David Heinemeier Hansson

December 13, 2021

Heaven is hazy

In trying to understand the ideology of The Elect, as John McWorter calls them, I've found a historical dive into the late 60s and early 70s tremendously productive. The echoes of history provide a strange comfort: We are not the first people to be struggling with this.

I don't just mean that in a general sense. That other peoples at other times have faced crippling polarization, societal upheaval, and political distress. No, that the very battlegrounds of thought are the same. Not similar, but the same.

William Buckley's show Firing Line is a treasure trove in this regard. Take this episode where he hosts Dotson Rader and Arnold Beichman in a discussion about the student revolutionaries, the radicalization process, class consciousness, and the general turmoil of the late 60s. It's remarkable how many lines connect Rader's arguments for rebellion against the fabric of America with those being shouted by The Elect today (though he's far more congenial about it).

(A striking difference from this period of Firing Line with today is the fact that a calm, yet fierce, discussion of ideology can even happen. Between a revolutionary-sympathetic writer, his political counter, and moderated by a conservative! While they chuckle between huffs on the cigarette.)

The key point that resonated with me from this entire discussion was Beichman's pressing inquiry into The Day After The Revolution. So, you say you want to – paraphrasing here for modern keywords – "dismantle structural inequality" and "fight systemic oppression"? Explain to me, then, what does victory look like? What's a historical example of a successful revolution on those terms? What does the political reality look like when the opposition has been conquered?

Rader doesn't have an answer. Pridefully so. The faith in a paradisiacal outcome of a (violent) revolution is just that: faith.

(That word, faith, connects us directly to McWorter's grand thesis in his new book Woke Racism: That we're in the realm of religion, and that an unfounded, ahistorical faith in a heavenly kingdom to come after the great revolution is to be expected.)

Slavoj Žižek repeated Beichman's frustration forty years later in his Big Think appearance entitled Dear Leftists, What Happens the Day after the Revolution? Where he runs through the same criticism of the lack of a concrete, political alternative and agenda. Why has it become impossible to even contemplate this utopia we're all supposed to be fighting for? Why have the most ardent proponents stopped even trying? Why does V for Vendetta end with The People storming parliament instead of showing them actually trying to rule?

Perhaps because present attempts at the utopian vision have turned bleak pretty quick. You don't even have to reach back into the communist archives for references (as Beichman does on Firing Line). Michael Shellenberger's account of the autonomous zone established in Seattle called CHOP (Capitol Hill Organized Protest) in his new book San Fransicko is a good primer. Whatever spirit of peace, love, and harmony that might have inspired protestors early descended into a dangerous, authoritarian Mad Max re-enactment remarkably fast.

There's something deeply depressing about that. I've much enjoyed David Graeber's writings, and he always seemed like such an optimist about the fact that society is just a set of social agreements, and that we could make different ones. He was active in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and while that might have faired somewhat better than CHOP, it wasn't exactly a clear map on where to go with those different social agreements.

I've also been a fan of Chomsky's societal diagnosis (you can enjoy some of them from his appearance on that very same Buckley show from 1969!), but, and I forget where it came from, the joke is too that Chomsky's ideal society was like five minutes of some small commune after an obscure revolution in Latin America somewhere.

George Orwell at least tries to wrestle with the question honestly in his 1943 essay Why Socialists Don't Believe In Fun:

The inability of mankind to imagine happiness except in the form of relief, either from effort or pain, presents Socialists with a serious problem... They wanted to produce a perfect society by an endless continuation of something that had only been valuable because it was temporary. The wider course would be to say that there are certain lines along which humanity must move, the grand strategy is mapped out, but detailed prophecy is not our business.

Knowing what you really want is really hard! It's much easier to settle for knowing what you don't want. So let's not even try to imagine what utopia will emerge once we've gotten rid of all the greed, injustice, and phobias that exist in the world. Instead, let's just trust that it will.

As we've seen since, first in the late 60s, then more recently, I don't think continuing to bet on that with blind trust is panning out all that well.

James Lindsey traces this speculative, or gnostic, faith in a grand utopia through all these points back to the German philosopher Hegel in the "Hegel, Wokeness, and the Dialectical Faith of Leftism" episode of his podcast New Discourses. The crystallization of which also centers on the 60s. With the Frankfurt School, and Herbert Marcuse in particular.

Marcuse too embraces this idea that the destination for the radical project is unknowable. That we have to trust that it'll emerge, spontaneously, and, like Orwell prescribes, shouldn't sweat too much about what it might look like. Because of course it's going to be great.

Does that sound a little like The Unlimited Potential of Man, as Thomas Sowell presents the unconstrained vision in A Conflict of Visions? Yes, of course it does.

It also lends more than a little credibility to the idea that Sowell's constrained vision – that humans are bound to suffer from greed, inflict injustice, and habor phobias – has something important to teach us. That we won't find a solution – a utopia! – but only trade-offs.

As a long-term unconstrained champion, seeking "solutions" of all sorts in the realms of technology and company culture, it's been striking to put all these pieces together, and expand my worldview as a consequence.

If you too have had an easier time imagining hell from heaven, there's much to contemplate in all these accounts. And plenty of hard questions to wrestle with on how start managing the trade-offs once we've given up on finding The Solution.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.