Technological Utopianism

I Ran ButtonI had a dream this weekend of Utopia. But there is a reason for this.

This blog is a series of non-sequiturs, but in order to cushion the move from cuttlefish and conference sponsorship to pre-Marxist socialism, I should note that I spent most of Saturday engrossed in Stoppard’s entire Coast of Utopia trilogy. It was an excellent play, and I’m really glad to have seen it all at once rather than in three parts. I was, as I suspect many might be, a bit intimidated, not only by the idea of 12-hours of theater, but by the content of the play. I know a little about the development of socialism among the Russian intelligentsia, and had even run across Isiah Berlin’s Russian Thinkers at one point in graduate school, in support of a political agency seminar led by Lavaque-Monty. I checked out a copy of the book in order to review before the play, but never got round to looking at it. Our host yesterday noted that the New York Times had provided a reading list for the play (including the Berlin book), but that Stoppard had suggested that it was unnecessary to study in preparation, which was luckily the case.

I won’t review, because I am rarely very good at that. It was, however, an excellent production. The plays were well written, though the third seemed a bit more harried than the first two. The acting was generally excellent. Ethan Hawke got on my nerves–I am sure that was why he was cast in the role–and tripped on the lines at one point, but I’m sure it has to be a bit harrowing to do three different shows in a day. Tom Stoppard was in the audience (as were some familiar faces, including Bill Bradley, Nathan Lane, and Jane Krakowski), and was dragged on stage to take a bow at the curtain call. The staging was breathtaking, and director Jack O’Brian deserves special credit for making this an astoundingly engaging performance, making use of lighting, a stage turntable, sets, sounds, and odors to draw the audience into the dialogue. In all, a great experience.

The plays engaged a number of themes, most pointedly the tension between lived existence and utopian idealism. I have always been a fan of utopias, because I think they are the best way of understanding what people’s assumptions are. If you ask people what the intention is, they tend to mumble something about summum bonum and wave their hands around a bit. The purpose of utopia is as a tool for understanding assumptions. Note that I say above that I have always liked utopias, in the plural. My utopia is one of a large number of city states, each different enough to provide for something satisfying a fairly large number proportion of humanity. I like the play because it brings Herzen back to the forefront, and with him an alternative to Marx’s univeralizing dialectic that insisted on a global capitalism followed by an eventual global socialism. Herzen was one of a group of what were sometimes called utopian socialists (which Marx countered with “scientific socialism”), which drew on a number of thinkers.

Charles Fourier is hardly a footnote in the play proper, invoked as a defender of non-competition and free sex. Fourier had some unusual social ideas, including the creation of “phalanxes” of 1620 people who would live in Grand Hotels and collaborate. As a practical matter, Fourier followers had a pretty rough time of establishing utopian settlements in the US, but the ideas continue to resonate. Especially now, as people are trying to understand how open source and distributed collaboration works, they find little help from traditional economic theory. It is the socialists, especially those outside of the strictly Marxist tradition, who provide starting points for such understanding.

Marxism is very much a theory of the industrial revolution. Even now, it is harder to think of the proletariat as a defined class. The “infernal machines” required certain industrial forms of organization. But those forms are disappearing slowly from many institutions as we move to new forms of distributed production. The idea of a “creative class” has recently emerged, but does it really have the marking of a class, or of a cultural movement?

The Lincoln Center Theater Review took advantage of the trilogy to interview Margaret Atwood on the idea of utopias. I just recently read (and assigned to part of one of my classes) Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, and so I was particularly interested in her take. Unfortunately, she suggests that individualism is antithetical to utopian societies. To a certain degree this is true, of course. Community requires certain limits on individual action. But for me, a utopian society is one in which difference is celebrated. The bounds of that difference are no more than that required to ensure the well-being of others in the society.

Herzen suggests this, both in the play and in real life. Although at several points the play pokes fun at Herzen’s bourgeois lifestyle, it was not antithetical, in his mind, to socialism. While the image of Marx working away in the British Library might seem somewhat hypocritical for a celebrant of the proletariat, since Herzen never suggested that a class-based revolution was a necessary step toward utopia, there is nothing inherently wrong with a lavish chandelier or servants. You can be against slavery, and still have staff. Indeed, the rallying cry for Herzen throughout is in memory of the Decemberists, and the idea of revolution “from above” is not only a possibility, but a necessity. Herzen, after all, was the person who harnessed the means of communication for socialist thought in Europe, even when that socialist thought took directions that he would ultimately not approve of.

Marx was a technological determinist of sorts, and I suspect Hertzen would be as well. What happens in a period of abundance, during a time in which alienating work is either eliminated, or effectively eliminated? Is it the case that the hiding of the underclass–the ignored worker in the US or abroad that still provides for our material well-being–is always an act of unconsciousness? I wonder if HG Wells got it wrong. The idea of the technological cooperative–Linux and Wikipedia standing as clear examples here–puts the constructive work in the hands of the Eloi and not the Morlocks. That is, in order to collaborate, basic levels of comfort and sustenance need to be achieved. Over the last century, this basic level has been achieved by a larger and larger number. While that number remains very small when compared to the society as a whole, it may be that the revolution comes not from the worker, but from the digerati.

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