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The "End of Politics" Delusion

You have my express permission to kick the next person -- especially someone advocating the embrace of radical forms of technological advancement -- who tells you that they wish nothing more than to get rid of, move beyond, or otherwise avoid "politics." Kick them hard, and repeatedly. They have adopted a profoundly ignorant and self-serving position, one that betrays at best a lack of understanding of human nature and society, and at worst a malicious desire to preemptively shut down any opposition to their goals.

The trigger for this bit of anticipatory violence is the still-smoldering debate over the writing of one Peter Thiel, a poster boy for socialist revolution. Staggeringly rich, he espouses a form of "I got mine, Jack" libertarianism that is openly and gleefully anti-democratic. In a widely-criticized essay for the Cato Institute, Thiel claims that the extension of the vote to women and the poor has undermined capitalism; unsurprisingly, this argument hasn't gone over well, and even his apologists -- happy to continue getting his money for their projects -- have distanced themselves.

But my focus here is on another line from his essay:

In our time, the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms...

Unless Thiel means that libertarians must live in splendid isolation from society and each other, he's going to have a problem.

He's not alone in making this claim, of course. I've heard the sentiment that advocates of Revolutionary Technology X "must seek to escape politics" repeated in various forms time and again, even by people and groups I otherwise respect. It's a fascinating and sad delusion, characteristic of a movement that sees itself as both smarter than everyone else and unbound by the problems of the past.

In the early days of the dot-com era, this attitude resulted in the absence of digital tech industry voices in Washington, DC, allowing the incumbent telecom and entertainment industries free rein to write laws and buy politicians without opposition. Companies and industries that had considered themselves beyond politics found out just how wrong they were. Stung by that experience, today's advocates of the "escape politics" position usually articulate it as more of a wishful whine, as with Thiel's line quoted above.

It's a position I've fought hard against for quite awhile. It was the heart of the presentation I gave at the 2007 Singularity Summit (where I heard a lot of people making the "let's escape politics" cry). More recently, I talked about it in my interview with the Dutch consulting group FreedomLab; here's a video clip of that part of the conversation. It runs just over two minutes:

Technology is Political from Jamais Cascio on Vimeo.

The core of the argument is straightforward: Politics is part of a healthy society -- it's what happens when you have a group of people with differential goals and a persistent relationship. It's not about partisanship, it's about power. And while even small groups have politics (think: supporting or opposing decisions, differing levels of power to achieve goals, deciding how to use limited resources), the more people involved, the more complex the politics. Factions, parties, ideologies and the like are simply ways of organizing politics in a complex social space -- they're symptoms of politics, not causes.

Calls to get rid of politics can therefore mean one of two things: getting rid of persistent relationships with other people; or getting rid of differential goals. Since I don't see too many of the folks who talk about escaping politics also talking about becoming lone isolationists, the only reasonable presumption is that they're really talking about eliminating disagreements.

It's the latest version of the notion that "a perfect world is one where everyone agrees with me." It rarely gets expressed like that, of course. It's more like...

After the Singularity, we'll be too smart to have politics...
[Or] Once we develop strong (and friendly) AI, we'll let them make decisions for us, as they will be far smarter and wiser...
In a post-scarcity, nanotech world, nobody will have politics because everyone will have what they need and want...
Once we get off-world, politics will go away because you can always move away from someone you disagree with...
After we can reengineer the brain, we can do away with conflict and disagreement...

No. Wrong. Bad technophile, no upload!

This is why I was so frustrated at the deprecation of politics in the Singularity University curriculum -- there's a profound ignorance across the tech advocacy community of the importance of politics to human society. Politics means conflict, debate, and frustration. It also means choice. A world without politics is a world where disagreement is illegitimate. It's a world where your ability to choose your future -- to make your future -- has been taken away, whether you like it or not.


One (Just one of many.) of the main reasons I backed off from this view was that the type of future described by these wide-eyed futurists is one of the Permanence of Now. This doctrine discounts the motion of the ocean necessary for reality to exist at all. Change is always. Creation never stopped.

However, these mindsets exist and we can do nothing to change them except depend on the politics that they wish to avoid at all costs.

Jamais, see here for a rejoinder from Peter. A passage in it seems especially relevant in light of this post, which seems like the most angry I've ever read on this blog:

"I believe that politics is way too intense. That’s why I’m a libertarian. Politics gets people angry, destroys relationships, and polarizes peoples’ vision: the world is us versus them; good people versus the other."

I believe that enhanced intelligence will introduce differential goals of a different character than we can currently predict, goal differentials that at our current level of intelligence we cannot comprehend. So I would not say that politics would be eliminated after a Singularity, but its nature would be changed so much that our present-day thinking would become largely irrelevant to it.

There is a wonderful bit from Freeman Dyson's essay "The Greening of the Galaxy" in which he suggests that diverse, far-flung future societies which learn to live within the laws of nature are the ones what will survive best . . . and that insane societies will be weeded out.

For human societies (where "human" is defined very widely, and could encompass uplifted animals and sociable AIs), politics is a natural law. It's a survival behavior.

I am reminded of Kenneth Graham's tale of 'The Reluctant dragon', who is a peaceable sort of chap "a confoundedly lazy beggar" who hasn't got an enemy in the world, mainly because he's "too lazy to make 'em!"

Unfortunately, the local villagers have other ideas, and its up to his young friend (as well as his mortal enemy, St. George) to get his act together.

It's just that life is so much more simple if you don't have to argue with everyone else and can just 'get things done' (composing poetry, in the dragon's case)!

I wouldn't be surprised if this attitude is found to be more prevalent among the more introverted types (like me) who find social interactions more of an effort than those chattering idiots you see on TV every night.

The whole notion of 'the end of politics' is quite wrong, of course: a product of wishful thinking by 'confoundedly lazy beggars'. I just thought I'd point out why there are people willing to entertain it.

Politics is evolution. Maybe not of the individual, but of society. There is no perfect society, but there might be a better one to work towards.
Why would you want something perfect anyway?

Following on the 'lazy beggar' theme, Michael Anissimov makes a good point about politics being too intense.

I would rephrase it as being too inefficient. (ie too much effort to engage the attention of a reluctant dragon)

There are a number of activities like this. Advertising is considered to be 90% wasted. Commercial competition often strikes me as being a most inefficient way of promoting efficiency. Verbal assaults and rhetorical assassinations in parliament seem a rather strange way of coming to an agreement.

The trouble is, most people seem content to categorise democracy as being the worst form of government (bar the rest) and leave it at that.

If politics is evolution, then evolution is unintelligent. Can we design something better than the decision making processes we now have?

Well, maybe some people get it all wrong.

Being mainly libertarian, I do not want an end to discussion, or to negotiation, or to transactions. That's what society should be all about, civil transactions.

There will always be a public sphere, and there will be people chosen to serve this public sphere. Hence democracy.

But most things that governments do nowadays are simply not civil. They are nevertheless the subject of "politics" and "democracy". Voting, electing people who consider themselves demigods because they were elected or derive their power from elected officeholders, these people passing laws and regulations and forcing other people to do what "WE THE PEOPLE" want because "WE THE PEOPLE" voted for them.

Politics and the public sphere should be about reaching agreements.

Not about forcing everybody to live as a "majority" says.

Maybe libertarians want civilized politics for a change. Yes, the limited scope politics that you don't have to fear because it tries at the very least to avoid coercing.

If you have a polis, you have politics, at least that's what I got from reading Charles Olson's Maximus Poems, among other things. Having friends who are dedicated contrarians, I also know that there are some people whose greatest pleasure is to say "No" when you say "Yes." These folks are so contrary that if you then say "No" they will switch to "Yes." Then again, I grew up in a household with a dedicated Liberal (an actual member of the NY Liberal Party and a candidate for office on their ticket) and a Goldwater conservative as my parents. Political argument is in my blood.

My observation is that politics comes out of personality and the great difficulty is not in conflict (Thomas Crum in _The Magic of Conflict_ and others make the point about another way of looking at conflict) but the yes/no, on/off, binary system we lock ourselves into. Buddhist logic posits a wider variety of options: yes, no, not yes, not no, neither yes nor no, both yes and no. I have also found that "don't understand the question?" and "none of the above" are also useful options to present. Anne Wilson Schaef believes a strict binary system is a symptom of an addictive system. I tend to agree but it definitely increases stagnant argument and gridlock.

As an RSS subscriber, this is honestly, and hopefully not insultingly, the first thing I've read from you since whatever it was that made me subscribe that made me think differently.

I hope that means as much to you, Jamais Cascio, as it does to me.

My question is: what of those that are affected negatively by the Oh, Too Local form of politics as seen in the stereotypical office environment?

In short: Where is the logical line drawn?

Just one quarrel I have: language isn't technology. There have been studies that show groups of children cut off from spoken language by deafness can and do evolve their own sign language complete with its own grammar and vocabulary. I wish I could give a specific link, but unfortunately all I can do is refer anyone interested in thinking about language as a natural process (much like breathing, walking, etc.) to Pinker's _The Language Instinct_.

This has ramifications beyond some potential Singularity or a possible future of augmented intelligence. Our current President built significant portions of the foundation of his campaign on exactly this idea: he promised to move Washington (and the nation) beyond "politics as usual." This was, I think, widely understood in exactly the same manner that Peter Thiel presents his objections: "Politics gets people angry, destroys relationships, and polarizes peoples’ vision: the world is us versus them; good people versus the other."

And yet, the President's "beyond politics as usual" seems to mean something very much like the elimination of disagreement. Massive overhauls of multiple and significant sectors of the nation's economy are so critical that there is apparently no time for serious debate or even the public vetting of legislation except when compelled by the sheer force of Congressional inertia.

What I'm seeing right now is *exactly* politics as usual, moved from a different center of power. I believe that a necessary corollary to rejecting any futurist's proclamation of the need to move "beyond politics" is the recognition and rejection of the same rhetoric from any politician.

Meaning: the President deserves some of those hard and repetitive kicks, especially because he's got a much firmer hand on the tiller of State than any technological libertarian.

Political independence is not easy but is clearly possible and has plenty of history.


Brian -- you're right. For groups. In which there will be... politics.

Ian, I have plenty of reasons to want to (FIGURATIVELY, NSA readers) kick Obama -- his maintenance of Bush-era secrecy, unwillingness to end DADT, and the like -- but I give him slack on the whole getting beyond "politics as usual" thing. Not because it's Obama, but because that's pretty much a DC cliché at this point. Every politician makes noises about wanting to end politics as usual, and very very few of them ever actually try to do anything about it.

Douglas, you're absolutely right. That's the line that makes me wince when I watch that video. What I meant was *written* language, which I think you'll agree can be considered technology.

"Preechr," I'm glad you found the article provocative enough to make you rethink your views. As for how to deal with office politics... as someone who works at home (so my only office politics involve cats and my wife), I don't have much personal experience to offer. Office politics, like academic politics, is (as the saying goes) so intense because the stakes are so low.

Gmoke, we need more politics beyond yes/no, definitely.

Libertarianism as espoused by Thiel would be an escape from old politics. Just as a nation with an official position of atheism in regards to religion would be an escape from all old religions.

A place with libertarianism in the form compatibile with what Thiel is espousing would be a significant break from the past.

Your statement:
>Brian -- you're right. For groups. In which there will be... politics.

is semantics and does not address the viability of an independent libertarian entity.

For the libertarians, particularly the singularitarian sect, it's not just "politics as usual" but explicitly feudal politics, in which everyone "knows their place". As you pointed out, this view results in fond wishes for a return to a never-extant pre-lapsarian state of induced, enforced bliss, where everyone (except, possibly, the priesthood tending the AI) will have relinquished their minds and free will, and become as docile as the Miranda settlers in Serenity. As for the inclusiveness of the "dream": Girl Cooties Menace the Singularity!

Political independence does not necessarily imply economic independence. Singapore is an example of a city-state that is politically independent, yet thrives by trading and interacting economically with the rest of the world. I see no reason why seasteading as envisioned by Peter Thiel cannot do the same. Certainly there will be local politics in such a seastead city-state, just like their is in Singapore. However, agreement on common goals is more likely in a population of 3 million people than one of 300 million people.

Peter Thiel is essentially advocating using the frontier of allowing the political independence of self-interested groups, a very benign objective. He is not advocating the imposition of his ideas on others who do not share them. Once again, I fail to see anything objectionable in reading Peter Thiel's original article on seasteading.

I will note that the most vociferous opposition to his seastaeding concept have been from those who are of a leftist political persuasion. This represents a sort of "Berlin Wall" mentality on the part of the left that libertarians and others should not be allowed to become independent, even if they are willing to go someplace new for their independence.

Such a Berlin Wall mentality has no place in a modern, free society.

kurt9, I call straw man on your allegation of a "Berlin Wall mentality." Neither Jamais, nor myself, nor any other "leftist" I know of has ever said that Thiel and his posse aren't perfectly welcome to go off and try to build their own little exclusive paradise somewhere. Good riddance.

Jamais: While politics is certainly inherent in human interactions, I think your example of the dot-com'ers ignoring Washington and letting the rent-seekers get their way actually serves Thiel's point better than your own.

Did you really want to say, in effect, "Give up, the only way to fight rent seekers is to pay your way into the system to get your share of the spoils"?

That's one of the things Thiel wants to get away from - and in essence he has taken a different approach to the same belief you expressed - "Give up - we can't beat the rent-seekers, but maybe we can get away from them."

I doubt many of those who eschew "politics" are seeking utter isolation or looking for a world in which the only viewpoint is theirs. It is the increasingly absolutist nature of current political discourse that I personally find offputting. Why must the persistent relationship between parties with differential goals be a toxic one? Why must virtually all communication between the different parties be hostile denunciations and condemnation?

The point is well made that technology and politics are not alternatives to each other. But whereas the former seems to open up endless possibilities, the latter (or rather the prevalent discourse surrounding the latter) works to reduce everything to a binary decision between that which belongs to the Good People and that which is of the Other.

>>Every politician makes noises about wanting to end politics as usual, and very very few of them ever actually try to do anything about it.

As things are set up now, to try to do so is political suicide. Just as technophiles need a greater appreciation of the value (and inevitability) of politics, politicians need more choices -- a better appreciation of technology might open some up for them.

I'm so grateful to Jamais for taking this on so forthrightly. End of politics, end of history, end of human nature = continuity of naive folly.

The problem with "enhanced intelligence will introduce differential goals of a different character than we can currently predict" is that it assumes that all important issues have "an answer" that can be arrived at with "reason" and "facts". The "fact" is that we are not rational beings; many important issues are inescapably subjective; and we can only come to agreement by discussion, persuasion, give and take, compromise, innovation... in other words, politics.

Mike Treder, If you have no problem with Theil and his posse going out on his own, then why did you feel compelled to rant and rave about it? Doth protests too much, I think.

Besides, isn't the kind of nanotech that you guys believe in is supposed to be self-empowering such that it creates a post-scarcity society and that small self-interested groups will be capable of any feat that is currently limited to large organization such as nation-states and large corporations? If so, I would think such would render current social organizations such as liberal-left and corporate capitalism completely obsolete anyways.

I disagree with the notion that politics is "too intense" -- what he's talking about can barely be considered politics at all, or at least, not a functioning politics. If one's problem with politics is that it's broken, then the only real way to fix it isn't to run away - it's to get more heavily involved. Creating an alternative (ie. seasteading) will work for a small group of people, but it will do precious little to alter the system that affects millions of your fellow citizens. If you have any connection at all to the place you live, buggering off to the sea won't help a whole lot... and it runs the risk of becoming an exercise in burying your head in the sand.

Politics is usually defined as legislation, lobbying, voting, writing to your Representative but that isn't all that politics actually consists of. There's a quote from Lech Walesa that I really like. He was asked how Solidarity started and he replied that it began by talking loud at the bus stops. We tend to ignore that kind of politics.

My bent has always been toward direct action and practical solutions rather than laws, regulations, and giving away my power to any representative. For instance, how about people go out and do weatherization barnraisings, maybe even on the homes of Congresscritters, and do them as a political action, a demonstration of our commitment to changing the way we use energy and the environment and a response to global warming and climate change? How about we do something practical, with lasting benefits as a demonstration of our political determination to change the status quo? How about we move from talking to acting and use that activity to force the Congress to match our seriousness?

Here in Cambridge, we've been doing weatherization barnraisings once a month for a year. We get twenty, thirty, sixty, and even ninety people together to weatherstrip, caulk, and insulate. They learn new skills and a home or a school or a community center gets lower energy bills. Now there are groups doing them in Somerville, Boston, Maynard, Worcester.... The flyer reads: The federal government hasn’'t cut carbon yet, so let’s do it ourselves!

There's more to politics than writing letters to the editor and carrying a picket sign on the street.

Here's a barnraising manual to get you started:
http://www.heetma.com/docs/HEETManual.pdf [pdf alert]

The conservatives can have their Tea Parties. Let's show them what people can really do with weatherization parties. And if that sounds too middle of the road for you, thirty years ago I was part of a group that did solar barnraisings and there are a couple of groups that are doing them today, that I know of, in NH and CA:

solar barnraising group in Plymouth, NH - 93 installations so far
volunteer installers for low income solar installations in CA

Make your own politics wherever you are and the only limit is your imagination.

Jamais, thank you for starting an important conversation. This is one of the most thought-provoking pieces I've seen from you in some time.

Does it help if we consider "politics" a verb instead of a noun? Politics are actions, processes, conduct, governed by inherent rules, agreements and assumptions. To paraphrase thinking from Dana Meadows, where are the leverage points in politics as a system, the places we would intervene in to strengthen or improve the system?

Just as you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you, you may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you — and it's even harder to escape.

Further, politics may be part of a healthy society, but it's an even bigger part of an unhealthy society.

I think it's a grave mistake to say that politics is what happens when you have a group of people with differential goals and a persistent relationship. Isn't a market a group of people with differential goals? Aren't contracts persistent relationships?

The key distinction is that politics is what you get when shifting coalitions vie for power over resources they don't own and aren't really responsible for, while a market is what you get when property rights are well defined, and all transactions are voluntary trades between clear owners of resources.

It's not always clear how to define all property rights in non-overlapping ways, so we often resort to politics, but that doesn't mean that more politics yields more health.

I would like "politics" out of a lot of the issues I like.

In the sense I would like the stupid political categories that have been watered down to a kind of football hooliganism used as smoke for some other interest to keep the hell out of those issues, and let the natural politics of the situation come to life.

I dont need to figure out if technology A or Bis more "left" or "right" according to the categories of the XIX bastardized and marketed for the XXI.

How much of politics depends on lies and misinformation? The internet of course makes it possible to spread more crap faster but it is also possible to spread logical comprehensible information.

It is 40 years after the Moon landing. John Kenneth Galbraith wrote about the planned obsolescence of automobiles 10 years before that. So why can't the current crop of nitwit economists talk about how much we have lost on the depreciation of automobiles since 1969? They called it economic growth when we bought the junk. Now we have the planned obsolescence of computer hardware and software. What do politicians know about that?


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