Monday


reading-tea-leaves

In several posts I have discussed Francis Fukuyama’s influential essay (now considered a bit dated) on the “end of history” — Marx and Fukuyama, History Degree Zero, and The Zero Hour Thesis — which for Fukuyama means the end of titanic ideological struggles between existential enemies. Here is a definitive passage from Fukuyama’s essay:

“In order to refute my hypothesis, then, it is not sufficient to suggest that the future holds in store large and momentous events. One would have to show that these events were driven by a systematic idea of political and social justice that claimed to supersede liberalism. A nuclear war between India and Pakistan — horrible as that would be for those countries — does not qualify, unless it somehow forced us to reconsider the basic principles underlying our social order.”

Do we see, anywhere in the world’s current events, any sign of a systematic idea of political and social justice that claims to supersede political liberalism (or has pretenses to supersede liberalism)? Given Fukuyama’s intellectual debt to Hegel, we might begin such an inquiry by looking at some of the conflicts in the world today to see if they betray any signs of any nascent ideological conflicts that may come to define the titanic struggles of the future. Let us consider some of the world’s trouble spots at this moment: Egypt, Syria, and Ukraine.

After the hopes raised by the Arab Spring it is deeply disappointing to see the developments in Egypt, and even more deeply disappointing to see the supine reaction of the western liberal democracies (presumably those nation-states that carry aloft the torch of the liberal democracy that Fukuyama still sees as the unchanged political idea and ideal of our time), which have accepted without protest a de facto military dictatorship that has sentenced hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood to death and declared that the only truly representative institution in the country would exist no more. Nothing good is likely to come of this, but the world looks on, once again preferring the elusive promise of short-term stability over the messy but sustainable democratic process. Thus the political context of the developments in Egypt since the Arab Spring represent the same old, same old in geopolitics. Egypt is not yet even close to liberal democracy, so it is in no position to move beyond this to an innovative new ideology.

Syria is looking more and more like the Lebanese civil war, with multiple factions fighting over control of a nation-state while simultaneously fighting each other. Syrians are suffering, and the stagnation of the conflict suggests that the people of Syria will continue to suffer. No major power is willing to involve itself to bring about a decisive end to the conflict — Russia is not about to intervene on behalf of Assad, and the western powers are not about to intervene on behalf of the rebels — so the bloodletting will continue until some contingent and unpredictable event ends it, or until those doing the fighting get so sick of killing that they stop (as more or less happened in Lebanon). Syria seems mired in tribalism, so that, like Egypt, it is in no position to represent some novel ideological conflict.

In Egypt and Syria it is autocracy that is asserting itself, re-asserting itself, or attempting to re-assert itself. The Islamists make headlines through a mastery of the hyperreal event, but they have been markedly unsuccessful in bringing about any change. Even the recent displacement of governments by the Arab Spring has not resulted in any clear political victories for Islamists. We see instability, and the consequent attempt to impose stability and restore order; what we do not see is the emergence of an unambiguously Islamist regime, much less the restoration of the Caliphate, which is one of the key symbolic political events to which Islamists look forward. Indeed, Egypt represents the defeat even of moderate Islamists. There is no question that radical Islamic militancy views itself as a systematic idea of political and social justice that supersedes liberalism, but I think that even the advocates of radical Islam recognize that this is not a universal doctrine, and that if it is fit for any people, it is for those peoples who already fall under Islamic civilization.

What some are called the “resurgence of Russia” following the annexation of the Crimea and agitation in southern and Eastern Ukraine for closer ties with Russia could easily be assimilated to a narrative to the “return of history” (which I previously discussed in The Historical Resonance of Ideas, Doctrinaire and Inorganic Democracy, and Anniversary of a Massacre — too easily, as I see it. There is nothing particularly compelling about this narrative, and the “return of history” offers no systematic idea of political and social justice. Its only attraction is its facile familiarity and the ease with which the pundits evoke it.

Russia, which remains the overwhelming military power in Eurasia, is again re-negotiating its borders and its sphere of influence after a contraction of these following the end of the Cold War. This is nothing of great historical importance, however deleteriously it affects the lives of Ukrainians today. All of this is predictable, and should surprise no one. Even less than the situations in Egypt and Syria does the situation in Ukraine represent anything new from the geopolitical perspective. We could just as well assimilate these developments to the rise of autocracy in Russia, and this would be a little more accurate than talk of the “return of history,” except that Russia has rarely deviated from autocracy, so it would be deceptive to imply that Russian autocracy had lapsed and then been reborn under Putin. This patently is not the case.

None of these conflicts cause us to question or to reformulate the basic principles underlying our social order, yet there are developments of interest today for what they portend about the future. In my last post, The Finlandization of Germany, I mentioned what I called the contemporary parameters of geopolitical force projection, as based on the devolution of warfare. During the Cold War, the devolution of warfare emerged as a strategy to avoid the possibility of wars crossing the nuclear threshold and triggering a massive nuclear exchange and mutually assured destruction. In the post-Cold War period the devolution of warfare has shifted to keep military depredations below the threshold of atrocity, thereby avoiding intervention by the international community.

I also mentioned the growth in efficacy of guerrilla forces. Both of these developments — devolution of state power below the threshold of atrocity and escalation upward to the threshold of atrocity by guerrilla groups — play a role in the three conflicts discussed above. That powerful states have sought to keep their depredations below the threshold of atrocity, while the most ambitious non-state actors have sought to precipitate hyperreal atrocities and therefore to claim the mantle previously reserved to nation-states, means that state power and asymmetrical warfare converge on a new symmetry defined by atrocity. Asymmetrical warfare converges on symmetry. Some have called this “symmetrizing,” although this term has meant the efforts by nation-states to copy the asymmetrical tactics of non-state actors, the better to counter their efficacy.

While much of this is of purely military significance — the attempt by disparate forces to engage each other on terms that each chooses, even while the other tries to force the other to engage on its terms — and so we can consider this merely the attempt to arrive at a balance of power between nation-state and non-state actors, it is of historical significance that the nearly all-powerful nation-state finds itself challenged by non-state actors, and challenged to the point that it is forced to respond.

Implicit in Fukuyama’s position that liberal democracy is the only systematic idea of political and social justice that survives following the collapse of communism is that that nation-state is the locus of liberal democracy. Beyond this implicit condition that liberal democracy be realized by nation-states, there is the historical fact that nation-states exist in a condition of anarchy vis-à-vis each other, i.e., the anarchical state system. Liberal democracy, then, is contingent upon nation-states embedded in an anarchical international system.

The challenge that asymmetrical non-state actors present to the nation-state they also present to both the liberal democracy realized by the nation-state and to the anarchical international system that is the condition the the contemporary nation-state that realizes liberal democracy. There is a sense, then, in which the ability of non-state actors acting asymmetrically and successfully challenging the nation-state that is a radical challenge to the locus of liberal democracy. However, this challenge does not rise to the level of constituting a systematic idea of political and social justice. At present, it is merely a threat. However, should we see this process continue, and the nation-state loses ground against non-state actors, those who sense the shift may endow this shift with meaning and value that it does not possess at present. At that time, a systematic idea of political and social justice may emerge, but it has not as of yet.

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History Degree Zero

22 October 2012

Monday


Waiting at the End of History

for the Coming of the Zero Hour


What does French literary criticism have to do with geopolitics, geostrategy, and far future scenarios of human civilization? Everything, as it turns out.

Roland Barthes wrote a book titled Writing Degree Zero; one could say that it is a work of literary criticism, but as with much sophisticated scholarship it is more than this. French literary criticism is not a scholarly undertaking for the faint at heart.

Barthes compares what he calls “writing degree zero” to the writing of a journalist; we can similarly compare history degree zero with the history found in journalism. In journalism, nothing ever happens, and at the same time something is always happening. It is the contemporary incarnation of the cyclical conception of history, in which nothing in essentials changes even while accidental change is the pervasive order of the day. (In Italy this is called “Gatopardismo.”) This is history reduced to white noise.

Here is Barthes’ own formulation of writing degree zero:

“Proportionately speaking, writing at the degree zero is basically in the indicative mood, or if you like, amodal; it would be accurate to say that it is a journalist’s writing. If it were not precisely the case that journalism develops, in general, optative or imperative (that is, emotive) forms. The new neutral writing takes place in the midst of all those ejaculations and judgments, without becoming involved in any of them; it consists precisely in their absence. But this absence is complete, it implies no refuge, no secret; one cannot therefore say that it is an impassive mode of writing; rather, that is is innocent.”

Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, translated by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith, New York: Hill and Wang, 1977 (originally published 1953), pp. 76-77

It has been said that Barthes’ book is parochial, and certainly his central concern is French literature, and the situation (or, if you prefer, the dilemma) of the French writer. Barthes was a man of his place and time, and the book sets itself questions that scarcely resonate in early twenty-first century America: How can writing be revolutionary? We’ve come a long way since 1968.

Barthes was clearly vexed that a lot of writing by professed communists was anything but revolutionary. It was, in fact — horror of horrors — bourgeois, and little better than shilling shockers, penny dreadfuls, and yellow journalism. Barthes, then, was asking how it was possible for someone with truly revolutionary ideas to write in a revolutionary manner.

One must recall that at this time there were two kinds of writers in France: communists who supported Stalin and made excuses for him, and communists who did not support Stalin and made no excuses for him. (If you have the chance, I urge you to see the wonderful film Red Kiss, which is a bit difficult to find, but worth the effort for its illustration of the period.) The most famous literary-intellectual-philosophical dispute of the time — that between Sartre and Camus — perfectly exemplified this. Camus, not one to make excuses for anyone, said he would be neither a victim nor an executioner. Sartre, after resisting the blandishments of communism for many years, eventually became the most unimaginative of communists, defended Stalin and Mao, and had his lackeys take Camus to task in print.

Barthes explicitly cites the style of Camus as embodying the qualities of writing of the zero degree, though I think that Barthes was so personally involved in the idea of literature that his identification of Camus as writing degree zero was not in any sense intended as a political slander — or, for that matter, as a literary slander. (I hope that more informed readers will correct me if I am wrong.)

Journalism, then, is historiography degree zero, and in so far as journalists produce (as they like to say) the first draft of history, and in so far as this first draft is subsequently iterated in later drafts of history, historiography more closely approximates the zero degree. (If you prefer reading sitreps to journalism — they’re pretty much the same thing — you can reformulate the preceding sentence.) And then again, in so far as mass journalism is consumed by a mass audience, and that mass audience goes on to create contemporary history, in a mass spectacle of life imitating art, history itself, and not merely the recounting of history in historiography, approaches the zero degree. The new neutral history — uninvolved, disengaged, absent — is the perfect characterization of the mass politics of mass man.

There are elections, there are debates, there is television news 24/7 and radio talk shows 24/7, there are still a few newspapers and magazines sacrificing dead trees, and there is of course the blogosphere resonating with the voices of the millions (like myself) who have no access to the media megaphone and who prefer the web to a soapbox. All of this feeds into the appearance that there is always something going on. But we know that almost nothing changes for all the sound and fury. It doesn’t really matter who wins the election, since the rich will still be rich and the poor will still be poor.

Have we already, then, reached history degree zero? Are we living at the end of history? Is this what the end of days looks like? Not quite. Not quite yet.

One of the most famous and familiar motifs of Marx’s thought is that history is driven by ideological conflict. It is a very Victorian, very Darwinian, very nineteenth century idea. History understood as an ideological conflict has characterized the modern period of Western history, even if it was not always obvious what people were fighting for. Sometimes it was obvious what men were fighting for, and this was especially true in the wake of revolutions: those who died to defend the American Revolution or the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution knew, to some extent at least, what they were fighting for.

For Marx, the locomotive of history was the class struggle, and it was the nature of class struggle to erupt into revolutionary action. Revolutions, as I noted above, had the property of clarifying what it’s all about. You’re on one side of the barricades or the other. Marx was right to focus on revolutions, but wrong to focus on the class struggle.

We can arrive at a more satisfactory understanding of modern history if we take social class out of Marx’s class struggle and make the class a variable for which we can substitute any political entity whatsoever. Thus we arrive at a formal conception of political struggle: a social class can struggle against a nation-state; a nation-state can struggle against a royal family; a royal family can struggle against a city-state, and so on, and so forth.

The convergence of the international system on the model of the nation-state system has given us the appearance that nation-states struggle with nation-states, and as life has imitated art — in this case, the art of political thought — we have steadily been reduced to the monoculture of a single kind of political entity — nation-states — engaged in a single kind of struggle. Francis Fukuyama called this political system “liberal democracy” and this condition “the end of the history.” I guess one name is as good as any other name; I would call it political homogenization.

In many posts I have discussed Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis (a thesis, I might add, heavily indebted to French scholarship, and especially to Alexandre Kojève’s reading of Hegel — note that Kojève was an acquaintance of Leo Strauss and his work was translated by Allen Bloom, noted literary critic and cranky academic who wrote The Closing of the American Mind). I have pointed out that, despite the many dismissive critiques of Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis, and claims of a “return of history,” that Fukuyama himself still holds a modified version of the thesis, and this is that contemporary liberal democratic society is the sole remaining viable form of political society (cf. Gödel’s Lesson for Geopolitics, in which I noted that Fukuyama is still thinking through his thesis twenty years on, as befits a philosopher).

As it turns out, there is a political level below that of the “end of history” and this is the absence of history — history degree zero.

A single remaining political ideology signifies History Degree One, and in the theater of political ideologies, liberal democracy is, for Fukuyama, the last man standing — but if this last man standing is a straw man, and we knock over this straw man, what then? If it can be shown that liberal democracy is a failure also, along with communism and fascism, nationalism and socialism, internationalism and fundamentalism, what comes next?

What then? Zero hour. History degree zero.

Even the end of history waits for further developments, and the future of the end of history is Zero Hour.

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Sunday


The Löwenmensch or Lion Man sculpture, about 32,000 years old, is a relic of the Aurignacian culture.

Recently (in Don’t Cry for the Papers) I wrote that, “Books will be a part of human life as long as there are human beings (or some successor species engaged in civilizational activity, or whatever cultural institution is the successor to civilization).” While this was only a single line thrown out as an aside in a discussion of newspapers and magazines, I had to pause over this to think about it and make sure that I would get my phrasing right, and in doing so I realized that there are several ideas implicit in this formulation.

Map of the Aurignacian culture, approximately 47,000 to 41,000 years ago.

Since I make an effort to always think in terms of la longue durée, I have conditioned myself to note that current forms (of civilization, or whatever else is being considered) are always likely to be supplanted by changed forms in the future, so when I said that books, like the poor, will always be with us, for the sake of completeness I had to note that human forms may be supplanted by a successor species and that civilization may be supplanted by a a successor institution. Both the idea of the post-human and the post-civilizational are interesting in their own right. I have briefly considered posthumanity and human speciation in Against Natural History, Right and Left (as well as other posts such as Addendum on the Avoidance of Moral Horror), but the idea of a successor to civilization is something that begs further consideration.

Now, in the sense, everything that I have written about futurist scenarios for the successor to contemporary industrial-technological civilization (which I have described in Three Futures, Another Future: The New Agriculturalism, and other posts) can be taken as attempts to outline what comes after civilization in so far as we understand civilization as contemporary industrial-technological civilization. This investigation of post-industrial civilization is an important aspect of an analytic and theoretical futurism, but we must go further in order to gain a yet more comprehensive perspective that places civilization within the longest possible historical context.

I have adopted the convention of speaking of “civilization” as comprising all settled, urbanized cultures that have emerged since the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. This is not the use that “civilization” has in classic humanistic historiography, but I have discussed this elsewhere; for example, in Jacob Bronowski and Radical Reflection I wrote:

…Bronowski refers to “civilization as we know it” as being 12,000 years old, which means that he is identifying civilization with the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution and the emergence of settled life in villages and eventually cities.

Taking this long and comprehensive view of civilization, we still must contrast civilization with its prehistoric antecedents. When one realizes that the natural sciences have been writing the history of prehistory since the methods, the technologies, and the conceptual infrastructure for this have been developed since the late nineteenth century, and that paleolithic history itself admits of cultures (the Micoquien, the Mousterian, the Châtelperronian, the Aurignacian, and the Gravettian, for example), it becomes clear that “culture” is a more comprehensive category than “civilization,” and that culture is the older category. The cultures of prehistory are the antecedent institutions to the institution of civilization. This immediately suggests, in the context of futurism, that there could be a successor institution to civilization that no longer could be strictly called “civilization” but which still constituted a human culture.

Thus the question, “What comes after civilization?” when understood in an appropriately radical philosophical sense, invites us to consider post-civilizational human cultures that will not only differ profoundly from contemporary industrial-technological civilization, but which will differ profoundly from all human civilization from the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution to the present day.

Human speciation, if it occurs, will profoundly affect the development of post-human, post-civilizational cultural institutions. I have mentioned in several posts (e.g., Gödel’s Lesson for Geopolitics) that Francis Fukuyama felt obligated to add the qualification to this “end of history” thesis that if biotechnology made fundamental changes to human beings, this could result in a change to human nature, and then all bets are off for the future: in this eventuality, history will not end. Changed human beings, possibly no longer human sensu stricto, may have novel conceptions of social organization and therefore also novel conceptions of social and economic justice. From these novel conceptions may arise cultural institutions that are no longer “civilization” as we here understand civilization.

Human speciation could be facilitated by biotechnology in a way not unlike the facilitation of the industrial revolution by the systematic application of science to technological development.

Above I wrote, “human speciation, if it occurs,” and I should mention that my only hesitation here is that social or technological means may be employed in the attempt to arrest human evolution at more-or-less its present stage of development, thus forestalling human speciation. Thus my qualification on human speciation in no way arises from a hesitation to acknowledge the possibility. As far as I am concerned, human being is first and foremost biological being, and biological being is always subject to natural selection. However, technological intervention might possibly overtake natural selection, in which case we will continue to experience selection as a species, but it will be social selection and technological selection rather than natural selection.

In terms of radical scenarios for the near- and middle-term future, the most familiar on offer at present (at least, the most familiar that has some traction in the public mind) is that of the technological singularity. I have recounted in several posts the detailed predictions that have been made, including several writers and futurists who have placed definite dates on the event. For example, Vernor Vinge, who proposed the idea of the technological singularity, wrote that, “Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.” (This is from his original essay on the technological singularity published in 1993, which places the date of the advent of the technological singularity at 2023 or sooner; I understand that Mr. Vinge has since revised his forecast.)

To say that “the human era will be ended,” is certainly to predict a radical development, since it postulates a post-human future within the life time of many now living today (much like the claim that, “Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.”). If I had to predict a radical post-human future in the near- to middle-term future I would opt not for post-human machine intelligence but for human speciation facilitated by biotechnology. This latter scenario seems to me far more likely and far more plausible than the technological singularity, since we already have the technology in its essentials; it is only a matter of refining and applying existing biotechnology.

I make no predictions and set no dates because the crowding of seven billion (and counting) human beings on a single planet militates against radical changes to our species. Social pressures to avoid speciation would make such a scenario unlikely in the near- to middle-term future. If we couple human speciation with the scenario of extraterrestrialization, however, everything changes, but this pushes the scenario further into the future because we do not yet possess the infrastructure necessary to extraterrestrialization. Again, however, as with human speciation through biotechnology, we have all the technology necessary to extraterrestrialization, and it is only a matter of refining and applying existing technologies.

From this scenario of human speciation coupled with extraterrestrialization there would unquestionably emerge post-human, post-civilizational cultural institutions that would be propagated into the distant future, possibly marginalizing, and possibly entirely supplanting, human beings and human civilization as we know it today. It is to be expected that these institutions will be directly related to the way of life adopted in view of such a scenario, and this way of life will be sufficiently different from our own that its institutions and its values and its norms would be unprecedented from our perspective.

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Friday


Kurt Gödel 1906-1978

Kurt Gödel was possibly the greatest logician of the twentieth century, and certainly among the handful of greatest logicians of all time. Tarski called himself the “greatest living sane logician,” implicitly conceding Gödel first place if the qualifier “sane” is removed. Gödel’s greatest contributions were his incompleteness theorems, which have subsequently been extrapolated to an entire class of limitative theorems that formally demonstrate that which formal systems cannot prove. I just mentioned in The Clausewitzean Conception of Civilization that Gödel’s results were widely interpreted as the death-knell of Hilbert’s program to provide a finite axiomatization for all mathematics.

Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, however, were not his only contribution. Over the past few years his correspondence and unpublished papers have been published, giving a better idea of the full scope of Gödel’s thought, which ranged widely across logic, mathematics, cosmology, and even theology. Hao Wang in his Reflections on Kurt Gödel called Gödel’s, “A life of fundamental theoretical work,” and this is an apt characterization.

It strikes me as fitting and appropriate, then, to apply Gödel’s fundamental theoretical work whenever and wherever it might be applicable, and I will suggest that Gödel’s work has implications for theoretical geopolitics (and even, if there were such a discipline, for theoretical biopolitics).

Now, allow me to back up for a moment and mention Francis Fukuyama again, since I have mentioned him and the “end of history” thesis in several recent posts: Addendum on Marxist Eschatology, Another Future: The New Agriculturalism, Addendum on Neo-Agriculturalism, Geopolitics and Biopolitics, and Addendum on Geopolitics and Biopolitics to name a few. Should the reader think that I am beating a dead horse, I would submit to you that Fukuyama himself is still thinking through the consequences of his thesis. In his book The End of History and the Last Man, the idea of a “struggle for recognition” plays an important role, and Fukuyama has mentioned this again quite recently in his recent Foreign Policy essay, The Drive for Dignity. And this is the way it should be: our impatient society may frown upon spending ten or twenty years thinking through an idea, but this is what philosophers do.

In the aforementioned The End of History and the Last Man Fukuyama poses this question, related to his “end of history” thesis:

“Whether, at the end of the twentieth century, it makes sense for us to once again to speak of a coherent and directional History of of mankind that will eventually lead the greater part of humanity to liberal democracy?”

Fukuyama answers “yes” to this question, giving economics and the “struggle for recognition” as his reasons for so arguing. Although Fukuyama seems to avoid the tendentious formulation he employed earlier, yes, history is, after all, coming to an end. But wait. There is more. In his later book Our Posthuman Future and in some occasional articles, Fukuyama has argued that history can’t quite come to and end yet because science hasn’t come to an end. Moreover, the biotechnology revolution holds out either the promise or the threat of altering human nature itself, and if human nature is altered, the possibilities for our future history are more or less wide open.

From these two lines of argument I conclude that Fukuyama still thinks today that the ideological evolution of humanity has come to an end in so far as humanity is what it is today, but that this could all change if we alter ourselves. In other words, our ideological life supervenes upon our physical structure and the mode of life dictated by that physical structure. We only have a new ideological future if we change what human beings are on an essential level. Now, this is a very interesting position, and there is much to say about it, but here I am only going to say a single reason why I disagree with it.

Human moral evolution has not come to an end, and although it would probably be given a spur to further and faster growth by biotechnological interventions in human life (and most especially by human-induced human speciation, which would certainly be a major event in the history of our species), human moral evolution, and the ideological changes that supervene upon human moral evolution, will continue with or without biotechnological intervention in human life.

To suppose that human moral evolution had come to an end with the advent of the idea and implementation of liberal democracy, however admirable this condition is (or would be), is to suppose that we had tried all possible ideas for human society and that there will be no new ideas (at least, there will be no new moral ideas unless we change human nature through biotechnological intervention). I do not accept either that all ideas for society have been tried and rejected or that there will be no fundamentally new ideas.

The denial of future conceptual innovation is interesting in its own right, and constitutes a particular tradition of thought that one runs into from time to time. This is the position made famous by Ecclesiastes who said that, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” Politicians, geopoliticians, geostrategists, and strategists simpliciter have been as vulnerable to “group think” (i.e., intellectual conformity) as any other group of people, and they tend to think that if every idea has been pretty much discussed and exhausted among their circle of friends, that ideas in general have been pretty much exhausted. The idea that there are no new ideological ideas forthcoming represents group think at the nation-state level, and in part accounts for the increasing ossification of the nation-state system as it exists today. I have mentioned elsewhere the need for nothing less than a revolution to conduct a political experiment. It is no wonder, then, that new ideas don’t get much of a hearing.

To the position of Ecclesiastes we can oppose the position of Gödel, who saw clearly that some have argued and will argue for the end of the evolution of the human mind and its moral life. In a brief but characteristically pregnant lecture Gödel made the following argument:

“Turing . . . gives an argument which is supposed to show that mental procedures cannot go beyond mechanical procedures. However, this argument is inconclusive. What Turing disregards completely is the fact that mind, in its use, is not static, but is constantly developing, i.e., that we understand abstract terms more and more precisely as we go on using them, and that more and more abstract terms enter the sphere of our understanding. There may exist systematic methods of actualizing this development, which could form part of the procedure. Therefore, although at each stage the number and precision of the abstract terms at our disposal may be finite, both (and, therefore, also Turing’s number of distinguishable states of mind) may converge toward infinity in the course of the application of the procedure.”

“Some remarks on the undecidability results” (Italics in original) in Gödel, Kurt, Collected Works, Volume II, Publications 1938-1974, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 306

Since we are, today, living in the Age of Turing (as I write this, the entire current year of 2012 has been declared The Alan Turing Year), ushered in by the pervasive prevalence of computers in contemporary life, it is to be expected that those who follow Turing in his conception of the mind are at or near the flood-tide of their influence, and this conception might well be as pervasively prevalent as the computers that Turing made possible by his own fundamental theoretical work. And in fact, in contemporary philosophers of mind, we find a great many expressions of the essentially mechanical nature of the mind, sometimes called the computational model of the mind. It has become a commonplace to see the mind as the “software” installed in the body’s “hardware,” despite the fact that most of the advocates of a computational theory of mind also argue strongly against Cartesian dualism.

Gödel is right. The human mind is always developing and changing. Because the mind is not static, it formulates novel ideas on a regular basis. It is a fallacy to conflate the failure of new ideas of achieve widespread socio-political currency with the absence of novel ideas. Among the novel ideas constantly pioneered by the dynamism of human cognition are moral and political ideas. In so far as there are new moral and political ideas, there are new possibilities for human culture, society, and civilization. The works of the human mind, like the human mind itself, are not static, but are constantly developing.

I have recently argued that biopolitics potentially represents a fundamentally novel moral and political idea. An entire future history of humanity might be derived from what is implicit in biopolitics, and this future history would be distinct from the future history of humanity based on the idea of liberal democracy and its geopolitical theoreticians. I wrote about biopolitics because I could cite several examples and go into the idea in some level of detail (although much more detail is required — I mean a level of detail relative to the context), but there are many ideas that are similarly distinct from the conventions of contemporary statesmen and which might well be elaborated in a future that would come as a surprise to us all.

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Monday


In Three Futures I considered a trio of possible developments based upon the extrapolation of certain strategic trends already present in the present. These three futures included:

Extraterrestrialization, in which the greater part of humanity eventually resides off the surface of the earth.

Pastoralization, in which urbanization and rural depopulation continue their trends with the greater part of humanity residing in cities (already technically true, in so far as more than half of all human populations today are urban populations, but the disproportion is not yet overwhelming) and the countryside is returned to something like pastoralism.

Singularization, in which escalating computer technology transforms the life of the greater part of humanity, or simply displaces it. This scenario is based on Ray Kurzweil’s technological singularity, though treated as a process rather than an event (we are, after all, talking about history and not about divine fiat).

Recently in Marxist Eschatology I acknowledged that an old favorite must be added to our list of possible futures:

Communism, in which, following the totality of globalization and there being under this global (crony) capitalist regime no alternatives to proletarianism, the workers really do throw the bums out and take over for themselves.

All three of these potential futures were treated in the spirit of developing strategic trends that could conceivably become the dominant strategic trend of the future, and in so doing define a new division of macro-temporality. In other words, the strategic trend in question is treated as possessing the possibility of becoming a macro-historical trend. I say here “developing” and “possibility” in order to stress that these strategic trends, even if they do become the dominant trend, will not come about with catastrophic suddenness, as the result of a revolutionary upheaval.

Central to my understanding not only of current affairs but also of history, and especially history understand on the grandest scale, is the idea of a strategic trend. A strategic trend is any historical phenomenon that takes on a life of its own. There are major strategic trends that shape macro-history and there are small strategic trends that are little more than fads. The decline of printed newspapers in the wake of the growing importance of the internet is a strategic trend. The refinement of precision munitions is a strategic trend. The collapse of the horse-drawn buggy industry in the wake of automobiles was a strategic trend in the past, but now is irrelevant.

Thinking in terms of strategic trends is a kind of extension and extrapolation of uniformitarianism. If the past is to be interpreted in terms of processes known to be acting in the present (which is uniformitarianism), so too the future can be interpreted in terms of processes known to be acting in the present, or to have acted in the past. The use of uniformitarianism in the physical sciences focuses on physical laws discoverable in the present and applicable to natural events in the past. The use of uniformitarianism in the philosophy of history focuses on patterns of human behavior discoverable in the present or the past, and possible applicable to distinct human societies at any time in history, past, present, or future.

It was never my intention to present these Three Futures as exhaustive or as mutually exclusive, and I guess I really ought not to worry too much about it, since no one has commented on this post and suggested that my intention had been misconstrued. In any case, my recent addition of a (revised and reinterpreted) communism should make the non-exclusive character of my original list obvious. In this spirit of identifying strategic trends in the present that may become dominant strategic trends in the future, and in no way committed to an exclusive or closed list, I want to propose another possibility for the long term human future.

Human beings being what they are, there is always the possibility of returning to a past mode of life that proved robust and sustainable. Our long prehistory dominated, as it was, by a cyclical conception of time has deeply inculcated the idea of a “return to roots” in almost all human societies. A “return” to the agricultural paradigm, following on the experience of industrialization, and therefore transformed by this experience, could constitute a new division of macro-temporality, and this possibility I will call post-industrial agriculturalism, or neo-agriculturalism, or neo-agriculturalization when speaking of an historical process.

I have written quite a number of posts touching on the nature of settled agricultural civilization. The most significant of these posts include:

Civilizations Settled and Unsettled

The Agricultural Paradigm

Some Rough Notes on Agricultural Civilization

Pure Agriculturalism

The Telos of Agriculturalism

Many other posts of mine have touched upon agricultural civilization, but these are the ones with the most meat in them.

The strategic trend of agriculturalism as it reveals itself in the present dates at least to the “back to the land” movement of the late twentieth century, especially in its counter-culture iteration, and continues to crop up now and again in the popular media. For example, Japan’s youth turn to rural areas seeking a slower life by Roland Buerk of BBC News, Tokyo, is a typical expression of this.

In contemporary society we can identify strategic trends that are both a “pull” toward agriculturalism and a “push” away from industrialism. I have written on many occasions about the dehumanization and depersonalization of industrial-technological civilization, and escape from this regime is a recurring theme of popular culture. That is the “push” toward the supposedly simpler life of agriculturalism. On the “pull” side of the historical equation there is the long tradition of a kind of mysticism of the soil, such that in the event of neo-agriculturalism it might be possible to speak of the re-enchantment of the world (since the disenchantment of the world — die Entzauberung der Welt — has been one of the discontents of industrial-technological civilization).

The contemporary strategic trends of environmentalism and anti-globalization, while they garner a great deal of press, have not ultimately accomplished much. Environmentalism has changed the way some things are done, but a radical interpretation of environmentalism, the success of which would involve the abandonment of industrial-technological civilization, has made no headway at all. Only the most mild and inoffensive initiatives of environmentalism have had any traction, and certainly nothing that makes the ordinary person uncomfortable or even mildly inconvenienced is countenanced. That being said, the anti-globalization movement, in so far as it is a “movement” at all, has accomplished absolutely nothing except furnishing a pretext for protests and vandalism, which is great fun for a certain segment of society. However, in so far as “venting” is important, these protests have served a certain social function.

Despite this dismal record, and the likelihood that environmentalism and anti-globalization as strategic trends are likely to wither away in time as they become either irrelevant (anti-globalization) or completely co-opted by the status quo (environmentalism), these strategic trends might gain a new lease on a longer life if they feed into some larger movement that has a chance to fundamentally alter the way in which people live. Such opportunities come along only rarely in history, as I have attempted to argue on many occasions. Neo-agriculturalism would serve this functional quite competently, since environmentalism and anti-globalization could be given content (anti-globalization) and direction (environmentalism) by becoming associated with social change driven by a neo-agriculturist agenda.

When we think of a post-industrial agriculturalism in these terms, it becomes obvious that those strategic trends that ultimately become dominant trends that shape the next stage of macro-history are those trends that can be fed by the largest number of minor and middling strategic trend. In this way, a dominant strategic trend that comes to define a division of macro-history. Perhaps in the final analysis, the biggest tent wins. In other words, that strategic trend that can subsume under itself the greatest number of other strategic trend while retaining its essential coherency, may be that strategic trend that comes to dominate all other trends.

With this in mind we can identify a number of strategic trends that implicitly feed (or would feed) into neo-agriculturalism: being a locavore, and in fact the whole local food movement (and, to a lesser extent, the “slow food” movement), bioregionalism, eco-communalism, and radical environmental philosophies like deep ecology.

As I noted above, I don’t intend my identification of possible futures to be exclusive or exhaustive. Thus what I have previously identified as pastoralization could well coexist with neo-agriculturalization. Furthermore, pastoralization could be subsumed under neo-agriculturalization, or vice versa. A little more attention to detail would be needed to order to determine which strategic trend represented that of the greatest generality, therefore likely to subsume other strategic trends under it. However, this being history we are discussing, a certain degree of this determination is left to chance, circumstance, and contingency.

It should also be noted that these future scenarios I have been attempting to sketch do, at least to a limited degree, involve a reconsideration of, “the basic principles underlying our social order,” and constitute, “a systematic idea of political and social justice that claimed to supersede liberalism” — two conditions that Francis Fukuyama named as necessary to refute his “end of history” hypothesis:

“At the core of my argument is the observation that a remarkable consensus has developed in the world concerning the legitimacy and viability of liberal democracy. This ideological consensus is neither fully universal nor automatic, but exists to an arguably higher degree than at any time in the past century.”

“In order to refute my hypothesis, then, it is not sufficient to suggest that the future holds in store large and momentous events. One would have to show that these events were driven by a systematic idea of political and social justice that claimed to supersede liberalism. A nuclear war between India and Pakistan – horrible as that would be for those countries – does not qualify, unless it somehow forced us to reconsider the basic principles underlying our social order.”

Francis Fukuyama, “A Reply to My Critics,” Fall 1989, The National Interest

For the record, I am interested neither in refuting or defending Fukuyama’s thesis, but his formulation does provide a certain clarification for what it takes to account for a genuinely novel historical development. I would be willing to state that, “a systematic idea of political and social justice that claimed to supersede liberalism,” would be a sufficient condition for the definition of a new division of macro-history, and I would further hold that no such condition has presented itself since Fukuyama’s essay.

Again, however, we can identify strategic trends in the present that could well constitute a systematic idea of political and social justice that could displace that systematic idea of political and social justice that prevails today. For example, if we consider the idea of environmental justice we have a conception which if elaborated, extended, and expanded into the future could become an alternative paradigm of political and social justice. Such changes take time and cannot be seen in a single lifetime. Changes of an intellectual order I call metaphysical history, and metaphysical history is the summum genus of historical categories, subsuming even the macro-historical concerns I have been writing about here.

Notwithstanding the fact that, if humanity fails to transcend its planet-bound civilization its future will be necessarily finite (or we can also say that any successor species of homo sapiens will necessarily have a finite future), even given a finite future there would be time enough for many macro-historical divisions yet to be determined. One of these macro-historical divisions could well be a post-industrial agriculturalism.

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Transcanidism

6 May 2011

Friday


Back in 2004 Foreign Policy magazine invited a number of writers to pen short pieces on ideas that were destined for the dustbin of history. Among these contributions, Francis Fukuyama of “end of history” fame wrote a page about transhumanism. Now, not many people know what transhumanism is, so it is hard to view it as a threat, say, on a level with the Soviets during the Cold War, but that was the target that Fukuyama chose to dispose of. For me, this was a laugh out loud moment in the history of ideas, because Fukuyama essentially argued that transhumanism can’t or won’t happen because it poses nearly insuperable moral dilemmas for us. This would be a bit like arguing before the Second World War that the Holocaust couldn’t happen because of the moral implications of such a crime. Well, sheer horror never stopped human beings from doing anything. Or, rather, if it has been a barrier to some, it certainly has not been a barrier to all.

To give you some flavor as to exactly what transhumanism is, and to do so from a sympathetic source, I found a Transhumanist Declaration at the Humanity+ blog, which I reproduce below in its entirety:

1. Humanity stands to be profoundly affected by science and technology in the future. We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth.

2. We believe that humanity’s potential is still mostly unrealized. There are possible scenarios that lead to wonderful and exceedingly worthwhile enhanced human conditions.

3. We recognize that humanity faces serious risks, especially from the misuse of new technologies. There are possible realistic scenarios that lead to the loss of most, or even all, of what we hold valuable. Some of these scenarios are drastic, others are subtle. Although all progress is change, not all change is progress.

4. Research effort needs to be invested into understanding these prospects. We need to carefully deliberate how best to reduce risks and expedite beneficial applications. We also need forums where people can constructively discuss what should be done, and a social order where responsible decisions can be implemented.

5. Reduction of existential risks, and development of means for the preservation of life and health, the alleviation of grave suffering, and the improvement of human foresight and wisdom should be pursued as urgent priorities, and heavily funded.

6. Policy making ought to be guided by responsible and inclusive moral vision, taking seriously both opportunities and risks, respecting autonomy and individual rights, and showing solidarity with and concern for the interests and dignity of all people around the globe. We must also consider our moral responsibilities towards generations that will exist in the future.

7. We advocate the well-being of all sentience, including humans, non-human animals, and any future artificial intellects, modified life forms, or other intelligences to which technological and scientific advance may give rise.

8. We favour allowing individuals wide personal choice over how they enable their lives. This includes use of techniques that may be developed to assist memory, concentration, and mental energy; life extension therapies; reproductive choice technologies; cryonics procedures; and many other possible human modification and enhancement technologies.

To this the response of Francis Fukuyama is as follows:

“…we all possess a human essence that dwarfs manifest differences in skin color, beauty, and even intelligence. This essence, and the view that individuals therefore have inherent value, is at the heart of political liberalism. But modifying that essence is the core of the transhumanist project. If we start transforming ourselves into something superior, what rights will these enhanced creatures claim, and what rights will they possess when compared to those left behind? If some move ahead, can anyone afford not to follow? These questions are troubling enough within rich, developed societies. Add in the implications for citizens of the world’s poorest countries — for whom biotechnology’s marvels likely will be out of reach — and the threat to the idea of equality becomes even more menacing.”

Sure, it’s menacing, and change is frightening. No argument there. But asking the questions that Fukuyama asks — and they are certainly legitimate and interesting questions — is not going to spare us the moral nightmare (if not moral horror) of actually having to find a way to go on living despite menacing developments. And moral horror changes over time. When Malthus said that humanity would have to choose between misery and vice, the vice that horrified him, and which was perhaps no less of a horror to contemplate than mass starvation, was birth control. Now it is Malthus himself who is viewed with horror, not the birth control that inspired Malthus with horror. Only crackpots today attach any social stigma to birth control, and the world goes on its way.

Firstly, I should say — Profess? Declare? Proclaim? — that I don’t in the slightest identify myself as a transhumanist. Like the technological singulatarians, to whom they are closely related, they have some interesting ideas and a lot of predictions, but at the present moment transhumanism is as crackpot-ish as moral opposition to birth control. That doesn’t mean that it will always remain so, but only that it is not one of the world’s prominent evils (or even one of the world’s challenges) at the moment. We have much more to worry about when it comes to atrocities and genocide.

Why is transhumanism marginal at the present moment? Here we can return to Fukuyama, for the brief rant he penned against the transhumanists contains a salient and very true observation:

“…we have drawn a red line around the human being and said that it is sacrosanct.”

We have indeed done so. This is what philosophers call a “convention,” which in this context is not a bunch of beer-swilling salesmen staying together at a Holiday Inn, but a decision to adopt a certain standard, much like the metric system or English weights and measures, or indeed to adopt a particular way of thinking about the world. In my Variations on the Theme of Life I said the following about this particular convention:

“We have elaborately constructed conventional distinctions, embodied in law and social practices, that separate man from every other living thing, and so thorough is this contrived divide that even if no qualitative distinction in fact intervened between man and other living things, the distinction would remain absolute in virtue of the established conventions. But the system is imperfect, and breaks down upon close inspection, for just as all cultures construct the distinction between man and everything else that is not man, they construct it differently, and these different constructions cannot be honestly harmonized. Some animal species are deified, some are demonized, some are commodified, some are marginalized, and some are fetishized. The ideal unity of mankind, then, must be based either on dishonesty and dissimulation, or upon some as yet unsuspected human quality that can distinguish man without reference to cultural relativity.” (section 514)

There is another name for this convention, and that is speciesism. The idea that humanity belongs within a charmed circle is an ontological conception, but the convention to act as though this ontological principle were true (whether or not it is true) is the practical consequence of speciesism. As most people do not think abstractly about principles like this, the convention is likely to have a stronger hold on the mind than the principle, which, when stated as a principle in its explicit form, is likely to sound a bit odd and unfamiliar. But leave that aside for the moment.

It is the very speciesism that stands in the way of the technological development of human potential, keeping us within Fukuyama’s red line, isolated and insulated from the rest of life, that will ultimately facilitate the technological development of non-human species. And the perfection of these technologies of biological augmentation and modification in other species will foster an increasing temptation to apply this technology to human beings, despite whatever obstacles are raised, be they moral, legal, practical, or other. Even if initially consummated in secrecy, we can be certain that the temptation will not be avoided forever.

I realized this today when I was thinking about the now widely publicized presence of a dog with the commando team tasked with the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s hideaway. This detail attracted a lot of attention, and Foreign Policy magazine presented the photo essay War Dog, which rapidly became the most viewed story on their webpage.

It is well known that even the most alert soldier on duty is not nearly as aware as a guard dog on duty, and when it comes to specialized tasks like sniffing out explosives or persons, dogs are superior to the highest high technology. Dogs are now trained and valued in the armed forces as never before, and it would be an obvious development to augment the capacities of guard dogs. A dog with better eyesight or a better nose would be a great asset, and a competitive advantage over non-augmented dogs. Most importantly, the barriers to doing so simply don’t exist, or don’t exist in the same way. We don’t surround dogs with the same red line that we draw around human beings, even if we should.

In short, we will see transcanidism before we see transhumanism, and the former will, in the fullness of time, be the slippery slope that leads to the latter. And, yes, I know that the slippery slope is a logical fallacy; it is also a psychological truth, and what we are really discussing here is the psychology of the red line. That red line changes over time, and it changes in response to changed conditions. The red line that Malthus drew around population control still exists for us today, but it exists in a very different way, and it is drawn in a different place and between different alternatives.

There will be red lines in transcanidism too, but not enough, and not sufficiently robust, to prevent the process from starting down the slippery slope. For example, an obvious extension of improving canine senses would be to improve a dog’s mind. I am certain that most people would be deeply uncomfortable with this. There will be laws passed. There will be attempts to enforce a red line. In the long term, however, that line will be crossed. And once we begin to augment the intelligence of dogs and other war animals (or perhaps once we begin to engineer specialized war animals), they might conceivably catch up with us, or, as in the vision of the technological singularity, exponentially surpass us.

The reader should be fully aware that I am fully aware that what I am writing here would be received as anathema to many and as horrific to some. It has become the custom to discuss certain technological developments that touch directly upon human life in the rhetoric of high moral indignation. This is not helpful. In fact, I take it to be counter-productive.

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