Optimism One; Up-Wingers


Optimism One: The Emerging Radicalism, by F.M. Esfandiary, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1970, 249 pp., $5.95.

Up-Wingers: A Futurist Manifesto, by F.M. Esfandiary, New York: John Day Co., 1973, 146 pp., $3.95 paperback.

Futuristics is a most interesting phenomenon. On the one hand it constitutes an approach, a way of looking at problems, that is used by various social scientists as well as business and government planners/technicians. On the other hand, it is rapidly developing into a field or discipline of its own, with its own specialists who feel free to use whatever techniques from whatever source that they need. This latter type of specialist is a true inter- (and/or cross-) disciplinarian, and although most are still "officially" labeled with a traditional tag such as Political Scientist, Sociologist, Urban Planner, etc., they are actually "futurists" first, with their primary concern being the future itself.

Futuristics should be of interest to libertarians both because of its concern with the building of better societies, and because the field itself is so new and so revolutionary that ideas even as radical as libertarianism are apt to receive a respectful consideration.

However, this does not mean that most futurists are libertarians. They are not, and therein lies a problem and a challenge, for futuristics is not an ideology, but rather more of a methodological concept. Such a concept is "open" as to the specific content, and here (as unfortunately in so many other places) libertarians are late on the scene. The big names in futuristics up to now, people like Robert Theobald, Buckminster Fuller, Alvin Toffler and John McHale, have all been at least mixed-premised statists—there's not a Rothbard or a Rand among them, not even a Friedman.

However, in the case of many younger futurists, their statism seems to be a kind of vestigal-remains, something carried over from the past which is influencing their views (and plans) of the future, but which is not intrinsically a part of that view. In fact, there are many cases where the handed-down statism constitutes a hindrance and contradiction to the futurists' own goals. While some sort of freer, more productive, more just, happier society (in short, a libertarian society) is desired—the traditional statist tools in analysis and planning turn out to be counter-productive in achieving that goal. The best case in point is that of F.M. Esfandiary.

Esfandiary is an Iranian-born novelist and social commentator. He is also in the forefront, the advance guard, of the futurists. His first non-fiction work Optimism One: The Emerging Radicalism is a joy to read. For Esfandiary is an optimist; a radical, revolutionary, rational, intelligent optimist. This alone sets him apart from a large faction of futurists who seem terribly defeated by what they view as nearly certain dystopias: ecological disasters, loss of personal freedom, famine, nuclear war, alienation, etc. Esfandiary, however, dismisses all this and builds a case that the future could, should, and probably will be a time of unlimited freedom, prosperity, peace and happiness. He is able to make such a projection because his is a radical view not only of the future, but of the present and past as well.

For example: "There was no Golden Age of Greece or Rome, there was no Renaissance or Age of Enlightenment or Belle Epoque. The wealthiest aristocrat in the so-called Golden Age of Greece or the Renaissance had fewer comforts, fewer rights, less security, less peace of mind, less leisure, less freedom of movement, less protection from suffering and death than an ordinary worker in a modern community. There are more learned individuals in the city of Athens today than in all the three- or four thousand year history of Greece.

"This nostalgia for the past is in part nourished by history books which read like fairy tales, bubbling with melodramatic superlatives.…Most history books are still written to the blare of trumpets."

Esfandiary believes, and gives convincing reasons, that the present is literally the greatest time in human history—the Age of Breakthroughs, of Success, the era of greatest humanity, the time that the human race can truly come of age; an evolutionary turning point.

In the second part of his book, titled "Phony Theorizings of Western Cynics," he systematically attacks and refutes the following notions: that the present is characterized by greater violence than the past, that machines and industrial technology are dehumanizing, that there is less privacy today, that modern Man is losing identity, that people are increasingly estranged from nature, and that human nature has either remained unchanged or gotten worse.

The last section of the book is the most exciting and the most beautifully written. It is here that he really opens up and reveals what are obviously his own deeply felt and passionately held hopes for the future: "all the radicalisms of the past are now conservative. So too are democracy, socialism, liberalism, New Left. We are no longer content to strive for increasing democracy…all this is now too modest. We want instant universal participation that will do away with the very institution of government. As revolutionaries in a rapidly expanding world we concede nothing, accept no despair, believe in no ultimate mysteries, abide by no absolute truths, adhere to no eternal values, to no ultimate goals, consider no human problems irreversible, nothing unattainable—not even dimensions beyond Time and Space."

This is all wonderful, but there are some problems. Throughout Optimism One there are occasional signs of confusion beneath the bright surface—such as Esfandiary's view of the United Nations as a positive future-oriented institution (perhaps reflecting the fact that he once worked there), his lack of a modern (free-market) economic perspective, and his classification of intellectuals like Kenneth Boulding, Marshall McLuhan and Gunnar Myrdal as "brave visionaries," or Eleanor Roosevelt and Pope John as "super-men." But these mistakes are usually in regard to side issues, or in the form of personal comments—the main thrust is always for progress, technology, peace and freedom. The contradictions don't really catch up with Esfandiary until his second book.

Up-Wingers: A Futurist Manifesto was eagerly awaited by all of us who were so impressed by Esfandiary's first book. Unfortunately, it's a let-down. Up-Wingers is less, not more, revolutionary than Optimism One. The statist premises have finally taken their toll. The dedicated tone and beautiful style remain, but a strange new imperative element has been added. Instead of describing what people in the future could do or what their more nearly unlimited options might be or even, what would be best for them—we are told THE FUTURE WILL BE THIS WAY!—and the way presented is not very appealing.

Although he states at the beginning that, "Today we cannot and should not even attempt to structure the future through elaborate plans. Our increasingly fluid times demand fluid guidelines," Esfandiary promptly forgets to heed his own warning. He says plainly, for instance, that, "Marriage itself must go." In other words, rather than just criticizing conventional marriage or explaining why it is becoming an increasingly anachronistic institution, he prefers to command that it be abolished. But what of those who don't want it abolished (say for themselves)? Must they go along because of some determined "future-imperative"? No answer is actually given either way, but the overriding tone, the rhetorical thrust of Up-Wingers is that they will.

Similarly, in regard to children, Esfandiary doesn't just think that individuals should have no right to make decisions about having babies ("Creating a new life is too important a decision to leave to one individual or couple. The concept of individual rights in procreation is primitive. We need collective planning, collective procreation, collective child-rearing"), but that as "individuals reach adolescence or early adulthood they must be encouraged—perhaps even required—to deposit their sperm or eggs and body cells at the National Child Center." Esfandiary's brave new world is constructed on the grave of Optimism One!

The private possession of objects is viewed as reprehensible: "My house, my stereo, my telescope, my land—this psychology of possessiveness must give way to our house, our stereo, our telescope, our land."

In the field of education, Esfandiary, the man who wanted to do away with the very institution of government, now calls for extensive government-sponsored television and radio programs, "free" educational cassettes, numerous child travel grants, etc. In the field of industry, Esfandiary, the man who predicted ever increasing individual freedom, now opts for the immediate establishment of a United Nations Technological Council to "plan" transportation, communications, cybernetic technology, etc. Even in the field of recreation, Esfandiary, the man who dedicated his first book to the human individual as the extraordinary phenomenon of the universe, now wants communities to disallow sports competition and to ban all contests, tournaments, and matches.

In short, Esfandiary, the man who apparently is sincere in his desire for what amounts to a libertarian society, is stymied by his basic ignorance in conceptualizing the dynamics of such a society and in constructing ways to achieve that society. As David Friedman has said of socialists—he never met one who desired what he (Friedman) thought a socialist society would actually be like. This is doubly relevant since it is precisely outdated socialist economic views that Esfandiary holds, and it is these views more than anything else that tends to down UP-WINGERS.

In the worst chapter of the book, titled "Beyond Survival Economics: Cybernated World of Leisure and Abundance," he is guilty of all the worst fallacies of the "post-scarcity" syndrome. Failing to understand the basic principles of production, entrepreneurship, value and exchange, he believes that automation and cybernation are such potent forces in their own right that they completely transcend both capitalism and socialism. Yet, from this assumption he goes on to develop outlines of his ideal future economy that can only be categorized as: the same old tired state socialism that has been so totally refuted—both theoretically and empirically—for generations now, PLUS the use of cybernetic technology. But, socialism plus the computer still equals socialism—and perhaps a worse form of socialism since the computer will simply help the state to do the same wrong things more effectively than before.

In addition, Esfandiary states such absurdities as, "Cybernation is an outgrowth of modern technology. Not of socialism or capitalism. Cybernation is spreading in spite of socialism and capitalism." Which apart from being simply inaccurate historically, is also logically fallacious since all contextual meaning has been removed from the term "technology."

As with some other "post-scarcity" advocates, Esfandiary tries to fantasize away all the coercive statist implications of his beliefs, for: "Cybernation will spread abundance without significant redistribution of wealth. We no longer need to redistribute anything. We need to develop the limitless energies and resources now suddenly opening up to us—fusion and thermal energy…" But again, this is nothing more than fantasy since it denies (or rather glosses over) the necessarily antecedent position of production to either distribution or redistribution. And also again, there is extreme noncontextualism in that the very "development" called for is left as a floating abstraction, tied to no operational framework.

When he considers transitional politics, Esfandiary finally reaches the climax and apex of the contradictions between his libertarian wishes and authoritarian methods. He writes, "The United Nations is your world government…You must become personally involved in it. The U.N. charter begins We the Peoples of the United Nations.…The Peoples—not the governments."

To me, personally, this passage is rather tragic since it reveals what Esfandiary wants to be true and what he can only conceive of as the best alternative available, yet which is so evidently not enough to radically change the individual's autonomy on earth. For just a few pages later, he says, "The greatest movements today are outside politics. The most progressive changes take place in spite of governments. Political leaders as a rule are driven by personal ambition, too involved in problems of day-to-day housekeeping, too boxed-in to traditional Right-wing and Left-wing philosophies, too vulnerable to the whims of the conservative masses to initiate or actuate far-ranging goals. Politics is no longer the most effective way to change the world."

He realizes this, and yet is still tied to an old reactionary institution like the U.N. He does not see other alternatives aside from world governments-national governments-other governments—and worse, doesn't seem to even allow the alternative that a single, all-inclusive alternative itself may not be necessary.

To be fair, Esfandiary's faults seem to be errors of knowledge, rather than moral failings. To use Arthur C. Clarke's terms, his is not a "failure of nerve," but rather a "failure of imagination." Esfandiary wants a libertarian future, but being tied to outworn (and mistaken) ideas, his most valuable projections are at best weakened and defective; at worst are counter-productive and regressive—are more amenable to the "down-winger" Old World philosophies that he so sincerely and passionately wants to excise from suffering mankind.

Let's hope that his next book will go forward from the achievement of Optimism One, by-pass the back-sliding statist dead-end of Up-Wingers, and give us all the profound treat of a great mind, speaking in a great way, and saying great things. For F.M. Esfandiary does belong with the future, and with those free souls who will make the future, with libertarians.

William Danks is currently completing his Ph.D. in Political Science at the University of Hawaii. His doctoral field is Developmental Futuristics, and he is working under noted futurist James A. Dator, director of the Futures Research Center. He has recently been appointed a fellow of the University's Faculty Institute on Planetary Resource Management.