Why We Can’t Have a Better World

Utopia is a dangerous word. It expresses both a desire for something better and a doubt about the possibility of fulfilling that desire. There is a fundamental and–on Sir Thomas More’s part–intentional equivocation at the heart of the word. A utopia is both a “good place” and a “no place”. The pivotal question, however, is can it be a real place? The problem when discussing a better place, or even more modestly, a better way of doing something, we tend to model our expectations and judgments around some conception of a thing’s efficiency. A better knife is a more efficient one, that is one that fulfills the purpose of the knife more effectively. Perhaps one that cuts better or is more durable or requires less skill or, more remotely, is more prestigiously fashionable. Whatever the aim of the knife, some designs and constructions will attain the desired end better than others. that is a measure of its efficiency. The relationship between a goal and the best way to achieve it is a thing’s efficiency. I could write forever what the end of utopia should look like, but that is not the point of this essay. Rather, I want to focus on what can derail a social project, even when a goal is clear and shared.

There is another equivocation we must deal with, one that is not intentional and lies in the word “efficiency”. Efficiency is a noun that represents the ability of a thing to enact an effect. But as we saw above, the effect is relative to the end. A knife whose purpose is to cut meat is different from the ceremonial knife of the high priest or the resplendent knife of the monarch. Different in its sense of purpose and so different in its intended effect. The most efficient knife might not even be able to cut, something generally thought of as an essential quality for a thing to be classified as a “knife”. This leads us to an uncontroversial idea: that in some manners an object can be both efficient and inefficient at the same time, given separate purposes. But I want to propose something much more controversial, that an object can be both efficient and inefficient at the same time, given the same purpose, as well. This is because efficiency is a social notion, not just an individual one. And because of this objects might find themselves individually efficient while socially inefficient or vice versa.

Let me start with an example that we may then use to propose two different types of efficiency. The layout of the keyboard upon which I am typing this essay is known as the “qwerty” layout. In one sense, this is far from the most efficient layout for an English-language keyboard. The home keys, which are the easiest and quickest to press, contain not the most commonly used letters in the language but less common ones, including one of the least used punctuation marks: the semi-colon. Meanwhile, the letter “e”, the most commonly used letter in English is left in a less accessible place. We might ask, “is there not a better design imaginable here?”, a utopic keyboard layout if you will? I think you will agree there must be. So, a reasonable question would be: why are computer designers still using this inefficient design?

The answer is that “qwerty” is the most efficient, in a hegemonic sense. The “qwerty” keyboard layout is widely known and widely accepted. It has achieved a hegemonic normativity that has rooted it in place. Any attempt to deviate from this norm would require an individual typist to relearn how to type on a new layout, and this would cause more inefficiency than the new layout would save, at least for a while. Let’s call this hegemonic efficiency “nominal”, in that it is efficient in a historical and culturally relative sense but not in an objective sense. Opposed to this we might add an “optimal efficiency”, which is both hegemonically and objectively efficient. Let us imagine a keyboard layout that is the most efficient, as far as finger strokes go, and let’s imagine that this layout, through some method, replaces “qwerty”, then we as a culture would have moved from nominal efficiency to optimal efficiency. In this way, a keyboard layout like “qwerty” could be said to be the most efficient keyboard system given the social situation already in place, but not the most efficient system when taken ideally. And, from the other side, the more ideally efficient keyboard layout would be utopic, not in the sense of impossible, but in that it must overcome hegemonic normativity before it can become optimal.

The parallel to social and political utopias is obvious enough: a better world may be objectively possible but pushing through the hegemonic membrane so that it becomes optimal is what is nearly impossible. I mean, if we are failing to get better keyboards or adopt the metric system, what chance does something like libertarian socialism really have against capitalism? And this would be true even if almost every single person actively wanted libertarian socialism. Still, I feel that a lot of arguments about capitalism’s efficiency between socialists and capitalists of all stripes may be chalked up to this sort of innocent equivocation. Is capitalism more efficient nominally or optimally? I think it is undeniably more nominally efficient. But this is not to say it is more efficient, period. To do that is to miss the point that most socialists really want to make: capitalism is not the most optimally efficient.

This is not to leave aside the idea that an economic system’s goal is often obscure. As I said about the knife, change the intended purpose and you also change its supposed efficiency. So, is capitalism a platform for enacting the most freedom? Generating the most wealth? Enabling the greatest access to resources for the greatest number of people? Enriching a single individual to the greatest extent possible? Stabilizing exploitation to avoid revolution? Obviously, our measure of capitalism’s efficiency will change depending on which of these ways we choose to conceive of it. But as an assumption of a free people, under a volunteer political system, one would assume that people would imagine the point of their economics as getting them access to the resources they need to live and thrive. Under that conception, I think the socialist would have a point. Capitalism is only nominally efficient and any optimal improvement must be utopic.

However, the point here is not to argue about conceptions of socialism or capitalism but to show how we might continue to have problems even if we all agreed on the conception. Under capitalism, we are seemingly trapped in the hegemony of a lesser system. In fact, this is the root of the so-called “left melancholia” and conservative “realism”. The disappointment and depression of those who can see salvation but cannot reach it because of the “realism” of others is the natural result of conflicting senses of efficiency. What is realistic is “nominal” while what is utopic is “optimal”, but neither of these options is impossible.

So, how do we change the hegemony? This is the work of social reformers everywhere–and frankly, not my specialty. But I will say, the goal is not to get rid of hegemony and change it into some sort of endless Revolution, but rather to replace the old nominal hegemony with the optimal and ideal one. My understanding of the historical precedents are that they have come through dictatorship or some other anti-democratic means. I believe this is the impetus behind Marx’s call for the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, but a “dictatorship” made up of the overwhelming majority of the citizens of a society is hardly a dictatorship at all. Rather it is a democracy and so overcoming the hegemonic normativity of the group is not possible this way. Neither, do I think is it advisable to instill dictatorial powers in a single individual or even a small group. Instead, I think we must discover how to embrace the democratic element present in this phenomenon and simply put a hegemonic change to a direct vote. Let the question before the people be: “qwerty” or this. We may well find it is “qwerty”. But we may also find that social progress moves forward. Voting may seem like leaving it up to every individual to choose themselves, precisely the problem of hegemony I am outlining. But by calling it to a vote, we orient our thoughts from what we think individually to what we think collectively and different “self-interests” may result.

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