Why Nuke Liberals? A Response to Sorgner


In ‘Nietzsche, the Overhuman, and Transhumanism’ Stefan Sorgner takes me to task for approving a departure from liberal institutions by future posthumans (Roden 2010):

Given the argument of the previous section, it is not surprising that I was slightly worried when I read that Roden affirms the move away from “bio-political organizations such as liberalism or capitalism” (2010, 34). I wonder what is the alternative, because I think we have done pretty well recently in Western industrial countries with liberal and social versions of democracy. I do not think that there is nothing which can get improved or criticized, but generally speaking I am very happy living in a Western liberal democracy with a well developed health system and permanently new technological innovations that help us in improving our lives as long as we do not let ourselves get dominated by these developments. Most other types of political organization so far have led to paternalistic systems in which the leaders exploited the citizens in the name of the common good (Sorgner 2010)

To be clear, I don’t think that Sorgner misconstrues me. Although ‘Deconstruction and Excision in Philosophical Posthumanism’ (DCE) is concerned with metaphysical issues, the affirmation is genuine. However, I’m a reflexive liberal. I also think that liberal societies are preferable to the paternalistic societies Sorgner dislikes. Like him, I would prefer humans to live in liberal regimes and not under the heel of theocratic (or other) apparatchiks.

So am I politically inconsistent?

The passage to which he refers advocates a process of technological refashioning which ‘might conceivably weaken affiliations to preceding form of bio-political organization such as liberalism or capitalism’ (Roden 2010, 34). The overthrow of liberalism is a liability of this process, not its goal. Technological refashioning is advocated in response to an ethical problem presented by the metaphysical status of the posthuman.

To get a handle on this it is important not to conflate the posthuman and the transhuman. Transhumans are humans that (by current standards) are exceptionally gifted in virtue of their augmentations. A posthuman, by contrast, is a hypothetical entity whose augmentation history renders it inhuman. Whereas a few humans may have accomplishments that future transhuman enhancements might afford the many – e.g. running a 3 minute mile or being able to improvise three part counterpoint – the accomplishments of the posthuman would have no place in the horizon of humanity. Since posthumans would be historically emergent kinds, there can be no a priori understanding of what being posthuman might involve (no transcendental posthumanology). Given that current technological practice might engender posthumans (whether in the form of artificial intelligences, synthetic life forms, or through means that we cannot currently envisage) the only viable method for understanding, and thus evaluating, posthuman life is an engineering solution. To understand the posthuman we must refashion ourselves as posthumans.

So the ethical imperative to evaluate our posthuman prospects implies a practical interest in approaching posthumanity by degrees. The only alternative to this, I would argue, is a panic humanism whose logical conclusion is the relinquishment of characteristically modern technology. Interestingly, this is the solution adopted by the traumatized refugees of an ancient technological singularity in the finale of the acclaimed TV series Battlestar Galactica (BSG) and it doesn’t work out terribly well.

Which brings me to why posthuman polities might be necessarily illiberal, since BSG offers a remarkably clear analysis on this point.

Caprica Nuked

BSG begins with the nuclear destruction of a highly advanced and tolerant liberal society on the planet Caprica by Cylons, vengeful descendants of robotic slaves created by the Capricans some fifty years before (The name is short for ‘Cybernetic Lifeform Node’ as we subsequently learn in the prequel series Caprica). Many billions on Caprica and other human colony worlds die in the nuclear attack while survivors are murdered piecemeal or used for procreative experiments (See episode 5, Season 2: The Farm).

However, rather than resembling the walking chrome ‘toasters’ from which they descended, the Cylons in charge of this attack have evolved into superficially human entities, with a number of posthuman capacities. Smarter and tougher than most humans, Cylons have perfect health, and can interface directly with machines. Above all, they’re immortal. Instead of dying when their body is destroyed, a Cylon “downloads” to an identical cloned body. “Death” for Cylons “becomes a learning experience” (Scar).

Despite the moral failings demonstrated by the near-complete destruction of human civilization, Cylon society is not presented unsympathetically. For one thing, there’s no ‘Imperious Leader’. Cylon decision-making seems open, participatory and egalitarian compared with the more hierarchical humans who maintain the integuments of a liberal polity in their ‘rag-tag fleet’ of starships  – with all the social abuses this entails (Dirty Hands). There’s no Cylon state, police force or civil service. Indeed, Cylon society has no institutions, and no class structures other than between the humanoid “skin jobs” and the Centurions (military robots) and Raiders (cyborg space fighters). The latter barely qualify as social beings however, since the humanoid Cylons have hobbled them cognitively, suppressing their capacity for self-awareness.

Cylon 'Toaster'

Now, the lack of institutions is key to why the Cylon polity could not be a liberal society, in spite of its democratic character.

Liberalism is a theory of governance: in particular, a normative theory of what the philosopher John Rawls refers to as the ‘basic structure’ of social institutions. In liberal societies the basic structure is charged with the distribution of primary social goods (PSG’s) such as access to health care, or with the enforcement of basic liberal rights. However, in Cylon society the PCG’s are not institutionally accessed but technologically controlled. Health (not access to health care) is a PCG in cylon society since health is furnished reliably by Cylon technology without institutional mediation.

Thus Cylon society is democratic but necessarily illiberal. Lacking public institutions, it could never instantiate liberal principles. As the series shows, this has disadvantages. It renders Cylon decision-making open to technical fixing and sly demagoguery. But it remains a fact that one cannot have a liberal polity without public institutions backed up by a coercive legal apparatus. Some Cylons, as we learn, eventually become reconciled with the human population and live under the same political structures. But this is only achieved at the price of relinquishing their posthuman-level technology and thus their Cylon nature. Cylon nature is defined relationally by involvement in a posthuman technological network. Detach a cylon node from its network and she becomes functionally if not phylogenetically a human subject.

New Model Cylons

If actual posthumans ever result from an iteration of our technical activity, they will probably not resemble Cylons!

However, the impossibility of a liberal Cylon polity illustrates a fact of political ontology recognized by Marx. Liberalism – like all social forms – has material preconditions. If posthuman life is metaphysically possible it may be ontologically incompatible with the realization of these conditions.

Thus the process of technological refashioning sketched out my article may result in entities for whom liberalism is not a political option just as it is also not an option for technologically simple societies.

I think liberalism is a decent model for humans. It may be the most decent society to which we can aspire, for all I know. But it could be metaphysically impossible for posthumans (as in the Cylon case). If so, the fact that technical refashioning may result in the end of liberalism is only a criticism of it if we hold that liberalism expresses ultimate values that we should never relinquish. But liberalism (at least in its anti-perfectionist forms) is not a theory of ultimate value, but a theory of governance and distribution. The fact that posthumans might require alternative principles of governance cannot constitute a problem for an anti-perfectionist liberal. Whether we should self-refashion in a way that might result in our descendants ceasing to be human remains an open question; but it should not be conflated with the issue of whether liberalism is a good thing.

Roden, David. 2010. Deconstruction and excision in philosophical posthumanism. Journal of Evolution and Technology 21(1) (June): 27-36.

Sorgner, Stefan (2010), ‘Nietzsche, the Overhuman, and Transhumanism’, Journal of Evolution and Technology – Vol. 21 Issue 2 – October 2010 – pgs 1-19

2 thoughts on “Why Nuke Liberals? A Response to Sorgner

  1. I like your distinction between absolute values, and the liberal values of governance and distribution. For the Cyclon, or any post-human conclave it seems that we see a different form that has indeed moved beyond the liberal institution; ergo. – moving beyond its political rules of expediency, too. This would change not only our ideas of governance, but the complete philosophical underpinnings of the political and cultural heritage of the human(anist) civilization that might give rise to such a singularity. Anyway just downloaded some of your recent papers from your other site in pdf and hope to work through those soon! I like where your going in your work, quite unique and different than, as you say – the critical posthumanist tradition. I tend to agree in where your taking these ideas…

  2. Many thanks for the response and for the generous precis on your site. I suppose I’m still trying to work through the ethical implications of this. It seems to me that a kind of ludic, exploratory self-remaking (the kind of thing that Stelarc exemplifies so brilliantly in his art) could be an integral part of a form of life without being a stable, shared good. There’s reason to think that this is, irreversibly, our form of life, that the technological networks we inhabit are already anti-final, self-augmenting systems. Either we embrace existence in these systems (love our posthumanity) or we de-industrialize ourselves into the fossil record. Mutate and live!

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