It was good to launch into the new year of Old New Way. After drinks and refreshments, as usual, we headed into the living room at 8:30.
1. Three Levels of Utopia
I started us off by recounting what I had clarified for myself while reading and reflecting on the theme of utopia over the past month.
I explained that I had come into this topic, back in August, with an unstable notion of utopia as something both universal and yet curiously specific too.
Like most people, I had large-scale dreams of fairer resource distribution, equality of opportunity, ending the release of carbon into the atmosphere, eliminating poverty, establishing peace on earth, all that good stuff.
But I also had small-scale dreams of strolling under leafy trees and across lush meadows with like-minded people, planting seeds together until the sweat dripped off our brows, gathering in houses built by our own hands. At night, I imagined us enjoying rapturous dances to live music, under a full moon. Happy to do my shifts cooking, dishwashing, and helping with the childcare, by the way! That kind of thing.
As I read and reflected, though (I already described some of my process in the Diary post below), I realized that there are actually three quite distinct levels of utopia.
First, there is the level of the “meta-utopia” (the political philosopher Robert Nozick helped me grasp this one). The meta-utopia is the overarching structure of society and government and economics holding it all together. Currently, in the developed world, this structure is called free-market capitalism with varying amounts of a social net, or, more succinctly, “neoliberalism”.
Other models of meta-utopia, scattered around the globe, include: dictatorship, theocracy, socialism, and there are even still some remnants of Communism. A handful of the books that I read invoking utopia (e.g. Inventing the Future by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams) insist that, whether we like it or not, we are currently transitioning out of neoliberalism to a “postcapitalist” and “post-work” society, in which the increasing automation of work allows for a basic universal income.
I confessed to the group that on this “meta-utopia” question, I have no idea what structure, if any, would be optimal for the world as a whole.
The complicated questions of how to more efficiently, more equitably, distribute resources, how to minimally interfere with aspirations of human beings all around the world, in so many different geographical and cultural settings, are simply beyond my limited ability to resolve. The United Nations, the Geneva Conventions, the International Criminal Court in the Hague, the US Constitution, the Paris Agreement — all of these are, to my mind, laudatory attempts to organize society on this level. If we combine these global institutions with the careful regulation of the market economy (laws that reign in the financial sector, pharmaceuticals, monopolistic entities, etc.), does all of this, in fact, constitute the best of all possible worlds?
Maybe we could do better?
I’m honestly not sure. (Makes me think of Churchill’s remark that “democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all the others that have been tried.”)
Would a universal basic income, as proffered by the New Left, provide a more optimal meta-utopia? The more I thought about it, the more I found I have concerns about the unintended consequences of this “post-work” vision. How does it change incentives? What would people do with their time and energy? The truth is that I have concerns with our current politics AND the alternatives.
Over all, then, I realized that — shocking, I know (terrifying to Setenay, I am sure) — I have nothing definitive to say about this first level of utopia.
Well, there is one universal change I would make. I would lean, of course, towards discouraging supernaturalism and “faith” talk of all kinds (aka religion), since I think these outdated ways of thinking cause many more problems psychologically than they solve. So perhaps that is one meta-utopian modification I would make if I could: I would actively establish a global institution, not unlike the ICC, with the mission of protecting freedom of conscience worldwide, against the imposition of supernatural claims by states or individual actors.
Other than that, I’m not sure what to dream for the world as a whole.
But then there’s the second level of utopian thinking. Here we come to the small-scale, more enchanting utopias that we all conjure up to comfort ourselves on bland or otherwise hard days.
I shared with the group that when I feel adrift in our technology-driven, consumerist nightmare of 21st century life, I find myself drawn to a primitivist sensibility. I long for the way I imagine the Ohlone or Miwok Indians lived in these same hills, under these same oak trees.
We might call this second level “local utopia.” I acknowledge, though, that my own quirky vision of a limited, local community, living harmoniously with nature, has no more weight than another person’s vision of an urban community, full of flashing lights, psychotropic enhancements, free love and jangling voices. To each his or her own. Even my wife and I would not agree on this one (she wants symphonies; I could get by on birdsong).
Recognizing this diversity of local utopias, I see how important it is that our meta-utopia enables each of us to pursue our more substantive dream as far as possible. Think Tom Cruise and the Scientologists. Think surf bums. Think militia groups in Texas. In the U.S., with a certain degree of privilege, you are pretty free to do this. But that’s a big caveat, as many do not have the time or resources even to consider it.
Finally, I concluded, there is a third level of utopia: the immediate. We might call it “inner utopia.”
This is what emerged for me, spontaneously, when I put a pencil to paper on the day before the meeting. It doesn’t have anything to do with structure of society as a whole, or even the schedule of who plants seeds and who cleans up in our local communal garden. It is a matter of mind, rather than place.
Here’s what came out of me when I sat down to write. To my surprise, it took the form of a poem:
Fair fields and wood-beamed halls
Sandy roads, leveled by hand
To each according to each according to each
Generous helpings for all
These are other people’s utopias
Mine is smaller
It is your back
It is your wrist
It is us having
Just a little more time
Before we die
Now when I think about utopia I will think of it with a little more clarity and ask myself, first, which level of utopia am I considering: meta, local or inner?
2. Utopias Around the Room
Next, we went around the room and heard a little of each member’s utopia.
Claudine started. She presented a transparent sphere, illuminated from within by light violet and orange and pink glowing lights. When we looked more closely, we saw a female figure floating in the center of the sphere. Claudine said this was her utopia.
At first I thought she was saying this satirically, as in, “We can only find utopia when we are alone and removed from all contact with other people! Just let me float silent and alone in my crystal sphere!” That’s not what she was saying, though. Claudine explained to the group that the object she brought in was a positive one in her mind.
It represented the serenity and peace that she feels she needs to find first, if she is to find utopia. To Claudine, then, the project of utopia begins with the “inner” level.
Dean pointed out that all governments, all campaigns — to cut to the chase, almost all human activity requires utopian thought. The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, for example, are unmistakably utopian documents. (The Port Huron Statement is another one that comes to mind, as I write this.)
Dean worked on the Bernie Sanders campaign, and Bernie’s calls for a less wealth inequality, more fairness, free higher education for all, single-payer health care, definitely invoked utopia. Even though he is by nature a skeptic, Dean admitted, he nevertheless finds himself drawn to fighting for specific goals. The future matters.
Marie-José and Renée both mentioned that their Catholic upbringings had largely soured them on utopian thinking. They both associate the word “utopia” with heaven — in opposition to hell. Since this whole dichotomy strikes them both, ever since they were young, as ridiculous and destructive, talk of utopia has these unfortunate connotations too. To them, as recovering Catholics, the world is a place of nuance and adjustment and daily commitments, not idle fictions that will never be achieved.
Setenay said that her utopia would have to apply fairly and equitably to ALL people around the world. She is suspicious of the effort to conjure up local utopias that do not take into account people in the world who cannot afford to dream. Start with resources. Get people food and water and basic medical care first, before you step off into First World la-la land and talk of meditation centers and ritual dances. She is a meta-utopian, we might say.
Florence had written in to say that addressing climate change, for her, supersedes all utopian thought. Get the planet fixed, make sure humanity survives the next century, and then we can talk more specifically about how we live. But the control of carbon and other toxic chemicals has to inform how we think about the daily patterns of our lives.
Eliana, visiting from NYC, mentioned that she and a few friends have been focused, recently, on the challenge of moving from eros to agape, that is, the challenge of broadening possessive, “romantic” love to a more inclusive, compassionate love. Her utopia would be a psychological one, in which we broaden our capacities as primates, and thereby improve our species ability to co-exist. This struck me as very close to John Lennon’s emphasis, in his post-Beatles solo work, on love and its transformative power. It involves “inner” utopia, no doubt, but moves quickly to questions of local and even meta utopia…
Anshu spoke of her struggle to find utopia among the hurly-burly of life. She thanked Claudine for her sphere, saying that it moved her. And she stressed the need for personal agency, calling Renée a strong example of that.
By the end of the evening, I felt good. We had comfortably and safely talked about our dreams for a better world, and as far as I know, no one had been made to feel embarrassed. We had revealed some of our private wishes.
That, to me, felt like the right place to start: talking to one another, openly, about how things might be better.
It occurred to me, after the meeting, that utopian thinking is by its very nature a collective enterprise. It’s hard, if not impossible, to do alone. So the task I had given the group, to bring in a representation or expression of your own utopia, had the order reversed!
If we were ever to get serious about utopia, clearly we would need to form a separate group, dedicated to this idea and nothing else. We would have to spend at least a year, maybe more, just talking, freely and unabashedly, about our dreams before we even agreed on the first rule or sanded down the first wood beam.
Thanks for coming, everybody. Please add anything I forgot in the comments.
See you next month!