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

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Resigning Oneself to Bioconservatism; With Some Concluding Notes on the Co-Dependency of Bioconservatism and Transhumanism

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot:

Friend of Blog Vladimir de Thezier writes: [S]ome non-bioconservative progressives believe that since the best efforts to provide universal/safe/voluntary access to modification medicine will probably prove inadequate to confront the negative social consequences of "enhancement" interventions, banning modification medicine would prove more effective, despite the fact that they will continue fighting for universal health care. One rebuttal could be that such a ban would be ineffective, have many unforeseen negative consequences, and ultimately worsen the problem[.]

We don't relinquish the effort to make and enforce laws just because there will always be criminals who break them. We don't relinquish the effort to discover the best truths just because even warranted beliefs are always open to replacement by better truths we may discover later.

I actually don't like the rebuttal that bans on technodevelopmental outcomes in particular are sure to be "ineffective" -- since it seems to me too readily to tap into the triumphalist mindset of so many technocentric arguments: "this or that fetishized developmental outcome will arrive inevitably," "it will overcome any regulatory barrier," and so on. I mean, it's a reasonable practical consideration in some cases, but as a generalization this sort of attitude connects to the anti-political views (and very often the libertopian tendency) of far too many technocentric discussions.

I also think it forces those who would emphasize social concerns always into a defensive and "negative" argumentative position. Simplistic insensitive technologists who frame themselves as spokespeople of an inevitable future, assuming the mantle of the bulldozing forces that will eventuate in that future, delineate its glories (sometimes offering reassuring pats on the head to those who worry about the losers in such a future and along the path to it)... meanwhile, critics just constantly point to complexities, uncertainties, costs, risks, and maldistributions that the triumphalists are incessantly missing or evading or denigrating in their accounts. Even if the critics are more right than not, it remains true that triumphalist enthusiasm will have an allure that is compelling.

It seems to me it is better by far to find the affirmative vision that you advocate as a technoscientifically literate progressive person and which would solicit collaborators and attention to make a better world. I defend consensual lifeway diversity, peer to peer, because I think that it is such an affirmative vision.

Democracy, consent, free expression, equity, and diversity are values we can celebrate, and strengthen, and defend, and implement. They can capture people's imaginations and provoke their engagement.

I champion the notion of the informed nonduressed consensual recourse to wanted non-normalizing medical techniques because I celebrate consent, because I believe in the intelligence and dignity and autonomy of my peers, because I celebrate the richness, robustness, and resilience of lifeway multiculture that arises from the collaborative and contestatory exercise of consent by a diversity of peers.

We should positively celebrate the empowerment and creativity and intelligence and autonomy of our peers. Notice that this isn't a celebration of some particular future that is imagined to be the one that will inevitably arise from the exercise of this creativity and autonomy, peer to peer. We are celebrating the path and not some abstract destination we claim to know better than others, we celebrate freedom now in the struggle to expand it, in the expression of it around us.

Bioconservative bans are recoils in horror from some bleak destination they imagine they know better than others, transhuman futures are identifications with hyperbolized destinations they imagine they know better than others. It is in no small part the denigration of others and the ferocious identification with the like-minded sharers in this vision of the destination that makes these ideologies moralizing projects as well as anti-political ones.

Those who think we must give up freedom and free expression and the defense of the autonomy of our peers because these will "probably prove inadequate to confront negative social consequences" are claiming to preserve democratic civilization by demolishing it.

Do they give up on the rule of law when they observe its vulnerability to the thugs of the Right? Do they give up on free expression when they observe how many use it superficially by their lights or cynically abuse it? Do they give up on autonomy because they believe people are too infantile or deluded or error-prone to exercise it? (Even though they are people themselves and seem content to augment their own autonomy into authority at the expense of the consent of other people.)

You say you encounter many non-bioconservative progressive who seem oh so reluctantly to endorse a recoil from the dangers and disruptions of consensual multiculture in the midst of emerging unprecedented modification technologies.

I say you are actually encountering progressives whose courage has failed and who are at risk of becoming conservative precisely because they are afraid (or perhaps because they cling too greedily to a status quo they imagine more comfortable and supportive of them than the future their peers would demand and build together). This is nothing new. Almost every conservative on earth became one because of such fear or greed. That's what it means to defend incumbency over freedom, to disvalue the equity in diversity of which freedom consists and on which freedom depends.

Tell your friends that if they would be progressives they must find a way to defend equity, diversity, consent, and democracy in the world of changing realities, and that this is what it means to grow up. Otherwise they should just become conservatives and be done with it.

One of the reasons I disapprove of "beyond left and right" political models that add an axis of biopolitics to account for complexities like these is that I think in many cases the so called "people of the left" who are designated "biopolitically conservative" are really people for whom emerging biotechnologies and medical technique were the last straw that made them reject their left convictions and become reactionaries in a very conventional sense of that term.

Just as in the case of "libertarians" who claim the left-right mapping is inadequate to their own political positioning, all the while advocating corporate-militarist orders that are easily grasped as straightforward right-wing politics in actual practice (as opposed to the vapid abstractions they use for their self-promotion), so-called lefty bioconservatives are also firmly on the political right. Nothing is gained by confusing these matters (except for the people who on the right themselves who want fervently to con others or lie to themselves about what they have become).

People on the left who are fighting for universal health care, for the politics of Choice, and for funding and r & d for neglected diseases in the overexploited regions of the world as well as for hitherto untreatable conditions like Altzheimer's and Parkinson's Disease and MS and cancers and so on are already defending the politics of informed consensual lifeway diversity. To the extent that they are fighting to extend Medicare and Social Security into Universal Healthcare and Basic Income they are already struggling to make the scene of consent nonduressed. To the extent that they are fighting copyright extension, media consolidation, fraud and misinformation, institutional corruption and secrecy, corporate biopiracy, the enclosure of the commons, and so on they are already struggling to make the scene of consent informed. These are absolutely commonplace struggles across the left.

What is especially foolish is that because of transhumanist and bioconservative frames (which do find their watered down way to more mainstream neoliberal and neoconservative "development" and "globalization" discourses in my view) many of these people will understand the actual work of peer-to-peer democratization and the expression of consensual lifeway multiculture in which they are involved here and now through the narrative and figurative lens of immortal superbodies and clone-robot-slave armies and who knows what else and so radically misconstrue the meaning of what they are doing not as emancipatory ends in themselves so much as steps along some transcendentalizing or apocalyptic path toward some hyperbolized daydream or nightmare vision of "the future."

It is precisely this sort of hyperbole that deranges otherwise sensible progressives into bioconservative would-be prohibitionists or transhumanist would-be technocratic elitists as often as not in my view, and always absolutely to the cost of sense and effective progressive organizing in my view. I sometimes whether even framing these issues in terms of progress and emancipation rather than simply consent, fairness, and a fuller reckoning of consequences already opens up technodevelopmental discourse to these derangements but I'll leave that to the side for now.

Be all that as it may, we are left with a bioconservative tendency to advocate a tyrannical curtailment of autonomy to protect people from the "dangerous" diversity they would likely consensually collaborate in the making of peer-to-peer, together with a transhumanist tendency to advocate technocratic elite circumventions of peer-to-peer democracy to protect people instead from their "dangerous" ignorance, passions, biases, or to overcome the frustrating "sluggishness" of actually collaborative deliberation in the face of "accelerating change."

As you know, I also think both bioconservatives and transhumanists tend to advocate stealthy eugenicist politics -- one advocating a "preservation" of a parochial construal of optimal humanity they call "natural," and the other advocating the "engineering" of a parochial construal of optimal humanity they call "enhanced" or even "post-human."

This complementary eugenicism coupled with this complementary anti-democracy goes a long way in explaining why bioconservative and transhumanist positions in their absolute antagonism seem at once to mirror one another but also strangely to depend on one another. It also helps to explain why bioconservatives always accuse me of being a transhumanist and transhumanists always accuse me of being a bioconservative whenever they disagree with me, but both will exasperatedly insist I am a "closeted" or "stealthy" adherent to their own tribes whenever they find my arguments sympathetic. Every position on the technodevelopmental terrain is consigned to one or the other warrior tribe, every skirmish takes its meaning from its relation to the ideal of "the natural" or "the future" these antagonists would champion with their full devotion.

What they lose in their "clear-sightedness" is freedom in the present as open futurity. That is to say, what they lose is the world.

4 comments:

jfehlinger said...

> [B]ioconservatives tend to advocate a tyrannical curtailment
> of autonomy to protect people from the dangerous diversity
> they would consensually collaborate in the making of peer-to-peer,
> while transhumanists tend to advocate technocratic elite circumventions
> of peer-to-peer democracy to protect people from their dangerous
> ignorance, passions, biases, or the sluggishness of actually
> collaborative deliberation in the face of "accelerating change."

There's a certain hysteria shared by both tribes as well -- a
Chicken Little sensibility about the future.

These folks all have great confidence in their own crystal balls,
and think that the Big Things they're sure they see comin' down
the pike justify a lot of shouting from the rooftops in the present.

I think they should all just sleep it off.

De Thezier said...

Dale Carrico said:

I actually don't like the rebuttal that claims bans on technodevelopmental outcomes in particular are "ineffective" -- since it seems to me too readily to tap into the triumphalist mindset of so many technocentric arguments: "this or that fetishized developmental outcome will arrive inevitably," "it will overcome any regulatory barrier," and so on. This sort of attitude connects to the anti-political views of too many technocentric discussions. I also think it forces those who would emphasize social concerns always into a defensive and "negative" argumentative position. Simplistic insensitive technologists who frame themselves as spokespeople of an inevitable future, assuming the mantle of the bulldozing forces that will eventuate in that future, delineate its glories (sometimes offering reassuring pats on the head to those who worry about the losers in such a future and along the path to it)... meanwhile, critics just constantly point to complexities, uncertainties, costs, risks, and maldistributions that the triumphalists are incessantly missing or evading or denigrating in their accounts. Even if the critics are more right than not, it remains true that triumphalist enthusiasm will have an allure that is compelling.

I actually agree. I wanted to word my question in a way that takes what you just into account but didn't. That being said, I think you might underestimate the value of pointing out 1) that some bans work and some don't, and 2) some bans have negative unforeseen consequences and actually detailing what those would be in the case of the specific ban that is being proposed.

Democracy, consent, free expression, equity, and diversity are values we can celebrate, and strengthen, and defend, and implement. They can capture people's imaginations and provoke their engagement.

I agree. However, this is often dismissed as utopian rhetoric. So I'm trying to find a way to immunize myself from that accusation.

I say you are actually encountering progressives whose courage has failed and who are at risk of becoming conservative precisely because they are afraid (or perhaps because they cling too greedily to a status quo they imagine more comfortable and supportive of them than the future their peers would demand and build together). This is nothing new. Almost every conservative on earth became one because of such fear or greed. That's what it means to defend incumbency over freedom, to disvalue the equity in diversity of which freedom consists and on which freedom depends. Tell your friends that if they would be progressives they must find a way to defend equity, diversity, consent, and democracy in the world of changing realities, and that this is what it means to grow up. Otherwise they should just become conservatives and be done with it.

This is where I strongly disagree with you. I think it is facile, unfair and counter-productive to dismiss a progressive as a "greedy conservative" because he promotes on a ban on specific form of technological development that you would recognize facilitated unacceptable recklessness and exploitation, exacerbated injustice and incubated dangerous social discontent.

Dale Carrico said...

I think it is facile, unfair and counter-productive to dismiss a progressive as a "greedy conservative" because he promotes on a ban on specific form of technological development that you would recognize facilitated unacceptable recklessness and exploitation, exacerbated injustice and incubated dangerous social discontent.

Wow, I can remember writing almost every bit of that sentence myself. Why don't you ever express your thoughts in your own words? Let me say a bit more why I am harping on this point, since I know it is probably frustrating to you, or even hurting your feelings. The fact is my way of writing is idiosyncratic enough that it is a bit weird. Any one of my critics here will be the first to tell you so! But more to the point, since I know you are a person who sympathizes with a lot of views that matter to me, I just wish you would come up with different ways to put these arguments than I do myself if only because every new expression of an idea or argument contributes to the resources available in a discourse.

I'm a theory head, for one thing, invested in a lot of of highly theoretical and technical vocabularies that mean a lot to me personally and that I work to reconcile with one another in real time while I am writing these blog posts, in addition to the other things I'm doing in them.

Frankly, I don't think many people who read Amor Mundi (not that many people do in the first place) have much investment in that side of what I am doing here at all -- in fact I doubt many have an inkling about these other dimensions I'm working through.

Given all that, I wish more of the people who sympathized with what I am writing about would make similar points in their own styles, with their own emphases, in their own words (I think Nato and Anne and Jamais and Robin and Annalee are all doing this in ways that differ variously and very much from my own, and which I appreciate most precisely in their differences from my own writing), so that the actual work of democratizing and consensualizing technodevelopmental social struggle and celebrating lifeway multiculture, peer to peer, would have more voices, would offer a more complex and resourceful alternative to bioconservative and transhumanist discourses that hijack so much of the practical and affective life of ongoing disruptive technoscientific change and make it so much harder to imagine actually open, actually democratic, actually consensual, actually sustainable, actually fair outcomes arising from the futurity in the present.

Anyway, to zero in on your specific intervention, you write: I think it is facile, unfair and counter-productive to dismiss a progressive as a "greedy conservative" because he promotes on a ban on specific form of technological development.

Of course there will be many occasions in which I will agree with you -- assuming the reasons for the proposed ban relate to real harms, cannot obviously be addressed in other ways, don't take the form of bans that swell into blanket banning of whole realms of agency, don't assume the ambition of perpetual bans, and so on. When the impulse to ban starts getting sweeping and eternalizing one should really take a second look at what might really be afoot in its recommendation.

But the thing in what you say that seems to me to mark the more important misunderstanding between us here is that you seem to think my point in calling out would-be progressives as actual conservatives when they make bioconservative arguments for bioconservative outcomes actually is to call people non-nice names.

Look, even progressive people have conservative reactions to some change, even conservative people will collaborate in progressive ends sometimes. This is one of the reasons why we can be hopeful about democracy and progress even in times like these.

The theoretical point that matters to me here is simply this (a familiar point I hammer here a lot): Politics isn't morals.

Politics isn't organized by identifications and disidentifications in the way morals are (the political philosopher Carl Schmitt made precisely this mistake in his own notorious theory of the political, and he could not have be en more utterly more disastrously wrong in taking this tack), politics isn't about policing the continence of tribal formations at all the way morals very definitely are. Nor is it correct, however commonplace it may be, to think the distinction between the left (democratization) and the right (incumbency) as cult-like formations -- like transhumanism and bioconservatism (which as far as I know, unlike transhumanism, doesn't have any card-carrying "members" or "organizations" so-identified at all), are only, you know, much, much BIGGER and world-historical.

If you aspire to be a secular democratic progressive person and work to facilitate progressive democratic outcomes (like I'll admit I very much want to do myself) that doesn't mean you won't inadvertently or sometimes actively contribute to very different outcomes out of fear, ignorance, weakness, prejudice, skewed priorities, bad luck, inertia and so on, here and there (as I have done countless times all my life myself).

The point is that when these things are pointed out to you, what you do is you reassess what you are up to, you change direction precisely because you want to be progressive. You don't pout and stamp and get defensive about the unfairness of being criticized for your complicity (well, maybe a little bit, maybe initially, we're none of us Saints) in outcomes you do or know you should disapprove of.

You try to understand what went wrong, or why you looked at things wrong, or why your critics are looking at what you are doing wrong, or try to rethink how better to keep from getting read wrong.

In a moment when fear of difference or greed for one's position or privileges get the best of you, you can easily act against the grain of the democratization you would otherwise struggle to realize in the world with your peers.

Still, the business of analysis is to call a spade a spade when it is one. If somebody tells me my fear is making a conservative out of me, that is something I take seriously. That doesn't mean I'll agree with every indictment I hear that takes such a form, especially when it is coming from cynical conservatives scoring gotchas to undermine progressives by using their actual earnestness against them.

But when a presumably progressive person starts advocating blanket perpetual bans of all genetic engineering out of fear for same-sex conception, refusing to grant that any treatments might eventuate from this banned work that might be safe, useful, wanted, or empowering, you'll forgive me when I say that their fear has caused them to become conservative.

Not only is this not counterproductive or facile but it may be the single most useful thing to say to such a person.

To construct elaborate "new" political mappings letting people think they are "beyond left and right" in such moments is just to provide alibis for people when they are at their worst, when they need to think more deeply about what they are doing and change course.

De Thezier said...

Dale Carrico said:

Wow, I can remember writing almost every bit of that sentence myself.

uh, that why I used it...

Why don't you ever express your thoughts in your own words?

Well, I often do but most of the time I've come to appreciate the value of using the words of others that far more incisive than mine due to the limits of how eloquent I can express myself in English.

Any one of my critics here will be the first to tell you so!

I can defend myself.

But more to the point, since I know you are a person who sympathizes with a lot of views that matter to me, I just wish you would come up with different ways to put these arguments than I do myself if only because every new expression of an idea or argument contributes to the resources available in a discourse. I'm a theory head, for one thing, invested in a lot of of highly theoretical and technical vocabularies that mean a lot to me personally and that I work to reconcile with one another in real time while I am writing these blog posts, in addition to the other things I'm doing in them. Frankly, I don't think many people who read Amor Mundi (not that many people do in the first place) have much investment in that side of what I am doing here at all -- in fact I doubt many have an inkling about these other dimensions I'm working through. Given all that, I wish more of the people who sympathized with what I am writing about would make similar points in their own styles, with their own emphases, in their own words (I think Nato and Anne and Jamais and Robin and Annalee are all doing this in ways that differ variously and very much from my own, and which I appreciate most precisely in their differences from my own writing), so that the actual work of democratizing and consensualizing technodevelopmental social struggle and celebrating lifeway multiculture, peer to peer, would have more voices, would offer a more complex and resourceful alternative to bioconservative and transhumanist discourses that hijack so much of the practical and affective life of ongoing disruptive technoscientific change and make it so much harder to imagine actually open, actually democratic, actually consensual, actually sustainable, actually fair outcomes arising from the futurity in the present.

Fair enough.