Whats-Your-Solutionism

Every so often I attempt to promote some sensible utopian idea, and I am met with a series of replies that take the form not of opposing the idea’s necessity and wisdom, but of asking me how precisely the idea is to be implemented. “Ah, yes, your idea for a prison-free world of gentle cooperation and harmony sounds lovely and all, but how exactly is it feasible?” Good in theory, impossible in practice and that sort of thing. Mad dreams of an eccentric out of touch with pragmatic realities, etc etc.

All of this criticism is completely mistaken. It’s perfectly acceptable to be hazy on the path from A to B. Why? Because no individual has ever designed an entire massive long-term social change alone. The way these things work, and what I am usually arguing for, is that the society is turned toward some major goal, and then the vast engine of its collective energies and intellects is directed toward figuring out the feasible path to that goal. That is the process by which the path is found. It was perfectly fair, and not at all a cop-out, for Russell Brand to reply to Jeremy Paxman, when asked how his idealism would work in practice, that he wasn’t “going to sit here in a bloody hotel room and devise a global utopian system.” It is similarly reasonable when Noam Chomsky makes the same dodge. Idealists are constantly being asked to produce blueprints, but this is a foul trick. The questioner knows the idealist can’t produce a blueprint, because the task would require understanding every single social force in the entire world and the entire direction of human history. It’s as if I say “We ought to find a way to build a bridge over that river,” and you insist that my opinion is invalid unless I have an in-depth knowledge of truss design and caisson placement. It’s bloody unfair is what it is!

The point is that if we followed this logic in other spheres, nobody could ever recommend anything that they could not design every single part of themselves. Since nearly everything gets designed in vast teams, from films to iPhones to highways, why should “a society without war” or “the elimination of unpleasant work” be any different? Don’t ask me for a solution, because that’s not how these things work. The solution takes a vast search in order to find; I’m recommending the search be conducted. Now, usually at this point people say “Yes, yes, we’d all love to find out how to create perpetual peace, you’ve added nothing by recommending it be looked for.” But most of the time this is a complete distortion, because if you probe people, they do not believe greater energy should be expended trying to find perpetual peace, they do not really think we’re all thinking carefully about how a classless society might be achieved. Most of the time, in fact, they’re resigned to things as they are. So it is a change to recommend a search be conducted. “Yes, we’re all interested in having a bridge over the river, unless you know how to build one, you’ve added nothing.” “But then how come nobody seems to be looking for a way to build a bridge over the river, and most of you just sit around saying ‘it’s impossible to build a bridge over that river?'”

In conclusion: To say “What’s your exact solution?” to the idealist is totally ignorant of how the process of solving problems. You begin with the question and then together find the answer. The point that the idealist is making is that nobody is really serious about the question.

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