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Neotopia: A Transhumanist Political Economy: Part One

Presentation to the Melbourne Agnostics Group, May 13, 2023
By way of introduction, I must mention the International Society for Philosophers, founded by the late Dr Geoffrey Klempner in 2000, with some two-thousand members across ninety-three countries, and open to all who are interested. This particular presentation follows a tangent in the discussion that followed a presentation to SoFiA in February this year entitled "The Soul of the Machines? - The Current State of Advanced Artificial Intelligence". As a person who has worn more than a few hats in their life, it may not surprise those present that I have given presentations concerning both transhumanism and political economy in the past, dating back to an address in 2004 to the Melbourne Unitarian Church entitled "The Future of the Human Species". As for political economy, David Miller may recall a presentation I gave to the Existentialist Society in 2007 entitled "Towards An Existentialist Political Economy". Combining the two, there was also a presentation to the Australian Singularity Summit, in 2010 entitled "Social Formations in A Transhumanist World". In this presentation I will begin by describing what I mean by "neotopia", before moving on to describing the features and debates over political economy, then exploring the application of these debates to technological trajectories and especially those that relate to transhumanism on one hand and the wider environment.

Let us begin with this term "neotopia". Almost trivial to mention, the prefix comes from the ancient Greek prefix νεο- (neo-), itself from νέος (néos, “new, young”) with the suffix also from the old Helleni τόπια (tópia), itself from Greek τόπος (tópos, “place”). Almost everyone here would be familiar with similar well-known terms such as utopia and dystopia. The former refers to an imaginary place with excellent qualities. "Utopia", of course, with a "u" derived from the Greek "oὐ (ou) which is a negation. In other words, "no place". Thomas More, who coined the term "Utopia" in his well-known book of the title 1516 was well aware of the distinction between this "nowhere" (which would be followed centuries later "News from Nowhere" by William Morris in 1892) and "Eutopia" with an "eu", that is a "good place" which at least is used in medicine. "Utopia" is a curious publication, deliberately written to provoke, both idealised and idealistic, critical of his contemporary society, but also often satirical with many impractical or utterly implausible suggestions; a personal favourite is how children would wait for their supper with "great silence".

There are, of course, numerous hypothetical, propositional, and intentional (e)utopias in the history of human thought, some of which I discussed in a presentation to The Philosophy Forum in 2012 with the title "Utopian Tragedies: Cautionary Tales for the Philosophy of Politics"; there is not much need to elaborate much further on these here. What is worth noting is how utopias are compared with dystopias, a term popularised by John Stuart Mill in 1868 a speech to parliament to describe the government's land policy in Ireland. Apparently, however, the term (mis-spelt) dates back to a publication of 1747, attributed to Lewis Henry Younge. In any case, we are aware of the content, the opposite of a (e)utopia, whether it is represented as a counter-utopia (such as Orwell's "1984" of 1948) or a tragically flawed society (such as Huxley's "Brave New World" of 1932). From the perspective of a neotopia, utopian and dystopian perspectives serve as both extremes in a probability continuum. It should provide neither euphoric optimism nor depressive pessimism, although one must recognise - following Romain Rolland's paraphrased quote about the pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will - that both can exist at the same time. Rather, a neotopia draws upon these extreme insights but must make every effort to foresee a "most likely" future given particular trajectories. A very good example of such binary extremes expressed as political economy can be found in Karl Marx's famous "A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy" of 1859:

"In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure."

This insightful paragraph, a driving force in social theory for more than one hundred and fifty years, illustrates the gulf between what is possible with technology, a "production possibility frontier" to use the term from economics, with its constraints as political economy, as social relations. Political economy is, unfortunately, a subject that is not commonly discussed in contemporary society despite its importance. Economics has largely become a positive science, often expressed as abstract models or quantified through behavioural economics on the microscale or institutional and comparative economics on the marco. Either way, it has relegated the questions and moral justification for ownership to the critical fields of social inquiry, such as sociology. It is here, however, that classical political economy has found itself in a rather secondary role as it became typical, whether through Durkheim, Weber, or Parsons, to view class hierarchy in terms of general income categories and cultural connections - the upper class, the middle class, the lower class - rather than a relationship to the means of production. Whereas sociology has tended to view "class" as a sort of cultural anthropology of the moderns, political economy is much more interested in the question of who and how, people come to own certain factors of production.

The classical factors of production are land, labour, and capital. By land what is meant is all natural resources from actual physical land, to the electromagnetic spectrum, and so forth and can also be described as the subjects of labour. Capital refers to those produced goods that produce other goods; factories and tools and the like, also known as the instruments of labour. Labour is conscious and intentional activity with physical skill and mental knowledge to produce goods and services. The ownership of the factors of production are the primary classes of political economy and the source of income; landlords own natural resources, from which they receive rent from tenants. Capitalists own capital, from which their profits are a form of interest, whereas workers receive wages for the expenditure of their labour. An individual can belong to multiple classes simultaneously with their class membership derived from their income source. A person could, for example, receive seventy percent of their income from the work they do, another twenty percent from capital investments (including the "rent" they receive from leasing a building), and ten percent from land rents; they are a worker, a capitalist, and a landlord. Note that the amount of income doesn't matter in terms of this identity; that is certainly a relative statement to describe someone as a "rich" worker or a "poor" capitalist.

There are matters of additional complexity. The factors of production are often extended and differentiated to include not only the means of production, but also distribution, which can include infrastructure and network effects as types of capital, and logistics as a type of labour. It can also be further extended to include exchange mechanisms such as the use of planning mechanisms or market types, price signals or queues, hence the overall term "production, distribution, and exchange" for production in totality. Neoclassical economics such as John Bates Clark sought to elaborate the classic factors of production to include "entrepreneurship", although that could be more appropriately seen as a type of labour and a subclass that is very much in the service of capital. For their own part, there were engineers, technicians, and scientists in the Soviet Union who argued - in the midst of their own "science and technological revolution" (Nauchno-tekhnicheskaia revoliutsiia) that they constituted a new class. The basic class of labour itself has become further complexified with some economists and sociologists arguing that there is a "welfare class", and with the recognition that the production process can have external costs or benefits, such as as with pollution as a negative or education as a positive.