The ends of humanity

by 1700 1,700 words
  • Read later or Kindle
    • KindleKindle

The ends of humanity

A Chinese woodcut, titled 'Manufacturing Might'. Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Socialism is dead, and the transhuman future looms. Is there any way to recover a sense of global purpose?

Ken MacLeod is a science fiction writer. His latest novel, Intrusion, was shortlisted for the 2013 Arthur C Clarke Award.

1700 1,700 words
  • Read later
    • KindleKindle

Shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, a friend forwarded me a post from an obscure email list. The writer had calculated that the continued existence of Afghanistan would delay the Rapture by six months. Millions around the world who would have had a chance of eternal bliss would be irretrievably lost to natural deaths in the interim. According to strict utilitarian reckoning, exterminating the Afghans via a nuclear carpet-bombing campaign would be the kinder course.

This heinous calculus didn’t come from the email list of some apocalyptic cult but from the ‘extropians’, advocates of a massive technological upgrade in the human condition. The event in question wasn’t in fact the Rapture but the Singularity: a predicted moment when the speed of technological advance would go off the scale and, in passing, let us abolish ageing, disease, poverty, and death. For extropians and other adherents to the doctrines of transhumanism, the human condition has been, in principle, a solved problem since 1953, when Watson and Crick published the structure of DNA. The rest is engineering.

For science fiction writers, of course, this is catnip. I first encountered transhumanism through the extropians, and exploited their ideas so enthusiastically that I’ve been counted among them myself. It was an extropian who first sarcastically defined the Singularity as ‘the Rapture of the nerds’, and I had a character use a variant of the phrase in my book The Cassini Division (1999). If you ask the internet, you’ll find the original endlessly attributed to me — which tells us something, but I’m not sure what.

In his book Humanity 2.0 (2011), Steve Fuller, professor of sociology at the University of Warwick, uses transhumanist themes to make a challenging point about humanism. He argues that Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theology, along with most Western philosophy, held that there was a human essence. Indeed, all species were defined by their essences, an idea that goes back to Aristotle. The idea that species might change was (almost literally) unthinkable: essences were thought to be as abstract and eternal as numbers. Darwin dissolved all such essences into populations, each of which had no intrinsic limit to variation. Philosophers of biology have long recognised that the shift from essentialist thinking to ‘population thinking’ was crucial to the modern understanding of evolution a point first fully articulatued by Ernst Mayr.

But once ‘humanity’ becomes a variant set of populations rather than an invariant essence, it loses its obviousness as a standard of value. The category becomes fuzzy at the edges: some parts of the population can be written out of humanity altogether; some superhuman (but still natural) entity, such as Nietzsche’s Übermensch or the extropians’ imagined transcendent future selves, might be seen as worth sacrificing present humans for. Alternatively nonhuman beings could come to seem as morally significant as humans, as is argued by animal rights advocates.

If you throw in the possibility of human enhancement — increased intelligence and longer healthy life spans ­— it can only exacerbate the situation. Fuller argues that many people are already moving beyond the 'human baseline', through online life and smart drugs. New and foreseeable technological and cultural developments make the boundaries of human and non-human even fuzzier, and possible distinctions (in intelligence, life span, health, abilities) within the human population even sharper. The principles of the welfare state, Fuller suggests, might be widely enough accepted to give us a basis for moral and political discussion, action, and eventual agreement on these questions. He argues that we should embrace the prospect of becoming Humanity 2.0, and bring it within democratic politics. The problem, as Fuller well recognises, is constituting a ‘we’ who can do that.

And so it becomes harder to imagine humanity as a unified body, able to shape a shared project around a common interest. Perhaps the time for such visions is already over. Since monotheism's hold on grand theories declined in the 'West' the most ambitious, secular political movement to attempt to frame one was socialism, particularly in its Marxist form. It did this in two ways: theoretical and practical.

Theoretically, Marxism came up with a secular, materialist account of what made humanity distinctive: a complex, evolving, and indefinitely extendable interaction of labour, consciousness, and social relations, all rooted in the mutually reinforcing co-development of hand, brain, and tongue. This account did not depend on philosophical notions of human essence, so it was able to withstand Darwinian dissolution. From its speculative beginnings in the 1840s, Marxist theory had incorporated (necessarily hazy) evolutionary assumptions and of course was an historicist account of the human condition. It went on to welcome and include Darwin’s work: see, for example, Friedrich Engels’s influential fragment ‘The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man’ (1876), in which the philosophical anthropology of Engels’s youth is recast as a Darwinian story of human origins — one that palaeontology was later to confirm.

A less happy consequence of the end of socialism as a mass ideology is the end of humanity as an imagined community

Practically, socialism (in both its communist and social democratic forms) set out to construct a common political project for the claimed ultimate benefit of all humanity. Particularly in its communist variant, this project sought to include not only the working class of the West but also hundreds of millions in the then-colonial world as part of a collective political subject (what the left-wing anthem celebrates as ‘the Internationale’). Marxist socialism acted in the name of a future in which, as the anthem has it, ‘the Internationale will be the human race’. What they did includes much that makes a mockery of all that. But for all that, they didn’t stop claiming it.

At their peak, various forms of socialism counted their proponents – and their subjects – in the hundreds of millions. Outside communist states, democratic socialists founded their utopian-seeming hopes in the mundane politics of elections, campaigns, and wage claims. They argued that it was in the self-interest of organised labour to defend democratic rights, oppose racial and sectarian division, uphold peace, and so on. As sociological analysis, a sentiment such as ‘Racism is a tool of the bosses to divide us!’ might not be terribly sophisticated, or even true. But, as politics, it works. Karl Marx laid down the law in Das Kapital, Vol 1 (1867): ‘Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.’ The same logic applied to other forms of oppression. When socialists reneged on these commitments, as they all too often did, their own fundamental principles (and principled fundamentalists) could be called on to bring them to account.

This is so astonishing that it’s easily overlooked. In terms of appealing to the common interests of humanity ­­— even if purely as a cover for smaller or more sordid interests — only the great religions have attempted anything like it. No other secular ideology has tried to be a totalising force in the same way. Partly in reaction to, and partly in competition with, the communist challenge, a common sense of universalism and common humanity did become institutionalised after the Second World War in the UN, in a system of human rights and the development of other instruments of international law. Inspiring as this liberal, global humanism was, and real as its achievements have been, it has lacked socialism’s firm footing in the material self-interests of individuals.

Now, with the death of communism and social democracy's struggle to sustain its postwar gains, the idea of the whole of humanity as a potential political subject barely exists. Socialism is dead, and its death — as Nietzsche observed of God’s — has had unexpected effects. One of the less happy consequences of the end of socialism as a mass ideology is the end of humanity as an imagined community. This has consequences in our real communities; the rise of far-right parties across Europe is one of them.

The aims of those who held the reins of power in communist states may have been little more than to keep hold of them by any means possible. But the aims of most of the millions of ordinary people who believed in socialism were modest: full employment, social security, free education, and healthcare. For almost a lifetime after the Second World War, it seemed as if these were obtainable within social democratic capitalism. But they seemed, paradoxically, to depend for their credibility on the far-off but, to some, alluring prospect of abolishing capitalism altogether. I well remember Britain’s late-1970s Labour prime minister, James Callaghan, declare that we would eventually establish in Britain a society based on the principle of ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’. Strangely, he was not denounced as a communist; it was understood that such grand aims were right for sentimental songs and May Day speeches. But as soon as the grand aims were abandoned, the modest gains were snatched away. Now we are told from every respectable outlet that the gains were unaffordable and the aims were deluded all along.

The challenge for humanists and liberals in the face of a transhuman future is daunting: to replace the socialist project — or to revive it. Without something like it to underpin a sense of common human identity and common human interest, people will divide on the basis of other identities. Many on the left, of course, have found in identity politics a replacement for the universalism of their past. But identity can also be seized on by the far right. It can feed a resentful indifference to the plight of others that comes from having one’s own plight disregarded.

All right. So the aim of a peaceful, global community of equality, reasonable security, and material abundance was a fantasy. Make us drink that cup to the dregs, but don’t expect us to be humanists after we’ve wiped our lips. If labour in the white skin can never emancipate itself, why should it care if in the black it is branded?

Read more essays on human enhancement and political philosophy


  • John Lambshead

    I had a short story in a transhuman anthology published by Baen but I think its premise is twaddle. Certainly the biology cited by supporters is nonesensical - they don't understand the difference between life span and average life expectancy.

  • :-

    This is truly awesome. And by that I mean I got lost at around the halfway mark, and just sort of scanned through the rest, while thinking "bollocks, bollocks, bollocks..."

    • Sam Dresser


  • Juliet Mike

    What about the unifying force of the internet? There are people these days who'd rather give up their nationality than give up the net.

    • Lester

      In the mere twenty or so years the internet has been around has it really been a force for unifying anything, except possibly the behavior patterns associated with using it?

      During the time of the rise of the internet we've witnessed the falling of what's left of public democracy and yet the internet is trumpeted as a unifying force.

      • Michael

        The Arab Spring is an example of the internet being used to unify. That's one; therefore, that's an "anything." ...You've got to qualify what you mean by "anything." You imply that if the internet has not unified a nation politically then it hasn't unified anything. The internet unifies every interaction that humans have adopted into it and created especially for it. But if you're looking for a political example, the Arab Spring is one.

        In response to your second paragraph, people's freedoms have and are being threatened by politics all over the world, but them being threatened happening at the same time in history that the internet exists and is being called a unifying force is not proof that the internet does not unify.

        • Lester

          The Arab spring was not unified by the internet. The internet and smart phones and other technologies were used as tools to bring about action, but the unification was created by decades of policies that finally brought together a large section of the population in poverty and desperation.The Egyptians finally had enough when Mubarak's son tried to privatize the certain services pushing an already desperate section of society over the edge. Technology played a role in the organization of the reaction, but not in the creation of the reaction.

          The internet is and only ever is a tool. I agree that the internet dictates behaviors and creates environments peculiar to itself, but that is not unification around philosophical or political concepts. And unification is always an exaggeration and temporary.

          Regarding the idea that politics threatens freedoms, you have to consider that politics defines freedoms in the first place. There are not a set of independent concepts called "freedoms" that some politics hinders and others enhances. This is precisely what I meant when I said that certain political positions can eventually appear to be neutral and non-ideological.

          • Michael

            By "being threatened by politics" I don't mean that politics in general, what politics is, threatens freedoms (how could I mean that?). I mean that people's freedoms are being threatened by the actions of current politics, that politics in the world in this time seem to be eroding freedoms.

            I do see what you mean now (I guess I was tired...) I thought you were saying that the internet is basically not what it's been touted to be or that it had potential to be something but the reality of it didn't meet the hype.

            How could we say the internet is a unifying force, as an idea for rallying around? It isn't an ideology. To make the comparison is absurd. I completely agree.

            I do think though, and I think you've already said that you agree, that one can say that the internet is a unifying force and mean something different than that. It unifies, like you said, "the behavior patterns associated with using it." If we could vote in the USA for the presidency on the internet, we'd have a record turnout. The behavior of voting, a normally unifying thing in the sense that many people are doing it for a common purpose, would be bettered. The connections that happen between vote-recorder, voter, candidate, etc. are all intensified. It unifies people's behavior through the medium of the internet.

            As far as the Arab Spring, I'm not saying anything (at Nun) about the eventual outcome of the Arab Spring, whether it was successful from some perspective. I'm merely saying that the actions of the people involved were unified through the internet. Of course the internet was not the unifying political idea behind people's actions? (How could I mean that?) The internet facilitated, in not an insignificant way, the Arab Spring. If one were to argue that it didn't, as a communication medium, let's assume that the internet didn't exist. People would rely on slower communication means. Would the political wildfire that happened have happened without the internet?

            The internet may not be a political ideology, philosophy, or just an idea (It was an idea, then became a reality, but that's not what I'm saying either.), but it does allow people to rally around a political idea. in environments that are not unique to it.

            Facebook is unique to the internet. It did not exist outside of the internet. It may have had an earlier analog in some form that socially connected, but Facebook did not exist before the internet is my point. The Republican party, the Drug Policy Alliance, the ACLU, etc. are all politically-involved groups which exist in a way that allows those people who want to be involved with them to participate in them without the internet. However, they also have an online presence which allows their members to be active. The properties of their online presence: it's speed of transmittal over the communication medium, it's making available detailed information, it's making-instantaneous the political action of the individual --these _draw_ people who would otherwise not be involved. It rallies them. And it isn't necessary that those people who want to be involved should already have adopted those political views. Those people who may be swayed to an alternative viewpoint may do so through visiting a website (as I have done!).

            The internet _unifies_. It brings us together. In all forums that are exclusive to it and to those which have been adopted into it that had a real-world counterpart.

        • Nun Yerbizness

          The Arab Spring was not unifying (except perhaps for its opponents) period and the Arab Spring has proven to be vaporware

        • Ramone

          Three years on and what has become of the Arab Spring?

  • David McFadzean

    It should be noted that the Extropians did not accept the "heinous calculus" mentioned at the start. On the contrary, the author of the post was banned from the mailing list.

  • johndavidstutts

    Still can't figure out how they get the damn BCS rankings

  • Shawn Whitney

    fascinating and there is definitely an element of totalizing that goes on with Singularitarians and transhumanists. Kurzweil, in particular, it seems to me has the most sophisticated theory underpinning his argument that is reminiscent of Hegels dialectic and the movement towards Spirit. There's no doubt that it is a product, in part, of the disillusionment with socialism that accompanied the collapse of Stalinism. Instead of human agency, the force of change is technology (information technology to be more specific) and its forward movement is irresistable.
    But, still, it is just one of many competing narratives at present, as people struggle to make sense of a rapidly change, crisis and conflict riven world. And I wouldn't yet count out socialism. Look at Greece - we see both the rise of the far- right AND the rise of the socialist left in the form of Syriza et al. Similarly Spain, Egypt et al. Just like religion didn't die as a result of the French Revolution as some hoped and feared, but has made a big comeback - so to do the conditions exist for other forms of metanarrative.

  • Gar Lipow

    Ken, do you believe Socialism necessarily has to stay dead?

    • danny

      It's yet to be born.

  • Nun Yerbizness

    socialism, marxism, capitalism—it doesn't matter if they are dead or alive

    when the autonomous car becomes more than a prototype and car culture's death knell is sounded (it isn't far off) is when you will know the singularity is well and truly at hand

    • Chris Dias

      Are you honestly that stupid or was that your idea of a joke?

      • Nun Yerbizness

        rarely do I get the chance to respond to such an honestly ingonrant question—if willful shame on you if not there is much for you to read.

        socialism, marxism, capitalism are irrelevant.

        the automobile has defined the world's values, culture and economies more than any hollow human ideology.

        the autonomous car will profoundly change that definition of values, culture and economies as profoundly as did the original iteration of the automobile.

        • Sam Dresser

          Post the literature for the rest of us to read. This sounds like a pretty bizarre theory to me, but I'd love to see someone try to defend it.

          • Nun Yerbizness

            the history of the automobile's impact on industrial manufacturing and how it shaped political and economic reality in the 20th century is a "bizarre theory?"

            well—that is just bizarre

          • Sam Dresser

            Obviously not. I mean that it's bizarre to do away with 'socialism, marxism, capitalism' just because of the car....

          • Nun Yerbizness

            I suspect your inquiry and comments are not intellectually honest—either that or you have a problem with reading for comprehension.

            socialism, marxism and capitalism as pure ideologies have been dead for many decades independent of the automobile and nothing I said suggests otherwise.

          • Sam Dresser

            You don't need to respond so rudely. I think your idea was bizarre. Okay. Just explain why it's not. No need to take shots at people (unless that's your thing).

          • Nun Yerbizness

            passive aggressive much?

            you willfully misrepresented what I said.

            I called you on it.

            if you have thin skin don't gratuitously malign others.

          • Sam Dresser

            Jiminy Cricket!

          • Nun Yerbizness

            it would appear you share more than just a name with Sam Rubin

        • Chris Dias

          When car culture dies I will happily dance on it's meaningless grave.

          • Nun Yerbizness

            you and a few hundred million others

            the day can't come soon enough

        • aelena74

          He's right in the philosophical significance of the car and its relation to perceived freedom (at least while there are - mostly - state-built roads)

  • Lester

    When writing science fiction, I suppose the skill is being able to conjure up extraordinary fictional worlds, but when writing essays about the real world this skill obviously becomes something of a drawback.

    Maybe its enough to point out that we suffer a tremendously ideological environment right here and right now. If there ever a political ideology that demanded religious faith and the false presumption of neutrality it's the tyranny of capitalism, the ultimate in constructed identity politics.

    And it might be worth pointing out that the reports of Communism's death are as greatly exaggerated as the claims that it ever lived. Why some state driven plutocracies are allowed to masquerade as democracies, whilst other state driven plutocracies are perpetually described as communism perfectly illustrates the ideological tyranny we currently suffer. So when the author suggests that in communism "No other secular ideology has tried to be a totalising force in the same way" I'm afraid he also suffers the blindness of the radicalized who imagines the extreme to be neutral.

    Political ideologies are clumsy attempts to thread power through the tapestry of society. Although they always end up concentrating power in the hands of a few and codifying imbalance, at least the motivations behind Communism are noble in a way that today's ideological triumphalism has not even attempted.

  • Will Shetterly


    One quibble about "As sociological analysis, a sentiment such as ‘Racism is a tool of the bosses to divide us!’ might not be terribly sophisticated, or even true."

    If you mean "racism" in the vague sense of "we don't respect people who sound like they're saying bar-bar", sure, that's not true. Otherwise, it's true enough. Read about Bacon's Rebellion and ask yourself why there were no "white people" in North America until 1680.

  • Rob Graham

    This always works for me.

  • observenter

    I guess people are always in search of the next ism that contains a whiff of truth in criticism as Marx's "final" conclusion was that capital was the boogeyman destroying mankind (man did not matter as individual). One (extropianism or transhumanism) might catch on and become the next destructive force in our world or some other cockamamy ism. The death of an ism that had sway over a large part of the globe does not die suddenly, but it appears that communism is dead, though the corpse may hang around for a spell. Nixon (crazy as he was) pointed out near the end of his life that ideologies may have a shelf life. To borrow a biblical allusion, the ideology my be rolled up like a scroll. Rest assured that the new crazy idea is not far behind.

    • danny

      Hi obseventer
      Communism has always meant a society of common ownership and democratic controll. It's like this, I could go down to my local theatrical costumiers, buy the suit and leap out of phone box and claim I was Superman. But before anyone would believe me they'd want me to do Superman stuff like fly for instance. The point is, we sould take little notice of what people claim they are, it's what they do that identifies them. As for these contradictions in terms "communist states" a brief examination will reveal their social relationship as one of state capitalism.

      • observenter

        I know, of course, that little c is communalism. I’m talking big C.

  • Michael Crumpton

    Socialism is dead? You might want to tell the millions living in socialist countries about that.

    • danny

      I might not be right up to date with international affairs but I'm sure I wouldn't have missed noticing "socialist countries" where the means of wealth production were owned in common and democraticlly administered by and in the interest of the whole community. Perhapse you could point them out for me Michael.

  • Ирина Макаровна Мирошник

    The problem exists. The solution does not exist.

  • Treemonster

    Okay, I know it's bad form to legitimize something like this by responding, but I'm trying to imagine what a "Gay agenda" would look like, and just having a flip-chart covered in rainbows feels lazy when there are doubtless much better jokes to be had at the expense of such a notion - care to enlighten us?

  • Master Dogen

    Why do you assume that a universal humanity is best? This is a quasi-religious belief, asserted without any rational basis. What's wrong with groups keeping their identities within a larger humanity? And I presume that when you say "identity can also be seized upon by the right," that is code for "But historically white people can also realize it's worth preserving their unique cultures, languages, and ethnies." Horrors!

  • Martin J Sallberg

    There is research showing that lifeforms are NOT sums of fixed capacities at all. Rather, evolution takes leaps when environmental obstacles are removed. For instance, yeast stressed so that it cannot afford hostility between the cells spontaneously becomes multicellular. Scientific metastudies of recoveries after brain damage also shows that tolerant environments are the key factor. Apparently, the key to become super-intelligent and defeat ageing by cellular self-criticism is by eradicating all social pressure to blame and justify. See Pure science Wiki for more info.

  • aelena74

    Come on, "...socialism [] set out to construct a common political project for the claimed ultimate benefit of all humanity. ", yeah, complete with selective genocide, gulags, labour "farms", reeducation, .... Really, can you believe that BS about the commonality of humanity? Is this the dreamed imagined community? I guess we should be moving to DPRK.

    You will find a more humane and kind approach to this in the nerd rapture than in any leftist ideology from the XXth Century.

    The death of socialism, which I don't perceive so clearly, is a good thing. The idea of erasing every human being's individuality has led to the biggest bloodshed ever, in the previous century. Name-dropping? You choose, Khmer rouge, Holodomor, DPRK even today (more famines), Cuba, all the Eastern Block, all the marxist terrorist groups in the world... the Cultural Revolution, the Big Leap Forward, should we go on?

    "to replace the socialist project — or to revive it." again? do we need more proof it just does not work?