Our Potemkin Civil War

“The trouble is that this calamity arose not from any lack of civilization, backwardness, or mere tyranny, but, on the contrary, that it could not be repaired, because there was no longer any “uncivilized” spot on earth, because whether we like it or not we have really started to live in One World. Only with a completely organized humanity could the loss of home and political status become identical with expulsion from humanity altogether.” Hannah Arendt, Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Right of Man

Something has gone terribly off track when it comes to the nation-state. It has imploded in regions where it had been artificially imposed- the Middle East- is unraveling in some sections of Europe- such as Spain- and perhaps strangest of all, where successfully resurgent against the forces of globalization has done so within the context of an internationally networked, populist right where so-called nationalist align themselves to what are less nation-states than racial and religiously based empires, that is Russia and the United States.

A nation-state exists when there is a near “perfect” correspondence between some ethnic group and the instruments of the state. Reference to the nation has been one way of answering the question: why should I obey the laws? Up until very recently, the state had no way of watching every person all of the time, so short of being absolutely terrifying as was Hobbes’ suggestion, a state had to find a way to encourage people to willingly follow its dictates.

Doing so because it serves the good of the people of which you are part proved to be a particular effective inducement to law following, but as a type of legitimacy and political regime nationalism, isn’t much older than the 19th century. Nationalism emerged in Europe where prior answers to why an individual should follow the laws included because God or the King says so. Being a criminal might lead to hell or the rack, and maybe even both. The nation replaced the myths of God and king with the myth of common origin and shared destiny.

In the strict sense, the United States has never in its history been a nation-state in the European sense of the word, but possessed a hybrid form of legitimacy based in varying degrees on Protestantism, claims of white supremacy, and civic-nationalism. In the latter, the legitimacy of the state is said to flow not from any particular ethnic group but from shared commitments among plural communities to a certain political form and ideal. Civic-nationalism remains the most effective and inclusive form of nationalism to this day. Yet after more than a half a century of having rejected both religion and race as the basis for its political identity, and embraced civic-nationalism as its foundation, the US is now flirting with the revival of atavistic forms of political authority in a way that connects them with strange bedfellows in Moscow and a European right-wing terrified of Islam.

The nation-state often gets a bad rap, but it has played a historical role well beyond inspiring jingoism and ethnic conflict. Nationalism, as in the quest to establish a nation-state, was one of the forces behind the rise of democracy in the 19th century, served as the well-spring for the liberation of colonized peoples in the 20th century, and formed the basis of social democracy and the welfare-state in post-war Europe.

Civic-nationalism has been present in the US since the American Revolution, was fleshed out in times of crisis such as the Civil War, and became by far the dominant form of political legitimacy during the Cold War as first Protestant Anglo-Saxonism and then white supremacy were supplanted by an America’s ideal of a Whig notion of history where society building off of ideas latent in its founding became ever more just and inclusive over time.

It’s not just European-style ethnic-nationalism, which always posed a danger to those who were outside the nation-state’s particular ethnic majority, that’s experiencing a crisis of legitimacy, but civic-nationalism as well. And this decline of civic-nationalism isn’t just happening in the US but also in that other great multi-ethnic democracy India.

Globalization seems to have undermined all of the positive legacies of nationalism and left us only with its shards, spewing forth monstrosities we thought the post-war world had killed. We seem to be in a genuine crisis of legitimacy in which the question of who the state serves, and above all, who is considered inside and outside the community it represents, has been reopened.

This isn’t the first time the nationalism as the source of authority has seemed to be on its deathbed, nor is it the first time that in its unwinding the definition of what constitutes the nation has become confused and taken on strange and blatantly contradictory forms. During the 1940’s when Hannah Arendt was struggling to understand the first period of the nation-state’s decline she too noticed how some of the nation’s most vocal defenders were themselves deeply embedded in international networks promoting nationalist ideologies, how the concept of the nation had been mixed up and supplanted by the idea race, how widespread security, military, and police services (supposedly staffed by the most loyal patriots) so-often coordinated with one another often to the detriment of the national interest.

Right-wing politics today is arguably more international than the right of the 1930’s, or the current left. And just like in the past, the alliance among the parties of the right is a partnership based on destroying the very connectivity that has made their strange international alliance possible. It is an axis driven by the fear of what globalization has enabled, that sees the police state as the solution to a world in flux, and somehow, and perhaps differently than its earlier incarnation, is unable, despite all its bluster, to extract itself from the centripetal force of the global capitalism in which it is embedded.

Here is the point at which the historical analogies with the 1930’s inevitably breakdown. In the 21st century right-wing nationalists aren’t really nationalists in the older sense of the word at all. Instead they are, as Nils Gilman brilliantly points out, the mask worn by a “plutocratic insurgency”. A slow moving counter-revolution whose mission lies less in national greatness than in bending the system to suit its own interests.

Still, we should count ourselves lucky to be living at the beginning of the 21st century rather than the 20th, for the fascists (they should have been called hyper-nationalist) of the last century could gain their mass appeal among the middle classes by positioning themselves as the only alternative to a genuinely revolutionary left. No such revolutionary left exists today except in the right-winger’s mind, his hatred directed not to a real challenge to his way of life, but as a sort of alternatingly villainous and pathetic cartoon.

Not only this, the military aspect of nationalism has changed immeasurably since Hitler and his goons in short-pants dreamed of Lebensraum . Wars over physical territory in the name of empire building no longer make sense, instead what constitutes territory has itself be redefined- (more on that in a moment). Modern day nationalist don’t want to conquer the world, but retreat into their shell, which in the end means turning the state itself into a gargantuan gated community. Thus trying to understand hyper-nationalists today by looking at fascists from the past the last century is a sort of analytical mistake, for the game being played has radically changed.

Perhaps we could get our historical bearings if we extended our view further back into the past and looked at the way systems of political legitimacy have previously sustained themselves only to eventually unravel.

Communication technology has always been at the center of any system of political legitimacy because the state needs to not only communicate what the laws are, but why they should be followed. The Babylonians had their steele, and Emperor Ashoka had his pillars, both like billboards out of The Flintstones. The medieval Church in Europe had its great cathedrals, a cosmic and human social order reified in stone and images blazed in stained glass. All of it a means of communicating to the illiterate masses when reading and writing were confined to an elite- this is the divine and political order in which you exist and to which you must defer.

The modern era of communication, and thus of political legitimacy, began in Europe in the late 1400’s with the widespread adoption of the printing press. We’ve been in an almost uninterrupted period of political instability ever since. Great images and structures were replaced by writing that now appeared and circulated with unprecedented speed. Different forms of arguments regarding what society was, what its borders were, who belonged to it, and what was owed to and from those who belonged to it emerged and fought one another for supremacy, with the border between what constituted religion, what constituted nationality, or what constituted a race often hybridized in ways we now find confusing.

In the late 18th century, European imperialism and African slavery gave rise to what would become the most insidious form of establishing the boundaries of political community- the ideology of white supremacy. Yet in that very same period we saw the emergence of a truly secular and potentially multi-ethnic and democratic form of political legitimacy with the rise of civic-nationalism during the American and French revolutions. (Though it had antecedents in the Italian city-states).

All these forms of political legitimacy, along with antiquarian ones that clung to the authority of church and king, and brand new ones, such as communism, would battle it out over the course of the 19th century with stability only lasting during times of war when the state would be united by a common project whose sacrifices were often justified on the basis of civic-nationalist discourse.

We don’t really see a stabilization of this pattern until after the world wars. In Europe, this was partly because many states had been ethically homogenized due to the conflicts and their aftermath, and in the US because not only had the wars helped fuse a stronger sense of national cohesion along multi-denominational lines, but because the Cold War that followed compelled the US to abandon white supremacy as a basis of national identity out of fear of Soviet incursions in the developing world.

Thus a kind of tamed ethnic-nationalism in Europe and an aspirationally multi-ethnic civic-nationalism in the United States became the dominant forms of political legitimacy in Western countries. Both coincided with what proved to be a temporary embrace of social democracy rather than the laissez-faire capitalism that had been predominant before the Second World War. Again a move inspired by fear of the Soviet Union and the danger of communist revolution.

And all this intersected with the new mass media that was able, for the first time, to center the public around not only a shared form of political legitimacy, but a shared political project in the form of a consumer’s republic and the fight against communism. It was not an interregnum that was destined to last long.

Nevertheless, the liberal consensus and reordering of political legitimacy around civic-nationalism that emerged out of the New Deal and World War II, which saw the last great act of a strong state in forcing an end to racial segregation in the American South, began to unwind in the late 1960’s and has perhaps entered a stage where it could never be rebound.

The feature that has stood at the heart of civic-nationalism since the time of Machiavelli– that of the citizen at arms- died with the debacle of the Vietnam War. Here began the breakdown of trust between technocratic elites and the public, including distrust in the mass media, with the crisis coming to a head with race riots, Watergate, followed by inflation, and the war on drugs. And whereas the left in this period largely abandoned politics for the commune and sexual liberation, the right began the slow process of crawling back into power with the hope of deconstructing the administrative state created in the New Deal. For while the political and economic system had become unstable, the mass of benefits, regulations and protections provided by the state proved exceedingly difficult to kill so long as politics remained democratic.

It was during what proved to be the crescendo of the liberal consensus, after its failure in the Vietnam War and the mobilized alienation of what Nixon called “the silent majority”- the mostly white middle and working who had in the interwar years lost much of their ties to ethnic identity, and who felt alienated from the new cultural currents sweeping the left, drug culture, the anti-war movement, feminism, gay rights, and black power- that the right saw its first major opening since FDR. It could use the gap between the old left and the new left to lever against the entire edifice of the post-war liberal consensus until the structure came crumbling down.

To do this the right would need to bring into being its own majority based consensus. For some astute and wealthy members of the right blamed the country’s persistent liberalism on the whole infrastructure of knowledge, communication and law, which liberals had used since the 1930’s to weave itself almost intractably deep into both society and law. Out of this drive a whole alternative infrastructure of information and knowledge would be created that included not only popular outlets that copied then left-leaning mass media platforms like television and radio, but institutions for policy production such as think tanks.

Thus we get the politicization of reason, not because the broad sweep of academia along with the first think tanks that held to the liberal consensus were a-political, but because the instruments of policy formation no longer proceeded under the kinds of shared assumptions that make reason possible to begin with.

All of these factors of broken consensus have increased rather than diminished in the 21st century as the newly decentralized nature of media production and the disappearance distance as a factor of political alliance meant that any worldview, no matter how niche and bizarre, now had a platform and was able to forge a constituency. Included in these worldviews are all sorts of atavistic ideas regarding race and gender equality many of us mistakenly believed we had evolved beyond.

It seems that retrograde ideas never truly go away, but lie waiting for the right conditions to re-emerge like killer viruses from the melting arctic permafrost. For many racists the conditions of awakening seems to have been the emergence of Trump. As usual, Cory Doctorow said it best:

In a tight race, having a cheap way to reach all the latent Klansmen in a district and quietly inform them that Donald J. Trump is their man is a game-changer.

Cambridge Analytica didn’t convince decent people to become racists; they convinced racists to become voters.

What can be dizzying is how historically mashed up and so obviously socially constructed many of these groups are, and how easily they can both resemble and even emerge from forms of fandom. (A point I’ve often seen made by Adam Aelkus).

The only step that would truly rid us of the cacophony of crazy would be to ban these groups from the internet altogether. Banning an obscene organization such as InfoWars, as all the major internet platforms, with the exception of Twitter, have now done may be a good thing, but whether such measures actually work, or even ultimately end up being worse than the disease is less certain. Banned groups are already turning to other alternative platforms such as Gab or Hatreon that are more amenable to whatever snake oil they are selling.

Right now I wouldn’t place any bets on either side winning the war between the platforms and those seeking to get their message out there whether it’s crazy or just a narrative those who own the press and the platforms would prefer the public ignore. It isn’t even clear which side a progressive should be rooting for. For while it seems clear that racist language or attempts to deliberately insight violence have no right to their place in the marketplace of ideas, it’s less clear what to do about a controversial figure like Cyprian Nyakundi who, from what I understand, was banned for leaking nude photos of Radio Africa Managing Director Martin Khafafa with young women- a rather attention grabbing way of exposing corruption

The platforms are immensely powerful because they not only control the major  interfaces between users and content producers but the servers on which this content is located. Given the censorship record of the platforms, especially outside the United States, this is nothing we should be comfortable with. To give just one example which I think is informative, FaceBook has essentially banned much of political speech from its platform in South Asia, yet much of this speech, along with all types of unsubstantiated rumors and nonsense continues to circulate through its encrypted WhatsApp, which FaceBook is unable to censor at all.

The platforms thus have an enormous amount of power and yet the structure of the internet itself makes the job of censorship much harder than it might otherwise appear. ISIS- the most reviled and hunted terrorist organization in the world still manages to have an internet presence, the ubiquity of encryption apps makes such censorship increasingly more difficult, not to mention the US commitment to the First Amendment, which makes any complete purge illegal.

And even if we could snap our fingers and make the internet disappear, our former consensus would remain very much in the rearview mirror. For both right and left would still possess a whole media infrastructure based on television, radio and print whose assumptions are so different one might think they originated in different countries.

Indeed, it was tech’s fear of the traditional right in possession of old media and its ability to gin up scandal that played a large part in them giving the alt-right a pass during Trump’s election bid. The platforms’ censorship will thread a careful line so long as Republicans are in control of the government and possess the power to break them up. A frightening prospect is that they will be nudged to turn their censorship towards the “radical left”, so that the Overton Window remains jammed open, but that it leans only in one direction- meaning rightward.

In other words, the internet platforms might find themselves aligned with conservative media to take us back to the world as it existed in the past. Not the long dead liberal consensus but the era of the culture wars that followed them. A phantasmagoria pretending to be a civil war where the masses gnaw virtually at each other over questions of identity and pseudo-scandals while the big shots divvy up the spoils of what really matters in an age dominated by technological infrastructure, namely the design of and access to the domains in and through which we all are now compelled to live, and that now subsume every region of the globe.

 

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Preparing for a world of refugees

“All foreigners and beggars come from Zeus, and any kindness is a blessing. So give the stranger food and drink, and wash him down in the river, sheltered from the wind.”

Homer, The Odyssey

“Our torments also in length of time may become our elements.”

Milton, Paradise Lost

I first learned of the novelist Omar El Akkad from an interview he did of with Aryeh Cohen-Wade on Bloggingheads. What struck me then was the obvious humanity of the author. El Akkad seemed to exude empathy, perhaps the most essential skill for anyone who wants to depict human lives in fiction. It was this that led me to pick up his dystopian novel American War. I was not disappointed, for what I found there wasn’t just a novelist skilled at depicting the inner life of his characters, but an author capable of placing an entire society into the desperate shoes of another, showing us what it might mean if the tragic reality we now sees as mere pixels on a screen was instead our own.

American War tells the story of a young girl named Sarat, a strange, curious child, a refugee who becomes transformed by the horrors of war into a vehicle for almost nihilistic revenge.

The novel is set in the latter half of our own century. It is a world where the United States has been ecologically, geographically and politically transformed by climate change. Where the Civil War is replayed (with the protagonists largely the same) only this time over the question of fossil fuels- the North fighting to ban their use and the South fighting to retain them.

El Akkad’s genius lies in deftly rearranging history’s deckchairs. Instead of the US (to disastrous results) engaging in the internal conflicts of a divided and far-off Middle East, he gives us a bloodily divided America whose civil war is compounded by the interference of a united and powerful Arab state known as the Bouazizi Empire. It is an Empire which mirrors the West’s own moral ambiguity today. With the Red Crescent being a vital lifeline for Americans devastated by war, while at the same time some of its political players aiming to preserve the American’s divisions by helping the bloodletting continue.

Of course, in a world devastated by climate change the living conditions of the Arab world have changed radically as well. In El Akkad’s telling the Bouazizi have responded to these changes through a series of political revolutions which brought their formerly divided peoples into a single state, along with a technological revolution driven by the region’s abundant solar energy that power vast air-conditioned cities nestled deep under the boiling sand.

In American War Americans do to each other what we have done to foreigners over the long course of our “war on terror”. Whole families are killed by robotic “birds” which roam the skies and strike without warning or reason. The moral friction that might challenge such actions lubricated away by the compensation of victims. Like many of America’s captives in the years that initially followed 9-11, Sarat is waterboarded and force fed rectally, prevented from sleeping, chained in place, stripped of her humanity.

In an interview different from the one I mentioned earlier El Akkad said he wanted to show us the effects of our actions stripped of the distance of orientalism. Those whose lands we fight in and occupy are just like us and their reactions- including their mass flight to safety- make sense only when we realize this. That Americans have learned nothing from even our most recent history is obvious when it comes the current US supported war in Yemen and in our conception and barbaric treatment of refugees fleeing the broken states of central America whose breakdown we had a large part in creating.

Yet what makes American War a great novel is that El Akkad refuses to turn his victims into heroes. Sarat is ruined rather than ennobled by her suffering, and though there are times where she brushes close to redemption, she is ultimately overcome by the desire for revenge. American War is thus closer to Greek Tragedy and especially the Oresteia than a dystopian fable like The Hunger Games whose -savior rising from the outcast- optimism has obvious Christian roots.

How many Sarats have we created and continue to create? It is not just a matter of spreading the desire for violent revenge through wars or our failure to respond humanely to those fleeing to us for safety, but a question of wasted potential. What might a mind like Sarat provided a proper education and safety have done for humanity? And even ignoring such utilitarian reasoning, what might the richness of a soul like hers have brought to the world had that soul been truly cared for? The real world, right now, is filled with anywhere from 25-50 million potential Sarats.

The current stage of the refugee crisis appears to have peaked, but this is likely a mere prelude to later in the century when million more will be driven from their homes by rising seas and spreading deserts. Even in light of refugee flows leveling off the cruel response of the Europe today is to pay autocracies to keep them, and to set up camps beyond its shoes, while the even crueler response of the US is to separate parents from children and lock them in cages.

If I was struck by El Akkad’s humanity in his interviews and novel I was equally struck by the humanity of Ai Weiwei the dissident Chinese artist in his documentary on the refugee crisis Human Flow. While American War aims to inspire empathy with refugees by putting us in their place, Human Flow pursues the same goal by letting us directly experience their world.

Human Flow is a stunning film where the editing is the commentary. Through it we experience harrowing journeys at sea, the stifling of human potential in the camps and political prisons such as Gaza, the overland flight of whole villages who having been thrown outside of the infrastructure of civilization and are reduced to a state of permanent camping. These refugees are like time travelers trapped between the past and the future who are blocked from moving forward by barbed wire, police, and human prejudice.

American War and Human Flow offer us a kind of education in the experience of exile and the compassion needed to confront it. Sadly, it’s a lesson we couldn’t learn soon enough.

 

 

 

Slavery’s past and disturbingly likely future

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

                                      William Faulkner

Dystopias, just like utopias, are never unmoored from a society’s history. Our worst historical experiences inevitably become the source code for our nightmares regarding the future. Thankfully, America has been blessed with a shallow well from which to feed its dystopian imagination, at least when one compares its history to other societies’ sorrows.

After all, what do we have to compare with the devastation of China during the Taiping Rebellion, Japanese invasion, or Great Leap Forward? What in our experience compares to the pain inflicted on the Soviet Union’s peoples during World War II, the fractional bloodletting of Europe during the wars of religion or world wars? Only Japan has had the tragic privilege of being terrorized into surrender by having its citizens incinerated into atomic dust, and we were the ones who did it.

Of course, the natural rejoinder here is that I’m looking at American history distorted through the funhouse lense of my own identity as a straight- white- male. From the perspective of Native Americans, African Americans, women, and sexual minorities it’s not only that the dark depths of American history were just as bad or worse than those of other societies, it’s that the times when the utopian imagination managed to burst into history are exceedingly difficult to find if indeed they ever existed at all.

Civil war threatens to inflict a society not only over the question of defining the future, but over the issue of defining the past. Deep divisions occur when what one segment of society takes to be its ideal another defines as its nightmare. Much of the current political conflict in the US can be seen in this light- dueling ideas of history which are equally about how we define desirable and undesirable futures.

Technology, along with cultural balkanization and relative economic abundance, has turned engagement with history into a choice. With the facts and furniture (its stuff) of the past so easily accessible we can make any era of history we chose intimately close. We can also chose to ignore history entirely and use the attention we might have devoted to it with a passion for other realities- even wholly fictional ones.

In reality, devoting all of one’s time to trying to recapture life in the past, or ignoring the past in total and devoting one’s attention to one or more fictional worlds, tend to become one and the same. A past experienced as the present is little more real than a completely fictionalized world. Historical re-enactors can aim for authenticity, but then so can fans of Star Trek. And the fact remains that both those who would like to be living in the 24th century or those who would prefer to domicile in the 19th, or the 1950’s, by these very desires and how they go about them reveal the reality that they’re sadly stuck in the early 21st.

What we lose by turning history into a consumer fetish that can either be embraced or pushed aside for other ways to spend our money and attention isn’t so much the past’s facts and furniture, which are for the first time universally accessible, but its meaning and meaning is not something we can avoid.  

We can never either truly ignore or return to the past because that past is deeply embedded in every moment of our present while at the same time being irreversibly mixed up with everything that happened between our own time and whatever era of history we wish to inhabit or avoid.

This strange sort of occlusion of the history where the past is simultaneously irretrievably distant in that it cannot be experienced as it truly was and yet is also intimately close- forming the very structure out of which the present is built- means we need other, more imaginative, ways to deal with the past. Above all, a way in which the past can be brought out of its occlusion, its ghosts that live in the present and might still haunt our future made visible, its ever present meaning made clear.

Ben Winters’ novel Underground Airlines does just this. By imagining a present day America in which the Civil War never happened and slavery still exists he not only manages to give us an emotional demonstration of the fact that the legacy of slavery is very much still with us, he also succeeds in warning us how that tragic history might become more, rather than less, part of our future.

The protagonist of Underground Airlines is a man named Victor. A bounty hunter in the American states outside of the “hard four” where slavery has remained at the core of the economy, he is a man with incredible skills of detection and disguise. His job is to hunt runaway slaves.

The character reminded me a little of Dr. Moriarty , or better, Sherlock Holmes- minus the cartoonishness. (More on why the latter in a second) But for me what made Victor so amazing a character wasn’t his skills or charm but his depth. You see Victor isn’t just a bounty hunter chasing down men and women trying to escape hellish conditions, he’s an escaped slave himself.

A black man who can only retain what little freedom he has by hunting down human beings just like himself. It’s not so much Victor’s seemingly inevitable redemption from villain to hero that made Underground Airlines so gripping, but Winters’ skill in making me think this redemption might just not happen. That and the fact that the world he depicted in the novel wasn’t just believable, but uncomfortably so.

Underground Airlines puts the reader inside a world of 21st century slavery where our moral superiority over the past, our assumption that we are far too enlightened to allow such a morally abhorrent order to exist, that had we lived in the 19th century we’d have certainly stood on the righteous side of the abolitionists and not been lulled to sleep by indifference or self-interest crumbles.

The novel depicts a thoroughly modern form of slavery, where those indignant over the institution’s existence do so largely through boycotts and virtue signaling all the while the constitution itself (which had been amended to forever legalize slavery in the early 19th century) permits the evil itself, and the evil that supports it like the human hunting done by Victor, to continue to destroy the humanity of those who live under it.

Winters also imagines a world like our own in that pop-culture exists in this strange morally ambiguous space. Victor comforts himself by listening to the rhythms of Michael Jackson (a brilliant choice given the real life Jackson’s uncomfortable relationship with his own race), just as whites in our actual existing world can simultaneously adopt and admire black culture while ignoring the systematic oppression that culture has emerged to salve. It’s a point that has recently been made a million times more powerfully than I ever could.

The fictional premise found in Underground Airlines, that the US could have kept slavery while at the same time clung to the constitution and the Union isn’t as absurd as it appears at first blush. Back in the early aughts the constitutional scholar Mark Graber had written a whole book on that very subject: Dred Scott and the Problem of Constitutional Evil . Graber’s disturbing point was that not only was slavery constitutionally justifiable but its had been built into the very system devised by the founders, thus it was Lincoln and the abolitionists who were engaged in a whole scale reinterpretation of what the republic meant.

No doubt scarred by the then current failure of building democracy abroad in Iraq, Graber argued that the wise, constitutionally valid, course for 19th century politicians would have been to leave slavery intact in the name of constitutional continuity and social stability. He seems to assume that slavery as a system was somehow sustainable and that the constitution itself is in some way above the citizens who are the source of its legitimacy. And Graber makes this claim even when he knows that under modern conditions basing a political system on the brutal oppression of a large minority is a recipe for a state of permanent fragility and constant crises of legitimacy often fueled by the intervention of external enemies- which is the real lesson he should have taken from American intervention abroad.

In Underground Airlines we see the world that Graber’s 19th century compromisers might have spawned. It’s a world without John Brown like revolutionaries in which slave owners run corporate campuses and are at pains to present themselves as somehow humane. What rebellion does occur comes in the context of the underground airlines itself, a network, like its real historical analog that attempts to smuggle freed slaves out of the country. Victor himself had tried to escape more than once, but he is manacled in a particularly 21st century way, a tracking chip embedded deep under his skin- like a dog.

What Winters has managed to do by placing slavery in our own historical context is recover for us what it meant. The meaning of our history of slavery is that we should never allow material prosperity to be bought at the price of dehumanizing oppression. That it’s a system based as much on human indifference and cravenness as it is on our capacity for cruelty. It’s a meaning we’ve yet to learn.

This is not a lesson we can afford to forget for, despite appearances, it’s not entirely clear that we have eternally escaped it. It seems quite possible that we have entered an era when the issue of a narrow prosperity bought by widespread oppression come to dominate national and global politics. To see that- contra Steven Pinker– we haven’t escaped oppression as the basis of material abundance, but merely skillfully removed it from the sight of those lucky enough to be born in societies and classes where affluence is taken for granted, one need only look at the history of cotton itself.

Sven Beckert in his Empire of Cotton: A Global History skillfully laid out the stages in which the last of the triad of great human needs of food, shelter and clothing was at last secured, so that today it is hard for many of us to imagine how difficult it once was just to keep ourselves adequately clothed to the point where the problem has become one of having so much clothing we can’t find any place to put it.

The conquest of this need started with actual conquest. The war capitalism waged by states and their proxies starting with the Age of Exploration succeeded in monopolizing markets and eventually enslave untold numbers of African to cultivate cotton in the Americas whose lands had been cleared of inhabitants by disease and genocide. The British especially succeeded not only in monopolizing foreign trade in cotton and in enslaving and resetting Africans in the American south, they had also, at home, managed through enclosure to turn their peasantry into a mass of homeless proletarians who could be forced through necessity and vagrancy laws into factories to spin cloth using the new machines of the industrial revolution. It was a development that would turn the British from the most successfully middleman in the lucrative Asian cotton trade into the world’s key producer of cotton goods, a move that would devastate the farmers of Asia who relied on cotton as a means to buffer their precarious incomes.

The success of the abolitionists movement, and especially the Union victory in the US Civil War seemed to have permanently severed the relationship between capitalism and slavery, yet smart capitalist had already figured out that gig was up. Wage labor had inherent advantages over slave based production. Under a wage based system labor was no longer linked to one owner but was free floating, thus able to rapidly respond to the ceaseless expansion followed by collapse that seemed to be the normal condition of an industrial economy. Producers no longer needed to worry about how they would extract value from their laborers when faced with falling demand, or worry about their loss of value and unsellabilty should they become in incurably sick or injured.  They could simply shed them and let the market or charity deal with such refuse. Capitalists also knew the days of slavery were numbered in light of successful slave revolts, especially the one in Haiti. The coercive apparatus slavery required was becoming prohibitively expensive.

It took capitalism less than twenty years after the end of American slavery to hit upon a solution to the problem of how to run commodity agriculture without slavery. That solution was to turn farmers themselves into proletarians. The Jim Crow laws that rose up in the former Confederate states after the failure of Reconstruction to turn the country into a true republic (based on civic rather than ethnic nationalism) were in essence a racially based form of proletarianization.

It was a model that Beckert points out was soon copied globally. First by Western imperialists, and later by strong states established along Western lines, peasants were coerced into specializing in commodity crops such as cotton and to rely on far flung markets for their survival. In the late 19th century the initial effect of this was a series of devastating famines, which with technological improvements, and the maturation of the market and global supply chains have thankfully become increasingly rare.

What Beckert’s work definitely shows is that the idea of “the market” arising spontaneously on its own between individuals free of the interfering had of the state is mere fiction. Capitalism of both the commercial and industrial varieties required strong states to establish itself and were essential to creating the kind of choice architecture that compelled individuals to accept their social reality.

Yet this history wasn’t all bad, for the very same strength of the state that had been used to establish markets could be turned around and used to contain and humanize them. It required strong states to enact emancipation and workers rights rights (even if the later was achieved under conditions of racialized democracy) and it was the state at the height of its strength after the World Wars that finally put an end to Jim Crow.

But by the beginning of the 21st century the state had lost much of this strength. The old danger of basing the material prosperity of some on the oppression of others remained very much alive and well. Beckert charts this change for the realm of cotton production with the major players in our age of globalization being no longer producers but retail giants such as WalMart or Amazon- distributors of finished products which aren’t so much traditional stores as vast logistical networks able to navigate and dominate opaque global supply chains.

In an odd way, perhaps the end of the Cold War did not so much signal the victory of capitalism over state communism as the birth of a rather monstrous hybrid of the two with massive capitalist entities tapping into equally massive pools of socialized production whether that be Chinese factories, Uzbek plantations, or enormous state subsidized farms in the US. Despite its undeniable contribution to global material prosperity this is also a system where the benefits largely flow in one direction and the costs in another.

It’s as if the primary tool of the age somehow ends up defining the shape of its political economy. Our primary tool is the computer, a machine whose use comes with its own logic and cost. To quote Jaron Lanier in Who Owns the Future?:

Computation is the demarcation of a little part of the universe, called a computer, which is engineered to be very well understood and controllable, so that it closely approximates a deterministic, non-entropic process. But in order for a computer to run, the surrounding parts of the universe must take on the waste heat, the randomness. You can create a local shield against entropy, but your neighbors will always pay for it. (143)

Under this logic the middle and upper classes in advanced economies, where they have been prohibited from unloading their waste and pollution on their own weak and impoverished populations have merely moved to spewing their entropy abroad or upon the non-human world- offloading their waste, pollution and the social costs of production to the developing world.

Still, such a system isn’t slavery which has its own peculiar brutalities. Unbeknownst to many slavery still exists, indeed, according to some estimates, there are more slaves now than there have ever been in human history. It is a scourge we should increasingly work to eradicate, yet it is in no way at the core of our economy as it was during the Roman Empire or 19th century.

That doesn’t mean, however, that slavery could never return to its former prominence. Such a dark future would depend on certain near universal assumptions about our technological future failing to come to pass. Namely, that Moore’s Law will not have a near term successor and thus that the predicted revolution in AI and robotics now expected fails to arrive this century. The failure of such a technological revolution might then intersect with current trends that are all too apparent. The frightening thing is that such a return to slavery in a high-tech form (though we wouldn’t call it that) would not require any sorts of technological breakthroughs at all.

In Underground Airlines what keeps Victor from escaping his fate is the tracking chip implanted deep under his skin. There’s already some use and a lot of discussion about using non- removable GPS tracking devices to keep tabs on former convicts no longer behind bars.

The reasoning behind this initially seems to provide a humane alternative to the system of mass incarceration we have today. The current system is in large measure a white, rural  jobs program – with upwards of 70 percent of prisons built between 1970 – 2000 constructed in rural areas.   It was a system built on the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans who make up less than 13 percent of the US population, but comprise 40 percent of its prisoners.

The election of Donald Trump has for now nixed the nascent movement towards reforming this barbaric system, a movement which has some strangely conservative supporters most notably the notorious Koch Brothers. What their presence signals is that we are in danger of replacing one inhumane system with an alternative with dangers of its own. One where people we once imprisoned are now virtually caged and might even be sold out for labor in exchange for state “support”.

This could happen if we enter another AI winter and human labor proves, temporarily at least, unreplaceable by robots, and at the same time we continue down the path of racialized politics. In these conditions immigrants might be treated in a similar way. A roving labor force used to meet shortages on the condition that they can be constantly tracked, sold out Uber-like, and deported at will. Such a “solution” to European, North American, and East Asian societies would be a way for racialized, demographically declining societies to avoid multi-cultural change while clinging to their standard of living. One need only look at how migrant labor works today in a seemingly liberal poster child such as Dubai or how Filipino servants are used by Israelis who keep their Palestinian neighbors in a state of semi-apartheid to get glimpses of this.

We might enter such a world almost unawares our anxieties misdirected by what turn out to be false science-fiction based nightmares of jobless futures and Skynet. Let’s do our best to avoid it.

 

Escape from the Body Farm

Body snatchers

One of the lesser noted negative consequences of having a tabloid showman for a president is the way the chaos and scandal around him has managed to suck up all the air in the room. Deep social and political problems that would have once made the front page, sat on top of the newsfeed, or been covered in depth by TV news, have been relegated to the dustbin of our increasingly monetized attention. And because so few of the public know about these issues their future remains in the hands of interested parties unlikely to give more than a perfunctory concern to issues such as ethics or the common good such issues involve.

For that reason I was extremely pleased when the news service Reuters recently did a series of articles on a topic that seemingly has nothing to do with Trump. That series called The Body Trade gives the reader insight into an issue I would bet few of us are aware of. The way that life-saving tissues and organs have been increasingly monetized and turned into profits centers for medical companies despite the fact this biological trade is supposedly done on a voluntary basis not for money but in what is often the last ethical, charitable act a person can do in the service of the common good.

According to Reuters, bodies “donated to science” often end up dismembered and sold to the highest bidder to body brokers who sell the dead for a profit to anyone willing to pay. Whatever your qualifications you can buy such human remains over the internet, for a price. Many morticians are apparently now onto the game and will convince a family to donate the body of a loved one only to sell these remains at a profit, but the trade is also comprised of large corporations. One such corporate body broker, Science Care, has aimed to become the “MacDonald’s” of the dead and has managed to run a 27 million dollar profit from the sale of whole bodies many of which were gained from poor people unable to pay for funeral expenses.

A body reduced to a commodity comes to be treated like a commodity. In one body broker’s warehouse the heads of dead were stacked like frozen cookie jars. Biological Resource Center dismembered bodies using off-the-shelf power tools and stored the remains like trash in garbage bags. They seemed to have been especially adept at getting hold of the bodies of the poor.

All of the cases from the Reuters series appear to have happened in the US and dealt with the remains of the dead, but the body trade is a global phenomenon and often trucks in the parts of the living and the living themselves. I knew this because I had recently read Scott Carney’s excellent book on the subject, The Red Market: On the Trail of the World’s Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child  Traffickers.

Carney’s book takes readers into the heart of the red market, whose victims come largely from the poor of the developing and post-communist world and whose beneficiaries are the rich and middle class of advanced economies along with the nouveau riche who because of globalization are now everywhere. Skeletons are obtained for the rich world via Indian grave robbers, a place where in one of the most gruesome section of the book. There, on the Indian border with Nepal, a farmer named Papa Yadhav kept his captive victims whom he milked like cows- only for the much more valuable commodity of human blood.

Carney reveals that there are whole villages in south Asia that base their economies on selling their kidneys, that Chinese authorities have harvested corneas from political prisoners such as those from the religious movement Falun Gong, that older women who can afford it can with ease buy the eggs of poor women, or rent their wombs for a pittance. Among the world’s poor pharmaceutical companies can also find willing human guinea pigs at a similarly bargain basement price.

One might think the quest for organs especially is born from a crisis of supply. Yet Carney points out how the scarcity of organs is largely artificial. Like an oil cartel, by inflating the number of patients eligible for transplants the medical industry consciously guarantees that demand will exceed supply.

Then there are the children. Often kidnapped on the streets of the world’s crowded mega-cities their darkest fate is to become the commodities of the global sex trade while the lucky ones are adopted into the homes of well-off families who even with the best of intentions remain oblivious of their new children’s sinister origins.

Rightfully, Carney dismisses market based solutions to the problem of the red market. Given the level of global inequality there is no way to sort willing sellers from those forced into the decision to undergo risky and life changing surgery in order to temporarily escape the vice grip of hunger and homelessness.

His solution is that we mandate transparency throughout the supply chain of human organs and tissues so that anyone who receives a transplant or other gift of this kind can trace what they have been given back to its original owner or their family. As Paul Auster laid bare is his book The Winter Journal a self is inextricable from its body, our unique experience etched into every scar and wrinkle. What Carney is arguing for is really a form of social memory that links its way back to this personal experience. In the era of ubiquitous big data this shouldn’t be too hard. It is simply a matter of political will.

The body trade is just one example of new forms of dystopia missed by 21st century proponents of the belief in human progress, such as Steven Pinker. Optimists focus on the bright side. Organ transplantation, the harvesting of human eggs, and surrogacy are all technical marvels that would be impossible without breakthroughs such as immunosuppressive drugs and antibiotics. They are technologies that, at one level, certainly increase human happiness- allowing patients to live longer, or people to have children where it was previously impossible- as is the case with homosexual couples.

The dystopian aspects of this new relationship towards our own and other’s bodies, however, hasn’t been missed by the writers of speculative fiction. Kazuo Ishiguro made it the theme of his novel Never Let Me Go in which cloned children are raised for their organs. Yet the philosopher Steven Lukes probably gave us the picture most clearly with his depiction of a utilitarian dystopia in his book The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat.  There the narrator Nicholas Caritat gets this response when he suggest that the county of Utilitaria compels organ donation for the benefit of the physically disabled:

 ‘They’re not beneficiaries,’ Priscilla corrected him. ‘They’re benefactors. It’s their distinctive way of contributing to the general welfare. They can’t produce goods or services, but they can provide organs that will enable others to do so. It gives them a purpose in life, and that’s especially valuable as we’ve largely phased out medical care for that particular category.’ (83)

Yet both Ishiguro and Lukes in their focus on the individual perhaps underplay the fact that modern day utopias are sustain themselves by creating entire dystopian realms both within and between societies on opposite sides of that chasm. There’s a reason both techno-optimists and pessimists, while drawing opposite conclusions, are reading our situation correctly.

In our time the utopian and dystopian aspects of civilization have taken on the same topology as our economics, and communications- utopia and dystopia are now global, networked, with little respect for national borders, whose membership is almost solely based on your ability to pay, which in turn is based on your capacity to extract rents and displace costs onto those outside your own utopian bubble. If every society takes on the shape of its most important technology then ours, as Jaron Lanier has pointed out, has the shape of computer- a box that creates a pocket of order at the price of displaced entropy.

Here are just a few examples of this displacement: material abundance is bought at the cost of brutal conditions for the laboring poor and rampant environmental destruction; food abundance is bought at the price of horrendous animal suffering, wildlife eradication and cruel conditions for migrant labor. The increasing complexity of our societies is bought at the price of displacing our entropy and pain onto other human beings and life itself. Yet chaos can only be held at bay for so long.

Yet I am making it all sound too new. What makes our situation unique is its truly global aspect, its openness to elites everywhere. That this system is based on the domination of human bodies is as old as civilization itself, a cruel reality we, for all our supposed tolerance and lack of overt violence, have never escaped. Ta-Nehisi Coates said it best:

As for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation in the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tasting, and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.”

The new people are not original in this. Perhaps there has been, at some point in history, some great power whose elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of other human bodies. If there has been, I have yet to discover it.” (8)

Since the agricultural revolution elites have mined the laboring bodies of the lower classes starting with slaves and the peasantry, moving on to the industrial proletariat and now seemingly having moved on after a brief interim when elite wealth was supported by middle class consumption to mining our data.

I say elites, but given the way human ancestry folds back upon itself and in a globalized world has penetrated even the most isolated populations, everyone alive today has been shown to share a common ancestor as little as 3,600 years ago. What this means is that none of us are truly innocent or completely guilty. All of us can trace our existence back to both cruel masters and blameless slaves. In some sense the moral truths behind the myth of the Fall remain true even in light of Darwin’s discovery of evolution: all human beings share a common parentage, and all exist as a consequence of their guilt. It remains up to us to break free from this cycle.

The dystopia of the moment, surveillance capitalism, isn’t the only dystopian iteration of this perennial theme of human fallenness possibly in store for us, although given the profits in medicine the two are likely to become linked. For if human labor is truly becoming superfluous, and production become too cheap through globalization and automation to render large profits, then the lower classes, absent technical breakthroughs such as 3D printed organs, artificial wombs, and the growth of human organs in livestock,  still have our bodies themselves left to exploit.

As with global warming, many hope that the rapid pace of technological progress will ultimately save us from such a fate. And thanks to breakthroughs like Crispr things are moving extremely fast, especially in the area of growing and harvesting human organs from animals.

While exploiting the bodies of animals for life saving organs would be better than using them for meat, such breakthroughs wouldn’t completely solve the problem of the red market which stem as much from political economy as they do from technological roadblocks.

Bodies might then be exploited not as a source of organs but as sites for what would now be deemed unnecessary surgeries- in the same way unnecessary testing is done today by the medical industry to drive up profits. This is what is bound to happen when one treats the human person as just another commodity and source of revenue. To disconnect the needs of the human body from the ravenous appetite of  capitalism would be the best thing we could do to ensure its humane treatment.

Yet there is another, more philosophical and spiritual aspect to our condition. When Western culture made the move into Protestantism followed by the scientific revolution and secularism we also made a break from an aspect of human culture that was perhaps universal up until that point in history- the respect for and veneration of the dead. And while much understanding and untold good came from this move in that a good deal of our modern health can be laid at the feet of those courageous enough to pursue knowledge through dissection and other means that came at great personal risks, something was also tragically lost in the bargain.

There are signs, however, that we are getting it back: from efforts to understand death in other cultures, to a desire to naturalize our relationship with death, to the attempts to memorialize the death of loved ones through tokens of remembrance we carry on and even etch into our bodies. All stem from the acknowledgement that we are bodies, material beings prone to decay and death, and yet, through the power of human love and memory, always something else besides. Some might even call it a soul.

Forgotten October

Soviet Train poster

This year marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution. This stupendous event, which  so shaped the history of the last century has, like few events of similar magnitude that continue to haunt the present, suffered the sad fate of being either being absent mindedly or deliberately forgotten. The lessons of October have been forgotten and brushed aside as a tragic cul de sac of of history for those who believe capitalism’s current reign to have been the  preordained “end of history” and even by Russia’s current autocrats themselves who see in the revolution a dangerous object lesson for those who might be encouraged to throw off the yoke of the vile.

When the weird fiction author and Marxist China Mieville published his vorticose, short history of the Russian Revolution bluntly titled October he did not expect to have the market almost all to himself. But he did. Publishers and historians seemed to doubt whether this century old event could garner any widespread interest. Who cares about what happened in a backward country a century ago? What’s the point engaging with communist revolution when we know how the story turned out? Gulags or Stalin’s demonic psyche are more dramatic material. And besides, communism was a failure, capitalism won the cold war. Even the Russians with their luxury apartments in London and their goldplated candidate in the White House admit the truth of capital’s triumph.

As anyone who has had the good fortune to read his novel The City and the City knows, Mieville is a freaking brilliant fiction writer. His demonstrated artistic skill in fleshing out characters, and more importantly, conveying reality in a new register came across in October, but sadly not enough. If his goal as an admitted partisan for Marxism was to convey the brilliance and courage of the major figures of the Russian Revolution- Lenin, Trotsky- it was only partially achieved for the revolution seemed less characterized by human agency than it was by factionalism and chaos. The Bolsheviks, almost in spite of themselves, ended up the last man standing after the accumulated simple mindedness of Russian czars and above everything the pain and devastation wrought by the First World War built up to the point of causing complete social collapse.

Lenin was without doubt a brave man, but his brilliance as a revolutionary consisted mainly in seeing the impossibility of coalitions between various factions holding while centripetal forces were tearing the Russian empire apart. A society incapable of coalitions between its strongest social forces is forced to chose between the Scylla of anarchy and the Charybdis of tyranny. We know how Lenin chose.

One catches a glimpse of Mieville’s brilliance only in October’s epilogue when he reflects on the legacy of the Russian Revolution. After, with brutal honesty, admitting the crimes of Soviet Communism in the decades following the revolution, Mieville grapples with what the revolution meant. What the revolution revealed was that other futures were possible.

The revolution of 1917 is a revolution of trains. History proceeds in screams of cold metal. The tsar’s wheeled palace, shunted into sidings forever; Lenin’s sealed stateless carriage; Guchkov and Shulgin’s meandering abdication express…. “

Revolutions, Marx said, are the locomotives of history. ‘Put the locomotive into top gear’, Lenin exhorted himself in a private note, scant weeks after the October revolution, ‘and keep it on the rails.’ But how could you keep it there if there really was only one true way and it was blocked?

Mieville quotes Bruno Schulz’ story ‘The Age of Genius’:

Have you ever heard of parallel streams of time within a two-track time? Yes, there are such branch lines of time, somewhat illegal and suspect, but when, like us, one is burdened with contraband of supernumerary events that cannot be registered, one cannot be too fussy. Let us try to find at some point of history such a branch line, a blind track onto which we can shunt these illegal events. There is nothing to fear. (319)

Mieville’s point, I take it, is that the Russian Revolution offers up to us an attempt to breach an alternative future from the junction of 1917. The failure to actually constitute an alternative to the capitalist order that is our own doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and the opportunity remains to diverge again in the direction of the future that was lost.

That is certainly true, but there is something else, something even more poignant and beyond his own authorial fetishes, to  Mieville’s choice of railroads and switchmen as images for lost and alternative futures.

Perhaps the greatest novelist during the most brutal phase of Soviet history was Andrei Platonov. The son of a railway worker Platonov too saw in the locomotive a potent analogy for the world brought forth by the revolution. Early in the revolution Platonov had written to his wife:

Even though I had not yet completed technical school, I was hurriedly put on a locomotive to help the driver. The remark about the revolution being the locomotive of history was transformed inside me into a feeling that was strange and good: remembering this sentence, I worked very diligently on the locomotive . . . ‘

Platonov never lost his faith in Marxism or his affection for the revolution, but the deep humanity on display in his novels ultimately allowed him to grasp the cruelty and absurdity of the Soviet system. He would turn his experience on the locomotive into a harrowing scene in his story Chevengur a frightened engineer drives his train to collision:

The locomotive was quivering with tension and swaying its entire body, searching for a chance to hurl itself down the embankment and escape the power and pent-up speed that were suffocating it. Sometimes Dvanov felt that the locomotive had already left the rails and the coaches were about to follow and he was dying in the quiet dust of soft soil, and Aleksandr put his hands to his chest to keep his heart from terror.

Platonov would compose an even more powerful metaphor in what became his most well-known novel The Foundation Pit. There, instead of revolutionaries driving trains off their tracks, Platonov imagined them digging a giant hole, the first step in laying the foundation of a longed for utopian arcology that would house the dispossessed. It is a hilarious, absurdist tale the likes of Kafka or Samuel Beckett and perhaps the best reflection on the cruelties of bureaucracy ever written.

Andrei had a real example to go on when writing The Foundation Pit. The planned Palace of the Soviets that was to tower 1,362 feet which would be topped by a 6,000 ton statue of Lenin, so large that there was to be a library in his head. With the ravages of World War II the colossus was never built although the Cathedral of Christ the Savior had been leveled to make room for the imagined temple to the new gods.

The point Platonov, who remained a Marxist until the end of his days, seemed to be making with his fiction was to remind the world what the revolution was for. The why of the revolution was to find an alternative to the human crushing nature of both autocracy and capitalism. What it appeared to be doing instead was to combine the worst aspects of both.

There is a history to how this happened, how the revolution went from being a moment of revolution to one of subjugation under far worse chains. At it’s root lie the sweeping aside of real human beings in the quest for an idol of technological and economic progress.

You can see the revolution go off the rails, the humanism Platonov clung to die in an interview of Lenin by none other than H.G. Wells. The model for the Soviet future that Lenin put forward in that interview was drawn from the apparent power of the planned economy that had been wielded by all the capitalist countries during the First World War. Lenin seconded the irrationality of capitalism which cannibalized the productive forces of its own societies a reality he had learned from reading Chiozza Money’s book The Triumph of Nationalization which told the story of the success of economic planning during the war, and its dissolution in the war’s aftermath as capitalism reasserted itself.  In Lenin’s vision, the Soviet Union would be the first nation modernized and ran from above, the harbinger of the post-revolutionary society that would soon overthrow capitalism and run the globe. It was an argument dear to Well’s cold technocratic heart, even if he had little interest in Marxism or social justice.

The seeds for this dictatorship of the experts could be traced well before the Russian Revolution in the dispute between the anarchist Bakunin and Marx. Bakuin opposed Marx’s idea of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” because as he predicted in his Statism and Anarchy it would leave the oppressive nature of the state intact:

… no state, however democratic – not even the reddest republic – can ever give the people what they really want, i.e., the free self-organization and administration of their own affairs from the bottom upward, without any interference or violence from above, because every state, even the pseudo-People’s State concocted by Mr. Marx, is in essence only a machine ruling the masses from above, through a privileged minority of conceited intellectuals, who imagine that they know what the people need and want better than do the people themselves…

Dictatorship of the proletariat would inevitably mean a despotism under the technocrats:

If science were to dictate the laws, the overwhelming majority, many millions of men, would be ruled by one or two hundred experts. Actually it would be even fewer than that, because not all of science is concerned with the administration of society. This would be the task of sociology – the science of sciences – which presupposes in the case of a well-trained sociologist that he have an adequate knowledge of all the other sciences. How many such people are there in Russia – in all Europe? Twenty or thirty – and these twenty or thirty would rule the world? Can anyone imagine a more absurd and abject despotism?

Lenin’s experiment with “war communism”, technocratic management of the economy, ended in starvation, social collapse and rebellion. Yet if the man’s true genius lie anywhere it was in his flexibility in the face of events.

With the New Economic Policy he reversed course and adopted a limited form of capitalism. He also, in the face of the 1921 Kronstadt rebellion that grew out of the failure of war communism, put an end to the “soviets” the councils of average citizens and workers who arose out of the revolution to take control of their fate and he imposed the centralized control of society by the Bolsheviks. For a time the nascent Soviet Union would have the worse of both worlds: an economy based on capitalist economics with all political power concentrated in the hands of one party. A world not all that dissimilar to the one found in China today. The NEP itself would be killed by Stalin who returned to Lenin’s idea of modernization from above only this time with a cruelty and speed Lenin could never have imagined.

It’s with the lost opportunity of the soviets that I so wish Mieville would have focused his considerable talents and attention. For a time, the collapse of the old autocratic regime during the revolution really did open up new spaces of freedom where citizens took control over their own economic and political affairs through the soviets and enabled rapid progressive reforms that would take decades elsewhere to unfold. In October Mieville does draw our attention to these human possibilities opened up by the revolution.

October, for an instant, brings a new kind of power. Fleetingly, there is a shift towards workers’ protections and the rights of peasants to the land. Equal rights for men and women in work and marriage, the right to divorce, maternity support. The decriminalization of homosexuality, 100 years ago. Moves towards national self-determination. Free and universal education, the flourishing of adult schools. A change in the soul, as Lunacharsky might put it, as much as in the factory. And though these moments are snuffed out, reversed, become bleak jokes and memories all too soon, it might have been otherwise. (317)

Who were the people who occupied this temporary space of freedom, and how was their freedom gained and lost? What does this real freedom look like? It is into their utopias I wish Mieville would have taken us rather than focus on the “great men” of history who ultimately drove the revolution to its doom.

The source of the lost and now forgotten freedom of the October Revolution Mieville seems to find in the hopeless and besieged revolutionaries in a world where the expected communists revolutions in Europe failed to arrive and the capitalist powers remained implacably hostile to the revolutionary society.

There’s certainly much too that, when Stalin abandoned the NEP in 1928 and began the forced, rapid modernization of the Soviet Union he did so in large part for geopolitical reasons. All of the big powers at this time understood that power of a unified, fully industrialized, continental state; namely, the then isolationist United States. Multiple powers during the 1930’s: Japan, Germany, the USSR, the British Empire would struggle with how to configure themselves into something on par with the US, both to protect themselves and to project power. This was how the Nazi jurists Carl Schmitt understood German expansionism.

And yet, all the pieces for the type of totalitarian society the Soviet Union became were already in place before these imperatives became apparent. On the left, Bakunin had warned of the potential for technocratic despotism within Marxism itself just as on the right Dostoyevsky had predicted something similar with his parable of The Grand Inquisitor and warned us that the quest after material prosperity might ultimately mean the death of our humanity.

In light of the seeming success of systems where ruling elites took control of both economics and information during the First World War Lenin had tried to move the Soviet Union in the direction of a centrally controlled economy. Coupled with the collapse of capitalism in the depression in the 1930’s Stalin’s economics of “the five year plan” didn’t appear retrograde but a glimpse of the future. His iteration of the theme particularly brutal- collectivization resulting in perhaps 12 million deaths- because of the speed at which Soviet society be industrialized relied on the corpse of its overwhelmingly larger agricultural sector. Nevertheless, the idea that the society of the future would be technocratically managed was nearly universal from the 1930’s onward with H.G. Wells being a particularly vocal proponent of this view.

We know how this idea began to unravel in Western countries with revolts against “the establishment” starting in the 1960’s, how the Chinese in the late 1970’s adopted a version of Lenin’s NEP, and how the sclerotic bureaucracy that the Soviet Union had become imploded a decade later. Still, one might legitimately wonder given the rise and spectacular success of behemoth companies that are essentially planning algorithms; most notably Amazon and Wal Mart, whether the types of command economics dreamed up in the early 20th century were just computationally premature. Thanks to Moore’s Law might we have the capacity to rationally manage our economies in a way previously impossible? Might this be done in a way that retained the humanism of figures like Platonov? Those are big questions that will have to wait for another day.

 

 

Three Anthopocenes

The Moirai by James-Goetz 2 --1915-1946

A few weeks back I read an interesting essay by Jedediah Purdy on Aeon written in the halcyon days of 2015. An article which, given the news, captured something essential and got me a little depressed. Within the space of the last three weeks hurricanes of almost unprecedented magnitude slammed into Houston, then, Florida, then Puerto Rico. All were bad, but the last looked something like something straight out of a Hollywood apocalyptic. It wasn’t just the scale of the storm that hit it which made the situation in Puerto Rico so much more dire, it was the lack of resources to deal with the aftermath, along with the highly racialized response of the American government to hurricane Maria’s destruction. A delayed, politicized rescue, which was inexcusable given the fact that Puerto Ricans are as much US citizens as any of my Pennsylvanian neighbors.

Purdy knew this was coming. The argument in his 2015 essay essentially boils down to the claim that it’s less climate change that is the problem than the structural inequality of the world in which this change is happening. As he puts it:

Planetary changes will amplify the inequalities that sort out those who get news from those who get catastrophes; but these inequalities, arising as they do from a post-natural nature, will feel as if they were built into the world itself. Indeed, nature has always served to launder the inequalities that humans produce.

In his essay Purdy makes the case for what he calls a “democratic Anthropocene” where these inequalities are addressed as opposed to both the catastrophism of a vocal segment of the environmental movement, or the view known as Ecomodernism that wants us to double down on green technology, but leaves late capitalism itself unaddressed. Purdy’s is a view I found remarkably similar to that expressed by Pope Francis in his Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home.  

A world transformed by climate change that refuses to address inequality will be one where the wealthy in Phoenix hide from a 120 degree heat in air conditioned domes, while the poor in India and other poor countries die from the heat of the summer sun. The situation in Puerto Rico makes me doubt we will be moral enough to prevent that from happening. And yet, when grappling with Purdy’s argument I couldn’t help thinking that this split between three wings of the environmental movement all of which agree that climate change is happening and demands a human response isn’t all that productive. His division is based on the idea that we can know exactly what kind of climate changed world we are moving into, which we can’t. And precisely because we can’t, the best path forward is to take a little wisdom from each.

Depending upon whether one is a proponent of the democratic Anthropocene, argues for a rapid and broad application of green technology, or thinks we’re headed for a civilization destroying catastrophe depends on which climate change trajectory one thinks we’re on. The possible scenarios have been meticulously laid out by the IPCC. Here’s their 2014 projections.

2014 IPCC projections

Perhaps surprisingly, both Purdy and the Ecomodernists seem to share the assumption that we are headed for the lower to mid-range estimates of the IPCC in terms of the global rise in temperature.

If we do stay in the low to middle temperature range then it really is a political dispute, which is really about whether we keep global capitalism or jettison it for an also global, but democratic, alternative. Yet there’s no apparent reason why such democratic globalism can’t also be based on green technology. The fact that many green technologists now seem unconcerned with questions of political economy is likely an accident of history. The fact that they live in an era where the state can’t seem to get anything done. Had the need to rapidly respond to climate change occurred in the political and economic conditions of the middle of the 20th century Ecomodernists would be arguing for massive action by states.

Still, any rise in the 4-5 degree Celsius range, let alone above it, would make a democratic Anthropocene almost inconceivable- the world’s ice sheets would disappear, coastal cities in the developed world would be slowly drowned sending a flood of refugees into the interior. Industrial food systems would fail. Not merely would the advanced countries be unlikely to save those facing even worse crises in the developing world, they themselves would likely break apart into cities and regions struggling just to save their own communities. Rather than being global, democracy would, at best, be found at the level of cities and small states.

Global warming above the IPCC mid-range would transform the perspective of Ecomodernists as well. Having found that the shift to a non-fossil fuel economy had proven far too late, they would likely embrace geoengineering as the only solution.

Scientists are a clever bunch, but sometimes clever by half. A few years ago some of them were arguing that we had a cheap way to hold off global warming while we got our act together. We could, volcano like, spew sulfates into the atmosphere to cool the earth. The orange sky we’d get as a consequence might put the fear of God in us, and inspire a change in our ways. Fortunately, other scientists pointed out that the acid rain from our sulfuric sunshade might also kill all the world’s trees.

It’s the view that we’re irreversibly on the course to a civilization shattering 5 degree or higher temperature that is truly radical and gives us a glimpse of a world radically different than our own. In a widely debated article in The New York Review back in July called The Uninhabitable Earth David Wallace-Wells laid out just how ugly things could get if we exceeded the IPCC’s projections.

Surely this blindness will not last — the world we are about to inhabit will not permit it. In a six-degree-warmer world, the Earth’s ecosystem will boil with so many natural disasters that we will just start calling them “weather”: a constant swarm of out-of-control typhoons and tornadoes and floods and droughts, the planet assaulted regularly with climate events that not so long ago destroyed whole civilizations. The strongest hurricanes will come more often, and we’ll have to invent new categories with which to describe them; tornadoes will grow longer and wider and strike much more frequently, and hail rocks will quadruple in size.    

Critics of Wallace-Wells accused him of engaging in disaster-porn, of robbing us of the confidence that climate change was a tractable problem, or even the faith that our species had a future at all. Yet that was precisely the point. Civilization needs its Noahs in the unlikely event the storm proves a deluge.  

We might actually be very lucky that those prophesying disaster are so good at storytelling. For while both the Ecomodernists and proponents of a democratic Anthropocene have given us excellent novelists- Ramez Naam, Kim Stanley Robinson– among those warning of catastrophe can be counted some of the best new novelists of our young century, writers such as Paolo Bacigalupi, Paul Kingsnorth, and Roy Scranton.

It is Roy Scranton’s non-fiction meditation on what he believes to be our civilization’s inevitable collapse, Learning to die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization that I’ll primarily deal with here. Purdy has been trenchantly dismissive of the case Scranton makes that we need to “learn to die” as “a suggestive but, upon scrutiny, meaningless gesture”. That is unfair.   

Scranton is working under the assumption that not only will we reach the high end of the IPCC’s projection, we might even blow beyond them. This really would bring death, not only to billions of human beings but to our civilization as we have known it. It would constitute a dark age far more substantial than any collapse from history, and might even result in the death of our species, especially if accompanied by wars between nuclear powers.

The idea that industrial civilization and the biosphere might ultimately prove incompatible is no less philosophically coherent than the views of either Purdy or the Ecomodernists. Purdy, as he argues in his book After Nature, wants us to jettison the sharp division between ourselves and the natural world to embrace a more full version of the world where we accept our human impact and relate to the world as beings within it. It’s an attractive view parts of which he sees implicit in the writings of Thoreau. The problem is we have long left the world of Thoreau’s “stone tools and potsherds” to enter the period of what the philosopher Timothy Morton calls “hyperobjects”, entities of such scale and complexity that they they escape our ability to fully control or even understand.

Whenever I want to get a better picture of the scale of human-created hyperobjects I think back to an observation made by Yuval Harari that the world’s domesticated animals, taken together, weigh not only double that of all the human beings on earth, but are seven times the weight of all of the world’s large land animals combined, or that there are more chickens in Europe than all of that continent’s wild birds taken together.

The answer of Ecomodernists to the development and environmental destruction wreaked by hyperobjects is to argue that we are already and need to continue decoupling from nature. The littorialization of humanity- the mass movement all over the world of populations to the coasts combined with the emptying out and rewilding of the interiors of the continents Ecomodernists point to as evidence that civilization is evolving in ways more sustainable for the rest of the natural world. They’re made even more optimistic due to the fact that urbanization has been linked to a decline in population growth.  

Yet such decoupling remains a faith. It’s not clear that we could ever hermetically seal human civilization from the biosphere, or what the ethical costs to such a separation would be. It’s not even clear if we should  as a matter of aesthetics and human flourishing.

Scranton’s Learning to die is premised on the fact that both Purdy and the Ecomodernists are wrong. The effects of industrial civilization on the rest of nature and their threat to our way of life are far more substantial than any idea of a democratic Anthropocene contains, and we are too late to innovate our way out of the path we are on with our utter dependence on a carbon based economy to sustain the vast technological web in which we are entangled.

Is the catastrophe of 5 degrees or warmer temperature destroying our civilization likely? Probably not, but there are too many unknowns to simply dismiss the warning as mere fiction: the move away from fossil fuels could stall or collapse due to economic, political or technological factors, negative feedback loops might prove far more sensitive than scientists currently estimate, human-made warming could engender far more potent natural warming such as the release of methane from melting permafrost, natural carbon sinks could fail- the list goes on and on. (Of course, equally unknowable lucky accidents could await us as well).   

What’s the most meaningful thing you can do if you think your civilization is about to collapse? Build an archive. Scranton is urging us to do something very similar to what people in the days before the cloud would do when their house was burning down and beyond preserving: they saved the photo albums. He wants us to save what he sees as the most valuable thing our civilization has created- its reflection upon itself. The literature and philosophy we have crafted over the millennia as we have grappled with what it meant to be human.    

Like the authors he praises, Scranton’s reflections in Learning to die are ones I find myself continuously returning to for spiritual subsistence drawn to passages such as these:

We are born half-blind, confused, wired into a world we don’t understand. Within the night of this world, we apprehend our future as a field of freedom. We face this freedom as individuals, fully in the present, yet our actions are determined by the past and take on their full meaning only in the future. As we gain in wisdom, individual consciousness reveals its complex entanglements with collective life, history, and the universe. (94)

_______________

This astonishing cosmos is our home. There is no other. There is no Heaven, no Hell, no Judgement, no Elysium. We humans are precocious multicellular energy machines building hives on a rock in space, machines made up of and connected to countless other machines, each of us a microcosm. Trillions and trillions of microorganisms live on our skin and in our stomachs, mouths, intestines, and respiratory tracts while we spin through our lives in innumerable intersecting orbits, shaped and pulled by forces beyond our reckoning. We are machines of machines in machines, and all seeking homeostatic perpetuation and our lives and deaths pass through this great cycle like mosquitoes rising and falling in a puddle drying in the summer sun.  (112)

________________

We are finite and limited machines, but we are not merely machines: we are vibrating bodies of energy, condensations of stellar dust and fire, at once matter and life, extension and thought, moment and frequency. The iron in our blood, the oxygen we breathe, and the carbon of which we are composed were all created in the dying hearts of stars. We are creatures of light, and can find in our history the lineaments of photohumanism going back ancient days, a form thought more powerful than any electronic web, more profound than any merely social media. As was written in the Book of Proverbs, “The human spirit is the lamp of God, searching all the innermost parts.” (115)

Yet I would have little doubt that the survival of our humanist legacy, not as a dead archive but as a living tradition, would have required deliberate effort even absent the existential dangers posed by climate change. Much of our cultural heritage has already been disparaged by the new intelligentsia born in the late 1960’s as being little but the patriarchal reflection of “dead white men”. Our over-priced universities have already become hyper-utilitarian, a post-college course in the “great books” billed as a way to make one’s resume more interesting. The tradition, and this includes the extension of the literary tradition brought about by film, requires the kind of focus and reflection increasingly less likely in a world flooded with ever changing entertainment. For those still exposed to this depth in college and now employed in the desperate hope of paying off their college loans and creating a life, many simply do not have the time such engagement requires. In some respects we are already in a new Dark Age. 

These too are political questions and it is here where Scranton’s almost Calvinist fatalism ultimately fails us. His belief that the time when political action could have halted climate change has passed does not mean that every attempt at politics will also prove a failure. Not only do the individuals who wish to preserve the legacy of photohumanism outside of the universities have a clear project in front of them, those who believe we have been too late when it comes to action on climate change do so as well, and both projects are, thankfully, far more tractable than the other problem before us.

If those who are now proclaiming that there is no escape from our fate really do believe so then they need to start advocating and raising funds for efforts to prepare us for the end of our world. We need something like what Lewis Dartnell does for individuals in his book The Knowledge, but at the level of groups. Cohorts need to be prepared to preserve and reboot all kinds of social legacies, such as medical and agricultural knowledge and not just the beauty of human religion, literature and philosophy.

Given its relatively low costs when compared to, say, transforming our entire energy infrastructure, or reversing the inequality between advanced and developing countries,   such a project of preparing for the worst need not conflict with either Ecomodernism or those hoping for a democratic Anthropocene. Until we really can be sure which of the three Anthropocenes we have wrought the most prudent option remains some combination of the technological, the democratic, and the search for shelter.

 

Yuval Harari Drinks the Kool Aid

Like everything else in life, a book’s publication can have good or bad timing. Good timing happens when a newly published book seems just a little bit ahead of the prevailing zeitgeist, when it seems to have anticipated events or realizations almost no else seemed to be grappling with on the day of its publication, but have now burst upon the public with a sudden irresistible force.

In this authors, to the extent they are still read, or even just talked about, play the role formerly occupied by prophets or Oracles. Such authorial prophecy is  a role rapidly disappearing, to be replaced, many predict, by artificial intelligence and big data. It probably won’t matter much. Neither are very good at predicting the future anyway.

A prophetic book badly timed doesn’t mean it’s analysis is wrong, but perhaps just premature. Yuval Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow is either one or the other. It’s either badly timed and right because it’s premature, or badly timed and wrong because its analysis is deeply flawed.

For those who haven’t read the book, or as a reminder for those who have, Harari’s essential point in Homo Deus is that “Having secured unprecedented levels of prosperity, wealth and harmony, and given our past record and our current values, humanity’s next targets are likely to be immortality, happiness and divinity.” (21) Harari believes this even if he seems to doubt the wisdom of such goals, and even in light of the fact that he admits this same humanity is facing ecological catastrophe and a crisis of ever mounting inequality between, if not within, societies.

The fact that Harari could draw this conclusion regarding what humanity should do next stems from the fact that he sees liberal humanism as the only real game left in town. He sees the revanche de deus in the Middle East and elsewhere as little but a sideshow, the real future of religion is now being forged in Silicon Valley.

Liberal humanism he defines as a twofold belief which on the one side suggests human sovereignty over nature, and on the other, that the only truth, other than the hard truths of science which such humanism believes in, is the truth that emerges from within the individual herself.

It is this reliance upon the emotions welling up from the self which Harari believes will ultimately be undone by the application of the discovery of science, which Harari holds is that, at rock bottom, the individual is nothing but “algorithms”. Once artificial algorithms are perfected they will be able to know the individual better than that individual knows herself. Liberal humanism will then give way to what Harari calls “Dataism”.

Harari’s timing proved to be horribly wrong because almost the moment proclaimed the victory of Liberal humanism all of its supposedly dead rivals, on both the right (especially) and the left (which included a renewed prospect of nuclear war) seemed to spring zombie-like from the grave as if to show that word of their demise had been greatly exaggerated. Of course, all of these rivals (to mix my undead metaphors) were merely mummified versions of early 20th century collective insanities, which meant they were also forms of humanism. Whether one chose to call them illiberal humanisms or variants of in-humanism being a matter of taste, all continued to have the human as their starting point.

Yet at the same time nature herself seemed determined to put paid to the idea that any supposed transcendence of humanity over nature had occurred in the first place. The sheer insignificance of human societies in the face of storms where an “average hurricane’s wind energy equals about half of the world’s electricity production in a year. The energy it releases as it forms clouds is 200 times the world’s annual electricity use,” and “The heat energy of a fully formed hurricane is “equivalent to a 10-megaton nuclear bomb exploding every 20 minutes,”  has recently been made all too clear. The idea that we’ve achieved the god-like status of reigning supreme over nature isn’t only a fantasy, it’s proving to be an increasingly dangerous one.

That said, Harari remains a compassionate thinker. He’s no Steven Pinker brushing under the rug past and present human and animal suffering so he can make make his case that things have never been better.  Also, unlike Pinker and his fellow travelers convinced of the notion of liberal progress, Harari maintains his sense of the tragic. Sure, 21st century peoples will achieve the world humanists have dreamed of since the Renaissance, but such a victory, he predicts, will prove Pyrrhic. Such individuals freed from the fear of scarcity, emotional pain, and perhaps even death itself, will soon afterward find themselves reduced to puppets with artificial intelligence pulling the strings.

Harari has drank the Silicon Valley Kool Aid. His cup may be half empty when compared to that of other prophets of big data whose juice is pouring over the styrofoam edge, but it’s the same drink just the same.

Here’s Harrai manifesting all of his charm as a writer on this coming Dataism in all its artificial saccharine glory:

“Many of us would be happy to transfer much of our decision making processes into the hands of such a system, or at least consult with it whenever we make important choices. Google will advise us which movie to see, where to go on holiday, what to study in college, which job offer to accept, and even whom to date and marry. ‘Listen Google’, I will say ‘both John and Paul are courting me. I like both of them, but in different ways, and it’s so hard for me to make up my mind. Given everything you know, what do you advise me to do?’

And Google will answer: ‘Well, I’ve known you since the day you were born. I have read all your emails, recorded all your phone calls, and know your favorite films, your DNA and the entire biometric history of your heart. I have exact data about each date you went on, and, if you want, I can show you second-by-second graphs of your heart rate, blood pressure and sugar levels whenever you went on a date with John or Paul. If necessary, I can even provide you with an accurate mathematical ranking of every sexual encounter you had with either of them. And naturally, I know them as well as I know you. Based on all this information, on my superb algorithms, and on decade’s worth of statistics about millions of relationships- I advise you to go with John, with an 87 percent probability that you will be more satisfied with him in the long run.” (342)

Though at times in Homo Deus Harari seems  distressed by his own predictions, in the quote above he might as well be writing an advertisement for Google. Here he merely echoes the hype for the company expressed by Executive Chairman of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Eric Schmidt. It was Schmidt who gave us such descriptions of what Google’s ultimate aims were as:

We don’t need you to  type at all because we know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less guess what you’re thinking about.

And that the limits on how far into the lives of its customers the company would peer, would be “to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it”. In the pre-Snowden Silicon Valley salad days Schmidt had also dryly observed:

If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

It’s not that Harari is wrong in suggesting that entities such as Google won’t continue to use technology to get right under their customer’s skin, it’s that he takes their claims to know us better than we know ourselves, or at least be on the road to such knowledge, as something other than extremely clever PR.

My doubts about Google et al’s potential to achieve the omnipotence of Laplace’s Demon  doesn’t stem from any romantic commitment to human emotions but from the science of emotion itself. As the cognitive neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett has been vocally trying to inform a public suffused with antiquated notions about how the brain actually  works: physiologists have never been able to discover a direct correlation between a bodily state and a perceived emotion. A reported emotion, like anger, will not just manifest itself in a physiologically distinct way in two different individuals, at different times anger can physiologically manifest itself differently in the same individual.

Barrett also draws our attention to the fact that there is little evidence that particular areas of the brain are responsible for a specific emotion, implying, to my lights, that much of current FMRI scanning based on blood flows and the like may face the same fate as phrenology.

Thus the kinds of passive “biometric monitoring” Harari depicts seems unlikely to lead to an AI that can see into a person’s soul in the way he assumes, which doesn’t mean algorithmic-centric corporations won’t do their damnedest to make us think they can do just that. And many individuals probably will flatten and distort aspects of life that do not lend themselves to quantification in a quixotic quest for certainty, flattening their pocketbooks at the same time.

True believers in the “quantified self” will likely be fooled into obsessive self measurement by the success of such methods in sports along with the increasing application to them of such neo-Taylorist methods in the workplace. Yet, while perfecting one’s long-short technique, or improving at some routine task, are easily reducible to metrics, most of life, and almost all of the interesting parts about living, are not. A person who believed in his AI’s “87 percent probability” would likely think they are dealing with science when in reality they are confronting a 21st century version of the Oracle at Delphi, sadly minus the hallucinogens.

Even were we able to reach deep inside the brain to determine the wishes and needs of our “true selves”, we’d still be left with these conundrums. The decisions of an invasive AI that could override our emotions would either leave us feeling that we had surrendered our free will to become mere puppets, or would be indistinguishable from the biologically evolved emotional self we were trying to usurp. For the fact of the matter is the emotions we so often confuse with the self are nothing but the unending wave of internal contentment and desire that oscillates since the day we are born. As a good Buddhist Harari should know this. Personhood consists not in this ebb and flow, but emerges as a consequence of our commitments and life projects, and they remain real commitments and legitimate projects only to the extent we are free to break or abandon them.

Harari’s central assumption in Homo Deus, that humanity is on the verge of obtaining God like certainty and control, is, of course, a social property much more so than civilization’s longed for gift to individuals. The same kind of sovereignty he predicts individuals will gain over the contingencies of existence and their biology he believes they will collectively exercise over nature itself. Yet even collectively and at the global scale such control is an illusion.

The truth implied in the idea of the Anthropocene is not that humanity now lords over nature, but that we have reached such a scale that we have ourselves become part of nature’s force. Everything we do at scale, whatever its intention, results in unforeseen consequences we are then forced to react to and so on and so on in cycle that is now clearly inescapable. Our eternal incapacity to be self-sustaining is the surest sign that we are not God. As individuals we are inextricably entangled within societies with both entangled by nature herself. This is not a position from which either omniscience or omnipotence are in the offing.

Harari may have made his claims as a warning, giving himself the role of ironic prophet preaching not from a Levantine hillside but a California TED stage. Yet he is likely warning us about the wrong things. As we increasingly struggle with the problems generated by our entanglement, as we buckle as nature reacts, sometimes violently, to the scale of our assaults and torque, as we confront a world in which individuals and cultures are wound ever more tightly, and uncomfortably, together we might become tempted to look for saviors. One might then read Homo Deus and falsely conclude the entities of Dataism should fill such a role, not because of their benevolence, but on account of their purported knowledge and power.