Ed Graham reviews Fredric Jameson: ‘An American Utopia’

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If there was ever any doubt regarding Fredric Jameson’s eminence as a theoretician, the speculative force of recent works such as Valences of the Dialectic (2010) and Archaeologies of the Future (2007) surely elevate the American literary critic to something of a great philosophical mind for our times. His latest, arguably most audacious work to date, An American Utopia is both a continuation and culmination of years of incisive cultural analysis, yet is also unique in its formulation of concrete proposals for an alternative future, which he here outlines in the form of universal conscription, the immense socialization and democratization afforded by the universal army, a form of dual power that will, Jameson speculates, culminate in the withering away of money (and its accompanying pathologies), the state and politics as such.
AU’s positing of the army as the vehicle toward post-capitalism is of course controversial given the contemporary left’s typically anti-institutional bearing; as such it should, as Kathi Weeks argues, be regarded as much a provocative, defamiliarizing stylistic choice as it should for its literal content. Style has always played a significant role in Jameson both formally and in terms of content. As especially evident in the recent Valences and The Hegel Variations (2010), form and content are shown to be inseparable, Jameson’s idiosyncratic literary style shaping as well as reflecting his reformulation of dialectical method for the twenty-first century. In AU, Jameson creates a style that mirrors the utopian society he is sketching, one which is itself a kind of style. AU betrays a literary form productive for reigniting utopian thinking at a time when late-capitalism defines the boundaries of our political imagination (“It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”). For utopianism, Jameson argues, “is at one with this therapy of the anti-utopian” [1]; pitted against the ideology of cynicism, utopian writing itself is shown to be therapeutic in its dismantling of those inherent prejudices our current climate maintains against utopianism (e.g. charges of totalitarianism, naivety etc). But it is also, as his playful yet often challenging style reflects, a world necessarily defined by antagonism and ceaseless struggle. The dispelling of the idea of utopia as frictionless and harmonious, underscored by the emphasis he places on Lacanian psychoanalysis and the primacy of envy in such a world, is perhaps as important for Jameson as the dispelling of anti-utopian fears. So we have in AU the seemingly paradoxical imperative to at once imagine that which has been rendered impossible by our present system, and yet hold to the notion that that new world will be the same as this one, only just slightly different [2], a point that sheds further light on that impossibility afforded today.
Among the book’s accompanying essays, Frank Ruda provides a considered elaboration of the role of this category of impossibility, while Kim Stanley Robinson’s delightful short story not only nicely translates Jameson’s manifesto into fictional form but also provides a striking illustration of the stimulating potential of utopian writing. Jodi Dean’s piece contains the strongest critique of AU, attacking Jameson’s dismissal of political theory and arguing his unwillingness to engage with contemporary political struggles, sidestepping them in favour of the dualism of economic military base on the one hand, and cultural superstructure of mass enjoyment and group therapy on the other, merely “re-presents the eroded political of the contemporary United States back to us in utopian form” [3]. This is all the more curious for its arriving from a thinker committed to challenging “post-political”, “post-ideological” culture and theory for the best part of forty years.
But if today contemporary leftist electoral politics is emblematic of the fact that reformism is our utopia, as Alberto Toscano begins in arguably the best of the supplementary pieces, then the identification of an institutional embryo of a power other than the capitalist state channels political thought into perhaps more productive territories. Reframing Jameson’s proposal as “dual biopower” – “the collective attempt to appropriate politically aspects of social reproduction that state and capital have abandoned or rendered unbearably exclusionary” [4] – as well as situating historically the concept of dual power and the problems of its theorization, Toscano stresses, I think rightly, the significance of transition in AU. That is,
“not in the illusion that post-capitalism is really possible now, but as ways of rooting the need to undo capitalist relations in the real, if partial, experience of attempts to limit its powers and repurpose its (our) dead labors.” [5]
And yet Jameson’s speculations about possible routes and transitions out of capitalism do often tend to overshadow the practicality of his proposals. In that regard, his failure to grapple especially with those political concerns such as automation and the viability of goals of full employment dealt with in works such as Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism, the Xenofeminist Collective and Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future is disappointing. However, in the sense that it shares with those texts an unleashing of fresh imaginative stirrings, it is certainly not an unremarkable achievement.


Ed Graham is currently completing his MA in Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam. His research concerns the relationship between Marxism and culture.


[1] Fredric Jameson An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army. London: Verso, 2016, 55.
[2] Ibid. 82-3.
[3] Jodi Dean, “Dual Power Redux”, Ibid. 111.
[4] Alberto Toscano, “After October, Before February: Figures of Dual Power”, Ibid. 228.
[5] Ibid. 229.
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