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Questions for Utopians

by Colman Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 06:42:52 AM EST

We see various utopian ideas and models put forward here, various prescriptions for how we need to organise society in a sustainable fashion. It seems to me that most of these proposals tell us more about the political and personal biases of the proposers than the shape the future will take and they always prompt a few questions in my mind.


Most of the schemes or proposals seem to ignore the unhelpful fact that any system will be comprised of human people with all the knowledge that current human people have - assuming we’re not going to go down the route of only admitting infants unformed to a suitable utopian training programme before loosing them into our little ostracise ideal world. We are not going to suddenly lose all the organisational technologies we already have.

Human societies have a logic of their own and unless your proposed “sustainable” society works to that logic it will fall apart or perform very differently to your expectations. To what extent are societal structures determined by economic necessity? Does an subsistence agricultural society require gender based division of labour? Would small “market towns” replacing cities require a closely controlled social structure and lead to the outlawing or the casting out of non-conforming members? Why would new power hierarchies outside of the designs of the promoters not develop and completely undermine the proposed system?

To put my question another way: to what extent are the successes of Feminism an artefact of the requirements of Finance Capitalism rather than a reflection of the merits of the Feminist case? Are global education and participation in the decision making process by the middle classes just there because they have to be in order to make an industrial society work? Would they continue if their reasons for existence didn’t? How far would inertia carry them?

A key issue: how will the little bald apes compete for status and impress potential mates?

If Utopia depends on pretending that human nature doesn’t have the tension between self-interest and group-interest at its root then it’s doomed - and that goes for the fantasies of both the right and the left, the authoritarian and the anarchist.

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Inspired by the discussion here, but I couldn't make it fit as comment there.

I'm sure that all these issues have been addressed by many people at many times ...

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 06:44:52 AM EST
The following series of articles must be relevant to this discussion:

Our Relationship With Our Imperfect World:
Part I -- Acknowledging the Good in the Imperfect
Part II -- The Persistence of Culture
Part III -- How Crisis Defines the Possibilities for Transformation

by das monde on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 11:10:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
 
various prescriptions for how we need to organise society in a sustainable fashion.

But we continue to repeat the mistake of trying to "organise" society, rather than to allow society to organise itself.

the tension between self-interest and group-interest

It is in relieving this tension by creating a new synthesis of the individual and collective that an "Open" Corporate is entirely new. Nothing quite like it has, as far as I know ever existed.

Moreover it is not an "organisation" - it does not DO anything, OWN anything, EMPLOY anyone - but constitutes a framework within which sovereign individuals may "self organise" and share risks, rewards and tasks according to a consensual agreement pursuant to a mutually agreed goal, or "common bond".

I do not believe envisioning a society based upon this building block is "Utopian": I observe  the new LLP and associated enterprise model emerging because it actually works in practice, and I am trying to account for WHY that should be, and to develop applications for it...

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson

by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 07:32:48 AM EST
In what sense has not society "organised itself" so far?

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 05:33:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
it has, but it's a very clumsy hack, wouldn't you agree?

screaming -literally - for refinement.

everlasting beta version, that's life!

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 06:47:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Is that a question or a statement ? Or maybe my neurons are having once more a "fuzzy logic" state ? :-)
You are pointing to something important, but it reminds me of Umberto Eco's story of the "Platypus".

Here at ET, most active posters have some sort of "specialization". The two third (wild guess) on economics, the last third being a wide array from associative politics to scientists. Each of us will wear some sort of filtered glasses when reading such a topic.

In my case (and feeling) "Utopia" is a very dangerous word. To be studied only in a white "clean" room, with disinfection chambers when exiting.
I'm more in the original "cyber" attitude of the little black box, and have some trouble understanding the "level" of the interrogation.

  • Gender evolution in human societies (or ethnic, or... etc.) ?
  • Self-interested systems vs group interested' ?
  • Human Nature (I look at it as a system, so I don't believe in the "natural" part) ?
  • Or is it about entropy and that all "sustainable" system is doomed ?

Now that I've just made a fool of myself, I'm on my way to hide in a dark cave to find something to drink... :-)


"What can I do, What can I write, Against the fall of Night". A.E. Housman
by margouillat (hemidactylus(dot)frenatus(at)wanadoo(dot)fr) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 07:54:26 AM EST
If I was clear on this I wouldn't be posing it as a sort-of-question!

A lot of us only have economic information as a hobby - our real specialisations are different.

The evolution of human societies is tied up closely with human nature and the tension between self-interest and group-interest. It seems clear to me that one of the fatal flaws with most economic theory is that it assumes that self-interest is the sole ruling passion of humans. It's just not true - there are a whole pile of instincts and drives to do with the group we find ourselves in that are constantly in tension with our own direct, short-term self interest.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 08:23:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Assuming that self-interest isn't a powerful drive would be equally stupid, of course.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 08:24:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Eh, eh... I would heartedly agree to that !
I prefer the "drive" the the "instinct", but do follow on the relationship and the tension part :-)

I even feel a double discourse between what I call the Latin City, with the meta group interest as a goal but with ruthless individuals (social classes, no morals, etc...) with the Anglo-Saxon's one with small group interests and with individuals that have a personal "code".

The latest having a good inertia to various utopias but hard to move when on tracks...

Ok, I'll just have the drink, not the hiding :-)

"What can I do, What can I write, Against the fall of Night". A.E. Housman

by margouillat (hemidactylus(dot)frenatus(at)wanadoo(dot)fr) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 08:35:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Right, consider societies and civilisations as cybernetic systems. Each society has its own patterns of action, perception and reaction. They have own experiences and learned lessons. They can communicate: either  awkwardly, brutally, or more subtly.

Hmm... It makes sense. Past experiences are very important. For any circumstance, a reaction can be decided from a most resembling past situation. Even if association is weak or inconsistent, there will be a tendency to rely on established neuro-social-circuits.

On the other hand, present experiences must be important as well. They will be models for future actions. That's where opportunities lie for utopians!


Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

-- Margaret Mead

It should not be expected that a society can change precisely at your command. Societies change only when they need to change. If they can afford to be successful without being perfect, so they will be. But you may have patience with conditioning collective minds with your ideas. (Observe, for example, creeping normalcy of libertarian ideology.) Or you may seize a moment of dubious association with past collective experiences; if only you can see a rational solution that was not empirically recorder yet, and you can enforce that solution once, you may be doing a great service to the history. Could be exciting ;-)

by das monde on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 08:22:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Aye... The "avalanche" point, when the least suspected citizen makes the whole thing move :-)

"What can I do, What can I write, Against the fall of Night". A.E. Housman
by margouillat (hemidactylus(dot)frenatus(at)wanadoo(dot)fr) on Sat Mar 10th, 2007 at 06:11:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes you are right. People support Utopian plans which reflect their biases (how could it be otherwise).

Utopias seem to fall (or fail) into two types. One group requires a change in human nature. There are many examples, one of my favorites was the US religious group called the Shakers. They believed in abstinence and survived for awhile on recruits, but the long term results were as expected. Marxism also makes some claims for human nature changing.

The other group sounds plausible in that all that is required of people is that they be a little less self-centered and a bit more altruistic. Many science fiction writers describe this type of society. A good example was in the book "Looking Backward" by Edward Bellamy. His ideas were so popular at the time that they even got some political traction. The problem with these types of Utopias is how to get from here to there. They describe the end point, but not how to overcome the status quo.

That's why one of my hobby horses recently has been to demand that all who propose new policies also explain the transition plan. I don't get many answers to that.

Personally my aim is not so much to promote my vision of a future Utopia, but to prevent the much more likely dystopia of resource shortage, overpopulation and uncontrolled climate change.  

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 09:20:37 AM EST
I see a third group of proposals that aim at radical, positive change: Proposals for reformed frameworks of law and political mechanism that would create different incentives, institutions, and patterns of action. Call these 'structural reforms'.

By definition, structural reforms are premised on unreformed human nature. Structural reforms can engender further reforms, and in the past this process has indeed brought us radical, positive change. Is little more that could be gained by this means? I find this is hard to believe. Indeed, I think we can already see reforms of great promise.

High-leverage structural reforms are those that bring further reforms by changing processes of deliberation and decision. These are, by nature, relatively abstract and non-partisan, and have no special connection to any one injustice, failure, or missed opportunity. They are far less absorbing than the political scandal of the day, or efforts to win the next election, or implement a new policy. High-leverage structural reforms may be orders of magnitude more important than all of these combined, yet receive less attention and energy than any one of them.

If proposals of this kind are utopian in the pejorative sense, it problem is not in the ideas, but in the will to think them through and press for changes. Thus, the primary problem is not opposition by power elites or the political torpor of society as a whole; it is instead a failing of intellectuals and political activists. They (we) devote less than 1% of our attention to issues a thousand times more important than those that occupies 90% of our attention.

'High-leverage structural reforms': We pay so little attention that the concept lacks even a good, short name.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 05:00:27 PM EST
[ Parent ]
excellent comment...

perhaps all that is necessary is to, as you highlight, concentrate upprooting and avoiding dystopias, which will then leave the field clear for emerging self-organising freeform utopias to 'undergo the formality of occurring'.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 06:44:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
A little off thread, but I have to post it somewhere...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Handelsbanken

Handelsbanken (one of the 4 largest banking groups in the Nordic area) got a new group head a year ago - Pär Boman (45). He is causing quite a stir.

Sorry the article in Helsingin Sanomat is hidden behind the usual subs wall...

Well, what Mr Boman has instituted is no bonuses nor options for bank management. Wow! He thinks they do not fit into the business of banking. He may well be a raving Calvinist, but I find it extremely refreshing and, indeed, Utopian.

It is going to be interesting to see how it plays out. I hope to keep you informed.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 10:55:04 AM EST
I am somewhat reluctant about utopias: too many of them tend to lead to totalitarianism.

I am not looking for a blueprint for an ideal society. I am (in my way) fighting for a sustainable society where there are less inequalities and where people have greater substantial freedoms and a wider spectrum of choices for their lives (I am referring to Amartya Sen's approach of "capabilities"). I do not think the answer lays in one particular model when can design ex-ante, but on the contrary it must be a self-organising process. The question then is to create conditions that allow the coexistence of a diversity of socio-economic and cultural models and to develop democratic methods to tackle global problems.

I tend to adopt a more modest (or more ambitious) approach towards social change, which could be illustrated by this quotation from Italo Calvino:

"The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognise who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space." Italo Calvino in "Le citta invisibili"

 

"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet

by Melanchthon on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 12:22:23 PM EST

I am somewhat reluctant about utopias: too many of them tend to lead to totalitarianism.

These utopias share a common feature: they all need an ideal version of man to work. The problem is that if we all were ideal men, there would be no need for utopia, as all systems would work. The main caracteristic of "ideal man" is self discipline, and thus, little need for pesky social regulation mechanisms. Thus utopias tend to try to enforce self-discipline, a somewhat doomed task, leading thus to failure or to large scale revenge on the "ungrateful" real people.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 05:24:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Echoes of Federalist 51:
... But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. ...


"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 05:31:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, I was referring to the very dangerous "mythe de l'homme nouveau", which killed millions and made even more suffer...


"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet
by Melanchthon on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 08:22:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
awesome calvino quote...cuts to the bone...

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty
by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 06:41:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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