UTOPIA A or B
Two visions for the future
by Mike Mercer
The Montreal Review, May, 2010
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Who should rule Utopia?
Perhaps the most critical and certainly the most popular question, was the matter of a governing institution in the new society. For some it came as a total shock that the debate would be as far ranging as it became. Early arguments were over what kind of democratic system would be put in place. But then members of Camp-A challenged the assumption that democracy was the one best way.
Camp-A took up the position that a highly educated meritocracy would be best. The term Guardian was applied to this class of rulers, who would not stand for general elections by popular vote. Although some inspiration was drawn from Plato's Republic and the Philosopher Kings he wrote about, no one wanted to set up a monarchy with absolute power. Guardians would receive a specialized university program to the doctoral level, with emphasis on building a broad knowledge base and critical thinking skills, before allowing specialization in a given field. Extensive testing and psychological examinations would help weed out the unfit. Although Guardians would have serious authority they would not hold permanent posts of power. There would be open internal elections among the Guardians to fill various offices every five years.
Part of the reasoning behind this position was the argument that most modern policy was debated in the public, set by a few elected elites in private, and then put into effect by the unelected civil service. Democracy had very little impact on any end result. Typically leaders paid attention to public opinion polls so they could promises to give the people what they wanted. Unfortunately many leaders did not consider their real ability to deliver on the promises before they made them. The aim of the Guardians was to take politics; the bickering, back stabbing, fight for elected offices and the compromising manipulative method of policy formation out of governing. The people would be encouraged to make their desires known in official opinion surveys. These statements of public will, would be taken into consideration by the Guardians but would not be binding.
The idea of unelected officials upset many in the USA but did not seem odd to Canadians. They were accustomed to having an appointed Senate and Supreme Court, as well as appointed Cabinet Ministers who were in charge of governmental departments. Although it was fond of its democratic tradition, Canada actually functioned with a large body of unelected officials holding substantial power.
Camp-B was horrified by the idea of an unelected ruling body. They stressed the importance of democracy and called for more of it. The flaws they recognized in the modern system could be overcome by reforms to the electoral system and the rules of government structure. Ideas for direct democracy were strongly suggested, although not considered practical, they did push forward the Public Involvement Referendum plan. As part of expanded democracy, PIR aimed to have several issues each year placed before a public vote, at both the local and national level. Various plans to deal with a given issue would be announced a month in advance of the vote. The government would then be required to implement the people's choice. Of course there was also the less popular idea of promoting election participation by issuing a fine to those who did not go vote.
One popular proposal for democratic reform called for an election every year, and thus the creation of a permanent department of electoral affairs, which would also handle the PIR votes. In year 1 the President: head of state, would be elected. In year 2 members of the Commons: the representative body of the population at large, would stand for election. In year 3 the Senate: the body representing territorial districts, would hold election of its members. Year 4 would see the election of other top officials, like Supreme Court Judges. Then the cycle would start over again. Thus all would serve for a four year term and face a fixed date election. There would be no maximum for the number of terms one could hold an office.
The cornerstone of expanded democracy was public involvement, even if it was only in an advisory capacity to an official government agency. As the right to rule rests with the people, they should be as involved as possible in their country.
Along with the multitude of citizen-civil service comities, came the idea of Community NGOs (Non Governmental Organizations) being established to deal with local issues. Alex De Tocqueville's view of early 1800s America was quite inspirational in this regard. As he said: "If people see a problem they should do something to fix it, not wait around for the government to take care of it." Camp-B's libertarian legal reforms would allow the flexibility for this sort of activity.
How are we to understand the place of people in the new society? This question came out of a clash between views about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship vs. universal human rights. Philosophers categorized the matter as follows:
Citizen Rights must be respected by the state at all times. Citizen Privileges may be extended or withheld by the state according to reasonable justification. Citizen Duties must be performed when called for; failure to do so is a crime. Citizen Responsibilities are more flexible; failure to carry them out may result in a penalty, such as the suspension of a privilege, but is not considered criminal. In a similar way we may also understand the relationship between humans.
Camp-A considered it a weak point of modern society that most of the focus was on Rights, with little to be said about Duties. Everyone wanted to have their rights protected and expanded but no one wanted to be told that they had a duty to perform. This was considered a prime example of rationalizing selfish human nature. Thus a new charter was drafted following the RPDR formula. It spelled out what Rights, Privileges, Duties and Responsibilities one would have as both a citizen and as a human being, no allowance was made for special group status.
Camp-B considered the development of rights and freedoms to be going just fine. The debate with in this camp was over priority being given to individual or group rights. Good arguments were made for both sides, but in the end a charter was drafted allowing group rights but giving priority to universal individual rights. Talk of privileges and duties was dismissed as attempts to limit people.
Linked to the questions of citizenship was the matter of multiculturalism; most specifically the issue of promoting or limiting diversity. The modern assumption that plurality is good was challenged by those who thought culture, like religion, should be a privet matter kept at home. In the interests of efficiency and national harmony, it was argued that an official monoculture should be developed.
Camp-A supported the idea of national harmony. It offered a revival of the melting pot model, calling for a careful study of what should go into an official culture. "Strength through unity" was a popular slogan, although it frightened some people. The debate with in the Camp was actually over the amount of support or neutrality the state should show. Some called for a strong national culture, complete with history, religion, language, folklore, festivals, etc. Other cultures would be tolerated if they kept quiet. A second group wanted a hyper-neutral official culture that would tolerate everyone equally and offend no one.
Camp-B supported the idea of plurality as part of its strong belief in freedom. Everyone should have as much freedom of expression as possible. Any form of censorship is unwelcome. Although some favored official neutrality when it came to matters of religion and culture, the more popular position was that of promotion of diversity. According to this policy the state would take an active role in sponsoring equally all credible cultural events and major religious festivals. It would promote not merely tolerance but acceptance and understanding.
The more hard nosed of Camp-B, who support the idea that conflict is good because it promotes progress, looked at diversity in a similar light. They argued that a plurality of cultures would serve as the best resource base to innovative ideas. They said that a monoculture would not only generate resistance, it would cause stagnation.
Also linked to the question "what sort of people shall live in utopia?" was the issue of education. Most critics of the standard system claimed that it was ineffective; graduates were alternately viewed as under skilled and over educated. This was taken to mean that students were not learning the right things in school. But what exactly was missing? Some of the insightful commentators observed that critical thinking was a dead art, even among university level students. Change was called for, but there was serious disagreement over what the focus and method of education in Utopia should be.
Camp-A saw education as a basic right, to be provided by the State to all for free. Education was also seen as a way to shape the minds of the youth, to produce good citizens. Going to school would be mandatory; there would be no home schooling. The policy of molding young minds was compared by some to the advice Plato and Aristotle offered on education, although others called it brainwashing. The supporters of the policy stressed that it would provide a broad basis of knowledge and allow students to better think for themselves, within the frame work of the new ideology. Although they were some calls for skill oriented education, the majority involved with the parent teacher committee wanted to see a holistic approach to learning installed. Job skills should be learned on the job they argued, school should provide life skills.
Camp-B saw education as one of the services best handled by the privet sector. Thus the state would change its role in the system to that of a standards regulating body. All schools would be privet, home schools would be allowed, standardized tests would be required once each year. If a significant number of students in a school failed for two consecutive years the school would lose its license. So long as national minimums were met, each school was allowed to set its curriculum as it wished. To help those who chose to home school, the state would offer a free on-line data base of information and teaching tips. To preserve the right to education, for those who could not afford it, schools would be required, as part of their license agreement, to provide a number of scholarship seats.
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Genealogy of Utopias A & B
The Question of Human Nature
Addressing Marx's claim about social structure
Who should rule Utopia?
Urban Planning & On the doorstep of Utopia
Bibliography for Utopia A or B
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