The SunTzu Dilemma
The following is a simple challenge to anyone who assumes there will be radical progress in the near future, and who believes this (probably) will be good. In other words there are some in the technoprogressive community that still, to this very day, suggest that once we have MNT, widespread robotics, nanotechnology, widespread genetic technologies etc. we will a level of abundance and increased societal stability “all will be well”.
I will make an argument. I label this the SunTzu argument, largely out of vanity, but to make it quotable. I will travel through a series of points.
Nowhere in history did a population take power from a governing elite without resorting to violence, or without the elite benefiting from sharing power.
Those in power have rarely, if ever, shared anything but a small amount of this power with people not in a position of power. Charity doesn’t make any difference – people only share only “a few percent” of their wealth with people over who they have no genetic ties. Worse – in most cases charity itself is self-serving and intended to affirm social status, ideology, neuter and humiliate the vulnerable. But even in historical examples where people loaned money to the vulnerable (with interest, take for instance the Marshall plan) or defeated, it was strictly out of strategical self-interest. My point is – those in power will have a genetic, reflexive need to consolidate this power, use their assets as they see fit, outcompete anyone else. Those with a good paycheck will not willingly part with it.
I typically describe democracy as an organized system to affirm rights to the vulnerable, and to allow the vulnerable to curtail the power of the able-bodied. In essence democracy, socialism and unionisation are not much dissimilar in objective – these are organized mechanisms intended to take excessive wealth from the affluent away and benefit those without. I affirm that this has gone wrong in the US and EU -wealth redistribution only has serve to swell bloated bureaucracies, massive management and accountability machines, and it has left a large population in all these countries utterly demoralized, humiliated and unable to defend their own interest, only able to wait till the next monthly pay check arrives.
A technologically lagging population can at some point no longer resort to armed revolution.
Right now if people would become upset with policies, or corporate malfeance, or any other societal dysfunction people would become angry, and politicians would take note. Riots change things. There is a feedback mechanism at work here and it is formulaic. A certain level of societal dissatisfaction equates to a certain level of protest. Those in power have a vested interest in declaring such protest as “extralegal”, “unreasonable”, “petty”, “spoiled”, “naive”, “socialist”, “vandalism”, “criminal”, “terrorist” or in ever less flattering terms. Leaders, who tend to have a fairly safe and stable existence, are able to ignore their own empathy, or routinely channel this empathy as the years pass into forms strategy, hypocrisy or political leverage.
This is not a strange mechanism. This is mostly inescapable, and a result of how democracy works.
The problem is that the variables in the formula are changing. There is a shift in how states are able to constrain the dissatisfaction of the human “underclasses”. In the last century the range of possible acts of protests made a difference. But technology changes this feedback mechanism. More surveillance, more non-lethal weapons, more media manipulation and shilling, more corporate security, more demagogue populism – … the relative ‘democratic’ power of those who naturally have none is reduced step by incremental step.
Current macro-economic systems offer decreasing chance at an income for an expanding portion of humans.
Technology empowers those who have unique skills, big investments, unique talents, prestige or born power. The converse of this should be clear – technology takes away that share of societal affluence and suffrage from those people that just happened to be born poor, ugly, less talented, less smart, disabled, unconnected or unknown. Some forms of technology have in fact lifted affluence for most of the 20th century. People are now very rich, compared to how affluent they were in the mid 1800s. The problem is that this is not a fair comparison. No one who lived in the 1800s is alive to appreciate all this wealth we have today. And if they were these people from the mid 1800s would fully appreciate that we had massive societal enrichment (a golden age), but slowly but surely it is now going away again, and technology is now a mechanism that makes a lot of people a lot less rich, and a small portion of people a lot richer, or even obscenely much richer.
And currently there is no infrastructure in current political systems to adjust this disharmony. I label the inability of our modern, enlightenment/multicultural, post-industrial economies to rectify the epidemic disparities as catastrophic. This will eventually turn our liberated democracies into info-feudal caste societies. This should be as clear to anyone as it should be unacceptable.
Citizens have power based on their amassed wealth, labor they can perform that is in demand, products they can consume and pay for, their democratic vote, or the threat of mass violence.
The saying goes is that money doesn’t make you happy. Having not enough makes you intensely miserable. What is worse – long-term poverty is for most people inescapable. We can argue what constitutes “poverty” but I guarantee you it is stressful, and shortens lifespan. Those who are poor have always been people less smart, less creative, less able to fight for their rights. Some resort to desperation, others find solutions in criminal activity. Others resort to petty paranoid fantasies. Very few see the bigger picture, or foment ideals for a better and more functional society.
Let me use a simplified, somewhat prejudicial metaphor – in the dark ages meso-american (aztec, mayans) underclasses had no rights, were intimidated to a maximum degree (obey or we will cut your heart out on a big pyramid) – in the Roman era the patricians knew their superiority, and the underclasses were likewise scared shitless (obey or we publicly feed you to the lions). Both societies were demonstrative state machineries intent of publicly disempowering the already power-challenged. Those who protested died in gruesome displays of contempt.
I would assert there was a stage in Roman or Aztec society where people weren’t all that ruthless. Then one day things changed and suddenly these peoples were massively and systemically prone to organized ruthlessness. There was a mechanism in early Roman or Mayan or Aztec society that favoured public spectacles of sadism and superiority complex. I think this is a form of Fascist Imperialism and it is taking the assumptions of zero sum thinkig to the worst and most dehumanizing possible extreme.
The troubling question is – how far are our western, enlightened multicultural democratic societies on the fast track towards becoming slave societies? If so, the public executions of the inferior can’t be far off. Those who are stripped of rights and still have aspirations of suffrage (or freedom, or economic equality, or justice) will in such an escalatory catastrophe be publicly eradicated.
Mass media have become increasingly effective to disempower “constituents” in all existing states.
Nuff said. Current MSN have become the biggest traitors in recent history.
Empowered elites who maintain means of production as well as access to mineral resources will compete in not having to pay wages or taxes.
As a thought experiment, let’s assume that in the year 1990 we have 100% employment and of those people that have this employment their income represents 100%. If we plot these out on a chart we will find that in the last 20 years this has gotten pretty bad. I clearly vouch for the fact that all my life since 1985 my personal level of wealth (aside from the fruits of information technology, where my life pleasure has clearly increased) has steadily decreased. I had a few peaks, but the line for me, and for most people in the middle to lower classes of our society has been going down.
In effect we can safely say that we had a brief era of surreal societal growth, between 1960 and 1980, and after that this has been levelling off again. In fact – without modern media, internet, gaming and computers I’d had long since regarded my life as acutely miserable, and I am sure a large part of my readership is in agreement, or will soon realize the painful truth – despite of a number of technological panacea, the world is becoming less pleasant for most people.
This would be just too bad if we didn’t see an elite plucking fruits obscenely out of any balance. They can get away with it, because of three reasons.
1 – it is painful to protest, revolt or strike
2 – we have an incorrect idea that these rich people some way deserve what they have
3 – we assume that if we start a revolt society will collapse and we’ll all be worse off.
“No society is more than three meals away from revolution.”
We have clearly seen when society unravels and people had enough – rising food prices in the arabic world, large spurred on by a perfect storm of mismanagement and hubris, and people had enough. And this is moving north – food riots are likely this year or the next in Great Britain and large parts of the US. Our global systems are not functioning, and there is a simple explanation.
The rich have been increasingly able to shirk paying a fair share in taxes. We can make all the elaborate explanations, invoking credit swaps and oil and mortgages and consumer idiocy and outsourcing and sell-out politicians but the simple explanation is the buying power of you and me has been going down for the last decades. And the trend looks omnious.
And at the same time the only ones free to find alternatives will pay taxes elsewhere.
In a robustly automated society a monetary system of no consequence of those who have access to means of production.
Going from the mechanisms I describe above, what is the use to give people with power anything of value to people with no power? This is obvious and the main reason why the third world is still in many parts undeveloped and miserable after decades of growth anywhere else. Why give a damn> They are powerless. Let them rot. Mind you I would be the first to argue for a Marshall plan for most of the third world, but those in power would not agree.
We have come on a point in history with constraints everywhere.
I cannot emphasize this enough – why would those who have the power acknowledge the rights (or even the money) of those without power? Markets are irrelevant when we reach a certain point of power consolidation – at some point Iran will need all its oil for domestic use, and even if we bit a thousand dollars per barrel they will say “Nah”. This point has been reached for numerous minerals when it comes to China. We can all go around this is nationalization of natural resources – or we can whine it goes against globalization. Fact is those who have the power may see no reason to give a damn for the beggars at the door.
Once they do money means nothing, and that is precisely what we are saying. I am saying money is a worthless claim in a world where most people will see the inate value of their labour become less appreciated, to the point the vast majority of people will be left in an extremely confusing state where no amount of money will buy them a humane and acceptable life, and where no amount of democratic activism, protest or revolt will improve their situation.
I think such an uncanny situation in history can happen quite soon, 2020 earliest.
Corporations who havce access to minerals, energy and means of production can ‘secede’ from consumer markets.
Secession is a process where a minority of a bigger whole sees more benefits to an existence away from a collective. In the US there has been talk of state secession. In Europe there has been talk of a North European “Neuro“, or “New Euro”. (Que dystopian Gibson references, que references to necromancy animating the corpse of a transnational dream) This should not be regarded as anything new or orginal – a certain segment of society has been doing it for ages.
I go further and state that we have a massive global catastrophe for democracy. This has been pretty obvious after the movie “The Corporation” and it is getting worse.
Why would any pervasive, transnational entity or group of people who share unbridled access to resources be interested in local states, populations, governments, governments, taxes? We are seeing a world where all places, apart from a few tax havens, become fly over countries. We are seeing a segment of society secede, and we can now anticipate a moment in near history where this becomes irreversible.
In effect the brief period after WW2 was a momentary blip in human history where an uncommon amount of people had shared power and wealth. This was a unique period in human history – it may have been an unstable state, and we may witness the world revert to a global default feudal situation. It will be back to the Status Quo we have known for thousands of years.
Corporate states versus plebeian states.
There is an insidious competition going on between (a) countries that have low taxes, human rights, legal protections, worker rights (etc) and (b) countries that have strong laws, high taxes, humane welfare state infrastructures and acknowledge democratic principles. China, Singapore and India would be examples where the first is the order of the day. These are draconian, autocratic societies where at many levels of society “social darwinism” is more or less the norm. An example of a society that is racing fast towards ideal (a) is the US, but the butchers that advocate such a state of draconian nihilism can even be found in my own country. In my book this category of people know well what they are doing and they serve the interests of very small and mostly seceded elites. They may do so because they are morally corrupt. They may do so because they anticipate a big reward after their political career. They may do so because they truly believe in zero sum values, and think that we may have to sacrifice the comforts of some people to keep society functional.
If I am right these politicians are involved in the biggest betrayal of recent human history. They are collaborators to the end of democracy.
The end game of automation based corporate secession implies a collapse of democracy and the emergence of total corporate feudalism.
This is an escalatory process. We are moving into a world where we may lose whatever personal or legal empowerment we have received. Many may dull this statement as ‘overdramatization’. I don’t think it is. I am concerned we are facing a technologically bootstrapped era where democracy is no longer needed. In a world where we have machines doing most work, and various forms of Artificial Intelligence can outcompete nearly every single human who would own these machines? If the majority of current humans in democratic countries have to compete with automation based labour, what innate value do “workers” have? How low will wages deteriorate when we have 20%, 25%, 30%, 35% unemployment? How resentful will those who work be towards those who don’t (or can’t) ? These people can try and obfuscate technology driven unemployment for now, but when it is too late what means would we have to rectify any widespread imbalance? The end game of corporate secession implies an evolutionary funnel that will end in the vast majority of humanity living under third world conditions. The rich will live in very garish enclaves.
10 billion humans will be able to claim an increasingly limited share of available global energy diets.
What makes someone powerful happy? Obtain more power. Those who are in power right now have no reason to change the current flow of history. They (or their children) will still be rich and powerful in a world devoid of natural resources, oil, a pleasant environment, security, good food. In fact, if you look at it cynically, those rich will feel more empowered and validated to be obscenely rich, the more the world goes to hell.
There is no argument, other than an appeal to their basic human decency, that they would willingly change the current direction of transnational state evolution. How could they even agree to relinquish power? The only way humans in a state of absolute power relinquished their power was when the states they represented completely collapsed into barbarism.
Powerful humans have a miserable track record. And with technological trends moving towards some kind of end point, somewhere in the middle of this century, this state of affairs is playing games with the lives of the majority of humans on this planet. In a world close to a “Singularity” this may get a lot of people killed.
It is 2011 now. Let’s assume some kind of Singularity happens in 2046. – that’s as many years as there were between 1911 and 1946. A lot of misery can happen in the half century.
My main criticism with those advocating a technological Singularity, or advocating transhumanist solutions to current world problems close their eyes for the evidence that these same technologies, paired with widespread societal disparities, is turning out to be quite literally, an existential threat.
* Free Culture