James Hughes ...Democratic transhumanists, pro-technology/pro-science social democrats or Left technoutopians, are a conspicuously absent niche that begs to be filled in this new political landscape…
James Hughes, April 28, 2002
James Hughes Ph.D.
Public Policy Studies
71 Vernon St.
Hartford, CT 06106
Prepared for the Yale Working Research Group on Artificial Intelligence, Nanotechnology, and Transhumanism
Version 2.0, April 16, 2002
Biopolitics is emerging as an axis of modern politics alongside economic politics and cultural politics. Democratic transhumanists, pro-technology/pro-science social democrats or Left technoutopians, are a conspicuously absent niche that begs to be filled in this new political landscape. Democratic transhumanism stems from the assertion that human beings will generally be happier when they take rational control of the natural and social forces that control their lives. Faith in science and democracy was more closely linked in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and technoutopian radicals dominated its shadow, the romantic Left Luddites. Since World War Two however Luddism has superceded technooptimism on the Left, while libertarians have become the leading champions of technology. Luddism has also risen to ascendence in Western bioethics, which has a professional interest in fear-mongering about new technologies. President Bush's new Bioethics Commission and the struggle over embryo use in research makes clear the increasingly important role that bioethicists will play in the emerging biopolitics.
Next I argue for why democrats should embrace science, technology and transhumanism: (1) left Luddism inappropriately equates technologies with the power relations around those technologies; democratic technology policy requires an acknowledgement of the potential benefits of technology, not simply a futile effort to slow all technological innovation. (2) Technology can help us transcend some of the fundamental causes of inequalities of power. (3) Left Luddism is boring and depressing; it has no energy to inspire movements to create a new and better society.
Then I argue that the (largely) libertarian transhumanists should engage with democracy: (1) state action is required to address catastrophic threats from transhumanist technologies, (2) only believable and effective state-based policies to prevent catastrophic consequences from new technologies will reassure skittish publics that they do not have to be banned, (3) social policies must explicitly address public concerns that biotechnology will exacerbate social inequality, (4) monopolistic practices and overly restrictive intellectual property law can seriously delay the development of transhuman technologies, and restrict their access, (5) only alliances with other cultural and biological minorities, and a strong liberal democratic society and state can ensure that posthumans are not persecuted, and (6) libertarian transhumanists are inconsistent in arguing for the free market on the grounds of its evolved "naturalness" when transhumanists are champions of the artificial.
Finally, I present a eleven-point
program for democratic transhumanists: (1) Build the transhumanist movement,
(2) Guarantee morphological freedom and bodily autonomy, (3) Defend scientific
research from Luddite bans, while embracing legitimate safety and efficacy regulations,
(4) Protect scientific access to knowledge from overly aggressive intellectual
property law, (5) Expand federal funding for research into transhuman technologies,
(6) Create national health plans which include transhuman tech, (7) Expand federal
support to education, (8) Provide job retraining and an income to the structurally
unemployed, (9) Solidarize with sexual, cultural, and racial minorities, especially
with morphological minorities such as the disabled and transgendered, (10) Support
rights for Great Apes, dolphins and whales, (11) Strengthen world government.
By J. Hughes
Politics of the 21st Century
Political movements in the industrialized world in the 20th century have been defined by two broad axes, economic politics and cultural politics. Economic conservatives are generally opposed to the social welfare state, trade unions, taxation, business regulation and economic redistribution, while economic progressives generally favor all these measures. Cultural conservatives are generally nationalists, ethnic chauvinists or racists, religious conservatives, and opponents of women's equality, sexual freedom and civil liberties, while cultural progressives are secular, educated and cosmopolitan, and supporters of minority rights. Being situated along one of these dimensions predicted well one's positions on a variety of other issues on that dimension, but did not predict well one's position on the other axis. The issues within each axis had developed an ideological consistency that held them together.
In Table One below, movements and
parties can be parsed into one corner or another of the terrain, or the many
points in between.
The emergence of biotechnological controversies, however, is giving rise to a new axis, not entirely orthogonal to the previous dimensions but certainly distinct and independent of them. I phrase this new axis biopolitics, and the ends of its spectrum are transhumanists (the progressives) and, at the other end, the bio-Luddites or bio-fundamentalists. Transhumanists welcome the new biotechnologies, and the choices and challenges they offer, believing the benefits can outweigh the costs. In particular, they believe that human beings can and should take control of their own biological destiny, individually and collectively enhancing our abilities and expanding the diversity of intelligent life. Bio-fundamentalists, however, reject genetic choice technologies and "designer babies," "unnatural" extensions of the life span, genetically modified animals and food, and other forms of hubristic violations of the natural order.
The biopolitical spectrum is still emerging, starting first among intellectuals and activists. Self-described "transhumanists" and "Luddites" are the most advanced and self-conscious of an emerging wave of the public's ideological crystallization. We are at the same place in the crystallization of biopolitics as left-right economic politics was when Marx helped found the International Workingmen's Association in 1864, or when the Fabian Society was founded in England in 1884: intellectuals and activists struggling to make explicit the battle lines that are already emerging, before popular parties have been organized and masses rallied to their banners.
The new biopolitics will not supplant the older political axes, but rather will add another dimension of complexity to contemporary politics. As in Figure 2 below, we will find biopolitical alliances that crosscut all of our previous alliances, and various amalgams of biopolitics with economic and cultural conservatism.
A peculiarity of current biopolitics however is that while bio-conservatives have formed alliances from right to left to oppose cloning, stem cell research, genemod food, and other biotech innovations, until very recently the majority of transhumanists have been libertarians. As a consequence, issues of equality and solidarity get scant attention from defenders of biotechnological choice and progress. This essay is an attempt to address that gap, and to argue for a "democratic transhumanism." Democratic transhumanism is more than a missing permutation of political ideas, but also the natural extension of the ideas of the Enlightenment, and the rationalist and radical democratic tradition it birthed.
Democratic transhumanism stems from the assertion that human beings will generally be happier when they take rational control of the natural and social forces that control their lives. This fundamental humanistic assertion has led to two intertwined sets of Enlightenment values: the democratic tradition with its values of liberty, equality, solidarity and collective self-governance, and to the belief in reason and scientific progress, that human beings can use reason and technology to improve the conditions of life.
Within the democratic tradition there are many variants emphasizing various combinations and interpretations of liberty, equality and solidarity. The new Right represents the most minimal interpretation of the democratic mandate, rejecting any extension of liberty, equality or solidaristic social policies. The libertarian tradition seeks to expand personal and economic liberty, but to the exclusion of social policies to ameliorate inequality or democratize economic power.
The fullest interpretation of the democratic ideals of liberty, equality and solidarity is found in the social democratic tradition. As Amartya Sen has ably argued, true freedom for real people (as opposed to abstract Lockeian free men) requires access to health care, universal education, and the amelioration of social inequality. Social democracy pursues economic equality, the democratic control of economic forces, and solidaristic social policies, as well as personal and civil liberties and minority rights. The struggle for the most radical interpretation of democracy, of a deepening of liberty, equality and solidarity, is expressed in modern social democracy.
Technoutopianism and the Left
The other strain of the Enlightenment, the belief in science, reason and human progress, has been a natural complement at the philosophical level to the democratic tradition. Science and democracy are the right and left hands of what Marx called the move from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom. The advances in science helped delegitimate the rule of kings and the power of the church.
Nineteenth century socialists, feminists and democrats were therefore also generally champions of reason and science. Technoutopianism, atheism, and scientific rationalism have been associated with the democratic, revolutionary and utopian left for most of the last two hundred years. Radicals like Joseph Priestley pursued scientific investigation while championing democracy and freedom from religious tyranny. Robert Owens, Fourier and Saint-Simon in the early nineteenth century inspired communalists with their visions of a future scientific and technological evolution of humanity using reason as its religion. The Oneida community, America's longest-lived nineteenth century "communist" group, practiced extensive eugenic engineering through arranged breeding. Radicals seized on Darwinian evolution to validate the idea of social progress. Bellamy's socialist utopia in Looking Backward, which inspired hundreds of socialist clubs in the late nineteenth century U.S. and a national political party, was as highly technological as Bellamy's imagination. For Bellamy and the Fabian Socialists, socialism was to be brought about as a painless corollary of industrial development.
Marx and Engels saw more pain and conflict involved, but agreed about the inevitable end. Marxists argued that the advance of technology laid the groundwork not only for the creation of a new society, with different property relations, but also for the emergence of new human beings reconnected to nature and themselves. At the top of the agenda for empowered proletarians was "to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible." The nineteenth and twentieth century Left, from social democrats to Communists, were focused on industrialization, economic development and the promotion of science, reason and the idea of progress.
The Estrangement of Technology and the Left
So why did these two strains of thought become estranged in the late 20th century? Why are so many contemporary social democrats, feminists, and Greens suspicious and hostile to biotechnologies, computers and science in general? The answer probably starts with the left-romantic traditions that grew up in reaction to modern technology. William Morris' pastoralist visions of a deindustrialized socialism, Luddite machine-wrecking by the proto-worker's movement, and absorption into pseudo-science, spiritualism and back-to-land communalism by bohemian radicals were all reactions to capitalism. The romantics and Luddites associated technology with capitalism, and thought that they could create a healthier, more egalitarian society only by fighting the new technologies. In fact, in the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels specifically warns against clerical, aristocratic and petit-bourgeois socialists who advance pastoralism and pre-industrial production as the cure to social ills.
But it wasn't until World War Two that the generally tight association of the Left with science, technology and reason began to be superceded by the romantic tradition. Left interest in re-engineering the nature of Man was silenced by Nazi eugenics. The gas chambers revealed that modern technology could be used by a modern state for horrific uses, and the atomic bomb posed a permanent technological threat to humanity's existence. The ecological movement suggested that industrial activity was threatening all life on the planet, while the anti-nuclear power movement inspired calls for renunciation of specific types of technology altogether. The counter-culture attacked positivism, and lauded pre-industrial ways of life. While the progressives and New Dealers had built the welfare state to be a tool of reason and social justice, the New Left joined cultural conservatives and free-market libertarians in attacking it as a stultifying tool of oppression, contributing to the general decline in faith in democratic governments.
Intellectual trends such as deconstruction began to cast doubt on the "master narratives" of political and scientific progress, while cultural relativism eroded progressives' faith that industrialized secular liberal democracies were in fact superior to pre-industrial and Third World societies. As the Left gave up on the idea of a sexy, high-tech vision of a radically democratic future, libertarians became associated with technological progress. Techno-enthusiasm on the Left was supplanted by pervasive Luddite suspicion about the products of the corporate consumerist machine. Celebrating technology was something GE and IBM did in TV ads to cover up their complicity in napalming babies. Activists fight the machine.
Bioethics, Technology and Democratic Values
During this period, philosophers and theologians began to address themselves to emerging ethical issues in medicine and biological research, giving birth to the field of bioethics. Although many of the early participants in the field were motivated by theology, the field quickly adopted a set of secular, liberal democratic values and principles as their basic consensual starting place. Most notably, Beauchamp and Childress have argued for the now broadly popular core bioethical principles of autonomy, justice and beneficence, which are direct corollaries of liberty, equality and solidarity.
In the seventies, countering the pervasive hysteria about in vitro fertilization and genetic engineering, and the theological warnings about playing God, there were occasional secular humanist voices such as John Fletcher who argued that humans have a right to control their own genetics. But the focus of most bioethicists' attention was on protecting patients from unethical scientific research and overly aggressive applications of end-of-life care, protecting the public from science and technology rather than securing their rights to it. As bioethics matured it became clear that professional bioethicists gained far more traction by exacerbating the public's Luddite anxieties than by assuaging them. If cloning is really just the creation of delayed twins, and not a profound threat to everything we hold dear, who is going to fund bioethics conferences to address it, and empower bioethicists to forbid scientific research into cloning?
Today most bioethicists, informed by and contributing to the growing Luddite orientation in left-leaning arts and humanities faculties, start from the assumption that new biotechnologies are being developed in unethical ways by a rapacious medical-industrial complex, and will have myriad unpleasant consequences for society, especially for women and the powerless. Rather than emphasizing the liberty and autonomy of individuals who may want to adopt new technologies, or arguing for increased equitable access to new biotechnologies, balancing attention to the "right from" technology with attention to the "right to" technology, most bioethicists see it as their responsibility to slow the adoption of biotechnology altogether.
Bioethics is proto-biopolitics. As public debate and biopolitical ideologies crystallize and polarize, bioethicists will increasingly be revealed as partisan activists rather than experts applying universally accepted ethical principles. In fact, the mask has already seriously slipped. While President Clinton's Presidential Bioethics Commissison was broadly representative of academic bioethics, the political design of President Bush's Bioethics Commission is quite naked. Bush chose Leon Kass as Grand Vizier of his committee, a man who is opposed to every intervention into human reproduction from in vitro fertilization to reproductive cloning, capping the ascendance of Luddism in bioethics. Kass in turn stacked the committee with both conservative bioethicists, such as Mary Ann Glendon and Gilbert Meilander, and conservatives with little or no connection to academic bioethics, such as Francis Fukuyama and Charles Krauthammer. The current campaign of the Bush administration and Kass' committee is to criminalize the use of embryos and embryo cloning in research.
Although the backbone of opposition
to stem cell research using embryos research comes from the right-to-life movement,
the Christian Right has been joined by the Left bio-Luddites. Jeremy Rifkin,
long a gadfly organizing left-right coalitions to oppose gene patenting, cloning
and surrogate motherhood, distributed a petition in March which was signed by
more than a hundred prominent bioethicists and progressive activists implicitly
endorsing the Republican-backed Brownback legislation in Congress to criminalize
medical research using embryos. Fortunately, the coalition in support of embryo
cloning research quickly contacted many of the signers and discovered they had
no idea that they had endorsed the criminalization of medical research. Now
pro- and anti-embryo cloning petitions for progressives and conservatives have
proliferated, making clear both that biopolitics is orthogonal to the pre-existing
political landscape, and that bioethics is increasingly a political, not merely
Why Democrats Should Embrace Transhumanism
Luddism is a political dead-end for progressive politics. Progressives must revive the techno-optimist tradition if they want to achieve the goals of furthering liberty, equality and solidarity.
First, left Luddism inappropriately equates technologies with the power relations around those technologies. Technologies do not determine power relations, they merely create new terrains for organizing and struggle. Most new technologies open up new possibilities for both expanded liberty and equality, just as they open new opportunities for oppression and exploitation. Since the technologies will most likely not be stopped, democrats need to engage with them, articulate policies that maximize social benefits from the technologies, and find liberatory uses for the technologies. If biotechnology is to be rejected simply because it is a product of capitalism, adopted in class society, then every technology must be rejected. The mission of the Left is to assert democratic control and priorities over the development and implementation of technology. But establishing democratic control over technological innovation is not the same as Luddism. In fact, to the extent that advocates for the democratic control of technology do not guarantee benefits from technology, and attempt to suppress technology altogether, they will lose public support.
Second, technology can help us transcend some of the fundamental causes of inequalities of power. Although we will never eliminate inequalities of intelligence and knowledge, the day is not far off when all humans can be guaranteed sufficient intelligence to function as active citizens. One of the most important progressive demands will be to ensure universal access to genetic choice technologies which permit parents to guarantee their children biological capacities equal to those of other children. Technologically assisted birth, eventually involving artificial wombs, will free women from being necessary, vulnerable vessels for the next generation. Morphological freedom, the ability to change one's body, including one's abilities, weight, gender and racial characteristics, will reduce body-based oppressions (disability, fat, gender and race) to aesthetic prejudices.
Third, Left Luddism is boring and depressing; it has no energy to inspire movements to create a new and better society. The Left was built by people inspired by millennial visions, not by people who saw a hopeless future of futile existential protest. Most people do not want to live in a future without telecommunications, labor-saving devices, air travel and medicine. The Next Left needs to rediscover its utopian imagination if it is to renew itself, reconnect with the popular imagination, and remain relevant. The Next Left needs visionary projects worthy of a united transhuman world, such as guaranteeing health and longevity for all, eliminating work, and colonizing the Solar System.
Why Transhumanists Should Embrace Democratic Values
What reasons can we mobilize to convince generally libertarian transhumanists to embrace egalitarianism, majority rule and the social welfare state? The best argument would be a proof that social democracy maximizes social welfare better than the chimerical unfettered free-market. But this is also the most difficult argument, since it weighs actual existing states against as yet unobserved perfect markets. Of course, the democratic Left is not immune to this style of argument either, pitting actual existing capitalisms against idealized democratic socialisms. Unfortunately, when both sides restrict themselves to empirical comparisons of states and social policies there are too many mitigating circumstances to come to many conclusions other than that the complete elimination of markets or of states do not generally work very well. Political convictions are largely a matter of faith.
What then of arguments from within the transhumanist worldview?
First, state action is required to address catastrophic threats from transhumanist technologies. Most transhumanists acknowledge that nanotechnology, genetic engineering and artificial intelligence could cause catastrophes if used for terrorist or military purposes, or accidentally allowed to reproduce in the wild. Contemplation of these catastrophic scenarios has led prominent transhumanists, such as Max More the founder and president of the Extropy Institute, to move away from libertarianism and to endorse prophylactic government policies. Requiring nanotechnology firms to take out insurance against the accidental destruction of the biosphere just isn't very practical. What insurance policy covers accidental destruction of the biosphere? How could the externalities of bioterrorism be internalized into a cost accounting of a gene therapy firm? Only governments are in a position to create the necessary levels of prophylaxis, and most transhumanists can agree on this point.
Second, only believable and effective state-based policies to prevent adverse consequences from new technologies will reassure skittish publics that they do not have to be banned. Because of the weakness of social democracy in the U.S., current technology policy is dominated by ignorant hysteria on one side and greed on the other, politicians feeding off of populist Luddite hysteria and corporate anti-regulatory lobbyists. Publics must be offered a choice other than that of unfettered free-market technology versus bans. If transhumanists do not acknowledge the legitimacy of regulation, and attempt to craft and support responsible legislation, they cede the field to the Luddites. These choices require strong social democratic governments, such as those of Europe, that can act independent of corporate interests and vocal extremists. We need a strong social democratic regulatory apparatus that does not block transhuman technologies for Luddite reasons, but that also will ensure that transhuman technologies are safe and effective. The case of cryonics shows how spectacular frauds or iatrogenic disasters can set back acceptance of transhuman technology altogether. Human enhancements must be proven safe before being used, but not held hostage to vague Luddite anxieties.
Third, social policies must explicitly address public concerns that biotechnology will exacerbate social inequality. Libertarian transhumanists have a forceful answer to the challenge that biotechnology will be used for totalitarian applications: in a liberal society, each individual will choose for themselves whether to adopt the technologies. But what is their answer to the threat of growing class polarization? Biotechnologies will make it possible for the wealthy to have healthier, stronger, more intelligent and longer-lived children. Overcoming popular resistance to technology will require not only assuring publics that they are safe and will not be forced on anyone, but also that there will be universal, equitable access to their benefits through public financing. In other words, genetic choice and enhancement technologies must be included in a national health insurance program.
Nanotechnology and artificial intelligence
will also exacerbate inequality by contributing to structural unemployment through
automation. Work will be increasingly unnecessary in the 21st century. If techno-optimists
do not work to ameliorate structural unemployment through expansions in the
welfare state, job retraining, establishing a shorter work-week and work-life,
and a guaranteed social income, then we are likely to see the return of old-school
Luddism, machine-smashing by the unemployed.
Fourth, monopolistic practices and overly restrictive intellectual property law can seriously delay the development of transhuman technologies, and restrict their access. Applications of intellectual property law that are over-generous to corporations may restrict access to information and tools in ways that slow innovation. By engaging with law and public policy, transhumanists can protect the public commons in biomedical information essential to the advance of science.
Fifth, only a strong liberal democratic state can ensure that posthumans are not persecuted. The posthuman future will be as threatening to unenhanced humans as gay rights or women's liberation have been to patriarchs and homophobes, or immigrant rights are to nativists. While libertarian transhumanists may imagine that they will be able to protect themselves if they are well-armed and have superior reflexes, they will be severely outnumbered. Nor is civil war an attractive outcome. Rather transhumanists must understand their continuity with the civil rights movements of the past and work to build coalitions with sexual, cultural, racial and religious minorities to protect liberal democracy. We need a strong democratic state that protects the right of avantgarde minorities to innovate and experiment with their own bodies and minds.
Transhumanists must also come to
some terms with congenial wings of the animal rights movement since, like animal
rights, transhumanism is opposed to anthropocentrism. But rather than rights
for all life, transhumanist ethics seeks to establish the solidarity of and
citizenship for all intelligent life. Transhumanists look forward to a society
in which humans, post-humans and intelligent non-humans are all citizens of
the polity. Consistent with this would be the demands of the Great Ape Project
for an extension of human level protections to the great apes.
Sixth, libertarian transhumanists are inconsistent in arguing for the free market. The dominant argument for the free market on the part of libertarian transhumanists comes from Hayek: that the market is a naturally evolved, emergent phenomenon without conscious guidance, which allocates resources better than planning. But the goal of transhumanism is precisely to supplant the natural with the planned, replacing chance with design. The key to transhumanism is faith in reason, not in nature.
In any case, the assertion that the
market s naturally evolved while governance structures and polities are artificial
impositions on nature is bad sociology. All functioning markets require norms,
rules, laws, legislatures, police, courts and planning. All democratic polities
require the action of millions of autonomous agents aggregating their interests,
expressing themselves in voluntary behavior, and creating an emergent political
system. The market is not any more natural than democracy, even if being "natural"
was a transhumanist virtue.
A Democratic Transhumanist Agenda
Every manifesto needs a ten, or in this case eleven, point program. Here is my program for democratic transhumanist activism.
Let the ruling classes and Luddites tremble at a democratic transhumanist revolution. Would-be androids and cyborgs you have nothing to lose but your human bodies, and longer lives and bigger brains to win!
Transhumans of all countries, unite!