We Are The Monsters We've Been Waiting For
Our civilized world is nothing but a great masquerade. You encounter knights, parsons, soldiers, doctors, lawyers, priests, philosophers and a thousand more: but they are not what they appear - they are merely masks.... Usually, as I say, there is nothing but industrialists, businessmen and speculators concealed behind all these masks. - Schopenhauer
The Thing That Couldn't Die
Light for some time to come will have to be called darkness. - Nietzsche
They may be our Most Terrible Lizards, but they wouldn't be called the best and the brightest by even the hindmost fart-catcher in Abaddon's human centipede. They can turn blood into gold, playing Last Days' alchemists in the booming catastrophe and collapse sectors, but don't confuse the management of an habituated massacre with a meritocracy. They're the eschaton of open jaws at the close of the food chain, but for no other reason than a cold heart doesn't dwell upon the cruelty of its bite. We're the 99 and they're the One Percenters, and like the outlaw bikers who share the patch, they run the drugs and guns and kill for their club. They're the Killer Elite, but don't call them elite. No. Apparently, and with ironic perversity, that's me and my numerous tribe; over-educated beyond utility at the end of the Age of Useless Things.
And I mean that: the end of things. Capital has exhausted its first fuels, and now it's the creation of poverty, not of wealth, that makes the world go 'round. And naturally, when it's down to your own body, setting it alight before it's taken from you to stoke the engines of the Great Machine becomes the final impudence. Depending upon whether your nation is an appetizer or an entree on the globalists' menu, and how well the kitchen prepares its living parts, such an act may lead to revolution or a passing LULZ.It can go either way.
Over-educated, I mean that too. But it's not a sour boast after half a life being schooled for self-aware obsolescence. If you feel dumber for having watched Jersey Shore, then you too already know more than is good for you. America's public schools are made to fail on a budget comparable with the cost of air conditioning its imperial guard in Central Asia, with assets peeled off to private charters, and teachers discarded upon their broken unions. University, North America's new high school, is corporate funded and corporate branded and humanities' starved, with a deliberately crushing debt load upon students that corrals the choices of the less privileged towards machinery-sustaining, practical careers. The study of subjects that have not been sufficiently monetized and the accrual of empathetic knowledge are sniffed at as elitist pursuits, even as the student is financially wrecked by their mastery.
Terrible lizards. I don't really mean that. Not literally. Not yet. They might, after all, not be alien lizards in masquerade, but their ecocidal reptilian brains just happen to be terraforming a post-mammalian world best suited for the cold-blooded, and engineering a society denuded of human warmth, compassion and mindfulness. Lizards aren't what they were; lizards are what they're to be. This could be the prophetic consummation of transhumanism: the metaphor become flesh.
The Brain Eaters
"You know, we got ourselves into this. No one made us chew Chew-Z." - Philip K Dick, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
It occurred to me last year, when the Gulf of Mexico began coughing up its lungs courtesy of Deep Water Horizon, how it's one of the attenuated consolations of life in Evening's Empire that BP's sole, unmitigated success was to hold up a camera to the ocean's injury so we could all together view another viral FAIL video. I can haz desolation!
Because you know, this is what we're good at. I mean, this is all we can do now. And from lackadaisical blogger to Spectator-in-Chief ("I want to know whose ass to kick"), gazing upon from afar with approbation, from the Mississippi Delta to Fukushima and the next sideshow horror, is about as good as we get. And even then, not for long. Gulf seafood is contaminated but officially safe. Japanese school children are passing radioactive piss but it's not a concern unless they continue to eat radioactive produce and drink irradiated water. Half-waking observation, and the dialing down of our expectations of "normal," are for the most part the extent of our response, and we seem to have lost the means and the imagination to do anything but. Perhaps that's what the mass, deranged mind of the Internet has taken from us, by taking us into itself. And perhaps that's even why it exists.
In other words: if our wired brains are experiencing more read/write errors than the factory warranty led us to expect, I don't believe it's all down to depleted Serotonin and Aspartame. (Though, lest we forget, there is that, too.) We know well enough now, by study and experience, how the Web's interruption system impairs focus, and compounds the cognitive switching cost of our online distractions. It's the subject of Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains:
When we adapt to a new cultural phenomenon, including the use of a new medium, we end up with a different brain.... That means our online habits continue to reverberate in the workings of our brain cells even when we’re not at a computer. We’re exercising the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading and thinking deeply.
Whoa! Just a sec there, Joey Google. Maybe I can't live in your Cloud after all. Maybe we should rethink this entrainment of our brains towards trivia, while we can still meaningfully think. Maybe a Kindle isn't worth my kingdom of books. Maybe librarians aren't the enemy, and bookless libraries aren't actually good for children. Maybe literate adults should cease slow dancing with their tablets upon the grave of Johannes Gutenberg. But I don't see it happening.
Anyway, Carr again:
Last year, researchers at Stanford found signs that this shift may already be well under way. They gave a battery of cognitive tests to a group of heavy media multitaskers as well as a group of relatively light ones. They discovered that the heavy multitaskers were much more easily distracted, had significantly less control over their working memory, and were generally much less able to concentrate on a task. Intensive multitaskers are “suckers for irrelevancy,” says Clifford Nass, one professor who did the research. “Everything distracts them.” Merzenich offers an even bleaker assessment: As we multitask online, we are “training our brains to pay attention to the crap.”
Or let's try on Jean Baudrillard's words, from his 1985 essay "The Year 2000 Has Already Happened," and see if they fit us in 2011:
[E]ach cultural and factual set must be fragmented, disarticulated, in order to enter the circuits, each language must be resolved into 0/1, into binary terms, in order to circulate no longer in our memory, but in the memories, electronic and luminous, of computers.
Our culture digitized is no longer our culture, but that of our machines. Our machine culture replaces our own, imperfectly remembers us, and tells us to forget ourselves. Paradise to some. The future to all.
Steve Wozniak, a few weeks ago as I write this, said "we lost the battle to the machines long ago. We're going to become the pets, the dogs of the house." He said this optimistically. "Why are we going to need ourselves so much in the future? We're just going to have the easy life." Optimism and, if you can still stop and really think about it, a dash of madness.
"Once we have machines doing our high-level thinking," he continued, "there's so little need for ourselves and you can't ever undo it - you can never turn them off."
There's so little need for ourselves. Chew on that crazy for a moment, and then try digesting We're just going to have the easy life. What order of nonsense is he talking about here? How many do you imagine are included in Wozniak's "we"? If a dumb machine - "dumb" like the nematode parasite that turns its host ant into a berry-mimic to spread its kind in bird feces - if a parasitical technology could infect its host with thoughts to disarm its opposition, I imagine they would be thoughts like, "why are we going to need ourselves," "we're going to have the easy life," and "you can never turn them off."
My rewired brain has its benefits. It's helped me to make associate leaps with greater confidence, even if some times that confidence has been unwarranted. But outsourcing my working memory has come at a high cost. There's the atrophied recall and attenuated attention span, and I don't believe that's entirely attributable to age and enviro-toxins. If it's true, and I think it is, that I learned more reading one book at a time than trying to read all books at once, then I'm just a chump in the idiot's kingdom called The Information Age. I can blame whoever first flipped the switch on the unstoppable machines, but my mental decline by living better electronically is really nobody's fault but mine.
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms
"It is sweet to draw the world down with you when you are perishing." - Seneca, Medea
Anyway, what was I saying? Something about the Gulf.
Obama's best advice to Americans during that particular obscenity was that they should shop, swim and pray: one of those crystalline moments that said, yes, this President too is a Celebrity Apprentice to the Criminals Without Borders. Such a stand-up effort won't be forgotten when he leaves his office - an internship, really - and is initiated into Big Money, of which his presidency is merely a rite of passage: a pledge's gofer'ing for the inviolate fraternity of laundered capital. For Democratic presidents and Labour prime ministers, if they actually entered politics with even modest virtue and tepid vision for the public good, they have been richly rewarded for their abandonment. The sudden good fortunes of Clinton and Blair: this is what it profit a man. (By contrast, Jimmy Carter's post-presidency is perhaps an extended act of atonement to win back his soul.) Can there remain any doubt as to which career path Obama means to follow? Bill Clinton has earned more than $65 million dollars since leaving office for motivational "power within" speeches before business executives and similar peers who can afford him. Just imagine Obama's speeches. And his appearance fees. The American presidency is now just something that looks good on a resume, which can lead to a cash-for-life revenue stream.
And BP? Corporations in America may be persons under the law, but they're never persons of colour. If they were, so many would have been shot, hung, gassed or given the chair years ago.
There were many things Martin Luther had wrong. "Strong beer is the milk of the old" wasn't one of them. Another wasn't his revulsion at the Medieval Church's practice of selling indulgences: the tidy revenue stream of peddling Get out of Purgatory Free cards. A posthumous entitlement program for the wealthy dead, and an invitation to sin boldly for those who could afford it. (The poor, as ever, could pay only in the currency of their blood, sweat and souls.) Of course, this turned the teaching of Jesus of its head - rich man, eye of a needle, and all that - but no matter: the Church has made a custom of perp-walking its Christs in a parade of upside-down clowns for two millenia.
Luther's rejection of the selling of indulgences sparked the Reformation, but the practice hasn't stopped; it's merely been secularized. BP paid - or more accurately, promised to pay - an indulgence of $20 billion over four years to cover damages incurred by the sin of Deep Water Horizon. Not even enough to make 2010 a losing year for the company if the amount had been paid as a lump sum. In fact, its stock "surged" on the news that it had just bought its way out of purgatory on the cheap. "The fear was that the government was going to do something so drastic as to effectively push the company into bankruptcy," said oil and gas analyst Brian Gibbons. "Now they can come out of the meeting and say they have held BP accountable and hold up a $20 billion escrow account." That was last year. (Ancient history, and nobody studies history anymore.) This year, the company's bringing unabashed motherfucker back: BP now wants to stop payments based on future losses, saying "there is no basis to assume that claimants, with very limited exceptions, will incur a future loss related to the oil spill." BP points to returning tourists and the reopened federal fishing grounds, and points away from the fish so sickened by diseases and infections and environmental stresses that LSU Oceanographer Jim Cowan says, "I've never seen anything like this. At all. Ever."
And here's where the Medieval Church had it over on us. The rich could only buy their way out of Purgatory, not Hell. Purgatory was the place of temporal punishment, even if it were to last a million years. Hell was forever. And Hell for BP - break it up, bankruptcy, nationalization - was never a serious threat in an era of Too Big to Damn. Unlike, or God help me so it seems, the whole bloody natural world and its profitless life.
But what can you do, Mr President? You're only the titular head of a country that manufactures nothing anymore but weaponry, consent, and high fructose corn syrup. We'll miss our old world like we'll miss our old brains, but the longer it goes on, and the worse it gets, the more we'll become accustomed to it. Like the erasure of a hegemon's great cities to disasters natural and unnatural, its middle class, perhaps even its living memory of peacetime. That's the catastrophe of hope.
And don't think the Sadean few for whom the system works aren't loving the masochistic spectacle of good Democratic foot soldiers debasing themselves as New Deal Sonderkommando, immolating their Social Security on finance capitalism's pyre of a trillion dead presidents before freshening up with a whore's bath of Enjoy President Bachmann ooga booga. (Somehow, moving the goal posts never interfere with their end zone dance.) Maybe, when you're given the choice of Satan, or Satan's Little Helper, it's past time to crash the parties.
So it's the end of America, but it's not the end of the world. That's already happened. If by "world" we mean a viable, global civilization and hospitable biosphere, and if by "end" we mean the extinguishing of fruitful recourse, then we sped past that last resort way back in the Seventies. This may not yet be the final reel of Vanishing Point, but we're deep in the third act and going 90 miles an hour down a dead-end street. And our Dodge Challenger is nearly out of road.
Some call this vanishing point, the "Singularity."
Eyes Without a Face
"It makes me nervous," Emily whispered; she held a magazine on her lap but was unable to read. "It's so - unnatural."
"Hell," Hnatt said vigorously, "that's what it's not; it's an acceleration of the natural evolutionary process that's going on all the time anyway, only usually it's so slow we don't perceive it. I mean, look at our ancestors in caves ... they evolved to meet the Ice Age; we have to evolve to meet the Fire Age, just the opposite. So we need that chitinous-type skin, that rind and the altered metabolism that lets us sleep in midday and also the improved ventilation...." - The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
The tides of aborted dolphins. The acidification of our oceans and the jellification of its life. The neurotoxicants stunting our children's brains. The nanoparticles "unexpectedly" entering the food chain. The vanishing bees. The excellent chance we'll have pumped so much CO2 into the atmosphere by the end of this century that the planet will inexorably warm by 24 degrees, assuring a runaway greenhouse, and the recreation of conditions unseen here since the Hadean Era.
Peak oil, peak soil, peak water, peak food. (And if these play on your mind as at least abstract terrors, then congratulations: you too enjoy more leisure and learning than can possibly profit you at this time, in this culture.) Fondest, most desperate hopes aside, the exigencies of collapse are not calling forth the best behavior from those accustomed to bleeding every stone white. On the contrary, environmental policy, even the most egregiously half-assed, is the first out the window when "shared sacrifices" demand that the vested interests of capital defenistrate the public good. So the ground is fracked and the tap waters flame, and rather than saving what remains of the Amazon, we burn it into becoming the world's greatest emitter of methane.
Not a problem.
If the Singularity is near enough, then the transhumanists may yet have their abiotic rapture. And I'll hand it to them, there's a dark logic to it: perhaps the only way to successfully adapt to a murdered planet is to kill yourself.
"If you draw the timelines," said futurologist Ian Pearson, "realistically by 2050 we would expect to be able to download your mind into a machine, so when you die it's not a major career problem." Pearson is sometimes credited with the invention of that fouler of distinction between home and office, text messaging. And given how all the futurist fantasies of increased leisure time have panned out, no one should take comfort in the prospect that death itself need not encumber job performance. Even though pensionable age and benefits continue to be rolled back vindictively, there was always at least the promise of the peace of the grave.
And the dying planet? Those who would destroy it in order to save it are readying its zombie makeover with one word, or rather, prefix: nano.
"Emerging nanotechnology capabilities promise a profound impact on the environment," writes Ray Kurzweil in The Singularity Is Near. "This includes the creation of new manufacturing and processing technologies that will dramatically reduce undesirable emissions, as well as remediating the prior impact of industrial-age pollution." Kurzweil concedes there is the "downside" of introducing innumerable nano-particles, creating "new forms of toxins and other unanticipated interactions with the environment and life." But Singularitans embrace the risk because there's no other way forward. And they have to move forward, and not relinquish one victory of science over the natural world. After all, that's progress.
But before we disappear into simulation, let's get real. Technology won't revitalize the world that it is destroying, in part because the technology is controlled by the same sociopaths who profit by perpetrating the ruin. (Kurzweil himself has served on the Army Science Advisory Group, ASAG, helping to steer priorities for military research.) In other part because technology's end users - that's us, in the over-developed world - are made too comfortable by its benefits to act meaningfully to arrest its progression until everything is too far gone. And in last part because, should our most mad predatory bastards succeed - and if that seems unlikely, just think of how well things have worked out for them so far - they'll escape into their mesmerizing and seemingly superior upgrade. Only nostalgists would want to recreate the real thing, and Singularitans are not particularly prone to nostalgia. They won't be deploying nanotech to repair our global Titanic; they'll be piloting the Elect's anti-lifeboats into post-organic existence while the rest of us go down in steerage class. And by 2050 they may not need to travel all the way to Saturn orbit to skipper their yachts on methane seas.
That's a trip which bio-luddites - like the shaman cultivating plant wisdom; like too-comfortable me and, I suspect, virtually all my plugged-in peers - would never embark upon. Of course we needn't worry ourselves sick over how to decline the invitation: the greater, surviving bio-mass of our species will not be welcome on the voyage. (The other vanishing species? They can make their own ark.) But that’s no insurance against the harvesting of some valuable, stubborn minds to adorn their Cold Heaven. If, say, Shakespeare and Beethoven could have been uploaded to a stable format, forestalling their career-ending decomposition so they could remain contributing citizens of our culture, wouldn’t it be a crime against post-humanity to let them simply molder in the ground like "dumb matter"? Some futurists think so, and argue for the moral imperative of rescuing genius from the grave. In which case, in the event of compulsory resurrection, the only cause worth dying for may be the right to truly die.
And perhaps even Beethoven isn't safely dead yet. (Shakespeare, who can say?) Giulio Prisco, founder of the Order of Cosmic Engineers, which holds that the Singularity will offer credible substitutes for the promises of religion, writes, "I don't think resurrection is incompatible with our current knowledge of how the universe works":
Many rationalists have knee-jerk reactions when the idea of technological resurrection of the dead is mentioned. Perhaps they made a big effort to free themselves from religious superstition and are afraid of falling back into religion. But here we are talking about science and technology, not religion.
Sure we are. Sure we aren't.
The Singularity may be science, but it's unmistakably also mythology, as is evident from the ecstatic visions of Kurzweil, its preeminent mythologist. (Certainly Kurzweil is more than a mere mythologist, as there's no such thing as a mere mythology.) The "freeing of our thinking from the severe limitations of its biological form" is, according to Kurzweil, "an essentially spiritual quest." The Singularity’s chief apostle sees the universe "waking up" as it is saturated by our intelligence, expanding to fill it at a speed possibly exceeding that of light. ("It will achieve this by reorganizing matter and energy to provide an optimal level of computation to spread out from its origin on Earth.")
Significantly, Kurzweil makes the same moral sidestep of the European conquerors before him who dreamt smaller dreams of coveting mere continents, and presumes an unintelligent void that beckons us to civilize it and turn it to our utility. And since, in Kurzweil's estimation, the universe is silent of the noise of other civilizations and that we have not be contacted by other intelligences, then "it is likely (although not certain) that there are no such other civilizations":
In other words, we are in the lead. That's right, our humble civilization with its pickup trucks, fast food, and persistent conflicts (and computation!) is in the lead in terms of the creation of complexity and order in the universe.
Or, in other words, we need to pick up the Earthman's burden, and develop the universe, reformatting it to maximize its computational potential, until the transhuman mind is imprinted upon every star and nebula. And however it ends, or even if it ever does, will be up to Kurzweil's godlings. "The fate of the universe is a decision yet to be made," he writes in The Age of Spiritual Machines, "one which we will intelligently consider when the time is right."
But here we are talking about science and technology....
Even if Kurzweil has the future wrong, and the mysteries of consciousness continue to recede before the advance of technology, I'm afraid he has the present dangerously right. The Singularity Myth alarmingly justifies and sustains just about every wrong we are perpetrating upon the world right now, leading to its transcendent vision of a New Technopolis rising at the end of the Aeon of Biology. It's a promise bound to be held more desperately as the crises of biology deepens. And desperation for all, with opportunity for a privileged few, will mean a slaughterhouse for most.
In his paper “Religious Motifs in Technological Poshumanism,” Michael E Zimmerman writes:
For Singularity posthumans to be possible, many present and future humans might have to pay a very steep cost. In the name of a glorious posthuman future, one can imagine fanatical posthumanists justifying the extinction of mythic-Christian, post-Christian, and humanistic ideals such as individual liberty, self-realization, and outmoded personal and public morality…. If history is written by the victors, then the coming superhumans will surely find a way to justify the suffering involved in their origin, particularly given that those who suffered (that is, we humans) were not very evolved to begin with.
Since transhumanists are capable of recognizing the grave risks inherent to their God project - Kurzweil's "downside" of new toxins and unforeseen consequences - Zimmerman asks why they rush towards its culmination. “One answer,” he writes, “is that Earth’s biosphere is imperiled…. Technological posthumans would not be biologically based…thereby saving self-conscious life from extinction.”
And that seems to be the answer to so many questions, including those implied by the just smile and blow me sureties of our insatiable overclass. The Singularity may be near, but the end of our hospitable Earth is nearer, and all life forms requiring a temperate clime and low-toxic environment must rapidly adapt or die to our new and endless emergency. Unfortunately for us, the multiple maniacs driving the extinction are still crazy-rich, and are daily securing still more crazy for themselves. All we have are our overwhelming numbers, though as the crises inevitably crashes the population we may not even survive the century with that advantage. Our billions merely present the illusion of too big to fail. But the fact is, in the miserly new world, we're far too many to thrive.
At the Foresight Institute's 2002 "Brainstorming-Planning-Actionfest & Nanoschmoozathon," Leon Fuerth, former National Security Advisor to Al Gore, contended that "The majority of Americans will not simply sit still while some elite strips off their personalities and uploads themselves into their cyberspace paradise. They will have something to say about that. There will be vehement debate about that in this country."
First of all, has Fuerth paid attention to the state of vehement debate in his country?
Norway's terror attacks notoriously reminded Glenn Beck of Hitler. Not because mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik acted like a Nazi, but because his young victims were. ("Who does a camp for kids that's all about politics? Disturbing.") A supposedly transformative president normalizes the criminal perversions of his predecessor and appears to have the fight in him only to beat the legacy of FDR into an unrecognizable pulp. Do Americans have nothing to say about that? I know Fuerth spoke nearly a decade ago, but I remember 2002, and that wasn't a stellar year for policy debate and the public square either. Though of course, like so much else, it's only gotten worse since.
John Steinbeck accounted for the failure of socialism in America by the underclass regarding itself not as the exploited poor but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. Silly beggars. But they didn't come by that idea all by themselves. That's the conditioning of decades of political animal husbandry, and the dulling engorgement of mass instruction masquerading as entertainment.
The dimming of culture and diminution of the Western mind perpetuates society's preposterous illusions. If - oh, I dunno - Ted Williams, the homeless "golden throat" pitch-perfect for selling useless shit can make it (whatever that means, and however fleeting), then maybe we can go viral too. The truly accomplished, the acutely gifted, the deeply wise only prick the insecurities of the idiot class, and that's no way to keep the idiots useful, mollified and self-medicated. Especially since there are so many of them, and more every graduating cohort. A good thing, not coincidentally, for the monied few, who mean to separate the fools from their nickels and dimes. ("I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid," explained John Stuart Mill. "I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it.")
Meantime, futurists are imagining escape pods for our top predators, and already delivering on their military applications.
A reading from the Warrior-Prophet Kurzweil, from the scripture, The Singularity Is Near:
Although [ASAG] briefings, deliberations, and recommendations are confidential, I can share some overall technological directions that are being pursued by the army and all of the US armed forces. Dr John A Parmentola, director for research and laboratory management for the US Army and liason to the ASAG...describes the Future Combat System (FCS), now under development and scheduled to roll out during the second decade of this century, as "smaller, lighter, faster, more lethal, and smarter." Dramatic changes are planned for future war-fighting deployments and technology. Although details are likely to change, the army envisions deploying Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) of about 2,500 soldiers, unmanned robotic systems, and FCS equipment. A single BCT would represent about 3,500 "platforms," each with its own intelligent computational capabilities The BCT would have a common operating picture (COP) of the battlefield, which would be appropriately translated for it, with each soldier receiving information through a variety of means, including retinal (and other forms of "heads up") displays and, in the future, direct neural connection. ...
The US Joint Forces Command's Project Alpha (responsible for accelerating transformative ideas throughout the armed services) envisions a 2025 fighting force that "is largely robotic," incorporating tactical autonomous combatants (TACs) that "have some level of autonomy.... One innovative design being developed by NASA with military applications envisioned is in the form of a snake."
One of the programs contributing to the 2020 concept of self-organizing swarms of small robots is the Autonomous Intelligent Network and Systems (AINS) program of the Office of Naval Research, which envisions a drone army of unmanned, autonomous robots in the water, on the ground, and in the air. The swarms will have human commanders with decentralized command and control and what project head Allen Moshfegh calls an "impregnable Internet in the sky."
"In the final analysis," said John Kennedy in his American University commencement address, "our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."
So far. But Kennedy's final analysis may be invalidated sooner than we think. And what happens then, when asymmetrical warfare achieves its End State? Will it be everlasting peace, or endless conflict, when one combatant cannot be killed, or maybe even neither? The drone armies of Central Asia are a crude rendering of what's to come. The generals don't need the hollowed-out New Man of fascist steel. They just need the steel. And much worse is coming. Probably, worse is already here.
The future didn't go anywhere. it isn't even the future.
Attack of the Puppet People
Opening his eyes he saw a vast quantity of matter without limit; and he became arrogant, saying, "It is I who am God, and there is none other apart from me."
When he said this, he sinned against the entirety. And a voice came forth from above the realm of absolute power, saying, "You are mistaken, Samael" - which is, "god of the blind." - The Hypostasis of the Archons (a.k.a., "The Reality of the Rulers"), Nag Hammadi Library
Nearly ten years ago saw the publication of philosopher and transhumanist Nick Bostrom's paper, "Are You Living a Computer Simulation?" His conclusion: a strong maybe.
A technologically mature “posthuman” civilization would have enormous computing power. Based on this empirical fact, the simulation argument shows that at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage is very close to zero; (2) The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero; (3) The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one.
If (1) is true, then we will almost certainly go extinct before reaching posthumanity. If (2) is true, then there must be a strong convergence among the courses of advanced civilizations so that virtually none contains any relatively wealthy individuals who desire to run ancestor-simulations and are free to do so. If (3) is true, then we almost certainly live in a simulation. In the dark forest of our current ignorance, it seems sensible to apportion one’s credence roughly evenly between (1), (2), and (3).
So, as though we didn't already have enough good reason to soil ourselves in the 21st Century, let us add the existential dread that we could be living in a simulation, and the risk that it could be shutdown at any moment. Compared to a runaway greenhouse effect, perhaps a frivolous worry, but in the Bostrom-edited anthology Global Catastrophic Risks, cosmologist (and a another transhumanist) Milan Cirkovic writes that until Bostrom is refuted, "it would be intellectually dishonest to neglect to mention simulation-shutdown as a potential extinction mode."
To this potential crisis at least, Kurzweil offers an answer, in The Singularity Is Near:
It might appear that there's not a lot we could do to influence this. However, since we're the subject of the simulation, we do have the opportunity to shape what happens inside of it. The best way we could avoid being shut down would be to be interesting to the observers of the simulation. Assuming that someone is actually paying attention to the simulation, it's a fair assumption that it's less likely to be turned off when it's compelling than otherwise.
According to Kurzweil, the key to holding the interest of our hypothetical system operator most likely entails demonstrating exponential scientific growth. "Indeed, achieving a Singularity of exploding knowledge may be the very purpose of the simulation." Well now, he would say that.
And by the way: I can imagine that the cosmic hubris of Kurzweil and the transhumanists, who regard the Singularity as "an essentially spiritual quest" - albeit one with military applications - and mean to "play God" if only within the specimen jar of a simulation, would have been known and named as something other than a blessed vision by the Gnostics of Nag Hammadi. The God Kurzweil aspires to be, they would likely say, is actually Yaldabaoth, Sakloth, Samael: the Chief Archon, the blind fool, the arrogant adversary of the Pleroma.
From "The Apocryphon of John":
...the power in him, which he had taken from his mother [Sophia], produced in him the likeness of the cosmos. And when he saw the creation which surrounds him and the multitude of the angels around him which had come forth from him, he said to them, "I am a jealous God and there is no other God beside me." But by announcing this he indicated to the angels who attended him that there exists another God. For if there were no other one, of whom would he be jealous?
Kurzweil is perhaps not such a futurist as to pass unrecognizable to the ancients.
To John Lamb Lash, whose Not In His Image is more a re-imagining of Gnosticism for this late age than a systematic of Mystery School teaching:
- the Archons are not only mind parasites - delusional nodes in the human mind, considered as quasi-autonomous psychic entities, if you will - they are cosmic imposters, parasites who pose as gods. But they lack the primary divine factor of ennoia, "intentionality," "creative will." They cannot originate anything, the can only imitate, and they must effectuate their copycat activity with subterfuge and stealth, lest its true nature be detected.
Even if we place the question of Simulation and the fear of its shutdown on the back burner, that the race towards Singularity has spawned such existential dreads is perfectly apt, since a Singularitan playing God apes a parochial and delusional Demiurge who can create only the mimicry of a universe and the soulless facsimile of a creature. The message in the bottle of Kurzweil's cosmic imitation is We had better make this simulation interesting. But there are other answers that may make more sense than Kurzweil's idea of what would hold our sysop's interest. And some of them are nasty.
If a civilization has already achieved Singularity and boasts the computational power to run a simulation as complex as our reality - and N.B.: "Physicists Believe Our Universe Is One Big Hologram, And They May Have Spotted the Pixels" - then what would be served by running a simulation for the purpose of itself attaining Singularity? Wouldn't that involve a measure of been there, done that, and how interesting would that be? If interesting is the criteria, then the purpose could be nothing more than entertainment. What if, rather than running us in a program to conduct hard research, the sysop is instead playing an extraordinarily sophisticated game of Sims? (Or worse, World of Warcraft?) Sound crazy? Think of how much of our own technology and computing power is dedicated to amusing ourselves. Would that amount be likely to fall in a transhuman future of virtually limitless tech? A devilish idea, but if devilish is reasonably descriptive of our predicament then perhaps we need to examine all possibilities for how we got here. Given history's bloody futility, it could even be Okham's answer.
Though, having just written that, maybe it's better that we forget the whole thing.
Just my opinion. But if this is a simulation, and we're still here only because the syspop is closer to winning an XBOX achievement than we are of achieving the Singularity, then here is a knowledge which we may safely say is not power. There's no hope for us there, because there's no us there, and all things being equally futile, I'd rather remain an ignorant fiction than a self-aware sim. Because "You see, children, we're bits of programming for entertainment purposes only" probably isn't the best myth to live by.
But then, given how we've been living, and judging by the body counts both human and otherwise, the civilized West hasn't a good record of choosing the best myths. Neither Apocalyptic Dominionism ("Go forth and subdue the world before God destroys it"), nor the lesson from the legendary Great Hunter of conventional anthropology ("You're a bestial predator; go forth and fulfill your destiny"), are congruous bedrock upon which to construct a supremely interesting society, fit for both us and the viewing pleasure of our hypothesized, extraordinarily evolved sysop.
Five Million Years to Earth
Death needs time for what it kills to grow in - William S Burroughs
Let's begin with the system operator, and let's for once succumb to optimism. Because maybe we should hope for better than a mere amusement from an intelligence sophisticated enough to run the simulation which is our universe. And perhaps, for the sake of our own mental health, we really, really ought to. (If someone or something is playing us, it's probably best for us to believe that the civilization capable of doing so will also have evolved a comparable emotional intelligence. Or at least an emotional intelligence far surpassing our own.) In which case, the program may be more ambitious that our beating one another to death as we destroy the world itself. Because really, as we can see, where's the challenge in that? Maybe the simulation's purpose is actually to see us - not just humanity, but all life - fulfill a novel and exquisitely ethical condition.
And now let's forget about the sysop. Simulation is unverifiable - at least currently - and there's nothing to be done about it anyway - at least currently - so we should probably attend rather to the principle implied by the question of making an interesting simulation. Which is really about building a better myth for us to live by.
So if humanity has a plot, where was it along our way that we dropped it? When did This isn't the way it's supposed to be become our signature insight?
I don't want to be overly dramatic about it, but I think people more and more wonder, is this living, or are we just going through the motions? What's happening? Is everything being leached out of life? Is the whole texture and values and everything kind of draining away?
Zerzan continues: "If machines can be human, humans can be machines. The truly scary point is the narrowing of the distance between the two." The very point, that singularity, which transhumanists honour and hasten towards.
But it's not just our time that has seemed out of time; every generation raises up witnesses to its own wasting sickness. Add it up, and you have history. ("Defeat has been unconsciously the quest of all religions, all philosophies, and all sciences," writes Charles Fort in Lo! "If they were consciously trying to lose, they would be successes.")
For young Americans it may be the surrender of Hope and Change for more of the same, only worse. (Petronius, courtier to Nero, could have warned them: "Just as dumb creatures are snared by food, human beings would not be caught unless they had a nibble of hope.") For those a little older it may be the sense of reality out of joint engendered by 9/11, a stolen election or two, or any of several politically expedient murders. For an Ogoni of the Niger delta it may be the day Shell came to lay its pipeline or the one when the mercenaries first came for those who objected. An Aztec in a time of drought must have wondered why the rains wouldn't come - hadn't the priests sated Tlaloc with the tears and blood of children? Or the ruling classes of the early Roman Empire who, "vexed by fickleness and boredom and by the constant change of their designs," were rendered empty by their own hollow mastery of the world:
They strive to attain their wishes by every available means, instructing and compelling themselves to dishonest and difficult acts. And when their labour is without reward, it is the fruitless disgrace that tortures them - they are not grieved to have desired evil things but to have desired in vain. Then remorse for what they began lays hold of them, and the fear of beginning again, and thence creeps in the agitation of mind which can find no relief - because neither can they rule nor can they obey their desires. And then comes the hesitency of a life failing to clear a way for itself, and the dull wasting of a soul lying torpid amidst forsaken hopes.
We could go back further. So far that we leave history for prehistory, even leave humanity for proto-humanity, to find our great departure from the way we might feel it's supposed to be. And our guides should be those defeated religions, philosophies and sciences that have told us there is no other way.
We now know humans and chimpanzees shared a common ancestor less than four million years ago, or about 16 million years less than paleontologists believed as recently as the 1980s. That's ridiculously recent - more recent by millions of years than our common ancestors learned to walk upright (an adaption actually abandoned by the Great Apes) - but that's one messy implication of holding 99% of our DNA in common.
As problematic as that's been to natural scientists, it's been nothing but a boon to Social Darwinists, who are less scientists than rear-view projectionists "from the more cruel time of capitalist society." (Or so writes William Irwin Thompson in The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light.)
"Survival of the fittest" were Herbert Spencer's words, not Charles Darwin's, but the meanness of Spencer's philosophy was justified by his fallacy of drawing economic and political instruction from Darwin's study of the red tooth and claw of nature, including predation upon the weak and the rewarding of aggression with food and sex. Eliminating the weak, wrote Spencer in Social Statics, was "the whole effort of nature.... If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die." Let's call him drummer emeritus of the Tea Party's Ghost Dance at the end of America. In his introduction to Spencer's The Principles of Ethics, Libertarian academic Tibor R Machan explains that "what Spencer did for libertarianism is what Marx did for communism - provide it with what was to be a full-blown scientific justification, on the model of proper science prominent in his day." Without Spencer, Ayn Rand might be best known, if at all, as a pedantic hack with a pathological crush on serial killer William Hickman. ("A wonderful, free, light consciousness.... He does not understand, because he has no organ for understanding, the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people.") Without Spencer or Rand, John Stossel might be just another selfish prick talking shit to his drinking buddies, rather than "Americas favorite investigative reporter." ("We grow up learning that some things are just bad: child labor, ticket scalping, price gouging, kidney selling, blackmail, etc. But maybe they're not.") Without the easy victory of these sociopathic influences, we might merely be living in an oligarchy. As it is, welcome to the sociopatholigarchy.
That the warlike chimpanzee - an animal which might just as soon bite off your face as blow you a kiss if you look at one the wrong way - is considered our closest relation, both Spencer and America's post-American sideshow of Objectivist cruelty would seem to be vindicated. And if self-interest is the only law, and I got mine holds illimitable dominion over all, then maybe we should do our children a favour and stop teaching them to share and start instructing them to steal. Monkey see, monkey do.
But it's not true. In fact, the chimp isn't our only closest relative. There's one other, precisely as close to us, and that example may be more instructive to those still seeking a better myth to live by.
Since it has been found that chimpanzees sometimes raid their neighbors and brutally take their enemies' lives, these apes have edged closer to the warrior image that we have of ourselves. Like us, chimps wage violent battles over territory. Genetically speaking, however, our species is exactly close to another ape, the bonobo, which does nothing of the kind. Bonobos can be unfriendly to their neighbors, but soon after a confrontation has begun, females often rush to the other side to have sex with both males and other females. Since it is hard to have sex and wage war at the same time, the scene rapidly turns into a sort of picnic. It ends with adults from different groups grooming each other while the chldren play. Thus far, lethal aggression among bonobos is unheard of.
Bonobos were first catalogued by Western science in 1929, which is shockingly late for a large mammal. Even more surprising is the scant attention they have received since, despite our close relation, their shrinking numbers, and their matriarchal, egalitarian and orgiastic societies. (They're smart, too: "the bonobos...defied expectations by beating the group of chimpanzees in intelligence tests, because the chimps were too busy fighting among themselves for dominance.") We needn't romantisize them as the Great Ape Hope to believe bonobos have at least as much to teach us about ourselves as the over-familiar chimp. Perhaps more so if, as de Waal speculates, "the bonobo may have undergone less transformation than either humans or chimpanzees, and could most closely resemble our common ancestor."
Herbert Spencer could have made the chimpanzee Exhibit A in his case for Social Darwinism. But if the species had been known to naturalist and anarchist Peter Kropotkin, he might have called the bonobo as witness for the defense of his Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution: "The mutual-aid tendency in man has so remote an origin, and is so deeply interwoven with all the past evolution of the human race, that is has been maintained by mankind up to the present time, notwithstanding all vicissitudes of history."
And not just humanity. According to Kropotkin, who founded his research upon the fruits of his exploration of climatically-stressed Siberia,
As soon as we study animals -- not in laboratories and museums only, but in the forest and the prairie, in the steppe and the mountains -- we at once perceive that though there is an immense amount of warfare and extermination going on amidst various species, and especially amidst various classes of animals, there is, at the same time, as much, or perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defence amidst animals belonging to the same species or, at least, to the same society. Sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle.
Kropotkin was well-aware of the risks in the willful misuse of Darwin, and warned his readers against "the economists who know of natural science but a few words borrowed from second-hand vulgarizers," who "raised the 'pitiless' struggle for personal advantages to the height of a biological principle which man must submit to as well." On the contrary,
man is appealed to to be guided in his acts, not merely by love, which is always personal, or at the best tribal, but by the perception of his oneness with each human being. In the practice of mutual aid, which we can retrace to the earliest beginnings of evolution, we thus find the positive and undoubted origin of our ethical conceptions; and we can affirm that in the ethical progress of man, mutual support not mutual struggle -- has had the leading part. In its wide extension, even at the present time, we also see the best guarantee of a still loftier evolution of our race.
And in common with the bonobo, Kropotkin is today little known, little studied and representative of an endangered order.
Similarly, Elaine Morgan's Aquatic Ape Theory has been relegated to the margins of serious science for some 40 years, and yet it tells a compelling and fresh narrative of our hominization with a relevance lacking in the orthodox version of down from the trees and onto the savannah.
Morgan contends that when the heat waves of the Pliocene Period scorched Africa, erasing great swaths of forest, the apes who tried to make a home of the new, dry grasslands were wiped out by its larger and more numerous predators. There were a few, however, who escaped to the coasts, where the water provided shelter from the big cats who could not venture far without drowning.
It was this adaptive immersion, says Morgan, that made hairless bipeds of our ancestors (but for their exposed heads to shield them from the sun), and "the vestigial hairs that remain...are arranged quite differently from the hairs of the other primates.... The arrangement of the hairs follows precisely the lines that would be followed by the flow of water over a swimming body." (The Descent of Woman) Interestingly enough, the one sport at which women consistently surpass men in stamina is long-distance swimming. Interesting, because to Morgan it was the female who led the adaptive charge: her breasts swelling for the nursing baby (and not for the sexual excitement of the male); her hair lengthening, to which her helpless and slow-to-ween infant could better cling; and the enlargement of her buttocks and the forward migration of her vagina (a trait common to all mammals which have returned to water):
When she first took to a littoral life she had nothing in the way of padding. Her vagina was in the normal quadruped position, just under where her tail would have been if she had one; it was normal also in being exposed, flush with the surface for easy access.... But sitting on the beach was a very different matter [from sitting in trees]....
Once you begin to realize that practically all land mammals use the rear approach to sex, and practically all aquatic mammals use the frontal or ventro-ventral approach, then you are bound to suspect that the connection must be more than fortuitous.
Against Morgan's telling stand "the legend of the jungle heritage": the Tarzan-like character "who came down from the trees, saw a grassland teeming with game, picked up a weapon, and became a great hunter." This narrative, writes Morgan, "has taken root in man's mind as firmly as Genesis ever did."
Almost everything about us is held to have derived from this. If we walk erect is was because the Mighty Hunter had to stand tall to scan the distance for his prey. If we lived in caves it was because hunters need a base to come home to. If we learned to speak it was because hunters need to plan the next safari and boast about the last.
In place of orthodoxy's harsh grassland hunt, Morgan invites us rather to a Pliocene splashpad with the welcoming words "Come on in. The water's lovely."
But is it true? Did drought and predation drive our prehominid mothers into the coastal shallows and make humans of us? Is the convention wrong, and I'm not a son of the Great Hunter of the savannah after all? Is the matriarchal, egalitarian bonobo closer to us, and more instructive, than the brutal, mercurial chimpanzee? Is Kropotkin's mutual aid the greater truth of evolution rather than Spencer's survival of the fittest?
Maybe. Probably. I don't care. At this distance literalism, even factuality, may be as meaningless as for the seven days of creation. When we consider the manifold atrocities committed in the service of discarded and, to our understanding, manifestly fallacious mythologies, Is it true? seems neither a pressing nor even a necessary question to be asked by this particular species at this given moment. In the realm of myth, Is it true? is to miss the lessons of humanity's birth and death stories. And for good or ill, whether a story is true or not has no bearing upon the use to which we put it, and it's that utility we need now above all. So rather than Truth, let's have Creative Fiction: a new draft of the human story that can extricate us from the narrative dead-end into which we've written ourselves.
Nevertheless, our culture does bear the scars of that which was ripped from it long ago by civilizing violence, and we have seen our civilization act with similar cruelty - sometimes consciously and sometimes not, and yet always - upon indigenous cultures even to this day. History may, in part, be the erasure of prehistory: the suppression of a distant egalitarian and matriarchal heritage based upon the natural laws of collective aid and the survival of the most sociable. History may actually be jealous to keep that knowledge from us.
William Irwin Thompson writes, in The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light:
For hundreds of thousands of years the culture of women and women's mysteries had been the dominant ideology of humanity. The hominization of the primates in the shift from estrus was a feminine transformation. The rise of a lunar notation and the beginnings of an observed periodicy upon which all human knowledge is based was a feminine creation. Agriculture and the rise of sedentary villages and towns were feminine creations. But civilization and warfare were not; they spelled the end for the Great Mother.... So recent, so revolutionary is that struggle that to this day men have not forgotten, and the slightest stirring of the ancient mother can send them running for their swords and guns.
Thompson then quotes CS Lewis, who names, and owns, in Surprised by Joy our civilization's still anxious state of perpetual revolution:
...in the hive and the anthill we see fully realized the two things that some of us most dread for our own species - the dominance of the female and the dominance of the collective.
Crack in the World
"There was nothing left of Earth. They had leeched away the last atoms of its substance. It had nourished them, through the fierce moments of their inconceivable metamorphosis, as the food stored in a grain of wheat feeds the infant plant while it climbs towards the Sun." - Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood's End
Know what? I've come to believe that the human calamity will frustrate all understanding until we arrive at the conclusion that we are truly ruled by maniacs. Then everything else begins to fall into tragic place.
Because it gets worse. I'm not suggesting a gang of sociopaths have hijacked civilization and are making it bend in service of their desires. I'm saying that civilization itself is insane, and is bending us toward madness in order to feed it, even if it kills us.
The chief predicate of civilization - empire - is growth, which visits mad, bloody mad violence upon all that would impede its advance. In what's often called progress, though better called conquest, the movement of civilization is towards subjugating the natural realm and converting its life and riches to dead, base elements to fuel itself. Bound and determined to feast, madness calls to madness, and opportunistic, privileged sociopaths rise to maintain the consuming machinery of the sociopathologarchy, not sparing a thought to the consequences, other than perhaps a nod to bleeding hearts who want to make the machine sustainable.
To control creatures of conscience, a system without conscience needs to dull the capacity for empathy in the great mass of its unreflective subjects and provide crumbs of comfort for the balance. And so it sustains itself by exploiting our worst and our weakest attributes: desperate selfishness ("college kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago"), and desperate hope ("I didn't say change you can believe in tomorrow"). It diminishes attachments to the Earth, and creates euphemisms like oil and gas - poultry and pork - that foster alienation towards the objects of our consumption. Nevertheless, fossil fuel deposits remain giant graveyards, and we're still drowning in its undead biology.
"In what evolutionary terms," Morgan wonders in The Descent of Woman, "are we to explain the Marquis de Sade, and the subterranean echoes that his name evokes in so many human minds?" Foucault offered something of an explanation in his history of insanity, Madness and Civilization:
Sadism is not a name finally given to a practice as old as Eros: it is a massive cultural fact which appeared precisely at the end of the eighteenth century, and which constitutes one of the greatest conversions of Western imagination: unreason transformed into delirium of the heart, madness of desire, the insane dialogue of love and death in the limitless presumption of appetite.
To Foucault, Sade's totalitarian egoism and radical refusal of solidarity with others was a liberation from the prison of civilization. I would say instead that rather than a breach with civilization, Sade represents stark continuity with its own germane madness. "They wept. No one was moved": is this an extract from an Abu Ghraib interrogation report, or The 120 Days of Sodom?
The evolutionary terms of Sadism may be the evolution of a New Man: unnatural men: Machine Men with Machine Minds and Machine Hearts. The old Nazi project, in other words, but it's not just old Nazis anymore. (Headline: Rich "may evolve into separate species": "Advancements may lead to a divide between the classes and eventually could lead to the super-rich evolving into a different species entirely, leaving his not-so-rich counterpart behind.") Or as Hervé Kempf put it more succinctly, in his How The Rich Are Destroying The Earth, "Naive comrades, there are evil men on Earth."
Tricorned tea partiers may snap the safety off their loaded Bibles when they hear someone conflating "libertine" and "libertarian," suggesting they are at least as much the children of the Divine Marquis as of Paul Revere. And yet it's a doctrine of devils, acclaiming merciless ego and self-interest over solidarity and renunciation of excess. It's not by chance that, in this perhaps gravest economic crisis, and with historic cognitive dissonance, America's populist revolution is radically individualist rather than collectivist, championing the Survival of the Fittest rather than a philosophy of Mutual Aid, and preaches the upside-down Gospel of Social Darwinism while denying legitimacy to Darwin's actual teachings.
The Tea Party may be a sideshow, but its fun house mirror still reflects the pernicious, egoistic spirit of the age, even in science, especially in transhumanism. And perhaps spirit is more than metaphor here.
In his important trialogue with Terence McKenna and Ralph Abraham published as Chaos, Creativity and Cosmic Consciousness, Rupert Sheldrake wonders:
As in Goethe's Faust, the paradigmatic scientist sells his soul to the devil in return for unlimited knowledge and power. The guiding spirit of modern science, according to the Faust myth, is a satanic demon, a fallen angel called Mephistopheles.
How seriously do we need to take the idea that our whole society and civilization is under the possession of such a spirit, worshiped through money and power? Milton describes Mammon in Paradise Lost:
Even in heaven his looks and thoughts
Were always downward bent, admiring more
The riches of Heaven's pavement, trodden gold,
Than aught divine or holy else enjoyed
In vision beatific; by him first
Men also, and by his suggestion taught,
Ransacked the centre, and with impious hands
Rifled the bowels of their Mother Earth
For treasures better hid
This is an accurate description of our whole civilization. How much are fallen angels actually guiding and perverting the progress of science and technology? Is a great war between the good and evil angels being acted out on Earth? We hardly know how to think or talk about such possibilities since they are so alien to the official, standard models of Western history.
We hardly know how to think or talk, but if they have their spirit guides, than so must we, and we had better call upon them soon. (Or as Harry Perkins, Prime Minister of Great Britain and steelworker from Sheffield, tells Sir Percy Browne in A Very British Coup, "Remember, I have ancestors too.")
Yet we're told that we don't. We're taught nature is dumb, and supernature is dumber, and that neither want to nor can tell us anything like wisdom. We're instructed to envy the greedy, disdain the gentle and make it on our own - or not - even though caring for one another has always meant survival for the underclasses. Dumbed down and pauperized, the superfluous middle class has become the new poor, and the old poor is now the new disappeared. And before we know how the grey jelly in our skulls receives transmission from potential allies in nature and maybe behind nature - after we forgot to listen for them - we're crashing the receivers with microwaves, neurotoxins, and shortly with nanobots. We will have literally fucked ourselves in the head. Once that happens, perhaps our only hope will be that the bastards choke on our bones.
About 10 days ago Jack Layton, the federal leader of Canada's New Democratic Party, died suddenly of cancer. (Another occasion for me, and by far the saddest, to reflect upon how much the god of this world must truly hate the NDP.) On Layton's deathbed he composed a letter to Canadians - a "manifesto of social democracy," Stephen Lewis called it in his eulogy - that ended with the words, "My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world."
I loved the man, but...
As a political subject, I'm very susceptible to the hypnotic suggestion that nothing could possibly matter more than an NDP victory - you should have seen me during the last election, I was so cute - but I do know, once I snap out of it, that it's really too late for it to mean that much. Change by increment won't do it now, not when anger, fear and despair are valid and appropriate responses, and perhaps simply a demonstration of attention to this late time and place. Now, we need everything. In the 19th Century, a socialist who said such a thing would have been derisively called an Impossibilist by the reformers, who sought to work within the system for incremental change. (What became of them is today's Labour Party. How'd that work out?)
Stephen Coleman writes:
Like other terms of political abuse which have been absorbed into our political vocabulary, the term ‘impossibilism’ tells us as much or more about the labellers as it does about the idea being described.... The Possibilists regarded socialism as a progressive social process rather than an "all-at-once" end. Those who regarded capitalism and socialism as mutually exclusive systems and refused to budge from the revolutionary position of what has become known as ‘the maximum programme’ were labelled as impossibilists.
William Morris was one. "The palliatives over which many worthy people are busying themselves now are useless," he wrote, "because they are but unorganised partial revolts against a vast, wide-spreading, grasping organisation which will, with the unconscious instinct of a plant, meet every attempt at bettering the conditions of the people with an attack on a fresh side." If Morris was on to something then, I'd say he's right on top of it now. The vast, wide-spreading, grasping organisation has become the doom of the world, and it's not going to check itself. Who can stop it?
Let's not say it's impossible. Let's ask if it's necessary.