May 26, 2009
The New Socialism is the New Humanism
We loooove Kevin Kelly around here at Snarkmarket. Robin tipped me off to his stuff and he’s since joined Atul Gawande, Roger Ebert, Virginia Heffernan, Clay Shirky, Michael Pollan, Clive Thompson, Gina Trapani, Jason Kottke, Ben Vershbow, Hilzoy, Paul Krugman, Sy Hersh, and Scott Horton (among others) in the Gore-Gladwell Snarkfantastic Hall of Fame. Dude should have his own tag up in here.
But I think there’s a rare misstep (or rather, misnaming) in his new Wired essay, “The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society Is Coming Online.” It’s right there in the title. That S-word. Socialism.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I like socialism where socialism makes sense. Almost everyone agrees that it makes sense to have a socialized police and military. I like socialized (or partially socialized) education, and I think it makes a lot of sense to have socialized health insurance, as part of a broad social safety net that helps keep people safe, capable, knowledgeable, working. Socialism gets no bad rap from me.
I know Kelly is using the word socialism as a provocation. And he takes pains to say that the new socialism, like the new snow, is neither cold nor wet:
We’re not talking about your grandfather’s socialism. In fact, there is a long list of past movements this new socialism is not. It is not class warfare. It is not anti-American; indeed, digital socialism may be the newest American innovation. While old-school socialism was an arm of the state, digital socialism is socialism without the state. This new brand of socialism currently operates in the realm of culture and economics, rather than government—for now…
Instead of gathering on collective farms, we gather in collective worlds. Instead of state factories, we have desktop factories connected to virtual co-ops. Instead of sharing drill bits, picks, and shovels, we share apps, scripts, and APIs. Instead of faceless politburos, we have faceless meritocracies, where the only thing that matters is getting things done. Instead of national production, we have peer production. Instead of government rations and subsidies, we have a bounty of free goods.
But I think of socialism as something very specific. It’s something where a group of citizens pools their resources as part of a democratic (and at least partially technocratic) administering of benefits to everyone. This could be part of a nation-state or a co-op grocery store. And maybe this is too Hobbesian, but I think about it largely as motivated by a defense against something bad. Maybe there’s some kind of general surplus-economy I’m missing where we can just socialize good things without risk. That’d be nice.
When masses of people who own the means of production work toward a common goal and share their products in common, when they contribute labor without wages and enjoy the fruits free of charge, it’s not unreasonable to call that socialism.
But I’ll put this out as an axiom: if there’s no risk of something genuinely bad, no cost but opportunity cost, if all we’re doing is passing good things around to each other, then that, my friend, is not socialism.
This is a weird paradox: what we’re seeing emerge in the digital sphere is TOO altruistic to be socialism! There isn’t enough material benefit back to the individual. It’s not cynical enough! It solves no collective action problems! And again, it’s totally individualistic (yet totally compatible with collectivities), voluntarist (yet totally compatible with owning one’s own labor and being compensated for it), anti-statist (yet totally compatible with the state). It’s too pure in its intentions and impure in its structure.
Kelly, though, says, we’ve got no choice. We’ve got to call this collectivism, even if it’s collective individualism, socialism:
I recognize that the word socialism is bound to make many readers twitch. It carries tremendous cultural baggage, as do the related terms communal, communitarian, and collective. I use socialism because technically it is the best word to indicate a range of technologies that rely for their power on social interactions. Broadly, collective action is what Web sites and Net-connected apps generate when they harness input from the global audience. Of course, there’s rhetorical danger in lumping so many types of organization under such an inflammatory heading. But there are no unsoiled terms available, so we might as well redeem this one.
In fact, we have a word, a very old word, that precisely describes this impulse to band together into small groups, set collective criteria for excellence, and try to collect and disseminate the best, most useful, most edifying, most relevant bodies of knowledge as widely and as cheaply as possible, for the greatest possible benefit to the individual’s self-cultivation and to the preservation and enrichment of the culture as a whole.
And that word is humanism.
Kelly might actually be more skeptical about the word humanism than he is about the word socialism. Truth be told, we’re all a little skeptical about the word humanism these days, even if it doesn’t trigger the same vigorous intellectual food fights as socialism.
Doesn’t humanism mean that human beings are at the center of the universe? That the individual is absolutely more important than the collective? That the subject is more important than and distinct from the object, since objects are simple, instrumental tools and humans should never be treated as such? That there’s a universal human nature that all individuals either exemplify or aspire to?
We don’t think about ourselves this way anymore. Darwin, Marx, Freud, and Watson/Crick put an end to it. Human beings are both deeply social and deeply particularized. There’s nothing particularly special about us. We’re one kind of life among many, many others, both on earth and in the universe. There’s no good line to draw between the human and the animal, the cultural and the natural, or the subject and the object. We’re all of these things at once — squishy organs, spastic neurons, animal passions, mostly useless chemical codes, beings that get used and made by their tools as much as we make and use them.
I totally agree. Even if you don’t.
But let’s review what humanism really is.
The best historical locus of humanism is the Renaissance in western Europe. I like the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s terse account:
The exact point in time when the term “Humanism” was first adopted is unknown. It is, however, certain that Italy and the re-adopting of Latin letters as the staple of human culture were responsible for the name of Humanists. Literoe humaniores was an expression coined in reference to the classic literature of Rome and the imitation and reproduction of its literary forms in the new learning; this was in contrast to and against the Literoe sacroe of scholasticism. In the time of Ariosto, Erasmus, and Luther’s beginnings, the term umanisa was in effect an equivalent to the terms “classicist” or “classical scholar.”
Cf. this entry on “Renaissance Humanism” at HistoryGuide.org:
Historians are pretty much agreed on the general outlines of those mental attitudes and scholarly interests which are assembled under the rubric of humanism. The most fundamental point of agreement is that the humanist mentality stood at a point midway between medieval supernaturalism and the modern scientific and critical attitude. Medievalists see humanism as the terminal product of the Middle Ages. Modern historians are perhaps more apt to view humanism as the germinal period of modernism.
Perhaps the most we can assume is that the man of the Renaissance lived, as it were, between two worlds. The world of the medieval Christian matrix, in which the significance of every phenomenon was ultimately determined through uniform points of view, no longer existed for him. On the other hand, he had not yet found in a system of scientific concepts and social principles stability and security for his life. In other words, Renaissance man may indeed have found himself suspended between faith and reason.
Humanism’s always characterized by this double bind, between antiquity and modernity, scholasticism and science. You turn to the timeless high-minded wisdom of the ancients — but use them to write literature in the vernacular and print BOTH on newfangled printing machines so you can sell them to merchants and bankers, painters and actors. You start developing a new self-critical rationality — but you use it first to write letters, edit texts, and plan cities, and only later to make telescopes and invent calculus.
Now I don’t know about you, but I LIKE the idea that humanism is born out of that uncertainty, that in-betweenness. To me, that feels like, well, now.
And I take it as an axiom that the major developments in the history of humanism have coincided with and been driven by major transformations in society, technology, and media.
- In Ancient Greece, humanism was born with city-state democracy and the synthesis of an oral tradition with a new technology of writing;
- Renaissance humanism coincided with the emergence of a new urban middle class, the nation-state, and the printing press;
- Modern humanism both flourishes and collapses in the face of industrial capitalism, the imperial state, representative democracy, and mass media in the form of the newspaper, radio, cinema, and television
So just as humanism has never corresponded with a SINGLE social structure or information technology, it doesn’t imply a fixed set of beliefs concerning the relationship of human beings to the rest of the universe.
What it does imply is 1) an ethos of self-criticism and 2) a desire to use ANY available technologies — social, scientific, or communicative — to disseminate knowledge as widely as possible. If there’s a motivating factor at all, it’s born out of this spirit of self-critique; we need to circulate this information, if we’re ever going to better understand an always-emergent modernity.
In this sense, there is no overcoming humanism, no leaving it behind.
The only way you could decisively reject humanism is to actively seek to either destroy or control those technologies in order to halt this circulation and suppress self-criticism.
The only way to transform humanism is to try to both understand and transform these conditions. There is no route in either direction through thought alone, no new understanding of the world without the world itself being changed.
Today, those transformations are social, even global, as parts of the world industrialize while others deindustrialize. You’ve got goods and currency shifting from one end of the world to another at unprecedented speed.
These changes are Technological, in the big-T sense, as the large-scale marvels of mechanical and civil engineering of the last century (1850 to 1950) give way to the micro- and nanotechnologies pioneered by electrical engineers emerging in this one (1950 to the near future). But I think they are above all Medialogical, as text, sound, and images are reconfigured for digital storage and communication.
It is easy to overemphasize the novelty of digital technologies. We stared at screens long before analog cathode ray tubes were swapped for liquid crystal displays. The first man-made screen that we know about was the cave at Nascaux, where our ancestors painted beautiful, powerful animals, next to those mysterious, symbolic negative hands. Before that, we played out dramas in the stars, each constellation a figure against the infinite ground of nighttime space. Our mothers whispered lullabies, stories of gods, men, and heroes, to us before we could even speak.
Radio, which still forms the basis of much of our digital communication, dematerializes information far more radically than any physical hard drive. And bulletin boards, microfilm readers, card catalogues, and tabloid newspapers provided the experience of hypertext long before anyone thought Vannevar Bush’s standalone steampunk desk could be mapped onto a network of computers.
This. Is. Not. New.
So we’ve been playing out this game of humanism for a long time. Humanism is older than socialism. It’s more primal. And when we lash out against bogey-man figures of socialism, really what we abhor is the rejection of humanism: the halt of information, the destruction of knowledge, the absence of that continued chain of self-critique and data transmission. That’s what we long for.
Partly, here, I’m trying to pick a fight. To split the unstable coalition between the media-and-technology humanists and the brain-and-gene humanists on the one hand, and between the traditional liberal arts humanists and the traditional religious humanists on the other.
The brain-and-gene humanists, like the religious humanists, can be very stone-age in their thinking. Human nature for both of these groups is real, and it’s fully determined by events that happened thousands of years ago. We’re hard-wired for everything — language, sex, and sin. And both groups hate the secular humanists - the culture people - for thinking that human beings are super-adaptable. Never mind that it was the behavioralists and empiricists who pushed the idea of a blank slate — it’s so much easier to pick on romantics and postmodernists, Freudians and Marxists instead.
I’ve totally set up straw men here; like I said, I want to pick a fight. But it’s really a fight about self-conception, about who or what you think your enemy is. It’s a straw man against setting up straw men.
Ultimately, the new digital humanism is more important than the new scientific humanism, because it really is a humanism. It actually more thoroughly rejects the naïve, universalizing humanism than the brains-and-genes crowd. It’s MORE compatible with what we’re finding out about how the brain works, how it processes information, and the complex interactions between language, culture, our bodies, and our DNA. And it more richly describes what is happening NOW than armchair postmodernism, evolutionism, or millenarianism. It positively gives us somewhere to go.
The New Socialism is the New Humanism.