Land of a Thousand Dreams, Research Time, 02/09/2015

I finished reading Frederic Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future last night, which had some fascinating ideas, as you can tell from the last few weeks of me writing about it now and then. I found one confrontation in the book that I was hoping I’d see from the time I started it: Jameson the dedicated left-winger confronts the concept of utopia developed by Robert Nozick, a foundational philosopher of libertarian politics.

Jameson would be reluctant, I
think, to call a right-wing thinker
a utopian, but I think we have to
take that possibility of thought
I wrote about Nozick quite a bit when I was reading his most famous and influential book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia last October. The last part has a very curious argument. Essentially, he describes a world where every community is organized according to its own ideal concept. 

Some are pure state communisms, some towns full of mercenary capitalist shysters, some Christian fundamentalists, some feudal states of lords and vassals, some anarchist communes where no money as such even functions. Everyone is free to live in whatever community suits their inclinations. 

Some communities will grow, some will shrink and whither away. The communities that thrive will be the styles of living best suited to human life and desires. That's utopia for Nozick.

It’s not only about the styles of ideal community that would emerge from this long-term self-selection experiment, but the ability to choose what ideal you want your life to embody in the first place. It’s also the seduction of free-market propaganda: only in a totally free market can you be totally free yourself.

Jameson puts his finger on precisely why free-market propaganda is as seductive as it is. There's a small kernel of truth to it. Being able to live as you want, exchanging in trades and contracts with other individuals on equal footing who themselves wouldn’t mess with your life, would actually be a paradise. 

The problem with this ideal is that everyone needs to be on equal footing, and stay there, for this utopia not to implode almost immediately. As it is, the global inequalities of wealth – comparing on individual, community, and national scales – are too massive for exploitation, intimidation, and domination not to be the name of the game. 

But the core of the idea remains a good one. For each person, each personality, each style of life, there will be an ideal society. And we should be able to explore those ideals to know which one we'd want most to live in. 

And in the modern nature of politics, this ability to pick and choose your utopia pragmatically matters more than ever. All people today have multiple identities, or at least are more conscious of their own multifaceted nature than they've ever been.

I think the multiple nature of human identity is another
reason why Rawls' thought experiment of the original
condition can't quite work. Emphasize some aspects of
my identity, and I'll get the fairest shake in one kind of
society. Emphasize some others, and I'll have the best
deal in different kinds of society. Those kinds of
society may not have enough in common to become
real at the same time.
I’m a white cis male working-class well-educated slightly-indebted Anglophone Canadian. This helps determine how I can act in political and social contexts. Socially conservatives today might decry this as a move toward identity politics, but who and what we are is actually the most important political question we can ask.

I can’t network in particular circles of rich folk at country clubs, for example, because I can't afford the cover. I can only take direct part in societies and discussions where the majority language is English, which is an advantage today, but can't get me everywhere. 

I can go safely to places where sexual harassment is frequent because I’m a man, so I'm not sexually harassed to any problematic frequency. I can interact fairly safely with police, and in fact, I know I won't interact with police very often at all, because I'm white and won't be singled out as a minority would. 

Who we are determines the limits of what we can do, and there are many different identities for each of us that condition all those limits. Each of those identities will have a different social and economic context where they’ll work best. 

That’s why the ability to choose your utopia based on what needs action now is so important. No utopia will ever be permanent, even for an individual.

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