Can transhumanism avoid becoming the Marxism of the 21st century?
By Steve Fuller,
Auguste Comte Professor in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick
Revisiting Marx and Bismarck
In ancient Greek tragedy, the term hamartia referred to a distinctive feature of the protagonist’s character that is the source of both his success and his failure, typically because the protagonist lacks sufficient judgement to keep this feature of his character in check. (Original Sin is the comparable Biblical conception, if Adam is seen as having overreached his divine entitlement.) The propensity for projecting the future, often with specific dates attached (as in the arrival of the Kurzweillian ‘singularity’), is transhumanism’s hamartia. But transhumanism is only the latest self-avowed ‘progressive’ movement to suffer from this potentially fatal flaw.
Karl Marx notoriously predicted that the proletarian revolution would occur in Germany because its rapid industrialisation made it the most dynamic economy in Europe in the second half of the 19th century, housing the continent’s largest and most organized labour movement. However, the widespread publicity of this quite plausible prediction — starting with The Communist Manifesto — led Bismarck less than two generations later to establish the first welfare state, which exploited Marx’s assumption that the state would always support capital over labour, thereby increasing wealth disparities until society reached the breakpoint. Bismarck effectively refuted Marx by treating his prediction as a vaccine that enabled the political establishment to regroup itself – effectively developing immunity — through a tolerable tax-based redistribution of income from rich to poor that provided a modest but palpable sense of social security from cradle to grave. On the side of the poor, Bismarck capitalized on the tendency for people to discount risky future prospects (i.e. a Communist utopia) when given a sure thing upfront (i.e. social security provision).
Thus, the Marxist revolution was averted – at least in Germany. Of course, like foreign bio-agents (viruses, bacteria, etc.) that over time generate more virulent strains capable of overcoming the target organism’s immunity, Marxism developed a more militantly revolutionary strain, which refused to work with the ‘social democrats’, as the Bismarck-appeased leftists came to called. It triumphed in Russia, courtesy of Lenin. To be sure, it involved various Realpolitik compromises (e.g. the Brest-Litovsk Treaty with Germany) that established a zone free of external interference to enable the desired regime to acquire some traction in a turbulent Russia. But once the Soviet Union was in place, Marxism developed a still more virulent strain, courtesy of Trotsky, which presumed that Marxism would not completely succeed until the whole world was re-made in the image and likeness of Marx, even if that means making sacrifices at home and exporting the revolution abroad.
Now, when faced with a choice between the sort of Communist utopia that Marx envisaged and Bismarck’s welfare state, many – if not most – people still feel that the latter was indeed the better path for history to have chosen. Of course, this judgement is based on a greater familiarity with actual welfare states than actual Communist societies. Or, more to the point, it is easier to assess an unrealized Communism in relation to the realized welfare state than vice versa – despite the vivid imaginations of the most fervent Marxists. Bismarck’s revenge on Marx’s much-hyped prediction amounted to controlling the spin made of the subsequent history – not least by Bismarck’s English-speaking followers on the left, the British Fabians and American Progressives of the early 20th century.
I believe that something similar is bound to happen to transhumanism. To put my thesis in a nutshell: Transhumanism is the Marxism of the 21st century: Like its 19th century precursor, it comes burdened with hype – it sets the direction of political travel, while remaining an easy target for opponents. So let’s think through the political implications.
The first point is to recall Bismarck’s maxim that politics is the art of the possible. The very idea that one can make an art of the possible presupposes a sense of constraints – if not necessity – within which possibilities can be played out. These constraints are provided by what is presumed to be law-like in operation, such as Marx’s historical materialism. However, as Leibniz famously noted, even the laws of nature are hypothetical imperatives from God’s standpoint. In other words, certain consequences necessarily follow – but only if the initial conditions are met. If politics exists in Heaven, then there is everything to play for in terms of trying to persuade God which possibilities should be fixed and which should remain fluid. When Henri Poincaré spoke of the axioms of mathematics and physics as ‘conventional’, he was trying to secularize just this point of view. Applied to the present case: By suspending one of Marx’s axioms – that the state will always remain weak and compliant in the face of expanding capital – Bismarck opened up an entirely different political universe: What Marxists had presumed to be a foregone conclusion yielded a realm of new possibilities. The result is the political universe broadly defined as ‘social democracy’, originally the name of the manageable left-leaning parliamentary opponents of Bismarck’s own conservative party.
Now shift the focus to contemporary transhumanism. Two tendencies are noticeable. On the one hand, there are bold, even millenarian predictions that within a generation our computational and/or biotechnological capacities will radically transform the material conditions of being human. These are analogous to Marx’s prediction that the German labour movement would launch the first Communist Revolution. On the other, there is a steady stream of mainly dystopic science fiction novels and films that generate an equally hyperbolic level of fear. The Bismarckian move in the face of this dialectical tension is the precedent set by the US National Science Foundation’s 2002 ‘Converging Technologies’ agenda, which established a programme of anticipatory governance, whereby social researchers would attempt to gauge the likely public response to the realization of these predictions. The tools of anticipatory governance are drawn from market research but raised to a new level, since the products in question remain speculative – albeit vividly conceived and frequently articulated. However, the effect of such research is to create a demand for broadly ‘transhumanist’ products while neutralizing the worst fears surrounding them.
So, even if the current transhumanist projects do not turn out as planned, a culture is being nurtured that wants them to be true and hence is willing to support their continued funding. In this respect, the founder of self-actualization psychology, Abraham Maslow, counts as an intellectual godfather of transhumanist politics with his conception of ‘Theory Z’ as a marketing strategy for the emerging group of consumers he called ‘transcenders’. These people, first identified in the late 1960s, had sufficiently large disposable incomes to easily satisfy their material needs, but they were disinclined to make further material investments in, say, property or stocks. Rather, they were open to products that promised positive self-transformation even if their material composition was not so different from the versions they had previously bought. Think ‘ecologically friendly’ or ‘socially responsible’ consumer goods.
A transhumanist descendant of this mentality may be found in the various shows and commercials fronted by Jason Silva, most notably his series ‘Shots of Awe’ and his exciting infomercial for Russian Standard Vodka, which manages in a little over three minutes to show how to get from Dimitri Mendeleyev, who formulated the periodic table of elements, to the transhumanist vistas that this particular mainstream brand of spirits opens your mind to. More to the point, Singularity University in California has become the mecca for cultivating this sense of ‘visioneering’, which, at least in the first instance, is a kind of Marketing 2.0 for Humanity 2.0. The unasked business plan question lurking in all this is how long are these ‘transcenders’ willing to wait before their symbolically driven purchases come to be redeemed by serious material improvements in, say, their quality of life and productivity. A Bismarckian move to short-circuit the transhumanist narrative might involve, say, channelling the modest advances made across the relevant sciences and technologies into mainstream healthcare, education, production systems, etc. – while cutting off funding for the more visionary projects. After all, even such modest advances amplified across the entire economy might result in a step change in the standard of living that might cause people to forget about the Singularity, especially if it does not involve a massive disruption of lifestyles already seen as desirable (e.g. the difference between extending lifespan 20 and 200 years).
So, is there any politically tractable strategy for transhumanism to avoid the Bismarckian move, which ultimately curtails the capacity of basic research to explore and challenge the fundamental limits of our being? My answer is as follows: Transhumanists need to take a more positive attitude towards the military.
A strong libertarian strain within transhumanism sees military spending as a waste of taxpayers’ money to fight wars over which they had little say, instead of spending it on, say, life-extending treatments that would directly benefit individuals. However, this is a myopic view of the military, which hints at an isolationist mentality that goes against transhumanism’s natural cosmopolitanism. (After all, aren’t transhumanists the ones interested in space colonization and searching for extraterrestrial life?) More to the point, such a myopic attitude neglects the very positive role that blue skies military-based research (e.g. DARPA in the US) has played in advancing much of what we now regard as a transhumanist agenda, not least the Silicon Valley revolution that took off with redeployment of military-funded research for civilian purposes as the Cold War drew to a close. This pattern of techno-commercial bonanza on the back of sustained military focus has been common at least since the Franco-Prussian War.
The reasons for the military’s potential centrality to the transhumanist agenda are easy to understand: It is an institution that is by definition focussed on liminal possibilities – matters of life and death — at the largest scale and over the longest time periods. Its organization is fit for purpose: well-trained, risk-oriented yet subject to clear channels of communication and control – and, not least, subject to considerable trust from those on the outside to be able handle its own messes when they arise. The military suffers neither from the short-term ‘quick win’ mentality of most businesses nor the tendency of more democratic institutions to compromise their own values to appease powerful interests.
One way to make the connection between the military and transhumanism tighter would be by casting the transhumanist biomedical agenda as a matter of national security – a kind of long-term insurance against foreign rivals who might outproduce us, outflourish us, etc. Many mass medical innovations – from public hygiene reform to vaccinations – were introduced with this sense of ‘civilian preparedness’, with the likes of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch emerging as ‘national heroes’ of their respective countries in the Franco-Prussian War. In more general historical terms, major public funding for adventurous research has typically been done against the backdrop of a sustained external threat or ‘permanent state of emergency’ (think of the US v. USSR in the Cold War). A political party that says living 200 years is an inherently nice idea is not as persuasive as one arguing that living 200 years is necessary to maintain our position in the world. The activities of China’s Beijing Genomics Institute can help focus the mind on this issue. This public-private partnership aims to sequence the genomes of thousands of high-IQ people to find interesting transferable molecular patterns. Whether or not it succeeds in its ambitions, it is certainly assuming that the goal posts for ‘normal’ and ‘successful’ human existence are changing, which in turn requires substantial investment in basic research that aims at long-term human capital development.
Moreover, the focus on the military would help shift tenor of transhumanist political discourse from one of personal freedom to one of geopolitical necessity – but, at the same time, a discourse with a much more positive spin from that of Nick Bostrom at Oxford and Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. Whereas they are largely in the business of preventing worst possible outcomes (e.g. our unwitting destruction at the hands of superintelligent machines of our own creation), I am suggesting a spirit more in line with ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, namely, that each potential threat is an opportunity in disguise, a moment for further distinguishing the chaff of our evolutionary heritage from the wheat that we wish to take forward, be it in terms that are purely carbon-based, silicon-based or some combination of the two. Even highly probable long term changes to the Earth’s climate can be seen in this fashion: namely, as invitations for us to undertake now — prior to any actual global catastrophe – a systematic revaluation of our existential priorities, especially in terms of energy provision. In this respect, transhumanists can ally with a proactionary ‘ecomodernism’, which specifically targets energy as a locus for innovation, encouraging a general shift away from fossil fuels to more sustainable forms of energy and a more generally planned global environment, with a door open to more substantial space exploration, not only as an escape route in case of ecological meltdown but also as a means of enhancing life on Earth.
Fuller, S. (2011). Humanity 2.0: What It Means To Be Human Past, Present and Future[i]. London: Palgrave.
Fuller, S. and Lipinska, V. (2014). The Proactionary Imperative: A Foundation for Transhumanism[iii]. London: Palgrave.
The article above features as Chapter 11 of the Transpolitica book “Envisioning Politics 2.0”.