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Utopia’s Settler Colonialism Problem

THE 1960s WAS a decade synonymous with revolutionary utopianism. From the widespread movements for decolonization that roiled Africa and Asia to the evolution of a Western counterculture movement that inspired thousands of well-educated, privileged youth to reject mainstream society and go off the grid, people throughout the world sought to create new worlds. While inhabitants of the colonized world were calling for freedom from an oppression that was highly visible, for white people who lived in the centers of empire, from London to Paris, from New York to Los Angeles, a more perplexing question arose: how do you “drop out” of a society that was, for all intents and purposes, created for you? Fed up with the tired routines of capitalist exploitation, white people in the First World quit their jobs or dropped out of college, left their families, and set out to find a new way of living, often describing this quest as motivated by the search for utopia free from the constraints of the capitalist-colonial world. For some, the answer was to seek enlightenment in the Third World, the post-colony, a space imbued with both anticolonial spirit and an element of the unknown. This often meant setting off for India, retracing the paths previously trod by European explorers seeking a similar uplift of spirit.

Utopia is, by definition, “nowhere,” while it is simultaneously “somewhere good.” In the words of Krishan Kumar, “to live in a world that cannot be but where one fervently wishes to be” is the “essence of utopia.” For Akash Kapur, the author of Better to Have Gone, the widely lauded new memoir about the intentional community in Southern India called Auroville, utopian projects, while necessarily imperfect and “unattainable,” are nevertheless a noble pursuit. The history of Auroville, as Kapur tells it, shows how a group of mostly well-intentioned Westerners arrived in Southern India, a space they viewed as “barren,” a “denuded plateau,” ready to breathe life into a land that was passively waiting to be populated. In the minds of these “pioneers,” colonialism was dead. Thus, they claimed, their arrival did not signal a new colonial regime but instead a move toward a future free of the past. The new inhabitants brought with them promises of revolutions in evolution — they aspired to create a living laboratory in which to develop future-oriented approaches to education, ecology, and spirituality. Much like the centuries of settlers before them who had arrived on Indigenous lands ready to start a new way of life, the people who came to this patch of land in Southern India in the 1960s and ’70s saw, as Kapur writes, “a moonscape: vacant, panoramic, the earth packed hard, and red from oxide in the soil. A fitting tabula rasa for the new world.”

It is perhaps unsurprising that the Westerners who came to Auroville so readily, and without any sense of reflection, employed settler-colonial language and narratives to justify their utopian quests. After all, the settlers were arriving from settler colonies: Australia, the United States, Canada, as well as from imperial states, including France, Spain, and the United Kingdom, that celebrated settler colonialism as a marker of modernity. The concept of terra nullius (or the associated term, tabula rasa) is central to narratives of utopian settlement and in international law, systems of thought that have justified the dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their lands. Ideas, no matter how good they may seem, have consequences when put into practice.

Despite the claims that settlers have made about the emptiness of land, the terrae nullius of yore were always filled with communities, peoples, and generations. Once you start looking, it’s not hard to find the settler-colonial practices that have driven, and continue to drive, utopian practices. First, building a utopia necessitates acquiring land and property. Acquiring property in a capitalist society, particularly if it is a lot of land in a space that is not familiar to you or your family, almost always involves dispossession. You may not be purchasing the land directly from those who have been dispossessed but in a settler society, the dispossessed are never very far away, even if your own narrative has convinced you they have already disappeared.

The commune movements of the 1960s, which spanned the globe but proliferated in settler-colonial countries, were often the result of white settlers who had lived mainstream lives “dropping out” of college, the workforce, and suburban nuclear-family life to “go back to the land” and rediscover a more “natural” life. These back-to-the-land movements simultaneously claimed that they wanted to detach from the decay of modern life wrought by technology and industry while also stating they would be able to “restore” land that had fallen into disarray. Communities like Wilderland (founded 1964) in New Zealand and New Buffalo Commune (founded 1967) in Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico, explicitly appropriated Indigenous ways of living and knowing without engaging with the political and material reality of Indigenous people in the present. This particular settler-colonial practice that envisions Indigenous peoples as existing and thriving only in a pre-colonial world is what scholar Juliana Hu Pegues calls “space-time colonialism.” In this formulation, the Indigenous peoples of the pre-colony are perpetually stuck in the stasis of the past.

Read entire article at Los Angeles Review of Books