Don’t mistake elections for political change!

I felt moved to write this post after seeing an article about the futility of Transhumanists standing in elections. As it happens I have already written a chapter addressing questions of strategy for the developing Transhumanist Party, but thought I’d lay out the essentials of my vision for the Party’s future here.

Some commentators seem to believe that there are only two ways to develop political influence in Western societies. The first is to influence decision makers through policy institutes, and the other is to become decision makers by winning elections. Six months ago we considered these two routes with regard to UK politics, and decided to pursue both simultaneously. Thus, Transpolitica and other friendly think tanks would explore the near-term possibilities of influencing established parties, while we would also establish the Transhumanist Party with a view to direct influence in 15-25 years time. I have said on a number of occasions that I expect Transhumanist Party influence to be negligible for at least ten years, but that groups like Transpolitica could potentially achieve real results in that same time frame.

There is a third way forward however, and it is the direction I believe the Transhumanist Party should be most heavily invested in (in the UK at least). Before explaining what I have in mind, first I would like to briefly lay out my own view of electioneering (from the Anticipating 2025 chapter mentioned above):

When it comes to traditional political party activity, we can see the most scope for modest medium-term success in nations where parliaments are elected by a proportional representation system, such as Germany. The examples of movements like the Pirate Party, Syriza and Podemos make this clear, whereas in “first past the post” systems (such as in the UK) it can easily take twenty five years to become the third party, even with radical and unexpected success. To my mind, traditional political attempts in the United States and Russia are little more than publicity drives (which is most certainly a thing of value in itself) because the systems in those nations allow for no real third-party influence. In effective single-party states like China there is no real potential for an independent political party at all.

Clearly, I do not believe that we are going to win the hearts and minds of the British electorate with an explicitly Transhumanist message any time soon (or in fact ever). Alexander Karran has noted that in his own electoral campaign the problem wasn’t so much people opposing Transhumanism, as not knowing or even remotely caring what it is. Of course we Transhumanists know that the big issues are going to come crashing into people’s lives whether they care or not, and part of our mission is to increase understanding of the issues, but at the same time we must ask ourselves a question:

How do we solve the problem of an uncaring electorate?

The Transhumanist Party exists for a reason, and it isn’t just to promote ideas like longevity. Our reason for existence is to help build a new societal model that can make the most of massive impending technological change. We may not be able to make any difference, but we must try, just in case it turns out that we could have made the difference between a society which thrives on the new technological opportunities, and one which descends into a downward spiral of missed opportunities, fearful knee-jerk reactions, and authoritarian control. Given that challenge, we cannot simply shrug and accept people’s lack of understanding as an insurmountable obstacle. Instead, we have to think like Transhumanists, and treat the situation as a problem to be solved by technical means.

We expect technological change to continue accelerating, and almost certainly spill over into massively disruptive societal change. We’re seeing some of that change and disruption already. It may be the case that as people feel that change and disruption more and more viscerally, then they become dramatically more open to our message. We must remain engaged via traditional democratic channels in case that happens. But at the same time, we should not be pinning our hopes on such eventualities, and should instead be focussing on direct action which we think is much more likely to make a positive difference regardless of public opinion. Political parties can be powerful organisations regardless of their ability to win elections, and we live in an age where societal problems can be solved by powerful organisations regardless of whether they so much as dip a toe in electoral waters.

In addition to a traditional political platform, then, we also need to encourage the establishment of a technological platform. A gateway for technological solutions to societal problems, composed of tools developed privately and publicly, and officially recognised by the government as a valid way for communities to make their own decisions and manage their own resources.

True Technocracy, or, the Big Society for real.

You may have heard the terms “Technocracy”, or “the Big Society”. Technocracy can refer to either a historical U.S. movement to bring an engineering approach to politics, or more recently to the kind of ‘technical’ governance applied to economic crises in European nations such as Italy. The Big Society is a term invented by UK Conservative Party strategists which was basically a cynical ploy to make dramatic social funding cuts sound like a good thing, by painting a romantic picture of communities rallying around to solve communal problems (the reality, of course, being the evaporation of government funding and communities being left to fend for themselves with only cute rhetoric to pay the bills).

What if we were to take these ideas seriously? What if we could engineer a situation in which our local communities were not simply ruled by specialist ‘technocrats’ or abandoned to a mythical Big Society, but instead given the opportunity and support to manage their own affairs using the best technological solutions available? Of course some things (such as defense) would still need to be organised on a national level, but we now live in an age where a lot of issues could be addressed by local communities directly, in a decentralised and highly democratic manner. By championing and working toward the creation of that new system we would naturally be aligning ourselves against the old system, bureaucratic 19th Century politics, and indeed the entirety of party politics. Our goal would be to build a system of direct local governance that makes party politics redundant, spelling the effective end of all parties including our own, and which effectively ends the age of the political class as we have understood it for the last three hundred years.

That could never work… could it?

Transhumanists talk about things like Technological Singularity all the time, but often forget to stop and think about the massive social disruption such ideas imply. Political parties haven’t existed forever, and to imagine their day will never pass is simply myopic. The big question we must ask ourselves here is what alternative forms of governance will be enabled by an explosion of technological possibilities over the coming decades. Such a wave of change is inevitable, barring disaster on the scale of a nuclear war or total environmental meltdown. Given such levels of change, the real issue is not whether local communities can manage their affairs with the latest tools better and more flexibly than an antiquated central government can, but whether we as a nation are able to muster an orderly transition to a new governance framework before it is too late… and a very disorderly transition sweeps over us all.

I envisage a kind of governmental network spanning the UK, ensuring that certain standards and common procedures are followed, but generally letting the regions use the latest technologies to create a true Big Society in their own preferred way, making decisions that reflect local desires in ways that a national parliament never could. Most of our policies will inevitably focus on the benefits of specific technologies (such as automation-backed Universal Basic Income, and NHS genetic screening leading to longevity treatments), but our party’s focus as an organisation would be on creating a platform through which people could use those technologies to manage their lives and communities without referring to central government or political parties most of the time. We would obviously not create the platform out of whole cloth, but instead work to draw together collaborators of many different types who are already developing all sorts of technological tools that people need to hear about.

The final step, however, brings us back to electoral politics. Any platform that truly gives people the power to manage their own affairs will be proscribed by government if the technology intrudes upon governmental authority. Aswell as helping to build the platform, and helping people understand how they can use it to directly make things better for themselves, it would be our task to arrange legal sanction for this new way of doing things. To return to our original two routes, we could do that by winning elections and rubber-stamping the new model ourselves, and/or influencing other parties to do the same. If establishment politicians can see that the world is changing and that they have a choice between making history and being left in its dustbin, I believe they will come to help us simply so as to not be left behind.

Elections are not political change, so much as gateways toward it under ideal circumstances. Those ideal conditions are rare indeed, and with accelerating technology we have the opportunity to make real change happen directly.

Don’t judge the future by the standards of the past. Join the Transhumanist Party!

Don’t mistake elections for political change!