The ideological war is now between up and down

Dhaka,  Sun,  24 September 2017
Published : 19 Aug 2017, 19:35:07

The ideological war is now between up and down

Kazi Anwarul Masud
In an article on tranhumanism, published in the July 31, 2017 issue of  The Conversation UK, Alexander Thomas, a PhD candidate in the University of East London, portrays a dystopian spectacle for the future generation. He describes transhumanism as "the idea that humans should transcend their current natural state and limitations through the use of technology - that we should embrace self-directed human evolution. If the history of technological progress can be seen as humankind's attempt to tame nature to better serves its needs, transhumanism is the logical continuation: the revision of humankind's nature to better serve its fantasies". 

There can be very little debate over the continuity of human endeavour in improving technology which has given humanity so much and hopefully would continue to do so in future if humanity as we know it does not perish from this earth. Problem may arise when radically transformative technology is used to produce "super soldiers" or weapons to obliterate the opponent instead of its being used for building paradise on earth. 

Alexander Thomas refers to bioethicist Julian Savelescu's argument that human beings have to develop themselves for its own survival to extricate itself from the Bermuda Triangle of Extinction-radical technological power, democracy and morals. Savelescu urges the powerful sect of humanity to extricate from the Hobbesian description of human nature of being "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". 

Undeniably the world has changed from Hobbes' 16th-- 17th century global environment and the people have more say in the way of the direction of their life. Yet a large part of the world is yet divided into least developed, developing and developed countries. The World Bank, IMF and other international institutions have their definitions of categorisation of countries. 

Fareed Zakaria, on the other hand, points out in his book The Post-American World, the "rise of the rest" - the growth of countries like China, India, Brazil, Russia, and many others as the great story of our time, and one that will reshape the world. 

But, though these countries would rise up to the level of developed countries (Singapore and South Korea have already attained that status), French economist Thomas Picketty argues that return on capital has historically been more the return on economic growth and as the rich has most of the capital they will accumulate more money than the others resulting in income inequality. 

Alexander Thomas argues that the knowledge and information that transhumanist technologies will tend to create could strengthen existing power structures that cement the inherent logic of the system in which the knowledge arises. Unbridled capitalism controlled by 1 per cent or 10 per cent of the population would dictate the course of technological development unless regulated by the democratic institutions like parliament or the Congress and a free press. 

Going by Tom Picketty's assertion that rate of return on capital would be more than the rate of return of other factors of production the ultra-capitalists, who practically elect the peoples' representatives with money and muscles (in many developing countries e.g. Venezuela and Kenya most recently), would, with the connivance of the members of Parliament/Congress, go for automation to save number of people to be employed. Unemployment and consequent loss of spending power would place large swaths of humanity at the mercy of the super rich who would spend their capital only to get richer because idle capital does not increase revenue in proportion to capital in use. People who do not possess the skills needed by transhumanist capitalists would remain unemployed and, in time, unemployable and totally dependent on handouts from the super rich. The US, the richest nation on earth, is the most unequal society among the industrialised countries where the top 20 per cent own 84 per cent of the wealth and the bottom 20 per cent only 0.3 per cent (Michael Norton and Dan Ariely, 2011). 

It is surmised that indifference of the Americans to existing inequality lies in their cultural belief that it is possible to reach the American Dream through hard work. This optimistic view of Americans' presumed indifference has been countered by many well-credentialled authors who started the debate on Great Divergence of income among different segments of society. Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz in an article (Climate change and poverty have not gone away, The Guardian, January 07, 2013) warned that "there is a worldwide crisis in inequality. The problem is not only that the top income groups are getting a larger share of the economic pie, but also that those in the middle are not sharing in economic growth, while in many countries poverty is increasing…..An economic and political system that does not deliver for most citizens is one that is not sustainable in the long run. Eventually, faith in democracy and the market economy will erode, and the legitimacy of existing institutions and arrangements will be called into question. The good news is that the gap between the emerging and advanced countries has narrowed greatly in the last three decades. Nonetheless, hundreds of millions of people remain in poverty, and there has been only a little progress in reducing the gap between the least developed countries and the rest". 

It is difficult to foresee a bright future for the hard working young people to achieve the equivalent of the American Dream in their own countries because of reluctance of their governments to invest in education and health. In some countries the authorities are enamoured by the eluding prospects of becoming a middle-income country and in not so later date, a developed country. It is possible. But then, at what cost? Have we calculated the loss of territory and landless people due to climate change who have to be fed and clothed by the government whose coffers are getting less and less in real term and whose debt-GDP (gross domestic revenue) ratio is increasing? 

President Trump has already decided to cut down the budget of the State Department, US AID and the Environmental Protection Agency.  Critics have sounded alarm at the loss of soft power of the US which had been using this instrument of diplomacy since the Marshall Plan evolved in April 1948. Trump's calculation is, perhaps, in transactional terms: what's the US getting in return? In the case of Pakistan, for example, US total aid obligated amounts to more than $78 billion until 2016. In return, some surveys have found that Pakistanis hate the US more than India, Pakistan's eternal enemy. Pakistani nuclear physicist Parvez Hoodbnoy reviewing Stephen Cohen's book The Idea of Pakistan asks the enigmatic question: "can Pakistan work?" This is because, he argues, the idea of Pakistan's founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah to form a secular country has been abandoned. He writes, "But with time Jinnah's Pakistan has become weaker, more authoritarian and increasingly theocratic. Now set to become the world's fourth most populous nation, it is all of several things: a client state of the United States yet deeply resentful of it, a breeding ground for jihad and al-Qaeda as well as a key US ally in the fight against international terrorism, an economy and society run for the benefit of Pakistan's warrior class, and an inward-looking society that is manifestly intolerant of minorities". 

This article is not to dissect Pakistan's failure or otherwise as a state (expulsion of Nawaz Sharif   as Prime Minister by the Supreme Court notwithstanding). Time might have come to realise that current ideological war is not between left or right but between up and down, as Alexander Thomas is left with the thought that what the world is going to do with the people  unemployed by automation. "We would be left with the scenario of a small elite", he writes,  "that has an almost total concentration of wealth with access to the most powerfully transformative technologies in world history and a redundant mass of people, no longer suited to the evolutionary environment in which they find themselves and entirely dependent on the benevolence of that elite. The dehumanising treatment of today's expelled groups shows that prevailing liberal values in developed countries don't always extend to those who don't share the same privilege, race, culture or religion. In an era of radical technological power, the masses may even represent a significant security threat to the elite, which could be used to justify aggressive and authoritarian actions". 

One hopes that we are not looking at the face of a nightmarish 'Brave New World' of Aldous Huxley (1931) where the author tries to exploit the revulsion of his readers of both the Soviet Communism and American Capitalism and Pavlovian-style of behavioural conditioning. One, instead, hopes that the coming era is going to be one of technologically advanced yet endowed with all the traits of liberal democracy. 

The writer is a former Ambassador and Secretary, Government  of Bangladesh.

Editor : A.H.M Moazzem Hossain
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