Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Monday, February 26, 2007

Is It Naive to Side With Democracy?

A friend worries that my support of the politics of consent over the politics of imposing general standards may make me hopelessly utopian. He analogizes my position to that of someone who might say, "I want to create a world where there is no homophobia so that we don't have to ban biotechnologies that could be used in a homophobic manner." To such a sentiment he proposes the intervention: [S]ince it is impossible to create such a world, isn't it more pragmatic to ban some potentially homophobic uses of technologies?"

Now, while I agree that it is naive to fantasize that one will altogether eliminate racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and so on, I do think it is far from utopian to prefer democratic to authoritarian responses to these pernicious attitudes. But given this, it seems rather foolish to me to attempt to ban technologies to circumvent anti-democratic uses. Rather, one charts anti-democratic attitudes as they articulate actually existing developmental trajectories, and then one struggles with one's fellow citizens to resist anti-democratic outcomes while encouraging democratic ones.

To focus in on the specific example of homophobia my interlocutor mentions, it seems to me, frankly, that hostility to biotechnology often functions as a stealthy surrogate discourse for homophobia -- note the hysterical worries about nontraditional reproduction, the highlighting of the threat to traditional roles, the endless citation of an imperiled "dignity" that amounts to incumbent privileges threatened by "difference," all of which recur in bioconservative discourses in this vein (even sometimes superficially "progressive" bioconservatisms that have the nerve to pretend to champion the rights of nicely assimilationist gay people) and so on. In short, bioconservative discourse regularly seems to me to function unambiguously as anti-queer discourse (see my blog-posts "Chimera," "Technology Is Making Queers of Us All," "Bigotry's New Frontier," among others).

Personally, I am content to struggle to expose homophobia in developmental discourse where it occurs (as certainly it does), to document and resist specific homophobic developmental policy prescriptions as anti-democratic, to engage generally in a multicultural politics supporting diversity and insisting on the self-defeating irrationality of stigmatizing phobias, and otherwise working to ensure that those who remain phobic privatize their parochial attitudes and pay the price of constrained horizons for their intolerance. Beyond that, I fear, one risks an authoritarian policing of differences with which one disagrees, where what is wanted and all that is needed is democratic contestation and the ongoing nonviolent reconciliation of dissensus among peers.

Otherwise, it seems to me that the interests of marginal minorities whose vulnerability and the terms of whose exploitation is variously threatened and exacerbated by particular technodevelopmental outcomes are more to struggle to take up the new powers arriving on the scene and to turn them opportunistically to our own uses in the name of democracy, rather than to struggle quixotically to ban technologies that always inevitably have both good and bad applications, all from fear of the bad ones. Relinquishment seems to me to be a strategy of self-marginalization, a strategy that provokes the hostility of those who desire the actually empowering applications inhering in technodevelopments while simultaneously displacing development onto unscrupulous actors (in places that will ignore bans of popular and profitable developments come what may) likely to be all the more indifferent to the concerns of the Prohibitionists in the first place and hence likely to encourage worst case outcomes even from their own perspectives.

Look, I am the farthest thing in the world from a facile technophile expecting technology to "enlighten humanity" of its own accord or to facilitate emancipatory outcomes through the "natural" crystallization of some kind of "spontaneous order." But there is no getting around it, I do side with democracy rather than aristocracy where these are the alternatives on hand. If the point of this objection is to accuse me of silly idealism for the choice of democratic over elitist politics, then I accept it happily and note that my critic has taken sides as well as an apologist for elitism. (Don't worry, there is of course an ongoing amnesty for gadflies like my friend who take on positions of devil's advocacy to usefully interrogate assumptions and clarify formulations!)

And, of course, once one has taken sides in this larger, older, deeper struggle of aristocracy against democracy, certainly it remains true that there are more and less realistic ways of going about struggling experimentally and responsibly to implement that ideal in the vicissitudes of history.

But I don't think hysterical and futile calls for blanket bans of complex technoscientific developments -- which are almost always, after all, susceptible of both emancipatory and exploitative applications -- is a particularly practical or realistic strategy in general.

Given the breathtaking breadth and deranging depth of ongoing and palpably upcoming technodevelopmental churn confronting us all, it is easy to understand the allure of such Prohibitionist calls from time to time. But it simply seems to me that democracy must do better than that.

Today's Random Wilde

In every first novel the hero is the author as Christ or Faust.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Technodevelopment in an Age of Consent

I have often chastised so-called "futurist" discourses for a "libertopian" tendency. I have noted an apparently irresistible enthrallment among technocentric thinkers with the metaphor of "spontaneous order" that seems to nudge even the temperamentally left-leaning members of the self-appointed futurological congress to talk about technodevelopmental social struggle in terms that bolster neoliberal "free trade" dogmas, that model technodevelopmental deliberation as a matter primarily of consumer choice, that conceive of the ongoing nonviolent democratic reconciliation of dissensus as a barrier to rather than an expression of desired technodevelopmental social outcomes, and so on.

But do I fall prey to this tendency myself when I foreground the value of consent over the value of formulating and applying universal standards where matters of genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modification are concerned? That is to say, do I become in my championing of a civil libertarian consensual prosthetic self-determination a kind of libertopian myself?

Because, make no mistake about it, I really do have a rather civil libertarian outlook on questions of modification medicine. There are key caveats and qualifications and exceptions and regulations and safeguards to think of, but once we chisel down to basic principles I really do tend to think individuals know what is wanted and best for themselves, and I really do tend to think parents and legal guardians know what is best for their children and wards.

I certainly understand that these consensual self-determinations and decisions on behalf of children and wards do, in the aggregate, generate wider public effects. But, again, on the whole, I am inclined to the view that decisions arising out of the scene of informed, nonduressed consent conduce better in general to the public good than do decisions arising out of universalizing mandates imposed by authorities. Hence, I think that the focus of a progressive bioethics (as for progressive technoethics more generally) should be to bolster the scene of informed, nonduressed consent, rather than, say, to promulgate and enforce some stringent set of abstract standards as universally as possible.

I can easily see how my civil libertarian attitude in these matters might be accused of re-staging the fantasy of the benign, optimizing "invisible hand" in the face of the real quandaries of modification medicine (for example, the many variations on the fear that either malign elites or facile popular fashions will foist on us an anti-social army of sooperbabies). In trusting relatively informed, nonduressed citizens to make comparably responsible medical decisions, I might seem to be preaching yet another of the interminable sermons of the gospel of self-regulating free markets. After all of my endless railing about the need to invigorate the public sphere, to implement deliberative developmental modes, to rid ourselves of the false idols of "naturalized" protocols of exchange that preferentially benefit elites in the name of "free trade," and to democratize technodevelopmental social struggle has it really come to this: When push comes to shove, confronted with a real technodevelopmental quandary, have I turned libertopian at the first opportunity?

The short answer is, most certainly not.

It is true that I see little point in indulging the philosophical predisposition to construct a castle of formally universal abstractions claiming to insulate us in advance from all the depredations arising out of human frailty. This seems an enterprise which that very human frailty, conjoined to the contingencies of history, dooms to failure in any case. Further, it seems to me that philosophical prescription in its popular policing moods has acquired a well-deserved disrepute among democratic citizens at this point, and that there is little point in pushing it or pretending otherwise. And so, it is quite right to notice that I have no axioms on offer from which one can comfortably deduce that fairness or responsibility or diversity will prevail in the throes of technodevelopmental social struggle against elite interests, short-term greed, faddish markets, and so on, edifying though it might be to have some reassuring Iron Laws at my disposal.

Rather than advocate conceptual bulwarks against "shallow opinion" or "fickle masses" or "selfish elites" as decisional frameworks mischievously abroad in the land, I simply insist instead on the substantiation of the scene of informed, nonduressed consent through a politics of radical and social democracy. To brutally oversimplify for the bumper sticker set, mine is a politics of a2k + p2p + BIG: The fight for free expression, public domain, fair use, transparent authorities (government, corporate, academic), peer-to-peer formations, access to knowledge, conjoined to the fight for a universal basic income guarantee, universal basic healthcare, lifelong education, therapy, and retraining. My assumption in all this is nothing more sophisticated than the idea that democratization is better than elite authorization as a way to facilitate progressive outcomes in general. This commitment seems to me to re-stage the oldest most basic conflict there is: democracy versus aristocracy.

To mistake the commitment to democracy as an apology for incumbent interests seems to me either to represent as basic a misunderstanding of the stakes of democracy against aristocracy as can be imagined, or to represent an indulgence in cynical misrepresentation, a mobilization of popular distrust of elites perversely in the service of anti-democratic politics. It is no surprise to find bioconservatives caught up in such confusions and indulging in such dishonesties.

Since I insist not on the supremacy of "choice" (as technophiliacs so often seem to do: substituting for the vertiginous freedom of democratic contestation the domesticated "selection" of options on a menu provided by elites and inertia), but on the scene of informed, nonduressed consent and decision, and since I insist that consent, properly so-called must be substantiated by social supports that insulate decisions from duress as well as by access to reliable knowledges that enable decisions to be informed my view looks far more like democratic socialism than a genuflection to neoliberal market fundamentalist pieties.

Now, it is all very well to propose that the scene of consent must be informed and nonduressed, of course, but it matters enormously that only extraordinarily privileged people can regularly affirm that such terms obtain in their own decisional circumstances for now. One doesn't want, in the face of the complexities of the relative knowledgeability and relative duress of the scene of consent as it actually exists to throw up one hands in "despair" and extol a generalized attitude of "access" or, what comes to the same thing, of "let[ting] the market decide"; but neither does one want to add insult to injury by dismissing or denigrating or patronizingly bypassing such autonomy and consent as people manage on their own terms. To say, as I do, that the radical and social democratic politics of access to knowledge and universal social welfare are prior to the politics of consensual prosthetic self-determination is to recognize the terms on which that consent depends, to the extent that the scene of consent is legible and legitimate as such. But this cannot be to demand that we must arrive first at true political and economic democracy before we embark safely on the project to democratize technodevelopment and consensualize our prostheses -- since these two progressive projects are interimplicated.

Rather, I think it is the business of democratic governance to protect people from scenes of compromised consent offered up as if they were whole, scenes of decision rendered illegible and illegitimate through misinformation or duress. This is not in the least, I venture to add, the same thing as "protecting" people from deciding things with which elites disagree nor patronizingly insulating finite people from the non-catastrophic costs that readily eventuate from bad decisions. This is a progressive commitment substantiated on the ground

[one] by political campaigns for, among other things, transparency for authoritative institutions (states, corporations, universities), access to knowledge (anti-state secrecy, anti-proprietary secrets, anti-copyright extension stealthed as IP "harmonization," pro-FOIA, pro-fair use, pro-subsidized p2p-FlOSS, etc.), fair trade and general welfare (strong social democratic welfare politics: protection and encouragement of collective organizing and public expression, universal basic healthcare, lifelong education and training, basic guaranteed income), and so on;

[two] by foregrounding concerns with the scene of consent and its compromise in progressive rhetorics, especially in matters of technodevelopmental social struggle, demanding a greater sensitivity in questions of regulation, of access, of the distribution of technodevelopmental costs, risks, and benefits here and now to fraud, corruption, and to the impact of uneven distributions of information, authority, wealth, and so on;

and [three] by actually retroactively compensating the vulnerable, the misinformed, the precariat for unduly risky circumstances and unduly costly outcomes arising out of scenes of consent and decision compromised in fact by misinformation, by fraud, by hype, by blackmail, by monetary or physical duress, and so on.

Probably it is something like the [third] commitment that would end up cashing out in safer, fairer, more democratic, more diverse technodevelopmental outcomes more than the [first] and [second].

But I will say that in the absence of commitments to the realism of versions of [two] and [three] it is hard to find occasional protestations to belief in utopian ideals (however desirable and eventually achievable they may be) of the kind registered in [one] to be much more than empty, feel-good rituals for pampered incumbent interests. Genuflections of this kind often provide the opening and closing frames for what amounts more generally to a complacent cataloging and celebration of techno-wonders in our midst and in the pipeline, and endless reiteration in this vein with nary a registration of a failed prediction, a costly outcome, an unfair impact, a need for restitution, oversight, or democratic deliberation fails to provide much in the way of reassurance for long that one is on the side of democracy when all is said and done.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Mike Davis Surveys the (Ob)Scene

Mike Davis has provided -- just as one would expect him to do -- one of the most trenchant, straightforward, well-substantiated analyses of the post-election field of US partisan politics I have read so far.

He debunks spin on all sides, and surveys the opportunities and awful vulnerabilities in play for radical and social democratic politics on a number of key fronts: [1] the unspeakable debacle of US imperial wartime, especially in the Middle East and in Africa, [2] the deep ongoing structural inducements to anti-democratizing corruption, the deepening criminal fiscal irresponsibility of indebtedness (a catastrophic tax on future freedoms perversely championed by cynical greedy elites as "tax cuts"), [3] the outright obscenity of real indifference to the fate of New Orleans and the general indifference to the needless suffering of the swelling Precariat symptomized and metaphorized so clearly by the realities of New Orleans, [4] the ambivalent political force of competing populisms in a deeply racist society, among insulated elites, alienated marginal subcultures, and in the face of ongoing unprecedentedly disruptive technodevelopmental struggles articulated by the brutal imperatives of neoliberal corporate-military competivieness.

Everybody should read it, and here is a taste of his incisive and troubling discussion of the War (confirming all of my own darkest suspicions on this score), as, I hope, an inducement for folks to click the link.
[T]he Democratic leadership—the Black Caucus and a few notable progressives aside—has exploited domestic resentment against Bush policies in Iraq to consolidate, not debunk, the underlying Washington consensus about the War on Terrorism. Whereas a national anti-war movement would presumably have linked the apocalypse in Iraq with looming catastrophe in Afghanistan and a new regional war in the Horn of Africa, the Democratic platform, in contrast, reaffirmed commitment to the war against Islamists as part of a larger programme of expanding, not reducing, global counter-insurgency. ‘Bring the troops home now’ was not a Democratic plank, but doubling the size of the Special Forces ‘to destroy terrorist networks’ and increasing spending on homeland anti-terrorism are centrepieces of the Democrats’ ‘New Direction for America’ (a collection of sound bites and slogans that offers a pale shadow to Gingrich’s robust 1994 ‘Contract with America’).

The Democratic leadership likewise has deliberately avoided a debate on the constitutional implications of the Patriot Act; not a single prominent Democrat has proposed the straightforward rollback of the totalitarian powers claimed by the presidency since 9/11. Indeed Hillary Clinton has signalled that she favours imprisonment without trial and even the use of torture in certain circumstances. Speaker Pelosi, meanwhile, has emphasized that the chief Democratic goals in the 110th Congress will be, first, to pick the uncontroversial, low-hanging fruit of mainstream reform (minimum wage, prescriptions, student loans and so on), then move quickly to pass an ‘innovation agenda’ for hi-tech industries. Foreign policy debates in the House—thanks to the hawkish counterweight of more than 100 New Democrats and Blue Dogs—will not reach beyond the bipartisan assumptions of the Baker–Hamilton Plan or whatever new, coercive strategy for Palestinian national self-liquidation is proposed by Condoleezza Rice. [My own sense of things here is slightly more positive than Davis's, and I don't think it is right to trivialize the accomplishments of the First 100 Hours as only plucking "low hanging fruit" -- even though, of course, I know exactly what Davis means by all this. -- ndc]

What then has the anti-war vote actually won? [emphasis added] At the end of the day, public disillusionment with the messianic politics of the neo-Conservatives has paved the way for a ‘Realist’ restoration under the aegis of the Baker–Hamilton plan that reconciles the foreign-policy establishments of Bush Senior and Clinton. The bloodbath in Iraq has opened every sarcophagus on the Potomac, disgorging a palsied army of ancient secretaries of state and national security advisors (Scowcroft, Eagleburger, Brzezinski and, of course, the chief mummy, Kissinger himself) eager to lecture Congress on ‘rational’ approaches to imposing American will on the rest of the world. Hillary Clinton, of course, is the Queen of the Realists (except when it conflicts with Israeli interests), and the new Democratic majority in the House is unlikely to stray very far from the already manifest script of her 2008 campaign. In future debates with Rudy Giuliani or John McCain (who has recently appointed himself saviour of ‘victory’ in Iraq), Hillary is poised to be a hard-muscled gi Jane, parrying every macho gesture with even tougher stances on al-Qaeda, Iran, Palestine and Cuba.

The silver lining, if it exists, is that the Democrats in Congress, with the Black Caucus and its allies lobbying for withdrawal, are more likely to be swayed by public anger as insurgency and civil war in Iraq continue to exhaust the resources of the Occupation.

Tough stuff from my favorite American public intellectual these days, and, I suspect, all too true.

Today's Random Wilde

We are clowns whose hearts are broken.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Modification, Not Enhancement; Consent, Not Consensus; Prosthetic Self-Determination, Not Eugenics

I have long been leery of the general term "enhancement medicine" to describe what are now (and will soon be in even more powerful forms) therapeutic practices of genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modification. I'm unhappy with the term because as a general designation of emerging therapeutic possibilities "enhancement" seems to me to imply a kind of prior agreement as to what an "enhancement" consists of in the first place, when in fact any "enhancement" is always enhancement: to whom? arising from what initial condition? achieved by what means and in what social circumstances? in the service of what ends? and so on.

There is a deep diversity of actually existing viable human morphologies and lifeways in the world. And modification medicine will (or certainly it should) expand rather than contract that diversity.

"Enhancement," on the contrary, seems to conjure up the image of consensus where no consensus can or should be: It seems to me to imply the eerie tableau of "the race" in some imaginarily monolithic morphological construal all marching resolutely in the direction of some medically-mediated "optimality." But, of course, there is nothing like actual agreement on what such "optimality" would look or feel like, even if there is wide agreement about what basic health and viability consist of (a basic healthcare standard that, it bears mentioning, many millions of exploited, suffering human beings fail to enjoy here and now, through neglect and not necessity, while we are pondering optimalities achievable in principle via anticipated therapies). In any case, the contentious back and forth among prosperous people of competing conceptions of optimality looks to me like a debate that will continue on interminably (if we're lucky). Far from pretending we already know what human optimality consists of, or, worse, quixotically demanding we come to agreement on such optimality before we embark on personal paths of therapeutic self-creation, it seems to me we should realize that the proliferation of capacities, morphologies, and lifeways provoked by modification medicine -- any number of which will seem like "enhancements" only from the perspectives of those who opt for them -- will itself constitute the next turn in the ongoing conversation about optimality, the conversation of humanity with itself about what it means to be human and what is the good life proper to humanity so conceived.

Reading an argument posted earlier today from an IEET colleague of mine, George Dvorsky, I really had occasion to return to these preoccupations in earnest. Dvorsky begins his discussion by thinking through the vexed relation between the implications of contemporary genomic therapy and historical eugenicism.
"Eugenics. It is a word that has come to mean different things to different people. Some consider it a pejorative, while others use it as a powerful tool in political rhetoric. It conjures images of Nazi brutality and 20th century zealots working to sterilize the unfit. Ask anyone for a definition and you're bound to get a multitude of different answers; when you key define: eugenics into Google it spews out no less than 20 unique definitions."

This framing seems to me to risk somewhat -- for reasons that remain unclear to me -- creating an impression of controversy where there isn't really much of any, in my opinion. My own sense (and I'll admit it is subjective and reflects my milieu) is that "eugenics" is a word that means broadly the same thing to almost everybody, and that it is almost universally and rightly reviled, not just because of the hideous Nazi associations that Dvorsky mentions but also associations with an unbelievable profusion of racist biomedical practices (check out Harriet Washington's extraordinary Medical Apartheid for more about this) in 20C America. And even if it is true that Google spews out twenty definitions of the term, it isn't really hard to distill a common denominator from them (pretty much in line with Dvorsky's own characterization, which I'll quote and discuss in a moment), and so this no more suggests "eugenics" is a vigorously disputatious term than the comparable number of definitions available for the term "grammar" suggests such a thing for it.

Dvorsky continues: "When stripped of all its historical and social baggage, however, 'eugenics' can be used to describe two general philosophical tendencies: 1) the notion that human hereditary stock can and should be improved, and 2) that such changes should be enforced by the state (or other influential social groups such as cults or religions)."

I'll admit that the phrase "human hereditary stock" is one that hardly seems to me to be "stripped of historical and social baggage." "Human stock"?

And just how comfortable are people with even the more "liberally eugenic" attitude that one can speak of "the human race" as a "whole," and from there go on to suggest that this "race" can (should?) monolithically be "improved" through therapeutic intervention? I don't mean to ruin the detective story by flipping to the end of the book and announcing who dunnit, but isn't it right to point out that modification practices are likely to proliferate human capacities, morphologies, and lifeways -- and surely quite often in ways that will not seem to be improvements to anybody but those who opt for them? What sense is there in turning to generalizing formulations in the face of such individualizing formations?

I agree with Dvorsky that what is most objectionable about historical eugenicism is that its prescriptions were implemented coercively by agents of states, and I agree with him that authoritarian non-state actors are also a worry (he mention cults and religions as examples, and certainly I would add multinational corporations to that rogue's gallery). But I think Dvorsky and likeminded others tend to underestimate somewhat the worry that overzealous undercritical professional characterizations of "optimal health" on the one hand and "substandard lives" on the other (which often get freighted with stealthy and even unconscious parochial prejudices about race, class, gender, "disability," and so on) can suffuse the community of medical practice or social service in a way that becomes very nearly as authoritative and edges just as worrisomely in the direction of the sort of coercion Dvorsky rightly abhors.

He continues on, then, and very provocatively:
"If the state sides with the neugenicists [a coinage Dvorsky uses to describe bioconservative positions for the most part] and bans the use of enhancement technologies, then it is enforcing a particular vision of humanity, albeit a fixed one. In this sense the neugenicists are similar to the authoritarian eugenicists of the past. In each case individual procreative freedoms have been trumped by the demands of the state (which, in a democracy, is supposedly the consensus opinion)."

I don't agree at all with the quick characterization of democracy there at the end -- since I would argue that democratic formations attempt the nonviolent reconciliation of dissensus, not the imposition of consensus -- but that is a digression. I do agree with what I take to be the substance of what Dvorsky is saying here, and I do think this is probably a pretty controversial position for both of us to hold. But why should that be? It seems to me that this really amounts to a straightforward and literal anti-eugenics argument (and not just an analogy). Dvorsky is pointing out that bioconservatives want to intervene in healthcare to maintain their vision of "human optimality" (which they selectively identify with elements in the status quo that they often designate as "nature," or "God's will," or "dignity" in some retrograde Kassoid construal or what have you).

In all cases eugenics involves the imposition on majorities of a minority moral viewpoint stealthed under cover of claims about optimal health for the "race" as a whole. Anti-eugenics is the repudiation of such medical moralizing, and usually by way of a preference for medical ethics. Rather than being inspired, as eugenicist attitudes are, by bigoted visions of "racial uplift," anti-eugenicist positions are inspired by bland visions of the scene of consensual healthcare decisions between informed patients and competent healthcare workers.

Now, Dvorsky claims that those who are anti-eugenics (as I definitely and vociferously am myself) are forced into what seems to me a palpably false alternative between two ungainly neologisms of his: "dysgenicism" and "neugenicism." Against a eugenics (all liberalized and properly fumigated of its historical uglinesses) figured as "universal progress," Dvorsky proposes then that only the alternatives of universal regress and universal stasis remain on the table.

But, you know, for me, the desired alternative to eugenicism is simply: consensual practices of healthcare. I suppose I just don't agree with the bioconservatives (or, apparently, with many of the "transhumanists") that modification medicine alters this basic vision of the possibility and desirablility of consensual healthcare in a democratic society.

Certainly, I don't agree that modification medicine properly raises anew the need for the bad old rhetorics of "improving mankind" as a whole or fending off "racial decadence." Instead, I think modification medicine will provoke a proliferation of lifeways that make discourses of diversity, consent, and tolerance all the more urgent.

I actually suspect that Dvorsky would agree with quite a lot of what I am saying here, as almost certainly he would agree with the spirit of it even if we disagree on particulars. That is why I find it so puzzling why he and so many other technocentric writers I respect sometimes seem so curiously keen to rehabilitate the eugenicist term in any sense in the first place. There remains an overconfident and overgeneral regulatory ideal of optimality at the heart of too many of these viewpoints, even when they repudiate coercive interventions in the name of that optimality. Likewise there remains in too many expressions of these viewpoints a trivialization of the horrors that took place in the name of eugenic rationality, despite the quick and inevitable genuflections that tend to frame these formulations.

Defending eugenics seems to me rather tone-deaf as a rhetorical strategy for defending consensual modification medicine from bioconservative bigots. I think an uncompromising attack on eugenics is surely what is wanted, both from an ethical and a practical standpoint. Whether in its 20C form as the bigoted authoritarian horror show of state-sanctioned coercive medical intervention in the name of "racial uplift" or in its 21C form as the bigoted bioconservative horror show of coercive deprivation of access to wanted life-saving and lifeway-promoting therapies in the name of "preserving the race," eugenics is a moralizing and anti-democratic travesty of consensual healthcare.

Dvorsky concludes his piece by asking: "And what is it exactly that we are trying to accomplish vis-a-vis enhancement? It is the fostering of lives that can flourish, self-actualize, and meet their greatest potentials, while ensuring that they are free from as much suffering and undue constraints as is possible." I will admit that I am indeed quite skeptical in the presence of general pronouncements about fostering "lives that can flourish" because I think there are more ways of flourishing than are ever readily intelligible from any one parochial perspective (emphatically including my own). I worry enormously about the promulgation of healthcare standards that urge "intervention" not only to ensure people are free from suffering but, beyond that, foster "greatest potentials" and eliminate "undue constraints" to those potentials.

I think that individual consent, parental prerogative, and diversity as a public good all have to trump any activist interventionism inspired by visions of optimality, else it is too easy to drift, however well-intentioned one is, back into the defense of some pretty old fashioned 20C eugenicism. To admit to this worry is hardly the same thing as defending a regressive luddism or celebration of the status quo.

Heck, I just think I am advocating consensual healthcare practices in a rhetoric that is already incredibly legible and widely affirmed in the relatively democratic North Atlantic societies where Dvorsky and I both happen to reside.

I think technoprogressive advocates of some genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive therapies are better served with a rhetoric of consensual modification over generalized "enhancement," a rhetoric emphasizing informed, nonduressed consent rather than fantasies of some regulatory consensus about "human optimality," and healthcare as prosthetic self-determination rather than eugenics in any construal.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

MundiMuster! Tell Democrats to Freeze Out FOX

[via BlogPAC]
The Nevada Democratic Party is working with Fox News Channel to host a debate with all the Democratic Party presidential candidates in August. This is, to put it mildly, insane. Fox News is a partisan Republican propaganda outlet, not a news station, and it is irresponsible for any candidate or party official to lend it the immense credibility of a presidential forum. It would be better to do this on MSNBC, CNN, C-Span, or just stream it on the Internet where progressive blogs can carry it.

We've set up an email form that will allow you to contact several leading Nevada Democrats at once. Please, send an email to these Democrats letting them know you oppose having Fox News host a presidential forum. Democrats need to stop shaking the hand that slaps us.

Remember, a personalized email and subject header always helps.

Michael Sandel's Contribution to the Burgeoning Bioconservative Canon

I have denoted by the term "Bioconservatism" an attitude of hesitancy about technological development "in general." Such an attitude is, to say the least, prone to certain paradoxes, hypocrisies, and confusions given the inescapable ubiquity of technique in the technoscientific societies that tend to give rise to and nourish bioconservative sensibilities in the first place, and given, too, what might be described as the profound technoconstitution of encultured, enterprising selfhood itself in such societies.

More particularly, I have called attention to the ways in which bioconservative positions tend to be mobilized especially whenever some technology is perceived to threaten the customary terms of a given social order (just as I would describe as "bioconservative" the tendency to "naturalize" and "detechnologize" those devices and techniques to which we have grown accustomed, an effort which functions to relieve the conceptual pressures and so maintain the apparent continence and salience of bioconservative positions, despite the paradoxes and confusions I mentioned a moment ago).

Needless to say, there is ample reason to worry about -- and to organize to oppose and resist -- the unsafe, unfair, undemocratic outcomes that all too typically are blandly affirmed as "technological development" in both the popular imagination and in elite neoliberal public policy discourse. And, again, needless to say, it will be a priority of any properly technoscientifically focused progressive discourse to recognize that unfair, undemocratic developmental modes will facilitate unacceptable recklessness and exploitation, exacerbate injustice, and incubate dangerous social discontent.

Although some bioconservative discourse contributes to these worthy ends, my own sense is that the appearance within bioconservative discourse of these widely affirmed concerns functions too often to provide an impression of superficial reasonableness to the expression of the more counterintuitive and politically reactionary viewpoints that constitute the more proximate concerns of most bioconservatives. Typically, these amount, I fear, to concerns with preserving the institutional terms and the familiar distribution of wealth and authority within a given social order: an order presumably threatened by the deranging forces of technodevelopmental change, and a concern expressed from the parochial perspective of incumbent interests within that social order.

Most crucial for me, the term "bioconservative" denotes the rhetorical and political gesture of a defense of "nature," and especially a defense of a "human nature" typically identified with certain social norms under conspicuous contest -- with "nature" construed as a moral category. Whatever else is afoot in various bioconservative discourses and movements, whatever their personal or historical idiosyncrasies, the definitive gesture of first a conjuration or outright invention of some expression of "nature" and then its urgent defense will always be deployed at a key moment in any bioconservative argument, or as the rationale for any bioconservative judgment or action. This matters, since it helps us disentangle the reasonable cautions and hesitations that one characteristically encounters orbiting about bioconservative discourse (and which provide it respectable cover) and then identify the white-hot anti-democratic core that makes bioconservatisms conservative in the first place.

Of course, the term "bioconservative" also, and often in fact more usefully, describes the political formations arising out of these attitudes: a coterie of public intellectuals, a canon of influential texts, an archipelago of think-tanks and well-funded political campaigns, all of which are doing political and cultural work from a perspective informed by these attitudes. While most of these texts and organizations reasonably foreground a concern with "foresight" and "critique" in the face of rapid, radical, sweeping technoscientific change, it is crucial to attend carefully to unexpected political alliances and conceptual linkages that are regularly stealthed under cover of their concern with deliberation. Especially illuminating in this regard is the regularity with which bioconservative discourse [1] aligns seamlessly with socially conservative hostility to any politics of the technodevelopmental empowerment of women by providing access to techniques to end unwanted pregnancies or facilitate wanted ones; [2] re-stages socially conservative paeans to "life" and "dignity" that function primarily to police cultural diversity into a homogeneity misidentified with "the human" as such; [3] facilitates the mainstreaming of creationist discourse, abstinence-obsessed moral panics, and other extremely damaging, extremely marginal viewpoints by treating these perspectives as key partners in serious public dialogue; and [4] often aligns curiously with reductionist (and too often outright racist) neoconservative rationales for aggressive unilateral war.

Interestingly enought, "bioconservative coalitions" also sometimes attract advocates from political campaigns more conventionally identified with the left: [1] environmentalists who are quite properly concerned about the catastrophic impact of extractive petrochemical industry on the environment and of the impact of cultural technofetishism and technohype on the disastrously wasteful and reckless practices of consumers in privileged societies; [2] anti-militarists who are quite properly concerned about the insanity of state Defense Budgets in the face of palpably prior social needs, the ongoing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, landmines, conventional arms, the ongoing development of biowarfare agents, and so on; [3] anti-corporatists who are quite properly skeptical of the abstract promotional discourse of "progress," "technology," and "development," inasmuch as they are aware of the extent to which these discourses are predominated, on the ground, by the specific urgencies of corporate competitiveness and military competitiveness (which amounts, again, to the selective subsidization of corporate competitiveness); [4] advocates of various global social struggles who have urgent stories to tell about the pernicious impact particular technodevelopmental, and especially biomedical, trajectories have had on many women, people of color, indigenous populations in postcolonial contexts, people in the overexploited regions of the so-called "developing world," the differently enabled (a term I prefer to the more customary term "disabled"), variously queer people, youth, the elderly, ethnic and subcultural minorities, and so on.

These curious left-right alliances and juxtapositions have led some writers, most notably Virginia Postrel (on the right, in her The Future and Its Enemies) and James Hughes (on the left, in his "Democratic Transhumanism"), to propose that a new technodevelopmental politics is appearing on the scene that is not intelligible within or reducible to customary left-right political categories. Although I do think these analyses provide many useful insights, clarify some of the unexpected demographics of certain policy concerns, and help make us more aware than we might otherwise be of available opportunities for certain tactical alliances, I believe it is premature to suggest that what we are witnessing is a basic transformation of the terms of the political terrain. Indeed, I suspect that the rhetoric of an at once "unprecedented" and more relevant political outlook is functioning in both Postrel's and Hughes's cases primarily to attempt the difficult work of repositioning a marginal critical vocabulary (for Postrel, associated with the anarcho-capitalist American Libertarian Party, for Hughes, with subcultural "transhumanism") as a mainstream one.

To a significant extent I think the truth is that many of the progressives making common cause with bioconservatives on questions of technodevelopmental politics at the moment are not so much creating something new as expressing their real and reasonable confusion in the face of rapid and unprecedented social change. Since the technodevelopmental skepticism expressed by the environmentalists, anti-militarists, anti-corporatists, and participants in global social justice movements is both perfectly reasonable and perfectly legible within the categories of a traditional understanding of the democratic left, it seems to me much more likely that these viewpoints will shift from their momentary alliances with bioconservative bigotry and align soon enough with what I have been documenting as an emerging technoprogressive mainstream politics arising out of the peer-to-peer network culture, the defense of consensus science from attacks funded by greedy corporations and a few marginal religions with theocratic designs, the championing of science-based outcome-based harm-reduction public policy, the support of increased public funding to cure disease and ameliorate suffering, the support of public research and development in renewable energy, and so on. All of this looks to me like a perfectly conventional, perfectly intelligible democratic left, but witnessed from the perspective of a basic literacy in and focus on questions of technoscience and technodevelopmental social struggle. Again, once one disentangles reasonable concerns from the insistently naturalist rhetoric that characterizes bioconservatism at its heart, it is usually easy to discern the difference between superficial, confused, or short-term tactical alliances and those that bespeak a deeper, more structural affinity.

I suspect that those who are eager to see something more unprecedented emerging in the political landscape and in political language will incline to deride my conclusion here as my own wistful (if not, worse, strident and hectoring) clinging to comfortable worn-out conventions. The fact is I would be more than happy to break with the crust of convention if it got us anywhere, but I can't see how an insistence on a radical technodevelopmental "overcoming" of traditional left-right politics ever plays out as anything much other than an encouragement for otherwise reliable radical democrats occasionally to mistake as allies anti-democratic reactionaries who happen to be excited about certain emerging technologies just because they expect to make money out of them or desire new gadgets to facilitate "kicking ass" in some awful benighted conservative project of theirs.

I also think there is, sadly, a significant extent to which these apparently progressive alliances with bioconservative advocacy sometimes bespeak something worse than a moment of conceptual confusion -- and one well on the way to rectifying itself in the emerging technoprogressive movements. I think it is also true that there is something about the unprecedented radicality, rapidity, and sweep of ongoing and palpably upcoming technodevelopmental transformation that has the power to make otherwise progressive and reasonably moderate people into actual conservatives. Let me offer up what I take to be the latest unfortunate example of what I am talking about.

A new book by the distinguished political philosopher Michael J. Sandel (whose Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, among other works, have been enormously influential, and were a real provocation to my own thinking) is to published later this year, in May. I will certainly revisit the text when it actually arrives on the scene, but I wanted to comment on the promotional verbiage that appears on the Harvard University Press website for the text and which presumably summarizes some of the case the book will be making.

Like Jurgen Habermas's recent The Future of Human Nature, Sandel's book, which is entitled The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering, looks to be another in a long line of bioconservative texts from academics who are not typically quite so reactionary in their politics as they appear to me to be when they contemplate ongoing and upcoming biomedical interventions into what have been, hitherto, long-accustomed limits in human capacities, traits, and lifeways. Needless to say, I was hardly surprised to find social conservatives like Leon Kass (Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Human Dignity) or neoconservatives like Francis Fukuyama (Our Posthuman Future) writing bioconservative arias, but it is getting a little disheartening to find more reasonable people succumbing to the lure of bioconservatism's facile "naturalist" theology.

"Breakthroughs in genetics present us with a promise and a predicament," begins the promotional summary for Sandel's text, reasonably enough. "The promise is that we will soon be able to treat and prevent a host of debilitating diseases," the text continues, and note that medicine already treats and prevents a host of debilitating diseases, and hence, there is an important sense in which there is nothing new in the least about this "new" state of affairs. Or more particularly, framing the debate in this way tends to disallow a host of analogies between the new treatments that are the focus of Sandel's book and the vast array of treatments to which we are already accustomed. This takes us directly into the heart of Sandel's discourse, and notice that the argumentative weight here, as always in bioconservative discourse, is on an un-interrogated "nature": "The predicament is that our newfound genetic knowledge may enable us to manipulate our nature[.]"

Lest this breathtakingly unchallengeable uncharacterizable bombshell impel reasonable readers to dismiss the argument out of hand as unhelpful -- however well-meaning it may be -- the summary very quickly adds at this point a key bioethical distinction to the mix: "to enhance our genetic traits and those of our children." This move is quite characteristic and certainly fascinating: It is easy to understand that there is a significant, and fraught, distinction between the ethical calculus and political provision that obtains in the scene of adult consent to therapeutic intervention, as opposed to the ethical calculus and political provision that obtains in the scene of decision of parents and legal guardians to empower therapeutic interventions for nonconsensual or preconsensual subjects. But is it really true that this is a distinction that puts us in a position to understand what is meant by "our nature" (which is clearly implied by the fact that the distinction is offered following a colon promising a definition or at least clarification of the portentious phrase "our nature")? Even if that is a reasonable topic for conversation, is it true that Sandel will always confine the force of this key normative term, "nature," to the quandaries specifically registered in the distinction of adults and wards in matters of consent and so on? If not, why foreground these issues at all, why not offer up a clearer characterization of the kinds of work Sandel expects the shorthand tag "nature" to be doing in his argument?

It is very interesting that in the next paragraph of the summary (to jump ahead a little for a moment), we are promised that "The Case against Perfection explores these and other moral quandaries connected with the quest to perfect ourselves and our children. Michael Sandel argues that the pursuit of perfection is flawed for reasons that go beyond safety and fairness." This matters because, so far it isn't the least bit evident what is clarified by going beyond questions of "safety and fairness" in these matters. But more to the point, my own sense is that Sandel is offering up bioethical formulations (distinguishing adults from their wards) that are perfectly legible within the terms of a preoccupation with questions of "safety and fairness" precisely to give some objective (and reasonable) shape to the more socially conservative concerns that ultimately undergird the defense of "nature" in cases such as these.

To return to the text itself, the first paragraph of the summary continues from before with an intriguing claim: "Although most people find at least some forms of genetic engineering disquieting, it is not easy to articulate why." As it happens, it is quite easy to articulate why "most people find at least some forms of genetic engineering disquieting": the problem for Sandel is that this ease is a function of the fact that most of the reasonable concerns people have are precisely matters of "safety and fairness." Sandel is having none of it, and the promotional summary bangs down the gavel and insists that there is just one question we should be asking right about now: "What is wrong with re-engineering our nature?"

According to the summary, Sandel proposes that "[t]he drive to enhance human nature through genetic technologies is objectionable because it represents a bid for mastery and dominion that fails to appreciate the gifted character of human powers and achievements." Now, it seems to me that the beneficiaries of successful therapies are quite eager to express their appreciation of the gifts of the scientists and skilled medical practitioners to whom they are beholden for their health (in my own nation this gratitude is sometimes complicated by the catastrophic elitism of the corporatized model of healthcare provision, but these are matters better discussed in the vocabulary of "safety and fairness" and hence lead us astray from the incomparably more vital intangible matters with which Sandel is presumably preoccupied).

To what else can Sandel mean to refer us when he speaks of the "gifted character of humans powers and achievements"? Does he refer to the reliance of technoscientific progress on the warranted consensus descriptions that constitute "the given" terms through which we understand the environment? Does he refer to the reliance of social progress more generally on a vast archive of hard-won historical knowledges and political accomplishments? It is difficult to understand how genetic therapies violate these gifts and givenesses in the a priori way it seems Sandel must be taking for granted. Presumably, we who concentrate our attention in these matters on questions of "safety and fairness" are devoting inadequate attention to whatever deity Sandel personally worships and to whose beneficence he attributes the worthy things scientists and doctors and good citizens do. Perhaps he doesn't mean to say anything in this line, but it is difficult to guess where he is coming from otherwise.

And to the extent that this is indeed the argumentative line he is pursuing, one is curious to know just why the objectionable ingratitude of those who make recourse to genetic therapy is so very different from the "bid for mastery and dominion" that suffuses the projects of public education, secular multicultural tolerance, democratic reformist politics, and any number of human activities that induce individuals to pursue private perfections and in consequence of these pursuits shake up the public terms of the social order that has been "gifted us."

Rather hilariously, the summary soldiers on: "Carrying us beyond familiar terms of political discourse, this book contends that the genetic revolution will change the way philosophers discuss ethics and will force spiritual questions back onto the political agenda." Of course there is nothing the least bit "unfamiliar" about these terms, especially coming out of the mouths of those who would "force spiritual questions back onto the political agenda." That is to say, Sandel's bioconservatism seems a fairly straightforward expression of the usual social and religious conservatism, but with occasional genuflections in the direction of a fact-based policy discourse. These secular genuflections no doubt function as the spoon full of sugar that helps the theocratic bioconservative medicine go down, but it is difficult to shake the sense that science-based outcome-oriented harm-reduction policy vocabularies themselves gain little in the way of clarification or even moral force through their encumbrance with such theological paraphernalia.

I will conclude as the summary concludes as well: "In order to grapple with the ethics of enhancement, we need to confront questions largely lost from view in the modern world. Since these questions verge on theology, modern philosophers and political theorists tend to shrink from them." One appreciates the modesty of the suggestion that Sandel's is a discourse that "verges" on theology here, rather than demanding an outright substitution of theological concerns for political ones (in a world of diverse stakeholders, who deeply differ in their religious beliefs and many of whom have no religious beliefs at all or at any rate no interest in introducing them into their deliberations on these matters). "But," the summary assures us, "our new powers of biotechnology make these questions unavoidable." Of course, despite its repeated insistence to the contrary, there is nothing provided in the summary in the way of evidence to support the contention that Sandel's concerns with matters "beyond" those of "safety and fairness" are anything like "unavoidable." If anything one finds everywhere here the indications of an acute anxiety that Sandel's own preoccupations seem to be of a sort that most people think are best either privatized (as matters of profoundly personal pursuits of meaning, value, and idiosyncratic perfection) or avoided altogether. Instead, to the horror of incumbent elites and those who pine for the stasis of a "spiritualized" politics (being lucky enough, one supposes, to be among the pampered few rather than the imperiled many in the world as it is), we find ourselves in an historical moment when a rising worldly majority increasingly demands shared recourse to technoscientific accomplishments to solve public problems of poverty, illness, and illiteracy, and who are far more likely to articulate their worries through a language of "safety and fairness" addressed to progressive movements of democratization than to any regressive movements pining after theocracy.

Today's Random Wilde

Sooner or later we have all to pay for what we do.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Careful of the Teacups

To those among my variously dynamistically upwingesque and futurologically extrotranshumanoidal colleagues who still selectively quote atrocity exhibition Glenn Reynolds as some kind of techno-darling -- presumably because, like William Safire, Virginia Postrel, Thomas L. Friedman, and other retrofuturists in the interminably tiresome libertopian mode, Reynolds has grasped the stunningly obvious fact that there are real profits to be had in technoscientific r & d -- I want to recommend the blog Instaputz, devoted to "Systematically documenting the putziness of Glenn Reynolds, Pajamas Media, and various other Putzen."

Before the self-righteous chorus of protestation ensues that "putz" discourse is little likely to raise the conversational tone, vis-à-vis Reynolds and his army of Dittohead Davids, I want to point out that one has to be a dangerous idiot at this point to honestly imagine that Glenn Reynolds is going to do anything at civilization's tea party but smash the fragile cups and saucers. Democratic civilization was designed to protect us from the paraphernalia of police states: Nudging the likes of Glenn Reynolds to the periphery of the tea party, or at any rate having the sense to keep an eye on him, perhaps to exchange his porcelain for a paper cup until he shows signs of knowing how to use one safely, and at most occasionally patting his head disdainfully when he goes off onto one of his premodern tears (these days he is busy assuring us that Oceania has always been at war with Iran and so the love of law and the law of love compel us to murder and bomb thereabouts forthwith and so on and so forth), can only "raise the conversational tone," even if social stigmatization (ergo: "putz") is the only way to jar him into the realization that we are on to him and that he must change, else be disdained.

If you want to call yourself "technoprogressive" because you've decided the phrase doesn't "scare the straights," plus it's got a nice beat and you can dance to it, I fear it is my duty to remind you that you have some actual standards to live up to, among them actually being progressive in the first place. Otherwise, you're just another mouthbreathing reactionary gadget fetishist looking for a Daddy to order you around because you feel scared, or a Daddy to side with because you feel small (a spectacle that is quite as unedifying when one's Daddy of choice wears a labcoat as when he wears priestly vestiments or stands behind a Presidential Seal instead).

Monday, February 19, 2007

Read Your Rhetoric

Every time I read some self-appointed member of the "Futurological Congress" intone about "memetic engineering" or hear another linguist proudly announce that "framing theory" has found its way to some new PR discovery, I have to admit I squirm a little with embarrassment. It's called "rhetoric," folks, and generations of brilliant people with time on their hands and a flair for words have been noodling about with it for over two thousand years. "Memetics" is an impoverished re-invention of the wheel, cooked up by a handful of True Believers entrapped by an inapt metaphor. "Framing" wasn't a bad notion, but fleshing it out into an autonomous theory is just some guy's pointless ego-trip.

Read a nice survey of rhetoric, ponder the Trivium, learn about the three Aristotelian appeals, logos, pathos, ethos (ethos may well blow your mind), survey the common topoi, discover the difference between a scheme and a trope, a formal versus an informal fallacy, play around with enthymemes, learn the rules of engagement governing the various modes of syllogism, read thousands of years of meditations on the differences between deliberative, judicial, and ceremonial discourse, thousands of incomparable stylists on style, thousands of wits on wit.

It's bad enough that some "memeticists" and "frame-theorists" seem so smug and self-congratulatory about the facile insights they occasionally rediscover as they sketch out their little finger-paint pseudo-rhetorics, but worse by far are the earnest and genuinely intelligent newcomers who delve into these wan pseudo-disciplinary vestiges for discursive guidance no "meme academy" or "frameshop" or comparable bumper-sticker bubbleworks could ever deliver, when all the while the untold riches of the rhetoricians stand near to hand mouldering in the bargain bin.

Love, Dale (Okay, full disclosure: PhD, and now Lecturer, Department of Rhetoric, University of California at Berkeley. What's your point?)

Precarity and Experimental Subjection


Precarity is a word that is coming to be used by more and more people to designate key continuities in the conditions, experiences, and implications of a growing majority of the human population to the characteristic mode of exploitation in the contemporary world.

More specifically, precarity indicates an ongoing casualization of the terms of employment under which ever more people labor to survive in today's world, usually conjoined to an ongoing informalization of the terms under which ever more people struggle to secure the basic conditions of housing, healthcare, access to knowledge, and legitimate legal recourse under which they live.

Precarity or precarization sometimes denotes the dismantlement of established entitlements in relatively democratic North Atlantic societies arising out of the market fundamentalist gospel of an endlessly elaborated and augmented "personal responsibility." Even more often, precarity or precarization denotes the erection of barriers to the achievement of entitlements in the first place for people in the overexploited regions of the so-called "developing world" through the terms of neoliberal corporate-militarist globalization euphemized as "free trade." In both cases precarity or precarization describes a social and cultural inculcation of human insecurity as well as the opportunistic mobilization of that insecurity to maintain and consolidate the complicity, obedience, or at any rate the acquiescence, of the overabundant majority of people on earth to the terms of their own exploitation and to the disproportionate benefit of incumbent elites.

"Casualization" is a term that describes the ever increasing number of people who labor in temporary, part-time, intermittent, "flexible" forms of employment, typically with diminished entitlements, security, occasions for advancement or provision for the future, or institutional recourse in matters of grievance. Usually this tendency is described as a shift away from the expectations of especially the citizens in relatively democratic North Atlantic societies that desirable employment will be permanent or at any rate stable, full-time, skilled, characterized by relatively secure benefits, pensions, underwritten in some cases by professional traditions like tenure but more broadly by the provision of more or less extensive welfare entitlements.

"Informalization" is a term that is often used interchangeably with casualization to describe the same trends in prevailing conditions of employment, but also describes the contemporary proliferation of insecure, "unconventional" (though ever more customary) "off the books" social transactions more broadly: bribery, black-markets, influence peddling, kickbacks, barter, payment in kind, blackmail, unpaid labor, squatting, peer-to-peer production, and so on.

Jacob Hacker's recent book The Great Risk Shift captures this dimension of the casualization thesis very well. In the book, Hacker tells the story of the consolidation of the (mostly white) American middle class in the aftermath of the New Deal. During this era, a majority of Americans grew both steadily richer and steadily more secure as a consequence of health and retirement benefits they received from employers, and welfare entitlements they received from new public programs like Social Security and Medicare, which provided benefits when employers would or could not. But Hacker points out that this framework has been dismantled over the course of the last generation, exposing the majority of Americans to the unprecedented risks of a turbulent market economy. "Increasingly," Hacker suggests, in a fairly typical expression of a precarity thesis, "Americans find themselves on a financial tightrope, without a safety net if they slip." Hacker's narrative of the intensifying precarization of the American lower and middle-classes emphasizes rising bankruptcy rates, falling rates of the insured, growing job insecurity as automation and outsourcing render workers less valuable or altogether dispensable, and a growing volatility of individual fortunes, as family incomes fluctuate in ways that are comparable to the swings of stock values in volatile global markets, but in ways that uniquely threaten the capacity of individuals to survive from day to day or make reasonable plans for the future.


Most accounts of precarity, however, take pains to emphasize the special vulnerability of women, youths, immigrants (legal and especially "illegal"), and refugees (both political and, increasingly, environmental) to the casualization of employment and informalization of general welfare they mean to describe as the current catastrophic precarization of life, especially as these arise from confiscatory neoliberal "development" policies of predatory lending and debt restructuring, corporate deregulation and privatization, and the imposition of "market discipline" and "austerity regimes" always only for the most vulnerable populations. Nevertheless, it is important to grasp that precarity characterizes the social conditions under which an ever growing majority of humanity lives, even those comparatively privileged people (for now) who confront diminished expectations and increased existential volatility. Indeed, part of the special force of the various accounts of the Precarity Thesis will be their facility at connecting up these disparate experiences of increasing insecurity and hence their capacity to provide new grounds for planetary solidarity and efficacious political organizing. Meanwhile, at one and the same time, part of the special vulnerability of many accounts of the Precarity Thesis will be their inadequate sensitivity to the differences between, say, the anxieties of a well-educated white middle-class temp-worker in a North Atlantic suburban enclave, on the one hand, and the imperiled existence of an illiterate undocumented itinerate laborer squatting in a toxic floodplain in some mega-slum in the overexploited South, on the other. The Planetary Precariat, such as it is, remains a complex multiculture, articulated by inter-implicated histories of exploitation, collaboration, and contestation.

According to the International Labor Organization, fully half the workers in the world -- approximately one and a half billion people -- live in families that survive on less than US$2 a day per person. Half a billion working poor live on US$1 or less per day. The overabundant majority of these people work in the sprawling informal workforce, without welfare benefits, secure housing, basic healthcare, or reliable recourse to the law, farming, fishing and otherwise scrambling for subsistence in poor villages and alleys or rooftop garden plots. Outright unemployment rates continue to rise globally, while approximately half of the total of unemployed or underemployed people in the world are young adults, aged 15 to 24.

In his chilling and urgent recent book, Planet of Slums, Mike Davis writes of the plight of this planetary Precariat, of the billions of people living under the precarious conditions of "informal" employment, housing, legality, living out a threatened and precarious personhood. Opening with the description of the historical watershed moment when the urban population outnumbers the rural (an event that has very likely already taken place), he goes on to delineate the monstrous new urbanity of the megacities in which this population dwells: in squalid toxic violent slums without proper services or reliable infrastructure. It is a new planetary polis that better bespeaks the morphology of the refugee camp than that of the splendid historical cynosures of the City, London in the eighteenth century, Paris in the nineteenth, New York in the twentieth.

The vast "surplus populations" driven into cities by the brutal urgencies of neoliberal austerity regimes, by the reorganization of the countryside by agribusiness, by war, by genocide, or by climate change are concentrated into segmented, surveilled, and unsupported spaces, incubators for pandemic disease, disorganized rage, and organized crime. In a ghoulish mimicry of the leisurely volunteerism that produces open source software and peer-to-peer collaborations like Wikipedia and the user-generated promotional verbiage Amazon.com uses to sell books, wherever the informal Precariat manages to sculpt from the dangerously unstable toxic geographies to which they are typically consigned something like a minimally liveable and hence rentable place, they are, you can be sure, unceremoniously displaced as quick as may be, and so function as a kind of unpaid, dispensable collaborative developmental force of last resort. Low-lying and coastal as these megacities usually are, one can scarcely contemplate what is going to happen to some of these "surplus populations" as Greenhouse waters continue to rise.

It is in Chapter 25 of Capital, that Karl Marx argued "capitalistic accumulation itself... constantly produces... a relatively redundant population of workers... a surplus-population." The long-valorized former Chairman of the Federal Reserve (and former inner-circle acolyte of the breathtakingly bad market fundamentalist guru cum crappy romance novelist Ayn Rand), Alan Greenspan provided ample confirmation of Marx's prediction, as throughout his garlanded and prolonged bipartisan tenure he repeatedly expressed the attitude that it was part of his job to keep the economy "healthy" by ensuring that a goodly proportion of people remained unemployed, inasmuch as the job insecurity maintained by an abiding reserve labor force restrains demands for higher pay and benefits, keeps costs down and hence "global competitiveness" up. Here, as elsewhere, public figures paid by public moneys to work in the public interest diligently work in fact to immiserate some substantial portion of that public to the conspicuous benefit of another portion.

For Marx, this is all quite elementary: "It is the absolute interest of every capitalist to press a given quantity of labour out of a smaller, rather than a greater number of labourers, if the cost is about the same." Given the incomparable complexity of the functional division of labor which renders it difficult for anyone to gauge in an objective way just what their indispensable contribution to ongoing production really is and hence demand appropriate compensation for it (call this "alienation"), and given the way our primary focus on the price at which a commodity is available for exchange distracts our attention away from questions of its objective utility or considerations of the conditions under which it is made or concerns about the longer-term impacts it makes on the environment (call this "commodity fetishism"), and given the current globalization of "free trade" under the regime of the multinational corporate form backed by corporate-friendly national militaries (call this "neoliberalism") it is ominous to register Marx's insistence that "[t]he more extended the scale of production, the stronger this motive. Its force increases with the accumulation of capital."

In a usefully complementary formulation, Michel Foucault proposes in his Discipline and Punish, that it is no accident that centuries of reformers have demonstrated through recourse to generations of unchanging evidence of prevailing crime rates and, more to the point, rates of recidivism, that "prison fails to eliminate crime." And hence, against the typical assumption that it is the task of the liberal prison to effect such an elimination, Foucault proposes the substitute hypothesis that the prison is an institution that "has succeeded very well in producing delinquency, a specific type, a politically or economically... usable[,] form of illegality." (p. 277) The prison, and especially (famously) the exemplary prison architecture of the Benthamite Panopticon, becomes a figure that condenses the "discourses and architectures, coercive regulations and scientific propositions, real social effects and invinciple utopias, programmes for correcting delinquents and mechanisms that reinforce delinquency" (p. 271) all of which have their share in the "carceral system" or operation of "disciplinarity" that Foucault finds operating "around, on, within the body by the functioning of a power that is exercised on those [who are] punished -- and, in a more general way, on those one supervises, trains and corrects, over madmen, children at home and at school, the colonized [!], over those who are stuck at a machine and supervised for the rest of their lives." (p. 29)

"[I]n producing delinquents, in an apparently marginal but in fact centrally supervised milieu," the prison -- as one exemplary institution among others in "a carceral archipelago" of supervisory locations including schools, asylums, hospitals, workplaces, and so on -- produces "a pathologized subject" (back to p. 277), one that solicits massive normalizing administration at a moment's notice should the "need" arise, one that is "legitimately" exploitable as a resource should this come to seem desirable, and one that functions as a palpable example of the frightening costs of abnormality for the not-as-yet marginal and, hence, exhibiting through conspicuous contrast, while at once prompting, the exemplary workings of the normative practices that produce "normal," self-regulating, properly economizing subjects in the first place.

Precarity discourses typically take such canonical accounts of modern subjection as a point of departure, but then go on to propose that new institutional conditions, cultural machineries, and normative urgencies have lately been set in motion that need to be taken into account to grapple with novel contemporary circumstances of exploitation and duress. These tend in an altogether unique and unprecedented way [1] to be staged on a self-consciously planetary terrain, [2] to be articulated through rhetorics of corporate-militarist "competitiveness" that bespeak neoliberal globalization as much or more than they do customary (inter)nationalism, and [3] to take the form primarily of technodevelopmental social struggle (and, as I shall elaborate a bit at the end, soon enough, biomedical developments in particular) among a diversity of contending, differently authorized, stakeholders.

Although it is undeniable that an insecure workforce has always existed in industrial societies, it is significant that the demands of so-called "Fordist" production models for stable and skilled workers long ensured that this casual or "flexible" labor-force remained structurally peripheral in North Atlantic industrial societies to a more secure labor-force. Whereas, at the heart of precarity discourse, one will find a special emphasis on the rise and recent hegemony of the contemporary multinational corporate form -- which is structurally compelled to increase shareholder profit, whatever the consequences otherwise, while being simultaneously structurally incapable of distinguishing profits garnered relatively effortlessly through the endless externalization of risks and costs from profits achieved through the difficult enterprise of genuine innovation and superior production -- and the concomitant rise of postwar neoliberal globalization models that systematically prioritize the demands of investors over the needs of individual welfare, and emphasize "deregulation" for incumbent interests while imposing debt, "market discipline," and excessive "personal responsibility" on vulnerable majorities.

(This shift from classical Marxist and Foucauldian formulations is announced already, I would say, in the shift in the work of the later Foucault to extended accounts -- many of them finding their way to publication in English only recently -- of the rise of "biopolitics" and the operations of a "governmentality" through which autonomous and "enterprising" selves enlist themselves in projects of self-control that complement the controlling interests of social incumbents as these are indicated in the operations of formal governance.)

By way of a conclusion of this extended meditation on the promising, if problematic, idea of precarity, I want to propose that there are interesting connections for me between precarity and two other topics with which I am preoccupied here at Amor Mundi. The first connection is to the politics of environmentalism, which, like precarity discourse is at once a source of planetary political consciousness and solidarity (as of course it has to be, inasmuch as the biosphere has no borders) and one that focuses its critical energies very particularly in the direction of neoliberal corporate-militarist globalization (inasmuch as the profit-maximizing corporate form is insensitive to environmental costs and benefits as a matter of law and so inevitably produces such damage, inasmuch as the ethos of endless corporate growth is dangerously oblivious to the actually existing limits of the environment on which it depends for its own maintenance, inasmuch as the abstraction and globality of capital flows objectively derange the integrity of local ecosystems, and so on).

The emergence of planetary consciousness connected with the rise of organized environmentalist political movement promsies (threatens) to displace the internationalist consciousness of corporate-militarist competitiveness. (And, as an aside, it does seem to me that no small part of the energy that drives the so-called Global War on Terror in the present day is that it functions as a direct counterweight to this emerging planetary consciousness: a counterweight that bolsters incumbent interests precisely as environmentalist movement instead threatens them; and which formally mimes environmentalism as it parasitically drains environmentalism's radical force, offering up, ostensively, a response to a global "existential" threat, and one that can displace awareness of a more urgent with the spectacularization of a comparably less threatening one.) An environmentalist discourse of precarity would register (as the work of Mike Davis and Vandana Shiva, among many others, models) the disproportionate distribution of risks and costs associated with climate change, biodiversity diminishment, material toxicities, soil erosion, and so on, while at once testifying to the interdependence of human beings with the planet's dynamic biosphere as well as the human interdependence that both threatens and seeks to remediate the damage of extractive petrochemical industrialization on that biosphere.

There is a second connection, I think, to the politics of prosthetic self-determination, morphological and lifeway diversity, topics about which I talk quite a lot here on Amor Mundi. It seems to me that precarity discourse should address itself to certain so-called "bioethical" quandaries, especially concerning the scene of informed, nonduressed consent, especially as the techno-utopian mode of neoliberal "development" discourse becomes ever more preoccupied in coming years with research, development, marketing, and dsitribution of genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive "enhancement" techniques in a global frame.

I have proposed the phrase experimental subjection to describe the ongoing and upcoming transformation of the historical frame through which agency is coming to be articulated in human societies now under the unprecedented pressures of rapid and radical technodevelopmental changes and social struggles.

So long as you don't push the analogy too hard, it can be helpful to think of this frame shift into experimental subjection as roughly comparable to the classical North Atlantic shift from royal subjection to citizen subjection. Broadly speaking, that involved a shift from an understanding of proper selfhood deriving from one's sense of their location within a "natural order" overseen by god's representatives on earth to a conscientious selfhood invested with "natural rights" and overseen by the exigencies of market exchange.

Under the terms of experimental subjection, to the contrary, proper selfhood derives from one's sense of their location within an intelligible narrative of ongoing self-creation, and this within the larger context not of "natural order" but of a conspicuous and proliferating lifeway diversity. Further, experimental selfhood is not so much conscientious as consensual. Needless to say, the scene of consent will differ radically in its actual force and significance according to the institutional terms that articulate it, and can be either vacuous or substantial depending on the consensual subject's relative access to knowledge, relative security in her healthy personhood, and relative recourse to the equal protections of the law. That said, the experimental self engages in an ongoing negotiation between desire and risk. Her every assertion and self-assertion is an assumption of personal risk and cost as well as an assumption of social responsibilities. This is because, for one thing, the experimental and self-creative subject is a figure in danger as much as in bliss, and bears both the personal scars and skills that testify to the costliness of experimentation for finite, vulnerable beings under conditions of uncertainty.

Precarization is an inextricable dimension in the emergence of experimental from conscientious subjection as it plays out in all its devastating differences in the world. And an emphasis on this precarity undermines the facile voluntarism that will tend to overtake accounts (especially technocentric ones) of self-creation narrated from positions of privilege: So long as prosthetic self-determination is figured through the precarious scene of an expression that is as apt to misfire, provoke, confound, embarrass, or fall on deaf ears as it is to be felicitous, it is less likely to take up instead the commonplace figure, and manic fantasy, of a prosthetic encrustation of the fragile organism in a cyborg shell rendering him immune from harm, from time, from dependency, the man in his castle, an atom in the void.

Biomedicine may well be arriving at a state of something like constant revolution, throwing off so many promising and threatening therapies from moment to moment that one often cannot calculate with ease the impact to one's risk or benefit in embarking on a course of therapy at just what point along the developmental state of the art one happens to be. Nor can one know in advance what the combinatorial effects of proliferating therapies will be. Under such conditions it is difficult to know just what it will mean to say of an act of consent that it is a properly "informed" one. These difficulties become all the more vexed when we turn from the scene of consent to the scene of decision in which parents and guardians embark upon or refrain from therapeutic courses that will articulate (and quite often, you know, irrevocably) the capacities of preconsensual subjects.

Quite as important, and still more relevant to a discourse of precarity, it is especially difficult to think through the ways in which one might be variously positioned as "competent," "knowledgeable," "authorized," or as already "abject," "imperiled," "hopeless," and so on, from the perspective of those likely to profit most from the release of novel medical therapies into the world, and all in ways that will definitively skew the address of therapeutic claims of promise or threat in the first place. It goes without saying that the Marxian accounts of the production of especially vulnerable "surplus populations" are of special concern in the face of biomedical projects that promise such exquisite outcomes (the radical "enhancement" of desired human capacities or the extension of healthy lifespan) that risks and costs imposed or cajoled onto abject populations might acquire a certain allure, especially to those who are likely to profit doubly (to spell it out: both monetarily as well as therapeutically) by them. So, too, Foucauldian accounts of the production of "pathologized subjects," seem especially in point in the face of biomedical projects that would police human bodies into a conformity denoted as "optimal health" for fear of otherwise imposing "unfair costs" on existing citizens or "disadvantaging" future ones.

The emergence of global bioremedial networks, integrating burgeoning clinical trial data, always-on biometric sensing and tracing, complex private and/or public networked medical administration, assessment, disbursal, and record keeping, and all of this supplementing the still ongoing disruptive transformation from a mass-mediated to a peer-to-peer digital networked public sphere, seems to me to be producing a novel and provocative political consciousness -- very much like the impact of accumulating evidence of climate change on a humanity that has recently seen the earth from the perspective of orbit and understands for the first time that the world is indeed a planet likewise has done. We are becoming experimental subjects, inducted in interminable technodevelopmental social struggles, acting on a planetary rather than a national, international, or even global terrain.

The political imagination of medicine is presently transforming under pressure of a collision between a normalizing model of liberal healthcare administration and this “experimental subjection” model of consensual genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modification. The liberal model is defined by an ideal of universal “basic” healthcare provision (an ideal at which we never, of course, really arrived in fact, especially in the United States), while the experimental subjection model is defined instead by an ideal of perfect morphological control and of the widest possible lifeway diversity compatible with a perfectly intelligible scene of informed, nonduressed consent (an ideal at which we will just as surely never arrive, either, especially so long as the scene of consent tolerates accepts the duress of precarization and the derangement of misinformation). What remains is likely, as ever, to be a shifting politics of risk, profit, and stress management, but one which will be differently articulated depending on the ideal that drives it, and one that, to be sure, will manage to be more democratic and more fair the more we manage to ensure the scene of consent is as informed and nonduressed as possible by keeping access to knowledge open and poverty at bay for all.

By all means we will want to ensure that just as we must resist the elite insistence that casualization, informalization, and precarization constitute some kind of emancipatory flexibility and loosening of onerous constraint (as indeed it might be were, say, a universal basic income and lifelong basic healthcare and access to education and re-training guaranteed to all as a birthright), so too we must resist the elite insistence that our universal induction into planetary bioremedial networked clinical trials constitute some kind of carefree shopping for elective enhancements when in fact we will be exposed to unprecedented scrutiny and danger (as well, no doubt, as opportunity), and when the distribution of technodevelopmental costs, risks, and benefits is not the least bit likely to be safe, fair, or deliberative unless we make it so.

There are, to be sure, resources for both pernicious mystification as well as for practical hope in the ways these new discourses of precarity variously connect up to the deep awareness -- or, likewise, to the all-too-potent, all-too-common disavowal of awareness -- of the ineradicable finitude or precariousness that definitively articulates the human condition in its environmental vulnerability to suffering and death and in its social vulnerability to misunderstanding, humiliation, and abuse. As Judith Butler has commended to our attention in an important recent essay, this attention to (or disavowal of) our existential precariousness can be mobilized in the service of democratizing projects of empathy, conversation, and solidarity or just as easily to mobilize moral panics, hysterical censorship, or punitive wars without end. It can inspire the necessary planetary consciousness of environmentalist movement or just as easily the crazy rage fueling "our" interminable racist militarist "War on Global Terror." It can drive the consignment of "surplus populations" to deaths-in-life that live only in their trace in the life of privilege, or it can drive the emergence of an era of universal consent and, hence, emancipation.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Today's Random Wilde

I don't recognize you -- I've changed a lot.

Update on Marcotte and Mediation (And Why I Still Support John Edwards)

Yesterday, Amanda Marcotte published an extensive account of her truncated tenure as blogmaster of the Edwards Presidential campaign and the circumstances that attended her resignation, "Why I Had to Quit the John Edwards Campaign." I would encourage everybody interested in this enraging incident to suffer through the annoying half-minute ad that blocks immediate access to Salon and then to read Marcotte's piece. I am hoping the folks who click-through to the article will include especially all those who presently incline to the opinion that this ugly episode manages to make Edwards unworthy of the American Presidency whatever happens over the year and a half that stands between where we are now and where we will be when we actually vote for our next President.

Marcotte unsurprisingly refrains from saying much of anything that would put her former employer in a harsh light, and although I disagree with those who consider this episode a deal-breaker for supporting Edwards (who remains, for now, the Democratic candidate I like best of those on offer), the fact is I am personally much less happy with Edwards than Marcotte appears or pretends to be here. Nevertheless, Marcotte's piece does end up focusing exactly where I do myself in thinking through the significance of these events: She uses the episode as a lens through which to contemplate the worrisome media landscape of contemporary American partisan politics and she concentrates on the implications of this incident especially for women and feminism in the face of empowered Patriarchal Republicanism.

Early on, Marcotte writes: "The right-wing noise machine's favorite trick, possibly its only trick, is to select a target and start making a fuss, hoping that by creating the appearance of smoke, just enough people will be fooled into thinking there's a fire. Unfortunately, it works."

Although she has no delusions of grandeur she does highlight the chilling continuities on this score between her situation and others that have wreaked havoc on American political life in recent memory: This mass-mediated conjuration of sulfurous smoke and frenetically flung shit "was the method used to railroad Bill Clinton (Whitewater, Vince Foster, state troopers) and the method that ushered the nation into war with Iraq (WMDs and so on). This time they were only attacking a lowly rookie staffer on a Democratic campaign, but the M.O. was the same."

Although Marcotte also offers up some encouraging tidbits about countervailing forces aborning in the liberal blogosphere, and insists that progressives resist advice from inside the beltway to "clean up our acts" to insulate ourselves from such attacks from the right wing noise machine (as if that could work in the first place, and at the cost of the authenticity and vitality of our expressiveness and connection to our actual diverse concerns and actual power as citizens) -- the fact is Marcotte's focus is on problems and frustration rather than hopes, and this makes perfect sense to me. For the whole breadth of the case she makes, readers should click through to her piece.

Close to the end of her essay, Marcotte raises two chief areas of concern, and they seem to me very astute. And so, I will close by letting these speak for themselves. For the rest, again, I encourage those concerned with this issue to read the whole piece.
Whether or not it was the intention of the right-wing noise machine to throw more obstacles in the way of Democrats who want to play to their pro-choice, pro-gay rights feminist constituents -- it's also plausible that the right-wing noise machine was working on pure misogynist emotion -- the episode has had a chilling effect on the future of Democratic outreach to feminist communities, particularly the younger ones that flock to computers for political information as earlier generations flocked to television sets and newspapers.

Equally alarming is the possibility that this episode was something of a test case for the right-wing noise machine. The right blogosphere is mostly a sideshow act for the Republican Party, providing a cheap source of noise and noncontroversies to help professional shills like the Catholic League and the Heritage Foundation degrade the political discourse in this country, throwing culture war bombs to cover up unpopular Republican policies like starting a war in Iraq.

This locates both blame and concern precisely where, for the most part, they should be, it seems to me.