We're heading out the door to San Diego's extravaganza -- even bigger than our famous Zoo -- Comicon International, with overseas guests in tow. And so, in keeping with the elevated theme of adventure and unlimited possibilities, let's set aside the political shenanigans America's civil war and briefly assume that our Great Experiment in a better kind of society continues -- a civilization that grows better as it grows more diverse and interesting and fair.
Ah, but how to get there? Does science fiction show a way?
== A future of freedom ==
Some of you have been following the debate between Elon Musk and Cory Doctorow et. al., over the meaning and ethos that underly the “Culture” series of novels by Iain M. Banks. Musk has called himself a “utopian anarchist” in a way best described by those novels. (Elon named several of his SpaceX vessels after ships in Iain’s science fictional cosmos.) Doctorow counters with an assertion that Banks was a vigorous proponent of labor unions.
Having known all three of these brilliant gentlemen, let me avow that each has been beneficial to humanity, helping open our eyes to - variously - dangerous problems, daring opportunities and/or visionary goals. I hope all of them continue to influence us to rise into a thoughtful and bold and broadminded civilization. (And I will draw in other SF'nal utopians below, like Ursula LeGuin.)
This essay in the Guardian takes sides and is, I believe, myopically petty, especially about Elon Musk’s utopian anarchism. In fact, Elon is right that science fiction offers us the unique perspective of deep time, helping us squint far ahead to see a strangely common theme.
Three paths to very similar utopias
Libertarians often speak of a future when there will be very few limits on individual autonomy, when sovereign adults are free to form coalitions and make deals to advance both shared and personal goals, without being unduly hampered either by cloying restrictions or by cheaters.
Most folks aren’t aware that this is also — exactly, in every particular — the long range goal of Marxism! Karl Marx did not dwell on it, or supply much detail; he assumed a final withering-away of the socialist, transition state — into coercion-free individualism — would proceed out of elevated proletarian self-interest.
Flipping that order of events, libertarians assume that individual liberation in market-driven paradise will require first dismantling the nation state. Equality and freedom will follow.
A fascinating hybrid is the culture of Planet Annares, in The Dispossessed,
by my former teacher, the late Ursula K. LeGuin. Although she was definitely a person of the left, she rejected the domineering 'socialist-transition' states she saw behaving so badly, in Leninist and Maoist realms. Her prescription seems akin -- in many ways -- more to the libertarian path: dismantle authority first. Standing on her shoulders (so to speak) is Kim Stanley Robinson, whose novels dissect many of the tradeoffs along the way to utopian freedom.
But let's get back to that simple comparison of libertarian and marxist end goals.
In sharing a perfectly overlapping, ultimate utopia of empowered individualism, these two movements differ from almost every other belief system of our long past, nearly all of which assumed that hierarchy will prevail. A perfect pyramid of Confucian noblesse oblige, for example. Or the post-apocalypse reign of Jesus. Priests for 6000 years were well paid to spread such mythologies, and Joseph Campbell extolled the pattern as fundamental to human psyches. Even today, Hollywood obsesses on wizards, kings, Jedi and demigod superheroes. (Ah, Comicon, here we go.) Set against that most-common context, aren’t the utopian marxists and libertarians more rambunctiously similar than they are different? Elsewhere I go into detail about this strange overlap of ultimate goals…
…and how the two movements differ profoundly over the path to get there! How to achieve that apotheosis of individual liberty from all want or coercion. Indeed, I show that neither methodology can possibly work!
But there is a third approach that demonstrably can take us close to that aim of utopian anarchy.
== The Great Attractor Trap ==
For starters, it is vital to consider the human past. Across all of those long, dark eras, which failure modes generally thwarted progress?
Let’s all blame Charles Darwin. In every society that developed metals and agriculture, human males were relentlessly rewarded - reproductively - for cheating. We’re all descended from the harems of strong, ruthless guys who used metal implements to coerce others into serving them. And we carry seeds of similar behavior; a fraction of us will seek dark corners of any type of society, using any rationalization and exploit any opportunity to gain advantage and repress competitors.
Oh, the surface incantations vary. The old USSR was run by a cabal of coercive harem-keepers no less brutal than the czars, only with different surface theology. The current occupants of the Kremlin simply tossed aside their hammer-sickle pins and returned to czarist catechisms. (See Vladimir Sorokin’s terrifying novel “The Day of the Oprichnik.”) No, this is less about left-vs-right than finding a sweet-spot optimization that eluded most of our ancestors. We who finally listened to John Locke and Pericles and Adam Smith have benefited from one trick -- never allowing power and authority to concentrate into toxic pools, but spreading it widely enough dispersed to keep cheating below a dull roar.
It’s nuts to shout “cheating” when fellows like Elon form clever alliances that deliver better goods and services. Only one society ever found the trick to truly unleash human inventiveness through competitive enterprise, and it’s the same one that got rich enough to finally tackle old injustices of poverty, prejudice and environmental neglect. Those who disparage the word “competition” would kill the goose that lays golden eggs.
But we also need context on the other side. Again, look back at 6000 years of dubious “civilization” in which those with power used it to crush any competitor who might rise from below. In 99% of human cultures, vast reservoirs of talent were repressed — vigorously and actively — under fabulated excuses based on race, gender, or what caste you were born into. Markets and institutions were warped to benefit the mighty, and priests taught that it was good for the lords’ sons to inherit your sons and daughters.
Any society that doesn’t confront this age-old attractor condition — the great human failure mode — will not take us to that glimmering goal of genuine utopian anarchy. Even Ayn Rand declared cheating to be a basic problem! She maintained that some state structure would remain needed, to counter it. (Alas, her prescription then plunges into incantatory silliness that I dissect here.)
In the long debate between Hobbes and Rousseau, it remains Locke — followed by Hume and Smith — who comes out as wise. Human societies must find a balance between curbing our cheater-devils and liberating our better angels. Unleashing the greatest creative force in the universe - competition - but regulated (as in sports) to prevent the cheating that would ruin it all. This is ruining it all.
And what works best is to keep erring, progressively, toward freedom.
== Utopian Anarchism ==
Which brings us full circle back to the Musk-Doctorow argument over the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks.
In Iain’s projected future, organic and enhanced bio-humans experience lives of near total freedom, including the ability (projected earlier, in John Varley’s cosmos) to change sexes at-whim. Personal choice and the right to “pursue happiness” are maximized and just about the only thing that’s forbidden is to interfere with others’ right to do the same. It sure looks like “utopian anarchy”…
…till you realize that there remains a regulatory framework, a guiding hand that is lighter in daily practice, but ultimately far more powerful than Ayn Rand’s “few courthouses.” That hand is wielded by the all-powerful AI entities who actually rule the Culture. Mostly-benevolently, but sometimes with plot-propelling weirdness or agendas of their own.
Ironies abound, here, and I am not leading you to a particular conclusion.
Sure, Banks wove tales of a future that has inspired brilliant innovators — like Elon — to help propel us starward. Whatever the terminology, I share a dream of humanity achieving levels where state authority (or any kind) can safely “wither away”… to use a phrase coined by Karl Marx. And yes, I have spoken of this at many libertarian events and conferences.
But we are not yet the kind of beings who can reliably put reason ahead of tribal emotions, or act always in enlightened self-interest. Even among our brilliant, fact-centered professions, I’d say we do that at-best on a 30% level. And half of Americans have been talked into waging open war upon all fact-centered professions!
Under such conditions, you can see why those who want to re-impose hierarchy — like the Chinese Communist Party — rationalize that it’s the only solution.
They are wrong. Their approach -- under all the high-tech gloss -- is exactly the one that froze and lobotomized most human societies. If it prevails, we will never have the stars.
== A difficult, achievable path ==
Oh, if we look around today it's clear that Hobbes still has a several point advantage over Rousseau. And those of us who still believe in the passionately-moderate, militantly reasonable revolution of Locke — and Adam Smith and the American Founders — have an upward path to slog. A Great Experiment to save.
Despite setbacks, like phase 8 of the American Civil War, we are on that upward path! Ironically, Elon and Iain and Corey and Ursula and KS Robinson were all lights along the way.
But to go much farther, we truly will need to include externalities in our market prices. And elevate all children to a level of opportunity where talent stops being wasted and all competition is joyfully flat-open-fair. And ensure that disparities of power no longer entice many to prefer cheating over innovation.
Until we’ve done all that, and taught wiser generations how to apply their sovereign individuality with truly enlightened self-interest, then we’ll still need some Lockean structure. We’ll still need to fight for a civilization that — despite a myriad flows — has been more generously helpful of our long range goals than any other.