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Socialist humanism has taken a very different course. Socialists blame liberals for focusing our attention on our own feelings instead of on what other people experience. Yes, the human experience is the source of all meaning, but there are billions of people in the world, and all of them are just as valuable as I am. Whereas liberalism turns my gaze inwards, emphasising my uniqueness and the uniqueness of my nation, socialism demands that I stop obsessing about me and my feelings and instead focus on what others are feeling and about how my actions influence their experiences. Global peace will be achieved not by celebrating the distinctiveness of each nation, but by unifying all the workers of the world; and social harmony won’t be achieved by each person narcissistically exploring their own inner depths, but rather by each person prioritising the needs and experiences of others over their own desires.
A liberal may reply that by exploring her own inner world she develops her compassion and her understanding of others, but such reasoning would have cut little ice with Lenin or Mao. They would have explained that individual self-exploration is a bourgeois indulgent vice, and that when I try to get in touch with my inner self, I am all too likely to fall into one or another capitalist trap. My current political views, my likes and dislikes, and my hobbies and ambitions do not reflect my authentic self. Rather, they reflect my upbringing and social surrounding. They depend on my class, and are shaped by my neighbourhood and my school. Rich and poor alike are brainwashed from birth. The rich are taught to disregard the poor, while the poor are taught to disregard their true interests. No amount of self-reflection or psychotherapy will help, because the psychotherapists are also working for the capitalist system.
Indeed, self-reflection is likely only to distance me even further from understanding the truth about myself, because it gives too much credit to personal decisions and too little credit to social conditions. If I am rich, I am likely to conclude that it is because I made wise choices. If I suffer from poverty, I must have made some mistakes. If I am depressed, a liberal therapist is likely to blame my parents, and to encourage me to set some new aims in life. If I suggest that perhaps I am depressed because I am being exploited by capitalists, and because under the prevailing social system I have no chance of realising my aims, the therapist may well say that I am projecting onto ‘the social system’ my own inner difficulties, and I am projecting onto ‘the capitalists’ unresolved issues with my mother.
According to socialism, instead of spending years talking about my mother, my emotions and my complexes, I should ask myself: who owns the means of production in my country? What are its main exports and imports? What’s the connection between the ruling politicians and international banking? Only by understanding the surrounding socio-economic system and taking into account the experiences of all other people could I truly understand what I feel, and only by common action can we change the system. Yet what person can take into account the experiences of all human beings, and weigh them one against the other in a fair way?
That’s why socialists discourage self-exploration, and advocate the establishment of strong collective institutions – such as socialist parties and trade unions – that aim to decipher the world for us. Whereas in liberal politics the voter knows best, and in liberal economics the customer is always right, in socialist politics the party knows best, and in socialist economics the trade union is always right. Authority and meaning still come from human experience – both the party and the trade union are composed of people and work to alleviate human misery – yet individuals must listen to the party and the trade union rather than to their personal feelings.
Evolutionary humanism has a different solution to the problem of conflicting human experiences. Rooting itself in the firm ground of Darwinian evolutionary theory, it says that conflict is something to applaud rather than lament. Conflict is the raw material of natural selection, which pushes evolution forward. Some humans are simply superior to others, and when human experiences collide, the fittest humans should steamroll everyone else. The same logic that drives humankind to exterminate wild wolves and to ruthlessly exploit domesticated sheep also mandates the oppression of inferior humans by their superiors. It’s a good thing that Europeans conquer Africans and that shrewd businessmen drive the dim-witted to bankruptcy. If we follow this evolutionary logic, humankind will gradually become stronger and fitter, eventually giving rise to superhumans. Evolution didn’t stop with Homo sapiens – there is still a long way to go. However, if in the name of human rights or human equality we emasculate the fittest humans, it will prevent the rise of the superman, and may even cause the degeneration and extinction of Homo sapiens.
Who exactly are these superior humans who herald the coming of the superman? They might be entire races, particular tribes or exceptional individual geniuses. In any case, what makes them superior is that they have better abilities, manifested in the creation of new knowledge, more advanced technology, more prosperous societies or more beautiful art. The experience of an Einstein or a Beethoven is far more valuable than that of a drunken good-for-nothing, and it is ludicrous to treat them as if they have equal merit. Similarly, if a particular nation has consistently spearheaded human progress, we should rightly consider it superior to other nations that contributed little or nothing to the evolution of humankind.
Consequently, in contrast to liberal artists like Otto Dix, evolutionary humanism thinks that the human experience of war is valuable and even essential. The movie The Third Man takes place in Vienna immediately after the end of the Second World War. Reflecting on the recent conflict, the character Harry Lime says: ‘After all, it’s not that awful . . . In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.’ Lime gets almost all his facts wrong – Switzerland was probably the most bloodthirsty corner of early modern Europe (its main export was mercenary soldiers), and the cuckoo clock was actually invented by the Germans – but the facts are of lesser importance than Lime’s idea, namely that the experience of war pushes humankind to new achievements. War allows natural selection free rein at last. It exterminates the weak and rewards the fierce and the ambitious. War exposes the truth about life, and awakens the will for power, for glory and for conquest. Nietzsche summed it up by saying that war is ‘the school of life’ and that ‘what does not kill me makes me stronger’.
Similar ideas were expressed by Lieutenant Henry Jones of the British army. Three days before his death on the Western Front in the First World War, the twenty-one-year-old Jones sent a letter to his brother, describing the experience of war in glowing terms:
Have you ever reflected on the fact that, despite the horrors of war, it is at least a big thing? I mean to say that in it one is brought face to face with realities. The follies, selfishness, luxury and general pettiness of the vile commercial sort of existence led by nine-tenths of the people of the world in peacetime are replaced in war by a savagery that is at least more honest and outspoken. Look at it this way: in peacetime one just lives one’s own little life, engaged in trivialities, worrying about one’s own comfort, about money matters, and all that sort of thing – just living for one’s own self. What a sordid life it is! In war, on the other hand, even if you do get killed you only anticipate the inevitable by a few years in any case, and you have the satisfaction of knowing that you have ‘pegged out’ in the attempt to help your country. You have, in fact, realised an ideal, which, as far as I can see, you very rarely do in ordinary life. The reason is that ordinary life runs on a commercial and selfish basis; if you want to ‘get on’, as the saying is, you can’t keep your hands clean.
Personally, I often rejoice that the War has come my way. It has made me realise what a petty thing life is. I think that the War has given to everyone a chance to ‘get out of himself’, as I might say . . . Certainly, speaking for myself, I can say that I have never in all my life experienced such a wild exhilaration as on the commencement of a big stunt, like the last April one for example. The excitement for the last half-hour or so before it is like nothing on earth.
In his bestseller Black Hawk Down, the journalist Mark Bowden relates in similar terms the combat experience of Shawn Nelson, an American soldier, in Mogadishu in 1993:
It was hard to describe how he felt . . . it was like an epiphany. Close to death, he had never felt so completely alive. There had been split seconds in his life when he’d felt death brush past, like when another fast-moving car veered from around a sharp curve and just missed hitting him head on. On this day he had lived with that feeling, with death breathing right in his face . . . for moment after moment after moment, for three hours or more . . . Combat was . . . a state of complete mental and physical awareness. In those hours on the street he had not been Shawn Nelson, he had no connection to the larger world, no bills to pay, no emotional ties, nothing. He had just been a human being staying alive from one nanosecond to the next, drawing one breath after another, fully aware that each one might be his last. He felt he would never be the same.10 Adolf Hitler too was changed and enlightened by his war experiences. In Mein Kampf, he tells how shortly after his unit reached the front line, the soldiers’ initial enthusiasm turned into fear, against which each soldier had to wage a relentless inner war, straining every nerve to avoid being overwhelmed by it. Hitler says that he won this inner war by the winter of 1915/16. ‘At last,’ he writes, ‘my will was undisputed master . . . I was now calm and determined. And this was enduring. Now Fate could bring on the ultimate tests without my nerves shattering or my reason failing.’11 The experience of war revealed to Hitler the truth about the world: it is a jungle run by the remorseless laws of natural selection. Those who refuse to recognise this truth cannot survive. If you wish to succeed, you must not only understand the laws of the jungle, but embrace them joyfully. It should be stressed that just like the anti-war liberal artists, Hitler too sanctified the experience of ordinary soldiers. Indeed, Hitler’s political career is one of the best examples we have for the immense authority accorded to the personal experience of common people in twentieth-century politics. Hitler wasn’t a senior officer – in four years of war, he rose no higher than the rank of corporal. He had no formal education, no professional skills and no political background. He wasn’t a successful businessman or a union activist, he didn’t have friends or relatives in high places, or any money to speak of. At first, he didn’t even have German citizenship. He was a penniless immigrant.
When Hitler appealed to the German voters and asked for their trust, he could muster only one argument in his favour: his experiences in the trenches had taught him what you can never learn at university, at general headquarters or at a government ministry. People followed him, and voted for him, because they identified with him, and because they too believed that the world is a jungle, and that what doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger.
Whereas liberalism merged with the milder versions of nationalism to protect the unique experiences of each human community, evolutionary humanists such as Hitler identified particular nations as the engines of human progress, and concluded that these nations ought to bludgeon or even exterminate anyone standing in their way. It should be remembered, though, that Hitler and the Nazis represent only one extreme version of evolutionary humanism. Just as Stalin’s gulags do not automatically nullify every socialist idea and argument, so too the horrors of Nazism should not blind us to whatever insights evolutionary humanism might offer. Nazism was born from the pairing of evolutionary humanism with particular racial theories and ultra-nationalist emotions. Not all evolutionary humanists are racists, and not every belief in humankind’s potential for further evolution necessarily calls for setting up police states and concentration camps.
Auschwitz should serve as a blood-red warning sign rather than as a black curtain that hides entire sections of the human horizon. Evolutionary humanism played an important part in the shaping of modern culture, and it is likely to play an even greater role in the shaping of the twenty-first century.
Is Beethoven Better than Chuck Berry?
To make sure we understand the difference between the three humanist branches, let’s compare a few human experiences.
Experience no. 1: A musicology professor sits in the Vienna Opera House, listening to the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. ‘Pa pa pa PAM!’ As the sound waves hit his eardrums, signals travel via the auditory nerve to the brain, and the adrenal gland floods his bloodstream with adrenaline. His heartbeat accelerates, his breathing intensifies, the hairs on his neck stand up, and a shiver runs down his spine. ‘Pa pa pa PAM!’
Experience no. 2: It’s 1965. A Mustang convertible is speeding down the Pacific road from San Francisco to LA at full throttle. The young macho driver puts on Chuck Berry at full volume: ‘Go! Go, Johnny, go, go!’ As the sound waves hit his eardrums, signals travel via the auditory nerve to the brain, and the adrenal gland floods his bloodstream with adrenaline. His heartbeat accelerates, his breathing intensifies, the hairs on his neck stand up, and a shiver runs down his spine. ‘Go! Go, Johnny, go, go!’
Experience no. 3: Deep in the Congolese rainforest, a pygmy hunter stands transfixed. From the nearby village, he hears a choir of girls singing their initiation song. ‘Ye oh, oh. Ye oh, eh.’ As the sound waves hit his eardrums, signals travel via the auditory nerve to the brain, and the adrenal gland floods his bloodstream with adrenaline. His heartbeat accelerates, his breathing intensifies, the hairs on his neck stand up, and a shiver runs down his spine. ‘Ye oh, oh. Ye oh, eh.’
Experience no. 4: It’s a full-moon night, somewhere in the Canadian Rockies. A wolf is standing on a hilltop, listening to the howls of a female in heat. ‘Awoooooo! Awoooooo!’ As the sound waves hit his eardrums, signals travel via the auditory nerve to the brain, and the adrenal gland floods his bloodstream with adrenaline. His heartbeat accelerates, his breathing intensifies, the hairs on his neck stand up, and a shiver runs down his spine. ‘Awoooooo! Awoooooo!’
Which of these four experiences is the most valuable?
If you are liberal, you will tend to say that the experiences of the musicology professor, of the young driver and of the Congolese hunter are all equally valuable, and all should be equally cherished. Every human experience contributes something unique, and enriches the world with new meaning. Some people like classical music, others love rock and roll, and still others prefer traditional African chants. Music students should be exposed to the widest possible range of genres, and at the end of the day, everyone could go to the iTunes store, punch in their credit card number and buy what they like. Beauty is in the ears of the listener, and the customer is always right. The wolf, though, isn’t human, hence his experiences are far less valuable. That’s why the life of a wolf is worth less than the life of a human, and why it is perfectly okay to kill a wolf in order to save a human. When all is said and done, wolves don’t get to vote in any beauty contests, nor do they hold any credit cards.
This liberal approach is manifested, for example, in the Voyager golden record. In 1977 the Americans launched the space probe Voyager I on a journey to outer space. By now it has left the solar system, making it the first man-made object to traverse interstellar space. Besides state-of-the-art scientific equipment, NASA placed on board a golden record, aimed to introduce planet Earth to any inquisitive aliens who might encounter the probe.
The record contains a variety of scientific and cultural information about Earth and its inhabitants, some images and voices, and several dozen pieces of music from around the world, which are supposed to represent a fair sample of earthly artistic achievement. The musical sample mixes in no obvious order classical pieces including the opening movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, contemporary popular music including Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B. Goode’, and traditional music from throughout the world, including an initiation song of Congolese pygmy girls. Though the record also contains some canine howls, they are not part of the music sample, but rather relegated to a different section that also includes the sounds of wind, rain and surf. The message to potential listeners in Alpha Centauri is that Beethoven, Chuck Berry and the pygmy initiation song are of equal merit, whereas wolf howls belong to an altogether different category.
If you are socialist, you will probably agree with the liberals that the wolf’s experience is of little value. But your attitude towards the three human experiences will be quite different. A socialist true-believer will explain that the real value of music depends not on the experiences of the individual listener, but on the impact it has on the experiences of other people and of society as a whole. As Mao said, ‘There is no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics.’12
So when coming to evaluate the musical experiences, a socialist will focus, for example, on the fact that Beethoven wrote the Fifth Symphony for an audience of upper-class white Europeans, exactly when Europe was about to embark on its conquest of Africa. His symphony reflected Enlightenment ideals, which glorified upper-class white men, and branded the conquest of Africa as ‘the white man’s burden’.
Rock and roll – the socialists will say – was pioneered by downtrodden African American musicians who drew inspiration from genres like blues, jazz and gospel. However, in the 1950s and 1960s rock and roll was hijacked by mainstream white America, and pressed into the service of consumerism, of American imperialism and of Coca-Colonisation. Rock and roll was commercialised and appropriated by privileged white teenagers in their petit-bourgeois fantasy of rebellion. Chuck Berry himself bowed to the dictates of the capitalist juggernaut. While he originally sang about ‘a coloured boy named Johnny B. Goode’, under pressure from white-owned radio stations Berry changed the lyrics to ‘a country boy named Johnny B. Goode’.
As for the choir of Congolese pygmy girls – their initiation songs are part of a patriarchal power structure that brainwashes both men and women to conform to an oppressive gender order. And if a recording of such an initiation song ever makes it to the global marketplace, it merely serves to reinforce Western colonial fantasies about Africa in general and about African women in particular.
So which music is best: Beethoven’s Fifth, ‘Johnny B. Goode’ or the pygmy initiation song? Should the government finance the building of opera houses, rock and roll venues or African-heritage exhibitions? And what should we teach music students in schools and colleges? Well, don’t ask me. Ask the party’s cultural commissar.
Whereas liberals tiptoe around the minefield of cultural comparisons, fearful of committing some politically incorrect faux pas, and whereas socialists leave it to the party to find the right path through the minefield, evolutionary humanists gleefully jump right in, setting off all the mines and relishing the mayhem. They may start by pointing out that both liberals and socialists draw the line at other animals, and have no trouble admitting that humans are superior to wolves, and that consequently human music is far more valuable than wolf howls. Yet humankind itself is not exempt from the forces of evolution. Just as humans are superior to wolves, so some human cultures are more advanced than others. There is an unambiguous hierarchy of human experiences, and we shouldn’t be apologetic about it. The Taj Mahal is more beautiful than a straw hut, Michelangelo’s David is superior to my five-year-old niece’s latest clay figurine, and Beethoven composed far better music than Chuck Berry or the Congolese pygmies. There, we’ve said it!
According to evolutionary humanists, anyone arguing that all human experiences are equally valuable is either an imbecile or a coward. Such vulgarity and timidity will lead only to the degeneration and extinction of humankind, as human progress is impeded in the name of cultural relativism or social equality. If liberals or socialists had lived in the Stone Age, they would probably have seen little merit in the murals of Lascaux and Altamira, and would have insisted that they are in no way superior to Neanderthal doodles.
The Humanist Wars of Religion
Initially, the differences between liberal humanism, socialist humanism and evolutionary humanism seemed rather frivolous. Set against the enormous gap separating all humanist sects from Christianity, Islam or Hinduism, the arguments between different versions of humanism were trifling. As long as we all agree that God is dead and that only the human experience gives meaning to the universe, does it really matter whether we think that all human experiences are equal or that some are superior to others? Yet as humanism conquered the world, these internal schisms widened, and eventually flared up into the deadliest war of religion in history.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, the liberal orthodoxy was still confident of its strength. Liberals were convinced that if we only gave individuals maximum freedom to express themselves and follow their hearts, the world would enjoy unprecedented peace and prosperity. It may take time to completely dismantle the fetters of traditional hierarchies, obscurantist religions and brutal empires, but every decade would bring new liberties and achievements, and eventually we would create paradise on earth. In the halcyon days of June 1914, liberals thought history was on their side.
By Christmas 1914 liberals were shell-shocked, and in the following decades their ideas were subjected to a double assault from both left and right. Socialists argued that liberalism is in fact a fig leaf for a ruthless, exploitative and racist system. For vaunted ‘liberty’, read ‘property’. The defence of the individual’s right to do what feels good amounts in most cases to safeguarding the property and privileges of the middle and upper classes. What good is the liberty to live where you want, when you cannot pay the rent; to study what interests you, when you cannot afford the tuition fees; and to travel where you fancy, when you cannot buy a car? Under liberalism, went a famous quip, everyone is free to starve. Even worse, by encouraging people to view themselves as isolated individuals, liberalism separates them from their other class members, and prevents them from uniting against the system that oppresses them. Liberalism thereby perpetuates inequality, condemning the masses to poverty and the elite to alienation.
While liberalism staggered under this left punch, evolutionary humanism struck from the right. Racists and fascists blamed both liberalism and socialism for subverting natural selection and causing the degeneration of humankind. They warned that if all humans were given equal value and equal breeding opportunities, natural selection would cease to function. The fittest humans would be submerged in an ocean of mediocrity, and instead of evolving into superman, humankind would become extinct.
From 1914 to 1989 a murderous war of religion raged between the three humanist sects, and liberalism at first sustained one defeat after the other. Not only did communist and fascist regimes take over numerous countries, but the core liberal ideas were exposed as naïve at best, if not downright dangerous. Just give freedom to individuals and the world will enjoy peace and prosperity? Yeah, right.
The Second World War, which with hindsight we remember as a great liberal victory, hardly looked like that at the time. The war began as a conflict between a mighty liberal alliance and an isolated Nazi Germany. (Until June 1940, even Fascist Italy preferred to play a waiting game.) The liberal alliance enjoyed overwhelming numerical and economic superiority. While German GDP in 1940 stood at $387 million, the GDP of Germany’s European opponents totalled $631 million (not including the GDP of the overseas British dominions and of the British, French, Dutch and Belgian empires). Still, in the spring of 1940 it took Germany a mere three months to deal the liberal alliance a decisive blow, and occupy France, the Low Countries, Norway and Denmark. The UK was saved from a similar fate only by the English Channel.13 The Germans were eventually beaten only when the liberal countries allied themselves with the Soviet Union, which bore the brunt of the conflict and paid a much higher price: 25 million Soviet citizens died in the war, compared to half a million Britons and half a million Americans. Much of the credit for defeating Nazism should be given to communism. And at least in the short term, communism was also the great beneficiary of the war.
The Soviet Union entered the war as an isolated communist pariah. It emerged as one of the two global superpowers, and the leader of an expanding international bloc. By 1949 eastern Europe became a Soviet satellite, the Chinese Communist Party won the Chinese Civil War, and the United States was gripped by anti-communist hysteria. Revolutionary and anti-colonial movements throughout the world looked longingly towards Moscow and Beijing, while liberalism became identified with the racist European empires. As these empires collapsed, they were usually replaced by either military dictatorships or socialist regimes, not liberal democracies. In 1956 the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, confidently told the liberal West that ‘Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you!’ Khrushchev sincerely believed this, as did increasing numbers of Third World leaders and First World intellectuals. In the 1960s and 1970s the word ‘liberal’ became a term of abuse in many Western universities. North America and western Europe experienced growing social unrest, as radical left-wing movements strove to undermine the liberal order. Students in Paris, London, Rome and the People’s Republic of Berkeley thumbed through Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, and hung Che Guevara’s heroic portrait over their beds. In 1968 the wave crested with the outbreak of protests and riots all over the Western world. Mexican security forces killed dozens of students in the notorious Tlatelolco Massacre, students in Rome fought the Italian police in the so-called Battle of Valle Giulia, and the assassination of Martin Luther King sparked days of riots and protests in more than a hundred American cities. In May students took over the streets of Paris, President de Gaulle fled to a French military base in Germany, and well-to-do French citizens trembled in their beds, having guillotine nightmares.
By 1970 the world contained 130 independent countries, but only thirty of these were liberal democracies, most of which were crammed into the north-western corner of Europe. India was the only important Third World country that committed to the liberal path after securing its independence, but even India distanced itself from the Western bloc, and leaned towards the Soviets.
In 1975 the liberal camp suffered its most humiliating defeat of all: the Vietnam War ended with the North Vietnamese David overcoming the American Goliath. In quick succession communism took over South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. On 17 April 1975 the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, fell to the Khmer Rouge. Two weeks later, people all over the world watched as helicopters evacuated the last Yankees from the rooftop of the American Embassy in Saigon. Many were certain that the American Empire was falling. Before anyone could say ‘domino theory’, on 25 June Indira Gandhi proclaimed the Emergency in India, and it seemed that the world’s largest democracy was on its way to becoming yet another socialist dictatorship.
Liberal democracy increasingly looked like an exclusive club for ageing white imperialists, who had little to offer the rest of the world, or even their own youth. Washington presented itself as the leader of the free world, but most of its allies were either authoritarian kings (such as King Khaled of Saudi Arabia, King Hassan of Morocco and the Persian shah) or military dictators (such as the Greek colonels, General Pinochet in Chile, General Franco in Spain, General Park in South Korea, General Geisel in Brazil and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan).
Despite the support of all these colonels and generals, militarily the Warsaw Pact had a huge numerical superiority over NATO. In order to reach parity in conventional armament, Western countries would probably have had to scrap liberal democracy and the free market, and become totalitarian states on a permanent war footing. Liberal democracy was saved only by nuclear weapons. NATO adopted the doctrine of MAD (mutual assured destruction), according to which even conventional Soviet attacks would be answered by an all-out nuclear strike. ‘If you attack us,’ threatened the liberals, ‘we will make sure nobody comes out of it alive.’ Behind this monstrous shield, liberal democracy and the free market managed to hold out in their last bastions, and Westerners could enjoy s@x, drugs and rock and roll, as well as washing machines, refrigerators and televisions. Without nukes, there would have been no Woodstock, no Beatles and no overflowing supermarkets. But in the mid-1970s it seemed that nuclear weapons notwithstanding, the future belonged to socialism.
And then everything changed. Liberal democracy crawled out of history’s dustbin, cleaned itself up and conquered the world. The supermarket proved to be far stronger than the gulag. The blitzkrieg began in southern Europe, where the authoritarian regimes in Greece, Spain and Portugal collapsed, giving way to democratic governments. In 1977 Indira Gandhi ended the Emergency, re-establishing democracy in India. During the 1980s military dictatorships in East Asia and Latin America were replaced by democratic governments in countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Taiwan and South Korea. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the liberal wave turned into a veritable tsunami, sweeping away the mighty Soviet Empire, and raising expectations of the coming end of history. After decades of defeats and setbacks, liberalism won a decisive victory in the Cold War, emerging triumphant from the humanist wars of religion, albeit a bit worse for wear.
As the Soviet Empire imploded, liberal democracies replaced communist regimes not only in eastern Europe, but also in many of the former Soviet republics, such as the Baltic States, Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia. Even Russia nowadays pretends to be a democracy. Victory in the Cold War gave renewed impetus for the spread of the liberal model elsewhere around the world, most notably in Latin America, South Asia and Africa. Some liberal experiments ended in abject failures, but the number of success stories is impressive. For instance, Indonesia, Nigeria and Chile have been ruled by military strongmen for decades, but all are now functioning democracies.
If a liberal had fallen asleep in June 1914 and woken up in June 2014, he or she would have felt very much at home. Once again people believe that if you just give individuals more freedom, the world will enjoy peace and prosperity. The entire twentieth century looks like a big mistake. Humankind was speeding on the liberal highway back in the summer of 1914, when it took a wrong turn and entered a cul-de-sac. It then needed eight decades and three horrendous global wars to find its way back to the highway. Of course, these decades were not a total waste, as they did give us antibiotics, nuclear energy and computers, as well as feminism, de-colonialism and free s@x. In addition, liberalism itself smarted from the experience, and is less conceited than it was a century ago. It has adopted various ideas and institutions from its socialist and fascist rivals, in particular a commitment to provide the general public with education, health and welfare services. Yet the core liberal package has changed surprisingly little. Liberalism still sanctifies individual liberties above all, and still has a firm belief in the voter and the customer. In the early twenty-first century, this is the only show in town.
Electricity, Genetics and Radical Islam
As of 2016, there is no serious alternative to the liberal package of individualism, human rights, democracy and a free market. The social protests that swept the Western world in 2011 – such as Occupy Wall Street and the Spanish 15-M movement – have absolutely nothing against democracy, individualism and human rights, or even against the basic principles of free-market economics. Just the opposite – they take governments to task for not living up to these liberal ideals. They demand that the market be really free, instead of being controlled and manipulated by corporations and banks ‘too big to fail’. They call for truly representative democratic institutions, which will serve the interests of ordinary citizens rather than of moneyed lobbyists and powerful interest groups. Even those blasting stock exchanges and parliaments with the harshest criticism don’t have a viable alternative model for running the world. While it is a favourite pastime of Western academics and activists to find fault with the liberal package, they have so far failed to come up with anything better.
China seems to offer a much more serious challenge than Western social protestors. Despite liberalising its politics and economics, China is neither a democracy nor a truly free-market economy, which does not prevent it from becoming the economic giant of the twenty-first century. Yet this economic giant casts a very small ideological shadow. Nobody seems to know what the Chinese believe these days – including the Chinese themselves. In theory China is still communist, but in practice it is nothing of the kind. Some Chinese thinkers and leaders toy with a return to Confucianism, but that’s hardly more than a convenient veneer. This ideological vacuum makes China the most promising breeding ground for the new techno-religions emerging from Silicon Valley (which we will discuss in the following chapters). But these techno-religions, with their belief in immortality and virtual paradises, would take at least a decade or two to establish themselves. Hence at present, China doesn’t pose a real alternative to liberalism. If bankrupted Greeks despair of the liberal model and search for a substitute, ‘imitating the Chinese’ doesn’t mean much.
How about radical Islam, then? Or fundamentalist Christianity, messianic Judaism and revivalist Hinduism? Whereas the Chinese don’t know what they believe, religious fundamentalists know it only too well. More than a century after Nietzsche pronounced Him dead, God seems to be making a comeback. But this is a mirage. God is dead – it just takes a while to get rid of the body. Radical Islam poses no serious threat to the liberal package, because for all their fervour, the zealots don’t really understand the world of the twenty-first century, and have nothing relevant to say about the novel dangers and opportunities that new technologies are generating all around us.
Religion and technology always dance a delicate tango. They push one another, depend on one another and cannot stray too far away from one another. Technology depends on religion, because every invention has many potential applications, and the engineers need some prophet to make the crucial choice and point towards the required destination. Thus in the nineteenth century engineers invented locomotives, radios and internal combustion engines. But as the twentieth century proved, you can use these very same tools to create fascist societies, communist dictatorships and liberal democracies. Without some religious convictions, the locomotives cannot decide where to go.
On the other hand, technology often defines the scope and limits of our religious visions, like a waiter that demarcates our appetites by handing us a menu. New technologies kill old gods and give birth to new gods. That’s why agricultural deities were different from hunter-gatherer spirits, why factory hands fantasise about different paradises than peasants and why the revolutionary technologies of the twenty-first century are far more likely to spawn unprecedented religious movements than to revive medieval creeds. Islamic fundamentalists may repeat the mantra that ‘Islam is the answer’, but religions that lose touch with the technological realities of the day lose their ability even to understand the questions being asked. What will happen to the job market once artificial intelligence outperforms humans in most cognitive tasks? What will be the political impact of a massive new class of economically useless people? What will happen to relationships, families and pension funds when nanotechnology and regenerative medicine turn eighty into the new fifty? What will happen to human society when biotechnology enables us to have designer babies, and to open unprecedented gaps between rich and poor?
You will not find the answers to any of these questions in the Qur’an or sharia law, nor in the Bible or in the Confucian Analects, because nobody in the medieval Middle East or in ancient China knew much about computers, genetics or nanotechnology. Radical Islam may promise an anchor of certainty in a world of technological and economic storms – but in order to navigate a storm, you need a map and a rudder rather than just an anchor. Hence radical Islam may appeal to people born and raised in its fold, but it has precious little to offer unemployed Spanish youths or anxious Chinese billionaires.
True, hundreds of millions may nevertheless go on believing in Islam, Christianity or Hinduism. But numbers alone don’t count for much in history. History is often shaped by small groups of forward-looking innovators rather than by the backward-looking masses. Ten thousand years ago most people were hunter-gatherers and only a few pioneers in the Middle East were farmers. Yet the future belonged to the farmers. In 1850 more than 90 per cent of humans were peasants, and in the small villages along the Ganges, the Nile and the Yangtze nobody knew anything about steam engines, railroads or telegraph lines. Yet the fate of these peasants had already been sealed in Manchester and Birmingham by the handful of engineers, politicians and financiers who spearheaded the Industrial Revolution. Steam engines, railroads and telegraphs transformed the production of food, textiles, vehicles and weapons, giving industrial powers a decisive edge over traditional agricultural societies.
Even when the Industrial Revolution spread around the world and penetrated up the Ganges, Nile and Yangtze, most people continued to believe in the Vedas, the Bible, the Qur’an and the Analects more than in the steam engine. As today, so too in the nineteenth century there was no shortage of priests, mystics and gurus who argued that they alone hold the solution to all of humanity’s woes, including to the new problems created by the Industrial Revolution. For example, between the 1820s and 1880s Egypt (backed by Britain) conquered Sudan, and tried to modernise the country and incorporate it into the new international trade network. This destabilised traditional Sudanese society, creating widespread resentment and fostering revolts. In 1881 a local religious leader, Muhammad Ahmad bin Abdallah, declared that he was the Mahdi (the Messiah), sent to establish the law of God on earth. His supporters defeated the Anglo-Egyptian army, and beheaded its commander – General Charles Gordon – in a gesture that shocked Victorian Britain. They then established in Sudan an Islamic theocracy governed by sharia law, which lasted until 1898.
Meanwhile in India, Dayananda Saraswati headed a Hindu revival movement, whose basic principle was that the Vedic scriptures are never wrong. In 1875 he founded the Arya Samaj (Noble Society), dedicated to the spreading of Vedic knowledge – though truth be told, Dayananda often interpreted the Vedas in a surprisingly liberal way, supporting for example equal rights for women long before the idea became popular in the West.
Dayananda’s contemporary, Pope Pius IX, had much more conservative views about women, but shared Dayananda’s admiration for superhuman authority. Pius led a series of reforms in Catholic dogma, and established the novel principle of papal infallibility, according to which the Pope can never err in matters of faith (this seemingly medieval idea became binding Catholic dogma only in 1870, eleven years after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species).
Thirty years before the Pope discovered that he is incapable of making mistakes, a failed Chinese scholar called Hong Xiuquan had a succession of religious visions. In these visions, God revealed that Hong was none other than the younger brother of Jesus Christ. God then invested Hong with a divine mission. He told Hong to expel the Manchu ‘demons’ that had ruled China since the seventeenth century, and establish on earth the Great Peaceful Kingdom of Heaven (Taiping Tiānguó). Hong’s message fired the imagination of millions of desperate Chinese, who were shaken by China’s defeats in the Opium Wars and by the coming of modern industry and European imperialism. But Hong did not lead them to a kingdom of peace. Rather, he led them against the Manchu Qing dynasty in the Taiping Rebellion – the deadliest war of the nineteenth century. From 1850 to 1864, at least 20 million people lost their lives; far more than in the Napoleonic Wars or in the American Civil War.
Hundreds of millions clung to the religious dogmas of Hong, Dayananda, Pius and the Mahdi even as industrial factories, railroads and steamships filled the world. Yet most of us don’t think about the nineteenth century as the age of faith. When we think of nineteenth-century visionaries, we are far more likely to recall Marx, Engels and Lenin than the Mahdi, Pius IX or Hong Xiuquan. And rightly so. Though in 1850 socialism was only a fringe movement, it soon gathered momentum, and changed the world in far more profound ways than the self-proclaimed messiahs of China and Sudan. If you count on national health services, pension funds and free schools, you need to thank Marx and Lenin (and Otto von Bismarck) far more than Hong Xiuquan or the Mahdi.
Why did Marx and Lenin succeed where Hong and the Mahdi failed? Not because socialist humanism was philosophically more sophisticated than Islamic and Christian theology, but rather because Marx and Lenin devoted more attention to understanding the technological and economic realities of their time than to perusing ancient texts and prophetic dreams. Steam engines, railroads, telegraphs and electricity created unheard-of problems as well as unprecedented opportunities. The experiences, needs and hopes of the new class of urban proletariats were simply too different from those of biblical peasants. To answer these needs and hopes, Marx and Lenin studied how a steam engine functions, how a coal mine operates, how railroads shape the economy and how electricity influences politics.
Lenin was once asked to define communism in a single sentence. ‘Communism is power to worker councils,’ he said, ‘plus electrification of the whole country.’ There can be no communism without electricity, without railroads, without radio. You couldn’t establish a communist regime in sixteenth-century Russia, because communism necessitates the concentration of information and resources in one hub. ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’ only works when produce can easily be collected and distributed across vast distances, and when activities can be monitored and coordinated over entire countries.
Marx and his followers understood the new technological realities and the new human experiences, so they had relevant answers to the new problems of industrial society, as well as original ideas about how to benefit from the unprecedented opportunities. The socialists created a brave new religion for a brave new world. They promised salvation through technology and economics, thus establishing the first techno-religion in history, and changing the foundations of ideological discourse. Before Marx, people defined and divided themselves according to their views about God, not about production methods. Since Marx, questions of technology and economic structure became far more important and divisive than debates about the soul and the afterlife. In the second half of the twentieth century, humankind almost obliterated itself in an argument about production methods. Even the harshest critics of Marx and Lenin adopted their basic attitude towards history and society, and began thinking about technology and production much more carefully than about God and heaven.
In the mid-nineteenth century, few people were as perceptive as Marx, hence only a few countries underwent rapid industrialisation. These few countries conquered the world. Most societies failed to understand what was happening, and they therefore missed the train of progress. Dayananda’s India and the Mahdi’s Sudan remained far more preoccupied with God than with steam engines, hence they were occupied and exploited by industrial Britain. Only in the last few years has India managed to make significant progress in closing the economic and geopolitical gap separating it from Britain. Sudan is still struggling far behind.
In the early twenty-first century the train of progress is again pulling out of the station – and this will probably be the last train ever to leave the station called Homo sapiens. Those who miss this train will never get a second chance. In order to get a seat on it, you need to understand twenty-first-century technology, and in particular the powers of biotechnology and computer algorithms. These powers are far more potent than steam and the telegraph, and they will not be used merely for the production of food, textiles, vehicles and weapons. The main products of the twenty-first century will be bodies, brains and minds, and the gap between those who know how to engineer bodies and brains and those who do not will be far bigger than the gap between di@kens’s Britain and the Mahdi’s Sudan. Indeed, it will be bigger than the gap between Sapiens and Neanderthals. In the twenty-first century, those who ride the train of progress will acquire divine abilities of creation and destruction, while those left behind will face extinction.
Socialism, which was very up to date a hundred years ago, failed to keep up with the new technology. Leonid Brezhnev and Fidel Castro held on to ideas that Marx and Lenin formulated in the age of steam, and did not understand the power of computers and biotechnology. Liberals, in contrast, adapted far better to the information age. This partly explains why Khrushchev’s 1956 prediction never materialised, and why it was the liberal capitalists who eventually buried the Marxists. If Marx came back to life today, he would probably urge his few remaining disciples to devote less time to reading Das Kapital and more time to studying the Internet and the human genome.
Radical Islam is in a far worse position than socialism. It has not yet even come to terms with the Industrial Revolution – no wonder it has little of relevance to say about genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. Islam, Christianity and other traditional religions are still important players in the world. Yet their role is now largely reactive. In the past, they were a creative force. Christianity, for example, spread the hitherto heretical idea that all humans are equal before God, thereby changing human political structures, social hierarchies and even gender relations. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus went further, insisting that the meek and oppressed are God’s favourite people, thus turning the pyramid of power on its head, and providing ammunition for generations of revolutionaries.
In addition to social and ethical reforms, Christianity was responsible for important economic and technological innovations. The Catholic Church established medieval Europe’s most sophisticated administrative system, and pioneered the use of archives, catalogues, timetables and other techniques of data processing. The Vatican was the closest thing twelfth-century Europe had to Silicon Valley. The Church established Europe’s first economic corporations – the monasteries – which for 1,000 years spearheaded the European economy and introduced advanced agricultural and administrative methods. Monasteries were the first institutions to use clocks, and for centuries they and the cathedral schools were the most important learning centres of Europe, helping to found many of Europe’s first universities, such as Bologna, Oxford and Salamanca.
Today the Catholic Church continues to enjoy the loyalties and tithes of hundreds of millions of followers. Yet it and the other theist religions have long since turned from a creative into a reactive force. They are busy with rearguard holding operations more than with pioneering novel technologies, innovative economic methods or groundbreaking social ideas. They now mostly agonise over the technologies, methods and ideas propagated by other movements. Biologists invent the contraceptive pill – and the Pope doesn’t know what to do about it. Computer scientists develop the Internet – and rabbis argue whether orthodox Jews should be allowed to surf it. Feminist thinkers call upon women to take possession of their bodies – and learned muftis debate how to confront such incendiary ideas.
Ask yourself: what was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of the twentieth century? That’s a difficult question, because it is hard to choose from a long list of candidates, including scientific discoveries such as antibiotics, technological inventions such as computers, and ideological creations such as feminism. Now ask yourself: what was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of traditional religions such as Islam and Christianity in the twentieth century? This too is a very difficult question, because there is so little to choose from. What did priests, rabbis and muftis discover in the twentieth century that can be mentioned in the same breath as antibiotics, computers or feminism? Having mulled over these two questions, from where do you think the big changes of the twenty-first century will emerge: from the Islamic State, or from Google? Yes, the Islamic State knows how to put videos on YouTube; but leaving aside the industry of torture, how many new start-ups have emerged from Syria or Iraq lately?
Billions of people, including many scientists, continue to use religious scriptures as a source of authority, but these texts are no longer a source of creativity. Think, for example, about the acceptance of gay marriage or female clergy by the more progressive branches of Christianity. Where did this acceptance originate? Not from reading the Bible, St Augustine or Martin Luther. Rather, it came from reading texts like Michel Foucault’s The History of s@xuality or Donna Haraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’.14 Yet Christian true-believers – however progressive – cannot admit to drawing their ethics from Foucault and Haraway. So they go back to the Bible, to St Augustine and to Martin Luther, and make a very thorough search. They read page after page and story after story with the utmost attention, until they find what they need: some maxim, parable or ruling that if interpreted creatively enough means that God blesses gay marriages and that women can be ordained to the priesthood. They then pretend the idea originated in the Bible, when in fact it originated with Foucault. The Bible is kept as a source of authority, even though it is no longer a true source of inspiration.
That’s why traditional religions offer no real alternative to liberalism. Their scriptures don’t have anything to say about genetic engineering or artificial intelligence, and most priests, rabbis and muftis don’t understand the latest breakthroughs in biology and computer science. For if you want to understand these breakthroughs, you don’t have much choice – you need to spend time reading scientific articles and conducting lab experiments instead of memorising and debating ancient texts.
That doesn’t mean liberalism can rest on its laurels. True, it has won the humanist wars of religion, and as of 2016 it has no viable alternative. But its very success may contain the seeds of its ruin. The triumphant liberal ideals are now pushing humankind to reach for immortality, bliss and divinity. Egged on by the allegedly infallible wishes of customers and voters, scientists and engineers devote more and more energies to these liberal projects. Yet what the scientists are discovering and what the engineers are developing may unwittingly expose both the inherent flaws in the liberal world view and the blindness of customers and voters. When genetic engineering and artificial intelligence reveal their full potential, liberalism, democracy and free markets might become as obsolete as flint knives, tape cassettes, Islam and communism.
This book began by forecasting that in the twenty-first century, humans will try to attain immortality, bliss and divinity. This forecast isn’t very original or far-sighted. It simply reflects the traditional ideals of liberal humanism. Since humanism has long sanctified the life, the emotions and the desires of human beings, it’s hardly surprising that a humanist civilisation will want to maximise human lifespans, human happiness and human power. Yet the third and final part of the book will argue that attempting to realise this humanist dream will undermine its very foundations, by unleashing new post-humanist technologies. The humanist belief in feelings has enabled us to benefit from the fruits of the modern covenant without paying its price. We don’t need any gods to limit our power and give us meaning – the free choices of customers and voters supply us with all the meaning we require. What, then, will happen once we realise that customers and voters never make free choices, and once we have the technology to calculate, design or outsmart their feelings? If the whole universe is pegged to the human experience, what will happen once the human experience becomes just another designable product, no different in essence from any other item in the supermarket?
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