On Utopias

People often voice the following kind of attitude to socialism/communism/anarchism (hereafter SCA): ‘it’s a great idea but how does it work?’ Or alternatively, ‘what does that look like in practice?’

Unfortunately this question is quite hard to answer in a satisfying way. There are a number of reasons for this difficulty:

1) The basic set-up doesn’t paint much of a picture. If someone asked what capitalism looks like in practice, what could we say? 17th century capitalism? Modern Swedish capitalism? Modern Chinese capitalism? Late 19th century American capitalism? Merchant, industrial, or finance capitalism? Fascism? Representative democracy? Representative oligarchy (i.e. elections with a minority electorate limited by wealth, sex, or race)?

If you tried to say only what was common to these different societies – private ownership of the means of production, profit-seeking, proletarianisation, market interactions, etc. – it would be much more of an abstract formula, not a concrete picture of ‘how it works in practice’. Similarly, the abstract formula(s) of SCA (working-class control, direct democracy, economic planning, etc.) don’t specify any concrete set of institutions, so there is no single answer to ‘what does it look like’.

2) SCA all open up a greater range of options than many of systems. If people are free and in control of their society, they can do pretty much anything they want with it. In response to different conditions (of scarcity and abundance, social cohesion, technological capacity, etc.) they would likely adopt different concrete approaches. And a key part of the theory is that they’re likely to be in a better position to decide than I or any other theoretician is. To know what solutions would emerge to some concrete problem X requires a lot of knowledge about X, and no individual will possess that knowledge for more than a handful of X’s. So it would be foolish to draw up blueprints.

3) Different aspects of society reflect each other. People’s mentality and culture reflects their family situation which reflects the political structure which reflects the economic structure which reflects the mentality and culture and so forth. This produces a dilemma. Proponents of SCA often believe that the basic institutional set-up of current society conditions the mentality and behaviour that average individuals display. Capitalism makes them materialistic and hostile, hierarchy makes them alternately servile and aggressive, exclusion and oppression leave them alienated from themselves and from others. Etc.

On the one hand, then, if a ‘utopian blueprint’ doesn’t talk about these ‘intangibles’, about brotherhood, sisterhood, self-respect, empowerment, benefits for people’s personal lives and personal relationships – then it won’t be very inspiring. It will seem a future of institutions and economic structures, and who wants to live a life of economic structures? On the other hand, if it does talk about these things, then it seems ‘magical’ – it comes across as just describing a society with the desired structures, and then saying ‘and everyone will be super-happy!’

At the same time, refraining from drawing ‘pictures’ also seems like a mistake. For one thing, there are plenty of ‘pictures’ out there that need to be contested. There’s the USSR, of course. There’s the 10 points that Marx and Engels suggest in the Communist Manifesto – several of which talk about centralising all control of various things (credit, communication, transport, factories, etc.) in the hands of the state. Even for non-anarchists, there is a problem if the two models for this ‘state’ that are easily available to everyone are the election of a bunch of deceitful bastards who everyone hates, or a one-party dictatorship. And there’s all manner of foolish or unclear ideas floating around in people’s heads.

Another reason, I think, is that not having a wealth of utopian visions restricts the appeal of SCA to people of a certain temperament. That is – some people can look at cases of injustice and think “this is wrong, there must be a better system” and fairly readily accept the ideas of, say, anarchism, because they are by nature optimistic and inclined to believe in the possibilities of humanity (or for some other reason?). But a lot of people’s temperament inclines them to be more cautious. They say ‘yes, this current set-up is bad, but I’m not going to sign up to some lovely theory of social change without being convinced that it will be practicable’. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that kind of caution. Arguably caution is a good thing in general, given how stupid humans are often prone to be. So it seems foolish to keep cautious people out of anarchism.

There isn’t really a point here, as you may have guessed. I would though be interested in comments from people who aren’t communists/anarchists/whatnot. Do you feel lacking in ‘pictures’? What sort of questions seem pressing or relevant on this subject? Etc.

PS. This page is a good discussion as well.

One Response to “On Utopias”

  1. Emperor Penguin Says:

    1) Communism is of course totally great. But what do you think of the problem of getting there. Thus far history teaches us that to a greater or lesser extent a coercive hierachy always emerges in states that have had revolutions, exploits the people and most often screws up the economy. Building the new society gives the select few the chance to exert a totally unprecedented tyranny over the lifestyles, habits and modes of thought of the populace as they try to bring the new society out from the womb of the old, a tyranny very rarely mirrored in regimes steadfast in their devotion to the ideals of their forefathers.

    2) I also think SCA’s position gives it a big advantage over existent regimes because people can claim it has never been tried (it has of course but seeing as it was rubbish SCA is redefined as not rubbish and thus rubbish SCA regimes were not SCA). Now assuming we discount the real record of SCA we have all Capitalism’s sins and crimes laid bare and a opposed to it a new vision of society selling itself as free, equal and abundant. But as SCA is an ideal system it is grossly unfair to compare it to a form of society and method of production that evolved and changed slowly without any overarching intellectual direction. Maybe a SCA could establish itself that didn’t repeat the gross crimes and failures of its not so illustrious predecessors but it will be messy and it will proceed by trail and error and it will contain divisions and conflicts. It will almost certainly have its failings and injustices. If you believe otherwise you may as well be peddling the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.

    PS Perhaps you should explicitly disown utopias and point out how your new system, although it will have its hardships and cruelties, will be worth it.

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