Utopian Tragedies : Cautionary Tales for the Philosophy of Politics

Presentation to the Melbourne Unitarian Philosophy Forum, Sunday 4th November, 2012

1.0 Politics and Philosophy
1.1 A definition of the relationship is the contribution of political theory (the management of the polis, the community of people) to philosophy (ontology, epistemology, logic) and the application of philosophy to political theory. Political theory is the point of intersection between politics and philosophy.
1.2 As a pragmatic complex political theory must account for individual behaviour towards the social world (i.e., moral reasoning), the systematic considerations of institutional effectiveness and efficiency, and where these positive claims meet normative claims in law. As an applied knowledge, political philosophy will review questions of liberty, property rights, and legitimacy.

2.0 Utopian Views
2.1 A utopia is colloquially considered and an example of an ideal society and its relationships. The term was coined by Saint Sir Thomas More and translates as "no place", from the Greek. However it also has the homophone "good place" (Eu-topia).
2.2 Premodern utopias tend to assume metaphysical and religious presuppositions; for example Hesoid's "Golden Age", the Biblical Garden of Eden, the Celtic Annwvyn or Tír na nOg, St Augustine of Hippo's City of God. These were not necessarily supernatural otherworlds, but often existed as an in-between place from the mundane and the heavenly.
2.3 Renaissance, or early modern, utopias included religious content (indeed very sincerely and piously) but emphasised humanist and secular knowledge. c.f., Thomas Moore's Utopia (1516), Andreae's Christianopolis (1619), Campanella's The City of the Sun (1623), Bacon's New Atlantis (1627). On the basis of content the first openly utopian example Plato's Republic c380 BCE Euhemerus's Panchaea (c4th C BCE) and Tao Yuanming's The Peach Blossom Land (421) should also be included as "early modern". They often included descriptions of ideal locations as well.
2.4 Modern utopias are typically forward-looking and suggest a practical evolution towards an ideal state of affairs. Many were orientated towards the establishment of "intentional communities" (e.g., Fourier's "Theory of the four movements" (1808) and the phalanxes, Owen's "A New View of Society" (1813) and the establishment of New Harmony in 1814, Saint-Simon's "On the reorganisation of European Society" (1814)). Also of consideration is the vision of "scientific socialism" and communism espoused by Marx and Engles (vastly different in The German Ideology (1845), The Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) and Critique of the Gotha Program (1875)), and evolutionary socialist perspectives, particularly from the British (Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888), Morris's News from Nowhere (1890), H.G. Wells's A Modern Utopia (1905)); also in the modern perspective Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974).
2.5 Contemporary utopian literature includes strong technological influences, especially including fictional technologies. This can includes stories as old as Bulter's Erewhon (1872), Wells's Men Like Gods (1923), Skinner's Walden Two (1948), Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End (1954), Callenbach's Ecotopia (1975), and Iain Banks's "Culture" series (1987 onwards).
2.6 In the late 19thC, coined by John Stuart Mill, the idea of the dystopia was introduced - either as a counter-utopia (the worst possibly situation (e.g., Orwell's 1984 (1948), or, more tragically, a utopian society with a fatal flaw (e.g., Butler's The History of Rasselas (1759), Huxley's Brave New World (1932)).

3.0 Utopian Tragedy
The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognised it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison." Nathaniel Hawthorne, in The Scarlet Letter (1850)
3.1 The tragedy (Grk: "he-goat-song") is a drama based on the unfolding of a flaw or flaws that lead to human suffering; for the audience - and sometimes the character - this generates a level of catharsis, understanding, or verification (anagnorisis). The tragedy is particularly European form of theatre, beginning with the Hellenes (especially the work of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Seneca), through to Shakespeare, Corneille, Racine, Schiller, and in contemporary theatre, Beckett.
3.2 The Hellenic tragedy were notable for their use of the ekkyklema, "a roll out machine", or a crane, to introduce the effects of extreme events. These device led to phrase "deus ex machina" ("god out of a machine") a surprise and powerful intervention. In Neo-classical tragedy (especially Corneille) emphasis was placed on ruling class characters and affairs of the state.
3.3 Philosophers have paid attention to the tragedy more than any other dramatic form; Aristotle's Poetics (c335 BCE), Hume's Of Tragedy (1757), Diderot's Conversations on The Natural Son (1758), Hegel's The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling (1848), Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy (1872) & etc.
3.4 A utopian tragedy follows the same narrative as a personal tragedy, but with the entire society as the character. In this model, a perfect and ideal society is proposed, however the plan contains a fatal flaw which, as it unfolds, creates a situation which causes the utopia to become dystopian. In particular note how claims to be "non-utopian" become an ironic utopian tragedy; e.g., the claims of Engels that historical materialism was "scientific socialism" compared to "utopian socialism"; science, as a rational discipline, requires falsification and verification of claims.
3.5 The implementation of utopian communities have a very mixed record of success, mostly associated with vertical (i.e., hierarchially imposed) collectivism, and common pool resource issues (i.e., "tragedy of the commons", "free riders"). In the most prominent examples these conflicts have (tragically!) turned utopia doctrines into dystopias (e.g., statist communism) or have collapsed (e.g., New Harmony). Even voluntary utopian projects have sought compromises or modifications to their principles to adapt to these issues (e.g. kibbutzm, Three Oaks).

4.0 A Utopian Experiment: Build Your Own!
Every daring attempt to make a great change in existing conditions, every lofty vision of new possibilities for the human race, has been labelled Utopian. Emma Goldman, in "Socialism : Caught in the Political Trap", 1912
4.1 As a "classroom experiment" attempt to build the principles of a utopia. What are the ideals being espoused? Are these ideals existent, or will they require a change to human behaviour? How will the utopia assign property rights? How will it encourage work? How will it be implemented? Who will try to prevent it and why?
4.2 Has everyone agreed to the common vision? If not, it's not a universal utopia! Will people who don't believe in the utopia have a place? Always keep in mind the tragic story of dystopias! Always keep in mind what could possibly go wrong with your utopian vision.

5.0 Some Issues Raised In The Original Discussion
5.1 The Hegelian dialectic Utopian visions (the ideal, abstract) leads to intentional communities (the practise) with their contradictions to the ideal (negation of the ideal).
5.2 Many intentional communities with a utopian perspective fail because of sexual jealousies, exploitation of labour, inequality of power. In order for an intentional community to succeed the participants must adopt "I-Thou" relationships (c.f., Buber), and allow for an intersubjectivity of rights.
5.3 All intentional communities will have people who take up leadership roles, espouse the vision etc. However this existence of a natural division of labour (based on skills and interests), should not translate into an institutionalised function of control.
5.4 A limited scope for a utopia improves its chance of success; concentration on improving processes rather than seeking ends also increases chances.
5.5 Orientation towards utilitarian distributions of wealth and proportional democratic decision making.

Utopia: Some Selected Examples. Which one would you want to live in?

The Republic (c380 BCE) by Plato. Ruled by an oligarchy ("a timocracy") of highly trained philosophers ("the Guardians") over the demiourgoi (merchants, artisans etc). There is equal opportunity for men and women, and no slavery. Education replaces most artistic endeavours. The Guardians have no private wealth.

The City of God (413-426 AD) by Saint Augustine of Hippo. Argued that earthly interests ("the city of man") of the pagan polythesis were inferior to the spiritual interests ("city of God") of the Christians. Because the latter will defeat death itself it will inevitably truimph. Therefore recommdends a Christian theocracy, which follows the edicts of religious law.

Utopia (1516) by Saint Sir Thomas More. Ruled by an elected monarchy through city representatives (each city has 6,000 households, each with two slaves). No private property, sexual equality in most labour. All people engage in farming and learn one other craft, with a great deal of homogeneity (e.g., same clothes, same housing, communual eating). There is free healthcare, internal passports, premarital sex is punished by lifetime celibacy.

Christianopolis (1619) by Johann Valentin Andreae. A highly ordered society where academic activity is combined with practical tasks (artisanship and public duties) and always orientated with spiritual motivations. The city is organised into regions devoted to specific activities of production and education. All wealth is held communually. It is ruled democratically, but also according to merit in accord to the appropriate region.

The City of the Sun (1623) by Tommaso Campanella. A Christian theocratic monarchy and patriarchial society where goods, women, and children are held in common. Everyone has some skill in all trades, but specialises in one. All walls in the city are richly painted, a visual encyclopedia (or excersise in propaganda).

Looking Backward (1888) by Edward Bellamy. Includes the nationalisation of industry, urban planning, reduction in work due to massive robotisation, and mechanical delivery of goods. Everyone receives equal credit, but dangerous work requires fewer hours. Art and news is both public and free.

News from Nowhere (1892) by William Morris (1892). A response to "Looking Backward". An agrarian-artisan society with common ownership and democratic control of the means of the production. There are no big cities, no money, no prisons or authorities, no formal schooling, no marriage contracts; a sexual division of labour remains.

A Modern Utopia (1905) by H. G. Wells. A world-state, with a monetarised economy, gender equality, liberal individualism (including group marriages), high levels of localised democracy, vegetarian (but no pets, for sanitary reasons), ruled by "the Samurai", who hold a position similar to Plato's Guardians, as moral and administrative leaders with a strict ascetic lifestyle, but open to all capable.

For Us, The Living (1938) by Robert Heinlein. A strongly secular society with nationalised banking and a system of social credit. Tends towards gender equality, and individual economic freedoms, but also with "war voting" - where military conflicts require a referendum and voting limited to those eligible for military service. See also The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966), with the advocacy of "rational anarchism", which requires individual responsibility but in the context of strong customs.

The Culture (1987 onwards) by Iain Banks. A post-scarcity, egalitarian, semi-anarchist community of transhumans and extremely advanced artifical intelligences ("Minds") who do most of the management, distribution etc. There is no laws, but strong conventions where breaches can result in involuntary supervision. The Culture is interventionist throughout other civilizations it encounters - it actively attempts to reform them.