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Contributing Writers POLITICAL UTOPIAS - March 2018

Interrogating Utopia

Written by Christian Cail

Capitalism is “the astonishing belief that the nastiest motives of the nastiest men somehow or other work for the best results in the best of all possible worlds.” – often attributed to John Maynard Keynes

Utopian thinking, at its best, requires the meeting of both a firm foundation in the material factors of our moment and history – how we reproduce ourselves and how we got to this point – and an imagination unbound by the very conditions under which we currently exist. Utopian thinking is a lost art. Most people know that the end of everything is becoming inevitable. The rise in sea levels, drought, crop failure, etc. will eventually create a mass refugee crisis which will make the Syrian Civil War (sparked by drought) almost cute in comparison. The positivists among us think there is still time and hope that neoliberalism will create a savior; but no savior will come. We cannot expect the greediest among us, through the individual drive of profit, to save humanity. Theodor Adorno once said that ideology is only exposed during violence. Likewise, the structure of our economy, a now globalized totality, will be laid bare when the cracks in its logic – the exceptions – become the cannibalistic whole. We are slouching toward Ouroboros.

There was once a time, within the golden age of Keynesian social-democracy, that the future was an option. Science fiction, modernist architecture, the space race, and the designs of Buckminster Fuller all pointed to a bright future. John Maynard Keynes himself believed that by the 1970s labor would be reduced to near utopian terms through automation. Now, in pop-culture, the future is always dystopian. It brings only barren destruction and inequality whether it be Mad Max, The Hunger Games, Elysium, Children of Men, or even WALL-E. It is in this moment that we should strap utopia to a chair and beat it until it gives us answers. In order to do this, we have to look into history. History itself has been ruined by the sclerotic rot of positivism and technocratic sycophantism, but in the large shifts of the past – between the cracks – one can see a sliver of the future; not the future we have, but one which is still waiting for us.

For a majority of human history, we have lived under some form of communism. This may come as a shock to the reader for we, as a whole, suffer from extreme historical amnesia. Marx dubbed this mode of production “primitive communism”:  a system whereby labor is equally performed and production is universally consumed. Within this historical space there is no private property, aka productive means which are held privately for others to use (to be fiercely distinguished from personal property). Marshall Sahlins’ Stone Age Economics is a good resource for understanding this era of human history. The goal of the modern communist is to look at history from the largest vantage point possible, collect the most liberatory and egalitarian features of each phase, and understand how each can be synthesized today.

Our amnesia has even caused us to forget capitalism’s uniqueness. Capitalism has not always just been there, nor was it lurking in the shadow of every exchange within the feudal mode of production. Capitalism was and is one of many possibilities of human organization. Capitalism is a relatively young phenomenon which originated in England, whereby the desire for increased productivity by landowners forcibly pushed peasants off the land. Whereas formerly the wealthy mercantile drive was of buying low and selling high, the new impulse was of productiveness, increased output, property, and enclosure. This has not changed. The peasants who once made for themselves, paid tax, and owned their tools were now forced into abject poverty in the countryside and often moved into cities where the first factories were sprouting. This was the very beginning of the industrial age. Ellen Meiksins Wood’s The Origin of Capitalism details this moment well. With capitalism came increased colonialism, slavery, and robust defenses thereof. The laws conformed to this new trend, bringing property rights for the wealthy and slavery for the dispossessed. Freedom became the foremost value of the bourgeoisie, but only for the bourgeoisie. Karl Marx outlines this in the first section of The Communist Manifesto.

Photo by Pawel Janiak

Wherever capitalism went, reaction was sure to follow. Not only were there intense peasant revolts in England, there were also proto-communists – aggrieved by the trend of private property and wage slavery. Historian Christopher Hill  writes thusly of the early communist Gerrard Winstanley and the “Diggers” movement:

An important aspect of the battle of ideas (was) the abolition of wage labour…Winstanley wanted to organise a national strike of wage labour so that the rich wouldn’t be able to get their lands cultivated, wouldn’t be able to sell the proceeds and so would be reduced to the level of everybody else. If they chose to turn their land into the common stock they might get some compensation, but this would be a voluntary cession of their land.

Winstanley himself writes in his 1649 tract The True Levellers Standard Advanced: Or, The State of Community Opened, and Presented to the Sons of Men:

In the beginning of Time, the great Creator Reason, made the Earth to be a Common Treasury, to preserve Beasts, Birds, Fishes, and Man, the lord that was to govern this Creation; for Man had Domination given to him, over the Beasts, Birds, and Fishes; but not one word was spoken in the beginning, that one branch of mankind should rule over another.

The French Revolution also gave way to dissenting proto-communists. The most famous is Gracchus Babeuf who masterminded the “Conspiracy of Equals”, a failed coup in 1796. Babeuf, disgusted by the bourgeois plutocrats, wanted to remake the republic in the people’s image. His programme remains extraordinarily radical and is not unlike Engels’ programme in The Principles of Communism:

Economic decree:

  1. There shall be established a great national common wealth.
  2. It will take ownership of the nation’s unsold goods, the assets of enemies of the revolution, public buildings, commonly-owned goods, almshouses, and assets abandoned by their owners or usurped by those who have used their posts to enrich themselves.
  3. The right of inheritance is abolished. All goods will return to the common wealth.

On work for the common wealth:

  1. Every member must work…
  2. The administration will promote the use of machines and the procedures necessary to reduce the burden of work…
  3. Workers will be deployed by the administration according to their understanding of necessary tasks.

After the industrial revolution proper, wherein peasant universally became proletarian, there was an even greater appearance of socialist ideals in the face of capitalism’s ravages. Robert Owen was a former capitalist who, after taking possession of cotton mills in Scotland, was so horrified by the conditions and lives of his workers that he decided to make a more just society with capitalism. Children were habitually orphaned, women worked to death while pregnant, and the men were abject drunkards. Owen initially cut their hours, increased their wages, and educated their children. Unfortunately, these early Utopian Socialist (as Marx would call them) projects were doomed to eventual failure. Though Marx greatly respected these socialists, he dreamt of something larger. This eventually led to his scientific diagnosis of capital in Das Kapital.

Photo by Jayphen Simpson

Where does this put us? Though the West no longer lives in total wretched misery like the average Victorian wage laborer, the general structure of capitalism is still present. The most horrid conditions capitalism brings have been outsourced to the Global South through centuries of extractionary imperialism and brute force. Neoliberal hegemony is for the subaltern a diseased gifter; and the third world is blessed to win its favor. An economic offer no one can refuse, as to do so brings sanctions, embargoes, and discipline. At any time the skeleton holding up our society could be made bare and those with will become distinct from those without. The Gilded Age only feels over. We still have our Carnegies and Fords, but they are now called Bezos and Musk. This social relation has been palliated, pacified, and smoothed out by false consciousness, gaudy luxury, increasingly decadent entertainment, and all-consuming advertisement – but it remains the same. America is a high budget third-world country and when the destruction is reaped from the crop currently sown, the ideology of the system – its violence and irrationality – will be naked. Class society is still the structure under which our lives are led and the need for a truly democratic and equal global society is not forfeit.

Almost all of us feel cheated, because we are. Even in America, where socialism is perhaps the only worst thing next to atheism, class consciousness is ever-present. The irony is, the bourgeoisie have managed to use the language of class to obfuscate it. Republican leaders talk incessantly about the “elites” and “globalists”, but have tied those terms strictly to the Democratic Party, a party for which this is true. Gore Vidal once said, “There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party… and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat.” For the Republican solutions are in further neoliberal privatization: class preservation through working class extraction. American conservative ideology is sadomasochistic: they want freedom and maybe equality, but they listen to their slavemaster’s solutions. Therefore, Wayne LaPierre, executive of the NRA, can gleefully chastise “the elites” and weave them into denunciations of socialists while precisely being the “elites” he criticizes. The latest GOP tax bill, Citizens United, constant privatization – all to benefit whom exactly? False consciousness is the “American Dream”.

Utopian thinking is not a luxury, it is a necessity. With global eco-holocaust threatening the existence of most living creatures on earth, it is our responsibility to think of alternatives past capitalism. We must take heed Winstanley’s ancient words: to be true stewards of our earth – taking care not to poison it for profit – and live absent of the unnecessary hierarchies which place power, wealth, and choice in the hands of those most willing to commit evil. Mark Fisher quotes Slavoj Žižek and Fredric Jameson in Capitalist Realism, “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. Jameson himself recently published his own answer to utopia in his work An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army. Within it he lays out a programme involving universal conscription into the army, a transformation in class relationship, the subversion of the political as such. It is this sort of imagination we need for a post-capitalist society. Soon, though, we won’t have to merely imagine, and when that moment comes, we should be prepared to fight those who control our world and create the impossible: utopia.

True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation. It will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.”

-Martin Luther King Jr.

Nike Vrettos POLITICAL UTOPIAS - March 2018

A New Line of Legality

Written by Nike Vrettos

This article is Part 2 of a series on cocaine in Columbia. Read Part 1 here.

The war on drugs. The war against weed, cocaine, heroin and every other recreational drug. Conservative, white governments have the power to shape our reality, and they have a clear idea of how it should look. And no surprises, mind-altering drugs don’t fit in the picture.

A handful of countries have successfully experimented with decriminalizing drugs for the most part. But I would argue for a more radical solution: legalization. It could save billions of dollars.

Drug cartels are the key problem in the struggle with illicit drugs, and the way to deal with that problem is to pull the rug from under their feet. Decriminalization keeps most of this underground system in place, it alleviates the pressure on drug consumers, but leaves the rest of the drug trade in place. If implemented in a thought out manner, legalization is the way to completely eradicate the horrendous situation of the criminal underworld.

100 billion dollars, roughly the amount at stake, is a lot of money. That’s the annual amount of money invested to fight the war against drugs worldwide. That is more money than annually spent on foreign aid. Furthermore, there are around 1,4 million convictions every year for drug-related crimes in the US, while Saudi Arabia and Iran have increased executions significantly. Those are lives ruined for no greater purpose.

Those billions of dollars are spent sending soldiers overseas, destroying coca harvests, and tearing apart the lives of individuals who are somewhat involved in the sale or production of drugs. The ones being punished in relation to drugs are usually not the ones that pull the strings. People imprisoned for drug offenses are usually convicted for bagatelle delicts, smuggling, or growing coca; individuals who are only one element in a bigger structural problem. Incarcerating those people won’t solve any problems. Mostly people convicted and sentenced to imprisonment aren’t given any chance to turn their lives around.

The bigger players are smart, they find new routes and new ways of setting up production. As it stands, any current attempt to weaken their power is easily overcome. Legalizing and regulating production would hit them where it hurts.

In Colombia for example, legalizing cocaine production would have tremendous advantages from a political and economic perspective. It’s estimated that over 410 metric tons of cocaine were produced there in 2010, which is about twice the weight of a blue whale.  Revenue from the US would top 36 billion dollars. That money could be used for the benefit of the people currently disadvantaged by the drug industry.

During the 2008 financial crisis,profits from criminal organizations were the only liquid assets available to allow some banks to avoid failure […].” The financial system was paralyzed until drug cartels came to the rescue. “A large part of the 352 billion drug dollars—the estimated annual revenues from drug trafficking—was thus absorbed into the legal economic system. Yet no one seemed scandalized by this declaration, which should have truly alarmed any Western government.” So it’s fine to use drug money, as long as it’s for the rich.

Valeria Posada Villada, a Master’s student in Amsterdam who has been studying the impact of drugs in her home country of Colombia, explained the economic opportunities as a circular movement: International legalization could create a source of income for the government, which in turn could be used to fund investments into development, and counteract the need for illegal cartels. Farmers would receive a decent payment for coca production and also be able to grow other crops as the security threat posed by rebel groups would diminish.

Photo by Nike Vrettos

Agonizing violence would decrease, coca farmers would have protection from the blackmail, kidnapping, and murder linked to illegal drug-dealing. As Valeria continued:

“The areas which are currently used to produce cocaine… there is no proper infrastructure. The government has no real influence in those parts of the country. Barely any roads or facilities for farmers to do much else than obey the groups that make them grow coca. Besides most of those farmers simply produce coca to survive. They trade coca leaves for food.”

There are examples of successful drug policies. Bolivia, Peru, Chile, and Argentina have legalized the production of coca leaves for traditional uses, and last year the sale of government-produced marijuana started in Uruguay. These moves have resonated positively. Already in Colombia, the constitutional court decided to decriminalize the possession of 1 gram of cocaine and 20 grams of Marijuana for personal use in a recent ruling. To add the cherry on top, people caught with cocaine are offered psychological help by the police. These measures will hopefully serve as a role model for other countries in Latin America and beyond.

This momentum has created space to move forward after the failed prohibition policies imposed by the U.S. “Today, what the United States says has never mattered less,” said Eduardo Blasina, the founder of the Montevideo Cannabis Museum in Uruguay. “We don’t see its president as a reasonable individual whose opinion is worth anything.”

The Colombian government taking over the cocaine industry would have benefits for the rest of the world too. Ever considered what’s in that white line?

You might know that gasoline is used in its production, but what’s less known are the even more toxic substances added by the dealers and producers. Up to 80% of the cocaine on the street will contain other added substances such as Phenacetin, a painkiller banned in the US since 1983 for causing cancer and kidney problems. Then there’s Levamisole, a parasite purge for livestock that reportedly caused the flesh of heavy cocaine users to rot off their bones. An analysis last year of 103 random cocaine samples from around the world, conducted by the Energy Control drug testing service, found that the average concentration was 11%. But it also increases your high!

In Switzerland a report found that “throughout the 8 years the researchers examined, the purity remained stable at around 40%, meaning that less than half of the ‘cocaine’ bought is actually cocaine.

Those concerned about addiction should know that addiction depends on many factors, such as the personal gene code, your environment, etc. In an experiment, rats were either isolated in cells, or placed in a happy rat pack and were given both water and water with cocaine. Alone, rats always chose the drug water. However, in the pack with places to mate and be in a group, they didn’t touch the drug water. People who feel without purpose or are socially isolated are also more likely to end up addicted, whether it’s alcohol or cocaine.

Sluggish reliance on outdated ethical considerations are not going to solve the drug issue, and is disdainful to all the victims that living in hardship. Public discourse is needed to put the legalization on the agenda. We can put a plaster on the wound caused by drugs with haughty condemnation but that won’t cure anything.

Colombia’s decriminalization of the ownership of one gram of cocaine is a break in the clouds. A step towards a world where the cocaine business is not by default a bloody, dehumanizing war but an effective means to development and peace. It is a quagmire, the UN has just recently agreed to continue funding the war on drugs, underlining the unwillingness to accept it is a failure. For me, the world needs legalization included in the public debate.

Chloe Gregg POLITICAL UTOPIAS - March 2018

Another Choice

Written by Chloé Gregg, Staff Writer

It’s the middle of January and champagne is flowing across the swampy fields of Notre-Dame-des-Landes, an agricultural commune outside the city of Nantes, France. The government’s project to construct a new airport on the West coast of France has been abandoned, putting an end to over 50 years of heated debate. Environmentalists and local farmers cheer and welcome the announcement as a new victory over the exploitative force of current-day globalization. Amongst them, a group of anarchists who have illegally occupied the land in protest against the airport. The ‘Zadistes’ (activists for the ZAD, Zone to Defend) see this as an opportunity to introduce a new project – a social, environmental and agricultural experiment for people who wish to stay on the Notre-Dame-des-Landes or NDL.

The demand for new forms of communal life is no revolutionary phenomenon. Since the first peace movements of the 1970s swept across Western societies, a growing number of people have involved themselves in a variety of projects seeking to re-build eroded social ties by living in small, close-knit groups.

Some groups have established what is called ‘egalitarian’ or ‘intended’ communities, such as ‘Twin Oaks’ in rural Virginia, USA, where land, labor, and income is shared equally between all members of the community. Working tasks are structured, but in no way imposed. Instead, it is the sense of common responsibility and belonging that encourages members to carry out their duties.

Another expression of collective living that is flourishing today, in response to housing shortages and expensive accomodation; is co-housing. With private rooms and houses arranged around common spaces and facilities, these small networks offer closer ties between neighbors, while maintaining a larger degree of individual agency and privacy. Unlike the former example, its members aren’t pressured to share a common ideology or philosophy.

With the principles of sustainability and cooperation at their core, these alternative communities can take on many forms. They may reject any sign of organizational hierarchy out of due consideration for social equality. They may prefer a semi-autonomous status in order to maintain bonds with the wider economy, e.g. by selling the surplus of their production on local markets to finance agricultural equipment or land rental costs. Whatever their structure they aim to show an example of a functioning and fruitful life outside the current societal paradigm. They can lead us to a shift.  

Despite these trends, most political authorities and media outlets try to downsize these movements by depicting their adherents as ‘marginals’ or ‘rebels’. A defensive response to their centralized governments is being questioned, to a hint that their nation-state architecture is nearing its expiry date. For now, the status quo is protected by their longer history and the pluralistic ignorance of those who still conform to the idea that the current model is the will of the majority. Yet as shown in the case of Notre-Dame-des-Landes, where about 300 people were living on the occupied grounds, a longing for true social reconnection is present across many societal groups. The experience of loneliness is in fact so wide-spread, with 72% of Americans having reported it as occurring at least once a week, that medical doctors and physicians are calling it an “invisible epidemic”. This solitude has exacerbated the feeling of disenchantment within the system. A feeling that echoes across all levels of the social strata.

From freshly-graduated urban university students to third generation farmers, the opportunity to test a lifestyle outside the current neoliberal structure has attracted people from all walks of life. From emotional isolation emerges a desire to re-instigate new links with others. A desire to put an end to all the great evils of unregulated capitalism and prevent them from leading to further individual disillusionment and social alienation.

Photo by Elizabeth Lies

It might be decades-long exposure to capitalist propaganda that has convinced the vast majority of us that the return to a simpler life, with a less wide array of consumer choices, is too difficult to achieve or is simply undesirable. Not even Piketty’s bestselling Capital in the 21st Century managed to move us beyond the social destruction we have created in the pursuit of the current economic model. Whatever the reason for our stubbornness, it is time to think and act differently.

We must fight the system’s resistance to change by setting examples. We must grant the 300 adults and children demanding the right to remain on the Notre-Dame-des-Landes the opportunity to show us the worth of an alternative life. We must let them demonstrate its benefits and encourage them in their innovative attempts to happiness. Through examples, the so-called ‘outsiders’ may be able to convince even the most hardcore Black Friday shoppers that the simpler things in life do leave us feeling happier and complete. Through experience, they stand a chance of convincing us that their minimalist lifestyle is desirable.  

Amongst the residents of the ZAD that celebrated the cancellation of the airport that foggy winter morning, few had imagined they’d be surrounded by such a large crowd of supporters. For many, their presence in Notre-Dame-des-Landes was intended as a mere visit. A brief glimpse at life without the constant soundtrack of YouTube advertisements and the endless queues of mass-distribution supermarkets. Yet quite rapidly, these visits became part of the permanent resettlement within a wind-powered self-sufficient community.

If the facts on youth unemployment, urban crowding, the soaring use of prescription medication and rapid environmental destruction are not enough to weaken your belief in the neoliberal dream, then let the alternative communities show us what we’re missing out on.

There’s a diverse set of sustainable community models out there, so take a look at some examples listed below (maybe you’ll find inspiration towards building your own):

https://ecovillage.org/

http://www.thefec.org/communities/

https://www.towards-sustainability.co.uk/issues/built/suscom.html


Below you can find a gallery of photos from an Emmaus community in Lescar, France, taken by our Head Editor:

Contributing Writers POLITICAL UTOPIAS - March 2018

How Soon is Now: Making Parkland the Last

Written by Allison Hatch

“We are going to be the last mass shooting”.

It is a hopeful but firm announcement that students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School made on CNN last weekend. The shooting at their school on February 14th left 17 dead. Again. Thoughts and Prayers. Mourning. When will there be consequences?

They could not come soon enough. In December, just after the fifth anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting, a journalist asked Trump’s press secretary Sarah Sanders at the White House press briefing what Trump has done to try to protect Americans against a similar type of massacre. Sanders promptly replied that Trump recognized his number one responsibility is to protect American citizens, but upon considering a regulation that could have been implemented to prevent such shootings, she was “not aware of what that would be.”

I remember the Sandy Hook shooting in great detail, where 20 children between six and seven-years-old and six adults were killed. I can recall the moment I heard about the shooting vividly. It was after school, and I was sitting on my parents’ bed when I received the breaking news alert. Tears streamed down my face thinking about all of the young kids killed, right before the holidays. From 1966 to 2018, there have been 150 mass shootings in the US, with a mass shooting denoting an incident during which four or more people are killed.

Since first moving to Europe, the two questions I’m most frequently asked when people find out that I’m American are: (1) what do you think about Trump? and (2) do you own a gun? it’s hard to properly articulate how frustrating and disheartening the reality of American politics is, particularly while witnessing the government unravel from afar. Really, not everyone likes Trump or owns a gun.

It’s hard to explain to most Europeans how numb you begin to feel towards gun violence. In my hometown of Cincinnati, there were 62 homicides and 426 shootings in 2016, meaning more than one incident of gun violence per day in a city of about 300,000 people. When I was six-years-old, a woman was shot and killed in a drug deal on my street. When I was ten, my elementary school went on lockdown after a man who robbed a nearby bank with a gun ran by the school. At the time, my brother’s class was outside for recess, so his teacher hid them in the corner of the baseball diamond and stood in front as a shield. There have been a handful of nights when my family and I having dinner heard gunfire nearby – we have become accustomed to distinguishing its echoing ring.

Photo by Abigail Keenan

Gun control is a divisive topic in the US, where four in ten households own guns. The typical discourse stems from the infamous right to bear arms under the Second Amendment. Americans claim their fundamental freedom to pursue a life of security and safety by individualistic modes of protection, rather than paternalistic governmental measures. This results in people thinking that only more guns will protect us against the rising amount of gun-related violence. Take Ohio, where rather than reducing gun ownership, new laws expanded the right to carry a concealed weapon in colleges, universities, airport terminals, and perhaps most appallingly, child care centers. Meanwhile, a 2016 report from the Ohio Attorney General found that 46,364 more concealed gun carrying licenses were issued than the year before.

I recognize that I grew up in a liberal bubble, where my family, my friends, and my schools have all been left-leaning, and consequently, typically in favor of tighter gun restrictions. Yet growing up in a state, and even more so, a city, heavily divided on gun control, I wanted to hear a perspective from the other side of the debate. I asked a woman who identifies as very conservative and a supporter of the National Rifle Association what her thoughts were about guns, and Trump’s response after the Las Vegas massacre in November, which left 58 dead. She said that one of the proposed policies for tighter gun control would be “psychological evaluation” of individuals as a means of assessing the mental health of all potential gun owners before they are allowed to purchase any guns. She argued that such evaluation would be subjective, “Would ‘the left’ trust doctors appointed by [the] Trump administration, to determine if they’re mentally stable? I know I wouldn’t have trusted the Obama administration!” While it may seem hard to understand how one’s perception could be so drastically shaped with an “us vs. them” mentality, simply watch this ad from the National Rifle Association; the organization’s attempt to paint a dystopian view of the United States feels eerily similar to Aldous Huxley’s “World State”.

It’s safe to say that any American you speak to will tell you how torn apart the country is at the present moment, and especially given the polarizing nature of the current president. The recent mass shootings have simply added fuel to the fire in perpetuating a leftist push for gun control and a conservative push back. With every new mass shooting, we as a nation continue to become more desensitized. Instead of taking any progressive measures to even remotely alleviate gun violence, millions of Americans turn to what feels like a canned response of praying for the victims and the families. The most recent Florida shooting once again made me feel frustrated, lost, and emotionally depleted, knowing that I too, belong to the “mass shooting generation”. The midterms are this year in the US, and I can only hope that with these elections Americans come together to vote for politicians in favor of tighter gun control.

The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High are not letting Washington get away with lackluster messages of empathy. When Trump tweeted a detestable message blaming the FBI for the shooting by focusing too much on potential Russian collusion, survivors were quick to respond. Students nationwide have taken to the streets in a collective action of solidarity, including my former high school.  It’s a movement which shows no sign of stopping. March For Our Lives, an initiative organized in part by students from Parkland, is taking place on March 24th in Washington, with thousands of people gathering to “demand that a comprehensive and effective bill be immediately brought before Congress” on gun control. Walkouts, sit-ins, and marches will take place across the US on April 20th, the anniversary of the Columbine shooting. On this day, students are planning on walking out of classrooms nationwide and not returning until Congress actually introduces and enacts gun legislation. People have had enough with the government’s inaction. It’s about time our politicians realize that thoughts and prayers are not enough after mass shootings, and it’s about time that our country stops ignoring the gun violence happening on a daily basis in our most vulnerable communities. A gun-free society is not utopian, at stake is not a partisan political ideology: it is the lives of American children.

Floris van Dijk POLITICAL UTOPIAS - March 2018

Ambitio Sine Qua Non

Written by Floris van Dijk

I don’t think Schopenhauer was right in saying that desire is the source of all pain. Human ambition is not necessarily harmful. It just needs to be filtered to bring out the good, and avoid the evil.

Ambition can take countless distinct forms, but it has never been a major concern to conceptualize them. Historically, all forms were encompassed by the term ambition. In Latin, ‘ambitio’ is derived from the verb ‘ambire’, to strive. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics claimed that there was no word in Greek that unambiguously represented the virtuous intensity of ambition. This lack of conceptual clarity perpetuated for centuries, as it remains vague usage that we know today.

The establishment of the feudal system in Europe was paired with a general critique of ambition. Ambition was taboo because human agency bred an impulse at odds with the infallibility of the natural order, the will of heaven. At a time in which identity and rank were determined by birth, ‘reaching for the stars’ was deemed immoral.

Even as late as 17th century France, ambition was defined as the “unruly passion for glory and fortune”, in contrast to piously seeking the reward of admission to heaven. The ideal citizen was eager to perfect subservience to the king and church.

This distinction, however, held only as long as clerics held the supreme power. The French Revolution, American Independence, and the victory of British free trade principles all gave way to a more liberal turn by the end of the 18th century. This brought the possibility of a larger part of the population claiming political and economic opportunities, and was accompanied by the redemption of ambition in language and literature.

As early as 1815, Benjamin Constant was one of many who believed that “ambition is compatible with a thousand generous qualities.” Today, the word ambition as a whole has a positive connotation across languages and cultures: most universities select ambitious students, recruiters search for ambitious applicants, parents want ambitious children.

Nevertheless, unanimity on the value of ambition has not been reached. Philosophy of the arts and architecture-professor Yehuda Safran wrote that “to have no ambition is perhaps the highest ideal.” The reasoning behind her belief is understandable: beyond the personal gains that the tranquility of the ambition-free mindset brings to an individual, the rejection of ambition can be considered beneficial to society, in that it dissolves a fundamental cause of systemic instability.

Photo by Faustin Tuyambaze

When looking at democratic political practice, ambition is indeed dangerous; it was the ambition of individual men that brought down the Republics of Rome, and Weimar. It was the ambition of individual politicians that caused the fragmentation of political parties in the French National Assembly during the interbellum, which caused years of governmental instability and ineffectiveness. It was the ambition of individual warlords, trying to reinforce their personal influence, that explains the death toll of 40 million during the Three Kingdoms period in China.

Ambition is a cause for political coups, a cause for rebellion, a cause for war. Thus, a world without ambition would be a utopia less likely to experience these threats. Yet, if humanity wasn’t moved by the powerful forces of hope, desire, and aspiration, what would the world look like?

It is unthinkable to achieve goals without ambition. So what we ought to do is not to indiscriminately suppress ambition as Schopenhauer would’ve advised, but treat the topic with a little more nuance.

Naturally, extreme forms of ambition can be destructive. This is common sense, but as I perceive it, ambition can have three different outcomes: preservation, creation, or appropriation. There are different expressions of ambition with different psychological and behavioral manifestations; respectively, the ambition to cultivate, the ambition to build, and the ambition to conquer.

The ambition to cultivate aims at preserving a capacity or skill; like keeping a particular ability strong, or maintaining an impeccable backyard. It’s best represented by the example of an athlete: he runs in order to maintain his health and to ensure his fitness over 20 years. Another intuitive example is the practice of a language, done with the sole goal of staying proficient. Not with the underlying goal of applying in the future for one specific job, but for the cultivation of personal knowledge.

The ambition to build seeks creation. It’s the motivation of the architect drawing up blueprints for an opera house with an incredibly imaginative design. In a way, it’s what causes the academic to forget himself in order to focus fully on his study of a subfield for 50 years, in order to contribute to the elaboration or refutation of theories. And of course, it belongs to the emotional core of artists, businessmen, and city mayors.

The ambition to conquer is, without doubt, the most spectacular. It’s this ambition that fuelled the establishment of the great ancient empires, the subjugation of almost the whole world by the European sea powers, and finally the initiation of the Imperialist and Fascist world wars. Essentially, the ambition to conquer seeks appropriation, colonization, annihilation. History books are full of it; many wars were directed by just a few men seeking prestige, while some were started by a nation seeking status. Such ambition is often presented in epics as both glorious and heroic, particularly those actions fueled by a desire for revenge.

Of course, actions are rarely motivated by only one of these forms of ambition. Hybrids of diverging intensities of one form or the others are the rule rather than the exception. Though the most common critique of ambition as a whole concerns this third kind. In a utopia, this form of ambition should no longer exist. It is simply too dangerous.

Most notably, the high-powered nature of the ambition to conquer is destructive at its core. A striking example is Paraguayan President Francisco Solano López. One of the major causes, if not the main cause, of the deadliest South American war was this man’s ambition. It led his small, technologically-inferior nation of half a million into an unwinnable war against an alliance with a combined population of 11 million. This “war of the Triple Alliance” led the Paraguayan population to be cut from 525,000 to 221,000, of which only 28,000 were men. The ambition to conquer has put unbearable sufferings on people across time and space.

Photo by Danka Peter

Numerous victories aren’t satisfactory for the conqueror, either. Success only feeds this ambition, creating a bottomless abyss, a self-produced addiction. After beating one enemy, you can’t wait to face the next. Pyrrhus couldn’t be satisfied by becoming king of Epirus; he next invaded southern Italy, and then Sicily, and then Macedon, and then the Peloponnese. Each new campaign meant the loss of prior winnings, and eventually the loss of everything else (including his life). Alexander the Great’s empire stretched from Macedonia all the way to Persia for a few years until it crumbled because he just couldn’t get enough. The leader trapped in the vicious circle of conquest resembles Sisyphus trying to roll a boulder up a hill.

A final warning, the ambition to conquer inevitably affects the individual’s relation to others. It’s the suspicion that friends stand in your path to success so you must drop those friendships holding you back from your potential. After all, as French surrealist and poet Phillipe Soupault said “the main enemy of friendship is ambition”. Famously, former French prime minister Edouard Balladur betrayed his close friend the former president Jacques Chirac, as he stood in his way in the race for the presidency. Examples of self-destructing ambition are numerous throughout history. Again, reference should be made to Alexander the Great. Not only did he lose the loyalty of the exhausted soldiers whom he fought alongside for a decade, but he also killed one of his dearest companions, Cleitus the Black. Supportive relationships can never be more than a means to an end for the conquest-driven soul.

Discussing ambition “in its essence” is impossible, since the word doesn’t have one single essence. Ambition is a neutral term, but we should not uncritically support all forms of ambition. We should hold on to our desire to build or cultivate while limiting our drive to conquer. To build the ideal society, humanity doesn’t have to abandon part of what makes it human, but instead learn to avoid the unsustainable and destructive form of the ambition conquer.