Is utopia created from the top down?
Letters to my nemesis, part three.
This week I’m sharing a collection of emails I’ve exchanged with the authorabout what makes a society utopian. Here’s the series so far:
This is letter three, and my response to Miga.
Let's start with fiction. You said, “Unless I'm mistaken, the whole raison d'etre for utopian fiction is predicated on the idea that the world can be improved through management.”
In my mind, this is false. The whole raison d’etre for utopian fiction is that we have fiction that imagines a better future. And we don’t have very much of this. This is in diametric opposition to dystopian fiction, which imagines a worse future. And we have quite a bit of that.
No one would ever look at The Handmaid’s Tale and say that the point of dystopian fiction is that "the world can be destroyed by bad management." It’s not meant to be a blueprint for how we can make things worse. It’s meant to be a good story. Unfortunately, because it is set in a dystopian world, we can no longer imagine the future turning out well.
That being said, I get where you are coming from: Plato’s Republic and Thomas More’s Utopia were formulaic and boring. So were Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and William’ Morris’ News from Nowhere. They were very much “ideas about how the world can be improved through management,” as you say.
But that’s not necessarily what I think the utopian category should be. In an ideal world, I think utopian fiction should be comprised of riveting stories just like The Handmaid’s Tale, but set in a positive worldview instead of a negative one. The problem is we just don’t have enough books in that category to make it a thing yet so we’re left to think about the category as a collection of prescriptive books.
(Though I do think a lot of children’s stories are utopian—think Neverland in Peter Pan; Narnia in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe; The Shire in The Hobbit; Moana’s Hawaii. If we had adult versions of these stories they might be considered utopian fantasy! And I think we need more of that!)
Onto the "assumption somebody needs to be managing things." The short answer is that yes, I do feel that way (though I welcome your debate to the contrary). There are just no cultures where “no one is managing things,” and I can’t get on board with discourse that glamorizes a past where people were living without some kind of managing authority. That just didn’t exist. And it never did.
Every community, state, or country, has some kind of leader that has the authority to make changes that affect everyone within that community, state, or country for the better or for the worse. Right now there are countries that make good decisions and are thus very utopian and there are countries that make bad decisions and are thus very dystopian. But there are no leaderless countries where everything is going well and everyone is taken care of.
The changes that affect whether our lives are utopian or dystopian (at baseline) are made by the top. That being said, the top should be informed by the bottom, and this is why we have democracies. The hope is that we can demand better lives for everyone from the bottom, but then “the top” ultimately makes that happen. They can take what is working in utopian countries and apply it to other ones. And why shouldn't they?
You mention my idea that we wouldn’t need doctors in the future and that it wouldn’t be feasible because not everyone in the world would have access to that technology. But the truth is, it is feasible and it is feasible for everyone to have access to it. There are countries in the world that provide equitable access to health resources to all of their citizens. And because the government is paying for the health expenses of their citizens, it is in their best interest to keep their citizens as healthy as possible. New technologies that could keep them even healthier would be of great interest to them, and could be rolled out to all of their citizens.
Why does that seem impossible?
We can absolutely solve world hunger and world poverty by applying the economic models and government policies that are working in some places to other places so we can make sure that every human has what they need to survive and then thrive. We are already doing that. Since the 18th century, life expectancy across the world has risen from 30 to 71. Since the 18th century, the percentage of humans living in extreme poverty has fallen from 90 percent to 10 percent. Since the 18th century, the percentage of people living in democratic countries increased from 1 percent to 66 percent. Since the 18th century, women went from being able to vote in only one country to being able to vote in every country where men can vote save one.
And that's all because positive changes were demanded by the bottom and implemented by the top.
I don’t think it’s an unreasonable goal to make the baseline lives of people better, I think it’s an inevitable one. I think we’ve been working on that for hundreds of years.
Also, of my "no doctors" article you said: "because it is theoretically possible, it becomes part of the utopian vision."
Maybe I'm reading into this but that sentence makes it sound like you think that something being "theoretically possible" is frivolous or not worth talking about. But I don't think that's true. Right now all of the "theoretical futures" available to us are dystopian. When we think of “AI” we immediately think of AI taking over the world and killing the whole human race. When we think about “drone surveillance” we immediately think of government surveillance. Yes, dystopian futures are theoretically possible, but so are utopian ones. The very fact that we think the utopian "garden in everyone's backyard" is impossible, but we think the dystopian "AI taking over the world" is possible, is the problem. We think of utopian ideals as impossible, but dystopian ones as inevitable. And that's only because all the “theoretical” dreaming we have at the moment imagines everything going wrong.
Of course, just because governments can “make the world better” at baseline, doesn't mean we eradicate human suffering, and here I agree with you. That is an inevitable part of life. There are people who live good lives at baseline and people who live miserable lives at baseline and both will experience suffering—pain, death, and all the usual suspects. It is up to each of us to figure out how to live through suffering and still live a beautiful life. As you say, there is a lot of worth in "going on living" and creating "vibrant cultures." And we have to do that.
But shouldn't we still try to figure out how to avoid people living fully miserable lives at a baseline? And aren’t there societies that already know how to?
In the utopian tradition, there is the systemic level (which I am very interested in) and there is the personal level (which I think you are very interested in). Both things affect a person's ability to live a good life, so they are both valid. And they are both utopian!!!!! So I still cannot allow you to be my nemesis because I think we need thinkers at both levels.
And I’m grateful you are thinking this through with me!
will publish his response in tomorrow. You’ll be able to find it here.