It’s time to return to utopian thinking.
We need a new lodestar, a new map of the world that once again includes a distant, uncharted continent – “Utopia.” By this I don’t mean the rigid blueprints that utopian fanatics try to shove down our throats with their theocracies or their five-year plans – they only subordinate real people to fervent dreams. Consider this: The word utopia means both “good place” and “no place.” What we need are alternative horizons that spark the imagination. And I do mean horizons in the plural; conflicting utopias are the lifeblood of democracy, after all.
As always, our utopia will start small. The foundations of what we today call civilization were laid long ago by dreamers who marched to the beat of their own drummers. The Spanish monk Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484–1566) advocated equality between colonists and the native inhabitants of Latin America, and attempted to found a colony in which everyone received a comfortable living. The factory owner Robert Owen (1771–1858) championed the emancipation of English workers and ran a successful cotton mill where employees were paid a fair wage and corporal punishment was prohibited. And the philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806–73) even believed that women and men were equals. (This might also have had something to do with the fact that his wife composed half his oeuvre.)
One thing is certain, however: Without all those wide-eyed dreamers down through the ages, we would all still be poor, hungry, dirty, afraid, stupid, sick, and ugly. Without utopia, we are lost. Not that the present is bad; on the contrary. However, it is bleak, if we have no hope of anything better. “Man needs, for his happiness, not only the enjoyment of this or that, but hope and enterprise and change,” the British philosopher Bertrand Russell once wrote. Elsewhere he continued, “It is not a finished Utopia that we ought to desire, but a world where imagination and hope are alive and active.”
London, May 2009 – An experiment is under way. Its subjects: thirteen homeless men. They are veterans of the street. Some have been sleeping on the cold pavement of the Square Mile, Europe’s financial center, for going on forty years. Between the police expenses, court costs, and social services, these thirteen troublemakers have racked up a bill estimated at £400,000 ($650,000) or more. Per year.
The strain on city services and local charities is too great for things to go on this way. So Broadway, a London-based aid organization, makes a radical decision: From now on, the city’s thirteen consummate drifters will be getting VIP treatment. It’s adiós to the daily helpings of food stamps, soup kitchens, and shelters. They’re getting a drastic and instantaneous bailout.
From now on, these rough sleepers will receive free money.
To be exact, they’re getting £3,000 in spending money, and they don’t have to do a thing in return. How they spend it is up to them. They can opt to make use of an advisor if they’d like – or not. There are no strings attached, no questions to trip them up.
The only thing they’re asked is: What do you think you need?