Defining Home

One would be hard-pressed to find two thinkers as distinct as Jane Jacobs and Jaron Lanier. Jacobs, who passed away in 2006, was a thinker concerned with the concrete reality of real-world communities, and most especially, how to preserve them. Lanier is a pioneer in the field of virtual reality, having coined the phrase, with deep ties to the culture of Silicon Valley. This is why I found it so surprising upon reading relatively recent books from both of these authors that they provided an almost synergistic perspective in which each author appeared to inform the work of the other resulting in a more comprehensive whole.

I’ll start with Jane Jacob’s. The purpose of her last and by far most pessimistic book Dark Age Ahead, published in 2004, was to identify what she saw as some major dystopian trends in the West that if not checked might result in the appearance of a new dark age. Jacob’s gives what is perhaps one of the best descriptions of what a dark age is that I have ever seen; A state of “mass amnesia” in which not only have certain aspects of a culture been lost, but the fact that these aspects have been lost is forgotten as well.

In Dark Age Ahead, Jacobs identifies five dystopian trends which she thinks are leading us down the path of a new dark age: the decline of communities and the family, the decline of higher education, the decline of science, the failure of government, and the decay of culture. One of the things that make Jacobs so interesting is that she defies ideological stereotypes. Looking at the world from a perspective of the community allows her to cast her net much wider in the search for explanations than what emerges from “think tanks” of both the right and the left. Want a reason for the decline of the family? How about consumerism, the need for two incomes, and the automobile, rather than the right’s claim of declining moral standards. Want a reason for the failure of government?
What about the loss of taxing authority by local governments to the national government, and the innate inability of national bureaucracies to craft effective policies based on local conditions, rather than, as some on the left would have it, the need for a more expansive federal government.

Jacob’s unique perspective gained her prescience.  Over three years before the housing bubble burst and felled the US economy she was able to see the train wreck coming. (DA P.32). This perspective grows out of her disdain for ideology, which is one of her main targets in Dark Age Ahead. Something like ideology can be seen in what Jacobs understands to be the decline of science. Openness to  feedback from the real- world is the cornerstone of true science, but, in what Jacob’s sees as a far too often occurrence scientists, especially social scientists,  ignore such feedback because it fails to conform to the reigning paradigm. Another danger is when fields of knowledge without an empirical base at all successfully pass themselves off as “science”.

But where the negative effect of ideology is most apparent is at the level of national government where the “prefabricated answers” ideology provides become one-size-fits-all “solutions” that are likely to fail, firstly, because profound local differences are ignored, and secondly, because national imperatives and policies emerge from bureaucratic or corporate interests that promote or mandate solutions to broad problems that end up embedding their own ideology and agenda, rather than actually addressing the problem at hand.

Sometimes we are not even aware that policies from distant interests are being thrusts upon us. Often what are in fact politically crafted policies reflecting some interest have the appearance of having arisen organically as the product of consumer choice. Jacobs illustrates this by showing how the automobile centric culture of the US was largely the creation of the automobile industry, which pushed for the deconstruction of much of the public transportation system American cities. Of course, the federal government played a huge role in the expansion of the automobile as well, but it did not do so in order to address the question of what would be the best transportation system to adopt, but as a means of fostering national security, and less well known, to promote the end of national full-employment, largely blind to whatever negative consequences might emerge from such a policy.

Jacobs ideas regarding feedback- whether as the basis of real science, or as the foundation of effective government policies- have some echoes, I think, of the conservative economist Friedrich Hayek. Both Hayek and Jacobs favored feedback systems such as the market, in Hayek’s case, or, for Jacobs the community (which includes the economy but is also broader) over the theories of and policies crafted by and imposed by distant experts.

A major distinction, I think, is that whereas Jacob looked to provide boundaries to effective systems of feedback- her home city of Toronto was one such feedback system rather than the economy of all of Canada, North America, or the world- Hayek, emerging from the philosophy of classical liberalism focused his attention sharply on economics, rather than broadening his view to include things such as the education system, institutions of culture and the arts, or local customs. Jacob saw many markets limited in geographic scope, Hayek saw the MARKET a system potentially global in scale, that is given the adoption of free- trade, would constitute a real, as opposed to a politically distorted, feedback system which could cover the whole earth. Jacobs is also much more attuned to areas that appear on the surface to be driven by market mechanisms- such the idea that consumer choice led to the widespread adoption of the automobile in the US- that on closer inspection are shown to be driven by influence upon or decisions taken by national economic and political elites.

Anyone deeply familiar with either Hayek or Jacobs who could help me clarify my thoughts here would be greatly appreciated, but now back to Lanier.

Just as Jacobs sees a naturally emergent complexity to human environments such as cities, a complexity that makes any de-contextualized form of social engineering likely to end in failure, Lanier, in his 2009 manifesto, You Are Not A Gadget, applies an almost identical idea to the human person, and challenges the idea that any kind of engineered “human-like” artificial intelligence will manage to make machines like people. Instead, Lanier claims, by trying to make machines like people we will make people more like machines.

Lanier is not claiming that there is a sort of “ghost in the machine” that makes human beings distinct. His argument is instead evolutionary:

I believe humans are the result of billions of years of implicit, evolutionary study in the school of hard knocks. The cybernetic structure of a person has been refined by a very  large, very long, and very deep encounter with physical reality.( 157)

Both human communities and individuals, these authors seem to be suggesting, are the products of a deep and largely non-replicable processes. Imagine what it would truly mean to replicate, as software, the city of Rome. It is easy enough to imagine that we could reproduce within amazing levels of detail the architecture and landscape of the city, but how on earth would we replicate the all the genealogical legacies that go into a city: its history, culture, language- not to mention the individuals who are the carriers of such legacies?The layers that have gone into making Rome what it is stretch deep back into human, biological, and physical time: beginning with the Big Bang, the formation of the Milky Way, our sun, the earth, life on earth from the eons up until human history, prehistoric settlements, the story of the Roman Republic and Empire, the Catholic Church, Renaissance city states, national unification, Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship down to our own day. Or, to quote Lanier: “What makes something fully real is that it is impossible to represent it to completion”.  (134)

Lanier thinks the fact that everything is represented in bits has lead to the confusion that everything is bits. The result of this type of idolatry is for representation and reality to begin to part company a delusion which he thinks explains the onset of the economic crisis in 2008.( It’s easy to see why he might think this when the crisis was engendered by financial frankensteins such as Credit Default Swaps which displaced traditional mortgages where the borrowers credit was a reality lenders were forced to confront when granting a loan.)

Lanier also thinks it is far beyond our current capacity to replicate human intelligence in the form of software, and when it appears we have actually done so, what we have in fact achieved is a massive reduction in complexity which has likely stripped away the most human aspects of whatever quality or activity we are trying to replicate in machines. Take the case of chess where the psychological aspects of the game are stripped away to create chess playing machines and the game is reduced to the movement of pieces around a board. Of course, even in this case, it really isn’t the chess playing machine that has won but the human engineers and programmers behind it who have figured out how to make and program such a machine. Lanier doesn’t even think it is necessary to locate a human activity on a machine for that activity to be stripped of its human elements. He again uses the case of chess only this time chess played against a grandmaster not by a machine but by a crowd wherein individual choices are averaged out to choose the move of the crowd “player”. He wants us to ask whether the human layer of chess, the history of the players their psychological understanding of their opponent is still in evidence in the game-play of this “hive- mind”. He thinks not.

Like Jacobs and her example of the origins of the US transportation system in the machinations of the automotive industry and the influence of the American government to promote an economy built around the automobile for reasons that had nothing to do with transportation as such- namely national security and the desire for full-employment, Lanier sees the current state of computer technology and software as not a determined outcome, but as a conscious choice that has been imposed upon the broader society by technologist. What he sees as dangerous here is that any software architecture is built upon a certain number of assumptions that amount to a philosophy, something he calls “digital-lock-in”.That philosophy then becomes the technological world in which we live without ever having had any broader discussion in society around the question of if this is truly what we want.

Examples of such assumptions are the non-value of privacy, and the idea that everything is a vehicle for advertising. Lanier thinks the current treatment of content producers as providers of a shell for advertisement are driving artists to the wall. Fact is, we all eventually become stuck with these models once they become universal. We all end up using FaceBook and Google because we have to if we want to participate in the online world. But we should realize that the assumptions of these architectures was a choice, and did not have to be this way.

It is my hope that, in terms of the Internet, the market and innovation will likely provide solutions to these problems even the problem of how artist and writers are to find a viable means of living in conditions of ubiquitous copyable content. But the market is far from perfect, and as Jacob’s example of the development of the US transportation system shows, are far too often distorted by political manipulation.

A great example of this is both the monopolization of the world’s agriculture by a handful of mammoth agribusinesses, a phenomenon detailed by Giulio Caperchi, of the blog The Geneaology of Consent.  In his post , Food Sovereignty, Caperchi details how both the world food system is dominated by a small number of global firms and international organizations. He also introduces the novel concept of epistemological sovereignty “the right to define what systems of knowledge are best suited for particular contexts”.  These are ideas that are desperately needed, for if Lanier is right, we are about to embark on an even more dangerous experiment by applying the assumptions of computer science to the natural world, and he cites an article by one of the patriarchs of 20th century physics- Freeman Dyson- to show us that this is so.

There must be something with me and Freeman Dyson, for this is the second time in a short period that I have run into the musings of the man, first in doing research for a post I wrote on the science-fiction novel Accelerando, and now here. In Our Biotech Future  Dyson lays out what he thinks will be the future of not just the biotech industry and biological sciences but the future of life itself.

Citing an article by Carl Woese on “the golden age” of life before species had evolved and gene transfer between organisms was essentially unbounded and occurred rapidly. Dyson writes:

But then, one evil day, a cell resembling a primitive bacterium happened to find itself one jump ahead of its neighbors in efficiency. That cell, anticipating Bill Gates by three billion years, separated itself from the community and refused to share. Its offspring became the first species of bacteria and the first species of any kind reserving their intellectual property for their own private use.

And now, as Homo sapiens domesticates the new biotechnology, we are reviving the ancient pre-Darwinian practice of horizontal gene transfer, moving genes easily from microbes to plants and animals, blurring the boundaries between species. We are moving rapidly into the post-Darwinian era, when species other than our own will no longer exist, and the rules of Open Source sharing will be extended from the exchange of software to the exchange of genes. Then the evolution of life will once again be communal, as it was in the good old days before separate species and intellectual property were invented.

Dyson looks forward to an age when:

Domesticated biotechnology, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures, rather than the monoculture crops that the big corporations prefer. New lineages will proliferate to replace those that monoculture farming and deforestation have destroyed. Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art form as creative as painting or sculpture.

Dyson, like Lanier and Jacobs praises complexity: he thinks swapping genes is akin to cultural evolution which is more complex than biological evolution ,and that the new biological science, unlike much of the physical sciences, will need to reflect this complexity. What he misses, what both Jacobs and Lanier understand ,is that the complexity of life does not emerge just from combination, but from memory, which acts as a constraint and limits choices. Rome is Rome, a person is a person, a species is a species because choices were made which have closed off alternatives.

Dyson is also looking at life through the eyes of the same reductionist science he thinks has reached its limits. I want to make a kitten that glows in the dark, so I insert a firefly gene etc. In doing this he is almost oblivious to the fact that in complex systems the consequences are often difficult to predict beforehand, and some could be incredibly dangerous both for natural animals and plants and the ecosystems they live in and for us human beings as well. Some of this danger will come from bio-terrorism- persons deliberately creating organisms to harm other people- and this would include any reinvigorated effort to develop such weapons on behalf of states as it would the evil intentions of any nihilistic group or individual. Still, a good deal of the danger from such a flippant attitude towards the re-engineering of life could arise more often from unintended consequences of our actions. One might counter that we have been doing this re-engineering at least since we domesticated plants and animals, and we have, though not on anything like the scale Dyson is proposing. It is also to forget that one of the unintended consequences of agriculture was to produce diseases that leap from domesticated animals to humans and resulted in the premature deaths of millions.

Applying the ideas of computer science to biology creates the assumption that life is software. This is an idea that is no doubt pregnant with discoveries that could improve the human condition, but in the end it is only an assumption- the map not the territory. Holding to it too closely results in us treating all of life as if it was our plaything, and aggressively rather than cautiously applying the paradigm until, like Jacob’s decaying cities or Lanier’s straight-jacket computer technologies, or Caperchi’s industrialized farming it becomes the reality we have trapped ourselves in without having ever had a conversation about whether we wanted to live there.

The First Prophet and His Legacy

Out of all the post I’ve made on this blog, so far, one in particular solicited the sharpest criticism. It probably had something to do with the title. Naming the post Blame Zarathustra and then connecting the ancient sage to the invention of what I characterized as an extremely dangerous strand of dualistic thinking that normally goes by the name of a later prophet and his religion- Mani and Manichaeism- brought forth much justified criticism from still practicing Zoroastrians and scholars of his ancient faith.

I decided I should do a little homework before holding to such sweeping assertions. I was, in other words, in search of the real Zarathustra, and that search led me to a book of exactly that title: the wonderful In Search of Zarathustra by Paul Kriwaczek.

Kriwaczek’s aim is to uncover both the truth and the legacy of the figure of Zarathustra (or Zoroaster), a man he characterizes as the first prophet. His quest takes him throughout Asia and Europe through both the past and the present.  For Kriwaczek the new vision that Zarathustra, brought to the world was that:

Unlike other prophets of antiquity, Zarathustra had taught that history was neither cyclic nor eternal. The struggle described between good and evil would one day be brought to as head in a great battle, and after many troubles and torments, the forces of good would be victorious.

Evil would be vanquished; history- the world as we know it-would come to an end. (148)

Zarathustra thus brought two ideas into history that were to be of enormous consequence. The first was the view of history as a battle between the forces of good and evil. The second was the promise that the ugly reality of not just human history but the natural world would come to a beneficent and final end. This latter idea has proven perhaps the most potent for it broke with the much older traditions of a cyclical and therefore irredeemable history. Cyclical views of history and nature were those such as the Hindu idea of Yugas or epochs- a golden age, Satya-Yuga, inevitably giving way to successively worse ages until the total decay of the Kali-Yuga ended and the cycle began all over again. Other cyclical theories of history, such as that of the Greek poet, Hesiod, were almost identical to the Yugas.

Kriwaczek thinks these two ideas: the war between good and evil, and the idea that history is linear and leading to a positive end state, influenced the almost as ancient Hebrew idea of God as an actor in human history. Kriwaczek holds that the ideas of the Hebrews regarding “the end of the world” that were developed independently and can be found in the books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, among others,  were far more this-worldly in nature than the vision of Zarathustra. The early prophets foretold the coming of a messiah and the reordering of the political world in which the Jews would play the role in world affairs we ascribe to conquering and imperial peoples such as the Romans. What the early Hebrew messianic visions did not hold was the idea that history itself, and the relationship of humankind with the world would be revolutionized, which was the view of
the Zoroastrians. ( 149-150)

Kriwaczek sees the Book of Daniel, with its intense imagery and prophesy of a world transformed, which was compiled from earlier stories during the Maccabean revolt of the Jews against the Greeks, as a bridge linking the Hebrew messianic and the apocalyptic  legacy of Zarathustra. The Maccabean revolt resulted not in Jewish independence, let alone,Palestine becoming the center of a new and divinely sanctioned world power, but to the intervention of the Roman general Pompey and the Jews absorption  by the growing Roman Empire. Under these conditions, Judaism abandoned its worldly millennialism for a concept of an end of the world that would transform the very nature of the human relationship with God, nature, and each other- ideas much closer to Zoroastrianism. (160)

These ideas regarding the imminent end of the current world and the birth of a new one were especially popular among so called “God-fearers”, gentiles who had adopted elements of the Jewish faith. (166) The Roman Empire provided a vast network for the interchange of ideas, people, and products. In these conditions Judaisms became a proselytizing faith actively seeking converts in all corners of the Empire. Before the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. this “open” Judaism was perhaps the most numerous and widespread faith in the Roman world. Perhaps, one of the major reasons Rome crushed the revolt in Palestine with such violence as depicted in The Jewish War of Josephus.

One uses the singular term Judaism for the faith during this period, but in fact Judaism was a spectacularly diverse religion during the late periods B.C.E and early periods of the Common Era giving rise not just to the schools of the Pharisees and Sadducees depicted in the New Testament, but to apocalyptic sects such as the Essenes and, of course, Christianity.

If Kriwaczek gives us a good grounding in Zoroastrianism and Judaism we need other scholars to move further afield.  The religious scholar, Elaine Pagels, in her Book Of Revelation explores how a  group of Christians best represented by John of Patmos, author of the Book of Revelation, built upon earlier beliefs to create their own version of a world that was soon to undergo a second creation, after an epic confrontation between the forces of good and evil.

John of Patmos lived in truly apocalyptic times, especially for early Christians. Not only was there the evil decadence of figures such as the emperor Nero, there was the brutal persecution of Christians, the before mentioned invasion of Judea and burning of the Temple in Jerusalem by Roman legions, and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which must have truly made it seem that the world itself was coming to an end.

John of Patmos must have been tapping into a deep need for apocalyptic narratives for Christianity’s great rival during its first centuries was an even more dualistic faith in the form of  Manichaeism founded  by the prophet Mani (216-276 C.E.).  Manichaeism was a form of gnosticism, a broad array of beliefs on the nature of humankind and the world to the divine that if it had one broadly shared feature it was the idea that the material world was corrupt and the individual, therefore, was called to free his spirit from its spell. Manichaeism  imagined a world torn between a world of light and a world of darkness. It was an amazingly flexible faith able to spread from societies as diverse as the Roman Empire, Safavid Iran, India and even China.

After Mani, the best known Manichean was a man who converted from that faith to Christianity- Saint Augustine. Augustine probably did more than any other person to move the Church away from its apocalyptic and utopian strain. His great work The City of God reimagined the Christian community as mystical city, not the seed for some type earthly paradise.

Of course, dualistic ideas regarding the battle between good and evil, and the understanding of history as the unfolding and eventual conclusion of this epic struggle didn’t disappear within Christianity because of Augustine. The philosopher John Gray in his excellent book, Black Mass, traces these beliefs from the figure of the mystic, Joachim of Fiore (1135-12o2 C.E.), through the Reformation and English Civil War, right up until the secular utopias of the 20th century with their own dualistic, apocalyptic narratives- Communism and Nazism.

Part of the inadequacy of Gray’s otherwise compelling book is that he seems to think no good has ever come out of this strain of thinking. I believed this fervently myself until I began to look more deeply into the matter, and came across a figure such as Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566). This Catholic friar who lived in the Americas was perhaps the first hero of the movement for human rights, bravely defending the rights of Native Americans against Spanish atrocities. He was also a man whose world view was steeped in dualistic and apocalyptic thought believing the end of the world which would start with the conquest of Europe by Muslim armies to be imminent, and the New World to represent a last refuge for Christian civilization.

How could both of these views be compatible, I thought? And then I remembered my readers’ criticism of my initial post about Zarathustra. “I just didn’t get it”, they seemed to be saying. Zarathustra was talking about something more internal- in the mind and heart- than external, located in the political realm. It seems to me now that what Zarathustra invented, contrary to the parody of him by the genius Friedrich Nietzsche who saw the first prophet as the source of the tortured conscience of humanity, the very possibility of moral progress. As individuals, and as societies, we are called by this ancient sage to choose between good and evil, and in choosing the good, day by day, we can move the world toward ever brighter light.


Mockingjay is the last of the novels in the dystopian Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. For my money, it is the best of the bunch because, much more than the two previous novels in the series, it manages to explore the moral ambiguities that inevitably arise in the struggle against dystopia and in doing so arms the reader against certain elements and political realities of dystopias specifically. and tyranny more generally in a way that allows the novel to serve as a survivors and rebels guide through both.

The dystopian areas where the Mockingjay has something particularly relevant to say are: the cult of fear that surrounds tyranny, the meaning and psychological nature of torture as a political weapon, the nature of revenge and desire for collective punishment, the moral dangers of insurgency, and the unpredictable, uncontrollable nature of political action and the relationship of such action to responsibility.

Pretty good for a children’s book.

One aspect that the Mockingjay brings to the fore is the cult of fear that surrounds tyranny. The foundation of Panem has been the Hunger Games that instill a sense of paralysis upon the Districts. Once the spell of this fear has been broken, as it was by the open defiance of Petta and Katniss in the Game, the regime does all it can to restore the balance of terror, engaging in a genocidal campaign against the rebellious Districts, burning District 12, which both Peeta and Katniss call home, to the ground leaving only those who can escape by their own wits alive.

We learn in the novel about the sphere of murder that surrounds President Snow. It is not merely the horrors of the Hunger Games and the civil war against the Districts that constitute this sphere, but a wave of secret murders and tortures which have brought and kept him at the pinnacle of power.

As Plato in his Republic told us: There are crimes from which there is no turning back.  Once a tyrant has crossed a certain level of political violence, only further violence can insure his safety, as the deep desire for justice and revenge grows in those who have felt the lash of the whip. Such violence on the part of a tyrant results thus in more and more violence. The moral vortex only silenced with the tyrant’s end.

Collins did not foresee this, but this is precisely the situation we had in Libya before the end of Gaddafi, or in Syria right now as I speak, or, God forbid, in Egypt should the current machinations of the military open a floodgate of resistance.

A second issue the Mockingjay deals with is the nature of torture. In the novel Peeta has his very soul transformed by torture. The person he loves most in the world and has sacrificed everything for, Katniss, has been transformed in the form of re-engineered memories to appear to him as monstrous. Here, we should take away something very important about the role of torture in dystopian and tyrannical regimes, and for our own foreign policy. The role of torture, as any knowledge of the Inquisition or familiarity with Orwell’s 1984 or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange tells us is not the infliction of pain, but the possession by the state of the soul. With torture, the state aims not merely to break  but to shatter and make unreconstructable the heart of the individual. The purpose of President Snow’s torture of Peeta is not merely to assert ownership over the soul of this rebel, but to shatter forever the heart of the girl, Katniss Evergreen.

The only emotional response possible by the individual under these circumstances is the desire for revenge. One can forgive perhaps almost any crime committed against oneself, but how can one forgive the murder or torture of those one loves. Revenge becomes the only emotional anchor and monomaniacal purpose for persons who have suffered thus, as the desire for personal revenge against President Snow becomes the overriding purpose of Katniss after she learns the fate of Peeta. This desire for revenge, could it remain within bounds, might otherwise go by the name of justice were it not for the very real danger that it will become transformed into something else.

The problem is that the person at whom this desire for revenge is justly targeted often remains unreachable. The real criminals are hidden safely behind the fortress of power, so the danger for the person seeking justice becomes one of targeting those who can be reached. Far too often those reachable are total innocents connected to the tyrant by weak associations such as shared ethnicity or religion. This extension of hate to the collective, when combined with the implicit weakness of insurgencies relative to those in power, results in the horrors of terrorism. This danger is represented in the Mockingjay by the character Gale who turns his trapping skills not just on the armed forces of the Capital, but its innocent citizens as well.  It is also seen in the willingness of even Katniss to bring down punishment on the children of the political criminals of Panem, as a form of collective “justice”.

A last thing that the Mockingjay teaches us well is the uncontrollable and unpredictable nature of our actions and what it means for our sense of moral responsibility. Everything Katniss does seems to unleash a chain of events that result in more and more suffering, and she is tortured by this suffering. Even her very freedom seems to be used as a tool of the leader of the rebel forces, District 13 for its own political purposes. Is she just a pawn in yet another game? If Katniss has caused so much suffering what is to separate her moral status for that of a tyrant such as President Snow? Surely it is not that she has “reasons” for her actions. President Snow has his reasons as well, namely to prevent the chaos and bloodshed of another rebellion.

What distinguishes Katniss from President Snow are two things: 1) she nowhere directly tries to cause suffering- such suffering results from the responses of others to the actions she takes, and her avoidance of action because of such an eventuality would result in moral paralysis if she heeded it and not the desire to overcome the systematic suffering that characterizes Panem. And more importantly:  2) Katniss feels responsible for her actions. There is no rationalization, as is the case with President Snow, there is none of the infamous “you need to break eggs in order to make an omelette” which has served as justification of all sorts of horrors in the name of revolution and counter-revolution alike. There is no blind faith that the violence she engages in will bring forth a better world or preserve a world better than the alternative.  Katniss is, thus,  the very opposite of a tyrant, and her story gives us insight how to not become tyrants, or much more likely,  the servants or enablers of tyrants, ourselves.

Ameritopia Revisited

Ameritopia is a recent book by the conservative political writer and radio commentator Mark Levin. Though the book made the New York Times bestseller list, it has largely been ignored by mainstream media. This is a shame, not because Levin provides us with anything radically new on the subject of utopia, but because his view is poised to become the prism through which a large number of Americans define the very idea of utopia, and therefore what this idea means to America’s past, present and future. A more balanced reading of America’s utopian history might permit Americans, whatever their political stripe, to take something positive from our utopian heritage.

Levin structures his book by taking four authors as exemplary of the utopian mind-set: Plato, Thomas More, Hobbes and Karl Marx and contrasting them to what he believes to be thinkers in the anti-utopian camp: Montesquieu, John Locke, James Madison and Alexis de Tocqueville. Plato, More, Hobbes and Marx respectively represent rule by an intellectual elite (guardians), the suppression of human ambition and inequality, total control by the state, and the abolition of property. Their counterpoise respectively represent the separation of powers as a means to prevent tyranny, natural right and God given rights as the basis of a necessarily limited government power, the idea of American government as a limited form of government, the dangers of pursuing economic equality as opposed to the necessary equality of political and legal rights.

Levin uses selected writings of Montesquieu, Locke, Madison and De Tocqueville to define what he understands to be the American philosophical and political tradition a tradition that views utopianism such that:

Looked at another way, the utopian models of Plato’s republic, More’s Utopia, Hobbes Leviathan, and Marx’s Communist Manifesto could not be more repugnant to America’s philosophical and political foundation. Each of these utopias, in their own way, are models for totalitarian regimes that rule over men as subjects. 122

Right around the same time I was slogging my way through Ameritopia the Canadian novelist, Margaret Atwood, had a piece in the New York Times with the fanciful title: Hello, Martians. Let Moby-Dick Explain.  In the article Atwood is having an imaginary discussion with a group of Martians who are asking her to explain the United States.  Even though she is Canadian she gives it a shot with the following:

“America has always been different from Europe,” I said, “having begun as a utopian religious community. Some have seen it as a dream world where you can be what you choose, others as a mirage that lures, exploits and disappoints. Some see it as a land of spiritual potential, others as a place of crass and vulgar materialism. Some see it as a mecca for creative entrepreneurs, others as a corporate oligarchy where the big eat the small and inventions helpful to the world are stifled. Some see it as the home of freedom of expression, others as a land of timorous conformity and mob-opinion rule.”

Thing is, while Levin sees America as the heroic anti-utopia that through its political traditions and institutions has resisted utopian fantasies that have reigned elsewhere, Atwood sees America as the land of utopia defined by that dream more than any other society. Both can’t be right, or can they?

Soon after I finished Ameritopia and read Atwood’s article I began to compile a list of American utopias or strands of utopian thought in America. The list soon became so long and tedious that I was afraid I’d lull my poor readers to sleep if I actually wrote the whole thing out. There had to be a better way to get all this information across, so I decided to make a slideshow.

Immediately below is what I take to be a general history of utopia in America.  Anyone interested in specifics can consult the slideshow. It should be noted from the outset that I probably missed more than I included and may have made some errors on multiple points. Any suggestions for corrections would be of help.

The idea of America has been intertwined with the idea of utopia from the day Europeans discovered the New World. The discovery of the Americas became tied to anticipation and anxiety about the end of the world and the beginning of the reign of Christ on earth, it inspired a new golden age of utopian literature beginning with Thomas Moore, it became one of the main vectors through which the myth of the noble savage became popular in Europe. Many of the initial European settlements in the Americas either were themselves utopian experiments or gave rise to such experiments. America was seen as the place where utopian aspirations such as the end of poverty could in fact be realized, and the American republic was built from utopian themes such as equality.

Throughout the early 19th century the United States was the primary location for utopian communities seeking to overcome the problems associated with industrial civilization. By the end of that century large numbers of Americans had placed their utopian hopes with technology and government control over the economy, a position that was not fundamentally shaken until the late 1960s when utopian aspirations in the United States flowered and took on a more communitarian, spiritual, liberation, and environment centric form.

The end of the Cold War saw a further upsurge in utopian thought this time seen as an end to history and a further acceleration of wealth. Both aspirations were done in by political events such as 9-11, and the crash of stock market bubbles in 2000 and 2008.
Even in such technologically advanced times apocalyptic utopianism remained a major strain of American thought, a new breed of secular utopians and technophiles had also emerged that held their own idea of an approaching technological apocalypse. Lastly,
the era since the economic collapse has seen the rise of political movements which exhibit a combination of ideas from America’s utopian past. The story of utopia in America is not over…

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Given all this it is fair to ask how Levin could have gotten things so horribly wrong.

Sometimes we are wrong about something precisely because we are right about something closely related to it. And Levin is write about this: that the founders well aware that they were engaged in a kind of bold continental sized experiment wanted to make sure that experiments of such a scale would be incredibly difficult to initiate in the future. They were especially leery of national experiments that might originate from the two major strands of utopian thinking in the past- economic and religious.

Here is the primary architect of the American system of government, James Madison, in Federalist Number 10:

The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State.

No matter how critical we are of the gridlock of today which prohibits necessary systematic change it was probably one of the factors that helped prevent the radicalization of American society during the tumultuous first half of the 20th century- a period that saw much of the rest of the world succumb to fascist and communist dictatorships. For all its flaws, the system probably still keeps us safe from the extremes on either side of the political spectrum, and we should therefore be aware of what we are doing when we try to change it.

Be that as it may, Levin gets this right and as a consequence misses the actual legacy of utopian thought in America. When large scale social and political experiments go wrong they can hurt a lot of people, the Soviet Union was one such experiment as is the European Union whose ultimate fate is today in doubt. The United States itself almost failed in its Civil War, which was the point made by Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure”.

Small scale utopias or even imagined utopias are much less dangerous. When they fail, as almost all do, they burn a lot less people. At the same time they serve as laboratories in which new ways of being in the world can be tested. The aspirations inspired by purely imagined utopias often spur real reform in society in which the real tries to meet the standard of the dreamed.

In many ways the utopian tradition helped give rise to the society we have today. Certainly not utopia, but much more humane and just than the America these utopias were responding to in the 18th and 19th centuries. That is Ameritopia.

Would Kierkegaard Tweet?

Recently I had one of those incidents of intellectual synchronicity that happen to me from time to time. I had grudgingly, after years of resistance, set up a Twitter account (I still won’t do Facebook). For whatever reason Twitter reminded me of a book I had read eons ago by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called The Present Age.  I decided to dig the book out from the catacombs of my dusty attic to find out what my memory was hinting at.  More on that synchronicity I mentioned later.

The Present Age is Kierkegaard’s 1846 attempt to think through the spiritual and existential consequences of the new condition of a cheap and ubiquitous press.  The industrial revolution wasn’t only about the accelerated production of goods, but also enabled the mass production of information.  The art of printing was ripe for a revolution having remained essentially unchanged since Guttenberg in the 1400s.

In 1814 the Times of London acquired a printing press with a speed of 1,100 impressions per minute. The widespread adoption of this technology gave rise to extremely cheap publications, the so-called, “penny press”, that were affordable for almost anyone who could read.  The revolution in printing lit a fire under the mass literacy that had started with Guttenberg extending the printed word downward to embrace even the poorest segments of society and was facilitated by the spread of public education throughout the West.

This revolution had given rise to “the public” the idea of a near universal audience of readers. While some authors, such as Charles Dickens, used this 19th century printing revolution to aim at universal appeal Søren Kierkegaard really wasn’t after a best seller status giving his works such catchy titles as Fear and Trembling.

What Kierkegaard is for can be neatly summed up in one quote from The Present Age:

If you are capable of being a man, then danger and the harsh judgment of reality will help you to become one. (37)

Kierkegaard wanted individuals to make choices. Such choices came with very real and often severe ethical consequences that the individual was responsible for, and that could not be dismissed. The ethical life meant a life of commitments which were by their very nature hard for the individual to fulfill.

One of the main problems Kierkegaard saw with the new public that had been generated by the cheap press was that it turned everyone into a mere spectator.

The public is a concept that could not have occurred in antiquity because the people en masse, in corpore, took part in any situation which arose, and were responsible for the actions of the individual, and moreover, the individual was personally present and had to submit at once to the applause or disapproval for his decision. Only when the sense of association in society is no longer strong enough to give life to concrete realities is the Press able to create that abstraction ‘the public’, consisting of unreal individuals who never are and can never be united in an actual situation or organization- and yet are held together as a whole”  (60).

The issue for Kierkegaard here is that, since the rise of the press, the world had become enveloped in this kind of sphere of knowledge which had become disconnected from our life as ethical and political beings. A reader had the illusion of being a participant in, say, some distant revolution, famine, or disaster, but it was just that, an illusion. Given how much this world commanded our ethical and political attention, when in reality we could do nothing about it, Kierkegaard thought people were likely to become ethically paralyzed in terms of those issues where we really could, and should, take individual responsibility.

And now back to that synchronicity I had mentioned. Right around the same time I had dug up my dusty copy of The Present Age I was walking through the local library and happened to pass a 2011 book by Evgeny Morozov called The Net Delusion. On a whim I brought the book home and when I cracked it open to my surprise saw that he had a chapter dedicated to the Danish philosopher- Why Kierkegaard Hates Slacktivism.  Morozov’s point was that the internet gives us this illusion of participation and action that requires very little on our part. We sign this or that petition or make this or that donation and walk away thinking that we have really done something. Real change, on the other hand, probably requires much more Kierkegaard-like levels of commitment. These are the types of commitments that demand things like the loss of our career, our personal life, and in the case of challenging dictatorships, perhaps the loss life itself.  The ease of “doing something” offered by the internet, Morozov thought might have a real corrosive effect on these kinds of necessary sacrifices.

It is here that synchronicity plot thickens, for both Kierkegaard and Morozov, despite their brilliance, miss almost identical political events that are right in front of them.  As  Walter Kaufmann in the introduction of my old copy of The Present Age points out Kierkegaard totally misses the coming Revolutions of 1848 that were to occur two years after his book came out.

The Revolutions of 1848 were a series of revolts that ricocheted across the world challenging almost every European aristocracy with the demand for greater democratic and social rights. Rather than having acted as a force suppressing the desire for change, the new press allowed revolution to go viral with one revolt sparking another and then another all responding to local conditions, but also a reflecting a common demand for freedom and social security. Individuals acting in such revolutions were certainly taking on very real existential risks as states cracked down violently on the revolts.

Similarly, Morozov’s Net Delusion, published just before the beginning of the 2011 Arab Spring, missed a global revolution that, whatever the impact of new technologies such as Twitter, were certainly facilitated rather than negatively impacted by such technologies.  The Arab revolutions which spread like wild-fire inspired similar protests in the West such as the Occupy Wall Street Movement that seemed to require more than just pressing the “like button” on Facebook for the committed individuals that were engaged in the various occupations.

When it came to the Revolutions of 1848, Kierkegaard was probably proven to be right in the end as the revolutions failed to be sustained in the face of conservative opposition paving the way for even more revolutionary upheaval in Europe in the next century.  Only time will tell if a similar fate awaits the revolutions of 2011 with conservative forces regrouping in autocratic societies to stem any real change, and Western youth becoming exhausted by the deep ethical commitments required to achieve anything more than superficial change.

  • Søren Kierkegaard, The Present Age , Translated by Alexander Dru, Introduction Walter Kaufmann, Harper Torchbooks, 1962
  • Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion, Public Affairs, 2011