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

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Today's Random Wilde

The secret of remaining young is never to have an emotion that is unbecoming.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Courses at the San Francisco Art Institute

Here's a description of the critical theory survey course I'll be teaching at SFAI this Summer:

CONTEMPORARY CRITICAL THEORY (Crit Theory A) “The Point Is to Change It”

What is theory good for? Marx famously complained that while philosophers have only interpreted the world, “the point is to change it.” Just what are the relations of theory and practice? How does theory illuminate and invigorate human agency?


Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology
Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion
Roland Barthes, Mythologies
Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic
Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity
Carol Adams, “Beastliness and the Politics of Solidarity”
Judith Butler, Undoing Gender
Donna Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs”

And here are the two courses I'll be teaching at SFAI this upcoming Fall:

CONTEMPORARY CRITICAL THEORY (Crit Theory B) “Theory Faces Technoscience”

A technophile is a person to whom we attribute a naïve or uncritical enthusiasm for technology, while a technophobe is a person to whom we attribute a no less uncritical dread of or hostility to technology. But what does it tell us that there is no comparably familiar word to simply describe a person who is focused on the impact of technology in a critical way that pays equally close attention both to its promises and its dangers? Is it really so impossible to conceive of a critical technocentrism equally alive to real promises and alert to real dangers?

Technological development is an ongoing provocation on our personal and public lives. Indeed, in contemporary technocultures continual developmental interventions into "given" norms, laws, trading conventions, and the customary limits of architecture and morphology, as well as the fraught practices through which we struggle individually and collectively to re-weave these disruptions into meaningful relations with our histories and our hopes constitute a definitive and abiding crisis of cultural life in this historical moment.

In this course we will survey some of the key interventions of critical theory into the problems, values, assumptions, and specificities of contemporary technoscience. Together with these theoretical texts, we will contemplate fiction, film, and policy-making that takes up these problems and expresses these values and assumptions in different but related ways. These texts will sometimes be technophilic, sometimes
technophobic. Sometimes they will be freighted with hyperbolic enthusiasm, sometimes with intimations of disaster. Some will see technological development as inherently superhumanizing, some as inherently dehumanizing. We will lodge our own interventions in a hope that refuses nostalgia and a critical realism that refuses the faith in inevitable progress.


Hannah Arendt, “Prologue” to The Human Condition
Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, “California Ideology”
John Perry Barlow, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”
Michel Bauwens, "The Political Economy of Peer Production"
Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”
Michael Berube, “Life As We Know It”
James Boyle, “Enclosing the Genome?”
David Brin, “Three Cheers for the Surveillance Society!”
William Burroughs, “Immortality”
Jamais Cascio, “Leapfrog 101” and “What Would Radical Longevity Mean?”
David Cronenberg, dir. The Fly
Erik Davis, “Experience Design”
Richard Doyle, “Darwin’s Pharmacy”
Jacques Ellul, excerpts from The Technological Society
Michel Foucault, “Space, Knowledge, and Power”
Donna Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs” and “The Promises of Monsters”
Katherine Hayles, “Liberal Subjectivity Imperiled: Norbert Weiner and
Cybernetic Anxiety”
Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology”
Hepburn and Tracy, Desk Set
James Hughes, “Embrace the End of Work”
Jeron Lanier, “One Half of a Manifesto”
Steve Mann, “The Post-Cyborg Path to Deconism”
Paul D. Miller (DJ Spooky), “Material Memories”
Annalee Newitz, “Genome Liberation”
Mark Poster, “CyberDemocracy”
Valerie Solanas, “The SCUM Manifesto”
Marc Steigler, “The Gentle Seduction”
Bruce Sterling, “Viridian Design Speech”
Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”
Slavoj Zizek, “Bring Me My Philips Mental Jacket”

CONTEMPORARY CRITICAL THEORY (Crit Theory A) “The Enterprise of

What are the conventions through which we constitute the proper objects of interpretation in the first place? And who are the subjects empowered to offer up interpretations that compel our attention and conviction? What happens when objects object to our interpretations and demand the standing of subjects themselves? How does the interpretation of literary texts differ from the interpretation of the law? How does it differ from a scientist’s interrogation of her environment? Or from any critical engagement with the “given” terms of the social order in which one lives? Or even from the give and take through which we struggle to understand one another in everyday conversation?


Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo
Sigmund Freud, “The Psychotic Doctor Schreber”
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology
Roland Barthes, Mythologies
"They Live," John Carpenter, dir.
Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality
William Burroughs, “Immortality”
Valerie Solanas, The SCUM Manifesto
Paul Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholy
Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
Carol Adams, “Beastliness and the Politics of Solidarity”
Judith Butler, Undoing Gender
Donna Haraway, “Ecce Homo”

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Fall Courses at UC Berkeley

Here are the two courses I'll be teaching next fall at UC Berkeley. These descriptions and book lists are still preliminary, and more detailed versions will arrive later in the summer.

Rhetoric 121A: Biopunk and the Bioethical Imaginary

"Biopunk" is a fledgling genre of speculative fiction taking up many of the characteristic themes and gestures of cyberpunk literature but reinvigorating them through a focus on the emerging and ongoing pleasures and dangers of genetic science and medicine, bioinformatics, biotechnology, and biowarfare. In this course we will explore some of the provocative and unsettling connections between the wild insurgent speculation of biopunk fictions and the presumably more staid and conservative discourses of corporate futurism and bioethical policy making. How do the curious conversations, wary resistences, and imaginative interdependencies between these textual modes produce the argumentative resources available to each?

We will be reading novels like Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, and Bruce Sterling's Holy Fire, as well as short stories by Octavia Butler, Paul di Filippo, Marc Steigler, William Burroughs, and Greg Bear. We will study some of the work of the Critical Arts Ensemble. We are likely to grapple with a film as well, Cronenberg's "The Fly," say, or possibly Almodovar's "All About My Mother." And we will read a number of theoretical pieces, editorials, and position papers by Annalee Newitz, Donna Haraway, Judith Butler, Chris Mooney, James Hughes, Michel Foucault, Eugene Thacker, Arthur Caplan, and others.

Rhetoric 132: Design for Living: Artifice and Agency

We find ourselves in a world we make, and we find that we are made and unmade in the making of it. What are we to make of the abiding artifice that is "the political" in a world of design-objects, of manufactured products, of consumer goods? What are we doing when we are doing design and what do we do when we discern that design has designs on us? Where is the agency in artifice? What are the political possibilities of design?

We will take selections from Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, Walter Benjamin, Judith Butler, Donna Haraway as points of departure from which we will go on to read design-objects as texts as construed by Roland Barthes, Kobena Mercer, Carol Adams, Daniel Harris, and others. Finally, we will grapple with the politics of some contemporary design movements -- peer-to-peer coding, Green Design -- that would undertake to remake the world in the image of particular ends, like collaborative democracy or sustainability.

Our texts are likely to include selections from:

Carol Adams, The Pornography of Meat
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
Roland Barthes, Mythologies
Janine Benyus, Biomimicry
Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter
Michel Foucault, "Two Lectures," Discipline and Punish, The History of Sexuality, I
Donna Haraway, Simians Cyborgs and Women
Daniel Harris, The Aesthetics of Consumerism
Lawrence Lessig, Code, Free Culture
William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things
Kobena Mercer, Welcome to the Jungle
Bruce Sterling, Tomorrow Now, Shaping Things
Film: V for Vendetta

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Friday, April 21, 2006

Does Technophilia Incline Right?

It is a matter of ongoing perplexity and frustration to me that technodevelopmental discourse in an affirmative mode seems so readily to drift into a project of accommodation to or consolation for established elites or to take up the contours of ring-wing ideology, and how even explicit left-identified progressive technodevelopmental discourse often seems (at least to me) far more supportive and generous of arguments and figures coming out of the right than one would one would normally expect from the left.

Let me grant in advance that I may simply be wrong about all this as a straightforward empirical matter. Maybe I am wrong to discern an overall rightward technophiliac skew. Also, maybe I am simply oversensitive to any manifestations of such a skew among my colleagues, rubbed raw my whole adult life through in the debased era of conservative ascendancy from Reagan through Clinton (possibly the greatest Republican President of the Twentieth Century) through Gingrich through to the terminally awful gun-toting criminal clown college that is the Bush Administration.

But if I do happen to be the least bit right about this rightward technophiliac skew, it seems to me worthwhile to try to puzzle through some of the conditions that may have engendered it. And so, let me propose a couple of initial candidates, and then we can see where we can go on to from here:

First: Technoscientific research and development is a matter of material cultures, with actual people occupying legible sociocultural positions in it, engaging in material institutional and ritual lives. It matters, then, that research and development is driven almost exclusively by the urgencies of corporate-militarism in a market globalist developmental order.

Second: It also matters that warranted consensus scientific beliefs converge onto best descriptions according to shared protocols and shared values, while warranted political beliefs in a democratic mode strive for a kind of peaceful productive dissensus. That is to say, democratic politics would see a convergence or stabilization of public belief as a sign of tyranny, not success. There are, then, rather deep differences in the ways belief and value operate in the modes of reasonable technoscientific versus reasonable political life and belief.

I sometimes think there is a cultural and temperamental strain that resists or quails at the exactions of democratic stakeholder politics right at the very heart of technoscientific practice in an important sense (even if, as I have written elsewhere, I also think consensus science is a more democratic than authoritarian accomplishment, too -- just in a different way than stakeholder politics is).

Anyway, taken together, this temperamental tendency in addition to the historical context of a technoscientific development driven by the exigencies of corporate-militarism both contribute to an almost irresistable drift to the right in contemporary technology discourse and political practice.

The left and especially the technoprogressive left need to understand this far better than they seem to do and need to compensate with a greater scrupulousness and care around their formulations, sympathies, and alliances.

Under the present structural circumstances it seems to me technoprogressive discourses, however necessary and marvellous, are actually deeply vulnerable to appropriation by right-wing ideologies in a number of variations -- human-racist eugenicism, "free trade" global coporate-militarism, transcendentalizing techno-sublime consolation for religious fundamentalisms, etc.

Technoprogressives need to be clearer about the stakes here, about the structural conditions and historical forces that constitute the context in which we are acting, and about what these stakes and conditions tell us about who are friends are.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Today's Random Wilde

The world is simply divided into two classes -- those who believe the incredible, like the public -- and those who do the improbable.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

A Dose of the New Medical Reality

Schiavo as Symptom

On Thursday morning, March 31, 2005, Terri Schiavo died quietly in a Florida hospice. The person who Terri Schiavo had been ceased to exist 15 years before, according to the testimony of her husband and many who knew her, as well as the best determination of credible doctors and scientists. The memory of Schiavo will make its home in the lives of the people who actually knew her for years to come. And no doubt the public figure of Schiavo will likewise continue to resonate into the future, condensing into a few flashes of ineradicable imagery what are in fact the endlessly complex and emotionally fraught quandaries of bodies and lives rendered newly questionable in their limits, capacities and social intelligibility by ongoing and emerging technological developments.

So long as medicine is conceived primarily as a remedial enterprise its recommendations are driven most conspicuously by the straightforward instrumental rationality of what consensus science takes to be relevant causes and effects. What “health” consists of in the first place and what is desirable about the maintenance of that state are to an important extent simply treated as if they are "givens." But as our prosthetic practices proliferate the ways in which people can live "livable" lives, we look less and less to medicine to remedy the ways in which our bodies deviate into pathological difference and more and more to deliver us into differences we desire.

Of course, the goal of producing and maintaining a "healthy body" through medical and hygienic practice has never in fact been the instrumentally neutral ideal painted in such a picture. Our diagnoses of disease, infirmity, fitness, and illness have always been ineradicably freighted with cultural and moral significance. But what I mean to call attention to here is that the scope and force of ongoing and palpably upcoming medical intervention is deranging our sense of the standards against which we would strive to measure the distance of the variety of actually living human bodies from the "normative" body we would traditionally impose and maintain through recourse to that medicine. Already, we cannot be quite sure what we are capable of or what we can rightly expect or demand of our newly queer, prostheticized bodily selves.

Medicine is taking humanity on an unprecedented path from remedy to self-creation. But our assumptions and our language have not yet managed to keep up with this emerging state of affairs. Meanwhile, our hopes and desires and sometimes our demands for medicine often seem to range hyperbolically forward past our present capacities.

The heartbreaking and hysterical public spectacle of the dead but surreally lively prostheticized body of Schiavo attests to our perplexity and our present distress. There are many such spectacles to come.

Human-Racism and the “Bright Line” Between Life and Death

In an influential editorial prompted by the Schiavo case, David Brooks claimed at the time to discern as the main difference between conservative and progressive bioethical discourse that only conservative bioethics is properly moral in its concerns while progressives are somewhat blind to the "values" dimension of policy.

This is, of course, just the sort of dismissive or oblivious attitude we have come to expect public conservative figures to take whenever they encounter values with which they disagree. (One recalls, for example, in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophic 2004 Presidential Election the conjuration by many conservative pundits of a so-called "Values-Voter," which seemed to describe as "moral" only that segment of the American population that hated gay people enough to be mobilized by their pathological homophobia to vote for a second term of America’s most disastrous Administration, quite palpably against their own stated interests on many other social questions.)

But it is worthwhile to set aside our reasonable annoyance at the tired dishonesty and craven partisanship evident in his rhetoric, because Brooks' discussion of the differences in the ways many conservatives and progressives talk about the dilemmas of a case such as Schiavo's does in fact highlight important moral, cultural, temperamental distinctions that illuminate what I have called the emerging terrain of bioconservative and technoprogressive positions on technodevelopmental social struggle as well.

Brooks claims that "[t]he core belief that social conservatives [have]... is that the value of each individual life is intrinsic. The value of a life doesn't depend upon what a person can physically do, experience or achieve. The life of a comatose person or a fetus has the same dignity and worth as the life of a fully functioning adult." Against the social conservatives, he suggests that progressives hold as their own "core belief that... quality of life is a fundamental human value." Progressives don't, Brooks accuses, "emphasize the bright line between life and death; they describe a continuum between a fully lived life and a life that, by the sort of incapacity Terri Schiavo has suffered, is mere existence."

To the extent that this emphasis on the “bright line between life and death” seems not to nudge conservatism into a nonhuman animal rights position, and to the extent that it explicitly refuses elaboration through a discussion of quality of life (which apparently is somehow “relativist” compared to the bright brute line of “life and death” or just plain “liberal” and hence inherently questionable in some unspecified way), it is clear that the foundational gesture of bioconservatism is a straightforward human-racist emphasis on the presumably “intrinsic value” of the process of metabolism when it is incarnated in representatives of only the human species, even if that process itself is indistinguishable, as a process, from the life incarnated in indefinitely many living species.

Of course, there is in fact a progressive moral value quite as luminous as anything he would attribute to conservative human-racist moralists that is rumbling in the background of Brooks’ discussion here, a value he seeks to trivialize through the comparably anemic phrasing of “quality of life.” This value is widely and passionately affirmed, and the recent track record of conservatives in the defense of this value, and of the more “fully-lived” lives that depend on it, is troubling indeed, whatever their occasional lip-service to the contrary.

That value? Consent.

Denigrating Lives by Denigrating Consent

One has to wonder just why it is that conservatives proud to "err on the side of life" seem so regularly impelled in so doing to denigrate consciousness and violate consent.

For progressives, there is indeed a texture in personal life beyond the "mere existence" we share with shrimp and snails, and which demands broad affirmation on its own terms. Personal lives are uniquely lived in the webs of meaning and thought and conversation woven by public beings, lives that reverberate with choices, with desires, with injuries, with deeds.

All the while the armies of the conservative so-called "culture of life" seem to defend life only in some more vegetable or mineral mode always best exemplified by organisms that have not yet arrived among the community of poets and peers, or of those who have already departed from the scene.

Brooks proposes that "[t]he central weakness of the liberal case is that it is morally thin. Once you say that it is up to individuals or families to draw their own lines separating life from existence, and reasonable people will differ, then you are taking a fundamental issue out of the realm of morality and into the realm of relativism and mere taste."

But to denigrate the morality of consent as "the relativism of mere taste" is to confess a complete moral blindness to the way in which we actually want to do morality here in democratic civilizations these days. And it follows as the night does the day that those who denigrate consent will go on then to denigrate the dignity of actual democratic citizens with whom they happen to disagree. Notice how often "erring on the side of life" seems to conservatives to require a violation of the terms in which citizens with whom they disagree actually choose to live their own lives.

I think it is fair in fact to agree with Brooks when he goes on to declare that for the conservatives in Bush's America "[t]he life of a comatose person or a fetus has the same dignity and worth as the life of a fully functioning adult."

That is to say, not very much.

Conservatives really do seem to adore claiming to speak for nonpersons (especially fetal not-quite-yet persons and stubbornly vegetative no-longer-quite persons) who cannot speak for themselves. How dearly they seem to love to put words into the mouths of those who are in no position to protest the imposition. What better way, after all, of multiplying their own voices in a world where sprawling majorities of actual people simply disagree with them, than to claim that their own overpowered voices stand in fact for countless voiceless voices as well as their own?

When conservatives seek to extend the dignity and status of the citizen to nonpersons they inevitably impoverish the exercise of that status for actually-existing citizens. This, of course, is the point of the exercise. Given the contours of Brooks’ argument, what is paradoxical is that in ascribing "dignity" so broadly it is the social conservatives themselves who stretch morality as thin as the skin of a soap bubble -- the better to puncture its fragile skin.

And it matters little to conservatives that their own morality is finally so thin since ultimately they seem to prefer to turn for their moral guidance to the dictates of authorities claiming to speak for God, or Tradition, or Homeland when all is said and done, than to the more contingent contentious verdicts of their own best worldly and reasonable deliberation.

Now, consent is indeed a notoriously thorny value to implement since its exercise, to be legible, demands that it be competent, informed, and nonduressed.

In the absence of competence, adequate and trusted information, and freedom from duress the “scene of consent” is apt to be a scene of violation in which the vulnerable rather than the violators are treated as guilty perpetrators of the violations they themselves suffer: As if a child has somehow “consented” to sexual abuse from a trusted authority figure. As if a consumer has somehow “consented” to the risks of a toxic, addictive product if its makers and marketers have fraudulently declared it healthful and nonaddictive. As if an impoverished or dependent wage-earner freely “consents” to exploitation at the hands of a wealthy or independent employer.

But the difficulty and danger is that securing a scene of legible consent for all citizens requires the formulation and application of the standards through which competence, knowledge, and freedom from duress are recognized as such. And this indispensable project inevitably risks mistaken formulations and misapplications that might actually violate particular performances of consent in their extraordinarily overabundant diversity and dynamic proliferation.

What Brooks mistakes as the “relativism of mere taste” is in fact the fraught and demanding dignity of diversity, the morality of self-creation, and the project of interminable criticism and self-criticism. Progressives know that they must accept a costly measure of abiding doubt and vigilance as the fair price that would help assure that our standards protect the changing life of consent rather than policing difference into conformity in the name of a “dignity” that always speaks in the voice of established authorities or in the easy, nostalgic, but stultifying voice of the past. Since conservatism is at heart a preference for obedience over critical autonomy it is scarcely surprising that conservatives would denigrate consensual self-creation as “mere taste” or mistake confident critical uncertainty as “relativism,” but it is a curiously delusive spectacle when they go on to peddle their obedience as independence, their complacency as dynamism, their faith as knowledge, and their humiliation as dignity.

From “Disability” to Diversity

Technoprogressives maintain that technological development is becoming not just a disruptive but, potentially, a genuinely revolutionary force. Technodevelopmental transformation undercuts the normative weight of claims made in the name of the "natural" in ways that, conjoined to a deepening of democracy and extension of fairness, technoprogressives insist can be made to be ultimately emancipatory for all.

For technoprogressives, the ongoing revolution in reproductive medicine and emerging genetic and neuroceutical medicine opens up consensual prosthetic practices of self-creation that will be this generation's historical contribution to the ongoing conversation of humankind.

I use the term "morphological freedom" to describe the ways in which consensual prosthetic practices are enlarging the scope of personal freedom, even while they derange our expectations, demand new responsibilities, and introduce unprecedented possibilities for injustice, violation and harm against which we must struggle interminably.

Along with many other progressives I felt disgust at the public figures who so loudly and cynically attached themselves to the distress of the family of Schiavo in bids for personal attention. I worried together with other techno-progressives about the widespread American anti-scientific benightedness that blistered yet again to the surface of public discourse in the midst of the media circus, connecting up in the most ominous imaginable ways with conservative hostility to evolutionary science via the rhetoric of "intelligent design," hostility to environmental science via the rhetoric of climate-change denial, hostility to social science via the rhetoric of "abstinence-only education," and hostility to economic science via the rhetoric of market fundamentalism. And of course I shared the concerns of other liberals about legislative efforts to bypass the courts, insinuations of martial law, and all the rest.

But I also share the concerns of many "disability" advocates who found themselves at odds with some of the progressive and most of the technoprogressive consensus in this cultural moment and who worry that there is something quite pernicious in the conventional liberal discourse that claims that if only Schiavo had a real "chance at recovery" then liberals, too, along with social conservatives, would be demanding that her "life" be protected and preserved.

These advocates for the differently enabled are rightly suspicious that the idea of "recovery" in such arguments mobilizes what amounts in fact to a highly restrictive normative concept of the sort of lives that are ultimately "lives worth living." Too often the notion of a properly "livable life" is a concept that denigrates many differently enabled people who, whatever their struggles or sorrows, live lives suffused with dignity, joy and value worth affirming and supporting the same as anyone else's.

Now, I strongly agree with the clinicians and experts whose thorough and repeated examination of the evidence located Schiavo's body in particular decisively with the dead rather than with the disabled. And in any case, I would insist like most progressives do on the absolute moral necessity to respect her own decisions and attitudes in a case like this, however these have been best ascertained by a number of courts, where matters of the care of her own body are concerned.

But it is clear nevertheless that the figure of disability was circulating in the Schiavo case in ways that matter to advocates for the differently enabled as well as to advocates and scholars of morphological freedom.

There are many "disabled" people who will seem superficially similar to Schiavo to an untrained eye, after all, and whose lives are routinely dismissed as "not worth living" in consequence. Advocates for the differently enabled fight heartbreaking, exhilarating battles to champion the rights and standing of these people every single day.

What it must mean to respect the differently enabled as the actually fully real people they are is to respect them and support them in their differences whenever they affirm the value of these differences on their own terms, just as it must likewise require the best provision of prosthetic avenues for rewriting their bodies and lives in the image of their own desires, also on their own terms, to the extent that this is possible and wanted by them.

Consensual Prosthetic Practices

The process of "life" in medical technocultures is one of ongoing practices of genetic, prosthetic and cognitive modification in pursuit of personal meanings, responsibilities, and pleasures that are bound to strain against the imposition of normative conceptions of "wellness," however construed.

From the perspective of morphological freedom it seems to me the standard of "recovery" is always therefore worrisomely conservative, naturalizing some contingent standard of proper health as more desirable than indefinitely many alternate possibilities. Morphological freedom is never properly a matter of any coercive imposition of a normative body in the name of a moral standard of "health," but is an embrace of genetic, prosthetic and cognitive modification practices in the name of a proliferation of ways of being properly and meaningfully in the world.

To the extent that the rhetoric of "recovery" impels us to misrecognize some manifestations of diversity as "disability," technoprogressives seem to me well rid of it. And to the extent that technoprogressives will sometimes affirm the desirability of "better than well" healthcare provision this would seem to encourage a repudiation of the discourse of "recovery" as well.

It is especially interesting for me to note the extent to which so many of the differently enabled depend on ongoing cyborgization and prosthetic practices to find their ways to more enriching lives on their own terms: communicating through computer interfaces, locomoting in motorized conveyances, and engaged in sometimes lifelong medical procedures of extraordinary intimacy and profundity.

Now, these considerations do not nudge us into any kind of blanket morphological relativism, since we will still prefer and testify to our own personal paths of self-determination on the basis of reasons at least intelligible enough to satisfy the conditions of informed, competent, and nonduressed consent. And in any case the proper public provision of the resources that enable prosthetic practices of self-creation also demands the maintenance of intelligible standards to ensure democratic accountability, fairness, security and meaningful deliberation in that provision.

Morphological freedom prevails to the extent to which discernible differences among peers arise from consensual prosthetic practices of self-determination or self-creation, rather than being imposed or unduly duressed by conditions of exploitation, violence or ignorance (any of which might broadly mobilize responsible intervention). What will be key for a properly technoprogressive bioethics that affirms morphological freedom will be a shift in focus from a moral(istic) concern with parochial standards of health, beauty or custom into an ethical concern with the meaningful consent of peers with whom one may or may not identify morally in the slightest.

This essay is a revised and edited version of a column published April 1, 2005 -- the day after Terri Schiavo died -- on That column contained material from a number of shorter texts that I had already published on this blog during the height of the discussion of Schiavo case. All of that material should be accessible through the archives here.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Nature As Resignification, Nature As Resignation (and Other Topics)

Promoted and adapted from the comments.

Despite the fact that I've been too busy with teaching to devote too much time to the blog I've been lucky to get some really provocative comments to the rather random blog-posts I've managed to craft this last couple of weeks. At the close of a comment appended to the recent Zizek discussion, "DanT" -- a newcomer to Amor Mundi as far as I can remember -- asked this question: "So, how do theories of representation deal with the 'natural,' (i.e that which surprises, which exceeds representation) and how do we have a post-structuralist approach to issues of livelihood?"

This could scarcely help but set me to thinking... I replied:

I am very interested in your description of the "natural" as "that which surprises, which exceeds representation" -- since for me the "natural" tends to denote instead something more dire and drear; namely, the customary. For me the "natural" tends to signify a nostalgic and anti-democratic political impulse, while your more sublime construal of the "natural" seems to signify the emancipatory dimension at the heart of resignifiability. You see resignification, say, where I see resignation... Of course, neither of us is "right" or "wrong" so much, it's just that interesting differences will ensue from our emphases.

This reminds me very much of the difficulties of discussing the relations between the literal and figurative dimensions of language. To be a competent speaker of a language is always to be able to discern when one is speaking a language as opposed to translating it, for one thing, but competence also demands we know how to mobilize nonstandard usage in still-meaningful ways. It is interesting to me that accounts of figurative language will tend either, I., to attribute a special vitality, a viscerality, an endlessly generative catechretic power to the figurative dimension of language (as against the dying into literal usage that happens when a metaphor grows dim through customary usage), or, II., they will tend to attribute such force (in terms of correspondence, if they're naive, or pragmatic goodness, if they are a bit more sensible about it) to literality while consigning figurative language to the register of decorative effects or triggers of affect. When I teach the distinction to my students I am always careful to stress the traffic between these conceptions rather than a preference for one over the other.

Now, I've loved too much Wilde for too long and I've loathed too many bioconservatives for too long to affirm your own more sublime characterization of the natural over my own characterization of the natural as always a nostalgic clinging to custom -- but it is plain that there is much to be said for the useful traffic between these two conceptions as well, and for much the same reasons...

I know that comment of yours was hardly the one to which you would expect or want me to respond. It just happens to have provoked some enjoyable speculation is all.

As for your other points [and for these I recommend readers dip into the comments themselves if they are interested], I agree that the global politics of climate change and sustainability are a prime candidate for incubating global solidarity. The complementary politics of catastrophic and existential risks should incubate global solidarity as well.

Of course, I would like to think peer-to-peer models of policy deliberation, collaboration, technodevelopmental assessment, representation, criticism, and accountability could also have a hand in this -- but I am well aware of the dangers of neoliberal/neoconservative accommodationism inhering in such a hope. Certainly, those of us who know better (as Michel Bauwens seems to be, among others) need to be quite relentless about disarticulating peer-to-peer formulations from facile libertarian appropriations, whether in market-anarchist, neoliberal, neoconservative, coporate-militarist, or even in "deep" ecological versions.

I personally think that democratic world federalism (through reform of the UN or through other means), and a global basic income guarantee are also likely sources for global radical/social democratic mobilization. Finally, I suspect that genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive medicine will either inspire a global social democratic federalist polity or these developments will preside over a class struggle rewritten in the dreadful image of speciation.

I notice that lately I have seemed to put more and more weight on the idea of consent -- competent, informed, nonduressed consent -- as a key value that adjudicates the progressive agon between autonomy and diversity, and that provides for a thick "positive" construal of freedom that lends itself to appropriation from a number of broad stakeholder positions. No doubt, the difficulty is to avoid the amplification of "consent" into something like a Habermasian "ideal speech situation," on the one hand, while avoiding its easy reduction into an apologia for facile market contractarianism, on the other.

And this takes me back to the dual worries I oscillated between in my little fantasia on Zizekian themes in the first place -- between a real concern with market accommodationism for one thing, and then for another an equally real concern with the kind of radicalism that demands violence of a kind that is simply out of the question in our own technodevelopmental era and hence invites a despair that is ultimately indistinguishable from the very accommodationism it would explicitly repudiate.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Slater on the Efficiency of Democracy

Philip Slater has an interesting column up at the Huffington Post today, entitled "The Neo-con Misunderstanding of Democracy and Why It Will Undo Them."

“The Bush administration talks a lot about democracy,” he writes, “but it doesn't seem to have a clue what it's really about[.]” Truer words have rarely been spoken, of course, but what I want to focus my attention on for the moment is what Slater proposes democracy is all about for those who “have a clue”: “it's more efficient in today's world.” Now, it is not my intention in the least to deny that democracy is a more efficient way to organize public enterprises than authoritarianism is, nor to deny that such considerations are relevant to the discussion of the benefits of democracy in the world. I wouldn’t even want to deny the force of the point he makes a moment later, namely, that “democracy hasn't been spreading throughout the world because some woolly idealists thought it would be a sweet thing to do.” But I am not at all sure I accept the conjuration of “democracy… spreading throughout the world” as a description of the actual world we actually live on in the first place, not sure that I am willing to settle for a “democracy” construed foremost as a vehicle for efficiency (especially without specifying the ends for which all this efficiency is presumably being mobilized), nor am I sure that democracy so construed will do the analytic work Slater is asking of it in this argument of his.

“The neo-cons don't see democracy as a system of de-centralized organization. For the neo-cons it's just a way of selecting a dictator by plebescite.” Of course, these are scarcely the only two options for those who would announce a public commitment to democracy. Slater suggests that the neo-cons get democracy wrong, however much they claim to act in its name whenever they want to drop bombs and loot countries abroad or dismantle and loot vital domestic programs, and it is easy to agree with him about that. But it is harder to agree with what he seems to have in mind when he claims to get democracy "right."

Democracy in its most general sense -- the sense that is so widely shared that few sensible people find it objectionable at all however difficult they may find it to live up to -- simply names the idea that people should have a real say in the public decisions that affect them. The truth is that “democracy” in this widest and most widely affirmed sense is a rather thin abstraction indeed, one that is presumably implemented in any number of possible social arrangements, discerned in any number of ongoing developments, endorsed by partisans of any number of constituencies and viewpoints.

How do we choose among these variations? How do we discern which of these broadly democratizing developments are the most promising ones, the most emancipatory ones? How do we know when an apparent champion of democracy is struggling to give people as much of a real say in the public decisions that affect them as possible and how do we know when an apparent champion of democracy is just manufacturing consent to prop up elites, managing the inevitable stresses of unfairness, exploitation, and stigma as efficiently and economically as possible for their primary beneficiaries?

I will admit that I am little reassured by the case Slater makes here. After rightly decrying the authoritarian ambitions stealthed obscenely beneath the banner of “democracy” in the Bush Administration, and then discerning a “contrary” tide of democratization driven by “practical” considerations rather than idealism (which he derides as “get[ting] religion” where democracy is concerned), Slater starts to fill in some of the details in this picture he has been sketching.

“[C]orporations been busy decentralizing power and flattening their hierarchies -- especially in the electronics industry…. What they've all come to realize is that in today's world of chronic, rapid, technological and social change, authoritarianism is maladaptive.” He continues on in this vein: “Decentralization is a way of speeding up adaptation to changing conditions. Authoritarian systems are too slow, rigid, and clumsy. People in the field need to be able to make decisions quickly without referring everything up the line to people who know less than they do about what's going on.” Again, I am the last person in the world to deny that democracy is incomparably better suited than authoritarianism and conservatism are to cope with a “world of chronic, rapid technological and social change,” but one need only contemplate the pernicious concentration of wealth that accompanied the emergence of the high-tech corporations Slater is lionizing here, or contemplate the fact that few people go to work in even the most pleasant corporations because that is where they feel most free before one begins to wonder just what Slater himself may be peddling himself in the name of “democracy” here.

More examples follow, and in each one the contours seem to me all-too familiar from arguments with facile market libertarian triumphalists starry-eyed with faith in the “spontaneous orders” that will surely effloresce the moment we dislodge the gunk (too often, I fear, simply a matter of ignoring the demands of fellow citizen stakeholders whom the triumphalists happen to disdain or with whom they simply disagree) that restrains the free flow of “innovation,” “openness,” “out-of-the-box” thinking and such and so on we have come to expect from the winners of “free enterprise” in its present construal, or from those who identify with the winners however little likely they are number among them in reality.

I am not claiming, of course, that Slater is a market libertarian triumphalist himself -- it is pretty obvious in fact that he is not -- but I am claiming that much of the life and plausibility that may appear to attach to his ideas in this particular formulation partakes in a broader rhetoric of market naturalist triumphalism that has played havoc in an era of corporate-militarist globalization, and, further, that market fundamentalist ideologues (whether neoconservative or neoliberal) are all well consoled by formulations such as his, however much they might disapprove his specific motivation or desired outcomes.

Democracy’s efficiency, Slater proposes, “[i]s why -- as Dan Baum reported from Iraq -- junior officers there created their own web site to exchange knowledge and ideas, since by the time their questions had gone up through the army hierarchy and the advice or information had come back down again, what they got back was usually dated, ignorant, and irrelevant.” Further, “[t]he inefficiency of authoritarian systems is the reason the Soviet Union collapsed -- Warren Bennis and I predicted that collapse in 1964, in an article in the Harvard Business Review called ‘Democracy Is Inevitable.’” Again, I have no quarrel with these points, except to point out that they are not the end of the story and hardly constitute even the beginning of the story. And would it be mean for me to call our attention for a moment to the countless millions upon millions of people who have struggled and continue to struggle and die in variously authoritarian regimes (some of them democracies at least in their own minds, some of them market orders at least in certain textbook construals of the form) in the years since 1964 (a year before I was even born) when the triumph of “democracy” was declared “inevitable” and to wonder in what sense “inevitability” offers any kind of intelligible relevance or consolation in such a case -– especially when the collapse of the Soviet Union itself, whatever good it did, hardly constitutes the happiest narrative of emancipatory democratization on offer, surely?

“Much of the private sector got the message. So did many nations around the world,” Slater somewhat smugly declaims. The further I make my own way through his argument, however, I fear “the message” may be lost on me. “[T]he Bush administration has responded to every crisis by creating mammoth, topheavy, centralized bureaucracies headed by a ‘czar.’ (To be fair, they didn't invent this particular piece of stupidity -- it's been standard Washington practice for decades.) And the response to each crisis has been characteristically dated, ignorant, and irrelevant.” You will forgive me if I suggest that blanket government bashing is not exactly the most useful argumentative tack to take at a moment when lawless thugs are dismantling democracy in the name of a “government is the problem” ideology. “Smash the state” rhetoric won’t clean up Washington, it will only invite a new crew of brown shirts to the tea party and a new crowd of pigs to the trough.

I mean, I quite get it that there is a delicious irony in pointing out the fact that “small government” types are the ones who inevitably preside over swelling governments, “the business of America is business” types are the ones who inevitably preside over trade and budget deficits and fraud and cronyism, the “liberty” types are the ones who inevitably preside over the policing of difference, the “patriots” are the ones who inevitably disenfranchise their own citizens and dismantle the attainments of their own culture.

I get it, but I also know it isn’t enough to get it. One must get as well that it is because the conservatives disdain legitimate governance that they debauch it, that it is because they disdain fair trade that they cheat and loot, that it is because they fear difference that they define liberty as comfortable conformity, that it is because they dread freedom that they cheer for the freedom to obey. One must defend legitimate governance, fairness, diversity, and critical autonomy before it makes any sense to relish the ironies of facile conservative pieties. And, not to put too fine a point on it, “efficiency” is a wan, sad, and rather shabby hook to hang your hat on if what you want is to defend and extend democracy in the world.

In his conclusion, Slater may seem to register an awareness of this himself. “[I]nefficiency,” he admits, “isn't the worst defect of authoritarian systems. The truly fatal flaw is their tendency to insulate their leaders from negative feedback.” He continues on: “Yes-men are rewarded, and anyone who suggests that the ship of state's current course is on target for an iceberg is considered ‘disloyal.’ When Liu Shaoki told Chairman Mao that the Great Leap Forward was leaping backward he was regarded as an enemy. And anyone who -- like Chief White House Economic Adviser Lawrence Lindsey or Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki -- suggested to Bush that invading and rebuilding Iraq might not be a slam dunk was fired or marginalized. Bush created, as Ron Suskind observed, ‘an echo chamber of his own making.’” Once again, I take these points and am apt to make them myself as a part of the case to be made for democracy in this historical moment, and furthermore, I am hardly immune to the special joys that attend the making of an argument that so forcefully analogizes George W. Bush to Chairman Mao. And yet it bears notice that this is an argument that confines the value of free expression and free thought through the figure of “negative feedback” absolutely insistently to the monologic of an efficiency without specified ends (I have to assume that something like GDP or average life expectancy or possibly, one hopes, the Happiness Index is fluttering in the background of all these self-confident breezes).

“[E]cho chambers are lethal,” Slater concludes, I am certainly inclined to agree with him, even if I worry that there are other lethalities afoot for champions of democracy to derail, not all of which will be addressed through a focus on “efficiency.” Nevertheless, in such echo chambers, Slater goes on to warn, and rightly enough, “[i]deology trumps facts, facing problems becomes disloyalty, dissent becomes treason. Since there's no way to correct mistakes, the system spins out of control, and eventually crashes.” A bracing breathless diorama ensues: “Mao initiates the Cultural revolution, Hitler invades Russia, Nixon authorizes a break-in, Bush invades Iraq.” For me, a compelling narrative stitching such blood-soaked follies together would want more than “the efficiency of markets, er, democracy, er ‘openness’” as its punchline, but I guess that’s just me.

Come what may: “The 'inner circle' becomes narrower and narrower and more and more homogeneous until its members suddenly wake up one day to discover -- as Nixon did -- that everyone who matters is outside it.” And, one more time, I agree with Slater, if one more time I long for a less impoverished response to the anti-democratic energies with which we are contending. If I may dilate in a loosely Kantian vein for a moment, it seems to me that we can approve the case that can easily be made for the efficiency of more democratic organizations of social intercourse in the attainment of shared ends, while admitting the more forceful case for democracy will be the one that reminds us that it is in democracies that we best do justice to the ways in which human beings, whatever their various ends may be, are all of us ends in ourselves.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

More Random Wilde

At twilight, nature is not without loveliness, though perhaps its chief use is to illustrate quotations from the poets.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Zizek on the Tech Bloom

I have stumbled upon an interesting recent Zizekian rant and I thought I might walk through my sympathies and a few of my frustrations with the essay here on Amor Mundi. Slavoj Zizek is almost always fun to read even if he is occasionally a bit terrible. And definitely he does engage from time to time with the technodevelopmental politics that preoccupy so much of my own attention and with a depth and ferocity I just rarely find elsewhere. A piece he wrote called "Bring Me My Philips Mental Jacket," is an ongoing pleasure and provocation for me, and I also love while loving to hate his piece, "No Sex Please, We're Posthuman." This latest piece is called, "Nobody Has to be Vile" (already a deliciously snarky reference to dumb-dumb digirati fave Thomas Friedman).

What follows is Zizek's piece interspersed with my own spontaneous and sometimes impressionistic elaborations and comments. I am thinking out loud here quite a bit, and so read my comments in that spirit.
Since 2001, Davos and Porto Alegre have been the twin cities of globalisation: Davos, the exclusive Swiss resort where the global elite of managers, statesmen and media personalities meets for the World Economic Forum under heavy police protection, trying to convince us (and themselves) that globalisation is its own best remedy; Porto Alegre, the subtropical Brazilian city where the counter-elite of the anti-globalisation movement meets, trying to convince us (and themselves) that capitalist globalisation is not our inevitable fate -- that, as the official slogan puts it, 'another world is possible.' It seems, however, that the Porto Alegre reunions have somehow lost their impetus -- we have heard less and less about them over the past couple of years. Where did the bright stars of Porto Alegre go?

Some of them, at least, moved to Davos. The tone of the Davos meetings is now predominantly set by the group of entrepreneurs who ironically refer to themselves as 'liberal communists' and who no longer accept the opposition between Davos and Porto Alegre: their claim is that we can have the global capitalist cake (thrive as entrepreneurs) and eat it (endorse the anti-capitalist causes of social responsibility, ecological concern etc). There is no need for Porto Alegre: instead, Davos can become Porto Davos.

A couple of initial questions -- is it really true that we are hearing less out of the World Social Forum than we used to do? Is it that Zizek isn't counting Mumbai, Caracas, and Karachi because they aren't Porto Alegre? And is it really true that there are "liberal communists" who have taken it upon themselves to say the curious mixture of things that Zizek is attributing to them? I googled the term "liberal communists" and got a bunch of conservative mouthbreathers fulminating against Hilary Clinton and that sort of thing. Zizek seems mostly to mean to diagnose a symptom with this term (rather as I do myself with acerbic terms like "left-libertopian technophiliac") rather than critique a self-conscious movement so much:
So who are these liberal communists? The usual suspects: Bill Gates and George Soros, the CEOs of Google, IBM, Intel, eBay, as well as court-philosophers like Thomas Friedman. The true conservatives today, they argue, are not only the old right, with its ridiculous belief in authority, order and parochial patriotism, but also the old left, with its war against capitalism: both fight their shadow-theatre battles in disregard of the new realities. The signifier of this new reality in the liberal communist Newspeak is 'smart'. Being smart means being dynamic and nomadic, and against centralised bureaucracy; believing in dialogue and co-operation as against central authority; in flexibility as against routine; culture and knowledge as against industrial production; in spontaneous interaction and autopoiesis as against fixed hierarchy.

Now, there are lots of things for technoprogressive folks to sympathize with in Zizek's gist here, it seems to me.

The irrational exuberants of the Long Boom never really were able to decide (or possibly to distinguish) between their dreams of living in Galt's Gulch -- the almost unbearably embarassing self-congratulatory fantasy of a separatist anarcho-capitalist superman utopian enclave dreamed up by the terminally awful trashy-romance-novelist (but not in a good way) slash Amway saleswoman misconstrued as philosopher, Ayn Rand -- and their dreams of living in a kind of permanently ecstatic Beyzian Autonomous Zone slash Burning Man qua polis but, you know, with somebody else, possibly robots but probably not, always on hand to clean up after all the diapers the infantilized bliss-out Eloi elites leave behind.

The self-satisfied partisans of the Long Boom and the well-meaning naifs of the Tech Bloom are the notionally "right" and "left" faces (pay no attention to the extraordinary similarity of those faces!) of the same complacent privileged fantasy of a technofacilitated spontaneous order that enables elite technophiles and technocrats and assorted members of the high-tech "investment class" to simultaneously ignore or disavow the painful realities of ongoing democratic stakeholder politics and yet still feel themselves to be committed to the values of the democratic order in which they live -- life and general welfare, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and a faith in progress for those times when the system palpably fails to live up to those values in reality.

Certainly, Zizek hits the nail on the head when he points to the ongoing currency in all these technophiliac circles of libertopian buzzwords like "smart" "dynamic" and "nomadic" -- which tend to be words privileged people use to describe their privileges, while more vulnerable and exploited people will use words like "insensitivity," "violation," and "abandonment" to describe the very same realities.

What is especially curious is that we have come to expect as part of the high-camp theatricality of market libertopian rhetoric that its partisans will blithely deny that they are a straightforwardly right-wing political ideology even when they "naturalize" the contingent terms of a market order in ways that always support and console corporate-military elites with endless insider deals and pork stealthed in the name of abstractions like "Defense" and "Trade" all the while prescribing "market discipline" for the "unworthy poor" who constitute the vast majority of people on earth... and yet when the "openness"-advocates of the libertopian left (so-called) offer up the same denials and incomprehensions about the ways in which their own ideology gives primary comfort to the very same elites they seem -- perhaps due to the earnestness of their embrace of environmentalist, multiculturalist, experimentalist, not to mention rock-and-roll perspectives (or at least iconography) -- somehow to manage to get away with this disavowal of the political in general and democracy more particularly much more effectively than the market libertopians ever did.
Bill Gates is the icon of what he has called 'frictionless capitalism', the post-industrial society and the 'end of labour'. Software is winning over hardware and the young nerd over the old manager in his black suit. In the new company headquarters, there is little external discipline; former hackers dominate the scene, working long hours, enjoying free drinks in green surroundings. The underlying notion here is that Gates is a subversive marginal hooligan, an ex-hacker, who has taken over and dressed himself up as a respectable chairman.
But does anybody really think these things? For one thing, the conjuration of the scene of triumphalist nerds seems to me to describe the San Francisco that I lived in a decade ago but which is now dead as a doornail. And for those folks Bill Gates was a thief a devil and a bit of a clown. Isn't it precisely because he always had a shrivelled respectable chairman inside him that he became Bill Gates rather than Richard Stallman in the first place?

And I guess now is as good a time as any to register for the first time a bit of nervousness I feel around what appear to be the either-ors that structure the force of critique here in Zizek's piece. Even if we are sensitive and sensible enough not to be bamboozled by the bloody-minded delusion of "frictionless capital" does that mean we cannot say that there is a difference that makes a difference when social software facilitates collaborative practices of publication, annotation, critique, and readership? It's all very well to snicker at the paperless office and the death of distance, but at what point does one have to take real developments into account in a way that keeps real social democratic critique and advocacy relevant to the circumstances of a changing world? I agree with Zizek that it is terribly easy to become accommodationist with a too-glib acceptance of the contingent terms of the current market order -- but it seems to me that it is just as easy to become unintelligible or altogether hopeless if one denies that prices, like norms, laws, and architectural constraints (and by "architecture" I mean the resistances and articulation built into physical infrastructures, into code, into discourse) regulate social intercourse.

One needn't naturalize market protocols to register the fact that they do worldly work and that some of the work they do is work worth doing -- even while much of it does damage that we must undo. Is there room in what Zizek is saying for such fraught interventions? I hope so.
Liberal communists are top executives reviving the spirit of contest or, to put it the other way round, countercultural geeks who have taken over big corporations. Their dogma is a new, postmodernised version of Adam Smith's invisible hand: the market and social responsibility are not opposites, but can be reunited for mutual benefit. As Friedman puts it, nobody has to be vile in order to do business these days; collaboration with employees, dialogue with customers, respect for the environment, transparency of deals -- these are the keys to success.

Here, of course, Zizek is spot on. Is it really right to say "nobody has to be vile to succeed" when one sees vileness is just as ubiquitous as ever in the practices of "successful" enterprises, and when the global order that articulates the terms in which enterprises succeed or not generates such unspeakable vileness in general? And how can Friedman declaim as the very arenas in which vileness is no longer "necessary" precisley the ones in which the vilness seems so devastating and so palpably to arise as a structural feature of the order in whose name he means to speak as a priestly mouthpiece? Needless overwhelming wretchedness, poverty, illness, malnutrition, conscript and duressed labor, corrupt authorities, environmental devastation? Honestly, what planet is he on?

The confidence in "spontaneous order" is always the ecstatic voice of privilege. Freed of the urgent necessity to testify to social abjection when one is no longer personally abjected one as it were miraculously discovers that the very order which has faciliated one's own escape from misery is an engine ineluctably releasing everyone on earth... eventually, from that same misery. And the surest sign of that privilege is that it insulates one from all evidence to the contrary of this self-satisfied faith. Insulates it, that is to say, until the social contradictions themselves force some sudden devastating recognition, when social costs erupt onto the scene in the form of economic recession/depression, environmental collapse, social upheaval, etc.

"Olivier Malnuit recently drew up the liberal communist's ten commandments in the French magazine Technikart:

1. You shall give everything away free (free access, no copyright); just charge for the additional services, which will make you rich."

How are "additional services" construed here? Bruce Sterling writes in Tomorrow Now about how "free services" induct one into ongoing relationships with service-providers who constantly "update" the basic service to maintain a profitable relationship. Here, Sterling and Zizek are making complementary points. But what if we conjoin these universal access, creative commons/a2k ("access to knowledge") moves with collaborative service provision and updating, and throw in a robust "no logo" disdain of corporatism? If we then struggle to subsidize this information regime through basic income guarantees (my "pay to peer" argument) and go on to supplement these moves with a programmatic struggle for global universal education and healthcare, then it is hard to see how this technoprogressive/technoliberationist politics doesn't amount to a real left politics rather than the neoliberal/left-libertopian "liberal communism" Zizek properly derides -- through Malnuit -- here.

"2. You shall change the world, not just sell things.

"3. You shall be sharing, aware of social responsibility.

"4. You shall be creative: focus on design, new technologies and science."

Yes, it is very easy to hear Jennifer Saunder's Edwina Monsoon, the New Age libertopian hedonist monster of BBC's enduringly hilarious AbFab series as the voice giving the lie to these self-congratulatory corporatist fantasies. By the way, I think enterprise and commerce that is genuinely defined by these attitudes actually can do real good in the world. It just isn't and cannot ever be enough. How do we do justice to such intuitions without drifting into the neoliberal corporate-militarist accomodationism Zizek disdains here?

"5. You shall tell all: have no secrets, endorse and practise the cult of transparency and the free flow of information; all humanity should collaborate and interact."

Well, I am a strong believer in transparency as the price of authority -- transparency should be the price you pay when you benefit from things like tenure, limited liability, and legitimate monopolies on the use of force. I don't believe "transparency" is necessarily the best metaphor to express what is afoot in these demands, and I think it is an especially pernicious thing to demand of individual citizens, especially when the real threats to personal privacy are never the exposure of information but the control of interpretations. But for more on that I recommend people read my critiques of the cypherpunks and of David Brin in chapters Two and Three of my dissertation, Pancryptics (which I am editing into a book right now -- comments and criticisms are very welcome).

"6. You shall not work: have no fixed 9 to 5 job, but engage in smart, dynamic, flexible communication."

All this in an era when human trafficking is on the rise and millions are starving to death and paralyzed by treatable diseases in the midst of the greatest affluence in the history of the world. Yes, it is hard to stomach these cheerful declamations at times.

"7. You shall return to school: engage in permanent education."

Make this injunction universal and I'm for it. And, honestly, it is hard for me to see how one could practically implement such an injuction without supporting some of the cheap green laptop and p2p/a2k politics that Zizek is likely to disdain as "liberal communism" here. What is wanted here is more of the recognition that what is politically indispensable can still be politically inadequate. Else, Zizek's radicalism threatens to underwrite impractical violence and then cynicism and passivity. No doubt, this is pretty close to what an accommodationist would say in this moment and so just how does one get past this impasse?

"8. You shall act as an enzyme: work not only for the market, but trigger new forms of social collaboration."

Of course, the whole point is that far fewer people would care to work for profit on the market at all if the satisfactions of creative work, social support, and self-creation outside the market order in its present terms did not practically guarantee annihilation.

"9. You shall die poor: return your wealth to those who need it, since you have more than you can ever spend."

Zizek is right to deride this sort of straightforward patronizing aristocratic self-congratulation.

"10. You shall be the state: companies should be in partnership with the state."

Zizek is also right to deride this sort of "friendly fascism." A recongition of the ineradicable multilateralism of modern civil life (a la Gramsci, Arendt, Althusser, Foucault) certainly need not be to affirm the death dealing corporate-militarism of global "privatization" schemes.
Liberal communists are pragmatic; they hate a doctrinaire approach. There is no exploited working class today, only concrete problems to be solved: starvation in Africa, the plight of Muslim women, religious fundamentalist violence. When there is a humanitarian crisis in Africa (liberal communists love a humanitarian crisis; it brings out the best in them), instead of engaging in anti-imperialist rhetoric, we should get together and work out the best way of solving the problem, engage people, governments and business in a common enterprise, start moving things instead of relying on centralised state help, approach the crisis in a creative and unconventional way.

Here I think the point here is that the usual assertion of insistently pragmatic and instrumentalist language too readily facilitates the dismissal and disavowal of any genuinely political, any really democratic responsiveness to crisis -- one sweeps off the table any talk of the ways in which the terms of the current contingent institutional/legal/normative order of governance, corporate-militarism, production and trade might have produced or exacerbated whatever crisis is afoot. And then one simply starts mobilizing the problem-solving agencies and individuals constituted by and within that order.

What might have been a crisis of the contemporary order becomes, then, always only another implementation of that order. That this robotic re-instatement and re-inscription of the terms of the given order is then valorized as "creative" and "unconventional" is the final triumph, the insult added to injury.
Liberal communists like to point out that the decision of some large international corporations to ignore apartheid rules within their companies was as important as the direct political struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Abolishing segregation within the company, paying blacks and whites the same salary for the same job etc: this was a perfect instance of the overlap between the struggle for political freedom and business interests, since the same companies can now thrive in post-apartheid South Africa.

Again, I think we can point to the indispensability of this sort of argument and force for reform without pretending it is adequate to solve the problems arising out of the current corporate-militarist order. I worry about the cynicism and thereafter the exhaustion that is likely to follow from this sort of observation, however, so long as one highlights, as Zizek keeps doing here, the real inadequacy of such reform but without highlighting as well its indispensability.
Liberal communists love May 1968. What an explosion of youthful energy and creativity! How it shattered the bureaucratic order! What an impetus it gave to economic and social life after the political illusions dropped away! Those who were old enough were themselves protesting and fighting on the streets: now they have changed in order to change the world, to revolutionise our lives for real.

Well, I blame the nonresponsiveness of the more orthodox revolutionary left in France (whom Zizek seems to be ventriloquizing somewhat here) for no small part of the limited follow-through and subsequent assmilation of the revolutionary energies of '68.
Didn't Marx say that all political upheavals were unimportant compared to the invention of the steam engine? And would Marx not have said today: what are all the protests against global capitalism in comparison with the internet?
Zizek's derision here is a very healthy one for technoprogressives and technoliberationistas to take in and take seriously. As James Hughes and I never tire of reiterating, technodevelopment is social struggle: The accumulation of a technological toy pile is not a substitute for social struggle but is the context in which that struggle occurs and constitutes the permanent occasion for a reinvigoration of the terms and hopes of that struggle. The steam engine, the internet, social software, nanofactories, SENS, space elevators, terraforming -- none of them, not one of them, constitutes emancipation on its own. Emancipation is what happens when we take up the terms of technodevelopment and democratize the distribution of risks, costs, and benefits of technology to all the stakeholders to its developments.
Above all, liberal communists are true citizens of the world -- good people who worry. They worry about populist fundamentalism and irresponsible greedy capitalist corporations. They see the 'deeper causes' of today's problems: mass poverty and hopelessness breed fundamentalist terror. Their goal is not to earn money, but to change the world (and, as a by-product, make even more money).

Zizek conjures up here the evergreen critique of bourgeois bad faith.
Bill Gates is already the single greatest benefactor in the history of humanity, displaying his love for his neighbours by giving hundreds of millions of dollars for education, the fight against hunger and malaria etc.

Zizek assumes as I will not that any sensible reader of such an outlandish claim will be familiar already with the critique that the foundational gesture on the basis of which Microsoft came into being was the appropriation for profit of the fruits of what were long and collaborative labors, and that it still benefits from the ongoing labor of untold unpaid collaborators, critics, and troubleshooters to this day.

As for the contemporary disposition of charity and foreign aid from "developed" to the "developing" world... Again, Zizek assumes as I will not that any sensible reader of such a formulation will already know that such "aid" and "support" is always only offered up in the context of the imposition and implementation of legal and trading regimes that are injurious to the tune of billions upon billions of dollars a year. The comparatively minuscule millions in neoliberal charity and development aid constitute a cheapskate compensation for ongoing technodevelopmental abjection, a noisy imperial ceremonial of "support" that functions primarily to ensure distraction from the otherwise intolerable spectacle of violation.
The catch is that before you can give all this away you have to take it (or, as the liberal communists would put it, create > it). In order to help people, the justification goes, you must have the means to do so, and experience -- that is, recognition of the dismal failure of all centralised statist and collectivist approaches -- teaches us that private enterprise is by far the most effective way. By regulating their business, taxing them excessively, the state is undermining the official goal of its own activity (to make life better for the majority, to help those in need).

Yes, it is the usual shabby neoliberal translation of Kennedy's chestnut that from those to whom much is given much is required: One must take quite a lot before one can give a little bit back... The vampire ethic of crony capitalism. And notice the illustration here of the stealthy disavowal of politics through market-naturalizing pragmatism: Free enterprise "works" and authoritarianism fails to work, and so first the neoliberal identifies the institutions of corporate-militarism with "free enterprise" and then attacks as both naively impractical and authoritarian any anti-authoritarian resistence to authoritarian concentrations of power in corporations (which, recall, are already imagined in "partnership" with governance in the neoliberal imaginary), however inflexible, irresponsible, lax, flabby, slow and nonprofitable this authoritarian concentration makes an organization in its actual function.

What is astonishing is to hear these tried and true -- that is to say, tired and "truthy" -- market naturalist rhetorics and aristocratic apologias emerging from the frothing lips of saucer-eyed technology enthusiasts who want to imagine themselves as partisans, nonetheless, of the "left" in any legible sense of the word!
Liberal communists do not want to be mere profit-machines: they want
their lives to have deeper meaning.

That is to say, we are supposed to think there is somehow something admirable in wanting to have your cake and eat it, so long as it's, I guess, "open source." It's like the old Woody Allen bit -- I'm a hypocrite, I know. But, for the left.
They are against old-fashioned religion and for spirituality, for non-confessional meditation (everybody knows that Buddhism foreshadows brain science, that the power of meditation can be measured scientifically). Their motto is social responsibility and gratitude: they are the first to admit that society has been incredibly good to them, allowing them to deploy their talents and amass wealth, so they feel that it is their duty to give something back to society and help people. This beneficence is what makes business success worthwhile.

This takes us into the New Age dimensions of what Andy Cameron and Richard Barbrook aptly call "The California Ideology." The pop-psychology and McBuddhism of the Tech Bloom tends to rise to the fore, I've noticed, in moments when the Business Cycle is more bust than boom, although we can always count on the reductive triumphalists and Randroids to re-emerge without memory -- or mercy -- the moment the Cycle nudges back into boom.
This isn't an entirely new phenomenon. Remember Andrew Carnegie, who employed a private army to suppress organised labour in his steelworks and then distributed large parts of his wealth for educational, cultural and humanitarian causes, proving that, although a man of steel, he had a heart of gold? In the same way, today's liberal communists give away with one hand what they grabbed with the other.

Read it and weep.
There is a chocolate-flavoured laxative available on the shelves of US stores which is publicised with the paradoxical injunction: Do you have constipation? Eat more of this chocolate! -- i.e. eat more of something that itself causes constipation. The structure of the chocolate laxative can be discerned throughout today's ideological landscape; it is what makes a figure like Soros so objectionable. He stands for ruthless financial exploitation combined with its counter-agent, humanitarian worry about the catastrophic social consequences of the unbridled market economy. Soros's daily routine is a lie embodied: half of his working time is devoted to financial speculation, the other half to 'humanitarian' activities (financing cultural and democratic activities in post-Communist countries, writing essays and books) which work against the effects of his own speculations. The two faces of Bill Gates are exactly like the two faces of Soros: on the one hand, a cruel businessman, destroying or buying out competitors, aiming at a virtual monopoly; on the other, the great philanthropist who makes a point of saying: 'What does it serve to have computers if people do not have enough to eat?'

Zizek has a point, but I happen to find Soros less objectionable than I do Gates. (Is that so wrong?) Zizek is absolutely right to deny that only Soros or his like can provide the resources to fight actually-existing authoritarianisms, as he is absolutely right to deny any suggestion that Soros' fights against authoritarianism now somehow justify the damage he may have done in amassing his private fortune... but I find myself feeling glad Soros is doing the work that he is doing nonetheless. Soros is no William Fort, say (the leader of the socially progressive metanational Praxis in Kim Stanley Robinson's technoprogressive Mars Trilogy), but neither probably should Soros be the figure through which we try to debate the specificially technoprogressive possibilities of market socialisms and social democratic experimentalisms that will not degenerate into neoliberal market pieties and corporate-militarist apologias.

It is hard to shake the suspicion that there is no real answer to the question "What Is to be Done?" that will be invulnerable, exactly, to Zizek's Exlax analogy. And so where does it leave us?
According to liberal communist ethics, the ruthless pursuit of profit is counteracted by charity: charity is part of the game, a humanitarian mask hiding the underlying economic exploitation. Developed countries are constantly 'helping' undeveloped ones (with aid, credits etc), and so avoiding the key issue: their complicity in and responsibility for the miserable situation of the Third World.

It is hard to argue with Zizek here. Democracy isn't charity and exchange under duress isn't democracy. It is in moments like these the neoliberals and left-libertopians face their livid moment of truth -- are you really a right-wing ideologue genuflecting toward democracy and Greenness because that's the only way to get into the good parties or even live with yourself? Or are you really a social democrat who recognizes technodevelopment as the space of social struggle in this historical moment, the terrain of catastrophe and emancipation on which we find ourselves?
As for the opposition between 'smart' and 'non-smart', outsourcing is the key notion. You export the (necessary) dark side of production -- disciplined, hierarchical labour, ecological pollution -- to 'non-smart' Third World locations (or invisible ones in the First World). The ultimate liberal communist dream is to export the entire working class to invisible Third World sweat shops.

I think Zizek misses the ways in which it is less the exportation of labor than its roboticization/automation that has emerged as the governing term for technodevelopmental abjection -- outsourcing is in fact just one among many of its implementations. This is the genocidal fantasy at the heart of the neoliberal/neoconservative corporate-militarist elitist/aristocratic imaginary, not of a radical sequestration of the masses into the darkness and silence that is their lot and their substance, but of an even more radical obsolescence and, hence, nonexistence. This is important not only because it is best to see such a threat as clearly as it is possible to see it, but because roboticization/automation can be taken up by the radical democratic left as easily as it can the antidemocratic corporate-military right. The democratizing demand for a global basic income guarantee and shorter work-week (even zerowork) as the social dividend of roboticization/automation provides the emancipatory and anti-nostalgic face of technodevelopmental abjection -- as against any facile technophobia that would urge we smash the machines and "return" in our ineradicably prostheticized billions to a pastoral existence that could never sustain us and never existed in any case. Radicalism needs to attend to the damage and the danger -- but it also needs to find its way to hope, else it's worse than useless.
We should have no illusions: liberal communists are the enemy of every true progressive struggle today. All other enemies -- religious fundamentalists, terrorists, corrupt and inefficient state bureaucracies -- depend on contingent local circumstances. Precisely because they want to resolve all these secondary malfunctions of the global system, liberal communists are the direct embodiment of what is wrong with the system
This is a powerful claim but a bit hard to take. Shouldn't the effort be to re-write the left tide of progressives, Greens, social democrats, secularists, liberals in the image of proliferating technoliberation? If there is an emerging technoprogressive majority in the already existing left in favor of medical research, science education, global reduction/policing of WMD, renewable energy, in addition to its support for democracy and social justice, then can't we articulate this emerging consensus into a globally emancipatory technoprogressive force? I worry that Zizek's clearheaded critique of accommodationism here leaves nothing but violent revolution as its alternative... but revolution in an era of insanely destructive devices is an existential threat, and not exactly an appealing or workable option.
It may be necessary to enter into tactical alliances with liberal communists in order to fight racism, sexism and religious obscurantism, but it's important to remember exactly what they are up to.

Well, that is certainly sensible.
Etienne Balibar, in La Crainte des masses (1997), distinguishes the two opposite but complementary modes of excessive violence in today's capitalism: the objective (structural) violence that is inherent in the social conditions of global capitalism (the automatic creation of excluded and dispensable individuals, from the homeless to the unemployed), and the subjective violence of newly emerging ethnic and/or religious (in short: racist) fundamentalisms.

That's a fine formulation, and one that market libertarians (among them many "left"-libertopians) are especially oblivious to as they define market-outcomes, however duressed they may be in fact, as "non-violent" from the get-go and by fiat.
They may fight subjective violence, but liberal communists are the agents of the structural violence that creates the conditions for explosions of subjective violence. The same Soros who gives millions to fund education has ruined the lives of thousands thanks to his financial speculations and in doing so created the conditions for the rise of the intolerance he denounces.

Well, of course we know that Zizek is right. But it just isn't clear to me that his righteousness here points the way to what is to be done. And until we know better what that might be, it isn't clear to me what good it is saying what he says, even when what he says is as good as it is.