Modern Utopias and Reality

I get a couple of newsletters that are thought-provoking, including one from Jules Evans, who talked about how the liberal form of government is about to be ended.

He cites a book by Patrick Deenen, political philosopher at the University of Notre Dame, “Why Liberalism Failed,” who says that of the three dominant ideologies of the twentieth century – fascism, communism, and liberalism – only the last remains. He shows that this has led to a curious situation in which the proponents of liberalism tend to forget that it must be an ideology rather than a natural end state of human political evolution. In his book, he shows that liberalism is built on a foundation of contradictions: It extols equal rights while promoting unparalleled material inequality; its legitimacy rests on consent but discourages civic engagement in favour of privatism; and in its pursuit of individual autonomy, it has produced the most far-reaching and comprehensive state system in human history. Deneen quotes Founding Father John Adams: “There never was a democracy that didn’t commit suicide.” This makes me also think of Brexit.

A question that arose in my mind was whether the dominant ideologies of the twentieth century are in fact gone, or whether variations have just appeared, somehow attempting to circumvent the obvious comparisons and avoid the noticeable mistakes of the past, or in some cases, dressing up as something else. Russia seems to be promoting a clear fascist message as a result of the threat they see coming from the West, and China’s communism is hardly recognisable as such, but all the authoritarian structures are still in place. The drama concerning Trump and the Insurrection is still ongoing with uncertain outcomes, and the president that ousted Trump is the least popular of all presidents, according to recent polls. Britain has pushed some very authoritarian laws through parliament recently, and opposition to human and workers rights, and even threats to boycott the European Court of Human Rights, especially chilling after the Russian parliament voted to break with Court in June, reveal a sentiment that many in Europe say is telling for the situation in Britain.

Deneen, who seems to regard America as the leader in Liberalism, “argues that American liberalism has failed in that fewer and fewer people believe in it or trust its institutions, while depression and suicides are on the rise. In his view, liberalism has failed because it has succeeded. It liberated the individual and gave him the opportunity to satisfy every material and sexual desire, every urge for freedom. But Americans have discovered that this does not really satisfy their souls. Liberalism has undermined what every religion teaches: human desire is insatiable and must be restrained. Only by limiting desire and cultivating virtue can one find true satisfaction. What America offers instead is “institutionalized discontent” – that is, capitalism.” It is also my perception that American society provides us with many contradictions, especially publicly portrayed in movies, but still the machine keeps running because no one can imagine otherwise.

It is interesting that Deenen’s book looks at the example of religious communities as prototypes for what might come next.  “He offers the Amish as an alternative by name and explains that they have a custom called Rumspringa (literally “jumping around”), in which teenage Amish can frolic in secular society for two years before deciding whether to return to Amish society and embrace its values. Supposedly, 80% of the Amish choose to return because the Amish religious community is more satisfying than the soulless mall of American liberalism, where covetousness goes unchecked.” Jules Evans is sceptical about the solutions being offered, but notes that it is not so much the overthrow of democracy that is being called for as “just” the overthrow of rampant individualism. Good luck with that! However, as Jules Evans says, it is reminiscent of the monasteries that were built with high walls against the society that was seen as “godless,” and in which people were not safe. Within those institutions much progress was made which was offered to people outside the walls, especially in medicine, agriculture, as well as reading and writing. The unfortunate fact is that they couldn’t prevent the wars and suffering going on around them, only clean up afterwards.

Jules Evans has pointed out in several newsletters that there is much analysis that says Western society is doing away with itself, but few proposed solutions that are not radical in nature. In a demographically aging society, it looks like major changes are unlikely to occur – unless they are forced upon us. My fear is that the war in Ukraine and the climate crisis, to name just two current problems, are not enough exhortations for us to work for and maintain a sustainable society, without which the breakdown of society will be difficult to stop. The dystopias that are so popular in cinema seem like prophecy – like speeding at top speed toward the end of a traffic jam. The problem is, we watch and don’t know what to do.

Balaji Srinivasan’s The Network State: How To Start a New Country is another book he read.

Amazon says about the book:

“Balaji has the highest rate of output per minute of good new ideas of anybody I’ve ever met, and The Network State may be his best.” — Marc Andreessen, cofounder of Andreessen Horowitz

“We’ve started new currencies. Now The Network State shows us how to start new cities and new countries.” — Vitalik Buterin, cofounder of Ethereum

“Balaji is a visionary, and one of the most original thinkers of our time. Many have had the experience of hearing him say something, thinking it was crazy, and then a year or two later realizing ‘Balaji was right.’ I think Balaji will be right about The Network State.” — Brian Armstrong, cofounder and CEO of Coinbase

“The future convergence of networks and governments, from one of the most brilliant thinkers alive.” — Naval Ravikant, cofounder of AngelList

When the brand new is unthinkable, we fight over the old. That’s where we are today with governments, with politics, and with much of the physical world. But perhaps we can change that.

This book introduces the concept of the network state: a country you can start from your computer, a state that recruits like a startup, a nation built from the internet rather than disrupted by it.

The fundamental concept behind the network state is to assemble a digital community and organize it to crowdfund physical territory. But that territory is not in one place — it’s spread around the world, fully decentralized, hooked together by the internet for a common cause, much like Google’s offices or Bitcoin’s miners. And because every citizen has opted in, it’s a model for 100% democracy rather than the minimum threshold of consent modeled by 51% democracies.

Of course, there are countless questions that need to be answered to build something of this scope. How does a network state work socially, technically, logistically, legally, physically, financially? How could such a thing even be viable?

I agreed with Jules Evans criticism of the book, especially the fact that many of the problems of our modern society have been enabled by the very people that Balaji foresees as saviours. This seems to me to be the big problem. Those with resources to implement any of the changes suggested are those that have taken the cream off society in the first place, and perhaps to be generous “inadvertently” pushed society to breaking point. The fact that a form of eugenics is also part of the proposed solution, reminiscent of visions of the past, shows that the present populations are abandoned in such plans and those who had previously creamed society are leaving it to fend for itself. This seems to be the issue with any outlandish plans to “save humanity,” whether by terraforming Mars, or looking for inhabitable planets, and avoids a question that has been in my mind for some time: What if we are intrinsically connected with our planet? All the Star Trek generations have ever managed is to project our situation into outer space, but fundamentally avoided the fact that life outside of our bubble may be even beyond our imagination, and hostile to our organism. We overlook the complexity of our biological life and assume somehow that we can adapt positively to new circumstances. Unfortunately, our body tends to adapt negatively to changes in our environment.

When one hears or reads about the plans of these individuals, of course, as Jules Evans says, you have to try to understand them, but one should reserve excitement for reality. That may entail doing less, rather than more, and accepting that it is our overexploitation of our environment that is the problem, and a reduction is the only way in a liveable future. Like I said, I feel that I am witnessing something like cars speeding into the end of a traffic jam, rather than slowing down in time. We hear people projecting their immature thoughts into an uncertain future rather than attempting to understand what we have and how to preserve it. Thereby, we could perhaps valuate whether mankind has already found solutions that we need to rediscover.

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