You have my express permission to kick the next person—especially someone advocating the embrace of radical forms of technological advancement—who tells you that they wish nothing more than to get rid of, move beyond, or otherwise avoid “politics.” Kick them hard, and repeatedly. They have adopted a profoundly ignorant and self-serving position, one that betrays at best a lack of understanding of human nature and society, and at worst a malicious desire to preemptively shut down any opposition to their goals.
The trigger for this bit of anticipatory violence is the still-smoldering debate over the writing of one Peter Thiel, a poster boy for socialist revolution. Staggeringly rich, he espouses a form of “I got mine, Jack” libertarianism that is openly and gleefully anti-democratic. In a widely-criticized essay for the Cato Institute, Thiel claims that the extension of the vote to women and the poor has undermined capitalism; unsurprisingly, this argument hasn’t gone over well, and even his apologists—happy to continue getting his money for their projects—have distanced themselves.
But my focus here is on another line from his essay:
In our time, the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms…
Unless Thiel means that libertarians must live in splendid isolation from society and each other, he’s going to have a problem.
He’s not alone in making this claim, of course. I’ve heard the sentiment that advocates of Revolutionary Technology X “must seek to escape politics” repeated in various forms time and again, even by people and groups I otherwise respect. It’s a fascinating and sad delusion, characteristic of a movement that sees itself as both smarter than everyone else and unbound by the problems of the past.
In the early days of the dot-com era, this attitude resulted in the absence of digital tech industry voices in Washington, DC, allowing the incumbent telecom and entertainment industries free rein to write laws and buy politicians without opposition. Companies and industries that had considered themselves beyond politics found out just how wrong they were. Stung by that experience, today’s advocates of the “escape politics” position usually articulate it as more of a wishful whine, as with Thiel’s line quoted above.
It’s a position I’ve fought hard against for quite awhile. It was the heart of the presentation I gave at the 2007 Singularity Summit (where I heard a lot of people making the “let’s escape politics” cry). More recently, I talked about it in my interview with the Dutch consulting group FreedomLab; here’s a video clip of that part of the conversation.
The core of the argument is straightforward: Politics is part of a healthy society—it’s what happens when you have a group of people with differential goals and a persistent relationship. It’s not about partisanship, it’s about power. And while even small groups have politics (think: supporting or opposing decisions, differing levels of power to achieve goals, deciding how to use limited resources), the more people involved, the more complex the politics. Factions, parties, ideologies and the like are simply ways of organizing politics in a complex social space—they’re symptoms of politics, not causes.
Calls to get rid of politics can therefore mean one of two things: getting rid of persistent relationships with other people; or getting rid of differential goals. Since I don’t see too many of the folks who talk about escaping politics also talking about becoming lone isolationists, the only reasonable presumption is that they’re really talking about eliminating disagreements.
It’s the latest version of the notion that “a perfect world is one where everyone agrees with me.” It rarely gets expressed like that, of course. It’s more like…
After the Singularity, we’ll be too smart to have politics…
[Or] Once we develop strong (and friendly) AI, we’ll let them make decisions for us, as they will be far smarter and wiser… In a post-scarcity, nanotech world, nobody will have politics because everyone will have what they need and want… Once we get off-world, politics will go away because you can always move away from someone you disagree with… After we can reengineer the brain, we can do away with conflict and disagreement…
No. Wrong. Bad technophile, no upload!
This is why I was so frustrated at the deprecation of politics in the Singularity University curriculum—there’s a profound ignorance across the tech advocacy community of the importance of politics to human society. Politics means conflict, debate, and frustration. It also means choice. A world without politics is a world where disagreement is illegitimate. It’s a world where your ability to choose your future—to make your future—has been taken away, whether you like it or not.