Utopia, final postBy: Stephen Marsh
I guess I should define Utopia.
A “functional” Utopia is one that is stable (that is can last from generation to generation), resilient (that is, can survive the occasional stress or disaster) and preferred (that is, those who are a part of it, once they experience a different way of life, return to it — they prefer it).
This post is about what makes a society like that — since I pretty much think that Zion requires that it be a Utopia and I’m interested in Zion.
The first thing that makes for stable societies is that they have units that are the size of about 200 adults or so. You can stretch that to 200 nuclear families, but it is a stretch. 200 is about the number of people you can bind together where they are socially interconnected enough, yet not too diluted. A number of worker managed firms and communal systems tend to fit within that model (or use branching methods).
The down side to this is that the level of social interconnectedness makes for strong social pressures and makes certain social behaviors or norms hard to change (women in Hutterite communities still do not vote or own property). It also means that your parents, your grandparents and your children (and perhaps your great grand parents) all are there with expectations and input for your life. It is great to have free babysitting, but that also means you get to be the babysitter. You have people to meet your expectations — they also expect you to meet theirs.
Enduring utopias tend to have relatively flat social structures. It is interesting to look at Polynesian societies. The ones that are preferred by those in them tend to be the ones with flatter social structures. Great if you are the peasant, not as much fun if you are a chief who has to work rather than just take. Many communal societies have prohibitions or strong negatives associated with leadership or seeking power. Great if you do not want to be bossed around, more problematic if there is a problem that needs a quicker solution.
Next, they tend to be very “renewable” — that is, their place in the ecosystem is one that does not exhaust resources. That usually means static populations (though a few appear to be still growing as they spread across marginal farmland). It means population densities far less than the maximum sustainable (so that a few bad years does not see them overfarming, overfishing or overhunting the resources they rely on). In that regard, they also have slow economies rather than fast ones.
To understand a slow economy, imagine you could only buy and sell a plot of land once a year or less. Imagine stocks sold once a week, and no one could buy or sell more than a thousand shares a month. Or perhaps you could only own what you could use yourself (much like the Cherokee who acknowledged only as much ownership in land as a person could work themselves). Slow economies can favor inherited wealth (England attempted to block the sale of land in and out of families so as to lock up land, and thus stable wealth, in a certain social class) or not (obviously if you can only own the land you are personally farming you are not going to accumulate much land). They block the accumulation of wealth by those who are providing transfer services or acting as gatekeepers (a stock broker moving only a thousand shares a month is not going to make much on fees from that).
The down side to such a society is that it changes slowly. The upside is that they appear not to need to change quickly.
Such societies also tend to be relatively cohesive in terms of beliefs. It is no surprise that most of them are either religiously or politically based. If you are not a Hutterite, you are not part of a Hutterite commune. If you do not share the labor managed political viewpoint, you are not part of a workers collective (and the Catholic workers collective system obviously buys into both axis).
Labor tends to be more efficient (per hour at least — people in such groups often work fewer hours). As such societies tend to be anti- or at least non- consumer oriented there is less focus on “stuff.”
Yes, I’ve been influenced by Jared Diamond’s latest book.
But I was also influenced by Yugoslavia (which I had the chance to visit in the 1970s — the only communist country that was not falling apart then), studying economics in college and a life of wondering what Zion, the United Order and similar things really would be like in practice.
In the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, Titoist Yugoslavia advocated a socialist version of autogestion, leading to a break with Moscow, which practiced central planning and state ownership of industry. The economy of Yugoslavia was organized according to the theories of Tito and – more directly – Edvard Kardelj. Croatian scientist Branko Horvat also made a significant contribution to the theory of socialism (radničko samoupravljanje) as practiced in Yugoslavia. With the exception of a recession in the mid-1960s, the country’s economy prospered under Titoist Socialism. Unemployment was low, the education level of the work force steadily increased. The life expectancy (which was about 72 years) and living standards of Yugoslav citizens was nearly equal to the life expectancy and living standards of citizens of “western” capitalist countries such as Portugal.
Quoting from a Wiki article of how Yugoslavia managed not to starve while cut-off politically from the USSR. Just as interesting is how Yugoslavia fell apart economically before it fell apart socially.
It is the resilience part of the equation that is the most important. Strong, evolved socials structures are a part of that. Small sizes are a part of that. Both make it more unlikely that destabilizing influences will be welcome.
Sustainable and economic surpluses, or relative surpluses also help. Many of the societies that are preferred have “personal” level fishing as an important part. That is, weekly fishing of fish to eat for yourself and your friends, but not in quantities that make export or sale of fish at a distance worth the expense or effort. It is easy to fish, fishing does not become exhausted, and it provides a significant reserve against a variety of privation. Others have farming in methods that create surpluses, but that do not have large commercial application for their surpluses. As a result, growing enough to avoid starvation is easy, growing enough to become “rich” on it, impossible.
Do I have a bottom line?
I’m not sure. All such societies have a balance — you have to sacrifice one set of things to get another. There is no “you get everything, give up nothing” solution. In addition, there appears to be a strong role for social structures and traditions. If you do not want meaningless boundary markers or traditions, you probably would not fit in well with most places that people prefer to live when they have to support themselves (vs. places where people prefer to live when others are supporting them — the difference, perhaps, between the Hamptons and Utopia). Finally, the flatness of such societies also makes it more difficult to leave a mark — though the internet seems to offer the possibility of increasing the intellectual and artistic realm and scope open to people.
What do you think. When it is all said and done, what would be Utopia for you? How would you find or create Zion? Is it important to have a place where it is easier to be pure in heart?