From where does political theory’s contemporary opposition to the dominant Liberal political order arise? Surely few would deny the rise of alternative philosophical opinions in recent decades. Post-structuralism, postmodernism, neo-Marxism, and further schools of thought suggests the limits of our traditionally held views. To make a long story short, our current politics’ validity was sold to us on such grounds as constitutionalism, human rights, and the rule of law, and now certain critical scholars simply aren’t buying it.
Different alternatives to Liberalism vary in their emphasis on human conceptions from the top (e.g., the powerful, wealthy elite) or from the bottom (e.g., the powerless, impoverished multitude). Here, I attempt to provide a cursory sketch of these two alternatives and ultimately argue in favor of the latter.
Mostly, we accept that the world’s current political order consists of various different arrangements of Enlightenment-inspired premises that we might characterize as “Liberal.” At least four major premises make up this view of politics. First, any good Liberal firmly believes in human rights. Human rights are, most basically, those things to which we are entitled because of the fact of our humanity. The concept of human rights first arose as a prominent Liberal ideal during the Enlightenment in the work of philosophers like John Locke, whose Second Treatise of Government issued modern politics’ familiar claim to “life, liberty, and possessions.”
Second, Liberals argue that the state’s constitution best separates the government into different branches to prevent abuses of power. In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu argues in favor of a republican, constitutional order based on a love of virtue—in contrast to monarchs, who love honor, and despots, who thrive off of fear. Montesquieu’s work subsequently formed much of the basis for the American legal system; even today, “courts generally acknowledge his influence on the Constitution” and separation of powers. After all, what good are human rights if the state can revoke them at will?
Third, citizens within a Liberal state are considered equal. John Rawls claims in A Theory of Justice that, if you were placed behind a “veil of ignorance” that removes all social contexts like race, religion, sex, and nationality from a person’s decision to whom rights should be granted, any rational person would choose equality. Because any other person theoretically behind the veil of ignorance could choose my share of rights just as I choose another’s, I face an incentive to minimize the differences between the rights afforded to me and those afforded to another. On the Liberal view, not only can the government not prevent you from exercising your rights, it must provide those rights equally to all its citizens.
Fourth, Liberal states opt for market capitalism over socialism’s emphasis on state-owned enterprise. Adam Smith, arguably the founder of economic Liberalism and the ideological basis of the modern market system, wrote in The Wealth of Nations that the “invisible hand” of the market directs producers and consumers toward positive outcomes. By harnessing individuals’ self-interest and leaving the market up to its own devices—e.g., a small public sector and a large private sector—we create competition, which in turn creates positive economic conditions like lower unemployment and higher wages.
This combination of human rights, separation of powers, equality, and capitalism forms the foundation of the modern world order. Countries strive to adopt all four of these premises or are pressured into doing so. In pundits’ terms, liberal democracy is the “price of admission” to the international community. Transhumanism, however, does not square with at least one Liberal premise: equality.
The Transhumanist Alternative
Transhumanism is a philosophy that posits that individuals and governments can and should use technology to surpass innate human potential. Their principal assumption treats humans as deficient in one way or another. Transhumanists might say, “We don’t live long enough, we don’t prevent enough natural disasters, we are susceptible to disease, we don’t help refugees, we start wars and commit genocides, we cause climate change.” Essentially, humans “have a lot of [unnecessary] limitations,” in this view.
For example, Julian Savulescu advocates for transgenesis as an acceptable bioethical practice, claiming that we can and should manipulate human genomes because we face a moral imperative to correct such genetic deficiencies for future generations, even if we make them non-human in the process. In fact, making humans into non-humans presents itself as one of the main goals of transhumanism’s political project (literally, we should transcend humanity). Therefore, governments that limit and regulate practices like cloning and transgenesis can be seen as morally corrupt. “[W]e should,” Savulescu argues, “allow [genetic] selection for non-disease genes [in embryos] even if this maintains or increases social inequality.”
I want to briefly note that I only highlight the more extreme forms of human enhancement which propose to alter society’s genetic composition. Using, for example, a notebook to augment one’s memory capacity differs inordinately from replacing one or more genes in select embryos. I don’t focus here on human enhancement, but rather on transhumanist human enhancement.
Transhumanism directly opposes the Liberal premise that all citizens merit equal treatment from the state because of the random distribution of talents qualities by nature. As Francis Fukuyama put it, “[t]he first victim of transhumanism might be equality.” According to a Liberal worldview, whatever rights we are due from our government must be due equally to all. But, through biomedical processes like transgenesis and eugenic embryo selection, transhumanism seeks to (1) identify superior genetic traits, and (2) increase the proportion of those traits in society. If Liberalism proposes to reduce social inequalities, transhumanism accepts those inequalities, implying first off that they have less value to society than human enhancement, and second off that inequalities are such a low priority that they can be rooted into humans’ genes without significant consequence.
Transhumanism’s problem is not so much that it can’t establish a principled typology of desirous and non-desirous genetic traits, nor that it can’t or define the value those traits. Whether or not it remains “silent on the value” of people’s lives with non-desirous traits, transhumanism proposes to alter the biological definition of humanity and create a new, elite class of super-humans. That elite class then could easily claim to be entitled to more state benefits, rights, seats in Congress, and so on than natural humans. As an alternative to Liberalism, therefore, transhumanism supposes a vastly different political subject, where talents, strengths, and weaknesses are not distributed randomly by nature, but rather purposefully by individuals through the use of technology.
The Critical Alternative
The critical alternative is one that one could characterize as a broad mélange of different ideologies sharing the same ultimate premise: the modern Liberal paradigm perpetuates and sometimes exacerbates political, economic, and social inequalities.
Consider, for instance, Homo Sacer by Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. Homo sacer—as opposed to someone like Homo politicus—is a person stripped of his or her political life, or the life of the citizen and reduced to bare life, or the life of one outside the state, who therefore enjoys no guarantee on his/her individual rights, and can therefore be killed by the state. Agamben uses the ancient Greek terms bios and zoē to distinguish between these two forms of life. Practically, Hitler reduced people to bare life forms by removing Jewish and other “undesirable” members from the body politic both legally (by taking away citizenship rights) and physically (by sending “undesirables” to concentration camps). For Agamben, laws that reduce people to zoē represent a “state of exception” that dangerously violate human rights and characterize both modern authoritarian and democratic regimes. In other words, as legal entities, Auschwitz and Guantánamo Bay prison differ only in form, not essential character, since the latter hides behind a Liberal, democratic façade.
In the past, dictators survived because their states’ existence depended on territorial integrity. However, leaders of modern Liberal states depend more on public opinion than on territorial integrity, meaning that—according to the critical alternative to Liberalism—Liberal states have to sell their laws and policies under the guise of protecting or promoting Liberal values, even if those laws and policies further distance the world’s state of affairs from a Liberal state of affairs.
Slavoj Žižek echoes this sentiment. Liberals soften many of today’s problems, framing them as problems of ignorance or intolerance rather than problems of injustice, inequality, or exploitation. According to Žižek, because of the “multiculturalist’s basic ideological operation;” namely that “political differences, differences conditioned by political inequality, economic exploitation, etc., are naturalized/neutralized into ‘cultural’ differences […] which are something given, something that cannot be overcome, but merely ‘tolerated.’” In other words, Liberals’ view of toleration simply glosses over modern forms of injustice and indeed assumes that anyone labelling injustice as such is simply ignorant of other worldviews. This then obfuscates the distinction between good and evil. In fact, it means the Liberal paradigm is that much more dangerous for the critical alternative because prolonging and indeed remaining complicit in acts of injustice can be justified under such well-intentioned efforts at “tolerance.”
If Agamben claims that Auschwitz and GTMO prison are essentially the same, Žižek might argue that the disparate state of inequality between the global North and South differ only in form—not essential character—from colonial times. A modern Liberal economic system doesn’t alleviate that problem, it just sweeps it under the rug.
Forks in the Road
At what ontological premise(s) do the two alternatives to Liberalism diverge? Beyond their shared enemy, the two schools of thought seemingly share nothing in common, with the latter claiming there is too much inequality in the world and the former claiming that there is too little.
Transhumanism represents a top-down political power structure, whereby elites decide policy and administer it down to the masses. The transhumanist alternative begins with an aristocratic premise—individual citizens able to do so should be given the choice to correct their human deficiencies and become a member of a superior, super-human class. The state should then sanction policies that allow (1) experiments to determine the specific areas in which humans require enhancement, and (2) the biomedical enhancement procedures themselves. Even arguing that we should enhance humans to be more moral beings does not solve this. Such a solution reflects, on the one hand, an aristocratic premise now as we must decide which moral code will rule society or, on the other hand, an aristocratic premise later as the new super-humans must decide which moral code to rule society. Either way, transhumanism represents a top-down view of politics.
The critical alternative begins from the opposite perspective of oppressed classes. Individuals should pursue emancipation through political activism or “even armed struggle” because one class of people ruling another invariably leads to inequalities and injustice; and remaining passive or complicit in those instances is just as bad as committing them in the first place. Any viable body politic, therefore, must relinquish any theoretical, legal, or other capacity to implement a “state of exception” for one reason or another. Therefore, if transhumanism allows for—even if it doesn’t necessarily advocate for—a state of exception for its class of super-humans, it doesn’t just accept today’s injustices, it enables them, according to the critical vein.
It is this fork in the road that seems to most fundamentally separate these two contemporary alternatives to Liberalism. Transhumanism pursues an aristocratic political future while critical scholars pursue a radically egalitarian one. Transhumanism emphasizes helping those at the top while critical theory emphasizes helping those at the bottom.
The alternatives to Liberalism are not limited to post-structuralism, postmodernism, neo-Marxism, and other leftist schools of thought. Of course, we should remain wary of any ideology that purports to have all the answers. However, we should also remain wary of ideologies that root inequality in human genetics. As it stands now, human inequality is limited to socially significant factors such as income, wealth, race, religion, and so on. Most contemporary political theory no longer attempts to defend aristocracies based on people’s heritage. And while the modern Liberal system may not be perfect, the transhumanist alternative which allows for the creation of a new class of elite super-humans potentially deepens social inequality, on the one hand, while certainly creating biological inequalities on the other. Rather than more inequality, critical theory rightly views things from the bottom-up and strives to end oppression and injustice, not enable them.