The long shadow of the Gulag

In a remarkable, recent paper, two researchers can show that in and around the camps where there were more “enemies of the people” – highly educated academics and artists – growth today is higher and creativity is flourishing. It is both a testament to the resilience of human beings and how creative people bring value and a grim reminder of the echoes of the Gulag that we can still hear in local economies.

And the Gulag was vast. Lest we forget, the authors show a map of the different camps:

Since many stayed in the areas to which they had been relocated, the research argues, we can see how those groups affected the local economies and cultures – how they boosted their development.

Read more here.

Utopias

I attended an interesting seminar on utopias a few days back. The seminar has stuck with me for a couple of reasons. One is that I do not think Utopias matter much to us anymore in the West, we have converged on a single scenario for the future that does not really graduate to a full Utopia, and it is captured in the hopeless phrase “making the world a better place“.

The idea of creating a heaven on Earth or radically re-thinking human society is very different. More’s Utopia – written half in jest, I think – was in a sense a therapy against the idea that there would be such a thing as the best place. Utopias remind us of their own internal inconsistencies, the fact that they are unable to exist in time and evolve. Utopias are end points, not unlike death or the thermo-dynamic dissipation of heat into an even distribution at the end of time.

But this is but half a thought. If utopias are unable to organize us against the future, then what is it that we relate to? I gave a small intervention at the seminar, where I tried to dig into (with varied success it must be said) what the opposites, the antonyms, of “utopia” is.

The usual candidates are things like other utopias or dystopias, but all utopias are the same – they are end points – and a dystopia is merely a utopia seen from another aspect. Just like the duck-rabbit all utopias, understood the right way, are also dystopias.

The duck-rabbit. Utopias and dystopias are just like this; and the fanatic is aspect blind.

A better candidate then, I think, is Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence and Darwin’s evolution. Nietzsche, after getting rid of God, individualizes time and then asks that we determine our happiness by asking ourselves if we would be content to live this same life over and over agin in every detail. That philosophical move dissolves collective time into shards of individualized time – and utopias cannot live outside of collective time. Individual lives, measured in their own right, never end with perfect states – but always end with death, and so they can never be organized in an ideal pattern. Darwin’s evolution is eternal time without intent and creator, and if Nietzsche individualized time, well, then Darwin de-humanizes it.

Time individual and dehumanized then dissolves all possible utopias into nothing more than fantasies about a worlds of milk and honey, dreams of the perfect that are indistinguishable from death. This insight – that the utopian inclination is but a nuance of thanatos – brings Freud into the game, and suddenly we have the three hermeneutics of suspicion lined up; they are also the reapers of the utopian tendency in human thought.

Utopian patterns are not sustainable under a hermeneutics of suspicion.

But what replaces them? What vision? What produces our patterns of organization and organizes our path to the future? Incrementalism is hardly an answer – and perhaps the answer is the catastrophe. We have replaced our utopias and dystopias – these stable states – with the complete collapse of the catastrophe.

Catastrophe, utopia, dystopia, future – they line up in a curious story about shifts in our mentalities. I need to read Blanchot.