In Archipelago and Atomic Communitarianism, Scott Alexander describes his idea of a utopian society. Put briefly, it consists of several isolated communities of like-minded people, who maintain a small common government to ensure peace and stability, but otherwise leave each other alone as much as possible. He calls this utopia “Archipelago”, and the principles on which it is built “atomic communitarianism”.
Utopias have a habit of being impossible to put into practice, and Archipelago is no exception. Scott is smart enough to realise this, and he doesn’t suggest we actually try to build Archipelago in the real world. He does propose some concrete policy goals, though:
So although Archipelago is an interesting exercise in political science, a sort of pure case we can compare ourselves to, it doesn’t look like a practical solution for real problems.
On the other hand, I do think it’s worth becoming more Archipelagian on the margin rather than less so, and that there are good ways to do it.
One way we could become more Archipelagian is just trying not to yell at people who are trying to go off and doing their own thing quietly with a group of voluntarily consenting friends.
But I think a better candidate for how to build a more Archipelagian world is to encourage the fracture of society into subcultures.
Okay, that’s a clear enough proposal. Now if I may put forward a popular Bible quote:
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
– Ecclesiastes 1:9
Humanity has a long, long history, and we’ve tried all kinds of social and political models. Name a policy, and there’s a good chance it has been tried, somewhere, at some point.
Atomic communitarianism is no exception. I’m from the Netherlands, and from about the 1870s to the 1960s, our society was divided into several communities called “pillars”. The exact number of pillars depends on which historian you ask, but if you count generously, there were five: Catholic, two flavours of Protestant, Socialist, and Liberal or “neutral”.
Although these pillars weren’t geographically isolated – our country is far too small for that – the social segregation went deep. Pillars formed their own schools, sports clubs, hospitals, newspapers, radio stations, political parties, trade unions, employers’ organisations… In short, there were few aspects of life that weren’t “pillarised”.
On the face of it, pillarisation was a very succesful proof of concept for atomic communitarianism. There was no violence between the pillars, nor were there any serious attempts to disrupt each other’s community life. As Abraham Kuyper – a Protestant leader from the early years of pillarisation, who strongly encouraged the process – put it: each pillar was ‘sovereign within its own sphere,’ a principle which was generally respected by everyone. Perhaps most surprisingly, we managed to keep a democratic central government running with little difficulty. (This was possible because the members of each pillar put a great deal of trust into “their” political leaders, and most of those leaders got along well enough behind the scenes. The culture of murky compromises, shady backroom deals, and pragmatism-before-principles that has kept this country going since before it was a country and will continue to do so until the bones of the last Dutchman sink into the soggy ground – that culture really worked its magic during pillarisation.)
So, atomic communitarianism has been proven to work and we should implement it everywhere right away. Case closed!
Then why do so few Dutch people today have anything but negative associations with the word “pillarisation”?
I can think of a few reasons. Within each pillar, there was great social pressure to fit in – to vote for the right parties, read the right papers, send your children to the right schools, and shop at the right shops. (I remember, from my secondary-school history book, a picture of an advertisement: ‘Fellow party members! Show that you are Liberals in every way – buy stuff at Shop X!’ This kind of thing was far from uncommon.) Social contact between members of different pillars was heavily frowned upon, and intermarriage was right out. In theory, you could “leave” your pillar if you really wanted to, but it would cost you your contact with family and friends, and even in your new pillar you’d forever be seen as “that weird guy who came in from another pillar.” The pillars mistrusted each other, and developed a complex system of mutual prejudice: ‘Protestants are puritan moralists who want to impose their rules on everyone!’ ‘Socialists are dangerous revolutionaries who want to throw away everything we hold dear!’ ‘Catholics are mindless sheep who always follow their clergy unquestioningly!’
Scott considers his Archipelago ‘the culmination of liberal principles’, but pillarisation, as it existed in real life, was a conservative thing. It created tight-knit communities which exerted strict control over individual members’ personal lives, and within each, it drummed up a sort of tribal hostility towards other communities. Small wonder, then, that the Dutch Liberals of the age strongly opposed pillarisation, and vehemently denied being a pillar of their own.
Now that we’ve seen a quick case study, let’s turn to the principle of the matter. I have three main objections to atomic communitarianism – that is, to the utopia of Archipelago, but also to Scott’s practical proposal to ‘encourage the fracture of society into subcultures.’
The first, and the most serious, is the hostility that would arise between communities. It is well-known that ignorance breeds mistrust; it’s all too easy to be prejudiced against, say, Catholics if you never talk to an actual Catholic. The more isolated you are from the Catholic community, the more likely your image of Catholics is to consist entirely of propaganda and stereotypes (and looking at Scott’s description of Archipelago, in which communities can choose to ban “foreign” radio and TV broadcasts, his point seems to be ‘the more isolation, the better’.) This problem becomes all the more pressing when the different communities voluntarily separated because they didn’t like each other in the first place.
In the Dutch case, these kinds of hostilities remained relatively tame – likely because the pillars weren’t geographically or economically isolated, and thus still ran into each other every now and then – but if left unchecked, they can quickly turn ugly. It’s not that hard to imagine how communities can go from ‘not talking to each other’ to ‘not trusting each other on anything’ to ‘bashing each other’s skulls in.’
Of course, that’s an extreme consequence. I don’t think ‘encouraging the fracture of society into subcultures’ would immediately lead to civil war, but I do think it would decrease human beings’ ability to understand, respect, and trust those who think differently from them.
My second objection is that it would make people intellectually lazy. Why bother debating your opponents, when you can just say, ‘Well, if you don’t agree with how we do it here, you can always pack up and leave?’ Over time, many people would lose, through atrophy, the ability to defend their own beliefs.
Atomic communitarianism doesn’t encourage people to debate their opponents and learn from each other, it encourages them to sort themselves into isolated circlejerks. It doesn’t create a marketplace of ideas, it creates local monopolies, enforced by protectionist measures like the aforementioned optional broadcasting ban.
(Really, that broadcasting thing – ‘preventing memetic contamination,’ as Scott calls it – is bothering me a lot. Perhaps it’s because I can think of a few places where foreign media are or were banned, none of them very nice.)
My third objection is that communities overlap. Scott mentions several possible communities for his fractured society, including a libertarian community, a Christian community, a lesbian community and a community of weight watchers. But what if I’m a Christian, libertarian lesbian who wants to lose weight? Where do I go?
(I guarantee you that somewhere out there among those seven billion people is a Christian, libertarian lesbian who wants to lose weight.)
For another example, suppose I’m a hippie living in a vegetarian environmentalist community. I agree with my community’s positions on pretty much every issue, but the problem is I really love Wagner. Very few of my fellow hippies like Wagner, and in fact many of them will argue that listening to Wagner is ‘like, not cool, dude’ – so if I ever want to see a Wagner opera on stage, I have to move to a more conservative community, where I’ll have to hide my political views and generally be miserable. And the same goes for anyone who likes anything that’s impopular in their community.
To a considerable degree, the whole point is moot. Society fractures itself into subcultures just fine, whether you encourage it or not. It’s human nature to seek out like-minded people and avoid those with different opinions (in the words of Billy Joel: ‘Only speak to those who will agree, and close your mind when you don’t want to know’). I’m definitely guilty of this myself. My point, however, is that the impulse should be tempered, not encouraged.
Atomic communitarianism does precisely the opposite. As a result, it becomes harder to meet people with different perspectives, to be tolerant and accepting of those different perspectives, and to enjoy things that aren’t the norm in your community. It becomes easier to be prejudiced against others, and to hold beliefs without ever having to think about them.
Those aren’t outcomes I want, and from what I’ve read of Scott’s writings I don’t think he wants them, either.