2016 Battle of Ideas: the 500th anniversary of ‘Utopia’ shows the time is now to find a different vision of society

2016 Battle of Ideas: the 500th anniversary of ‘Utopia’ shows the time is now to find a different vision of society

Pagefield General

Pagefield is a proud partner of the Battle of Ideas – an annual festival of thought-provoking public debate organised by the Institute of Ideas in association with the Barbican. With one week to go until this year’s event Claire Fox, Director of the Institute of Ideas, reflects on a turbulent year and gives us a taste of what to expect.


2016 has certainly been a turbulent year. The stasis of recent decades has been replaced by a sense of unpredictability. For years, we were told the idea of substantive social change was old-style politics. Many lived under the shadow of Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ and Margaret Thatcher’s ‘There is no alternative’. This year’s events, from the Brexit vote to the Trump phenomenon, and European upheavals over everything from abortion to refugees, mean that the future direction of society feels open and contestable.

For too long, a change of government seemed to mean little more than changing the nameplates in the corridors of power. So the upsurge in political engagement in recent months has been thoroughly refreshing. That’s reflected in the programme for the Battle of Ideas festival, which will feature sessions discussing the American elections, a strand of debates to look at the state of the nation post-Brexit, and discussions on the prospects for the world economy. We will also look at international events like the attempted coup in Turkey, the soft coup in Brazil, the collapse of the ANC in South Africa and the increasing tension in and about Eastern Europe. It may be that, on the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia, there is a chance to argue over different future visions of society. There are alternatives, after all.

For many young people, this first taste of history unfolding may be as disorientating as it is exhilarating. Nowhere is that clearer than in the contemporary disputes about identity. Who we are is now a constant matter of dispute. Are we European or British? Are we defined by our ethnicity or nationality? Which of the 71 Facebook gender identities will we choose? It is important therefore that there are discussions reinstating the fact that all that matters is the subject of ideas espoused and not who is espousing them.

One way in which this obsession with identity has asserted itself has been over claims of ‘cultural appropriation’ – the idea that it is wrong for people from one cultural background to take up ideas associated with another. We reject that idea. We recognise that the development of religion, philosophy, science, the arts and technology is the cumulative outcome of communities borrowing or copying aspects of the cultures they encounter. Let’s make a virtue of ‘stealing’ ideas, and show we are prepared to transcend our own cultural ghettos.

The Battle of Ideas encourages an audience of free-thinkers; inquisitive and opinionated attendees prepared to challenge and be challenged. If you ready to leave the comfort of the echo chamber, I look forward to seeing you at the Barbican on 22 and 23 October.

Claire Fox, Director, Institute of Ideas


Tickets can be purchased here