Wandering Thoughts

January 1, 2016

Utopia? Bust?

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 1:34 pm

Utopia or Bust is eloquent. I share Benjamin Kunkel’s despair with the world we live in. There has been some social improvement in some places, and a lot of technological progress. But we ought to be able to do much better than we do. We ought to live in a fairer world that parcels out the fruits of our technologies in ways that raises most people’s well-being to levels a lot higher than they are today. We ought to end discrimination. The trouble with Utopia or Bust is it provides no cause to believe we can. Instead there are Marxist literary critics (yawn), the contradictions of David Harvey, the confusions of Slavoj Žižek, and so on.

Meanwhile, history and theory give us very good cause to believe there are no utopias to be had. Look at those dreamed up to date:

(Setting aside racist lunacy that is clearly evil) the main right wing utopian doctrine is libertarianism, where the state is a ‘night watchman’ (or in some variants—which could only seem plausible after smoking something—non-existent, replaced by competing security firms). The state provides for private property rights, protects against invasion and does nothing else. Taxes are low, bludgers are gone, economic growth is spectacular. What’s not to like? A lot. There is no evidence that the main driver of economic growth is incentives born of low taxes. In reality much of the technological change that drives growth has come from government investment. And the individual genius that brings new ideas comes from being well and well-educated. Nothing suggests a libertarian utopia will maximise these attributes, except for a fortunate few. Being well and well-educated have non-instrumental worth too: they are part of the good life. And history has shown that some pubic provision is needed to extend such welfare to most people in a society. Then there’s the issue of the environment. How does a libertarian government take care of common pool resources? On the basis of my limited exposure, most libertarians simply deny the issues exist, although I’ve also heard of the idea of issuing private property rights for every known common pool resource, including the air we breathe. Can you imagine the bureaucracy? Ah freedom! The final hurdle for libertarianism is that could never be democratic—have a look at election results, libertarian parties never perform well, presumably because most voters sensibly like at least some of what their governments do. So if libertarianism were ever to come about it would be by imposition. Imposed freedom. Moving along…

Libertarianism’s distant relative (not on speaking terms) on the left is anarchism. Which, strictly speaking, means the absence of the state, and the absence of private property rights. Anarchist collective action is based around cooperation, anarchist production around non-excusive title to resources. (I say strictly speaking because quite often anarchism is defined by what it is against—i.e. ‘the state, when the state is unjust’ rather than what it’s for. Seeing as this blog is about alternatives, I will ignore such antagonistic definitions.) The big problem with anarchism (as defined) is that we aren’t a cooperative enough species to be able to engage in large scale collective action without some coercion and rules—in other words a state. One alternative would be a world of villages and bands. A world free of states! But it also wouldn’t be a utopia. It would, plus some legacy technologies from the bygone age of states, be most of human history. It would be bereft of the specialisation that trade allows. It wouldn’t be free of predation between groups. It’s also likely there would be coercion within groups too. We aren’t that nice a creature. Perhaps aware of all this, many anarchists spend more time decrying the evils of the state than they do talking about how their alternative would work. They’re right that many states are abysmal and even the best are far from perfect. But far from perfect is a lot better than a return to life in villages or hunter-gatherer bands.

Communism barely needs a mention any more. Nevertheless (with respect to how it actually existed, rather than Marx’s effectively anarchist end-stage): a state which is almost entirely the government brings with it a big risk of the over-concentration of power (Stalin, Mao, etc.) Perhaps this could be offset by coupling communism with robust democratic institutions. But communism usually has very strong internal opponents meaning it’s not clear that this could actually, practically, happen, prior to these opponents being crushed. And history suggests once states acquire a taste for crushing, it takes a long time for them to lose it. Radially remaking a society would also require more than one electoral term, so I would imagine that any genuinely communist government would be very tempted to do away with elections. Even if communism could deal with issues of power, there remains the problem of the inefficiencies of a state-planned economy. States aren’t able to aggregate information as adroitly as markets do. One option would be to couple communism (a very muscular state, collectively owned means of productions) with markets. I concede I don’t know how well this worked out for Tito (although I’m guessing not that well on the basis of the fact his vision, not to mention Yugoslavia, no longer exists), but on the basis of the present I think the most likely outcome of a muscular state and markets, would be accompanying concentrations of wealth—and, ultimately the end of popular control of the means of production. Something that looks a lot like today’s China, which is better than Mao’s China, but hardly a workers’ paradise.

This ought to be the point where I start clucking happily about social democracy as the best option we’ve found. But that’s hard to do too. Be it 1970s style muscular social democracy, or today’s third way, social democracy has never been able to muster quite enough tax revenue to provide social services that are as good as they could be, and its social safety net is always threadbare. It works quite well for the voting middle class, but not nearly as well for those on the periphery. It is also not that democratic. Economic inequality brings political inequality. And human failings to do with the way we see ‘others’ often see voters distracted by non-issues (from the perspective of their own welfare) such as refugees, rather than real issues (inequality, climate change). There are things we don’t talk about but should (raising taxes to provide for good health care into the future). There are things we talk far too much about but needn’t (should gays be allowed to get married; of course they should; it astounds me that opposition to this basic right exists). The only real defence of social democracy that it is (to paraphrase Paul Krugman, paraphrasing Churchill) the least worst system we’ve come up with.

For now, least-worst is a tolerable place. As Steven Radelet, Charles Kenny, and Steven Pinker show in recent books, in part because of the gifts technology has brought, in part because of genuine social change associated with the near miraculous, but frighteningly fragile, expansion of humans’ spheres of concern, and in part because of our ability to muddle through, life for most of the people on our planet is better than it has ever been.

Yet the big questions remain. Will this continue? (Only good luck prevented the cold war from becoming a nuclear war. We aren’t doing enough to prevent climate change The world’s sole superpower is a mess.) And can’t we do better? Make our countries more caring, our democracies more deliberative, our power more diluted?

And, if we can, how?

If there’s a left wing book that seriously, and non-dogmatically, asks that question, I would be a very eager reader.


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