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Jan 2, 2008

The Enlightenment Strikes Back

Posted by in categories: complex systems, futurism, geopolitics, lifeboat, nanotechnology, open access, sustainability

In a recent conversation on our discussion list, Ben Goertzel, a rising star in artificial intelligence theory, expressed skepticism that we could keep a “modern large-scale capitalist representative democracy cum welfare state cum corporate oligopoly” going for much longer.

Indeed, our complex civilization currently does seem to be under a lot of stress.

Lifeboat Foundation Scientific Advisory Board member and best-selling author David Brin’s reply was quite interesting.

David writes:

* THE UNLIKELINESS OF A POSITIVE SUM SOCIETY

Today’s “modern large-scale capitalist representative democracy cum welfare state cum corporate oligopoly” works largely because the systems envisioned by John Locke and Adam Smith have burgeoned fantastically, producing synergies in highly nonlinear ways that another prominent social philosopher — Karl Marx — never imagined. Ways that neither Marx nor the ruling castes of prior cultures even could imagine.

Through processes of competitive creativity and reciprocal accountability, the game long ago stopped being zero-sum (I can only win if you lose) and became prodigiously positive-sum. (We all win, though I’d still like to win a little more than you.) (See Robert Wright’s excellent book “Non-Zero”.)

Yes, if you read over the previous paragraph, I sound a lot like some of the boosters of FIBM or Faith In Blind Markets… among whom you’ll find the very same neocons and conspiratorial kleptocrats who I accuse of ruining markets! Is that a contradiction?

Not at all. Just as soviet commissars recited egalitarian nostrums, while relentlessly quashing freedom in the USSR, many of our own right-wing lords mouth “pro-enterprise” lip service, while doing everything they can to cheat and foil competitive markets. To kill the golden goose that gave them everything.

The problem is that our recent, synergistic system has always had to push uphill against a perilous slope of human nature. The Enlightenment is just a couple of centuries old. Feudalism/tribalism had uncountable millennia longer to work a selfish, predatory logic into our genes, our brains. We are all descended from insatiable men, who found countless excuses for cheating, expropriating the labor of others, or preserving their power against challenges from below. Not even the wisest of us can guarantee we’d be immune from temptation to abuse power, if we had it.

Some, like George Washington, have set a pretty good example. They recognize these backsliding trends in themselves, and collaborate in the establishment of institutions, designed to let accountability flow. Others perform lip-service, then go on to display every dismal trait that Karl Marx attributed to shortsighted bourgeois “exploiters.”

Indeed, it seems that every generation must face this ongoing battle, between those who “get” what Washington and many others aimed for — the positive-sum game — and rationalizers who are driven by our primitive, zero-sum drives. A great deal is at stake, at a deeper level that mere laws and constitutions. Moreover, if the human behavior traits described by Karl Marx ever do come roaring back, to take hold in big ways, then so might some of the social scenarios that he described.

* SHOULD WE — SERIOUSLY — HAVE A FRESH LOOK AT OLD KARL MARX?

Do you, as an educated 21st Century man or woman, know very much about the controversy that transfixed western civilization for close to a century and a half? A furious argument, sparked by a couple of dense books, written by a strange little bearded man? Or do you shrug off Marx as an historical oddity? Perhaps a cousin of Groucho?

Were our ancestors — both those who followed Marx and those who opposed him — stupid to have found him interesting or to have fretted over the scenarios he foretold?

I often refer to Marx as the greatest of all science fiction authors, because — while his long-range forecasts nearly all failed, and some of his premises (like the labor theory of value) were pure fantasy — he nevertheless shed heaps of new light and focused the attention of millions upon many basics of both economics and human nature. As a story-spinner, Marx laid down some “if this goes on” thought-experiments that seemed vividly plausible to people of his time, and for a century afterwards. People who weren’t stupid. People who were, in fact, far more intimate with the consequences of social stratification than we have been, in the latest, pampered generation.

As virtually the inventor of the term “capitalism,” Marx ought to be studied (and criticized) by anyone who wants to understand our way of life.

What’s been forgotten, since the fall of communism, is that the USSR’s ‘experiment’ was never even remotely “Marxism.” And, hence, we cannot simply watch “The Hunt For Red October” and then shrug off the entire set of mental and historical challenges. By my own estimate, he was only 50% a deluded loon — a pretty good ratio, actually. (I cannot prove that I’m any better!) The other half was brilliant (ask any economist) and still a powerful caution. Moreover, anyone who claims to be a thinker about our civilization should be able to argue which half was which.

Marx’s forecasts seem to have failed not because they were off-base in extrapolating the trends of 19th Century bourgeois capitalism. He extrapolated fine. But what he never imagined was that human beings might intelligently perceive, and act to alter those selfsame powerful trends! While living amid the Anglo Saxon Enlightenment, Marx never grasped its potential for self-criticism, reconfiguration and generating positive-sum alternatives.

A potential for changing or outgrowing patterns that he (Marx) considered locked, in stone.

Far from the image portrayed by simplistic FIBM cultists, we did not escape Marx’s scenarios through laissez-faire indolence. In fact, his forecasts failed — ironically — because people read and studied Karl Marx.

* HUMAN NATURE ALWAYS CONSPIRES AGAINST ENLIGHTENMENT

This much is basic. We are all descended from rapacious, insatiable cheaters and (far worse) rationalizers. Every generation of aristocrats (by whatever surface definition you use, from soviet nomenklatura, theocrats, or royalty to top CEOs) will come up with marvelous excuses for why they should be allowed to go back to oligarchic rule-by-cabal and “guided allocation of resources” (GAR), instead of allowing open competition/cooperation to put their high status under threat. Indeed, those who most stridently tout faith in blind markets are often among the worst addicts of GAR.

In particular, it is the most natural thing in the world for capital owners and GAR-masters to behave in the way that Karl Marx modeled. His forecast path of an ever-narrowing oligarchy — followed ultimately by revolution — had solid historical grounding and seemed well on its way to playing out.

What prevented it from happening — and the phenomenon that would have boggled poor old KM — was for large numbers of western elites and commonfolk to weigh alternatives, to see these natural human failure modes, and to act intelligently against them. He certainly never envisioned a smart society that would extend bourgeois rights and social mobility to the underclasses. Nor that societies might set up institutions that would break entirely from his model, by keeping things open, dynamic, competitive, and reciprocally accountable, allowing the nonlinear fecundity of markets and science and democracy to do their positive-sum thing.

In his contempt for human reasoning ability (except for his own), Marx neglected to consider that smart men and women would actually read his books and decide to remodel society, so that his scenario would not happen. So that revolution, when it came, would be gradual, ongoing, moderate, lawful, and generally non-confiscatory, especially since the positive sum game lets the whole pie grow, while giving bigger slices to all.

In fact, I think the last ninety years may be partly modeled according to how societies responded to the Marxian meme. First, in 1917, came the outrageously stupid Soviet experiment, which simply replaced Czarist monsters with another clade of oppressors, that mouthed different sanctimonious slogans. Then the fascist response, which was a deadly counter-fever, fostered by even more-stupid European elites. Things were looking pretty bleak.

* THE ENLIGHTENMENT STRIKES BACK

Only then this amazing thing that happened — especially in America — where a subset of wealthy people, like FDR, actually read Marx, saw the potential pathway into spirals of crude capital formation, monopolization, oppression and revolution… and decided to do something about it, by reforming the whole scenario away! By following Henry Ford’s maxim and giving all classes a stake — which also meant ceding them a genuine share of power. A profoundly difficult thing for human beings to do,

Those elites who called FDR a “traitor to his class” were fools. The smart ones knew that he saved their class, and enabled them to enjoy wealth in a society that would be vastly more successful, vibrant, fun, fair, stable, safe and fantastically more interesting.

I believe we can now see the recent attempted putsch by a neocon-kleptocrat aristocratic cabal in broad but simple and on-target context. We now have a generation of wealthy elites who (for the most part) have never read Marx! Who haven’t a clue how chillingly plausible his scenarios might be, if enlightenment systems did not provide an alternative to revolution. And who blithely assume that they are in no danger, whatsoever, of those scenarios ever playing out.

Shortsightedly free from any thought or worry about the thing that fretted other aristocracies — revolution — they feel no compunction or deterrence from trying to do the old/boring thing… giving in to the ancient habit… using influence and power to gather MORE influence and power at the expense of regular people, all with the aim of diminishing the threat of competition from below. And all without extrapolating where it all might lead, if insatiability should run its course.

What we would call “cheating,” they rationalize as preserving and enhancing a natural social order. Rule by those best suited for the high calling of rulership. Those born to it. Or Platonic philosopher kings. Or believers in the right set of incantations.

* REVENGE OF THE DARKSIDE LORDS

Whatever the rationalizations, it boils down to the same old pyramid that failed the test of governance in nearly 100% of previous civilizations, always and invariably stifling creativity while guiding societies to delusion and ruin. Of course, it also means a return to zero-sum logic, zero-sum economics, zero-sum leadership thinking, a quashing of nonlinear synergies… the death of the Enlightenment.

Mind you! I am describing only a fraction of today’s aristocracy of wealth or corporate power. I know half a dozen billionaires, personally, and I’d wager none of them are in on this klepto-raid thing! They are all lively, energetic, modernistic, competitive and fizzing with enthusiasm for a progressive, dynamic civilization. A civilization that’s (after all) been very good to them.

They may not have read Marx (in this generation, who has?) But self-made guys like Bezos and Musk and Page etc share the basic values of an Enlightenment. One in which some child from a poor family may out-compete overprivileged children of the rich, by delivering better goods, innovations or services. And if that means their own privileged kids will also have to work hard and innovate? That’s fine by them! Terrific.

When the chips come down, these better billionaires may wind up on our side, weighing the balance and perceiving that their enlightened, long range self-interest lies with us. With the positive-sum society. Just the way FDR and his smart-elite friends did, in the 1930s… while the dumber half of the aristocracy muttered and fumed.

We can hope that the better-rich will make this choice, when the time comes. But till then, the goodguy (or, at least with-it) billionaires are distracted, busy doing cool things, while the more old-fashioned kind — our would-be lords — are clustering together in tight circles, obeying 4,000 years of ingrained instinct, whispering and pulling strings, appointing each other to directorships, awarding unearned golden parachutes, conniving for sweetheart deals, and meddling in national policy…

…doing the same boring thing that human beings will always do — what you and I would be tempted to do — whenever you mix un-curbed ego with unaccountable privilege, plus a deficit of brains.

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  • Jef Benner on January 4, 2008 1:56 pm

    Brilliant essay.

    What kind of public policy best suits curbing the rapacious instincts of the elites? That is not an easy question.

  • Jef Benner on January 4, 2008 2:07 pm

    Or rather, the question is easily asked — finding answers is difficult.