Utopia & Uchronia

Utopia was a juxtaposition of the conspiracy thriller. Named after the Utopia Experiments, an in-story zine that documented and predicted a series of pandemics and diseases that afflicted human and animal demographics, it presented the existence of a shadow network (The Network) of scientists, politicians, intelligence agents and sleeper cells attempting to prevent the exposure of the second Utopia Experiments while at the same time directing public health policies toward an outcome of mass sterilisation.

As revealed in the second season, Philip Carvel and Milner began the construction of a bio-intelligence apparatus due to shared concerns/beliefs around overpopulation. The Utopia Experiments were themselves descriptions and predictions of population-limiting events that could adequately deal with overpopulation through culls and controls. This culminated in the propagation of Janus, spreading in industrially farmed corn and through vaccines. For the latter, a fake Russian flu panic was created which would require mass vaccination to prevent pandemic spread. Within the vaccine was a substance that would sterilise all who received it, with limited immunity to this sterilisation based on pre-selected genetic and demographic characteristics.

However the conspiracists were never truly in control, instead worshipping at the feet of a viral agent/deity and using the skeleton of a security apparatus as the means for asserting their (limited) power. Indeed they were subverted by their own creations, Carvel’s children and their torture victims. Carvel himself sabotaged the vaccine, limiting immunity to only Gypsies and thereby limiting or deconstructing the population-control the Network desired. The irony came when one of the Network’s victims, Wilson, became convinced of the righteousness of the project’s initial ideals, taking over the project from Milner and Carvel and becoming the eponymous Mr. Rabbit, declaring that Janus can be done better next time.

Utopia expressed the utopic as the assertion of an overarching control of the apocalyptic, a totality within grasp, yet the reality of their extensions of power was the emergence of their creations extending beyond them. In juxtaposing the conspiracy, the Network has created a broken mirror, with each piece beginning to stare back at it as their plans move forward. In constructing a complex, multifaceted plan for the spread of Janus, developing a shadow security network beyond the reproach of any official power, the ultimate conspiracy is realised. They can doctor images, control news outputs, direct policy and ultimately regulate the perception of reality. However in creating a shadow structure, they also produce cracks and fragments that move beyond the structure’s control (thus the broken mirror). In attempting to reflect an omnipotent power, they refract opposition into the very areas it cannot fully see or comprehend. The emotive response of Carvel in tampering with Janus, having a change of heart upon the birth of his daughter. The breakdown of Arby as he becomes an agent beyond the Network’s control. The production of a second Utopia manuscript. The constant unpredictability of each character as their motivations move through the flux of Janus’s implementation. In constructing the perfect apparatus, they constructed imperfect and autonomous agencies that can exploit their blind spots.

As a wider analysis of utopia as a subject of political ontology, imagery and power, Utopia serves as an interesting critique of the limits of totalities. A comparison to the COVID pandemic would be too obvious, however a better comparison can be seen in the imaginaries they produce. The Network produced the utopic imaginary of a delimited demography, preventing the potential ecological crisis of overpopulation. Coronavirus presents a blank slate, a canvas upon which new futures can quickly be painted. The old world is dead as coronavirus has rewritten the rules, making neoliberalism redundant and obsolete. Zizek posits as much in his response to the pandemic, seeing communism as the only viable path forward. Narratives around the return of the state or a great reset show similar dynamics from an alternate ideological position, situating a post-neoliberal capitalism with greater state planning as the best mechanism for controlling globalised flows (of information, trade and finance) and planning for exogenous crises (pandemics, debt crises and climate change). The situation of a pre-constructed agency defines these trajectories, as crises potentiate the (re)emergence of agential situations and structures, neither constructing a futurity nor positing a response to the contingencies of existing reality.

I have made a similar criticism of Negarestani’s engineering epistemology[1], as it doesn’t appear to deal with the entropic variable of conceptual breakdown when faced with the outside of alternative perspectives/agencies. Invoking Boyd’s ideas of destructive deduction and constructive induction is appropriate in reframing this engineering abduction as conceptual frameworks don’t just evolve upward in complexity, but peak and trough as they interact with different quanta of forces (as per Nietzsche). “This dynamic of destruction and creation (‘the process of Structure, Unstructure, Restructure, Unstructure, Restructure is repeated endlessly’) allows us to map out features of our decisional environment even as those features change rapidly around us”. However “‘any inward-oriented and continued effort to improve the match-up of concept with observed reality will only increase the degree of mismatch,’ because relational systems like concepts and observations, each refining the other in a closed loop, generate entropy. Entropy increases in closed systems”[2]. Conceptual frameworks cannot simply posit the existence of an ever-present variable that provides the definitive characteristics. Each variable must interact with outside forces and new forms of information, integrating or opposing them which then changes the framework as it adapts.

The utopic position contains the flaw of a pre-constructed futurity, an ever-expanding praxis that can delineate the existing system and construct a new hegemony. A limited perspectivism is developed, which sees its ontological and epistemological assumptions as key variables in the implementation of wider conceptual frameworks. Srnicek & Williams posit the utopic as the production of a society without struggle, one where struggle isn’t the prevailing medium for meaning. “It manipulates and modifies our desires and feelings, at both conscious and pre-conscious levels”[3]. But this potential to manipulate and modify isn’t simply a linear dynamic toward the construction of a pliant agency. It can intend opposition and ambivalence as much as it propounds action and counter-hegemony.

This issue can be seen in their proposal for a post-work society. While sympathetic with this aim when it comes to the unnecessary drudgery of modern work, the capacity to infuse meaning through work isn’t simply a creation of capitalist dynamics, but a feature of systems of meaning throughout human life. The symbiotic relationship of the structure of societal work and the individual capacity to interpret and integrate it is fundamental to creating concepts of meaning. As Hazell notes[4] in reinterpreting Marx’s concept of alienation, the alienation of work is not just that of the drudgery of modern working conditions, but the very act of removing the link between work and labour, or between struggle and achievement. In abstracting labour in industrial production systems, alienation occurs at the macroscopic in the creation of a capitalist system (with attendant enclosures, rigorization and disconnection) and at the microscopic in the destruction and revaluation of meaning through work.

The utopic attempt to remove struggle is simply the attempt to instantiate a devalued mechanism of meaning, one that is as much an outgrowth of capitalist dynamics of alienation as it is a limited horizon for socio-political cohesion/consolidation. A world without struggle is meaningless, in that labour is not the only form of struggle or suffering that can potentiate new or existing lifeworlds. It is ironic that they discuss the production of a utopia through struggle, sacrifice and crisis (which are prerequisites for any counter-hegemonic project) but then produce an administrative workaround for how society will be structured after the struggle. The culmination of utopia is the production of a dynamic entirely at odds with the production of its initial conditions, as the post-hegemonic position recreates the secular fantasy of a world at its endpoint, a true end to history.

Similar utopic projects suffer the same issue. Basic income suggests the possibility for a pacifying societal mechanism that can adequately compensate everyone for their unpaid labour, prevent exploitation and delink living from working. But the potential for this to radically disrupt systems of meaning, or inflame class tensions, is as much an outcome as the listed benefits, with meaning imbued with work as a primary ontological requirement in how humans interact with technology and how they interact with each other. Marx’s alienation is about how labour is reconstructed through industrial processes, disconnecting the gestalt of work and output as both are modulated through the prism of the factory or the office. Basic income could further this function, imbuing alienation with greater strength as the connection between work and output is further abstracted, replacing one system of meaning not necessarily with another but with a void. Equally a system of basic income is easily sublimated to an evolved of system of capital, replacing or modifying the welfare state with a mechanism that can parasitise on subsidised forms of labour, much as modern capitalism still uses and exploits non or extra-capitalistic modes of production and exchange.

This is not meant to valorise so-called traditional methods of working nor ideas of struggle, but rather to recognise that in constructing new forms of being that extend outwards into the real world, they will create dislocations and alienations of their own, conflicting with established forms of perspective or agency. Looking at Piaget’s or Dabrowski’s developmental psychology, they talk about stages of development in understanding advanced heuristics, moving from lower stage egoisms to higher stage systematic thinking. I find the developmental aspect unconvincing (as well as regressive as it creates a simplistic hierarchy of psychological development), however using these stages as perspectival lenses instead prises out different lifeworld understandings.

Taking Piaget’s stage 3 as a communalistic lens that analyses the world through relational variables (particularly in concepts like community or locality), this is a useful heuristic in a less globalised situation where local connections and limited network effects are prevalent. As complexity grows through greater information and intercursive flows (particularly of trade, knowledge, warfare, etc.), stage 4 thinking becomes more prevalent as autonomous systems develop that take people beyond a communalist perspective. This would represent a systematic lens. How these then interact creates both opportunities for the building of integrative conceptual systems as well as for conflicts as complexity becomes too great to fully understand/conceptualise. David Chapman presents healthcare[5] as a good example of these conflictual dynamics, as healthcare at its base is premised on a communalistic perspective around personal and palliative care. However the procurement of evermore complex pharmaceutical products and the growth in populations requires a systematic lens to organise such complexity for resource provision. These then clash as care itself becomes a commodity in the flows of a wider healthcare system which must be priced and insured. In other words, the growth of autonomous complexity (through systems and meta-systems) necessitates both the construction of greater heuristics while also presenting the means through which they can be conflicted and de-complexified, much as Boyd posits, and thus setting limits on the extent of potential constructability.

In a utopic understanding, this then questions the underlying assumptions and variables that make up these ideological and counter-hegemonic assemblages. Virilio noted that the acceleration of history is not now towards utopia, but uchronia as we interact with virtual times and speeds of perspective[6]. The future is cut off not because of a lack of alternatives, but because of the radical contingency that any alternative must face. In constructing alternative timelines, we can present a history to be that encapsulates these pre-constructed agencies and systems, whether they be Zizek’s post-COVID communism or a post-neoliberal capitalism. Srnicek & Williams’ invocation of Chile’s Cybersyn project as a potential counter-hegemonic system is revealing in how it glosses over the affects of US imperialism and the gremios who disrupted it. The development of a counter-hegemony must inevitably face opposition and engage in conflict, and in the case of Allende’s socialism it failed to tackle both the exogenous effects of the US state department and intelligence agencies (through the lens of the Cold War) and the endogenous crises brought about by truckers and landowners who represented the petit-bourgeoisie and latifundia, respectively. In glossing over this, they present their own uchronia of what-might-have-been.

There needs to be a recognition of the contingency of politics and its extensions into the future. There is no necessity that the successor ideology or system to capitalism be egalitarian or communalistic. It could equally be fascistic, logistical or imperial in its governing logics and methods of constructing being and agency. The oppositions and crises do not simply go away once a foothold of political power has been gained. They can be integrated or opposed but they can always challenge a new order. And they must deal not just with these all-too-human political structures, but with autonomous forms of agency that emerge from the actions and interactions of systems, whether these be capital, technology, information or some other contingent force that attempts to delineate, obstruct or infiltrate counter-hegemonic/utopic projects.

This is not to say utopian thought is unnecessary or pointless. Indeed it is necessary to the conception and assembling of counter-hegemonic and alteric forces that can challenge existing structures and posit new methods of action. Rather it is to recognise that a key quality of any movement of alterity is the maintenance of resilience and anti-fragility, or in other words making sure the building blocks are still maintained despite the challenges to these projects. Looking at things like Cybersyn shows the limits of such projects when grounded in purely utopic means, as they fail to see or combat their oppositions adequately. The construction of any system portends the development of its own alterities, its own refractions. Failing to deal with these simply moves these projects from utopian possibilities to uchronic abstractions that exist in their own eternal recurrence.

[1] https://thelibertarianideal.com/2021/02/21/unknown-unknowns/

[2] https://syntheticzero.net/2021/03/08/gray-sky-thinking-john-boyds-entropy-machine/

[3] Alex Williams & Nick Srnicek, Inventing the Future

[4] Clive Hazell, Alterity

[5] https://meaningness.com/metablog/post-apocalyptic-health-care

[6] Paul Virilio, Ground Zero

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