Stalinism as Transhumanism

New Soviet Man 2

The ever controversial Steve Fuller has recently published a number of jolting essays at the IEET,(there has been a good discussion on David Roden’s blog on the topic), yet whatever one thinks about the prospect of zombie vs transhumanist apocalypse he has managed to raise serious questions for anyone who identifies themselves with the causes of transhumanism and techno-progressivism; namely, what is the proper role, if any, of the revolutionary, modernizing state in such movements and to what degree should the movement be open to violence as a means to achieve its ends? Both questions, I will argue, can best be answered by looking at the system constructed in the Soviet Union between 1929 and 1953 under the reign of Joseph Stalin.            

Those familiar with the cast of characters in the early USSR will no doubt wonder why I chose to focus on the “conservative” Stalin rather Leon Trotsky who certainly evidenced something like proto-transhumanism with quotes such as this one in his essay Revolutionary and Socialist Art:

Man will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman.

It was views like this one that stood as evidence for me of the common view among intellectuals sympathetic to Marxism that it was Trotsky who was the true revolutionary figure and heir of Lenin, whereas Stalin was instead a reactionary in Marxists garb who both murdered the promise latent in the Russian Revolution and constructed on the revolution’s corpse a system of totalitarian terror.

Serious historians no longer hold such views in light of evidence acquired after the opening up of Soviet archives after the USSR’s collapse in 1991. What we’ve gained as a consequence of these documents is a much more nuanced and detailed view of the three major figures of the Russian Revolution: Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin all of which in some ways looked at violence as the premier tool for crafting a new social and political order.

Take the father of the Russian Revolution- Lenin. The common understanding of Lenin in the past was to see him as a revolutionary pragmatist who engaged in widespread terror and advocated dictatorship largely as a consequence of the precarious situation of the revolution and in the atmosphere of danger and bloodshed found in the Russian civil war. In fact the historical record presented in the archives now makes clear that many of the abhorrent features of state communism in Russia once associated with Stalin in fact originated under Lenin, obscenities such as as the forerunner to the KGB, the Cheka, or the Soviet system of concentration camps- Solzhenitsyn’s gulag archipelago. Far from seeing them as temporary expedients in precarious situation of the revolution and the atmosphere of danger and bloodshed found in the Russian civil war, Lenin saw these innovations as a permanent feature of Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat”, which Lenin had reimagined as the permanent rule of a revolutionary, technocratic elite.

Trotsky comes off only a little better because he never assumed the mantle of Soviet dictator. Trotsky’s problems, however, originate from his incredible egotism when combined with his stunning political naivete. His idea was that in the 1920’s conditions were ripe to export the communist revolution globally barely grasping just how precarious the situation was for the newly victorious communist revolutionaries within even his own country. Indeed, to the extent that both domestic communist in non-Russian countries identified with Soviet communism and prematurely pushed their societies towards revolution this only ended up in empowering reactionaries and leading to the rise of fascist parties globally who would come quite close to strangling the infant of state communism while it was still in its cradle.

Then there’s Stalin who those sympathetic to communism often see as the figure who did the most to destroy its’ promise. The so-called “man of steel” is understood as a reactionary monster who replaced the idealism of the early Soviet Union with all the snakes that had infected czarist Russia’s head.

This claim too has now been upended. For what is clear is that although Stalin reoriented the USSR away from Trotsky’s dream of world revolution to focus on “socialism in one country” the state Stalin managed to create was perhaps the most radical and revolutionary the world has yet seen.

The state has always played a large role in modernization, but it was only in the types of communists regimes which Stalin was the first to envision that the state became synonymous with modernization itself.  And it wasn’t only modernization, but a kind of ever accelerating modernization that aimed to break free of the gravity of history and bring humanity to a new world inhabited by a new type of man.

It was his revolutionary impatience and desire to accelerate the pace of history that led Stalin down the path to being perhaps the most bloody tyrant the world has yet know. The collectivization of Soviet agriculture alone coming at the cost of at least 5 million deaths. What Stalin seemed to possess that his fellow revolutionaries lacked was a kind of sociopathy that left him flinch-less in the face of mass suffering, though he also became possessed by the paranoia to which tyrants are prone and towards the end of his reign killed as much out of fear as he did as a consequence of his desire to propel the USSR through history.

Here I return to Fuller who seems to have been inspired by state communism and appears to be making the case that what transhumanism needs is a revolutionary vanguard that will, violently if necessary, push society towards transformative levels of technological change. Such change will then make possible the arrival of a new form of human being.

There is a great deal of similarity here with the view of the state as presented by Zoltan Istvan in his novel The Transhumanist Wager though that work is somewhat politically schizophrenic with elements of Ayn Rand and Bolshevism at the same time, which perhaps makes sense given that the Silicon Valley culture it emerged from was largely built on government subsidies yet clings to the illusion it is the product of heroic individuals such as Steve Jobs. And of course, The Transhumanist Wager exhibits this same feature of believing violence necessary to open up the path to radical transformation.

One of the important questions we might ask is how analogous was the Russian  situation with our own? What the Soviets were trying to do was to transform their society in a way that had been technologically experienced elsewhere only under a brand new form of political regime. In other words the technological transformation – industrialization- was already understood, where the Soviets were innovative was in the political sphere. At the same time, modernization to be accomplished in the Soviet Union needed to overthrow and uproot traditional social forces that had aligned themselves against industrialization- the nobility and the clergy. A strong state was necessary to overcome powerful and intransigent classes.

None of these characteristics seem applicable the kinds of technological change taking place today. For one, the type of complete technological transformation Fuller is talking about are occurring everywhere nearly simultaneously- say the current revolutions in biotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence where no society has achieved some sort of clear breakout that a revolutionary movement is necessary to push society in the direction of replicating.

Nor does the question of technological transformation break clearly along class or even religious lines in a world where the right to left political spectrum remains very much intact. It is highly unlikely that a technological movement on the right will emerge that can remain viable while jettisoning those adhering to more traditional religious notions.

Likewise, it is improbable that any left wing technological movement would abandon its commitment to the UN Declaration and the world’s poor. In thinking otherwise I believe Fuller is repeating Trotsky’s mistake- naively believing in political forces and realignments about to surface that simply aren’t there. (The same applies to Zoltan Istvan’s efforts.)

Yet by far the worst mistake Fuller makes is in embracing the Stalinist idea that acceleration needs to be politicized and that violence is a useful tool in achieving this acceleration. The danger here is not that justifying violence in the pursuit of transhumanist ends is likely to result in widespread collective violence in the name of such goals, but that it might start to attract sadists and kooks whose random acts of violence “in the name of transhumanism” put the otherwise humane goals of the movement at risk of social backlash.

At the same time Fuller is repeating the grave error of Stalinism which is to conflate power and the state with the process of technological transformation. The state is many and sometimes contradictory things with one of its’ roles indeed to modernize society. Yet at the same time the state is tasked with protecting us from that very same modernization by preventing us from being treated as mere parts in a machine rather than as individuals and citizens.

Fuller also repeats the error of the Stalinist state when it comes to the role and efficacy of violence in the political sphere for the proper role of violence is not as a creative force that is able to establish something new, but as a means of resistance and protection for those already bound together in some mutual alliance.

Still, we might want to take seriously the possibility that Fuller has tapped into a longer term trend in which the ways technology is developing is opening up the possibility of the reappearance of the Stalinist state, but that’s a subject that will have to await for another time.


The debate between the economists and the technologists, who wins?

Human bat vs robot gangster

For a while now robots have been back in the news with a vengeance, and almost on cue seem to have revived many of the nightmares that we might have thought had been locked up in the attic of the mind with all sorts of other stuff from the 1980’s, which it was hoped we would never need.

Big fears should probably only be tackled one at a time, so let’s leave aside for today the question of whether robots are likely to kill us, and focus on what should be an easier nut to crack and a less frightening nut at that; namely, whether we are in the process of automating our way out into a state of permanent, systemic unemployment.

Alas, even this seemingly less fraught question is no less difficult to answer. For like everything the issue seems to have given rise to two distinct sides neither of which seems to have a clear monopoly on the truth. Unlike elsewhere however, these two sides in the debate over “technological unemployment” usually split less over ideological grounds than on the basis of professional expertise. That is, those who dismiss the argument that advances in artificial intelligence and robotics have already, or are about to, displace the types of work now done by humans to the extent that we face a crisis of  permanent underemployment and unemployment the likes of which have never been seen before tend to be economists. How such an optimistic bunch came to be known as dismissal scientists is beyond me- note how they are also on the optimistic side of the debate with environmentalists.

Economists are among the first to remind us that we’ve seen fears of looming robot induced unemployment before, whether those of Ned Ludd and his followers in the 19th century, or as close to us as the 1960s. The destruction of jobs has, in the past at least, been achieved through the kinds of transformation that created brand new forms of employment. In 1915 nearly 40% of Americans were agricultural laborers of some sort now that number hovers around 2 percent. These farmers weren’t replaced by “robots” but they certainly were replaced by machines.

Still we certainly don’t have a 40% unemployment rate. Rather, as the number of farm laborer positions declined they were replaced by jobs that didn’t even exist in 1915. The place these farmers have not gone, or where they probably would have gone in 1915 that wouldn’t be much of an option today is into manufacturing. For in that sector something very similar to the hollowing out of employment in agriculture has taken place with the decline in the percentage of laborers in manufacturing declining since 1915 from 25% to around 9% today. Here the workers really have been replaced by robots though just as much have job prospects on the shop floor declined because the jobs have been globalized. Again, even at the height of the recent financial crisis we haven’t seen 25% unemployment, at least not in the US.

Economists therefore continue to feel vindicated by history: any time machines have managed to supplement human labor we’ve been able to invent whole new sectors of employment where the displaced or their children have been able to find work. It seems we’ve got nothing to fear from the “rise of the robots.” Or do we?

Again setting aside the possibility that our mechanical servants will go all R.U.R on us, anyone who takes serious Ray Kurzweil’s timeline that by the 2020’s computers will match human intelligence and by 2045 exceed our intelligence a billionfold has to come to the conclusion that most jobs as we know them are toast. The problem here, and one that economists mostly fail to take into account, is that past technological revolutions ended up replacing human brawn and allowing workers to upscale into cognitive tasks. Human workers had somewhere to go. But a machine that did the same for tasks that require intelligence and that were indeed billions of times smarter than us would make human workers about as essential to the functioning of a company as Leaper ornament is to the functioning of a Jaguar.

Then again perhaps we shouldn’t take Kurzweil’s timeline all that seriously in the first place. Skepticism would seem to be in order  because the Moore’s Law based exponential curve that is at the heat of Kurzweil’s predictions appears to have started to go all sigmoidal on us. That was the case made by John Markoff recently over at The Edge. In an interview about the future of Silicon Valley he said:

All the things that have been driving everything that I do, the kinds of technology that have emerged out of here that have changed the world, have ridden on the fact that the cost of computing doesn’t just fall, it falls at an accelerating rate. And guess what? In the last two years, the price of each transistor has stopped falling. That’s a profound moment.

Kurzweil argues that you have interlocked curves, so even after silicon tops out there’s going to be something else. Maybe he’s right, but right now that’s not what’s going on, so it unwinds a lot of the arguments about the future of computing and the impact of computing on society. If we are at a plateau, a lot of these things that we expect, and what’s become the ideology of Silicon Valley, doesn’t happen. It doesn’t happen the way we think it does. I see evidence of that slowdown everywhere. The belief system of Silicon Valley doesn’t take that into account.

Although Markoff admits there has been great progress in pattern recognition there has been nothing similar for the kinds of routine physical tasks found in much of low skilled/mobile forms of work. As evidence from the recent DARPA challenge if you want a job safe from robots choose something for a living that requires mobility and the performance of a variety of tasks- plumber, home health aide etc.

Markoff also sees job safety on the higher end of the pay scale in cognitive tasks computers seem far from being able to perform:

We haven’t made any breakthroughs in planning and thinking, so it’s not clear that you’ll be able to turn these machines loose in the environment to be waiters or flip hamburgers or do all the things that human beings do as quickly as we think. Also, in the United States the manufacturing economy has already left, by and large. Only 9 percent of the workers in the United States are involved in manufacturing.

The upshot of all this is that there’s less to be feared from technological unemployment than many think:

There is an argument that these machines are going to replace us, but I only think that’s relevant to you or me in the sense that it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t happen in our lifetime. The Kurzweil crowd argues this is happening faster and faster, and things are just running amok. In fact, things are slowing down. In 2045, it’s going to look more like it looks today than you think.

The problem, I think, with the case against technological unemployment made by many economists and someone like Markoff is that they seem to be taking on a rather weak and caricatured version of the argument. That at least was is the conclusion one comes to when taking into account what is perhaps the most reasoned and meticulous book to try to convince us that the boogeyman of robots stealing our jobs might have all been our imagination before, but that it is real indeed this time.

I won’t so much review the book I am referencing, Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future here as layout how he responds to the case from economics that we’ve been here before and have nothing to worry about or the observation of Markoff that because Moore’s Law has hit a wall (has it?), we need no longer worry so much about the transformative implications of embedding intelligence in silicon.

I’ll take the second one first. In terms of the idea that the end of Moore’s Law will derail tech innovation Ford makes a pretty good case that:

Even if the advance of computer hardware capability were to plateau, there would be a whole range of paths along which progress could continue. (71)

Continued progress in software and especially new types of (especially parallel) computer architecture will continue to be mined long after Moore’s Law has reached its apogee. Cloud computing should also imply that silicon needn’t compete with neurons at scale. You don’t have to fit the computational capacity of a human individual into a machine of roughly similar size but could tap into a much, much larger and more energy intensive supercomputer remotely that gives you human level capacities. Ultimate density has become less important.

What this means is that we should continue to see progress (and perhaps very rapid progress) in robotics and artificially intelligent agents. Given that we have what is often thought of as a 3 dimensional labor market comprised of agriculture, manufacturing and the service sector and the first two are already largely mechanized and automated the place where the next wave will fall hardest is in the service sector and the question becomes is will there be any place left for workers to go?

Ford makes a pretty good case that eventually we should be able to automate almost anything human beings do for all automation means is breaking a task down into a limited number of steps. And the examples he comes up with where we have already shown this is possible are both surprising and sometimes scary.

Perhaps 70 percent of financial trading on Wall Street is now done by trading algorithms (who don’t seem any less inclined to panic). Algorithms now perform legal research and compose orchestras and independently discover scientific theories. And those are the fancy robots. Most are like ATM machines where its is the customer who now does part of the labor involved in some task. Ford thinks the fast food industry is rife for innovation in this way where the customer designs their own food that some system of small robots then “builds.” Think of your own job. If you can describe it to someone in a discrete number of steps Ford thinks the robots are coming for you.

I was thankful that though himself a technologist, Ford placed technological unemployment in a broader context and sees it as part and parcel of trends after 1970 such as a greater share of GDP moving from labor and to capital, soaring inequality, stagnant wages for middle class workers, the decline of unions, and globalization. His solution to these problems is a guaranteed basic income, which he makes a humane and non-ideological argument for. Reminding those on the right who might the idea anathema that conservative heavyweights such Milton Friedman have argued in its favor.

The problem from my vantage point is not that Ford has failed to make a good case against those on the economists’ side of the issue who would accuse him of committing the  Luddite fallacy, it’s that perhaps his case is both premature and not radical enough. It is premature in the sense that while all the other trends regarding rising inequality, the decline of unions etc are readily apparent in the statistics, technological unemployment is not.

Perhaps then technological unemployment is only small part of a much larger trend pushing us in the direction of the entrenchment and expansion of inequality and away from the type of middle class society established in the last century. The tech culture of Silicon Valley and the companies they have built are here a little bit like Burning Man an example of late capitalist culture at its seemingly most radical and imaginative that temporarily escapes rather than creates a really alternative and autonomous political and social space.

Perhaps the types of technological transformation already here and looming that Ford lays out could truly serve as the basis for a new form of political and economic order that served as an alternative to the inegalitarian turn, but he doesn’t explore them. Nor does he discuss the already present dark alternative to the kinds of socialism through AI we find in the “Minds” of Iain Banks, namely, the surveillance capitalism we have allowed to be built around us that now stands as a bulwark against preserving our humanity and prevent ourselves from becoming robots.