Editorial: Prometheus Unhinged

The announcement that Elon Musk’s Neuralink Corporation has succeeded in implanting a microchip capable of working with a human brain has hit the news just as I write this editorial. By the time you read this, it may have vanished again into the news-ether, or it may be all anyone is talking about. It is impossible to know whether it is mere commercially advantageous hype and exaggeration, or a moment similar to that in late 2022 when ChatGPT and non-trivial artificial intelligence were introduced to the wider world. However much ChatGPT has fallen short of its hype, it was clear even then that a threshold in human-technology interface had been passed. If ChatGPT was not all that it was claimed to be, it was still clear that it was merely a precursor of what would arise four, five or more generations later, as Moore’s law—that computing power, in a commercial development environment, grows exponentially—would ensure it. Moore’s law was what had made everything prior to ChatGPT and Neuralink neurochips possible, after all. We are continually surprised by these jumps, because the human mind is not structurally suited to exponential growth and its characteristic fact: that each new step creates as much new material—computing power, in this case—as all previous steps put together. Hence the feeling—terrifying, exciting, alienating, or all three and more—that we are, year by year, wandering very far from anything that feels like home.

This world of techno-scientific development is successively reshaping not merely the material processes by which we live, but the culture, psychology and imagining of contemporary society also. The last Western social revolution—that of the new Left and the 1960s—seems very far away now, and its relation to technology very distant. Then, numerous forces and events served to confront humanity with the transformations in relations between technology and human life that had been developing for decades, with, as Tim Ström explores here, the advent of nuclear power in the form of the atomic bombing of Japan simultaneous with the development of modern computing, and the information and organisation theories that would accompany it and reconstruct the world. The war that had occasioned these developments by putting the vast resources of the state behind intellectual processes hitherto bound into cloistered university processes had also brought a wave of European thinking to the Anglo-American world with the arrival of the Frankfurt School in the United States. As their critical thought traditions combined with home-grown thinking critical of modernity—from the literary ‘new criticism’ and the revived transcendentalism of the Beats to the non-European modes of thinking coming in through Black and Asian traditions—the world experienced an extraordinary act of ‘standing back’ from given processes, which flourished in the 1950s and became a global movement in the 1960s and into the 1970s.

This revolution transformed the way we live, work, eat, build, make cities, and regard nature and each other. But it was unable to achieve the full revolution that would transform the very structures that determined how we would live. This is not merely the capitalist commodity and its dominance of everyday life, but the processes and practices of socio-material abstraction that underlie it, which are often, mistakenly, assumed to be wholly contained within the commodity process. When the socio-cultural revolution could not achieve this deeper transformation—signposted by such events as the failure of the May 1968 Paris uprising, the immense contradictions of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the failure of the Western counter-cultural movement to expand exponentially—it inevitably withered. The structural shocks of 1970s stagflation combined with a lack of any tangible, desirable alternative that would persuade the Western working class to join with the new intellectually trained class who had fomented much of this, and an enormous historical vacuum appeared, into which rushed two forces: a new technophilia, and the new Right of Reagan and Thatcher. The latter combined celebration of the market with the advocacy of a return to traditional values—to be enforced by the state, which they otherwise wanted to keep ‘small enough to drown in a bathtub’.

The rise of a new technophilia has been less cited by a materialist Left as ushering in the new world, but it is of equal or greater importance. The first Apple PC appeared in 1975, designed by two young men from the California counter-culture and not from IBM’s big machine culture, and named after the Beatles’s freewheeling corporation. Its modular style and ease of use suggested a form of technology that would flow into a culturally and reflexively determined life, not reshape that life around technical processes: a new world ‘watched over by the grace of loving machines’, as the now-unread counter-culture writer Richard Brautigan put it. The counter-culture’s hopes of total connection, wordlessness, the telepathic preoccupations of mystical writers like Carlos Castenada and the idea of alternative networks all came to be seen as deliverable by the new technology. When the Apple Mac was launched, forty years ago this month, in high-profile ads aired during US football’s Superbowl, it was with a mini-film depicting a young woman smashing a grim Orwellian world with a huge hammer, and the slogan ‘you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like Nineteen Eighty-Four’.

For the rising generation of the intellectually trained, who were being produced in ever greater numbers by expanded access to tertiary education, this form of technology was one that aligned with the world they had grown up in. They were two generations away from the immense destructiveness of the Second World War, and its continuation in Vietnam had concluded. And they were three generations away from the world—incompletely commodified and technologised—that mid-century critical thinkers had mourned and tried to develop modern possibilities for. Those who went to the Left either went to the narrow reformism of Labo(u)r parties, which now wholly accepted the received framework, to a rigidified Marxism that was rapidly falling into political cultism, or to an ironic and despairing postmodernism, which focused immense political energy on text and image. What all three agreed on was that the new technologies had the power to lift individuals, groups and world out of the stagnant political and social situations of the 1980s and then the 1990s. There was now no space for the new left critique, because history had happened, and a certain level of techno-science was now implicit in both the large processes that structured everyday life and the smaller movements that determined its textures and person-to-person relations. In the 1990s, this would be joined by centrist technophilia—the ‘New Labour’ idea of endless invisible elevators of techno-growth—and radical left accelerationism (‘fully automated luxury communism’) which sought to portray the social movements of the 80s and 90s as forms of imposed scarcity which had served to freeze what might otherwise be dynamic social relations in place. The fluidity and universality of the new technologies, arising in the wake of the development of the world wide web—created at CERN using a NeXT computer, a sort of supercharged Apple Mac, and itself extended by the smartphone and social media in the 2000s—seemed to make materially possible the fondest spiritual hopes of the counter-culture, drawn from Western and Eastern mystical traditions, that all humans would be in unmediated connection with all others in a great oneness that did not surrender individuality to achieve it.

Yet while this new framework summoned a world of angels and avatars, of ‘second life’ worlds and metaverses, its boundedness within Moore’s law ensured that only certain technologies were fully transformed by it. As the new world, from the 1990s on, buzzed with possibilities for the technically and intellectually savvy, Western capitalism found it easier to offshore industrial production to the Global South than to revolutionise production at home. Soon a vast divide opened up. In the 1960s, the smaller group of the intellectually trained had grafted itself onto working-class parties, changing their social and cultural policies while supporting the political and economic one of a publicly owned or tilted economy.

This alliance lasted well enough for thirty years. But by the 1990s, the world, possibilities and power of the intellectually trained were growing and rising, while those of numerous other groups—the industrial working class, rural people and lower-income small business groups—were falling. Most people, from the 1960s to the 1980s, wanted degrees of cultural modernisation, but the intellectually trained also knew that there were limits to their demands on questions of gender, sexuality, family, race, borders and the like at this time. By the 1990s they were numerous and powerful enough to have their own stabilised political parties, such as the Greens, and to see their social and cultural priorities as the first-order business of politics. As the economic question faded—modern material politics becoming the administration of a substantially consensual social-market Rawlsianism, in which politicians and public servants were trained en masse—social and cultural questions came to the fore, and have now become what much of left-right politics is. The two classes/groups, formerly in alliance as ‘progressivism’, are now frequently aligned against each other.

Increasingly, this question comes down to what is now the politics of the ‘habitus’—of the world, its structures and textures within which life is lived. For the intellectually trained, now running at between 20 and 30 per cent of the population (variously calculated), the new, the dynamic, the technical, the transformative and the abstract are not only exciting but identity-affirming and real. The very processes in which they have been trained, work and live necessarily reaffirm this in their practice, rather than simply as a passive set of values. Those who must continually revolutionise how they do things, rethink and reframe, necessarily see the unbounded, the transformative and the cosmopolitan as unquestioned goods. Though the rush of recent technologies has been so great as to give everyone some sense of foreboding, this feels against their nature for many. As Scott Robinson documents here, the fundamentally development-critical movement of ‘degrowth’ is being relentlessly drawn back into a technocratic framework as its purview expands. As Simon Cooper demonstrates, the bizarre world of ‘effective altruism’—in which neurodivergent quants ramrod cyber-finance capital to a script provided by the one-dimensional ideologised ‘philosophy’ of Peter Singer—has no capacity to consider any other aspect of human good than a series of abstracted quantitative assessments of survival. Such certainties about human goods extend to notions of borders, immigration and control of cultural settings, or lack thereof. Global flow, high immigration and multiculturalism are seen as such unquestionable goods that any misgivings about them, or preferences for something else, are labelled racism and backwardness.

Rural people, large sections of the working class and the lower middle class have arrived at a different place. Technology now seems increasingly to be the enemy—a set of black boxes understandable only by the trained and educated and excluding everyone else, taking their jobs, their sense of social usefulness and their way of life. High immigration not only presents a threat to those whose income derives from routinised rather than intellectually dynamic labour, but in the volumes in which it now occurs, threatens to unground the possibility of any sort of community whatsoever. The promise of technology—new medicines, comfortable homes, efficient cities—once seemed to be on their side. Now it is the master’s discourse, the master’s magic. When Steve Jobs, progenitor of the Mac, NeXT, and the iPhone, died, there was a spontaneous global outpouring of grief—possibly helped a little by Apple’s PR agents—similar to that which occurred after the murder of John Lennon, on whom Jobs spiritually and physically modelled himself. For all the millions it engaged, however, it left many more millions cold. The moment generated, in the United States, its anti-moment: Donald Trump coming down a gold elevator in his own skyscraper to a crowd of cheering paid models, portraying himself as the anti-elitist. For those who flocked to him, the gold elevator was not a barrier to accepting him as such; instead it was the guarantee that he could deliver the tangible, the visible, the real. Trump promised ‘good jobs’, by which he meant, and was understood to mean, minimally skilled, well-waged factory jobs that anyone could walk into out of an uncompleted high school degree.

Now Trump, returning to the White House at a furious pace, has been joined by a renewed populist movement around the world, which has risen to power everywhere by marshalling resistance to what has become the new alliance—that of transformative techno-capital and the culturally transformative interests of the intellectually trained in a single political unit—built from the social classes that now comprise the excluded. The transformations of the world have above all undermined the dominance of frameworks of society and meaning that were based around ‘abiding face-to-face’ relationships, leaving them as the hollowed-out ‘outer form’ of generalised global processes of technology, power and commodity. The rightward tilt into forms of what purports to be communalist nationalism are no real answer to this problem, but as a concretised, specific solution to it, they have tremendous appeal to excluded groups.

In the Nordic countries and northern Europe this has brought various ‘communalist right’ parties into the centre of power as the largest political parties. In Italy it has seen ‘The Brothers of Italy’ elected. In Ireland, Sinn Féin’s march to dominance has been interrupted by explosive resistance to the rapid globalised modernisation which it has helped enforce. In France and Germany rural people are in revolt against the transformation of everyday life and the destruction of their communities; in Aotearoa/New Zealand, the proportional system that supposedly prevented a genuinely right-wing government from ever regaining power gave Jacinda Ardern’s government such hubris that it has delivered exactly that: a government rolling back vast amounts of ‘two peoples’ transformation of the country, with great support. And in the United States, progressives and the Biden administration have become so wrapped up in the glowing numbers—this many new jobs, that booming stock-market—that they cannot see what a wasteland of low paid and insecure work the country has become, with communities feeling buffeted by the waves of undocumented migrants coming across the US–Mexico border, now the de facto dividing line between the Global North and South.

True, the people who are voting for these leaders and parties are not doing so because Elon Musk wants to make chip-controlled fleshbots to colonise Mars. But they are voting against the whole progressive package as it most proximately affects them, via immigration and community destructions and the imposition of a series of institutionalised judgements—on sex and gender, bodies, history and so on—that they do not subscribe to. The centrepiece of this would be the re-election of Donald Trump, which progressives are reassuring themselves, as I write this from the US, cannot happen, exactly as they reassured themselves in 2016.

The response of progressivism as a whole, and the leadership elite within it, to this global wave has been utterly inadequate—and, as far as the political leadership goes, more attuned to maintaining their power and identity within wider progressivism than to finding their way to a genuinely new politics which could unite disparate groups in a march to regain a life worth living for all. For more than a decade now, progressivism has insisted on the acceptance of a total package, and the implicit assumption that dissenting classes must conform to it rather than that they meet dissenters half-way. This has been progressives’ default setting: that universalism, cosmopolitanism, borderlessness, transformation, novelty and transgression must be the accepted features of a left political program, and that any residual notions of bounded community, moral centralising, regard for inherited traditional forms and the like are simply false consciousnesses, deflected class and economic politics, sinister money, the shadowy forces of capital and the like.

This insistence simply denies the massive and deep character of what is currently occurring. There is no doubt that the steady economic squeeze across the globe is one of the forces bringing this politics to the fore. But that squeeze—the rising cost of basic life, brought about by the replacement of local self-reliance by global supply chains in response to globalised demand—is itself a manifestation of the world that progressives have supported, or have not seen organising against as a crucial issue. It is notable that every left political figure of the 2010s who has had something credible to say on this—Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Jean-Luc Melanchon—has been destroyed by the demands by the progressive elite that constitutes their parties’ inner core that they abandon anti-immigration positions. It is notable that left parties that have succeeded recently, such as the Danish and Polish Social Democrats, have done so because they have changed their politics to a communalist, refocused social democracy, strong on borders and community control, and against the imposition of radical cultural transformations.

The failure to really have this debate on the Left has been on the one hand a tragic missed opportunity, and on the other, something with a degree of inevitability about it. Since these formations are now so grounded in the wider intellectually trained, they give force to the better side of universalism—of addressing global environmental destruction, universal civil rights—while at the same time foreclosing any real debate about borders, immigration, social values, technology, life-worlds and the like. To take the view, for the moment, that real debate, conversation and change could have occurred if the Left’s leadership had had the vision to do it is to say decisively that the Left and progressives have lost the post-2010 Occupy decade in a way they did not need to, and which has had disastrous consequences for humanity. It is to suggest that projects that claimed a rethinking role, such as Jacobin, may have failed because they did not live up to the demands they set of their project, and that in failing, they have become forces for the smooth reproduction of a progressivist ideology which shields them from a true rethinking by the intellectual core of a reflexive politics uniting the political-economic and cultural-existential questions that occur simultaneously in systems and life-worlds. Christian Barbour’s essay on big ideas here focuses on Kojin Karatani, the Japanese materialist who has proposed a revised structure of history, prioritising modes of exchange. Why, given the lack of success of other frameworks, has this received so little interest in the West?

Australia has been buttressed against this to some degree for some time, which has encouraged its progressives and Left to be, if anything, more self-involved in questions of identity, ideological enforcement and a clientalist relationship with a state that uses authorised culture as a tool to shape public life than most places. That may now be coming to an end. The resounding ‘no’ vote in the Voice referendum served as an unintended release valve allowing a basic resistance to such a state to express itself (among other things). The growing YIMBY movement, as discussed by Stephen Pascoe here, is a co-opted but raw demand about the undermining of our capacity to live—in terms of the basic capacity to have a home—and a way station on the way to a wider movement that will eventually arise and become a major oppositional force to both the worst and the best in progressivism.

How does this relate to Musk’s and others’ drive to a techno-Promethean future—one fuelled by the pure desire for human transformation, in which many actively advocate human/machine interface cyborgism and describe any opposition to it as, in a term coined or popularised by Peter Singer, ‘speciesism’? The clue is in the notion of ‘home’, which means more than shelter or housing, and includes a broader and deeper sense of security in life and on this ground, this earth. No one’s marching against Neuralink or AI, yet. But the connection between these utterly transforming technologies, developed without a skerrick of collective human control, reflection or reflexive discourse, is part of the same process by which farmers across the world are finding the family farm pulled from under them and basic workers are finding that their value—to the market and the community—has fallen towards zero, and by which global forces appear to be dissolving everything that once grounded the possibility of meaning, including the meaning of political struggle. Any Left that simply maintains a politics of political-economic change, together with a progressivist identity-hyperindividualist socio-cultural agenda, is on the way out as a historical entity. Indeed, many intellectuals in Australia, who might form the basis for a genuinely deep-critical reformulation of left politics on technology, economy, society and life, instead divide their cutting-edge theoretical-philosophical inquiries from their politics, which are based on a rigidified and superseded Marxism. This amounts to an act by omission of destructive bad faith. The unended and unquestioning extension of technology into every sphere—every corner of human life—would subject the species to such an ungrounding of its given conditions of existence that the capacity for collective and rich meaning would tend towards disappearance. This would essentially be a secular Hell, in which the urge to life persists but the capacity to achieve all that has historically made it worth living as a collective experience has been substantially eviscerated, by power, domination and subjection. There would be a point in history where the collective reflexive resources of humanity might be insufficient to extricate us from such a crisis—as the ‘new Left’ and the 1960s did extricate us from an earlier ‘techno-crunch’. At that point the only deliverance would be a planetary catastrophe of such a scale as to disrupt the techno-array sufficiently for actual human being to emerge again. That moment may coincide with the approach to what the techno-optimists call, in their moronic irreflexivity, ‘the singularity’—the moment when AI-styled technology takes over from every significant human function. We would never get there, but ‘the event’ would happen before we do.

That time is not yet. But in their inchoate, chaotic, mythologised and concretised way, it is a possibility that many in today’s populist movements understand in a way that many progressives do not. The re-election of Donald Trump would thus constitute a world-historical event beyond mere geopolitical consequence. He’s a pretty shabby manifestation of Heidegger’s only God who could save us, but hundreds of millions in the United States and around the world would treat him as such should his re-election occur. And what will have put him there is all the forces I have described in this editorial, and the failure of the Left to match the Right’s populism with a truly universal politics—one that acknowledges the centrality of the local, the particular, the given, the known, the transmitted, the grounding. To understand that, you don’t need a chip in your head.

About the author

Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle was founding co-editor of Arena Magazine and is Associate Editor of Arena (third series). He is a well-known essayist and is writer-at-large for Crikey. His most recent book Practice: Journalism, Essays and Criticism was published by Black Inc. in 2019.

More articles by Guy Rundle

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Got it in one (or several), Guy! The old-school university habitus that I signed on for decades ago was whipped out from under my feet by a host of malign imps: corporatisation, managerialised obsession with ‘outcomes’ and their associated metrics, and an increasingly shabby and toxic digital culture that has made the disinterested reading of literature a vanishing art. That old school was never ideal, of course, but the slope of its down-sides was far less precipitous. You could, with luck, maintain a patch there with good will and a smidge of people-sense.

No longer. Since its passing, the best (albeit hopelessly small) come-backs I can manage have been the Zoom seminars I conduct with wholly willing and unmonetised participants. We’ve become friends, more like amateur philosophers shooting the shit in the ancient
Athenian agora. Which is perhaps the least-compromised model of learning and idea-exchange any culture has ever had.

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