Thursday, September 09, 2010

Politics and Utopianism

My political science textbook* has a great definition of Utopianism: utopianism is a disdain for specifically political processes. Utopianism goes all the way back to to Plato's Republic. While it's probably true that Plato didn't intend for the Republic to be a blueprint for an actual society, none of the institutions he describes as being part of an ideal** society are political. The rulers his society privileges — the "philosopher-kings" — are privileged because they embody the search for truth; there is no actual political process even within the philosopher class.

*Thomas M. Magstadt, Understanding Politics, ninth edition
**I mean "ideal" here in the sense of abstract, ignoring complicating factors.

But what do I mean specifically by a political process? I think the key is that a political process is fundamentally a process of negotiation and compromise; it is not (except in a peripheral sense) fundamentally a truth-finding process. In contrast, while we can gain some information by counting noses, and scientists do engage in negotiation and compromise, scientific investigation really is fundamentally a truth-finding process; the political aspects are peripheral. Scientific theories are accepted as true fundamentally because of evidence, not because they are the theories that scientists like best.

The distinction between a negotiation and a truth-finding process is subtle and not entirely easy to discern. As noted, scientists do engage in negotiation and compromise regarding the conduct of science, and scientists make a lot of decisions — such as the decision of what hypotheses to investigate — purely subjectively. If you look closely, and you filter out all of the politics, something substantial remains in scientific investigation: a methodology that relies on evidence and the search for truth, truth that's independent of what the individual scientists like or want to be true.

Is there such an objective (or objective-seeming) methodology in capital-P Politics, i.e. the construction and maintenance of social institutions that guide our social and economic behavior? If there is, then Utopianism would be relatively benign (at least if we found an effective methodology). We could then consider the essential Utopian "disdain" for politics as just a filter to focus on the objective, truth-finding core.

But there isn't an objective methodology, or at least we haven't found one. Furthermore, we do know if there were an objective methodology, it must necessarily be essentially distinct from the scientific method. The scientific method works by noting that we do not in fact ever observe a violation of a true scientific principle; in other words, a true scientific principle is precisely some principle for which we never actually observe exceptions. Politics, however, is all about choices, and for some proposition to be an intuitively meaningful matter of choice, we must be able to actually observe exceptions. A law against murder, for example, is meaningful and relevant only to the extent that some people actually do choose to murder others.

One of the interesting themes prevalent in Utopian literature is not just the filtering out of politics (i.e. structure processes of negotiation and compromise), but the extirpation of politics. Plato's philosopher-kings do not negotiate, even amongst each other: they rationally search for the objective truth, truth that is independent of their particular personal preferences and interests. Indeed in most Utopian literature, society is simply assumed to be free of substantive conflicts of preferences and interest. Negotiation and compromise are, of course, tools for resolving substantive conflicts; without those conflicts the tools are irrelevant. Where no conflict exists, we observe no exceptions, and "correct" behavior at least seems a matter of objective truth.

So the key to identifying some element of literature is to look at how the author views politics, i.e. negotiation and compromise (as well as propaganda, the resolution of substantive conflicts by trying to directly alter others' preferences). If the author has a disdain for politics, if he or she "magically" waves away conflicts or posits that what appear as conflicts of preference and interest in reality are mistakes of fact and truth, then the work is Utopian.

It's important, I think, to distinguish between the disdain for politics from the promise of benefits. All Utopian authors will, of course, "sell" their Utopia with a set of promised benefits; no author will say their society is "right" even if it delivered no benefit at all. But the converse does not follow: a political theorist who promises benefits is not necessarily Utopian. Should we, for example, have at the beginning of the 18th century called capitalism a Utopian theory had we been prescient enough to see that capitalist democratic republics would have in reality created orders of magnitude more material wealth, for not just a few but for a billion; afforded the ability (by virtue of using that material wealth to support not just a privileged few but a veritable army of scientists and scientific technicians) to cure diseases that had for millennia caused untold suffering and death, to not only put a man on the moon but show that momentous occasion live to millions of people? I'm not saying that capitalism (and its political superstructure) has solved all of humanity's problems — far from it! — but the benefits it has actually delivered in just three short centuries would have seemed to the most intelligent, perspicacious thinker of 1701 to be so wildly implausible as to be worthy of the most severe "Utopian" derision.

We should always, I think, be extremely suspicious and skeptical of arguments from "human nature". If there is any truth about our meta-nature, it is that our actual nature in incredibly plastic. Human beings really can believe almost anything, sincerely, deeply and without a trace of irony.

But I think too there really are deep truths about human nature. One of those deep truths is that we really do have individual preferences and interests*, and there is no objective truth — statements that are true independently of our individual preferences and interests — about how we ought to live. We can figure out how to actually live only by the arduous and complicated process of continuous negotiation, compromise, propaganda, and the occasional (but hopefully minimal) bouts of coercion and outright violence.

*It is, of course, possible that we will give rise to a successor without individual preferences. But I think most people would have a deep intuition that such a successor would not be fully human in an important sense. Whether or not such a successor arises, their problems will be their own. We have the problems of today to solve, problems that should embrace our present deep nature as individuals with individual preferences and interests.

The disdain and desire to extirpate politics is not just a description, it is a deep condemnation of Utopianism. A society without politics is simply not a society of human beings; if real human beings are there — human as we conceive ourselves today to be fully human — the politics will be there, somewhere, and the author is simply ignoring politics, not extirpating politics.

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