The Rosy Vision
There can be no greater obstacle to freedom than the assumption that it has already been attained. Noam Chomsky
In Idle Theory, humans are part-time free agents. There are two possible extremes of part-timeness: of being completely determined no-time free agents, and of being perfect full-time free agents. Modern Western society, in its ethics and its politics and economics, describes humans as full-time free agents.
Modern ethical thinking begins with humans as free agents, and asks what codes of conduct they should adopt. Utilitarian ethical theory said that they should seek pleasure and avoid pain. Moral intuitionists claim that we somehow just know intuitively what's right and wrong.
Modern economic theory is an extension of Utilitarianism. The economy produces goods which provide pleasure or satisfaction. People work to produce and exchange these goods. The economy is driven by a desire for pleasure rooted in human psychology.
Modern political theory rests upon the idea of human freedom as a right. The right to free speech and free association. The right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And these rights can only be limited or abridged by tyranny.
In Idle Theory, these interconnected ethical, political, and economic beliefs are dubbed the 'Rosy Vision' of perfect freedom.
This optimistic outlook seems to have taken hold in Western society at the time of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and to have tightened its grip in subsequent centuries. Rather than seeing the condition of humanity as in some sense 'fallen' and in need of Christian 'salvation' or 'redemption', it held that humanity was already saved, and that a new era of human freedom had been inaugurated, or was about to be inaugurated. A Christian notion of a journey or pilgrimage towards a promised land was replaced by a new sense of having arrived. Christianity had become redundant, and church membership steadily fell. The problem for the arrivistes was not how to get to heaven, but what to do now that they'd got there.
In the past, men had seen themselves as playthings in the hands of fickle gods. Or else that whatever happened was the expression of the implacable will of one supreme and omnipotent God. In the Rosy Vision, it ceases to be the will of God (or the gods) that determines events, but the Will of Man. The divine will is replaced by human will. This shift from the divine to the human was prefigured, perhaps, in a Christianity whose God became incarnated on earth as a particular historical individual, a kind of divine pilgrim father establishing the will of God on earth. But the shift from God to Man entailed no essential change in the underlying explanatory logic: Whatever happened could simply be explained by saying "X willed it," where X may be God, or Man, or whatever. This kind of explanation is extremely attractive, precisely because it can explain absolutely anything. But when X is equated with humanity, or Man, or the common people, it is doubly attractive, because then every man can pride himself as being in some sense omnipotent and omniscient.
This kind of explanation of events renders every sort of intellectual enquiry redundant. Once "X willed it" becomes a sufficient explanation, further enquiry is simply a waste of time. The only task left for philosophy is to demonstrate the futility of philosophy, the purposeless of intellectual enquiry and discussion, the meaningless of the terms it uses and the statements it makes. Human history becomes simply the record of what men wanted to do, from one age to the next, and has no internal logic or meaning.
Once Man had become the player rather than the plaything, the world became his playground. Games are the religious services of the Rosy Vision, and sports of every variety hold up a mirror on the world - life is a game.
In Idle Theory, the purpose of the economic activity is to raise human idleness, to provide leisure. Economic growth is measured in increasing idleness. What people do with their idle time, what they may make and sell each other in that time, is secondary to the prime purpose of economic development.
But in the Rosy Vision, leisure is regarded as the given condition of humanity, and all of life, from birth to death, is idle time. It follows that in no sense can economic activity be seen as generating leisure, because leisure is the natural condition of humanity. Instead, the economy can only be concerned with producing a wealth of goods and services that people want for their enjoyment, to add interest to an otherwise idle tedium. In this view of the economy, men and women forego leisure to work to amass desirable goods and services - cars, TVs, videos, swimming pools, perfumes, etc -. Men and women do not work because they have to, but because they choose to. Rather than sit on their backsides and do nothing, they adopt a work ethic, and forego their idleness to generate an income of real wealth. Governments adopt policies of Full Employment in Wealth Creation. It is held that the harder people work, the more material goods and services are produced, and the richer everyone gets. Economic growth is about producing more and more wealth. The Gross National Product, as an indicator of wealth, is simply a measure of the size of the pile of goods produced by economic activity.
The economic theories underpinning this view of the economy typically begin by ascribing to humans an infinite set of almost insatiable desires, and the economy is driven by a general impulse to possess, to own.
The consequence of this is that, whereas Idle Theory seeks to minimize work, modern culture tries to maximize it, and to get economies to employ as many people as possible to output as many goods as possible.
In the Rosy Vision, whatever mode of life people adopt is their Chosen Way of Life. And they have a right to do as they choose.
The Rosy Vision first took hold in the rich, leisured and cultured classes of Western society. The less well-to-do classes, as they adopted the Rosy Vision, came to regard the same freedom as their right also. Political movements towards liberty and equality emerged, which sought the emancipation of workers who were seen to have been cheated of their birthright, and exploited by rapacious aristocrats, landlords, and capitalists. In a series of bloody revolutions, aristocrats and capitalists were deprived of their rights and possessions.
More profoundly, the Rosy Vision inculcated the belief that human society could be whatever humans wished it to be. Any sort of utopian society could be designed and constructed, given sufficient political will. What mattered was human Will, human determination, and solidarity in political mass movements. All that was needed, to institute any sort of social change, was to get enough people to agree, and to actively campaign for change, and change would inevitably follow.
At the same time, since the world was perfect, or soon to be perfected, human society as a mutual aid organization in time of trouble became redundant. There ceased to be a need to help other people, but instead for each person to look after his or her own well-being, entirely independent of society. The ideal type became the 'self-made man', who had bettered himself entirely through his own efforts, without assistance or education.
If people were rich, it was because they had worked hard. If anyone was poor, it was only because they had been idle. Equally, if anyone got sick, it was increasingly seen to be their own fault, through the lifestyle or personal habits they had adopted. In a perfect world in which perfect health was the norm, after all, it could only be through some sort of carelessness or neglect that anyone became ill. Indeed, if doctors could not cure an illness, or arrest its progress, it indicated malpractice.
Since human society was whatever people wanted it to be, it followed that if anything went wrong, then someone somewhere was to blame. And also malefactors, who were after all perfectly free to behave in proper ways, must in some sense be malevolent or evil. So wrongdoers of every sort were increasingly demonized. Witch-hunts and pogroms followed. Whereas Christianity advocated the forgiveness of sins, the Rosy Vision increasingly advocated the harshest punishments.
But at the same time as the Rosy Vision promoted a moral righteousness that saw evil and malice everywhere, it was also busy dissolving ancient moral codes. The ferocity of the witch-hunts concealed increasing uncertainty about what actually was right and wrong. After all, in this perfect world, with all life leisure, there was no obvious reason why one activity was any 'better' or 'worse' than any other, any more than peaches were better than apples. Morality increasingly became a matter of aesthetic personal preference or fashion, a purely private concern. Attempts to enforce ancient moral codes, the rational justifications for which had anyway long been lost, were increasingly resisted as unwarranted social or state or religious interference.
This outcome was inevitable, once human society ceased to be a mutual aid organization with rights and duties, and simply became a collection of pleasure-seeking individuals. In the former case, moral codes acted to benefit everybody, but in the latter case they merely obstructed the pursuit of happiness. The Rosy Vision regularly advocated the most complete liberty, the natural right of anybody to do whatever they wished.
The Rosy Vision as Unsustainable Illusion
The Rosy Vision of freedom and leisure and perfection is a vision, almost, of a possible world, but not of any actual world. It is the vision of the world as it is wished to be, rather than as it actually is, as even the most cursory glance across the face of the world will show. This world is as filled with real suffering, real famine, real disease and deprivation as it ever was in any previous century. It is merely that now, as then, the relatively free, and the relatively leisured, and the relatively rich, fenced off in their estates from that other all too real world, can temporarily sustain the fantasy that this is a Wonderful World, and the present day a summertime when the living is easy.
The Rosy Vision can only be sustained if evidence that humanity is unfree and unleisured is ignored or suppressed. The devotees of the Rosy Vision must close their eyes to continuing human poverty, starvation, disease, and war. This can be done by curtaining it off in such a way that it ceases to be visible, ceases to be reported. What is instead reported is whatever happens which can be shown to be a temporary aberration, an exception to the rule of general perfection. Air crashes are infrequent and take few lives, and their very infrequency testifies to the reliability of modern aircraft, the skill of modern pilots, and the sophistication of navigational equipment - so air crashes receive detailed reports. By contrast, the suffering and death of millions of people, year in and year out, from starvation and disease in squalid slums throughout the world, testifies to the ineffectiveness of modern society, the powerlessness of politicians, the failure of technology - and so it passes unreported.
Since the Rosy Vision is fundamentally unrealistic, there is always a mismatch between reality and expectation. This causes confusion. Or else the devotees of the Rosy Vision feel cheated, or resentful. Attempts are regularly made to make reality fit the dream: in a perfect world, for example, nobody would need to smoke cigarettes to calm their jangled nerves, and so if people can be made to stop smoking cigarettes then in a small way that perfect world will be actualized. The same backwards 'reasoning' can be, of course, easily applied to more or less anything else. And if reality cannot be made to fit illusion, then the devotee comes to feel in some way personally inadequate, that they are unhappy when they ought to be happy, that they are unfulfilled when they ought to be fulfilled, and that some sort of therapy might remove internal blocks or inhibitions that prevent the enjoyment of what ought to be a perfect life. Or again they may retreat into private life, shutting out the real world, and trying to recreate the illusion of perfection.
The Anti-science of the Rosy Vision
Deterministic science threatens to undermine the Rosy Vision by reducing human nature as wholly determined rather than wholly free. Natural science, applied to human life, threatens to take away human freedom. The devotees of the Rosy Vision maintain that human life is somehow separate from all other forms of natural life, peculiarly free in ways that those others are not. Science, they hold, is applicable to gross matter, to stars and planets, and even to much of life - but human life is uniquely different from all these. And when scientists accept that science can offer no ethical advice to humanity, then the separation of humanity from nature remains assured.
The Menace of the Rosy Vision
With the Rosy Vision, human history ceased to have a purpose. Whereas once Christianity had provided a powerful hope of the future Kingdom, once in effect the kingdom had come, no better state could be achieved, no improvement made. The world as it was could not be bettered. Thus the Rosy Vision brings a profound loss of hope, a sense of purposelessness and futility, a renewed despair. Orthodox religion, politics, and science all conspire to assert that what is the case will always be the case. History has ended. If humans are to be motivated by goals, they have to invent those goals for themselves. It can be no surprise if, faced with inherent directionless, and increasing despair, that people turn away from the established religions, from conservative politics, from heartless science, and towards new cults and new drugs.
The Rosy Vision dissolves society, and all morality, and ends real economic growth.
Author: Chris Davis
Last edited: 6 Aug 1998