Utopias and dystopias of the past tell us something about the present: they reveal hopes and fears surrounding decisions that led to the way things are now. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis [1927] is a socialist fable of this kind. It unfolds the story of a mechanical city that has forgotten its purpose. For its oppressed workers, the only solution and path to social harmony is an uprising, a casting off of shackles against Joh Fredersen, the Henry Ford –style ruler of the city.

Described as such, Metropolis is a pastiche of past ideology. For generations that have grown up accustomed to the ideological vacuum of the 90s and beyond, all this Marxist agitation appears spent in vain. Mass movements face an impenetrable wall of irony, and big ideas are dissolved with languid chuckles. We find the archaic and naive socialism boring. Yet, neither can social democracy, neofascism, global Jihad, nor anarchistic libertarianism shake us from our daily routine of learning about politics instead of embracing its values and beliefs. Irony, the art of making the possible impossible in a gesture, embeds the role that politics has in our lives.

We have discarded our naïvety, that is, our ability to imagine and become enthralled by alternatives, and I think that is boring. Despite the ongoing Arab Spring, despite the swaying Occupy movement, despite the death throes of pan-European identity and rise of the ultranationalist Right, the majority is unmoved. No evil conjured appears strong enough to break the veil. No tyrant, capitalist or fascist seems strong enough to challenge the paradigm of irony, the paradigm of being bored.

Although Metropolis is an apparent pastiche of Marxists and of Christian roots, there is really something more subtle in it. The machine city serves as a reminder of a great but tacit divide characterising 21st century Western politics. What used to be the duel between the Left and the Right is obsolete; instead, welcome a battle between naïvety and irony. There are those who invigorate our thinking with big ideas and maintain a naïve trust in politics. For them, utopias are necessary guides towards new worlds. And there are those who embrace irony to keep a wary distance from these fantasies. For them, ideologies retain their historical role in evoking mayhem and misery among mankind.

Wariness, indeed, is a legitimate rationale for irony. Philosopher Michael Oakeshott loathed ideologies because they simplified reality. These caricatures (as in caricare [it.], to charge or load), had too much potential to distort politics from its proper path of maintaining status quo by incremental adjustments. A racist fable had been used to justify horrors of the 20th century. Then, slaughtering a group of people was seen as a legitimate way to create solidarity and prosperity in another. The same pattern is visible now: hate-breeding ideologies are nurtured by the European xenophobic parties that feed on the ongoing financial crisis. The naïvety of simple explanations tempts us to embrace simple solutions.

While justified in his fear, Oakeshott disregards how imagining alternative futures happens only by playing mind-games with the present. Even if Metropolis is stuff that dreams are made on, it still draws us to ask: could our world really be like that? Naïve dreams remain necessary for humans to make sense of the social world around us – as well as to reimagine new ones. It doesn’t matter whether these dreams revolve around accumulation of wealth, protection of Gaia or our precious nation-states. Caricatures, pictures charged to exaggerate certain characteristics of reality have their value in reminding us that there are other options to discover. Those embracing naïvety might pay a price in clarity but are rewarded with opening of new horizons. Ideologies might skew our vision of what is, but open the world to imagining what could be.

Dreams must still serve a role in politics. And it is both sad and strange how today politics is a forum of undreaming. Here, as well, Metropolis proves useful by pointing to its roots, to the tragic success story of liberal democracies. The citizens of the machine city, those enjoying the results of blood and sweat spilled by the workers, remain bystanders as the social contract between workers and Joh Fredersen is enacted. Their role is to be absent. And this role is familiar indeed: distanced from the burdens of participation and blessed by more leisure and capacities for soul-searching, the citizens mistake their well-being separate from what happens in politics. Then and now, realising one’s individuality comes first; politics follow.

Reaching from the inter-war 1920s Metropolis reminds the 21st century of why irony has gained its role as an anti-ideology. Our chuckles are an escapist manoeuvre par excellence as we distance ourselves from visions threatening our individualist mode of self-expression. Politics is a boring task for rock climbers and other middle-class soul-searchers grown in material affluence. Although a plethora of writers, Milan Kundera outstandingly so, does well in pointing out the perils of ideas that cannot laugh at themselves, our generation craves for alternatives to create itself in a way that matters. Allowing naïvety back into politics is a way to tease these alternatives out.

For those of us who grew up looking in amusement towards the flag-waving of revolutionary Marxism, the imaginery in Metropolis is more distant than that of a sitcom. But its agonising naïvety is valuable in our times of discredited politics. Despite its much-proclaimed individualism, liberal democracy does not promote politics among its modes of self-expression. The Left shouts in the dark as it fails to catch up with globalisation. The Right chews its own tail by emphasising how markets offer the best way for self-expression. If our great decisions are done between these two, no wonder that an ironic laughter is the answer to the question: ‘what do you think of contemporary politics?’

Metropolis is a fable, and like all fables, a lesson. Politics needs more naïvety if it is to appear as a forum of alternatives. When too much is ‘boring’ in politics well-off individuals run away to other ways of self-expression. Yet, ‘raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison’, as Kundera puts it, remains the risk in facing these dreams without a smile; that is why serious legwork is in order on our quest towards naivety, towards reimagining our present in order to discover alternative futures.