How based are your political beliefs?
By about May of this year, I had hit the point where I could only consume media if it was in the form of a tiered ranking list. Consider it my lockdown hobby, alongside going to Sainsbury’s and...yeah. The top-tier tier list was indisputably the video depicted above, where a YouTuber called Jreg ranked seemingly every political ideology through which one could structure the world, dreamt up by heavy hitters ranging from Trotsky to first year halls of residence students.
The list was comprehensive, kicking off with old favourites such as libertarianism and mercantilism, before quickly descending into a mosaic of anarcho-monarchies, eco-fascists and ‘collective consciousness’, defined as “so far-left and so authoritarian that the populace begins to meld into one consciousness” (Jreg, 2020). Neoliberalism, the hegemonic ideology which is currently shaping much of our daily lives as individuals and communities, received an ‘E’ grade as it wasn’t “based” enough- ‘based’ in this context being an extremely positive adjective, as popularised by the rapper Lil B The Based God- so the video provided me with some much-needed escapism.
However, it is fascinating to observe how some of the zanier (absolutely based) ideologies displayed in the video have arguably become intertwined with neoliberal discourses and material practices to develop a completely warped way of looking at the world. In this article, I will posit that transhumanism has become intertwined with neoliberal ideology, before analysing it through an accelerationist lens, and finally discussing the implications for the future of capitalism beyond the spatial boundaries of Earth. My case study will be the tech capitalist incarnate, Elon Musk.
Musk, Transhumanism and Neoliberalism
I don’t feel as if it would be overreach to state that most view the designs of Musk and his numerous enterprises, be it Tesla, SpaceX or trying to subject a pig to mind control, as representative of advancement. Tesla produced some 365,000 electric vehicles (EVs) last year (Statista, 2020), with the Model 3 now the world’s highest selling EV, and whilst there is substantial debate regarding whether he constitutes a “visionary” or simply an opportunist, it’s fair to say that Musk has brought elements of innovation to the forefront of the public consciousness.
Focusing specifically on one of Musk’s most recent endeavours, the aforementioned Neuralink brain chip (see “pig mind control” above), it can be argued that Musk is a transhumanist. A philosophical movement that advocates for the transformation of the human condition by using sophisticated technologies to modify or enhance human intellect and physiology (Bostrom, 2005), Neuralink’s stated aim of “fusing humankind with artificial intelligence” (NBC News, 2020) aligns seamlessly with such an ideology. Both transhumanism and Neuralink also share an uneasy relationship with ethics, Neuralink for the numerous physiological, psychological and societal uncertainties associated with filling a brain with electrodes (Maynard, 2019), and transhumanism for sharing traits with eugenics (Hernaes, 2016). Whilst innovation enhancing the human condition might not be conceived of as inherently bad in and of itself, it is the fetishisation of this innovation as a tool for improvement by proponents of neoliberal practices that I consider to be flawed, as I will elaborate on below.
So where does this sit in regards to our global political structure? As Torralba posits: “it is foolish to analyse transhumanism outside of its cultural, economic and social context,” (Torralba, 2019) and it is here that you can begin to observe how Musk’s transhumanist innovations intertwine with neoliberal thought. In fact, drawing on Byung-Chul Han’s concept of the ‘Burnout Society’, you could posit that transhumanism is portrayed as the antidote to the excesses of neoliberalism’s obsession on achieving maximum productivity, and maximum success at the individual level. Han views today’s society as a pathological landscape of mental health disorders- the worst of which being ‘burnout’- caused not by negativity but the excess of “positivity”- the demand to persevere and not to fail, and the ambition for efficiency (Han and Butler, 2015). Viewing this compulsive need for achievement and optimisation from a critical perspective, such projects to improve the functioning of the human body and mind are intrinsically linked with the neoliberal imperative of performance. How many more hours could a Deliveroo rider work if they had a chip maximising their neural function?
Furthermore, transhumanist advanced centred within neoliberal economics would also greatly exacerbate already grave socioeconomic inequalities. As Thomas Picketty posits, “worsening income inequality reflects markets working precisely as they should,” (Piketty, 2013) a statement rooted in the fact that neoliberal policies give the owners of capital free reign to maximise profits with little to no regard for labour. Place transhumanist enhancements within this environment, and you could see this manifested in what Bill McKibben coined a “genetic divide”, where inequalities are aggravated beyond the economic sphere, to constitute a two-tiered society of genetically engineered “haves” and “have-nots”.
The (Lack of?) Potential for Change
Time to circle back to Jreg’s video, and extract another theory to continue the analysis. Examining this transhumanist drive for modding everything through the lens of ‘accelerationism’, the highest ranked political ideology from the video (most based), you can arguably see such an ideology exacerbating the negative outcomes of the capitalist economic system to the extent of threatening its legitimacy, and hence survival. Coined by neo-reactionary and alt-right-associated philosopher Nick Land, accelerationists support the intensification of capitalism in the belief that this will hasten its self-destructive tendencies and ultimately lead to its collapse (Adams, 2013). A moderate example of this would be Slavoj Zizek stating that he would vote for Trump in the US election, as it would have been more likely to disrupt the contemporary status quo and enact radical change. With so much of the innovation in fields such as AI, neural development and even space travel being developed in a market environment by capitalists such as Elon Musk, will such divides between “haves” and “have-nots” reach a point where the latter hit a revolutionary threshold?
This extreme political ideology has roots in more traditional theory, which could prove discouraging for any kind of systemic change. In his seminal text ‘Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy’, Schumpeter outlines why capitalism is ultimately not sustainable in the long-run, as the corporatism that it fosters conversely fosters values hostile to capitalism itself (Schumpeter, 1942). Written in the 1930s, his prediction of socialism taking the role of replacing capitalism seems rather to have been filled by corporatism. Compounding this, neoliberalism has proved remarkably adept at reinventing itself, turning the crises which are inherent to its functioning into reasons to advocate for even more neoliberalisation. Peck and Tickell outline this as part of their conceptualisation of neoliberalisation as a constant, multiscalar process, drawing on the cases of the Anglo-American and Asian financial meltdowns to demonstrate the project’s resilience in their wakes (Peck and Tickell, 2002).
Now, to Space
With the inherent inequalities built into this transhumanism-neoliberalism fusion, and the questionable potential for systemic change, I started thinking about where projects such as Musk’s may fit within the future. It was upon reading an article entitled ‘As Elon Musk Dreams of Mars, He Leaves Earth Behind’ after considering Peck and Tickell’s above point that I considered the multi-scalar potential of such a resilient ideology: the intertwining of transhumanism and neoliberalism need not be confined to the spatial context of this planet. In short, with the current trajectory which we are on, space may provide the spatial fix for a further expansion of capitalism.
On the commencement of his SpaceX project, which has recently become the first private organisation to send humans into space, Musk claimed that we face a dichotomous choice:
“The future of humanity is fundamentally going to bifurcate along one of two directions: Either we’re going to become a multi-planet species and a spacefaring civilization, or we’re going to be stuck on one planet until some eventual extinction event.” (Drake, 2016)
One of these choices is a tad depressing. It is also patently false, as framing our extinction on Earth as inevitable is simply another example of neoliberal discourse’s strength, in how it claims that there is no alternative to the capitalist system which we currently exist in. Rather, we could survive on Earth, just not behaving as we do now. That said, it’s hard to deny that living in space sounds pretty cool, so I’ll focus on that.
However, with this further innovation seemingly set to continue within a distinctly capitalist mode of production, pioneered by private actors such as Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ ‘Blue Origins’, it's likely that any exciting progress will be marred by the issues associated with transhumanism from above. In a paper commenting on the commercialisation of space, Shammas and Holen coin the complex of ‘capitalistkind’, embodying a profit-driven push for space benefitting only a specific set of wealthy entrepreneurs, which is enabled by the deployment of humanist tropes (“we’ll all live on Mars and be immortal” etc) to engender enthusiasm for their activities (Shammas and Holen, 2019). Hence, by conflating capitalist interests with the idea of universal benefits, wealthy capitalists such as Musk and Bezos can use outer space to help capital transcend its inherent terrestrial limitations (namely, the eventual destruction of Earth’s natural environment), enabling expansion and greater accumulation. In short, outer space will be a capitalist space.
Focusing on innovation and technological development without considering the ideological environment within which it is developed ignores it’s intertwining with the hegemonic ideas of the time, in this case neoliberalism. I’m definitely not advocating for a reversion to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, as an anarcho-primitivist (‘mildly based’) scholar might, but simply highlighting that these leaps forward do not occur in a vacuum, and that they may even exacerbate the problems which ail a substantial portion of humanity, suggesting that changes to our political system may be required beforehand.
Adams, J. (2013). Occupy Time: Technoculture, Immediacy, and Resistance After Occupy Wall Street. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 96.
Bostrom, N. (2005). A History of Transhumanist Thought. Journal of Evolution and Technology, [online] 14(1), pp.1–30. Available at: https://www.nickbostrom.com/papers/history.pdf.
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Han, B.-C. and Butler, E. (2015). The burnout society. Stanford, California: Stanford Briefs, An Imprint Of Stanford University Press.
Hernaes, C. (2016). The ethics of transhumanism. [online] Tech Crunch. Available at: https://techcrunch.com/2016/08/26/the-ethics-of-transhumanism.
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