Expressions of the Political Philosophy of Topianism

As I mentioned , I tried to flesh out a variety of political philosophy that I whimsically dubbed “topianism.”

I meant the name to highlight the distinction between it and utopian political philosophies (meaning, most all of the rest of them, including the mainstream ones that pass for conventional wisdom) — that is to say that it’s not aiming at organizing society in some ideal way, but in understanding and navigating society as it is in the here-and-now (not in the outopos where it will never be, or the eutopos where we might ideally project it to be, but in this topos right here where we’re standing). I’m not crazy about the name “topianism,” but I need some sort of tag to attach to the idea while I look for a better one.

Topianism is almost more of an ethical code than a political philosophy, except that it has a component with profound political consequences: its claim that there is no second standard (or set of standards) by which to judge acts in the political sphere — instead, a single standard applies to everyone. Questions like “is she a citizen?” or “is he a defendant?” or “is she the queen?” or “is he licensed?” or “is that legal?” don’t play the same sort of decisive role in topian evaluation as they do in utopian philosophies.

Topianism bears a lot of resemblance to existentialism because of its emphasis on personal responsibility and on avoiding the temptation to deflect or deny this responsibility.

When you talk about responsibility, you sometimes end up getting into the tangle over free will. There’s a lot of philosophical debate over whether free will makes any sense at all, and if it does, how it must be structured so as to make sense and whether a free will so structured bears any resemblance to the more intuitive, common-sense version of the concept. And there’s a lot of psychological debate over the extent to which our conscious decision-making is actually a causal factor in our actions or is only an after-the-fact “just so story” we tell ourselves.

Be all that as it may, most of us feel that we inhabit a world in which we choose some actions and some things just happen to us and in which there is a big difference between the two. This is crucial to our sense of being living participants in existence and not just spectators along for the ride.

The existentialist tradition did a lot of work identifying some of the ways we conveniently pretend to be spectators instead of participants from time to time in order to try to cheat our way out of confronting our need to decide and our responsibility for the results of our decision-making.

Topianism emphasizes how this works (or rather doesn’t work) in the political sphere. It insists that you cannot displace an individual human decision onto an institution, a hierarchical order, a rule, or anything of the sort. In other words, you cannot say “I did it because it was the law,” or “I did it because it was my job,” or “I did it because it was an order,” or “I did it because it got more votes than the alternative” as a way of trying to mean “the choice I made to do it wasn’t really my choice.”

In its most uncompromising form, topianism won’t even let you foist your decisions off on rules of thumb, ethical principles, or topianism itself. You can refer to such things in the course of explaining your decision-making, but you can’t try to make such things bear any of the weight of your actual decision-making or shoulder any of the responsibility for your actions.

It is an anarchist philosophy, but not because it preaches that The State should be abolished, but because it asserts that The State, as an independent moral agent capable of making decisions and shouldering responsibility, does not exist. The attitude of a topian to The State is not like the attitude of an assassin to the Emperor but like the attitude of an atheist to God.

Topianism does not mandate pacifism, or the nonaggression principle, or aversion to coercion (though some, like Tolstoy in the quotes below and in what I quoted , blend the two ideas or find that they both derive from a common root). Indeed if it were to mandate such a thing, it would be self-undermining, as its practitioners would be pacifists or nonaggressive or noncoercive because of a rule rather than because of their choice.

A topian can throw a man in prison, but only by saying “it’s because I think they should be confined and I’m willing to take responsibility for confining them,” and not “I’m following the law and what the warrant says.” A topian can steal from his neighbor, but only by saying “I want his property and don’t respect his ownership of it,” never by saying “I have a legal seizure order” or “to each according to his need.” Topian decisions can be wise or unwise, good or bad, praiseworthy or blameworthy. The one thing they cannot be is foisted off on someone or something other than the person actually deciding.

A topian can never merely follow an order because it is an order or because the person who gave it holds a rank or position. But a topian may conclude that some other person has a better track record of wisdom and good judgment in some field and may follow his or her advice for that reason — though never losing track of the fact that the choice and the responsibility for the consequences lie with the person taking the advice, not the person giving it.

This may sound slippery, since it seems easy to just linguistically transform an improper delegation of responsibility into a reasonable one just by saying “I choose it.” Is there a meaningful difference between saying “I did it because of an order from my commander” and saying “I did it because I chose to follow the advice of that commander-guy who seemed to me to be well-informed and of good judgment”?

I think there is. In the latter case, you have to at least ostensibly own the responsibility for your choice and make a more-or-less honest claim of having thought it over and justified it — furthermore, your posture is obviously conditional on the good judgment of “that commander-guy” and not just an unconditional carte blanche of obedience. In the former case, none of that is true: you’re merely a tool in your commander’s hands. That said, it’s certainly possible to describe your decision in a way that formally looks proper but is really a dishonest dodge gussied up in the right package. You can’t just change your language in a “politically correct” fashion, you really do have to honestly change your attitude.

Here are some ways I’ve seen the topian creed, or something close to it, expressed:

Juanita Nelson:
“It is, as far as I can see, an unpleasant fact that we cannot avoid decision-making. We are not absolved by following the dictates of a mentor or of a majority. For we then have made the decision to do that — have concluded because of belief or of fear or of apathy that this is the thing which we should do or cannot avoid doing. And then we share in the consequences of any such action. Are we doing more than trying to hide our nakedness with a fig leaf when we take the view expressed by a friend who belonged to a fundamental religious sect? At the time he wore the uniform of the United States Marines. ‘I’m not helping to murder,’ he said. ‘I’m carrying out the orders of my government, and the sin is not mine.’ I could never tell whether there was a bitter smile playing around his lips or if he was quite earnest. It is a rationalization commonly held and defended. It is a comforting presumption, but it still appears to me that, while the seat of government is in Washington, the seat of conscience is in me. It cannot be voted out of office by one or a million others.”
“Bernardo de la Paz” in Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress:
“A rational anarchist believes that concepts such as ‘state’ and ‘society’ and ‘government’ have no existence save as physically exemplified in the acts of self-responsible individuals. He believes that it is impossible to shift blame, share blame, distribute blame… as blame, guilt, responsibility are matters taking place inside human beings singly and nowhere else.”
Mary McCarthy:
“If somebody points a gun at you and says, ‘Kill your friend or I will kill you,’ he is tempting you, that is all.”
Hannah Arendt:
“[T]here is no such thing as obedience in political and moral matters. The only domain where the word could possibly apply to adults who are not slaves is the domain of religion, in which people say that they obey the word or the command of God because the relationship between God and man can rightly be seen in terms similar to the relation between adult and child. ¶ Hence the question addressed to those who participated and obeyed orders should never be, ‘Why did you obey?’ but ‘Why did you support?’ … Much would be gained if we could eliminate this pernicious word ‘obedience’ from our vocabulary of moral and political thought. If we think these matters through, we might regain some measure of self-confidence and even pride, that is, regain what former times called the dignity or the honor of man: not perhaps of mankind but of the status of being human.”
Vlasov, in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago:
“For myself, I’ve decided one thing only. I’m going to tell the executioner: ‘You alone, not the judges, not the prosecutors, you alone are guilty of my death, and you are going to have to live with it! If it weren’t for you willing executioners, there would be no death sentences!’ So then let him kill me, the rat!”
“The men of our time complain of the evil current of life in our Christian world. This cannot be otherwise, when in our consciousness we have recognized not only the fundamental divine commandment, ‘Do not kill,’ which was proclaimed thousands of years ago, but also the law of the love and brotherhood of all men, and when, in spite of this, every man of our European world in reality renounces this fundamental divine law, which he recognizes, and at the command of a president, emperor, minister, a Nicholas, a William, puts on a fool’s costume, takes up instruments of murder, and says, ‘I am ready, — I will strike down, ruin, and kill whomsoever you command me to.’ ¶ What, then, can society be, which is composed of such men? It must be terrible, and, indeed, it is terrible.”
“[T]he chief evil from which men suffer has for a long time not consisted in this: that they do not know God’s true law; but in this: that men, to whom the knowledge and the execution of the true law is inconvenient, being unable to destroy or overthrow it, invent ‘precept upon precept and rule upon rule,’ as Isaiah says, and give them out as just as obligatory as, or even more obligatory than the true laws of God. And so, the only thing that now is needed for freeing men from their sufferings, is this: that they should free themselves from all the theological, governmental, and scientific reflections, which are proclaimed to be obligatory laws of life, and, having freed themselves, should naturally recognize as more binding upon them than all the other precepts and laws, that true, eternal law, which is already known to them, and gives, not only to a few, but to all men, the greatest possible good in social life.”
“ ‘What is to be done?’ ask both the rulers and the ruled, the revolutionists and those engaged in public life, always attaching to the words, ‘What is to be done?’ the meaning of, ‘How should men’s lives be organized?’ ¶ They all ask how to arrange men’s lives, that is to say, what to do with other people; but no one asks, ‘What must I do with myself?’ … ¶ [T]he chief cause of men’s stagnation in a form of life they already admit to be wrong, lies in the amazing superstition… that some men not only can, but have the right to, predetermine and forcibly organize the life of others. ¶ People need only free themselves from this common superstition and it would at once become clear to all that the life of every group of men gets arranged only in the same way that each individual arranges his own life. And if men — both those who arrange others’ lives, and those who submit to such arranging — would only understand that, it would become evident to all that nothing can justify any kind of violence between man and man; and that violence is not only a violation of love and even of justice, but of common sense.”
“Suppose a problem in psychology was set: What can be done to persuade the men of our time — Christians, humanitarians or, simply, kindhearted people — into committing the most abominable crimes with no feeling of guilt? There could be only one way: to do precisely what is being done now, namely, to make them governors, inspectors, officers, policemen, and so forth; which means, first, that they must be convinced of the existence of a kind of organization called ‘government service,’ allowing men to be treated like inanimate objects and banning thereby all human brotherly relations with them; and secondly, that the people entering this ‘government service’ must be so unified that the responsibility for their dealings with men would never fall on any one of them individually.”
“It behooves every man to see that his influence is on the side of justice, and let the courts make their own characters.”
“There is but one obligation and that is the obligation to obey the highest dictate. — None can lay me under another which will supersede this. The Gods have given me these years without any incumbrance — society has no mortgage on them. If any man assist me in the way of the world, let him derive satisfaction from the deed itself — for I think I never shall have dissolved my prior obligations to God.”
“I must conclude that Conscience, if that be the name of it, was not given us for no purpose, or for a hindrance. However flattering order and expediency may look, it is but the repose of a lethargy, and we will choose rather to be awake, though it be stormy, and maintain ourselves on this earth and in this life, as we may, without signing our death-warrant. Let us see if we cannot stay here, where He has put us, on his own conditions. Does not his law reach as far as his light? The expedients of the nations clash with one another, only the absolutely right is expedient for all.”
“The disease and disorder in society are wont to be referred to the false relations in which men live one to another, but strictly speaking there can be no such thing as a false relation if the condition of the things related is true. False relations grow out of false conditions.”
“Consider the cloak that our employment or station is; how rarely men treat each other for what in their true and naked characters they are; how we use and tolerate pretension; how the judge is clothed with dignity which does not belong to him, and the trembling witness with humility that does not belong to him, and the criminal, perchance, with shame or impudence which no more belong to him. It does not matter so much, then, what is the fashion of the cloak with which we cloak these cloaks. Change the coat; put the judge in the criminal-box, and the criminal on the bench, and you might think that you had changed the men.”
“Is it not possible that an individual may be right and a government wrong? Are laws to be enforced simply because they were made? or declared by any number of men to be good, if they are not good? Is there any necessity for a man’s being a tool to perform a deed of which his better nature disapproves? Is it the intention of law-makers that good men shall be hung ever? Are judges to interpret the law according to the letter, and not the spirit? What right have you to enter into a compact with yourself that you will do thus or so, against the light within you? Is it for you to make up your mind, — to form any resolution whatever, — and not accept the convictions that are forced upon you, and which ever pass your understanding? I do not believe in lawyers, in that mode of attacking or defending a man, because you descend to meet the judge on his own ground, and, in cases of the highest importance, it is of no consequence whether a man breaks a human law or not. Let lawyers decide trivial cases. Business men may arrange that among themselves. If they were the interpreters of the everlasting laws which rightfully bind man, that would be another thing.”
“Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.”
“A common and natural result of an undue respect for the law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences… They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power? Visit the Navy Yard, and behold a marine, such a man as an American government can make, or such as it can make a man with its black arts, a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity, a man laid out alive and standing, and already, as one may say, buried under arms with funeral accompaniments… ¶ The mass of men serve the State thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, &c. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens.”
“My civil neighbor, the tax-gatherer, is the very man I have to deal with, — for it is, after all, with men and not with parchment that I quarrel, — and he has voluntarily chosen to be an agent of the government. How shall he ever know well what he is and does as an officer of the government, or as a man, until he is obliged to consider whether he shall treat me, his neighbor, for whom he has respect, as a neighbor and well-disposed man, or as a maniac and disturber of the peace, and see if he can get over this obstruction to his neighborliness without a ruder and more impetuous thought or speech corresponding with his action.”
“If… a man asserts the value of individual liberty over the merely political commonweal, his neighbor still tolerates him, that he who is living near him, sometimes even sustains him, but never the State. Its officer, as a living man, may have human virtues and a thought in his brain, but as the tool of an institution, a jailer or constable it may be, he is not a whit superior to his prison key or his staff. Herein is the tragedy; that men doing outrage to their proper natures, even those called wise and good, lend themselves to perform the office of inferior and brutal ones. Hence come war and slavery in; and what else may not come in by this opening?”
Walter Raleigh:
“[N]o senate nor civil assembly can be under such natural impulses to honor and justice as single persons; for politic members meet with neither encouragement nor reproaches for what was the effect of number only. For a majority is nobody when that majority is separated, and a collective body can have no synteresis, or divine ray, which is in the mind of every man, never assenting to evil, but upbraiding and tormenting him when he does it: but the honor and conscience that lies in the majority is too thin and diffusive to be efficacious; for a number can do a great wrong, and call it right, and not one of that majority blush for it. Hence it is, that though a public assembly may lie under great censures, yet each member looks upon himself as little concerned: this must be the reason why a Roman senate should act with less spirit and less honor than any single Roman would do.”

Sixteen years ago, the New York Times reported (excerpts):

President Lech Walesa surprised few Poles when he announced that he would refuse to pay higher income taxes and encouraged voters to follow his example.

Mr. Walesa chose the tax issue to challenge Mr. [Waldemar] Pawlak in an effort to draw support from average wage earners. In an opening sally last month, he made clear he would veto the budget bill if it included the higher tax rates that were in force in and that the Government wants to maintain this year.

To avoid a debate in Parliament on the higher taxes, the Government pulled the tax regulations from the bill and announced it would set the income taxes by decree. Mr. Walesa and his lawyers said that was illegal and called on a constitutional tribunal to rule on the matter.

The tax rates of 21 percent, 33 percent and 45 percent, imposed for the second year in a row, supplant the old rates of 20 percent, 30 percent and 40 percent. In Mr. Walesa’s case, economists say, the higher rates would mean he would pay $590 a month in taxes on his $1,560 monthly salary instead of $530. The average Polish monthly salary is now $300.

Mr. Walesa said on that he would not pay his taxes at the new rate because as far as he was concerned it was not legally in force. “If you respect the President you should follow suit,” he said.

Mr. Pawlak, of course, said he would abide by the new tax rates “like a good citizen.”