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The Limits of Utopia

July 29, 2015

by J. Andrew Zalucky

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There’s an old Oscar Wilde quote that goes: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at…” Though I’d hate to disagree with anyone possessing half the wit of the author of The Picture of Dorian Gray, anyone living in the shadow of the 20th Century would have to conclude that any map of the world that does include Utopia is the very guide to hell itself.

The two essential problems with Utopian thinking are one of childishness and one of vanishing. First of all, it reflects the infantile impulse to see the world as one wishes it was, not how it is. This isn’t meant to demean imagination or the idea that progress towards a set of ends is important. But there’s a difference between wanting to make a set of material circumstances improve and seeking to change every variable pertaining to culture, politics and economics so that no conceivable “problem” could ever exist again. And I put problem in scare quotes to emphasize the point of vanishing. No one agrees on what a Utopia looks like. Anyone who reads Plato or Thomas More’s conception of the idea will find plenty of things to be terrified of, despite reassurances to the contrary.

Even Marx had several criticisms of utopian thinking. This may come as a surprise to some readers, as Marx is often held up as the prime example of utopian thinking gone wrong. While his theories surrounding historical materialism hinged on deterministic ideas borrowed from Hegel, he was after all a professional revolutionary, one with specific goals in mind. And to that end he made some of the following criticisms, as detailed by a piece in Monthly Review (yes, they’re still there!):

the main criticisms Marx makes of the utopians are as follows: (1) utopian thinking tends to produce visions of the future that are unrealistically rigid and complete; (2) there is no basis for determining if a vision constructed in this speculative manner is desirable, if it really is the “good” society; (3) equally, there is no clear way of determining if it is possible, that is whether people will ever be able to build such a society, and, if they do, whether it will function as expected; (4) by taking up the space allotted to the future in our thinking, utopian visions undermine the possibility of making a dialectical analysis of the present as a temporal dimension in which the future already appears as a potential; (5) utopian thinking results in ineffective ways of arguing; and (6) it also leads to ineffective political strategies.

This is also why dystopian fiction has always been more convincing. In a sick way, we can more easily decide what kind of dystopia we would endure, rather than which Utopia we would try and stomach, because each one personifies a Utopia taken to its logical conclusion. Personally, I’d prefer Brave New World to 1984, and not even for the hedonistic reasons. At least in Huxley’s world you get to chill on an island somewhere and be all serious if you don’t fit in…and anything beats Room 101.

Anyway.

There’s an interesting story in Slate about a particular Utopian society built in the late 1960s in India:

Auroville was built by hand by the flower-power generation of the 1960s. It was a “psychological revolution,” as W.M. Sullivan noted in his book The Dawning of Auroville—a venture in which Marxist-flavored socialism met anarchy. There is no money, no government, no religion, no skyscrapers or expressways, no newspapers with headlines of war, poverty, and genocide. Built for 50,000 people, Auroville today has only about 2,500 permanent residents and roughly 5,000 visitors—self-selected exiles from more than 100 countries. Auroville wasn’t just some hippie haven; it was designed to be a poster child for India itself.

Again, a lot like the famous works referenced about, there’s a lot to like and even be impressed by in Auroville, especially considering the heavily-wooded area was once an arid desert. However, it’s not exactly self-sufficient:

Although Auroville doesn’t have a self-sustaining economy—most Aurovilians either come in with savings or leave for a few months to work in their home countries—Auroville has a lot of money. On top of the steep donations Aurovilians pay to become “stewards” of their houses, the Indian government donates tens of millions of rupees each year. As do private donors, and visitors when they come.

Any settlement has to survive on some form of labor: farms need tilling, raw materials need to be extracted and money and credit need to be passed around. And if the area is not fully self-sustained, that labor will have to come from elsewhere, either in the form of fees or donations. And speaking of money, the “stateless” society has such a massive bureaucracy managing it, the place might as well have a dictator:

But the bigger problem, she explained [Auroville’s media outreach coordinator], was the question of who controlled the money in a “money-less” society. “I paid 31 lakh (roughly $48,000) to the Housing Committee as a mandatory donation for my house five years ago. Later I found a photo of the house in an architecture magazine, and saw it had been sold for 13 lakh ($20,400). I don’t know where that money went. I don’t know who controls the funds,” she explained to me, with a hint of frustration.

Where the money goes seems to be a central question, but whom to ask is maybe the better question. In lieu of a government, Auroville consists of spontaneous, self-formed committees that loosely run the place: Housing, Working, Women’s Safety Task Force, Funds and Assets Management, Entry, International, Green Group, Board of Services. Beneath committees there are subcommittees and councils, startups and private groups, volunteers, and visitors. Elaine referred me to a group called the Unity Fund, but after several attempts to get in touch, no one would respond to my inquiries.

And of course there’s the issue of security in that a peaceful society will not always be surrounded by equally non-belligerent ones:

“When you start to scratch the surface of Auroville, it’s a lot more ugly than from the outside. You start to see all the problems here, and it’s deeply layered,” she told me in the backyard of her house as we sipped fresh juice from limes she’d picked in her backyard. “The reality is a lot more different once you’re a part of it.”

She recounted nightmarish accounts I’d never imagined could have existed in Auroville; one in 2010 involved a bloody murder where a local villager was decapitated by gang members from Kuilapalayam, the village that borders Auroville, over an unresolved dispute. His head was dumped inside Town Hall. The gang was caught and incarcerated, Elaine told me, and there have been no incidents since.

I’d stumbled upon other cases of murder: A young Dutch man named Sydo, who was an outspoken advocate for increasing Auroville’s safety standards, was brutally murdered by Kuilapalayam villagers living on the outskirts of Auroville who were trying to rob him. Auroville now employs local security guards, but the forest is vast and they are able to cover only main intersections. I was strongly encouraged not to go out alone at night.

You might say to me: “hey at least they’re trying to create something better than what we have here!” And you’d be right. There is something rather charming in the idea of a spiritual sanctuary away from the uglier aspects of the post-modern world. But that sanctuary must also be maintained by the very forces it seeks to escape from. Houses of worship survive as well as they do in the United States because they’re exempt from taxpayer funding, and they do not just arise on their own through good feelings. They take bricks, wood and hard work. In order to enjoy what beauty lies out there, the ability to seize it will require some measure of toil and sacrifice.

 And despite being a secular society, there is something oddly reminiscent of other secular utopian societies: the Cult of the Leader:
Auroville was officially founded in 1968 by Mirra Alfassa, a French woman known locally as “the Mother.” Her photo is plastered on nearly every wall inside nearly every home, building, and public space

Not that I’m comparing Alfassa to the genocidal dictators of the 1930s and 40s, but there is something chilling about the durability of mankind’s propensity for worship and idolatry. And with the largesse of the bureaucracy in Auroville, it shows that even in an officially stateless society, a sort of “phantom state” will always emerge (one reason I’m a libertarian and not an anarchist, as at least Nozick’s nightwatchmen state will provide some security along with the, hopefully few, “bureaus of whatever”).

And in any case, Auroville is still a walk in the park in India compared to Jonestown, the utopian communist community established in 1978, and the scene of the most famous instance of mass-suicide ever known:

Rumors had already spread that Jim Jones’ socialist community in the Guyana jungle was no utopia. There were reports that followers had been strong-armed into staying put — some of them forced to sign false confessions that they had molested their own children, so that they would lose their kids if they left the colony. Others were beaten for infractions such as not paying sufficient attention to Jones’ sermons.

Jones earned his reputation as a tyrannical cult leader responsible for the deaths of more than 900 people — beginning with the murders of a California Congressman and several journalists who had come to Jonestown to investigate reports of abuse, and ending with the deaths of his own followers, whom he instructed to drink purple Flavor Aid laced with cyanide. As the map from TIME’s 1978 report on the massacre (above) made clear, few escaped.

How had he come so far from seemingly noble intentions? His followers had initially been attracted by his humanitarianism, beginning in the Civil Rights era, when, according to The Atlantic, he helped integrate churches, hospitals, restaurants and theaters. His vision for Jonestown — where nearly 1,000 white, black, and Latino members of his religious movement had relocated from California — was one of racial harmony and equality rooted in communism, according to a former follower, Teri Buford O’Shea, who escaped just weeks before the mass murders and suicides.

We’ve already been expelled from Eden. Any attempt to recreate it here will create a vague, slightly annoying version of Limbo under the best circumstances- and a living embodiment of the Inferno in most others.

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