One culture and history comes to an end, and another begins. It’s a profound transformation. Profound is a word that I use a lot, and I find that its popular connotations achieve a lot of what I want to say when I say it. But I’ll specify what I mean by this anyway, just to make it explicit.
A profound idea’s implications begin at abstract, broad levels of existence, and proliferate into all scales and moments. Much of the critical focus of my thinking for my next big project, Utopias, is on the two major Western visions of transforming humanity that arose in the 20th century.
One is the most explicitly frightening, the vision of man as machine that came from the First World War. It was a utopia of perfect, regimented, rationality in planning every aspect of human life. Each of us does what must be done for the state and society as a whole. It’s a vision of humanity that sees our highest potential in the total uniformity of ants.
I’ve realized recently that the other vision that my Utopias project should critique arose as an explicit opposition to this totalitarian state order. Whether you think of it as the new liberalism, libertarianism, neoliberalism, or licking the boots of Ayn Rand, it’s the totalizing individualism that understands all obligations among people as inherently oppressive of a natural liberty. This is the brutality of self-absorption. The universality of the market as the only legitimate form of human relation.
Both visions, the totalitarian and the libertarian, are reactions to the ubiquity of selfishness. Totalitarian society aims to pound selfishness out of humanity. Libertarianism is rooted in a pessimism that sees selfishness as an inescapable element of human nature, celebrating it as the articulation of liberty. In a society of total liberty, no one is under any obligation to anyone else, because an obligation does violence to our freedom, constraining it to another’s demand.
Hannah Arendt called totalitarianism the state of total and unending war. That much is obvious. Such a society is driven by constant mobilization. Its intensity makes its violence impossible to ignore, even where, in the few genuinely totalitarian states that remain today like North Korea, foreign powers constrain it from its natural merciless expansion.
But the libertarian vision results in a constant war as well, though at an intensity low enough that no one really thinks of it as war. A society where there are no methods of redistributing wealth from elite concentration to the masses (ex. a progressive taxation regimen) eventually loses all force of aggregate demand. The concentration of wealth in an elite class takes money out of an economy’s ordinary exchange system and wraps it in investment vehicles that elite organizations (ex. hedge funds) control.
The growth of a supply of workers meets a shrinking demand as the production of wealth for the elite no longer depends on the kinds of industries (ex. manufacturing) that help constitute higher living standards. So wages go down as workers become more desperate for any wage just to get by (ex. the Dollarama economy, the zero-hours contract). Aggregate demand shrinks and shrinks as the population grows and more people have to share less money, making aggregate demand shrink further.
When we become accustomed to understanding the world as individuals having fundamental liberty, on whom obligation is a form of violence, we will come to see everyone as our competition. This is a war of all against all, fuelled by resentment as we interpret any call to work together for mutual benefit as a trick to force each of us into the violence of obligation.
To take an example from my own life, when I needed the solidarity of union politics most, I’ve faced union policies that are explicitly aimed at preventing new university teaching and research workers like me from finding employment in the name of protecting those currently in the bargaining unit. Even the union movement has become corrupted by libertarian values: solidarity is the solidarity of one group of workers to crush groups of workers who are unlucky enough to be outside the union.
Resentment is the order of the day. As I slowly think through my character of Alice, who exists entirely in the context of my science-fiction writing, I’ve come to understand just how important she is. Not only for the general inspiration of a life without resentment, but as a model for how to act politically, how to build a society, where resentment has no foothold.
It’s a sign of my lacking hope for humanity to overcome our resentful natures that I conceived of Alice as an android, a creature whose entire physical makeup is different from a human’s. She appears human, but is a completely different order of being. Nonetheless, she can function in my writing, once it’s eventually written and somehow published, whether as a novel, comic, or film, as a companion for Utopias.
The only way humanity can overcome our drive for destruction is to overcome our individual resentments and our propensity to think resentfully. The Utopias manuscript, when it’s eventually written, will be a philosophical book about this path of overcoming. Alice, embodied in science-fictional narrative, will be its embodiment.
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