Kurt Vonnegut Jr. – Welcome to the Monkey House

In his best short story collection Welcome to the Monkey House Kurt Vonnegut, in his short story “Harrison Bergeron” invites us to think about not-thinking, about a society with an equalizer – a society where the notion of total equality and egalitarian values, ethics, politics, religion, etc. reigned, and the final solution is a tyranny of stupidity or total regulation of thought right down to the neural transmitter. Think on that, what would life be like if our government implanted a General Equivalence Regulator in your Brain so that your thoughts would be bounded by a specific set of rules and regulations beyond which you would – like any Pavlovian dog, be shocked and restricted to go thus far, but no further in your thoughts? Robot City? A well-oiled machinic society regulated by the dictates of a Strong AI? Or some Elite nefarious organization behind the scenes pulling the strings to our paranoid American comic-book spook conspiracy theories? None of the above? All of the above? Let’s visit Vonnegut…

In Harrison Bergeron we meet your typical Mom and Pop George and Hazel Bergeron whose son, Harrison, a seven-foot tall giant – a natural genius, has just been arrested by the equalizers, Handicap General. Yep, that’s right, everyone is forced to wear implants on their heads (this was back in 1964) that produced sonic noises in such a way that one’s thoughts would vanish if you went beyond certain perimeters of social acceptability. You can see where this is leading.

Poor George and Hazel are beside themselves when their son is arrested, yet the moment they begin thinking about it they forget it due to the equalizer. I want spoil you with further details, nor the dark and bitter truth of Vonnegut’s finale. Instead let’s think about such a notion as it might play out in our own age of implants, neurogovernance, and the tyranny of an egalitarian socialization carried to its extreme conclusion. What would that look like? And, mind you, like Vonnegut I like to push extremes to their logical insanity.

Harrison is of course free… but what is this freedom? He has broken free of his head-gear, smashed it and begun to use his own brain and realized he’s thoughts are no longer regulated. But is this true? The story leads us to believe that poor old Harrison is a victim of the social regulators, the bad boy government agency that will hunt him down… no spoilers here. But in fact the story shows us a young man already defective, regulated by cultural ideas from previous eras: the notion that he can become Emperor of the World. We can see a Napoleonic Complex arising here… but I’ll let the reader follow this to the end of the story for her/him self… (Download: pdf)

Well let’s take a step back and see what those on the far Left and far Right of the spectrum have to say about such things. Thinking of Libertarians and Social Anarchists as the typical variations on a theme: a style and philosophy of thought that if one read them side by side would differ only in their economic stance, rather than in their appraisal of the human condition. If you’re a Libertarian you want capitalism to stay around, you just don’t want the State or some Corporate enclave to tyrannize over and regulate it. If you’re a Social Anarchist then capitalism as a competitive credo must go, and some other close knit association of economic exchange take its place; one that’s more favorable and equal to all involved, rather than profit driven by that old Marxian standby – “surplus value”.

I’ll assume people might be familiar with those good old bad boys from Mises Institute? Or even Students for Liberty. If not then hop on over and take a gander at their library and online learning. These guys defend the notion of the Libertarian view of life, philosophy, and economics. What is Libertarianism, anyway? Well a typical rendition of their ideas comes from that old standby, Murray Rothbard who came up with a simplified axiomatic credo for Libertarianism that states:

The libertarian creed rests upon one central axiom: that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else. This may be called the “nonaggression axiom.” “Aggression” is defined as the initiation of the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else. Aggression is therefore synonymous with invasion.1

This is kind of like Isaak Asimov’s three laws for robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws

One could apply this to humans and get something like this based on Rothbard’s simplistic axiom:

  1. A human may not think about another human being or, through thought, allow another human being to think about him beyond the perimeters set by the General Intelligence Agency.
  2. A human must obey his neuralfeedback systems except where such orders would conflict with agency rules (i.e., overrides, criminal wiretapping, neuralaggression, etc.).
  3. A human must protect its integrity as long as such protection does not conflict with the axiomatic rules of the General Intelligence Agency as set forth and qualified in Axioms One or Two.

Of course this is a satiric take and not to be taken serious, knowing that the syllogism is ridiculous and full of holes as many of those reading this will probably want to inform me through their rigorous and analytical perusal of the matter. I’m being facetious. Let’s move on. Of course the devil in the details in the above is obvious for a Libertarian: Isn’t the General Intelligence Agency a part of the State? Isn’t it the arm of the Law, the enforcement agency carrying out that Law? We libertarians hate the State, Libertarianism is the radical alternative that says state power is unworkable and immoral.2 I mean for Rothbard the whole history of liberalism from its beginnings, the classical liberal movement was, throughout the Western world, a mighty libertarian “revolution” against what we might call the Old Order—the ancien régime which had dominated its subjects for centuries. This regime had, in the early modern period beginning in the sixteenth century, imposed an absolute central State and a king ruling by divine right on top of an older, restrictive web of feudal land monopolies and urban guild controls and restrictions.3

Let’s not bicker over the details, this isn’t a lesson on Libertarianism but rather an expose on the labors of tyranny even if it is exposed by those extreme defenders of Liberty on Left or Right.  Now what about Social Anarchism? Well this is tricky  for a simple reason, anarchists have had a difficult time on the Leftward spectrum of agreeing on a platform, or even a specific umbrella name, term, or framework under which it might build a common consensus. There’s anarchism on reddit? Various schools of thought? Anarchist communities? It has a unique and sordid history of betrayal and resistance, internal strife and external aggression. Not a pretty picture, not formalized like its brethren on the far Right. Where to begin? Who to follow? Who is our guide in this strange and bewildering non-territory of freedom loving anarchists? If I point to one like Noam Chomsky just to take a well-known academic, others will snarl at me.

I guess the closest one can come currently might be the Anarchist Agency from their Mission Statement they tell us they engage the public and the mainstream media about anarchist ideas, practice, and action. That the ground of their work is on two basic ideas: first, that anarchism is the most liberating political theory and practice and the least harmful way of approaching the world, and second, that all of society would benefit from a greater public understanding of what anarchists believe and how anarchy works. That they facilitate the media and public in finding and accessing a multitude of anarchist perspectives, through both pro-active and re-active efforts as well as through acts of cultural intervention. We do this by combining our shared knowledge and experience in public relations and communications work with the writing, speaking, organizing, and awareness-raising skills of contributing writers and activists. By creating original, accessible materials written for a broad audience including anarchists and non-anarchists alike, and promoting anarchist perspectives on a wide range of current events, we amplify the reach of existing anarchist voices and projects. And, that they distribute a diversity of anarchist positions that adhere to an anti-state, anti-capitalist, and anti-oppression framework. We acknowledge that there are many different anarchist perspectives and visions, and this project’s aim is to make the public aware of a range of anarchist beliefs, in a spirit of solidarity and non-sectarianism.

Let’s talk about the beginning then. Bakunin, who wrote in his anarchist manifesto of 1865 that to be an anarchist one must first be a socialist. I am also concerned  with the anarchism of Adolph Fischer, one of the martyrs of the Haymarket affair in 1886, who said that “every anarchist is a socialist, but every socialist is not necessarily an anarchist.” A consistent anarchist must oppose private ownership of the means of production. Such property is indeed, as Proudhon in his famous remark asserted, a form of theft. But a consistent anarchist will also oppose “the organization of production by Government. Proudhon in 1851 wrote that what we put in place of the government is industrial organization organized by the workers themselves. Of course none of these gentlemen had a specific variety of anarchism, some revolutionary while others were more social and collective (i.e., there has always been a Left and Right wing temperament even within anarchistic traditions), but all agreed that the State was their Enemy. So that in this they were in absolute agreement with the Libertarians on the Right, all except their position regarding economics. Oh, it does get complicated. I guess an even handed history as any is by David S. D’Amato On Libertarian Socialism. The main tenet of libertarian socialism is that government should not intrude upon the natural rights of its citizens. To the degree that it refrains from doing so, it is good; to the degree that it does so, it is bad. The problem is, libertarians often differ in their opinion on what constitutes natural rights. Yet, Chomsky and others will defend it a little differently. Here’s Chomsky:

The libertarian socialist goes on to insist that state power must be eliminated in favor of democratic organization of industrial society, with direct popular control over all institutions by those who participate in-as well as those who are directly affected by-the workings of these institutions. So one might imagine a system of workers’ councils, consumers’ councils, commune assemblies, regional federations, and so on, with the kind of representation that’s direct and revocable, in the sense that representatives are directly answerable to and return directly to the well-defined and integrated social group for which they speak in some higher order organization-something obviously very different than our system of representation.4

Okay so the key words here is elimination of State, democratization of industry under popular control, various assortments of workers’, consumers, commune, regional councils,  assemblies, federations, etc., based on direct participation by a select representatives bound to local, regional, and federal jurisdictions of a “well-defined and integrated social group,” all bound to some “higher order organization” which is never detailed out… one almost thinks of a well-oiled assembly line, a machine where everything has its place, its limits, its defined and regulated place in the system or organization, etc., all ruled by some “higher order” elite group. Hmmm… does this really sound like democracy at all, or rather a form of social tyranny in which every aspect of society is bound by rules, regulations, and axioms, and enforced by some hierarchical and mysterious “higher order” power at the top of the pyramid? I’m not sure Mr. Chomsky if I’d quite agree with your invisible force guiding the world as a well-oiled machine of more and more splintered groups, assemblies, federations…. what if they all disagree? What then? Will the almighty hand of the “higher order” step in and impose its Law? Does this lead to freedom or tyranny? Ask Students for Liber

As you can we’re once again in a quagmire, but this time the Enemy is Us rather than some grand institution we can point concretely too. Rather now instead of some know enemy we have the “higher organization” up there beyond things, a sort of mythical Law and Order group silently imposing and directing things from above like Olympian Gods. Oh my! I doubt those old 19th Century anarchists quite had this in mind…

Well as you can see freedom seems to imply in these standards the need for total tyranny and regulation, a well-oiled machine guided from some secret “higher order”… How to play this out in our futuristic scenario? Let’s replace the “higher order” with an Strong AI scenario – weak AI being what we have now on the stock market, with AI’s bound by specific rules and algorithms and under the control of humans to do bids, buys, etc. faster than their human reps, yet still kept within certain limits; while, strong AI is the unbounded General Artificial Intelligence – General meaning “universal” etc. of a being that is self-modifying, aware, and unbounded by human control or mechanisms, etc. So let’s put our – hopefully? – friendly AI at the place of “higher order” in regulating, controlling, and arbitrating the difficult decisions for all these happy camper liberty loving Left and Right anarchist/libertarians, etc. What then? I’ll leave that to you imagination…

I think our friend Vonnegut, if he were alive today would know just where this one leads. Zoink! Tyranny of the Machine! Dumbed down humans controlled and performing the dictates of machinic life, cogs in a well-oiled social system of command and control, all under the perfect dictates of an apparently libertarian democracy where everyone is blind to the truth, and all think they are living in a freedom with an ability to vote and do what they want within prescribed and qualified limits they themselves have put into place. Oh, my… what a future this will be. Tyranny as Democracy… zow, shebang… plunk… Neural implants, collective hive minds, impersonal top-down hooks regulated by the “higher order” strong AI… oh, jeeze… freedom at last… Long Live Freedom!

One can see this in Reza Negarestani: Prometheanism, Intelligence, Self-Determination or Crossing the Cognitive Rubicon: Reza Negarestani and the Inhuman. As I said in the later:

This Inhuman Project is in full swing, an undoing of the domesticate animal known as humanity: a revisioning process that is reinventing the very terms and nature of what it is to be human. A new nomadic impersonalism, forcing humans into landscapes of waste and disruptive material processes of dislocation, separation and disequilibrium from their rooted domiciles, villages, cities and countries; an exclusionary process that is forcing new exoduses, exiles, and nomadic migratory labor movements from the Third World into the ultracities and edgeworlds of hypercapitalism. One based on a new form of theory and practice: the veritable deconlonization of the human animal from its ancient links to language, thought, family, ethnic, religious and social collectivities and symbolic cultures. The naturalization of mind and the denaturalization of nature converging in what many term the InfoSphere of the Global Hypercapitalist Economy.

As the new elites and cognatariats live in spherical enclaves of creativity and techno-intelligent systems, the mass of humanity will enter a withdrawal stage, zones of inhuman suffering and misery, impersonal enclaves of apathy where the ongoing inhumanist erasure of their very ancient belief systems in identity, reason, and subjectivity will be merged with the impersonal force of the machinic phylum. It’s the first step in a process that will eventually lead us into that next stage of artificial evolution: the posthuman. Whether it will take form as H+ (transhumanism), or some strange melding of and disconnect from the human into the inhuman other of the machinic phylum remains to be seen.

One might say that we are living under the sign of erasure, that our worlds are being both deconstructed and reconstructed through a new dedomestication and decolonization of the human into the inhuman or impersonal labor and transhumance of a global economic networks, affiliations, and neutralized market worlds of global capitalism. Those that tout H+ or Transhumanism which underpins much of the capitalist mysticism of posthuman enhancement through pharmaceutical, biochemical, or neural and technological transformation and upload scenarios etc. see this as the new Good and the Beautiful. Yet, while these hypercapitalist visionaries seek to become gods, there are other paths that seek a new progressive inhumanism based on crossing another cognitive Rubicon.

Wonder what Kurt Vonnegut Jr. would make of our brave new world?


 

  1. Rothbard, Murray N. (2010-05-23). For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto (LvMI) (Kindle Locations 427-430). Ludwig von Mises Institute. Kindle Edition.
  2. ibid. (Kindle Locations 28-29).
  3. ibid. (Kindle Locations 101-104).
  4. ibid.  (Kindle Location 164).

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