Transcending Nature: Marxism, Transhumanism, and the Emancipation of Man

Intellectuals traditionally face the void, the sucking dark places of the world and of humanity, and tell the rest of the world how they may cross, avoid, repair, or light those places of darkness. Although the specifics differ in each case, sometimes the darkness and the light are of the same kind. One hundred and fifty years apart, we find one such pair of ideologies: the pre-Darwin, anti-capitalist philosophy of Marx, and the science-fictional, pro-technology transhumanism. The diagnoses and prescriptions are distinct and appropriate to their historical contexts, yet at the heart we find the same problem: humanity is collectively placed into a situation where their ability as humans, their sheer beautiful potential, is inescapably limited.

The central problem that Marxism addresses is that under capitalism a majority of humans are deprived of their fundamental humanity. Animals produce under the pressure of survival, while humanity “only truly produces in freedom therefrom” (Marx 76), that is, when they are free from physical need and free to direct their consciousness as they will. But under capitalism, suddenly the worker is producing under the direction of someone else’s consciousness, for the benefit of someone else, and under conditions such that if they do not work they do not survive. Thus “man (the worker) no longer feels himself to be freely active in any but his animal functions … and in his human functions he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal” (Marx 74). This is the problem; this needs to be solved.

How will we undo this estrangement of so much of humanity? We will undo it, Marx says, in much the same way that the oppression of the bourgeoisie by the feudal lords was undone: with class revolution. All history until now has been a story of class struggle, of the oppressor against the oppressed. But as feudalism bred the forces of its destruction in the form of a world market and rising capitalist class, so the bourgeoisie is breeding the forces of its own destruction, in the form of the proletariat. The bourgeoisie is doomed, if only the proletariat can be made revolutionary. The seeds are there and it requires merely theory and action to accomplish. Marx has provided the theory; as many as may be should provide the action.

The proletariat consciousness is “the last class consciousness in the history of mankind” (Lukacs 70), and its victory will be “the end of the ‘pre-history of mankind'” (Lukacs 69). As capitalism was fundamentally different from all that came before in that the class struggle was at last laid bare, communism will be fundamentally different in that the class struggle will have been ended, and all of humanity will be the victors in a new phase of history where humanity will at last be able to realize its full potential, each subject recognizing and recognized by the subjects around them.

So, Marxists say, here is a threat to the fulfillment of humankind. Marx and his followers say, here is a problem — oppression. Here is a thread running through history which, bit by bit, counters the problem in its many forms — that is, class revolution. Here is a theoretically inevitable continuation of this thread — proletarian revolution — which will, when brought into being by human effort, end the problem we began with and change the game — take us from the ‘pre-history of mankind’ into a new era. This is a wonderful theory. It has not worked out so well in practice.

Marx posits: we are oppressed. All of human history can be described in terms of class oppression and conflict. The transhumanist goes farther. The transhumanist posits: we die.

Transhumanism looks into the face of death, and sees the loss of every great thinker now deceased, and the loss of every great artist who never was. It sees one hundred and fifty thousand deaths per week and says, “we can do better; we must do better. How many can we save?” It “affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason” (Bostrom 2003a). I claim that transhumanism and Marxism are expressions of the same human pattern of thought, as described two paragraphs above: this problem permeates history, but the path to its solution does as well. The problem is death; the solution is technology.

“Transhuman” is a term meaning a human who is in a state of transition to becoming a “posthuman”, a being whose capabilities are so extended by technology that they are no longer unambiguously human by our current standards (Bostrom 2003a). A transhumanist is someone who believes that it is right and necessary to work towards a situation where everyone gets to choose whether they live or die, and can choose to become posthuman or not, as they please (Bostrom 2003b).

Transhumanism is too broad to deal with generally; instead I will examine one particular manifestation of it, as described in private correspondence with my friend Robert Halm. He claims that, although the world needs fixing, radical ideologies such as Marxism and anarchism are not the right way to go about it. He uses the analogy of trying to fix an oil leak: the pan is cracked because the engine expands and shrinks too much with heat because it is made of a sub-optimal alloy because the better alloy is not cost-effective because of mine conditions in Mongolia, but even though one could fix the problem by changing the Chinese economy to control the cost of the alloy, that is ultimately not going to be worth the effort if all one wants is to own or manufacture a car that does not leak oil. He believes that changing the structure of society on an ideological basis, whether through revolution or prefigurative action, is on the wrong side of the metaphorical Chinese economy, while a post-scarcity society is both worth the effort and within our reach (Halm 2014a).

Halm focuses on the fact that rapid technological advances promise cheap, accessible, and environmentally sustainable 3-D printing within the foreseeable future:

We may be very close, perhaps as close as five to ten years, to seeing a printer that can print all of its own parts except for integrated processors … which has enormous scalability, and for which starter kits are available for a few hundred dollars, and the point may not be very far beyond that when all the printing media required can be readily generated from ubiquitous resources using only equipment printed on the printer.  This … is the core achievement required to create post-scarcity. (Halm 2014b)

There are, obviously, some catches. In fact, he mentions two possible needs which cannot be met by any readily foreseeable technology — integrated processors for computing, and medical care — and a few needs which can be met by pre-existing technologies or technologies which are rapidly coming into being — food, energy, and decentralized information distribution. Nevertheless he believes that if ninety percent of our manufacturing were put, literally, into our backyards, we would not only be granted freedom from the vagaries of nature, but also from the oppression of other humans: no ideology needed, only technology. Like Marx, he derives his suggested course for humanity and the projected results from scientific thought and history: 3-D printers have come so far since 2006, he is certain that but five or ten years stand between us and post-scarcity capabilities.

Less practically and more philosophically is the matter of, having established what limits us, addressing what affirms and fulfills us. Transhumanism is a project to make accessible “possible modes of being” (Bostrom 2003b) beyond the limitations imposed upon humans by nature. The problem, indeed, is that we die, that each individual “is only a determinate species being, and as such mortal” (Marx 86), denied the full range of possibility in thinking and being. The problem is also that we have a limited intellectual capacity, inadequately-developed sensory modalities, unpredictable moods and low self-control, essentially that our bodies are flawed. Transhumanism aims to improve these things just as we have developed eyeglasses to improve eyesight, or vaccines to improve the immune system (Bostrom 2003b). Transhumanism wishes to transcend the limitations of nature itself.

Marx discusses at length the affirmation of an individual through their senses, their actual experiences of the existing world. Transhumanism aims not only to enable this to the full extent found in history but to expand the range of possible senses, possible experiences. If, as Marx hopes, “the transcendence of private property is … the complete emancipation of all human senses and attributes” (Marx 87), then the transcendence of natural limitations should be even more desirable: having escaped the tyranny of both survival and each other, as Halm thinks we will with new 3-D printing technology, we shall emancipate human senses more thoroughly than ever before.

Transhumanism comes out of an intellectual sphere influenced by Marxism and its sub-fields and heirs. It is a cautious call to action. Marx admits that although in theory his movement is self-transcending, in practice it will be a long and difficult struggle (Marx 99). He does not anticipate, however, the awful failure modes of actually-existing Communism, which are perhaps foreshadowed by Lukacs’s prediction that, without due care, “the blind forces [of history and consciousness] really will hurtle blindly towards the abyss” (Lukacs 70). Transhumanism is keenly aware, in its modern historical context, of the several abysses into which it might hurtle.

Marx addressed himself to a struggle between two classes, but the struggle now is multifaceted: the 1% versus the 99%, yes, Marx’s bourgeoisie and proletariat writ on a new scale of wealth, but also humanity versus its own ravaging of nature, a threat to all, created at the command of a few, the class struggle married with the struggle against nature. It is this existential threat that transhumanists most fear, a kind of thing that Marx did not imagine: not just the oppression but the destruction of all. One of the dangers transhumanists must beware, and the one least like a science-fiction novel, is socioeconomic inequality boosted to unimaginable heights by rapid but pricy technological advances. The idea is to offer all of humanity the opportunity for emancipation, not to have it restricted to a select few by a roll of the economic dice.

Here, perhaps, Marx and his heirs have something more to offer to the transhumanists: a reminder, if nothing else, that though we may imagine much, we can always imagine more. Marx is always contrasting capitalism to feudalism, to remind us that things were not always thus, and need not always be so. Transhumanism cannot forget that things will change, but must remember that some things remain the same across far-flung patches of human thought. The structure and hopefulness of their vision, looking back into history to see how they might look ahead to the emancipation of humanity from crude survival and mortal limitations, can be found in a historical context that could not even have imagined the present.

References

Bostrom, Nick. “The Transhumanist FAQ: A General Introduction (Version 2.1)”. 2003. Accessed at http://www.transhumanism.org/resources/FAQv21.pdf on Feb 21 2014.

—. “Transhumanist Values.” Ethical Issues for the 21st Century. Ed. Frederick Adams. Philosophical Documentation Center Press, 2003. Accessed at http://web.archive.org/web/20131018184743/http://www.nickbostrom.com/ethics/values.html on Feb 24 2014.

Halm, Robert. Personal interview. Feb 20 2014.

—. Message to the author. Feb 23 2014. Email.

Lukacs, Georg. “Class Consciousness.” History and Class Consciousness. 1920. 46-82. Print.

Marx, Karl. The Marx-Engels Reader. 2nd ed. Ed. Robert C. Tucker. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1978. Print.