Friday, December 14, 2007

Utopias, Dystopias, and Human Nature

For a while now I've been interested in the question of why utopias become dystopias. I now have a few thoughts that I'd like to share on the matter.

The "Founding Fathers" of the U.S. seemed to take a dim view of human nature. Dealing with a monarchy showed them that power corrupts and they saw government as an oppressive force. So they set up a whole series of checks and balances to try to restrain the devilish side of our human nature. Even with these checks and balances the American system is rife with corruption and the corrosive influence of money but it's still a better system than most.

By contrast, both corporatist and marxist movements take a favorable view of human nature. Republicans basically believe that people who run corporations are decent people and that there is no need to regulate them because these good guys will naturally want to do the right thing. And it turns out disastrous -- the Savings and Loan Crisis, Enron, Bopal, the Subprime Mortgage Crisis, toxins in our water and air, the planet on the verge of ecological collapse. Left unregulated otherwise decent people organized together in corporations become corrupt and rob, steal, poison, and kill. It's the craziest thing.

By the same token, Marxist movements take a basically favorable view of human nature. They believe (and of course this is an oversimplification) that if we abolish private property and all come together and identify our collective needs that the economy and society will sort itself out, from each according to his ability, to each according to his/her need. But a quick glance at the legacies of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot shows how a small handful of people can become corrupted by this process and exploit those who have a favorable view of human nature. (The Lives of Others is also a great look at the dystopia of communist East Germany.)

The same disaster also happens over and over with spiritual movements. Jim Jones, Adi Da, and Jim Bakker -- may have all started out with the best of intentions (or not). But when someone says they have a unique relationship with God and lots of other people start to believe them -- I imagine it becomes corrupting pretty quickly. And the leaders who may have earnestly sought a deeper connection to God, quickly become mired in very human failings of excess wealth, sexual abuse, and/or drugs and alcohol abuse.

So why don't marxist and spiritual movement adopt the dim view of human nature and impose the checks and balances and regulations that rein in our dark side? I think perhaps it's because checks and balances are slow and inherently conservative forces. If you think the world needs a great transformation (and it probably does) and you think it needs to happen quickly (also probably true) then you're not likely to want to impose any limits on that process. But the corruption of power is so absolute, I'm not sure how any movement can NOT take steps to regulate the dark side of its leadership (and membership).

But then there's Google. Google seems to take a fairly positive view of human nature (although they also seem to be aware of its dark side through their motto, Don't be evil.) The fact that they give their employees 20 percent time shows that they understand that each of us has an extraordinary potential to create things of wondrous beauty and utility. Through 20 percent time projects, Google anticipates and fulfills human needs in an almost symbiotic relationship with their users. But the truth is Google is only 10 years old so it could still go evil on us -- it'll remain to be seen whether power and a market capitalization of $215 billion will ultimately corrupt or whether they have systems in place to limit and manage the dark side.

The example of the Founding Fathers seems to show the need to impose checks and balances to limit the evil side of human nature. But the Google example shows that there is also a tremendous potential for figuring out how to nurture and support the angels of our better nature as well.


Cassandra Yorgey said...

I often wonder what would happen if people started applying the 20% rule to their personal lives.

RFK Action Front said...

Hi Cassandra! That's a beautiful thought! So many amazing things could take root and flourish if we devoted 20% of our personal time to wandering, exploring, curiosity, and creating the new.