re: Mumford, utopias, whole systems, and community


Richard Moore


From: “Revin Floyd”
Date: 3 September 2009 02:25:24 IST
Subject: RE: cyberjournal posting

For a non-fiction book on ideas:
Alex Osborn coined the term “Brainstorming.” An eternally optimistic ad man, Alex is inspiring. Too bad he had to go to work for the likes of Standard Oil… One excellent book I’ve read probably four times over, “Your Creative Power – How To Use Imagination” is available free online at
From: “laurence”
Date: 3 September 2009 08:48:26 IST
Subject: Re: cyberjournal posting

Hi Richard,
It is during this period [1920s] that one of the most insightful book was writen : “Conviviality” by Ivan Illich, it is also around this period that a real genius, Maria Montessori had incredible insights on how learning processes actually work… Two great names indeed….
One of the utopian themes Mumford talks about are partisan utopias. An example would be socialism. The characteristic of a partisan utopian vision is that it isn’t really about creating a new kind of society, but rather about shifting around the pieces of the current system a bit, to make it more fair or whatever. Thus socialism doesn’t question the virtue of the industrial-production, wage-employment, resource-exploitation system, but aims to redistribute the wealth more evenly. The adjective partisan, I believe, refers to the fact that the presentation of the vision amounts to a political act, arguing for a change that could plausibly be achieved through current legislative action. 
Mumford contrasts these kinds of utopias with some of the classical ones, such as Plato’s Republic. In the Republic, for example, a whole picture is presented, of how society would be governed, how people would be educated, how the economy would function, what civil society would be like, etc. It’s a whole coherent vision, perhaps similar to what exists in many ways, but with some radical changes and with its own internal consistency. It describes a transformation of society, rather than an alteration
I see a lot of the partisan utopian proposals these days on the net. For example, there is something called the social credit movement. These folks have a particular proposal for financial reform, along the lines of distributing money to the population based on the wealth created in the nation. It’s a reasonable proposal, and I’m not doing it justice here in my over-brief summary. I have no problem with it as a desirable reform proposal. It is however an example of one of these partisan utopian visions.
And in this case, the partisan aspect is very evident. I presented my own economic ideas to some of these people, my development model. They were very adamant about how their proposal was the only reasonable way to proceed. Rather than their proposal being an idea, that could be discussed along with other ideas, it has become a cause, a specific movement – either you’re with us or against us kind of thing.
     I don’t mean to single out the social credit people. The same thing happens with all sorts of reform ideas. For some, the only way forward is financial reform, for others it’s election reform, or end of corporate personhood, media reform, initiatives and referendums, etc. etc. 
Mumford sounds very modern in the way he talks about whole systems, and how everything needs to be considered together, if we want to come up with useful utopian visions. I think this becomes particularly important if we want to talk about how a transformational vision might actually be achieved.
In the past I’ve referred to partisan proposals as magic bullet ideas. If only we could pass this one piece of legislation, we’d catch the establishment off guard and everything would be better. This way of thinking is like the thing they tell children: it’s easy to catch a pigeon, all you have to do is put salt on its tail. Right, if you get close enough to put salt on its tail, you could have grabbed it instead. If we could pass one of these magic-bullet bills – one powerful enough to make a real difference – the system would need to already change before that. Such a bill can’t be passed the way the media and political system operate. 
     The Federal Reserve Act was an example of a magic-bullet piece of legislation, but it was the people and their elected representatives who were caught off guard, not the establishment elite. The sun never sets on their eyes and ears.
I was very pleased by the way Mumford mentions the community a lot, and sees it as a touchstone for examining utopian ideas. He brings in community casually, as a common sense observation – that the real meaning of any utopian vision can be seen in what it would be like to live in a community in that utopia. After all, we all live in a community, and if our community isn’t going to be what we want, is it really all that useful that the society as a whole has changed in some beneficial way? Perhaps it might be useful, but we aren’t really talking about a utopia, something really worth working for, if it isn’t what we want where we live
In my own work, I first came to see community as being central from a political-science perspective.  If we want to have democracy, then we need to know what the will of the people is. But what is the will of the people? The fact is that no such thing exists. We have individuals with ideas, and we have factions with programs. There’s no mechanism for the people as a whole to create or articulate a shared agenda, an inclusive agenda. 
     It seems self-evident to me that if a means is to be found for the will of the people to come into existence, that means must operate at the local level, in the community, where the scale is small, the inherently shared interests are maximized, and people can interact on a face-to-face, ongoing basis. At a minimum, we can say with certainty, that if the will of the people cannot be brought into existence at the community level, it certainly cannot be brought into existence at any larger level.
Later on, I also came to see community as being central to popular mobilization for change. The model of change-oriented organizations, with members sprinkled throughout society, leads to divisiveness – Republicans vs Democrats, environmentalists vs. unions, or whatever. In this model, activist movements cancel out one another. If whole communities can mobilize around an agenda, we have a hope of avoiding divisiveness. 
Community also becomes central in the thinking that has been done about sustainability. Communities, and the communities within a bioregion, give us the natural scale at which we can begin to achieve sustainability. 
Also, from the perspective of transformation as a general principle, community is a natural focus. If a system is to be really transformed, into a new kind of system, it has to be built from the bottom up. You can’t turn a horse cart into an automobile by changing it; you need to build an automobile as a new thing, with new operating principles, new materials, etc. etc. That’s why the butterfly is such a good metaphor for transformation. The caterpillar needs to dissolve down to its constituent proteins, before it can be regenerated as a butterfly. Our communities are society’s constituent proteins. 
To these perspectives, Mumford adds community as criteria: quality of community as a measure of quality of transformational vision.