Monday, November 17, 2014

Walden Two

I don't remember why I picked up B.F. Skinner's novel from the library. (Something prompted me, but I've gotten rid of it.) I started to read it last week and almost stopped after a few chapters. Then, I decided to keep going, but at a quicker pace. (I didn't skim it, but I didn't study it thoroughly either. Hopefully, I have a strong sense of what Skinner was trying to convey. If not, let me know!)

Walden Two (WT) is an effort to describe a utopia-- a form of communal living based on an extension of Thoreau's individualistic Walden. Skinner's Utopia emphasizes science, progress and efficiency. And it relies on an interesting combination of assumptions about the power of social influences and the general benevolence of internal motivations. (It then applies those assumptions to governance and everyday life in WT.)

Skinner believed in the power of social norms and rules-- and saw them as useful to tweak flaws in human character toward conformity with universal standards. Near the beginning, Frazier (the leader / tour guide) explains the use of electric fences initially-- but eventually, merely, string-- to constrain sheep from wandering. The inference from the analogy is that people (are sheep who) can be influenced by external rules and norms, but require less and less of that as they are conditioned. Of course, in practice and even in theory, this would be a tough cycle to establish: How do benevolent, knowledgeable elites emerge who know how to construct these rules ably and with pure motives?

More broadly, WT is Genesis 2 without Genesis 3-- Eden without the Fall (at least, yet). It's Acts 1-4 without Acts 5-6-- the beauty of the early church without its first warts. It's Revelation 21-22 with at most a deistic God-- Heaven as city and Eden without the (overt/relevant) presence of God.

WT is also reminiscent of Acts 2 and 4 in that it advocates a voluntary, small-scale "socialism". Not socialism of the usual earthly/worldly sort-- coercive/governmental and large-scale, with the attendant ethical and practical problems (riddled with crony capitalism, motive problems and profound information limits). Instead, Skinner portrays socialism of a beautiful and other-worldly sort-- say, in a Sunday School class that has vibrant community and ministers to its own.

One key difference: the socialism of WT is largely insular, whereas the socialism of a Sunday School class should be communal in a far larger sense. I did not catch whether Skinner would casually conflate the two. One troubling sign is that he dismisses the (small-scale) family structure from a primary (although not universal) role-- in favor of a fully-communal structure to raise children (as the caricatures of "It takes a village").

I was struck that his governance structure was quite similar to the New Testament church as well. His leadership structure is elders and deacons. It relies on a "benevolent dictator"-- with the main character Frazier in the god-like role. (Politically, Skinner is appropriately rough on democracy!)

But it's not clear how far Frazier's benevolence extends-- and where Skinner intends to leave us with all of this. One of those on the "tour" is cynical about Frazier's motives-- and Frazier certainly comes off as a bit creepy in terms of the "control" he exerts. (Or maybe we've just been conditioned to be unnecessarily cynical?) Another clue is that elders/Planners have a ten-year term limit which was not yet become binding. Two concerns here: 1.) Would Frazier (and the others) step down at the appointed time or find/seek loopholes? 2.) Why a term limit at all? Its existence points to implied concerns about what power could do to someone.

Skinner vaguely praises Christianity and sees favorable parallels. I didn't catch whether he was (quite) hostile to "organized religion"; he seems to see it as at least potentially innocuous or even beneficial. Frazier argues that Christianity has rarely been tried/seen (p. 281). But this overlooks/ignores its innumerable (but more subtle) successes to focus on its failures. Ironically, by the same metric, one would reject utopias out-of-hand far more easily-- surely, not what Frazier means (perhaps Skinner intends this ironically).

Frazier praises progress throughout-- and details gains in progress and efficiency. Of course, one of the funny things about progress is that one admits not having done it as well in the past. Utopia here is, very much, a work in progress. One wonders whether the likelihood of past flaws in other areas-- say, governance-- would undermine the entire project. To note, if Frazier and the elders are not perfect in their governance from the outset, does the entire project fall apart because of their well-intentioned mistakes?

As one would hope from a portrayal of a utopia, Skinner's book is helpful in that it calls us to dream but also to be realistic, to be idealistic but not be a dupe, to compare what we have to what we might have instead.


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