In a previous post tilted Psychopathenomics I highlighted a number of studies suggesting that the corporate world-especially high finance-attracts psychopathic personalities, and suggested that our current economic and social systems serve both to reward psychopathic behaviors and foster it in others. It got some interesting responses. So in this post I want to suggest that psychopathenomics rests on the production of a version of posthumanity that I’m going to call the Corporate Posthuman. And that moreover this ‘philosophical’ vision of Corporate Posthumanity has serious consequences for the future implementation of Transhumanist enhancement technologies.
(Although some of what follows is bowdlerised from a chapter in my thesis a discussion of the broader themes would take up too much space and lord knows my blog posts are already very long. However, if anyone wants to know more my paper Producing and Consuming the Posthuman Body in Superhero Narratives provides an overview of the thesis that should help contextualise this particular variation on posthumanity, while my paper The Silver Age Superhero as Psychedelic Shaman offers a vision of posthumanity that is in many respects the opposite of the Coporate Posthuman)
First of all its important to note that many see the emergence of the Corporate Posthuman as a natural and healthy evolutionary development. Jeffery Skilling, the disgraced former president of Enron, for example, reportedly saw Richard Dawkin’s book The Selfish Gene as providing a sort of evolutionary explanation-and impetus-for his own corporate machinations. As discussed in this here video clip from the excellent documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room:
We are in the realm of Social Darwinism here, a pseudoscientific view that sees society as developing through the survival of the fittest. Indeed, the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ was coined by Herbert Spencer several years before Darwin published his Origin of Species. Spencer argued for laissez-faire capitalism, reasoning that minimal government interference in the world of business was preferable because, “Society advances where its fittest members are allowed to assert their fitness with the least hindrance.” At the heart of Social Darwinism is the belief that capitalism is the ‘natural’ way of things, and that if this is so, then those who flourish within it, be they individuals or entire corporations, are the most highly evolved. Like sharks, dig? Perfectly adapted to function within their environment.
So that’s the pesudoscientific version of corporate posthumanism-“we, your capitalist overlords, are the natural endpoint of evolution”. And capitalist Western liberal democracy is the logical endpoint in the evolution of social/economic systems.
Pseudoscience aside, the most common influence on the capitalist posthuman mindset has been the author and philosopher Ayn Rand. In Rand’s novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1937) the heroes were mouth-pieces for her philosophical system of Objectivism, which advocated reason as the only means of acquiring knowledge, supported rational egoism and rejected ethical altruism. Rand opposed all forms of collectivism and statism, instead advocating laissez-faire capitalism, which she believed was the only social system that protected individual rights. Although not necessarily well-received academically, Rand’s ideas have influenced popular culture and many conservative figures. A 1987 article in The New York Times referred to her as the Reagan administration’s “novelist laureate”, and several republican congressmen have acknowledged her influence on them. Alan Greenspan, the economist who served as Chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States from 1987 to 2006 was a proponent of Objectivism and associate of Rand. More recently the Tea Party movement in America has drawn on Rand, with several protest banners proclaiming, “I am John Galt” in reference to the libertarian hero of Atlas Shrugged. Here is a snippet of his speech from the novel, which gives an insight into the moral world-view of the Randian superhero:
You have heard no concepts of morality but the mystical or the social. … For centuries, the battle of morality was fought between those who claimed that your life belongs to God and those who claimed that it belongs to your neighbors– between those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sake of ghosts in heaven and those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sake of incompetents on earth. And no one came to say that your life belongs to you and that the good is to live it.
In some respects Rand’s vision has some commonalities with Nietzsche’s vision of the Ubermensch. There is at least an overturning of Christian and humanist moral assumptions, as evidenced in the excerpt above. However, there are also key differences between the Objectivist superman and its Nietzschean counterpart, most notably Rand’s insistence upon rationality, which Nietzsche is as interested in overturning as conventional moral precepts. The Randian, Corporate Posthuman may associate the merely human with an enfeebled slave-morality (an evolutionary weakness one should seek to overcome) but it is deeply rationalistic. Indeed it depends upon rationalism as its validation. Why wouldn’t I behave this way? It’s the rational thing to do.
Which brings us neatly to Transhumanism. For Nick Bostrom “Transhumanism has roots in rational humanism”. As such, much Transhumanist writing fits quite neatly with developments in Western capitalism. For instance, some social theorists have suggested that because self-identity no longer derives automatically from one’s position in the social structure, and individuals are left alone to establish and maintain values with which to live and make sense of their daily lives. In its place we are seeing attempts to ground identity in the body. Shilling argues that such ‘body projects’ are attempts to construct and maintain a coherent and viable sense of self-identity through attention to the body, particularly the body’s surface (Featherstone, 1991). Or as Giddens (1991:102) puts it “…we have become responsible for the design of our bodies”. We might suggest that these new identities are individualistic, self-serving and superficial; all character traits we have already associated with the psychopathic mindset of the Corporate Posthuman.
Transhumanism, as a philosophy, seeks to take such body projects to a new level. So its important to rember that Transhumanism’s Utopian dreaming of personal freedom and belief in self-improvement are rooted, as Sobchack has noted, “…in privilege and the status quo: male privilege, white privilege, economic privilege, educational privilege, first world privilege” (1994:25). Transhumanist texts do not often address such concerns. Often their utopian visions of the future seem to be achieved solely by the technology itself. In short, scientific progress is presented as if it existed in a sort of vacuum, untouched by social and political concerns. In actuality, Transhumanism, particularly its American variant, has several affinities with Randian and other libertarian philosophies.
As a recent European Parliament report on converging technologies describes it, the emergence of Transhumanism as a political-philosophical movement, “…has its roots in Californian libertarianism…faith in small entrepreneurs, technology and the minimum of government intervention are its characteristics”. In short, “…its dreams are grounded in the freedom to buy and- especially- freedom to sell”. It is necessary then to address questions of power and social divisions if such technologies are not to rapidly exacerbate already existing social divides, such as the creation of technologically enhanced ‘upper class’ and a ‘merely human’ lower class.
The European Parliament report goes on to note that within the World Transhumanist Association (now known as Humanity+) a more European style liberal democratic Transhumanism has also developed. A comparison is made between a report put together by the American government’s National Science Foundation titled Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance and a report into the same subject titled Converging Technologies-Shaping the Future of European Societies put together by the HLEG (High Level Expert Group on European low dose risk research).
In comparing the American and European reports the authors note that while National Science Foundation’s report, “…was predominantly compiled by technical scientists, the European expert group…mainly consisted of social scientists, ethicists and philosophers”. As such, its approach significantly deviates at certain points from the former. For example, the European report criticised the technologically deterministic approach of the NSF report, and instead emphasised that, “…technologies are formed in interaction with the social context”. The HLEG report also, “…criticises the individualistic philosophy behind the American report that in particular wants to deploy convergence for increasing human efficiency and production”. In short:
the European report continually emphasises that technology should be in the service of people. Whereas the American report talks about ‘engineering of the mind’ and ‘enhancing the human body’ the European report talks about ‘engineering for the mind’ and ‘engineering a healthy body’
While such an emphasis may appear admirable, it never the less, as the ETAG report noted, ‘cleverly circumnavigates the thorny issue of improving humans‘. It also circumnavigates the question of which people should technology be in the service of? It seems unlikely that a system that encourages psychothapy would result in the most egalitarian use of such technologies. The events leading up to and through World War 2 provide an important historical lesson with regards to the confluence of psychopathy, big business and the improvement of human beings.
Benito Mussolinni himself said that “Fascism should rightly be called Corporatism, as it is the merger of corporate and government power“, but it is perhaps the German story that provides the most clear lessons. the ideology of the third Reich was steeped in Social Darwinism of course, as evidenced by their embrace of the theory of eugenics. It’s possible to posit eugenics as an early, cruder and crueller version of Transhumanism. Like Transhumanists eugenicists sought to improve human minds and bodies. Of course, eugenicists sought to do this simply by eliminating those they deemed inferior from the gene pool. These practices reached a peak of horror and efficiency within the German concentration camps where millions of human beings were systematically exterminated.
We would do well to remember that the concentration camps were also big business. As S. Jonathan Wiesen points out in an interesting article entitled German Industry and the Third Reich: Fifty Years of Forgetting and Remembering that German companies such as Krupp (steel) and Flick (coal) employed forced labor, while the chemical and pharmaceutical giant I.G. Farben, ran a synthetic rubber factory at Auschwitz. Meanwhile Siemens ran factories at Ravensbrück and in the Auschwitz subcamp of Bobrek and supplied electrical parts to other concentration and death camps. Nor were such practices limited to German industry. Much has been made, for instance, of the idea that “IBM and its subsidiaries helped create enabling technologies, step-by-step, from the identification and cataloging programs of the 1930s to the selections of the 1940s…IBM technology was used to organize nearly everything in Germany and then Nazi Europe, from the identification of the Jews in censuses, registrations, and ancestral tracing programs to the running of railroads and organizing of concentration camp slave labor” (see here for more). Meanwhile, the Ford Motor Company’s German arm used prisoners of war and slave labourers at the time (see here).
S. Jonathan Wiesen points out that “Greed drove all too many “apolitical businessmen” to engage in odious conduct”, during this period. I suggest that we can see the birth of the Corporate Posthuman, where profit-motive and technological progress met psychopathic levels of emotional deafness, bolstered by pseudoscientific justifications in the Social Darwinism and eugenics. But the real horror here is not psychopathy which, after all, only affects one per cent of the population in the strictest diagnostic sense. The real horror is how easily ‘sane’, ‘right-minded’ people are willing to follow the lead of their psychopathic leaders in politics and industry; how easily we acquiesce and allow ourselves to be molded into models of Corporate Posthumanism.
So maybe we should amend the slogan with which I ended my previous post;
“We are the non-psychopathic 99%…but we can be persuaded”
That’s an overly grim note to end on. I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I am against Transhumanism per se because that is not the case. But I would argue that our vision of a posthuman future would be benefit from a wider vision that takes in these concerns about already existing social divisions. Nor am I arguing for a sort of socialist-posthumanism. Personally I think anarchism would be the most appropriate form of posthuman politics. But that’s a post for another day…