Friday, December 2, 2011

Thomas More's Utopia

     Thomas More's Utopia is what I am reading (actually, a easily-read translation by Robert Adams).  And these are some my impressions.
     I never understood where the word "Utopia" came from until now.  The word was invented by More, combining a Greek adverb and noun to create a word best interpreted as "no place."  Clever.  The strangest thing about the book is that it is divided into two sections, and the first section seems irrelevant.
     Much of it is predictable, and reminiscent of a college progressive yearning for local food, ostentatious equality, and despots.  The book is far from boring, however, and here are some parts I particularly enjoyed.
     Everyone works in Utopia, and in similar jobs.  Each person farms for a period of time and works a craft other times.  Because each person performs similar manual labor, and because one does not earn money for their labor, there is considerable equality.  They also work less than people do even today: six hours a day, including Saturday.  Although Utopians work less and cannot specialize, they are wealthier.  Why?
     Thomas More makes an argument that because there is no upper-class to confiscate the wealth of others, and because that upper-class in non-Utopian society is assumed to provide no service (I thought peasants worked, clergy prayed, and nobles fought?), each person in Utopia consumes more while working less because there are more people working.  This assumption breeds another: that no money is required because there is so much wealth, when people take all they "need" there will still be goods left over.
    Pervading the assumed functionality of Utopia is the assumption that social pressure will work as well or better than money in inducing people to work hard.  It is also assumed that the social culture of equality will prevent people from distinguishing themselves and causing inequality.  It is the social norms of Utopia that is responsible for the equality and wealth, not politics (in fact, there are very few laws in Utopia, and no lawyers).
     This made me think of wage labor in the Soviet Union (particularly in the 1929-1941 era).  All proletariats  were guaranteed a job, but at set wages for everyone.  Because the Communist Party determined other things like food rations, housing, and the like, there was considerable equality (cramped housing, fleas in summer, stale bread, and even some laudable things like women's rights).  Like Utopia, a strict passport system existed in Russia, limiting people's rights to move around.
     Russian communists tried desperately to establish a new proletariat culture where workers were inspired to work diligently despite the lack of economic incentives.  Maybe some of them had read Utopia.  Because the proletariats could easily find work elsewhere, they were hardly submissive to their bosses.  Good luck finding workers on a peasant holiday.  How did communists try to change peasant culture?  For example, Russia established a movement called socialist competition, where groups pledged to reach certain production goals and competed against other groups in fulfilling this mission.  The same thing happened in Utopia, where blocks of communities competed against each other for the best gardens.  This kind of thing worked in Utopia, but failed in Russia.
     Slowly, the Communist Party learned that the social culture in Utopia, where people work out of social obligation alone, was hard to instill, so they they began mimicking the free-market.  Higher wages were not offered, but hard working laborers did win metals, special meals, priority to housing, goods experiencing a shortage, and cheap theater tickets (how is that not a market?).  When that didn't work, the Communists began offering higher wages for better (more skilled and more reliable) work , and did their best to find a wage close to the free-market wage but still meeting budget restrictions; after all, a Russian plant may offer higher wages for better work and higher quality products, but because they don't sell these products on the market and instead "distribute" them to other organizations, additional revenues may not result.  And by 1931, 70% of workers were paid based on what they produced, not what they "needed."  However much people dislike markets, they have a hard time living without them.
     The contrast between a 16th century fictional account of an idealized social system and its partial implementation in 20th century Russia provides a number of instructive contrasts.  The most notable of these is the very reasonable idea that reliable, high quality work on a large-scale really does require more compensation.  Go figure.

More, Thomas.  1516.  Utopia.  Edited by George M. Logan and Robert M. Adams in 1989.  W. W. Norton & Company: NY, NY.

Hoffman, David L.  1994.  Peasant Metropolis: Social Identities in Moscow, 1929-1941.  Cornell University Press: Ithaca, NY.

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