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

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Bailey on the CybDemite Menace

Market libertarian Ronald Bailey posts up a quick (but not, you know, "quick") review of James Hughes' excellent Citizen Cyborg in his latest column for Reason online.

The subtitle of Bailey's column is the laugh-out-funny answer to a question only a libertarian would ever think to ask in the first place, "Why libertarians will win the future." His "answer" amounts to the usual faithful libertopian response: "because I say so."

Bailey trots out the by now unbearably tired suggestion that market libertarians have "transcended" the usual "left-right" political axis, and then accuses everybody else in the world of benighted confusion because we won't go along with him on that magic carpet ride.

For decades now American libertarians have been complaining via their "World's Shortest Political Quiz," about the stubborn refusal of majorities of Americans to recognize that they are "really, truly" libertarians after all because of their bland embrace of fiscally conservative and socially liberal viewpoints.

Lately some libertarians have sought to "sex up" this dead-on-arrival proposition by rewriting the claim as one about an emerging technopolitical terrain arraying "dynamists" against "stasists." Alas, this Postrellian sleight of hand is compelling only to those who already imagine "left" versus "right" is a less illuminating way to carve up the ideological spectrum than "libertarians" versus "everybody else."

Bailey spends a lot of his time properly complimenting Hughes for his clearheaded surveys of recent technoscientific developments, but then tsk tsks, "[w]here Hughes goes wrong is in fetishizing democratic decision-making." By "fetishizing" democracy I fear Bailey means to point out simply that Hughes values democracy at all. As for himself, well, Bailey prefers to think of democracy as "meddling."

Like most market libertarians, Bailey invests "the private sphere" with a radically expanded sense and significance that wants to evacuate the political sphere of some of its real (and I would say ineradicable) threat. But through this maneuver he and the other market libertarians manage in fact only to render themselves oblivious and complacent to most of the forms in which public threat actually plays out in the world.

Bailey writes that "the Enlightenment project that spawned modern liberal democracies began by trying to keep certain questions about the transcendent out of the public sphere." We'll bracket for the moment the ways in which libertarian rhetoric inevitably transcendentalizes as "market forces" what are in fact contingent arrangments themselves. He continues,
Questions about the ultimate meaning and destiny of humanity are private concerns. Worries about biotechnological progress must not to be used as excuses to breach the Enlightenment understanding of what belongs in the private sphere and what belongs in the public. Technologies dealing with the birth, death and the meaning of life need protection from meddling —- even democratic meddling -— by others who want to control them as a way to force their visions of right and wrong on the rest of us.

Of course, the overabundant majority of democratically-minded people are advocates of a robust human rights culture, and so the conjuration of democracy as skeery mob-rule here is just a clownish cartoon that doesn't connect up to actual reality. Our embarrassment for Bailey at trotting out such tired cliches is especially acute in an historical moment when all the people most conspicuously eager to impose their views of morality on everybody with whom they disagree are of course Republicans in an Administration that steals all of Bailey's own moves when it comes to genuflecting in the direction of the triumph of "market forces."

All of this is just too obvious and rather sad, but it raises deeper questions that are marginally more interesting about the function of "privacy" as a prop to human dignity and self-determination, as a figure through which we try to articulate certain intuitions about tangible and less tangible violations of "personal" life, and about the conditions in which "privacy" so conceived best thrives. For me, it appears that the libertarian perspective weirdly disavows the extent to which privacy always relies on public practices, public institutions, public rituals, public legitimacy for its real force and intelligibility.

Libertarians, in taking "privacy" as a secure pre-political or anti-political foundation simply seem to ignore the political conditions that sustain it.

This move correlates precisely to the way in which they likewise treat "natural markets" as foundational forces slogging through history as sublimely ahistorically as the Laws of Thermodymanics do, and as if big bad ol' States never had much to do with their maintenence, even their definition at the most basic level, through, you know, promulgating laws and treaties and agreements, dispensing favors to members of elites who like to talk like Bailey does, enforcing norms, subsidizing infrastructure, stabilizing uncertainties, and all the rest.

All of this is just to say, and forgive me for being blunt, market libertarians, for all their smug self-congratulation to the contrary, are often awfully dim.

"Hughes's analysis," Bailey sighs, "is largely free of economics -— he simply ignores the processes by which wealth is created and gets busy redistributing the wealth through government health care and government subsidized eugenics." All of this to say, Hughes simply refuses to ignore the processes of regulation, redistribution, and subsidization which inevitably form the public context in which "market forces" are constituted and sustained whereupon they go on to "get busy" themselves, in the splendid spectacle of trade and production and exploitation that so enraptures Bailey and his fellow marketeers with its shiny surfaces.

"After reading Citizen Cyborg, you might come away thinking that Hughes believes that corporations exist primarily to oppress people." This little bit of hyperbole registers the fact that Hughes is aware of (as all but market libertarians and Republicans already know abundantly), that corporations, like governments, are social locations in which power and authority concentrates in ways that can and have and do oppress people and so in ways that demand public address. The idea! Aunt Pittypat, my smelling salts!

Of course, American technophilia has long been tainted with market libertarian enthusiasms, and Hughes concedes this as generously as possible for someone who knows what a sorry sociopathic embarrassment these views finally amount to. The libertopian taint is nowhere more conspicuous and disastrous than in the "extropian" flavors of "transhumanist" technophilia, so-called, and since Hughes has devoted himself tirelessly to pushing the intellectual and political culture of "transhumanism" in directions that better accommodate social democracy, global fairness, environmental sustainability, and other pesky bits of actual incalcitrant reality these taints are especially troubling for him.

Bailey writes: "Although it clearly pains him, Hughes grudgingly recognizes that libertarian transhumanists still belong in his big tent." This is true, and it bespeaks Hughes' generosity and optimism and faith in the capacity of humans to learn from their mistakes and open their hearts.

It's hard not to adore these attitudes in James Hughes and admire the ways in which they patiently play out in his writing and political practice, but I'll admit I fail to live up to them myself.

I personally fear that any tent big enough to accommodate the libertopian noise brigade will be a tent largely empty of anybody but market libertarians themselves.

"Hughes himself has not transcended the left/right politics of the past two centuries," Bailey crows dynamistically to the True Believing libertopian Dynamists still on hand to hear him. "The good news is that if his social democratic transhumanism flounders, Hughes will reluctantly choose biotech progress. 'Even if the rich do get more enhancements in the short term, it's probably still good for the rest of us in the long term,' writes Hughes. 'If the wealthy stay on the bleeding edge of life extension treatments, nano-implants and cryo-suspension, the result will be cheaper, higher-quality technology.'"

This trickle-down viewpoint is one on which I might disagree with Hughes somewhat myself. Here and now, in this era of ongoing, radically disruptive, emerging technologies, I have to worry about any developmental politics that would complacently extol the benefit or empowerment of the "rich" over the "poor" (however one construes this blunt instrument of a distinction). However time-honored, such a lumpy distribution of developmental costs, risks, and benefits looks to me ever more likely to impose irreversible climate devastation on the planet or might manage to re-write inequality at the level of speciation for which political remedies are no longer available, and so on.

But what I would call attention to most forcefully in this specific context is simply the way in which Bailey reveals here that his political advocacy of markets is, when all is said and done, as usual, little more than a scarcely stealthy advocacy of the politics of "the wealthy" with whom he obviously identifies.

This is ultimately the reason why Bailey is wrong to imagine "libertarians" of all people will "win" the future. For one thing, humanity may simply not survive at all if the future has "winners" and "losers" as these things are reckoned in the mean, sad, and tragically impoverished libertopian world view. But, come what may, the future belongs to all of us, not only to the elites and their apologists. I personally believe that libertarians will never be more influential than they are right now, in this exact historical moment, undergirding the sociopathic depredations of the Bush Administration. For a sense of the future we can win together, a good place to look instead is James Hughes' Citizen Cyborg.

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