Stories of Europe: The Death of Dystopia, by Giuseppe Porcaro 
In 2019, the European Cultural Foundation celebrated its 65th anniversary. We did so with hosting a special edition of our Princess Margriet Award ceremony and by publishing a bookazine on how events in Europe shaped us and how we helped shape events in Europe. We publish a few excerpts from the book – which is available as a free download.
Giuseppe Porcaro is a political geographer and science fiction novelist based in Brussels. In his novel Disco Sour, as well as in his podcast Europarama, he explores alternative futures for Europe. For his piece ‘The Death of Dystopia’, he picks up some of the Foundation’s seminal interrogations of the future to then imagine his very own ‘Europe 2158’, fuelled by multiple, rhizomatic imaginaries for a European tomorrow.
The Death of Dystopia
I have always been fascinated by the architecture of international exhibitions of the past. They represent the closest we can get to a time-machine. We experience, touch, smell that specific version of the future a society had in a given moment. That is why, during sunny days, I often like to wander around the former site of the Universal Exhibition of 1958 in Brussels. What intrigues me, more than the massive size of the still-standing Atomium, are sparse relics of the ephemeral pavilions. Sitting on the grass where they used to stand, I imagine what they looked like.
Once I discovered the site where the pavilion of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) used to stand. Nothing stands there anymore, but it was the first-ever mass-culture display of the European ‘community’ to the world. I got curious. It was a palace built out of glass, with the ceiling and the façade suspended by six powerful steel columns which looked like gigantic levers. It was built to symbolise the new concept of supranationality, which was going to be the impulse for a new prosperity and a common European future.
Archeology of the future
The pavilion was evidence for the faith that the newly born community had in the future, and a testimony to the unwavering conviction that only through the solidarity and the union of the European peoples would they be able to ensure and maintain peace, civil liberties, the well-being of its people, its prestige and influence in the world. It was not just architecture. It was a statement for a utopian political programme.
In this period, political scientists, philosophers, social scientists had all such a programmatic approach. During the same year of the Brussels Expo, the European Cultural Foundation commissioned Fred Polak, one of the fathers of future studies, to draft a working plan for the future of European culture. Similar to the steel columns of the ECSC pavilion, Polak sketched pillars and criteria to prepare the transition from the present and restore a constructive belief in the future. We were just after the World War II. The past was a source of anxiety, but the future was a blank sheet. Atomic energy and a new humanity would have saved Europe, and the world.
But universal expos were discontinued in the 1970s for two decades; Osaka in 1970 staged a Cold War-infused swan song to space era optimism. The future started to be doomed. Soylent Green, the movie from 1973, showed a gigantic corporation owning the only source of affordable food, in a classic dystopian formula mixing environmental catastrophe and political dystopia. The remake of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) reinforced psychological paranoia. Silent Running (1972) displayed a spaceship carrying the remainders of our environmentally destroyed planet’s botanical life. And the coloured future of the Expo 58 became a faded brochure sitting in a dusty old Volkswagen left in an abandoned modernist parking lot because of the oil crisis.
The consciousness of the limits to progress bound by the depletion of natural resources and financial mess, gave space to ecological and post-apocalyptic imaginations. Social movements and protests revealed that fragmentation could completely shatter the social order and the linear evolution that previous futuristic representations had in common.
The Europe of the 2000s sketched for the European Cultural Foundation by Peter Hall in 1977, in the book Europe 2000, balanced out visions of the future with the complexity of social and environmental challenges. He would look at the past, noting that “just as to the bourgeoisie of Europe of the years immediately before 1914 seemed a golden age, so the wide strata of society may come to regard the 1960s as the apogee of a certain kind of civilization.” I judge that statement is more revealing than any of his predictions. There is a seed of an epochal switch. From the idea that the future can be planned, to powerlessness towards shaping the world to come. And a prophetic hint of the current political idealisation of the past.
Fast forward to the 1990s, the fall of the Berlin Wall led to the unification of Europe, but also to theories that posited the end of history. The ‘no future’ narrative spread also to the political elites that once were pushing for a bright and brave new world. In 1994, for its 40th Anniversary, the European Cultural Foundation asked 140 public figures to express their hopes and anxiety for Europe. And some statements struck me for their realism, yet pessimism. Karla Peijs, a Dutch politician at the time, wrote, “the cohesion in our European Union will fall apart as a consequence of the fact that we seem to be unable to give to each citizen a feeling that he or she is responsible for society”. Miriam Hederman O’Brien, an Irish academic, stated, “Democracy will become so discredited in the minds of our people that it will lose their allegiance and other, more intolerant political cultures will fill the vacuum.”
And those are just a few examples of the mood of the day. The list could easily go on up to the present. Europe seems to be breathing an environment where dystopia is a component of everyday life, intellectual cynicism characterises critical thinking, and the only future that we seem to be able to imagine, is an extension of the present. But worse. As Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi has pointed out, the idea of a non-existent future has become a condition of thought.
If this writing would be the script of a science fiction novel, the anti-climax to the opening of the pavilion of the European Coal and Steel Community at Expo 58 would be a random polling station in the centre of Cambrai, North department, France. Here, on 29 May 2005, more than 70% of the voters turned down the idea of a Constitution for the European Union. The last ambitious attempt to inject a dose of utopia into the European project. From there on, I have the impression that all that Europe has been able to dream of, in order to survive, has been to lock itself into an everlasting present.
Europe needs imagination
Do we need to resign ourselves to the idea that our continent has no future, a dystopic one, or that at best it will keep its status quo? If intellectuals and politicians alike seem to be torn between critical cynicism and populist celebrations of the past, then culture, and specifically fiction, can help to revive the imagination about Europe’s future.
I have been flirting with the idea that science fiction can help to explore multiple narratives for the future of Europe and that storytelling is a tool to recreate spaces for a ‘European’ imagination. Despite an archeology of the future that reads almost like an RIP memorial, I strongly believe that the future of the continent is not a one-way direction. And that our own choices in the present will still determine our future.
Even if Europe has a longstanding tradition when it comes to speculative and science fiction, both in the West and in the East, we rarely find ‘Europe’ as a setting in mainstream books, movies and pop culture, Eurovision song contest and champions’ league set aside, obviously. The discourse about Europe and its future seem to have been mainly connected to the domain of the political and the academic reflection.
Seen in this light, I consider science fiction as a political activism tool. And I don’t refer to ‘political’ to steer towards a specific party line, but to re-engage with the concept of future as a reflection of the political action in the present. That is why I embarked on a journey, speaking with dozens of writers, artists, and science fiction geeks from everywhere in Europe with the objective to pull off a collection of European futures.
Stitching several conversations, mixing them in an improbable smoothie of imaginative elements that may or may not happen, what will those possible Europe’s futures, let’s say in a hundred years or more, look like?
Utopia and dystopia holding hands. Because as Margaret Atwood said once, “better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some.” One thing is certain, if you were hoping for a ‘Back to the Future’ scenario, you might be disappointed. There will be no flying cars (well perhaps flying drones delivering products, which is happening already).
The cities, the apartment blocks, the schools and the offices will all smell the resins of the living trees they would be built of. A new source of clean energy will be discovered by the European Energy Agency, saving the planet from global warming. But social unrest will follow, as part of a reaction for the loss of many jobs, before the era of robots will be fully implemented and people won’t have to work anymore. Almost a Star Trek like post-scarcity scenario. We would enter a world where we would have a more intimate relation with computers, getting rid of interfaces and algorithms. The end of the internet as we know it. The European capital would move to the East. Budapest will be the new Brussels, and Brussels becomes the hell-hole of Europe. The place where, if you still want to use a polluting car you would settle, but you would never be able to come out of the gigantic traffic jam around its ring road, which would very much look like Dante’s Inferno. And we will go to the moon again, from the rocket launch base of Valletta, Malta. And there will be colonies on outer space, privately owned by the remainder of the royal families of Europe. And so on.
The scientific plausibility of such exercises is not as important as for the futurists’ attempts included in the planning exercises of the 20th century. Fiction is not prediction, but it can make people free to imagine again alternative futures. Also, it allows satire of the current situation, which links it up directly to the tradition of utopian writing from Thomas More onwards.
But perhaps, the most interesting thing in using storytelling as a tool, compared to the programmatic approach of the past, is that here the futures are described in the plural, are open ended and contingent. The need to multiply our visions for the future is more than a circumstantial exercise and should involve the wider citizenry. It’s a call to work on the very essence of our European imagination, including its emotional appeal.
If fiction can be used as a tool to allow Europeans to re-appropriate their futures within storytelling, utopia can be the method to spread these to the rest of society. I like the idea of utopia as something that is born from the lack of an ideal situation. As we are not in an ideal situation, I believe we very much need utopias to free us from the vicious circle of ‘no future’. But it’s a different approach than the utopianism of the members of the High Authority of the European Coal and Steel Community back in 1958.
Ernst Bloch saw utopian thinking as governing everything future-oriented in life and culture. This differs from seeing utopia as a programme, which relates to a totality, and can be implemented only through a closed system that can easily slip into absolutism. Bloch urged us to see utopia as an impulse, an allegorical process in which various utopian figures seep into the daily life of things and people.
With such an impulse re-starting from fictional imaginations, I would like to attempt to understand the way our possible futures could grow and unfold. People who do a lot of gardening probably know what ‘rhizome’ is in botanical terms. It is a kind of plant that pops out of the ground over an expanding area, giving the impression that many separate plants are emerging in close proximity to one another, but in fact these ostensibly individual ‘plants’ are parts of one big plant, and are interconnected under the ground. It has a distinct philosophical meaning, too, which is associated with the famous French duo, Felix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze.
In Deleuze and Guattari’s work ‘rhizome’ is roughly the philosophical counterpart of the botanical term, suggesting that many things in the world are rhizomes, or rhizomatically interconnected, although such connections are not always visible. Animals or insects that live symbiotically appear to be an obvious example, such as the little birds that clean crocodiles’ teeth when these reptiles bask in the sun with their huge jaws open: instead of eating the birds, the crocodiles let them feed on the bits of meat, etc., between their teeth – their teeth are cleaned, and the birds are fed, in this way forming a rhizome. After all, when one sees them separately, few people would guess that their species-economy is rhizomatically conjoined.
I would like to imagine a Europe in 2158 like a beautiful and coloured rhizome flower, where traditions, instead of nations are interconnected, where binary definitions are not able to explain connections within diversity, where various different futures may continue to unfold unpredictably. And I want to officially declare the death of dystopia.