Friday, September 02, 2016

And is it utopia we seek?

'Utopia',  a word coined in Greek by Sir Thomas More for his 1516 book Utopia, describing a fictional island society in the Atlantic Ocean. The word comes from the Greek: οὐ ("not") and τόπος ("place") and means "no-place".

Plenty of people seem to have had a recipe for the kind of place it should be. Writing in The Times today, Philip Collins, a senior adornment to the Labour Party, deploys his customary literary erudition.
"Imagine a nation where all 54 cities were identical and all private houses were exactly alike. Citizens change house every decade to ward off feelings of possession. Adults have no choice over their workplace; all are conscripted into the fields and children are raised in orphanages.

"All are considered equal and nobody is poor but everyone must wear the common habit, and cloaks are of one colour. This picture of the perfect society, from Thomas More’s Utopia, is 500 years old."
Collins sees a disturbing link between utopian political projects and rather dystopian outcomes.
"The recurring nonsense in utopian thought is that perfection comes too easily. Sometimes a traveller discovers the ideal commonwealth in the new world, as in Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis. Sometimes, like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, the hero simply dreams the ideal world into being. The title of one of HG Wells’s dreary utopias summarises the trick: When The Sleeper Wakes.

"The other utopian technique is to hand the creative task over to a preternaturally brilliant elite. For Plato it was the philosopher-king and for Saint-Simon a standing army of industrialists. In later utopias, scientists take the role once occupied by priests; in BF Skinner’s Walden Two, the psychologists are in command, conditioning perfect people. The elite puts people into neat tailored uniforms. It’s a short step from there to having Big Brother watching you.

"William Morris, in News From Nowhere, captures the attitude of all utopian writers: “we have no need of politics”. In a land where all desires have been satisfied there is no poverty and no conflict. People are willing to give up personal liberty because the enlightened despots in charge understand what they really want."
Where is Collins going with this? A modest bait-and-switch. He wants to extract a standard, rather subsidiary objective of all utopias, the ending of poverty, and rescue that as a laudable political project.
"That dismissal of scarcity might seem the archetypal utopian fantasy. In fact, it is not. It is exactly the kind of practical, achievable aim that democratic politics in a rich country should be setting itself.

"On Tuesday, after four years of study, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation will launch a campaign to eradicate poverty in the UK. The JRF’s specific aims are to ensure that nobody is ever destitute, that fewer than one in ten Britons are poor at any time and that nobody remains poor for longer than two years. The redeeming feature of utopian thought was always the critique it offered of the status quo and the JRF is utopian only in that sense.

"This is a prosperous country and the existence of poverty on its present scale is shaming. A child born into a poor family will have a lower birth weight than a child born to a rich family. By the age of three, the cognitive development of a child born into a poor family is already well behind its richer peers. The gap opens during school and is confirmed in work.

"Life for so many people is constant anxiety. There are 2.3 million households, in which 1.5 million children live, that cannot afford to heat their homes. The duration of life itself has a price. The child from a poor family is likely to enjoy nine years less of life than his or her richer counterpart."
Parenthetically we see here the standard denial on the left of genetics, the reassuring but false conviction that everything is environmental so with Government social engineering, all outcomes can be made identical, blah blah blah.

Still, many phenotypical traits are environmental to some extent and certainly do need fixing. This would be some combination of increasing the productive forces (aka 'growth') and some optimised welfare redistribution. Just don't expect equality of outcome - Usain Bolt still gets to win.


Let's raise our eyes a little. The best people are in politics because nothing short of utopia will do as a strategic objective. They understand that utopia is not a place, nor a well-defined social regime. It is the maturing society's ability to remove the social shackles and limits on individual lives, letting everyone flourish in their own unique way.

It's been said before:
"From each according to his ability, to each according to his need."

Now, I could finish on this modestly optimistic note, but that would be to beg some questions.

  • How do we determine what needs are reasonable?
  • How do we deal with negative externalities - conflicting needs?
  • What about really bad people?

Did the great left-wing visionaries really expect there would be no funding committees and policemen in utopia? Are enlightened 'despots' policing modern social norms so distressing?

If we agree to stop the modern denial of human nature, then we have to take human nature into account. Is utopia a kind of hunter-gatherer paradise where free luxurious cuisine replaces roots and berries, and hi-tech VR systems substitute for mammoth-hunting expeditions?

Is this our destination?

I only ask.


Not to leave you with a dangling question, my answer is yes and no. Those on welfare today who lounge around rather than self-improve (yes, they do exist) won't be going away. We collectively get richer - and their 'free' entertainments get more exotic and compelling. If it works for them ...

All those people who want to push the narrative forwards, in arts and sciences and technology and self-improvement and exploring the universe. Well, those challenges aren't going anywhere either.

Short of dramatic genetic self-modification (physically/mentally) at which point all bets seem to be off, this seems a plausible future, building on trends we see today. The question remains: do we get there within the capitalist mode of production or does that have to get superseded en route?

Heteconomist has a thoughtful piece on this very topic.

I'll be writing about it in a post to come, provisionally titled, "Marxist Economics of Total Automation".