(Feature) Liberalism’s Last Stand

William Gibson famously observed, a couple decades ago now, that the future had arrived, it just wasn’t evenly distributed. The fact that he had to say that and that people still find it insightful suggests they thought it would be evenly distributed, or reasonably so.

I’d like to say “I don’t know why that is” but I do know why that is. The public is quite deliberately refused a deep understanding of history, especially those in the technocratic classes (engineers, computer scientists, accountants, health care professionals, etc.) whose only real exposure to the subject is the memorization and regurgitation of names and dates and for whom, culturally, technology itself was (and sometimes still is) seen as the panacea, or at least the raw material from which it would be distilled.

There’s been an anti-utopian reaction to that in the last couple years, particularly among programmers of my generation who grew up on the hacker’s anarcho-utopian diet in the 1980s and 90s. There is no true believer as fanatical as the convert — the person who feels duped by their prior beliefs and who therefore makes it their mission to save the rest of us from the trap, for they alone know how easy it is to fall into.

You can see the passion play of historical ignorance in the debate over privacy, where privacy advocates act like its existed forever and people like Mark Zuckerberg, who declare it dead, act like nothing could possibly change. The first group takes the recent past and draws a straight line backwards. The second group takes the current trend and draws a straight line forward.

History has never, ever been a straight line.

The notion of property rights — of rights at all — dates roughly to the 17th century. (Let’s please not quibble.) For most of human history, both before and since, people didn’t have much privacy. Agents of both the crown and the church could enter your home on simple suspicion — the accusation of a neighbor, for example. They could arrest you and hold you indefinitely, which is still the case in China by the way, where most of the human species lives.

In the West, prior to the 20th century (when urban dwellers began to outnumber everyone else), privacy was minimal even where it was considered a legal right. Anyone who’s ever spent significant time in a small town understands this.

I’m not saying privacy is a fiction. I’m a big believer in it, actually, for all the reasons it was so hard won. I’m merely pointing out that the idea itself is no more than a few centuries old, and it only ever existed significantly in practice for the last hundred years or so. In that sense, privacy, like freedom and voting rights and racial equality, is a peak, a goal rather than a possession, something that must be continually striven for rather than cuddled jealously like a teddy bear.

Technology has corroded it; that’s true. But technology isn’t evil, not any more than acid is evil. Like acid, technology dissolves existing socioeconomic structures, thereby creating a gap at that point in society. Through that vacuum, old forces of inequality and oppression, which seem to be part of the human spirit, are now attempting a return from exile.

I’m borrowing the word corrosive from the British historian J.M. Roberts, who (along with many others) noted the effect that technological modernity had on traditional cultures around the world. That modernity arrived in European ships, riding a wave of gunpowder and pestilence, and it absolutely dissolved all it touched.

As the originators of the corrosion, Europeans were in a sense immune to its effects, since they cultured it. (Quite literally, as in it was a part of their culture.) They were also its beneficiaries. In taking the place of the traditional and parochial power systems that modernity destroyed, Europe conquered the world.

Now, however, the West is becoming the victim of the very same forces it unleashed. The structures of technological modernity, birthed at the same time as property rights, are being dissolved by the forces of hyper-technological post-modernity. The virus has mutated. The bacteria are resistant.

With the old structures failing, the question we now face is what to replace them with. I’ll give you a hint. Technology is not the enemy. Technology, like any tool, is only as good as the hand that wields it. There are better and worse designs of course, and we should strive for the former through legal or other means, but at the end of the day, hating technology is pointless. It’s the person at the helm of the machine that ultimately matters.

This is humanism, the belief that there’s more that unites than divides us, a once-liberal doctrine now seemingly abandoned by all sides in favor of wall-building — alternatively, to protect or to punish, to keep the good people in or the bad people out, to stop immigration or to stop cultural appropriation. In any case, there are groups of humans you are encouraged to join and those you are forbidden to.

I’m told someday this will all be replaced by transhumanism, which is an irrational love of technology rather than an irrational fear of it. But that’s just as silly. Technology only enhances what is already there. Like Dr. Erskine’s super-soldier serum, it makes good people better and bad people worse. Transhumanists, like most utopians, give scant credence to the very real possibility that the mechanisms of conversion will be co-opted by the wealthy and powerful and therefore what will result will not be dreamlike singularity but a dystopian nightmare.

Here there are two camps. The first, typically conservative, sees humanity as fundamentally unalterable — nasty, brutish, and all that — so any change must be forced through economic or military coercion. These folks argue that, at the point of change, there’s nothing to be done but make sure we’re the ones who take control. You’re witnessing that effort now.

The second group includes everyone who believes, to a greater or lesser degree, in the founding myth of liberalism, a rather outdated bit of psychology called the tabula rasa. These folks typically advocate some kind tax-funded educational program on the theory that, as possessors of a blank slate, people do bad things out of ignorance of good ones.

The fact that such programs have, even under the most charitable conditions, very mixed results does not deter these folks. Quite the opposite. Belief in myths is pre-rational of course, so if such a program fails, it’s because we did it badly or didn’t fund it enough, not because human nature is refractory to such things.

Refractory, by the way, doesn’t mean opposed. It means stubborn and difficult to manage.

It’s not that education never works — says the educated man. It’s that, historically speaking, we got most of the low-hanging fruit. Human beings are not born with a blank slate, after all. They come pre-loaded with all kinds of bloatware. Sadly, the world is complex — societies doubly so. We’ve probably run out of easy solutions. Going forward, we should expect things to be more difficult. The virus has mutated. The bacteria are resistant. Welcome to the future, which is to say the post-modern era of human history.

Liberalism, which brought us notions like privacy, was a child of modernity. Most of its founding myths, like the tabula rasa, have since been shown to be wrong, or at least incomplete, which means that liberalism is as useful in the post-modern world as the medieval worldview was in the modern.

Conservatism, for its part, seems a terrible step back toward religious paternalism. Human beings are not blindly coarse and immutable. In fact, sometimes they can be downright noble. But neither are they the blank slate upon which we can inscribe all our hopes and dreams. Most of the time they appear rather shabby, frankly, and some of them are outright dreadful, a deficit no voluntary education program can cure.

As for the way forward, history suggests a synthesis. In other words, your political adversaries are not wrong, which seems inconceivable until you realize that’s simply the converse of the truism that you and your allies are not infallible. Certainly, going about it the way we have these last few years will be just as productive.

cover image by Paul Paetzel