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Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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My Socio-Political Disagreements with Transhumanism

Benjamin Abbott

Ethical Technology

July 02, 2012

In general, I have affection for the goals of H+.  However, when I compare my socio-political stances with transhumanism, I discover numerous points of contention. Here’s a brief list of platform issues and my positions that are occasionally in synch with H+ majority but often contrast sharply.

Democracy, Libertarianism, Capitalism, Fascism

Some transhumanists, such as libertarian Peter Thiel, openly disparage democracy. Others, especially those who identify as technoprogressive, treat it with the customary reverence. I take transhumanists who express support for democracy at their word, but it’s important to remember the vast difference between concepts of popular rule.

I’m ambivalent about the term “democracy” myself. While I’ll often champion direct democracy, in an echo of Thiel – albeit from distinct perspective – I view electoral democracy and the state as incompatible with freedom. The kind of democracy I respect involves autonomy and free association rather than the supposed selection of rulers by the people via the vote.

This opposition to coercion joins libertarianism and left anarchism, but we part ways on the question of economics. Unlike Thiel, I consider capitalism and bourgeois property relations authoritarian and antithetical to the society I desire. Many libertarians seem to seek a world of completely unchecked power for the economic elite. I share the egalitarian ideals of transhumanists in the technoprogressive camp but reject government as the means of achieving equality.

I’m wary to throw around charges of fascism, but authoritarian and elitist impulses permeate the transhumanist movement. The obsession with biology and measurable intelligence particularly worries me, as the IQ hierarchy creates categories of folks beyond the pale rationality by virtue of alleged stupidity. Beyond that, I’m unsure who scares me more: the technoprogressive liberals who adore the state or the super-rich libertarians who love capitalism.

Gay Rights, Transsexual Rights, Women’s Rights

From what I’ve seen, transhumanists embrace the mainstream LGBT, transgender, and feminist movements wholeheartedly. The community also commonly celebrates androgyny, gender diversity, and post-gender as aesthetics of the future. I appreciate the positive atmosphere and these gestures toward smashing the straight status quo but feel transhumanists too frequently engage with feminism and the queer movement in superficial fashion. Widespread biological reductionism and the drive for the technological fix additionally detract from the revolutionary potential of transhumanist discourse on gender and sexuality.

As Dale Carrico points out in characteristically acerbic prose, trumpeting androgynous celebrities as a sign of the dissolution of gender omits ongoing and possibly intensifying violence against queer folks and women on the streets and behind closed doors. Here transhumanism stumbles into the same trap as the dominant LGBT movement. While the inclusion of suitably normative LGBT folks into the club of power and privilege is great for them and surely superior to the alternative, the radical queer critique demands the complete abolition of heteropatriarchy and questions normativity itself.

Personally, I worry that the increasing incorporation of good gays into the fold of nationalism and capitalism heightens my status as one of the bad queers who won’t assimilate. This year marks the first time the Pentagon has put on a Pride celebration. Rather than happy progressive move, I view this as a desperate play for warm bodies by an overstretched empire as well as transference of queerness onto the so-called terrorist population targeted for extermination. I urge transhumanists to oppose homonationalism and the pinkwashing of imperialism.   

Environmentalism, Industrialization

The struggle for environmental justice stands out as fitting arena for transhumanist engagement. From what I’ve seen, H+ environmentalism so far centers on climate change, speculative techno-fixes, and geo-engineering schemes. I don’t believe the community takes the ecological devastation and human suffering caused by industrial capitalism seriously enough. The gadgets transhumanists get excited about rely on unsustainable fossil fuel consumption, rapidly dwindling rare mineral stocks, brutal exploitation, and social disruption. This isn’t a minor blemish to gloss over or a bump on grand highway of progress but a fundamental challenge to the project of creating a just and egalitarian technological society.

Proponents of technoscience have historically simply accepted the unpleasantries of resource extraction and mass manufacturing as necessary sacrifices, though they curiously never put themselves on altar. For example, here in the Southwest, the United States government considered the health of Native American populations expendable in the context of Cold War politics. The effects of uranium mining linger over the land even as the nuclear complex operate under its new mission of waste management and arsenal stewardship, shaping relationships in New Mexico for the foreseeable future. The relative silence around environmental justice in the transhumanist movement today suggests a familiar tolerance of horrors of industrial production. I consider this unconscionable.

Fervent belief in near-term technological utopia encourages transhumanists to dismiss environmental concerns. After all, if nanotech and AI genies will cure every ailment in a few decades, who cares about cancer risks? Under such framework, the only thing that matters is getting there. The magnitude of imagined benefits – indefinite lifespans, material abundance, perpetual bliss – makes any cost seem reasonable and any hindrance intolerable. This mindset scares me the most about transhumanism and the Singularity movement. If the super future requires blood tribute in the form of maintaining industrial capitalism just a little bit longer, I’m not interested.

Given the overwhelming prevalence of oppression under the existing system of production, I don’t know whether we can have a technological mass society without victims. I’m committed to that dream, but practicing, say, mining without devastating landscapes and local communities strikes me as a tall order. There’s only one way to find out. Unlike many other transhumanists, I value community self-determination and environmental justice regardless of whether their exercise impedes the march to the technological awesomeness we long for. Freedom and equality now trump the uncertainty of fantastic futures. I remain sanguine that we can have both, but the former takes precedence.

In conclusion, I fear transhumanist ideals of progress as excuse to continue feeding our lives, lands, and psyches to the machine. I advocate immediate revolution against industrial capitalism alongside with the pursuit of technoscience on an egalitarian basis. No more sacrifices, no more victims. 

Imperialism, Colonialism

I consider imperialism and colonialism fundamental global dynamics at present. The U.S. and other western militaries coerce the rest of the world in order to maintain the corporate capitalist system and its manifest inequalities. Likewise, the dispossession and marginalization of indigenous peoples along with the appropriation of their culture remains a widespread colonial process.

The recent U.S. invasion of Iraq and the ongoing invasion of Afghanistan constitute examples of the kind of imperialism that imposes domination through brute force. The best estimates indicate that the U.S. military has directly killed hundreds of thousands of people between these two wars. War-on-terror drone attacks in various regions of the Muslim world kill hundreds. I’m especially outraged by how militaristic propaganda invokes feminism and gay rights as a basis for murder and occupation.

While I don’t want to dismiss the possibility for genuine western solidarity with folks struggling against oppression in the so-called developing, it doesn’t come from armies and nation-states. I vehemently reject homonationalism and the discourse of sexual exceptionalism in all forms. Even if the west were the paradise of sexual freedom it imagines itself to be – and it ain’t! – the entire concept of imposing feminism or queer liberation by force would still be inherently patriarchal.

This leads to Israel, an iconic example of pinkwashing via the narrative of sexual exceptionalism. Claims about Israel as a progressive nation of freedom and tolerance serve as justification for or distraction away from the country’s ongoing campaign of settler colonialism.

Steven Pinker Better Angels of Our Nature

I disagree with Pinker on epistemological as well as political grounds. We value some of the things – I don’t like murder either – but dream different dreams for the future. Ey recently inspired acclaim and controversy by arguing that per capita lethal violence in human society has been declining since time immemorial. In order to make this case, Pinker relies on what I consider absurd assertions of certainty about ambiguous and conflicting historical evidence.

At times ey takes speculative leaps across millennia, such as when ey suggests that twentieth-century mortality figures from supposed hunter-gatherers reflect the prehistoric norm. Coming from a disciplinary background in history and American studies, I’m automatically wary of grand theories that flatten time and space. I interpret Pinker’s thesis as founded not in conclusive data but rather in Hobbesian notions about human nature and tropes of civilization triumphing over savagery.

Pinker’s focus on fatalities elides the vast apparatus of mostly nonlethal coercion that founds modern society under the nation-state. While the murder rate in the contemporary United States might be lower than medieval Europe, the U.S. incarceration rate has been climbing for decades and stands at a record high. Even if our hunter-gatherer ancestors killed each other more frequently, they lived free from the institutionalized and rationalized domination of government and the drudgery of wage labor.

I detest both the political and psychological effects of hierarchy and bureaucracy. Civilization entails the internalized violence of self-discipline and self-repression. Were I to accept the liberal argument that government’s monopoly on force has thus far dramatically reduced violence I would yet desire the absence of bosses. As a transhumanist, I reject limitations to social imagination based on human nature.

Benjamin Abbot is a genderqueer, transgender PhD student in American Studies at the University of New Mexico.


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