Saturday 10 September 2011

News from Nowhere

I've left London, and I am sailing to a new island that has appeared out of the ice in the Arctic circle. No, this is not a prank. I've been invited along with an eclectic collection of academics, artists, lawyers, activists, sixth-formers and scientists to sail to this small pitch of land, which has been named NowhereIsland, as part of the Cultural Olympiad. Right now, I'm in Oslo, and tomorrow we travel to Svalbard, where we will board a ship, the Noorderlicht, which will take us to the island, where those of us who went to fee-paying schools will be devoured by bears.

Along the way, we're supposed to debate and discuss how to build a conceptual new nation, a model society in the wreck of late capitalism. There is a chance, given how many Guardian readers we seem to have on this trip, that we may just all turn pirate and start raiding the coastal towns of Norway and Finland and looting all the humous and complicated jam. Presuming we make it, however, we will have weeks stuck on a boat to debate utopianism, anarchism, feminism and environmental activism and try to avoid one another's eyes in the communal showers.

Anyone can become a citizen of Nowhere Island, just by signing up here. In fact, NowhereIsland already has more citizens than Vatican City* and we may soon outnumber Monaco, although you can't reroute your tax through Nowhere Island, because in this new nation the common wealth of humanity will be held above the pursuit of profit. Also, there isn't a bank.

I signed up for this journey because I was thoroughly enamoured with the possibility of going to the Polar circle, and by the human experiment of being crammed on a tiny ship with twenty strangers and no internet access for two weeks, a sort of Big Brother as imagined by Ian McEwan. As I've become more involved in the project, however, I've come to realise what a mad, brilliant idea it really is, and so, I need your help. I'd like you to write, in the comments here or in an email to me, and share your idea of Utopia - Nowhere, in Greek - of an ideal society, whatever that means to you. I don't care if your vision of Utopia is a zero-carbon society, a neo-libertarian dystopia, a world without gender, or a fantasy theocracy where everyone worships the Flying Spaghetti Monster and matters of state are decided by competitive playoffs of Dance Dance Revolution . It can be as detailed as you like, or just a few lines. I'll be keeping a travel diary of this mad, weird fortnight and will post as and when I have web access, which will depend entirely on the satellite service. And the bears.

*and not ALL of them are Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. :S


  1. "those of us who went to fee-paying schools will be devoured by bears."

    Seriously - I dislike public schoolboys as much as the next plebeian but that's in very poor taste

  2. Sounds like fun though - trouble is one person's utopia is another's hell on earth - My ideal would be for people to be able to make logical arguments without getting uptight and personal about stuff. Enjoy.

  3. I wonder what polar bear steak tastes like...?

    Have fun!

  4. Create and perform music together! It's an important element of any society. Have a great time though, I'm well jealous.

  5. Direct humanity's imperialist tendencies towards putting people on planets and pieces of rock in outer space. In the meantime, we need a new economic system that is neither controlled Marxist or capitalist, and that ensures social, economic, and environmental justice for all.

  6. Utopia? That's difficult, because I don't believe in enforcing my ideas on other people - however, to describe utopia itself is to opine on one's personal paradise.

    So here goes anyway. I only have two suggestions:

    1. Direct democracy in most matters. Everything, from local legislation to national laws, would be decided via one person, one vote. Even the Constitution would be decided by the consent of the population. Naturally, some matters may need to be delegated to democratically elected councils, but this should be minimized to prevent undue power systems from forming.

    2. Economic democracy. It is infeasible to eradicate capitalism immediately; first, we must show people that it is possible to live in a communitarian manner, and only then gradually wean away from capitalism. To do this, cooperatives (like credit unions, worker coops, and consumer-owned groceries) should be promoted.

    Hopefully those ideas are okay. Have fun Penny!

  7. Utopia is a very individual thing, which is paradoxical in view of the fact that it is meant to constitute a vision for the whole of society.

    I don’t see utopia as merely being an imaginary place. I think it is a place we should try to reach on this earth. It may be unattainable, but the point is that we try to attain it. And in our quest inspire others to do likewise.

    I have great sympathy for Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo, in which he encourages everyone to find the climate, diet and the conditions that are congenial to his or her own temperament and physique.

    I think many people take their freedom for granted and therefore forget to exercise it. Which I think is a mistake.

    We should each believe in our own individual utopia and strive to attain it. That’s not to say we don’t need other people’s help.


  8. Just being in a good mood, without needing an electrode to excite the 'pleasure centre' or whatever. Just a good mood. If I were running for office, I'd say, "I'm going to work tirelessly, day and night, to put you in a good mood." Not rich, necessarily, not drunk, not better off than your neighbour, not ecstatic. Just cool with shit.

    Obviously, there's the How. No idea about that, but it's pretty obvious that our current elected officials are aiming for the getting-away-with-it end of public satisfaction. I want them to think, 'We can't allow [white-collar crime; sweat-shop-produced goods; nuclear capability; surveillance culture; whatever] because, no matter how expedient, it's just a fucking bummer.'

    It's a matter of attitude, but that's all I ask.

    Disclaimer: I'm four pints in and Face/Off's on, so stupidity seems acceptable somehow.

  9. "..share your idea of of an ideal society, whatever that means to you."

    Utopias per se are dead ends due to their 'perfection'. Of course, humans being humans, we'll likely never achieve such a state anyway and just as well.

    But an 'ideal society' e.g. a functional and stable civilization with growth potential, is at least hypothetically possible. Here is my contribution:

  10. I would start by replacing organized religion with basic good manners (please, thank you, yes ma'am no sir )...

  11. Pretty much New Zealand, but with 150 years of proper adherence to the Treaty of Waitangi - that the colonisers did sign, after all.

    You'll battle to find more egalitarian, easy-going, pragmatic, affable characters than Kiwis and Aussies, and that pervades society as a whole, from right at the top on a constitutional, governmental level, to the day-to-day interactions between people on the street.

    NZ over Australia though, because NZ's mountains are nicer ;)

  12. "Along the way, we're supposed to debate and discuss how to build a conceptual new nation, a model society in the wreck of late capitalism."

    The socialists still haven't been able to satisfactorily explain how such a system would work. How can you calculate what people want without private property and money? The argument made by Ludwig von Mises ( still hasn't been answered - even the supposedly successful rebuttals of Oskar Lange turned out to be spurious ( (Also Mises' argument shouldn't be confused with Hayek's different calculation argument about dispersed information under capitalism).

  13. Isn't this precisely the time when you don't need input from the internet? Just talk with your fellow-shiverers, and forget the rest of the world.

  14. Utopia would be a place where no one lives, but all the citizens visit simply visit. The trappings of real life mean that we;d all have live in a 'real' nation, and only escape to Utopia temporarily.
    Enjoy yourself on the rock anyway :)

  15. As was the case in the Greek city states, every citizen should be prepared to shoulder political responsibility and sufficiently educated to meet that responsibility. So, referendums on all those things that are not taken to be self-evident (everyone can agree that murder, for example is wrong, but you need to decide between you how that crime should be punished).

    Also, you should have a massive bag of magic mushrooms to share around.

  16. A state who's job it is to provide health services, infastructure, education, and a justice system whose main goal is rehabilitation of offenders rather than punishment. The education system ought to focus on teaching people how to think, learn, and create - a skill set for an uncertain future, and conducive to letting everyone make informed, free choices about their own lifestyle, and provide access to whatever information is needed to achieve that.

  17. Just put a progressive income tax with a balanced budget and free public education through grad school and single payer health care in the Constitution, and you should be good for whatever else people come up with.

    I agree with julaybib about directing imperialist tendencies towards interstellar colonization. That should help for several thousand years.

    As for energy, use wind power to synthesize traditional transportation fuels from waste carbon such as pulled from seawater, as in, and you can be carbon neutral without electric cars.

  18. It's not for anyone or any group to design a new society. It will happen or can happen if humans do not completely destroy themselves and the planet they live on. The outcome all depends upon time, the time when capitalism finally self-destructs. If later, then society will descend into barbarism; but if sooner, a different outcome will happen. I will outline the latter outcome.

    After capitalist societies totally collapse from their internal contradictions, wars, and self-destructive actions, working people will organize in small groups to form the cells of a new society which will be created out of the political work that they perform. These groups will be formed by people living in close proximity. They will see the necessity of forming a new society because of a need for higher levels of decision making, coordinating, and management to provide supports for education, health, housing, welfare, security, industry, fine arts activity, etc.

    Because of the terrible history of hierarchical societies, it will be obvious to them that they must build societies where power flows from the bottom up to higher levels of decision making. Essentially what we will see is the hierarchical system turned on its head with the grass roots in control of the other levels of decision-makers. Sorry, but I cannot give you any more details--the new societies will work them out.

    I hope you have an exciting time Penny Laurie, and return to us refreshed with some new perspectives to continue your work as a fine observer of human events. The new societies will need your participation, and many others like you.

  19. A utopia for me would be one where artists make as much money as hedge fund managers.

    Where being a teacher is the highest paid profession in the land.

    Where being a politician is paid less than a garbage collector.

    Where women are free to determine their own sexual identities and procreative choices without outside interference.

    Where men are free to determine what they want to be, independent of so-called ideas of masculinity.

    It's a dream. But I work towards it.

  20. Human beings are social animals, we demand a level of status. In the modern west status is often achieved in terms of financial wealth and material possessions.
    Alter the goal somehow... to something less destructive

    Enjoy your trip, sounds fantastic!!

  21. Ideas are only as good as the people you give them to.

    And most people are twerps. If everyone was like me however, the world would be a utopia ;)

  22. as greece goes down, greece that has often been called the mother of democracy, i believe this also signifies the end of democracy and the republic. it is time to break things down into much much smaller units, city blocks and small villages, rural areas. remember bolo'bolo? each bolo will have the power to decide what form of government they want, what rules they impose, who they trade with, what they grow etc. some might go for monarchic systems, trying to instate that "good" king or queen, some might rotate rulers or teams of rulers, some might go total basic democratic consensus communal. the idea would be for each bolo to be self-suficient in food and energy production. but trading with others would be very much encouraged, even necessary. of course the anarchist bolos will tend to trade with other anarchists, the monarchists will also group in such a way. but even individually, if someone is unhappy in his or her bolo s/he might well find another that suits him or her needs.

  23. We evolved as a species by co-operation rather than through the a crude interpretation of social Darwinism. Survival meant that the group effort contributed to hunting successfully and sharing the kill.

    Co-operation is the essential pre-requisite of productivity. A sense of morality would have come into play when the spoils were subsequently distributed, and the concept of 'sharing' would have arisen. If there were disputes and confrontation further co-operation would result in a lack of shared reward.

    Co-operation is a survival mechanism, and the most useful way of ensuring a supply of the essentials for the continuation of life. Where resources are scarce, competition is an absurdity, for in this system, the stronger, more assertive and cunning will start to accrue a greater share of the outcome of group effort.

    Co-operation is only meaningful if there is an equitable sharing of productivity. But the question arises as to why should ‘sharing’ be the only way to organise society. Shouldn’t the strong, powerful, and resourceful have a greater proportion of what is produced? It is just the way that social Darwinism will operate, and an imbalance of organisms will result.

    This is when an inbuilt morality kicks in. What is the common feature of all of us? It is simple question that is frequently forgotten. We may be white, black, brown, woman and man, able or disabled, old or infants, have different sexual preferences, come from different cultures countries, and speak a thousand different languages. Each one of us is different, but one thing unites us; our humanity. We are humans before we are subsumed in the categories outlined above.

    As humans therefore we have a duty to our fellow beings as the primary fact of our existence. It is by this ability to transfer your mindset to another’s needs, rights, aspirations and behaviour, that we can hope to create a successful society, a new world of co-operation, tolerance, fairness, and respect. It will be instructive to read Martin Buber’s “I and thou”. If we look at this dispassionately aren’t we all after the means to live fruitful lives in freedom, develop our abilities and perhaps most importantly love.

    As humans we have an undying imperative to imagine a better world. I don’t advocate any allegiance to authority figures or heroes, specific political structures or ideological systems. If anything I am a citizen of the world and I can only intuit what defines our humanity, is right, fair, rational and live to seek the truth and work towards its precepts. The best of luck in ‘Nowhereisland’ I may be accused of naivety in this blog, but it is human to hope as well. Love to You Penny and all

  24. In a truly utopian society, the best thing on the internet wouldn't fuck off to Norway for 2 weeks!

    Also; woman should do most of the deciding [i]what[/i] society should be doing, whereas men should take care of working out [i]how[/i] it should be done.

    (and BBCode would be universal)

  25. I think the joke about polar bear steaks was in just as bad taste as the remark about public schoolboys. Here's to a future without killing for pleasure. A future where radical bloggers would no longer consider crafters to be more worthy of their ire than fox hunters ... but I hope you have a good time and that it doesn't turn out like a bad episode of "Big Brother" where everyone is confined in too small a space and ends up hating people.

  26. A bunch of lefty wankers swan off to an arctic island for a crushingly self-indulgent circle-jerk in which they pointlessly "debate" precisely how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. As if legions of similarly tedious socialist fuckers haven't been doing just that for the past hundred-plus years. WOW. I think I just felt the Earth's axis move.

    Don't any of you bother coming back.

    P.S. My idea of an ideal society is one with no socialists making life a fucking pain for the rest of us.

    P.P.S. "There is a chance, given how many Guardian readers we seem to have on this trip, that we may just all turn pirate and start raiding the coastal towns of Norway and Finland and looting all the humous and complicated jam."

    Written in jest, but fucking AS IF! More like "there's a very large chance that we'll spend 95% of the time bitching and whining about the dweadful conditions (because although we might talk a good game of radicalism and despising the material comforts of capitalist society we are in reality feckless, mollycoddled children who couldn’t survive a week without them) and the remaining 5% boring each other to death with our Competitive And Deadly Serious Righteousness."

    Critical mass of narcissistic permanent-adolescents. I reckon 48 hours before it turns into Lord of the Flies.

  27. Swedish art project based on the same idea as NowhereIsland, "located" in all boarder territories around the world. The site is not as active as it used to be (you can no longer, it appears, apply for a passport).

  28. Even if Hugh has managed to sneak on board and is living down below in the darkness of the cargo hold - you should be safe, as he has by account renounced the meat-eating ways which might have made him an omophagic danger to the other passengers.

    As for your final destination, I'm less certain.

    Utopias are strange places. Well, to be exact, they're strange because they're no places at all. Thomas More's literary creation was a peculiar legacy, one which is impossible to either dismiss as a sly bit of satire or take as a sign of progressive intent in a man who was prepared to torture and burn other Englishmen gladly enough to achieve a greater commonwealth.

    And like the city-state, and the Greek polis upon which they are modeled, almost all of them have walls. Some to keep those less utopian-like out, others to keep the utopians in. A prison can look a lot like a city. Within, it is a microcosm, a society all its own. We should be careful in what we go looking for, and no-where more so than when we attempt to dream up an ideal society.

    If we do no wish to become tyrants, prisoners, or gaolers, selected by lottery, to play one of these three roles - then utopias are best preserved as dream-states. They can only perfectly exist in the mind, or at least safely. Given form, limbs of brick and mortar, citizens flowing through their stony streets - they can become monsters. Awoken from centuries of sleep, they may well shamble off into the desert and we mere fleas upon the flanks of the Beast.

  29. it's utopia if my food's not poison, i can live without screwing over my neighbors and i'm not under threat of violence to comply with what's most convenient for a mob

  30. Good to see the spirit of Miles Kington lives on.

    Is Nowhere Island anything like Waveland? Is its capital Nowheresville?

    Discussion has to be purely theoretical, because true parity and 'civilised' living conditions can't be achieved without halting population grown (impossible) and then reversing it (even more impossible). We might be social animals, but we created what we have through competition, and that's hard-wired into our breeding strategy. Google 'trollhunterx fates of nations'.

  31. I'd be OK with a society whose people put priority on self-awareness. It would not be a utopia, but a population of emotionally whole individuals would be impervious to the various viral ideologies that lead to things like eco-destruction and war-for-profit. Such a society would also allow new efficient solutions to make old ones obsolete, even at the expense of the status quo, and it would go to great lengths to encourage each of its members to do work at the intersection of that person's talents and passions, where creativity comes naturally. Too many people are squandering their lives today...

    Anyway, what great idea! Do update us, please.

  32. Laurie,

    You must check out my friend thomas' blog!
    le blog de glace []

    He is about to return to France having spent over a year living on Ny Ålesund.

    There are some great photos and stories (in French though). Even though you have seen in first hand his blog shows you plenty of stuff that you won't have had access to.

    Keep on...


  33. My utopia is a world where the only evidence of man ever being there are the scorch marks left by the rocket boosters.

  34. Dear PennyRed,
    Saw you for the first time on "Democracy Now" today and had to find your blogspot...damn glad I did!
    I'm nearly twice your age, but identify with your idealism completely! Thankfully, I can still join in the "Hippy" revolution that I missed as I was only 5 years old when the first one happened!
    Seeing "young people" engaging in tireless demonstration that would have made Emma Goldman proud, warms my heart!
    I'll be following your "NowhereIsland" project question though...couldn't you find an island a tad nearer the Equator???
    Peace Patty Tweedle
    Branson, Missouri USA

  35. in a communist democracy 100% of the wealth is owned and controlled by 100% of the people. In such a classless society, where labour time is obvious and open, everyone can see that they put in so an so much time into the creation of the social store of goods and services and that they are entitled to withdraw what they've put in from their own communal store of wealth. The specifics of how this is accomplished is left to the free association of producers deliberating at that time, in other words the society of that time. Unfortunately, there are no such societies today. This is what Marx meant when he quipped that he wasn't about making up recipes for the cook shops of the future as a Utopian Socialist might. The details are left up to the democratic organisation of the people who make the revolutionary change in the mode of production. For instance, a society-wide free association of producers decides how much labour time to deduct from the individual producer's time share in the social store in order to maintain and develop the means of production and social infrastructure. These formulas are not made up in advance of the functioning communist society by self-appointed vanguards.

  36. PENNY're with NYE- DOT- COM...and you are definitely from somewhere because everybody knows your name.
    Oh're a COMER!
    And COMIESSE with COMADEN got that DORMAN.
    He know you , too!
    So do CONYMAN !
    Not only that, RED HEARTS got your number, too!
    And they got it from BLACK HEARTS in SACKICO and SAPOP!
    Who are with POPERS and you!

  37. NowhereIsland already has more citizens than Vatican City* and we may soon outnumber Monaco, although you can't reroute your tax through Nowhere Island, because in this new nation the common wealth of humanity will be held above the pursuit of profit. Matawan income tax preparation services

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