Shedding Light on The Dark Enlightenment

Eye of Sauron

There has been some ink spilt lately at the IEET over a new movement that goes by the Tolkienesque name, I kid you not, of the dark enlightenment also called neo-reactionaries.  Khannea Suntzu has looked at the movement from the standpoint of American collapse and David Brin within the context of a rising oligarchic neo-feudalism.  

I have my own take on the neo-reactionary movement somewhat distinct from that of either Suntzu or Brin, which I will get to below, but first a recap.  Neo-reactionaries are a relatively new group of thinkers on the right that in general want to abandon the modern state, built such as it is around the pursuit of the social welfare, for lean-and-mean governance by business types who know in their view how to make the trains run on time. They are sick of having to “go begging” to the political class in order to get what they want done. They hope to cut out the middle-man. It’s obvious that oligarchs run the country so why don’t we just be honest about it and give them the reins of power? We could even appoint a national CEO- if the country remains in existence- we could call him the king. Oh yeah, on top of that we should abandon all this racial and sexual equality nonsense. We need to get back to the good old days when the color of a man’s skin and having a penis really meant something- put the “super” back in superior.

At first blush the views of those hoping to turn the lights out on enlightenment (anyone else choking on an oxymoron) appear something like those of the kind of annoying cousin you try to avoid at family reunions. You know, the kind of well off white guy who thinks the Civil Rights Movement was a communist plot, calls your wife a “slut” (their words, not mine) and thinks the real problem with America is that we give too much to people who don’t have anything and don’t lock up or deport enough people with skin any darker than Dove Soap. Such people are the moral equivalent of flat-earthers with no real need to take them seriously, though they can make for some pretty uncomfortable table conversation and are best avoided like a potato salad that has been out too long in the sun.

What distinguishes neo-reactionaries from run of the mill ditto heads or military types with a taste for Dock Martins or short pants is that they tend to be latte drinking Silicon Valley nerds who have some connection to both the tech and trans-humanist communities.

That should get this audience’s attention.

To continue with the analogy from above:  it’s as if your cousin had a friend, let’s just call him totally at random here… Peter Thiel, who had a net worth of 1.5 billion and was into, among other things, working closely with organizations such as the NSA through a data mining firm he owned- we’ll call it Palantir (damned Frodo Baggins again!) and who serves as a deep pocket for groups like the Tea Party. Just to go all conspiracy on the thing let’s make your cousin’s “friend” a sitting member on something we’ll call The Bilderberg Group a secretive cabal of the world’s bigwigs who get together to talk about what they really would like done in the world. If that was the case the last thing you should do is leave your cousin ranting to himself while you made off for another plate of Mrs. T’s Pierogies.  You should take the maniac seriously because he might just be sitting on enough cash to make his atavistic dreams come true and put you at risk of sliding off a flattened earth.

All this might put me at risk of being accused of lobbing one too many ad hominem, so let me put some meat on the bones of the neo-reactionaries. The Super Friends or I guess it should be Legion of Doom of neo-reaction can be found on the website Radish where the heroes of the dark enlightenment are laid out in the format of Dungeons and Dragons or Pokémon cards (I can’t make this stuff up). Let’s just start out with the most unfunny and disturbing part of the movement- its open racism and obsession with the 19th century pseudo-science of dysgenics.

Here’s James Donald who from his card I take to be a dwarf, or perhaps an elf, I’m not sure what the difference is, who likes to fly on a winged tauntaun like that from The Empire Strikes Back.

To thrive, blacks need simpler, harsher laws, more vigorously enforced, than whites.  The average black cannot handle the freedom that the average white can handle. He is apt to destroy himself.  Most middle class blacks had fathers who were apt to frequently hit them hard with a fist or stick or a belt, because lesser discipline makes it hard for blacks to grow up middle class.  In the days of Jim Crow, it was a lot easier for blacks to grow up middle class.

Wow, and I thought a country where one quarter of African American children will have experienced at least one of their parents behind bars- thousands of whom will die in prison for nonviolent offenses- was already too harsh. I guess I’m a patsy.

Non-whites aren’t the only ones who come in for derision by the neo-reactionaries a fact that can be summed up by the post- title of one of their minions, Alfred W. Clark, who writes the blog Occam’s RazorAre Women Who Tan SlutsThere’s no need to say anything more to realize poor William of Occam is rolling in his grave.

Beyond this neo-Nazism for nerds quality neo-reactionaries can make one chuckle especially when it comes to “policy innovations” such as bringing back kings.

Here’s modern day Beowulf Mencius Moldbug:

What is England’s problem?  What is the West’s problem?  In my jaundiced, reactionary mind, the entire problem can be summed up in two words – chronic kinglessness.  The old machine is missing a part.  In fact, it’s a testament to the machine’s quality that it functioned so long, and so well, without that part.

Yeah, that’s the problem.

Speaking of atavists, one thing that has always confused me about the Tea Party is that I have never been sure which imaginary “golden age” they wanted us to return to. Is it before desegregation? Before FDR? Prior to the creation of the Federal Reserve (1913)? Or maybe it’s back to the antebellum south? Or maybe back to the Articles of Confederation? Well, at least the neo-reactionaries know where they want to go- back before the American Revolution. Obviously since this whole democracy thing hasn’t worked out we should bring back the kings, which makes me wonder if these guys have mourning parties on Bastille Day.

Okay, so the dark voices behind neo-reaction are a bunch of racist/sexist nerds who have a passion for kings and like to be presented as characters on D&D cards. They have some potentially deep pockets, but other than that troubling fact why should we give them more than a few seconds of serious thought?

Now I need to exchange my satirical cap for my serious one for the issues are indeed serious. I think understanding neo-reaction is important for two reasons: they are symptomatic of deeper challenges and changes occurring politically, and they have appeared as a response to and on the cusp of a change in our relationship to Silicon Valley a region that has been the fulcrum point for technological, economic and political transformation over the past generation.

Neo-reaction shouldn’t be viewed in a vacuum. It has appeared at a time when the political and economic order we have had since at least the end of the Second World War which combines representative democracy, capitalist economics and some form of state supported social welfare (social democracy) is showing signs of its age.

If this was just happening in the United States whose 224 year old political system emerged before almost everything we take to be modern such as this list at random: universal literacy, industrialization, railroads, telephones, human flight, the Theory of Evolution, Psychoanalysis, Quantum Mechanics, Genetics, “the Bomb”, television, computers, the Internet and mobile technology then we might be able, as some have, to blame our troubles on an antiquated political system, but the creaking is much more widespread.

We have the upsurge in popularity of the right in Europe such as that seen in France with its National Front. Secessionist movements are gaining traction in the UK. The right in the form of Hindu Nationalism under a particular obnoxious figure- Narendra Modi -is poised to win Indian elections. There is the implosion of states in the Middle East such as Syria and revolution and counter revolution in Egypt. There are rising nationalist tensions in East Asia.

All this is coming against the backdrop of rising inequality. The markets are soaring no doubt pushed up by the flood of money being provided by the Federal Reserve,  yet the economy is merely grinding along. Easy money is the de facto cure for our deflationary funk and pursued by all the world’s major central banks in the US, the European Union and now especially, Japan.

The far left has long abandoned the idea that 21st century capitalism is a workable system with the differences being over what the alternative to it should be- whether communism of the old school such as that of Slavoj Žižek  or the anarchism of someone like David Graeber. Leftists are one thing the Pope is another, and you know a system is in trouble when the most conservative institution in history wants to change the status quo as Pope Francis suggested when he recently railed against the inhumanity of capitalism and urged for its transformation.

What in the world is going on?

If your house starts leaning there’s something wrong with the foundation, so I think we need to look at the roots of our current problems by going back to the gestation of our system- that balance of representative democracy, capitalism and social democracy I mentioned earlier whose roots can be found not in the 20th century but in the century prior.

The historical period that is probably most relevant for getting a handle on today’s neo-reactionaries is the late 19th century when a rage for similar ideas infected Europe. There was Nietzsche in Germany and Dostoevsky in Russia (two reactionaries I still can’t get myself to dislike both being so brilliant and tragic). There was Maurras in France and Pareto in Italy. The left, of course, also got a shot of B-12 here as well with labor unions, socialist political parties and seriously left-wing intellectuals finally gaining traction. Marxism whose origins were earlier in the century was coming into its own as a political force.  You had writers of socialist fiction such as Edward Bellamy and Jack London surging in popularity. Anarchists were making their mark, though, unfortunately, largely through high profile assassinations and bomb throwing. A crisis was building even before the First World War whose centenary we will mark next year.

Here’s historian JM Roberts from his Europe 1880-1945 on the state of politics in on the eve, not after, the outbreak of the First World War.

Liberalism had institutionalized the pursuit of happiness, yet its own institutions seemed to stand in the way of achieving the goal; liberal’s ideas could, it seemed, lead liberalism to turn on itself.

…the practical shortcomings of democracy contributed to a wave of anti-parliamentarianism. Representative institutions had for nearly a century been the shibboleth of liberalism. An Italian sociologist now stigmatized them ‘as the greatest superstition of modern times.’ There was violent criticism of them, both practical and theoretical. Not surprisingly, this went furthest in constitutional states where parliamentary institutions were the formal framework of power but did not represent social realities. Even where parliaments (as in France or Great Britain) had already shown they possessed real power, they were blamed for representing the wrong people and for being hypocritical shams covering self-interest. Professional politicians- a creation of the nineteenth century- were inevitably, it was said, out of touch with real needs.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Liberalism, by which Roberts means a combination of representative government and laissez faire capitalism- including free trade- was struggling. Capitalism had obviously brought wealth and innovation but also enormous instability and tensions. The economy had a tendency to rocket towards the stars only to careen earthward and crash leaving armies of the unemployed. The small scale capitalism of earlier periods was replaced by continent straddling bureaucratic corporations. The representative system which had been based on fleeting mobilization during elections or crises had yet to adjust to a situation where mass mobilization through the press, unions, or political groups was permanent and unrelenting.

The First World War almost killed liberalism. The Russian Revolution, Great Depression, rise of fascism and World War Two were busy putting nails in its coffin when the adoption of social democracy and Allied Victory in the war revived the corpse. Almost the entirety of the 20th century was a fight over whether the West’s hybrid system, which kept capitalism and representative democracy, but tamed the former could outperform state communism- and it did.

In the latter half of the 20th century the left got down to the business of extending the rights revolution to marginalized groups while the right fought for the dismantling of many of the restrictions that had been put on the capitalist system during its time of crisis. This modus vivendi between left and right was all well and good while the economy was growing and while the extension of legal rights rather than social rights for marginalized groups was the primary issue, but by the early 21st century both of these thrusts were spent.

Not only was the right’s economic model challenged by the 2008 financial crisis, it had nowhere left to go in terms of realizing its dreams of minimal government and dismantling of the welfare state without facing almost impossible electoral hurdles. The major government costs in the US and Europe were pensions and medical care for the elderly- programs that were virtually untouchable. The left too was realizing that abstract legal rights were not enough.  Did it matter that the US had an African American president when one quarter of black children had experienced a parent in prison, or when a heavily African American city such as Philadelphia has a child poverty rate of 40%? Addressing such inequities was not an easy matter for the left let alone the extreme changes that would be necessary to offset rising inequality.

Thus, ironically, the problem for both the right and the left is the same one- that governments today are too weak. The right needs an at least temporarily strong government to effect the dismantling of the state, whereas the left needs a strong government not merely to respond to the grinding conditions of the economic “recovery”, but to overturn previous policies, put in new protections and find some alternative to the current political and economic order. Dark enlightenment types and progressives are confronting the same frustration while having diametrically opposed goals. It is not so much that Washington is too powerful as it is that the power it has is embedded in a system, which, as Mark Leibovich portrays brilliantly, is feckless and corrupt.  

Neo-reactionaries tend to see this as a product of too much democracy, whereas progressives will counter that there is not enough. Here’s one of the princes of darkness himself, Nick Land:

Where the progressive enlightenment sees political ideals, the dark enlightenment sees appetites. It accepts that governments are made out of people, and that they will eat well. Setting its expectations as low as reasonably possible, it seeks only to spare civilization from frenzied, ruinous, gluttonous debauch.

Yet, as the experience in authoritarian societies such as Libya, Egypt and Syria shows (and even the authoritarian wonderchild of China is feeling the heat) democratic societies are not the only ones undergoing acute stresses. The universal nature of the crisis of governance is brought home in a recent book by Moisés Naím. In his The End of Power  Naím lays out how every large structure in society: armies, corporations, churches and unions are seeing their power decline and are being challenged by small and nimble upstarts.

States are left hobbled by smallish political parties and groups that act as spoilers preventing governments from getting things done. Armies with budgets in the hundreds of billions of dollars are hobbled by insurgents with IEDs made from garage door openers and cell phones. Long-lived religious institutions, most notably the Catholic Church, are losing parishioners to grassroots preachers while massive corporations are challenged by Davids that come out of nowhere to upend their business models with a simple stone.

Naím has a theory for why this is happening. We are in the midst of what he calls The More, The Mobility and The Mentality Revolutions. Only the last of those is important for my purposes. Ruling elites are faced today with the unprecedented reality that most of their lessers can read. Not only that, the communications revolution which has fed the wealth of some of these elites has significantly lowered the barriers to political organization and speech. Any Tom, Dick and now Harriet can throw up a website and start organizing for or against some cause. What this has resulted in is a sort of Cambrian explosion of political organization, and just as in any acceleration of evolution you’re likely to get some pretty strange mutants- and so here we are.

Some on the left are urging us to adjust our progressive politics to the new distributed nature of power.  The writer Steven Johnson in his recent Future Perfect: The case for progress in a networked age calls collaborative efforts by small groups “peer-to-peer networks”, and in them he sees a glimpse of our political past (the participatory politics of the ancient Greek polis and late medieval trading states) becoming our political future. Is this too “reactionary”?

Peer-to-peer networks tend to bring local information back into view. The fact that traditional centralized loci of power such as the federal government and national and international media are often found lacking when it comes to local knowledge is a problem of scale. As Jane Jacobs has pointed out , government policies are often best when crafted and implemented at the local level where differences and details can be seen.

Wikipedia is a good example of Johnson’s peer-to-peer model as is Kickstarter. In government we are seeing the spread of participatory budgeting where the local public is allowed to make budgetary decisions. There is also a relatively new concept known as “liquid democracy” that not only enables the creation of legislation through open-sourced platforms but allows people to “trade” their votes in the hopes that citizens can avoid information overload by targeting their vote to areas they care most about, and presumably for this reason, have the greatest knowledge of.

So far, peer-to-peer networks have been successful at revolt- The Tea Party is peer-to-peer as was Occupy Wall Street. Peer-to-peer politics was seen in the Move-ON movement and has dealt defeat to recent legislation such as SOPA. Authoritarian regimes in the Middle East were toppled by crowd sourced gatherings on the street.

More recently than Johnson’s book there is New York’s new progressive mayor-  Bill de Blasio’s experiment with participatory politics with his Talking Transition Tent on Canal Street. There, according to NPR, New Yorkers can:

….talk about what they want the next mayor to do. They can make videos, post videos and enter their concerns on 48 iPad terminals. There are concerts, panels on everything from parks to education. And they can even buy coffee and beer.

Democracy, coffee and beer- three of my favorite things!

On the one hand I love this stuff, but me being me I can’t help but have some suspicions and this relates, I think, to the second issue about neo-reactionaries I raised above; namely, that they are reflecting something going on with our relationship to Silicon Valley a change in public perception of the tech culture and its tools from hero and wonderworker to villain and illusionist.

As I have pointed out elsewhere the idea that technology offered an alternative to the lumbering bureaucracy of state and corporations is something embedded deep in the foundation myth of Silicon Valley. The use of Moore’s Law as a bridge to personalized communication technology was supposed to liberate us from the apparatchiks of the state and the corporation- remember Apple’s “1984” commercial?

It hasn’t quite turned out that way. Yes, we are in a condition of hyper economic and political competition largely engendered by technology, but it’s not quite clear that we as citizens have gained rather than “power centers” that use these tools against one another and even sometimes us. Can anyone spell NSA?

We also went from innovation, and thus potential wealth, being driven by guys in their garages to, on the American scene, five giants that largely own and control all of virtual space: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Micro-Soft with upstarts such as Instagram being slurped up like Jonah was by the whale the minute they show potential growth.

Rather than result in a telecommuting utopia with all of us working five hours a day from the comfort of our digitally connected home, technology has led to a world where we are always “at work”, wages have not moved since the 1970’s and the spectre of technological unemployment is on the wall. Mainstream journalists such as John Micklethwait of The Economist are starting to see a growing backlash against Silicon Valley as the public becomes increasingly estranged from digerati who have not merely failed to deliver on their Utopian promises, but are starving the government for revenue as they hide their cash in tax havens all the while cosying up to the national security state.

Neo-reactionaries are among the first of Silicon Valleians to see this backlash building hence their only half joking efforts to retreat to artificial islands or into outer space. Here is Balaji Srinivasan whose speech was transcribed by one of the dark illuminati who goes by the moniker Nydwracu:

The backlash is beginning. More jobs predicted for machines, not people; job automation is a future unemployment crisis looming. Imprisoned by innovation as tech wealth explodes, Silicon Valley, poverty spikes… they are basically going to try to blame the economy on Silicon Valley, and say that it is iPhone and Google that done did it, not the bailouts and the bankruptcies and the bombings, and this is something which we need to identify as false and we need to actively repudiate it.

Srinivasan would have at least some things to use in defense of Silicon Valley: elites there have certainly been socially conscious about global issues. Where I differ is on their proposed solutions. As I have written elsewhere, Valley bigwigs such as Peter Diamandis think the world’s problems can be solved by letting the technology train keep on rolling and for winners such as himself to devote their money and genius to philanthropy.  This is unarguably a good thing, what I doubt, however, is that such techno-philanthropy can actually carry the load now held up by governments while at the same time those made super rich by capitalism’s creative destruction flee the tax man leaving what’s left of government to be funded on the backs of a shrinking middle class.

As I have also written elsewhere the original generation of Silicon Valley innovators is acutely aware of our government’s incapacity to do what states have always done- to preserve the past, protect the the present and invest in the future. This is the whole spirit behind the saint of the digerati Stewart Brand’s Long Now Foundation in which I find very much to admire. The neo-reactionaries too have latched upon this short term horizon of ours, only where Brand saw our time paralysis in a host of contemporary phenomenon, neo-reactionaries think there is one culprit- democracy. Here again is dark prince Nick Land:

Civilization, as a process, is indistinguishable from diminishing time-preference (or declining concern for the present in comparison to the future). Democracy, which both in theory and evident historical fact accentuates time-preference to the point of convulsive feeding-frenzy, is thus as close to a precise negation of civilization as anything could be, short of instantaneous social collapse into murderous barbarism or zombie apocalypse (which it eventually leads to). As the democratic virus burns through society, painstakingly accumulated habits and attitudes of forward-thinking, prudential, human and industrial investment, are replaced by a sterile, orgiastic consumerism, financial incontinence, and a ‘reality television’ political circus. Tomorrow might belong to the other team, so it’s best to eat it all now.

The problem here is not that Land has drug this interpretation of the effect of democracy straight out of Plato’s Republic- which he has, or that it’s a kid who eats the marshmallow leads to zombie apocalypse reading of much more complex political relationships- which it is as well.  Rather, it’s that there is no real evidence that it is true, and indeed the reason it’s not true might give those truly on the radical left who would like to abandon the US Constitution for something more modern and see nothing special in its antiquity reason for pause.

The study,of course, needs to be replicated, but a paper just out by Hal Hershfield, Min Bang and Elke Weber at New York University seems to suggest that the way to get a country to pay serious attention to long term investments is not to give them a deep future but a deep past and not just any past- the continuity of their current political system.

As Hershfield states it:

Our thinking is that the countries who have a longer past are better able see further forward into the future and think about extending the time period that they’ve already been around into the distant future. And that might make them care a bit more about how environmental outcomes are going to play out down the line.

And from further commentary on that segment:

Hershfield is not using the historical age of the country, but when it got started in its present form, when its current form of government got started. So he’s saying the U.S. got started in the year 1776. He’s saying China started in the year 1949.

Now, China, of course, though, is thousands of years old in historical terms, but Hershfield is using the political birth of the country as the starting point for his analysis. Now, this is potentially problematic, because for some countries like China, there’s a very big disparity in the historical age and when the current form of government got started. But Hershfield finds even when you eliminate those countries from the equation, there’s still a strong connection between the age of the country and its willingness to invest in environmental issues.

The very existence of strong environmental movements and regulation in democracies should be enough to disprove Land’s thesis about popular government’s “compulsive feeding frenzy”.  Democracies should have stripped their environments bare like a dog with a Thanksgiving turkey bone. Instead the opposite has happened. Neo-reactionaries might respond with something about large hunting preserves supported by the kings, but the idea that kings were better stewards of the environment and human beings (I refuse to call them “capital”)  because they own them as personal property can be countered with two words and a number King Leopold II.

Yet, we progressives need to be aware of the benefits of political continuity. The right with their Tea Party and their powdered wigs has seized American history. They are selling a revolutionary dismantling of the state and the deconstruction of hard fought for legacies in the name of returning to “purity”, but this history is ours as much as theirs even if our version of it tends to be as honest about the villains as the heroes. Neo-reactionaries are people who have woken up to the reality that the conservative return to “foundations” has no future. All that is left for them is to sit around daydreaming that the American Revolution and all it helped spark never happened, and that the kings still sat on their bedeckled thrones.

Finding Frankenstein a Home

Frankenstein Cover

Percy’s epic poem, Prometheus Unbound is seldom read today while his wife’s novel,  Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus has become so well known that her monster graces the boxes of children’s cereal, and became the fodder from one of the funniest movies of the 20th century.

The question that always strikes me when I have the pleasure of re-reading Frankenstein is how could someone so young have written this amazing book? Mary Shelley was a mere twenty-one when the novel was published and the story she penned largely to entertain her husband and friends has managed to seep deeply into our collective assumptions especially those regarding science and technology. Just think of the kinds of associations the word “frankenfood” brings to mind and one gets a sense of how potent as a form of resistance against new forms of technology her gothic horror story is.

What is lost in this hiving off of the idea of the dangers of “unnatural” science for use as a cautionary tale against using a particular form of technology or exploring a certain line of research is the depth and complexity of the other elements present in the novel. I blame Hollywood.

The Frankenstein’s monster of our collective imagination isn’t the one given us by Mary Shelley, but that imagined by the director James Whale in his 1931 classic Frankenstein.

It was Whale who gave us the monster in a diner jacket, bolts protruding from his neck, and head like a block. Above all, Whale’s monster is without speech whereas the monster Mary Shelley imagined is extraordinarily articulate.

Whale’s monster is a sort of natural born killer his brain having come from a violent criminal. It is like the murderous chimpanzee written about in the weekend’s New York Times a creature that because we can not control or tame its murderous instincts must be killed before it can harm another person. Mary Shelley’s monster has a reason behind its violence. He can learn and love like we do, and isn’t really non-human at all. It is his treatment by human beings as something other than one of us- his abandonment by Victor Frankenstein after he was created, the horror which he induces in every human being that encounters him, that transforms the “creature” into something not so much non-human as inhumane.

There is a lesson here regarding our future potential to create beings that our sentient like ourselves – the technological hopes of the hour being uplifting and AI – that we need to think about the problem of homelessness when creating such beings. All highly intelligent creatures that we know of with the remarkable exception of the cephalopods are social creatures therefore any intelligent creature we create will likely need to have some version of home a world where it can be social as well.

The dangers of monstrousness emerging from intelligence lacking a social world was brilliantly illustrated by another 19th century science-fiction horror story- H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau. In Mary Shelley’s novel she gives us insight into the origins of evil in the absence of such a world. Because it cannot be loved, Victor’s Frankenstein’s creation will destroy in the same way his every attempt to reach out to other sentient creature is ultimately destroyed with the creature telling his creator who has left him existentially shipwrecked:

“I too can cause desolation.”

Mary’s Shelley’s creature isn’t just articulate, he can read, and not only everyday reading, he has a taste for deep literature, especially Milton’s Paradise Lost which seems to offer him understanding of his own fate:

Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every respect.  He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his creator, he was allowed to converse with, and acquire knowledge from, beings of a superior nature: but I was helpless and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition: for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me. “ (Chapter 15, p.2)

In some sense Mary Shelley’s horror story can be seen as less of a warning to 19th century scientist engaged in strange experiments with galvanization than a cautionary tale for those whose dehumanizing exploitation of industrial workers, miners, serfs and chattel slaves might lead to a potentially inhuman form of revolutionary blow back.  The creature cries to his creator:

Yet mine shall not be the submission of abject slavery: if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear; and chiefly towards you my archenemy, because my creator, do I swear inextinguisable hatred. “(Chpapter 17 p. 1)

Yet, these revelations of the need for compassion towards sentient beings were largely lost in the anti-scientific thrust of the novel by which Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus and its progeny has become one of our most potent cautionary tales against hubris.  A scene in Whale’s Frankenstein where the doctor is speaking to a fellow scientist who lacks his ambition for great discovery sums it up nicely:

Where should we be if nobody tried to find out what lies beyond. Have you never wanted to look beyond the clouds and the stars, or what causes the trees to mount, or what changes the darkness to light? When you talk like that people call you crazy. But if I could discover just one of these things- what eternity is for example, I wouldn’t care if they did think I was crazy.

This bias against trying to answer the big questions isn’t merely an invention of the film maker but a deep part of Mary Shelley’s novel itself. Victor Frankenstein is first inspired not by science but by medieval occultists such as Cornelius Agrippa. Exchanging these power and knowledge aspirations of the magicians for run of the mill science meant for Victor:

“I was required to exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur for realities of little worth.” (Chapter 3, p. 3)

Victor would not let this diminishment of his horizons happen:

So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein, – more, far more will I achieve: treading the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation. (Chapter 3)

His ultimate goal being to create-life anew, a road not only to biological immortality but his worship:

A new species would bless me as creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as should deserve theirs. “ (Chapter 4, p. 4)

It is here, I think where we see that Mary Shelley has turned the tables on her husband’s Prometheus giving him the will to power seen in Milton’s Satan whom Percy Shelley in his tale of the Titan had tried to find an alternative for. Scientists would oblige Mary’s warnings by coming up with such horrors as the machine gun, chemical warfare, aerial bombing, nuclear weapons, napalm and inhumane medical experiments such as those performed not just by the NAZIs, but by ourselves.

At the same time scientists gave us anesthesia, and electric lighting, penicillin and anti- biotics along with a host of other humane inventions. It is here where the emotional pull of Mary Shelley’s divine imagination loses me and the anti-scientific nature of her novel becomes something I am not inclined to accept.

The idea of hubris is a useful concept some variant of which we must adopt the exploration of which I will leave for another time. In crafting an updated version of the tale of the dangers of human hubris Mary Shelley has dimmed under Gothic shadows some of the illumination of the Enlightenment in which she played a large part. Warnings against following our desire to know is, after all, the primary moral of her novel. As Victor tells the polar explorer Robert Walton who has saved him:

Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier the man is who thinks his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become more than his nature will allow (Chapter 4, page 2)

Walton on the basis of Victor’s story does prematurely end his polar exploration, perhaps saving his crew from mortal danger, but also stopping short an adventure and as a consequence contracting the horizon of what we as human beings can know. Many of the lessons of Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus we need to grapple with and take to heart, yet this refusal to ask or take upon ourselves the danger of attempting to answer the deepest of questions would constitute another very different, though very real, way of losing a elemental component of our humanity.       

Capitalism, Evolution and the Attack of the Giant Fungus

Armillaria ostoyae

One of the stranger features of our era is its imaginative exhaustion in terms of the future, which I realize is a strange thing to say her. This exhaustion is not so much of an issue when it comes to imagining tomorrow’s gadgets, or scientific breakthroughs, but becomes apparent once the question of the future political and economic order is at stake. In fact, the very idea that something different will almost inevitably follow the institutions and systems we live in seems to have retreated from our consciousness at the very time when the endemic failures of our political and economic order has shown that the current world can not last.

Whatever the failures of government in Washington no serious person is discussing an alternative to the continued existence of the United States or its constitutional form of government now over two centuries old. The situation is even more pronounced when it comes to our capitalist economic system which has taken root almost everywhere and managed to outlive all of its challengers. Discussions about the future economy are rarely ones about what might succeed capitalism but merely the ironing out of its contradictions so that the system itself can continue to function.

It’s not just me saying this, here is the anthropologists and anarchist philosopher David Graeber in his wonderful Debt the first 5,000 Years on our contemporary collective brain freeze when it comes to thinking about what a future economy might be like:

It’s only now, at the very moment when it’s becoming increasingly clear that current arrangements are not viable, that we suddenly have hit the wall in terms of our collective imagination.

There is very good reason to believe that, in a generation or so, capitalism itself will no longer exist-most obviously, as ecologists keep reminding us, because it’s impossible to maintain an engine of perpetual growth forever on a finite planet, and the current form of capitalism doesn’t seem to be capable of generating the kind of vast technological breakthroughs and mobilizations that would be required for us to start finding and colonizing any other planets. Yet faced with the prospect of capitalism actually ending, the most common reaction-even from those who call themselves “progressives”-is simply fear. We cling to what exists because we can no longer imagine an alternative that wouldn’t be even worse. (381-382)

There are all sorts of reasons why our imagination has become stuck. To begin with the only seemingly viable alternative to capitalism- state communism- proved itself a failure in the 1980s when the Soviet Union began to kick the bucket. Even the socialist alternatives to capitalism were showing their age by then and began pulling themselves back from any sort of direct management of the economy. Then there is one word- China- which embraced a form of state capitalism in the late 1970s and never looked back. To many of the new middle class in the developing world the globalization of capitalism appears a great success and can be credited with moving millions out of poverty.

Yet capitalism has its problems. There is not only the question of its incompatibility with survival on a finite earth, as Graber mentions, there are its recurrent financial crises, its run away inequality, its endemic unemployment in the developed and its inhuman exploitation in the developing world. One would have thought that the financial crisis would have brought some soul searching to the elites and a creative upsurge in thinking about alternative systems, but, alas, it has not happened except among anarchists like Graeber and the short-lived Occupy movement he helped inspire and old school unrepentant communists such as Slavoj Zizek.

At least part of our imaginative atrophy can be explained by the fact that capitalism, like all political-economic systems before has managed to enmesh itself so deeply into our view of the natural world that it’s difficult to think of it as something we ourselves made and hence can abandon or reconfigure if we wanted to. Egyptian pharaohs, Aztec chieftains, or Chinese emperors, all made claims to rule that justified themselves as reflections of the way the cosmos worked. The European feudal order that preceded the birth of capitalism was based on an imagined chain of being that stretched from the peasant in his field to the king on his throne through the “angelic” planets to God himself- out there somewhere in the Oort Cloud.

The natural order that capitalism is thought to reflect is an evolutionary one which amounts to a bias against design and control. Like evolution, the “market” is thought to be wiser than any intentional attempts to design steer or control in could ever be. This is the argument one can find in 19th century social Darwinist like Thomas Huxley, a 20th century iconoclast like Friedrich Hayek, or a 21st century neo-liberal like Robert Wright, all of whom see in capitalism a reflection of biological evolution in that sense. In the simplest form of this argument evolution pits individuals against one another in a competition to reproduce with the fittest individuals able to get their genes into the next generation. Capitalism pits producers and sellers against others dealing in similar products with only the most efficient able to survive.  History seemed to provide the ultimate proof of this argument as the command economy of the Soviet Union imploded in the 1980s and country after country adopted some sort of pro-market system. The crash, however,  should have sparked some doubts.

The idea that the market is a social version of biological evolution has some strong historical roots. The late Stephen Jay Gould, in his essay “Of bamboos, cicadas and the economy of Adam Smith” drew our attention to the fact that this similarity between evolution and capitalism might hold not because the capitalist theory of economics emerged under the influence of the theory of evolution but the reverse. That the theory of evolution was discovered when it was because Darwin was busy reading the first theorist of capitalism- Adam Smith. I am unable to find a link to the essay, but here is Gould explaining himself.

The top down mercantilist economy Smith attacked in his Wealth of Nations, according to Gould, must have seemed to Darwin like the engineering God of William Paley in his Natural Philosophy. Paley was the man who gave us the analogy of God as “watchmaker”. If you found a watch on the beach and had never seen such a thing before you could reasonably assume it was designed by a creature with intelligence. We should then reason from the intricate engineering of nature that it was designed by a being of great intelligence.

Adam Smith was dealing with a whole other sort of question- how do you best design and manage an economy? Smith argued that the best way to do this wasn’t to design it from the top down, but  to let the profit motive loose from which an “invisible hand” would bring the best possible economic order into being. In the free market theory of Smith, Darwin could find a compelling argument against Paley. The the way you arrived at the complex order of living things was not to design it from on high but to let the struggle for reproduction loose and from an uncountable number of failures and successes would emerge the rich tapestry of life which surrounds us in words of a much later book on the topic by Richard Dawkins, the “designer” of nature was a Blind Watchmaker.

The problem with thinking our current economic system reflects the deep truth of evolution is not that the comparison lacks a grain of truth, and it certainly isn’t the case that the theory of evolution is untrue or is likely to be shown to be untrue as something like the Great Chain of Being that justified the feudal order was eventually shown to be untrue. Rather, the problem lies with the particularly narrow version of evolution with which capitalism is compared and the papering over of the way evolution often lacks the wisdom of something like Smith’s “invisible hand”.

Perhaps we should borrow another idea from Gould if we are to broaden our evolutionary analogy between evolution and capitalism. Gould pioneered a way to understand evolution known as punctuated equilibrium. In this view evolution does not precede gradually but in fits and starts with periods of equilibrium in which evolutionary change grinds to a halt are ended by periods of rapid evolutionary change driven by some disequilibrating event- say a rapid change in climate or the mass appearance of new species such as in the Columbian Exchange. This is then followed by a new period of equilibrium after species have evolved to best meet the new conditions, or gone extinct because they could not adapt and so on and so on.

The defining feature of late capitalism, or whatever you chose to call it, is that it is unable to function under conditions of equilibrium, or better, that its goal of ever increasing profits is incompatible with the kinds of equilibrium found in mature economies. This is part of the case the financial journalist Chrystia Freeland makes in her engaging book Plutocrats. The fact that so much Western money is now flowing into the developing world stems from the reality that the rapid transformation in such places makes stupendous profits possible. Part of this plethora of potential profits arises from the fact that areas such as the former Soviet Union China and countries that have undergone neo-liberal reforms- like India- are virgin territories for capitalist entrepreneurs. As Rosa Luxemburg pointed out during the last great age of globalization at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century capitalism was the first system “that was calculated for the whole earth”.

To return to the analogy with evolution, it is like the meeting of two formerly separated ecosystems only one of which has undergone intense selective pressures. Capitalist corporations whether Western or imitated are the ultimate invasive species in areas that formerly lived in the zoo- like conditions of state socialism.   In the mature economies such as those of the United States, Europe, and Japan the kinds of disequilibrium which leads to the ever increasing profits at the root of capitalism have come in two very different forms- technological change and deregulation. The revolution in computers and telecommunications has been a source of disequilibrium upending everything from entertainment to publishing to education. In the process it has given rise to the sorts of economic titans, and sadly inequality,seen in a similar periods of upheaval. We no longer have Andrew Carnegie, but we do have Bill Gates. Standard Oil is a thing of the past, but we have Google and Facebook and Amazon.

The transformation of society that has come with such technological disequilibrium is probably, on net, a positive thing for all of us. But, we have also engendered self-inflicted disequilibrium without clear benefit to the larger society. The enormous growth in the profits and profile of the financial industry came on the back of the dismantling of Depression era controls making financiers and financial institutions into the wealthiest segment of our society. We know where that got us. It is as if a stable, if staid, island ecosystem suddenly invited upon itself all sorts of natural disasters in the hope of jump starting evolution and got instead little but mutants that threaten to eat everything in sight until the island became a wasteland. Late capitalism is like evolution only if we redact the punctuated equilibrium. It is we ourselves who have taken to imposing the kinds of stresses that upend the economy into a state of permanent disequilibrium.

The capitalism/evolution analogy also only works under conditions of a near perfect market where the state or some other entity not only preserves free competition at its heart but intervenes to dismantle corporations once they get too large. Such interference is akin to the balancing effect of predation against plants or animals that exhibit such rapid reproduction that if the majority of them were not quickly eaten they would consume entire ecosystems.  Such is the case with the common aphid which if left to its devices would have one individual producing 1,560,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (1 heptillion, 560 hexillion) offspring!

The balance of nature is a constraint that every species is desperate to break out of just as at the root of every corporation lies the less than secret wish to have eliminated all of its competition. Most of the time predation manages to prevent the reproductive drive of any one species from threatening the entire ecosystem, but sometimes it fails. This is the case with the giant fungus Armillaria ostoyae whose relentless growth kills the trees above it and smothers the diverse forest ecosystem from which it had emerged.

We can complain that the failure of the government to break up giant corporations has let loose the like of Armillaria ostoyae. Calls to dismantle the big banks after the financial crisis fell on deaf ears. Big banks and mega-corporations can now point to their global presence and competition against other behemoths to justify their survival. We couldn’t dismantle Google if we wanted too because everything left would be swallowed by Baidu.

And it’s not only that the government is failing to preserve market competition by letting companies get too big, it’s also distorting the economic ecosystem to favor the companies that are already there. The corruption of democracy through corporate lobbying has meant that the government, to the extent that it acts at all, is not preserving free competition but distorting it. To quote from Plutocrats:

“Most lobbying seeks to tilt the playing field, in one direction or another, not level it.” (262)

Another, and for my part much more galling oversight of the capitalism/evolution analogy is that it tends to treat any attempt at design, guidance or intention on the part of the society at large as somehow “unnatural” interference in what would otherwise be a perfectly balanced system. What this position seems to conveniently forget is that the discovery of Natural Selection didn’t somehow lead to the end of Artificial Selection- instead quite the opposite. We don’t just throw a bunch of animals in a room and cross our fingers that some miracle of milk or egg production will result. What we do is meticulously shape the course of evolution using some constraint based on our hoped for result.

It we who have established the selective criteria of maximizing and increasing profits and growth to be the be all and end all of a corporation’s existence when we could have chosen a much different set of selection criteria that would give rise to completely different sorts of economic entities. Governments already do this when they force industries to comply with constraints such as health and safety or environmental requirements. Without these constraints we get the evolution of economic entities that are focused on maximizing profits and growth alone, man made creatures which giant fungus like care little for the people and societies underneath them.

Related to this is another evolutionary assumption shared by proponents of the unfettered free market, this one with somewhat dubious scientific validity. Those who believe capitalism can run itself seem to subscribe to an economic version of James Lovelock’s “Gaia Hypothesis”.  Recall, that Lovelock proposed that the earth itself was a kind of living organism that had evolved in such a way as to be self-regulating towards an environment that was optimal for life. Human beings, if they were crazy enough to challenge this Gaian equilibrium were asking for extinction, but life itself would go on until it faced a challenger it would be unable to best- the earth’s beloved sun.

Belief that the technological world is a kind of superorganism can be found thought like these of the journalist Robert Wright that I have quoted elsewhere:

Could it be that, in some sense, the point of evolution — both the biological evolution that created an intelligent species and the technological evolution that a sufficiently intelligent species is bound to unleash — has been to create these social brains, and maybe even to weave them into a giant, loosely organized planetary brain? Kind of in the way that the point of the maturation of an organism is to create an adult organism?”

In this quote can be found both of the great forces of disequilibrium unleashed by late capitalism, both the computer and communications revolution and globalization. But it seem that this planetary brain lack the part of our neural architecture that makes us the most human- the neocortex, by which we are able to act intentionally and plan.

The kinds of hair-trigger threads we are weaving around society are good in many respects, but are not an answer to the problem of our long term direction and can even, if they are not tempered by foresight, themselves lead to the diminution of long term horizons in the name of whatever is right in front of our nose, and spark crises of uninformed panic lacking any sense of perspective. Twitter was a helpful tool in helping to overthrow Middle Eastern dictators, but proved useless in actually establishing anything like democracy.

Supercomputers using sophisticated algorithms now perform a great deal of the world’s financial transactions in milliseconds,  and sometimes lead to frightening glitches like the May 2010 “flash crash” that may portend deeper risks lying underneath a world where wealth is largely detached from reality and become a sea of electrons. Even if there are no further such crashes our ever shortening time scale needs to be somehow tempered and offset with an idea of the future where the long term horizon extends beyond the next financial quarter.

 Late 21st century capitalism with its focus on profit maximization and growth where corporations have managed to free themselves from social constraints and where old equilibriums are overturned in the name of creating new opportunities is just one version of a “natural” economic system.  We are free to imagine others. As Graeber hoped we would start to wonder what different kinds of economic systems might be possible besides the one we live in. The people we would do best turn to when it comes to imagining such alternatives are unlikely to come from the ranks of economists who are as orthodox as any medieval priesthood, or our modern fortune-tellers- the futurists- who are little better than “consultants” for the very system we might hope to think our way beyond.

No, the people who might best imagine a future alternative to capitalism are those who are the most free of the need to intellectually conform so as to secure respectability, tenure, promotion or a possible consulting gig, and who have devoted their lives to thinking about the future. The people who best meet this description today are the authors of science and speculative fiction. It will be to their success and failure in this task that I will turn next time…

The Ethics of a Simulated Universe

Zhuangzi-Butterfly-Dream

This year one of the more thought provoking thought experiments to appear in recent memory has its tenth anniversary.  Nick Bostrom’s paper in the Philosophical Quarterly “Are You Living in a Simulation?”” might have sounded like the types of conversations we all had after leaving the theater having seen The Matrix, but Bostrom’s attempt was serious. (There is a great recent video of Bostrom discussing his argument at the IEET). What he did in his paper was create a formal argument around the seemingly fanciful question of whether or not we were living in a simulated world. Here is how he stated it:


This paper argues that at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. It follows that the belief that there is a significant chance that we will one day become posthumans who run ancestor-simulations is false, unless we are currently living in a simulation.

To state his case in everyday language: any technological civilization whose progress did not stop at some point would gain the capacity to realistically simulate whole worlds, including the individual minds that inhabit them, that is, they could run realistic ancestor simulations. Technologically advanced civilizations either die out before gaining the capacity to produce realistic ancestor simulations,  there is  something stopping such technologically mature civilizations from running such simulations in large numbers or, we ourselves are most likely living in such a simulation because there are a great many more such simulated worlds than real ones.

There is a lot in that argument to digest and a number of underlying assumptions that might be explored or challenged, but I want to look at just one of them, #2. That is, I will make the case that there may be very good reasons why technological civilizations both prohibit and are largely uninterested in creating realistic ancestor simulations. Reasons that are both ethical and scientific. Bostrom himself discusses the possibility that ethical constraints might prevent  technologically mature civilizations from creating realistic ancestor simulations. He writes:

One can speculate that advanced civilizations all develop along a trajectory that leads to the recognition of an ethical prohibition against running ancestor-simulations because of the suffering that is inflicted on the inhabitants of the simulation. However, from our present point of view, it is not clear that creating a human race is immoral. On the contrary, we tend to view the existence of our race as constituting a great ethical value. Moreover, convergence on an ethical view of the immorality of running ancestor-simulations is not enough: it must be combined with convergence on a civilization-wide social structure that enables activities considered immoral to be effectively banned.

I think the issue of “suffering that is inflicted on the inhabitants of a simulation” may be more serious than Bostrom appears to believe. Any civilization that has reached the stage where it can create realistic worlds that contain fully conscious human beings will have almost definitely escaped the two conditions that haunt the human condition in its current form- namely pain and death. The creation of realistic ancestor simulations will have brought back into existence these two horrors and thus might likely be considered not merely unethical but perhaps even evil. Were our world actually such a simulation it would confront us with questions that once went by the name of theodicy, namely, the attempt to reconcile the assumed goodness of the creator (for our case the simulator)  with the existence of evil: natural, moral, and metaphysical that exists in the world.

Questions as to why there is, or the morality of there being, such a wide disjunction between the conditions of any imaginable creator/simulator and those of the created/simulated is a road we’ve been down before as the philosopher Susan Neiman so brilliantly showed us in her Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy.  There, Neiman points out that the question of theodicy is a nearly invisible current that swept through the modern age. As a serious topic of thought in this period it began as an underlying assumption behind the scientific revolution with thinkers such as Leibniz arguing in his Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil that “ours is the best of all possible worlds”. Leibniz having invented calculus and been the first to envision what we would understand as a modern computer was no dope, so one might wonder how such a genius could ever believe in anything so seemingly contradictory to actual human experience?

What one needs to remember in order to understand this is that the early giants of the scientific revolution, Newton, Descartes, Leibniz, Bacon weren’t out to replace God but to understand what was thought of as his natural order. Given how stunning and quick what seemed at the time a complete understanding of the natural world had been formulated using the new methods it perhaps made sense to think that a similar human understanding of the moral order was close at hand. Given the intricate and harmonious picture of how nature was “designed” it was easy to think that this natural order did not somehow run in violation of the moral order. That underneath every seemingly senseless and death-bringing natural event- an earthquake or plague- there was some deeper and more necessary process for the good of humanity going on.    


The quest for theodicy continued when Rousseau gave us the idea that for harmony to be restored to the human world we needed to return to the balance found in nature, something we had lost when we developed civilization.  Nature, and therefore the intelligence that was thought to have designed it were good. Human beings got themselves into trouble when they failed to heed this nature- built their cities on fault lines, or even, for Rousseau, lived in cities at all.


Anyone who has ever taken a serious look at history (or even paid real attention to the news) would agree with Hegel that: “History… is, indeed, little more than the register of the ‘crimes, follies, and misfortunes’ of mankind”. There isn’t any room for an ethical creator there, but Hegel himself tried to find some larger meaning in the long term trajectory of history. With him, and Marx who followed on his heels we have not so much a creator, but a natural and historical process that leads to a fulfillment an intelligence or perfect society at its end. There may be a lot of blood and gore, a huge amount of seemingly unnecessary human suffering between the beginning of history and its end, but the price is worth paying.

Lest anyone think that these views are irrelevant in our current context, one can see a great deal of Rousseau in the positions of contemporary environmentalists and bio-conservatives who take the position that it is us, that is human beings and the artificial technological society we have created that is the problem. Likewise, the views of both singularitarians and some transhumanists who think we are on the verge of reaching some breakout stage where we complete or transcend the human condition, have deep echoes of both Hegel and Marx.

But perhaps the best analog for the kinds of rules a technologically advanced civilization might create around the issue of realistic ancestor simulations might lie not in these religiously based philosophical ideas but  in our regulations regarding more practical areas such as animal experimentation. Scientific researchers have long recognized that the pursuit of truth needs humane constraints and that such constraints apply not just to human research subjects, but to animal subjects as well. In the United States, standards regarding research that use live animals is subject to self-regulation and oversight based on those established by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). Those criteria are as follows:

The basic criteria for IACUC approval are that the research (a) has the potential to allow us to learn new information, (b) will teach skills or concepts that cannot be obtained using an alternative, (c) will generate knowledge that is scientifically and socially important, and (d) is designed such that animals are treated humanely.

The underlying idea behind these regulations is that researchers should never unnecessarily burden animals in research. Therefore, it is the job of researchers to design and carry out research in a way that does not subject animals to unnecessary burdens. Doing research that does not promise to generate important knowledge, subjecting animals to unnecessary pain, doing experiments on animals when the objectives can be reached without doing so are all ways of unnecessarily burdening animals.

Would realistic ancestor simulations meet these criteria? I think realistic ancestor simulations would probably fulfill criteria (a), but I have serious doubts that it meets any of the others. In terms of simulations offering us “skills or concepts that cannot be obtained using an alternative” (b), in what sense would a realistic simulations teach skills or concepts that could not be achieved using something short of such simulations where those within them actually suffer and die? Are there not many types of simulations that would fall short of the full range of subjective human experiences of suffering that would nevertheless grant us a good deal of knowledge regarding such types of worlds and societies?  There is probably an even greater ethical hurdle for realistic ancestor simulations to cross in (c), for it is difficult to see exactly what lessons or essential knowledge running such simulations would bring. Societies that are advanced enough to run such simulations are unlikely to gain vital information about how to run their own societies.

The knowledge they are seeking is bound to be historical in nature, that is, what was it like to live in such and such a period or what might have happened if some historical contingency were reversed? I find it extremely difficult to believe that we do not have the majority of information today to create realistic models of what it was like to live in a particular historical period, a recreation that does not have to entail real suffering on the part of innocent participants to be of worth.

Let’s take a specific rather than a general historical example dear to my heart because I am a Pennsylvanian- the Battle of Gettysburg. Imagine that you live hundreds or even thousands of years into the future when we are capable of creating realistic ancestor simulations. Imagine that you are absolutely fascinated by the American Civil War and would like to “live” in that period to see it for yourself. Certainly you might want to bring your own capacity for suffering and pain or to replicate this capacity in a “human” you, but why do the simulated beings in this world with you have to actually feel the lash of a whip, or the pain of a saw hacking off an injured limb? Again, if completely accurate simulations of limited historical events are ethically suspect, why would this suspicion not hold for the simulation of entire worlds?

One might raise the objection that any realistic ancestor simulation would need to possess sentient beings with free will such as ourselves that possess not merely the the ability to suffer, but to inflict evil upon others. This, of course, is exactly the argument Christian theodicy makes. It is also an argument that was undermined by sceptics of early modern theodicy- such as that put forth by Leibniz.    

Arguments that the sentient beings we are now (whether simulated or real) require free will that puts us at risk of self-harm were dealt with brilliantly by the 17th century philosopher, Pierre Bayle, who compared whatever creator might exist behind a world where sentient beings are in constant danger due to their exercise of free will to a negligent parent. Every parent knows that giving their children freedom is necessary for moral growth, but what parent would give this freedom such reign when it was not only likely but known that it would lead to the severe harm or even death of their child?

Applying this directly to the simulation argument any creator of such simulations knows that we will kill millions of our fellow human beings in war and torture, deliberately starve and enslave countless others. At least these are problems we have brought on ourselves,but the world also contains numerous so-called natural evils such as earthquakes and pandemics which have devastated us numerous times. Above all, it contains death itself which will kill all of us in the end.    

It was quite obvious to another sceptic, David Hume, that the reality we lived in had no concern for us. If it was “engineered” what did it say that the engineer did not provide obvious “tweaks” to the system that would make human life infinitely better? Why, are we driven by pain such as hunger and not correspondingly greater pleasure alone?

Arguments that human and animal suffering is somehow not “real” because it is simulated seem to me to be particularly tone deaf. In a lighter mood I might kick a stone like Samuel Johnson and squeak “I refute it thus!” In a darker mood I might ask those who hold the idea whether they would willingly exchange places with a burn victim. I think not! 

If it is the case that we live in a realistic ancestor simulation then the simulator cares nothing for our suffering on a granular level. This leads us to the question of what type of knowledge could truly be gained from running such realistic ancestor simulations. It might be the case that the more granular a simulation is the less knowledge can actually be gained from it. If one needs to create entire worlds with individuals and everything in them in order to truly understand what is going on, then the results of the process you are studying is either contingent or you are really not in possession of full knowledge regarding how such worlds work. It might be interesting to run natural selection over again from the beginning of life on earth to see what alternatives evolution might have come up with, but would we really be gaining any knowledge about evolution itself rather than a view of how it might have looked had such and such initial conditions been changed? And why do we need to replicate an entire world including the pain suffered by the simulated creatures within before we can grasp what alternatives to the path evolution or even history followed might have looked like. Full understanding of the process by which evolution works, which we do not have but a civilization able to create realistic ancestor simulations doubtless would, should allow us to envision alternatives without having to run the process from scratch a countless number of times.

Yet, it is in the last criteria (d) that experiments are  “designed such that animals are treated humanely” that the ethical nature of any realistic ancestor simulation really hits a wall. If we are indeed living in an ancestor simulation it seems pretty clear that the simulator(s) should be declared inhumane. How otherwise would the simulator create a world of pandemics and genocides, torture, war, and murder, and above all, universal death?

One might claim that any simulator is so far above us that it takes little concern of our suffering. Yet, we have granted this kind of concern to animals and thus might consider ourselves morally superior to an ethically blind simulator. Without any concern or interest in our collective well-being, why simulate us in the first place?

Indeed, any simulator who created a world such as our own would be the ultimate anti-transhumanist. Having escaped pain and death “he” would bring them back into the world on account of what would likely be socially useless curiosity. Here then we might have an answer to the second half of Bostrom’s quote above:


Moreover, convergence on an ethical view of the immorality of running ancestor-simulations is not enough: it must be combined with convergence on a civilization-wide social structure that enables activities considered immoral to be effectively banned.

A society that was technologically capable of creating realistic ancestor simulations and actually runs them would appear to have on of two features (1) it finds such simulations ethically permissible, (2) it is unable to prevent such simulations from being created. Perhaps any society that remains open to creating such a degree of suffering found in realistic ancestor simulations  for anything but the reason of existential survival would be likely to destroy itself for other reasons relating to such lack of ethical boundaries.

However, it is (2) that I find the most illuminating. For perhaps the condition that decides if a civilization will continue to exist is its ability to adequately regulate the use of technology within it. Any society that is unable to prevent rogue members from creating realistic ancestor simulations despite deep ethical prohibitions is incapable of preventing the use of destructive technologies or in managing its own technological development in a way that promotes survival. A situation we can perhaps see glimpses of in our own situation related to nuclear and biological weapons, or the dangers of the Anthropocene.

This link between ethics, successful control of technology and long term survival is perhaps is the real lesson we should glean from Bostrom’s provocative simulation argument.

The Iron Heel and the Long-view

The Iron Heel is a 1908 novel by Jack London. It’s a novel which I think is safe to say is not read much today, which is a shame especially for an Americans, for the setting for what was the world’s first modern political dystopia, a novel written when Orwell and Huxley were just babes in the cradle was the United States itself.

Reading the novel as an American gives puts one in a kind of temporal vertigo. It’s not only like finding a long forgotten photograph of oneself and being stuck with the question “is that really me?”, it as if when one turned the photo over one found a note from scribbled n from yourself to yourself a kind of time capsule rich with the assumption that the past “you” knew who the “you” reading the note would be. It makes you start asking questions like “am I the person who I thought I would be?” and set to pondering on all the choices and events which have put you on, or diverted you from, your self-predicted path.

The Iron Heel tells the story of the rise of , “The Oligarchy”, a fascist state deftly laid in almost all of its details before fascism had even been invented. The fact that London pictures the rise of not only the world’s first fascist regime, but what might be considered the world’s first communist revolution not “out there” in the Old World, but on the familiar grounds of the United States where places like California, Idaho, “Indian Territory”, Chicago and Washington D.C. are the setting for events that are hauntingly similar to ones that would indeed happen in Europe decades later, turn the novel into a kind of alternative history.

The story itself is presented in the form of a kind of time capsule, a buried manuscript that has been discovered by a scholar, Anthony Meredith,  in the year 2,600 AD. Footnotes throughout the book are written from this very long view of the future when, after centuries of repression and false starts, a true Brotherhood of Man has been obtained.

The manuscript,  footnoted by Meredith,  contains the story of, Avis Everhard, the wife and fellow revolutionary of seminal figure in London’s fictional history, Ernest Everhard. Avis tells the tale of an early 20th century America racked by inequality, class divisions, and the most brutal forms of labor exploitation. These conditions set the stage for a looming socialist revolution, a political alliance between industrial labor in the form of a Socialist Party, and American farmers in the Grange Movement, that is preempted by the forces of capital. Ernest Everhard is elected as a socialist US Senator, one of many members of the Socialists and Grange Movement who have been swept into national and state office by the groundswell of support for revolutionary change.

The chance to change American  society through constitutional means does not last long. The Oligarchs use a feigned terrorist incident in the US Capitol to turn the American Constitution into a mere facade. Members of the Grange Movement are barred from taking their seats in state legislatures. Socialists are hounded from office pursued as potential terrorists and arrested. The Oligarchs create new mechanisms of social control.  London, writing before the US had a true and permanent standing Army, describes how The Oligarchs turn the state militias into a national army “The Mercenaries” with their own secret service tied to the police that will act against any perceived challenges to the social order.

Writing a generation before corporatism was even conceived, London describes how this oligarchic coup would manage to divide and conquer the forces of labor by essentially buying off and vesting in the system vital workers such as those in steel or railroads so that crippling general strikes became impossible, and all other unskilled labor was pushed into what we would understand as Third World conditions of bare survival. These wage slaves would be compelled to build the glittering new cities of the Oligarchs such as Ardis and Asgard.

The lower classes are robbed of that singularly American right- the right to bare arms, and only allowed to travel using an internal passport system similar to the one used in Czarist Russia.

Under these conditions, actual revolution brews, and the Oligarchs and the revolutionary forces engage in a protracted struggle of espionage and counter-espionage that for the revolutionaries is to culminate in a planned revolution- essentially a set of coordinated terrorists attacks on US communications and military infrastructure that the revolutionaries hope will spark a genuine revolution against the Oligarchs.

The Oligarchs again set out to short- circuit revolution, this time by staging a massive military assault on the heart of American labor, Chicago. The assault unleashes violent clashes between the well-armed Mercenaries and police forces and howling crowds of the poor armed only with household tools: knives, clubs, axes. In scenes far more gripping than those in Collin’s Catching Fire, London depicts urban warfare between security forces fighting raging crowds and bomb throwing insurgents who attack their targets from the heights of skyscrapers, in a way surely reminiscent of Fallujah, or even more so, what is going on right now in Syria.

Eventually, the oligarchic forces burn the poor sections of Chicago to the ground, and end all chance of successful revolution within the lifetime of the Everhard’s. In such conditions the effort at revolution becomes pure terrorism, the names of the terrorists groups no doubt reflective of the limited geographical area in which they operate and America’s history of resistance to the powers of the federal government such as the Mormon group the Danites or the Comanches.

The Oligarch’s suppression of revolutionary forces eventually reaches the Everhard’s. The novel ends abruptly with Avis’s narration stopping in mid-sentence.

The Iron Heel is a kind of warning, and the strange thing about this warning is that London, who was labeled a gloom obsessed pessimists by many of his fellow socialists, got so much of what would happen over the next 50 or so years eerily right, with the marked exception of where they were to occur.

Such prescience is hard to achieve even for someone as brilliant as the fellow novelist Anatole France the author of the introduction to the 1924 edition of the The Iron Heel I hold in my hand.

France, who was 80 at the time and would die the same year, thinks London was right, that the Iron Heel was coming, but doesn’t think it will arrive for quite some time.

“In France, as in Italy and Spain, Socialism, is for the moment, too feeble to have anything to fear from the Iron Heel., for extreme feebleness is the one safety of the feeble. No Heel of Iron will trouble itself to tread down this dust of a party”. (xiv)

1924 is the same year that the murder of socialist Giacomo Matteotti truly began the fascist dictatorship in Italy- a kind of corporate state that was certainly anticipated by London in The Iron Heel. Within 6 years “feeble” Spanish socialism would be locked in a civil war with fascism, within 9 years, the Nazis would rise to power on the backs of the same sort of fears of revolution, and using the same kinds of political machinations described in The Iron Heel. The bombing of the Reichstag ,which was blamed on the German communists but really committed by the Nazi’s, became the justification for an anti-revolutionary crackdown and the transformation of German democracy into a sham. It makes one wonder if Hitler himself had read The Iron Heel!


The Iron Heel throws up all sorts of historical questions and useful analogies for the current day. Why did neither revolutionary socialism or outright fascism emerge in the US in the 1930’s as it did elsewhere?

The Iron Heel should perhaps be read as part of a trilogy with Sinclair Lewis’ 1936 It can’t happen here! Which describes the transformation of America into a Nazi-like totalitarian state, or Philip Roth’s 2004 The Plot Against America which describes a similar fascists regime which comes about when the Nazi sympathizer and isolationist, Charles Lindberg, win the presidential race against Franklin Roosevelt. Full reviews of both will be found here at some point in the future the point for now being that there were figures and sentiments in American politics that might have added up to something quite different than American exceptionalism during this period. That what we ended up with was as much the consequence of historical luck as it was of any particularly American virtue.

Some, on both the right and the left would argue that what we have now is just a softer version of the tyranny portrayed by London, Lewis, and Roth, and they do indeed have something, but I do not as of now want to go there. The reason, I think, the kind of socialist revolution found in other countries never got legs in the United States the way it did elsewhere was that the US, which had been a hotbed of labor unrest and socialist sentiment and anticipation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, willingly adopted a whole series of reforms that made worker grievances against capitalism less acute.

  • Unemployment benefits- 1935
  • Eight-hour workday- 1936
  • Worker’s compensation in event of injury (widespread by 1949).
  • Government funded support for the poor that preserved a minimum standard of living- 1935
  • Minimum wage- 1938
  • Right to unionize and the adoption of a formal system to hold strikes- 1935

In addition controls were placed on financial markets so that the kinds of wild swings, financial panics, that periodically brought the nation’s economy to its knees would no longer occur.

Even when derided on the right as move towards socialism or on the left as delusional reformism, these changes followed by an unprecedented era of prosperity for the middle class from the 1940s through the 1970s, essentially ended the vicious circle presented in the Iron Heel of a political system unresponsive to worker grievances and exploitation that gave rise to forces of social revolution that in turn  engendered a move towards state violence and tyranny by the wealthy elites, which resulted in widespread terrorism by continually frustrated revolutionaries.

As a system for producing widespread prosperity faltered in the 1970s the American right, followed by increasingly centrist Democrats diagnosed the economic malaise as having originated from both the choke hold American unions had over the economy and the stifling effects of too much government interference.  Through the 1980s and 90s labor union power was dismantled, economic production globalized, capital markets freed up from earlier constraints, welfare reformed. Support for the lower classes was now to come not primarily through government programs, but through tax policy, such as the Earned Income Tax, that would free individuals to make their own choices and vest them in the capitalist economic system rather than view them as an opposition. Such reforms with their explicit claim that they would lead to universal prosperity collapsed with the 2008 financial crisis and neither the American right nor the American left has any clear understanding of where we go from here.

This history is what makes the recent video of Romney and his 47% comments so galling. His fellow oligarch’s who had paid more than the median income of an average American family- $50,000- to listen to his speech laugh and clink their silverware as he describes the sad state of American society where over half of the county either receive some government support or pay no taxes to the federal government. Romney and his audience forget how we got here: that the working class were granted their “privileges”  because the only way to otherwise sustain him and his fellow oligarchs would be through a regime of violence. That the fact that so many Americans don’t pay federal income tax was brought about by Republicans who hoped to entrench the idea that the system of free enterprise was for the good of rich, middle class and poor alike.

Romney and his listeners are oblivious to the long-view. In a way I wish I could send them all a copy of The Iron Heel.

Would I charge, or could it be a tax write-off?

*Jack London, The Iron Heel, McKinlay, Stone & Mackenzie, 1924 (original 1907).

Big Brother, Big Data, and the Forked Path

The technological ecosystem in which political power operates tends to mark out the possibility space for what kinds of political arrangements, good and bad, exist within that space. Orwell’s Oceania and its sister tyrannies were imagined in what was the age of big, centralized media. Here the Party had under its control not only the older printing press, having the ability to craft and doctor, at will, anything created using print from newspapers, to government documents, to novels. It also controlled the newer mediums of radio and film, and, as Orwell imagined, would twist those technologies around backwards to serve as spying machines aimed at everyone.

The questions, to my knowledge, Orwell never asked was what was the Party to do with all that data? How was it to store, sift through, make sense of, or locate locate actual threats within it the  yottabytes of information that would be gathered by recording almost every conversation, filming or viewing almost every movement, of its citizens lives? In other words, the Party would have ran into the problem of Big Data. Many of Orwellian developments since 9/11 have come in the form of the state trying to ride the wave of the Big Data tsunami unleashed with the rise of the internet, an attempt create it’s own form of electronic panopticon.

In their book Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, Dana Priest, and ,William Arkin, of the Washington Post present a frightening picture of the surveillance and covert state that has mushroomed in the United States since 9/11. A vast network of endeavors which has grown to dwarf, in terms of cummulative numbers of programs and operations, similar efforts, during the unarguably much more dangerous Cold War. (TS 12)

Theirs’ is not so much a vision of an America of dark security services controlled behind the scenes by a sinister figure like J. Edgar Hoover, as it is one of complexity gone wild. Priest and Arkin paint a picture of Top Secret America as a vast data sucking machine, vacuuming up every morsel of information with the intention of correctly “connecting the dots”, (150) in the hopes of preventing another tragedy like 9/11.

So much money was poured into intelligence gathering after 9/11, in so many different organizations, that no one, not the President, nor the Director of the CIA, nor any other official has a full grasp of what is going on. The security state, like the rest of the American government, has become reliant on private contractors who rake in stupendous profits. The same corruption that can be found elsewhere in Washington is found here. Employees of the government and the private sector spin round and round in a revolving door between the Washington connections brought by participation in political establishment followed by big-time money in the ballooning world of private security and intelligence. Priest quotes one American intelligence official  who had the balls to describe the insectous relationship between government and private security firms as “a self-licking ice cream cone”. (TS 198)

The flood of money that inundated the intelligence field in after  9/11 has created what Priest and Arkin call an “alternative geography” companies doing covert work for the government that exist in huge complexes, some of which are large contain their very own “cities”- shopping centers, athletic facilities, and the like. To these are added mammoth government run complexes some known and others unknown.

Our modern day Winston Smiths, who work for such public and private intelligence services, are tasked not with the mind numbing work of doctoring history, but with the equally superfluous job of repackaging the very same information that had been produced by another individual in another organization public or private each with little hope that they would know that the other was working on the same damned thing. All of this would be a mere tragic waste of public money that could be better invested in other things, but it goes beyond that by threatening the very freedoms that these efforts are meant to protect.

Perhaps the pinnacle of the government’s Orwellian version of a Google FaceBook mashup is the gargantuan supercomputer data center in Bluffdale Nevada built and run by the premier spy agency in the age of the internet- the National Security Administration or NSA. As described by James Bamford for Wired Magazine:

In the process—and for the first time since Watergate and the other scandals of the Nixon administration—the NSA has turned its surveillance apparatus on the US and its citizens. It has established listening posts throughout the nation to collect and sift through billions of email messages and phone calls, whether they originate within the country or overseas. It has created a supercomputer of almost unimaginable speed to look for patterns and unscramble codes. Finally, the agency has begun building a place to store all the trillions of words and thoughts and whispers captured in its electronic net.

It had been thought that domestic spying by the NSA, under a super-secret program with the Carl Saganesque name, Stellar Wind, had ended during the G.W. Bush administration, but if the whistleblower, William Binney, interviewed in this chilling piece by Laura Poitras of the New York Times, is to be believed, the certainly unconstitutional program remains very much in existence.

The bizarre thing about this program is just how wasteful it is. After all, don’t private companies, such as FaceBook and Google not already possess the very same kinds of data trails that would be provided by such obviously unconstitutional efforts like those at Bluffdale? Why doesn’t the US government just subpoena internet and telecommunications companies who already track almost everything we do for commercial purposes? The US government, of course, has already tried to turn the internet into a tool of intelligence gathering, most notably, with the stalled Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Intelligence Act, or CISPA , and perhaps it is building Bluffdale in anticipation that such legislation will fail, that however it is changed might not be to its liking, or because it doesn’t want to be bothered with the need to obtain warrants or with constitutional niceties such as our protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

If such behemoth surveillance instruments fulfill the role of the telescreens and hidden microphones in Orwell’s 1984, then the role the only group in the novel whose name actually reflects what it is- The Spies – children who watch their parents for unorthodox behavior and turn them in, is taken today by the American public itself. In post 9/11 America it is, local law enforcement, neighbors, and passersby who are asked to “report suspicious activity”. People who actually do report suspicious activity have their observations and photographs recorded in an ominous sounding data base that Orwell himself might have named called The Guardian. (TS 144)

As Priest writes:

Guardian stores the profiles of tens of thousands of Americans and legal residents who are not accused of any crime. Most are not even suspected of one. What they have done is appear, to a town sheriff, a traffic cop, or even a neighbor to be acting suspiciously”. (TS 145)

Such information is reported to, and initially investigated by, the personnel in another sort of data collector- the “fusion centers” which had been created in every state after 9/11.These fusion centers are often located in rural states whose employees have literally nothing to do. They tend to be staffed by persons without intelligence backgrounds, and who instead hailed from law enforcement, because those with even the bare minimum of foreign intelligence experience were sucked up by the behemoth intelligence organizations, both private and public, that have spread like mould around Washington D.C.

Into this vacuum of largely non-existent threats came “consultants” such as Montijo Walid Shoebat, who lectured fusion center staff on the fantastical plot of Muslims to establish Sharia Law in the United States. (TS 271-272). A story as wild as the concocted boogeymen of Goldstein and the Brotherhood in Orwell’s dystopia.

It isn’t only Mosques, or Islamic groups that find themselves spied upon by overeager local law enforcement and sometimes highly unprofessional private intelligence firms. Completely non-violent, political groups, such as ones in my native Pennsylvania, have become the target of “investigations”. In 2009 the private intelligence firm the Institute for Terrorism Research and Response compiled reports for state officials on a wide range of peaceful political groups that included: “The Pennsylvania Tea Party Patriots Coalition, the Libertarian Movement, anti-war protesters, animal-rights groups, and an environmentalist dressed up as Santa Claus and handing out coal-filled stockings” (TS 146). A list that is just about politically broad enough to piss everybody off.

Like the fusion centers, or as part of them, data rich crime centers such as the Memphis Real Time Crime Center are popping up all over the United States. Local police officers now suck up streams of data about the environments in which they operate and are able to pull that data together to identify suspects- now by scanning licence plates, but soon enough, as in Arizona, where the Maricopa County Sheriff’s office was creating up to 9,000 biometric, digital profiles a month (TS 131) by scanning human faces from a distance.

Sometimes crime centers used the information gathered for massive sweeps arresting over a thousand people at a clip. The result was an overloaded justice and prison system that couldn’t handle the caseload (TS 144), and no doubt, as was the case in territories occupied by the US military, an even more alienated and angry local population.

From one perspective Big Data would seem to make torture more not less likely as all information that can be gathered from suspects, whatever their station, becomes important in a way it wasn’t before, a piece in a gigantic, electronic puzzle. Yet, technological developments outside of Big Data, appear to point in the direction away from torture as a way of gathering information.

“Controlled torture”, the phrase burns in my mouth, has always been the consequence of the unbridgeable space between human minds. Torture attempts to break through the wall of privacy we possess as individuals through physical and mental coercion. Big Data, whether of the commercial or security variety, hates privacy because it gums up the capacity to gather more and more information for Big Data to become what so it desires- Even Bigger Data. The dilemma for the state, or in the case of the Inquisition, the organization, is that once the green light has been given to human sadism it is almost impossible to control it. Torture, or the knowledge of torture inflicted on loved ones, breeds more and more enemies.

Torture’s ham fisted and outwardly brutal methods today are going hopelessly out of fashion. They are the equivalent of rifling through someone’s trash or breaking into their house to obtain useful information about them. Much better to have them tell you what you need to know because they “like” you.

In that vein, Priest describes some of the new interrogation technologies being developed by the government and private security technology firms. One such technology is an “interrogation booth” that contain avatars with characteristics (such as an older Hispanic woman) that have been psychologically studied to produce more accurate answers from those questioned. There are ideas to replace the booth with a tiny projector mounted on a soldier’s or policeman’s helmet to produce the needed avatar at a moments notice. There was also a “lie detecting beam” that could tell- from a distance- whether someone was lying by measuring miniscule changes on a person’s skin. (TS 169) But if security services demand transparency from those it seeks to control they offer up no such transparency themselves. This is the case not only in the notoriously secretive nature of the security state, but also in the way the US government itself explains and seeks support for its policies in the outside world.

Orwell, was deeply interested in the abuse of language, and I think here too, the actions of the American government would give him much to chew on. Ever since the disaster of the war in Iraq, American officials have been obsessed with the idea of “soft-power”. The fallacy that resistance to American policy was a matter of “bad messaging” rather than the policy itself. Sadly, this messaging was often something far from truthful and often fell under what the government termed” Influence operations” which, according to Priest:

Influence operations, as the name suggests, are aimed at secretly influencing or manipulating the opinions of foreign audiences, either on an actual battlefield- such as during a feint in a tactical battle- or within civilian populations, such as undermining support for an existing government of terrorist group (TS 59)

Another great technological development over the past decade has been the revolution in robotics, which like Big Data is brought to us by the ever expanding information processing powers of computers, the product of Moore’s Law.

Since 9/11 multiple forms of robots have been perfected, developed, and deployed by the military, intelligence services and private contractors only the most discussed and controversial of which have been flying drones. It is with these and other tools of covert warfare, such as drones, and in his quite sweeping understanding and application of executive power that President Obama has been even more Orwellian than his predecessor.

Obama may have ended the torture of prisoners captured by American soldiers and intelligence officials, and he certainly showed courage and foresight in his assassination of Osama Bin Laden, a fact by which the world can breathe a sigh of relief. The problem is that he has allowed, indeed propelled, the expansion of the instruments of American foreign policy that are largely hidden from the purview and control of the democratic public. In addition to the surveillance issues above, he has put forward a sweeping and quite dangerous interpretation of executive power in the forms of indefinite detention without trial found in the NDAA, engaged in the extrajudicial killings of American citizens, and asserted the prerogative, questionable under both the constitution and international law, to launch attacks, both covert and overt, on countries with which the United States is not officially at war.

In the words of Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic writing on the unprecedented expansion of executive power under the Obama administration and comparing these very real and troubling developments to the paranoid delusions of right-wing nuts, who seem more concerned with the fantastical conspiracy theories such as the Social Security Administration buying hollow-point bullets:

… the fact that the executive branch is literally spying on American citizens, putting them on secret kill lists, and invoking the state secrets privilege to hide their actions doesn’t even merit a mention.  (by the right-wing).

Perhaps surprisingly, the technologies created in the last generation seem tailor made for the new types of covert war the US is now choosing to fight. This can perhaps best be seen in the ongoing covert war against Iran which has used not only drones but brand new forms of weapons such the Stuxnet Worm.

The questions posed to us by the militarized versions of Big Data, new media, Robotics, and spyware/computer viruses are the same as those these phenomena pose in the civilian world: Big Data; does it actually provide us with a useful map of reality, or instead drown us in mostly useless information? In analog to the question of profitability in the economic sphere: does Big Data actually make us safer? New Media, how is the truth to survive in a world where seemingly any organization or person can create their own version of reality. Doesn’t the lack of transparency by corporations or the government give rise to all sorts of conspiracy theories in such an atmosphere, and isn’t it ultimately futile, and liable to backfire, for corporations and governments to try to shape all these newly enabled voices to its liking through spin and propaganda? Robotics; in analog to the question of what it portends to the world of work, what is it doing to the world of war? Is Robotics making us safer or giving us a false sense of security and control? Is it engendering an over-readiness to take risks because we have abstracted away the very human consequences of our actions- at least in terms of the risks to our own soldiers. In terms of spyware and computer viruses: how open should our systems remain given their vulnerabilities to those who would use this openness for ill ends?

At the very least, in terms of Big.Data, we should have grave doubts. The kind of FaceBook from hell the government has created didn’t seem all that capable of actually pulling information together into a coherent much less accurate picture. Much like their less technologically enabled counterparts who missed the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and fall of the Soviet Union, the new internet enabled security services missed the world shaking event of the Arab Spring.

The problem with all of these technologies, I think, is that they are methods for treating the symptoms of a diseased society, rather than the disease itself. But first let me take a detour through Orwell vision of the future of capitalist, liberal democracy seen from his vantage point in the 1940s.

Orwell, and this is especially clear in his essay The Lion and the Unicorn, believed the world was poised between two stark alternatives: the Socialist one, which he defined in terms of social justice, political liberty, equal rights, and global solidarity, and a Fascist or Bolshevist one, characterized by the increasingly brutal actions of the state in the name of caste, both domestically and internationally.

He wrote:

Because the time has come when one can predict the future in terms of an “either–or”. Either we turn this war into a revolutionary war (I do not say that our policy will be EXACTLY what I have indicated above–merely that it will be along those general lines) or we lose it, and much more besides. Quite soon it will be possible to say definitely that our feet are set upon one path or the other. But at any rate it is certain that with our present social structure we cannot win. Our real forces, physical, moral or intellectual, cannot be mobilised.

It is almost impossible for those of us in the West who have been raised to believe that capitalist liberal democracy is the end of the line in terms of political evolution to remember that within the lifetimes of people still with us (such as my grandmother who tends her garden now in the same way she did in the 1940’s) this whole system seemed to have been swept up into the dustbin of history and that the future lie elsewhere.

What the brilliance of Orwell missed, the penetrating insight of Aldous Huxley in his Brave New World caught: that a sufficiently prosperous society would lull it’s citizens to sleep, and in doing so rob them both of the desire for revolutionary change and their very freedom.

As I have argued elsewhere, Huxley’s prescience may depend on the kind of economic growth and general prosperity that was the norm after the Second World War. What worries me is that if the pessimists are proven correct, if we are in for an era of resource scarcity, and population pressures, stagnant economies, and chronic unemployment that Huxley’s dystopia will give way to a more brutal Orwellian one.

This is why, no matter who wins the presidential election in November, we need to push back against the Orwellian features that have crept upon us since 9/11. The fact is we are almost unaware that we building the architecture for something truly dystopian and should pause to think before it is too late.

To return to the question of whether the new technologies help or hurt here: It is almost undeniable that all of the technological wonders that have emerged since 9/11 are good at treating the symptoms of social breakdown, both abroad and at home. They allow us to kill or capture persons who would harm largely innocent Americans, or catch violent or predatory criminals in our own country, state, and neighborhood. Where they fail is in getting to the actual root of the disease itself.

American would much better serve  its foreign policy interest were it to better align itself with the public opinion of the outside world insofar as we were able to maintain our long term interests and continue to guarantee the safety of our allies. Much better than the kind of “information operation” supported by the US government to portray a corrupt, and now deposed, autocrat like Yemen’s  Abdullah Saleh as “an anti-corruption activist”, would be actual assistance by the US and other advanced countries in…. I duknow… fighting corruption. Much better Western support for education and health in the Islamic world that the kinds of interference in the internal political development of post-revolutionary Islamic societies driven by geopolitical interest and practiced by the likes of Iran and Saudi Arabia.

This same logic applies inside the United States as well. It is time to radically roll back the Orwellian advances that have occurred since 9/11. The dangers of the war on terrorism were always that they would become like Orwell’s “continuous warfare”, and would perpetually exist in spite, rather than because of the level of threat. We are in danger of investing so much in our security architecture, bloated to a scale that dwarfs enemies, which we have blown up in our own imaginations into monstrous shadows, that we are failing to invest in the parts of our society that will actually keep us safe and prosperous over the long-term.

In Orwell’s Oceania, the poor, the “proles” were largely ignored by the surveillance state. There is a danger here that with the movement of what were once advanced technologies into the hands of local law enforcement: drones, robots, biometric scanners, super-fast data crunching computers, geo-location technologies- that domestically we will move even further in the direction of treating the symptoms of social decay, rather than dealing with the underlying conditions that propel it.

The fact of the matter is that the very equality, “the early paradise”, a product of democratic socialism and technology, Orwell thought was at our fingertips has retreated farther and farther from us. The reasons for this are multiple; To name just a few: financial   concentration,  automation, the end of “low hanging fruit” and their consequent high growth rates brought by industrialization,the crisis of complexity and the problem of ever more marginal returns. This retreat, if it lasts, would likely tip the balance from Huxley’s stupification by consumption to Orwell’s more brutal dystopia initiated by terrified elites attempting to keep a lid on things.

In a state of fear and panic we have blanketed the world with a sphere of surveillance, propaganda and covert violence at which Big Brother himself would be proud. This is shameful, and threatens not only to undermine our very real freedom, but to usher in a horribly dystopian world with some resemblance to the one outlined in Orwell’s dark imaginings. We must return to the other path.

1984

Do you not begin to see, then, what kind of world it is we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined.

A world of fear and treachery, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world that will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself.


George Orwell, 1984

Even if it is the case, as I have argued elsewhere, that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a better guide to our dystopian present than the much more brutal and barren world of Orwell’s 1984, the West, since 9-11 has been evolving in a decidedly Orwellian direction. This has been the case under both George W. Bush and perhaps even more so under President Obama, a reality that has proven highly upsetting to civil libertarians of all stripes who helped  sweep Obama into office in the hopes that he would end some of the worst practices of the Bush Administration.

It might be best then to take another look at Orwell’s 1984, a book most of us probably remember from high school or college, and then to see how Orwell’s warnings line up with reality today.  For he drew our attention to features of state power and put that power within a context that is perhaps more relevant today for political, technological, and economic reasons than at any time since the end of the Cold War.

1984 is the story of, Winston Smith, a “middle-class” member of the Outer Party of Oceania that works in the Ministry of Truth. His job is to doctor and destroy documents based upon the constantly shifting whims of what the Party which rules Oceania declares to be the “truth”.

Oceania is a totalitarian state that would make even monsters like Stalin and Hitler green with envy.  Oceania which includes what was formerly Great Britain (now called Air-Strip One, on which Winston lives), the United States, Canada and Australasia is covered with telescreens which are a kind of two-way television that projects propaganda in, and can also watch for subversive activities, and microphones that monitor citizens almost anywhere 24/7.

Whereas the mass of citizens, the “proles” are left unmolested by the Party largely because of their ignorance and inability to organize, the Outer Party, especially is constantly monitored for “thought-crime” (even having a thought that challenges the orthodoxy of the Party) by the Thought Police who are housed in the Ministry of Love.

Orwell has a genius for playing with words, and his Oceania is a dystopia in a literal sense of being a world where everything is really its dark opposite: the Ministry of Truth is really an organization for creating lies, the Ministry of Love a hell-house of torture, the Ministry of Plenty a bureaucracy that administers privation, or the Ministry of Peace an institution of war.

One of the ultimate goals of the Party is to destroy the meaning of language itself- to fully institute the use of “Newspeak” so that all reference with the past and the truth has been destroyed. The Party then becomes the sole arbiter of what is real and what is fiction. The defiant act against the Party that would ultimately lead to Winston’s doom was when he started a diary. It was an act that declared what the Party found totally unacceptable- that a person could think for himself. Later, under the most brutal forms of torture, Winston would find himself compelled to deny the very sanity of trying to think outside of the iron grip of the Party:


   “He could not fight against the Party any longer. Besides, the Party was in the
right. It must be so: how could the immortal, collective brain be mistaken? By
what external standards could you check it judgements? Sanity was statistical.
It was merely a question of learning to think as they thought.” (228)

The Party of Oceania takes relativism, social construction, and collective solipsism to their logical extremes. It does not merely reflect a certain view of the world- it is the world- and can create and destroy the “truth” as it sees fit. Facts and the past are nothing but memory, so by controlling memory both individual and collective facts and history become whatever the Party wants them to be. Even logical, self-evident truths are capable of being overthrown- ideas such as 2 + 2 = 4. Under the proper pressure and manipulation even mathematics and science bend before the will of the Party.

Winston’s second crime against the Party is to engage in a secret love-affair with his co-worker Juila.  Much like in Plato’s Republic  Orwell’s Oceania will not countenance divided loyalties and passions, especially the kinds of loyalties and passions that grow out of love and sex. Unlike Plato, the Party has not ended the family, but has turned it into a nest of spies, where children betray their parents at any hint of unorthodoxy. The sexual instinct, especially for women, is channeled into the love of Big-Brother and hatred of the traitorous Goldstein, both of whose no doubt imaginary images are plastered , everywhere.

The emotions of the masses are constantly kept at a fever-pitch of hate against Oceania’s  geo-political enemies: Eurasia and East Asia. These two other great powers live under similar totalitarian systems as that in Oceania. Eurasia combines essentially the former Soviet Union and Europe, East Asia, China, Japan, the Koreas and nearby territories. The three great powers struggle with one another for what is left of the globe- essentially the Middle East and India. They fight not so much over resources or markets- all three are in essence self-contained, autarchic systems, as they do labor power, with the peoples of these up-for-grabs regions being enslaved by one region and then the other into making weapons. Weapons, which because world wars have become a thing of the past, are essentially useless.

If these were geo-political predictions, Orwell was on all accounts incorrect.  In terms of war, however, Orwell has some very interesting and prescient things to say, both for the Cold War period that followed his novel, and even more so, for today. The international environment in which Oceania exists is one of constant low-level or outright phony war between the big powers. Orwell in the mouth of the imaginary Goldstein muses that “war by becoming continuous has fundamentally changed its character” (163).

Orwell thinks that real wars- for all their horrors- served as a reality check on the state anchoring its delusions to the practical need of avoiding conquest. In the world of 1984 actual conquest of one great power by another had become impossible, and because of the vast resources which each of the 3 world powers possessed- unnecessary.  The reality check of war, therefore disappeared, and its very purpose which had once been the survival or aggrandizement of the state transformed into an instrument of internal control. Not merely did the phony war hypnotize the masses and bind them tightly to the Party, the creation of completely useless weapons was a way to steer surplus production away from the needs of the subject classes, therefore keeping them in a constant state of privation, in which the spread of general wealth and education that might threaten the grip of the Party was not allowed to come into being.

Winston’s third crime is to join the ranks of the secret revolutionary organization- The Brotherhood.   Like Big Brother, who serves as the face of the Party, or Goldstein who serves as the face of the revolution, The Brotherhood itself is a fiction created by the Party. In its name both Winston and Julia, in a act completely out of character, pledge themselves to crimes even against innocents, a subject that will be dealt with in my next post.

The Orwellian state imagined in 1984 is a sadistic-state the likes of which have never been seen. What makes it so horrendous even in light of its very real world rivals in this regard is its concept of power as a self-justifying force.  As Orwell puts in the mouth of Winston’s torturer O’Brien:

Progress in our civilization will be progress towards more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love and justice. Our is founded on hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy- everything.

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face-forever. (220)

The scenes Orwell depicts of Winston’s imprisonment and torture are gut wrenching and horrifying. They starve him until he becomes skeletal and loses his hair, break most of his bones, smash his teeth, burn his insides with electrical shocks. We are forced to watch a once dignified man reduced to groveling, bargaining and betrayal. But it is not the physical abuse that so much reduces Winston as the psychological:

These other questioners saw to it that he was in constant slight pain, but it was not the pain that they chiefly relied on. They slapped his face, wrung his ear, pulled his hair, made him stand on one leg, refused to leave him urinate, shown glaring lights in his face until his eyes ran with water; but the aim of this was simply to humiliate him and destroy his power of arguing and reasoning. Their real weapon was their relentless questioning that went on hour after hour, tripping him up, laying traps for him, convicting him at every step of lies and contradiction, until he began weeping as much from shame as from nervous fatigue. (199)

The ultimate psychological torture comes at the end of the novel when Winston, whose greatest fear is rats, has a cage of starved rats attached to his face. Under the extremest of fear he betrays Julia not in the sense of turning her in, but in asking that she be put in his place. It is a real rather than a feigned request, and with it Winston has lost both his mind and his soul to the evil of the Party.

I think a good question to ask here is how Orwell thought such a horrifying world might come about? I think it would be a mistake to see Orwell as engaged in a sort of political phantasy that he thought was completely implausible, rather, 1984, is a kind of warning that given the continuation of certain trends this might be the world we ended up with. Orwell’s version of history up until the end of WWII can certainly not be considered a fiction, but a kind bird’s-eye-view of what had happened stretching back before the industrial revolution.

Orwell sees history as the story of class struggle between the 3 classes that have composed humanity since the Neolithic Age: the High, the Middle, and the Low. Consistently the Middle have overthrown the High by enlisting the Low taking the position of the High themselves and once victorious inevitably throwing the Low back into servitude. What would make the 20th century distinct is that the revolutionary forces of the Middle, which in the past had been partially fooled by their own rhetoric concerning the freedom of the masses that could be brought by revolution, became openly authoritarian and tyrannical in their aims.

Socialism, a theory which appeared in the early 19th century and was the last link in a chain of thought stretching back to the slave rebellions of antiquity, was still deeply infected with the Utopianism of past ages. But in each variant of Socialism that appeared from about 1900 onward the aim of establishing liberty and equality was more and more openly abandoned.  (167)

In part, Orwell saw this growing out of the new historical consciousness. According to the logic of the new revolutionaries: if society’s, instability- understood to be caused by war between classes- could be ended by the permanent domination of  ONE class, then, history itself would come to an end, the world, like that proposed in Plato’s Republic frozen forever in amber.

But the main reason Orwell saw for the new authoritarian revolutionaries was that machine based civilization had, for the first time in human history, made actual material equality possible. New groups wanting to seize power saw equality as no longer a bait for the masses, but as a threat to their own claims on power.

“The earthly paradise had been discredited at exactly the moment when it became realizable. Every new political theory, by whatever name it called itself, led back to hierarchy and regimentation”. (168)

The political ideology which Orwell imagined dominated his Oceania – Ingsoc- was foreshadowed by the Nazi and Soviet totalitarian movements who stripped of their Utopian veneer in his imagined ideologies and became mere will to power. The class which gave rise to Orwell’s ruling Party had been “brought together by the barren world of monopoly industry and centralized government” (169).

Their totalitarian order, he thought, would likely be enabled by new technologies of surveillance and control. Technologies such as the aforementioned ubiquitous telescreens and microphones, but also neuropharmacology, and mechanisms such as novel writing machines. Indeed, because it aimed to destroy independent thought and empirical science, Orwell’s dystopia is a world of technological decline and endemic scarcity; the only areas in which it excels being that of manipulation and control.

1984 gives us a lot to think about and not as something abstract, applied to some far off dystopia, but right here and now.  He brings to our attention the issues of technological surveillance, torture, continuous low-level war and propaganda and the abuse of language, along with questions about the history up- to- the- present of inequality and its origins. All the subject of my next post.

Only then will we be able to guess where such Orwellian trends might be leading, and how we might stop them.

* Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell, Signet Classics,  New American Library of World Literature, Inc. 1961. First published 1949