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

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

PZ Myers Laughs at the Retro-Futurist Libertechbrotarians of "The Dark Enlightenment"

In a post helpfully tagged with "Bad philosophy," "Bad Science," and "Stupidity," entitled More like the Dork Enlightenment, am I right? Pharyngula's PZ Myers edifyingly snarks:
I am told I’m supposed to take The Dark Enlightenment seriously. I can’t. I just can’t. What it is is mostly a bunch of pretentious white dudebro computer programmers with a fascist ideology who write tortuous long-winded screeds off the top of their heads, with most of their ‘data’ coming from pop culture movies like The Matrix, and a few similarly clueless nerds who think it’s neat-o. I take it seriously only in the same way I take Libertarianism seriously: it’s a nucleus for idiots to coalesce around.
Apart from thinking it unkind to dorks -- with whom I sympathize at least and identify in part -- to tar them with the brush of retro-futurological libertechbrotarian dead-enders like these, I quite agree with Myers' sentiments, as regular readers already know.

I also have to say that, like Myers apparently, I do have folks occasionally e-mailing me to comment on these jokers. Some who do so seem earnestly worried about this nonsense, while others seem to be trying to whomp up undeserved attention for this marginal movement for whatever reasons. Since I make fun of Robot Cultists of the transhumanoidal, singularitarian, techno-immortalist, nano-cornucopiast sects fairly regularly, it is fair enough that some would imagine I'd be up for skewering pretty much any brand of futurological foolishness and con-artistry crawling out of the clown car, I suppose. But as I have said repeatedly, it is mostly because transhumanoidal eugenists, singularitarian digitopians, nano-santa techno-boosters represent clarifying extremities of more prevailing and mainstream forms of neoliberal optimization, globalization, financialization, marketing deception, and promotional hyperbole that I critique Robot Cultists, hoping to expose underlying pathologies we have otherwise come catastrophically to take for granted.

In my judgment, the retro-futurists of the "New Reaction" don't seem to me to connect in a particularly interesting way to a more prevailing discourse -- they mostly just seem like dumb privileged white guys socialized in undereducated undercritical pop-tech subcultures indulging in paranoid defensive dead-ender white-racist techbro self-congratulation. Their go-to intellectuals seem dumb and pompous and more than a little embarrassing, to be honest. And I also just don't see any kind of relevant near-term future for this particular Robot Cult cul-de-sac. As an organizational subculture there is little growth potential for these poor fellows. I think muckraking temperaments and even conspiracists would be better employed attending to the historical and funding and membership and logrolling relations of the MIT Media Lab, OMNI, The Well, WIRED, TechCentralStation (defunct but still dynamistic!),, The Long Now Foundation, various awful TED-affiliated projects, the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, the Oxford Future of Humanity Institute, the Stanford Singularity Summits, Singularity University, co-reports by the National Science Foundation and Commerce Department like their futurological agitprop about NBIC "convergence" and "enhancement" medicine, DARPA, Google and other tech companies indulging in AI-deadender discourse and futurological blue-skying, various e-cash and e-security firms with roots in cryptoanarchist subcultures, the whole archipelago of corporate-military thinks tanks indulging in climate change denialism and toxic profiteering and bleeding over into movement Republican deregulatory and cronyist apologiae. Those organizational relations have some real stories to tell, and are having real world impacts here and now. The Dark Enlightenment, to the contrary, is like a very minor Bell Curve Star Wars Vladimir Putin fandom or something. If you want to go down a rabbit hole, start connecting dots between Stewart Brand, Ray Kurzweil, Nick Bostrom, and Peter Thiel: Enjoy! At most, these low rent Dark Enlightenment cosplayers and online manifesto pamphleteers rate a single scarcely attended panel at a third tier Con. And, frankly, even as a cultural symptom there are simply much more interesting and eerie forms the particular irrational fears and fantasies of these whiny white guys also take that are more worthy of our attention, from survivalist gun-nuttery to self-actualization PowerPoint presentations in Ramada Inns for start-up techbros and Vegas boner pill and nutritional supplement trade shows as well as the common or garden variety Obama derangements that yield the bananas bounty of Christianist know-nothingism and the Tea Party Neo-Confederacy.


Anonymous said...

lol. white people gonna be white. I see no differences between white liberals and white racist psychopaths, they are cut from the same cloth and culture. They are both vying for ultimate power and dominance. As a black man I am oppossed to both of them. However, at least I am sure where the honest white people stand in the far right wing. At least they are upfront and forward with me about thier psychopathic and irrational hatred of my black skin.

Dale Carrico said...

Very helpful.

jimf said...

> [T]he retro-futurists of the "New Reaction" don't seem to me
> to connect in a particularly interesting way to a more prevailing
> discourse -- they mostly just seem like dumb privileged white guys
> socialized in undereducated undercritical pop-tech subcultures indulging
> in paranoid defensive dead-ender white-racist techbro self-congratulation.
> Their go-to intellectuals seem dumb and pompous and more than a little
> embarrassing. . .
"Heil Hitler! Frau Speer?"


"I said, 'Heil Hitler'."

"I heard you, Frau Doktor."

_Inside the Third Reich_ (1982 TV movie)
Part 1:
Part 2:

Does that exemplify (or violate) Godwin's Law? ;->

jimf said...

> [T]he retro-futurists of the "New Reaction" don't seem to me
> to connect in a particularly interesting way to a more prevailing
> discourse. . .

Meanwhile, from across the pond:

In October 2004 I witnessed a life-changing TV event: the
first broadcast of the Adam Curtis documentary series
_The Power of Nightmares: the Rise of the Politics of Fear_.
I was blown away by the scope, ambition, clarity and
directness of these three short films. Curtis took on the
history of the preceding sixty years — the parallel rise
of neo-conservatism and Islamic fundamentalism, the collapse
of the USSR, the 9/11 attacks, the "War on Terror" — and
somehow made it all seem to snap together and make sense. . .

Something about this analysis spoke to me. It didn't just
explain the neocon wars; it explained **everything**. It certainly
explained me and my personal situation. Isolated — check;
atomised — yeah, there wasn't a whole lot of chemical bonding
going on at that time, truth be told. And it also played into
a little boy's sense of martyrdom: I was one of those people. . .
who believed in things, the people passionate about things,
our society marginalised and misunderstood — what nerd doesn't
want to think that? . . . [P]eople like me were radically
opposed to the status quo, atomised revolutionaries in our
own PJs. . .

These days, I find it hard to believe I ever confused that kind
of unhistorical crap for a "leftist" analysis of world events. . .
"[I]t's the oil, stupid", inadequate as it is, is a better analysis
of the "War on Terror" than anything _The Power of Nightmares_
has to offer. . . [W]hat Curtis has to say in these films is
a waste of time. To an understanding of 20th century history,
he contributes nothing but noise and confusion.

Curtis's view of history is old-fashioned, conspiratorial, and
idealistic in the worst sense of the word. In _The Power of Nightmares_,
history is simply the playing out of ideologies dreamt up by Great Men.
Curtis deliberately ignores the material interests that might lie
behind his "politics of fear". . .

It doesn't consider economic forces or political realities or ordinary
people much at all. Curtis is only interested in the Great Ideas of
Great Men. . . He certainly won't allow economic forces or
political realities or ordinary people get in the way of telling
a good story. . .

jimf said...

Where is Curtis coming from. . .? Is he himself a neocon of sorts?
In his films and interviews and blog entries, Curtis is deliberately
vague about his political views. It seems he'd prefer we didn't
know them. . .

But I think his personal politics have **everything** to do with it. . .
_The Power of Nightmares_. . . has a distinctive list of ingredients:
admiration for Trotskyists-turned-right-wingers, the rejection of historical
materialism, nostalgia for an age of political idealism, . . .
a gratuitous swipe at environmentalism. . . [T]he evidence seems
to suggest that Curtis is under the influence of a radical right-wing
ideologue so bizarre and manipulative that he truly belongs in his own
Adam Curtis documentary. . .

Frank Furedi is a professor of sociology at the University of Kent
in southern England. For many years he was also the guru of his own
tiny Trotskyist sect, which he called the "Revolutionary Communist Party" (RCP).
He spent the 80s optimistically "Preparing for Power", but by the early 90s
Trotsky was out of fashion on campus and the prospects for the RCP
looked bleak. So Furedi decided to take the path of many a Trotskyist
before him; like Burnham, Kristol, Hitchens and Larouche, he made an
opportunistic jump from far left to far right, and took most of his
sect with him.

His political trajectory can be determined by three vectors: his
hatred of feminism, his hatred of identity politics and his hatred
of environmentalism. . . He beat his chest about "masculine values",
he championed the free speech of racists, and he crawled into bed with
whatever toxic shit-spewing corporation would give him money. . .
The only element of Marxism he retained was his fetish for "the forces
of production", which in his mind were being held back by an unlikely
alliance of green activists, the PC police, spineless policy wonks,
the nanny state, and bet-hedging investors. In place of the "pessimistic"
and "apocalyptic" values these people preached, Furedi wanted a world of
"confident individualism" and "experiment, enterprise and risk-taking":
the balls-out macho values that could unleash the forces of production
and change history for the better. . .

Furedi quietly dissolved the formal RCP. But its hardcore members
never went away or lost touch with each other. Over the next ten years,
they reemerged to form a weird clandestine network of websites,
industry-funded think tanks, PR front groups, lobbyist organisations
and Daily Telegraph columns. Centred on the twin hubs of Spiked Online
and The Institute of Ideas, this so-called LM Network looks rather
like a cult: each node pretends to be independent, each member
pretends not to know the other, but each follows an identically crazy
party line almost to the letter.

The characteristic line of Furedi and his cultists is to put a
"left" or "Marxist" spin on the kind of political causes that could
only excite a Reddit shitlord: paedophile's rights, reducing the
welfare state, cheerleading for Big Science (as long as it's not
environmentalism), promoting economic growth at all costs. They
pose as feminists when arguing the case against rape victims' rights;
they pose as pro-tolerance when indulging in blatant transphobia.
They are consistently against social welfare, environmental protection,
civil rights legislation, and curbs on hate speech or child pornography.
Their political agenda is hard to distinguish from that of
far-right libertarians; the only obvious difference is that they're
more likely to back up their arguments with Marx than von Mises. . .

jimf said...

They have relatively little cultural or political influence, and their
few forays into mass media have been disasters. In the British media,
Furedi and his goons are widely regarded as a weird libertarian cult.
Their endless series of talks and debates and "salons", far from
reviving a culture of "public intellectuals", only make public their
Borg-like intellectual vapidity. . . [T]o find anything alluring. . .
you'd have to be a five-star asshole to begin with. . .

Furedi. . . pines for the days when the establishment could "demonstrate
its moral virtues and consolidate its authority". In Furedi's view, it seems
moral purpose and progress can only be granted from above, by
great thinkers and inspirational leaders and adventurers, who give us
utopian visions and grand voyages and vast engineering projects, all
animated by the spirit of derring-do that made Britain great and
everything Britain touched suffer. Furedi's utopia seems to be a
kind of fully-realised steampunk London, with all that entails. . .


What kind of person is in this audience? Curtis himself describes it best:

"Basically, whenever I do something I try and do it for someone who I
imagine is a bit like me — quite clever, quite well educated, confident
but not super-confident, and above all not posh."

It's striking that this privately-schooled, Oxbridge-educated guy who
speaks perfect BBC English considers himself "not posh". But that's typical
of Curtis's target audience: privileged guys who deny their privilege,
guys who think they're awfully clever, educated guys with educated tastes,
guys painfully aware of the gap between their ego and its realisation.
An elite just outside the real elite, but close enough to look in and
see what it's missing. A frustrated puritan sidekick of the real elite,
which prides itself in taking the values of the elite more seriously
than the elite ever did. A sub-elite impotently resentful of its superiors,
but most of all concerned with guarding its own place in the hierarchy.

Historically, this has been a dangerous and volatile constituency, and
it's no less so today. Sometimes its members find harmless outlets like
Trotskyism or music journalism or stand-up comedy, where they can pretend
their resentment has something to do with art or truth or liberation,
and no one will really notice. But other times they become trolls or
libertarians or worse. They direct their resentment at those below
them in the hierarchy: women, minorities, the poor, the vulnerable.
They lash out because they think they're not given due respect, or
because they feel a threat to their own status, or simply because
they can get away with it. Sometimes — and this is when they're most
dangerous of all — they group together and lash out in a coordinated
and systematic way. They become a force that can be channeled by the
real elite to do their dirty work in times of crisis, when a genuine
threat needs to be put down; or a force that can become a new elite
itself, more terrible still than the one it supplants.

jimf said...

Curtis's political views are truly disorienting. He styles himself
as anti-capitalist but denies being "left". He sticks it to Ayn Rand
and Friedrich Hayek, but champions "confident individualism". He
criticises imperialist wars, but speaks in praise of neocons. He
flatters his audience's radical credentials, while sneaking in
some the most reactionary opinions imaginable.

When Curtis admits he is "more fond of a libertarian view", I think. . .
he's more right-wing than he gives himself credit for. Curtis's political
outlook is oriented towards the right; as he says himself, "the arguments
within the right [...] are in fact much more interesting than the
arguments between the rather desiccated and unconfident Left ruling elites". . .

Curtis doesn't like to dwell on the "horror and disaster" of Nazism,
and he doesn't like anyone else to, either. . . [A] cardinal rule of
Furedi and his fellow-travellers: one must never mention the suffering
of victims. To do so would be to fall prey to "victim culture"
(in the words of Furedi) or "Oh Dearism" (in the words of Curtis).
Looking into the face of suffering just makes people feel weak and
depressed and resigned and pessimistic; they withdraw into themselves
and lose the will to change the world. . . A society that keeps the
welfare of victims in mind is stagnant, conservative, afraid of
change — or so the argument goes. This argument is just self-serving
right-wing bullshit, of course. . .


I don't seriously think Curtis wants to purge the world of its victims.
But when I listen to his dreams of utopia and his desire to "harness a
force that appeals to the great mass of people", and then bear in mind
his links to a clandestine right-wing network funded by such scummy
corporations as Pfizer and the notorious PR firm Hill and Knowlton, . . .
I wouldn't share Curtis's confidence that the mass movement he dreams
of would not be fascism. If a fascist movement ever gains a realistic
prospect of power, you can be sure as hell it will want to distance
itself from its ancestors. It will present itself as something positive
and collective and freedom-embracing, it will "harness a force that
appeals to the mass of people", it will be united under an inspirational
leader, and will have nothing but contempt for the weakest and poorest
and most vulnerable — the victims — in society. Don't get me wrong,
I don't think Curtis is a fascist; I just think he's a fucking idiot.
I'm sure that both he and Furedi regard themselves as profoundly
anti-fascist, and it's quite possible that in person they are two
of the nicest and most charming guys you could ever meet. But whether
they know it or not, they are both making tidy careers out of speaking
fascist-enabling language to the people most receptive to it. . .

Author's footnote:

I've had it up to here with "Enlightenment values". When people say
"Enlightenment values", they really mean "dicks": hard, white, straight,
male dicks. If you want a picture of "Enlightenment values", imagine
a dick jizzing on a human face forever.