Monday, June 10, 2019

Nationalism And Political Ecology

     There are many lenses through which to view and assess political developments. Some aren’t employed nearly as often as seems appropriate.

     Political systems exist in a competitive ecology in which proximity plays an important role. The proximity of the European nation-states made competition among them intense and often violent. The distance between the United States and other nation-states, throughout most of its history, meant that it lacked serious national political competition. That made the internal competition of states and counties more important to its political evolution than it would otherwise have been.

     The suppression of internal competition by the U.S. federal government’s steady consolidation of power is a great part of why competition among the states is of dwindling importance. Various persons and interests have attempted the same sort of coup in Europe; the steady crumbling of the “European Union” suggests that they might yet fail. Yet the aims and maneuverings of ruling-class statists have not changed.

     In the Foreword to Freedom’s Scion, I wrote:

     Other prominent science fiction writers have delved into the possibilities of a society that’s resolved that there shall be no State. However, none of the ones with which I’m familiar address the sociodynamics of such a society: the forces that would shape its development, with special emphasis on those that would tend to tear it from its founding premise. For me, that’s the really fascinating thing about anarchism. You see, it’s been tried, with varying degrees of longevity and success, many times in the history of Man. Yet there are no anarchic societies left on Earth as I write this foreword.

     Well, except for one: the whole of the human race.

     The States of Earth exist in an anarchic relation to one another. Each has its own regional code of law, which might differ markedly from all the others. Despite several thrusts at the matter over the centuries, there is no “super-State” to enforce a uniform code of law over them all. More, they view one another as competitors in many different areas; their populations and institutions are often in sharp economic competition with one another. Thus, they are often at odds. They resolve important disputes among them through negotiation or warfare.

     Yet individuals manage to move among them with a fair degree of facility and (usually) little risk. Cross-border trade is commonplace, in some places torrential. Though wars are frequent, they seldom result in major alterations to the overall political pattern. The uber-anarchy of Terrestrial society exhibits more stability than one would expect from two hundred well armed, quarrelsome States, each of which perpetually schemes at snatching some advantage at another’s expense.

     I’m not the first to note this seeming paradox – or what follows it with a dreary predictability. In his book The Rape of the APE, Allan Sherman – yes, that Allan Sherman – wrote this about government, the “geejy bird:”

     Every government is a geejy bird.

     The geejy bird is a strange creature; it flies only once in its lifetime, but that flight is a spectacle to behold. The geejy bird appears suddenly, standing on a limb, young, elegant, proud, and respectable. Surveying the horizon, it spreads its majestic wings and swoops upward in a wide graceful curve, with magnificent wing flappings, and loud glory whoops. When it reaches maximum altitude, it begins its elegant descent, an ever narrowing spiral. It makes smaller and smaller circles in the sky until, suddenly and mysteriously, it vanishes through its own asshole.

     No one knows where geejy birds go—probably back where they came from. Unfortunately, when they go, they take us along. We are all subjects of one geejy bird or another; we are born and live and die during one of these mad flights. To be born early in the flight is, at least, exciting; the air sparkles with hopes and dreams, and there are worthwhile things to be done. To board the flight in the soaring stage is next best; there is a fresh wind and a feel of strong wings and a dizzying view of the world.

     But what about those of us who are born near the end of the flight? We can’t jump off; the fall would be fatal. In vain we scream, “Turn around, great geejy bird! Turn back in thy flight!” Too late. There is nothing to do but make the best of it. We snap to attention, salute, and begin to sing our stirring anthem. “God Bless Our Geejy Bird!” Together we bravely enter the turd tunnel to oblivion.

     Even the friendliest geejy birds share certain boorish instincts with the disgusting ones. The species is fundamentally predatory. Thus, over a 200-year period the American geejy bird slowly gobbled up all the power it could eat, until it began to look suspiciously like the Louis XIV geejy bird.

     Sometimes I get so mad at government, I could almost become an anarchist—but not quite. In my opinion, anarchy is nothing more than the embryo of government—an inadvertent way to hatch another geejy bird, and there are enough geejy birds already.

     Though crude, Sherman’s characterization has much in common with that of Eighteenth Century historian Alexander Fraser Tytler:

     The average of the world's great civilizations before they decline has been 200 years. These nations have progressed in this sequence:

From bondage to spiritual faith,
From spiritual faith to great courage,
From courage to liberty,
From liberty to abundance,
From abundance to selfishness,
From selfishness to complacency,
From complacency to apathy,
From apathy to dependency,
From dependency back again to bondage.

     That progression should look familiar, Gentle Reader. It’s what every First World nation on Earth has been going through for two centuries.

     Yet there are important differences between present-day conditions and the history down which Tytler had peered. The seminal ones are technological; their consequences have been political, economic, and sociological. In aggregate, they call into question whether the Tytlerian cycle might have been permanently undone – that is, whether the bondage into which we’re descending will allow us another run.

     Those of us with an interest in nanotechnology and what it portends have wondered, on and off, about its effects on political systems. The probable fecundity of nanotech is so high that it might put an effective end to “scarcity economics,” with proportionally great effects upon every aspect of politics and social organization. Several of the important writers on the subject think this a likely development, though I remain unconvinced. In his seminal work Engines of Creation, Eric Drexler speculates on some unpleasant possibilities:

     The state acts and people affect it, yet no one can claim to control it. In totalitarian states, the apparatus of power has a tradition, structure, and inner logic that leaves no one free, neither the rulers nor the ruled. Even kings had to act in ways limited by the traditions of monarchy and the practicalities of power, if they were to remain kings. States are not human, though they are made of humans.

     Despite this, history shows that change is possible, even change for the better. But changes always move from one semi-autonomous, inhuman system to another - equally inhuman but perhaps more humane. In our hope for improvements, we must not confuse states that wear a human face with states that have humane institutions.

     Describing states as quasi-organisms captures only one aspect of a complex reality, yet it suggests how they may evolve in response to the coming breakthroughs. The growth of government power, most spectacular in totalitarian countries, suggests one direction.

     States could become more like organisms by dominating their parts more completely. Using replicating assemblers, states could fill the human environment with miniature surveillance devices. Using an abundance of speech-understanding AI systems, they could listen to everyone without employing half the population as listeners. Using nanotechnology like that proposed for cell repair machines, they could cheaply tranquilize, lobotomize, or otherwise modify entire populations. This would simply extend an all too familiar pattern. The world already holds governments that spy, torture, and drug; advanced technology will merely extend the possibilities.

     But with advanced technology, states need not control people - they could instead simply discard people. Most people in most states, after all, function either as workers, larval workers, or worker-rearers, and most of these workers make, move, or grow things. A state with replicating assemblers would not need such work. What is more, advanced AI systems could replace engineers, scientists, administrators, and even leaders. The combination of nanotechnology and advanced AI will make possible intelligent, effective robots; with such robots, a state could prosper while discarding anyone, or even (in principle) everyone.

     The implications of this possibility depend on whether the state exists to serve the people, or the people exist to serve the state.

     Dr. Drexler poses this last dichotomy in an unprejudiced fashion. Yet it is historically demonstrable that the State, once formed, serves itself first and foremost. Those at the levers of power treat all other considerations as distant secondary priorities, at best. As Orwell put it, the object of power is power – and the State is an instrument of power.

     Never before in recorded history has any entity possessed an effective means for truly controlling human beings. Twentieth Century brainwashing techniques were never better than hit-or-miss. Psychotropic drugs have largely unpredictable effects, and thus are unsuited to a program of social control. Until today the best a totalitarian state could do, de facto, was to compel and prohibit by threat of punishment for noncompliance.

     But things could be changing. Nanotech, artificial intelligence, alloplasty, and drug design are making strides. Governments are seizing upon those tools and others for their own purposes – and those purposes cannot be assumed benign. We are advancing toward the possibility C. S. Lewis delineated in The Abolition of Man:

     Man's conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man's side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car.

     I am not yet considering whether the total result of such ambivalent victories is a good thing or a bad. I am only making clear what Man's conquest of Nature really means and especially that final stage in the conquest, which, perhaps, is not far off. The final stage is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself. Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man. The battle will then be won. We shall have `taken the thread of life out of the hand of Clotho' and be henceforth free to make our species whatever we wish it to be. The battle will indeed be won. But who, precisely, will have won it?

     For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please. In all ages, no doubt, nurture and instruction have, in some sense, attempted to exercise this power. But the situation to which we must look forward will be novel in two respects. In the first place, the power will be enormously increased. Hitherto the plans of educationalists have achieved very little of what they attempted and indeed, when we read them—how Plato would have every infant "a bastard nursed in a bureau", and Elyot would have the boy see no men before the age of seven and, after that, no women,1 and how Locke wants children to have leaky shoes and no turn for poetry—we may well thank the beneficent obstinacy of real mothers, real nurses, and (above all) real children for preserving the human race in such sanity as it still possesses. But the man-moulders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique: we shall get at last a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please.

     Feel free to shudder. I did.

     Political competition, the essential facet of the world political ecology, has been greatly weakened by the developments of the Post-World-War-II period. It would be even more dramatically affected by the developments imagined above. The State would cease to have much need for servants. It could comfortably dispense with the great majority of its subjects, as Dr. Drexler has speculated. But they who lust for power would be unsatisfied with a Mankind reduced to the masters of the State. Power requires someone over whom to exercise it; without subjects it’s pointless.

     The decay of the ideals that once animated First World nation-states, the ever more impeded ability of individuals and organizations to move among them, and the aforementioned technological developments have brought about an unprecedented condition. The incentives power-seekers face point them toward a new objective: absolute centralization: a single World State with no constitutional or practical limits on what it can do to its subjects. Competition of the sort that exists among nation-states would cease to exist, and with it the instabilities that torment their Rulers. Ruling Classes would coalesce into a single surviving State. One would either be one of its number, or a Serf.

     Were such a State to acquire the awful powers imagined by Drexler and Lewis, Mankind would thereafter be divided biologically into Rulers and Serfs. The Rulers would be fewer than the Serfs, of course. But the Serfs might not be many. Political competition would be reduced to an internal contest among the Rulers. Serfs would no longer be able to affect it, nor to alter their condition in any other way.

     How likely is any of this? The probability rises with each day that passes, as governments the world around tighten their grip on every aspect of human existence. Note how determined national potentates are to be counted among the Rulers of the largest possible polities; Britain’s Theresa May provides a glaring example. Note how such persons consistently oppose “nationalism:” the maintenance of regional sovereignties with individual characters and political arrangements. Their media handmaidens, all of whom aspire to become Rulers in their time, unanimously deplore and decry nationalist movements and their spokesmen.

     A new frontier must be opened if we are to avert such a calamity. There’s only one direction in which to look.


Linda Fox said...

Kurt Vonnegut wrote a chilling tale of redundant human beings in an automated world.


I've been musing - and plan on writing at length in a spec-fiction way - if that's been mastered already. I look at people who are THIS clueless:

And have to ask what could make a person be THIS blind, THIS oblivious to the damage being done...

Bear Claw Chris Lapp said...