Monday, August 3, 2009

Trans-Human Socialism

The Pathfinders Column from the August 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

Here’s an early notification for the ‘Perfect Body Conference’, in case you’re swinging by Linköping in Sweden between October 9 and 16 and have a consuming interest in ‘transhumanism’ issues. The blurb describes it thus: "Enhancement, paraphrased as the improvement of desired characteristics, means to apply a certain focus on abilities, capacities and quality of life. These categories can be viewed and defined from different value-driven perspectives which are based upon certain viewpoints on what constitutes “normality”’.

Thinking of giving it a miss? Well, shame, because the transhumanism debate could turn out to be one of socialism’s hottest topics, after the grubby internal politics of capitalism has been consigned to the archives. At stake is the question of what ‘human’ means, now that technology promises the potential of almost unlimited physical and intellectual enhancements, up to and including immortality. At one level, you might think, what is there to debate? Who would wheeze around in an old banger of a body if they could breeze around in a macho Maserati or a female Ferrari? Why be ein dummkopf if you could be Einstein? Why put up with breakdown illnesses and debilitating corrosion if they can be engineered away, leaving you Kwik and Fit? Why die, for heaven’s sake?

The debate is raging before the technology has even developed, which is no bad thing, and much of it mirrors current consumerist paradigms, with the libertarian ‘devil-take-the-hindmost’ transhumanists at one extreme and, glaring at them from the liberal pole, the bleeding-hearts who worry (correctly) that any future Smart Toolkit for beauty, brains and longevity will only be sold in Harrods and not in Halfords. But these are only the two most obvious and energy-lite arguments, and neither penetrate far into the complexities of the issue. Others do, however, and Wikipedia provides an invaluable and entertaining list of these, including the Playing God argument, the Gattaca argument, the Frankenstein, the Eugenics Wars and the Terminator arguments. These criticisms all form points on a gradient between outright infeasibility (the Futurehype argument) and downright undesirability (Terminator). Even supposing such things become possible, hasn’t contempt for our commodified bodies already got us into enough trouble, it is argued, and won’t the rich just use the technology to make life even more miserable for the poor and oppressed, either by speciating humanity into a neo-Nazi Brave New World or by inadvertently creating a new race of uber-human which wipes us all out?

From a socialist perspective, a debate can be said to have real ‘legs’ if it can be extended beyond the context of capitalism and still have meaning in a socialist society. From this point of view, most of these arguments presuppose capitalist hierarchical principles and would not survive into socialism. Will the technology fail to serve all humanity and instead reflect and extend today’s social divisions and class barriers? Yes, probably. What else would you expect? The smart money is on immortal elites backed up by armies of supersoldiers – another reason to get socialism soon, before our working class descendants have the capability of independent thinking bred right out of them. Meanwhile disabled people, in the face of the transhumanist ideal of ‘perfectibility’, are looking nervously back over their shoulders at the eugenics movement of the 1930s and its macabre culmination in the Nazi death-camps. For them, as for other groups historically classified as ‘Other’, ‘transhuman’ carries an extra chill undertone, like the phrase ‘defect-free’ or perhaps ‘unJewish’.

But that is today’s debate, within the context of capitalism. The fear of being marginalised and oppressed by modifications to the definition of ‘Normal’ could not conceivably be exported into a society which has abolished the class basis of oppression. Nor would people, in a society without systems of social preferment, need to be paranoid about genetically engineered social elites. Where it gets interesting is when transhumanism invites one to ask even more fundamental questions which even socialism would struggle with. What exactly is a human, and what level of enhancement, if any, ought to be considered ‘enough’?

Socialist society, let it be remembered, is inclusive in its nature, which means that people are not to be judged or excluded on the basis of how pretty, young or smart they are. But what if it embraces the technology to make everyone ‘perfect’, and if so, who decides what ‘perfect’ is, and what would this say about social and biological diversity? And what of death, that ultimate motivator and engine of evolution? Would the achievement of immortality create a socialist society of incomparable cultural and technical sophistication or, conversely, a dispiriting world of torpid, plastic-faced Barbie dolls who can’t see the point of opening a book? Would the quest for perfection ultimately allow humans to conquer the stars, or make us so niche-specific that we became unable to adapt to future environmental upheavals, thus triggering our own extinction? Even given such imponderables, could any species, no matter how intelligent, ever resist the lure of this Pandora’s Box?

When the time comes to formulate the political agenda of socialist society, transhumanism will surely be right up there, because it calls into question everything that humans think they know about being human.

Is War Past its Sell-by Date?

Socialists would be the first to agree that, since war is not in our genes, it is not inevitable, and that it is therefore possible to conceive of a society without it. New Scientist thinks so too (4 July). Indeed, they point to the context-specific nature of war among primates and prehistoric human cultures to show that war is simply one behavioural strategy adopted under certain environmental or social conditions. In fact, they argue, “warfare is on the wane worldwide” due to better social conditions, so that most wars now are small-scale insurgencies: ‘the remnants of war’. Passing quickly over the question whether 4 million deaths in the Congo, for example, can be described as ‘small-scale’, we further learn that individual violence also follows the trend. According to Steven Pinker “Homicide rates in modern Europe, for example, are more than 10 times lower than they were in the Middle Ages” (although one wonders how Pinker can confidently assert this, in the absence of comprehensive records from Ye medieval Olde Bille).

And so we are brought to the inevitable Big Question: could capitalism abolish war? At this point New Scientist finally reins in the optimism and offers some caveats:

“Major obstacles to peace include the lack of tolerance inherent in religious fundamentalism, which not only triggers conflicts but often contributes to the suppression of women; global warming, which will produce ecological crises that may spark social unrest and violence; overpopulation, particularly when it produces a surplus of unmarried, unemployed young men, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”

From a socialist perspective, they’ve left out the biggest obstacle of all, the war-engendering nature of property-owning capitalism itself. This omission seems all the more mysterious given their opening premise: that all the available evidence suggests that agriculture and land-ownership were responsible for warfare in the first place. Could it be that they are shirking the historical materialist conclusion that is staring them in the face, because the implication is too uncomfortable? Well, it wouldn’t be the first time.

Or perhaps it’s naïve to expect scientists always to be scientific. One Harvard researcher offers the quaint idea that “since women are less prone to violence then men” their promotion into government ought to reduce the likelihood of future wars. You don’t need a Harvard degree to smell the logical rat there.

Paddy Shannon