Friday, 25 July 2008

Fantasy Islands

By Mark Featherstone

As a sociologist of utopias, currently engaged in surveying Zygmunt Bauman’s work on liquidity and globalisation, I was interested to read Oliver Burkeman’s ‘Fantasy Islands’ article in last week’s Guardian. I can only imagine that if Bauman himself had read the article he would have found further evidence of the reality of liquid modernity in Burkeman’s examples of fantastic utopias built to travel the world’s oceans. How else can we interpret tall tales of floating cities but as materialisations of the very trends that Bauman discusses in his work on the global elites who surf through life and try to avoid any contract or relationship that might tie them down for any length of time?

Burkeman’s article tells the story of the fantastic freedom ship, and of Norman Nixon, the CEO of Freedom Ship Inc, the company which proposes to build this floating city capable of housing 60,000 people. If we bracket out knowledge of Bauman’s old socialist critique of the liquid society for a moment, the obvious utopianism of the freedom ship resides in the way in which it engages with fears of climate change, flooding, and the watery world that may await us in the 21st century. Imagine if climate change caused various global cities, such as New York and London, to flood. For the rich inhabitants of these now no-man’s lands, freedom ship style utopias would offer the perfect escape route. What is more, the inhabitants of these new utopias would never have to worry about further floods, since the point of the freedom ship is that it is water-born. Although this catastrophic scenario cannot fail to put one in mind of various cinematic dystopias, such as Kevin Costner’s Mad Max update Waterworld, it is too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the freedom ship simply trades off mythological fears of biblical floods. On the contrary, the idea of the freedom ship as eco-topia speaks to the very real fear of flood present in the post-Katrina world. In the case of the New Orleans catastrophe what separated the haves from the have nots was the ability to flee to higher ground. Is this not exactly what the freedom ship promises those rich enough to buy a residential unit on board?

Burkeman suggests that this is the case because he relates his discussion of Nixon’s freedom ship to the case of Harvard School students Kiduck Kim and Christian Stayner who proposed a similar solution to possible future flooding of New Orleans. According to the Harvard Grads, the best way to prevent a future Katrina-style catastrophe would be to transform New Orleans into a floating city. Although we should, of course, support such utopian schemes, regardless of how unlikely they are to ever materialise, we have to wonder who exactly would make it on-board the floating city, since it is unlikely that the new construction would be able to carry the entire population of the landed city, even though that population has decreased by almost 60% since the deluge in August 2005. Again, we approach the other side of the floating eco-topias or fantasy islands Burkeman discusses, which is that these places are also libertarian utopias, where the rich have no social responsibility for the poor, and do not have to bother thinking about their neighbours. Moreover, it is not only that the new eco-topias have no need for taxation, but that they also avoid the messy side effects of leaving the poor to rot which continue to plague landed cities – think rising crime, enormous incarceration rates, and neighbourhoods characterised by fear and insecurity - by simply barring the poor access to the ship in the first place. A world without the poor – the rich man’s dream, even if it is probably the capitalist’s worst nightmare.

But before rightists leap to the conclusion that the new eco-topias could potentially kill two birds with one stone by offering to solve the problem of eco-catastrophe and social dis-order, let us consider Burkeman’s final example, New Utopia, which resides somewhere in the Caribbean, but has its head office in Florida. According to Burkeman this fantasy islands, ruled over by self-proclaimed aristocrat Prince Lazarus Long, has been investigated by the American Security and Exchange Commission and declared a fraudulent internet scheme set on exploiting those rich and stupid enough to think they can buy their way out of the messy reality of human society.

However, regardless of whether the various fantasy islands Burkeman discusses are fraudulent schemes or honest fantasies, they rely on the naivety of their potential inhabitants in the important respect that it is not possible for anybody to escape responsibility for other people in the age of globalisation where we are all so completely inter-connected. Bauman makes this point in many of his books – the radical inter-relatedness of everybody under conditions of globalisation means that we are all responsible for everybody else and that this enormous responsibility is precisely what generates the fantasy of escape in not only the world’s selfish individuals, but also everybody else who cannot but be responsible for the miseries of the global poor. This is why, even if Burkeman’s utopias become material reality, concrete examples of the selfish individualism Bauman talks about in his books on the liquid society, they will always remain nothing more than fantasy islands.

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