Utopia, Anno 2017 – Catalonia And Brexit

Utopia

 

During the UK referendum campaign, the Leave camp’s arguments for leaving the European Union  focused on, (i) a full economic recovery only made possible outside the EU, (ii) close to zero immigration and, (iii) a financed healthcare system. Whilst a non negligible proportion of the Brexit voters are clearly isolationist and/or xenophobic, I do believe that one characteristic linked together all the “moderate” Brexit voters: what if they were all dreamers wishing to live in a “realistic Utopia”, outside the EU, without poverty and hardship, where everybody would be cared for? 

The recent referendum in Catalonia, although “unofficial”, also shows that many people want to live in Utopia – detached from the real world –  that Voltaire would have described as, “le meilleur des mondes” (the best of the worlds”).

Thomas More (1478-1535) was an English lawyer, social philosopher, humanist and councilor to Henry VIII. He wrote “Utopia” in 1516, an account of the political and social system of an imaginary far off island, although it is debated whether he actually agreed with the ideas presented in his work. For refusing to acknowledge Henry VIII as the supreme head of the Church Of England, Thomas More was executed in July 1535.

“It is the fear of want that makes any of the whole race of animals either greedy or ravenous; but, besides fear, there is in man a pride that makes him fancy it a particular glory to excel others in pomp and excess; but by the laws of the Utopians, there is no room for this.”  –  Thomas More, Utopia. 

People fear for the future, worry about the present, and regret the past

We all have dreams about who we would like to be, what we would like to do, and what sort of world we would like to live in. Most of us don’t manage to make our dreams come true and although we try to get as close to our ideal as we can, we can live with our shortcomings. Of course, whether you can make your dream come true rather depends on what you are dreaming about. Ask the impossible, and the chances are that you won’t get it. The problems arise if you fall so short of your dream that you start to wonder if you’re not living a nightmare. Add to that an alienated world, and you probably will live in constant fear of the future, worry about the present, and may even regret the past.

Cover of Utopia, 1516

It is now 500 years since the English lawyer and philosopher Sir Thomas More wrote an account of a distant island called “Utopia”. This is an island where no lawyers are required because the laws are so simple to understand, and money does not exist as people share the fruits of their labours. All religions are tolerated and even women can become priests. Towns and cities are identically built, and the Utopians all dress in the same way. What is even more remarkable is that the Utopians are not obsessed with wealth and possessions, for there are none. This eliminates wanting more to satisfy one’s greediness and vanity whilst, at the same time, curing the anxiety associated with want and uncertainty. All is provided for in the Utopian commonwealth.

The fact that money does not exist in Utopia eliminates all forms of inequalities between citizens and also cures anxiety. The latter is not only a direct consequence of the need to earn a living in order to survive, but also relates to freedom of choice. We are all free to live our lives the way we choose to, and to improve our “standard” of living. But who defines what this standard should be and how far our lives should “improve”? We are constantly submerged by images and messages pertaining to an ideal that most of us cannot reach, and that may not even be necessary. An “ideal” life is suggested to us, and whilst some of us have the finances to carry out all or most of these suggestions, a large proportion of the less well off do not.  This is where the problem lies, especially in the UK. The discrepancy between the affluent and the less fortunate has become dangerously insurmountable over the last 50 years.  Those who cannot fulfill the choice of life that they feel entitled to, become depressed and direct their anger against those who, in their eyes, have “succeeded” where they have failed. The danger lies in the fact that those who cannot follow the glossy adverts are more likely to follow the charismatic demagogues.

A tale of two states as told by the Ancient Greeks:

Plato and Aristotle

Plato (left) is an idealist as shown by his right hand pointing towards the heavens. Aristotle (right) is more “down to earth” in his thoughts, as his right arm suggests (from “The School of Athens” – Caravaggio)

Thomas More was not the first thinker to depict an “ideal state”. In his dialogue “The Republic”, Plato describes what is, in his eyes, the perfect state.

The state that Plato describes is an aristocratic one consisting of a ruling class comprising “philosopher-kings”, their auxiliaries whose job it is to enforce the laws established by the rulers, and…everybody else. The latter would be allowed to own property and produce their own goods, but would also have to provide for their rulers who are forbidden to own anything at all. In a later dialogue, “The Laws”, Plato admits that private ownership of land and houses was necessary because people found it hard to manage their affairs in common. However, private property must be still be considered as belonging to the “common good” and remain extremely limited and regulated. Plato’s reasoning was that in the absence of personal possessions such as property,  rulers would not be tempted to act in a way that would promote their personal interests (never happens does it?).

But who were the philosophy-kings apt to rule the ideal state? For Plato, the ruler must be a man of selfless character and irreproachable soul, with no lust for wealth, fame and power. He must be dedicated to establishing “Good” in the state based on Platonic Ideas, the absolute truth. This just about eliminates every single politician currently in office. The recent example of former French budget minister, Jerome Cahuzac, being sentenced for tax fraud, the very thing he was fighting against, illustrates perfectly Plato’s thoughts.

“Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils—nor the human race, as I believe—and then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day.”  Plato  – The Republic.

“The process of exchange has its origin in a state of affairs often to be found in nature, namely, too much here and not enough there.” Aristotle, The Politics.

Aristotle was a pupil under Plato, and was greatly influenced by his views. This did not stop him from criticizing Plato’s vision of an ideal state in The Politics. Aristotle’s argument was that if you privately own something, you’re more likely to look after it properly. However, even for Aristotle, ownership must be morally just and regulated by sound laws. In our modern cities, the fact that people are more likely to drop litter in the street than in their front gardens, may be more related to their morality than on the fact that they don’t “own” the street.

As for wealth, Aristotle condemns “money-making” for its own sake, leading to unlimited riches. This, he writes, belongs to commercial activity and not state management. Currencies were initially devised as a convenient means for exchanging goods and property  necessary for providing a “good life”. Wealth remains a “collection of tools” and is limited in its usage. Accumulating money for its own sake is “confusing the tools with the job”.

“A shoe may be used either to put on your foot or to offer in exchange…for even he that gives a shoe to someone who requires a shoe, and receives in exchange cash or food, is making use of that shoe, but not the use proper to it, for a shoe is not expressly made for exchange purposes. ” Aristotle – The Politics.

Utopia and Europa

A large proportion of the UK electorate voted against the EU in order to sanction the elite rulers  in Westminster, and no one else. That the UK will now leave the EU is an unfortunate consequence of the vote. The fact that the only arguments that the Remain camp could come up with were financial ones, only fueled the resentment of the “ordinary man in the street”, if there is such a description.

Whether the UK is in the EU or not doesn’t change the fact that the grossly unequal distribution of wealth remains unhealthy and dangerous for the country as a whole. This question must be addressed not only in the UK but also in other European countries. The growing number of people who can be described  as being poor is a cause for concern.

In Plato’s Republic and More’s Utopia, money has little value when compared to morality.

“Then our job as founders… is to compel the best natures to go to the study which we were saying before is the greatest, to see the good and to go up that assent…” Plato – The Republic.

For Plato and Aristotle, citizens should be encouraged to strive for moral excellency, and that alone will lead to happiness. A noble thought, applicable no doubt in the far off island of Utopia, but will that help the hard-up in the UK pay their mortgage and buy the latest iPhone they saw advertised and cannot resist?

Résumé

Il a y 500 ans, l’humaniste anglais Thomas More nous a décrit dans « L’Utopie »  l’organisation sociale, politique et économique d’une ile lointaine. L’idée de décrire une société « idéale » n’était pas nouvelle. Dans la Grèce antique, Platon (« La République » et « Les Lois ») et Aristote (« Le Politique ») avaient  abordé ce sujet.

Lors du référendum du 23 Juin sur le maintien du Royaume-Uni au sein de l’Union européenne, les opposants ont basé leurs arguments sur 3 thèmes majeurs : une croissance économique assurée en dehors de l’UE,  le contrôle des frontières, et un financement du service de santé avec des fonds provenant de la contribution annuelle à l’UE.

Il est clair qu’un pourcentage non négligeable des votes pour le « Brexit » provient de personnes xénophobes et isolationnistes. Mais que dire des votants plus modérés?

Je suis persuadé que la majeure partie du vote contre l’UE provient de « rêveurs utopiens », convaincus de la possibilité d’un monde meilleur en dehors de l’UE. Ce monde serait caractérisé par une croissance économique sans précédant, une forte réduction du taux d’immigration et un système de santé entièrement financé.  Comme sur l’ile décrite par More, chacun y retrouverait son compte.

Le rôle néfaste que joue l’argent de nos jours n’est pas étranger à cette situation. Nous sommes tous envahis par des images et conseils nous disant ce que devrait  être une « vie bonne », mais directement liée à une consommation de plus en plus incontrôlée. Ceci est source de frustration et de colère pour ceux qui n’ont pas les moyens financiers de s’offrir une vie à laquelle ils se sentent avoir droit. Mais qui décide ce qu’est une « vie bonne », les medias ou la conscience individuelle? Il est certain que les personnes ne pouvant suivre les « conseils » médiatiques sont plus aptes à suivre les démagogues charismatiques.

 Dans l’ile d écrite par More, l’argent n’a pas sa place, ainsi que la propriété. Dans nos mondes, le besoin des uns et l’appétit incontrôlé des autres  font apparaitre un gouffre énorme entre infortunés et la classe dite « élitiste ». Ces divergences sont source de mécontentement, de jalousie, et de désir de « vengeance politique ».

 Ce qui rend les animaux en général cupides et rapaces, c’est la crainte des privations à venir. Chez l’homme en particulier, il existe une autre cause d’avarice, l’orgueil, qui le porte à surpasser ses égaux en opulence et à les éblouir par l’étalage d’un riche superflu. Mais les institutions utopiennes rendent ce vice impossible.  – Thomas More, L’Utopie

Pour Platon, et surtout Aristote, le droit à la propriété ne peut pas être complètement supprimé de la société. Il est cependant nécessaire qu’il reste strictement contrôlé et assujetti à des lois justes et morales. Ainsi, pour Aristote, un soulier n’est pas fait pour être vendu mais pour être chaussé. L’argent doit être considéré comme un outil pour obtenir ce dont on a besoin, et non pas une fin en soi. Il ne faut pas confondre l’outil avec la besogne.

Pour les Anciens, chaque citoyen doit être encouragé à atteindre  « l’excellence morale », bien plus importante que les richesses, et synonyme d’une « vie bonne ». Cette notion noble a bien sa place sur l’ile de More ou dans l’état de Platon. Mais que dire de l’infortuné de nos cités qui ne peut plus payer ces loyers, ni s’offrir le dernier iPhone qu’il ne peut pas résister?

 

 

 

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