Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Recycled Socialism

Maybe there’s something in the water but we seem to be having a wave of futurology. In the past it used to be called prophecy. Today, its proponents present themselves as visionaries. From Steven Pinker to Yuval Noah Harari self-styled prophets have emerged to tell us that human beings have overcome violence and are living in peace and harmony, more than ever before. Sort of....

Especially since World War II, says Pinker. The Harvard psychologist is promoting atheism, though, like many other new atheists, he rejects the fact that the twentieth century saw the most ambitious attempts in world history to create atheist cultures.

Between them, the atheist paradises of Communist countries killed over 100,000,000 people. Many of them died in Mao’s China, in the post-World War II period, but upwards of 35,000,000 starved to death. One supposes that Pinker does not count them as violent deaths.

If the new atheism is going to supplant religion as the cornerstone of a new culture, why wouldn’t practical efforts to do so count? Aren’t we supposed to be rational and empirical thinkers, caring about all outcomes of our experiments?

As we examine this tide of optimistic prophecies we can only think of intrepid stock market forecasters who believe that a rising stock market will keep rising forever. They never seem to consider that markets rise and fall and that blind optimism paves the way for destruction. The more we blind ourselves to the possibility of a breakdown, the more likely it becomes.

Besides, the nations of the world possess enough nuclear weapons to incinerate the planet many times over. If you believe that no one will ever use one or more of them, you are hopelessly naïve.

Pinker is the best known of today atheist prophets, but we also have Yuval Noah Harari. Clearly, he joins Pinker and, in a strange sense, Francis Fukuyama, in promoting the belief that their fictional Heavenly City will descend on the planet, the result of Enlightenment thinking. It’s not a new idea. Carl Becker also presented this idea in his classic book: The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers. As I recall, Becker was suggesting that these self-styled rational atheists were really hiding the fact that they were simply recycling Biblical prophecies. Not so much to bring them up to date, but to establish their own self-importance.

Harari is not areligious. He practices Buddhist meditation, presumably to spare him the indignity of ethical thinking. It also spares him the other great idealistic indignity:  imagining that the course of human history does not follow a roadmap laid out by Hegel or the Book of Revelation, but depends on the free choices made by free people.

Lawrence Klepp has written an excellent review of Harari for the Weekly Standard. He says:

Harari begins by assuring us that humanity is on a winning streak. Famine and plague, two historical scourges, are disappearing, and a third, war, is no longer routine statecraft. For the first time in history, more people die of eating too much than eating too little. More people succumb to ailments related to old age than to infectious diseases. Victims of all kinds of violence are, as percentages of the population, at historical lows in most places. The next stop, presumably, is Utopia.

Apparently, Harari overlooked the Great Famine in China during the early 1960s.

Harari argues that human success has not been an unalloyed good. We humans have created a new paradise by exploiting and destroying other species and even nature itself.

Klepp writes:

But if it’s the best of times, it’s also the worst of times—at least for other species. In the present era, which Harari follows other writers in calling the Anthropocene epoch, a dominant, overbreeding humanity is playing the role of the dinosaur-dooming asteroid 65 million years ago. We’re transforming the planet. Many species of larger wild animals are reaching the vanishing point, while the now far more numerous domesticated animals raised for food have been bred into miserable, bloated, immobilized travesties of their wild ancestors. We live in an age of mass extinctions. 

In another context, this would be called guilt tripping. It argues that we should not believe that we have accomplished anything, because our gain is always someone else’s loss. It rejects the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats.

Moreover, Harari suggests that the human species is now on the road to bifurcation, between techno-gods and the exploited rest. This feels like a Platonic division between philosopher kings and the unwashed masses. You can the impression that Harari missed his calling: to be a novelist.

Klepp summarizes a point that attracts the attention of tech oligarchs:

In a few decades, we might have a new caste society that, in Harari’s account, looks something like the Egypt of the pharaohs. Most of humanity, made redundant by artificial intelligence and robots, will be ushered into subservience or virtual-reality obliviousness. But there will be a rich elite whose technical mastery will bring them something approaching omniscience. They will periodically arrange complete biochemical makeovers, giving themselves perpetual youth, and they will have assorted injections and brain prosthetics to bestow unflagging confidence and intelligence and bliss. They will be beings apart, experiencing mental states unknown to all previous merely human beings. 


Amid his Homo deus conjectures, Harari remarks that by achieving immunity to disease and aging, the new technocratic elite will be potentially immortal, but they would still be vulnerable to death by accident (or assassination, I would add). In other words, the supergeeks of tomorrow may have godlike aspirations, but they will be extremely nervous little gods. They may never get out of the house.

Actually, some of the supergeeks are currently working on schemes to ensure us all immortality. One recalls the words of our psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, who once said that, given the choice, no one would ever want to live forever. With the exception of the technogods no one could afford it.

According to Klepp, Harari ignores the looming climate catastrophe and the possibility of nuclear war. And, naturally, he ignores the potential threat of terrorism. Worse yet, he avoids the simple fact that too much technology is not necessarily a good thing for human beings:

Harari has nothing to say about how today’s technology seems to be aiding and abetting our descent into an increasingly crude, inarticulate, and barbaric society—online bullying and abuse, livestreamed suicides and rapes and murders, terrorist recruitment and incitement, and so on—and thus fails to project those trends into the future. In fact, he downplays terrorism as a desperate measure adopted by history’s losers.

It’s nice to see terrorists as losers, but hundreds of millions of losers can wreak considerable havoc.

Klepp warns us against jumping on the prophecy bandwagon. He reminds us of past predictions of a wondrous future. Socialist novelist Edward Bellamy wrote one in 1888. Klepp reminds us of Bellamy’s vision:

In 1888, Edward Bellamy, an American socialist, published his immensely popular novel Looking Backward, which envisioned a happy future in the year 2000: We would have no wars, no banks, no money to put in them, no poverty, no wealth, no prisons, no politicians to put in them, no advertisements, no professional sports, no bad manners, and (now comes the good part) no lawyers—just a rather genteel Industrial Army receiving equal rations of modest middle-class amenities. No mention of computers and the Internet, nor even radios, but there would be telephone connections in every home to a symphony orchestra playing live music.

One lesson is: beware of socialist selling a vision of utopia.

Harari is not a bright-eyed optimist. Or else, he is hedging his bets. Even better, he is dissimulating his idea, the better to seduce people into accepting policies that have failed. After all, socialism promises everything and delivers nothing. Since everyone ought to know it by now, proponents of that program tend to disguise it… the better to dupe the gullible.

It’s a rhetorical tactic. more than a vision of the future. Klepp describes it:

Except for a few remarks about Marxist mistakes, Harari doesn’t deal with the picturesque ruins of the bright futures of the past. And he confesses, reassuringly, that he does not know what the future will be like. Nobody does. He is, he claims, only sketching a few indistinct possibilities and not endorsing any of them. But like Bellamy and other past futurologists, he is extrapolating current technological and social tendencies and cutting and pasting them onto the blank slate of the future, and his chances of being right are not any greater than theirs were. What makes his book readable—his sweeping, high-altitude style of analysis—also makes it somewhat facile.


trigger warning said...

Speaking of barbarism, I'm still waiting for the "breakthroughs" from embryonic stem cell research. As far as I know, Michael J Fox still has Parkinson's and Christopher Reeve is, sadly, still dead.

"[N]o field of biotechnology has promised more and delivered less in the way of treatments than embryonic stem cells."
--- MIT Technology Review (8/2016)

But... but... but...

Mo' $$$$$$$!!!! It's just around the corner!

Anonymous said...

The widespread annihilation of high trust societies should revert us to historic norms of poverty, starvation and war pretty soon. Frankly, the sooner the better. If it's going to happen, I'd still rather have it happen in an era where there is enough uncovered woods and streams to hunt and fish in as urban populations succumb to cannibalism.

Sam L. said...

Good intentions ("claimed"), Road To Hell: Minor assembly rqr'd.

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: Between them, the atheist paradises of Communist countries killed over 100,000,000 people. Many of them died in Mao’s China, in the post-World War II period, but upwards of 35,000,000 starved to death.

It was amazing to see the numbers:
According to government statistics, there were 15 million excess deaths in this period. However, the Chinese government at this time was taken over by market reformers who were strongly opposed to the Great Leap Forward. Unofficial estimates vary, but scholars have estimated the number of famine victims to be between 20 and 43 million. Historian Frank Dikötter, having been granted special access to Chinese archival materials, estimates that there were at least 45 million premature deaths from 1958 to 1962, although far from all these deaths came about as a result of starvation.

Even so, birthrates only fell barely below death rates for 1960 (with birthrates going down) but almost instantly birthrates exceeded death rates by a factor of 4 by 1965.

If species evolution comes from periods of mass deaths or starvation, we can wonder what sort of survival of the fittest traits work best during years of starvations. It might be the same "selfish genes" that cause mass obesity in the high-calorie world of today, as long as our fossil fuels can keep the party going.