Transhumanism has historically been an effectively apolitical movement, focussed on technological improvement of the human condition. While some political obstacles to that goal have been recognised, Transhumanists’ political views have traditionally covered a broad range, making the emergence of a unified Political Transhumanism seem highly problematic. A paradigm shift appears to have occurred in 2014, with the establishment of the Transhumanist Party in the USA by Zoltan Istvan. Subsequently a number of related groups have rapidly appeared around the world, in an entire new movement dedicated to the idea of Political Transhumanism, with the Transhumanist Party as its primary vehicle in any given country.
This chapter will consider the relationship between that movement and Transhumanism as a whole, what character the nascent Transhumanist Party appears to be developing, and the question of possible long-term strategies to transform the politics of the Twenty First Century.
A Unified Political Transhumanism
Transhumanism is an intellectual and cultural movement to expand human capabilities through technology. Transhumanism integrates numerous ideas and ideologies under one umbrella, and that diversity can make it difficult to trace a singular origin to the movement. Although earlier uses of the word “transhuman” and similar concepts have been noted (reaching as far back as Julian Huxley and even Friedrich Nietzsche), the general consensus seems to be that Transhumanism as a modern movement beganwith the ideas of futurist F.M. Esfandiary (AKA F.M. 2030) at the New School in 1960s New York.
From there, there was a slow emergence of groups in the UK and California which gave rise to the Extropy Institute in the late 1980s, and later an explosive proliferation of organisations and sub-movements owing their growth to the internet. The movement now comprises tens or even hundreds of thousands of members, a number of wealthy patrons, and a wide array of factions and specialist interests. The one consistent idea at the heart of it all, known as the “Central Meme of Transhumanism” or CMT, is that we can and should improve the human condition through technology.
Politically, the movement has historically been highly diverse, with that diversity only increasing with the growth of the movement. Certain popular currents of thought come and go, such as Libertarianism being very popular in Extropian circles in the 1980s and 1990s, but there has never been a point at which being a Transhumanist has strongly implied having a particular political outlook. That diversity has occasionally led to assertions that Transhumanism is inherently apolitical, and in some quarters it is (with Transhumanists often preferring technical over political solutions to problems), but we must note that a diversity of political opinion and a lack of it are not the same thing. There are indeed many Transhumanists with political interests, and although they often differ in those interests they certainly agree on the core impulse of Transhumanism.
The existence of significant (if diverse) political opinion on the part of Transhumanists reflects the fact that many of them recognise that their technological aspirations may be hindered or even blocked entirely by political opponents. There has however never been any serious attempt to unify Transhumanists behind a single political effort, ideology, or framework in order to deal effectively with that opposition. The resultant diversity has historically made the emergence of a unified Political Transhumanismseem highly unlikely. To look at that another way, any unified Political Transhumanism could only represent aspects of the wider Transhumanist movement, and never the entire thing. Such aspects would not just include the occasionally incompatible philosophies which comprise the Transhumanist movement, but also traditional political (e.g. Left/Right) divisions between individual Transhumanists. Any decision as to which aspects of Transhumanism to emphasise could be made deliberately, or allowed to emerge via some process, but in either case there inevitably would be some bona fide Transhumanists who quite rightly felt that the party did not represent their views.
Possible responses to this situation fall into three categories. First, a person could simply say that this is a non-issue, as a political variant of Transhumanism strikes them as irrelevant or undesirable in some way. Although that is a valid point of view, we might note that it is one that politically-empowered opponents of Transhumanism (such as lobbyists on behalf of conservative religious groups) would be very happy to see all Transhumanists adopt.
The second category is the favoured response of fanatical ideologues throughout history: To declare that there is no problem because only one variant of Transhumanism is valid, and all others are not worthy of the name. Putting my own belief in the power of diversity aside, I think it suffices to say that any Political Transhumanism that started out by alienating most Transhumanists would probably not have a high chance of eventual success.
Finally, one might suppose that we could “square the circle”, integrating the various disparate strands of Transhumanism in some manner that preserves difference and yet creates an effective, united front. Any such approach would seem to require that two conditions are satisfied. The first condition is that any approach or ideology consistent with the CMT must be assured a fair chance of at least partially informing policy adopted by Transhumanist political parties, if there is to be any plausible claim to universality by those parties. The second is that when making their decisions, those parties cannot be expected to wait for or please every other person and group calling themselves Transhumanist, since that would lead to deadlock and bland policy which fully satisfies no-one within the movement.
Given these conditions, I would argue that the ancient model we need to follow is not the analytical “squaring the circle”, but the altogether more forthright “cutting the Gordian Knot”. In other words, rather than attempting to carefully balance the concerns and preferences of myriad groups (a nigh-impossible task under even the best circumstances), a Transhumanist political party should boldly move ahead and do as it must. The only caveat – and the one thing stopping this from being the “fanatical” second option already noted – is that all Transhumanists must always have the option of getting involved and shaping policy. No Transhumanist could be excluded from the party on the basis of beliefs that are compatible with the CMT and the existence of the Party itself, no matter how unorthodox they may be.
In that way there would be no deadlock, no watering down party policy to please non-members, and yet a valid claim to universality and equality of opportunity. The only people not represented in the policy-development process would be those who cannot accept the CMT (and who are therefore not Transhumanists), those who cannot explicitly endorse the Party for whatever reason, and those who have chosen to exclude themselves through inactivity. Transhumanists who claimed that their views were not adequately represented within the party would only have themselves to blame, and the party could not be marginalised or distanced from the rest of the Transhumanist movement as a result.
The Transhumanist Party
Of course, when I refer to a political party in the previous section I am not being abstract or hypothetical. A paradigm shift within Transhumanism appears to have occurred in 2014, with the establishment of the Transhumanist Party in the USA by Zoltan Istvan. Although no-one claims that this fledgling organisation can speak for all Transhumanists or is even ready to operate in a serious way, a line has been crossed in the bold assertion that the Transhumanist movement can and will have a unified political face. Of course Transhumanism outside the Party and non-Party forms of Political Transhumanism will continue to exist and thrive, and we will briefly consider possible relationships between such phenomena and the Party in the next section. From now on, however, no-one will be able to intelligently claim that a unified Political Transhumanism does not exist. They will merely be able to state their relationship to it.
Subsequent to establishment of the U.S. Party, a number of related groups have rapidly appeared around the world, in an entire new movement dedicated to the idea of Political Transhumanism, with the Transhumanist Party as its primary vehicle in any given country. This expansion appears to be part of what we may think of as a “post-classical” phase for Transhumanism, following the earlier “classical” phase in which organisations like the Extropy Institute and World Transhumanist Association / Humanity+ could make statements on behalf of all Transhumanists with relative confidence. In this new phase,new organisations constantly appear and their claims to represent Transhumanism are rightly tested and questioned. The Transhumanist Party will therefore have to prove its value, its ability to endure, and most importantly its ability to reflect truly Transhumanist values in its policies.
What kind of values and policies might those be? Can we yet see any indication at this early stage? In many ways I believe that we cannot yet know what character the Transhumanist Party will have, especially since it will necessarily develop a different character in different nations. We also must bear in mind that the internal processes developed by the different national-level Parties will shape what policies they adopt, and furthermore there is a difference between policy and effective changes made in the world. All that said, certain policy themes have already been prevalent in discussions among TP supporters, and it is interesting to take note of them. These have naturally had a common focus in science and evidence-based policy, and encouraging the use of technology to circumvent problems themselves often created or exacerbated by technology (e.g. surveillance, civil rights and questions of personal freedoms,technological unemployment, intellectual property rights, the challenges of automated warfare, environmental damage, climate change and other existential risks).
Traditionally optimistic Transhumanist topics such as longevity and space exploration are also popular, but it seems likely that they will not get as much traction in policy terms as will topics which the broader public care about in an immediate and visceral way. Public opinion is, after all, the lifeblood of politics. In other words, it seems highly likely that Political Transhumanism will be primarily concerned with addressing those areas where current technologies and problems are at issue, as opposed to speculative matters. Political Transhumanism therefore has a temporal character, in both senses of the word, in that it addresses the most mundane and near-term of Transhumanist topics. Of course, in a world where technological development and various other markers of change appear to be accelerating, “near-term” doesn’t quite mean what it used to, and some of the “mundane” issues that the Transhumanist Party will have to tackle would have sounded like science fiction thirty years ago. In fact, it is my belief that TP is emerging at a time when the very fabric and nature of politics is beginning to transform beyond recognition by a Twentieth Century observer.
Transforming the Politics of the Twenty-First Century
It is easy to believe that nothing changes about politics. Its trappings and strategies are like baroque ritual, well-worn with a deep familiarity. Transhumanists, however, know well that society’s rules and institutions face a torrent of change in the coming years, driven by exponential technological development and other pressures. Politics will be no exception, and recent political adaptations to the realities of the internet, computing power more generally, 3D printing, drone technology, pharmaceuticals and genetic engineering are just the first ripples heralding the coming wave of disruption.
Of course, whatever role the Transhumanist Party might play in such a dramatically shifting future is all but impossible to predict. Perhaps it will be entirely insignificant. I expect that techno-utopians who see positive developments as inevitable would be inclined to think so, and that opponents of technological change would hope so. When I try to realistically assess the promise and plausibility of this new movement, I find myself thinking in terms of a twenty five year time frame. After twenty five years of consistent and effective effort, if all goes well enough, the movement could have enough influence through various channels to effect serious positive change. Of course that speculation raises a lot of questions, and most of them cannot yet be answered. However, we can briefly review points ranging from likely near-term strategies and prospects, to scenarios which are more speculative and plausible only in the longer term.
Firstly, there is the question of near-term political strategy, and how that strategy will necessarily be informed by local conditions. I’ve already mentioned that Transhumanist Party “precursor groups” have been springing up around the world, and most of them so far are in Europe, but even there the diversity of political conditions and sentiment means that the different Parties must naturally evolve to present a common worldview in many different ways. When it comes to traditional political party activity, we can see the most scope for modest medium-term success in nations where parliaments are elected by a proportional representation system, such as Germany. The examples of movements like the Pirate Party, Syriza and Podemos make this clear, whereas in “first past the post” systems (such as in the UK) it can easily take twenty five years to become the third party, even with radical and unexpected success. To my mind, traditional political attempts in the United States and Russia are little more than publicity drives (which is most certainly a thing of value in itself) because the systems in those nations allow for no real third-party influence. In effective single-party states like China there is no real potential for an independent political party at all.
Given this continuum from modest to negligible traditional influence, it is entirely unsurprising that some people feel that the Transhumanist Party is not worthy of their attention or support. Why put in twenty five years of hard effort to end up with little more influence than you started out with? If I felt that these limitations were absolute, then I personally would not support the effort, either. But the fact is that traditional political engagement is only one route to socio-political influence, and to the extent that traditional routes are limited then I would encourage Transhumanist Parties to explore non-traditional options. What might some of these “non-traditional options” be?
I’m going to finish this chapter by briefly looking at three such strategies, or perhaps more accurately three categories of development which we should expect to inform specific strategies. I see these categories as complementary, perhaps overlapping across different time frames, and definitely not mutually exclusive. Here we are looking at things from the most abstract, “big picture” perspective possible without veering off into the most speculative outer reaches of Transhumanism, so a lack of specificity is inevitable. We are, after all, just now taking the first step in a very long journey, and cannot be sure what lies ahead.
The first class of development is the most prosaic, and perhaps the most likely: That direct political influence will be unsatisfyingly negligible, but indirect influence through other organisations may prove fruitful. After all, established institutions (such as the two main parties in nations like the U.K. and U.S.) will have to deal with technological developments and their societal implications too, so why not try to foster influence within them? In my opinion this is a necessary course of action, very much complementary to the direct approach of the Transhumanist Party. Indeed, in the short- and medium-term I think this indirect approach could yield dividends for Transhumanism which are highly unlikely to be achieved via the Party. Many Transhumanists seem to intuit that the way forward on this front is to build strong political connections with such institutions via think tanks, and Transhumanists have already been building such organisations. Among others, we have the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), the Future of Humanity Institute (FHI) at Oxford University, and of course the recently established Transpolitica. I must reiterate that this indirect approach complements development of the Transhumanist Party, aiming for the same outcome despite being pursued by different people, by different methods and over different time frames, and so it is not a matter of having to choose between approaches.
The second category includes all situations where Party organisation has matured and has a lot of potential, but is being blocked by any combination of deliberate opposition and general political intransigence or stagnation. Transhumanists may well decide that they are being blocked from necessary measures which they have a right to pursue, perhaps as a matter of personal survival. Under those conditions, Party organisations could decide to apply their resources to direct action initiatives, rather than attempting to convince established institutions of anything. In short, if denied any chance to pursue their rights, Political Transhumanists may simply go their own way. This would involve setting up our own systems of governance and resource management, in ways and places that would allow us to pursue our own goals despite the reservations of others. Of course this raises a host of ethical and practical questions, but for the moment my purpose is only to point out that political parties can be good for more than attempting to persuade others who may never agree with our views.
Thirdly, we reach the foothills of the long-term and speculative scenarios which have long fuelled the imaginations of Transhumanists. They and various futurist fellow-travellers are aware that a number of critical societal trends appear to be unfolding at an exponential rate, which means that sudden and extremely disruptive change can be reasonably expected within decades. In fact, some would argue that we have witnessed the earliest signs of that change already, with technology already having deeply affected business and government since the turn of the Century. A noted characteristic of exponential change is that it can drastically alter circumstances (and the rules of any given situation) far quicker than would be expected by those used only to linear change. Taking that into account, we should be prepared for the possibility that the Transhumanist Party’s “futuristic” concerns could be a matter of contemporary politics a lot sooner than most people expect, and traditional politicians could very easily be caught off-guard. If we take our position seriously and prepare appropriately, the Transhumanist Party could find itself faced with an unprecedented opportunity in a lot less than twenty five years after all.
Finally, we should take that logic to its conclusion, and ask a question which will already have occurred to many apolitical Transhumanists: Why bother trying to influence politics at all, when we may well have been engulfed in a Technological Singularity within 20-30 years? After all, any number of Singularitarians are inclined to follow Ray Kurzweil’s lead in expecting a total shift in the human and societal condition around 2045, which would render any and all political progress moot. My personal answer to this question is that the future is unknown. No rational person can claim to be entirely sure what will happen. A Technological Singularity may never occur, and indeed the question of whether it occurs or not (or is a good thing or not) may well be a matter of human agency rather than inevitability. If human agency is to play any role whatsoever, then having Political Transhumanists work on increasing the odds of a good outcome – at the very least by blocking political interference – is a very good idea. If a Good Singularity is indeed inevitable then there will have been no harm in working toward it, but if a positive future has to be worked for then it would be a grave error to blithely ignore or even deliberately reject some of the tools at our disposal. Given that a Bad Singularity is probably the most horrific scenario envisaged by Transhumanists, even worse than a simple extinction of humanity, Singularitarians should be the first to acknowledge the need to work toward a positive future by all means necessary.
Conclusion: Interesting Times
In this chapter we have considered the emergence of Political Transhumanism and the Transhumanist Party as part of the “post-classical” phase of Transhumanism’s development. We have seen that this new aspect would and could not replaceTranshumanism as a whole, but would instead augment and represent it in an active engagement with society. This new wing of the movement needs to be open to all Transhumanists who would step up to actively support it and represent their own beliefs within it, but at the same time it must be bold and take action without waiting for permission from every would-be armchair critic (including a good many implicit opponents). A broad range of issues seem likely to inform Party policies, but the very nature of being a political party looks likely to draw TP toward the nearer-term, less speculative Transhumanist topics. The Party may find it best to pursue unorthodox strategies, but that is no problem when we consider that our aim is to solve problems, not to create a political party of any particular type for its own sake. Finally, we are faced with a kind of modern Pascal’s Wager, whereby it behooves us to work toward a positive future by all means possible – including the political – regardless of whether the unknowable future might also be inevitable. We live in interesting times, and it is up to us to do what we can to make the best of them.
The article above features as Chapter 6 of the Transpolitica book “Anticipating tomorrow’s politics”. Transpolitica welcomes feedback. Your comments will help to shape the evolution of Transpolitica communications.