Meta-Utopia

2002-02-17

In the last few days I re-read Part III ("Utopia") of Robert Nozick's book Anarchy, State, and Utopia. It's interesting how Nozick's utopia is explicitly not "totalistic" in the sense Chris Sciabarra talks about in Total Freedom. Nozick's is a meta-utopia, in which thousands of smaller utopian communities will bloom. Yet there's still quite a trace of "polis envy" here: utopias are envisioned to be fairly close-knit communities that are limited to a small geographical area. In the Nozickian framework one could envision nationwide or worldwide associations of such utopian communities, but I for one find it difficult to see how large cities would form. I feel it's not accidental that utopian communities have tended to be small villages isolated in the countryside. The utopian impulse stands contrary to the flow of urban history. One reason, I think, is that a city is itself made up of small communities -- not usually geographical communities (though certain neighborhoods may qualify), but communities of interest and affilitation. That's one of the main attractions of city life, I think: one can be a member of local communities of interest (let's say, the jazz scene, the gardening society, the French conversation club, and the Linux User's Group) all in one location. Such communities are not political utopias but voluntary associations, and I think that people find more value in such associations than they would in a utopian community that is dedicated to a certain vision of life (socialism, libertarianism, environmentalism, Buddhism, or whatever). Partly that's because most people do not possess a singular vision of life to which everything they think and do is subordinated. And that's healthy. To turn Thoreau on his head, perhaps we can even say that the great mass of men lead lives of quiet integration: they pursue many different interests that cannot be reduced to one over-arching principle or vision, and they are not vocal activists for such a vision in the way that utopians are. Urban-dwellers can actualize that kind of integration in ways that people in the boonies generally cannot, which is one reason cities continue to attract an ever-larger proportion of the population. The internet may have changed the equation somewhat (it's easier to find people with similar interests than ever before), but for most people a city of 1 million people provides most of the communities of interest they need.

Which returns me to my reflections on the lack of interest in libertarianism in urban areas. Perhaps one reason is that people in cities are not willing to subordinate their lives to one vision of life -- they are fundamentally pluralists, not totalists, so utopia holds little appeal for them. And their fundamental pluralism may often (or even usually) shade over into a kind of relativism or ethical liberalism, on top of which political pluralism or liberalism grows naturally. Alternatively, perhaps they are simply too busy living their lives and participating in voluntary associations to take much interest in a utopian political movement.


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