the barriers of capitalism with poetry

Detail from artwork by Shiiku Collective as used to advertise their event fighting the barriers of capitalism

Anthropy≠Anthropocene, Shiiku Collective, 9 March 2023, Strange Brew, Bristol.

Carolyn Dougherty reflects on this event, which promised:

expressive spoken word on fighting the barriers of capitalism, interactive visuals co-created by our robot friends, ambient electronic beats with soft rainforest settings, and the voices of those ready to design a world that can be peacefully navigated by all.”

I’m a woman in my 50s, reasonably well read on utopia but perhaps not entirely up to date. I was hoping for fresh, young perspectives on living joyfully in a world we have (at best) badly and unconscionably damaged.

Instead, I heard several young people perform poems and songs expressing their desires in a world where they feel marginalised. The poems weren’t bad; in fact, I thought a couple were quite good. I’m glad I heard them. But, they primarily dealt with the individual’s inner world.

I hope everyone reading this has had the experience of engaging with a piece of art then stepping out into the world astonished at how your own perceptions have been changed by it. That kind of mental and emotional rewiring doesn’t happen when the art is focused on better understanding the artist.

Self-expression as a tool of late-stage capitalism

It is a genuinely powerful act to declare to others that we are proud to accept something about ourselves that our culture has taught us we should be ashamed of. But I dispute that it ‘fights the barriers of capitalism’ and offers a new vision of our world. Rather, it redraws those barriers further out, to enclose more of us.

Self-expression is something we’re taught to value, even revere, and it is valuable. But it also happens to be the ideal lever for late-stage capitalism to break into our interior world, to appropriate what resources still remain out of its control.

In the late twentieth century, the consumption machine encouraged us to express ourselves by buying things. Things that signified allegiance with whatever group we might want others to believe we were affiliated with. By acquiring, wearing or using things coded to belong to a certain group, we hoped to send signals that encouraged other people to assign us the status and group affiliation we desired to project.

What we now optimistically refer to as late-stage capitalism is much more sophisticated, and much less overt. The machine no longer creates and disseminates the rules for obtaining affiliative or distinctive things. Instead, we are more likely to self-define. We choose the signals ourselves, then inform others what these signals mean to us and should mean to them.

A collection, not a collective

It’s still the same mechanism, keeping us focused on who we are and how we identify. We remain preoccupied with both sending the correct signals and ensuring that others receive them in the correct manner. The capitalists win again, as this preoccupation, even obsession, with what we are signalling precludes any possibility that we might actually pay genuine attention to others.

This situation resulted in a grouping of artists that could more rightly be called a collection than a collective. Individual atomised people pinging packets of information to each other as a substitute for actually communicating, engaging, forming bonds, and creating the conditions for effective collective action.

Towards a post-capitalist utopian poetics

Art that focuses on one’s perception of the world paradoxically brings people closer together than art that focuses on one’s perception of oneself. Perceiving the world is something we all do, and an experience we can genuinely share. (I’m afraid not everyone is thinking about you.)

This kind of art is almost the opposite of the scientific method. Science attempts to organise and achieve an objective description of the world. Its goal is for us to have the same, repeatable, predictable experience. And economics, of course, likes to position itself as a science.

The goal of art is to help us have as many different experiences of the world as there are people. Relating to each other through sharing our experience of the world may be the most effective way to create the kinds of shared experience that could lead to collective action, and someday the creation of what could be a utopia.

Carolyn Dougherty is an economic historian and railway engineer currently based in Bristol. Her research and writing addresses the origins of capitalism and the development of the corporation in early nineteenth-century England. She is a member of the Utopian Book Collective.

Review of Twoty-Twoty-Two: Revival of the Bristol Utopian Book Collective

One of the best bits of news from 2022 is the revival of the Bristol Utopian Book Collective! UBC is up and running again.

We had seven great meetings in 2022. For a while we were the Bristol N. K. Jemisin fan club, when we read the Broken Earth trilogy one book at a time from July to October. (Hols in August, for the mathematically astute among you who will have spotted it took us four months.)

My favourite meeting of 2022 was in November, when about a dozen of us turned out for an animated discussion of Brave New World. Then, we headed through to the cinema for a screening of Neptune Frost. We meet in the cafe bar of the Watershed, an independent cinema in Bristol, UK. By fortunate coincidence the “exhilarating Afrofuturist anti-capitalist sci-fi-punk-musical” was screening at 9pm after our book group meeting at 7.

Utopias past and present

Brave New World is, of course, a classic. But would anyone still have anything to say about it, is it still relevant? Turns out yes, everyone had a lot to say. We could easily have done three or four discussions on this one book. Is it really a dystopia? Does it matter to not have free will if you’re happy? Why is art and culture better than centrifugal bumble puppy and electromagnetic golf? Who wouldn’t want to go to the feelies? Also, we got into some sticky stuff about eugenics, ableism and ageing.

I enjoyed going straight from Brave New World to Neptune Frost. It was like journeying from utopias past to utopias present. Neptune Frost defies easy explanation. To start off with my brain was furiously trying to work it all out as it went along but I had to let that go. I experienced the music and the action and the visuals. It is there now inside my mind and I get the feeling it may be changing things as yet unbeknownst to me in there. Unanimous goldmine!

Neptune Frost film poster, highlight since the revivial of the Bristol Utopian Book Collective

What a difference 198 days makes

The official relaunch or revival of the Bristol Utopian Book Collective after lockdown took place in April 2022 as part of the People’s Republic of Stoke’s Croft School of Activism. On that occasion, two people arrived to the meeting. We had a wonderful discussion centred around The Deep by Rivers Solomon. But given the low turnout for what was a relatively well publicised event, I wondered if there was any appetite for continuing the book group.

I was already mulling over ideas for an offline, meetings-free Utopias Club. It involved newsletters and badges and I might still do it one day. But thankfully Emma and Nathan, who had joined me that day, were full of enthusiasm for the book group. I felt somewhat obliged to arrange another meeting. On that great and successful November evening only six months later I was grateful to them that I did.

It’s brill to have the group up and running again. If you’d like to join us, check out our upcoming events here.

Recommended utopian books for kids

Group photo of attendees of the Oscar's Tower of Flowers utopia for kids event
Group photo from utopian books for kids event, with author Lauren Tobia holding copies of her picture book Oscar's Tower of Flowers
Bristol Utopian Book Collective co-founder Rob Bryher, author and illustrator Lauren Tobia, and participants in our kids’ book event.

Bristol Utopian Book Collective recently hosted a children’s book group as part of the PRSC School of Activism. I selected Oscar’s Tower of Flowers by local Bristol author and illustrator Lauren Tobia as our book to discuss. Being up for a bit of activism, Tobia joined us for the event and talked us through the story of her beautiful wordless book.

As mother to a young child and a critic of literary eco-utopias, the two sometimes crossover when reading bedtime stories. Some seemingly innocent books are horrendous when seen through an ecocritical lens (I’m looking at you, Babar). Oscar’s Tower of Flowers, however, has so many reasons to recommend it.

Cover art and review for Oscar's Tower of Flowers

Here are my reasons for recommending Oscar’s Tower of Flowers, plus more utopian book recommendations for kids.

1. The love of plants

Oscar cares for the plants and the plants care for him, making him feel better while his Mum is away. That we can have mutual loving relationships with plants and thrive when we live alongside nature is shown in a way that even the youngest readers can understand.

2. Nature without the capital ‘N’

Not every kid has access to capital ‘N’ Nature: kingfishers and otters and woodpeckers and whatnot. Oscar’s Tower of Flowers shows you can plant a seed in a yoghurt pot in a flat in a towerblock and notice your connection to nature. Just like that, nature is everywhere.

3. Inclusivity

Based on some (most) books you might think nature is for white middle class people. It’s a joy that Oscar’s Tower of Flowers shows a diverse range of people, all having their lives enriched by plants.

4. Community

Connecting with nature for self-care could seem individualistic, but not in Oscar’s Tower of Flowers. ‘Spot the difference’ illustrations inside the front and back covers show the whole community transformed, literally and figuratively growing together.

5. Activism

When Oscar’s flat is overrun with plants, he shares them with his neighbours. He doesn’t set up a plant sale and make a bit of pocket money for himself. He knocks on doors and gives plants away as gifts. The change he’s made at home spills out beyond the borders of his flat and changes the lives of others.

More utopian books for kids…

Utopian books for kids: Change Sings by Amanda Gorman

My son’s school have recently read Amanda Gorman’s Change Sings and written poems about the changes they want to see in the world. Their responses focused a lot on not dropping litter, keeping plastics out of the ocean and driving electric instead of petrol or diesel cars.

It’s sobering that we need to teach our kids they are inheriting a world that’s messed up and in need of a lot of change. But we also need to confront the magnitude of the changes they need to imagine, beyond doing the recycling.

Change Sings covers a much wider range of concerns than pollution, despite these not all being teased out at school. The student body is mostly white and affluent and presumably the kids were responding to the world they see around them, most obviously litter in the streets and cars on the roads.

To help my son see beyond his own experience and maybe understand Change Sings more deeply, my next book purchase for him is going to be Usborne’s lift the flap book What Is Racism?

Mr Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown

My personal interpretation of Mr. Tiger Goes Wild is it challenges the separation of culture and nature in Western ideology. Bear with me.

Mr. Tiger lives in a town house and wears formal attire, right up to the top hat. But he has wilder instincts he needs to express. He starts going about on all fours, roaring, and eventually takes off his clothes and swims in the fountain. His neighbours banish him to the wilderness.

However, his place isn’t in the wilderness either. He gets lonely and misses civilisation. So he comes back. And he finds that people in the town have wilded up a bit. Some animals do choose to go on all fours. Some aren’t fully clothed. Things are loosening up and he can be his own mix of wild and civilised.

There could be many other alternate readings of this book. Maybe it’s about someone who wants to express their gender or sexuality and still be accepted by their community. Perhaps it’s about neurodivergence and the struggle to flourish when you have a hard time fitting in with society’s ‘rules’. To me, it’s about the false separation of humanity and nature, and understanding ourselves best as a part of nature, not apart from it. Very eco-utopian.