Do we really understand Utopia?

Perhaps it would more correctly be phrased “Can we understand Utopia?”

The little cynical guy on my shoulder is beginning to think that the answer is “NO”.

When looking at Utopia, many people move to an Anarchist philosophy – seeing the removal of Government as being the ideal outcome. In many ways, the Anarchist model is attractive but have many people really worked through the issues to see just how practical it is on a global scale?

i was reading an article in the periodical “Philosophy Now”, which called on readers to submit their versions of Utopia (well, more correctly – the Perfect Society). There were a few published, of which i have only read two so far. As much as i admire the objective of aiming ever-higher, it does stretch credibility a bit when the issue of “not just achievable but practically achievable” is considered.

Here is an example… One reader wrote in that the ideal world would be a series of very small communities of no more than 200 people each, who operated as autonomous collectives and negotiated with each other to share the fruits of their production. There were quite a lot of specifically detailed ideas on how group decisions would be arrived at and there was a reference to banishing ‘non-conformers’ to something akin to Wildlands between the autonomous territories. My immediate reaction to this was to imagine the robber groups who operated between the ancient city-states in early Greece. However, it is philosophy and we should look at the benefit of the doubt argument, and so i pondered for a moment just what would make this work… and came up with so many issues that the result was the question that heads this post.

Let’s leave aside any thoughts of transition arrangements into a Utopian scheme – ’cause that is just too damn hard. We are thinking of the Perfect Society anyway, so let’s just assume that what we come up with will simply appear after we promulgate it. The immediate issue that appears is a temporal one. Not in the full philosophical sense but in the simple time-based version. Over time, it would reasonably be expected that some communities would thrive and some would wither. Is the aim to retain a set population limit? Can ‘excess’ folk from one jurisdiction be ported over to another that has a dearth of population? The next issue that raises its head is one of technology. Limiting the population centres will limit the available pool of labour and the fruits of production. Without a concentration of production (let’s call that capital), what limitations are we building into the system? Given the venue for this discussion, let’s start with technology and the need for capital to maintain it. The internet requires a phenomenal amount of infrastructure, including undersea cables that cross massive oceans, repeater systems, fail-safe systems, power generation, and a host of other highly technical basic functions. At the sharp end, we require computers that can help us to talk in 1’s and 0’s. Those computers require chips that are built in factories costing billions of dollars. How is any small community going to foster that size pool of capital? And if they do, the factories themselves will involve a concentration of labour that far exceeds any localised community. All of a sudden, we have questions of allocation of resource, efficiency of capital and a host of very “today” issues. And that is without even starting to consider the pharmaceutical industry and the enormous amounts of research and facility required to bring a drug into successful production.

So is the ideal community one with less technology and lower standards of available health care?

It is a terrible thing to criticise without offering an alternative – but right now it is more fun working through the criticisms. Sometimes, just sometimes it can help to clarify just what we really think.


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