Kant’s Utopian Daydream

I am currently reading a monster of a book. At 802 pages, Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature, leaves even a voracious reader like myself a little winded. Pinker’s argument is that the world has become less and less violent over time, so much so that we now live in what is the most peaceful period of human history ever.
I know what you’re thinking, but Pinker should not be dismissed as just another Dr. Pangloss preaching that we live “in the best of all possible worlds”. The sheer volume of statistics, and studies ,and stories, Pinker brings together make a strong case that the world has become progressively less violent, though it is a case that does indeed have some holes. It will be best then to deal with his argument in digestible pieces rather than all in one gulp, something I will try to do in a series of installments.

But not in this post, for Pinker has managed to get me sidetracked by drawing my attention to the writings of Immanuel Kant, a philosophical giant who never left his native city of Koenigsberg, but whose imagination stretched out to embrace not just deep questions on the nature of thought and ethics, which I knew, but the history and fate of the species, and indeed the state and future of intelligence in the universe, something I did not.

I can vividly remember, many moons ago now, attending a philosophy class as an undergraduate with the professor trying to explain Kant’s noumenon (thing in itself) vs phenomenon (appearance) with the vague feeling coming over me that my head was about to explode. Those ideas from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and his famous guide to ethical behavior, the categorical imperative, which states: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law” were basically all I remembered of old Meister Kant.

Pinker’s fascinating argument, however, made me want to take a second look. Better Angels of our Nature, talks extensively about Kant’s essay On Perpetual Peace, but I became more interested in an essay of Kant’s Pinker mentions, but discusses much less,an essay entitled: Idea of a Universal History from A Cosmopolitical Point of View. (Except for Nietzsche, German philosophers are never easy on the ears.) Kant sets his sights pretty high in this essay where he explores whether, in the seemingly senseless tumult of human history, some pattern or purpose can be seen.

Like in his other works, Kant sets his argument in a series of propositions.  These propositions essentially give us his idea of progress, an 18th century idea that the human species had entered a new and brighter phase of history, an “enlightenment” after the cave- black barbarism of the “dark ages. “

What I found so interesting about Kant’s idea of progress in this essay was the way he seems to be groping towards ideas about human potential, the evolution of mind, the trajectory of human history, and even the possibilities of intelligence in the universe beyond the earth that we can, two centuries later, see much more clearly. These were ideas that could only be put into what we would recognize as a modern context by the theory of evolution, something that would have to wait 64 years into until Darwin published his Origin of Species.

Kant speculates that any creature will move towards the full manifestation of its potential, and that the full potential of all creatures are destined to be reached at least  over the long arc of time.  For human beings, this potential is definitively historical in that every generation builds on the accomplishments of the one before, so that the possibility space of human potential expands with each new person born into the world. (First and Second Propositions) .

These ideas are remarkably similar to Kevin Kelly’s idea of the relationship between human beings and the expanding possibilities opened up by technology found in his book What Technology Wants. For example, Kelly thinks that only a certain level of technological development in musical instruments could have allowed a genius like Mozart to achieve his full potential.  In Kelly’s religiously inspired view, God desires for there to exist the maximum number of perspectives and intelligences, who in turn realize their potential, and therefore constitute a reflection of God’s own divine intelligence.

They also echo the explorations of two fellow bloggers whose work I really love both of whom, from quite different perspectives, attempt to understand the evolution of human consciousness and spirituality in light of the findings of modern science and what it has told us about our place in the universe. These bloggers are John Hyland who writes the blog, John’s Consciousnessand James Cross who writes at Broad Speculations.   Check them out.

To return to Kant, in The Third and Fourth Propositions Kant reflects on how humankind had uniquely been granted almost nothing by nature except raw intelligence, and therefore, had to develop all of its capacities from their own powers of reason.  As mentioned earlier, Kant has no knowledge of the theory of evolution, though what he’s talking about in modern parlance is something we would probably call cultural evolution. And much like evolution in the biological sense, he sees innovation caused by both environmental pressures against which human beings have no natural protection, and competition for scarce resources, especially between human beings themselves. Kant deliciously calls this natural competition human beings’ “unsocial sociability”.  Humans have both a deep need to be social and the need to be separate and provide for themselves. They naturally compete with one another, and if they did not humankind would have found themselves stuck in a kind of effortless paradise reminiscent of the Eloi of H.G. Well’s The Time Machine or the Greek poet, Hesiod’s, Golden Age.  Kant writes:

Without those qualities of an unsocial kind out of which this Antagonism arises which viewed by themselves are certainly not amiable but which everyone must necessarily find in the movements of his own selfish propensities men might have led an Arcadian shepherd life in complete harmony contentment and mutual love but in that case all their talents would have forever remained hidden in their germ. As gentle as the sheep they tended such men would hardly have won for their existence a higher worth than belonged to their domesticated cattle they would not have filled up with their rational nature the void remaining in the Creation in respect of its final End.

Like other social contract theorists Kant thinks humankind’s natural antagonism leads to the creation of a coercive state which eventually gives way to mutually recognized law. The reason for the creation of a coercive state is that man as an animal needs a “master”, but this need for a master can not ultimately be fulfilled by other human beings because these “masters” are other animals as well. The answer is for human beings to place themselves under the rule of Law. For, to be ruled by Law is at one and the same time to be ruled by both an product of human intelligence and something that does not share in their animal nature.

As was the case for Hobbes, states, in Kant’s scheme, exist in a condition analogous to individuals before a the state has come into being. That is, in a condition of extreme and often violent competition. The solution Kant sees to this would be an international institution under which the world’s of representative democracies would voluntarily place themselves under in effect constraining their sovereignty with the limits of international law. An issue he more fully explores in On Perpetual Peace.

Here Kant gets interesting for he is indeed serious when he uses the phrase “cosmopolitical” in the title to his essay. The scope of his speculation expands beyond the earth and humankind to other worlds and different intelligent species. In a fascinating footnote he writes of alien worlds:

The part that has to be played by man is therefore a very artificial one. We do not know how it may be with the inhabitants of other planets or what are the conditions of their nature but if we execute well the commission of Nature we may certainly flatter ourselves to the extent of claiming a not insignificant rank among our neighbours in the universe. It may perhaps be the case that in those other planets every individual completely attains his destination in this life .With us it is otherwise only the species can hope for this.

I find this quote interesting for several reasons. For one, it seems we, or our children, will likely be the very first generation in human history to discover life elsewhere in the Milky Way. And not just bacteria, but fully developed biospheres like our own earth. People often wonder how this will affect humanity’s idea of itself, and it is a helpful reminder that for a long stretch of time after Galileo discovered “other-worlds” orbiting Jupiter, many people actually accepted, and expected , other fully developed sister-earths to exist and eventually be found. It wasn’t until telescopes were improved and long after probes sent out into space that we realized our own solar system was largely dead, and our living planet unique. In fact, the Church’s struggle with Galileo may have been much more about this implication of other earths being out than it was about any contradiction with scripture. If anyone knows of any books looking at Galileo from this angle, please share.

Kant also seems to be suggesting that human beings are collective in their intelligence in a way other species need not be, though I have no idea how to understand this without adopting the position that Kant was somehow blinded by his lack of knowledge regarding evolution- unable as I am to imagine any form of true intelligence that was truly fully formed to begin with and not the product of prior events or social in nature. Unless, that is, if he is thinking about the kinds of imagined intelligence found in immortals.

In his ninth and final proposition Kant seems to sum the whole thing up:

Much more than all this is attained by the idea of Human History viewed as founded upon the assumption of a universal plan in Nature. For this idea gives us a new ground of hope as it opens up to us a consoling view of the future in which the human species is represented in the far distance as having at last worked itself up to a condition in which all the germs implanted in it by Nature may be fully developed and its destination here on earth fulfilled.

In other words, Kant dreams that we will someday arrive in utopia, our potential fulfilled, our worst characteristics reformed.

There are intimations here not just of Kevin Kelly, and my fellow bloggers, but of Hegel, and Teilhard de Chardin, and Condorcet, and Francis Fukuyama, and Robert Wright, and Ray Kurzweil, and now, as I started this post, with Steven Pinker.

But here is where I have a bone to pick with Pinker who uses Kant as a launching point for his own progressive view of human history. For, the assumption found throughout Better Angels of Our Nature is that he (Pinker) and the and other prophet of progress who share his liberalism do real history, have a handle on reality, and are free from dangerous assumptions, while those “other guys”, the prophets of progress that he deems il-liberal, such as Marx or the French Revolutionaries, among others do “utopia”,  imagine a world which never was and can never be, and by even attempting to make it so show themselves to be lunatic, dangerous. But there is something not quite right about this view of ,and so, it is will be to this selective anti-utopianism on the part of Pinker that I will turn next time…    

Panopticon 2.0

The hope that I have long held onto, is that whatever the dystopian trends taking place today, that we have timeto stop them. This election season is making me question the possible naivete of this hope, for things are moving so fast, and the trends are so disturbing, that I am beginning to fear that by the time we even understand them enough to be motivated enough to change their trajectory, that they will already be a fait accompli.
This is nowhere more clear than the way two relatively recent trends: social media in business, and behavioral economics in academia, are being applied in the 2012 elections. These developments threaten to erode the very assumptions at the core of our democratic political system: the idea of the voter as an individual endowed with the ability for reasoned choice and argument and the capacity for morally informed judgement.Charles Duhigg’s  article in this past Sunday’s New York Times is disturbing in its portrayal of how both the Romney and Obama campaigns are using the data mining capacity of social media and the findings of behavioral psychology to manipulate people into voting for them on November, 6. I’ll take data mining and social media to start.
To be frank I was well aware of the dangers of social media as a tool for manipulation, but did not realize that perhaps the primary danger from that corner came not from the potential abuse by governments security services,but from its potential to subvert the democratic process itself.Here are some extensive quotes from Duhigg’s article “Campaigns Mine Personal Lives to Get Out Vote” on the Romney and Obama campaigns use of data mining and social media in the election.

In interviews, however, consultants to both campaigns said they had bought demographic data from companies that study details like voters’ shopping histories, gambling tendencies, interest in get-rich-quick schemes, dating preferences and financial problems.

The campaigns have planted software known as cookies on voters’ computers to see if they frequent evangelical or erotic Web sites for clues to their moral perspectives. Voters who visit religious Web sites might be greeted with religion-friendly messages when they return to mittromney.com or barackobama.com.”

You may wonder exactly where the Romney and Obama campaigns are getting such detailed personal information on voters. Quite simply, they are buying it from analytics companies that possess this kind of information on anyone with an internet connection. Which if you are reading this- means you.
I find this troubling on so many levels that exploring them all would fill multiple posts, so let me concentrate on just a few.To start with this seems to represent a qualitative change in political manipulation and institutionalized lying. One might bring up the point that elections have been about advertising since their was advertising and politicians have been lying since the ancient Greeks,   but it certainly seems that the practices detailed by Duhigg take this manipulation to a whole new level.
As I mentioned  in my post What’s Wrong With Borgdom?  ,the recent short piece of design fiction Sight offers a disturbing picture of how access to our “sociogram” or “social map”, which comes as close as we ever have to actually peering inside someone’s head, might be used as a tool of manipulation and control. To quote from that post:
Sight  is a very short film that shows us the potential dark side of a world of ubiquitous augmented reality and social profiles- a world in many ways scarier that the Borg because it seems so possible. In this film, which I really encourage you to check out for yourself, a tech- savvy hotshot, seduces, and we are led to believe probably rapes, a young woman using a “dating app” that gives him access to almost everything about her.
Sight  gets to the root of the potential problem with social media which isn’t the ability to interconnect and communicate with others , which it undoubtedly provides,  but the very real potential that it could also be used as a tool of manipulation and control.
Sight  is powerful because it shows this manipulation and control person to person, but on a more collective level manipulation and control is the actual objective of advertisement. It is the bread and butter of social media itself.”
Politicians and political advertisements have, of course, always told us what they thought we wanted to hear. But past political advertisers were in effect playing blind. They had to define their message broadly enough that it would ring true with a nondescript “average voter”. This was extremely wasteful and its wastefulness was a good thing. As long a person was able to hold true to their individuality and swim against the crowd they could could actually remain free in thought and opinion. By being able to peer under one’s skull the age of targeted advertising can use the specific qualities of the individual against himself.
This is a sophisticated form of lying in that the way political communication has been “framed” has nothing to do with the actual positions of the parties themselves, but on what they should tell you to garner your support.  A Democratic operative might reason:”He’s a registered Democrat who faithfully attends church. We will not mention any contentious social issues on which he might differ from our party platform”. For a Republican operative: “She’s a registered Republican who visits Ron Paul websites and periodically looks at porn on the internet. We should focus on lower taxes and deregulation and avoid any mention of Christian-conservative themes common in the GOP”.
This is something like the kinds of focus groups we have been seeing on cable news shows for years now where the participants are hooked up to physiological monitors while they watch debates and other political fare- their every reaction minutely monitored by a machine. The difference being that we are now all hooked up to such a machine that we call the internet, and are being monitored -secretly- something almost none of us have actually volunteered to do.
Another thing I find highly disturbing about the use of data mining and social media by the two major parties is not how they are being used right now, but their potential to stifle competition to the Democrats and Republican from a third party.  If used in this way data mining and social media will enter the already extensive tool kit: from irrational gerrymanderingto politically closed primaries, to media bias, that currently preserves the two party duopoly.Duhigg doesn’t really explore this point in his article, but theoretically it should be possible for the social maps used by the Democrats and Republicans to pick-off independents by identifying them based on the websites they visit or the books they browse on Amazon, perhaps even search for at their local library. If we don’t have psychological studies to figure out exactly what you should tell a Ron Paul supporter or a disaffected progressive to come over to “your side” messages that are then targeted at such groups in this election cycle, we will in the next.If all that weren’t creepy enough, the two parties are also taking advantage of their knowledge of our social networks to convince us to vote in their favor. Again quoting Duhigg:
When one union volunteer in Ohio recently visited the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s election Web site, for instance, she was asked to log on with her Facebook profile. Computers quickly crawled through her list of friends, compared it to voter data files and suggested a work colleague to contact in Columbus. She had never spoken to the suggested person about politics, and he told her that he did not usually vote because he did not see the point.”We talked about how if you don’t vote, you’re letting other people make choices for you,” said the union volunteer, Nicole Rigano, a grocery store employee. “He said he had never thought about it like that, and he’s going to vote this year. It made a big difference to know ahead of time what we have in common. It’s natural to trust someone when you already have a connection to them.”
I have no idea how the conversation between these two people began, but I’d put my hard earned money on the fact that it didn’t start honestly, which would have went something like this: “Based on psychological studies it has been shown that people are more likely to trust someone they know than someone they do not. A computer algorithm operated by the Obama campaign identified the fact that I was a voting Obama supporter and union member and that you were a non-voting union member, and deemed that if I spoke with you I might be able to convince you to vote for Obama”.
A very narrow band of partisan ideologues are out to define what the future of the country should look like, and that leads into my next topic: the novel use of techniques perfected in the field behavioral economics in the current election.
Duhigg doesn’t use the term behavioral economics, but I’m pretty sure it’s at the root of many of the techniques being used by the Romney and Obama campaigns. Behavioral economics is essentially the study of how to get people to do stuff. The book that brought the field to popularity a couple years back was Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass R. Suestein. The basic premise behind Nudge was that people do irrational things that aren’t really amenable to change through personal insight, but that could be shaped to be more rational by policy makers aware of how the flawed human mind actually works.  People can be influenced to make certain decisions over others by the smallest of changes, such as the decision to eat a salad or Friendly’s Grilled Cheese Burger Melt  can be influenced unconsciously by things such as menu design or food placement.
I remember reading Nudge and being frankly annoyed not just by the paternalism of the whole thing, but by the fact that it seemed to be promoting a type of paternalism laced with subterfuge where the person being “nudged” towards change had no idea what was going on. I also had the response of “who will parent the paternalist?” after all, except for a very narrowly defined set of issues regarding individual health, most questions in society are about values and trade-offs, and really can’t or shouldn’t be decided by policy makers beforehand.
There are also the questions of untestable assumptions and bias that inflict “experts”whatever their intentions. A lot of Nudge is devoted to getting Americans to sock more away in their 401ks. It was published before the financial crisis and I was reading it after the fact, and it seemed clear to me that if these “rational” experts had, using their behavioral techniques, managed to get us irrational folk to pour more savings into the stock market- those who did so would have lost their shirt. Techniques identified by Duhigg that probably have their roots in behavioral economics include:
The campaigns’ consultants have run experiments to determine if embarrassing someone for not voting by sending letters to their neighbors or posting their voting histories online is effective.  Another tactic that will be used this year, political operatives say, is asking voters whether they plan to walk or drive to the polls, what time of day they will vote and what they plan to do afterward.

The answers themselves are unimportant. Rather, simply forcing voters to think through the logistics of voting has been shown, in multiple experiments, to increase the odds that someone will actually cast a ballot.

Duhigg quotes one operative as saying:

“Target anticipates your habits, which direction you automatically turn when you walk through the doors, what you automatically put in your shopping cart,” said Rich Beeson, Mr. Romney’s political director. “We’re doing the same thing with how people vote.”
Web 2.0 could have resulted in a re-invigoration of democracy by facilitating the exchange of views between regular citizens and increasing their  capacity to politically organize.  Instead, it has resulted in an unprecedented ability for a narrow group of ideological partisans pursuing their own self-interest to control the society underneath them.
Rather than a high-tech version of Athenian democracy we have the beginnings of an electronic panopticon watching over, and attempting to subtly, and secretly, control us all.
* Image @ Top, a social map/sociogram. Source: Visual Complexity

The Utopian Moment

Sometimes great utopias are written during periods of enormous political, economic, intellectual or technological transitions. Plato’s Republic and his other lesser utopian works are written as a kind of anti-imperialist critique and alternative path just as the Western world was about to move definitively away from the dominance of city-states and into the age of empires. Thomas More’s Utopia has this transitional quality as well with his own world hurtling away from the feudal age of knights and the Universal Church towards an uncertain prot-capitalist and religiously heterogeneous Europe divided into nation-states.

Utopia doesn’t even have to be inspired by these great political changes, but can be written as a kind of laying out of a position within a debate that is largely intellectual and moral. Such was the case with Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis which both helped define and took the side of the scientific revolution in the 1500s-1600s  against the stranglehold of the philosophy of Aristotle over European thought.

These utopias might be said to represent what to borrow from the historian J.G.A Pocock could be called a utopian moment, a period in history where circumstances have lead to the verge of a major transition in the way human beings relate to one another and the world, a change that, at least for a time, seems to open up a path to realizing utopian hopes and therefore encourages a rearticulation of them.

A much lesser known utopia than the ones mentioned above, written at the very beginning of what was to become the industrial revolution, a book entitled Equality: a history of Lithconia, is, I think, representative of just such a utopian moment. Let me explain:

Equality was published as a serial in 1802 in Philadelphia by the deist journal Temple of Reason. The title of the journal, of course, was taken from the absurd and ultimately failed attempt by the French revolutionary, Robespierre, to supplant the country’s traditional Catholicism with an Enlightenment inspired “cult of the Supreme Being”.

[As a totally side note- the diversity and number of intellectual clubs, journals, scientific associations and philosophical societies found in both Europe, and America from roughly the late 1500s until the 1800s is something so fascinating to me, and something that given the lower barriers to publishing and discussion enabled today by the internet today, I think, puts our own era to shame. My hope is that we can recapture something like that in our own time, but for now I should return to my original subject.]

The author of Equality is unknown, though it is thought to have been written by the political writer Dr. James Reynolds. Regardless of who ultimately wrote the novel, it is considered the first utopia written and printed by an American, a fact that in and of itself would make it important. The book is presented as a discovered manuscript of a now dead ship’s captain describing the otherwise unknown island of Lithconia. The island is said to lie at one of the poles, which shouldn’t be surprising given that the poles, and perhaps the heart of Africa, were the only places yet to be explored, the only “final frontier” at this time. A factual sort of event horizon used by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein as well.

The author sets out to describe the utopian political economic and political system and how it emerged within the context of his own version of universal history. What makes this in many ways silly little book so fascinating to me is that you can almost feel its author, sitting at the very beginning of the industrial revolution, grappling with its utopian implications. For, whoever Equality’s author was, he or she was no luddite, and fully embraced industrialization for egalitarian ends.  The captain thinks of Lithconia:

This whole island has the appearance of one vast manufactory guided by one mind;(19)
The island is interlaced with roads and canals linking it together in one great productive unit. Centralized warehouses are the place where goods are “bought and sold”. I put that in quotes because Lithconia doesn’t use money: goods are provided to citizens based upon their needs. The island, therefore, knows neither rich nor poor nor charity.
The author of Equality was writing before steam power really became apparent as the wave of the future, but he realizes that machines are the way of the future and promise an unparalleled growth in productivity. The author understands that the future belongs to the miracle of the mechanical crank, though being unacquainted with the wonders of the steam engine, or the much farther in the future internal combustion engine, he imagines industrial production driven by water (26), and much more amazing depicts what I can only describe as a human-powered automobile (32).

Innovation is not just accepted in Lithconia, it is positively encouraged by the state with inventors winning not money but fame and the right to abstain from otherwise mandatory labor.

What are the social consequences of this new mechanized and continually innovative form of society? In Lithconia work hours are reduced to four hours a day. The society has become far too productive for much more. Persons begin work at the tender age of five, but this is mild work, more in the spirit of education and character building. The hours gradually build up until a persons maxes out at four hours around the age of twenty.

Lithconians are masters of group coordination, and not just in the economic sphere. Their army, a purely defensive force, is a supremely organized national militia. Its navy, considered an offensive force has been deliberately burnt to ashes. (38-41)They are coordinated in terms of art as well throwing concerts with up to a thousand musicians and singers performing in harmony. (35)

Lithconia is a gerontocracy where age counts much more than any kind of expertise. At the age of 50 persons become exempted from any sort of manual labor and take administrative positions in the economy. At 60 people retire from work altogether, though they do compose the actual government of Lithconia, and sit on its judgeless jurries.

The real social revolution of Lithconia is the abolition of the family, in my view, one of the very unhealthy legacies utopias have inherited from Plato. The author’s logic is that universal economic prosperity would end the economic need for the family, and that marriage would be replaced by something more like cohabitation, which, if someone looks at a relatively egalitarian society today, like Sweden, might be one prediction in the novel that has actually been born out by events.

In addition to all of this, the author gives us a version of universal history from the creation of the solar system until the founding of the Lithconia’s utopian society. The author depicts the first hunter-gatherer stage of human history as being one of widespread  prosperity an “age of innocence”. Amazing enough for a reader today this age was said to have ended and the age of scarcity begun with the onset of climate change brought about by geological and oceanic events. You might wisely think I was just bringing my modern prejudice to the book, so here’s the quote- speaking of geological and oceanic change:

This caused a great inequality, and changed the climates from temperate to a greater degree of heat and cold. Summers became intense and winters severe. During the age of innocence men multiplied prodigiously on the earth; a greater amount of foresight was necessary to provide against future contingencies. The necessities of man increased faster than his knowledge-  (49)
Only with the development of the mechanized and innovative type of society created by Lithconia was the general prosperity found in the age of innocence recovered and the devastating effects of scarcity brought on by climate change: slavery and serfdom, starvation and war, finally undone.
The historical irony here leaves me spinning. The author of Equality, poised at the very start of the industrial revolution, sees it as the means of return to the conditions of paradise, a paradise humankind was expelled from, not because of any sin against God, but because of a drastic change in the world’s climate. And here we sit, two centuries in from beginning of the industrial revolution, a revolution that itself threatens to return us to conditions of extreme scarcity by changes in climate it has brought, and more importantly, will bring in our century and the one that follows.

Still, the most important issues the author of Equality: a history of Lithconia was grappling with were the implications of mechanization, innovation, and coordination for our economic life. Almost none of the author’s hopes came true, even over the long term. The most glaring example of this is the average number of hours worked per day. The author thinks the modernization of the economic system would result in the 4 hour day.  This number might at first seem way too low at first glance, until one remembers that British farmers averaged 6 hrs of work per day  at the time the author was writing Equality.

By 1820, however, American factory workers, rather than having reduced daily hours of work, saw their hours skyrocket to around 17 hrs per day. Overtime, this insane number of hours would be gradually reduced both by legislation and by changes in social norms, but even today, average hours are double what the author of Equality predicted what is now 210 years ago. What gives?

The revolutionary increases in productivity the author of Equality saw coming over the horizon were real, and would prove even more profound than its author could have imagined. It seems to me that you can only do a select number of things with such radical changes in output: You can assume, as the author did, that the upper limit of human consumption has been reached, and use the new productivity to both spread that upper limit throughout the population and reduce the average number of hours worked. Or, you can increase the population to the extent that the new level of production can be absorbed, and this increase in population could come either by increasing the birth rate, decreasing the death rate (increasing longevity), or both. This increase of the population can also run parallel to more widespread consumption both on the low end and the high end of the economic scale.

It is quite clear to me that we largely ignored the prescriptions of the author of Equality and took the latter course. The world population was approximately 1 billion in 1800, whereas today it is approaching 9 billion.  The average life expectancy in the US in 1850 (the earliest year available) was less than 40, roughly half of today’s. The US consumed less than 1 quadrillion BTUS of energy in 1800 compared to today’ 35 quadrillion BTUS.

The fact that we may be on the verge of yet another revolutionary change in productivity, this time driven not by dumb machines, but by intelligent ones, able to perform perhaps the majority of the tasks now done by human beings is an issue explored in a recent TED Talk by Andrew McAfee entitled Are droids taking our jobs?”  McAfee point is that robots and algorithms are becoming increasingly ubiquitous and are taking over jobs that were once considered the permanent domain of skilled labor.

This point was also made, and more extensively  by Martin Ford in his Lights at the End of the Tunnel.  Advanced algorithms now effectively run our financial markets, and this despite their corrosive effects on the public will expressed through democracy. Intelligent machines are now increasingly called upon to fight our wars despite the ethical and political implications of using such machines in this way. Artificial intelligence can now win trivia games, or more disturbingly for some, write symphonies.

As McAfee points out in his talk, given the likely continuation of Moore’s Law, we are at the mere beginning of this revolution. What I think many miss is that even if we never achieve the feat of creating a human type of intelligence in a machine, or remain much farther out from the goal than many insist- a point recently made by David Deutsch, it many not matter all that much in terms of the looming economic impact of ubiquitous robotics and AI.  For, even machines much less sophisticated than the generalist intelligence of human beings might prove, indeed have already proven, better than humans in performing many quite sophisticated tasks. From beating human beings at chess to driving cars.

If this robotics and weak AI revolution is for real, then the question becomes what will we do with the increased productivity the use of such technology will most likely bring? The paths we followed after the industrial revolution: increased consumption and increased population seem closed to us. What I mean by that is this:

An increase in the population growth rate, as occurred after the industrial revolution, from the current slowing one would seem to invite environmental catastrophe. Using these new technologies to increase consumption doesn’t seem all that wise, or even necessary, either: How much more can the world’s uber-consumers, the Americans, really be expected to consume? How much larger can our homes, our cars, even our bodies become? Whereas the spread of American like living standards to the world’s poor is in many, many respects a good thing, can we really expect the entire world’s population to live like Americans? Such a goal, too, would seem to court environmental disaster.

In addition to this we are facing a situation where the jobs of the young will be increasingly automated while the old hold onto their own employment through seniority until the very last minute, and then spend a generation supported by a shrinking working age population below them.

How strange is it then that a utopian fairy-tale by an anonymous author two centuries ago would point to some ways through these dilemmas.  Not more consumption, but more equally spread consumption kept at the same level for those in the most advanced societies would be a wise way forward. Not longer hours for more stuff, but shorter hours and increased time for actually living would be the humanistic way to benefit from any new revolution in productivity.

Lastly, perhaps the old should not sit idle throughout the last quarter century of their lives, but be brought fully into the service of government and society. It would be a way both for the old to step aside and leave dynamism to the young in the private sphere while society taps their experience to teach their grandchildren, to care for the society they will soon leave behind,  and to guide the state with their prudence and natural conservatism. That would qualify as seizing our utopian moment.

Looking Backward

Imagine, if you will, the following scenario taking place today: A, to this point failed, novelist writes an updated version of Rip-Van Winkle where his protagonists falls asleep to be awakened a century or so in the future. Through this protagonist the reader is then given a tour through a future in which the social problems of his own day have been completely resolved, the linchpin of their solution being a new and revolutionary economic system.  To add a human element to the story the protagonist finds love in this future-world in the form of the great-great granddaughter of the woman he loved a century in the past, a love that his coma had tragically stopped short.

My guess is that today such a novel would be judged, though not in these words, a mere “ fairy tale of social felicity” (Bellamy)  If it was lucky, it would find itself on the shelf at Barnes and Noble next to works by J.R. Tolkien, or J.K. Rowling. What is most unlikely is that the book would become the third largest best seller in US history, and that it would spawn the formation of “clubs” throughout the country where professionals: doctors, lawyers, professors, and scientists would gather round to discuss whether the book offered a blueprint for solving society’s economic and political ills. It would seem out of the ordinary for such a book today to engender actual debate among political theorists, let alone in the form of other utopian novels that tried to play out rival versions of the future. Nor would it seem likely that real-world revolutionaries would take such a piece of pulp-fiction seriously. I mean Rip-Van Winkle? Come on!

And yet, all these things were precisely what happened to Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887. The novel tells the story of Julian West who falls into a coma like sleep in 1887 and wakes up in the year 2000. The world in which Julian awakes is one which has solved the endemic problems of capitalism: class war, economic instability, and inequality and constitutes a socialist utopia where the means of production are under the centralized control of the federal government. Something Bellamy, almost a half-century before Hitler would steal the phrase, called “national socialism”.

Bellamy got at least the general outlines of some future economic and technological developments right, though his Victorianism gives his vision of the future a decidedly steampunk feel. He imagines goods being bought in centralized warehouses tied together in a complex, super-fast, and efficient nation-spanning logistics system: a system managers at Wal- Mart and Amazon would certainly recognize. Bellamy envisions a kind of telephone/radio that would allow live performances to be piped in from anywhere in the country to anyone’s home. He imagines all purchases being made with something like a credit card. Although, because this income comes from the government, it has a stronger resemblance to the “Access Cards” given to the needy to purchase food, medical care, and other necessities.

What meaning this Victorian tale could have for today is discussed in an excellent recent essay in Lapham’s Quarterly by, Ben Tarnoff, entitled “Magical Thinking. (The picture above is taken from that article).  Tarnoff thinks we can take away two things by considering Looking Backward. The first is how the novel, and the spirit which it represents, can be contrasted with our own anti-utopian sentiments, the product he thinks, of our encounter with the most horrific versions of “utopianism” in the early 20th century. The second is that Tarnoff sees the novel as emerging out of the problems of capitalism. Problems that Bellamy in his own way was trying to solve, and which we ourselves relate to in a much different way.

Rather than having ever solved those problems Tarnoff believes we have come to accept them:

The twenty-first century bears little resemblance to Bellamy’s future; the closer comparison would be to his present, to the late nineteenth century that the hero of his novel happily escapes. This was a society defined by tremendous income inequality, financial uncertainty, sleazy politics—in other words, much like our own. The contradictions of modern capitalism haven’t resolved themselves, as Bellamy assumed. Rather, they’ve become deeply embedded in American life, and the new economic world created after the Civil War has come to feel so natural, so inescapable, that even many of its staunchest critics have trouble imagining an alternative.

I agree with Tarnoff’s first point, that our ability to imagine alternatives is stunted compared to the very creative era in which Bellamy lived, but I want to qualify Tarnoff’s second point that this lack of imagination can be explained by the fact that we’ve somehow come to live with the kinds of problems Bellamy thought just couldn’t go on without giving rise to the demand for an alternative.

In our own era utopian science-fiction and political philosophy, let alone economic theory have seemingly completely parted company. There are exceptions to this- Ayn Rand has a cult following among libertarians, and Ursula Le Guin has captured the hearts of anarchists, but these are exceptions. (If anyone has other examples please, please share in the comments section).

The very word utopian is a kind of intellectual insult that means you just aren’t serious about what you are saying and need better acquaintance with the limiting reality of facts.

Taroff believes we have come to this stunted imagination because we have come to accept the kinds of economic and political conditions that Bellamy found intolerable, but this position becomes somewhat less clear when we take the longer view.

Bellamy was writing during a period of intense economic dislocation, labor unrest, and stagnating economic growth that began during the 1870’s and is known as the Long Depression. In her book Imperialism (book 2 of the Origins of Totalitarianism) the political theorist, Hannah Arendt, credits this economic crisis with the great wave of largely European imperialism at the end of the 19th century. Imperialism didn’t solve the economic crisis, and what occurred instead is that the crisis was met by a whole series of measures starting in the United States to solve some of the the endemic problems of “late capitalism”, by for instance, preventing the rise of monopolies.

Yet, truly revolutionary forces pushing towards an alternative economic system to capitalism would only come to the fore in the aftermath of the First World War, in the collapsed Russian Empire, forces that would gain traction in Western countries with the collapse of the world economy in the Great Depression. Thereafter, public policy, even in a society convinced of the virtues of free-enterprise, such as the United States, would push in the direction of a “tamed” capitalism and a more equal society in which the abuses, instabilities and inequality of capitalism were contained. Technological and demographic developments would dovetail with these efforts and result in an unprecedented period of widespread prosperity and economic calm, though perhaps also one lacking economic innovation, and certainly one of endemic inflation and general stagnation.

When this age of growth began to peter-out in the 1970s the logic seemed to be that the way back to more innovative and less inflationary growth would be to return to at least some of the conditions of capitalism in the era of Bellamy: a return to less regulated markets, tougher competition between labor- including American workers with lower paid workers abroad- a less generous welfare-state, and an acceptance of inequality as the byproduct of success in economic competition.

It should not come as a surprise at all that the kind of utopianism found in the 1950s and 60s wasn’t really proposing an alternative form of society and economics, but instead was a super-technological, Popular Mechanics, version of the consumer society that had, after all, only just come into being after the horrors of Depression and War. Nor, should it seem shocking that utopianism, again as  a serious alternative version of the current economic and political order, was so silent after the 1970s. The spirit of the times was that it was our utopian aspirations that had gotten us into the mess we were in in the first place.

Christian Caryl, in an excellent article for the magazine Foreign Policy, 1979: The Great Backlash offers the argument that the contemporary era, whatever we might choose to call it, should be dated not from the end of the Cold War or 9/11, but the year 1979. Caryl pools together some of the most seemingly different cast of characters in modern history: Margaret Thatcher, Deng Zhou Ping (the post Mao premier of China), the Ayatollah  Khomeini, and Pope John Paul II. Ronald Reagan would join this crew with his election in 1981.  Caryl contends that all of  these figures, in their very different ways pushed the world in the direction of a common goal:

The counterrevolutionaries of 1979 attacked what had been the era’s most deeply held belief: the faith in a “progressive” vision of an attainable political order that would be perfectly rational, egalitarian, and just. The collapse of the European empires after World War I and the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, and the triumph of wartime bureaucracy and planning during World War II all gave forward thrust to this vision; postwar decolonization and the rapid spread of Marxist regimes around the world amplified it. By the 1970s, however, disillusionment had begun to set in, with a growing sense in many countries that heartless (and in some cases violent) elites had tried to impose a false, mechanistic vision on their countries, running roughshod over traditional sensibilities, beliefs, and freedoms. As a result of the late 1970s revolt, we live today in a world defined by pragmatic and traditional values rather than utopian ones.

For three decades we have lived in this world where the utopian imagination has been expelled from the intellectual field. For my money, the question is: do we still live in this world?

We might answer this question by looking at the current state of the counter-revolutions of 1979.  The Thatcher-Reagan revolution that pushed the idea of a less regulated market based society seems to have hit a wall with the 2008 financial crisis. Even before then, the idea that unleashing market forces would result in a general prosperity, rather than serve to heighten economic inequality, was already in doubt. A Romney-Ryan victory in the elections might give these ideas a new lease on life, for a time, but their administration is unlikely to solve the problems at the root of the current crisis because their philosophy itself was born out of a distinct set of economic and social problems that either no longer exist or are not the real problem: runaway inflation, the stranglehold of powerful unions, stifling regulation of the financial markets, welfare dependency. (It should be added that a continued Obama-Biden administration has no real solutions to our current problems either.)

It also seems quite clear that the capitalist revolution begun by Deng Zhou Ping in China seems to have played itself out. China is facing daunting demographic, environmental, political and socio-economic challenges that undermine its model of export led growth and one-party dictatorship. China cannot continue its rate of blistering growth because its disastrous one-child-policy has resulted in a society “that may grow old before it becomes rich”, even the slower growth it has been experiencing of late may be too fast for its fragile environment to sustain. The one-party dictatorship rather than representing the rule of wise, red-robed  mandarins is rot-through with corruption and increasingly incapable of rational decisions- China builds bullet trains, but fails to build the practical infrastructure of a city like Beijing, so that the city experiences dangerous floods in which hundreds are killed.

Post-Khomeini Iran is a basket case in terms of its economy. It is unable to engage in needed reforms- as witnessed when it crushed the Green Revolution, and though it might have gained a huge strategic windfall with the American’s foolish overthrow of Iran’s worse enemy- Saddam Hussein’s Iraq- it has seeming squandered these gains. It has squandered the goodwill of the Arab populace in the wider region by supporting its murderous ally in Syria, and by obstinately pursuing the technology for atomic weaponry which alienates Arab governments, has resulted in the US strangling the country economically, and may result in an actual attack by Israeli or US forces- or both, which will further set back this great and historic people.

Lastly, the Catholic Church which saw the charismatic John Paul II succeeded by the papal bureaucrat of Pope Benedict, has seen its moral authority eroded by its secretive response to the tragedy of child sexual abuse by its clergy. The very conservatism that
served the Church so well when it fought against communism threatens now to not so much destroy the Church as radically shrink it. Rather than focus its energies on the real problem of rapidly disappearing numbers of priests, which might be solved by embracing women, and/or allowing priest to marry, it rewrites the liturgy to make it more historically authentic. American Bishops even goes so far as to threaten Church members who do not fully embrace politically all of the Church’s thinking with “soft-excommunication” in the form of being banned from receiving communion.

A good case can be therefore be made that the anti-utopian counter-revolution begun in 1979, is in many respects, a spent force.

There are ways in which the critical observations of late 19th century society offered up by Bellamy in Looking Backward eerily resemble the problems of our own day. The novel begins with the narrator lamenting the sad state of the relations between labor and capital.

Strikes had become so common at that period that people had ceased to inquire into their particular grounds In one department of industry or another they had been nearly incessant ever since the great business crisis of 1873. In fact it had come to be the exceptional thing to see any class of laborers pursue their avocation steadily for more than a few months at a time.

What we did see was that industrially the country was in a very queer way. The relation between the workingman and the employer between labor and capital appeared in some unaccountable manner to have become dislocated. The working classes had quite suddenly and very generally become infected with a profound discontent with their condition and an idea that it could be greatly bettered if they only knew how to go about it On every side with one accord they preferred demands for higher pay shorter hours better dwellings better educational advantages and a share in the refinements and luxuries of life demands which it was impossible to see the way to granting unless the world were to become a great deal richer than it then was.  (LB-19-21)

Bellamy describes the relationship between the minority of the rich and the majority of the poor in the 1880s as that of the rich seated in a coach being pulled by an army of the poor.

The driver was hunger and permitted no lagging though the pace was necessarily very slow. Despite the difficulty of drawing the coach at all along so hard a road the top was covered with passengers who never got down even at the steepest ascents.

Naturally such places were in great demand and the competition for them was keen everyone seeking as the first end in life to secure a seat on the coach for himself and to leave it to his child after him. (LB 11-12)

How did the rich feel about the condition of the poor?

Was not their very luxury intolerable to them by comparison with the of their brothers and sisters in the harness the knowledge that their own weight added their toil? Had they no compassion for beings from whom fortune only them? Oh yes commiseration was expressed by those who rode for those had to pull the coach especially when vehicle came to a bad place in the road it was constantly doing or to a steep hill.

It was agreed that it was a great pity that the coach should be so hard to pull and there was a sense of general relief when the specially bad piece of road was gotten over This relief was not indeed wholly on account of the team for there was always some danger at these bad places of a general overturn in which all would lose their seats.

It must in truth be admitted that the main effect of the spectacle of the misery of the toilers at the rope was to enhance the passengers sense of the value of their seats upon the coach and to cause them to hold on to them more desperately than before. If the passengers could only have felt assured that neither they nor their friends would ever fall from the top it is probable that beyond contributing to the funds for liniments and bandages they would have troubled themselves extremely little about those who dragged the coach. (LB 13-15).   

The financial panic of 1873 and the economic depression that followed, the conditions which inspired Bellamy to write Looking Backward,  have been replaced in our imagination by the Great Depression of the 1930s. Aside from economic historians, few people probably even known that there was a collapse of financial markets in the 1870s ,or that it was followed by a period of very slow growth that saw acute struggles between capital and labor for society’s diminishing returns. This lack of historical knowledge is sad because it blinds us to the historical scenario that is perhaps the best analogy to our own. Whereas the Great Depression saw a financial crisis followed by severe unemployment, the Long Depression began with a financial crisis in 1873 and was followed by a generation of mass underemployment and deflation. This point that 1873 and its aftermath are the better analogy to our own day has been made by many economists-including Paul Krugman.  

The times, therefore, might be ripe for an upsurge in utopian imagination, a utopianism conscious of its own colossal failures and the crimes committed in its name.

Looking Backward: 2100-2012, anyone?