Utopia!

Charles Stross demands better aspirational fictions:

“We need — quite urgently, I think — plausible visions of where we might be fifty or a hundred or a thousand years hence: a hot, densely populated, predominantly urban planetary culture that nevertheless manages to feed everybody, house everybody, and give everybody room to pursue their own happiness without destroying our resource base.”

Maurice Hamington suggests that aspirational fictions guide the moral imagination:

Twenty-four hundred years ago, Plato asked us to imagine a political system where philosophers rule. As part of the social gospel movement in the early twentieth century, Walter Rauschenbusch asked us to imagine a Christian society where social service was the moral imperative. At about the same time, Jane Addams, the leading spokesperson for the settlement movement asked us to imagine a social organization where difference is marked not by oppression but by interactive engagement. Fifty years ago during the height of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King asked us to imagine a society where race is no longer a source of judgment. In each case, a utopian vision of a better society relies on engaging the imagination to see the moral possibilities.

Erin McKenna reminds us what gave utopia a bad name:

The end-state model of utopia has certain problematic assumptions and implications. Such visions focus on a final desired end-state without questioning the value of the means involved in achieving the desired state; by gaining rational control over nature and the ordering of society it will be possible to achieve a lasting harmony—engineered perfection.

One example of such an attempt at engineering has to do with the shaping of human nature. On most end-state visions it seems necessary to assume that human nature is basically plastic. Since control of the community comes in controlling the habits and sentiments of the individuals who make it up. it is necessary to determine the best set of habits and sentiments to instill and to determine the best method for so changing human nature. […S]ome of the most common methods of change employed in end-state utopian visions include the use of coercion, terror, legal punishment, education, eugenics, inducements, drugs, and psychological conditioning. This idea of rational control leading to final harmony causes many to see utopian visions as static, totalitarian nightmares. End-state visions tend to make dogmatic assumptions about people and human society and to impose their single-minded view on others in an authoritarian and restrictive manner.

The tendency to substitute fiction for fact is what’s so worrying in end-state utopias. McKenna suggests that we can partially rehabilitate utopias by giving up the end-state and substituting “ends-in-view” that are themselves rooted in the lived experience of individuals, and that also inform the aspirations of those individuals.
Utopia
Obviously, this is a bit of an interest of mine. As I understand it, the moral imagination becomes dangerous when it substitutes its own vision for reality. The problem is that this kind of self-deception is also the key to political action. Here’s what I mean: Hannah Arendt maintained that the nature of action is to introduce novelty into the world. If this is the case, then we can accomplish novelty only by negating the present: well aware of the facts of the world we inhabit, the actor attempts to enact a state of affairs different from the one before her. What’s more, the same mental faculty that makes this resistance to given datum of experience possible fuels both progressive and pernicious deceptions. In an essay on the “Pentagon Papers,” Arendt writes:

“In order to make room for one’s own action, something that was there before must be removed or destroyed, and things as they were before are changed. [We] imagine that things might as well be different from what they actually are. In other words, the deliberate denial of factual truth—the ability to lie—and the capacity to change facts—the ability to act—are interconnected; they owe their existence to the same source: imagination.”(Arendt, “Lying in Politics” 1971)

If aspirational fictions are to do their work, then perhaps we cannot escape the self-deception they entail. Is Martin Luther King a dogmatist with a “single-minded view of others”? Perhaps, in a sense, his relentless optimism about the potential for desegregation and social justice reflects a “dogmatic assumption about people and human society.” Perhaps he was even wrong, blinded by faith, just as Plato, Rauschenbusch, and Addams were. But who will blame them for it, given the world their self-deceptive optimism has made? Similarly, who can forgive Robert McNamara (or Leon Trotsky, or Louis Antoine Léon de Saint-Just for that matter) for the the state of affairs that their self-deceptive optimism created?

The justification for the lie is the politics it engenders, just as the proof of the utopia is the action it inspires.

Two Theories of Wikileaks, or Just One?

So far as  I can tell, the news coverage of the latest diplomatic infodump breaks along a line orthogonal to ordinary US partisanship. Either:

1. There’s nothing new here, although the possibility of future exposure may hamper diplomatic efforts in the near term.

or

2. Secrecy is bad, here are some secrets.

Neither perspective is particular liberal or particularly conservative, so it’s dispute that entails odd bedfellows.

In a sense, we can say that these responses line up along the narratives supplied by Julian Assange, or those pushed by the US Government and its allies. But the interesting thing about this is that there’s no real conflict between the two narratives. It could be both the case that secrecy is bad, and the case that this particular set of secrets doesn’t include anything that wasn’t already public or that needed to be public.

My own allegiances are with the second camp in principle, but in practice, regarding the last two sets of leaks, I find the first camp more persuasive. The US has a number of interrelated overclassification problems: many things are secret that ought not to be secret. Worse, many things are classified secret that aren’t even actually secret. That is: much of the information in secret classified documents is also publicly available from other sources!

Another way of putting this is that there’s always a tension between transparency and privacy, and we can only champion a particular set of publications because they disclose information that ought to be transparent, not because they disclose something that ought to be private. (Thus witness the tension over exposing US collaborators and informants in the last infodump.)

In keeping with this, I propose the following standard of rigor on the dispute that needn’t be a dispute:

  • Proponents of the leaks ought to say what, specifically, they revealed that was not already known and needs further attention, and give principled reasons for preserving transparency for such information.
  • Opponents of the leaks ought to say what, specifically, the leaks revealed that shouldn’t have been revealed, and give principled reasons for preserving the secrecy of such information.

Of course, by demanding principled reasons and attention to specific facts, I’m basically siding against Wikileaks itself. I’m claiming that rights and duties are not generic enough to be purely pro-transparency or purely pro-secrecy, especially when we consider that privacy is predicated on a kind of secrecy that is always at odds with transparency. There’s no a priori answer to these questions, because the particular facts matter. Yet Wikileaks treats them as having been settled a priori, as if the only relevant fact can be summed up by a nursery rhyme:

“Secrets, secrets, they’re no fun!
Secrets, secrets, hurt someone.”

As such, I do not believe that Wikileaks has a principled reason for releasing each piece of data. That lack of principle is implicit in the way the infodumps are carried out, scattershot, without redaction. That’s what distinguishes Wikileaks from, for instance, the New York Times’ publication of the Pentagon Papers. Yet because Wikileaks or something like it is unavoidable in the world we now inhabit, we ought to consider how to respond to it. Surely sharing its unprincipled relationship to data is not the answer. (If you disagree, could I have your credit card info please?)

Indeed, for a priori moralists, they seem to have missed the memo on self-consistency. In an amusing performative contradiction, the administrators of and contributors to Wikileaks (not to be confused with its public representative/lighting rod, Julian Assange) is itself quite secretive.