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

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Consensual Prosthetic Self-Determination and Progressive Democratization

I just want to repeat a paragraph from a recent post of mine decrying the tendencies to eugenicism in too much futurological discourse -- whether the prevailing neoliberal/neoconservative corporate-militarist global developmental discourse of incumbent interests and their technocrats, or the condensed reductio of that mainstream discourse, the superlative futurology of the transhumanists, digital-utopians, singularitarians, techno-immortalists, megascale geoengineers, extropians, and nano-cornucopiasts I deride here so often as Robot Cultists. The paragraph I want to reiterate is a more positive and programmatic one to which I want to append at its end a further rather expansive elaboration concerning the relation of the notion of consent to properly progressive and democratic politics more generally.

As I remarked in the prior post, I advocate a politics of consensual prosthetic self-determination, which I take to be the usual pro-Choice politics, elaborated to include both the right of all women to end their unwanted pregnancies safely as well as to facilitate wanted ones through assistive reproductive techniques, and elaborated further to include a host of familiar civil libertarian positions on biomedical and lifeway issues concerning the self-determination of end-of-life conditions, informed consensual comparatively harmless recreational drug use, consensual body modification (cosmetic procedures, sexual reassignments, body modifications like tattoos and piercings and so on), and elaborated further still in the context of actually emerging genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive interventions to affirm and protect the choices of sane competent adult citizens either to make recourse to or refrain from entering into emerging therapeutic regimes, whether they are normalizing or not, even when their eventual and combinatorial effects are imperfectly understood (as is usually the case after all), so long as participation is not under duress (where "duress" marks force, the threat of force, but also precarity: insecure legal status, the pressure of poverty, and the disruptions of war, pandemic, or catastrophic climate change), the decision to participate is informed (not compromised by fraud, secrecy, or misinformation), and the regime is regulated, transparent, and accountable. To this, let me add that inasmuch as all culture is best-understood as prosthetic in my view, consensual prosthetic self-determination connects up as well to the politics of free expression and association, including deployments of style as performances of subcultural identification, dis-identification, and negotiation.

Just as the scene of consent -- actually informed, actually nonduressed consent, mind you (where "informed" is not measured against the impossibility of omniscience, where "nonduressed" is not measured against the impossibility of omnipotence) -- provides the ground on the basis of which I navigate the interminable (and often productive) tension in democratic politics between the values of equity and diversity, so too consent negotiates the customary tension between individual and collective: Individual self-determination depends on consent, while the achievement and maintenance of the scene of consent is a collective project, peer-to-peer.

Notice that a democratic politics devoted to consent does not properly provoke a commitment to anarchy. This is so since, just as a consistent commitment to nonviolence compels the advocacy of a democratic state tasked with providing institutional alternatives to the violent adjudication of disputes, a consistent commitment to consent compels advocacy of a democratic state tasked with the administration of equitable justice and welfare and access to reliable knowledge to ensure that the scene of consent it actually informed and nonduressed and hence substantiated rather than a vacuous formalism. And of course, to the extent that consent is legible, it enables the "consent of the governed" that legitimates the state as democratic in the first place, as does the (ill-understood, much maligned, but in fact definitive) connection in democratic governance of the taxation without which government cannot function to representation (all citizens can vote for and against current office-holders as well as stand for office themselves).

In my view, consent also provides the key to a progressive politics that is properly compatible with a commitment to democratic politics. To be devoted to democracy is usually to be progressive as well, of course -- since actual democratization remains so partially and imperfectly realized in the present this is only to be expected as an empirical matter -- and yet the usual glib identification of progressive and democratic politics yields much mischief in my view. Democracy is the idea that people should have a real say in the public decisions that affect them, and the progressive politics of democratization is the one in which we work to ensure that ever more people have ever more of a real say in the public decisions that affect them.

The actual play of diverse lifeways and the public reconciliation of the aspirations of the diversity of stakeholders to the costs, risks, and benefits of historical change, peer to peer, that is to say the actual substance of democratic politics is unpredictable, interminable, and, therefore, strictly speaking, non-progressive. That is to say, freedom isn't going anywhere, it isn't progressing toward some destination or end: It is open, promising, threatening, problematic, ideally interminably ongoing.

And so, it seems to me that for democratically-minded people progressive politics, properly understood, should be progressing toward the achievement of an actually-legible actually-substantive scene of consent. Else, all too often, "progress" is either naturalized into a "faith in progress" that tends to function as self-congratulatory apologia for privileges that derive from exploitation, or is superlativized into a denialism about limits couched in terms of endless aspiration that tends to facilitate the deferment and externalization of costs and risks onto the vulnerable to the benefit of the privileged. That is to say, any commitment to progress that is not progress toward the accomplishment of the society of informed, nonduressed consent, will tend to be a conservative retro-futurism figuring "progress" always only as the amplification of the terms of imcumbent privilege.

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