May 29, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
Oil to the Social Machine
IN LATE MONTHS one has begun to hear murmur of something new. It creeps up at the borders of conversations, or on private blogs here and there, or on the lips of this or that intellectual or businessman or visionary, or now and then in a smaller article by a major online journal. A year ago it was an unheard-of novelty; today it is in the process of becoming a commonplace. I anticipate that these are but hints of what is to come. I think that this issue will in the near future attain a certain centrality in our public debates—and I anticipate that the major arguments given in its favor, will be largely secondary to the true motivations which press it forward.
I am speaking of the so-called “basic income,” the idea that each citizen of the state should receive, regardless of private and personal circumstance, a certain fixed amount of money each month. Many of the proponents of this income work in information technology, and it is no wonder they should be the first protagonists of this notion: for the “artificial intelligence” which they are even at this moment rapidly developing is liable to lead to unprecedented and largely unpredictable disruptions in the economy of traditional jobs—to say nothing of its effects on any number of essential human domains. The proposal of basic income is intrinsically connected to the possibility of mass unemployment, as robots and “intelligent” computers begin to encroach on any number of economic sectors. One way of addressing these profound changes, it is argued, is by giving every individual a safety net into which he may nicely fall, the moment his job disappears out from under him.
Yet although I do not believe this issue would ever have gained currency without the threat of such widespread technology-produced unemployment, I do not believe that this is the fundamental reason this idea will begin to gain traction, and I do not think it will be the primary reason it will finally succeed.
Nor do I think the kind of idealistic egalitarianism of contemporary communistic types will have much to do with its eventual triumph. The amelioration of “income inequality”—this mad modern attempt to blur the indelible lines between rich and poor—these dreams will surely seize the imagination of certain susceptible individuals, as they have done throughout modernity, and they will propel a percentage of the propaganda and defense behind this idea. But they will not move our politicians to consider its adoption. It will not be for the agonized consciences of compromised or modernized socialists that this idea comes finally to guide our public policies.
Nay—it will not even be the desperation of the politicians themselves, when they realize that their positions vis-à-vis immigration or public spending or social engineering or what have you, have led us all to the brink of social and economic ruin—it will not even be this desperation which will give this idea its horrible gravity.
Let us consider for a moment what basic income would represent. It would ostensibly be, as stated, an attempt to rectify one of the latest unintended consequences of the scientific revolution. It would disconnect every human being from the practical needs of existence—the “necessaries of life” that Thoreau speaks of. It would remove the human being that much farther from the land and the need to cultivate the land; from the raising of animals and the simple agricultural life which once underpinned all of human existence. It would make of every human being, in every part of the world, a “city-dweller,” a “consumer,” a node in the network, and would reduce exponentially the possibility of radical disconnection from the long project of modernity. It would represent therefore a detachment of human nature from its entire historical basis. It would give every human being the means to pursue his little dream, and so would equalize all human dreams: it would be the first step in the equalization of human ambition. It would diminish the effects of human inequalities, not only of income but of every kind, by eliminating many of the clearest outward signs of those differences. It would, in distancing the human being from the exigencies of his own nature, make his virtue and his vice, his artistic endeavors, his philosophical wonder, matters of increasing indifference. It would be the latest and thus far the greatest act in the long attempt to conquer chance and to immunize human beings against all misfortune—which can have no other effect on human psychology than to render it more careless of life and death, more prone to commit acts of violence and fanaticism, more susceptible to pain at merest discomfort and pity at the slightest suffering of one’s neighbor—at once more dangerously insouciant and more pathetically sensitive. It would redress the condemnation of God when he cast Adam and Eve out from the Garden, that they must labor in the soil and earn their bread of their sweat. It would to that extent make of the human being something other than a human being.
Here is the reason, then that this “basic income” will in all probability come about: because science seeks to master nature, and cannot do so without banishing man’s connection to his own nature. The final and necessary result of the scientific project, and the only way that science can overcome the contradictions in its makeup and the dire consequences and limitations of its methodology, is to make of society itself into a machine.
Shall I then state my hope aloud? To be honest, my hope grows extreme, and this troubles me almost to silence. This much seems evident to me: science cannot be stopped, and it is too late any longer to rein it in by the mere efforts of statesmanship or morality. The day that it discovers a free power source will be the day that its absolute apotheosis will be guaranteed beyond any hope of return. It is with horror that I state what begins to appear to me the last remaining conclusion: that our self-immolation on the alter of the soulless machine can be retarded or obviated only by a collapse of those social structures upon which science is presently building its most hubristic and most inhuman hopes.
Although I permit myself to pray that there is some third way of escaping this hideous dilemma, humanity to my eyes is presently in a race between the decay of our virtue, and the decay of our institutions. As I am a philanthropist, I can only hope that the second outruns the first.