Monday, October 25, 2010

The Society I Would Want To Inhabit

In the past I have described my ideal government, reading utopian literature one cannot help but form one’s own versions. Despite claiming to be composed of ideals mine and those of others were generally somewhat less than their name, they assumed a great deal about man that seems inescapable in modern society: issues of population, bureaucratic control, military strength, and industrial infrastructure being examples. This essay is an attempt to describe my ideal society in its purest form, that is to formulate a culture that accounts for only the basic nature of man and none of the modern dilemmas of civilized life. Issues of applicability will be addressed, but they will not affect the final form of the society described. The underlying idea of this exercise is simple and somewhat egotistical, it is to describe not a society that would be economically successful, politically just, or socially liberating, but a society, in as detailed a form as I know, that I would actually want to inhabit, a society in which I would no longer feel the compelled to imagine a better (yet still real) world.
The most basic problem with creating any feasible utopian society is that of connection with the modern world, since the 1960s idealistic young men and women have been forming communities based on the principles of simplicity, nature and anti-industrialism but these have always been short-lived. Aside from the constant temptation to re-join mainstream society the greatest problem they have faced is one of generational rebellion. Our society is one that glorifies revolt, unconventionality, innovation and originality; while this was necessary for the overthrow of the entrenched traditional ideals that culminated in the dysfunction of the Victorian age it has since hampered any attempts to replace those traditions with an equally resilient, but yet non-repressive, system. What anyone who attempts to engage in utopian dreaming needs to realize is that rebellion, revolution, can never be an end in and of itself, the Maoist idea of permanent revolution is the path to total societal destruction (as was experienced during the Great Cultural Revolution, which continues to haunt the Chinese psyche). Thus somewhere in this account there must be the creation of a tradition, a strong, enduring social order that children feel neither the desire not the imperative to revolt against. This might seem impossible to the modern reader, as we equate the teenage years with rebellion; but as someone who has observed, because of his upbringing in the current society (and perhaps his nature), a tendency to rebel against any idea he has heard enough times, it is absolutely necessary to avoid this pattern of thinking.
The basic function of a society is the propagation of the human race, and thus the most essential system of society is its life-cycle, the expected path of its children from birth to old-age and death. But before this kind of description some background must be given regarding the geographic basis of the proposed society. This essay will presume that the region inhabited is temperate, forested, at least somewhat mountainous and sparsely populated. Alaska and Western Canada between the 65th and 55th parallels being perhaps the best example of this. The basic communal structure of the society is a small to medium sized village, the exact population of which would be heavily dependent upon the resources of the region, which will be henceforth referred to as the Polis, in the manner of the Ancient Greek philosophers (certain similarities between this Polis and the Polis of Sparta need not be denied, the reforms of Lycurgas were among the most direct inspirations for this train of thought). The life of a member of said Polis begins when he or she is born to a married couple (man and woman) living and working in the community. Their lifestyle is one of the settled hunter-gatherer, depending on subsistence farming for their staples but still engaging in hunting and foraging. From birth until the age of five the child is the responsibility of his or her parents, although assistance from other member of the community, specifically older (post-menopausal) and likely parental members is assumed. Between the ages of five and sixteen the child is educated communally, in a largely informal but extremely rigorous manner, the child continues to live with his or her parents but most, if not all of their waking time is spent with his or her peers away from the home and their biological parents. This education takes two forms: physical and mental, neither being favored over the other. Physical education consists of the skills necessary to survive in the wilds and involves both physical conditioning and skill acquisition (both practical: tracking, designing shelter; and theoretical: mathematics, biology etc.). Mental education follows, somewhat vaguely, the classical form - Philosophy, the love of wisdom. Put more concretely - how to think. This would involve training in thought (or logic - what is generally thought of as philosophy), literature, and history.
Upon a child’s 16th birthday her or she becomes an adult and the male and female paths diverge, the young man is cast out of the Polis and forbidden to return for four years, if he survives he may return and marry. The young women remains in the Polis for an indefinite period of time (at least two years) until she is wed to a returning man. Her education however, is not over. For at least two years, more often four to six, she is trained in one of the advanced crafts: farming, herding, tanning, sewing, metallurgy, word-working, music and the fine arts being among them. The intent of this division is two-fold, first it aims to get young men, restless and potentially rebellious, out of communal life. No demographic has the potential for societal destruction of young men, whether their efforts are directed toward their peers, specifically their female peers, or their elders the results are never good for the community; the only way to avoid this pattern without intense repression during early youth is to literally expel them, force them to ‘make their way in the world’ or die. Ideally this would be seen as a test of manhood and not as a hostile rejection and young men would be eager to pass into this phase. For the path of a young women the intent is somewhat more complicated; anyone with a knowledge of modern feminist theory would point out, quite accurately, that this sort of society would tend toward paternalism and male-dominance. Men, after learning how to survive in the wilds and returning to claim their just reward, would see their wife as somewhat inferior, a very valuable possession, but a possession regardless. The extra education for women is aimed to minimize this, despite his superior skill in hunting and general wood-lore a man would need the skills, not just the womb, of a women to procreate effectively. In this society women would be the primary artisans, and thus would not fall into the place of a second-class citizen and would never be subservient to men.
One could claim that this dilemma would be entirely avoided if only young women too, having received the same training up until that point, were cast out; for women are certainly just as capable as men of tracking large game or operating a crossbow. This however, would jeopardize the survival of the society. It is assumed in this system that some of the young men who are cast out would never return, killed by starvation, exposure or larger predators; this is accepted not only because it functions to weed out the weak and incapable, those who would be a burden to the Polis rather than an asset, but because it maintains a high ratio of women to men, which would compensate for the inevitable child-bearing related deaths. Maintaining this ratio is much more than a matter of convenience, the growth of a society is a function of the number of women and societies with an excess of men tend to be very violent and unstable (much of medieval european history is an excellent example effect these measures attempt to avoid).
After marriage the newly wed couple would return to the wilderness and live there, alone or in small communities, until the wife becomes pregnant, at which time they would return to the Polis for the raising of their children. This time apart is meant, aside from further avoiding the problems of unoccupied young men, to solidify their relationship; forced to live together without refuge or die the couple’s bond would ideally become strong enough to last until death. While this is partially to compensate for the comparatively minimal time they would have spent together between the man’s return and their marriage (no more than a month or two) it is also to avoid the blight of divorce that seems today as intractable as juvenal delinquency. After their child-bearing years were over an older couple would have the choice to remain in the Polis and continue in an increasingly advising capacity or return to the wilderness.
While life outside the Polis, as that of the young man or young couple, would be relatively simple, nomadic hunting and gathering, life in the Polis requires additional explanation. Following the Spartan model members of the Polis would eat two meals a day together, this would help to create a communal spirit and avoid factionalizing and isolation. This, and several other measure, are meant to deny a more economically successful couple any means of expressing superiority. The most powerful of these is collectivization, two thirds of all food and other materials gathered, hunted, or farmed would be collected, one third for immediate use in communal dining and one third for winter or other times of famine. Necessitated by this practice would be some sort of authority structure, decided annually and by lot. Two Overseers would be picked from different families in the adult population of the Polis to regulate collection and distribution. In addition to these a Judge would be selected, likewise by lot, to mediate any disputes, once appealed to his or her decision would be final; these decision would be enforced, if necessary, by two Officers, one appointed by each Overseer. If the Polis were ever to be threatened by an external force these Officers would be responsible for defense, and therefore should be male, as they would be better trained for combat through their experience hunting and tracking in the wilderness. Above all of these positions would be the Archon, the oldest member of the Polis, who would be responsible for major decisions and to whom the Overseers and Judge would answer.
All of this in place, a number of issues remain; principally how, and if, such a society could be implemented. This kind of utopian theorizing ranges somewhere between pointless and totally ridiculous if it has no relevance to our actions today and obviously this particular ideal is of no use, as Plato or More’s utopias, as some sort of metaphor or model to strive for. Either it can exist, and we should go off into the wilderness and create it, or it can’t, and all of this has been a pointless exercise in rhetoric and reasoning. The most problematic issue is that traditional societies, as this one would be, cannot co-exist with modern society, even if adults cling to the “old” ways the young are always drawn to a easier, more immediately appealing, life. Societies that resemble the one described here all over the world have been destroyed and absorbed by civilization whenever they encounter it. Their fates have varied from invasions by anthropologists and missionaries to open violent to simple, gradual absorption, in which the way of life that makes them unique disappears over the course of a few generations until it is nothing but an artistic aesthetic and an ancestry box to be checked on government surveys. To avoid this, total, or near total, isolation would be a prerogative, cultural exchange of any kind would have to be avoided.
A less conventional issue in “traditional” society is one of implementation. A planned society will always be somewhat artificial and thus will never have the strength of thousands of years of custom. While this would likely be a problem for only the first two or three generations of the Polis it would be a very difficult one to overcome. Tradition is validated by history, the less history an idea has the easier it is to reject, and as of this moment this vision has less than 24 hours of history. Instilling in a generation an ideal that they (the previous generation) admittedly made up, especially when such a thing required them to separate themselves from all other humans for years at a time (a trial their mentors may or may not have undergone themselves) would be difficult.
On a more theoretical note the very notion of planning society has intrinsic problems. According to Kaczynski’s Third Principle of History “If a change is made that is large enough to alter permanently a long-term trend, then the consequences for the society as a whole cannot be predicted in advance.” In other words, complications would surely arise that would challenge the “traditional” societal structure. Not the least among them being what exactly four years alone in the wilderness would do to a 16 year old youth and whether they would be willing to subject their children to the same test. And once the culture begins to disintegrate the individual’s clear, direct and appealing path (the creation of which was the goal of the entire exercise) would be lost. The world would still be a confusing and ultimately unlivable place and if the children of a planned society are ever planning for themselves their own utopias, their own escapes from the world in which they live, the plan can officially be said to have failed.

For a full understanding of the motives behind this ideal consult the following texts

Industrial Society And Its Future (The Unabomber Manifesto) - Ted Kaczynski
The Spartans - Paul Cartledge
Into The Wild - Jon Krakauer
What Is Ancient Philosophy? - Pierre Hadot
Fight Club - Chuck Palahniuk
The Athenian Constitution - Aristotle


  1. Your essay is pointless, as you said, given the conditions in the world today. However, if/when civilization collapses your model of society will become a viable option. The issue of controlling the rebellious nature of young men is important to the success of any society. Ghengas Khan dealt with this by sending young men to battle foreign societies, thus keeping them from insurrections at home. Another thing he did was to establish women as keepers of treasures, books, and fire. This kept women equal to men.

    Another note. When the Spanish were exploring and conquering Central and South America there tended to be limit to the size of a viable community - about 60. As communities grew larger, the need for resources outstripped the ability to acquire them locally and so, they relied on support from outside or died.

    I wonder how the Amish society compares with the one you describe. Ah, more research!

  2. Hackenflash - I don't believe I know you, but I feel I should offer some response regardless. There appears to have been a misunderstanding, resulting largely from an inadequate statement of premise. I do not believe in attempts to improve the world, to institute change on a wide scale. I will never propose a plan for how anyone but myself should live. The conditions of the world today (overpopulated and technologically advanced) are thus irrelevant to this sort of theorizing, this society is not intended to be a viable option for the population at large, it is simply, as I stated, a society in which I would want to live. And there is still plenty of space for such a thing to exist even if civilization does not collapse in the near future (though I fervently hope it will).