Menu

Breaking the Frame: Confronting Three Challenges of Techno-Utopianism

The coming decades will see a multiplicity of technological and industrial challenges for political parties to contend with. At the forefront is the ecological crisis with immense temporal and global reach. More immediately and locally, a new industrial revolution is unfolding, driven by advances in artificial intelligence, robotics and big data.

Both the ecological crisis and the fourth industrial revolution can be philosophically traced to reductive aspects of modern metaphysics, in conjunction with an instrumentalist ideology I call techno-utopianism. A further technological and industrial challenge facing political parties, and perhaps the most radical, is that of ‘transhumanism’. Fast becoming a mainstream worldview, transhumanism is the drive to overcome human limitations through a combination of genetic engineering and the integration of human and machine.

These future developments may seem somewhat peripheral to the left when compared with the pressing needs of the moment, but we must not focus on the immediate at the expense of the bigger picture. Socialism, as I understand it, is a simultaneously progressive and protective movement, seeking to free humans from dominating structures, at the same time as safeguarding those aspects of the good life and good society yet to be instrumentalised and commodified. In line with these socialist aims, this blog first attempts to show how deep the roots of the instrumental thinking behind techno-utopianism go,  and secondly to indicate how the left, by drawing on Labour’s ethical socialist heritage, might confront the three challenges outlined above, beginning with the ecological crisis, before analysing automation, and transhumanism.

Technology and Instrumentalism

In order to understand what unites the three phenomena at hand we must first look to the philosophy of technology. Technology only became a mainstream topic of philosophical analysis in the post-war era, a period sometimes referred to as the ‘great acceleration’ due to the immense technological developments which occurred during and following the Second World War. Some of the most profound thinkers of that time turned their attention to technology and its effect on human life: Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno; Hannah Arendt and Hans Jonas; and above all, Martin Heidegger. For all his catastrophic errors in the political domain, the latter unarguably remains the thinker of technology.

Heidegger identifies the essence of technology as ‘enframing’: the appropriation of beings as mere means to our ends. Technological artefacts and industry are simply the physical embodiments of this rationality, the latter pre-existing the former. Through enframing the world in an instrumental manner the human subject challenges it to produce a predetermined outcome. In this kind of relation beings are valued only in terms of utility: the forest becomes timber, the person mere labour power, the university an ‘engine of growth’. And by increasingly enframing the world at the expense of other forms of relation, human beings gradually become homo economicus: the utilitarian actor of classical economics, Herbert Marcuse’s ‘one-dimensional man’.

Despite his criticisms of technology and the instrumental rationality it embodies, Heidegger rightly observes that neither can be rejected, since both belong inextricably to the human condition. We must make instrumental demands of the world to some extent in order to survive, build, and create. Hence the question is not whether we are ‘for’ or ‘against’ technology: the former is thoughtless and the latter impossible. The pertinent questions (and here we move beyond Heidegger’s amoral analysis) are which technologies we are for, to what ends, and how they can be democratically managed, with a view to the kind of society we wish to be. We do not – or should not – want to become a society in which things of deeper significance are appreciated only for any instrumental value. The challenge, therefore, is to delimit instrumental rationality and the technologies that embody it by protecting that which we value intrinsically, above and beyond mere utility.

This task takes on practical urgency when considering the three phenomena outlined above: the ecological crisis, automation, and transhumanism. However, even if we are able to articulate the true value of nature, work, and the human condition, does the British left have the capacity to give political expression to this analysis? I believe that it does, although the part of its intellectual heritage it would have to draw on is currently out of favour with both the Corbynite left and ‘moderate’ right of the Party. Taking each technological challenge in turn, I will suggest that only a rediscovery of Labour’s Romantic, ethical socialist past can fully protect the intrinsically valuable from instrumentalisation.

The Roots of the Ecological Crisis

Undoubtedly the greatest technological threat – at least in the medium- and long-term – is climate change and the overarching ecological crisis. The direct cause of the former is usually traced to the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, when greenhouse gas emissions began to rapidly accelerate through mass fossil fuel usage, further driven by the demographic changes of urbanisation and rising population levels. Other critical environmental issues, such as pollution and biodiversity loss, have particular causes of their own. Yet the underlying reasons reach back over a century further to the early modern era, when Western civilisation underwent a metaphysical revolution.

From Antiquity to the Middle Ages, Western ontology had typically construed nature as hierarchically structured. The natural world was ordered from non-living matter, to vegetative life, on through to animals, with humanity atop them all. Each level of this scale of nature, or ‘great chain of Being’, followed from an acknowledgment of that kind of being’s capacities, affording each progressively greater worth. Although there is still good reason to adhere to a modified form of this ontology, the classic Aristotelian-Scholastic version has been eclipsed since the Enlightenment. With the rise of modern science in the 17th century a new worldview came to dominate Western thinking, given its most eloquent philosophical expression in the work of René Descartes. Far from a great chain of Being linking humanity to the remainder of nature, Descartes conceived of the world as comprising of two fundamentally disparate substances: the rational human subject, and a mechanistic nature comprised of matter in motion.

Stripping the dignity of purposes from all beings but God and the human subject, Cartesianism legitimised the unconstrained enframing of the Earth and non-human life. Animals became, on this view, mere natural machines, whilst plants and the landscape were reduced to resources to plunder. Descartes explicitly brought out the practical consequences of this new worldview in claiming that human beings should, through science and technology, become ‘masters and possessors of nature’. Though broadly endorsed by many intellectuals of his day, it took the application of modern science to the capitalist mode of production in the industrial revolution to make Descartes’ dream a reality.

Today, however, this dream has become a waking nightmare. In a dialectical twist the industrial mastery of nature, originally intended for the benefit of humanity, has unleashed the ecological crisis, thereby imperilling the very ground upon which human life rests. This unprecedented upheaval necessitates, as Hans Jonas has argued, a comparable revolution in ethics and politics:

[I]t comes about that technology […] installs in man a role which only religion has sometimes assigned to him: that of steward or guardian of creation. By enhancing his might to the point where it becomes palpably dangerous to the total scheme of things, technology extends man’s responsibility to the future of life on earth, now exposed to, and defenceless against, the abuse of that might.

Thus novel duties arise from modern science and technology, the greater power over nature entailing greater responsibility for it. The task of contemporary politics, according to Jonas, is to ensure we act on our obligation to secure the future of life on Earth.

As it stands, however, mainstream British politics is incapable of living up to our new planetary responsibilities. In thrall to neoliberal thinking, the nominally ‘Conservative’ party is largely instrumentalist regarding the natural world. The modern Conservative attitude is encapsulated in George Osborne’s notorious description of wild birds as “feathered obstacles to growth”, and – with even greater vulgarity, due to its all-encompassing scope – the Cameron government’s financial valuation of the British countryside. As Liz Truss, then Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: “We are learning to understand and quantify the benefits we get from nature, to treat rivers, trees and bees as national assets just as much as infrastructure like the M25”.

What of the Labour party? Historically it has aimed at an equitable distribution of goods based on inclusive economic growth, which is commendable. Yet only occasionally made explicit is a tacit belief in technological-industrial utopia, belying an instrumentalist orientation to the world. This was given rare expression in Harold Wilson’s famous ‘white heat’ party conference speech of 1963, and Tony Blair’s infamous paean to globalised capitalism at party conference in 2005:

The character of this changing world is indifferent to tradition. Unforgiving of frailty. No respecter of past reputations. It has no custom and practice. […] In the era of rapid globalisation, there is no mystery about what works: an open, liberal economy, prepared constantly to change to remain competitive. The new world rewards those who are open to it.

In Blair’s millenarian vision the dialectics of techno-utopia and dystopia are made clear: the economy, once regarded as the servant of humanity, now assumes the role of master.

New Labour’s record in government was, fortunately, rather more positive than Blair’s latter-day vision might suggest. It strengthened environmental safeguards at home and campaigned abroad to secure meaningful international climate agreements. It goes without saying that these policies ought to be celebrated and built upon. But they were not part of an attempt to encourage fuller appreciation of nature’s worth, thereby restricting the remit of instrumental thinking. The latter alone could foster greater civic virtue and lead to longer lasting and more fundamental change, of the kind required to tackle the ecological crisis.

Such an ethic can be excavated from the Labour tradition, however, which once upon a time recognised the intrinsic value of nature. A Romantic strand of environmentalism runs from the work of William Morris through to the Attlee government’s creation of our first National Parks, an initiative explicitly motivated by making natural beauty accessible to all. A revival of this kind of environmentalism would speak not only of carbon emissions and health – vital though these are – but also of the beauty, belonging, and meaning embodied in green spaces. Appreciation of these was perceptible in the widespread outcry over the Coalition government’s attempt to privatise England’s forests in 2013. At that time a call for public testimonies led to over 42,000 submissions. While many respondents pointed to the value of the forests for biodiversity and mitigating climate change, others cited factors such as the role they play in constituting the country’s identity and heritage. Here lies a latent civic resistance to the total instrumentalisation of nature that Labour could appeal to, strengthening efforts to tackle ecological crisis, if it learned again to speak to the recognition of intrinsic value that motivated it.

The Future of Work

The second major technological challenge to which political parties must formulate a response is the convergence of developments in automation, artificial intelligence, and big data sometimes referred to as the fourth industrial revolution. At first glance it could not be further removed from the ecological crisis. But it, too, has its origins in the metaphysical revolution outlined above. Automation has long been advocated by Descartes’ postmodern descendants, who simply carry Cartesianism to its logical conclusion. The key difference the two philosophies is to be found in the accompanying intent: if the ecological crisis is an unintentional consequence of modernity’s metaphysical revolution, as I have suggested, then the disruption of work by the above technologies is very much an intentional facet of postmodernity.

As we saw, Descartes gave succinct expression to the emerging 17th century worldview by developing a metaphysics that obscured the qualitative differences between non-human beings, stripping the latter of any intrinsic, non-instrumental value. Humanity was only protected from this treatment through an attempted reconciliation of Christianity and modern science; clinging to the notion of an immaterial soul, Descartes drew a strict ontological distinction between the human subject and the material world of nature. This entailed fundamental problems for Descartes’ metaphysics well known to philosophers. More pertinent, perhaps, is that his belief in the soul is no longer widely shared, and with this development a key source of resistance to the metaphysical denigration of humanity gave way. Today we tend to believe that humanity is, like other life forms, merely a biological machine programmed to genetically reproduce itself: according to this logic, all our greatest cultural and spiritual achievements are really nothing more than sublimated mating calls and shows of dominance.

Perhaps the most radical metaphysical articulation of the zeitgeist can be found in the work of Gilles Deleuze. Where Descartes, under the influence of modern science, initiated the ontological reduction of non-human life to mere matter in motion, Deleuze completes the revolution by also reducing human beings to the level of substance. In stark contrast to the ancient scale of nature, Being is here construed as a ‘plane of immanence’, a ceaseless movement of matter in time and space. In this metaphysics there is no qualitative difference between human action, animal behaviour, mechanical output, and chemical reaction: all are just processes. According to Deleuze and his co-author Félix Guattari, in nature “[t]here are only relations of movement and rest, speed and slowness between unformed elements, or at least between elements that are relatively unformed, molecules, and particles of all kinds. There are only […] subjectless individuations that constitute collective assemblages”.

Like that of Descartes before him, Deleuze’s metaphysics enjoys a dialectical relation to its cultural context, both feeding from and into the intellectual life of the day. Indeed, despite its apparent esotericism Deleuze’s ontology exerts a powerful influence on the utopian agenda of technological accelerationism, in particular that espoused by key thinkers of the contemporary Labour left. The missing link in this genealogy is the shadowy figure of Nick Land. Now based in Shanghai, in the mid-1990s Land directed the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU) at Warwick University. The unifying belief of the CCRU was that neoliberal capitalism’s fusion with information technology gave perfect expression to Deleuzian ontology. In cyberspace anything could be digitalised, uploaded, and exchanged, from anywhere and at ever greater speeds. This endless flux of data was not seen as an abstraction from reality, but rather a clear view of reality itself as a plane of immanence. The aim was to accelerate its processes in both the spatial and temporal dimensions, faster computing facilitating a greater erosion of any distinction between the physical and the digital.

In a curious twist of fate Land is now the philosopher king of a section of the alt-right, advocating what he calls ‘right Accelerationism’ and the ‘Dark Enlightenment’. Most other prominent members of the CCRU – Sadie Plant, Mark Fisher, and Robin Mackay – belonged to the left, and it is through their filtration of Land and Deleuze that accelerationist ideas have come to permeate the contemporary Labour party. According to left-accelerationists the goal of contemporary socialism is full automation of work and a universal basic income, delivering a form of post-capitalism or ‘fully automated luxury communism’. Since work is, like all human activity, nothing more than a material process, it can be outsourced to the algorithm. This vision has been tacitly endorsed by Jeremy Corbyn, who suggested in his 2017 party conference speech that the fruits of the automation revolution could include “a new settlement between work and leisure”.

The purported benefit of left-accelerationism is creating a world free from work. Who would not support this? There is, no doubt, a superficial attraction to the vision of freedom from toil and drudgery. But like all utopias, the flaws are apparent to those who view it with a more sober eye. In the first instance there are likely to be unintended consequences for the very people it intends to serve. To see why, recall the basic class analysis of the left. Labouring, though inherent to the human condition, is in a capitalist society mediated by the relation between the classes of capital and labour. The latter is constituted by individuals who to survive must sell their labour to members of the former, entailing that capital is in a position of dominance over the latter. This restricts the political power of the masses, as parties are compelled to respond to the needs of the most powerful economic forces.

According to the ethical socialist tradition the means by which labour frees itself from the domination of capital are collective bargaining, co-operative ownership, industrial action, and self-organisation through trade unions and the Labour party. Because these allow for a restructuring of economic relations in favour of labour and at the expense of capital, progress in this direction gradually affords labour proportionate political power. In the accelerationist utopia, by contrast, labour cedes power to capital. At the most basic level loss of the ability to withdraw one’s labour, through having no labour to withdraw, means no longer having a key means by which workers can challenge the economic power of capital. Likewise, co-operative ownership and trade unions would cease to exist. And with economic power concentrated in the hands of capital, with only consumer power left to the ex-working class, capital’s political power would be dramatically consolidated.

Beyond this there is the question of the intrinsic value of labour itself for human life. Here the Deleuzian heritage of left-accelerationism makes itself apparent. For instance, Nick Srnicek et al. argue that “[w]ork for work’s sake is a perversity and a constraint imposed upon humanity by capitalism’s ideology of the work ethic”. In other words, the only value to be found in work lies in being paid. Now, there is undoubtedly a kernel of truth in their position: some kinds of work would be wholly undesirable without the promise of remuneration. But is it categorically the case that work is valuable only as a means to the end of acquiring money (itself a means)? Perhaps there is more to value in labouring, which is, after all, the basic ground of human existence, the activity of sustaining our lives. It is often claimed that labouring fosters a sense of self-worth and cultivates associated virtues of industry and diligence. These may well have an ideological function under capitalism, but they have been cherished as intrinsically valuable since long before the development of that mode of production, which might simply obscure and distort their meaning by making them serve exploitative class-relations. If so, the most appropriate course of action is surely to contest that class-relation, rather than consolidating it whilst simultaneously losing a historically vital source of meaning through the abolition of labour.

The challenge for socialism, therefore, is not to suspend ourselves from labour, but to make it better: better paid, yes, but above all freed from the domination of capital through various forms of self-organisation. In this way the sense of worth and virtues that labour cultivates might be given full expression, in conjunction with economic and political power being reclaimed from capital. Hence we can broadly agree with William Morris that “the ideal of the future does not point to the lessening of men’s energy by the reduction of labour to a minimum, but rather the reduction of pain in labour to a minimum”.

Biopolitics

We now come to the last and most radical of our three challenges that political parties must contend with: transhumanism, and its attendant biotechnological means. As before, transhumanism can be philosophically traced to modernity’s metaphysical revolution, articulated in Descartes’ work. We mentioned at the beginning that Cartesian ontology separated the human subject from nature, stripping the latter of dignity and legitimising its total enframing. Crucially, this ontological division extended to our very selves, Descartes regarding our bodies as continuous with the material world of nature. How the mind interacted with and was connected to the body, given that they were supposedly made of two distinct substances, was never adequately explained. Regardless, the theoretical bifurcation of human beings into mind and body further allowed for the construal of the latter as objects to be technologically mastered.

Nowhere was this more explicit than in the work of Descartes’ near contemporary, the statesman, scientist and philosopher Sir Francis Bacon. Like Descartes, Bacon saw the “true ends of knowledge” as the “command” of nature, ranging from “the meanest mechanical practice’ to ‘immortality (if it were possible)”. Bacon’s intellectual influence is hard to overestimate, particularly its effect on British science (the foundation of the Royal Society in 1660, for instance, owes him a great deal). The Baconian vision of mastery over nature included, as indicated, mastery over human nature, and here his legacy continues in the form of transhumanism. Transhumanists take the accelerationist logic to its extreme: not content with liberating us from labour, they seek to liberate us from the vulnerabilities, dependencies, and limitations constitutive of organic being. Yet metaphysically they hark back to Descartes, conceiving of the self as a mind trapped within a fragile shell that restricts experiences and life expectancy. Through biotechnological ‘enhancement’ we must, they claim, engineer ourselves to be fitter, smarter, happier, and immortal.

Back in 2004 Francis Fukuyama suggested that transhumanism was “the world’s most dangerous idea” and it has since evolved from a fringe basement-dweller’s fantasy to a veritable movement. It has a think-tank (the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies), an activist organisation (Humanity+), and counts influential tech entrepreneurs such as Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel, and Elon Musk amongst its ideological adherents. In wider pop culture, its key motifs of enhancement through genetic engineering and merging humanity and machine permeate comic books and science fiction media.

Transhumanism even has a political wing: in the 2016 US presidential election a man named Zoltan Istvan ran for the Transhumanist party, touring the nation in his ‘Immortality Bus’. Though by no means representative of the entire movement, Istvan’s agenda articulates transhumanism’s anti-humanist side, giving credence to Fukuyama’s concerns. In his novel-cum-manifesto Istvan writes that in order to “transcend human biological limitations” we must redirect all resources “to the genuinely gifted and qualified. To the achievers of society – the ones who pay your bills by their innovation, genius, and hard work. They will find the best way to the future. Not the losers of the world, or the mediocre, or the downtrodden, or the fearful. They will only drag us down, like they already have”.

What might at first appear to be far-fetched ramblings gain credibility in the light of recent developments in nano-, bio- and information technologies, the future convergence of which is thought to be the gateway to a transhuman future. Though this is not an imminent possibility, notable strides in the direction of enhancement have been taken within the individual fields. Genetic engineering, which is usually hailed by transhumanists as the means of enhancement closest at hand, has rapidly advanced in recent years with the development of the cheap and effective CRISPR-Cas9 tool. Much of the motivation for developing and using the technology in a clinical setting is well-intended: if it can be safely applied at the individual somatic level, genetic engineering could be a powerful new way to cure diseases. But, in addition to any unforeseen consequences for individuals, the worry is that it also allows for the enhancement of capacities beyond the normal human range, while any changes made at the level of the germ-line would be transmitted to future generations. The latter possibilities mean that the spectre of a new ‘liberal’ eugenics, advocated by transhumanists, haunts the field.

The safety concerns of genetic engineering, where to draw the line between therapy and enhancement, and how to govern the distinction between curing the individual and altering the species are now matters of global import. Until recently a fragile international consensus held against genetically engineering viable human embryos, partly to allow ethical debate to catch up with the technology. That state of affairs was dramatically disrupted in November 2018 by the maverick Chinese scientist He Jiankui. On the eve of the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing it was revealed that He had brought to term two genetically engineered children, modified to carry a possible resistance to HIV. Although the revelation was met with near-universal condemnation the floodgates have been opened, and whether a consensus is to be restored, or a regulatory race to the bottom begins, now depends, in part, on global leadership and international co-operation.

The UK, as a world leader in biosciences, is in a strong position to assume this leadership role. Unfortunately, the Conservatives give little indication of hoping to establish an international moral consensus: the Coalition government’s strategy for biotechnology and the life sciences already made this clear when signalling that the UK would shift to “a more progressive regulatory environment” in these areas. More recently, Boris Johnson has indicated the will to “liberate the UK’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti genetic modification rules” following Brexit. Of particular concern is that European Union prohibitions on eugenic selection of persons and reproductive cloning, enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty, will cease to apply upon our departure. Both nationally and internationally, then, new ethical safeguards preventing the biotechnological enframing of human life are required.

And so it falls to the ethical socialist tradition, with its foundational principles of respect for the person and pursuit of the common good, to defend the intrinsic value of the human condition. On this basis Labour can argue that CRISPR and other genetic engineering methods may be only be employed if a) they can be shown to be safe, and b) rigorous guidelines restrict their usage to the curing of diseases at the individual level. The latter condition is critical in preventing genetic engineering from being used in a eugenic capacity to shape future generations. Allowing genetic engineering to be carried out on the human germ-line would, as Hans Jonas once argued, corrupt the relation between the generations. Throughout human history each generation, upon reaching maturity, has become the equal of those that preceded it. But the genetic engineering of future generations would turn that relation of equals into one of manipulator and manipulated, humans being no longer born to, but rather made by their forebears. This would obscure a precious truth: that with each newborn child, unprogrammed, unpredictable, humanity begins anew.

Lastly, these criteria would also rule out individual enhancement, thereby ensuring that economic and social disparities could not be transformed into biological ones – which, as we have seen, is the goal of right-wing transhumanism. As Fukuyama has argued, such a development could threaten the very basis of Western democracy, which rests on a conception of the fundamental moral equality of human beings. And there are moral concerns with individual enhancement beyond those of equality. The drive to relieve ourselves of our given biological constitution blinds us to the fact that the dependencies and limitations constitutive of the human condition are frequently a blessing, not a burden. This is true even of our mortality, which has been maligned since time immemorial. As Hans Jonas observes, knowledge of our eventual deaths teaches the wise mind to number our days and make them count. A life without end could then be a life without weight, as our choices would lose the background of finitude that makes them matter. If such sentiments are ‘bioconservative’, as the transhumanists claim, so be it.

The foregoing has seemingly covered a vast terrain, stretching from the world of work to the fantastical transhumanist vision. In fact, it addressed only one issue from a variety of angles: how modern metaphysics and its accompanying ideology of techno-utopianism has imperilled the intrinsically valuable. It is this that connects the Cartesian attitude to nature, the accelerationist approach to work, and the Baconian-transhumanist desire to escape the human condition: each is of a piece in their blindness to value beyond strict utility.

Our Romantic rearguard action – to protect the intrinsic value of nature, free work, and the human condition from technological threats driven by techno-utopianism – might appear peripheral to contemporary politics. But all three phenomena are either with us now or on the horizon, and parties must formulate an ethically adequate response. A Labour party that rediscovered its ethical socialist past, having at its core a preoccupation with human flourishing informed by a critical approach to technological developments, would be able to accommodate and integrate such thinking.

Lewis Coyne is an Honorary Research Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Exeter

Image credit: PNG ALL (CC BY-NC 4.0)