THOUGHTS ON THE TRANSHUMANIST WAGER PART TWO: TELEOLOGICAL EGOCENTRIC FUNCTIONALISM IN THE AGE OF DECADENCE.
Jethro Knights is clearly the protagonist of ‘Transhumanist Wager’. Equally obviously, Reverend Belinas is the antagonist. But is the Reverend Jethro’s opposite? I would argue that in some crucial ways, these characters are really quite similar.
Most importantly, they are both ‘authentic persons’. What is meant by that? I mean that both men are wholly committed to what they believe in. There is no ulterior motive at work, no hidden agenda that is contrary to what they seem, on the surface, to believe in. Their beliefs form a philosophy of life that they practice unwaveringly.
In the case of Reverend Belinas, we are told that his more wealthy followers “bought Belinas’ goodwill and paved the way for his ministry with their resources. In return, he promised them God’s favour, both in this world and the next. He meant it, and they believed it”. On the basis of that quote I think we can say of Belinas that he really means it when he promises God’s favour, in this world and the next. It might not have been the case that he really meant that. We can imagine a person who finds it useful to pretend to sincerely believe in God’s favour, as that encourages others to part with their money. In that case, it is amassing material wealth that is the true motive, and surface-level faith is merely used to obtain it.
Now, Reverend Belinas- or rather his Church- has amassed a considerable fortune, “worth hundreds of millions of dollars”. But, for Belinas that fortune is merely a means to an end. He is not interested in wealth for wealth’s sake. “Belinas never splashed out on fancy living”. He is, however, quite aware of how useful and essential money is in getting things done, and he is quite willing to use the rich and vain- “people for whom riches came too easily and freely, celebrities, royalty, and heirs”- in order to obtain funds for the greater purpose of “helping the faithful, the downtrodden, and the destitute”.
I think it is fair to say that Belinas makes sure the money he raises goes to fund his mission in life, and the same can be said of Jethro. There is a moment in the story where he turns down an offer for a huge amount of money from a Russian businessman, because the money was offered on the condition it was used to achieve something Jethro did not consider to be plausible in the near-term. Jethro could have pretended to agree to do what was asked and take the guy’s money but he stuck to his principles.
Just to make it clear that Belinas is an authentic person, we are told: “Belinas was an authentic man, singular in his absolute faith and servitude to The Lord and to his people…If God demanded that he fly a fully fueled commercial liner into a skyscraper filled with thousands of people, he would do it. And not think twice about it”. What does that tell us about him? “It tells us that he is a nutter” might be one reply. But it also tells us that he is an existentialist, like Soren Kierkegaard.
BELINAS: A KNIGHT OF FAITH
Kierkegaard’s philosophy arose partly from observations of his fellow citizens of Copenhagen. At that time, in the 19th century, the people of the capital of Denmark were extremely religious, at least by today’s standards. But, for Kierkegaard, the faith of his fellow citizens came too easily. People attended church, they read the Bible, they said their prayers, but these acts of devotion were carried out within a more general existence of avarice, vanity, and greed. In his most famous book, Soren (who always wrote under various pseudonyms) said:
“Not just in commerce but in the world of ideas too our age is putting on a veritable clearance sale. Everything can be had so dirt-cheap that one begins to wonder whether in the end anyone will want to make a bid”.
What bothered Kierkegaard was whether what his fellow citizens took to be sufficient justification to call themselves ‘Christian’ really was sufficient. Attend church on a Sunday, say Grace before meals and the Lord’s Prayer before bed, was that really all it took to secure one’s place in Heaven? For Kierkegaard, if Christianity was to be at all meaningful, and provide a central purpose to one’s life, then practicing it ought to be more difficult than that.
Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy was built around what it means to have faith. For most people, faith is defined as ‘believing in something when there is insufficient evidence for it’. By that definition, we might say that Jethro and all transhumanists have faith that scitech will one day defeat death. It might. After all, today modern medical and surgical practices can save lives that would surely have been lost in the past, and in the future who knows what miracles will be performed? But of course we cannot know for sure that scitech will make us immortal at some point in the future.
Kierkegaard took a more radical view of faith in that he considered it not simply as believing in something upon insufficient evidence, but rather believing in something irrespective of the evidence. In that regard, Kierkegaard disagreed with Kant’s view that religious belief could be founded on reason. Faith was utterly irrational and completely unprovable.
For Kierkegaard, the famous Biblical tale of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac reveals the true commitment one needs to be a Christian, and that commitment is unwavering faith. He focuses his attention not on what the tale tells us, but rather on what it misses out. In Genesis 22 we’re told that God commands Abraham to “get thee to the land of Moriah, and offer him (his son) there for a burnt offering”, and the next day Abraham did as he was told. So it seems like a pretty simple act of obedience.
But what the tale misses out are the thought processes that Abraham went through between receiving God’s command and carrying out those instructions. What was he thinking? How did he feel? The story does not tell us, and Kierkegaard considered such details crucial information for understanding Abraham and for having the kind of faith he had.
The crux of the matter is this. How did Abraham know what to do? What lead him to interpret God’s instructions as orders to be carried out to the letter? He could have thought, “God is testing my moral character and the right thing to do is disobey”. He could have thought, “that was not God speaking, it was the devil or just an hallucination. I will pay it no credence”. Kierkegaard insisted that the process Abraham or anyone went through in receiving a supposed message from God and deciding what to do about it, rests entirely on the individual. You alone can decide whether the voice was really God; you alone must interpret the message and only you can decide, ultimately, to comply. Faith is always subjective.
Remember, for Kierkegaard faith is believing irrespective of the evidence. True faith, the philosopher insisted, involves both a movement of infinite resignation and a movement of faith. For Abraham, the movement of infinite resignation was knowing his son was lost to him, while his movement of faith was simultaneously believing Isaac was not lost to him. Logically they cannot simultaneously be true, so Abraham’s faith transcends logic. As Kierkegaard said:
“All along he had faith, he believed that God would not demand Isaac of him, while still he was willing to offer him if that was indeed what was demanded… and it was indeed absurd that God who demanded this of him should in the next instance withdraw that demand”.
In other words, at the very moment Abraham gave up his dreams and every hope for this world, he continued to expect the impossible. Kierkegaard called Abraham a ‘knight of faith’, someone totally prepared to give up the very thing they most hope to keep, while simultaneously believing it is not lost. This is no mere act of self-deception. It is not a case of somehow forgetting about your resignation. No, Kierkegaard tells us that the knight of the faith believes on the strength of the absurd.
Knights of faith are both admirable and scary precisely because of what they might be prepared to do at any given moment in virtue of their faith. They are quite prepared to act contrary to ethics. Kierkegaard’s view was that ethics is identified with the universal. The killing of one’s own son is forbidden by morality that applies to everyone at all times. By acting on their faith, knights of faith instead act on the personal, on reasons that are uniquely that individual’s, pertaining to their relationship with God. Objectively, it is not possible to distinguish between those who disobey universal ethics so as to obey God from those who have murdered in response to insanity or delusion. As Kierkegaard concluded, “either Abraham was a murderer, or we are confronted by a paradox which is higher than all meditation”. Choosing the latter interpretation, Kierkegaard argued for “the teleological suspension of the ethical”. In other words, the personal can override the universal or ethical, when done in obedience to God. Kierkegaard’s philosophy does not prove that Abraham or anyone who carried out the ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’ is a hero rather than a villain. It requires a leap of faith in order to reach that conclusion.
Kierkegaard’s book was called ‘Fear And Trembling’ and what left him in fear and trembling was both the idea that people such as Abraham could exist, and that his faith might be similarly tested via instructions to sacrifice that which was most dear to him. From what we are told about his commitment to carry out a 9/11, Reverend Belinas is a knight of faith.
Now, when it comes to belief irrespective of the evidence, we can hardly say that Jethro Knights holds such convictions. On the contrary, he is forthright in his insistence that logic and reason are the only viable methods for gaining knowledge, and he is just as vocal in his position of faith:
“They want you to dedicate your life and subjugate your reasoning…all because it feels right to them. Their beliefs are absurd, completely lacking in sound judgement”.
JETHRO AND PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY
It would seem then, that whereas Belinas very much fits the ‘knight of faith’ mould, Jethro could not be more different. But there is another aspect of Existentialism that very much defines the protagonist of ‘Transhumanist Wager’. When Soren Kierkegaard died, he requested that just two words be engraved on his tombstone: THE INDIVIDUAL. Why those two words? Because they get right to the essence of existentialist philosophy.
Philosopher Matt Lawrence wrote, “existentialism focuses on the issues that arise for us as separate and distinct persons who are, in a very profound sense, alone in the world. Its emphasis is… on taking responsibility for who you are, what you do, and the meanings you give to the world around you”.
I doubt one could find a better description of Jethro’s philosophy of life. He himself wrote, “I will fail to achieve my goals if I lose myself in another, live for another, or place my happiness and aspirations in another. I am self-sufficient, not needing anyone or anything else”.
Jethro Knights is unwavering in his dedication to his version of transhumanism, and as committed to working to realise his goals, as Belinas is dedicated and driven by his. In a confrontation between Belinas and Jethro, the latter admits, “I would kill my wife a thousand times over if I absolutely had to in order to reach my goals”, which some might say is not all that different to Abraham making a sacrifice of his son on the strength of his personal conviction.
I have been a member of a few online transhuman groups, and sooner or later somebody always accuses the members of those groups of being all talk and no action; spending their time discussing transhumanism but not doing much at all in terms of practical work. I would imagine that Jethro Knights is what those people would regard as an exemplary transhumanist, for he works incredibly hard for its cause, and any roadblock put up by the movement’s opponents only causes him to push himself further. It actually gets to the point of absurdity. We are informed that “Jethro continued labouring for the transhuman movement at a gruelling pace, always seven days a week” and later that “Jethro Knights pushed himself with renewed vigour, working 20 hour days” and later still, “if the days were desperate, Jethro didn’t seem to notice. He chose only to work harder, putting in longer hours”.
So, what, by this time his work schedule is 21 or more hours per day, seven days a week? We are never told that Knights is genetically modified or augmented in some way so as not to need sleep. He is just an ordinary (albeit obsessively driven) human being. Methinks anyone who pushed themselves that hard would just collapse.
There is something almost paradoxical about Jethro, in that he is wholly committed to living forever but at the same time risks his life. Not just in terms of working himself to death but also by deliberately placing himself in lethal situations. Indeed, our very first introduction to him finds him out on the ocean somewhere, in the middle of a hurricane, about to be drowned by a rogue wave. Later in the story, he is working as a correspondent for ‘International Geographic’ and is asked to take on an incredibly dangerous assignment, after the previous correspondent is killed. “yeah, I’ll do it”, he says.
Why would anyone who is determined to live forever choose to place themselves in such dangerous situations as “skimming down an erupting volcano on a sandboard”? Maybe because the point is not just to survive but to LIVE. The story tells us that “journeys that illuminate and change lives are not defined by schedules, money, or agendas- but by experience”.
FREEDOM IS A SCARY THING
Time and again, while reading about Jethro, his philosophy of life and his attitude toward others, I am reminded of a phrase in a song by Laurie Anderson:
“Freedom is a scary thing. Not many people really want it”.
Now that seems like a strange thing to say. Everyone wants to be free, don’t they? Existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre have argued that, actually, people really are afraid of freedom and protect themselves from it by living in bad faith.
The story informs us that “Jethro only took notice of values, not people”, and that most people feel “enmity and resistance to that type of harsh machine like objectivity”. But why should that be? Jethro cares “only for the core value of a person, judging them solely on their usefulness”. He does not discriminate on the basis of age, gender, race, or sexuality. He considers such things as whether you have a criminal record or not as being completely irrelevant. He cares only for how useful somebody is to him. His attitude sounds very much like the ideal that society is reaching for as campaigners strive to end discrimination based on anything other than ability. But such a society has always had conditions that don’t seem all that appealing to some.
Consider the question: “If you compete in a completely free, fair, open, merit-based society and you lose, what does that make you?”. The point is that, in such a society, there is no one and nothing to blame but yourself. You have to accept personal responsibility for your own failings. Sartre argued that a great many people are not willing to accept the personal responsibility that goes along with absolute freedom, and adopt bad faith in an attempt to trick themselves into believing they are not as free as they really are.
An example of bad faith is to take the meaning of events to be a given, rather than something created or invented. People say things like “Yesterday was boring” or “Such and such happened and it made me sad”, as if events occurred that were intrinsically dull or melancholy. In actual fact, boredom and sadness are simply those individual’s responses to those events, in other words their freely chosen way of relating to them. We as individuals are always free to chose how we feel about any given situation.
Another form of bad faith is pretending one’s actions are not free. Sartre argued that whenever somebody says they have to do something, that is bad faith, for there is absolutely nothing that one must do. Such a conclusion seems to radical for many people, and they try to refute it by citing examples of actions people must do. Death and taxes are familiar examples, but neither really refutes what Sartre is saying.
In the case of “everyone has to die”, we have to distinguish between something that is going to happen, and an action you have to perform. You don’t actually have to do anything in order to die a natural death. As for paying taxes, it is true that failure to do so will likely result in punishment. But, again, such consequences are simply things that happen to you, not something you have to do (you can always yell ‘you’ll never take me alive, cops!’ and take your own life rather than go to prison).
Time and again, we hear people say they ‘have to’ do something when they really don’t. For example, somebody might say “I would love to meet up with you tomorrow, but I cannot. I have to work. The boss is making me come in on weekends, now”. The implication is that this person’s situation is not ideal but it is not their fault. Rather, the boss is to blame. Of course, in actual fact, this person does not HAVE to go into work, but could chose to disobey and accept whatever consequences come from that.
Prejudice is at once a hateful thing that we should strive to overcome but also a convenience for people with bad faith. Take the idea of a ‘glass ceiling’ in the form of sexism that makes it hard or impossible for women to rise up the ranks of professionals. This is at once frustrating for those who should excel but are prevented from doing so by some stupid prejudice. It is also very convenient for women whose merits simply do not warrant success but do not want to admit personal responsibility for their failures. “I tried and failed, but it’s not my fault. There is a glass ceiling in the way, after all”.
In the Transhumanist Wager we are told that “few people wanted to be judged solely on their usefulness and then dismissed because they had little or none”. I have said that although Reverend Belinas is the antagonist, he is not the opposite of Jethro. Both are authentic men, very much dedicated to achieving their goals in life. From a story point of view, it helps to have an adversary who is, more or less, the equal of the hero. It makes for a worthy nemesis.
Considering the point about being judged purely on usefulness, and the sting to pride in being found to have none, I would not like to turn our attention to a character who really is Jethro’s opposite, and who represents the real social condition that opposes Jethro’s version of transhumanism.
GREGORY MICHELSON: DEFENDER OF DECADENCE
If Belinas is not Jethro’s opposite because both characters are authentic men, who is inauthentic? The answer is: Gregory Michelson. Remember, that an authentic person is defined as somebody whose values go right to their core, so that what they appear on the surface to believe is an accurate reflection of the values they hold most dear. The story makes it quite clear that Gregory is inauthentic. In a confrontation that occurs between him and Jethro during a philosophy class at Victoria University, the story’s protagonist says:
“You’re not the real thing…You’re future is in law, and maybe worse: Politics. These classes are just stepping stones to your BMWs, your fancy parties, your pretence at power in society. For me, this class, my thesis, and my degree are really about philosophy and how I apply it to my life”.
Later in the story, when Gregory has indeed gone to law school and has also married into a very wealthy family, he is working as a public defender and again his inauthenticity is made quite explicit:
“He found it both perplexing and amusing to sit across from a criminal who would spend 3 years incarcerated for stealing a beat-up station wagon. He liked to secretly think to himself: ‘I’m worth about ten million times more than this dumb bastard'”.
Now, there are a few points to pick up on here. First of all, notice how he views his clients as criminals who are going to be incarcerated. There is no pretence at ‘innocent until proven guilty’, no indication that he is committed to working in their defence. Beneath the surface, he thinks of them contemptuously as ‘poor dumb bastards’. Also, take note of his belief that ‘I am worth ten million times more’ than his client. In what sense is he, Gregory, worth so much more than the average person? Is he a great entrepreneur who amassed a personal fortune? No. He is ‘worth’ so much only because he married into an extremely wealthy family. But, the marriage came with an ironclad prenuptial agreement which means Gregory won’t get a cent should he and his wife ever get divorced:
“He would be practically broke without her…He could never touch the real wealth, just smell it”.
Gregory only appears, on the surface, to be wealthy. The true wealth belongs to others. He feels entitled and superior but really is incapable of doing anything to earn that entitlement or superiority.
“The world revolved around him, Gregory remembered thinking as a young teenager. It was true, so long as it was others that did the revolving. Without others, though, Gregory did not know what to think”.
With Jethro Knights, substance wins over style every time. During these character’s first encounter with each other, we are invited to compare the effort they have put into their appearance. Jethro is unkempt, his T-shirt is torn, his shoes are old, his jeans stained with paint. He hasn’t so much as bothered to put on any underwear. It is obvious that he has simply thrown on any old clothes so that he may go and do his work. It is his work that is important to him, not how stylish he looks while doing it.
Contrast him with Gregory, who is resplendent in “a tight aqua-blue polo shirt, white linen pants, and Italian shoes”. His hair is immaculately styled. He wears a “diamond-studded gold watch, which dangled loosely, carelessly on his wrist” (a sign that wealth comes too easily to him). He has bothered to put on underwear. And not any old pair but one clearly displaying the name of some fancy French fashion label. He is, quite simply, all style and no substance.
This is true not just of himself but also with regards to how he views the world. Both he and Jethro Knights are at a town hall meeting that is discussing the ethics of transhumanism. Jethro is concentrating on the content of the speeches and is frustrated at how lacking in substance they are. But, as for Gregory:
“Gregory Michelson felt poles apart from Jethro. He was at home with the speeches. The Texas senator’s meandering voice was pleasant and soothing”. But, really, he is not really listening to what anyone is saying, but is instead passing judgement on how stylish (or not) they look.
These are the things I think are important to know about Gregory. He is inauthentic. He cannot be taken at face value because what he appears to believe in is not a true reflection of his core values. He prefers style over substance. He has no ability to make a fortune for himself, but he does have superficial qualities that make him useful to people with true power. He is the kind of person who looks good on camera: dazzling smile, impeccably turned out, eloquently parroting words somebody else prepared for him.
I think it is also important to note that Gregory is a star athlete and a connoisseur of fine foods, because this too clues us up to the sort of person he represents. That is, a person suited to a particular period in an empire’s life. Jethro, in contrast, represents somebody suited to a different period.
You see, Gregory is very much a product of the Age of Decadence, whereas Jethro is more suited to the Age of Pioneers.
AGE OF EMPIRES
These ages refer to two of the six stages that empires go through. An empire typically begins with an outburst, in which a small nation- one treated as insignificant- begins to spread out of its homeland and conquer new territories. Transhumania fits this mould. Before its formation, the transhumanists could in no way be said to be organized into a nation. They are merely a very loose organization of roughly like-minded individuals. They are also more or less dismissed as a joke. Early on in the story, Reverend Belinas is largely dismissive of the movement, considering it “an undersized group of soft-spoken individuals…Defeating them on every issue was rarely a problem”. Gregory is similarly dismissive. “They seem so small and weak. They’re only 50,000 strong or so”. In fact, even Jethro can be said to be dismissive of the movement. In a speech given at the World Transhumanist Institute, he tells the audience, “I will not become just another cog of your lethargic movement…Your watered-down version of transhumanism is too weak for me”.
Jethro then goes on to announce that he is launching a transhumanist revolution, and through his tireless efforts funds are raised to literally build a transhuman nation. The kind of people deemed fit to become citizens of ‘Transhumania’ are the same kind of people one finds during the period of outburst, when a hitherto small and ignored nation begins to expand outward. Such people display extraordinary courage and energy. They are hardy, enterprising and aggressive. But the new nation does not just distinguish itself in battle, but by its citizens displaying unresting enterprise and amazing initiative in every field. These are the kind of people who hack through jungles and struggle up mountains in their quest for new territories to possess.
On Transhumania, we are told, “there was no pity or even pretence at pity. There was just usefulness- or not. And if you didn’t like it, or didn’t agree with it, then you didn’t belong on Transhumania”. This period of outburst is called the Age of Pioneers, and it should come as no surprise to find that it is people with a pioneering spirit that Jethro takes inspiration from. He reads “stories of heroic explorers, of spirited generals, of resilient scientists, of immovable philosophers, of intrepid founding fathers of nations”. It is people who have these kinds of qualities who are welcome to be citizens of transhumania. People like Gregory, needless to say, are not.
As the smaller nation expands and captures more territory, it will likely encroach on land that has already been claimed by older empires. The citizens of those older empires may not have the same fighting spirit as a nation in the ‘outburst’ stage, for reasons that will be explained later. It is reckless bravery and daring initiative that secures early victories for the fledgling empire. But the attacked empire will almost certainly use more sophisticated weaponry and more militarised organisation and discipline. The advantages of such methods are appreciated by the invading hordes, and are increasingly adopted until they are no longer a rabble of rampaging barbarians, but an efficient, organised and highly motivated war machine.
Thus, the age of pioneers gives way to the second age of empires- the Age of Conquests. In this stage we see more organised, disciplined and professional campaigns. But the tactics used by the young empire tend to be more experimental, since its people are not tied to centuries of tradition as is the case with more ancient civilisations. As Glubb put it, “the leaders are free to use their improvisations, not having studied politics or tactics in…textbooks”.
Of course, this is all based on events that happened generations ago, from 895-612 BC (the Assyrian empire) to 1700-1950 AD (the British Empire). So much of what went on in pre-globalization days may not apply to an imagined war between a transhuman nation and the combined forces of contemporary nations. Nevertheless we can perhaps say that Transhumania’s preference for cyberwarfare over more traditional bombs and bullets and teleoperated fighting machines over human warriors counts as the kind of improvisation and experimental tactics of a nation in the Age of Conquests.
Combine the hardiness and daring initiative of people from the Age of Pioneers with the well-oiled military discipline typical of the Age of Conquests, and you have an expanding empire taking over vast territories with ruthless efficiency. Think Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, and Alexander the Great. The conquest of territories not only secures the leaders a place in history (and, perhaps, infamy) it also sets the stage for the next age: the Age of Commerce. If the empire covers vast areas of land, within its boundaries there will be places with varied climates that naturally produce different goods, and there will be an incentive to establish trade networks if people in one territory covet the produce made in another. And since this trade occurs within a single empire, commerce is freed from such things as import permits, customs, and various forms of political interference.
Glubb wrote, “even savage and militaristic empires promoted commerce, whether or not they intended to do so. The mongols were some of the most brutal military conquerors…Yet, in the 13th century, when their empire extended from Peking to Hungary, the caravan trade between China and Europe achieved a remarkable degree of prosperity- the whole journey was in the territory of one government”.
This stage and the subsequent ones are probably of least relevance to the fictional nation of Transhumania. After all, we are talking about empires established long before there was global telecommunications and multinational companies. Jethro’s transhumanist nation does not exactly adhere to the model of a barbarian rabble evolving into a militarised nation that goes on to discover the numerous benefits of commerce. But it is worth looking at the other stages, for they shed light on what gives rise to the kind of people Gregory represents.
DECLINE OF EMPIRES
It is during the Age of Commerce that the conditions which ultimately topple an empire begin to take root. Glubb wrote, “gradually, the desire to make money seems to gain hold of the public. During the military period, glory and honour were the principal drivers of ambition. To the merchants, such ideas were but empty words, which add nothing to the bank balance”.
The combination of military conquest and commercial enterprise (which, at this stage, shares some of the same daring initiative that typifies the Age of Conquests) results in an accumulation of great wealth. And so we enter the next stage, the Age of Affluence. The commercial classes grow immensely rich, and splendid municipal buildings, wide streets, and investment in art and luxury imbue wealthy areas of cities with beauty and dignity.
But beneath the surface a change in attitudes is taking hold. Glubb wrote, “the first direction in which wealth injures the nation is a moral one. Money replaces honour and adventure as the objective of the best of young men. Moreover, men don’t normally seek to make money for their country or their community, but for themselves”.
It would seem that Glubb considers money the root of all evil. But he apparently missed a change which occurs as empires go from the Age of Commerce to the final Age of Affluence. That change consists of a transformation of ‘quality money’ into ‘quantity currency’. For anything to act as a currency, it has to have these attributes:
Portability. You need to be able to easily carry it around.
Durability. It cannot perish too quickly
Divisibility. You need to be able to make change out of it. This is why barter is such a sub-optimal economic system. If you want to trade your cow for something worth less than it, you get no change to make up the difference.
Fungibility. In other words, interchangeability. Every unit of currency must buy the same as every other. Functionally speaking, every dollar is the same as every other.
All currencies require those four attributes. But money requires something additional. It must be:
A store of value that is fixed over time.
This means it must be- and remain- in limited supply. So what is in limited supply as well as portable, durable, divisible, and fungible? Time and again, markets have converged on the same answer: Gold and Silver. Many things can and have been used as currency, but only gold and silver is money par excellence.
In the ages of commerce and affluence, quality money is used to pay for a great many things. Military campaigns, merchant enterprises, and all kinds of public works. As it needs to be stretched further and further, there is a growing temptation to expand the supply of money by debasing the coinage. In more ancient civilizations, this was achieved by adding impurities like copper to your gold or silver. So, say your taxes are bringing in a thousand gold coins. If you melt them all down and mix in 50% copper, you can stamp out two thousand coins. Where modern money is concerned, debasing the money supply consists of moving off a gold or silver standard and adopting a fiat money system where ‘money’ (technically, a currency rather than real money) can be conjured out of thin air by the stroke of a pen or a tap on a keyboard. And so, as empires go from an Age of Commerce to the Age of Affluence, quality money transforms into quantity currency via a debasement of the currency.
There is one more stage an empire goes through before it enters the final Age of Decadence. As small nations grow into large empires, the wealth they accumulate is at first used to supply the basic necessities of life, and then later on in the Age of Affluence there is enough to invest in luxuries. Once the necessities and luxuries of life are paid for, history tells us that empires use funds in pursuit of knowledge. Alexander the Great was famous not only for his conquests, but also for founding the city of Alexandria, which was not only home to one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but also to a library which was the largest in the world at the time. Glubb wrote, “the princes of the Age of Commerce seek fame and praise, not only by…patronising art and literature. They also found and endow colleges and universities. It is remarkable with what regularity this phase follows on that of wealth, in empire after empire”.
The transition from an Age of Affluence to an Age of Intellect may give the impression that the corrupting influence of power and wealth are but temporary, and that society corrects itself and people turn to loftier ambitions like the pursuit of knowledge. But this is not really the case. In the Age of Intellect, education undergoes much the same transformation as morality does during the Age of Affluence. Priorities change from education whose purpose is to produce adults ready to serve their country and gain glory in battle, with the emphasis instead on gaining those qualities which will command the highest salaries. So, once again, greed for wealth replaces duty and service. The effect of this desire for wealth, power, and material possessions is to produce leaders who vie for positions of authority, not really in order to better carry out their civic duty, but because they anticipate it making them richer.
Something else that may contribute to this selfish attitude is the ‘resource curse’ or ‘paradox of plenty’. This refers to the seemingly bizarre situation in which the people of nations blessed with an abundance of rich resources like gold, oil or diamonds live in poverty, handicapped by crappy government and slow economic growth. This happens because the richest natural resources tend to be non-renewable and easily monopolised. Whoever gets exclusive access to such resources can acquire tremendous power and wealth. Typically, it is those people who have military muscle- a governing elite or regional warlord- who monopolise this bounty.
Once they gain control of this cash cow, the number one priority is to maintain control. This obsession with fending off rival monopolists means the ruling elite have no incentive to build networks of commerce that make a society richer through reciprocal obligations. Nor do the leaders require their citizens to be highly educated, because they can generate plenty of wealth by selling the valuable commodity they have monopolised. The wealth thus generated tends to be concentrated into the hands of the monopolists, and if they care more about protecting their asset than developing raising the standards of living of their country, the result is an absurdly wealthy elite coexisting with a poor and backward nation.
THE ENEMY WITHIN
In his classic dystopian novel 1984, George Orwell wrote about how the aim of the ‘high’ is always to remain in power. There are two possible threats to their position, which we may refer to as ‘without’ and ‘within’. ‘Without’ refers to other nations in the ‘outburst’ stage, looking to conquer their territory. Provided enough of the ancient virtues of patriotism survive to enable the empire to defend its borders, this threat can be dealt with.
‘Within’ refers to an empire’s own citizens. By definition, an elite is always in a minority. The constant fear of the ruling elite is that the majority of people whom they exploit in their lust for power and wealth will come to realise that they serve no real purpose, and use their collective strength to sweep them away.
How to prevent this? Well, obviously physical force and intimidation can be used to terrify the masses into submission. But a more subtle and effective tactic is to gain control of the cognitive map. A pivotal figure in the development of classical Marxism was the Italian, Antonio Gramsci. He took issue with Marx’s belief that economic changes determined social values in the superstructure of institutions like religion, law, and culture. Gramsci sought to eliminate this economic determinism. A key step in achieving this was the notion of ‘ideology’, defined as the set of attitudes, values and perceptions through which we understand and relate to the world. Gramsci realized that the ruling classes dominate the majority in two decisive ways: Sheer force or economic domination (the threat of a lost job, say) and controlling the ideology of the masses. Gramsci called this control of ideas which manipulate social consciousness ‘hegemony’.
By gaining control of the cognitive map (ie, determining prevailing beliefs) the ruling elite ensure that the subordinate masses regard the ideological constraints of their social and political world as “natural”. The state of the world in which they live comes to be seen as evident common sense by the majority of people, which of course means certain things get left unsaid and unquestioned. Notice, for example, how you can go through the writings of the greatest philosophers of the Dark Ages from Augustine to Ockham, and not find a single word of criticism of the established societies in which they lived. No word of criticism aimed at absolute paternalism, divine right of kings or feudal bondage. As far as they were concerned, these artificial constructs were just part of the natural order of things. Similarly today, most people do not question artificial constructs like money and private property. Now, as then, hegemony ensures that the moral and political values of the masses coincides with those of the ruling classes.
The political economist Frederic Bastiat said, “when plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves in the course of time a legal system that authorises it, and a moral code that glorifies it”. If hegemony works to make the attitude of of society as a whole coincide with that of the ruling elite, and the ruling elite choose to behave in ways that are unsustainable, then so too will the rest of the citizenry adopt runaway consumerism as the way to a better life.
Of course, by the time the Age of Decadence has arrived on the scene, systems have been modified, manipulated and corrupted to serve the interests of the few. The end result is an absurdly wealthy elite and a growing inequality gap between rich and poor. Conspicuous displays of wealth is one of the symptoms common to every Age of Decadence. But rather than repelling the masses, the wealthy elite is admired and celebrated, and the availability of easy credit encourages aspirations to similar levels of consumption (very convenient for those who profit from debt).
It would be wrong to place the blame for the Age of Decadence entirely on the shoulders of the ruling classes. As Glubb said, “decadence is the disintegration of a system, not of its individual members”. During the Age of Decadence, both leaders and citizens scramble for the spoils, and selfishness and idleness replaces duty and service throughout society. At the ‘high’ end this corruption manifests itself in the absurdly disproportionate rewards the ruling class lavishes upon itself. At the ‘low’ end, it manifests itself in the desire to live off of a bloated welfare state.
As runaway consumerism becomes more widespread, a moral and spiritual vacuum inevitably opens up. As silver investor David Morgan said, “you can never get enough of what you don’t need. What you need is a strong moral conviction that’s pervasive throughout and integrity reigns”.
A combination of conspicuous displays of wealth and an underlying pessimism at the fag end of empire are ideal conditions for the emergence of a particular type of individual: The celebrity. Remember how Gregory was noted for being a connoisseur of fine foods? The Ottoman, Spanish and Roman empires likewise all made celebrities of their chefs. Why?
DISTRACTED BY CELEBRITY
By the time an empire is in the Age of Decadence, its supremacy and power are fading. Everybody is searching for that greatness that they used to feel. Maybe it is in the best food? Or the best music? Gregory is also noted for being a great athlete. Just as sports events are massive spectacles today, so too were gladiatorial events of Roman times. You may think today’s sporting heroes are overpaid, but top Roman charioteers earned the equivalent of several billion in today’s money.
Why do they earn so much for what is hardly the most important job? Because, in a way, they do have an important job. The old saying ‘let us drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’ tells us that frivolity is the frequent companion of pessimism. When an empire is sliding into decay, its citizens seek distractions and this need to escape from societal pessimism is something the ruling elite are all too happy to exploit. As former economic hit man John Perkins said, “people of Rome were always being distracted by gladiatorial events, and the politicians knew that they did this. Whenever there was unrest in the people they would have a huge event…Today…you find an enormous emphasis on TV programs that distract people from what’s really going on. Sport is a big part of that”.
Cheap pleasures like voyeurism and consumerism always fail to compensate for the lack of meaning in people’s lives. On the surface, in the Age of Decadence, conspicuous displays of wealth dazzle, but the system itself is rotten. The debasement of the currency grows to the point where ‘Gresham’s Law’ comes into effect. According to this law, ‘bad money drives out good’. People take debased currency at face value at first, but as it begins to flood the market people tend to save the thing that’s rare and spend the thing that’s common into circulation first. In Rome what began as a silver coin became a copper coin plated with silver (in circulation, the plating came off). In today’s fiat monetary systems, we have paper and digital currencies heading toward their intrinsic value of zero.
As things decline further still, it becomes harder to find meaningful involvement in the community, and people’s potential goes unfulfilled. Growing numbers are denied access to work. The same kinds of distractions are seen throughout all decaying empires. Binge drinking. An obsession with sex. In the early tenth century, contemporary historians of Baghdad wrote critically about increasing materialism and corruption in government. They commented bitterly on the influence pop singers had on young people, resulting in a decline in sexual morality. Those could be articles lifted from today’s news media!
‘Transhumanist Wager’ is clearly set in the Age of Decadence. Running searches on the word ‘economy’ brings up passages like:
“The American and global economies had recently begun another decline. Stock market losses lead to some business empires literally vanishing- and millions of jobs with them”.
I said earlier that Istvan’s plot may seem at first glance to revolve around transhumanism versus religion. On deeper examination, one can argue that it really depicts a clash of empires, one in a state of decay and corruption typifying an Age of Decadence, the other entrepreneurial and aggressively competitive, typical attributes of a fledgling empire during the Age Of Pioneers. Gregory Michaelson is symbolic of the Age of Decadence, which means his character opposes Jethro, symbolic of an Age of Pioneers.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca said, “religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful”. In ‘Transhumanist Wager’, we see Christianity being manipulated and modified so as to be useful to those who rise to power in an Age of Decadence. As Jethro puts it:
“In so many unmistakable ways, we are living within their Judeo-Christian-inspired framework…Their management and regulation of our lives spans the total spectrum of the American experience…From their lobbyist-ruled government bureaucracy, to their consumer-orientated religious holidays like Christmas. From their brainless professional sports jocks, to their anorexic supermodels warping the concept of beauty…America is a nation of dumbed-down, codependent, faith-minded zombies obsessed with celebrity gossip, buying unnecessary goods, and socialising without purpose on their electronic gadgets”.
Transhumania seeks to sweep away this old, decadent Western empire and in so doing remove any pretence at power by those who benefit from decadence. In Jethro’s world, there is a place for Amanda Kenzington’s father. He, after all, was an orthopedic surgeon who invented a tissue supplement for joints and who made a fortune from the equity of his patents. Obviously an entrepreneur-surgeon has the right to exist in a world that deems usefulness and profit the only qualities worth preserving.
But what about Amanda herself, that ‘textbook case of a spoiled American brat’? She, perhaps even more so than Gregory, epitomises the vacuous celebrity. All style and no substance, living off of the wealth and fame that others have produced. Toward the last half of the story, it may seem like Gregory has discovered a work ethic and is putting in enormous effort to thwart Jethro’s schemes, but I do not think we should take that to mean he has come to epitomise the Age of Pioneers, for it is clear that he is motivated by the fear of losing his celebrity status and affluent lifestyle rather than by the hope of doing something useful with his power. If Jethro were given access to Amanda’s father’s fortune, you can bet he would not use it to fund a personal life of lavish indulgence and idleness. You can also bet that Gregory would.
Gregory and Amanda have no place in an Age of Pioneers, nothing to offer Transhumania during its period of outburst. They also have a vested interest in trying to preserve the decadent empire for as long as possible. Gramsci pointed out that, provided the majority acquiesce, physical force can be used against a minority of dissidents so as to re-establish consensus. For example, in 1968 left wing students and industrial workers nearly brought down Charles De Gaulle’s government. But the majority consensus was that the rioters represented a threat to normal life, and that force against them was justified. Gramsci himself said, “The opportunity must be taken at the right time, otherwise the old hegemony will reassert itself”. In other words, it is only when a genuine alternative world view is accepted by the widest range of exploited groups that revolution can succeed. The massive campaign against Jethro and his colleagues, culminating in a ‘War Against Transhumanism’ can be seen as the ruling classes of a decadent empire using hegemony against its enemy.
Coming up next time: a look at how Transhumanist Wager is similar to a certain novel by one Ayn Rand.