Utopias: Old and New

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The significant problems we face today cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them. -Albert Einstein

In the most general political sense, the Oxford English Dictionary defines utopia as “a place, state, or condition ideally perfect in respect of politics, laws, customs, and conditions.” Etymologically, the term derives from the Greek words ou and topos, and literally translates as not a place or no place.

This inquiry is the result of a conversation I had with a renown theorist and practitioner of international relations, national security, and policy. The original debate circled around the the argument that the original idea of communism has been appropriated to mean something different – what most people understand it to be in contemporary times – and that the significant distinction between the two conceptions is neglected to our detriment.

Similarly, a following debate ensued about the term utopia and that, similarly, there is an important distinction between the meanings with important political implications. However, in this instance, it wasn’t about two simultaneous denotative conceptions, but between an existing conception and a burgeoning one. In short, the argument was that the aforementioned definition of utopia is part of an old paradigm; that a new conception is possible, if not necessary, and with it, a commensurate political paradigm.

“Utopia means ‘no place,’ it is an unrealizable goal,” went the assertion. “Yes, under an old conception of the term but here it is proposed that utopia means something different, something subtle yet significant,” went the rebuttal. The discussion continued, “This new conception isn’t a refutation of the old conception; in fact, it embraces the old definition – it relies upon it for its own definition – it sees the truth in it, but sees that truth more deeply and ironically. Indeed, utopia is not a place, but a process; it no more an independent entity than running is an independent entity from the legs that hurriedly move.”

There is a growing consensus among the psychological, neurological, neuro-philosophical communities that the mind is not a separate entity from the body. Rather, the mind is (the product of) the functioning of a holistic information processor identified as the brain. Without the brain – a working brain – there is no mind. With no mind, there is no self – and often they are understood as one and the same. In fact the word mind is a misnomer under this scientific conception – a better and more precise term would be minding, since the gerund form of the word indicates the true nature of the mind as an action, a process (like running). This is both an empirical refutation and solution to the “mind-body duality (problem)” that emerged thousands of years ago.

Similarly, utopia should be viewed etymologically/literally as not a place but a process. But not a innate process of political objects, i.e. human beings, like minding is to brains, but a willed process – the continuation of a decision made, much like the continued decision to stay in a marriage, a healthy lifestyle, or a consistent moral life. The reason being that the former oversimplifies the concept and renders it an impossible goal.

Most people’s conception of utopia is understood as some end state that is free from conflict, diversity, individuality, and change – this is because people incorrectly view it as a form of human perfection (which also, incidentally, is in need of a similar redefinition). And since human perfection is impossible, so, too, the reasoning goes, must be any political product humanity creates. Again, this is correct, but only if the concepts such as utopia and perfection are understood as end states and not processes.

The word process implies the interaction with(in) time. This is key for several reasons. One, it means that utopia is not a heaven – it’s not some final state where humanity solves all the problems of the human condition and everyone is happy all the time. This is likely never to be the case, even within this new conception of utopia – human existence takes place within the Universe, which is in a constant state of flux between creation and destruction; humans will always reflect this nature since they are an embodiment of that nature. Two, it means that utopia can, and eventually will, mean different things at different times. Sociopolitical architects will decide on what is the best form of government at the time and, hopefully, when new information emerges and people are ready, changes will occur and a new government will be constructed to suit these people under new conceptions of the best form of government. In this way, humans are allowed to grow and evolve, donning new sociopolitical systems when they need to and, similarly, doffing them when they must. In this sense then, utopia, is the process by which human political systems are perpetually improved with certain goals in mind (for example, reducing war, poverty and famine, needless suffering, crime, etc – notice the word reducing and opposed to eliminating – remember perfection [under the old paradigm] is not a realizable goal to which we should work; instead, we should continually strive to be better than before – morally, intellectually, personally, etc).

When combined with Reason and the scientific method, human beings can not only enhance their governments but develop entirely new ones altogether! This is an endeavor limited only by the imagination of human hope and effort; and tempered by the understanding of human nature and the limits of their technology. The technology of our age gives the people of our time the advantages of greater information and mobilization than the generations before could ever have imagined – and still don’t. It is time that we begin in earnest to start thinking about utopias again, but this time equipped with the knowledge of our time and its best methods. For it seems unlikely that the way things are currently progressing (and promise to continue to do so) are ever going to bring about the kind of changes worthy of the word utopian.

So this begs the question(s): “But wait – don’t we do that already? Isn’t that what democracy is in the West – people changing laws so that their governments and societies are better than they were before?” Not in the sense I mean: the changes I have in mind are those similar to that between changing from a feudal monarchy to a capitalist democracy, for example. A capitalist democracy is an improvement in many ways but it is not the final best form of government – there are better ones awaiting us still, and we are long overdue. However, in the grand scheme of things, we do, indeed, engage in utopianism when we petition our government and change our laws. In short, if we are vigilant and meaningfully participate, we are engaged in a continual, if albeit gradual, process of change and readjustment – a micro version of utopia argued for in this post.

How about that?