Utopia, final post

By: Stephen Marsh
November 4, 2011

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.”

Product Details

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

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?

15 Responses to Utopia, final post

  1. FireTag on November 4, 2011 at 3:55 PM

    “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.”

    Such societies can’t create the internet in the first place. So there has to be an outlet for continued personal development somewhere that can expand material limits or substitute for them. (Hmmm. Was that the basis for “let us make man in our own image?”)

    This is a very thought provoking post. What are we willing to give up for a utopia (giving that a utopia is defined as something we’d prefer)?

    What responsibility do we then have for groups outside who lack some natural resource for a utopia?

    For that matter, how do we ensure stability against man-caused attempts from outside to take our utopia?

    I continue to think that a key to any utopia is the availability of spiritual resources in inexhaustible abundance.

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  2. Stephen M (Ethesis) on November 4, 2011 at 4:08 PM

    The internet was created by academics in a rather flat society, before the wave of adjunctifcation washed over everything.

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  3. prometheus on November 4, 2011 at 5:09 PM

    “you have to sacrifice one set of things to get another”

    And there is the real crux of the issue. Some people are willing to sacrifice things that I am not, and vice versa. Not all groups are even going to agree on the nature and extent of basic human rights (women and citizenship/voting being one example that comes to mind).

    I think we are far too diverse a species to ever find a one size fits all solution, so I am not sure that I can believe in utopia: it just isn’t going to work for everyone.

    I think that Zion moves far beyond utopia. Being of one heart, and one mind, with no poor among us – that is so inclusionary, and in light of our diversity, I think that Zion, then, is all about being one AND being diverse. Far more difficult of a job than just being the same (forgive me if I am misreading you here).

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  4. FireTag on November 4, 2011 at 10:50 PM

    Steven M: Not quite true. To have an internet, you have to have personal computers. A single personal computer requires industrial processes in far more than 200 specialties to go from raw materials to PC, not counting the “services” that process the material as well as intellectual components, or the “support” for the specialists. Societies limited to 200 people might have trouble producing something as complex as a number 2 pencil with eraser.

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  5. hawkgrrrl on November 5, 2011 at 7:38 AM

    I can’t imagine a Utopia that doesn’t become a dystopia. Perhaps on a desert island. That is really the only scenario I can envision, and I would only want to participate in that if I were stranded there accidentally.

    I’ve never found this concept appealing. I realize it’s a fundamental Christian concept, but it sounds like misery to me. People all up in your business. Valuing conformity over diversity. Lots of elbow grease type work (vs. artistic or business pursuits). Isolation to what amounts to a tiny town. No thanks!

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  6. Stephen Marsh on November 5, 2011 at 8:47 AM

    Firetag, a “flat” society is one where the distance from “top” to “bottom” isn’t that far — it can be quite large. Flat societies have weak chiefs, vertical societies have god-emperors — remember the arguments for and against kings in early Israel?

    Hawk, a number of island societies are ones that people who leave, choose to return to them. A utopia is a sustainable place that, given a choice, people choose to be there after they have experienced both.

    The British Atlantic Ocean colony, where they evacuated the entire place for a volcano threat, and the residents all chose to return, is a good example. Some European coastal areas are in the same situation.

    There tends to be a lot of time for personal pursuits in such places. Part of what makes them sustainable is surplus, which reduces the amount of time someone “has” to work in order to have a place to live, food to eat, etc.

    A huge issue for many is that almost all of these places have static populations. The surplus either goes into free time, artistic/personal pursuits or into population growth (with the increasing fragility as you get closer the the carrying capacity and renewable limits) and part of what makes these places sustainable is that they are not putting their surplus into population growth.

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  7. Stephen Marsh on November 5, 2011 at 8:50 AM

    What is left, of course, is how to set up a utopia rather than grow into one.

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  8. FireTag on November 5, 2011 at 2:52 PM

    I’m with you, Stephen, on the flatness. But I don’t see how you get beyond imposing the 200 person/family limit without sacrificing EVERY individual’s well being. In fact, one of the routes to dystopia would be for one clan of 200 to elevate itself by appropriating the resources of others. So I come back to the question of how one society resists the temptation to grow without losing its flatness, while most societies do not.

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  9. Stephen M (Ethesis) on November 5, 2011 at 8:30 PM

    Firetag you have steel furnace coops that are two hundred workers. The key is that you can have a country made of hundreds of thousands of coops That is why I brought up Yugoslavia.

    They were very diverse — and hostile to each other — yet they made the economics work.

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  10. Stephen M (Ethesis) on November 6, 2011 at 1:40 PM

    Hawk, a lot of these are overlapping communities in large seas of people. Think of your ward. Or think of a ward in Loa Angeles.

    The religious and the work community can be different from each other. Which can differ from the physical community. The challenge in finding Zion today is to find it inside a world of overlapping circles.

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  11. FireTag on November 6, 2011 at 10:47 PM


    These are good points, but perhaps you’d elaborate on how Yugoslavia broke down economically and why it could not survive without Tito. Because I’m not seeing the stability beyond a generation or a charismatic strongman, so I’m not fully understanding your argument.

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  12. Stephen M (Ethesis) on November 7, 2011 at 5:47 AM

    As to Yugoslavia, that is another essay, but it basically broke away from the economic structure and basis that was working for it.

    I was using it as an example of the same structures, writ large and overlapping, though not one for stability — and one where the system worked economically even though socially they were very diverse.

    I think it Tito had lived twenty more years … anyway, old hatreds die very hard.

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  13. FireTag on November 7, 2011 at 2:49 PM

    I’ll look forward to you exploring Yugoslavia’s instability more fully in a future essay, then.

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  14. Mormon Heretic » Sister Wives are Socialist on November 14, 2011 at 1:42 PM

    [...] to become a bit communal. I’ve enjoyed Stephen M’s posts (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5—I hope I got them all) on the economics of utopias. In the Browns case, I don’t see how they [...]

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  15. Sister Wives are Socialist | Wheat and Tares on November 14, 2011 at 1:59 PM

    [...] to become a bit communal.  I’ve enjoyed Stephen M’s posts (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5—I hope I got them all) on the economics of utopias.  In the Browns case, I don’t see how they [...]

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

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