The Utopia of the Mass Grave, Research Time, 19/10/2017

There’s a common right-wing argument against utopian thinking, which is rooted in the libertarian impulse for small government. The emotional ground of that argument is an appeal to the horrors of totalitarianism.

Stalinist* Russia and Nazi Germany are the real-life outcome of what the modern libertarian (and generally conservative) right-wing considers socialist utopias. Now, for my purpose at the moment, I don’t want to argue over the facts of whether secret police states are the logical, conscious, or unintentional end-points of socialism. I want to talk about the structure of the argument itself.

Rick Sanchez, hero to those who don't know that he's actually
there to be laughed at.
* That is, Russia when it was run by the NKVD in the 1930s-40s.

You can see the structure very clearly in a straightforward reading of Plato’s Republic. Put all the metafictional and metaphilosophical readings of Plato’s work to the side. They don’t matter for the sake of this argument.
• • •
The most straightforward reading of any book is usually the most popular, if only because it’s the easiest to make. Same reason why The Catcher in the Rye inspires so many jerks** – Holden Caulfield’s voice dominates the narrative. Literally, because he’s the first-person narrator of the whole thing.

** And at least one murderer.

The easiest way to read the book is to let the dominant, most charismatic perspective – and the perspective that’s always justifying his actions in his own moral terms – dominate your own thinking with its charisma.

I sympathize with pragmatic libertarians who are careful and complex
in their justified criticisms of state power. But the more dogmatic folks
– and yes, I'm mostly thinking of the Rand disciples – are surprisingly
dim planners of the most obvious failures.
Same reason why so many misogynist, immature jerks love Rick and Morty – you hear Rick justifying all your worst inclinations, but you don’t realize that his words are meant to indict themselves. You have to step back from the text – get metafictional about it – to get the point. But that’s a step beyond just going with the flow.

The same problem happens with The Republic. Going with the flow of the text, without getting meta about it, it’s Plato arguing for the ideal structure of a community and its institutions. Its content is absolutely horrifying – rigid caste system and community-wide family structures. Now think about the book as a model for your own political action.

How do you build a better society? Sit around with your friends and colleagues, figure out a hypothetical structure for society that you think would be perfectly harmonious. Then, when you control your state’s military, police, nationalized corporations, bureaucracy, tax authority, organize the entire society according to that exact plan.

Change the entire country – from law to culture to thought – in a generation.

What a paradise it was.
Yeah, that didn’t work out so well. You’ve conceived of politics as a craftsman or engineer conceives of a problem to be solved. Conceive of the best possible end state, and move your society toward that state using the quickest and most intense means.***

*** Of course, the quickest means is rarely the quickest possible means.

Thinking of politics that way – as a pre-planned organizational structure to which you want all of society to conform – enables massive state violence. Consider the end, and its perfection justifies all means to achieve it.

That was Pol Pot’s revolution. The plan was the purest communism, stripped even of basic identity, and the action was to impose that structure with brute force of arms.

You don’t keep the means-end calculation out of political thinking just by declaring a few methods – like mass murder, forced starvation – beyond the pale. You’ve just drawn a limit on the same sociopathic concept to mark where you start to feel nauseous.

If you want your audience to understand the actual ethics that you
threaded into your show, you have to make your most charismatic,
interesting character its voice.
The answer is to avoid means-end thinking in politics altogether, because to conceive of a balance between the virtue of goals and the force of methods is inherently unethical. It nudges us to believe in sacrifice or contribution to common goals as a burden – the limit marks what burdens we consider too much to bear.

The calculation itself of what goals justify which methods is totally perverse because it makes you think of your neighbours, friends, and community members as raw material to build a masterminded social machine.

Making resources of those you should respect.
• • •
Now, for this post, I’ve been following an argument Hannah Arendt makes in The Human Condition. Chapter 31, if you want me to be specific. When she's talking about Plato in this way, she isn’t talking about what Plato actually intended, or her genuine account of The Republic’s meaning.

She's talking about how most people received it. Students who read maybe a chapter in an elective survey course where they got a C+. Media provocateurs who take their straightforward or half-cocked reading way too seriously.

Arendt is talking about the popular reception of Plato – an example to give insight and structure to a popular concept that creating a perfect society is the same as creating a building. Make a plan, bend some resources into shape. To draw attention to how perverse this everyday way of thinking is.

To demonstrate the need for change in human thought itself.

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