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Utopias, Old & New
Hello hello ~
I hope everyone’s enjoying their time in the universe, what Nabokov calls this “brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” Or how Maria Popova describes it, this “blink of existence, bookended by nothingness…”
As for me, the next few months promise a whirl of exploration, unsettlement, and excitement. After over a year living in Kingston, NY, my girlfriend & I are moving. We aren’t sure where yet. Denver was the original plan, though Brooklyn is creeping back up as a possibility. We’ll take advantage of the time between leases to travel again and return to India for a month.
Last night, I was thinking about where I’d like to live. I thought about the Millbrook house Ram Dass & Timothy Leary bought, where a rotating cast of artists, intellectuals, scholars, and contemplatives lived in exploratory community, bound not by the content, but zeal, of their pursuits.
I joked to myself that what I really want is to pool money with other young contemplative, radical post-capitalists and buy a big house near a lively city to live in creative, zestful community. First we create our spaces, then our spaces create us, the saying goes. I imagined a living space full of passionate young people who come together in common areas with equal zest for meditation and tax policy.
I tweeted this, because Twitter is a good venue for that kind of thing, where you’re joking but not really:
But expressing vulnerable feelings behind cloaks of irony is exactly what David Foster Wallace thought we needed to leave behind. It fosters a kind of detachment from the world of possibilities, a tacit acceptance of the impossibility for what we crave most.
In E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, he writes:
“The next real literary "rebels" in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that'll be the point. Maybe that's why they'll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today's risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the "Oh how banal". To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows.”
So, let’s make it direct: I’m looking for community. If some blend of contemplative neo-marxism, post-capitalist think-tanking, and dharma sangha intrigues you, maybe we can build something together.
(Alternatively, the internet already creates a kind of architecture for this, a lived-in space where we can move between different rooms of community and intimacy).
The podcast is poised for a revival over the next two months. I have 5 conversations scheduled over the next two weeks, each with a fascinating angle on the interaction between socioeconomic institutions and subjectivity. A few nuggets:
I’ll be speaking with John Vervaeke, professor behind the Youtube series Awakening from the Meaning Crisis. Thus far, the gist of his series seems to point towards building an ‘ecology of psychotechnologies’, or practices, that transform how we experience experience itself.
These practices are familiar: meditation, responsible use of psychedelics, movement practices like Qi Gong, social practices like circling or authentic dialogue.
We’ll have a conversation about the structural elements of the meaning crisis. Beyond cognitive biases and self-delusion, how might our cultural institutions, our economic realities, be participating in accelerating the meaning crisis?
And what structural responses might operate alongside these ecologies of individual and group practices? What might it mean to think of economic policies as forms of psychotechnologies?
I’ll also be speaking with Glen Weyl, co-author of Radical Markets. I have a number of conversations coming up with folks deeply involved in the progressive left economic movement. The emphasis there is often on using progressive taxation to decommodify the essentials of life (healthcare, transportation, income, etc.).
Weyl approaches the same objective by a different angle: don’t get rid of markets, expand them, make them radical.
So we’ll be exploring this tension between decommodification and radicalizing markets, seeing how they both pursue the same ends, and whether both strategies might be able to work together.
As readers of this newsletter, I imagine a number of you are familiar with these folks. Feel free to respond with any ideas/questions you’d like to run by them, and I’ll see if I can incorporate these into my preparation.
Adam Smith’s Splenetic Philosophy
This fantastically interesting paper on Adam Smith traces what Smith called “splenetic philosophy”.
In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith documents what he believes is the fundamental human drive: to be both seen, and feel worthy of being seen.
Because we desire to receive the attention of others, and feel worthy of that attention, we wind of adopting capital accumulation as a proxy for chasing attention and feeling worthy of it. Capital accumulation here, again, is just another proxy for achieving status and distinction, enough of which attracts the attention we so desperately crave. Here’s Smith:
"The rich man glories in his riches...because he feels they naturally draw upon him the attention of the world. At the thought of this, his heart seems to swell & dilate itself within him."
But, and here Smith breaks from the veneer of his philosophy passed around today, he believes chasing wealth is the most foolish, absurd, futile way to pursue this desire.
Gustav Peebles, professor of economics at The New School and author of this paper, traces Smith’s idea that in old age, as individuals begin to perceive time as a scarce resource, we realize how foolish our lives have been:
“Old age ushers in the illuminating real-world truth delivered by what he colorfully terms “splenetic philosophy.” This little known subdiscipline of the contemplative arts allows “Power and riches [to] appear then to be, what they are, enormous and operose machines contrived to produce a few trifling conveniencies [sic] to the body”.
But, although the pursuit of capital accumulation is an illusion that embarks individuals on a life trajectory that will fail to satisfy their desires, Smith believes this illusion is precisely what society needs to keep itself going. Young people living under the illusion that capital accumulation will deliver a kind of fulfilling status, while detrimental to their individual lives, fuels the industrious productivity that builds society.
“Taking a crucial next step, Smith insists that this socially-produced scarcity is, in fact, the origin of morality itself. Without scarcity, ease and tranquility would prevail, thereby stultifying humankind, since ‘Hardships, dangers, injuries, misfortunes, are the only masters under whom we can learn the exercise of this virtue. But these are all masters to whom nobody willingly puts himself to school.’”
In short, Smith believes scarcity is a necessary illusion to keep humans living in socially valuable ways. This, Peebles writes, serves as a fundamental distinction between Smith and Marx:
“In light of this logic, we can make a pithy distinction between Smith and Marx: Both believed in the reign of false consciousness; it is only that the former hoped to preserve it, while the latter aimed to explode it.”
Smith’s whole economic philosophy relies on the assumption that human nature, if in conditions of abundance, is lazy and un-industrious. Therefore it’s necessary to maintain the illusion of scarcity, to let everyone chase status by accumulating capital, in order to keep society afloat.
I can’t help but side with Marx here, I prefer a more mutable theory of human nature. Incidentally, this is also one of the main points of contention on Universal Basic Income: won’t everyone just stop working and do nothing? Well, that depends on your theory of human nature.
Using Smith’s on logic, we’ll still be driven by our desire for attention, and feeling worthy of that attention.
A Utopian in Disguise: Slavoj Zizek on Thomas Piketty’s Progressive Taxation
I loved this bit from Zizek, where he notes that Thomas Piketty’s proposal for progressive taxation, while seemingly modest and well within the Overton window, is actually a radically utopian project.
Piketty himself writes:
“...correctly applied, the progressive tax on capital would enable capitalism and private property to be surpassed in a relatively profound way; because it would transform the latter into a temporary rather than a permanent reality…Furthermore, the financial transparency that would accompany a true progressive tax on capital would contribute in a key way to a democratic reappropriation of capitalism…”
Prisoners of the Utopia Collapsing Around Us
I’m reading Andre Gorz’s Critique of Economic Reason (1988), and holy hell. This quote on the fall of industrial utopias, and our incarceration in their rubble, hits me at a visceral level:
“The utopia which has informed industrial societies for the last two hundred years is collapsing. And I use the term utopia in its contemporary philosophical sense here, as the vision of the future on which a civilization bases its projects, establishes its ideal goals and builds its hopes. When a utopia collapses in this way, it indicates that the entire circulation of values which regulates the social dynamic and the meaning of our activities is in crisis. This is the crisis we are faced with today. The industrialist utopia promised us that the development of the forces of production and the expansion of the economic sphere would liberate humanity from scarcity, injustice and misery; that these developments would bestow on humanity the sovereign power to dominate Nature, and with this the sovereign power of self-determination; and that they would turn work into a demiurgic and auto-poietic activity in which the incomparably individual fulfilment of each was recognized - as both right and duty - as serving the emancipation of all.
Nothing remains of this utopia. This does not mean that all is lost and that we have no other option but to let events take their course. It means we must find a new utopia, for as long as we are the prisoners of the utopia collapsing around us, we will remain incapable of perceiving the potential for liberation offered by the changes happening now, or of turning them to our advantage by giving meaning to them.”
I just recently finished Nick Srnicek & Alex Williams’ 2016 book, Inventing the Future, and it feels like a direct response to Gorz’ work. Glad to see new sociopolitical utopian projects really taking shape.
As always, you can respond directly to this email with thoughts, critiques, and suggestions. Let’s start a conversation.
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Until next time,