Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Planning for Utopia, overcoming the contradictions of the human condition

Okay so there are lots of articles out there on the contradictions of capitalism and the inherent weaknesses of capitalism and the profound flaws of capitalism.  All well and good.  I particularly like the work of Ha-Joon Chang and his book, The 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism.  He writes in this popular and easily accessible manner and presents the material in such a clear and thoughtful way that it's pretty hard to argue with him.

But, it seems to me that there is another, perhaps more pressing conversation that we need to have now.  And it goes something like this: Any alternative to capitalism, will need to be able to effectively speak to, address, and in some cases resolve, several fundamental problems inherent in THE HUMAN CONDITION.  I've started a list below and hope to add to it over time:

1. Merit.  Neoliberals fetishize merit and have created a whole system to "measure" merit (SAT, college admissions, the Bar Exam, credit scores, etc.) that merely serves to reinforce and naturalize existing class divisions in society.  Merit is almost never actually present in these measures -- scores on these evaluations almost always correlate most closely with the income/level of education of your parents. So the great trick that the neoliberals pull off is that they obscure, even from themselves, the fact that there is no real content in their measurement system.  Said differently, they manage to convince themselves of the lie that rich people are more deserving as a result of their superior efforts and abilities.  

But Marxians do not have a better answer.  "From each according to his ability to each according to his need" is a non-starter.  In any system some people are going to work harder than others. Some people are going to apply their talents in more creative or useful endeavors. Some people are going to make greater sacrifices than others.  Should those things be rewarded? And if not, what happens to a society when hard work, innovation, and sacrifice are not rewarded?

2. Difference/sameness.  Progressives have made an idol out of difference.  But are there any universal truths that should guide our efforts as a society?  How do we balance difference and universals?  [Interestingly the LGBT movement in the United States started as a celebration of difference. But it's very hard to mobilize a political campaign for rights around, "to each, his/her own." So over time the LGBT movement coalesced (for better or worse) around the universal theme of marriage equality and in a short time achieved historic victories.]  

3. The role of motivation/aspiration.  Motivation is one of the hardest things to teach (think of Jaime Escalante's relentless focus on ganas in Stand and Deliver.)  What role should motivation and aspiration play in our utopia?

4.  The role of fear. Capitalism is built upon fear and it's awful. People fear their boss, they fear starving to death, they fear homelessness, they fear going to work on Monday, they fear making a mistake, they fear not living up to expectations. But fear also drives a lot of creativity and production.  If fear disappears, what happens to society? I know we should aim for a society where love replaces fear. But so many communist revolutions that attempted to replace fear with love ended up in a totalitarian nightmare where love of party and love of state were the only forms of love that were permitted (and fear ruled every second of every day). A tiny touch of fear can be okay and lead to great things, too much fear leads to collapse and disintegration. So what role should fear play in our proposed utopia? And what role should love play? And how can we prevent love from being subverted?

I'm sure there are many more contradictions of the human condition that we could explore as well (and I would welcome any suggestions in the comments section).

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