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

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Libertopian Exchange

Upgraded from Comments, an interesting exchange with a reader, "G." G's contributions are italicized.

There is nothing at all utopian about free-market philosophies or libertarianism. Indeed, the free market by definition…

Do you guys even hear yourselves? Stipulate away, but "free market ideology" yields an ugly slaughterhouse in practice. That's what I mean by "utopian."

States are force…

This is a fundamental libertarian mistake:

Force inheres in the facts that (a) humans are different, (b) humans are ineradicably prone to dispute, (c) humans are interdependent, and (d) humans are capable of retroactively rationalizing much of the conduct from which they benefit even when it contradicts their express convictions.

"Force" is politically prior to the state, and so dreams of "smashing the state" (in whatever variation) will never be adequate the problem of force. Read that again.

States, it is true, have traditionally functioned to impose the will of established minorities on oppressed or otherwise exploited majorities (libertarians, liberals, anarchists, democrats in their many permutations all grasp this in their respective fashions), but those who would seek to democratize rather than to smash the state do so to yoke the "legitimacy" of state violence to the project of creating and maintaining nonviolent alternatives for the adjudication of disputes and to protect the scene of informed, nonduressed consent for all citizens. Market libertarians, again, by stipulating "market outcomes" (whatever their context or concrete characterizations) as noncoercive by fiat, simply handwave the problem away. Both market and socialist libertarians alike often seem to share the faith that order is or at any rate can be "spontaneous" and hence that governance invested with legitimate recourse to force always-only impedes this order rather than facilitating it.

Given (a) through (d) above, you will guess that I consider this libertopian faith extraordinarily misplaced. I perfectly understand the appeal of the various libertopian faiths (in younger days I briefly held a version of one of them myself), but the facts don't look to me to support the faith and so I choose to cope instead with the facts.

I'd rather not have mob rule either.

To identify democracy with mob rule is as ridiculous as claiming to be able to square the circle. This is a tired slogan, and beloved of plutocrats. Don't be that guy.

Aristrocrats have the force of law behind them, businessmen do not; that is quite a difference.

What world do you live in? We live in a corporate-militarist plutocracy with vestigial institutional traces of relatively representative governance struggling desperately to protect us all from straightforward tyranny mouthing Christian fundamentalist pieties one minute and market fundamentalist pieties the next minute.

Businesspeople are functionally aristocratic (and having no taste, no manners, and no nobility to speak of they even look and act like traditional aristocrats), and, of course, they do have the force of law behind them.

Neoliberal ("free market") policy from Volcker-Reagan- [not to mention Deng Xiouping- Pinochet-Thatcher-] Bush-Greenspan-Clinton-Rubin-Bush II… [and on and on] has been a three decade planetary drumbeat for deregulation and privatization without end, for corporate-military secrecies (proprietary secrets, Defense secrets) over accountability, and all exactly coinciding with falling standards of living on nearly every metric for all but a diminishing few of the rich.

Neoliberal ("free market") globalization has imposed austerity regimes on developing countries while endlessly subsidizing North Atlantic defense contractors and consolidating corporatist intellectual property regimes, literally displacing a billion human beings into vast dangerous dense unregulated, unsupported megaslums ("free market" paradises, all -- just ask free marketeer Hernando de Soto) where they die, as surely as they would by direct genocidal design, of water-borne diseases cheaply treatable for over a century, unregulated toxic wastes, environmental disasters.

And all the while the businesspeople libertopians champion (sometimes, some of them, to be sure, a bit ambivalently) "restructure" the countryside via agribusiness model incentives to overurbanization and turn a blind eye to complementary warlord/druglord "incentives" to mass migration and complacently retreat instead to the "luxury" -- the gold plated toilet seats, the refried bean franchises, the botox injections, and palmfrond-shaped artificial islands stuffed with cheap pastel-hued McMansions -- of their gated private cities, a global archipelago of shitty Las Vegas clones for the brainless soulless profiteering pigs of the New World Order.

But, but, but the "free market" by definition…! Give me a break.

To suggest that society can eliminate powerful people (economically, socially, or otherwise) sounds a bit absurd to me.

Of course, what democrats say is: YOU have the power. Everybody has the power. Democracy is the idea that people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them, and then seeks to implement that idea. It isn't an effort to eliminate power, eliminate diversity, eliminate enterprise, or anything of the kind. But, scratch a libertarian, find an authoritarian, I always say. Warlords are still warlords, even when they wear a suit. I think democracies can and should protect people from warlords.

But if we want it to protect the poor from the rich as well, a more limited form of government is nearly required.

What is wanted is good government. "Limited" tells me nothing. Everything is limited in a finite universe. What are the criteria on the basis of which one presumably determines when government is "limited" enough? Libertopians always only say "more!" "Limited" government usually ends up meaning "none." (Or, more concretely, it ends up meaning "make money by any means necessary -- including making endless recourse to exploitable opportunities for personal profit from the constituted governments one doctrinally despises -- and screw everybody else.") Why not admit it?

[T]he world is far better off than its ever been, with the exception of our current Commander-in-Chief. People live longer, and are freer all around the world. I would say the internet is one of mankind's greatest inventions, and it is spreading rapidly.

I share your enthusiasm for the democratizing potential of online education, agitation, organizing, collaboration, and communication. The fact that incumbent interests (Establishment partisan machineries, Big Media, etc.) are struggling to stifle these democratizing energies has a lesson in it for you if you care to pay attention to it.

As for your claim that the world is better off, I would be flabbergasted by it if I didn't hear the same dangerous delusions from bright earnest well-meaning people literally every day.

I'm sorry to say that your confidence here, attractive though it is, is an expression of privilege rather than perception.

Read Mike Davis's Planet of Slums and David Harvey's Neoliberalism: A Brief History, from cover to cover, and then get back to me. Your convictions should be strong enough surely to cope with a little intelligent opposition.

Ron Paul is the only person, with a record to prove it, who might do something about it.

Ron Paul is yesterday's news, and even for that one brief shining moment when he was news -- due to the otherwise so palpably catastrophic awfulness of the Republican Presidential field for 2008 -- he was always just utterly wrong for America in more ways than I can count. There's no reason to rehearse these again -- scout through the archives for more if you like. When it comes to Ron Paul, the immortal words of Homer Simpson more than suffice at this point: "Welcome to Dumpsville. Population: You."

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Negotiating the Ends of Diversity and Objectivity in Technoprogressive Policy Discourse

Technoprogressive folks have to negotiate an interesting and really tricky quandary, it seems to me. We have to find ways to coherently affirm, at one and the same time
[one] the force of warranted consensus scientific results in determining the proper responsibilities of accountable elected representatives and unelected administrators in relatively democratic societies, on the one hand, while on the other hand affirming

[two] the prior and ongoing force of the expressed ends and concerns of the actual diversity of stakeholders to technoscientific change in such relatively democratic societies.

It's too easy for utilitarian/technocratic discourses to prioritize what they take to be expressions of scientific objectivity over expressions of democratic diversity.

Too often the language of utility will trump the language of freedom when intuitions about general welfare are getting mobilized by technocentric discourses:

Consider how the language of "optimality" or even, simply, "health" can circumvent concerns about informed nonduressed consent, plurality, and so on in biomedical policy formulations. Consider how the language of "urgency" and "existential threat" can circumvent concerns about public deliberation, secrecy, budgetary priorities, and so on in security policy formulations.

And these examples can be endlessly multiplied where mainstream corporate-militarist futurist and/or superlative technophiliac discourses are concerned, I'm afraid.

I must say, it is intriguing indeed to note just how often the accomplishment of these technocentric circumventions of the political (sometimes expressed in the ugly gutteral tonalities of libertopian ecstasy, sometimes with the wheedling "reluctance" of technocratic elites who "wish" that the masses could be equal to the complexities they themselves prioritize, but, sigh, it is just not so), will be followed thereupon by formulations that seem always only endlessly to bolster incumbent interests (usually the proximate profits of the major stockholders in and officers of certain multinational corporations which rather mysteriously come to represent "science," "progress," "free markets," "civilization" and so on) over actually available and widely desired alternatives, and hence to connect almost always only to de facto conservative politics.

Technocentric readers tempted here to launch into boo hoo protestations about their own good intentions note well, if you please, that "de facto" there. The force of my point is not -- necesssarily -- to attribute malign explicitly anti-democratizing intentions to all futurists and technophiliacs (only to some), nor would the demonstrable niceness and earnest well-meaningness of particular futurists and technophiliacs insulate them -- necessarily -- from this critique (only for some). The point is to elaborate some of the structural tendencies of technocentric analyses and policy language, given the specific histories of authoritative technoscientific discourses, given the corporate-militarist context that articulates contemporary technodevelopmental discourses, and so on.

Be Back Soon

It's been a week since my last post, I realize. Last week my teaching load doubled as I began teaching my intensive Critical Theory course at SFAI in the City. My argumentation intensive in the Rhetoric Department at Berkeley is still ongoing, but has just one more week to go. The overlapping summer terms are a bit brutal, much more than I expected, but relief is just around the corner. There is an enormous amount of stuff I've been wanting to talk about, and so blogging in earnest should resume next weekend.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

French Elections

Those who are interested in the French Legislative Election -- especially in the wake of the worrying victory a few weeks back of Mr. Sarkozy -- should be checking in on the European Tribune on a regular basis. Actually, dem-left Americans should be reading the EuroTrib every day, not just on key election days, if you ask me. Think of EuroTrib as a consistently somewhat smarter, sharper, more consistently anti-neoliberal, wonderfully pro-Euro version of dKos. According to EuroTrib's indispensible Jerome a Paris (also a prominent dKos diarist), here is an encouraging early survey of the post-election terrain:
First estimates suggest that the left will have 190-230 seats (vs 100-140 predicted) i.e. a lot more than expected (and more than they currently hold). Sarkozy has a majority to govern, but his aura of invincibility might be slightly breached.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Michael Moore Is Perfectly Happy for You to Download His Movie

Michael Moore is right on in his Health Care Politics and right on in his Copyfight Politics. Listen to him talk about how he feels about people downloading Sicko for free here. Michael Moore is an American hero and a hero of the contemporary American Left, whether you want to approve his every little argumentative move and directorial decision or not. I say, more like Moore, please!

Republicans Declare War on Science Yet Again

Bush’s nominee for Surgeon General, James Holsinger, is an anti-gay bigot and there is, therefore, a strong moral case against his confirmation as America's doctor (in case I need to spell it out for Republican strays among my readers, bigotry is a character flaw and character is a qualification for prestigious positions at the height of one's profession, not to mention the fact that the millions of queer citizens he irrationally denigrates are among the Americans whose medical interests he would be charged with representing, too). But Holsinger is more than the latest cynical gambit of the market fundamentalist wing (the corporate-militarists) of Movement Republicanism to whomp up the useful idiocy of the religious fundamentalist wing (The American Talibanists) in order get enough votes to ensure the plutocrats remain in a position to loot, cheat, and steal their way to ever greater fortunes for themselves and their friends, everybody else on earth be damned (their faithful enablers very much included). Quite apart from all that all too familiar ugliness, it is important to grasp that the Holsinger nomination also represents another skirmish in what Chris Mooney has described as the ongoing Republican War on Science.

Over thirty years ago, in 1974, the American Psychological Association stopped listing homosexuality as a mental illness, but Holsinger still believes it is one. He and his wife were founders of Hope Springs Community Church, which has a notorious "ex gay ministry" offering bogus "reparative therapy" for queer folks made to feel unsure and unhappy about themselves by the relentless bigotry of their "loving" communities. It actually matters that literally every reputable medical organization in America rejects the travesty that is "ex-gay" therapy as well as the underlying premise that homosexuality is a disease to be "treated" in the first place. It actually matters that the nominee for Surgeon General, seeking confirmation based on his qualifications for the position, is nothing short of a crackpot.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Nanosantalogical Feasibility

Over on's endlessly amusing (in a good way) "Refuting Transhumanism" blog, Eric Drexler was described by the author in a post from a couple of days ago as having "proudly claimed that no one has ever disproved his ideas on molecular nanotechnology and that this means that his ideas are feasible."

I wish that a link to this specific claim had been provided if such a thing exists. But be that as it may, if it is true that Drexler actually seriously made an argument of the form cited in the complaint, then that appears to be an awfully straightforward example of the fallacy ad ignorantiam (sorry to be a pedant), mistaking the lack of a refutation as a substantiation of a claim, and I daresay even partisans for Drexlerian nanotechnology would strongly prefer arguments of his that aren't fallacious in this way.

I enjoyed reading Drexler's Engines of Creation back in the mid-eighties, right when it was published and when I was still something of a kid. To this day I may well personally find Eric Drexler's ideas more worthy of serious consideration in some respects than infeasible's author does. But I do share his perfectly proper disdain for the handwaving of technophiliacs in what I call the Nanosantalogical Variation of Superlative Technology Discourse.

Friend of Blog Michael Anissimov posted a comment to infeasible's post, asking the author, "Can you explain how the existence of living organisms doesn't validate Drexler's ideas? All he is really talking about are artificial, programmable ribosomes." Needless to say, I can't speak for the blogger, but I did have a response, and one that seemed helpful as a way of getting at what I mean by Superlative Technology Discourse more particularly.

In the posted quote (presumably) authored or paraphrased by Drexler, he obviously isn't claiming that the existence of living organisms means that the era of nanotechnology (in the "robust" Drexlerian sense of human specified and controlled, replicative molecular manufacturing) has already arrived, does he? That's surely the force of the "artificial" in Michael's own formulation of his question. And the gap between actually existing organisms and desired Drexlerian nanotechnologies is of course the same gap that distinguishes this analogy from a valid deduction. This obviously doesn't mean the analogy hasn't anything to recommend it, just that the analogy can't bear the weight with which Superlative Technology Discourse in its Nanosantalogical Variation would want to freight it.

I must say I do think it is interesting how technophiliacs often seem to treat philosophical arguments by analogy that properly function to illuminate incredibly broad theses as if they likewise constitute arguments demonstrating practical viability, or even inevitability, or even the technodevelopmental imminence of some superlative technology they are enthused about at the moment.

Thus polemicists for the Strong Program of Artificial Intelligence regularly seem to leap from the reasonable enough philosophical notion that [1] if human consciousness is not supernatural then it should be susceptible in principle to instrumentally adequate scientifically warranted description, to the radically different idea that [2] within 20 years (a time-frame thus far always deferred yet curiously never revoked with each failure of the prediction) human beings will have overcome all the practical, theoretical, and sociocultural hurdles that currently frustrate ongoing projects to create artificial intelligence.

As with the gap between living organisms and Drexlerian nanotech (not to mention the fantasies of a circumvention of the deep and abiding barriers to utopian, often literally libertopian, construals of a post-political abundance that characterize too much nanosantalogical discourse), hype-notized handwavers tend to discover that the historical, infrastructural, sociocultural complexities, as well as the caveats that tend to freight real-world lab results, all radically frustrate the superlative formulations that might seem logically compatible with general thought experiments and proofs of concept.

(For those who are interested in these things: Other variations of Superlative Technology Discourse include, in my view, the Singularitarian Variation, the Immortalist Variation, and the Technocratic Variation. These Variations of Superlative Technology Discourse are very much not to be confused with reasonable and urgently needed technoprogressive stakeholder discourses on actual and emerging quandaries of nanoscale toxicity, actual and emerging quandaries of molecular biotechnology, actual and emerging quandaries of network and software security, actual and emerging quandaries of genetic, prosthetic, cognitive, and longevity medicine, actual and emerging quandaries of accountability of elected representatives to warranted scientific consensus, and so on. The differences between Superlative Technology Discourses and Technoprogressive Discourses are complicated to analyze, but, honestly, pretty easy to spot. Some rules of thumb: Precisely to the contrary of Superlative Technology Discourses, Technoprogressive Discourses tend to [1] resist transcendental formulations, [2] emphasize the concrete social and historical contexts of technoscientific change, [3] stress the existence of a diversity of stakeholders to technoscientific research and development [4] as well as the priority of democratic institutions and accountable processes to ensure the proper regulation of and fairest distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific changes, [5] reflect the caveats of actual experimental science, and [6] provide little support or inducement for the formation of personal sub(cult)ural identifications with particular technodevelopmental forecasts, scenarios, or fetishized technologies, either existing or projected, nor for the curiously marginalizing and defensive membership organizations that seem to arise from such abstract identifications.)

Happy Birthday Habeus Corpus, Wherever You Are

June 15, 1215 marks the signing of the Magna Carta, which contained the prohibitions against unlawful imprisonment that eventually were codified into the Great Writ of habeas corpus. And so, Habeus is arguably 792 years old today.

The ACLU wants you to send Habeus a birthday greeting. Here's more from the ACLU's Habeus resources:
Habeas got one early birthday present this week, when a federal court said the Bush administration cannot indefinitely imprison a U.S. resident on suspicion alone. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals called for a writ of habeas corpus directing the Pentagon to either charge Qatari national Ali al-Marri in the civilian court system, deport him, hold him as a material witness or release him.

This decision is a repudiation of the Bush administration and policies like the Military Commissions Act [which a Republican-controlled Congress, to its enduring shame, allowed our Rogue President to sign into law on October 17, 2006], and it shows that our system of laws is stronger than the misguided strategies of an overreaching executive branch.

Massachusetts Legislature Ratifies Earlier Court Decision: No Special Rights for Straight Couples, Equal Rights For All

Anti-gay bigots failed in their latest effort to get a Constitutional ban of same-sex marriage on the ballot in Massachusetts. It only takes 50 votes out of a possible 200 to get such a measure on the ballot, and this failure to overcome even so low a bar among lawmakers yesterday should be treated as a de facto legislative ratification of the earlier court decision that famously granted all citizens of Massachusetts equal access to the legal status of marriage, whatever the gender of one's partner. The next election providing the bigots an opportunity for a repeat effort at this sad gambit is in 2012, by which time another half decade will have elapsed without any frog plagues from an antigay god, without any consequent obliteration of heterosexual matrimony, but instead with a proliferation of boring queer couples being generally boring in a matrimonial fashion weaving their way into the fabric of everyday Massachusetts life.

As the politics of homosexual panic falters as the gift that keeps on giving for the Christian Talibanists of Movement Conservatism, I fully expect them to turn their hysterical attentions ever more conspicuously over to comparably idiotic panic about clone armies, designer babies, and human-animal hybrids (you know, medical research to cure diseases and ameliorate avoidable suffering). Anything to stall progress in its tracks as the world strains against the feudal, patriarchal, superstitious constraints that define the fundamentalist "pro-life" death-cult.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Those Who Learn from History are Condemned to Suffer from (Not to Mention be Endlessly Bored by) the Antics of Ignoramuses Who Repeat It.

Reinventors of the wheel, squarers of the circle, rugged individualists, buyers into Ponzi Schemes, enthusiasts for quick fixes, and those who would live by the sword, I salute you!

On a completely unrelated note: To my singularitarian, technological immortalist, nanosantological, and technocratic readership, Greetings! Reductionism, scientisim, elitism, and hype aren't exactly new moves. It's not like we don't have any idea where these roads are likely to lead to.

Thinking More About Morphological Freedom and Prosthetic Self-Determination

I have revised my short essay The Politics of Morphological Freedom and welcome comments and criticisms.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Real Galt's Gulch

Regular readers of Amor Mundi know that I cannot resist poking fun occasionally at Galt's Gulch, the incomparably silly "utopian" enclave of entrepreneurial supermen at the shriveled Grinch heart of Ayn Rand's sprawling awful offal of a novel, Atlas Shrugged.

No doubt many of you have given Rand's phonebook-scaled tome a shrug at last rather than a read when you noticed at the bookstore, among other details, that the thing may as well have been scrawled with a stubby orange crayon for all the emotional depth and stylistic nuance on exhibit therein. Or maybe you've noticed the grim set of the mouth each one of the book's legion of earnest white undergraduate fans tends to assume when they are about to quote one of its earthshattering profundities, only to be told, thereupon, that "A is A." Uh-huh.

Whatever the reason you decided to give it a pass, the gist of Atlas Shrugged is this: Once upon a time, a few dozen promethean industrialists of the haves and have-mores variety graced a planet (presumably, Earth, but one has to wonder) while alongside them its otherwise teeming billions of mooching mediocrities (many of them slated to purchase bestselling books like Atlas Shrugged, ironically enough) just kept taking taking taking from these Rushmore scaled innovative giants, buying their products and doing their bidding all the livelong day, sure, but also siccing jackbooted regulators on them incessantly for treating their employees like "slaves" just for wanting them to work a decent fourteen hour day to survive, letting mercury get into the drinking water of the unwary (caveat emptor, losers!), getting their kids addicted to the safe cigarettes their liberty craves, selling bombs to tyrant-fighting would-be tyrants who will have to be bombed later with new bombs, and all the other life-affirming activities that preoccupy their attention.

Rand's chisel-faced investor-class exemplars decide that having all the money and clout and trophy wives and sycophants in the world isn't, come to think of it, an adequate register of gratitude when all is said and done considering their indispensability and general awesomeness. And so, the whole troop adjourns to the secret hideout of the world's biggest brained soopergenius, a mad scientist named John Galt, who, like, has invented a heat ray and a perpetual motion machine and all sorts of other things capitalism would provide us instead of the Big Gulps and crappy teevee shows it gives us now on account of Big Brother and stuff.

The heroes wallow joyfully around in one another's superior company while the world outside is, they can only assume, going to hell in a handbasket for want of their helpful handholding and once in a lifetime offers of investment opportunities and so forth. I think at one point a slightly older guy named Hank seems to get it on with a hunky younger Latin guy named Francisco, but unfortunately this isn't a line Rand saw fit to develop beyond the sketchiest suggestion.

At the end, the hero John Galt makes the sign of the dollar in the air, presumably for the benefit of the studio audience that is always there for him in his own mind. This is his way of announcing that the industrialists are going to return at last to restore order to the world, since clearly jungle vines will have encroached and obliterated all the malls and putt-putt golf courses and everything without them around to keep things tidy (because, of course, if there's one thing billionaire industrialists can be expected to do above all others it's to keep the grounds trimmed and the fields tilled).

That's the end of the book, inasmuch as Rand saw fit to neglect the inevitable next episode of the narrative in which these absurd megalomaniacs stumble out of their hidden valley into a fully functioning world that didn't notice they had even left. Then as each self-suffused stuffed Suit tries to resume his life in the real world everybody treats them like a clueless asshole, and so at the very end they reconvene to decide whether or not they should "go on strike" for a while longer until the world finally must recognize their genius and, you know, finally kiss their asses to their satisfaction.

Anyway, I like to say things like post-Katrina New Orleans is Galt's Gulch, or Iraq under Occupation is Galt's Gulch, because these catastrophic human-made hells on earth represent real-world implementations of the neoliberal policies that are in fact as close to the realization of the market fundamentalist pieties of the Randroids and the Mont Pelerinists as one can ever actually get on planet earth.

Imagine, then, my surprise at discovering that Ayn Rand was inspired to write her Galt's Gulch fantasia by a real-world place, Ouray, Colorado. Although I daresay it is surely a lovely place filled with perfectly lovely people, it is difficult not to wonder at the fact that the utopian inspiration for Rand's retrofuturist magnum opus is a town with about 800 people in it -- 97.54% of whom are white -- filled with buildings from the 1800s, looking for all the world like the high kitsch Americana of Disneyland's "Mainstreet, U.S.A."

Could there be a more perfect vision of the neoliberal reality beneath the libertopian handwaving of the Randroid Right? The world as a septic sewer dotted with gated enclaves in which moneyed whites pretend to live in the McKinley era. You people do realize that A Boy and His Dog is, like, dystopian don't you?

How Many Robot Cultists Does It Take to Freep a Technodevelopmental Policy Poll?

Not a whole hell of a lot, as it happens. This result is funny in so many ways, and not all of them funny ha-ha.

It is perfectly possible to discuss in a serious and legible way the software and network security issues of the proximate to middle-term future as they are roughly anticipated in the criminal, military, and viral security landscape that confronts digital networked social formations today. In my view, IEET encouraged an unserious result from the get-go by framing such issues instead through the uselessly hyperbolizing monster movie iconography of entitative AI so beloved of singularitarians and their technophiliac fellow travelers in the first place.

There's possibly a lesson there for think tanks aspiring to be useful contributors to the stakeholder discourse of democratic technodevelopmental social struggle rather than, you know, shills for kooky marginal robot cults. YMMV.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Contemporary Movement Republicanism Owes More to Market Fundamentalism Than It Does Even to Religious Fundamentalism

Lately, hereabouts, I've been pointing out the indebtedness of Movement Republicanism -- and its current climax and crash in the Killer Clown College of the present Bush Administration -- to market libertarian rhetoric and thought (to put it generously).

This argument enrages especially those libertarians who have the good sense at least to recognize and despise Bush's despotism. "Anti-war" libertarians (among them, many current boosters for the candidacy of libertopian flavor of the month Ron Paul) who refuse to own up to the definitive trace of their own market utopianism in the plans and then edicts of neoliberal reconstruction that articulated the very war and occupation they now claim resolutely to oppose are a special case of the more general principle.

But it should go without saying that one doesn't escape culpability for one's part in ruinous outcomes just because one has the sense to recoil from the spectacle of that ruin as it unfolds. And this is especially so when complicit parties not only fail to recognize their conspicuous part in disasters decisively of their making but then actually go on in or even redouble their evangelical efforts, releasing ever more urgently and hysterically the energies of ruin even as they superficially decry some of the evident and horrifying consequences.

Another passage in David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism (which I cannot recommend highly enough to your attention) seemed to me striking in this connection:
We can [understand] neoliberalization either as a utopian project to realize a theoretical design for the reorganization of international capitalism or as a political project to re-establish the conditions for capital accumulation and to restore the power of economic elites…. [T]he second of these objectives has in practice dominated. Neoliberalization has not been very effective in revitalizing global capital accumulation, but it has succeeded remarkably well in restoring, or in some instances (as in Russia and China) creating, the power of an economic elite. The theoretical utopianism of neoliberal argument has, I conclude, primarily worked as a system of justification and legitimation for whatever needed to be done to achieve this goal. The evidence suggests, moreover, that when neoliberal principles clash with the need to restore or sustain elite power, then the principles are either abandoned or become so twisted as to be unrecognizable. This in no way denies the power of ideas to act as a force for historical-geographical change. But it does point to a creative tension between the power of neoliberal ideas and the actual practices of neoliberalization that have transformed how global capitalism has been working over the last three decades.

Market libertarian (in Harvey's phrase, "neoliberal") formulations provide the rationale for social and economic policies that serve incumbent elites in a way that is doubly difficult to unknot.

First, articles of market fundamentalist faith are utterly unrealized (not ot mention being, in fact, unrealizable, because they are at root incoherent, as witness: (a) that markets express a "spontaneous order" hampered by rather than articulated by state actors, (b) that there are no rational conflicts between people despite overabundant evidence to the contrary, (c) that optimizing for "efficiency" is one and the same thing as general welfare even when it is achieved through the externalization of the costs and risks of enterprise, (d) that market outcomes are uncoerced by definition whatever the circumstances may be, and so on) and, hence, immune from criticism from real-world perspectives.

As such, Second, they would have no real-world life at all except that they provide ongoing justification for policies that in fact straightforwardly preferentially benefit incumbent elites, which policies are treated as wavering cave-wall projections of the bonfire of market fundamentalist pieties. The disasters and failures that ensue from literally every this-worldly application of these libertopian pieties is always attributed by its True Believers as an expression of the debasing presence of the State, and so every failure always only confirms the faith, and the ferocity of this accumulating commitment always only enables further, disastrous, plutocratic "mis"-applications of the faith.

In short, plutocratic policies, which are the only actually realizable applications of market fundamentalist faith, will also always only be taken as mis-applications of that faith by its faithful. Hence, the failures of market ideology will always function to bolster it, and hence continue to fuel the politics of elite incumbency (that is to say, in our time, in the ongoing consolidation of a neoliberal/neoconservative corporate-militarist global order) in which market ideology, quite contrary to the self-image of some of its partisans, has its entire realized worldly life.

More Rorty

Jonah Lehrer, in his blog The Frontal Cortex definitely speaks for me when he says "I've never understood why, exactly, Rorty got such a vehement anti-science reputation. I always thought Rorty's views on science were simple common sense."

You can say that again!

"To put it simply," Lehrer continues, "Rorty thought we should stop thinking of scientific theories as mirrors of nature. Instead, we should see our facts as tools, which, as William James put it, "help us get into a satisfactory relation with experience."

He goes on to provide a few choice quotes from Rorty that are lovely to re-read (Indeed, what a pleasure it is to read peoples' favorite quotes among the many tributes, and to stumble upon only half-remembered but once-cherished bits!):
There is nothing wrong with science, there is only something wrong with the attempt to divinize it.

and this:

My rejection of traditional notions of rationality can be summed up by saying that the only sense in which science is exemplary is that it is a model of human solidarity.

By solidarity, Rorty meant that science had developed institutions that allowed it to engage in "free and open encounters":

"On this view, [continues Lehrer] there is no reason to praise scientists for being more 'objective' or 'logical' or 'methodical' or 'devoted to truth' than other people. But there is plenty of reason to praise the institutions that they have developed and within which they work, and to use these as models for the rest of culture. For these institutions give concreteness and detail to the idea of unforced agreement."

Lehrer concludes his comments nicely enough: "Finally, for those who would disparage Rorty as some kind of Derridean post-modernist who believed that there is no truth there are only texts [I'll leave aside whether or not it is exactly fair to disparage Derrida as saying this either. -- Dale], I can only offer this common-sense retort from Rorty himself":
To say that we should drop the idea of truth as out there waiting to be discovered is not to say that we have discovered that, out there, there is no truth.

Lehrer, sums up: "The man could turn a phrase."

Could he ever!

To all this, let me add that Rorty was always quite happy to concede the conventional Jamesian line that some descriptions are better in the way of belief than others, and he would surely agree with the criteria and even the weightings of these criteria that tend to be mobilized by scientifically literate people in general when one wants to go about trying to discern just which among the descriptions presently on offer are the best candidates for our belief where, say, matters of prediction and control are concerned.

What Rorty disapproved were the priestly and patriarchal paraphernalia with which our truths tend to get freighted once we have settled into our warranted confidences in them. These, one can nicely summarize as:

Fantasies of Finality (which include models of scientific "progress" that rely stealthily on finality as when science is figured as an approach, sometimes asymtotic, sometimes not, toward "capture," correspondence, indefeasibility, and so on)

Fantasies of Certainty (which is, after all, a gun that shoots nothing but blanks, inasmuch as there is no single available criterion for warranted belief which has not, in the past, perfectly properly warranted beliefs that were nonetheless subsequently defeated for better alternatives)

Fantasies of Irresistibility (the delusive and hence dangerous dream of a compelling self-evidence that could insulate one's cherished beliefs from contest, from appealing attitudes about why democracy, charity, or reasonableness must finally prevail over elitism, greed, and aggression, for example, as well as to ugly parochial attitudes about the racial or religious or socioeconomic superiority of this or that corralling together of some among other human animals or what have you)

Fantasies of Hardness (as against, you know, the "soft" not-quite truths of the poor effete aesthetes of the humanities, for example, or the poor social scientists with their wannabe objective pie charts, and so on)

Fantasies of Objectivity (construed not as adherence to useful criteria of reasonableness hacked together through long centuries of hard-won collective experimentalist effort, but as some kind of correspondence between our own warranted knowledges of the world and the way the world itself would have us know it if it could somehow have and express opinions in the matter)

It is in this last formulation that one can see how Rorty's atheism put him at odds with the scientism of many other public atheists, who are liable to look from a Rortian perspective to have opted for curiously faithful construals of warranted belief, usually the better to preserve the authoritarian priestly formations that tend to accompany such construals.

This they do, perhaps, because they would like to arrive at or to preserve the prerogatives of such priestly authority themselves, or because they would prefer to obey the edicts of priests in certain matters of belief rather than undertake the effort of thinking for themselves, or of taking on the burden or responsibility for beliefs that one comes to hold on their own, or of facing the pleasures and dangers of a world in which there may not be an adequate partner or parent-surrogate to console them for the uncertainty, fragility, vulnerability, complexity, and betrayals of life as adults are compelled to grapple with these things.

No doubt most of the champions of science who disdain Rorty as some kind of clownish or menacing relativist feel quite assured that their own smug scientisms are free from such Fantasies as these, and that such formulations are truisms everybody already believes or perhaps facile straw men easily torched without giving pause to the triumphalist trajectory of human technoscience aspiring ecstatically in the direction of theology's omni-predicates.

To these I can only say that it is not by your occasional and tangential reassurances, nicely mindful of your finitude when the force of argument demands as much from you, but by your words and deeds in the main that you are best exposed in your narcissistic immodesties and ambitions. But beyond this, it seems to me that the reaction to Rorty's rather commonsensical formulations about truth, knowledge, progress, and shared hope (admittedly, complicated sometimes by a somewhat whimsical and also acerbic rhetorical streak that I would be the last person in the world to complain about) is itself as fine an indicator of one's susceptibility to authoritarianism and priggishness in matters of belief as anything else we've got on hand.

It is never "truth" but the authoritarianism of certain flavors of truth-talk that is menaced, if anything at all can properly be said to be, by Richard Rorty's writing. We should bear this in mind when observing those who claim to discern a threat in Rorty's work on warranted scientific belief.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Afghan Addendum

By the way, as a side note, I would not want to seem to endorse Rorty's defense of the war against Afghanistan (one of many snippets of opinion expressed in his last words, quoted below, most of which I found to be right on the money).

Although the arguments for attacking the Taliban in Afghanistan were at any rate legible, I suppose, especially when compared to the surreally stupid, incomparably immoral, and conspicuously illegal "pre-emptive" invasion and occupation Iraq, I want to say that I was one of those people who disapproved of war (as opposed to, for example, more limited police actions) in Afghanistan.

I expected that it would be innocent civilians who would suffer most as always in war, rather than the literal terrorists and their few enthusiasts. Not to mention the fact that I recognized quite early on that the Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight would likely make a disastrously bad situation worse in Afghanistan. Although such arguments rarely get much play these days despite the left's slow-moving arrival at an anti-war and anti-occupation consensus of opinion (as if one would ever even know that this consensus exists, and massively so, given the timidity of our elected representatives on these matters), definitely there were plenty of people who agreed with me at the time, and as far as I'm concerned it seems to me that circumstances have vindicated our doubts.

Of course, vindication of this kind is the coldest kind of comfort these days when it comes to the endless catastrophes of the Killer Clown Administration, inasmuch as we all, whether right or wrong, are forced to sleep in the shit.

Richard Rorty's Last Published Words

The feisty last paragraph of Rorty's feisty last published interview, an unfinished exchange with Danny Postel all of which has been published in The Progressive:
Richard Rorty: When I heard the news about the Twin Towers my first thought was “Oh, God. Bush will use this the way Hitler used the Reichstag fire.” I have never thought of the Republicans at any time since Reagan’s election as more than greedy, unscrupulous scoundrels. In regard to the “war on terror” I have described the same trajectory as a lot of other leftists: in favor of the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and against invading Iraq. In regard to domestic policy, I am still in favor of soaking the rich and redistributing the money to the workers (though not of nationalizing the means of production). On “cultural” matters, there was a time when I had old-fogeyish doubts about gay and lesbian marriage that I no longer have. But that doesn’t seem much of shift.

Your Republican Party

I know everybody's posting the results of this Gallup Poll, but it's just so flabbergasting I can't help myself.
PRINCETON, NJ -- The majority of Republicans in the United States do not believe the theory of evolution is true and do not believe that humans evolved over millions of years from less advanced forms of life. This suggests that when three Republican presidential candidates at a May debate stated they did not believe in evolution, they were generally in sync with the bulk of the rank-and-file Republicans whose nomination they are seeking to obtain.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Only Way to Stop War Is to Make It Unprofitable

[via ThinkProgress] This morning on CBS’s Face the Nation, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) strongly advocated a military strike against Iran: “I think we have to be prepared to take aggressive military action against the Iranians to stop them from killing Americans in Iraq.”

Bob Schieffer interrupted to get this clarification: “Let’s just stop right there. Because I think you probably made some news here, Senator Lieberman. You’re saying that if the Iranians don’t let up, that the United States should take military action?”

Lieberman's response: “I am.”

ThinkProgress continues with this utterly chilling (although not exactly unexpected) report from the Bunker: "Vice President Cheney… reportedly believes the diplomatic track with Iran is pointless, and is looking for ways to persuade Bush to confront Iran militarily.” Steve Clemons of the Washington Note wrote recently that “Cheney is planning to deploy an ‘end run strategy’ around the President if he and his team lose the policy argument” and is meeting with Iran war advocates at the American Enterprise Institute to piece together a coalition."

It doesn't matter how insane, how catastrophic, how overwhelmingly opposed by the people to whom they are in principle beholden, how deeply immoral, how literally criminal, how pointless, how obscenely wasteful all this is.

Those of us who oppose war as always only a defeat, those of us who know war to be a defeat of civilization even for those who presumably "prevail" in these bloodyminded contests, those of us who know war to be a brutal and, for everybody involved, on all sides, brutalizing indulgence in conceit, in wanton destructiveness, in sickening slaughter, I think we are simply too little capable of entering into the heads of those who eat war without end and draw some sick sustenance from it.

We are too little capable of grasping that there are some people who do not lose in war, by their lights. There are Americans for whom even Vietnam was not the loss that it was for America at large. Vietnam made some Americans filthy rich. And that matters enormously.

It is true that Iraq is in a significant sense "about oil," and this is, surely, bad enough. But it is crucial to remember that even without the oil Iraq has been a vast chaotic field in which billions have been looted and stolen, opportunistically as well as systematically, while it has been as well an epic engine of "legitimate" war profiteering, an inducement to hyperbolic corporate-militarist money-grabbing for half a decade.

There are winners in these wars and these winners are the worst people in the world.

These are the Evil Doers you don't hear about. These are people who don't care about people at all, they care only about profits. This is one of the truisms that happens also to be true, and it is crucial that we learn the lesson of it.

War is surely the greatest abomination set loose upon the world and I am a citizen of the country that is the monstrous face of War.

War, as Major General Smedley Butler put the point so eloquently in 1935, is a Racket. It is driven by a lust for filthy lucre by filthy war-criminals. There is no argument, no protest, no prick of conscience, no appeal to character nor to sympathy nor to sense, no vision of a different and better way that will constrain the lust for war's easy bloody money.

Literally the only way to stop war is to make it unprofitable.

Any commercial enterprise that devotes its energies to the needs of our Nation's proper defense should make only enough to repay its costs and then modestly and fairly to compensate its employees (and this modesty should conspicuously include those at the "top"). Military industries should be inspired to their work by their sense of the need to contribute to the just defense of democracy against palpable threat rather than by their taste for easy money stealthed under cover of "defense" in its present form as an elaborate impalpable abstraction.

After the nightmare of Vietnam, America ended the draft and shifted to a voluntary defensive force, in principle to provide a check on tyrannical militarist ambitions, to help ensure that only truly urgent truly just causes would attract volunteers to the dangers and demands of the armed forces. So, too, in the midst of our current distress we should make war production unprofitable and uncompetitive to provide the same check, to help ensure that industry sacrifices rather than succeeds when it turns its incomparable energies to death-dealing.

Of course, even setting aside the ominous question of the recent rise of mercenary armies helmed by religious and market fundamentalist ideologues with no love of our democratic freedoms, our voluntary armed forces are too much a slick sad sham, since permanent poverty creates conditions that direct by design great numbers of criminally neglected, vulnerable young people into harm's way as their only chance for a better future in contemporary America. This obscenity is abetted by the very corporate-militarist system that profits from the unending bloodletting in the first place.

The concentration of wealth at the very sites that supply the War Machine with its destructive tools and own the media outlets that whomp up the War Machine's hysterical calls for violence over dialogue, likewise drains the living world of energy and possibility, maintaining the barren hopeless moonscape of poverty that supplies the War Machine with the hands to hold its bloody tools, the ears to hear the call to kill to fill the pockets of the rich.

Only when the law comes properly to regard every single dollar's profit from warmaking a filthy, bloody, criminal dollar stolen from America's peaceful future and general welfare, only then will war become the last resort lying politicians claim it to be as now they interminably beat the drum for wars without end as they greedily contemplate profits without end.

Richard Rorty, October 4, 1931 -- June 8, 2007

Richard Rorty has died. If I had never read his work, I would quite literally not be the person writing these words.

I still viscerally remember the experience of reading Contingency, Irony and Solidarity when it was first published in 1989. I felt utterly overwhelmed and inadequate in the face of the text and read it from the first page through to the last and then, without a second's pause, flipped back to the first page and read it again to the end. Then, still unsatisfied with myself, I started again right away and re-read it a third time after that.

For me, Richard Rorty remains the definitive anti-authoritarian writer. His notorious diatribes against conventional philosophical "truth-talk" were hardly the glib or vacuous celebrations of relativism they were regularly derided as, but constituted an affirmation of that which is good in the way of belief and so stands up to the tests of experience, testifies to the urgencies of personal perfection, and facilitates the conversation of peers, but while at once decisively repudiating the transcendentalizing seductions of Priestly authority -- the false assurances of certainty, finality, purity, and ease, whether in the name of God or of Science or of Convention. When Rorty insisted that there was no "truthful" language available to us in which we might say the way the world is in a way the world would prefer to be described in he managed to imagine a world that was truly without even the vestigial scientistic trace of faithfulness in false gods, false idols, false forces of history, in the false priestly pieties that interminably demand our obedience or our worship. This godless world Rorty testified to was scarcely an arid or barren landscape, but one that he filled instead with the clamorous conversation of a free and expressive humankind, a world of creative and collaborative peers. His was a world that deserved and demanded the democracy which, Rorty always insisted, had firm priority over even the philosophy to which he dedicated his life.

Richard Rorty, democrat, secularist, progressive has vanished from the world.

I will remember him, I will read him, I will teach him, and I will write in the tug of his gravity until I vanish from the world myself.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Outrageous! Finkelstein Denied Tenure

[via The Chronical of Higher Education] DePaul Rejects Tenure Bid by Finkelstein

The headline contines on: "Says Dershowitz Pressure Played No Role." Needless to say if the thing denied in this headline were really true there would be little need to deny it in the first place. The article outlines the story, for those who do not know it:
Norman G. Finkelstein, [a] controversial political scientist who has been engaged in a highly public battle for tenure at DePaul University, learned today that he had lost that fight. In a written statement released to The Chronicle, the university confirmed that Mr. Finkelstein had been denied tenure.

Mr. Finkelstein’s department and a college-level personnel committee both voted in favor of tenure,

Pause there, let it sink in, and now continue on...
but the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences wrote a memorandum against it, and the University Board on Promotion and Tenure voted against granting tenure. The final decision rested with the university’s president, the Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, who said in the statement that he had found “no compelling reasons to overturn” the tenure board’s recommendation.

“I played by the rules, and it plainly wasn’t enough to overcome the political opposition to my speaking out on the Israel-Palestine conflict,” Mr. Finkelstein said in an interview. “This decision is not going to deter me from making statements that, so far as I can tell from the judgment of experts in the field, are sound and factually based.”

Mr. Finkelstein’s case has excited widespread interest, in part because of the involvement of Alan M. Dershowitz, a professor of law at Harvard University. The two scholars have sparred repeatedly in public. Last fall, Mr. Dershowitz sent members of DePaul’s law and political-science faculties what he described as “a dossier of Norman Finkelstein’s most egregious academic sins, and especially his outright lies, misquotations, and distortions.”

Informed of the news this evening, Mr. Dershowitz said, “It was the right decision, proving that DePaul University is indeed a first-rate university...”

In the DePaul statement, Father Holtschneider decried the outside interest the case had generated. “This attention was unwelcome and inappropriate and had no impact on either the process or the outcome of this case."

This is not the end of this outrageous story. DePaul's acquiescence to the hysterical straightjacket of neoliberal and neoconservative American discourse concerning Israel's current policy toward the Palestinians (among other things) is nothing short of an outrage, and will surely provoke widespread condemnation and, one hopes, formal censure. Around the world, in Europe, in South America, and even in Israel itself, Norman Finkelstein's scholarly contributions are recogized as indispensable to our understanding of contemporary conflict. I am quite cheerful to testify to the indispensability of Norman Finkelstein's work to my own understanding of Israel (Tom Segev, the late Edward Said are also key for me), even when his is not a perspective to which I would adhere in every detail. It is to be hoped that every scholar, whatever their politics, recognizes Norman Finkelstein's worth to the Academy as a scholar and as an engaged intellectual and that every person of independent conscience and critical perception will deplore this disgusting effort to punish an exemplar of free inquiry and committed scholarship.

The Academy does not deserve to exist as an institution so long as it fails to cherish and to nourish the work and efforts of figures like Norman Finkelstein. In an era of ever more sophisticated peer-to-peer networks, in which free expression, research, content provision, collaboration, and editing/fact-checking are rendered ever more negligibly costly and ever more widely accessible you better believe that the Academy will need all the help it can get to justify its continued privileged existence.

The failure of Finkelstein's bid for tenure is a catastrophic failure for the Academy. And as a sometimes reluctant champion of the Academy as a lonely space in anti-intellectual Amurca that still exerts some small if only occasional measure of legitimating force against the grain of the monologic energies of planetary corporate-militarism I can only hope that the Academy will make its displeasure known in this case, for Norman Finkelstein's sake, surely, as well as for our own.

More on Libertopian Iraq

Earnest "anti-war" libertarians (not to mention the stupid greedy warmongering market fundamentalist dupes and sloganeers who throng more cynically than earnestly among them) simply must come to terms with the real world implications of the slogans and theories they have been championing all these years with such self-assurance and obliviousness.

From David Harvey's excellent A Brief History of Neoliberalism:
[O]n 19 September 2003... Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, promulgated four orders that included 'the full privatization of public enterprises, full ownership rights by foreign firms of Iraqi businesses... the opening of Iraq's banks to foreign control... [and] the elimination of nearly all trade barriers.' The orders were to apply to all areas of the economy, including public services, the media, manufacturing services, transportation, finance, and construction.... The labor market, on the other hand, was to be strictly regulated. Strikes were effectively forbidden in key sectors and the right to unionize restricted. A highly regressive 'flat tax' (an ambitious tax-reform plan long advocated for implementation by conservatives in the US) was also imposed.

These orders were, some argued, in violation of the Geneva and Hague conventions, since an occupying power is mandated to guard the assets of an occupied country and not sell them off. Some Iraqis resisted the imposition of what the London Economist called a 'capitalist dream' regime upon Iraq. A member of the US-appointed Coalition Provisional Authority forcefully criticized the imposition of 'free market fundamentalism,' calling it 'a flawed logic that ignores history.' Though Bremer's rules may have been illegal when imposed by an occupying power, they would become legal if confirmed by a 'sovereign' government. The interim government, appointed by the US, that took over at the end of June 2004 was declared 'sovereign.' But it only had the power to confirm existing laws. Before the handover, Bremer multiplied the number of laws to specify free-market and free-trade rules in minute detail... expressing the hope that these institutional arrangements would 'take on a life of their own' such that they would prove very difficult to reverse.

In that expression of faith in the force of initial arrangements set loose upon the world that would "take on a life of their own" I see the usual libertopian faith in "spontaneous order," the neoliberal fantasy that the "creative destruction" of barriers to "trade" (you know, barriers like public oversight, environmental regulation, safety regulation, penalties for fraud, and so on) will inevitably unleash "market forces" from their shackles to the betterment of all. Or, at least, to the betterment of incumbent elites. Or, at least, the betterment of "our sort" of incumbent elites. Or, at least, to the betterment of, well, who knows who, damn them librul elites!

My point in endlessly flogging this connection is not to imply that market libertarians are insincere in their appalled condemnations of the worst excesses of neoconservative Republican corporate-militarism, but to insist that they should recognize and take some measure of responsibility for the real-world effects of their own libertopian formulations before democratic and progressive anti-war activists accept them as anything like trustworthy allies in our righteous opposition to the endlessly bloodthirsty, endlessly profitable War Machine now loosed so catastrophically upon the world.

Bow Chicka Bow-Wow

Okay, one more Creation Museum Folly (again, via cubswin on dKos). Adam is, like, totally my type. But it looks like Cher got him first.

Books, Reason, Baaaaaaaaad

Creation Museum Follies (via a cubswin diary on dKos)

"Overcoming the Limits"

Transhumanism advocates using technology to overcome the limitations of the human body and mind.

Okay, transhumanists, please explain this to me. I am genuinely curious about this very regularly reiterated definition/slogan of transhumanism.

When you refer to "the limitations" in this sense:

Are there any traits on the basis of which one would recognize a thing as a body or a mind in the first place that are not among "the limitations" transhumanists want to overcome? That is to say, is there any actual incarnation that does not count as a perniciously "limited" one in the sense that inspires transhumanist movements?

If the answer to the above is "no," then how is this attitude distinguishable in a way that matters from a conventional ascetic or puritanical hostility to embodied life as such? Many critics of technophiliac "futurist" discourses like transhumanism accuse it of digital utopianism and a disdain of what Cyberpunks call the "meat" body, an attitude that conduces to a certain hostility toward embodied life as it is actually lived and sometimes to actually variously embodied people. I will assume, for the sake of argument, for now, that these critics are wrong to say such things about you transhumanists. Nevertheless, can you see what might lead honest people of good will to worry about such an entailment in the transhumanist disdain of bodily limits as such? What are such critics getting wrong about your attitudes? How would you reassure them on this score?

If the answer to the above is "yes," on the other hand, then do you assume that there is either a working consensus as to what these key limits we should overcome consist of, or perhaps absent such consensus some objective criterion on the basis of which you are making your determination about the actual limits to be overcome?

It seems to me personally that transhumanists taking to this track often end up
EITHER [1] defending a fairly mainstream (or what looks to me very mainstreamable) sense of the "limits" to be overcome -- in which case they are just defending a slightly more imaginative version of "healthcare as public good," making it hard to see, in turn, what special contribution transhumanism in particular is presumably making to the discussion. (I can defend cognitive liberty and the longevity dividend, for example, without taking up any of the more sweeping, superlative, transcendentalizing, sub(cult)ural transhumanist claims and probably advocate a high percentage of the realizable, proximate policy recommendations supported by more reasonably informed democratic transhumanists);

OR [2] defending a thick conception of "optimality" that will strongly prefer particular morphologies, capacities, and lifeways over others, whatever the outcomes of informed, nonduressed consent in matters of actually desired morphologies, capacities, and lifeways -- in which case it is hard to see how these views do not risk becoming a de facto "enhancement" perfectionism which, at its worst, will look too close to eugenicism for comfort (by which I do not mean to accuse anybody of eugenicism, since I am assuming, for the sake of argument, for now, that such a resemblance would also trouble most transhumanist-identified people, whatever their specific stand on enforceable health standards and whatever their specific stand on best practices of enforcement).

Thursday, June 07, 2007

FDR on Democracy Against Corporate-Militarism

The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to the point where it becomes stronger than the democratic state itself. That in its essence is fascism -- ownership of government by an individual, by a group or any controlling private power.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Gravitas Vs. Fascitas

Concerning the recent spate of Presidential debates, is anybody else getting the rather ominous feeling that Democrats and Republicans aren't really truly looking for the same things in a President at a, like, awfully fundamental level?


"Prepare to Believe" intone the first words of the Official Website of Kentucky's newly opened twenty-seven million dollar Creation Museum. Why, oh why, did I click the link after reading's recent account of their tour of the place? Giving this theocraptacular pile a lingering looksee while still reeling somewhat from Monica Goodling's recent Regentastic testimony I feel rather as though I've taken a one-two punch from freshly-scrubbed saucer-eyed Christian Amurca.

The Creation Museum Homepage goes on to promise (perhaps oblivious to the ironies involved in the claim) a "state of the art" facility, presenting a "walk through history." This phrase, curiously enough, is in quotes on the site, suggesting that perhaps somebody at any rate knows that this isn't exactly "history" the Creation Museum is peddling.

Highlights for me from's report of their tour include the image of "Adam and Eve… standing in a pool of water, their genitals coyly obscured by lily pads…." and then this gem:
After the flood, Noah's descendants multiply again on Earth, but not quickly or broadly enough to satisfy God, who then introduces a slew of new languages to drive people apart…. The ensuing C-for-Confusion theme is represented through a gritty and menacing back alley postered with newspaper headlines about the rise in abortion, drug use, homosexuality and teen suicide.

The Lord's work, I suppose, ain't exactly subtle. Don't worry Christian Amurca. When it comes to scientific truth, as with following the pesky rule of law, you may have crossed the line, but we know you didn't mean to. Get called on it, that is.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Ron Paul, Libertopian Darling

Well, that didn't take long. Orcinus on the Man of the Hour.

The Anti-Governmentality Will Never Govern Well

Kos is one of the growing number of progressives who are coming, at long last, to "get it," and to say it loud and proud: Republican cronyism, incompetence, theft, fraud, and war-profiteering are not unfortunate accidents. On the contrary, they arise directly and inevitably from the anti-government ethos of Movement Conservatism itself, from the defining market libertarian philosophy that has ruthlessly taken over the Republican party from the Reagan era to the present epoch of the Killer Clowns... ever more resolutely driving America off the cliff, all the while.

I recommend his recent posts describing the quixotic efforts of poor wingnut Newt Gingrich to salvage electoral viability for the Republican Revolution (you know, the one with his own irrationally exuberant libertechian fingerprints all over it) by insisting on some shred of commitment to competent governance from Republicans while the demon spawn of the Movement, grinning grubs like Tom DeLay, respond like clockwork by accusing Newt of Lurving Big Gu'ment for his efforts (see today's "Government Is Not Working" as well as Kos's earlier "Republican Implosion" for more).

Of course, all this is just a straightforward application of my regularly reiterated point that the failure of Movement Conservatism is likewise a failure of market libertarian ideology. (For my shrill market fundamentalist peanut gallery I refer, mind you, to the real world failure of market libertarian ideology. You are quite right, as True Believers always are, that the never realized never realizable abstract ideals of libertopianism from which you derive your statuesque certitude remain as intact as ever. They are, after all, in stricto senso incapable of "failure" inasmuch as failure requires some actual connection to reality.)

As always, for me, the key lesson here is that the democratic left must be especially vigilant as the smoking Hindenburg of Movement Conservatism becomes a mushroom cloud. We cannot allow Republicans to run for the "cover" of professed "libertarianism" when it is market libertarian slogans and arguments that fueled Movement Conservatism from the get-go. America's native anti-intellectualism, conformism, exceptionalism, privilege, complacent acquiescence to elite mismanagement will offer up endless inducements to the most superficial change and reform, to looking the other way as the cast of corrupt characters changes party rather than corruption itself suffering defeat, from earnest elite professions of "lessons learned" conjoined with stealthy consolidations of the status quo, and so on.

To argue, as Movement Conservatives have always done, that "government is the problem" (when the problem has always been unaccountable unresponsive undemocratic governance) and that "privatization" and "deregulation" and "tax cuts" without end are the "answer" (which always translates to welfare for the rich and bullets for the vulnerable, even when advocated by otherwise perfectly nice people) is to express an outlook and rhetoric and policy that is absolutely continuous with the most extreme and marginal market fundamentalist ideology of the anarcho-capitalist. And hence to retreat from Republicanism into market fundamentalism is not to learn from one's mistakes but to retreat into the Bunker. The democratic left cannot let the Right (including the neoliberals in notionally "left" partisan formations, the neoconservatives, the free market ideologists, the corporate globalists, and so on) get away with this kind of facile bait and switch.

One hopes that all of this is a lesson Kos himself is taking to heart, and that his occasional genuflections to "Libertarian Dems" are at an end.

Technocentricity and Faith-Based True Belief

Upgraded and adapted from the Comments.
James Fehlinger notes: Cult true believers are never interested in "genuine understanding". In public "dialogue", they are simply interested in PR and spin control. (E.g., the Scientologists who post on alt.religion.scientology.)

This is true and an immensely important point to keep in mind. It is just one more reason to be troubled by the (apparently well-nigh irresistible) tendency of online technocentric discourses to take up sub(cult)ural forms; that is to say, to take on the special energies and obfuscatory defensiveness of marginal identity movements. And I say this as a person whose own preoccupations incline very much to technocentricity, but one hopes in its reality-based rather than faith-based tonalities.

When we're talking about singularitarians, technological immortalists, extropians, cybernetic totalists, enhancement perfectionists, and the other very recent, very voluble technocentric sub(cult)ural formations it pays to remember that the True Belief arises in these cases in response to the worldly catnip promises of immortality, comic book superpowers, soopergenius brains, endless delights, wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, on the one hand, as well, on the other, to the psychic and existential uncertainties of rapid, sweeping, intensive global technodevelopmental change, the specter of insanely destructive devices, the technoconstituted skewing of force in the direction of indifferent elite organizations, and so on.

Technocentric discourses of transcendence, in other words, are activating powerful unconscious drives and generic archetypes. Of course, the promises and threats of ongoing and proximately upcoming technoscientific change are indeed incomparable.

That is the whole point.

Never has the need for reasonableness been more urgent, rarely have the prompts for irrationality been more numerous or more insistent.

Flutter the Bloodstained White Glove

Upgraded and adapted from the Comments:
True Belief in its proselytizing march of death-dealing Destiny is especially perplexing to the reasonable, since it feels as if one is forced to relinquish one's own critical moderateness to do justice to True Belief's uncritical immoderateness.

How zealots and cultists smugly insist one extend to them the niceties of reasonableness as they bulldoze the niceties themselves!

Just look, for example, at the barking dogs of the Bush Administration amidst the carnage and wreckage of their dot-eyed corporate-militarist rampage and the way they flutter and wave their bloodstained white gloves as they call for "civility" from their appalled and incomparably reasonable critics.

I think it might be time to take down from the shelves again the many studies of authoritarian personality and authoritarian social formations that were written by devastated Europeans in the aftermath of WWII (Fromm, Maslow, Adorno, etc.).

Sunday, June 03, 2007


Futurolalia (from Latin futūrus, about to be + Greek lalein, to babble): A kind of glossolalia peculiar to online armchair "futurologists" and professional corporate "futurists," futurolalia is a manic mode of public discourse concerning global technoscientific change, consisting of superficially intelligible jargon and utterances expressed in a state of essentially religious inspiration. To the extent that "development" and "technology" discourses are defined primarily in connection to the concerns of incumbent interests with corporate and military "competitiveness," futurolalia conduces primarily to the benefit of the political right, whether insistently as in popular futurolaliacal performances in which ecstatic technophilia is wedded explicitly to market fundamentalist ideology, or more indirectly through an apolitical or anti-political technocratic endorsement of the political assumptions of the status quo.

See: Acceleration, Acceleration of Acceleration, Apocalyptic Threats, Artificial Intelligence (Strong Program), Cybernetic Totalism, Extropianism, Fetishism, Free Market Ideology, Exponential Trends, Golem, Grey Goo, Hype, Libertarianism, Militarism, Military-Industrial Complex, Mind Uploading, Moore's Law, Recursion, Reductionism, Scientism, Singularity, Sorcerer's Apprentice, Spontaneous Order, Technological Immortalism, Transcendence.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Steve Gilliard is Gone

Steve Gilliard has died. He was one of my very favorite political bloggers. His voice (at The Newsblog) felt as indispensable to me as Atrios' (on Eschaton), as Jerome a Paris' (on EuroTrib), as Matt Stoller's (on MyDD), as Digby's (on Hullabaloo). I never met him but, to be sure, I'll miss him. I think the left blogosphere desperately needed and still needs his impatient good sense and straightforward analyses. Irreplaceable, righteous, hilarious, Steve Gilliard, I salute you.

Problematical Posthumanistical

I want to re-iterate again my insistence that in its primary current technocentric usage the term "posthuman(ist)" looks to me to be at best conceptually confused and at worst actively pernicious. This is especially so to the extent that it is meant to express some kind of idealized superlative technodevelopment state (either utopian or dystopian) at which some elite few or even "all" humans are presumably aiming, converging, accelerating, or what have you, rather than simply a term denoting a critical or skeptical attitude in the present concerning the limitations of humanist discourses and institutions.

When I say that some "posthumanist" discourses -- again, especially in their technocentric variations -- are conceptually confused I refer to the simple fact that either humans "are" posthuman in this sense right now already, or we never will be. That is to say, humanity was "essentially" prostheticized when members of the species stumbled their way into urban/cultural/linguistic lifeways, and humanity has variously interminably re-articulated and re-incarnated its being through techniques and technologies ever since.

When I say that some "posthumanist" discourses are perniciously anti-democratizing, I refer to avowed "Posthumanists" who like to use that term to express their identification here and now with projected differently technologized beings (prostheticized or genetically therapized supermen, sentient spacecraft, hive minded robot armies, superintelligent digital networks, and so on -- and, yes, dear readers, these people really do indeed exist), and my point is that this gesture of identification is making a move the essential political content of which is its disidentification with human beings as they currently exist.

This move tends to be fairly straightforwardly sociopathic, when all is said and done, and in any case anti-democratizing in its effects. It is no accident that some of the most conspicuous, usually avowedly sub(cult)ural, expressions of "Posthumanism" -- especially online -- are such strange attractors for the political Right (consider, at a glance, the market fundamentalist "Extropian" or "libertopian" variations of posthumanism, the priestly-authoritarian religiosity of the "Singularitarian" variations of posthumanism, and then the "apoliticism," "anti-politicism," and status quo apologetics of the reductionist technocrats, the more mainstream Bayesians, "Brights," and cybernetic totalists which I tend to denote as the "statisticians and bomb builders" variations of posthumanism), and again and again and again one finds in them an eager or "reluctant" embrace of (or relative indifference to) anti-democratic policy facilitated by a prior disidentification with contemporary humanity.

It is worth noting that, inasmuch as humanity "in general" is already quite as prostheticized as it ever will be -- even though, one can be sure, human beings will come to be radically differently prostheticized in years to come, as has happened over and over and over again in humanity's pasts and presents -- this means that the sub(cult)ural "Posthumanists" one finds online, full of enthusiasts handwaving about the pet futures with which they identify and which, hence, they insist must prevail, are lodging their own parochialism at the site of the very open-ended, unpredictable, prosthetic experimentalism which actually fatally undermines all such parochial pretensions. Posthumanist futurists tend to substitute for the richness of open futurity the poverty of "the future" that stars their own eyes.

Rather, it seems to me one could simply chart the historical vicissitudes of human prostheticization (culture is another perfectly good word for this) and marvel at the spectacle for its beauty or its complexity, or, sometimes perhaps more critically and opportunistically assess the costs/risks associated with its variations as one sees them or confronts them and seeks to chart a progressive course. This is not so much, I fear, the attitude inculcated by the default "posthumanist" and "transhumanist" discourses one stumbles upon online and elsewhere, which -- as I have noted many times in the past -- seem too often to amount to essentially religious attitudes toward technodevelopmental quandaries, and seem preoccupied for the most part with producing and then shoring up the viability of various marginal sub(cult)ures and their correlated membership organizations.

"Relativisms," Left and Right

I think the word "relativism" functions less as the kind of term that helps us to pick out and better understand some phenomenon in the world, but more as the kind of term that blinds us to differences that make a difference. In the specific case of "relativism," we are blinded through the attribution of a false equivalence between what amounts to the difference between enlightened as opposed to unenlightened behavior. And so, I think "relativism" is a word we are well rid of, when all is said and done.

Let me say more particularly what I mean. I daresay we are all quite familiar with the fact that there are conservatives who like to smear some sensible pragmatists and some secular pluralists (including some big-souled multiculturalists) as menacing "relativists." They single out these folks for sport for different reasons, but ultimately, I suppose, because neither the pragmatist nor the pluralist has much need for the conservative's own facile theological (sometimes in its "naturalist" guise) priestly-authoritarian model of enforceable mores. Less familiar, but to my eyes just as bad, one finds that some progressives have begun to mischaracterize certain forms of corruption, fraud, and extremely misleading PR/political spin on the part of partisan hacks, opportunists, and deep pockets on the Right as illustrations of "relativism" as well. This seems to me a profoundly misleading and worrying notion to take up.

One can affirm certain values or beliefs as the best on offer, and for good demonstrable reasons, but simultaneously hold open the palpable possibility that better beliefs may arrive in the future. This seems to me an essentially scientific attitude toward instrumental belief. One can affirm certain values as indispensable to one's own narrative selfhood -- either matters of beliefs through which one identifies as a member of a moral or interpretative community, or more idiosyncratic matters of personal self-creation -- while granting these values may be perfectly dispensable to others. This seems to me an essentially secular pluralist attitude toward morals and esthetic values. One can recognize that one shares the world with peers with whom one differs profoundly in many respects -- situations, capacities, aspirations -- with the consequence that one cannot always expect to prevail in one's particular ends but often only to find one's way to contingent compromises that perfectly satisfy nobody but which all prefer to the alternative of a violent or unjust adjudication of difference. This seems to me an essentially democratic attitude toward political questions.

I would say that the overabundant majority of attitudes and arguments that are typically smeared as "relativism" from the perspective of the conservative right, are really affirmations of the three reasonable perspectives delineated above, that of contingent consensus science, secular pluralist norms, and democratic processes. That is to say, what conservatives decry as a menacing relativism really tends more to be a matter of being a grown up, of being Enlightened in the Kantian sense.

It should go without saying that I can hold all of these attitudes while still, for example, managing to say what I really mean as best I can, dealing with people honestly, treating people as peers rather than marks, and so on. And this leads us, unfortunately, to the things some contemporary progressives are calling "relativist" in the attitudes and conduct of Movement Conservatives in the debased era of the Bush II Adminsitration.

Obviously this is something of an oversimplification, but I think we need to be careful to distinguish the things secular progressives say and do that sometimes get called "relativism" and which should more properly be understood as reasonable efforts at coping with the world experimentally in the midst of a plurality of peers, as against the things conservatives say and do that sometimes get called "relativism" but which should more properly be understood as a willingness to lie, cheat, and steal. When someone is lying, cheating, or stealing there is nothing to be gained by freighting one's righteous condemnation of these straightforward sins with some foggy discourse of relativism that up to this point has always functioned as a stealthy conservative attack on intellectual effort, complex thought, attention to history and nuance, and a recognition and tolerance of differences as they actually play out in a technoscientifically complicated planet.

"Anti-Relativist" discourse is a too-snug, too-sure fit for America's disastrous native anti-intellectualism, its "rugged individualist" horror of anything actually nonconformist, its parochial disdain for critical thought, its smug catastrophic sense of imperialist entitlement and biospheric exceptionalism. The democratic left has no need of its own variations on these poisonous conservative chestnuts. We need to affirm clearly and specifically what is reasonable in the experimentalist, pluralist, consensualist attitudes conservatives decry as "relativism," while we need at once to remain clear and specific about just what it is that is so pernicious in the dishonest, corrupt, fraudulent cronyism, parochialism, and authoritarianism of contemporary conservative misconduct. "Relativism" fails to capture the essence of what is better understood as the criminal enterprise of Movement Conservatism.