What democracy’s future shouldn’t be

birth-of-a-tyrant

As William Gibson has famously pointed out, the job of the science fiction writer is not to predict the future but to construct one plausible version of it from the pieces already laying around.  I assume that Malka Older was trying to do this deliberately low key Gibsonian thing with her novel Infomacracy, but given the bizarre nature of this current election cycle she instead, and remarkably, ended up anticipating not merely many of its real or feared events, but even ended her novel on the same note of exhaustion and exasperation and even dread resulting from the perceived failures of representative democracy now expressed by many among the elites, and from another the other angle, the young.

In terms of setting and plot, Infomacracy takes place in an imagined near future when democracy, with some notable exceptions, has gone global. As a consequence of some never quite explained crisis, the major powers we associate with political power today- The US, China, the EU, and Japan are no more. The world’s governments have been replaced by a global democratic order in which a variety of corporate and NGO based political groups compete with one another for electorally generated power. Given the absurd, and disturbing shape of current politics, and not just in the US but globally, one would be forgiven for thinking Older is out to describe a Utopian vision of the future, but you would be wrong.

Instead she describes global democracy dying almost the moment it is born. Sabotaged by an almost successful attempt to hijack a world election by the ruling party which is likely to lose called Heritage, or to ride to the majority through the resurrection of historical hatreds- the intent of the corporatist party named Liberty. I shouldn’t have to mention that there’s a party called Philip- Morris, to convey that Older is not describing a political order any small d democrat would look forward to. And all of this takes place within a world where it appears that the vast majority of media and knowledge are mediated by a sort of super-Google known simply, and perhaps as a shoutout to James Gleick, as Information.

Within the midst of this story Older ends up anticipating a number of the actual and potential cyber assaults on the democratic process during the current election. In Older’s imagined world computer hacks are a political weapon, challenges to democratic legitimacy are a trump card (pun intended), and an internet behemoth has become the arbiter of truth.

Whatever complaints I might have about the believability or depth of the novel’s characters, it did manage to make explicit something I hadn’t really thought through before. Few of us living in prosperous, liberal- democratic societies wouldn’t hope that at some point in the future the kinds of rights and capacities we take for granted will not be extended to all of the world’s peoples. And we think this even if we’ve finally learned the tragic foolishness of freedom compelled from the barrel of a gun.

Yet such faith and hope in the world’s democratic future probably should seem strange given how exhausted many of us have become with the sophistry and theater that defines electoral politics. It’s not just the exhaustion of being ruled by ad men, it’s ad men who don’t care what we want and are corrupt and incompetent besides. That American political consultants find it so easy to move between our system and that of deeply corrupt or authoritarian societies should be a troubling sign.

Older manages to capture this, but rather than imagining some truly democratic alternative ends up giving us the view of Plato refracted through the lens of the information age. After all, the heroes of her novel aren’t really in pursuit of political freedom, but are chasing an ideal world where the right course of action arises from an honest wrestling with the facts themselves, rather than, as in any democratic order worth its salt, emerging from conflicting human values.

One of these characters, Ken, is a high ranking member of the PolicyFirst party whose platform is about reasoned solutions along with a deliberate avoidance of the politics of personality and persuasion. Whereas the protagonist of the novel, Mishima, works for Information whose role it seems is not just to bring under one roof all the world’s knowledge and communication but to actively rid the world of falsehood and propaganda.

Whatever the outcome in the novel its underlying message seems to be one of resignation. With this pessimism Older seems to have joined the growing chorus of thinkers who think the way the internet’s democratic promise has imploded since the year zero of 2011 proves Plato was onto something. Let’s hope they’re wrong and that there are alternative versions of digital democracy waiting in the wings, but things don’t look good. 

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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.