It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m in the old stone building belonging to the Victorian Spiritualist Union. The service is taking place in an upstairs hall, where the walls are decorated with rows of framed paintings and manuscripts, all of them produced by the dead. At the front, there’s a church organ and a lectern, and a small stage with chairs for platform workers: The mediums who, now that the service has concluded, are providing a physical demonstration of communication with spirits.
“I see a woman standing behind you. She’s big, a big woman. I’m getting the name Tania,” says the dark-haired woman in her thirties. She has a strong Australian accent, and she’s addressing the man sitting two rows in front of me. “Or Vanya. Does that mean anything to you?”
He looks confused and then shakes his head.
“It’s cloudy,” she says. “But she’s saying something about money. There’s paperwork involved. Do you know what she’s talking about?”
This time, he nods, once, and then more enthusiastically, and she beams in reply.
It’s a hit and miss process, this talking with the dead.
I first became fascinated with Melbourne’s Spiritualist tradition about a decade ago. Back then, I was working on a history of the city’s political radicalism, and was startled by the role Spiritualists played in the formation of the Australian Left.
Spiritualism – the notion that the living can commune with the dead via mediums – reached Australia in the 1860s. Perverse though it seems today, this hokum once appealed as a kind of rationalism, since the doctrines of Spiritualism came not from scripture but were “discovered” during séances, a procedure analogous to the experimentation of the natural sciences. Also, in comparison to most institutions of the time, Spiritualism was democratic; anyone with a parlor and a few friends could stage their own séances.
The group of nineteenth-century Spiritualists whom I dropped in on traces its roots back to 1870 and a much older séance performing crew, the Victorian Association of Progressive Spiritualists (VAPS). “Spiritualists,” explained one modern-day member, “are thorough progressionists, and have decided to throw to the winds all old foolish ideas, creeds and dogmas and to free themselves at once from the iron grasp of priestcraft.”
Not all Spiritualists were activists, but their skepticism about authorities, religious ones in particular, and the status quo in general brought them into contact with an eclectic proto-Left, in which middle-class faddists rubbed shoulders with various socialists, anarchists and labor leaders. That’s why a certain famed nineteenth century Aussie lefty, George Manns, saw no incompatibility between serving as secretary for the VAPS and playing the same role for the Democratic Association of Victoria (DAV), the Melbourne affiliate to Karl Marx’s famous International Workingman’s Association. In 1872, Spiritualists and DAV members even pooled resources for a “Co-operative Association,” a utopian socialist and Spiritualist commune.
Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, the VAPS successful established what it called “Spiritualist lyceums” – basically, schools in which they taught their own progressive curriculum, drawing on the ideas of the utopian socialist Robert Owen. In contrast to the rote learning of traditionalists, Owen’s “New Lanark” communes emphasized that children would develop best if given space for creativity. To this, the lyceums added their own distinctive touch, assuring pupils that they were also being tutored by the disembodied teachers from the spirit world.
Members of the lyceums included Monty Miller, later a prominent agitator for the Industrial Workers of the World, and the socialist poet Bernard O’Dowd, as well as Alfred Deakin, a man who later became our second Prime Minister. Australia might, in fact, lay claim to be the only modern nation to have been led by a person who wrote an entire utopian tract (The New Pilgrim’s Progress) dictated by a ghost (the spirit of John Bunyan, who wrote a precursor, The Pilgrim’s Progress, as a living writer and preacher in 1678). Under normal circumstances, all of this might have seemed merely divertingly nutty. But I began reading about early Spiritualism back in 2000, just as the global anti-corporate movement peaked in Australia, and that tinged my research with a different complexion.
The most important anti-corporate protest of 2000 took place in Melbourne, when the S11 mobilization drew 20,000 protesters in a successful blockade of the World Economic Forum. S11 was memorable in all sorts of ways, not least because it was violently attacked by the police. Most importantly, it represented a break from the decades-old pragmatism that had previously dominated the Left. Margaret Thatcher had famously declared that there was no alternative to capitalism, a statement that marked a long right-wing ascendency. Now, for the first time I could remember, thousands of people marched together declaring that another world was possible.
Was this utopian?
S11, and the anti-corporate movement generally, sparked considerable discussion about the meaning of utopia – and that led me to rethink the politics of Melbourne’s past. The Spiritualists who convened here more than a hundred years ago, like us, were also convinced of the possibility of a better world. The mysterious realm from which the spirits spoke provided them with a contrast against which everyday society could be critiqued. That’s precisely why so many of them were also socialists.
When S11 ended, I went back to Engels’ classic discussion of utopianism, which includes a forensic demolition of the Owenite socialism that so influenced the Australian spiritualists, and I was struck by how sympathetic his tone was.
“We can leave it to the literary small fry,” he writes, “to solemnly quibble over these phantasies, which today only make us smile, and to crow over the superiority of their own bald reasoning, as compared with such ‘insanity.’ For ourselves, we delight in the stupendously grand thoughts and germs of thought that everywhere break out through their phantastic covering, and to which these Philistines are blind.”
Wasn’t that part of what made the anti-corporate movement so exciting – its willingness, once more, to engage in “stupendously grand thoughts” rather than workaday pragmatism?
Utopianism is usually dismissed as impractical, as a matter of wooly-headed theorizing counterposed to practical politics. But that’s quite wrong. Actually, nineteenth century utopianism appealed for precisely the opposite reason. Utopian novels like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward sold hundreds of thousands of copies in Australia because its depiction of a better world seemed so palpable. “How many times have I felt at a loss to explain the working of a co-operative commonwealth,” explained the activist John Daniel Fitzgerald in a letter to editor William Lane (who was serializing the book). “Now I have only to say, read Looking Backward,” he wrote.
No, the real problem with utopianism is not that it’s impractical so much that it’s ahistorical. Utopianism offers a vision that’s as arbitrary as it is wondrous, since it bears no particular relationship with the society that currently exists. Utopianism contrasts the unhappy present with a beautiful future; it doesn’t show how one emerges from the other.
In Australia, perhaps more than elsewhere, the anti-corporate movement proved short-lived. Exactly a year after the S11 protest, the 9/11 terrorist attacks signaled the arrival of an era in which the politics of fear extinguished the politics of hope. With the onset of the war on terror, I lost interest in the utopian roots of the Melbourne Left until very recently, when what Janet Albrechtsen, the right-wing columnist for Murdoch’s Australian newspaper, called “our very own Occupy malcontents in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane” emerged on the scene.
Last year, when Occupy arrived in Australia, with 4,000 people marching in Melbourne, Albrechtsen’s response was typical of the right-wing press. She described the protests as “a UN-style sleep-out, with talk about general assemblies, communiqués and consensus, endless platitudes about utopia, meaningless diatribes and no clear aims.”
Platitudes about utopia? Was this, then, a return of utopian politics?
Albrechtsen’s observation that the demonstrators possessed “no clear aims” illustrated how, in one sense, Occupy was quite different from nineteenth century utopianism. Fitzgerald hailed Looking Backward precisely because it was so detailed, providing all sorts of insights and guidelines on how to live and how to resist. The Occupy protesters lacked any comparable blueprint.
In Australia, as elsewhere, the demonstrations were shaped, not from a manifesto, but by a series of reversals of neoliberal norms, reversals dictated by the circumstances of the protests themselves. Thus, while the free market exists as an invisible abstraction, an occupying camp is exceedingly concrete, a visible presence at a particular location over a particular time. Instead of competition, a mass protest depends upon cooperation; instead of individuality, it relies upon collectivity. Wall Street, both as an idea and an institution, necessitates hierarchies and disciplines; an occupation stresses equality and consensus. Where market traders maintain a strict demarcation between leisure and work, the occupiers merge both in protests that are simultaneously deadly serious and self-consciously humorous.
“Clear aims” might have been lacking but the protests represented a rejection of the economic order, an unambiguous negation of neoliberalism. And, as the Russian theorist Mikhail Bahktin argues, “that which stands behind negation is by no means nothingness but the ‘other side’ of that which is denied, the carnivalesque upside down.”
In other words, when The New York Times dubbed OWS a “hapless carnival,” it was exactly correct.
“[A]ll were considered equal during carnival,” Bakhtin explains. “Here, in the town square, a special form of free and familiar contact reigned among people who were usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, profession and age. […] People were, so to speak, reborn for new, purely human relations. These truly human relations were not only a fruit of imagination or abstract thought; they were experienced. The utopian ideal and the realistic merged in this carnival experience, unique of its kind. This temporary suspension, both ideal and real, of hierarchical rank created during carnival time a special type of communication impossible in everyday life.”
Anyone involved in Occupy will know what he means by that “special type of communication”: the feeling that, right there and right then, the extraordinary is happening.
Through the experience of demonstrating, protesters become able to better imagine the world for which they were fighting. If there was a utopian element to the movement, it was, as Bakhtin says, one that merged with the realistic. Where nineteenth century spiritualists invoked ghosts to describe the society they wanted, the occupiers found in their occupations the “utopian ideal” necessary to make a different future seem real.
The point should be immediately qualified before it is misunderstood. It’s not that the Occupy Movement saw the Treasury Gardens in Melbourne or Zuccotti Park in New York as the literal embodiment of a new society. Their “cooperative commonwealth” did not consist of a few tents and some drummers. Rather, the protests themselves made visible what was at stake in the protests, and thus provided the setting in which the “stupendously grand thoughts” that Engels so celebrated once more became possible. Just like the anti-corporate movement a decade earlier, Occupy allowed the Left to broaden its vision, to live radically again.
When the anti-capitalist philosopher Slavoj Žižek spoke at Occupy Wall Street, he warned protesters against falling in love with themselves and their achievement. “Carnivals come cheap,” he said, “the true test of their worth is what remains the day after, how our normal daily life will be changed. Fall in love with hard and patient work – we are the beginning, not the end.”
Žižek’s caution is well-taken, particularly here in Australia, where a mining boom means that the country has so far escaped the worst of the global downturn, and the results of the local Occupy campaigns from October to December were patchy at best.
This was in part due to lullaby of prosperity and to the repressive policing protestors faced: In particular, the camp in Melbourne, (where a female protestor was stripped in public by police), was savagely dispersed by a hundred or more officers. The over-the-top violence served, as was no doubt intended, to dispel enthusiasm, with numbers in the other major cities, Sydney, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane, dropping sharply as it became clear that any encampments would be brutally wiped out.
The “germs of thought” within utopianism are easily rooted out. The progressive sentiment within nineteenth century Spiritualism gave way, almost at once, to out-and-out crankery, and the radicals who continued to play an important role in the later Left only did so by breaking ruthlessly with the chicanery upon which Spiritualism was based. But if movements like Occupy are utopian in the sense that they implicitly contrast the way the world is and the way the world could be, they’re not disconnected from history, because they emerge from the negation of a specific authority at a specific moment.
A decade ago, protests like S11 raised the slogan “Another world is possible.” That was an implicit riposte to the neoliberal claim that “There is No Alternative,” but it also stemmed directly from the nature of demonstrations, held outside meetings of technocrats and financiers who were settling the fate of the planet at the summits like the WEF.
The Occupy cry “We are the 99%” arose in a different context. Where the anti-corporate rallies often involved protesters from wealthy countries taking a stand about poverty in the third world, the Occupy slogan acknowledged the massive inequality within industrialized nations. It reflected, in other words, an important development from the movement of ten years earlier, a shift in emphasis to the internal dynamics of society, in a way that already hinted at a particular strategic orientation.
Occupy’s rhetorical focus on the difference between the many and the few does not, in itself, constitute an adequate class analysis but it does suggest a new generation grappling, almost despite itself, with the same issues confronted by the Left of the past, issues that many blithely assumed were no longer relevant. How should the 99% percent relate to the 1%? Can some one percenters be won over? If not, what form should the struggle against them take?
Those issues – and many others like them – flow quite naturally from Occupy’s basic premise. Which is not to diminish the need for the hard work Žižek advocates so much as to suggest that the struggle itself raises the questions that need to be solved.
The heft and solidity of the building in central Melbourne where the Victorian Spiritualist Union meets hints at the movement’s grand past, but the service I attended was, in many ways, depressing – a small gathering of New Agers enthralled by the risible antics of parlour mediums, less convincing than those you see on TV. In particular, the gathering lacked any sense of the “stupendously grand” – in place of an ectoplasmic utopia, the presenters merely offered the stale maxims you’d find in any church.
If anything, the spirits seemed more drearily pragmatic than the living, concerned less with social transformation than chatty advice about careers and family budgets, almost as if neoliberalism now dominated the afterlife, too.
The utopianism of the nineteenth century is no longer an option. The dead will not solve the problems bedeviling the living. Instead, the Occupy movement illustrates how, today, carnivalesque political engagement with reality can rekindle the imaginative possibilities that were once the province of Spiritualist fantasy.