Book review: Kramer Wand – me:topia

Adam Roberts @ 09-09-2009

The Adam Roberts Project

Kramer Wand, me:topia (Indicia, 2009)

[pp.197. $20.00. ISBN: 723485522826]

“Great title”, said a friend when I emailed him to say I’d received this book to review; “what’s it about? No, don’t tell me, let me guess—”

I bet this book is arguing that the problem with utopia has been too large a concern with the other feller, too much ‘you’ and not enough ‘me’. I’d wager it’s written by an ex-hippy, somebody now wearing a silk suit and driving an open-top BMW, who’s come to see that self-love is the road to a harmonious society. I’ll go so far as to imagine a sentence from this book: ‘how can we love others if we don’t first love ourselves, and love must be the basis of any utopia. Am I right?

I mention this because, like my friend, I assumed from the title that this book would be a 21st-century revisioning of hippy idealism through the ‘ethical selfishness’ of the late twentieth-century: but, like my friend, I could not have been more wrong.

In fact, Wand’s me:topia is the most radically libertarian thought-experiment I have ever read. I finished it uncertain whether this book is a genuinely imaged blueprint for a better society, or an oblique satire on right-wing thought.

Wand does, briefly, survey the tradition of utopian writing, and comments “what Plato, Saint Thomas More, H G Wells and other of that strain have in common is imagining utopia as the result of the metastasis of government: more central control, more governmental authority and discipline, this is the route they suggest”. For Wand government is the barrier, not the path, to utopia. So far, so libertarian. But the book is not conventional. Indeed, in an ironic twist (of which he is well aware), his ‘me:topia’ could be read as advocating precisely a massive enlargement of the concept of government; not the withering away of the state.

This is the core of his approach. Wand advocates a world in which concepts such as ‘government’, ‘nation-state’ and ‘sovereignty’ are applied to all individuals. In his utopia I would be a nation state unto myself, and so would you. I would have all the rights currently enjoyed by governments (“but usually denied to their citizens,” Wand adds, “thus making mock of the idiom of ‘rights’ in the first place”). I would have the right not only to bear arms, but to bear any arms I considered necessary to my defence, including—and Wand is quite explicit on this—nuclear weapons. I would have the right to go to war, and the absolute right to order my own affairs as I saw fit, “such rights being not transcendental gifts but merely another name for the international balance of power” as he puts it. All other individuals would treat me not as a slave, not as a resource to be exploited, but as a nation with which to trade, or negotiate, or fight.

“There is,” says Wand, “this difference between on the one hand internal legislatures such as Congress, the House of Representatives, or the British Parliament, and on the other international forums such as the World Court or the UN: the internal legislatures are always dominated by one party and usually one ruler, becoming nothing more than a Presidential rubber-stamp. International fora must genuinely negotiate between conflicting interests and points of view. They are therefore intrinsically democratic, where conventional internal democracy is intrinsically autocratic—so, for example, a British Prime Minister will not even take office unless he or she is guaranteed a majority of votes in their House of Parliament.” This seems to me very dubious; but, for a moment, let’s return to the striking image of a world in which every single individual possesses nuclear weapons.

“If you believe in liberty and the right to defend one’s liberty,” says Wand, “then you must believe in the right to bear arms.” Of course many people would disagree with him right there, but let’s continue along his train of thought. “If you believe in the right to bear arms, then you must believe in the right to bear any arms at all. This right cannot be limited to pistols and rifles; it must necessarily include heavy ordnance, tanks, missiles and nuclear warheads.” The obvious objection here, Wand admits, is that “if everyone had these weapons it might make it more likely” (I’d say ‘inevitable’, but let’s stick with Wand’s phrasing) “more likely that they’d be used. Basing social engineering upon a fear of that premise, however, would logically necessitate not only the confiscation of all privately-held nuclear weapons, but of all guns, knives, stones, fists. There are only two choice, liberty or slavery. If we choose liberty, then the logic leads inevitably to me:topia.” Indeed, Wand’s dismissive contempt for what he calls ‘half-hearted so-called libertarians’ makes especially bracing reading.

Wand doesn’t leave it there, however. “Clearly a society in which everybody owned nuclear weapons who wanted them (and could afford them) would be a much more stable society than one in which these weapons are held only by governments.” His reasoning is twofold, here. One is that he considers governments to be inherently unstable and unpredictable entities, more likely to use nukes than individuals. The other is that he insists people would not use their own nukes.” Indeed, given the uselessness of owning such weapons without ever having the chance of using them, I’d be surprised if many nations (i.e. people) would waste their money on them.”

Let’s look at his reasoning behind those two propositions. First, the instability of governments. “Governments as presently composed,” he argues, ‘suffer from fatal contradictions. Although they are made of men and women who are mortal, and who will die, governments as entities live for many centuries—our government celebrates 1776 as its birthday; the French government celebrates its birthday on 1789 and so on. These Beings are immensely long-lived, and although not immortal they easily fall into the trap of thinking that they are eternal, which makes them dangerously reckless.” So, he argues, an individual would never have risked the Cuban missile crisis, but a government did. At the same time, in his reading, “despite being notionally old, governments are never wise. A government may assert that its birthday is 1215 and the signing of the Magna Charta, but the government is actually made up of people who have been in governmental positions only for a few years. It has the body of an old, old man, but the wisdom of a small child.” To hand nuclear weapons to these “decrepit bodies with toddler minds”, says Wand, “is suicidal”. His governments would have no such illusions; they would be born with an individual and die with an individual. “Such a government would be much more respectful. The President fights wars with other people’s lives, which of course makes him careless of bloodletting; in me:topia you would have to fight all wars with your own life. How much more careful you would be.”

The other side of the coin, according to Me:topia is the trustworthiness of individual human beings, which is based not on pie-in-the-sky idealisations of humanity but on the rational truths of self-preservation and calculating one’s risks. We may object that lunatics and metal incompetents lack these qualities, and that to give such people the power not only to gun down a schoolyard but to destroy the whole globe would be idiotic. But Wand doesn’t think so.

In practice, such people would not be threat to anybody, because the other nations [i.e. individuals] would not permit them to be. In international relations the doctrine of the pre-emptive strike is well established; the recent events in Iraq demonstrate the soundness of this practice. In me:topia a crazy man who acquired nuclear weapons would swiftly be dealt with pre-emptively. In fact, it is hard to understand why the notion of the pre-emptive strike has not been taken from international to internal politics: the justice system requires us to wait until a criminal commits a crime before punishing him, by which time of course it is too late. Were known criminals to be struck pre-emptively crime would be reduced, and would be much less attractive a proposition.

The notion of ‘civil rights’, which is how any good liberal—myself, for instance—will counter this argument, is to Wand a meaningless phrase ‘as it currently stands’.” How can a person have rights that that person has not earned?” he asks.” Rights are bought and claimed, not given away free.” It is equivalent to ‘Belgium being invaded by Germany in 1940 had better spend its energies fighting back, rather than wailing about the abuse of their rights. Do, don’t say.’

The most controversial, and I think least plausible, aspect of Wand’s utopian vision emerges in his chapter ‘compulsory loved-ones.’ It’s easy to imagine a person using his nuclear weapons to extort his fellow nations: blackmail, threat, money-with-menaces ‘pay me a million dollars or I shall fire my weapon, and I care not that I shall die in the ensuing conflagration.’ How should Wand’s future citizens act in such circumstances? “Such an individual would be declaring themselves a rogue state, and other states would act in self-defense to destroy him.” But, facing collective action, wouldn’t the rogue citizen be likely to act out his threat and detonate his nuclear weapons? Wand’s solution may strike us as odd:

For the first century or so of me:topia, it will be essential to compel all citizens to have emotional collateral. It is essential that every citizen have not only his or her own life to lose (a circumstance in which bravado can easily outweigh rationality), but also the lives of family, lovers and friends. Only individuals with partners and children would be declared full citizens in the first instance. These human breaks would restrain the more destabilising tactics that people-nations might otherwise undertake. In time, this qualification for citizenship could be rolled back. After 200 years of me:topia citizenship would be granted to all adult men and women upon reaching the age of 40.

My first reaction here is to say that if Wand things that every loony will be deterred by the thought that his wife and children are likely to perish as a result of his lunacy, then he has a strangely rose-tinted view of humanity. It was at this juncture that I began to wonder if the whole book were actually an oblique satire on right-libertarian views; or perhaps, a satire on present-day international relations.

Under Wand’s system, I would have the option of declaring war on an individual I did not like, killing them, and then declaring the war over. Wouldn’t this be an active incentive to murder? Wand might say that this is what liberty means; or he might say “isn’t this what nation does unto nation at the moment? Look at Iraq”. If this is satire, then it’s well disguised.

Previous thinkers on utopia have believed that they could invent a scheme that would, somehow, deal with “three hundred million separate human beings, all with differing desires, wills, beliefs, thresholds and needs. Such a scheme could only ever work by squashing out all that precious individualism.” Wand’s scheme, he argues, is the first not to fall into that trap. “You make yourself a utopia by yourself. That’s your challenge, and mine too.”

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3 Responses to “Book review: Kramer Wand – me:topia”

  1. Ben Godby says:

    Great review. Sounds like a good book, too, although I’m a little baffled at the point where me:topians start enforcing rules on other me:topians, viz. requirements for citizenships. That seems inconsistent with the entire project.

    Nonetheless, you’ve inspired me to go grab a copy and sort this mess out for myself. There’s nothing quite like a utopian project to burn the fires beneath your bum.


  2. Dave says:

    Yes, have you read The Stars My Destination?

  3. Jane says:

    Makes me want to go read Hobbes.