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Stefano Vaj and the Complicated Politics of Italian Transhumanism
IEET   Oct 5, 2009   Ethical Technology  

Recently the fight between the two transhumanist groups in Italy has spilled over onto English language blogs. One side is accused of harboring fascists, the other of being conservatives and closet Papists. I’ve asked one of the individuals at the center of the controversy, Stefano Vaj, to present a statement of his political stance here which will hopefully help clarify this very confusing and troubling situation.

Stefano Vaj is a prominent attorney and writer in Italy, and serves as the national secretary of the larger of the two transhumanist groups in Italy, the Italian Transhumanist Association or AIT. The AIT was founded in 2005 by a group that included Riccardo Campa, a sociologist and Fellow of the IEET, and Giulio Prisco, a long-time member with me on the World Transhumanist Association Board of Directors, and a member of the Board of Directors of the IEET. When Mr. Vaj began to participate in the AIT there were many discussions about his previous involvement in the Italian far right, and whether he currently could be considered a rightist.

Twenty-five years ago Vaj had been, for instance, director of the Italian branch of the far right intellectual group GRECE. On the other hand, his 2005 book Biopolitics was reassuringly bioliberal and explicitly transhumanist. The AIT activists, mostly on the Left and many also active in the “secular socialist liberal radical” party Rosa nel Pugno, gave him close scrutiny. Their judgment was that Mr. Vaj was not a far rightist in the sense of having any racialist or authoritarian views, but had developed his own more idiosyncratic set of political positions which were broadly compatible with the AIT’s.


Stefano Vaj

Listen to Stephen Euin Cobb’s interview with Vaj here or download the MP3

Those in our small community may remember that during those years there were many political fights with libertarian transhumanists over my alleged efforts to make the World Transhumanist Association, which I then was Executive Director of, into a socialist organization. I, of course, continue to contend that I have always tried to build the WTA, now Humanity+, as a broad multi-tendency organization that should, always has, and continues to include progressives, libertarians, conservatives, and the apolitical. The only political groups that the WTA/Humanity+ has emphatically excluded have been advocates for racialism, totalitarianism or authoritarianism. But my efforts to reassure my critics were rarely successful, and did not prevent, for instance, the brief effort by the peculiar Simon Young to start a rival, explicitly libertarian, World Transhumanist Society.

One of the staunchest critics of my alleged socialist subversion at that time (and since) was the Italian libertarian transhumanist Fabio “Estropico” Albertario (also here). Uncoincidentally Fabio was also a political opponent of Riccardo Campa and Giulio Prisco within the AIT. Eventually Fabio led a half dozen people out of the AIT to form a rival group, the Italian Transhumanist Network, which is also recognized as a Humanity+ chapter. The politics of this group varied, including some on the center left, as did their criticisms of the AIT. But one factor they agreed on was a distaste for the potential association with the far right that came with Vaj’s participation. Fabio has written one of the few pieces in English on their charges against Vaj in his “The Political Roots of ‘Overhumanism’” The piece charges that Vaj is the leader of a small group of far rightists who are promoting a far right flavor of transhumanism, “sovrumanismo” or “overhumanism.”

Americans have now had a year or two exposure to hysterical charges from right-wingers that every putatively progressive policy and politician from FDR to Obama was in fact “fascist,” from demagogues like Glenn Beck to conservative activists like Jonah Goldberg, author of Liberal Fascism. There is a little of that going on in this critique, which points out that there are people on the far right who share with Vaj an opposition to the Catholic Church and American imperialism, or in reviving Euro-pagan religions. But objectively there are far more people with those views on the Left than on the Right. (Of course that observation would give little comfort to the libertarian member of the Network who said today on a transhumanist list that there is no difference between (democratic) socialism and National Socialism since the former leads ineluctably to the latter.)

In my many discussions with Vaj on the transhumanist and technoprogressive lists we have often disagreed about one central element of his worldview, his hostility to world federalism and the project of Enlightenment universalism. He is a staunch defender of local community autonomy against what he sees as imperial projects, even when they are democratic and federalist like European unification. This is a point of view that he shares with people of many political hues from the far right to anarchists and left libertarians. Since he does not define local community in a racial or nationalist way I have not considered this to be an indicator of crypto-Rightist views.

In 2008 I was further reassured when Riccardo Campa worked with Vaj and other AIT members to adopt their “Italian Transhumanist Manifesto” which clearly positions the AIT as a left of center group militantly advocating for science, secularism and universal access to safe enabling technologies. Now Campa and Vaj have started yet another effort to advance a more militant, political brand of transhumanism, and to network European transhumanist groups, the European Transhumanist Front, about which we will hear more later. Vaj’s involvement in this project is likely to keep this controversy over his views alive outside of Italy.

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On the Alleged Rightist Influence in Italian Transhumanism

by Stefano Vaj

Several international sources have expressed renewed concerns about the rightist drift in place in Italy.

The sincerity of such concerns may sound dubious when they originate from countries governed by Mr. Sarkozy or the turbo-capitalist “New” Labour, former Mr. Bush’s best-friend. The coincidence is also unfortunate that those criticisms have become more vocal exactly when Mr. Berlusconi’s policies try to find somewhat more “populist” accents, and there are hints of a more independent and less hawkish international positioning of his government.

It remains nevertheless the case that Italy has become the only European country without any communist or socialist representative of any persuasion in the national parliament or in Strasbourg.

In fact, what used to be the largest communist party of the West has renounced not only communism, but socialism as well, has actively contributed to bringing the Italian Socialist Party to the verge of extinction, and has merged with christian democrats (Mr. Franceschini, the current national secretary of the Italian Democratic Party, the Communist Party’s descendent, comes from the right-wing Christian Democrats!). According to many commentators, the resulting entity has become mostly a competing lobby of private interests, with a strategy focused on presenting itself to financial and international circles as a more reliable and effective alternative to Mr. Berlusconi’s management of the Italian government, along the lines of the same policies and values; and whenever some lip service is required to general political values, those of a vague, christian/green/moderate humanitarianism are nowadays usually borrowed by this residual Italian “Left”, which does not appear to have any values remaining of its own.

New legislation, together with a perverted use of privacy, copyright and anti-obscenity laws, is in the process of restricting freedom of speech, especially freedom of press, in the country, especially when investigations of politicians and “immoral” or embarrassing contents are involved. While most printed media remain more or less hostile to the government in place, all the important Italian TV networks belong either to Mr. Berlusconi, or to a State-controlled agency where anything which may be politically incorrect is increasingly banned. And the increasing pressures to extend press- and TV-like regulations to the Internet does not bode too well for the Italian legal framework in that area either.

At the same time, after decades of wild and corrupt neo-Thatcherite privatizations, deregulation, and financially-dictated de-industrialization, the influence of trade unions is at an historical minimum, and social agendas which used to be part of party programmes across the political spectrum are to a large extent relinquished in favor of subjects such as tax reduction, law enforcement, criminalization of victimless behaviors, and public support to private financial institutions. Welfare is of course reduced to what is strictly necessary to avoid social unrest. Industrial manufacturing is increasingly and myopically relocated abroad in the name of the Market and of globalization. The National Health System is facing a dramatic financial crisis, owing to corruption, bureaucratization and the insufficient resources dedicated to its operation.

Italian transhumanism is obviously far from unaffected by this scenario. True, it managed to achieve a critical mass and visibility which has little equivalent in other European countries. But at the same time Italian transhumanism is regularly subjected to virulent attacks, owing both to its highly “politicized” character and the massive cultural hegemony of catholic conservatives, the Italian equivalent of the US christian right. Catholic conservatives are aided in Italy by the support of important political and cultural circles of “atheist devotees,” intellectuals and politicians who are not christian themselves, but who openly countenance the power of the Catholic church as an important factor at play in the “clash of civilizations” or in the defense of the social order in place. In other words, these atheist allies of the Church agree with Marx’s view that religion is the “opium for the people”, but they maintain that it is best to keep and develop a widespread addiction to it as an instrument of power and a welcome metaphysical foundation of values that they heartily share. Meanwhile what remains of the Italian Left says nothing about religion since it has been persuaded that winning elections requires swinging the religious vote, and the clergy who control it. This is why, nowadays, “leftist” candidates are more often than not catholic militants themselves, Mr. Prodi being a case in point.

Besides international politics, this unholy alliance is at its most blatant and pervasive whenever anything of bioethical relevance is concerned. Accordingly, “Faustian” medicine, abortion, end-of-life self-determination, cloning, OGM, IFV and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, stem-cell and embryo-based research, genetic engineering, and so on, which may all be considered with either indifference or favor by most Italians, are nonetheless the object of an increasing bipartisan political opposition. See for instance the current obstructionism of Italian authorities against the legalization of the RU-486 pill, or the legislative bill currently pending aimed at preventing any further Eluana Englaro or Terri Schiavo scenarios, let alone deliberate life-suppressing or cryonic suspension procedures for terminally-ill patients. According to many objecting to those trends should not be even considered an acceptable subject of debate in polite company.

One of the trademarks and basic tools of this growing neoconservative intolerance is the paranoid obsession with identifying a supposed “red-brown plague” of Socialist-Fascists. We see this especially from free-market fundamentalists for whom any hint of red or pink leanings confirms the accusations of a brown shade. Saddam Hussein? Hitler (those who may doubt that he actually ordered September 11, while engaged in stockpiling nukes and biological weapons, being his obvious accessories before and after the fact). Pro-choice advocates? SS, as in “mass murderers”. Cuba or China or Latin America taking their sovereignty too seriously? Fascists. The protesters in Seattle, and those in subsequent G8 meetings? Nazis, especially those in Genoa 2001 who were beaten and shot by Mr. Berlusconi’s police. Are you (still) a socialist? “Well, Mussolini used to be a socialist and an atheist, right?. Why, I do not mean to imply anything, but, you see…”

Does one care for biological self-determination and diversity? Wait a moment, weren’t eugenics and ethnic identity the Leitmotif of “certain forces” between the two world wars? This way of labeling one’s opponent as a fascist is hardly new, but in Italy an art has been made of it, especially owing to the fact that a substantial part of Mr. Berlusconi’s majority does come from declaredly far-right environments. Constantly accusing their opponents of fascism helps them reassure everyone that they have repented their former fascism and have now adopted American-style neoconservatism or religious fundamentalism.

Of course, transhumanist positions are especially subject to these kind of attacks, made as part of right-wing Kassian or left-wing Rifkinite bioconservative attacks. Neoluddism is unfortunately also widespread on the bioconservative, feminist and environmentalist Left, which is wary of technology and scientific research, and consider former socialist slogans like “Soviets plus electrification” or “Great Leap Forward” as embarassingly cryptofascist.

This is routinely exploited by Italian right-wingers in order to disqualify and incapacitate technoprogressive discourses, and their propaganda has been recently echoed by a few blogs in English thanks to the unrelenting efforts of a few disgruntled and marginal figures. These individuals, since their split with the Italian Transhumanist Association, are now in the business of preparing dossiers on alleged red-brown conspiracies in the AIT that require “vigilance”, using guilt by association and quotes out of context, exactly in the same style of the late, unlamented World Transhumanist Society (which, at the time, these same critics unsurprisingly endorsed).

They also see an opportunity to target another abhorred area of the European left, namely the French and to a lesser extent Italian and German posthumanist thinkers who are blamed by the likes of Richard Wolin (see The Seduction of Unreason) for having read Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Lyotard and Sloterdijk rather than Rev. Jerry Falwell or Milton Friedman or Paul Wolfowitz.

But I personally remain their main target, as an alleged “no-global neofascist” since I refuse to sanctify the globalization of markets and the effacement of popular sovereignties as the Only True God.

I am not exonerated by the fact that I have been an outspoken critic of fascist policies; that I have never used the terms of far-, moderate-, extreme- or even “so-so”-Right except in a disparaging sense; that I abhor all forms of conservative or capitalist dominance, let alone intolerance, imperialism, racial supremacy, etc.; and that I stopped, along with others, my collaboration with the French group GRECE when in the early eighties it started to reposition itself as some kind of “New Right.”

Add to this my recent habit of more often quoting Georges Sorel or Chairman Mao than Nietzsche or Marinetti, albeit somewhat ironically, which confirms my “totalitarian” leanings in their eyes – or else the fact that conspiracy agents are notorious masters in disguise. My amateur inquisitors urge that I submit to a “Fiuggi bath”, by which their refer to the congress of their neofascist friends such as Mr. Fini where in the nineties the he disavowed his previous claims to represent “the Fascism of 2000” or that “Mr. Mussolini was the greatest statesman of the XX century”, and officially converted to an aggressive neoconservatism. I have no interest in such a public cleansing since such ludicrous claims have never concerned me, and because I have no desire to be welcomed into their “creed,” which by the way is much more authoritarian and “moderate” than libertarian, objectivist or anarcho-capitalist.

On the other hand, all this may actually create some misunderstandings amongst those who, for linguistic reasons, have no access to the rest of the very limited “literature” and interventions of those very same, allegedly “moderate transhumanist”, conspiracy-busters, which are almost entirely in Italian. When they do more than merely translate tech-related news they are whining that Mr. Berlusconi’s deregulation of the markets is not bold enough, or about “the leftist hegemony” in the former World Transhumanist Association, now Humanity Plus. They exhort atheist transhumanists to avoid “hostile attitudes” against Intelligent Design partisans, who would otherwise make the best troops for the Western Empire (!). They resoundingly condemn the “secularism” and “anti-Catholic” stance of mainstream Italian transhumanism. They appeal for a switch of research programs from embryonic stem cells to adult stem cells. They proclaim speciesism, global warming denial, Western (i.e., white) objective “superiority,” and the forced conversion of Muslims in Europe. All positions which are hardly surprising for those aware of the affiliations of the individuals concerned, and their relationships with neo- or postfascist sectors of Mr. Berlusconi’s coalition, especially those who have in turn established connections with American circles very close to the Bush administration, connections which in Italy were exposed by Rinascita the national Left newspaper.

The record is however set straight by the Italian Transhumanist Manifesto, which I co-drafted and personally translated into English, and which was approved by a unanimous deliberation of the AIT national council.  Its content is politically unequivocal and perfectly reflects my own views.

In particular, the Manifesto expresses a staunch refusal for the marginalization of transhumanism as the umpteenth variant of lunatic-fringe sectarianism. But at the same time we refuse to compromise its fundamental values to other agendas or to an intolerant “respectability” where all forms of radical or upwing thinking, and open opposition to the reactionary forces active in the Italian society, would be banned.

This approach has been vastly successful so far. It has allowed us to penetrate different sectors of the Italian public, earning us not “respectability”, but instead actual respect from sympathizers and opponents alike, who take us seriously enough to debate our themes in their works, articles and conferences. And such an elaborate, joint statement makes it evident that even though Italian transhumanists have certainly been subject to several and very diverse cultural influences, there is an absolute convergence of the AIT leaders as far as its political positions are concerned.

Divenire, the academic magazine published the association, is the best example of such a strategy in that it has already managed, after its first three issues, to recruit a prestigious editorial board and to host in its columns several well-known intellectuals, philosophers, researchers and artists, coming from technoprogressive, federalist, futurist, posthumanist, and, yes, even libertarian backgrounds, since the latter in Italy often find themselves fighting the spread of actual authoritarian mentalities and regulations, as well as interference by organized cults in public affairs and education, as a priority over supposed “socialist” threats and other incapacitating mythologies.

Stefano Vaj

So, in conclusion, I wish Vaj had never been associated with the far right, and that he was now a good world federalist who agreed with me on the need for a standing UN army. But I’m quite sure that the AIT is not being infiltrated by the Right, and that Vaj shares a lot of his current worldview with one flavor or another of the Left.

For me this is simply a reminder that the political world is unavoidably a complicated n-dimensional space. I can fight shoulder to shoulder with a libertarian like Ron Bailey of Reason magazine so long as we’re beating up on bioconservatives, but then want to slip him the shiv when he attacks universal health care. I would collaborate with Left biocons like the Center for Genetics and Society on opposition to human gene patents (if they ever acknowledged that technoprogressives exist), while still considering their arguments for human-racism redolent of anti-miscegenation campaigns of yesteryear. I can dialogue with and encourage Mormon transhumanists or liberal, pro-enhancement Christian bioethicists even though their religious beliefs are daft.

We don’t do this to live in a Hallmark greeting card where nobody ever says anything bad about us and we don’t have to work with people that make us queasy. We do it because we want a better future for all sentient beings.

I know there are a couple people in the Italian Transhumanist Network who consider themselves on the Left. If any of them want to write something for the IEET in response to Vaj’s essay they are welcome to do so. But please, less heat and more light, less noise and more signal.




COMMENTS

In my recent book THE MELTDOWN CHRONICLES, I discuss the mixture of the two most important problems facing our species: The need for a new form of economics and Transhumanism. Are we in the primary stages of replaying what happened to the Neanderthals and Crosmagnon (us)? Will the confluence of overpopulation and evolution force the issue of a new “superhomo sapiens?”

It doesnt take too much imagination to see the trends building up. Either we turn to real solutions or the hand of Darwin will be making some drastic changes soon. We are the first species to be able to actually modify ourselves and our destiny. But, one only hopes that we move up a few levels in consciousness before we make the changes we are capable of making. Indeed, we now find ourselves carefully putting our species in between the rock and hard place.

For more discussion on this important topic, go toe www.neweconomicparadigm.com

James, I’d enjoy and likely benefit from reading more about your thoughts on the religious beliefs of Mormon Transhumanists.

Dear James,

you describe me as a libertarian, a description I find restrictive. Not that I think your readers will be that interested in my personal political persuasion - what bugs me it’s that your comment might be taken to mean that my website (estropico.org) is a libertarian website, which would be an unfair description. In fact, I’ve put a lot of effort into developing Estropico into an open, diverse and multifaceted website where transhumanists both on the right and left of the political spectrum (perhaps the more dynamic parts of both sides) will find useful and interesting material. Not to mention upwingers and those that might just be interested in the more techie side of transhumanism. However, I do sincerely hope that neofascists and other extremists will find it not quite to their taste… grin

Part of that effort is the publication of material from left-of-centre transhumanists, such as in the case of your recent An Epistle on H+ to the Italian Catholics http://www.humanityplus.org/read/2009/09/an-epistle-on-h-to-the-italian-catholics/ which you were kind enough to send me and that I translated and presented, as you know, to a recent Italian Catholic Church event on the theme of “Earthly Immortality”.

Another step in the same direction has been the opening of my blog (estropico.blogspot.com) to a number of guest bloggers, many of whom (a majority, in fact) are clearly on the left. Here’s the list, should anyone want to check by themselves by having a look at their websites/blogs: http://estropico.blogspot.com/2008/09/annuncio-estropico-blog-apre-ai-guest.html

Talking of libertarianism…

James, it seems to me, from your comments, that you might still be sore from the clashes, a few years ago, between leftist and libertarian transhumanists - and I can understand why. But please don’t make the mistake of assuming that this is an Italian version of all that, because it’s not.

This is about neofascism raising it’s ugly head.

Up until the arrival of the Italian neofascists (and I mean both Vaj and the other, much less cuddly ones) at the Italian Transhumanist Association (AIT), I and the other members of the Italian Transhumanist Network (the Network) had collaborated with Campa, Prisco and other leftists at AIT. And the inevitable political differences had not led to a split, as did the nomination (as opposed to election) of Vaj as “national secretary” of AIT. Furthermore, a majority of the founding members of the Network are clearly on the left. Here’s the list of all the Network members, should anyone want to check by themselves: www.transumanisti.org
(automated translation has a long way to go, but it’s enough to give you an idea).

I’d like to leave other, separate, comments on your and Vaj’s articles, but please do let me know if I’m overstaying my welcome.

Cheers,
Fabio

I’d like to make a suggestion to the readers of this site, if I may. Do not take Vaj’s statements regarding the Italian Transhumanist Network and its members at face value, but go and check by yourselves if we really are “conservatives and closet Papists” and the many other, at time surreal, accusations hurled at us by Vaj in his article. The problem, of course, is that most of the material on our websites is in Italian… Try this then: here’s the google-translated sitemap of my own website (estropico.com). It is one of the members of the Network and is by far the one with the most material. Have a look at the titles of the articles published and at the names of the authors, and see what you think:

http://translate.google.co.uk/translate?u=http://www.estropico.com/id36.htm&sl=it&tl=en&hl=en&ie=UTF-8

The site is being migrated to a new domain (estropico.org) but most of the material is still on the old site, so you’ll miss a few recent articles from James Hughes, Max More and Nick Bostrom, among others.

The (rather convenient) mistake Vaj makes in his accusations, is to take some comments on some mailing list by somebody connected to the Network, and assume they are some sort of “party line” carved in stone, ignoring the fact that they are only personal opinions. Our Network is the opposite of monolithic and all full members (i.e. those with an online presence) are completely free to promote their own flavour of transhumanism in complete indepence from each other. And, as I mentioned in my previous comment, a lot of them happen to be on the left side of the political spectrum and are rather offended at being described as admirers of Mr Berlusconi and/or the Pope…

Cheers,
Fabio

I wish Vaj… was now a good world federalist who agreed with me on the need for a standing UN army.

I used to support world federalism, and I still do, but with emphasis on _federalism_: a federation of autonomous entities.

An enlightened world government would be great, but a dictatorial world government would be a nightmare, and we would not have any escape route: there would be nowhere else to go.

And being human nature what it is, I cannot rule out the possibility of a dictatorial world government. Perhaps not a violent dictatorship (but again, you never know), but certainly a benevolent nanny-state dictatorship that punishes victimless crimes and interfere in every aspect of citizen’s private lives.

Proposition 8 is an example of how a majority can oppress a minority in the name of “moral values” crap. Unfortunately, these things do tend to happen.

So while I am in favor of global governance for global issues, I am also in favor of strong local autonomies. I feel safer knowing that I can go somewhere else if things become bad where I am.

The UN army: it is a joke, you know that. No nation state will ever allow the UN to have real decision making power, let alone the means to enforce it. Simply because nation states will never accept to give up sovereignty and power. I feel the road to world federalism must pass through fragmentation of existing nation states with much more power to local autonomies (the US, or Swiss model). The EU? No thanks. It is the Europe of nation states, I want a Europe of European citizens.

“Dear James,

you describe me as a libertarian, a description I find restrictive.”

As you may see above, I do not make this mistake.

In fact, besides your more vehement denials in Italian to be a libertarian of any kind, to I do not usually employ the word “libertarian” to refer to somebody whose actual neoconservative and authoritarian leanings are quite obvious to those who understand our language, not any more that I would consider “libertarian” the Moral Majority in the US or the Guantanamo camp.

Nor, for that matter, I would have wasted my time in discussing here your positions, which AFAIK are invisible on the international scene, unless they were part of a broader and more complex scenario which has raised some legitimate concerns as to the general political evolution currently affecting our common country.

But of course you are welcome to extend your comments to this latter aspect, if you care to express publicly your views thereupon.

Dear Stefano, I have already posted a link to the google-translated sitemap of my website, Estropico (see my comment above, the fourth from the top), so that anyone who comes by this page can go an check by themselves whether there is any truth in your accusations.

Indeed. I do encourage them to skim though your literature, with the help of Google Translator, and I remain available to indicate privately to those interested the juiciest morsels.

And, btw, I am not “accusing” you of anything. Simple statements of facts. I have no doubt that in Italy you may easily find a public who shares, and approves of, the positions mentioned in my original piece, still explicitely stated in your site, and would consider their promotion worth a praise, rather than a blame.

Too bad many of them will not share the alleged “transhumanist” angle under which they are presented, the latter being a little unusual amongst those of the same persuasion.

Fine by me. I also encourage anyone interested in more info on the more explicitly neofascist writings of the many “overhumanists” authors to contact me in private: estropico “at” gmail.com

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