Friday, March 4, 2011

There is No Way to Organize Chaos

Metallic Cloud

Image: Lionel Allorge: Chaos (et ordre)

In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
-Orson Welles, in a monologue from "The Third Man" (1949)

Whenever I meditate on the idea of creating a 'perfect' society, one based on freedom, justice and peace, I am reminded that the price you pay is a staid, bourgeois lifestyle that does not breed daring artistic expression. It is perhaps the greatest irony of the human condition that we are at our most expressive during periods of terrible strife and conflict. After the first world war, dadaism, cubism and surrealism were born, and literature emerged as part of one whole artistic movement that has been dubbed 'modernism'. Yet, society was shaken, having witnessed the awesome dark side of science and technology which had promised a better life for all. The economy was shattered, and the Great Depression had not yet even begun. Contrast this to times of peace and stability, where the benfits are security and a healthy economy. Art suffers in these times because unfortunately, suffering breeds art. Of course, there are those on the fringe who are brilliant or mad enough (is there really a difference?) to create their own universe out of a reality that is ultimately sterile and predictable, but are destined to a life anonymity and poverty, barring incredible luck in the form of patronage. The unfortunate fact is that human beings need not only comfort and security, but more importantly fulfillment: whether you call it spiritual, intellectual, or artistic.

The philosophical roots of this problem came hundreds of years before Welles' famous 'cuckoo clock' speech, but coincidentally were born in the same era he was referring to. Modern statesmanhip has been, at a abstract level, the product of two political treatises, which happened to both appear at the cusp of the medieval and modern eras. The first of these is famous, Machiavelli's The Prince, which is the blueprint of every successful government on this planet today. The other is less well-known, Thomas More's Utopia, which advocates a communist utopia (More coined 'Utopia'), though More himself never seriously advocated communism. Rather than rely upon the political idealism of Plato as More did, Machiavelli wisely observed that one should be pragmatic in politics, basing it on the way things are, not the way they ought to be. Interestingly enough, both men were condemned in their own time for their writings (among other things): More was imprisoned and beheaded in 1535, Machiavelli was imprisoned and then exiled, dying in 1527. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the idea of a communist utopia was no longer a viable political reality. Whether it ever could have worked at all is open for debate, but for the purposes of this discussion, it is enough to know that Machivelli's realpolitik is the best form of political organization that we have now. The other major political experiments of the 20th century (communism and totalitarianism) are no longer threats towards classic liberal democracy, which may sound nice and friendly, but is as much derivative from Machiavelli's writings as it is from classical Athens.

Liberal capitalistic democracies have weathered the storms of the 20th century and are still standing. Forgetting for the moment the very real threats and instability from the non-democratic, non-westernized world, is it time to take a fresh look at whether a utopia is once again a political possibility? On the one hand, that political utopia has already been more or less reached: people in liberal democracies are theoretically able to participate in the mechanisms of government. The other hand is saying something quite different. It is telling you that your voice matters little in the sea of politics, to the point where you feel powerless. You do, however, have great power as a economic element of society, the hand tells you. You are, in fact, the invisible hand Adam Smith spoke of, molding the market via your choices as a consumer--freedom of choice has become one of sheer purchasing power. Could it be that our new model of utopia is one based upon economics, where the consumer is empowered?

Taken to its logical conclusion, an economic utopia would be one where all material desires are satisfied, fulfilling our needs for comfort and security. Unfortunately this does little, if anything, to satisfy our spiritual, intellectual, and artistic needs--Man the economic animal has been appeased, but man is more than an economic animal. Human beings must express themselves in terms that are incoherent in an economic schema. After all, what place does 'art-for-its-own-sake' have in a market economy? Does not commercial interest taint the ambitions of art? If we express ourselves through our purchases in this model of economic utopia, does that mean only that with market value is expressive?

Beyond aesthetics, the concept of utopia is irreconcilable with capitalism. Utopia etymologically means, 'no place', because More was clever enough to realize that such a place did not, nor ever would, exist. Even if we take the more common understanding of the word, with it's connotations of perfection and equality, we see that it is incompatible with a system of class that is determined by wealth and property. Make no mistake--the only reason capitalism is a success is because it provides material security and comfort to most of the people, namely the middle class. This is not idealism--it is Machiavellian. Capitalism is the best way to provide both great wealth and further the Enlightenment principals of rationality, liberty and science. Liberalism and capitalism are inseparable, and explain the continuing durability of the form of government and society we are accustomed to. But it can never be a utopia, because a utopia would necessarily have to do away with such things as private property, without which capitalism would collapse. We have seen communism's historic failure in practice, which would have been the closest thing to the type of utopia envisioned by More. Is there any way to reconcile market, consumer-driven economics with the ideals of a utopian society? What does the future hold?

If we continue to predicate our future utopia on an economic model, we must also assume that the government has become very limited in power, to the point of being negligible or even non-existent. Real power, then, would be held by the corporate entities of the future. Unfortunately, our utopia could not coexist in a world unquestionably dominated by corporate totalitarianism. After all, if the goal is, as individuals, to hold power via our choice of what products we buy, then haven't we been reduced to slaves of a system of logos and banal homogeneity? Simply getting rid of the corporate behemoths is even more difficult than creating a utopia within them--I don't see the corporations around us today going away anytime soon, except maybe to merge into a smaller number of even larger companies. The unavoidable fact is that our wide range of consumer choices is due to the global bureaucratic system of distribution that guarantees availability in a timely and consistent manner. Such a system of distribution is a by-product, and essentially a holding of, the multinational conglomerates we are all so familiar with today. This bureaucracy--even if severed from their corporate parents--would still be a powerful autonomous entity, and would not solve the problem of concentrated power overwhelming the masses. In short, a utopia based on consumer choice could not work, because consumer choice requires the necessary evil of some sort of monolithic bureaucracy.

It's been a tradition in the West since Plato to search for some sort of idealistic, absolute value system from which all lesser forms are derived, to guide us in the proper direction. This singularity has taken many forms over time, but is most easily understood in our intellectual tradition as God. This line of thinking took much responsibility off the shouders of Man until the humanistic movements of the Renaissance and Enlightenment which birthed the modern era. Such movements produced people like Machiavelli, who dared to suppose that men actually act as their own agents, regardless of God's absolute moral authority. Such a view was just short of heresy in the early 16th century, which is why it is considered such a modern view today. More, writing at roughly the same time, kept the tradition of Platonic idealism alive until the 19th century when Marx transformed it into a universal theory of economics that disregarded just enough human nature to make it viable until 1990. Now, as the 21st century unfolds before us in a more complicated world, Machiavellian thinking still dominates while idealism slumbers. Whether the world marches into further geopolitical instability and paranoia, or eventually coalesces into monolithic and homogenous corporate totalitarianism, it will inspire the minds of the idealistic who embrace their human imperfection, yet long to touch the absolute form of the good.

Note: I am indebted to, and inspired by, the following thinkers and the ideas in their books for the content of this article.

Niccolo Machiavelli -- The Prince
Thomas More -- Utopia
Francis Fukuyama -- The End of History and the Last Man
Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels -- The Communist Manifesto
Plato -- The Republic

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