Q. What can be discovered about a society through the hopes and dreams of its members?

A. Everything.

Human beings are dreamers, seers, believers. We weave our world as much through words and ideas as the material things with which we anchor ourselves.

So it is that the nature of our hopes will make the nature of our society transparent. From hopes dreams are born, and from dreams, ideas which hold infinite potential. Hope is like a seed which puts out roots exploring for water - that is, dreams and ideas.

From these roots grow the trunk of a tree as the ideas are tested, acted upon and brought to life. The leaves and fruit of this tree become the completion and harvest of the idea.

The seeds of the fruit begin the process once more as new ideas resulting from the first. Hope is an evolutionary process which gives a society the capacity for change.

It is easy enough to apply this to our own lived experience. Our environment is in a mess; as a society we know it and we are taking baby steps to rectify it in the face of an overwhelming culture of consumerism and waste. We could not begin to evolve beyond that culture without hope for a better future.

To speak of hope in the face of mundane realism often means to be considered idealistic. Idealism is marginalised in what Ernst Bloch calls “a declining old society(4).” Western societies, perhaps in the face of this decline, are, Bloch claims, “confronted with fear of hope(4).”

To fear hope is to make misery acceptable and dysfunction normal. To fear hope is to fear change, to be static in that misery and dysfunction.

Against the backdrop of such thought, Zipes asks,

How can one speak about hope and utopia when
millions of people are unemployed in Germany and
when violent xenophobia has erupted, not only in
Germany, but throughout most of Europe?(3)

How indeed then can one think of hope and utopia in our own times, when our air, water and food are filled with toxic chemicals, wars are fought over the fuel that drives our society, consumerism consumes us and every resource the planet has to offer with it?

In our communities misery and dysfunction appear not only to be acceptable states of mind for the individual, they have their own subcultures. Goth, punk and emo are the ones the mainstream would point to as expressions of this; but then there are millions of mainstream people reliant on anti-depressants and the myriad distractions from real life provided by the media machine, who are just as dysfunctional. Meanwhile, idealism has no acceptable place in rational thought or the “real” world, because, well, it's not depressing enough.

In view of this phenomenon, such a society as ours might be considered dystopic. Repression both invisible and tangible exists throughout the world in varying degrees, from the mass media instruction in which things you should buy to be “individual," to violence acted out on the body in wartorn places. The anxieties that creep up on the individual, from focused fears about war and terrorism, to less tangible questions about our place in the scheme of things, may at times appear to define us as individuals and communities. The individual may find the complexity of the systems which govern the world confusing or overwhelming, giving rise to paranoia.

Paranoia is a part of the process whereby the individual becomes aware of that which is going on around him. The projection of internal fears onto some kind of higher power, be it the Gods’ or the Government, is one way of testing the knowledges of the individual’s society. Bloch refers to paranoiac projects as “fiery owls of a crazy Minerva who nevertheless wants to glimmer with red dawn(93).”

This suggests an excess of creative energy working through unconventional means towards a significant end; the overactive imagination of a conspiracy theorist, or a fiction writer, suggesting possibilities that had until then lain shrouded in darkness. As a product of dystopian conditions, paranoia is very much a utopian process in that it creates ways forward outside of what is conventional and acceptable.

Bloch, writing in the equally dystopic conditions of world wars and depressions, defines hope as an active, positive quality which broadens rather than limits people(3). Anxiety and repression are not the end of all things. If we deny hope in the face of them, then we “presuppose a closed world(8),” or static systems of knowledge where nothing is put to the test; in other words, fundamentalism, whether of religion, ideology or tradition.

If these anxieties and repressions are tested, whether as systems of knowledge or mere conventions, then the individual is capable of discovering in which way and why her society is dystopic. Problem areas cannot be identified until acceptable things are tested and questioned. DDT, for example, was the best pesticide on earth until Rachel Carson started questioning the disappearance of wildlife in its wake.

It is within anxiety and paranoia that the potential for utopian thought lies, for without these qualities, it is possible that there could be no inspiration for the thoughts and ideas that spark change. This is where hope becomes a seed of change, for “thinking means venturing beyond(Bloch 4).”

Where thinking about why a society is not working leads to hope or an idea for change, then the thinker is venturing into new territory and becoming a part of a process of societal evolution. Bloch writes that daydreaming, one of his major avenues for imagining what is new and better, is without moral, social, or ethical constraint(90-1).

Anxiety and repression typify these restraints in everyday life. They are the restraints with which we are taught to conform, be normal, not stand out. The act of being free of them in daydreams reveals them as essentially a socially constructed state of mind(85) rather than a “natural” one. Leaving them behind frees the dreamer to imagine a better social system.

Hope is the defining principle of utopian thought, that which “is in love with success rather than failure(3).” Anxiety and repression would only be capable of confining people, making them accept failure as an inevitability, if those people had no hope. With hope, anxieties and paranoia can be used to signal areas in need of change, allowing the individual to broaden herself by exploring the possibilities for change.

Hope is an evolutionary process, a seed of thought that once fertilised and grown has unlimited potential. Every single action that every individual takes keeps the world constantly growing and changing form in the search for some kind of equilibrium. Without hope, we are passive and static. With hope, for better or worse, we are creatures of evolution.


Bloch, Ernst. The Principle of Hope. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986.
Zipes, Jack. “Traces of Hope: The Non-synchronicity of Ernst Bloch.” Not Yet:
Reconsidering Ernst Bloch. Ed. Jamie Owen Daniel and Tom Moylan.
Verso: New York, 1997. 1 – 12.