Friday, June 18, 2010

Anarchy, Technophiles, Freedom & Primitivism

(The following piece was written to create a dialogue in response to an article entitled: "Anarchy Would Most Likely Prevent The BP Oil Disaster" written by someone known as ComradShaw.)

The ideas presented in ComradShaw's article are somewhat ideal, but they seem to rely too heavily on a misguided notion of self-restraint -- when such a thing seems to be seriously lacking in actual reality. The author seems to think that everyone could vote and agree on everything -- which, while potentially nice in practice, may or may not actually be somewhat more ideal in the consequences. My point isn't that people shouldn't rely on self-restraint in many matters, nor am I suggesting that they shouldn't have a much greater say about what goes on in their world. But even free people in a far more egalitarian society could make horrible mistakes. And hubris, whether coming from the whole or from even just a segment of society, can lead to disaster.

Self-restraint is obviously a good thing, in many respects, and is basically what allows any society to exist at all. And it is unrestrained authority and domination which anarchists fight, challenge, and resist. But it seems to me that we all, anarchist or otherwise, have a great deal of discrepancy about what exactly we feel should be restrained from within ourselves and from within others. I've always liked the notion that you should be free to do whatever you want and I should, subsequently, be free to fight you if I deem that necessary. But that's admittedly somewhat impractical in terms of maintaining a sustainable society.

What it really comes down to is a question of technology. If one of us allows the other to make a powerful weapon, or another dangerous device, it may become too late and futile to try and stop the one in possession of such a thing. And, after an untold number of genocides and industrial accidents, how am I (or anyone else for that matter) simply supposed to trust in the good intentions of someone wielding power? It's a fine notion that, in an anarchist society, I could simply organize with others and stop you if you (or a subgroup) became powerful and domineering -- but what if you had very suddenly achieved too much power to be stopped? And this type of situation often relates to technology.

In the topic article, ComradShaw does take notice of "indigenous societies that operated outside of what is called civilization." But such societies are placed seamlessly alongside "technofiles (who) may live in small-scale technopias, developing their own gadgets and software." If only it were that simple! If only the technophiles only ever created harmless little gadgets and programmed software. But that is certainly not the case in actual reality.

In actual reality the technophiles experiment wildly with forces, by definition, which they don't understand (and may not be able to control). And let's not fail to state the obvious -- it is the technological society which has brought us Chernobyl, Nagasaki, and the potential for global thermonuclear war. It was western scientists, using the principles and devices of western science, who brought these things into being. It was not the overtly primitive Sioux, the Cherokee, the primitive peoples of Africa or Asia or Europe or Australia. And it should be pointed out that many of those societies were overtly opposed the potential harm they implicitly saw coming from western society.

So we can talk of good and bad coming from technology, but when the bad potentially can destroy all life on Earth... you'd think that might trump any potential good -- and thus lead us to avoid going down the technological path altogether (as much as we are possibly able). And the nature of technological research is such that seemingly innocent work done in one field can be twisted into something highly destructive when applied in another. I've often asked a nuclear physicist friend how she would feel if her seemingly harmless research revealed something that was then used to make better weapons -- and I never get an adequate response.

The point is that self-restraint can only practically apply to society when you know what the consequences will otherwise be. If you are constantly experimenting with forces you obviously don't understand yet... how can you be sure what the consequences will be? So... the combination of potentially uncontrollable forces being released, along with the potential for ethical misuse, makes a technological society fundamentally threatening. And once we release those forces and present them to the general public... it continuously becomes increasingly difficult to restrain those forces.

As it relates to freedom, we are faced with a situation where we must decide if the freedom to experiment in innate ignorance is more important to society than the grave threats potentially unleashed upon society. Are all of our other freedoms -- the freedom to love, to sing, to screw, to eat, etc. -- are all those freedoms worth risking for the freedom to act in ignorance? And ignorance is, actually, the driving force behind a technological society.

There is a fundamental difference between the primitive method of attaining knowledge, through passive observation, and the technological method of incessant tinkering and blind manipulation of forces which are not understood. And the methods of spreading knowledge are also more focused and direct in primitive societies -- rather than creating documents for all to see and use (in any way they see fit), the important knowledge is spread directly within the tribe from generation to generation. And when ComradShaw writes about the Pygmies and their collective communal responsibility (for a particular individual's actions)... that seems much easier and more likely in their situation because no individual is likely to create a devastating technological disaster.

So, how could a primitive segment of society be certain that the technophiles wouldn't do something dangerously ignorant in their scientific hubris? How would the primitivist segment be sure that the technophiles wouldn't need more and more raw materials to replace the ones they previously experimented on, dissected, and destroyed?

And it needs to be pointed out that the most dedicated technological societies are going to require hierarchy and division of labor. This is because the greatest scientific minds will be made prominent and will need to be catered to while they incessantly conduct their experiments. A technological society that divides the activity of it's "Einsteins" between the lab and field will not "progress" as quickly as the one that allows it's greatest technological minds pure scientific activity. The rise of a technocracy is consequently a very real and justified fear.

The social costs of the oil spill, outlined by ComradShaw, drive a good point. But even including the risks of emitting higher greenhouse gases, there was, and remains, a far greater threat. I have argued that the chance of this oil spill posing an existential risk for humanity was probably greater than zero. If this spill had been located in a more sensitive spot, at a deeper level, and had a slightly higher spill rate -- we could have been faced with a sudden extinction event. How much oil, would have to kill how much phytoplankton, before most (if not all) humans died as well? Talk about a social risk! Dollar costs, jobs lost, and civil unrest pales in comparison.

Now I agree that the current system of centralized, hierarchical, corporate power exacerbates many problems and risks. But techno-industrialism can still pose great problems even in a more egalitarian society. It seems to me that a true long term solution promoting life and freedom would involve fundamentally challenging and dismantling the techno-industrial infrastructure. Some form of Luddism has existed and been maintained for centuries, at some level, and it may now be time to promote such ideas more than ever.

Either way, it's likely that we will see a collapse of technological civilization if only because it brings about it's own demise through unsustainable practices. But the risk is, if it's left to it's own devices, then it may bring down much more along with it. Therefore, with a primitive society as the long term ideal and goal... insurrectionary anarchist tactics should be used to bring about that transition. That is how I imagine society could create a healthy and sustainable future.

On a personal note, I don't know how likely the ideal I've outlined is to manifest. This will require a revolution of values and ideas that hasn't ever happened before except in small isolated areas for a temporary amount of time. But, since the advent of civilization, isn't that also the history of Anarchism? And just because these ideals seem nigh impossible to act upon, is that the reason to ignore them and continue on as if fundamental flaws weren't revealed? These are matters of personal dignity and sustainability in terms of both society and the biosphere. So even if the battle for this primitivist ideal is lost, even if it's almost doomed from the start, we'll all have lost anyway if this project is not undertaken. What good is freedom if you are only allowed, or if you only choose, between bad options? Freedom, in metaphysical terms, requires, ultimately, doing what you feel is right -- even if you must suffer and struggle for it. Falling short of that, one is not truly free.

I hope we can, at least, create a dialogue on these subjects. I'm sure that many will disagree with the ideas expressed here -- and that is respected and understood. But I'd ask any anarchists, or philosophers of freedom, to try and keep the discourse civil. I am not attempting to steal anyones iPod, and the techno-quest for the philosopher's stone has come up laughingly short -- so let's try to stick to the actual subjects at hand and not use rhetorical tactics simply for the sake of argument itself. As many know, anarchist forums are packed with trolls. And primitivist ideas, being expectedly underrepresented, are subjected to particular amounts of vitriol and slander. I would ask for respect and consideration -- and defense from such attacks -- if and when they arise in the forums.

For peace, sustainability, and revolution...

Nihilo Zero

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi there, I left my first comment about this piece on Anarchistnews, just wanted to follow up on your response.

As to "Hurling a rock is not practically the same as hurling a nuclear missile. And the type of society required to do the latter, I would consider technological," well I cannot disagree that these things are quite different, they certainly are. And if you define your terms accordingly then I take no issue, rather I agree heartily.

"And I wasn't just arguing for the abolition of specific technologies" I didn't mean to imply that you were, rather I suppose I was just generally recapping my own argument.

Now, as how best to go about actually replacing modernity, that can get tricky, as modernity has successfully co-opted or snuck its way into the the deepest aspects of many of those very philosophic movements that have arisen as a direct challenge to it... thoughts on how to proceed?