The Un-Topia, Interlude: When We Are All Kings

Before I move on to the criticisms…I’d like to talk a bit more about the un-topian model of society and its benefits.  In a slightly-more-concrete kind of way.

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When I was a kid, I read Isaac Asimov’s The Naked Sun, a sci-fi detective novel set on a planet called Solaria.

As I remember it, on Solaria pretty much every human lived like a futuristic version of an English country noble, ruling over a barony “populated” by robots.  All the big, high-coordination, hard-labor jobs — agriculture, resource extraction, manufacture, etc. — were done by vast armies of faceless state-owned robots toiling somewhere out of sight.  Personal services and small-scale crafts were done on the estates by privately-owned robots with better UI.  If you were like most Solarians, your “work” consisted of telling your robots what you wanted them to do for you; you could devote yourself to whatever you wanted, of course, and everyone had his own pursuits and passions, but no one worried about economic productivity.  A few people had to do high-level management for the armies of state-owned worker drones, which entailed a certain amount of “real” work, and the people who took up this burden were honored as civic heroes…but other than that, it was (in modern terms) leisure time and consumption all the way down.  When a new person was born, he was automatically set up with enough robots to maintain him in the lifestyle of his elders.  For society to do otherwise would be considered impossibly barbaric.

When I read this, in my artless youthful untutored way, I thought: Okay.  So it’s pretty much paradise.

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I was, of course, wrong about that.  And not just because Asimov, for ideological/narrative reasons of his own, decided to make the Solarians miserable by saddling them with an unnecessary suite of crippling social phobias.  Luxury and convenience and freedom actually aren’t everything, and it was entirely realistic that the Solarians should have been neither superlatively heroic not superlatively happy.  We can do better, if we’re already in the business of imagining pie-in-the-sky fantasy fulfillment scenarios.

But.

I don’t think it was an accident, or an idiosyncrasy, that my initial reaction to Solaria should have been so overwhelmingly positive.  I believe that most people in my cultural circles would react in much the same way.  And, indeed, even now, my own views on the Solarian model of civilization are pretty damn rosy.  It may not be paradise, but it’s good enough by any reasonable standard; if we had what the Solarians have, we should possess no cause for complaint.

After all, in Solaria, the following two things are true:

(1) Everyone has all the service, luxury, and convenience that he could possibly want.

(2) Everyone is free; no one is compelled to do anything he doesn’t want to do.

If your blood has any classical-liberal in it — as mine does — you’ll have some instinctive sense that those are pretty much the only things that matter.  When a person is rich and unbound, he has all the tools he needs to live the good life.  Beyond that his well-being is on his own head.  And if a person is either materially deprived or rendered unable to do what he wants, then in the great Maslow Hierarchy of life, dealing with those problems are very likely to be his top priorities.

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There are some value systems under which the Solarian situation is actively bad.  Some people really care about certain power hierarchies, for example, and those are very hard to maintain in a world where everyone has the wealth and freedom to say “fuck off.”  Some people really care about hardscrabble personal virtues like courage and endurance, so much so that they’re actively opposed to making life too pleasurable or easy.  Those are coherent positions, and we should respect them as such, even if we oppose them bitterly.

But for the rest of us — for people with value systems that look at all like mine — Solaria may not be the terminal goal, but it’s pretty much a necessary step on the road to that goal.  Whatever we want the future to look like, we all want it to involve us all living like kings.  And if you don’t want that…if you actively prefer that people be deprived of things they want, if you want people to be constrained to do things they don’t want to do…you’d better have a damn good explanation to give those people.

There are plenty of problems that won’t be solved even by Solarian levels of wealth and liberty.  We will still live on a fragile planet with a fragile ecosystem.  We will still be innately driven towards status games and dominance-seeking, in the course of which we will hurt ourselves and one another, because that’s how status games and dominance-seeking work.  Sometimes those things will go far enough to produce actual violence, which means that we’ll need some kind of potentially-abusable monopoly on force, because we don’t actually have a legion of Three-Laws-compliant robots who will nip that kind of thing in the bud.  We will still be floundering around when it comes to self-actualization, which is my personal hobby-horse.  But, well, none of those problems will be solved by people not having wealth and liberty.  Their solutions will involve complicated cultural memes and lots of coordination — which will only be easier to create, and easier for people to swallow, when we are kings.

For that matter, there are probably many ways in the Solarian model just isn’t attainable, certainly not anytime soon.  We don’t actually have the technology to equip everyone with armies of cheap machines that act like personal servants.  (Even the actual Solarians in the book based their system on positronic robots, which are less “useful appliances” and more “full persons who can turn out to be Jesus,” so their world is not so much a techno-utopia as a slave state.)  Lacking that technology, we are faced with a very basic problem, namely “there’s lots of unpleasant drudgery that has to be done if we want to maintain a high standard of living,” which is the central hard problem of collectivist economics and can’t be handwaved away.  Some valuable goods, like Manhattan real estate, are unavoidably scarce and can’t just be duplicated for everyone.  All serious issues that require serious consideration.  But concrete difficulties don’t change our abstract preferences and aims.  Instead of “how do we create Solaria?,” we may have to wrestle with the question “how close can we actually come to Solaria?”…while still trying, as hard as we can, to create the civilization where we are all kings.

It all converges on a very simple thesis: If you want a better world, aim for Solaria, and remind everyone else to aim for Solaria too.  Most of our most pressing problems, as a species, are caused by deprivation or dependence or both.  We will still have problems, when we are all kings, but they will be problems of a different and more abstruse kind…and, in the meanwhile, everything will be much better.

I feel weird saying this, because I spend a lot of my time thinking about all the ways in which the un-topian model of society is too limited and insufficiently ambitious.  But, good God, it is so much better than most of the things for which people actively advocate these days.

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This is not a fun-and-games, science-fictional line of thought.  Not entirely.

In many ways, we’re already nearing the point where we can start moving in the direction of Solaria.  We’ve got way more than enough food to feed everyone, which was the big obstacle for most of human history.  We live more and more of our lives online, which means that more and more of our goods are genuinely non-scarce.  We’ve developed the power to automate many tasks of many different kinds, which means that we’re edging closer to the Solarian situation where everyone’s got an army of robot servants.  And on the darker side, as the automation gets more efficient, ever more of us are proving unable to pull our economic weight.  Even if everyone had the skills to be super-valuable enough to earn the super-abundant rewards that our age has to offer — which is manifestly not the case — there are only so many super-valuable things to be done, and we’re starting to bump up against that limit.

(That last, I understand, is a seriously contentious economic point.  I’m not going to dive into it now.  If you don’t believe me, just let it go for the nonce and move on.)

In other words, capitalism is starting to hit its high-productivity failure modes.  Which means that, real soon, we’re going to have to decide whether we want to find some alternative way of distributing our giant surplus of stuff.  If we decide that we don’t, or if (as seems likely) we ignore the question and let it get resolved by default, then most of us end up unnecessarily deprived and unnecessarily bound to toil that doesn’t even benefit anyone very much.

It doesn’t have to happen.  We can work towards an age when we are all kings.  That is an option.  Spread the word.

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My impression is that the political left is going to have to take the helm on this one.

That feels weird to me, and always has.  At least in my own mind, there’s some sense in which the vision of the Solarian-style aristocrat is a fundamentally conservative vision.  Isn’t it the left that wants to hover over us, making sure that we share our toys and give everyone a turn in our games?  “Every man, woman and child can follow his own conscience, and live secure in his own castle, and tell the rest of the world to go to hell” — is that not an ideal that resonates with conservatives?  Something something live free or die?

But it doesn’t matter.  The right is going to fight against Solaria until the bitter end.  The libertarians will hate it because they’re allergic to giving things away (even if there are enough things to go around).  The plutocrats will hate it because they don’t want wealth to be decoupled from power.  The traditionalist conservatives will hate it because it’s not traditional; the religious conservatives will hate it because it’s not religious.  And of course the chain-of-hierarchy conservatives will hate it because it totally destroys most personal dependencies, and therefore most hierarchies.

Of course, for the left to do the work of pushing for a more genuinely utopian (or un-topian) future…it would have to drop its all-consuming obsession with hashing out group grievances and small-scale injustices, in favor of pursuing a dream that lifts everyone pretty much equally.

The group grievances and small-scale injustices really shouldn’t matter much, when we are all kings.

Somehow I don’t think that will help.

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The Un-Topia, Interlude: When We Are All Kings

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