Reviving Utopia

Why do most utopias become nightmares?

“It shall come to pass, in the end of days, that rivers of milk and nectar shall flow, that the wolf shall dwell with the lamb and spears shall be beaten into pruning hooks, that philosophers shall be kings, that there will be no hypocrisy, dissembling, deceit, flattery, strife, or discord. There shall be neither hate nor envy nor hunger nor thirst. There shall be much leisure and few lawyers.

There shall be no private property, and there shall be communal camaraderie. From each shall come work according to his abilities and to each shall come support according to his needs. New forms of human consciousness will evolve. Our erotic natures will be freed from gratuitous repression, and society will bask in polymorphous redemption. Neither shall we learn war anymore. And all of us, both great and small, shall know bliss.”

Visions of Utopia

When Thomas More coined the word, utopia, he corralled its origins from the Greek οὐ (“not”) and τόπος (“place”) translating a nebulous term into one that means “no place.” Despite the fact that our ancestors lived in Hobbesian times, the visions of the future never escaped them. Indeed, reality could never compare to the brave new worlds we wanted to conquer.

The conceptions of utopia – dàtóng, Jerusalem, Shangri-La – heralded by prophets and soothsayers alike had a quintessential ideal in mind; they all took for granted the inexorable march of progress. But to what end – do we know where we want our society to progress? David Deutsch, the pioneer of quantum computing, claims that we’re always at the beginning of infinity: each of our answers begets infinitesimally more questions. Science can only be claim to be ‘finished’ once all known questions are answered or humanity burns in the flames of Armageddon. If those are the two options, would one want to live in a utopia anyway?

However, from More to Marx or H.G. Wells to Vannevar Bush, the vision of utopia is one that has captured our greatest thinkers. In the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien – ever the pessimist – hellishly paints a picture of Mordor as a place of evil and degradation. Yet, we hear almost nothing of Mordor’s inverse – the Grey Havens, the holy land of his universe. Why is that? In every religion, the sadistic aspect of hell is vividly depicted while imagining heaven is left as an exercise for the reader.

It’s much easier to sow the seeds of our demise than to work towards a definite future; in part, because there is an element of suffering in every form of happiness. Most of us who love what we do for work know that while we’re not forced to remain at a job, we’re compelled to do it. The notion of flow, and perhaps fulfillment, is the right blend of suffering and personal excellence.

“If I could wish for something, I would wish for neither wealth nor power, but the passion of possibility; I would wish only for an eye which, eternally young, eternally burns with the longing to see possibility.”

Søren Kierkegaard

The cornerstone topic of the 21st century for the western world will revolve around how we envision a future while the majority grow further and further disillusioned with where their lives are going. More than the crushing levels of debt and negative interest rates, the cultural pessimism is what slowly corrupts economies. If the people are too depressed or too impoverished to buy anything, the economy stops. This pessimism exists because the economic pie of the working class has been shrinking: they have seen their pay remain invariant while inflation has only skyrocketed. Those with the tenacity to start businesses, can’t, and are otherwise trapped in a vicious cycle of stagnation.

One of the greatest periods of utopia occurred in the most barbaric of times – post WWI Russia. The devastation of a world war and the culmination of the October revolution forged a new path for the country because the absence of an aristocracy allowed them to think of what future they desired.

Unsurprisingly, this coincided with the flourishing of Communist science-fiction that were blown away with advances like the radio. Leninist Russia dreamed of everything from underwater cities to domed cities on the moon that would seem commonplace by the year 2000: “There shall be neither hate nor envy nor hunger nor thirst…There shall be no private property, and there shall be communal camaraderie.”

But as Mao and Stalin realized, utopia is unsustainable without a plan, no matter how many naysayers you throw in the Gulag. Similarly to Western politicians, these leaders were indefinitely optimistic, believing somehow that their 5-year plans for socialism would unleash a new, liberal era although it was their conservative death grip that led to catastrophic failure. Certainly, we need people to dream of the future yet, simultaneously, it must be devoid of extremes.

To that end, Jeff Bezos chose the latin phrase ‘gradatim ferociter’ – step by step, ferociously – to embellish his space company, Blue Origin. Achieving anything great, say a utopic reality, requires a steady vision and removing unwanted objects from our vicinity. So how do we allow utopias to flourish once more?

There are a lot of impediments that block these visions of the future from turning into reality; this is why so many smart people have entered the internet space – the lack of barriers. Why does our physical world look and feel the same as it was 50 years ago? People lament about regulation when in reality, they’ve largely lost the definite optimism around changing the physical world, perhaps after witnessing the consequences of Soviet Bloc and China.

We live in a financial, not a technological age. Companies care more about share buybacks than they do about innovation; they can enforce regulatory capture and rent seek instead of competition. I suspect that anything that cures the institutional sclerosis is a step in the right direction:: large institutions are slow in every sense.

They care more about prestige over substance. We need more ideas, not fewer as Peter Thiel recently proclaimed in a speech with the Hoover Institute; simply put, he claims that we’re in the deepest part of a bear cycle in the idea marketplace which has lasted over 50 years. Crucially, the solution lies in discovering the new ideas and bringing them to fruition as fast as possible.

While the danger is overhyped, creativity is still the last holdout against threats of AI taking over: we should be doing everything we can to make sure that people are as creative as possible. Unfortunately this doesn’t align with the intellectual straitjackets forced on us by our governments and universities.

For the curious, the crypto movement and its larger theme of decentralizing the world is a strong step forward. I always look for markets where the energy levels are obvious – people are excited about the progress they’re making. A utopia for me would be one where everyone is building something.

However, I believe business leaders and legislators need a plan for where we want our society to go. Vague visions of utopia never become a reality – it takes sustained work to bring us there. Even more than ideas, what we need is a glimpse of certitude. And, while limiting our freedoms is never the answer, one has to wonder whether its abundance guides us to a frightfully familar sight – no place.