On Anarchy and Utopia
My current non-fiction reading these days is The World That Never Was: a True Story Of Dreamers Schemers Anarchists & Secret Agents, by Alex Butterworth. It’s a well-written account of 19th century anarchism, its early utopian ideals and the evolution of many anarchists into political violence and terrorism. Butterworth does a good job of showing how economic distress and autocratic repression led thoughtful utopians to believe that violence was an appropriate and legitimate expression of anarchism. He also shows that the various nations’ intelligence services, especially Russia’s, contributed to the anarchists’ journey into violence in order to discredit all opposition to autocracy. The intelligence services also made sure to remind the public and their governments of the anarchists’ “inherent” violence and danger to keep their budgets increasing. The World That Never Was covers the period roughly 1870 to World War I and is incredibly complex and detailed—the thumbnail biographies of the many actors runs to 18 pages.
The similarities to present times are intriguing. Then, as now, a small band of violent extremists have frightened governments well beyond the extremists’ actual capabilities. In the process, the extremists’ actions compromise other opponents of unjust and repressive regimes. And then as now, the politicians and opportunists take advantage of the violence to fatten their budgets, spy on their own citizens and resist all change.
But I digress.
Anarchism and the various other utopias grew from the revolutionary thought and ideals of the 19th century, a time when people were beginning to understand their individual worth and identity. This awareness trend began in the Age of Enlightenment and continued through the American (“All men are created equal”) and French (“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”) Revolutions as people challenged their relationship with state authority. In the 19th century people challenged economic systems that concentrated wealth at very great cost to workers. In response to the many miseries of industrial capitalism, visionaries offered their ideal utopias. Whether those ideal societies were ever fully formed, practical or even real does not diminish their power. For better or worse, many were inspired by those visions which could justify any measure of self-sacrifice up to and including homicidal violence. And to be even handed, the state and privileged elites were equally capable of homicidal violence in defense of their wealth and privilege, a utopia they were actually living.
So I got to wondering what are the visions that motivate modern society, to what utopias do we aspire in this age of Obama and Boehner? Here’s what I come up with.
The industrial capitalists pursue a utopia of infinite profit and exploitation at the lowest cost. Capitalism is pragmatically realistic and flexible; it has no inherent form and will adapt to whatever arrangements maximize profits, controlling the arrangements as much as possible. Once gained, the profits are left fully to the capitalist discretion. The capitalist utopia is not actually a utopia since it largely exists. But as long as public policy makes any demands of capital, profits are at risk and must be defended. Since most people in this world are not capitalists or benefit to any great extent from its gains, the capitalist utopia has limited appeal. Those to whom it does appeal have the wealth and connections to successfully pursue their interests but those interests are often risk disapproval or even outright rejection by the many who do not profit or are harmed by capitalism’s relentless pursuit of profit. Something more palatable is needed for the masses.
The Republican Party offers that modified capitalist utopia with its free-market promise of jobs for all if only taxes are lower and government does not interfere with the capitalists or spend much. The Republican utopia conjures an image of growing prosperity as unregulated markets create full employment with good wages for anyone willing to work (the “deadbeats” can just go away) and low taxes on the earnings of those hard-working people. Unlike the full capitalist utopia, this one doesn’t exist and requires a certain amount of self-delusion to believe in. America has experienced three decades of free market ideology that has produced great wealth for a few and growing insecurity for the majority and somehow Americans still believe in the infallibility of market.forces and that somehow everyone will finally be rich just as long as government doesn’t interfere.
The Democratic Party utopia is…well, not much in comparison. The best I can figure is that the party aspires to be relevant to people’s lives much as it was in the New Deal and decades following when public policy did, in fact, reign in the excesses of capitalism. But that utopia clashes with the reality that the party depends on capitalist-corporate money for its survival. The Democratic utopia still flickers in some outposts of party thought—Russ Feingold, Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich, Raul Grijalva—but it hardly rates as a mobilizing vision. It does, however, fit the original Greek meaning of utopia: “no place”.
Tea Partiers have as their utopia much the same as the Republicans but with more emphasis on guns and “the Other” (read: non-white persons. Tea partiers don’t trust government at all (except for Medicare and Social Security and National Defense) but they are also suspicious of the large corporate institutions, a healthy skepticism that is the movement’s saving grace. The Tea Party utopia is small-town, Main Street America, where business is local and everyone knows their neighbors and their place.
The Libertarian utopia is also a variation of the Republican Modified Capitalist utopia but for Libertarians, all institutions that infringe on personal liberty are suspect and the more public those institutions, the more suspect. The Libertarian utopia does not accept the even the constrained public sector that is a necessary component of Republican Modified Capitalism.
Once I get past these three, I run out of obvious and easily described utopias. There are certainly many on the Left. I can generically describe a Leftist utopia as a world of free people living in harmony with their environment, a world at peace and with social and economic justice for all. I can’t ascribe that vision to any one group but I think I’ve covered the key bases. Beyond that the ideals will vary in detail and differences that are both the bane of Leftist organizing and at the same time an incubator of creative thought.
Maybe I describe utopia in that broad sense because that is my personal vision of utopia. Paul Signat’s painting, “In the Time of Harmony”, depicts an ideal I to which I can easily subscribe. But I’m not naïve, the painting leaves many important questions unanswered, questions essential to living in any society, questions essential to sustaining life and effecting change. Those unanswered questions are the challenges, the ‘reality”, which renders ideals, if not unattainable, then highly difficult.
Despite the difficulty or even the likelihood that I will never see my utopia, I am still motivated to advocate and pursue it in any way that I can. Just as nature evolves over time, so too does society. I’ve seen attitudes, beliefs and policies contend and change during my life, not always for the best but always changing. Since I strongly believe that all persons are my equal, I am bound to do all in my power to recognize, acknowledge and ensure that equality as the society in which I live changes and evolves .
”All men are created equal” and “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” make a fine set of ideals for me. A call to the barricades or a guide to living this only life I will have. Either way works.