Utopia, Eutopia, Labor Relations Sci Fi and Bernie and Biden’s Task Force

It has taken me many years to get all these things to show up in the front yard at the same time. That includes the sign.

83,000 dead in the US; none in Vietnam.

The figures from Vietnam are credible; they’ve been subjected to a lot of international scrutiny and people agree that they’re good.

Moving right along: All of America on one stage, celebrating, circa 1943

This is from a book by Robert McCloskey. You may recognize the hand of the artist. He wrote and illustrated the famous book about the ducklings who stopped traffic in Boston, Make Way for the Ducklings. There are bronze statues of the ducklings on the Boston Common right now; their heads are shiny bright from being patted by kids.

This double page spread of a pageant on a platform at a county fair is what “America” was supposed to look like in 1943. 1943 was in the period of the Popular Front effort by the left, a shift that took place all over Europe and in the US. It meant, let’s all get together and beat fascism. In the name of unity, conflicts about socialism and Communism and capitalism were set aside and members of the organized left joined with mainstream political organizations, including the Democratic Party.

There is nothing a quick internet search says about whether McCloskey was intentionally, consciously, part of that shift in any way, but this drawing, from Homer Price,is a fully worked out dissertation on how America could come together. McCloskey was in the Army at the time he wrote Homer Price; when he got out, he and his family moved to an island in Maine where he lived for the rest of his life.

This picture is an example of Utopian thinking — in this case, Utopian art. Every group is represented: Native Americans (played by skinny boys in costume); African Americans (singing gospel music, not exactly on the stage but at least present); women (mom, daughter, part of a family); pioneers (men with guns), and it’s all led by a tubby preacher explaining Manifest Destiny to the county fair crowd, possibly out of a Bible. It’s very hierarchical; nothing about equality going on here, but everyone is at least there, making up a celebration of America, like family gathering when nobody fights. Everyone is on the same platform (more or less). Not like today, right?

Everyone on the same platform and Utopia

Which leads me to the broader idea of Utopia.  The first syllable of “u-topia” could be mean “u’” or “eu” in Greek, so the word could mean either no-place (a place that doesn’t exist or couldn’t exist) or a good place, with “eu” meaning “good”, as in “euphemism” – meaning a polite way to say something that isn’t polite.  So utopian thinking – or utopian method, as some of my CHAT discussion groups are framing it – can mean either thinking about good or bad alternatives to something, not just things that can’t or won’t happen. Thus the Utopian method would be trying out something to see if it worked – a curriculum, a school setting, a housing experiment – and then studying it (that’s the method part) to see what makes it work and what ultimately weakens, fragments, or destroys it. 

This kind of thinking is especially important for social movements because we have to be constantly thinking ahead, trying to figure out what forces are going to be in play tomorrow, next week, next year, and how we can pull out of this moment (whether it’s the pandemic or not) a possible future that will come closest over time to what we think a decent world looks like.

The presence of Utopian thinking activities right in our neighborhood

Right now on the ap NextDoor there is a lively conversation going on about closing or not closing the broad shopping street in our Berkeley, California, neighborhood.  It has many restaurants on it and a good number of small shops. With everything except take-out shut down since March, those shops are going broke. Someone put up the idea of closing the street to traffic and letting the shops do sidewalk vending, including putting tables out so that people could sit social-distanced in the street and eat. The hailstorm of pros and cons that ensued on the list is amazing.  People are really interested in either doing it or not doing it, and have a whole chaos of ideas pro and con. It’s a brainstorm, but no one is taking it the next step (yet) into a strategic planning design. In order to do that, you’d need to do some utopian thinking – what if we did this? What would happen? Another word for this is “thought experiment.”  Of course, in the real world (in a city planning department, for example) you’d quickly get computer models for traffic flow, shadow patterns, drainage, time tables for refuse pick up, etc. What does refuse pickup have to do with utopian thinking?

Utopian Sci Fi

In utopian literature, things like refuse pickup, traffic flow and disability access are the very things that form the bulk of the paragraphs. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2140, where Manhattan is flooded to the second floor by the rising Atlantic Ocean, he talks about parking, growing food, the role of banking and real estate. In Ursula LeGuin’s Birthday of the World, she talks about what early sex education is like if you have a floating gender situation like some amphibians. In Liu Cixin’s Supernova Era,he talks about how you train the next generation to run the world if you have only a few months to do it because by then, everyone over age 13 will be dead (due to an interstellar event worth reading about for its own sake). The role in this played by American kids makes this book something I’d assign as required reading.

My point here is that people, these “utopian writers” are not just fluff. They have thought this stuff through, worked out the relationships. Like Robert McCloskey who decided to draw a picture that showed how America could get everyone on stage at the same time, and made some choices that hurt the heart today, there will be places in the utopian story or the picture where, by trying to work with the hard rules of reality, you negotiate some compromises. But that’s part of the utopian method: you see not just how far into the future you can take the characters in the story, you also watch to see where you have to start chopping off their limbs to fit the vision onto the bed of Procrustes. That’s hard work, hard thinking.  Better to practice doing it mentally before trying it in real life.

Utopian thinking and employment relations

https://paydayreport.com/covid-19-strike-wave-interactive-map/ shows over 200 strikes since the beginning of March. Someone wants things to be different! What are they asking for? What is their vision? Are they hoping for a raise, or PPE, or do they want to really transform their jobs?

An argument for having people who are studying labor issues read science fiction during the pandemic is to encourage us to think not just in terms of how this pandemic has increased the use of Zoom and given us quiet streets, low air pollution, really good take-out, but also how it has changed employment relationships. I’m not just talking about the lucky few who can work from home. I mean, for example, the  garbage workers in New Orleans who have been on strike for 4 days now. According to an article posted on Portside, they’re striking to get better PPE (everything they handle is infected, they say).  They make $10.25 per hour.  They have now been replaced by prisoners who make 13% of that.  That’s an employment relationship — under coolie conditions – coerced labor!  It’s not one we want, but it’s a different one.  There is no end of creativity going on these days in the world of employment relations! Plenty of people are dreaming up ways to extract more value from the labor of other people. We need to be thinking about what alternative employment relations (conditions of work) look like that are good. That’s utopian thinking. 

Maybe someone is thinking ahead. Wouldn’t that be great?

Apparently Bernie and Biden have agreed on a joint task force. This is good news. Most of the people I talk with just sigh when they think about Biden’s chances of winning in November: he’ll lose, period, no matter how bad Trump is, because Biden just isn’t ….well, someone you’d want to put much effort into. He’s described as “hiding in his basement.” I’m sure he has a regular house to live in; so why do people talk about him hiding in the basement? That’s become a cliche, but it expresses a feeling.

But this task force makes it look as if the Democratic Party is realizing that they can’t win without Bernie’s campaign.

Here’s who is on this task force, according to Elly Nilsen who writes for Vox:

Biden’s picks:

  • Former Secretary of State John Kerry, task force co-chair
  • Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL), chair of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis
  • Kerry Duggan, former deputy director for policy to Vice President Biden
  • Former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy
  • Rep. Donald McEachin (D-VA), member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and co-founder of the United for Climate and Environmental Justice Congressional Task Force

Sanders’s picks:

  • Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), task force co-chair and co-author of the Green New Deal resolution
  • Varshini Prakash, co-founder of youth activist group Sunrise Movement
  • Catherine Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice

Criminal Justice Reform

Sanders’s picks:

  • Chiraag Bains, task force co-chair and director of legal strategies at progressive think tank Demos
  • Stacey Walker, supervisor in Linn County, Iowa, and Iowa co-chair of Sanders’s campaign
  • Civil rights attorney and South Carolina state Rep. Justin Bamberg

Biden’s picks:

  • Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), task force co-chair and chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor
  • Tennessee state Sen. Raumesh Akbari, chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus in Tennessee
  • Vanita Gupta, former acting assistant attorney general
  • Former Attorney General Eric Holder
  • Biden campaign adviser Symone Sanders


Sanders’s picks:

  • Sara Nelson, task force co-chair and president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA
  • Stephanie Kelton, professor of economics and public policy at Stony Brook University and an expert on modern monetary theory
  • Darrick Hamilton, economic professor at Ohio State University whose work focuses on income inequality and socioeconomic stratification

Biden’s picks:

  • Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), task force co-chair and current chair of the Congressional Black Caucus
  • Jared Bernstein, former chief economist and economic adviser to Vice President Biden
  • Ben Harris, former chief economist and chief economic adviser to Vice President Biden
  • Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees
  • Sonal Shah, policy director for Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 presidential campaign


Sanders’s picks:

  • Heather Gautney, task force co-chair and Sanders policy adviser
  • Alejandro Adler, Center for Sustainable Development, Columbia University
  • Hirokazu Yoshikawa, New York University professor

Biden’s picks:

  • Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), task force co-chair and former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus
  • Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association
  • Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers
  • Maggie Thompson, former executive director of Generation Progress
  • Christie Vilsack, literacy advocate

Health Care

Sanders’s picks:

  • Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), task force co-chair, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and author of the House’s Medicare-for-All bill
  • Dr. Donald Berwick, former director of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services
  • Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, former Michigan gubernatorial candidate in 2018 and single-payer advocate

Biden’s picks:

  • Former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, task force co-chair
  • Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union
  • New York University professor Sherry Glied, who served in the Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration
  • Chris Jennings, former health care policy adviser during the Obama administration
  • Rep. Robin Kelly (D-IL), who sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee


Sanders’s picks:

  • Marielena Hincapié, task force co-chair and executive director of the National Immigration Law Center
  • Marisa Franco, director of progressive Latinx group Mijente
  • Javier Valdés, co-executive director of progressive immigration group Make the Road

Biden’s picks:

  • Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), task force co-chair and an original co-author of the Dream Act
  • Cristóbal Alex, Biden campaign adviser
  • Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-TX)
  • Juan Gonzalez, adviser to Vice President Biden
  • Nevada Lt. Gov. Kate Marshall

This came via Portside from Ella Nilson on Vox: Ella Nilsen covers Congress and the Democrats for Vox. Before coming to Vox, she worked at the Concord Monitor newspaper in New Hampshire, where she covered Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the 2016 primary. 

Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

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