The Un-Topia, Part 1

If we’re going to talk about visions of a better world, there’s no better place to start than the one vision that has almost completely consumed the ideology of the Western world.

We don’t generally think of it as a “utopian vision,” which is partly because it’s so damn pervasive — we have trouble understanding it as a distinct ideological construction in the same way that fish have trouble understanding water — but also because it’s not like other utopian visions.  It is the null vision, the explicit absence of a plan, the pointed refusal to design a better world from the top down.

People are different, and they want different things.  Why should anyone tell them what to do or how to live?  Why should anyone even try to push them in any particular direction?  That kind of centralized planning can only elide important distinctions and trample crucial subtleties.  Let us make those decisions for ourselves.  Let each of us, individually, determine how to live the good life — no one can do it for us.  The world that we end up building, when we all choose what we want, will be better than any theorist’s or engineer’s design. 

This is not the same as ordinary non-utopian thinking.  Lots of people, for reasons of pragmatism or cynicism or whatever, aren’t especially concerned with making things capital-B Better; lots of people who are trying to make things better believe that this is best pursued in an incremental or grounded way.  But even when we make grandiose plans for improvement, even when we’re dealing in hopeful futurities, we tend to reach for that kind of distributed-choice model rather than taking it upon ourselves to imagine something that fulfills our values.  We have a near-monomaniac focus on measures that will strengthen human autonomy, rather than on anything that will encourage particular life outcomes.  And when I say “we,” I am referring to the central channel of our collective society, the elite-dominated but widespread thoughtstream that speaks through our political speeches and our most popular stories, the zeitgeist that can talk about our highest ideals and aspirations in a way that doesn’t sound idiosyncratic or sectarian.

It’s the logical, necessary endpoint of classical liberalism.  I suspect that it grows out of the same giant overarching thought structure that gave us basic classical economics and basic evolutionary theory.  We now understand in our bones that complexes of input/output rules can autonomously create emergent products, and that such products are often beautiful and effective.  Indeed, in many ways they’re resistant to failure, while mere mortal genius fails more often than not.  Our collective brilliance couldn’t come close to designing a human, it’s barely able to design the simplest virus, but the blind idiot god of evolution cranks us out with no trouble.  Our attempts to plan economies have been disasters, while markets have pretty good track records overall.  Why should we trust anyone’s vision for our utopia?  Let it arise naturally from the system.

You can see it everywhere, once you look.  You can see it in the way we talk about “fulfillment” and “success,” individually-defined concepts that they are, as our ultimate values.  You can see it in the way we flinch away from pushing people towards any particular life paths, even the life paths we most purport to admire.  Most of all you can see it in the way our society-improvement schemes are totally obsessed with wealth — growing wealth, maximizing wealth, spreading wealth around in the best way — to the exclusion of virtually anything else (except, maybe, for basic medical well-being).  Money is the thing that doesn’t require us to make any choices for anyone, even implicitly or indirectly.  People with money can spend it however they want, and pursue whatever values they think best.

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It’s worth talking a little more about the role of money in this classical liberal un-topian thinking, because that will help connect it to the various active political philosophies on which it grows.

The naive version of the un-topian philosophy — the basic pure-anarchist version, the version that says “just let people do whatever they want and things will work out for the best” — isn’t very popular.  The pitfalls are too obvious and too pronounced.  Notably, in the pure-anarchist world some people invariably choose to exercise their free choice by becoming bandits and warlords, who go around forcibly restricting the choices of others (often in especially unpleasant ways).

So un-topians tend to conjure up large powerful public institutions, Hobbesian leviathans, charged with defending us from each other and thereby safeguarding our greater freedoms.  There are a couple of models for this.  Both of them use money as the vehicle for state-sponsored liberty.

The libertarian model posits a blinkered state with a monomaniacal focus on establishing and defending property rights.  The idea is that we use public coercion to eliminate private coercion — or, at least, private coercion that manifests in certain directly-coercive ways — and otherwise leave everything to unfold naturally.  Ensure that money works, and let individual agents spend it how they will; they will spend it to build the things they want, and thereby construct paradise piece by piece.  If every interaction is freely entered into by all parties, then every interaction should be an improvement on the status quo, a step towards the ideal world.

(I should point out here that, as far as I can tell, libertarianism isn’t usually constructed as a utopian philosophy at all.  Its proponents are most often cynical-minded pragmatists of a “this is how we make the best of an inescapably hard and limited world” stripe, and when they’re not that they’re usually deontic thinkers who care more about the sacredness of property than they do about overall outcomes.  But there are definitely libertarian utopians out there, and my impression is that they use something similar to the logic I’ve outlined above.)

The other model, the left-liberal model, posits that no one can make truly free choices without a certain level of material security and comfort.  Because those things are so fundamentally important to such an overwhelming proportion of people, anyone who doesn’t have them or can’t count on them is fundamentally under the power of anyone who can offer them.  So it is that power dynamics allow those people to get pulled into arrangements that are not genuinely free and are overall bad for the world (or at least markedly sub-optimal).

The solution is to have the state ensure, directly, that everyone has enough resources.  Which probably entails coercively redistributing money away from the people who have tons and towards everyone else, or at least towards the people who have the least.

There’s serious debate over much money is “enough” for redistributive purposes — how much material support people need before we can count them as being free.  Some left-liberal utopians think that the equivalent of a contemporary Universal Basic Income, a resource floor that keeps people out of starvation and homelessness, is good enough.  Others don’t think that the system works until we have a post-scarcity universal aristocracy where we’re all living in luxury with no strings attached.  But whatever your answer, in a structural sense, the imagined outcome is the same.  Liberated from the need to knuckle under to anyone, armed with state-guaranteed “fuck you money,” the people of the world can finally pursue whatever choices they find truly beneficial.  And so, emergently, they create the un-topia.  Whatever that looks like.

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It’s probably clear by this point that I consider the “un-topian model” deeply, deeply flawed.  Flawed enough that we desperately need something better.  I’ll be talking about all its problems in the second half of this essay.

But let’s not kid ourselves — it’s probably the best answer anyone’s come up with thus far.  The un-topia has serious advantages over pretty much any traditional conception of the ideal world, and any utopian theorist who fails to acknowledge them is likely to be repeating the worst problems of past ideologies.

It acknowledges that people are different from one another.  This is the big thing.  No culture is equally good for everyone.  I’d go so far as to say that no culture is good for everyone, period.  Any cohesive model of society will seek to fulfill certain values (possessed by some people, who do well) at the expense of other values (possessed by other people, who do less well).  Any cohesive model of society will reward some traits and punish others and generally push people in certain directions.  That’s what it means for there to be a culture at all.  And so, no matter how utopian your engineered society is — no matter how overall beneficial the models and the ideals that it provides, no matter how widespread the values that it supports — there are going to be some individuals who are left out, some square pegs who can’t fit into your system of round holes.  But the un-topia makes no demands at all.  It doesn’t even make suggestions.  And so it doesn’t push anyone further out into darkness and failure.

It’s flexible enough to evolve.  It doesn’t take long for social/political/ideological systems to develop rigor mortis.  The people who construct them, and the people who benefit from them, become invested in defending them against any challenges.  If you’re putting forth a genuine utopian ideal, on some level you’re inherently saying that this is the best idea humanity will ever need to have; in pushing your vision, and trying to set up your desired terminal state of affairs, you’re necessarily putting up barriers to any ideas that might change or supersede it (however great those ideas might be).  But the un-topia isn’t founded on any particular vision, and in theory it’s always open to better visions if they happen to come along.

It supports the ideals of free thought and self-determination.  We like the notion that people should follow their own self-created paths to the Good Life rather than just responding to cultural prompts, right?  Like, inherently?  Well, I do.

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The Un-Topia, Part 1

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