Semantics : Utopia Argument

500 years have passed since Thomas More first published his book Utopia,*1 and it seems that his legacy has not stopped haunting anyone who even tries to think about any other system that should replace what we have now.

Many other fields have experienced significant changes, but, in an economical and political sense, nothing really radical and significant was changed for very long.

The word utopia was coined from two Greek words: οὐ ("not") and τόπος ("place"), meaning "no-place".

Now, what is interesting about Utopia is that, nowadays, it is largely considered as a synonym for the perfect society that cannot exist by any possible means. But, if you put aside this stereotypical meaning of the word, when you read the book, you will find the following: Utopia is far from the perfect society, and, ironically, what our society has become at present has more in common with the Utopia then we would like to believe.

We cannot even start discussing Utopia without taking into account Thomas More and his personal context. He was born just a few years after England ended the Hundred Years War with France and in the middle of the other very long-lasting civil war “War of the Roses,” a struggle for power between different English families (basically a real-life historical version of the TV show “Game of Thrones”).

From that long-lasting war, the Tudors came as victors, and Henry VII was crowned king. As he was, to say the least, a womaniser, he did not like the church bossing him around regarding who will he marry or divorce. So, Henry decided to make life easier for himself by following the Protestant Reformation view, which was more relaxed regarding his matrimonial issues. He decided to split from Catholicism and to put himself as the head of the Church of England.

Now, at the time, Thomas More (you can imagine him as Ned Stark) was the Lord High Chancellor of England, in the centre of this dispute between two powers, but on the wrong side. He was Catholic, and he considered the Protestant Reformation as heresy. Henry (gender aside, you can imagine him as the evil queen Cersei Lannister), on the other hand, really liked women and didn’t like anyone standing in the way, so the poor fellow Thomas was accused of treason, and he lost his head.

Let’s go back to Utopia. If you read the book, you will see that Thomas is actually trying to influence the people of his time by this story; he was not even trying to create a perfect society (as like the word Utopia will get the epithet in later centuries by forgetting the real context) but trying to say “look, people: this place I will talk about does not exist (although I will try to convince you it does), but aren’t the things I am saying closer to what should be common sense, and what actually Christianity is teaching us?” The book was first printed in 1516 in Latin, 16 years before his death, and in English in 1551, 16 years after More's execution.

His attitudes about premarital sex and the fitting punishment for it shows More’s puritan upbringing, but they would not be accepted by any means in our society. Punishment for repeated adultery, the concepts of hierarchy, privacy, freedom of movement, and labour, as explained in Utopia, are far from anything we would consider a “dream land,” and a majority of people of this century could hardly see themselves living comfortably in such a society. More’s views on religion, sex, and marriage are conservatively patriarchal, and they represent messages he is trying to convey in contrast to the views of his king, and, obviously, as he lost his head, he was not diplomatic enough.

On the other hand, his explanation of a magistrate is very similar to some form of elective democracy, and the concept of “slavery” or forced labour is very similar to what we have now in our judicial system, where, for some type of offences, a person can choose between spending time in a cell or doing involuntary/ community work. On the other hand, we need to consider that slavery in the British Isles existed and was recognised from before the Roman occupation until the 12th century. But, slavery virtually disappeared after the Norman Conquest and was replaced by feudalism and serfdom. Having all that in mind, it is understandable that people during that time still considered slavery a perfectly normal concept. Also, it is important to notice that the moral meaning of the word “slavery” has changed since More’s time (back then, it was a morally acceptable punishment for offence that “good” people would use to punish “evil;” now, it is how “evil” people prey upon powerless people).

Furthermore, More’s description of Utopia towns is almost a replica of Plato’s dialogue “The Republic,” in which he describes what the ideal polis (city/town) should look like. More does not even try to hide this fact; actually, he deliberately mentions Plato several times, along with other influential philosophers and poets (Aristotle, Theophrastus, Plutarch, Lucian, Aristophanes, Homer, Euripides, Sophocles, Thucydides, Herodotus etc.); it is like he is trying to convince his readers that they should read those books.

It would be interesting to find out how Utopia earned the epithet of an ideal society, as the lives and locations in the book are far from advanced and also ever farther from a perfect society. Utopians from the book still have different kinds of issues: they can be exposed to the elements and plagues, they still have occasional wars, they use manipulation and capital punishment, and, admittedly, they can also be unhappy.

Saying that the Utopians are all happy all the time or that Utopia is the ideal society requires either to base conclusion without reading the book or having the same mindset as a person who was brought to the USA from a third-world country. Just by showing him/her around all the technological advances, and all the happy people enjoying life, he or she would easily think that this is the richest and happiest place on earth — a paradise — dismissing any possibility that anyone in the USA could have any reason for war or to commit any type of crime.

So, here’s where we intersect with Utopia: banishment of capital punishment, public hospitals and schools for free, easing pain and suffering, dedication to health, the way we read bedtime fairy tales (moral stories) to children, tolerance of religions, and even the concept of euthanasia. Of course, in the real world, this cannot be applied to all countries and all people, but, on average we can say that we are there — sort of.

Where we have surpassed Utopia is in knowledge and schools, and that is somewhat understandable. There was no way that More could imagine that we would have mobile phones, cars, computers, satellites, machines, or the other inventions we use instead of slaves for completing hard work. If we could bring Thomas More from the past, he would probably think that we live in Eutopia. *2 )

But, the biggest thing we have not accomplished — and we will get there someday, in one way or another — is the concept of wealth and money. In Utopia, money does not exist, and, as More explains it in the book, money, where it exists, only reflects that the society is behind the curtain — yet another elaborative scheme of the rich envisioned to prolong the slavery and the misery of the poor, securing their own position at the top. He ignores the possibility that having “wage slavery”/ ”stick and carrot approach” was the only way we could imagine to guarantee ourselves constant progress and advancement.

With the advancement of AI and automation, it is just a question of time for when we will be forced to rethink our current system. In a world where machines are the only slaves, and people are not, we will need to find a new, more meaningful purpose for ourselves.

Knowing all that, we must ask why people so often use the “Utopia argument” as a derogative way to dismiss any future discussion about a new system?

If we rule out the obvious issue of cognitive limitation, which does not allow a person to understand the benefits of new things, even when evidences are clearly outlined, we can highlight following:

Emotional acceptance – Being afraid of anything new, a person would rather sacrifice the chance of having something better for the sake of what is already there and known. Everything known is good, and everything new is bad.

Power of habit – living too long under certain circumstances can affect both adaptability and the willingness to adapt to new situations. This is similar to people who spent too long in prison and do not like being in the outside world.

Obedience – absolute submission to authority (drone effect) without questioning.

Ignorance – a person makes conclusions without the necessary knowledge about the subject. Often, ignorance comes as a choice or as a consequence of the lack of will to learn and understand new concepts.

Self-Interest – a person is choosing deliberately to ignore what they know, in exchange for gain. Self-interest does not need to come always as monetary gain; it can also come as a personal satisfaction from wining petty debate points by undermining serious discussion.

In a discussion about Universal Basic Income, now and then, someone will pull the “Utopia card,” implying that UBI is an attempt to create a perfect society. Now, as explained earlier, a perfect society does not exist, even when we reach the stage of a “Star Trek” society,*3 where every possible job that can be imagined will be done by machines; being humans, we will still find ways to be miserable and unhappy. Like many rich people are unhappy, despite the fact that they have material wealth enough to sustain entire countries.

Basic Income is not a perfect solution, and it will not solve all of our problems, but it is better than what we have now, and it is step in the right direction. If we are willing to try new things, along the way, we will find something better. In an advancing society, every solution should be just a temporary solution, and it should be used until we adjust to the future society that will come through a process of research and new discoveries.

Speaking of Basic Income, the biggest question is how to implement it in realistic way without causing additional issues, and there are already many ways to do it — one of which is Basic Tax Control.

Will the future society be a Utopia (non-existing)?
Well, if we do not do something terribly wrong, probably not.
Will it be a perfect society?
Most definitely not. Being human means to have issues, and the nature of interaction with other sentient beings always has its own challenges. There are always differences of contexts, ideas, and opinions.

Only when we get to the point where everyone has the same knowledge and acts in the same ways we can discuss the possibility of a society without any issues. That is also the point where individuality ceases to exist. Just as the Borg in “Star Trek” all became one, if humans start sharing consciousness on larger scale — becoming one larger, unified mind — we would also become similar to God(s), which would logically lead to the disappearance of society. So, basically, a society without issues is a non-existing society. *4

Currently, we all look at our world through a very long peephole, and we see only one small part of a very large picture. We all have different ideas of how things work and how they should work. Maybe, instead of trying to persuade people to follow the small part we can see trough our personal lenses, it would be better if we would share our pieces, cooperate, and create something that will eventually be better for all of us.

Notes & References:

1. Utopia (Book) - Thomas More

2. Play on words. In English, Utopia is pronounced exactly as Eutopia, but in Greek Εὐτοπία [Eutopiā], contains the prefix εὐ- [eu-], "good" and τόπος ("place") meaning "good-place".

3. Star Trek

4. Researchers found a way to enable mind communication