Editorial: (2) Technology — the Radio and the Clone

Editorial: (2) 

Technology–the Radio and the Clone

Technology, by its nature, leaves what we say behind. It is difficult now to tune in to some of what Heidegger says about it. For example, denouncing the effects of Nazi policy on rural Germany:

“People preach about ‘Blood and Soil’, and they carry on urbanisation and destruction of the village and the family farm on a scale that a short time ago no one would have imagined… ‘The countryman’, who once walked the fields; and the nutrition industry worker, well provided with radio and cinema, who has to do with ‘tractors’ and his ‘motorbike’. The fight against ‘urbanisation’ is senseless when already the country is more ‘urban’ than the town” (XI, 1; XIV, 84).

What’s all that about? Why shouldn’t a farmworker have his radio and go to the pictures on his motorbike?

In 2014 that question can’t really be discussed. It’s a pre-television, pre-combined harvester, pre-baler, pre-milking machine sort of question. Definitely it’s pre-electricity, bringing with it the smell and flicker of oil lamps and lanterns and oldtime ranges. It comes from a time when some people still thought that the world should have places in it that were not urbanised.

In the 1920s and 1930s any number of gifted writers racked their brains for solutions to problems that we now know were insoluble. For example, rural depopulation, death of the peasantry, flight from the land. This problem was as old as the industrial revolutions and it grew as industry grew. More recently there had been a response in modern politics, including in the young labour movement. (I remember hearing that even at the time of the Great Depression Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour Prime Minister of Britain, declared that a “Back to the Land” movement would have to be part of the solution.)

By the late 1930s, however, those who wanted to save rural Europe were pessimistic. The German situation was depressing. Though it was Nazi Party policy to save the German countryside, the flight from the land continued apace under the Nazis, and the government with all its powers was forced to admit that it had no idea how to stop the exodus. There’s more than a whiff of pessimism, I think, in Article 45, 2, v of the Irish Constitution of 1937: “The state shall… direct its policy towards securing… that there may be established on the land in economic security as many families as in the circumstances shall be practicable.”

Simone Weil, writing in 1940, had this to say:  “It is obvious that a depopulation of the countryside leads, finally, to social death. We can say it will not reach that point. But still, we don’t know that it won’t. So far, there seems to be nothing which is likely to arrest it.” (The Need for Roots, 1987, p. 78.)

What did she mean by “social death”? – I think people like Weil and Heidegger believed that society needed to have roots where everything else that grew had its roots: in the land. There needed to be communities living on the land and spiritually framed by the land, and not bound up with the artificial life of towns.

Still, wherever you lived the town would come looking for you, offering its gifts. The motorcycle made regular trips to town easier. Motorised farm machines came between the farmworker and the land. The cinema showed him urban visions, and the radio tuned him in daily to urban thinking. All of this undermined the morale of the rural community as such.

“The inferiority complex in the countryside is such that you see peasant millionaires who find it natural to be treated by retired petit bourgeois with the sort of arrogance shown by colonials towards natives. An inferiority complex has to be very great for money not to be able to wipe it out,” Simone Weil said.

Weil and Heidegger knew that their ideas were being challenged. Missionaries were at work all over Europe, preaching that everything had to be urbanised. Foremost among them, of course, were the Bolsheviks. But though Bolshevism was the most vocal, it was not the most effective. As Heidegger pointed out elsewhere, it was in England that modernity first developed, and England was also a pioneer in producing attitudes of mind for accepting what modernity brought. English culture was better at bringing people to a satisfied feeling of progressing while holding the line, as compared with crude Bolshevism, which left raw nerves everywhere. This is what Heidegger means by saying that “the bourgeois-christian form of English ‘Bolshevism’ is the most dangerous” – a statement which Jürgen Kaube quotes mockingly, as if it were transparently absurd.

Francis Bacon, the great English philosopher, the genius who foresaw technological society centuries before it happened, was already very plausible and reassuring. He encourages us not to be afraid of a society based on experimental science. Always, whenever we need to, we will be able to hold the line. (For example, religion will not be abandoned.)

I’m not certain of this, but I think we cannot accuse Bacon of promising we could hold on to country life. His model society, the New Atlantis, seems to be urbanised through and through. The New Atlantis is a hyper-technologised island where “we have… we have… we have… we have…” I would say that modern capitalist society can be described as the ongoing quest for the New Atlantis, as yet not attained.

Anyhow, since World War II we have entered the age of urban totalitarianism. Europe is thoroughly urbanised across its length and breadth. There are fewer people in rural parts, but that doesn’t matter because there are more, bigger, better machines and a lot more food is produced. And where Europe has led, the world is following. Everywhere will be urbanised, though people continue to stream from an urbanised countryside into the urban spaces proper. We now have a world where most people live in the larger towns and cities.

Along with this breakneck urbanisation, world population has rocketed. It’s not long since the death of a man who devoted his life to showing the West what it was destroying: Claude Levi-Strauss. In his last interview he remarked that in 1908, when he was born, there were one or one and a half billion people in the world. As he neared the age of 100, the figure was over six billion. Since then it’s gone over 7 billion. And these billions are involved in a world system which depends on the principle that, if everyone chases the New Atlantis, everything’s going to work out. (Statistics can be provided to show that the situation is good. The indicators are improving.)

* * *

Since the pace of technological change has not actually slackened, it might be interesting to ask if there are issues of the present day that may be equivalents of ‘rural depopulation’. Let us see if there are people in the culture business taking some sort of a stand on a major issue, trying to hold the line.

Two such people came forward in the early years of our present century. Both are champions, to my mind, of the global quest for the New Atlantis: that’s certainly true of one of them and I think it’s not unfair to the other. In 2001-2 they produced books trying to hold the line on genetic engineering. They are Jürgen Habermas and Francis Fukujama.

The Future of Human Nature – Towards a Liberal Eugenics? was published in German in 2001. Habermas argued that human cloning should be banned and that genetic engineering of humans should be permitted only on therapeutic grounds (avoiding some disease or disability) but not for enhancement (conferring some positive advantage). His argument for banning enhancement centred on the sense of moral autonomy of the engineered person. Such a person might feel that he had been determined to such a degree by his parent/planner that he didn’t have meaningful control in his own life. But this would undermine liberal democracy, which can function only if its citizens feel they are free subjects.

Habermas took his argument to the United States and tried it on the liberal academic philosophers (Dworkin, Nagel, McCarthy etc.). But he found that, with their “Lockean” formation, they didn’t know what he was talking about. They couldn’t see why the genetically planned person should feel less free than anyone else. Besides, parents had a right to confer any advantages they saw fit on their children, and that was that.

A year later Fukujama argued for the same practical proposals, but a lot more forcefully. Our Posthuman Future – Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, London 2003 (PF henceforward) is a thought-provoking book. Fukujama has nerve. At the moment when the East European regimes collapsed in 1989, he put in what was nothing less than a takeover bid for the European ideology of progress (The End of History and the Last Man). On behalf of Anglo-American liberal capitalism he claimed total victory in the war of systems. Game over, “Americanism” was going to be universal! After this there might still be wars and regime changes, but actual history was over.

Later he said that of all the counter-arguments put forward, “it seemed to me that the only one that was not possible to refute was the argument that there could be no end of history unless there was an end of science”. So he decided to check out the historic potential of the dynamic new biotechnology.

Like Habermas, Fukujama argues for a ban on human cloning and also on human genetic engineering for enhancement purposes, though permitting it on therapeutic grounds. But he finds himself at a serious disadvantage. It is hard to argue that the intimate construction of the human being, inaccessible until now, is something that everyone, parents included, should be wary of and step back from, if you don’t believe that there’s something quite unique about humans, that they have some essential human nature. But this is not at all the opinion of most scientists, or even of most philosophers. It used to be, but it isn’t now.

The great break came with Immanuel Kant, who made morality independent of nature. “A number of observers have pointed out the similarities between Kantian ethics and the view of human nature embodied in Protestantism, which holds that the latter is irredeemably sinful and that moral behaviour requires rising above or suppressing our natural desires in toto. Aristotle and the medieval Thomistic tradition argued that virtue built upon and extended what nature provided us, and that there was no necessary conflict between what was naturally pleasurable and what was right. In Kantian ethics, we see the beginnings of the view that the good is a matter of the will overcoming nature” (PF p. 119)

A good deal of western philosophy has followed Kant’s lead on this. One long-term result is the explosion of “the rights industry” in the USA over the past generation. It’s not hard to manufacture a right if you really want to, or an obliging academic can do it on your behalf. “Ronald Dworkin, for his part, proposes what amounts to a right to genetically engineer people, not so much on the part of parents but of scientists” (p. 107).

Fukujama thinks that “there is a desperate need for philosophy to return to the pre-Kantian tradition that grounds rights and morality in nature” (p. 112). He says, almost in so many words: the need is desperate because the scientists, who do not believe that there’s any essential human nature, are on the verge of treating human beings as just another product, something you can design and build. And to back them up they have “legions of bioethicists and casual academic Darwinians” (PF p. 160). – The bioethicists are a relatively new service in the culture business. Their function seems to be to find justifications in ethical terms for whatever the scientists are doing or might want to do.

Since no one else (apparently) has been making the case for an essential human nature, Fukujama makes out his own. Among other things he says: it’s so natural to think of human nature when talking about rights or ethics that even these post-post-Kantians can’t avoid smuggling human nature assumptions into what they’re saying.

An important part of human nature, as Fukujama sees it, is the capacity to have a whole gamut of emotions in experience. It follows that if someone is programmed to be happy, unstressed, optimistic or whatever irrespective of circumstances, experience will be impoverished and the person’s humanity will be deformed. But aren’t Americans doing that already in large numbers?

“The widespread and rapidly growing use of drugs like Ritalin and Prozac demonstrates just how eager we are to make use of technology to alter ourselves. If one of the key constituents of our nature, something on which we base our notions of dignity, has to do with the gamut of normal emotions shared by human beings, then we are already trying to narrow the range for the utilitarian ends of health and convenience.” (p.173). And there will be much more of the same. Anything that genetic engineering will be able to do in the long term, neuropharmacology will probably be able to do much sooner – though of course, not as far-reachingly.

As for the social effects of unrestrained biotechnology, Fukujama thinks Nietzsche is a good guide to what may lie before us if we go down the posthuman road. Hierarchies may reform. There may be a new Superclass which will treat the others more or less as slaves. But equally the result may be a more egalitarian society than ever before. We simply cannot tell.

Coming to the end of this absorbing book, Fukujama seems to recognise the strength of the forces ranged against him – interests which, in pursuit of progress and improvement, would want to go beyond humanity.

“Despite the poor repute in which concepts like natural rights are held by academic philosophers, much of our political world rests on the existence of a stable human “essence” with which we are endowed by nature, or rather, on the fact that we believe such an essence exists.

We may be about to enter a posthuman future, in which technology will give us the capacity gradually to alter that essence over time. Many embrace this power, under the banner of human freedom. They want to maximize the freedom of parents to choose the kind of children they have, the freedom of scientists to produce research, and the freedom of entrepreneurs to make use of technology to create wealth.” (PF p. 217)

But this new kind of freedom will be different essentially from all freedoms known before. The older freedoms were in accordance with human nature. This included political freedom, which gave us “the freedom to pursue those ends that our natures had established”. These ends are not tightly determined, but they nonetheless do have limits, limits set by the constant elements of human nature themselves.

“Human nature is very plastic, and we have an enormous range of choices conformable with that nature. But it is not infinitely malleable, and the elements that remain constant – particularly our species-typical gamut of emotional responses – constitute a safe harbour that allows us to connect, potentially, with all other human beings.

It may be that we are somehow destined to take up this new kind of freedom, or that the next stage of evolution is one in which, as some have suggested, we will deliberately take charge of our own biological makeup rather than leaving it to the blind forces of natural selection. But if we do, we should do it with eyes open” (PF p. 218). We should know that posthuman life might be squalid horror.

Two things particularly strike me about this book. The first is that Fukujama’s reasonable idea of a human nature that experiences an adventure of life, meeting it with emotional responses that have an integral element of shock – this notion of human nature, taken in earnest, would require that genetic engineers should be kept away from humans entirely. They should not be allowed to make interventions on therapeutic grounds, any more than for reasons of enhancement (assuming this distinction would hold up in contemporary law). But this man of the American mainstream does not feel he can face his constituency making an argument like that.

Secondly, there’s an air of helplessness that, willy-nilly, enters those final passages of a book that is very much “up for a fight”. Professor Fukujama, challenging the American parent’s right to make his offspring look like a Californian beach boy, does not really feel on firmer ground than Professor Heidegger denouncing the effects of the radio in rural Germany. The American Frankensteins have the wind in their sails, and he knows it.

* * *

In the only piece of writing from Gaelic Ireland that seems to be a comment on Baconism – Pairlement Chloinne Tomáis, written in Lord Bacon’s time by Muiris Mac Dáibhí Duibh Mac Gearailt – the prediction is that it will end in squalid chaos. More common, however, among the Gaels was a fastidious refusal to let the mind be bothered about such things at all. One should be content to do whatever good things could still be done (like making poems) and wait patiently for the chance to reestablish a way of life that would reconnect with the traditions of Ireland. In the Gaels’ opinion, it would seem that the best way to solve those problems which the Baconians and their modern-world critics were wrestling with in the 1630s and 1730s and 1830s and 1930s, was not to have those problems in the first place. (I consider that this long-protracted Irish spiritual resistance is of immense value to the world, and its history ought to be known.)

Something of these attitudes was smuggled even into the culture of the 20th century Irish independence movement. I can’t remember now where I saw Tadhg Ó Donnchadha (a literary historian and translator of German poetry, of no small merit) considering the idea of a return to Gaelic Ireland: “Going back? I think most people would be glad to go back, if they could!” – But of course, this is a thought-crime. From Ireland to Slovakia, wherever and whenever I have voiced some critical comments on what technology is doing to the world, I’ve been liable to hear those words, “You can’t go back!” – pronounced with true solemnity, with the conviction that announces a central article of faith.

Very well, you can’t go back, unless you are back. There won’t be much point trying to make the posthumans human again. We can’t go back, but… could we possibly go… sideways? (This is the issue in Alexander Dugin’s Fourth Political Theory, reviewed in this issue by Peter Brooke. It is depressing to find that a man who has written excellently about the inherent racism of the cult of progress and, among other things, how it degrades the generations of the dead – it is depressing to find that this writer seems to have a lasting attachment to intellectual trends in Europe of the 1920s and 1930s which it is hard not to regard as deranged. However, other writers may have new insights on this matter.)

In this journal we’re interested in thoughts on the state of things; thoughts on the history of the state of things; thought on the history of resistance to the state of things (which is the great glory of Ireland); and thoughts on serious proposed alternatives to the state of things. That should cover everything in the present issue and hopefully won’t cramp our future contributors.

We’re not interested in “the culture business” (with its specialist service “the philosophy business”), except as a problem: we don’t intend to be it. However, even professors of philosophy are not barred from the journal strictly. But they would have to make an effort to think.



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