Ethnographer Kristen Ghodsee: ‘We are too tired to have an imagination’

The American researcher publishes ‘Everyday Utopia,’ a book in which she explores alternative models of coexistence to shake up the established way of life

Kristen Ghodsee
Kristen Ghodsee, professor of Russian and Eastern European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book 'Everyday Utopia.'ELENA HMELEVA
Jessica Mouzo

There is life beyond the exhausted monogamous couple with two children to raise, isolated in a modest middle-class single-family home, living a precarious existence. There are other possible worlds, and even better ones. You just have to dream them, says American ethnographer Kristen Ghodsee, 53. The professor of Russian and Eastern European studies at the University of Pennsylvania has just published Everyday Utopia, a round trip through the last two millennia of human history in search of other ways of living together that teach us how to live better. “This is not a self-help book about making yourself happier. This is a book about understanding that people, other human beings, made the world the way the world is today and that we collectively can make the world the way that it will be in the future,” she says in a videoconference conversation.

Ghodsee explores projects for change that shake up the established way of life. And she reminds us that today’s world is full of realities that were once utopian dreams: divorce, for example, was once a crazy idea; so was public schooling, too. Jesus Christ was a utopian dreamer and Buddha was another. The ethnographer argues that is not strange or far-fetched to daydream. And in these times, she says, it is even necessary.

Question: Why do we need utopias?

Answer. I think the thing that utopian visions do for us is they shake us out of the status quo. They shake us out of thinking that the world as we live in it today is fixed, that it can’t change. And it’s the dreamers, it’s the utopians who are able to move us forward. So utopian visions give us ideas about how our lives can be different. Utopia is an incredibly productive concept for us to think about different ways of living in the world.

Q. What are some examples of utopian demands that can become reality in the future?

A. Free universal solar power. The sun gives us an incredible amount of energy for free, if we [have] the photovoltaic panels to capture it and use it. Now, there are a lot of economic interests that are opposed to free photovoltaic panels for everybody, because a huge place where profits are generated would disappear, and a lot of people would probably lose a lot of money. But we could literally eliminate the need for fossil fuel and electricity generation of certain types (in countries where there is abundant sun, like Spain, for instance), if we had this idea that electricity, that solar power is just a right of citizenship, right? Your government gives you solar panels, you collect your energy, you have your battery, you do it. Similarly, I think living in larger families that are not necessarily our blood related kin, like living with people who are our chosen families, living with friends, neighbors, colleagues, comrades, whatever. It feels really radical right now, but it’s actually not that radical at all. We’ve done it in the past. I think it’s a change that would be very natural.

Q. Do utopias have haters?

A. Utopians always have haters. The reason that utopians always have haters is because they challenge people with wealth and privilege. In the case of Jesus Christ, he was challenging the Roman Empire. In the case of Buddha, he was challenging the traditional Hindu caste system. In the case of people like Marx and Engels, they were challenging bourgeois authority and capitalism. Utopians are often dreaming of ways of being in the world that are going to undermine the structural systems that underpin the wealth and privilege of a particular elite. And of course, those elites are going to fight back. So, yes, I would say that if you are a very rich white man living in the United States, utopia is not a good thing for you.

Q. If you’re Donald Trump, for example.

A. If you’re Donald Trump, or Mark Zuckerberg, or Elon Musk, utopia is not going to be your cup of tea. You’re going to fight utopia as much as you can. But for ordinary people, for those of us who are living in the world that Elon Musk and Donald Trump are trying to create, utopia is the only way that we are going to be able to work together to imagine a better future beyond the Donald Trumps and Elon Musks of the world.

Patriarchy is a system that evolved to allow for extreme inequalities in society to be sustainable over time.”

Q. What does a better world look like?

A. I want to think about the collective answer… A better world is that the human race survives on the planet. Right now, in 2024, we are facing some very serious problems. The climate crisis is obviously one of them. We’re also facing a pandemic of loneliness and social isolation. People are extremely lonely. People are extremely, extremely anxious and fascist-type governments, fascist-type leaders, are preying upon people’s loneliness and isolation. So, we have to deal with the loneliness and isolation. We’re also dealing with extreme inequality. We also have a crisis of care. We feel isolated and lonely, and we are not able to care for each other. We don’t have the resources anymore to care for each other. And then the final thing is this question about technology, AI, robots, automation. We are facing five really big existential crises right now. So, for me, when I’m talking about a particular set of utopian visions of how we live our private lives, everything about those recommendations [is] about making sure that human beings are still on the planet, surviving and thriving in the next 300 or 400 years. But also, I think on an individual level, the most important factor in determining whether or not you live a happy, healthy life is your relationships with other people. So, any utopian visions of the future that are going to care about the human race and are going to care about our individual health and well-being are going to be visions that promote cooperation and connection over competition and isolation. And so when I’m talking about a good life, I’m talking about creating happy, healthy, sustainable communities in the long run.

Q. In the book you review various alternatives for living together and delve into the effect of what you call “the two Ps”: patrilocality and patrilineality. Is patriarchy everyone’s great enemy?

A. Yes. Patriarchy in our modern world works very well together with capitalism, and it creates a set of family relations that allow for two things: one, it allows for the intergenerational transfer of wealth and privilege from fathers to their legitimate children. So it exacerbates inequality and it prevents us from sharing. But secondly, and more importantly, from a feminist point of view, is that patriarchy creates a world in which the bearing and raising of the next generation of taxpayers and consumers and citizens is done for free, largely by women in the private sphere. And so capitalism benefits, capitalism needs workers and it needs consumers, but it doesn’t want to pay for them. I believe very strongly that patriarchy is a system that evolved to allow for extreme inequalities in society to be sustainable over time.

Q. Explain remote utopian experiments and more established ones in the current system, such as co-living. Isn’t this model a type of hidden capitalist protection for precariousness?

A. Right now, in this moment, I think that co-living, co-housing, sharing property is a way for precarious people to survive in a cruel economic system that is creating a bigger and bigger and bigger underclass. But I also believe that those ways of being in the world create solidarities among people that are ultimately going to be very dangerous for that economic system, and that it’s these cross-class possibilities. Co-living is kind of a scam to get poor people or poor young people to live together, because they can’t afford big houses. It’s for the people who benefit from capitalism in the long run, it’s dangerous because it’s teaching young, precarious people that there are other ways of being in the world, which will ultimately undermine the system that they’re trying to preserve.

Q. Are we slaves to the importance we attach to single-family housing?

A. I think so. We have a very limited view of what it means to be a successful person, and what it means to be a successful person, especially a young person, is to have your own place. So, for many young people, there’s this sort of fantasy of the single-family home. So, we’re constantly shopping in order to maintain this ideal of the single-family home [and] the single-family car… and all of our privately owned stuff. And that is really, really, really good for capitalism and really, really bad for the planet and really, really bad for our social relationships with each other.

Kristen Ghodsee
Ghodsee argues that 'utopians always have haters because they challenge people with wealth and privilege.' ELENA HMELEVA

Q. You say that loneliness weakens our physical and mental health, but we still aspire to have our own private homes. Are we masochists?

A. No, no, we’re not masochists. We are people who live with a natural tendency and desire to have social status. We want to be loved and we want to be admired. We want to be thought of as successful. If we have our own single-family homes, it’s a symbol of success. So, we’re doing it not because we want to isolate ourselves from each other. And what we need to do is really think about where that norm comes from and how to change that norm. And so the idea that we have one normal, natural way of living in family, of living in community, is stupid and ahistorical and completely against the anthropological record.

Q. You argue for shared parenting beyond the nuclear family, but you admit reticence about this model. Is the mother-child bond idealized?

A. Obviously, yes. If you’re a woman and you are nursing, you have milk. It’s really disturbing to realize that your milk will come at the cry of any baby, not just your own. I’m not saying that attachment theory isn’t real. I believe babies absolutely need lots of physical touch and attention, and it can be devastating for babies who are not touched and loved and cuddled and don’t get to look at human faces, but I don’t think it necessarily has to be the mother. Many, many mothers die in childbirth. If the mother-child bond [were] irreplaceable, we would die out as a species. I do think that it is extremely idealized, overemphasized. And it’s overemphasized because patriarchy and capitalism requires women to do all of this labor of raising children for free. They don’t want to pay them. They don’t want to socialize this labor. So, the best way to get women to do this work is to say, oh you’re doing it because of love. The idealization of motherhood is a way of getting women to not demand compensation or recognition for the very important social reproductive labor that they’re doing in the home.

Q. Throughout history, utopian alternatives have failed. Does it make sense to be afraid of utopia?

A. In my definition, utopia is never a place that you go. It is never an end point. Utopia always has to be moving forward. It has to be changing and it has to be dynamic. What we know from history is any utopia that becomes fixed, any utopia that says this is the way that you live very quickly becomes a dystopia. For utopia to work, you must always imagine that it can and will be dynamic and changing. To the extent that I say you should be afraid of utopia, it’s when somebody comes and tells you: “Hey, I figured it all out. Here’s how we’re going to do it. And it’s never going to change.” That is not a utopia; that is a disaster waiting to happen.

The idealization of motherhood is a way of getting women to not demand compensation or recognition for the very important social reproductive labor that they’re doing in the home.”

Q. Do we lack time to think of alternative futures?

A. Yes. Most of us do. Absolutely. We are really tired, and I hear this. Now I have done an international book tour. I’m really fascinated by the fact that it’s young people and old people who are the most open-minded, so people over 60 and people under 25. They’re really, really, really excited about the book. Everybody in the middle, they’re too damn tired to think about it. And I think it’s because young people and older people have time. They have time to read. They have time to daydream. They have time to imagine. For those of us in the sandwich years, you know, [the years in] between, it’s very, very hard. It is extremely difficult to find time to just sit and daydream about how you might make your life a better experience. You were just trying to survive from day to day. And I find that really sad. Most of us are too tired to have an imagination.

Q. You propose a militant optimism. How do we achieve that?

A. Hope is an emotion. But hope is also a cognitive capacity, right? It is the opposite of memory. You are able to imagine yourself in the future in a way that gives you agency to realize that future. When I say militant optimism, when I say radical hope, what I mean is a belief that you as an individual, as yourself and your community, that you have a responsibility and the capacity to change the future, and that is a political commitment. It’s not an attitude change. It’s not an emotional state. It is a political commitment to the future. And the way that you cultivate that political commitment is by sharing it with others, by sharing the possibility of change. But everything that you do, you have to make a political commitment to making the world the way you want to see it, the way you think it will be better. And when I talk about militant optimism, I literally mean militant in the sense that I refuse to let people tell me that the world is unchangeable.

I refuse to let people tell me that my own individual anxiety and fear and feelings of helplessness are not a structural problem, that they’re just something wrong with my brain, and I should take a pill to make it go away. This is a crisis of mental health. My feelings of despair are a structural problem, and they require structural solutions. Instead of giving in to that fear, use that fear to make a political decision, to reject it, and to use it to build a better future. It is a moral commitment to the future, to be a militant optimist. It’s about believing that today we can make the future that we want to see.

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