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.