Imagining Shangri-La: In Defence of Utopian Thinking

Imagine:

You have been given a chance to recreate society completely from scratch. Yes, you personally have to devise a set of principles by which we will all live.

But there’s a catch: You don’t get to know who you will be in that society. You don’t know if you will be rich or poor, ruler or ruled, white or brown, male or female, intelligent or unintelligent, strong or weak, beautiful or ugly, etc. etc.

After you create your principles, a random lottery will decide who you get to be in it.

The point of this thought experiment from philosopher John Rawls is, obviously, to eliminate self-interest in the creation of an “ideal society.” And yet, as just and fair as Rawls’ thought experiment seems, it’s still a something of a taboo to even talk about creating a utopia. Even in writing this sentence I feel like I should be looking over my shoulder.

I can only speculate as to the origins of this war on hope and imagination. Maybe it’s Cold War disillusionment with the Soviet experiment. Maybe it’s Postmodern cynicism, branding every vision of “progress” as merely an expression of a “will to power” over others. Maybe it’s Western elites, demonising any other way of organising society, simply because they like the way things are (remember British PM Margaret “there is no alternative” Thatcher??).

But it’s also the thinking of many of our leading intellectual champions, the “received wisdom” in Arts and Humanities departments across the world, among people who can hardly be branded as establishment boot-lickers.

After all – as the thinking goes – isn’t the creation of utopia exactly what they tried to do in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and North Korea? Didn’t it lead to the unprecedented slaughter of countless millions in the twentieth century?

Yes, it did. But just because some in the past have had the wrong conception of utopia is no reason to throw out the idea altogether. That’s like saying because some people in the past have been mistaken we must throw out the idea of being correct; that because some people have been delusional we must throw out the idea of reality; that because some people have been sick we must throw out the idea of health.

What the anti-utopian chorus needs to remember is that every society is already a utopia to those who have power in it. Our current society is a utopia to the likes of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and other one-percenters. Our society is a utopia if you’re a fossil fuel company or Wall Street banker putting profits before people, the planet and the future itself.

The only utopia we’re being told we can’t have, then, is one that serves ordinary people.

I contend, therefore, that the real question is not whether we should create utopia but who we should be creating it for, and how. This is, I believe, the real lesson of the twentieth century. Of course if you try to create utopia just for yourself it will turn into a dystopia for everyone else. Of course if you try to achieve utopia through violence and dictatorship it will end in bloody ruin.

But how does the picture change if both your ends and means takes everyone into account, as Rawls’ thought experiment compels us to do?

The strangest thing about all of this is that, despite today’s fashionable scepticism toward utopian thinking, few would disagree with the idea of “making the world a better place.” Yet to even begin to think about making the world a better place, you need to have at least some conception of an “ideal society,” some vision of what it is you want society to move towards, some standard by which you judge “better” and “worse” in the first place.

We might as well call this kind of thinking “utopian.”

THE OVERTON WINDOW

The first stumbling block any utopian vision faces, of course, is the chorus of haters pompously declaring: “It’s impossible!” “It’s naive!” Or my favourite piece of patronising condescension; “It works well in theory but not in practice.”

I can’t help but wonder if they think society as it currently is “works well in practice,” and if so, for whom? Sure, as we’ve seen, the status quo is fantastic if you’re currently sun-bathing poolside at your Malibu mansion, your biggest problem being the decision around whether to order steak or lobster for dinner. But ask an Amazon worker whose pay is docked for taking bathroom break, or a resident of the homeless encampments springing up around Los Angeles, if the status quo “works well in practice,” and you might get a somewhat different answer.

Perhaps they just think that any alternative is “impossible.” However, I really don’t think this matters. After all, when 19th century advocates of the slave trade declared “It’s impossible to get rid of it,” they were actually right; or at least, they have been right so far.

The Global Slavery Index estimates that roughly 40.3 million people – 71% women and 25% children – are currently living in modern day slavery.1 However, this doesn’t mean that we just throw up our hands and say “Ok, let’s just accept the existence of slavery.” No, we fight slavery anyway – whether ultimate victory is “possible” or not – because it’s the right thing to do.

The other thing to remember about the charge that something is “impossible” is that they always say that. Whatever it was – democracy, women’s rights, and so forth – those who benefited from things staying the same always shouted “It would never work!”

Yes, at first, something is always seen as “unthinkable.” But eventually it’s merely seen as “radical.” At some point it becomes “acceptable.” If you’re lucky, one day it’s seen as “sensible,” which is the precursor to it becoming “popular,” and finally, “inevitable.”

This is called the “Overton Window” in political science; that is, the “window” showing the range of “acceptable opinion” in society.2

Once upon a time, feudalism, torture, wife-beating, abducting human beings from their homes and selling them as farm equipment, were all “within” the Overton Window. Basic human decency and treating human beings as human beings all fell far outside of it in the “radical” and “unthinkable” zones.

Thankfully, that Window has moved over time- but only because we didn’t listen to chorus of “It’s impossible!” and we made it move.

All of which, of course, only begs the question: Where will the Window move next? And with that in mind, I think it’s time to take Rawls up on his challenge, to do the “unthinkable” and “radical” thing of actually imagining an “ideal society.”

imagining shangri-la

The thing is, there’s actually nothing all that radical about the principles I’ve chosen here to base an “ideal society” upon. They are, in fact, principles that most people agree with (at least in name). The problem is that these principles have long been hijacked by the anti-utopian defenders of the status quo, and beaten and twisted until they’ve almost lost all meaning.

It’s my contention that if we were to actually follow these principles that we all say we believe, our society would look very different.

Principles like:

Common Sense:

This term has long been deployed as a cover for a lack of any actual reason and evidence. It’s almost synonymous with “going with your gut,” which really just means going with your personal bias and prejudice disguised by emotional reasoning.

However, would it be a violation of common sense to base policy on actual scientific evidence and the consensus of expert opinion?

Would it be a crime against common sense to say that no, not all opinions are equal? Would common sense be offended if I say we don’t have to listen to “both sides” when one side is the majority of experts in the relevant field, and the other side is a minority of internet trolls and Joe Randoms who watched some Youtube videos?

If not, I think “common sense” has its place.

Meritocracy:

Today’s CEOs earn 354 times their average workers’ salaries,3 and the world’s billionaires earn enough extra billions in a year to solve world poverty seven times over.4 But it’s all ok, we’re told: the rich are rich because they earned it and the poor and poor because they’re lazy. Meritocracy, not equality, is the mantra of the day.

Well, fine. Of course people should be rewarded for the value of their contribution to society, and not for their laziness, incompetence or downright anti-social behaviour. But I guess that means teachers, nurses, garbage collectors, and so forth are all in for a massive pay rise; while all those CEOs, corporate lawyers, hedge fund managers and Wall Street bankers may well see their bank balances plunge into the negatives.

Oops.

Oh, but they work hard? Well, those teachers and nurses work hard too. Maybe harder. Besides, I’m sure Hitler “worked hard” on his rise to power too, so forgive me if I don’t find this point compelling. I’d say that if even a casual, part-time sandwich maker makes a more positive net contribution to society in a day than Wall Street bankers and so forth do in their entire “hard-working” careers, then the “merit” belongs to the sandwich-maker.

The truth is, a real meritocracy might well see society become more equal, not less. After all, no one really believes that CEOs work 354 times harder than their average workers, or that their work is 354 times more valuable. If those CEOs were remunerated according to the actual “merit” of what they do, they might just find themselves on a much more level footing with their average workers.

Freedom:

Who doesn’t love freedom? Well, actually, dig just a little beneath the surface and you might find that some of the loudest defenders of “freedom” really only love freedom for themselves; screw everyone else. 19th century American slave owners fought an entire war to defend their “freedoms.” The freedom to do what? To own slaves. It’s like some sort of dark, twisted sit-com.

Maybe that’s just one those historical oddities that we look back on in disbelief, as we tell ourselves that we’re so much more enlightened in this day and age.

But the logic is really no different to those corporations today, who – in the name of “freedom” – want to increase profits by scrapping regulations protecting workers, consumers and the environment. Or how about anti-vaxxers, loudly demanding their “freedom” to go anywhere they please without being vaccinated, regardless of the danger they pose to others, while accusing anyone who questions them of being Nazis or Stalinists.

This sort of “freedom” means being able to do whatever you want regardless of the cost to anyone else. This “freedom” means giving the middle finger to society and everything you depend on to survive. This “freedom” is childish.

No, “freedom” in its classical formulation meant the freedom of the individual do as they like so long as it doesn’t harm anyone else. Somehow, the second part of that sentence has been forgotten by some. But two things need to be recognised here: To really care about freedom (without being a hypocrite) is also to care about the freedom of others; and to care about the freedom of others is not to be a Nazi or a Stalinist sympathiser.

Now that is a sentence I never thought I’d have to write.

Democracy:

In Western nations, we all say we believe in it and we all believe we live in it. But how true is that, really? We vote every few years for other people to make decisions for us and congratulate ourselves on how we live in a country “of the people, by the people and for the people.” But any country with inequality will tend see democracy distorted in favour of those at the top of society.

When a Princeton University study found that the United States government served the wealthy far more than it served ordinary people, it wasn’t a matter of conspiracy theory or some radical’s hyperbole; it was the result of sober research comparing the likelihood of a law being passed with whose interest that law served.5 The United States is one of the clearest examples of money’s distortion of democracy.

The simplest solution is to get money out of politics with publicly funded elections. But a call for greater democracy need not stop there. What about democracy in the workplace? Think about how odd it is that we say we live in a democracy, and yet we actually spend most of every day inside an institution that is, to all intents and purposes, a dictatorship.

Workplace democracy essentially means that workers own (or co-own) their own workplaces. Gone is the separation between boss and worker; gone is the fundamental divide between owning class and working class; gone is the age-old exploitation of one by the other. The workers hold the power, elect their managers, and divide profits equitably.

I’m sure I’ve strayed far outside the Overton Window now, but calls for “workplace democracy” or “economic democracy” are nothing new. In fact, any cries of “It’s impossible!” or “It’ll never work!” need to remember that this has already long existed in the form of worker cooperatives.

All we’re talking about really, then, is being consistent in our belief in freedom, consistent in our belief that people shouldn’t be exploited, consistent in our belief in a just society. We’re talking about being consistent in our belief in democracy.

Justice:

There’s few things more instinctive that our sense of fairness. Every two-year-old who’s been given less ice cream than their sibling has a concept of justice. Yet just as inequality distorts democracy, it also inevitably distorts justice.

Not to pick on the United States, but – for some reason – the evidence of a “two-tiered justice system” seems to be clearest there. Take Ethan Couch, who got behind the wheel drunk and ended up killing four pedestrians and injuring several others; who was let off lightly because his lawyer argued he suffered “affluenza,” the supposed “condition” of being raised in such affluence that he didn’t know the consequences of his actions.6

Or there’s Brock Turner, who, for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, received a pathetic sentence of only 6 months jail time.

He was released after 3 months.

For “good behaviour.”7

Clearly, having the money to afford good lawyers and long trials, or even just money to have well-to-do judges sympathise with you as “one of their own,” pays off. But I can’t help imagine what would happen if a poor black man had committed the exact same crimes…

Actually, of course, I don’t need to imagine; most of us know perfectly well the stats showing that minorities tend to get longer and harsher sentences than whites for similar crimes, if not just killed outright in the street.

No, a “just society” has to have a better conception of justice than this.

Well-Being:

The thing is, all the other principles are necessary for well-being but they are not sufficient. What good is freedom if you don’t know what you want to do with your freedom?

But imagine a society that actually prioritises well-being as its primary indicator of societal health, rather than wealth. The difference is that while caring about well-being would necessarily include caring about its wealth, just caring about its wealth does not necessarily include caring about its well-being.

Again, you don’t have to imagine too much; Bhutan has become famous for replacing its measurement for national success from Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for Gross National Happiness (GNH).8 This is a victory for the “naive” and “idealistic” notion of putting people before profits.

Conservative voices of the world’s superpowers have always trumpeted that their nation is “number one” – the Roman Empire, the British Empire, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, the United States. There’s nothing less exceptional than loud claims of exceptionalism. Yet what such voices usually mean is that they’re “number one” in terms of wealth and power.

But by the GNH metric – that is, the metric of what really matters- you are only “number one” if you top the world in healthcare, education, human rights, happiness. You are only “number one” if you use your wealth for more than just yourself.

Environmentalism:

Obviously we need to put the environment front and centre. No environment means no society; without it none of the other principles matter. Do I really need to explain it more than that?

progress

I don’t want to be misunderstood. When I list problems with the status quo, I don’t do so to get down about society but because I see hope for something better. And the reason I see hope for something better is because of how far we have come; something we should never lose sight of.

Researchers such as Professor Steven Pinker have compiled an overwhelming mountain of evidence proving that there has indeed been progress by almost every standard that we care to measure: poverty, healthcare, education, human rights, etc. etc. 9

And yes, there’s every reason to expect progress to continue. Just as we look upon our ancestors and shake our heads in disbelief at their backwardness and barbarism, so too will our descendants shake their heads in disbelief at us; at the way we treat animals, or the environment, or each other.

And that is a good thing; because it means we will have grown. It will mean we didn’t listen to the naysayers and the chorus of “It’s impossible.”

It means we will have taken a step towards Shangri-La.

Footnotes

  1. Walk Free Foundation. (2018). Global Slavery Index. https://www.globalslaveryindex.org/
  2. Giridharadas, A. (21 November 2019). How America’s Elites Lost Their Grip. Time. https://time.com/5735384/capitalism-reckoning-elitism-in-america-2019/
  3. Liberto, J. (15 April, 2013). CEOs Earn 354 Times More Than Average Worker. CNN Business. https://money.cnn.com/2013/04/15/news/economy/ceo-pay-worker/
  4. Oxfam. (January, 2018). Reward Work, Not Wealth. https://oi-files-d8-prod.s3.eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/file_attachments/bp-reward-work-not-wealth-220118-en.pdf
  5. Gilens, M.; Page, B. (September 2014). Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens. American Political Science Association. https://scholar.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/mgilens/files/gilens_and_page_2014_-testing_theories_of_american_politics.doc.pdf
  6. Alcindor, Y. (December 14, 2013). What’s the Future For ‘Affluenza’ Defenses? USA Today. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/12/14/whats-the-future-for-affluenza-defenses/4016059/
  7. Grinberg, E.; Shoichet, C. (3 September, 2016). Brock Turner Released After 3 Months in Jail. CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2016/09/02/us/brock-turner-release-jail/index.html
  8. Royal Government of Bhutan. (18 July, 2008). The Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan. https://www.nationalcouncil.bt/assets/uploads/files/Constitution%20%20of%20Bhutan%20English.pdf
  9. Pinker, S. (2018). Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Viking.

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