April 17, 2009
One of my recurring critiques of the anarchist movement is that it is focused too much in the past, whether that means adhering to the philosophies of thinkers who died a century ago or glorifying and seeking to replicate ad nauseum more recent victories like the Battle of Seattle. In relation to transhumanism, the anarchist movement is certainly either blind — or worse, reactionary, like the primitivists — when it comes to envisioning some of the practical and liberatory uses of technology to create the society we envision. When you factor in that anarchists hope to establish a future horizontalist social system, you would think there would be more effort placed into strategically planning how we go from here to there.
When it comes to the current economic crisis, there’s been a lot of effort to simply explain what’s going on and what the causes were. Even though there’s general acceptance that capitalism is going to be transformed once again, there’s hasn’t been much done to forecast what the outcomes might be. This is important for developing an anarchist strategy to this crisis, as the organizing to take advantage of an economic collapse is going to be quite different from organizing in anticipation of a more repressive yet social democratic state.
Guessing the future is never easy. Most futurists get it wrong, sometimes drastically so. Transformative black swans such as personal computing or the internet are often overlooked entirely. The point of playing the forecasting game isn’t too predict with absolute accuracy, however. Futurists typically assemble different scenarios that represent likely, or at least possible, outcomes, and then use these as a way to think about what *might* occur. This scenario-based approach lets people think about and prepare for the future with some flexibility, and also allows us to identify what some of the common themes are that appear in multiple scenarios and so identify those as (perhaps) more likely, or at least worthy of extra consideration.
With that in mind, I think it’d be a good exercise for anarchists to start writing up different scenarios for how this global economic crisis might play out. Perhaps there are already some scenarios out there that I haven’t stumbled across yet. I don’t have the time to write up a bunch of scenarios in detail myself, but I can at least get the ball rolling by providing some potential scenario seeds. So here are a few short blurbs on what I think some potentials outcomes might be:
Scenario #1) Business As Usual
Obama & Co. work hard to save the system and let the financial sector continue on as is. Rather than nationalization, however, the private sector gets bailed out and remains autonomous while the public takes the losses. This system is not easily sustained, however, so for an indefinite period we see increased economic hardship as the bankers continue to take risks that everyone else pays for, increased military action as the US seeks to dominate and open up new markets, and increased repression as the the state puts down those who get fed up enough to fight back.
The Quiet Coup spells out this scenario a bit:
The first involves complicated bank-by-bank deals and a continual drumbeat of (repeated) bailouts, like the ones we saw in February with Citigroup and AIG. The administration will try to muddle through, and confusion will reign.
Boris Fyodorov, the late finance minister of Russia, struggled for much of the past 20 years against oligarchs, corruption, and abuse of authority in all its forms. He liked to say that confusion and chaos were very much in the interests of the powerful—letting them take things, legally and illegally, with impunity. When inflation is high, who can say what a piece of property is really worth? When the credit system is supported by byzantine government arrangements and backroom deals, how do you know that you aren’t being fleeced?
Our future could be one in which continued tumult feeds the looting of the financial system, and we talk more and more about exactly how our oligarchs became bandits and how the economy just can’t seem to get into gear.
Scenario #2) Economic Collapse
Despite the best efforts of the financial capitalists to save their system, the crisis has already progressed too far, and the house of cards finally comes tumbling down.
Again, The Quiet Coup spelled out how this might look:
The second scenario begins more bleakly, and might end that way too. But it does provide at least some hope that we’ll be shaken out of our torpor. It goes like this: the global economy continues to deteriorate, the banking system in east-central Europe collapses, and—because eastern Europe’s banks are mostly owned by western European banks—justifiable fears of government insolvency spread throughout the Continent. Creditors take further hits and confidence falls further. The Asian economies that export manufactured goods are devastated, and the commodity producers in Latin America and Africa are not much better off. A dramatic worsening of the global environment forces the U.S. economy, already staggering, down onto both knees. The baseline growth rates used in the administration’s current budget are increasingly seen as unrealistic, and the rosy “stress scenario” that the U.S. Treasury is currently using to evaluate banks’ balance sheets becomes a source of great embarrassment.
Under this kind of pressure, and faced with the prospect of a national and global collapse, minds may become more concentrated.
The conventional wisdom among the elite is still that the current slump “cannot be as bad as the Great Depression.” This view is wrong. What we face now could, in fact, be worse than the Great Depression—because the world is now so much more interconnected and because the banking sector is now so big. We face a synchronized downturn in almost all countries, a weakening of confidence among individuals and firms, and major problems for government finances. If our leadership wakes up to the potential consequences, we may yet see dramatic action on the banking system and a breaking of the old elite. Let us hope it is not then too late.
Of course, what happens in the wake of such a collapse is a big question. It might propel us towards a regrouping of capitalism, perhaps steering towards one of the scenarios below. It could create an opening and an awakening that spurs mass action to instill a new, more egalitarian and horizontal system. It could also create an opening for a resurgent fascism (see below). Or it could be Mad Max, who knows.
Scenario #3) Neo “New Deal” Capitalism
Many people are looking back at the New Deal for methods to restore the economy. These usually incorporate initiatives like major public building projects, job and relief programs, nationalizing banks, and increased entitlement. This Alternet article spells out such a plan in detail. While it doesn’t seem that Obama’s current plan is likely to steer this way, there’s a small chance that popular pressure might force some of this into being (and this outcome is possibly preferable to the ruling financial interests than many of the other options).
Scenario #4) Reformed/Social Capitalism
Bowing to public pressure, and pressure from non-risk-taking capitalists, capitalism is forced to re-invent itself, taking on more of a social-democratic/socialist aspect. There’s already a sizable portion of the US population that is amenable to non-revolutionary forms of socialism, such as those found in many western European countries.
This scenario is spelled out a bit in Jump! You Fuckers!:
The choice is not simply between state control and private capitalism, whatever the empire-builders in the state and corporate bureaucracies would like to tell us. The structure of companies has an important, a crucial, bearing on the opportunities for financial speculation. Employee ownership reduces them to zero. A system revised at the level of transnational capital flows must also be reformed at the level of the enterprise. State bailouts should be followed by employee buyouts as a matter of course. It is only a kind of intellectual exhaustion to insist that once the economy has been nursed back to health it should be returned to the supervision of its tormentors.
As Richard Wolff points out, employee ownership and control, with oversight of management being seen as normal part of working life, will make a reformed global financial system more durable, by giving knowledge and economic power to those with an interest in defending it. Financial engineering gives way to, well, to engineering, and other materially productive activities, since owners who are also workers and future pensioners will have little interest in accelerating the balance sheet by selling assets and loading up on debt.
Employee ownership ensures a more even distribution of wealth within companies and in the wider society. And, by offering workers an alternative, it forces companies that remain privately held to pay their employees better. Trade unions need to be given enhanced powers to ensure that workers are able to secure a greater share of the wealth that they, after all, create. They can also play an important role in balancing the inevitable asymmetries of information and expertise that exist between management and the bulk of the workforce.
Kim Stanley Robinson also lists a number of suggestions for pushing things in a pro-science and pro-ecological direction. Global Guerrillas also notes a list of ways to make the capitalist system more resilient (none of which will ever fly).
Scenario #5) Transitional Economy/Servant Capitalism
In this version of the future, the social pressures brought on by new technologies (as we transhumanists are familiar with discussing) will reform capitalism into incorporating more cooperative and eco-friendly elements. This is quite similar to Scenario #4, except that new technologies are the catalysts for change that really push things along (you didn’t think I was going to leave transhumanism out of this discussion, did you?). On a longer scale, this could perhaps be looked at as a transitional phase from current capitalism to the potentials of post-scarcity opened up by nanofabrication and other abundance technologies. Key factors here include increased digital networking and connectivity (bypassing information barriers and mixing cultures), the rise of open source and other challenges to copyright like creative commons, sousveillance (universal surveillance of all by all) and the participatory panopticon, minifacturing and RepRap models, roboticization and artificial intelligence, unlocking proprietary knowledge, and so on.
From After Capitalism:
To find insights into how the current crisis might connect to these longer-term trends we need to look not to Marx, Keynes or Hayek but to the work of Carlota Perez, a Venezuelan economist whose writings are attracting growing attention.
Perez is a scholar of the long-term patterns of technological change. In Perez’s account economic cycles begin with the emergence of new technologies and infrastructures that promise great wealth; these then fuel frenzies of speculative investment, with dramatic rises in stock and other prices. During these phases finance is in the ascendant and laissez faire policies become the norm. The booms are then followed by dramatic crashes, whether in 1797, 1847, 1893, 1929 or 2008. After these crashes, and periods of turmoil, the potential of the new technologies and infrastructures is eventually realised, but only once new institutions come into being which are better aligned with the characteristics of the new economy. Once that has happened, economies then go through surges of growth as well as social progress, like the belle époque or the postwar miracle.
Before the great depression the elements of a new economy and a new society were already available—and encouraged the speculative bubbles of the 1920s. But they were neither understood by the people in power, nor were they embedded in institutions. Then, during the 1930s, the economy transformed, in Perez’s words, from one based on “steel, heavy electrical equipment, great engineering works and heavy chemistry… into a mass production system catering to consumers and the massive defence markets. Radical demand management and income redistribution innovations had to be made, of which the directly economic role of the state is perhaps the most important.” What resulted was the rise of mass consumerism, and an economy supported by new infrastructures for electricity, roads and telecommunications. During the 1930s it wasn’t clear which institutional innovations would be most successful (fascism, communism and corporatism were all contenders), but after the second world war a new model of state regulated capitalism emerged characterised by suburbs and motorways, welfare states and macroeconomic management, which underpinned postwar growth.
Seen in this light the great depression was both a disaster and an accelerator of reform. It helped to usher in new economic and welfare policies in countries like New Zealand and Sweden that later became the mainstream across the developed world. In the US it led to banking reform, the New Deal and the GI Bill of Rights. In Britain depression, as much as war, led to the creation of the welfare state and the NHS.
One implication of Perez’s work, and of Joseph Schumpeter’s before her, is that some of the old has to be swept away before the new can find its most successful forms. Propping up failing industries is in this light a risky policy. Perez suggests that we may be on the verge of another great period of institutional innovation and experiment that will lead to new compromises between the claims of capital and the claims of society and of nature. In retrospect these periodic accommodations are as integral to capitalism as financial crises—indeed it’s only through crisis and institutional reform that capitalism adapts to a changing environment and rediscovers the moral compass that is so vital for markets to work well. The late 19th century accommodation came in response to fear of revolution and gave us state pensions, universal schooling, trade unions and universal suffrage, putting paid to the ideals of 19th-century liberalism. A second accommodation came 50 years later out of depression and war, and made variants of social and Christian democracy the norm in every rich country, pushing up states’ share of GDP and introducing visible hands to guide the markets’ invisible one.***
If another great accommodation is on its way, this one will be shaped by the triple pressures of ecology, globalisation and demographics. Forecasting in detail how these might play out is pointless and, as always, there are as many malign possibilities as benign ones, from revived militarism and autarchy to stigmatisation of minorities and accelerated ecological collapse. But the new technologies—from high speed networks to new energy systems, low carbon factories to open source software and genetic medicine—have a connecting theme: each potentially remakes capitalism more clearly as a servant rather than a master, whether in the world of money, work, everyday life or the state.
Scenario #6) Global Government/Social Democracy
Thanks to globalization, capitalism no longer has borders and the world’s various state economies are increasingly intertwined. At the same time, communications and travel technologies have broken down cultural barriers and barriers to information exchange like never before (arguably spurring Islam’s current war against Western modernism). In this model, the threat of a world-wide economic collapse spurs a coalition of nation states to install a set of new, more empowered, global regulatory bodies, replacing the UN and structures of the past with the framework for a new gloval government. Over time, as this institution becomes more adept at responding to an increasingly globalized world population, it accumulates powers and responsibilities, superceding nation states in relevance. While a One world Government has generally been consigned to libertarian conspiracy theories in the past, the current situation does make it a possibility more than ever before.
From After Capitalism
Capitalism’s crisis is, of course, a global one, and has shown up the limitations of the global institutions that took shape half a century ago. China is set to become a dominant player in a strengthened IMF and World Bank, followed by India and Brazil. The G20 is edging out the G8 as the club that matters. And waiting in the wings are possible new institutions to police and manage carbon, to handle everything from global migration to the regulation of biotechnology, alongside less formal institutions to help the world’s public to engage, from e-parliaments to global campaigning platforms like Awaaz, an online newspaper.
What a global social democracy is most likely to be about, of course, is serving as a sort of “collective capitalist” force.Don Hamerquist sums this one up nicely in a response on the Three-Way Fight blog:
This is where Global Social Democracy enters the scene. The general capitalist class interest in stability and order is undermined by competing requirements for achieving it in certain national economies. This cannot be resolved by some laissez faire process any more than any other of the current issues of political economy can. It requires a state intervention, but one that will incorporate concession as well as repression. Who will decide which squeaky wheels are to get the grease? Will it be the Greek students threatening to ignite the spirit of ’68, or the bedraggled autoworkers of Michigan? An EU response will go in one direction, an U.S response will go in another direction, but ultimately there is far too little flexibility to grease everything.
This is going to be approached by some kind of global social democracy designed to materially buttress capitalist hegemony at points of stress. The material side is quite straightforward, even if it is currently difficult to see what instrumentalities will make it work. There is a less obvious ideological side that I can see working, not by distributing benefits, but by presenting a posture of willingness to do so that is being obstructed by social forces operating out of narrow self interest. This, then, will constitute the mythical ‘good’ capitalism which the metropolitan left has traditionally supported in its benighted way as an alternative to presenting its own plan of revolutionary reconstruction.
Scenario #7) Resurgent Fascism
Lest we forget that this is not just a struggle between capitalism and a more egalitarian and horizontal society, we must acknowledge the possibility of a renewed fascism. Many of the original forms of fascism grew out of the economic crises that gripped the world in the 1920s and 30s, as angered proletarians sought scapegoats and change and were seduced by appeals to populism, nationalism, and authoritarianism. We are likely to see quite a few angry prole sin the years to come, and it is likely than many of them will be seduced by the extreme right. Navigating the Storm offers one framework for this kind of resurgent fascism could play out. We’ve already seen a growing fracture in the Republican Party in recent months as party leaders first scorned and tried to distance themselves from extreme ideologues in their movement like Rush Limbaugh, but were then forced to apologize and and make amends when their large reactionary and racist mass base erupted in response.
These scenario seeds are just a start. It would be nice to see some of them fleshed out in more detail, if anyone feels up to the task. These scenarios are not, of course, even mutually exclusive — one outcome could easily lead to another. Hopefully these will at least be in some use for radicals who are seeking to strategize about what our response to this crisis may be. Preparing for an economic collapse in the near future, for example, is going to require a much different orientation than settling in for a long, protracted death-ride of neoliberal capitalism over the next few decades and a subsequent transition to social capitalism. We can’t predict which way things will go, but we can choose the strategies and tactics that will serve us best no matter which of these outcomes (or something else entirely) come to pass.
November 7, 2008
Not sure who wrote this message below, but I found it on an anti-racist activist list. It matches a lot of my own thoughts, so I’m posting it in full.
Yes, We Can and No, He Can’t:
Why I Cannot Rejoice at Obama’s Victory
Words can scarcely express the way it feels to see an African-American elected President. For a member of a group that has been marginalized and oppressed throughout the entire history of this country to suddenly emerge in its highest office is a powerful image, one that reverberates with waves of emotion. It is a feeling of awe, of deliverance, and of triumph. Today, those who voted for this man — many themselves members of disenfranchised minorities — are feeling something else as well: the feeling of being powerful, a feeling being experienced by many of them for the first time in their lives.
At the same time, people of color, students, workers, immigrants, and others whose votes proved decisive in this election, comprise the majority of this country’s population. Among them, most perform functions without which the infrastructure of the United States would undergo immediate and total collapse. There is not a force in this country, nor in the world, that could stop them from achieving their objectives were they to band together. This is real power, and it is power that exists with or without Barack Obama.
There is a reason that the essential message of the Obama campaign has resonated with this electorate unlike any other. This message — that it is the struggling masses, rather than the self-appointed elites of this country, who bear the ultimate control over its destiny – rings true. But for too long, this control has been willingly surrendered.
Barack Obama wants the masses to feel powerful, to feel that our voices are heard and acted upon. But he wants us to place our ultimate faith not in ourselves, but in the institutions of the state, the very institutions that have brought us more than two centuries of war, exploitation, bigotry, colonialism, and an ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor. Doing so would allow our hopes and dreams for a brighter future to be blunted, deflected, and diverted through channels that reduce their potential threat to the established order to the barest minimum.
The election of Barack Obama will not stop the next innocent black man from being gunned down by police in cold blood. It will not make it more likely that a black man will go to college than to prison. It will not put an end to wars of economic conquest. It will not stop the wealthy CEOs responsible for the country’s financial collapse from being rewarded for their recklessness while the rest of us bear the tragic consequences. These phenomena are caused by the very structure, by the very foundations of American power itself. These are forces that Barack Obama is powerless to stop.
Throughout history, elites have sought to mute resistance and dissent by ruling subject populations through proxies drawn from their own ranks. These have included the caciques of colonial Latin America, the maharajas and nawabs of the British Raj in India, and arguably, the current government of Iraq. Such proxy rulers, while frequently motivated by power and material gain, have sometimes acted, as they have seen it, in furtherance of a different agenda: a genuine desire to improve the lives of their constituents by assuming limited control over the mechanisms of their own oppression. That such motivations did occasionally exist is illustrated by the example of Tupac Amaru II, an Incan cacique of colonial Peru who abandoned the trappings of limited rule as a proxy of the Spanish governor to ignite a massive indigenous uprising in 1780, ultimately paying with his life.
While the true motivations of Barack Obama may never be known with certainty, his impact upon the popular imagination, and in turn, upon social movements guided by that imagination, is obvious. The overwhelming majority of progressive-minded individuals and organizations in the United States, whose ranks had been swelled and momentum profoundly enhanced by eight years of repressive rule by the increasingly unpopular George W. Bush, have granted their unqualified support to Obama. This unprecedented level of emotional investment in presidential politics on the part of progressives has come at the expense of a declining interest in other programs of the left, such as activism in opposition to the Iraq war. Under the Obama administration, there is a very real danger that the proactive efforts of social justice movements to bring about real and lasting change – the kind that governments cannot and will not deliver – will all but grind to a halt.
Further, while the election of the first African-American to the presidency will undoubtedly bolster the self-esteem of people of color, consistently eroded by four centuries of oppression, this benefit comes at the risk of reinforcing the dangerous myth of an American meritocracy. The vast disparities of income, of access to essential services, and indeed, of access to the means to achieve social mobility, remain firmly in place. Obama’s election will even be used by some to argue that race has ceased to be an issue in this country, throwing up new barriers to the civil rights movement that is every bit as necessary today as it was in the 1960s.
Among the factors paving the way for Obama’s meteoric rise were the deep psychological need for most Americans to elect a candidate as nearly opposite George W. Bush as possible, and the fact that John McCain clearly represented a continuation of the same disastrous policies. Scholars will debate the exact combination of deciding factors for years to come, but most will agree that this was the first election in American history in which there was even a remote possibility that a black man could win the presidency.
Notably, much of Obama’s support has come from affluent whites. With a nation clamoring for change with increasing fervor, ruling class elites have found their dominance serious threatened for the first time since the 1960s. The old order could not ensure its long-term survival without presenting the public with the appearance of change. The more dramatic this apparent change, the more dissent would be quelled and the teeming masses pacified. The more new and different a face the ruling elite could present to the world, the more the energy of its opposition could be redirected through channels that leave the fundamental structures of an unjust system wholly intact. Utilization of such state-sanctioned avenues for voicing dissent results in mere token reforms which deceive the masses with the illusion of genuine progress. At this unique historical moment, nothing could better serve the long-term interests of the white ruling class elite than the election of a black man to the presidency. Willingly or not, Barack Obama has become the new face of the very system he claims to oppose.
For countless African-Americans, to see Obama elected is to possess, for the first time, the feeling that their country’s chief executive — despite being, like most other candidates past and present, an Ivy League-educated millionaire — can actually relate to their unique experience as a constituency that arrived here in chains, and for whom, four centuries later, true equality remains elusive. There is an underlying assumption that this shared experience will play a major role in the President’s forthcoming policy decisions, that as a black man, he would do everything in his power to finally end the ongoing systematic oppression of other African-Americans. For many of his non-black supporters, the implication is similar: that as a man who, by virtue of his skin color, is personally subject to the most longstanding and pervasive form of bigotry in this country, he will be inclined to not only seek justice for his own, but for all the marginalized people of the country. Supporters of all races likewise tend to assume that this benevolence will extend to the foreign sphere, despite many sharp indicators to the contrary. There will be no administration in American history of which progressives will be more forgiving.
As Condoleeza Rice demonstrated by publicly shopping for thousand-dollar-plus shoes while bodies were still floating in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, a shared experience is no guarantee of solidarity. Like Tupac Amaru II, we must recognize that no form of participation in a system that is explicitly designed to perpetuate social, political, and economic inequality can ever be an instrument for meaningful change. These institutions cannot be reformed from without or from within; they can only be constructed anew, with justice, equality, and direct democracy as their cornerstones. It was only a mass civil rights movement that opened the doors to the limited penetration of African-Americans into the ruling class and institutions of power in this country, and it will require another mass movement, even more powerful than the last, to fundamentally alter the dynamics of power for the betterment of all people.
Barack Obama is not the embodiment of our hopes and dreams. He is a man who, irrespective of his intentions, will serve only to present the same injustices to the world, at home and abroad, with a smiling new face. We cannot allow our new President and his administration, nor any other, to serve as the vehicle for our pursuit of justice, regardless of what breadcrumbs of justice they may deliver to us. We must not allow our righteous anger to be diverted through channels that leave the institutions of our oppression intact, and those who profit from it unaccountable. We must not relent in our struggle.
Barack Obama is right about one thing: Yes, we can. We can change this country, and we can change this world. This change will not be ushered in through the ballot box, and it will not come from superimposing a new face on the old order. It is time to stop celebrating, and start organizing. Barack Obama will not bring change for us; we must bring it for ourselves. Yes, we can.
February 13, 2008
Over at Open the Future, Jamais Cascio was recently talking about inevitable near-future events that have the capacity to radically transform our society:
You don’t have to believe in incipient singularities to recognize that 2028 — just twenty years from now — will bear very little resemblance to 2008.
A small cluster of rapidly-accelerating drivers promises to dominate the first quarter of this century. Each of these drivers, alone, has the potential to remake how we live; together, the likelihood of a fundamental transformation of our lives, our politics, our world, becomes over-determined. Moreover, these drivers are distinct but interdependent: each one exists and would be transformative on its own, but how it plays out — and the choices we’ll face when confronting it — will be contingent upon how the other drivers unfold. Twenty years isn’t a long time to make the needed changes to turn potential disaster into a new world; we have all of five US presidential terms — maximum — to completely transform, globally, every significant aspect of our material civilization.
The specific drivers he notes are:
- Climate Chaos
- Resource Collapse
- Catalytic Innovation (transformative technologies)
- Ubiquitous Transparency (surveillance state vs. sousveillance)
- New Models of Global Development
- The Rise of the Post-Hegemonic World (the weakening of American power)
As I’ve discussed in previous posts (see Will Robots Spark the Revolution?), the point behind anarcho-transhumanist projects shouldn’t be just to advocate and fight for open access to and liberatory uses of technology. One of our main priorities should be to evaluate futurist scenarios for transformative drivers like those mentioned above that have the capacity to not only shake up the world, but to create crisis points within capitalism — stages where capitalist hegemony is weakened and possibilities for revolutionary alternatives are increased. There is far too little discussion in anarchist scenarios about the future — and what is out there tends to be formulated as dire warnings of impending apocalypse or Big Brother scenarios. The primitivists, perhaps, discuss these matters, but only with a callous eye towards how they can exploit tragedy to achieve their fantasy tribal lifestyles.
What revolutionary-minded anarchists should be doing is evaluating these drivers noted above and creating a game plan. What outcomes are likely? How can we position ourselves to affect them, to strive towards outcomes we’d prefer? How can we take advantage of the weaknesses these changes will bring to the status quo? What political stances should we be making and clarifying now, in preparation for future ideological battles? What sort of movement infrastructure should we be seeking to establish, in order to create a counterpower best prepared to deal with these future scenarios? Where should we focus our organizing efforts? Our direct action?
Our movements spend far too much time trying to fight a monolithic capitalism system head-on right now, while glorifying the past, without realizing that both are going to have very little relevance on how the next 20-50 years play out. The world is going to be changing quite rapidly, and if we’re not prepared to deal with it, we’re going to have no chance in fighting for a better future. It’s adapt or die time. So let’s get to it.
May 25, 2007
Among the many books I have piled up awaiting read is Naseem Taleb’s The Black Swan but I thought I’d offer a quick note after hearing him speak on a radio talk show yesterday. The main point of the book seems to be that we don’t take into account anomalous events enough when making plans for the future. Taleb seems to mostly be talking about the predictive modeling that is used for the making of public and economic policy but his point is one that’s been stressed by social psychologists in the past: namely that we have a tendency to assume a base continuity to our lives, that things will continue to be much as they have been in the past.
Why does this matter for us? Well I’ve already talked to one friend who opined that since black swans are going to happen it’s pointless to try and learn anything from past events and we should embrace a sort of fatalistic nihilism. I find this sort of sentiment to be rather stupid and I’m fairly certain it’s not the point Taleb is trying to make.
While there will undoubtedly be more black swans to come, the important thing isn’t necessarily trying to predict them but, rather, to be in place to influence the response to them. Look at the American Neo-Conservative movement as an example. Without a doubt September 11th was a black swan event. While it was something a small group had warned about, it wasn’t considered a terribly likely event so it caught us unawares. That small group that had warned about it was instantly awarded credibility and given prime spots shouting nonsense on teevee and within the administration.
So what you ask?
May 1, 2007
Part of the anarcho-transhumanist project needs to be identifying crisis points. Capitalism periodically goes through episodes of upheaval, times when the contradictions inherent in capitalism become appallingly clear, the system breaks down, and the opportunities for class struggle and social change are elevated. Many of the technologies that transhumanists discuss — elevated lifespans, genetic modifications, molecular assemblers, etc. — are certain to spark some of these crises. If we want to see these technologies used for liberatory rather than oppressive purposes, we need to prepare to take advantage of these crisis points and attack while the capitalist system is weak.
So which of these accelerating technologies is going to wreak major havoc first? Life extension is likely to be slow development — aside from potential tensions over the rich having access to better healthcare first, we won’t truly feel the impact of longer lives until the elderly overload our social security infrastructure — if that happens. Widespread development/adoption of molecular assemblers is certain to shake things up, but that seems likely to be at least a few decades off.
Let’s look at robotics. This is a technology that is already becoming widespread, whether we’re talking Predator drones, heart surgery bots, or robotic nurses. As robotics become more widespread, we’re looking at a serious shift in how capitalism operates.
Over at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, Marshall Brain says:
I firmly believe that the rapid evolution of computer technology (as described in Robotic Nation) will bring us smart robots starting in a 2030 time frame. These robots will take over approximately 50% of the jobs in the U.S. economy over the course of just a decade or two. Something on the order of 50 million people will be unemployed. See Robotic Nation for details. The economy may adjust and invent new jobs for those 50 million unemployed workers, but it will not do so instantaneously. What we will have is a period of economic turmoil. All of those unemployed workers will be in a very bad spot. The economy as a whole will suffer from this turmoil and the downward economic spiral it causes. No one will benefit when this happens.
In the past, increases in productivity have meant higher wages and reduced hours for workers. Today, worker wages are stagnant. Most of the money from productivity improvements flows to the wealthy, creating a gigantic Concentration of wealth. Robots will turbocharge the concentration of wealth and leave tens of millions of workers in poverty.
Robotics are a potential powder keg of class conflict. It goes further than this, however — robots may also become a catalyst of state conflict. As the folks over at Communist Robot (who are capitalists-cum-technocrats, despite the name) put it, capitalist countries need to worry about socialist/communist countries beating them at their own game by successfully taking advantage of robotic workforces first:
A Capitalist economy is not fit for autonomous robot industrialization. A Communist economy however is perfectly suited for the implementation of a fully robotic workforce. In a Communist economy the government controls industry and wealth distribution to insure that everyone is afforded basic amenities. Communism exists as a response to the disproportionate wealth distribution of industrialized nations and functions better as an idealist philosophy than an actual economic system because it lacks the incentive of riches and glamour that compel development through Capitalism.
Robots will change all of this.
Robots topple the infrastructure of Capitalism by displacing its most valuable asset: the common worker.
Robots will empower Communist countries by lifting the burden of labor from their social structure and granting greater opportunities for education and scientific exploration.
It is of the utmost importance that Capitalist nations develop autonomous robots before a Communist country does because if a Communist country implements a fully autonomous workforce before Capitalism is ready for it, the Capitalist economy will be flooded with goods manufactured for free by the Communist nation. This surplus of extremely cheap goods will wash away the Capitalist financial system making its economy crumble to the ground. A Capitalist human labor force is no match for Communist robots.
Let’s not forget that we will increasingly see robots play a role in policing, border patrol, and military duties. After all, robots have the benefits of not being bribable, they don’t complain about long hours or work conditions, and they don’t stir up anti-war sentiments by coming home in flag-draped coffins. So not only will robots be taking our jobs, but they’ll be used to keep anyone who protests or rebels in line. This means that robots themselves will increasingly be seen as the problem — rather than capitalism.
But are robots the problem? Over at Phoenix Insurgent, we are warned that anarchists should oppose robotics:
As class war anarchists with a deep critique of technology, we should oppose robotics in general. It’s applications have already and surely will continue to parallel the class and bureaucratic structure of society, empowering the elite to make and remake the working class at will.
In another article, PI also warns:
No matter what use this tech finds, it will surely be a reflection of the narrow technocratic class that created it and the capitalist and political/bureaucratic class that funds, develops and deploys it. Such technologies, developed in that environment, cannot help but serve those masters. There is no way they can be used properly. Their flaws are in their development.
This argument is wrong for several reasons. While capitalists absolutely will use robotics to concentrate their wealth, this does not mean that in the long run robots won’t be advantageous to society. The reasons why should be obvious: robots can take on tasks that would be dangerous or tedious to humans, they can handle some tasks with more efficiency and less environmental impact than humans, and they could free up our lives for more creative, leisurely, and interesting endeavors. The solution to the problem of a robot taking over a wage slave’s job isn’t to get rid of the robot — it’s to get rid of wage slavery. We absolutely should take advantage of robotics to increase human happiness and prosperity — the question is how to use the conflict created by robots to help us get to a free society.
PI also makes the argument that, as a tool created by capitalists, robots can never have liberatory uses. This is the crux of the primitivist argument against technology — that it is never neutral, and is always tainted by the authoritarian structures that create it. They forget, however, that the street has its own uses for things. We are already seeing insurgent groups such as Hezbollah use drone attacks against Israel. What’s to prevent hacktivist guerrillas from using homemade, stolen, or hacked drones to disperse radical propaganda or facilitate clandestine communications? To make surgical strikes against police agencies or critical infrastructure systempunkts? To surveil, document, and broadcast police abuses and government crimes? To defend radical centers or even assassinate prominant politicians? Should drastic social change be achieved, why wouldn’t we make use of robots to improve our quality of life?
Let’s not lose sight of our goal: the radical transformation of society. The spread of robotics technology certainly has the possibility of making things worse and creating a crisis within capitalism. So let’s start preparing now for how we can take advantage of this — without being reactionary about it. Robots aren’t the enemy — the capitalists that use robots to exploit us are. Our aim should be to undermine capitalism and the use of robots to encourage inequalities — and to subvert such technologies for our own, emancipatory uses.