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Neotopia: A Transhumanist Political Economy: Part Two

The monopolistic aspect of the land, where income is derived without a contribution to production, was a cause of great criticism from even pro-capitalist class economists such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, and Henry George, who (along with the socialists, obviously) would argue for rents to be public property. In more modern times attention has been drawn to the monopolistic profits derived from the various and increasingly important intellectual property rights, part of the trajectory identified in Daniel Bell's "The Coming of Post-Industrial Society" in 1974. A rather neat distinction has been drawn by Joseph Schumpeter who recognised that there was a type of monopoly rent that does depend on additional production (innovation patents) that can become a traditional Ricardian rent, like land rent if it continues beyond that period. This can be further elaborated to the economic interest in monopolistic network effects as the means of distribution, from which industrialists such as AT&T's Theodore Vail, the co-inventor of Ethernet, Robert Metcalfe, and former ICANN president, Rod Beckstrom, as major contributors.

In part these elaborations represent a fine-tuning of the core of political economy as a discipline, but also different trajectories in the behaviour of a technologically mediated and enhanced capitalism, which is the focus here. Capitalism is nothing, if not adaptable. But despite the rhetoric of many of its ardent promoters, the purpose of being a capitalist is not competition, but rather to make use of innovations and leverage monopolistic advantage (which, amusingly, business theorists such as Michael Porter calls "competitive advantage") to drive competitors out of the market, as monopoly profits are greater than competitive profits. Stripped of any sentimentality, the capitalist as a class is only interested in short-term profit and long-term power, thus increasingly the landlord and capitalist classes fuse against the interests of tenants and workers. The directly involved capitalist, the industrialist interested in the welfare and development of their firm, has been largely replaced by not only venture capital, but as another layer of abstraction, the corporation which has the legal status of a person, but not the moral judgment. Joel Bakan makes a convincing legal and psychological argument when he describes the modern corporation as a psychopath; and psychologist Oliver James has noted that the most successful people in the corporate world carry the traits of psychopathology, narcissism and Machiavellianism.

Given these conditions we now turn to the trajectories; technological and environmental. It is this first part where we witness the information and computational technologies that contribute to transhumanism. Already we have witnessed over the last fifty years the computerisation of society, whether it is through information goods, the Internet and globalisation, and the increasing automation and robotics in primary industry and manufacturing. It is typical for futurists to concentrate on those personal technologies that often literally get "under the skin", such as developments in artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, prostheses, and the presence of personal information goods for entertainment and education, it is more important, from a political economy perspective, to look at the role of information goods, automation, and robotics at scale. Indeed, these features are more about "transhumanism" than the various human embodiment technologies. As in my previous talk this year on artificial intelligence Shoshana Zuboff's pithy 2013 maxim "What can be automated, will be" must be taken completely seriously. The robotisation and automation of labour is, and will be, extraordinarily disruptive, across the board of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, across the board in all industries, including and especially warfare.

The further one investigates this direction of thinking, the further one realises how far we are already done the pathway of transcending labour through its embodiment in capital. In this case, for illustration, will repeat the paragraph from February this year:

"This [Zuboff's maxim] is a very accurate representation of the history of industrial and domestic processes and should be extended to the whole of human endeavours. The ancient discipline of agronomy is now highly computerised for irrigation, fertilisation, pest-control, and yield. Advertising is fine-tuned into recommendation systems based on individual consumer ratings and genre-selection. The construction of buildings is facing its own revolution with the development of 3D printing technologies at scale. Self-driving vehicles have now developed to the point where driverless taxi services are now being deployed, along with increasing automation in supply-chain freight transport systems and keep in mind that these are safer than human drivers. The military, of course, is very excited about the possibility of conducting warfare with minimal use of soldiers and always has been. Unmanned combat aerial vehicles are seeing extensive and very cost-efficient use in the war in Ukraine by all parties, extending existing lethal autonomous weapons such as sentry guns to the offensive as "the new normal". Recursively, computer security systems make extensive of intrusion detection systems, and various application security processing to the point that most operations are now highly automated."

Manufacturing workers who engage in repetitive and standardised tasks in the assembly line will be replaced by robotics. Transportation and delivery drivers, from interstate freight to taxi drivers can be replaced by self-driving vehicles and drones. Automated checkout systems and online shopping replace retail workers. Customer service representatives are replaced by chatbots. Agricultural workers are replaced by robots, automated vehicles, surveillance and drone technologies. Data entry, clerical, and analytical workers have their work reduced by automated systems analysis, and every computer system operator knows the ever-importance of automation in their own workforce. Whilst examples of machine failure or artificial intelligence systems giving comically incorrect advice are common enough, these are often the nervous jokes of a human workforce that is just smart enough to know that their utility and job security in the economic machine is declining.

Of course, the reason we do this is productivity. Solutions-orientated people love our new transhuman technologies. It is lesser error-prone, it means less work, it means more "procedural forgetfulness" and abstraction, and it allows more time for innovation, heuristics, the generation of meaning, and more leisure. Capitalism loves it for these reasons as well; in an environment of high productivity through machines, broadly defined, labour is relatively more expensive as Baumol's cost-disease of the service sector makes increasingly clear. There is the eutopian prospect of high wages with minimal work supplemented by shared benefits of output perhaps through a measure like a universal basic income.

However, the prospects of such a world must be tempered by the realities of the organisational principles of the system of political economy and the empirical results. To extend Zuboff's maxim, "What can be accumulated, will be" and "What can be corporate property, will be", and if that means everything, then that's just the logical outcome of the system's rationality and the evidence we have at hand. There is an increasing disparity between rich and poor, there is an increasing concentration and accumulation of capital, and real wages have stagnated relative to productivity. These are simply facts, but they are facts borne from a systemic imperative. At the same time, another fact, the system faces a declining rate of profit as there is a surplus of consumer goods relative to requirements. It is another phenomenon which has been noted since the days of classical political economy and actually generates another imperative for profit-orientated corporations to engage in whatever rent-seeking they can find; if one likes there is a tendency for capitalism to eat itself and become a monetarised feudalism. All of this comes down to property rights, the absolute core of political economy; the technology is already in place, patented by Ford, for self-driving cars to drive away from their owners, for smart locks to lock you out of your home if you're behind in your repayments or rent. When the company SecondSight went bankrupt, users with their bionic eyes found themselves in a situation where upgrades and maintenance was no longer available.

All of this requires energy, and this is where the likely prognosis of environmental damage must be viewed as a realistic one. Despite some "solarpunk" optimism coming from the fact that there has been an incredible fall in the production price of renewable technologies, to the extent that where viable wind energy is now the cheapest new source of power, fossil fuels still make up approximately 75% of world energy consumption, whereas 50 years ago that figure was over 90%. Of course, the environment is less concerned with relative values to absolute values. Fifty years ago global consumption of energy was approximately 75 terawatt hours, now it is 176 terawatt hours. Add this to the fact that nearly all of this results in carbon dioxide emissions, certainly the main forcing on the climate system in this period, and add to the fact that is a long-lasting greenhouse gas, we can expect global warming to certainly continue for decades to come. Couple this with the fact that it is incredibly difficult to get even the biggest emitters in competing global jurisdictions (that is, China, the United States, India, Russia, Japan, and the European Union) to agree on effective emissions reductions, plust that there is a systemic impertaive for polluters not to pay for damaging externalities, the most pessimistic predictions of the the IPCC must be considered the most realistic - that is, a temperature increase of between 3.3 to 5.7 degrees from pre-industrial levels by 2100.

The time is not available to describe just how damaging all of this will be. Industrial output will continue of course, as will population, placing critical pressure on the increasingly tiny percentage of non-human mammals - if you want can extend a notion of the transhuman beyond to already existing species - on the planet leading to what many are already calling the Anthropocene Extinction Event. Whilst there are some countervailing trends to the trajectory just outlined, mainly from those countries that have a strong social and liberal democratic traditions, it should be clear that unless different organisation principles of our political economy are established where, at the barest minimum, there is a more equitable distribution of wealth, where there is an incorporation of external costs and subsidy of external benefits, and where there is an end to all types of rent-seeking, the logic of our current political economy must be elaborated and forecasted with cold accuracy, including what is perhaps the most difficult reality of all - the fact that human beings who potentially have the power to transform the system are horrendously prone to fake news, to being apolitical, to the most trivial distractions. As Juvenal pointed out "bread and circuses" is the method used by those with power, in the absence of good policy. Crushing authoritarianism is not necessary when the population decides that it wants just private freedom; "Amusing Ourselves to Death" was Postman's prediction in 1985. Unfortunately, that too has to be considered as a currently realistic prognosis of a neotopia.

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