Monday, March 05, 2007

Modern Times: Some thoughts on Utopia, Dystopia, and Equality

Utopian ideas are not long forgotten or unrealistic. They are the collective dreams that we have as a society for a lack of a better term, perfect world. In the early 19th century novellas and literature was packed with ideas of a world of shining white concrete, people living forever, and the conveniences of advanced technology available to all. Lately it seems that we have become a society obsessed with dystopia. Often people think of dystopia as a world where everything –for lack of a better term- went wrong. Dystopia can go further than that, many times the characters in a “dystopian society” do not believe nor see it as that. In fact, they see it as a utopia, a world where ideological perfection and generally servitude to the “state” or sovereign is held in the highest account. Usually in this story there is an individual who does recognize the flaws of the society they inhabit and as George Orwell characterized it in his story, you are “…a majority of one.”

Perhaps the reason why modern story telling has taken the idea of dystopia to heart is because we tend to relate to it more than the latter. This brings me to my point. Political dystopia is something we can especially relate to. American society has in a lot of ways lost its innocence. We have also begun to lose our hope for the future. I see this in the news media, popular culture, and religion. The news media does not do interest stories on positive events. No rather they do exclusives on serial killers, pedophiles, and corrupt politicians. They claim that this is what people “want” to see. That people do not want to see fireman rescue cat’s from trees. I wholeheartedly disagree. Similarly, in popular culture elements of dystopia are scattered ubiquitously. Many of the syndicated shows on popular cable networks are focused on “end of the world” scenarios and criminal perversions of the most evil breed. These images and stories are rather a likeness of “modern times.” Often we feel like Charlie Chaplin caught in the wheels, of the great machine—a cog, with no control, no individuality. So I pose the question.

Where did the Utopia go?

In Greek the world Utopia means “no place” or somewhere that does not exist in physical reality. Nevertheless, there are several kinds of utopian ideas. Heterotopias are best described as a mix of realism and utopian ideas. It is attainable only because it allows for imperfection and mixes some dystopian elements. Still individuals are reaching for the highest level but hope to attain it. Of course we can not forget Marx and Robert A. Heinlein. Although Marx did not really coin the idea of an egalitarian utopia, he is given credit. Still for my purposes it is not that important to nitpick. Often people claim that it is that very idea of utopia that makes communism and its less rigid counterpart socialism impossible to attain in its purest form. Either they degenerate into authoritarian regimes or worse. What is never asked is that “is it there an inherent flaw in the ideology that makes a socialist utopia impossible?” Or “is there an inherent flaw in the individuals that comprise that society?” Well to answer that another example is in order. In Robert Hienlein’s novel “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” rather than a socialist utopia, he depicts a rugged individualist, libertarian world where the “perfect market” has eliminated all problems of distributive justice and equality. Ultimately it becomes clear that it is not the flaws of people, but the flaws of the ideology that goes against human nature. Complete equality through central planning is not possible, so negation of a socialist utopia is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Simply, because if humans plan it, there is bound to be flaws since human concepts of distributive justice are incomplete. By allowing market forces and technology to fill the “human gap” the ideological flaws become superfluous. Then we are not working against nature, rather we are working with it. It would be a common sense axiom to recognize that if we were meant to be completely and totally equal in every way nature would have born us in that image. However, nature extenuates survival traits and eliminates ones that are not necessary to survival of the species. No where does it say we are all equal in ability or intelligence. That means that because we all know that, but for some strange reason we inherently crave equality.

What does it all mean?

So because we can never have equality that can translate into modern societies dislike of utopian ideas? I believe this is part of the equation. We as a people have a very weak grasp of history. We feel it and live it, more than we reflect and observe it. It is in that feeling that most people, if you ask have totally different ideas of “where we are going,” and if “were on the right track.” It is that “feeling” that leads so many Americans to not be optimistic about the future. In that pessimism and lack of sanguinity, we make dystopia so much more believe able than its counterpart. Now don’t get me wrong. I believe that we can have things much better than they are, but if we as a society do no believe that, it will inevitably get worse.

It is in the cleverness of relative deprivation and that by lower the standard of living universally something happens. It is only when we have historical or modern reference are we able to have a context for comparison. If that comparison were to be removed or altered then creating that situation would be easy. What most historians and economic-political theorist have believed is that when the scales of equality become unbalanced something will happen a revolution, civil unrest, war, etc. I guess a question that is raised is at what point will individuals recognize deprivation and act on it. If trends continue as they are my guess is that people will never recognize how deprived they really are. So it could so easily pass, that fiction would become fact.

1 comment:

Brainpolice said...

Good post. I like the talk about the use of dystopia as opposed to utopia.