Why liberals might kill free speech

We’ve got a huge problem on our hands which the 2016 election, along with Brexit, has not so much created as fully exposed. What we’ve witnessed is a kind of short-circuit between the three pillars that have defined our particular form of democratic liberalism over the last century. Democratic liberalism over the 20th and into the 21st century consisted of a kind of balance between the public at large, mass media, and policy elites with the link between the three being political representatives of one of the major parties. As idealized by public philosophers such as Walter Lippmann, the role of politicians was to choose among the policy options presented by experts and “sell” those policies to the public using the tools of mass communication to ensure their legitimacy.

The fact that such a balance became the ideal in the first place, let alone its inevitable failure, can only be grasped fully when one becomes familiar with its history.

Non-print based mass media only became available during the course of the First World War and it was here that the potential of media such as film, radio, posters and billboards to create a truly emotionally and ideologically unified public became apparent- although the US had come close to this discovery a little over in a decade earlier in the form of mass circulation newspapers which were instrumental in getting the American public behind the Spanish- American War and that itself gave rise to real standards of objectivity in journalism.

During WWI it was the Americans and British who mastered the art of war propaganda transforming their enemies the Germans into savage “huns” and engendering a kind of will to sacrifice for what (at least for the Americans) was a distant and abstract cause. Lippmann himself was on the Creel Committee which launched this then new form of political propaganda. Hitler would write enviously of British and American propaganda in Mein Kampf, and both the Nazis and the Soviet would use the new media and the proof of concept offered by allied powers in the war, to form the basis of the totalitarian state. Those systems ultimately failed but their rise and attraction reveal the extent to which democracy, less than a century from our own time, was seen to be failing. Not just the victory of the Soviets in the war, but the way they were able to rapidly transform the Russian Empire from an agrarian backwater to an industrial and scientific powerhouse seemed to show that the future belonged to the system that most fully empowered its technocrats.

The Great Depression and Second World War would prove to be the golden age of experts in the West as well. In the US in was technocrats who crafted the response to the economic crisis, who managed the American economy during the war, who were responsible for technological breakthroughs such as atomic weapons, rockets capable of reaching space, and the first computers. It was policy experts who crafted novel responses to unprecedented political events such as the Marshall Plan and Containment.

Where the Western and Soviet view of the role of experts differed had less to do with their prominence and more to do with their plurality or lack of it. Whereas in the Soviet Union all experts were united under the umbrella of the Party, Western countries left the plurality of experts intact so that the bureaucrats who ran big business were distinct from the bureaucrats who ran government agencies and neither had any clear relationship to the parties that remained the source of mass political mobilization while the press remained free (if not free of elite assumptions and pressures) to forge the public’s interpretation of events as it liked.

Lippmann had hoped the revolutionary medium of his time- television- would finally provide a way for the technocrats he thought necessary to rule a society that had become too complex for the form of representative democracy that had preceded allowing experts to directly communicate with the public and in so doing forge consensus for elite policies. What dashed his hopes was a rigged game show.

The Quiz show scandal that broke in the 1950’s (it was made into an excellent movie in the 90’s) proved to Lippmann that American style television with its commercial pressures could not be the medium he had hoped for. In his essay, Television: whose creature, whose servant?   Lippmann called for the creation of an American version of the BBC. (PBS would be created in 1970, as would NPR). Indeed, the scandal did drive the three major US television networks- especially CBS- towards the coverage of serious news and critical reporting. Such reporting helped erode political support for the Vietnam war, though not, as it’s often believed, by turning public opinion against the war, but as pointed out back in the 1980’s by Michael Mandelbaum in his essay Vietnam: The Television War  by helping to mobilize such as vast number of opponents as to polarize the American public in a way that made sustaining the post-war consensus unsustainable. Vietnam was the first large scale failure of the technocrats- it would not be their last.

From the 1970’s until today this polarization was mined by a new entry on the media landscape- cable news- starting with Ted Turner and CNN. As Tim Wu lays out in his book The Master Switch, the rise of cable was in part enabled by Nixon’s mistrust of what was then “mainstream news” (Nixon helped deregulate cable). This rise (more accurately return) of partisan media occurred at the same time Noam Chomsky (owl of Minerva like) in his book Manufacturing Consent was arguing that the press was much less free and independent than it pretended to be. Instead it was wholly subservient to commercial influence and the groupthink of those posing to be experts. And hadn’t, after all, George Kennan, the brilliant mind behind containment and an unapologetic elitists compared American democracy to a monster with a brain the size of a pin?

Chomsky’s point held even in the era of cable news for there was a great deal of political diversity that fell outside the range between Fox News and CNN. Manufactured consent would fail, however, with the rise of the internet which would allow the cheap production and distribution of political speech in a way that had never been seen before, though there had been glimpses. Political speech was democratized at almost the exact same time trust in policy elites had collapsed. The reasons for such a collapse in trust aren’t hard to find.

American policy elites have embraced an economic agenda that has left working class income stagnant for over a generation. The globalization and de-unionization they promoted has played a large (though not the only) role in the decline of the middle class on which stable democracy depends. The Clinton machine bears a large responsibility for the left’s foolish embrace of this neoliberal agenda, which abandoned blue collar workers to transform the Democratic party into a vehicle for white collar professionals and identity groups.

Foreign policy elites along with an uncritical mainstream media led us into at least one disastrous and wholly unnecessary war in Iraq, a war whose consequences continue to be felt and which was exacerbated by yet more failure by these same elites. Our economic high-priests brought us the 2008 financial crisis the response to which has been a coup by the owning classes at the cost of trillions of dollars. As Trump’s “populist” revolt of Goldman Sachs alums demonstrates, the oligarchs now thoroughly control American government.

And it’s not only social science experts, politicians and journalist who have earned the public’s lack of trust. Science itself is in a crisis of gaming where it seems “results” matter much more than the truth. Corporations engage in deliberate disinformation, what Robert Proctor calls agnotology.

The three legs of Lippmann’s stool- policy experts, the media, and the public have collapsed as expertise has become corporatized and politicians have become beholden to those corporate interest, while at the same time political speech has escaped from anyone’s overt control. Trump seems to be the first political figure to have capitalized on this breakdown- a fact that does not bode well for democracy’s future.

Perhaps we should just call a spade a spade and abandon political representation and policy experts for government via electronic referendum. Yet, however much I love the idea of direct democracy, it seems highly unlikely that the sort of highly complex society we currently possess could survive absent the heavy input of experts– even in light of their very obvious flaws.

It’s just as possible that China where technocrats rule and political speech and activity is tightly controlled by leveraging the centralized nature of internet could be the real shape of the future. The current structure of internet which is controlled by only a handful of companies certainly makes the path to such a plutocratic censorship regime possible.

Returning to the work of Tim Wu, we can see the way in which communications empires have risen and fell over the course of the last century: we’ve had the telephone, film, radio, television and now the computer. In all cases with the noted exception of television new media have arisen in a decentralized fashion, merged into gigantic corporations such as Bell telephone, and then are later broken up or lose dominance to upstarts who have adopted new means of transmission or whole new types of media itself.

What perhaps makes our era different in a way Wu doesn’t explore is that for the first time diversity of content is occurring under conditions of concentrated ownership. Were only a handful of companies such as FaceBook and Google to pursue the task in earnest they could exercise nearly complete control over political speech and thus end the current era. Such rule need not be rapacious but instead represent a kind of despotic-liberalism that mobilizes public opinion behind policies many of us care about such as stemming global warming. It’s the kind of highly rational nightmare Malka Older imagined in her sci-fi thriller Infomacracy and Dave Eggers gave a darker hue in his book The Circle.

Hopefully liberalism itself in the form of constitutional protections of free speech will prevent us from going so far down this route. (Although the Courts appear to think that Google et. al’s  right to police their platforms’ content is itself protected under the First Amendment.) How our long standing constitutional protections adapt to a world where “speech” can come in the form of bots which outnumber humans and foreign governments insert themselves into our elections is anybody’s guess.

The best alternative to either despotic-liberalism or chaos is to restore trust in policy elites by finding ways to make such elites more accountable and therefore trustworthy. We need to come up with new ways to combine the necessary input of real experts with the revolution in communications that has turned every citizen into a source of media. For failing to find a way to rebalance expertise and democratic governance would mean we either lose our democracy to flawed experts (as Plato would have wanted) or surrender to the chaos of an equally flawed and fickle, and now seemingly permanently Balkanized, public opinion.

 

A Reformation of Truth and Trust

ouroboros

“Fake realities will create fake humans. Or, fake humans will generate fake realities and then sell them to other humans, turning them, eventually, into forgeries of themselves. So we wind up with fake humans inventing fake realities and then peddling them to other fake humans. It is just a very large version of Disneyland. You can have the Pirate Ride or the Lincoln Simulacrum or Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride – you can have all of them, but none is true.”

Philip K. Dick  

“The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

Groucho Marx

When Vladislav Surkov invented the post-internet politics of  infowar back in the first decade of the 21st century he was openly drawing on Western postmodernism whose philosophers had been the first to articulate the nature of our “post-truth” age.  Surkov was especially influenced by the philosophy of Jean Baudrillard who in works such as Simulacra and Simulation had tried to put his finger on exactly what the West had lost when its belief in Truth- like God and morality before it-  first fell from the horizon, and then became inarticulable, only to finally become altogether untenable.

Yet Baudrillard’s ideas regarding the merely symbolic nature of the real, and the non-existence of the truth didn’t just appear like a rabbit out of a hat. They were the dividend of a centuries long process by which our notions regarding the true and the real had been lost under the relentless inquisition of both philosophy and science, and emerged as blowback from the catastrophic barbarity of scientism during the 20th century.

To start, some quick and dirty history: We had known since Plato how far our idea of the real likely diverged from the real itself with the tasks of philosophy being to uncover this hidden truth from its occlusion by human biology and historical prejudice. And yet philosophers never quite managed to pin down what this supposedly real world behind the world of appearances actually consisted of, though the pythagorean progenitors of Plato, along with the genius himself,  believed we caught our clearest glimpse of it when exploring truths related to numbers. Or, as it read over the entrance to the Academy: “Let no-one ignorant of geometry enter here”

Yet Plato, it should be remembered, wasn’t just motivated to discover a basis for the truth as a philosophical quest, but also as part of a political project that would form the basis for a non-democratic order. Athenian democracy which had proven fickle and a failure at war, and which, above all, had executed Plato’s teacher and friend Socrates could be proven unsustainable if the majority could be shown to be incapable of discovering, understanding, and living in conformity with the true and the good.

When well over a millennia after Plato a new science, based on mathematics and tested through observation, emerged in the modern era it was widely known how fragile a philosophical foundation such a project rested upon given what was either the loss an earlier prisca sapientia (ancient wisdom) based upon numbers (a loss that would have precluded the establishment of real science in the medieval period) or, and for the inventors of the new science the more troubling prospect, that such a foundation had proved impossible to establish in the first place.

In response to this foundational anxiety Descartes tried to ground mathematical truth within consciousness itself, the one thing whose reality he found impossible to dismiss. The problem here being that the “real” world, the one outside of our models, had now become trapped behind our eyeballs and was thus perhaps even less graspable than before. It took Kant in the 18th century to more or less prove that the ground of truth, mathematical or otherwise, which philosophers had long sought after was ultimately unreachable due to the limitations of the human mind. And yet, Kant still retained the faith that the real was actually there.

Nietzsche amplified Kant’s received recognition that the truth was unknowable into an explosion and concluded that what we called the truth was a mere weapon of power.  Much of 20th century philosophy- the linguistic turn begun by Wittgenstein, the critique of the media articulated by the Frankfurt School – has been footnotes to Nietzsche s conclusion that the will to truth is inseparable from the will to power. This then is the historical perch from which Baudrillard writes in Simulacra and Simulation where he lays out his own lament on the death of truth.

The stages Baudrillard lays out for the image through which we communicate the truth run this way with us believing that the image:

is the reflection of a profound reality;

masks and denatures a profound reality;

masks the absence of a profound reality;

has no relation to any reality whatsoever;

is its own pure simulacrum.

Our loss of faith in the religious truth revealed by the image parallels our the similar loss of the truth by philosophy and although Baudrillard doesn’t really delve deeply into the historical content of his meaning, I don’t think it’s all that difficult to draw such connections.

Images at first are believed to ways to connect with or echoes of a profound, transcendent world beyond our own. What perhaps the caves paintings of Lascaux were to those who made them and what Christian iconography was up until the Reformation, and especially in the Orthodox tradition.

Protestant iconoclasts broke violently with Catholic iconography at the very least because they saw it as a form of idolatry whose very purpose was to occlude the truth as it was given in the Bible. Atheists materialists saw in icons an attempt to plug the gaping holes which any attempt to actually believe the stories presented in the Bible or any other religious text required. They saw in idealist philosophy a childish attempt to escape the atheistic implications of the new science.

Perhaps it was a mistake to not see the entire thing as a fraud meant to keep the majority of human beings oppressed and confused. Or maybe all of our projections are merely a reflection of our own collective madness. Even insanity, however, is predicated on there being a reality one has deviated from. But if there is no reality, if all that exists are our representations of this non- existent thing we call reality, then all we are left with are our own images and models.

There is an economic and technological aspect to this loss as well. Technology, first in the form of industrial production, but now even more so as media and digital representation, has increased our capacities to make copies of things (simulacra) or such copies in motion (simulations). It is as our simulations have become ever more detailed and “lifelike “that they have managed to supplant what we once considered the truly real. Above all there has been the move towards financialization, the process by which all the world is being transformed into capital and code.  

At this point you many feel a little dizzy (I am a little dizzy), so to sum up, at our current historical juncture- the juncture which Baudrillard is addressing- Western culture (or at least a large and the most educated portion of it) has lost its belief both in some capital “T” truth lying behind our representations and models, along with our faith in any transcendent world where such truth might be grounded beyond our own, which might have to be accepted merely on faith. We’re thus left without the comforts of either realism or religion, and it’s into this vacuum that the flood of commodified and infinitely replicable simulations and simulacra will pour.

For Baudrillard this proliferation has resulted in the reign of the hyperreal, where our representations have swamped and often appear more authentic than reality itself. Given he was writing in 1981 we have moved far more deeply into the realm of the hyperreal than Baudrillard could have foreseen. Today a naturalists and author such Diane Ackerman can be seriously concerned that experiencing nature through the lens of the hyperreal- via video and virtual reality- is leading to the atrophy of our capacity to experience nature as the creatures who evolved within it which we undoubtedly are. In a similar vein astronomer and author Pippa Goldschmidt can lament how astronomers need never view the sky with their own eyes.

Far more worrisome is what has been alluded to by the novelists William Gibson; namely, that this kind narrowing of the distinction between the virtual worlds and persons and ones that actually exist can end up turning real flesh-and-blood human beings into mere playthings of our imagination. The fact that so much of this election cycle’s political speech has been the product of bots adds yet another level of hyperreal vertigo.

I am perhaps just as worried about the reign of the hyperreal resulting in a widespread incapacity to engage with the real world.  For Baudrillard as well the reign of the hyperreal results in what he calls the “implosion” of our social and political capacities. Politics becomes a game of symbolic impact rather than the pursuit of actual goals. It’s not a far step from here that every event that occurs dissolves into some sort of conspiracy or as Baudrillard puts it:

Is any given bombing in Italy the work of leftist extremists, or extreme-right provocation, or a centrist mise-en-scène to dis-credit all extreme terrorists and to shore up its own failing power, or again, is it a police-inspired scenario and a form of blackmail to public security? All of this is simultaneously true, and the search for proof, indeed the objectivity of the facts does not put an end to this vertigo of interpretation.

And:

The facts no longer have a specific trajectory, they are born at the intersection of models, a single fact can be engendered by all the models at once.

If one of the primary reasons for speaking is so that we can come to consensus regarding the true and the good, the basis upon which Aristotle defined humanity as zoon politikon, then the reason for such communication disappears once the true and the good are no longer believed to exist. Language is then all about the issuing of commands, or, because in losing our belief in the truth and transcendence we’ve also lost any notion of authority that might be based upon them. If we want someone to do something our only options are coercion through violence- real and threatened- or seduction, which in a societal context means advertising. Writing in the late 1970’s Baudrillard could witness whole cities- Las Vegas- disappear under billboards of neon, a potent symbol of what was happening to society itself:

Today what we are experiencing is the absorption of all virtual modes of expression into that of advertising. All original cultural forms, all determined languages are absorbed in advertising because it has no depth, it is instantaneous and instantaneously forgotten.

Since Baudrillard wrote Simulacra and Simulation the situation has become incredibly worse. A pessimistic read of the current reproducibility problem in science, where seemingly evermore experiments are reported as breakthroughs only to never be replicated again, is that it arises in part from a lack of belief that the task of a scientist (or scholar) is to discover the truth, rather than pursue publication itself or attempt to bolster the bottom line of one’s client.

Science and scholarship has become sucked up in the optimization game where the goal is no longer to patiently build out structures of knowledge generations, but to make the biggest splash in the immediate present-science as advertising. None of that is nearly as bad as the deliberate manufacturing of ignorance, which can be done in the name of “gathering more evidence” as much as deliberate lying. Such agnotology was mastered by the tobacco and fossil fuel industries and seems to be a deeply ingrained political tactic of Donald Trump.

One might be forgiven for thinking Baudrillard would have gotten along with Silicon Valley types. After all, it’s among coders that the belief seems to be rife that we are already living in a simulation. The very same kind of world made out of 1’s and 0’s Stephen Wolfram think we’re on the verge of creating, which he calls “a box of a trillion souls”.  Yet Baudrillard supposedly hated when people compared his ideas to the movie The Matrix, the problem for him being those who thought we are living in a simulation, weren’t being radical enough. For Baudrillard there is no base level- just a snake made of code eating its own tail .

Baudrillard published Simulacra and Simulation in 1981 and we’ve fall much, much further down the rabbit hole since. On the political level- Ronald Reagan may have been an actor but he had also been the governor of the country’s richest and most populous state- California. Trump, by contrast, is a mere media construction, either that or something eerily similar to the tyrannical character Plato claimed democracies always create. Partly it was the sheer lack of trust that the media was telling the truth about his inadequacies that helped get Trump elected, but almost all institutions appear to be crumbling under this loss of public trust. ISIS. the most successful terrorist organization of our generation has been as much a media production company as anything else.

Every year advertising becomes more and more intimate with our bodies and our senses are quietly subsumed by those whose interests advertising serves, just as the fakes we create- our images and automatons- become ever more confusable with the real.

Where Baudrillard goes wrong, I think, is in believing that there wouldn’t be constant rebellions against this state of floating in thin air. What this means is that although elites and the educated may have lost their belief that truth and goodness could ever be satisfactorily defined most human beings were going to continue to sort themselves along these lines, and the new forms of media were going to vastly increase their capacity to do so free from any guidance or input by elites.

Yet a society composed of such warring collectives lacking some notion of the common good or means of permanently settling disputes isn’t sustainable either, which is why we’ll need to somehow recreate the kinds of buffers and editorial features of the older communications landscape without replicating its elite capture and control. The kinds of answers to the problem of post-truth whereby the internet giants are asked to police what is true or false or contract this role to some other organization is not a democratic solution to our problem.

The metaphysical claim that the truth outside of our social constructions does not exist has been adopted without understanding that we can not live absent these social constructions in the first place. We need a wholesale reformation of the institutions of truth in order to restore the trust without which any society will not long survive. It’s a tall order, happy New Year.

Republic of Insects


There is a scene in Plato’s socratic dialogue, Phaedo, in which Socrates and a handful of his followers are discussing reincarnation. Phaedo, by way of explanation, is a moving dialogue which discusses the topic of immortality. Part of what makes it so moving is that it occurs on the eve of Socrates’ execution by the Athenian democracy for practicing a form of philosophy that many Athenians felt was a threat to their very existence: questioning its gods, its morality, its way of life.

In the scene discussing reincarnation, Socrates is trying to argue that where the soul of an individual finds itself in the next life is directly tied to its virtue, or lack of virtue, practiced in its’ prior life. Classic karma: human beings who practice virtue, but not philosophy, during their lives will have the happiest of lives to follow of all but the philosophers. He defines the happiest life this way:

Socrates: “I suppose the happiest people, and those that reach the best destination, are the ones who have cultivated the goodness of an ordinary citizen, so-called ‘temperance’ and ‘justice’, which is acquired by habit and practice without the aid of philosophy and reason”.

Cebes: “How are they the happiest?”

Socrates: “Because they will probably pass into some kind of social and disciplined creature like bees, wasps, and ants; or even back into the human race again, becoming decent citizens.” (141) [emphasis added].

The fact that Socrates thinks the better part of humanity, again excluding the philosophers, who he thinks will get off the wheel of birth-death-rebirth permanently, will find themselves in the bodies of bees, wasps, or ants and not what we would more likely consider a more noble animal- say lions, or wolves, or some such thing, probably strikes most of us as odd. Maybe Socrates is having a little fun at Cebes expense, we might ask?  After all, why in the world would any good person, even if they weren’t a philosopher, want to live the life of an ant?

One person who might understand what Socrates (or Plato speaking for Socrates) was getting at, who might even want to, if only for a brief period of time, actually live the life of an ant (who in fact did, imaginatively, in a section of his novel, Anthill) is the famed biologist, E.O. Wilson, who has made the study of ants and other social insects his life passion.  But Wilson is not merely “the king of the ants” .

Wilson is a public intellectual of the first order bringing the findings of the biological sciences to a general readership since the late 1960s. A scientist with a deep respect for the arts, he has tried to bridge the gap between science and the humanities (Consilience), and science and religion (The Creation).

He has also not been without controversy, being the founder of the field of sociobiology that attempts to explain human behavior from the standpoint of genetics and evolution (Sociobiology & On Human Nature).  The effort to explain human behavior in terms of biology, which Wilson helped start back in the 1970s, quite rightly, engendered a period of spirited opposition given the horrors that had emerged from the Nazi embrace of biological and evolutionary theories regarding the nature and future of humanity only a generation before. In our own day, these debates appear to be largely forgotten, and sociobiology has proven able to hold its own against less biologically inclined schools of social thought. Wilson’s latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth, however, might have the unintended result of reigniting these controversies, and leads one to doubt if the dangers implicit in socio-biological thinking are not as potent as ever.

At 83, Wilson’s, Social Conquest, may be his last major work. Its ambition certainly makes it seem that way, for in his book, he not only offers a major (and controversial) revision of the theory of evolution, he sets out to explain humanity itself- its culture, religion, art, and good and evil duality- all within the context of his new evolutionary theory.

What he did not intend was to give us insight into the meaning of Utopia, especially the earliest and most powerful Utopia ever conceived- Plato’s Republic. With Utopia being one of the subjects with which this blog is mostly concerned, I will ultimately focus on that, but let me begin by explaining what Wilson was definitely trying to say with his Social Conquest.

This, with some simplifications, is the way Wilson tells his story: Socio-biologists have, since the beginning, attempted to explain animal, and much more so, human behavior, in reference to evolution. They were able to make great strides, but one problem kept popping up, the problem of “goodness”, or better, they had no ironclad way to explain why goodness, or to use the fancier phrase- altruism- was so prevalent in the natural world. To state the matter crudely:  If everything in nature was supposed to be about passing on genes, then why, do people help others when there is no clear reproductive benefit in doing so? Why do firemen rush into burning buildings to save children who are not their own?

Many socio-biologists thought they had the solution when they came up with an idea called “kin-selection”. The idea is that people help others because they share identical genes, or that such aid somehow contributes to passing on their genes. The firefighter seems to risk his own reproductive future, but is actually trying to save it because the children in the burning building are really his nieces and nephews. If they are not, in fact, his nieces and nephews perhaps he is “confused”: his idea that he should save them a kind of hold over from the period in history when human societies were so small that any children he knew would have likely been close relatives.

The problem for socio-biologists is that, although the theory seemed to hold up pretty well for almost all animal behavior, (cute pictures of mother dogs raising tiger cubs aside) there were a lot more anomalies to the theory of kin-selection than just the case of brave firefighters when it came to human beings. To give just a short list of examples: how does one explain any war above the tribal level,  or celibate classes such as priests, or homosexuality? Shouldn’t there be pretty strong evolutionary pressure for individuals to distinguish between who is a relative and who is not, and only sacrifice their own reproductive future for the former? Socio-biologists kept tying themselves in knots trying to explain why human beings just didn’t seem to act like the theory of kin-selection said they should act. Wilson, thinks he has figured out how to untie these knots, and he has done it, no surprises, by looking at bugs.

Things is, in addition to human beings, who socio-biologists had a devil of a time fitting into their model of kin-selection, there is a very small group of insects who similarly resisted explanation under that same model. These insects who resisted explanation under the theory of kin-selection are the so-called eusocial insects. In terms of insect species they are a mere handful among millions and are largely composed of the: ants, termites, bees, and wasps (which, with the exception of termites, are exactly the “social and disciplined” insects Plato seems to hold as analogous to humans in his Phaedo.) Though only a small number in terms of species, their biomass is rivaled only by us human beings.

What makes eusocial insects so unique is not only that these insects live in colonies, but that the vast majority of their colonies’ populations foregoes any sort of reproduction at all. Instead, individuals devote themselves to the survival and “prosperity” of the colony as a whole: something that not only throws those the kin-selection crowd for a loop, but appears impossible under the theory of evolution as currently understood.

Wilson thinks he has found the solution to this conundrum, and in the process to have uncovered the root of human nature as well. His solution is something called group-selection. The long and short of it is that eusocial groups are under evolutionary pressure to develop altruism internally and competition externally. Species that have obtained a high level of internal altruism are poised for a remarkable level of complexity, and scale. (If you doubt it just take a look at the Leaf Cutter Ant). More of their collection of genes survive, and therefore, while any particular “individual” is likely to take a reproductive hit by belonging to such a group, in the aggregate more genes survive.  Eusociality is, therefore, an extremely effective evolutionary strategy. The reason it is so rare is that it takes a very peculiar evolutionary path to reach it because it flies against the grain of the standard evolutionary imperative for the individual to reproduce at all costs. Wilson claims that we humans too are one of those rare species that exhibit this quality of eusociality.

In his Social Conquest, Wilson lays two parallel journeys followed through what he describes as an “evolutionary maze” to reach the improbable state of eusociality by both the social insects and ourselves. I will not go into the details, but needless to say, Wilson sees the same forces of group selection he identifies in the eusocial insects to be going on in us. Human groups do better against other human groups if their members are less selfish towards one another and willing to sacrifice even to the point of surrendering the opportunity to reproduce- for instance someone willing to risk their life, before having children, in war.

But, if Wilson proposes that we are restrained, even to the point of sainthood to those of our “tribe”,  he holds it is a moral free-for-all outside because we are evolutionarily wired to be aggressive against outsiders, for here our evolutionary, individualistic imperatives take precedence. Wilson sees these contrary pulls as the origin of the angel/demon duality that appears a defining feature of the human condition.

Wilson writes in The Social Conquest :

The dilemma of good and evil was created by multilevel selection, in which individual selection and group selection act together on the same individual but largely in opposition to each other. …

Group selection shapes instincts that tend to make individuals altruistic towards one another (but not towards members of other groups). Individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue. Together they have created the conflict between the poorer and better angels of our nature. (241)

Here I think we can see some of Wilson’s Baptist upbringing shinning through. I have multiple objections to this reading of human morality, not the least of which is that most sins are committed against people we know. Bad husbands beat their wives, not the women in a neighboring village etc. Nor, is there mention at all in Wilson’s book that his theory is opposed by the majority of socio-biologists and is thus scientifically controversial.  But I will set these moral and scientific objections aside for I think Wilson has provided us with a very important window into the idea of Utopia, so let me continue with that.

There is no mention of Plato in The Social Conquest, nor does the word Utopia occur even once, though, both, certainly should. Plato, as I will try to show anticipates Wilson’s Eusocial theory by 2,500 or so years, and in turn has placed the conflict between “group and individual selection” at the heart of the Utopian tradition from its very inception.

To provoke flashbacks of your Philosophy 101 course in college; Plato’s Republic lays out the structure of what Plato believed to be the perfect state. Now, in what follows, I do not want to suggest that the Republic is merely some piece of ancient entomology projected onto human society- I am well aware that the Republic is much, much more than that. I am merely pointing out that Plato wants to resolve something like the eusociality/individual Selection conflict that Wilson draws our attention to. More than that, Plato wants to solve it once and for all and make the new society unchangeable, like a bug frozen in amber.  To identify and solve this problem Plato had many models available, and as the Phaedo quote above makes clear, one of these models Plato had on hand was an entomological one, and he even used it directly in the Republic as I will show in a minute.

The Republic imagines a three tiered society composed of philosopher-rulers, the Guardians, the military, Auxiliaries, and under them a much larger producer class which will contain artisans, farmers and the like. While it is unclear what exact arrangement obtains for the producing class, Plato achieves almost perfect eusociality for his Guardians/Auxiliaries (who because Guardians emerge from the Auxiliaries the two can be treated as one in most respects).

Individual selection, that is the tendency for individuals to chose in favor of the reproduction of themselves and their own genes, is completely stripped from the Guardians/Auxiliary class through the control of breeding- that is, the mates of  Guardians/Auxiliaries are chosen based on social rules and regulations for breeding the healthiest offspring- not based on the individual’s choice of or ability to win a mate. The genetic origin of children are hidden from the Guardians/Auxiliaries, so that they will not show particular favor to their own offspring, and private property among the Guardians/Auxiliaries is eliminated, again, so this class is discouraged from following individualistic ends.

This extremely cohesive eusocial class of Guardians/Auxiliaries sits on top of a much larger producer class, much like the queen sits atop an insect colony. It is clear that the survival/propagation of the Guardians is the main purpose of Plato’s social arrangement,
just as the insect queen is protected and provided for by warrior and worker insects.

Plato severely limits the size of ideal state, which leads one to wonder what will happen if the producer class grows too large as long as we assume that their breeding too is not regulated by the Guardians? The idea of the danger of “drones” is found throughout the Republic– indeed Plato characterizes the disintegration of the non-ideal state as a growth in the population of human drones. (Drones are insect members of a hive that contribute nothing to the hives’ overall well- being, indeed can attack and destroy the hive from which they get their sustenance.)  We can get an idea for what Plato’s Guardians/Auxiliaries will do with human drones who get too numerous, fail to produce, or engage in criminal behavior/rebellion in his advice to the statesman:

…. and the State-physician, or legislator, must get rid of them, just as the bee-master keeps the drones out of the hive (Republic, 507).

In my reading of it when the producers get too numerous, or when some producers refuse to work or rebel they will be expelled from the Republic, and one can expect that if for some reason they can’t be expelled they would likely face an even worse fate.

The eusociality which Plato discovered, perhaps in part by looking at the social organization of insects, has been a hallmark of many Utopias ever since. But one is left to wonder whether Plato, and now Wilson, have really articulated something true about the human societies or merely found an example, in the world of insects, of the kinds of perfectly hierarchical and harmonious societies they wish human beings lived in, and in the process imagined us as more like insects than is actually the case.

One should never forget that democracy effectively murdered Plato’s friend and mentor, and thus became the target of revenge for an unparalleled genius able to articulate compelling visions of its opposite. Wilson, for all his genteel reasonableness in a world of fanatical hotheads appears to be no fan of democracy. Writing to second the views of the mathematical theorist Herbert A. Simon, Wilson states in The Social Conquest:

…hierarchies work better than unorganized assemblages and that they are easier for their rulers to understand and manage.  Put another way, you cannot expect success if assembly-line workers vote at executive conferences or enlisted men plan military campaigns” (99)

Such a statement might not amount to any kind of anti-democratic claim against Wilson, after all, even the most participatory form of democracy ever known, Plato’s Athens, thought experts should direct certain areas of human life, though they judged areas where true expertise existed, and thus should be deferred to, to be quite limited. But, given that the word “democracy” appears not even once in The Social Conquest, given that Wilson only mentions ancient Athens in the context of their brutal massacre of the Milesians, we might reasonably start to have our doubts.

Accusations that Wilson was misapplying what he had learned from his thoughtful gaze into the alien world of insects onto the much more complex society of human beings, and by such  simplifications was implicitly providing a naturalistic justification for the most insidious, if not necessarily most brutal, forms of hierarchical control and oppression, are nothing new and have been around since the 1970s.

Sadly, what may very well be Wilson’s last great work has done nothing to dispel such suspicions.

* Explanation for the picture above: According to Greek Mythology the Myrmidons (or “ant-people”, also “ants-nest”. ), according to one legend, were a people created when Zeus took the form of an ant and seduced the Princess Phthia. The Myrmidons were a fierce warrior-people, and their name later came to mean “a loyal follower, especially one who executes orders without question, protest, or pity – unquestioning followers.”

The illustration above is a science-fiction style rendering of a Myrmidon by the artist Russell M. Hossain.


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…

Click on image above to watch the slideshow.

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.