January 4, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
The Democratic Era: Part II, Tomorrow and the Day After, cont.
The Rebirth of Factionalism
Salus populi suprema lex esto.
WE HAVE SO FAR considered what we may term localized threats to the democratic orders now emerging—that is to say, threats which pertain either to the homogeneous society, or to the fractional society. But as both the one and the other shall be, at least at first, fundamentally democratic in nature, it behooves us to consider above all those threats to the democratic order as such. We may group these into two different categories. The first is an endemic ailment from which democracies of all times have suffered, and which has brought a considerable number of them to demise: it has historically been known under the name of factionalism. The second is a danger which has emerged in our time, in the form of the various technologies which contemporary science has made possible. This threat not only is new and as of yet largely unpredictable, but it comes to us in all the raiment of a triumphant conqueror, before which we are wont to bow our heads in awe and lowly pleasure. That makes it doubly perilous to us.
There has been much comment lately on the growth of partisanship. What is meant by this is that the division between the various strands of popular opinion are both deepening and widening—deepening, insofar as these opinions on both sides of the political divide are becoming more radical, and widening, insofar as it becomes increasingly difficult to rediscover that “middle-ground” of moderate accord which once formed, in America at least, the better part of politics. Many causes have been adduced to explain this phenomenon, but I do not think it will much prejudice the discussion if I propose another explanation, or partial explanation, for it. I do not pretend to have found a skeleton key to unlock the secrets of all these problems; but I do think that the questions take on keener definition, and the answers put on better flesh, when seen through the lens that I propose.
If what I have said regarding the coming of a Democratic Era is at all correct, it follows that a deep alteration in the popular intuition of government must follow. In a Republic, all questions of law and of the right role of government are defined in certain strict limits called the law. That law can be adjusted and crafted, but it can never be pressed beyond the impermeable cast established by the supreme law of the land, as embodied in a written (or rarely unwritten, as in the case of the English) Constitution. It is for this that the Republican form of government stands or falls by the strength of the law-abidingness of its citizenry, or the degree of inherent respect, not to say reverence, that any given citizen holds for the law; without this respect, without this reverence, which infuse the Constitution with dignity and power, the law is no more binding on the heart of man than any script written on any old scrap of paper.
Democracies as such have a diminishing sense of the power of the law, and at best only a vestigial sense of its dignity. Having awakened to the power within themselves, the democratic masses become enamored of themselves, particularly as they find themselves expressed and enlarged in their parties. The party in a democracy reveals itself as a marvelous macrocosm of the common man, an enlargement of his person which at once defines and represents his opinions and appetites, thus becoming at once his vehicle and his rider. The party inflames the common man’s heart with hope that his dearest desires might be realized in political form. These desires, however, conflict with the desires of other citizens, as represented in other parties; and because the only force in a democracy standing against the will of a part of the people, is the will of the other parts, these other individuals reveal themselves at first as competitors, and finally as adversaries.
Now, in a Republic, to say it yet again, there is a final limit to all political conflicts: the desires of the people can never surpass the limits defined by the Constitution, and it is only by the Constitution itself that most if not all matters of first political importance are decided. In a Republic, then, the disagreements between conflicting parties do not tend to touch upon those sacred matters which bring men to clash. The tenor of disputes in Republics, though it sometimes grows warm, hardly ever passes the bounds of propriety, and but rarely results in enmity. At the close of even very vivacious arguments, it is common in Republics that the disputants shake hands without bitterness, and enjoy each other’s company in all good will.
But when the democratic spirit overcomes the republican, and the rule of law is eroded or subverted with the principle of popular will, it begins to dawn on the minds of everyone that the law is malleable in the hands of the majority. The vital questions and issues regain their deep vitality and seriousness, and with them the disputes that decide them and the disagreements over how they should be resolved. The goals and final aims of society suddenly come once more into dispute, and the entire cast and mold of society appears soft and pliable. Feeling the weight of possibility, and the great somberness of the uncertainty of the social constitution itself, the individual citizens of democracy very naturally and in a certain respect most justifiably begin to hold each other accountable for differences of belief and practice, in a way that would seem to the citizens of a Republic both irresponsible and excessive. “He who stands against me, stands against my very vision of the good society, and would replace it with another.” So thinks to himself every partisan in a democracy. “Indeed, he stands against me every bit as much as the soldier of some other nation in a war. Such a one is therefore my—enemy.”
What we have described here is the psychological emergence of democratic thought from republican, and the birth, from republican parties, of democratic factions.
Factions were a constant preoccupation of the Founding Fathers of the United States, as one can immediately ascertain from even a very cursory review of The Federalist Papers. As Publius writes,
The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.
A spirit of faction, which is apt to mingle its poison in the deliberations of all bodies of men, will often hurry the persons of whom they are composed into improprieties and excesses, for which they would blush in a private capacity.
Or yet again:
In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign as in a state of nature, where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger.
These concerns are not immediately easy for us to understand; in these last eight decades of peace in the West, we Occidentals have largely forgotten the rending power of factional strife on the social fabric. It is long since we have witnessed from close by the decomposition of society into violent and mutually destructive fragments.
We can hope that what remains of our traditional lawfulness will save us from the worst excesses of these transformations. I foresee at least this much: that the factional tendencies of our nations will lead to an augmentation in the violence of our tongues, if not our hands; that the rifts between members of opposing political camps will grow more divisive; that it will become more and more common to speak of the most pressing political and social matters only with like-minded individuals (which will do nothing but dig these trenches more deeply) and to avoid confrontations which might end in incendiary disputes, and possibly in ruptures between friends and relatives; that we will see a reduction in sober debate between conflicting visions, and a general increase in shrillness, indecency, and personal affront between those who adhere to opposing theories.
So much in the private sphere. In the public, on the other hand, we can limn the following state of affairs, characterized by stark political divisiveness between the parties which form up the government, and thence to greater deadlocks in times of balanced electorates, and more rampant partisanship in times of unbalanced electorates. The strongest parties of the nation, finding themselves ever more at odds with each other and separated by ever more unspannable differences of ideology, will blame each other for those political standstills, for which all are universally culpable. Attempts to escape these increasingly common political doldrums will be based inevitably on attempts to force agreement on irreconcilable disagreements, and will end necessarily in bitter incrimination from both sides. This can do nothing but convince each side more surely that it is in possession of all righteousness, and its foes in possession of all wrongfulness. Government terms will come more and more to be defined by the frantic impatience of the people to attain this or that change in the laws, and the ashamed incapacity of the politicians to do their bidding, resulting in a widening alienation between the masses and their representatives, and a generalized sense of paralysis and impotence.
When at last one side or the other succeeds in garnering the greater share of power, it will be tempted not merely to fulfill its own agenda, but also to establish laws and legal barriers to obstruct that of its opponents. Because the time of such ascensions to supremacy will at first be limited to the traditional terms of republican governance, there will be great pressure on the politicians to bend the law to favor their constituency by any means at their disposal, and simultaneously to constrain the present and future will of their adversaries. They will only be the more spurred to such manipulations of legality by the fact that their public supporters will be watching them most wolfishly to be certain that they are doing as the “people” desires; and when they fail to act appropriately, they will find themselves punished by the ruthless hand of the masses, which will not hesitate to penalize them in whatever it way they might for having failed to obey the “popular will.”
As the habit of this legalistic sectarianism is adopted more and more shamelessly by our public figures, the law will become a thing ductile, a pawn to be used in a larger game, and the rights that that law is meant to protect will divide starkly along partisan lines, becoming the very shifting weights by which the equilibrium of the ship of state is most compromised. At that point it is much to be feared that the wreckage of the nation is nigh.
In these times, demagogues will flourish—men who promise much to the people in order to arrive into power, and who employ this power largely to bolster and consolidate their own business and pleasure. Now, the professional politicians will find themselves in an increasingly intolerable position, for they will be at once ladened with the great expectations of the people, and prohibited from realizing these by the exigencies of career politics itself. It is therefore to be expected that a new race of populists will more and more take the center stage of politics—men who are perceived as political outsiders, and for this will be thought to have greater liberty than professional politicians to procure even the most absurd of the masses’ desires. Such men will in all cases require two things to arrive at power: notoriety and affluence. These means alone will give them both the material means, and the public credentials (for they have secured what the common man in a democracy desperately wants, to seek office. It is thus to be expected that they will come ever more from the ranks of democratic “celebrities”—actors, vulgar businessmen, and that curious contemporary class of almost professionless individuals who seem to have no vocation if not dawdling in the limelight, and who evidently owe their fame to nothing other than their fame.
We would do very wrong to think of Trump as an isolated phenomenon. Those who hope for great things from Trump have discounted that populist victories do not bend only toward one side of the political spectrum; once the door has opened to demagoguery, the old distinctions cease to mean much, and if this demagogue belongs to the political right, the next might just as easily belong to the radical left. Those who hope for Trump’s abject political failure, as if this were somehow the one true road back to political moderation, do even worse. For with each one of these demagogues that succeeds in being elected, but fails to meet the expectations of the masses, the balance will be thrown that much farther off center, the exasperation of the masses will grow that much the keener, and their political choices that much more extreme and unpredictable.
Nothing can result from the default of a figure like Trump, except a greater turbulence in the popular vote, and men of yet more vulgar hues rising from the wreckage. No changes can be hoped from him, which cannot be undone with an even greater degree of extremism four or eight years down the road.
We are alive in delicate times. The safe course between the monsters about us narrows year to year. The ills of factionalism are among the worst that any society may suffer; and when these are not contained and moderated by a universally presupposed system of law, they can induce the very collapse of the house which shelters them.
There is alas very little that can be done to soften the tone of the times. It is the part of the wise in such moments, it seems to me, to adopt a position of moderation, and to avoid those gestures, alliances, and positions which can do nothing but exacerbate a fragile and volatile state of affairs. Moderation is the best course not only personally, but publicly; all else is but spewing fire at the flames. As always there will be a magnetism in the times for those who have long sought to achieve some peculiar personal agenda, perhaps at great personal loss; they will perceive at last the possibility to realize the changes they have longed for. Those who speak out most enthusiastically for populism, or against an arid and static legalism which refers manically to the Constitution, are inevitably those who are hoping to master the flood, or at least to be carried with it wherever they would like to go. Well might they profit of its motion, but I pray they realize, before it is too late, how uncontrollable and absolutely chaotic such mass movements are.
The best of these would-be masters, are the worst mistaken: for the masses will tolerate only their own rule, and so, if ever they should choose out some single system-breaking figure in which to infuse their hopes and desires, they will inevitably select, not the best among us, but rather a disgraceful caricature of themselves.
I believe that those who still search for political answers to the problems before us have yet to understand the tenor of the times. They are like the engineer who seeks to repair the train even as it rambles along, by removing a screw here and a bolt there. They listen to the loudening rattling about them as if it might help them diagnose their troubles, and they begin even to take it as a sign that they are on the cusp of resolution. It seems to me they would do better to stand toward the center, mind their own affairs, and prepare themselves for that time fast arriving, in which their virtues will be much needed indeed.
Democracy and Technology
I BEGIN what I consider to be the most crucial section of these reflections with a claim, which at first will seem but distantly related: the dispute between the egalitarian position and what we may call the elitist position depends, not on a disagreement regarding fact, but rather regarding philosophy. Put otherwise, the difference between them in most cases cannot be reconciled with reference to statistical, scientific, or censual data.
Let us take an example of this. There is a long-standing dispute between the egalitarian and the elitist if intelligence is more an inherent or rather more an acquired characteristic. The elitist tends to subscribe to the first position, and the egalitarian to the second. The elitist tends to believe that the intelligence of a human being is a given, stable quantity, present already from birth, which cannot be much influenced by environmental factors; while the egalitarian tends to believe that the intelligence of a child can be improved by such actions as assuring good diet, or guaranteeing intellectually nourishing and emotionally caring households. We are tempted to claim, then, that the elitist owes his elitism to his belief in the inherent quality of intelligence, while the egalitarian owes his egalitarianism to his belief in the mutable, indeed fosterable quality of intelligence.
Were this the case, then it would be sufficient to resolve the dispute by reference to the facts; or, if such facts are not readily available, it would be sufficient to wait for science to discover them.
We do not here pose the question as to whether the elitist or the egalitarian is more correct. We rather propose a thought experiment regarding their dispute. If tomorrow the nature of intelligence were rigorously demonstrated, without a shadow of a doubt, to be either of the one kind or of the other, would this discovery sway the elitist or the egalitarian to descend from their bastions? I am not speaking, of course, of any incidental followers to either of these camps; some percentage of those who consider themselves elitist or egalitarian would certainly change their view on the basis of wide consensus. But what of those who most trenchantly hold these opinions today? Would they acquiesce with grace, and grant the field to their contestants? Or would we rather not see simply a transfer of the argument to a deeper stratum, a retrenchment to a more profound philosophical position?
Would not the elitist, for instance, begin to argue that even though intelligence is perfectly pliable, it is desirable nonetheless to promote a range of diverse intelligences in society, some more powerful than others, and that a uniform raising of the level of intelligence would be disastrous to the social order? Could we not imagine the elitist elaborating a new philosophy of “spontaneous social order,” for instance, which demands a less invasive manipulation of social position, a more laissez-faire attitude to birth and upbringing and education, and which practically encouraged accidental, random differences in intelligence for the good of the whole?
Or would not the egalitarian, learning that the limits of intelligence are almost rigidly set by genetics, and cannot be improved by even the most ambitious interventions on the life of the child—would the egalitarian, I say, not claim that this changes nothing, that still the greater intelligence of the few represents an unfair advantage over the rest—indeed, so much the more if intelligence is the imposition of an arbitrary nature? Would he not say that this is then an injustice sewn into the very fabric of our beings, an injustice from which one cannot escape no matter how one tries, and therefore is an abhorrent injustice? Would he not claim that, precisely given the unalterable nature of intelligence, we are even more obliged to intervene as we may, to set this basic and utterly unacceptable inequality to a level?
As is the case with all the great questions, the pith of this disagreement cannot be resolved by reference to fact: it cannot be redressed by science, for it is not in the end a scientific disagreement. It is a disagreement regarding value, and it can be redressed only by philosophy.
Now, let us return to our investigations. We have claimed that the egalitarian mood is coming ever more to dominate the social sphere. It is coming to do so, indeed, as never before. Historically the egalitarian mood, wherever it has issued from peoples or races, has found itself rigidly contained by the nature of things, enclosed by the insurmountable barricade of reality itself. The most extreme ideology must ever be tested in the crucible of experience, and in almost all cases is found wanting, judged and damned by the simple fact that it does not accord with the way things are. Communism comes to mind as a classic example, certainly of our time, and possibly of any: communism wished to bend the world to its special theory, but was forced to reckon with the realities of the human and social condition, and so resulted in those grotesque monstrosities of state which even today mar the face of the globe.
The nature of things in a certain way reigns today every bit as tyrannically as ever in the past. No polity founded on the principle of the human being’s right to spontaneous flight, for instance, would long stand the test of its principles. But today the barrier of reality has been fundamentally shifted in as of yet totally unpredictable ways by the power of our modern scientific advances.
The existence of science in our day is to my mind the most important of all contemporary political facts. It will seem strange, perhaps, that I refer to science as a political fact: science, save in a very few issues which it regards as being of overriding importance, tends to be strongly, even irresponsibly apolitical. But I believe that we are entering into a period in which the sphere of politics will be ever more permeated by the technological and even theoretical advancements of science. I call this, moreover, a democratic transformation—not losing sight for an instant of the fact that science itself is one of the only really hierarchical associations left to us, and that technology might be used also as foremost tool of oppression in the hands of a dictator or of order in the hands of a ruling class. Nonetheless, it seems to me that democracy and science belong together, that they are twin aspects of a single very modern philosophical strand, and that this philosophical strand is nothing if not deeply political.
Elsewhere in this essay, I have called technology a “radical agent of radical egalitarianism.” I did not apply this description lightly. Though the reasons for this character of technology can be revealed only through a much longer and more dedicated investigation, it suffices here to note a fact of technology available to even the meanest of observers: technology grants capacities to its users that they would otherwise lack. There is nothing remarkable in this observation. Technology, after all, is a tool. Yet the consequences of this simple fact are revolutionary for the degree to which technology today pervades society, and the speed with which its growth is accelerating in our time. Technology is popular; it makes itself ever more popular to the extent to which it elevates small talents and razes the inherent differences between human beings, for thus it satisfies both the envies and the feeds the hungers of the many. Some modest restriction is put on this general rule by the moralities, and particularly by the religions, of the people; but the more democratic our societies become, the less influence these brakes will be able to exert.
Now, supposing one believed, as all egalitarians do, that each individual human life is of identical value to every other; supposing the inference were drawn from this that all human rights are equally applicable to all human beings; supposing these rights were enlarged (as they are being enlarged in our very day) to include such things as work, income, and material and psychological well-being; supposing finally that the link between “rights” and human quality were clearly perceived—would it not, given all this, be a most mundane matter of course, that the egalitarian should use whatever means he has at his disposal, to ensure the equality of human capacities?
As I have already suggested, I suspect that we will soon be witness to a veritable pullulation of “rights” issuing from improvements in medical, communication, and bio-engineering technologies, and I suppose that these will follow the discernible lines laid down by egalitarianism. It is neither within my power nor my intent to foresee the peculiar forms that technology will take in the coming decades, but I think some prediction of its general lineaments is licit. In the broadest vision of coming events, I think we will begin to perceive a conflict in the use of technology on the part of many different agents. The most powerful of these will be represented in the state on the one hand, and in the masses on the other, and conflicts are almost certain to arise at the frictional shifting of these two territories, one against the other. The masses will demand greater and more complete equalities through technology, and the state will have good incentive to acquiesce to their demands up to a certain point. But the government has ever its own agenda, which, though it is built on the sovereignty of the people, is not identical with the will of the people, and the area in which that agenda comes to infringe upon the perceived rights of the people will be a raw place in the democratic order.
Though this conflict is native to all democracies, it will become the more incendiary on account of the powers granted indiscriminately by technology.
One of the first things we might expect to see, easily in the lifespan of those my age, is a universal guarantee to the internet—or, put otherwise, state-sponsored internet access, for the ostensible purpose of providing information and educational services to all citizens, regardless of economic station or geographic location. This will inevitably complicate the relation between the government and the as of yet little-regulated “digital space.” The ways this will play out depend on many factors beyond our ken, but given the nature of government, we can suppose that the state will almost certainly perceive in this situation the possibility of keeping a tighter surveillance on its citizens, at first in the apparently innocuous form of gathering censual data, for instance, or requesting “feed-back reports” on various of its programs, legislation, or executive actions, which will be defended, we can be sure, as perfections on democratic process. It can easily be imagined how these initial probes could expand into more delicate and invasive forms of intrusion on the private sphere, and, given the very natural interest the state has in maintaining its internal stability, and the stake that politicians have in maintaining their positions, I think that only the most sanguine observer will consider such worries as these to stem from paranoia.
I should not be surprised if some new form of “civic education” should begin to spring out of this alliance between government and technology, in the form of quizzes and tests, at first voluntary but gradually obligatory, administered to the people on any number of subjects of particular relevance or interest to the state. These tests might be mandatory for the acquisition of certain licenses or permits: for instance, tests regarding the consequences of drug use for those who wish to attain a driver’s license. And again, one can imagine the ways in which these tests, once they have established a precedent, might be expanded to establish greater control over the actions of the populace, and to gain greater intelligence regarding their means, habits, and thoughts.
All of these changes will work toward the expansion and refinement of state powers, thus making authoritarianism the ever more likely outcome of a rupture of the democratic order.
For the people’s part, I expect that direct democracy will be more and more demanded, precisely thanks to this state-sponsored internet. As has been pointed out, the practical obstruction to direct democracy has been essentially dissolved by the advances of our modern technology; it remains to be seen to what extent the theoretical objects to direct democracy will yet hold sway with us. With the growing populism of the present day, the increase in the people’s mistrust and contempt for its representatives, and the sense that there is a widening gap between the popular will and the acts and intents of the politicians, I do not believe we can long resist the growing institution of direct democracy in our nations.
I suppose it will begin with an increase in the number of plebiscites, and a widening of the issues which they are permitted to address. It is to be expected that the results of these plebiscites (as has even begun to happen in Europe) will not be much to the pleasure of professional politicians; this will exacerbate the tensions standing between the people and the political class, which might go so far as to undermine the inner tranquility of nations. We can imagine a backlash on the part of state “specialists” who will resent the infringement of a blunt and largely ignorant popular will into the subtle business of running modern, ultra-complex states. I do not think it past imagining that the conflict between these two groups might lead in the end to large-scale protests on the part of the people, and to deep civil unrest, regulation of which will become ever more difficult without resorting to raw physical force.
The ubiquity of the internet will have also this consequence: it will become increasingly easy for even incidental statements of any given individual to be recorded and exhumed and held before the popular bar for judgement. This will serve a variety of purposes—either to make the individual hold to the communal vision of things, or to break him altogether should he step too far beyond the pale. It is likely that there will be a kind of pincer-motion to this censorship, as it can arrive as easily from official and legal sources, as from popular and social ones. This will have the overall effect of making the meek more multitudinous and meeker, the courageous fewer and more courageous, and those who keep their own counsel and know how to hold their tongues, yet more tight-lipped. It will become more and more common that a bright line will be inscribed around the circle of mass-life, and that the ever diminishing numbers of those who fall beyond it will remain there in the outer dark. Yet a most curious result follows here. Indeed, to the keen-eyed, it is one of the most curious results of our democratic times: namely, that the almost universal movement toward egalitarianism, produces an even more extreme division between the common and the exceptional, and has moreover the very dangerous side-effect of alienating the great individual from all sympathy with the well being of the populace at large. This is perhaps one of the gravest ways in which democracy undermines itself, and one of the prime reasons for which it ends so easily by descending into tyranny.
All of this will be fueled by mass-technology. The degree to which the same technologies can protect the few from the despotism of the many depends decisively on the degree to which those technologies remain beyond the sphere of political control. As with so many things in the new world of technology, everything depends on what will happen with the greatest speed: whether government control of technology can outpace maverick development, or vice versa.
Technology will have, of course, may consequences beyond its “digital” developments. Its growing presence in the labor sector will surely lead to a reduction in the number of certain kinds of jobs. The defenders of technology like to reply that this will be evenly counterbalanced by the emergence of new kinds of jobs; but even if this is true, it misses the crucial point. Those jobs which robots or machines can begin even now to execute are not in general jobs requiring great expertise or training; they are much more commonly simple jobs which require no special qualifications or education. The workers displaced are therefore not likely to be versatile, and the new jobs that are produced (requiring for instance the care, programming, and upkeep of new machines) will not be the kinds of positions that these unskilled laborers can fill. Greater pressure will fall on the educational system, to prepare workers for a labor market which requires increasingly greater competency and readiness. But we can be almost certain that these requirements will not reflect the natural distribution of human abilities. This might in the long run produce a considerable instability in the social order, which will have to be addressed in one way or another, and which in any case will be yet another point of weakness in a generally brittle system. It will also, I am afraid, put strong pressure on the development of two other extremely important scientific innovations: the development of psychopharmaceuticals on the one hand, and of bio-engineering on the other.
The growing variety and efficacy of psychopharmaceuticals might have some role to play particularly as a larger proportion of the populace begins to lose its sense of its right place in society. There will be a temptation on the part of the discontented many to use new psychological medicines to escape their malaise, and on the part of the rulers to encourage the use of such medicines to assuage the disaffection of the people. Religion may once have been the opiate of the people—as Marx and Engels rather inadequately averred—but today, opiates shall be the opiates of the people. Some of these, as marijuana, will be more or less “organic” at the start; but there is no reason to believe that Huxley’s soma will not make its appearance in some form or other—supposing it has not arrived already. As it becomes fashionable to determine the “standard of life” through a variety of measurable, which means material factors, and to understand happiness exclusively in terms of pleasure and pain, psychiatry will surely gain in power, and the medicines that it peddles will be ever more widely available, and ever more widely abused. This will be aggravated by the very democratic proclivity of a certain segment of people to try to be as “normal” as they can be, a vice, I think we can anticipate, of the homogeneous society in particular. In such a society, “abnormal” sentiments, passions, and experiences will become suspect, even to oneself, and on account of the flourishing of these new medicines, it will not even be necessary any longer for those who feel different to “go voluntarily to the madhouse”; it will quite suffice for them to go to their psychiatrist.
By far the most troubling of all the transformations before us (setting aside the possibilities of “nano-technology” and “artificial intelligence”) is the relatively undeveloped realm of bio-engineering. I believe that many of our contemporaries have simply decided to close their eyes to the future even now before us, to shield their minds from it, because of the complexity and prodigy of its forms, the radicality of its propositions, and the unimaginable quality of the transformations it promises to effect on us and our societies. Most particularly, I believe it is hard to consider these questions for the simple reason that they force us to confront our deepest moral and philosophical presuppositions. It is not easy to gaze long into this abyss, if one is not to a great extent already three-quarters a scientist—which is to say, a being who is more enthusiastic about mathematics than morals, and who is able to embrace the possibility of a bio-engineering revolution, precisely to the extent to which he is estranged from his humanity. There are questions here, unavoidable questions of human nature, human ambition, humanness itself, which this issue brings non-negotiably into the light. We are compelled through it to confront the tremendous question of what it means to be a human being—and, much more pressingly even than that, what it ought to mean: indeed, we are compelled not only to confront this question, but we are compelled to answer it, though we be ever so unqualified.
Here and now, however, we are concerned with a cursory, generally superficial consideration of what role bio-engineering, and in particular human genetic engineering, is likely to play in our modern democracies.
I believe we can delineate three possible routes that our societies might take in the face of the possibilities represented by bio-engineering. Much depends on the particular way the mass of human beings will approach these questions; and, as this response in turn depends on such variables as to what extent the vestiges of our monotheistic religions are still active in us, and what if anything will come to replace them, and what trends are active at key historical moments in our “popular culture,” it is difficult to make a sound guess about what path in particular we are likely to pursue. It is also certain that different societies will respond in different ways—some are sure to be more “progressive” and permissive regarding these issues than others. All of them without exception must, however, initially take one of the following logically exhaustive positions: either they will prohibit all meddling in human biology, or they will put no restrictions on it whatsoever, or they will mix the two approaches, allowing some forms of bio-engineering, and prohibiting others.
What seems to me the least likely possibility for any of the strongest nations of the world, is the total proscription of all manipulations of the human genome. In the first place, I do not believe that the hunger of the people for equality will long resist the promises embodied in these novelties; they will perceive in this realm the final method of eliminating that scandalous inequality of human beings which nature itself has so tyrannically imposed on humankind. But beyond the internal pressure toward the use of these technologies, there will be an external incentive of “national defense”: for any nation which strictly refuses to utilize such innovations risks being left far behind less scrupulous nations, in economic, medical, and military terms. The political sector will have every reason to convince the public of the benefits which might come of these researches, and the public sector, sooner or later, is sure to perceive the truth in these persuasions. If prohibition is to reign, moreover, it will be able to do so given only the support of strongly held religious convictions, which are in our day represent the only real moral barrier standing between us and a biomedical revolution. But religious influences are precisely the influences which, in a democracy, one can least count on.
The second possibility would be to cut a distinct if arbitrary division through the possible realm of genetic engineering—a binding, public determination of what is and what is not permissible in this research. This line will be difficult to draw with clarity, and even more difficult to draw indelibly; even if such standards can be established with an acceptable amount of rigor, there will be a constant pressure to enlarge them once they have been laid.
The easiest and most likely line for such a categorical division would be that which most closely follows our contemporary mores. Such would accept all modification of the human genome, or all modifications of human physiology, that can be given a solidly medical justification. All those interventions which obviate or cure illnesses of the body will be accepted; those which exceed these limits or take non-medical ends will be prohibited.
This scheme, apart from the fact that it suffers from the primary deficiency of the simply prohibitory position, has two major theoretical problems. In the first place the distinction between the “medical” and the “non-medical” can be made only with a degree of sophistry, and will suffer almost certainly from a rather wide gray zone, the borders of which will be as wide as the present scientific uncertainty regarding human psychology. There will be a real and pressing question as to whether psychological infirmities—say, as the probably heritable diseases of bipolarity or schizophrenia—do not count as medical illnesses, which can and should be remedied via genetic engineering. But once the limit has been crossed into the mental realm, it will be difficult if not impossible to stop alterations to such things as human intelligence, will power, and mental well-being (supposing any of these things can be finally regulated by genetics). And once these things become fair game, then of course it would be absurd to put restrictions on changes to human strength or beauty, or even to the human proclivity to adopt this or that general worldview.
The great difficulty is this: the line which we would draw between one category of human phenomena and another is not recognized by science, which holds, or at least hopes, that all phenomena within the human being are strictly physiological. For that reason, it will be a most difficult line to maintain, and must sooner or later begin to erode beneath the growing scientism of our society.
Supposing, however, that the borders can be laid down in a manner so as to satisfy the majority, there emerges the question of how one can justify the discrimination between the “medical” and the “non-medical.” How does one explain, say, to one’s children, that society considers it licit to tamper with human genes to eliminate Down syndrome or sickle-cell anemia, but not ugliness or stupidity (again, supposing these things can be genetically manipulated)? It will be most interesting to how this tidy little problem resolves itself. I suspect that the very egalitarian attitude of present society will have a usefully depressive effect on the over-enthusiasm of the scientific community and the “trans-humanists.” For it may come to be argued that non-medical alterations in the genome will lead to intolerable inequalities in society, and could result even in the birth of a new class system. It is indifferent whether the genetically manipulated human beings will find themselves at the top or at the bottom of these imagined injustices; what is important is that the perception of such possibilities might stay the hand of their perpetrators. Indeed, we can even imagine that the most radical egalitarians might begin to protest against those changes which eliminate things like dwarfism, because their elimination implies a judgement regarding these diseases—namely, it implies a condemnation of them. But because the radical egalitarianism will insist that there are no differences between human beings, this evaluation itself must be erroneous; ergo, it would be immoral to attempt to eliminate those who suffer from such ailments. Taken to its limits, such a stance would even suggest a reversion to a policy of perfect non-intervention in the human genome.
The final possibility is that our society from the first freely permits any and all genetic engineering, without discrimination, leaving it to custom and consuetude to determine the borders of acceptable biological intervention. This is liable to be the tendency, at least initially, of those societies which fall under the sway of soft tolerance; they will not have the heart to regulate the choices that parents make regarding the genetic character of their own children. An initial permissivity, however, is liable to be reconsidered when the first really radical results emerge. It is inevitable, for instance, that monstrosities begin to emerge, thanks to this kind of permissive attitude—for no one should believe for an instance that all those who seek mastery of the human genome do so with the good of mankind in mind. Confronted with the mingling of human and animal genetics (a proposition which has been suggested by certain individuals who might one day be in a position to attempt such things), it is difficult to believe that even the most latitudinarian society would not react with some degree of horror.
In the initial period, this kind of laissez-faire attitude will have the effect of restricting the benefits of genetic engineering mainly toward the rich proportion of society. Because these benefits will begin to accrue precisely where a certain degree of political and social power already exists, it might have the effect of unbalancing society strongly toward the richest of its members. The extent to which this alteration would be desirable, I leave to the reader’s judgement.
Given any possibilities you please, I think it is clear that our societies will have a decided proclivity toward experimentation in the realm of genetics. The results of this experimentation is likely in turn to determine the very course of our societies for the coming centuries. Whether we will find ourselves in a society in which all human beings are essentially programmed from birth to fulfill definite social roles, as in Brave New World; whether we will see the emergence of a new and perhaps terrifying ruling class whose members are the superior fruit of these novel innovations; whether we will succeed, through a combination of ad hoc social theories, legal precedents, and common usage, in establishing a more or less clear line between the licit and the illicit in these practices, which will preserve us from their more horrifying abuses; whether we will witness the birth of a new breed of luddites who oppose themselves to all tampering in the nature of human beings; whether our societies and the science that they promote will fall into disorder before we must even make any of these choices—one way or another, the future holds great choices, great choices for what I fear is a small people. Perhaps the most powerful argument that can be leveled against science is that it does not and cannot discriminate between those responsible enough to wield its knowledge, and those who are not. In the coming times, we will have to confront this essential defect of what is surely the most impressive of all our modern achievements.
I am far from being a prophet. It may well be that many or even all of the possibilities I have laid forth here will prove to be laughably mistaken. In some ways, I put great hope in my own fallibility. Yet I am haunted by a sense, which I cannot escape, of the novel and dangerous times into which we are entering. I have exercised my poor vision of the future as far as it would carry me, far more from a sense of the urgency of our present condition, than from any prognosticator’s desire to anticipate tomorrow’s dawn. We are standing, it seems to me, at a remarkable moment, in which the world is about to change. I do not suppose it can be a matter of indifference for any of us, whither we are tending, or what these changes will or might bring us. Yet it seems to me as well that there is a portion of our society, a necessarily small segment of it, in which I decisively find myself, which must feel the coming shift more acutely than any, precisely for the menace, the opportunity, of tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow.
I have provided, without doubt, a deeply inadequate analysis of every issue I have touched on. Even beyond more glaring mistakes and omissions, I have left out a great many of the more personal alterations that the egalitarian mood is bringing upon us. I have not spoken, for instance, of the changes it is wreaking on the traditional family structure, and how these changes are likely to affect the formation of society and the inculcation of values. I have not mentioned the psychological alterations that communication technology is causing in our society, or how these might influence both our social relations, our modes of learning, and our artistic endeavors. I have not spoken of the pedagogical challenges before us, the way that a dramatically increased technology, in our schools and at home, might affect our children in their development and their very humanity. There is an enormity of material here, which could easily fill volumes; even the points over which I have but elided could become the subject of much longer and more penetrating analyses. In all I have restricted myself to what appeared to my inadequate vision the most salient ways in which the coming Democratic Era or Epoch might play itself out: for it seems to me that this is the great issue now confronting us.
It may be objected that much of what I have written in these reflections depicts, not democracy as it really is, but the corruption of democracy through the malign influence of plutocrats, technocrats, demagogues, and the mobs that follow them. I respond simply that such an objection seems to me to contrast democracy as it really is with some theoretical and idealistic democracy, as invented by the liberal imagination. But the democracy of the liberal imagination has never existed. That is enough to suggest it is not fit to the nature of human beings.
That might appear a harsh and illiberal claim. But to embrace any theory which proposes an illusory and unrealizable liberalism, is in the end not liberal at all, for it cannot issue in anything but the most illiberal of systems, to the precise degree to which it opposes itself to nature. When our theories do not accord with our souls, we must either bend our theories or break our souls; no other possibility exists to us. And thus I, who might respect liberalism in the older sense, cannot bring myself to subscribe to it in the new. It has been said by a man much superior to me in moderation and in wisdom that “we are not permitted to be flatterers of democracy precisely because we are friends and allies of democracy.” For my part, I think that the time is fast upon us when we can no longer avoid a serious and deeply critical analysis of the regime under which we live—that we cannot avoid this, precisely because the only way of preserving the virtues of democracy, is by adequately understanding its vices. I have attempted here, not indeed such an analysis, which far exceeds my powers, but merely a single modest gesture to indicate to more virtuous and sagacious individuals the way.
For the rest, I think we can safely leave the resolution of these questions to no lesser authority than history itself.
Return to The Democratic Era, Part II