Opinion Jan24 2018, London

Constant’s ‘New Babylon’ – The Limitations of Utopian Freedom

‘The project of New Babylon only intends to give the minimum conditions for a behaviour that must remain as free as possible. Any restriction of the freedom of movement, any limitation with regard to the creation of mood and atmosphere, has to be avoided. Everything has to remain possible, all is to happen, the environment has to be created by the activity of life, and not inversely’. – Constant Nieuwenhuys

The Dutch artist and Situationist Constant Nieuwenhuys began envisioning the project of New Babylon in 1956 after a stay in London. The city led him to focus on architecture and urbanization and how art has the ability to intensify day-to-day life. New Babylon is an anti-capitalist vision of the future, and although capitalism had changed since the initial writings of Marx, his sentiments can be found in this piece of work. Land is owned collectively, labour is automated and the inhabitants of this future become a new type of human: ‘homo ludens’ (men at play). In contrast to the highly structured economy, the creative expression that would replace current day to day chores would be, as the quote above states, as ‘free as possible’, while restriction of expression ‘has to be avoided’. Thus, art would no longer imitate life in its creations, since life itself would become art.

Although the idea of absolute freedom of thought and creativity sounds idyllic, it is also a double gesture in the sense that arguably there would remain certain desires and expectations for what “life as art” and “creativity” would entail, as found in current social movements. This suggests that this freedom would in practice be somewhat limited. Furthermore, for important thinkers such as philosopher Slavoj Žižek, what we desire does not give us happiness; for Žižek, happiness is an ‘unethical category’ that is effectively irrelevant to our pursuits. So, to consider this in the light of Constant’s New Babylon, it poses the problem that the ‘men at play’, who desire to create art only through living circumstances, would no longer gain a source of happiness from their creativity. In this futuristic vision, art, freedom and happiness would once have been a distant fantasy of desire, but the following immersion of one’s self into creativity would leave no space for humanity to be ‘ready to suffer’. Žižek suggests suffering shows self and creative realisation, and so, without this gap, would art, literature or freedom be a source of validation or happiness anymore?

Although Constant eventually sold his construction to Gemeentemuseum in The Hague after his exhibition there (he did not have enough space to house his work), he said ‘it is safely stored away . . . waiting for more favourable times when it will once again arouse interest among future urban designers’. Although his idea of utopia was never fully realised, there are living situations today that uphold similar intentions.

Promotional image from the WeLive website – residents can request cleaning on demand and receive alerts for the days activities through the company’s app.

‘Co-living’ accommodation such as ‘WeLive’ is one example, with apartments situated in New York and Washington DC, where inhabitants may stay for as long as they please with only a private room to worry about. The communal living, dining and bathroom facilities are all catered with necessities and cleaned by a team of staff. The co-founder of this organization believes that as people we ‘are meant to live in groups’ – however, with paid staff dealing with utility ‘inconveniences’ it suggests that the happiness gained from living in a private yet communal space is one that lacks creative substance, and one that is partly created by the exploitation of others. If we consider these spaces in the light ofConstant’s vision – the happiness that he wanted to come through lifestyle and not from outward sources like these convenience-based companies – they seem to jeopardise the creativity and growth of the individual. Instead of addressing the issue as to why these people feel uncomfortable being alone or the reasons why people struggle to find living situations, especially as young working adults, such an attitude almost encourages stagnation economically and politically. It is a choice of comfort over upheaval.