Reprint: The People’s Almanac’s Symposium on Utopias

Eight respected intellectuals describe their ultimate utopias, and sound like humiliating caricatures of themselves.

Originally appeared in The People’s Almanac #2 [1978]
Reprinted from Trivia Library

ISAAC ASIMOV, prolific popular science writer, noted for his readable texts, such as Asimov’s Guide to Science.

WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY JR author, lecturer, and leading spokesperson for the conservative movement.

RAM DASS, formerly a Harvard professor named Richard Alpert, now a philosopher and author of several books, including Be Here Now.

CLIFTON FADIMAN, author, editor, and Book-of-the-Month Club judge.

ALLEN GINSBERG, political activist and poet, who achieved fame in 1956 with the publication of Howl.

JAMES MICHENER, internationally acclaimed best-selling author, who received a Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for his first published book, Tales of the South Pacific.

ASHLEY MONTAGU, social scientist and author of The American Way of Life and other books.

LOUIS UNTERMEYER, the late poet, author, and anthologist, whose collections include Lives of the Poets and 1,000 Years of English and American Poetry.

Their answers follow.

1. What would the physical environment of your utopia be like?

Asimov: On Earth, parks, farms, and wilderness in carefully balanced proportions. Industry would, for the most part, be on space stations in orbit, run by the power of the Sun.

Buckley: No snakes, no government forms.

Dass: Very much as it is now, though perhaps more consciously cared for.

Fadiman: An environment in which technology is used only to make technology itself invisible, inaudible, unsmellable, unfeelable, untastable. One in which a quietly restrained nature dominates.

Ginsberg: Gardened urbs [cities], tree crop agriculture on hills and in cities.

Michener: An opportunity to work 10 hours a day in solid surroundings and with good companions, each doing his or her own work. Four hours of recreation such as tennis, hiking, fishing, photography, but definitely something relating to nature and the outdoors. Two hours catching up on the newer intellectual developments, including political and court decisions, with materials for study at hand. Eight hours in a sturdy bed, with a bed board, a hard pillow, window open, and light blankets.

Montagu: Garden cities surrounded by green belts in which no one would ever have to use surface transportation of any kind. Maximum size of cities would be 50,000. Each house situated on at least two acres.

Untermeyer: It would be an environment of peace. Brotherhood would be a reality, not a disregarded cliche. There would be neither pollution nor politicians. It would be a state of absolute blessedness–one which (to venture a pseudopun) would be not only near-Nirvana, but Nirvana itself.

2. What family structures would exist?

Asimov: This would be a matter of choice. There might be the ordinary families of today, but there would also be a much wider choice of comradeship. Increasingly, ectogenesis and variations of the kibbutz would break down the importance of genetic connections.

Buckley: See Old Testament.

Dass: The basic unit would be monogamous, and these units would be grouped in communities containing up to 50 families. But there would be ample opportunities for other style choices.

Fadiman: Present family structure, with a maximum of two children after the present population has been reduced by at least 90%. Some decent provision for the aged.

Ginsberg: Loose polysexual groups.

Michener: Age 18-28, communal living with all earnings going into a community pot. Age 28-58, a private home, with children and a legally married wife. Age 58-98, communal living, with all income shared, a community commissary, community health services.

Montagu: The extended family would be dominant.

Untermeyer: There should be no strict definition as to what constitutes a family. Nor should there be the conventional obligations. The ties of the family should be loose. You shouldn’t be required to love–or even be bothered with–an aunt, an uncle, or all sorts of cousins, just because they’re related to you.

3. How would the government be organized?

Asimov: It would be a world government with considerable autonomy in local matters in all regions. There would be planetwide votes on all issues thought to be controversial, and the final decisions would be made by computer, which would, of course, take into account (to an important but not exclusive extent) the state of public opinion.

Buckley: There would be no government.

Dass: By means of technology allowing for direct voting on major policy issues (a la Fuller’s ideas) by those who wish to spend their consciousness on political matters. Also, perhaps politics would attract more beings who are conscious of the larger design of which man is but a part.

Fadiman: Our own system, bad as it is, is still the best in town. If we could substitute mentally grown-up men and women for politicians, that would help.

Ginsberg: By meditation teachers.

Michener: In the U.S., regional groupings of states would be inescapable, but each constituent state would retain many of its present prerogatives, not for necessary reasons, but to sustain local pride and prejudices. Regional and area groupings to handle such complexes as New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Kansas City, Houston, etc. These would have great power and would override state interests, which do not serve these areas well. I would be willing to see changes in the presidency, perhaps even a two-part occupancy, one for ceremonial purposes, one for administrative. I would also be willing to see major changes in the House and Senate. (Specifically, senators should not serve beyond the age of 74.) But I would defend with my life the perpetuation and preservation of the Supreme Court. It is our noblest institution, and without it we would crumble. Locally, I would do away with most county officials and install hired specialist executives.

Montagu: Local government by district. Local government representatives in the urban government but not on a proportional basis. Government to be conducted by citizens. There are to be no permanent officials whatever, except for a secretariat. Citizen representatives shall be chosen on a rotatory basis to serve for a period of not more than two years at a time.

Untermeyer: I am suspicious of the word government. In today’s world it suggests too often dictatorship, totalitarianism, and restriction of the individual. There would, of course, be control–mostly self-control. In my utopian world there would be no need for committees, organizations, legislative bodies, to determine what other bodies, individuals, or groups should perform.

4. How would work and goods be divided?

Asimov: Since my utopia would be thoroughly computerized and automated, the world would run without much more than minimal human interference. Consequently, each person would do whatever interested him to the extent that it does not interfere unduly with the interests of others. Undoubtedly, many will choose to do what we call “work,” Since the population of my utopia will be well within the limits society could support comfortably, all people should be guaranteed a comfortable life whatever they do. Beyond that, a marketplace give-and-take would exist for those who cared.

Buckley: Secundum aestimationem geri. [“To be regulated according to the value.”]

Dass: The community would be the economic entity. Within that grouping, consensus determines apportionment of work and goods.

Fadiman: Basic necessities for all; beyond that, the usual human, normal competition.

Ginsberg: Everybody do some physical work, goods divided amicably by “need.”

Michener: Age 0-18. The child would depend primarily upon his parents with such state aid as was deemed advisable. Age 18-28. Communal living, with goods going into a socialist pot, and into savings for the establishment of a home and family. Age 28-58. A maximum amount of free enterprise, but with the acknowledgement that the U.S. can now produce with only a portion of its work force all goods that are required. Therefore, those who are not needed in the work force as currently established would receive payments from the government; but I would hope that we could devise whole new definitions of work, under which the necessary functions of a good society would be provided. I would encourage private ownership of everything that can be logically owned that way. Taxes would be high, but social returns would be great. I am in favor of heavy death taxes. Age 58-98. Early retirement from managerial responsibilities would be both encouraged and enforced. The management of social institutions like sewer commissions, banks, automobile agencies, libraries, universities, hat stores, and football franchises should be in the hands of young people. Managers should retire at age 55 or earlier, opening positions to younger experts, but the elders could work on in less demanding positions.

Montagu: Everyone would be required to work except young couples just beginning the business of raising children. The mother should be required to stay with her child during the first year of its life. The father should not be required to work more than four hours a day during that period so that he might be able to spend more time at home with his family. Intellectual workers and teachers should be the most highly rewarded, and others paid according to the quality–not the quantity–of the work they do. There should be no distinctions made between the sexes as to work or its rewards.

Untermeyer: Work would not be done merely for wages. There would be not only a satisfaction but an enjoyment in the act of work itself–a regaining of pride in work, function, contribution, as a personal fulfillment. All physical requirements would be supplied equally.

5. How would education take place?

Asimov: Where human interaction is not essential (as in athletics, public speaking, drama, and so on), education would be through advanced teaching machines plugged in to a planetary computerized library. Each child (or adult) could then be educated in whatever subjects interest him to whatever extent he pleases and for however long he wishes.

Buckley: Voucher system schooling, attendance voluntary after achieving literacy.

Dass: Available throughout life by choice.

Fadiman: Our own system isn’t bad: improve the educators, make them top dogs socially and, to a degree, financially, and you’ll probably produce a fair number of educated human beings.

Ginsberg: With background of meditation, nontheistic.

Michener: If I am worried about one aspect of American life, it is the appalling downgrading of education, the attack on testing, the removal of entrance requirements, the constantly dumbing-down of content so that totally uneducated young people can make believe they are going to college. This downward movement imperils our nation. So, I believe that about 70% of our total citizenry in the future will be educated primarily by television. Our political, commercial, and managerial leaders will come from this group. The other 30% will be educated as usual in the Socratic-Aristotelian-Platonic system of books, questions, written summaries, slowly maturing concepts. I would make the 70% education easy, the 30% much more difficult than now. And we could have a rather good society as a result. But whatever we do, I would insist that school be a place for learning, that college deal with real ideas.

Montagu: In the home and through nursery, kindergarten, school, college, and university. With the emphasis on the science and art of human relations–the ability to live as if life and love were one. All else to be regarded as secondary skills and techniques in the greater enlargement of the ability so to live. The principal qualification for the teacher being the ability to love.

Untermeyer: Education would take place by association–association with all sorts of stimuli: people, books, art, music, dance, drama, things, happenings, emotions … even (almost unbelievably) television.

6. What crimes would there be, and how would they be punished?

Asimov: With everyone doing as he pleases provided it does not unduly interfere with the right of others to do as they please, the “invasion of rights” would be the major crime. Where this crime is persistent and where the criminal is not persuaded to cease and desist, the punishment could be social ostracism.

Buckley: In utopia, there are no criminals, hence no crime.

Dass: Because of different economic distribution, crimes would not be primarily crimes of property. Also, altering consciousness (one’s own, of course) would not be a crime. Bodily harm or psychological harassment of others would still be punishable offenses.

Fadiman: I think you’d have pretty much what you’ve got now, with fewer crimes against property. No one has ever figured out how to punish the worst kind of crime, that of violence. All measures so far have failed. Anybody got any cures except the gas chamber?

Ginsberg: Passion, aggression, ignorance self-punished by their own painful consequences.

Michener: The present terror in which most of my friends live is not tolerable. They expect to be harassed, held up, mugged, stolen from, and perhaps physically assaulted or killed. They expect juveniles to be coddled until they become rapists and murderers. And they expect society to worry much more about the perpetrator than the victim. Now much of this fear is fable, but some of it is real. I would think that with juveniles we should give them every opportunity to establish themselves, and I would be very forgiving. But when it appeared that we had on our hands a real recidivist, I would be willing to have him put away securely for 20 years in hopes he would learn, under discipline, the lessons he must acquire in order to live in an open society. (He would be permitted and encouraged to have contact with the opposite sex.) For adults or even advanced juveniles who commit horrendous crimes that terrify society–Manson, the Texas killers, the killer of the Chicago nurses–I would impose the death penalty without hesitation. But I would be very careful that it was not imposed merely for crimes about which the society felt strongly, like communism in the 1950s. White-collar crime should be dealt with, not by prison sentences, but by powerful, repeated, and forceful public condemnation. Sex crimes involve an area in which I am not an expert and am indeed bewildered.

Montagu: There would be no crimes in my utopia because by the time a human being reached the age at which he would be capable of committing a crime, he would be so well disciplined and so well disposed to the whole of animate and inanimate nature that he wouldn’t commit an offense against anyone. The whole conception of “crime” would be eliminated, as would punishment.

Untermeyer: Utopia has been defined–and accepted–as perfection in moral, social, and political life. In such a state of being there can be no crime or criminal intent. Obviously, there would be no need for punishment.

7. What would be YOUR role in this society?

Asimov: Since I would do exactly as I please in such a society, there would be no change in my role at all. I do exactly as I please right now–which is to be at my typewriter every minute I can manage, and to be quietly and happily with my wife every other minute I can manage. Is there more I could ask?

Buckley: Prophet.

Dass: A collaborative member, doing what has to be done … just about the way it is now.

Fadiman: Just what it is now: to lead a harmless life whose main purpose seems to be to pay bills and taxes.

Ginsberg: Making my own passion, aggression, and ignorance more transparent through physical work and poetics and sitting meditation.

Michener: Almost what it is now. I have been pondering answers to this questionnaire for the past 60 years and have undergone a real education in doing so. I used to believe strongly that the death sentence should not be imposed–because by and large only Democrats were ever executed; Republicans could always buy their way free–but now I see that even if only Democrats are executed, they must be if they are totally inimical to society. I have changed on the question of how young people aged 18-28 should live, too, and in my basic attitudes toward women’s rights. (I am a much stronger supporter of women’s liberation than my wife or most of my women friends, who say, “We’ve got hold of a good thing and we don’t want any changes that might upset it.”) I would be willing, or even eager, to turn my earnings over to society in return for a good place to live and work, but again, most women are repelled by this prospect in that to them a home is the most important thing, so long as it can be paid for. And I suppose I would continue to fight for change, for better systems of life, for a stronger society. And I suppose there would always be a need for chroniclers to report what had happened or to guess about what might happen. I would probably be employed much as I am now, which is one of the reasons why I judge myself to have such a happy life.

Montagu: To do what I could as a citizen with whatever abilities I have to serve my idea of world community–an idea which begins at home in one’s own community.

Untermeyer: I am a congenital dissenter. Even in a utopian society, I would challenge the slightest suggestion or stricture that would, in any way, threaten to limit the individual’s right to free thought and spontaneous expression.

8. Why isn’t life like this now?

Asimov: (1) There are too many people for the world to support comfortably. (2) Technology has not advanced to the proper level of computerization and automation. (3) Prisoners of their past, human beings and human societies are too eager to pursue short-term goals to the doubtful benefit of themselves and the undoubted detriment of humanity and the planet as a whole.

Buckley: Invincible ignorance.

Dass: For some people it is. For others, fantasies based on exploitation of others are still very real. I experience most of the time that I am living in a utopia of my own design in the sense that (a) my mind creates my universe, and (b) every moment provides plenty of grist for the mill of awakening–and awakening is my primary work in this lifetime.

Fadiman: As you can see, I think the notion of utopia a bit childish. Let’s get rid of war, environmental decay, poverty, and overpopulation and then see what happens. The human race should hang loose. Idealists are dangerous people. Hitler and Stalin were idealists, pure utopians.

Ginsberg: For some it is, for some it isn’t. Probably solidification of ego in capitalist skyscrapers and in communist office buildings inhibits the necessary transparency of consciousness.

Michener: For me it is.

Montagu: Because by the time people reach the age at which they might be capable of understanding how things might be better, they are too deeply immersed in the strenuous attempt to keep themselves from falling apart. They have no time for “utopian” ideas or unrealistic idealism. Here and now they are faced with the big-enough problem of survival to have anything left over to pay much attention to anything else. The idea of love has virtually gone from the world, so that millions are unloved to death in societies in which there is a massive failure of love behind the show of love–in which success is measured in terms of its material validations, not its humane victories.

Untermeyer: Why indeed! It never was and (alas) it never will be.

9. Any other comments?

Asimov: If, as the decades pass, population is not controlled and reduced; if public hostility to technology continues and grows; if human beings and human societies remain prisoners of their past and continue to find mutual recrimination, quarreling, and war to be more satisfactory than cooperative survival–then my utopia will not be realized and, in fact, human civilization will not long survive.

Dass: We take birth on the plane of reality which includes earth because of our karmic attachments to (1) lust and greed, (2) anger, (3) agitation, (4) sloth, and (5) doubt. These attachments, by means of our thought forms, shape our universe. So perhaps earth is functional just as it is for those of us who have this particular work to do. There already are other planes of heavens, etc., for those whose karmic predicament is different.

Ginsberg: Existence has built-in qualities of suffering, mutability, and soullessness, so any utopia would have to be based on our unprejudiced working with these qualities.

Michener: The important thing, I believe, in striving for such utopia as is practical during one’s life, is to retain a sardonic, introspective, judicious attitude toward everything, and to make what might be called “the grand transitions” from the demands of one period of one’s life to the next. Change is the order of the world; few people working today have experienced the degree of change in their professions that I have, for all the old patterns of publishing books have altered. Magazines have died, newspapers have folded, motion picture studios have vanished, television has erupted, pocket books have foliated, and both artistically and economically all has undergone revolution. If I had tried to cling to old patterns. I would have been destroyed. I cannot begin to guess what the pattern of writing will be by the year 2000, but it certainly won’t be what I know now. It would be great fun to see what happens to my profession. In fact, it would be great fun to see what happens to anything … the family, the corner store, the movies, the automobile, the airplane, the dentist’s office, the university, the multinational corporation. I’d like to watch it all as the convolutions and the changes take place. It’s much more exciting than watching NFL football on the tube on Sunday afternoon. For the changes I’m talking about are for real. This is the great game, the one in which winning and losing is of vital importance. The good part is that regardless of what set of decades chance throws you into, the great game is just as exciting now as it ever has been or can be. I would have loved to live in America in the period from 1750 to 1800. But it’s no better than the period from 1950 to 2000. And we who live now are no better off than those who will be living from 2000 to 2050. (But I sure as hell would enjoy seeing that one.)

Montagu: Yes. The only philosophically tenable position for a pessimist in time of crisis is optimism. We have to live and work as if by our labors in the desired direction we shall make the difference that counts. There is really no other possible attitude if we are to accomplish what we are able. And what we are able, we ought to do–and that is to live as if to live and love were one.

Untermeyer: Since I’ll never live in that perfected utopia, I settle for my private one: listening to Mozart with a cat on my lap.

Garden of Earthly Delighs