March 17, 2009

Transcription: Risks posed by political extremism

Below is a transcription of the talk I gave last year at the IEET's symposium on Building a Resilient Civilization. The title of my presentation was: "Democracy in danger: Catastrophic threats and the rise of political extremism."

If you don't want to read the entire transcription you can always read my summarized version, "Future risks and the challenge to democracy," or just watch the video.

Many thanks to Jeriaska for putting this together.

The world’s democracies are set to face their gravest challenge yet as viable and ongoing political options. George Dvorsky—who serves on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies and Humanity+ while bloging at Sentient Developments—presents on how given these high stakes situations, democratic institutions may not be given the chance to prevent catastrophes or deal with actual crises.

Risks Posed by Political Extremism


We have had some great ideas today. Jamais, Mike, Martin and others have put together some concrete ways in which we can use the institutions that we have at our disposal and go about dealing with existential risks in a way where we can still live as civilized human beings and not have our lives diminished appreciably.

What I am going to be speaking about today though is another path that we could take. What if we do not set up a resilient civilization? Aside from the obvious result of there being a global-scale catastrophe or outright human extinction, there is the path down to political extremism, which might be a natural consequence of the emergence of existential risks in the first place. There is a double-edged sword here.


That is essentially the theme that will be at the base level of this discussion. Throughout the 20th century there was a lot of political perturbations and restructuring that happened, largely driven by the maturation of the nation-state and industrial economies. These states had to figure out very quickly how to manage a civilization and redistribute wealth. You had a number of ideological forces coming into play to argue this exact point. It explains a lot of the tensions that did occur in the 20th century, most dramatically in the form of totalitarianism. Meanwhile, the democratic nations, who resisted this radicalism, were working to develop the welfare state and put Keynesian economics into practice. Not everyone had to fall into these radical patterns.

Looking ahead into the 21st century, the politics and restructuring of our political institutions will be driven by the demands of mitigating existential risks. In particular, managing the impacts of disruptive technologies and the threats posed by apocalyptic-scale weapons and ongoing environmental degradation are subjects we absolutely do have to talk about.

This restructuring is already happening. We are living in a post-911 world. That was an example of “superterrorism,” where it was a rather devastating event that impacted not just those immediately involved but on our psychologies and societal sensibilities. We have seen what has happened in the seven years since then. A reaction is happening. Looking into the future, we can certainly anticipate that there will be more of this.

Even the term “existential risks” is slowly starting to seep its way into the popular vernacular. Some of you might have caught during the second debate between John McCain and Barack Obama, McCain actually used the term “existential risks” during the debate, which caught me by surprise. He was not speaking of course of humanwide extinction. He was speaking specifically about the state of Israel and its current situation as it is being confronted with what it perceives to be an existential risk in the form of a nuclear attack from a rather belligerent Iran right now. This I expect not only to enter into our parlance more frequently but to seep itself into public policy in a very real way in terms of our institutions and the ways in which we react to these threats.


This is a three-part presentation. Existential risks will change the political landscape. There is an ever-growing multiplicity of threats. The next generation of threats are on the horizon. Today, many of us have spoken about what exactly those are going to be. What is worse is that there is an increased chance that there is going to be an increased chance of unchecked development and proliferation. Given the nature of information technology today and the access to information, there is this increased threat that anybody, given the right information and the right resources, can put these threats together. Further compounding that is an increased sense of motivation among some groups, whether done at the individual level or state level, to put these weapons into practice.


We are collectively speaking here about global catastrophic risks. It does not result in humanwide extinction but it is an event of such devastation that each person on this planet will be impacted in some way. When that happens we will be overnight put into a reactive state. That will be an order of magnitude beyond anything that has happened since World War II, in terms of our entire structure having to be based around this reaction.

Another issue as we are dealing with these catastrophes, maybe politicians will lose faith in the kinds of remedies we are trying to articulate today. Perhaps they may think that we are naive and that a rather more heavy hand is required. They may lose faith in the ability of democracies to deal with these particular problems and look for more extreme measures and more draconian answers to these problems.


The future may unfortunately not be exactly what we had hoped for. At the end of the Cold War, you had this rather optimistic sense that things were finally going to change for the better. You had this feeling that Western liberal democracy was in the process of triumphing and that free market capitalism was about to envelope the world, you had all this talk about the end of history, and a new world order. However, this has not been the case. The last fifteen years have been replete with violence and has resulted arguably in a more unstable world from a geopolitical perspective. We have hardly reached the sense of a new world order or an end of history.


In the 21st century, with the introduction of apocalyptic threats, it will not be politics as usual. These times are going to call for more drastic measures. The mere presence of existential risks will result in there being more political extremism. This is a negative feedback loop. Those who feel persecuted will have an added impetus to use weapons of mass destruction.

What kind of challenge does this pose to democracy? Democracy is still the exception and not the rule. Right now, according to some surveys, as little as 45-48% of the world can be classified as being truly free. This was a figure that was down to around 35% as early as 1973. Speaking about cognitive biases today, we may actually be the victims of an ideological bias. We have this idea that democracy is here and here to stay. This may not in fact be the case.

We may actually be living in a rather extraordinary time in human history where the social and technological situation is such that we have reached an equilibrium where we can have the strong democracies and freedoms that we have. We may be entering into a period of social disequilibrium where democracies simply will not be able to withstand the pressure of the threat of existential risks. A big part of what I am speaking about today is the perceived need for extremism. There will be an unprecedented need for social control. That does not mean merely looking at people and wondering what they are doing, but getting them to do something or not to do something.

It can also be not only in anticipation of a disaster happening and getting individuals to work to prevent it from happening but it can be in response to an actual catastrophic event on the scale of World War II, where suddenly everyone in society is mobilized to participate in disaster recovery.


The second part is defining and anticipating political extremism. What do we mean by political extremism? It is a relative term with no fixed political baseline. It can be used to describe the actions or ideologies of individuals or groups that are outside of a perceived establishment. The views and actions of perceived extremists are typically contrasted with what we would consider moderate opinion. It is also used to describe those groups who violate the sense of there being a common moral standard. Again, it does not have to be a group of individuals outside society, but could be members of your own government.


Extremists can direct their angst either internally, within their own group, or outside of the confines of the state, or both. They will often be accused of advocating violence against the will of society and the actions are often considered beyond what is necessary. Some might consider the actions of the outgoing administration of the United States in the introduction of the Patriot Act and warrantless wiretapping are extreme measures beyond the call of what is necessary. The term is almost always used as a pejorative. No one declares themselves to be an “extremist.”


What will give rise to various forms of extremism? When times are good, you are not going to have agitation. You are not going to have calls for more radical political action. When you have economic, environmental and civil strife, that is when things get churned up. There is an old revolutionary credo that the worse things are, the better. That is the only time when people are going to be willing to do something about their situation. Reasons for extremism at the state level are when the ends are felt to justify the means. There is seen to be just cause to implement policies that reduce our civil liberties.


Radicalism begets radicalism. When you had the emergence of fascism in 1930’s Europe, arguably the reason for it was that it was a reaction to Bolshevism and the threat of Collectivism. You had radicalism establish itself in one spot, and others freaking out about it and deciding to embrace radicalism to counter it. Given prescriptions for the 21st century on how we will address existential risks, you could see the same bipolar stratification happening with different forms of radicalism. I cannot speak to them specifically right now, but perhaps later when I go over particular threats themselves. You could envision a radical progressive group countered by a radical luddite group, for example, as they gain political power.


There is the issue of future shock, as well. The idea that accelerating change will upset a lot of our psychological sensibilities is something that Émile Durkheim referred to as “anomie.” Because things are changing so quickly, the public does not really know what to grab onto. Their footing is lost, social norms are changing. Today, of course, we are feeling it through such things as gay marriage. Social changes are happening with greater rapidity than they have in the past. I look at things going on at Google with a certain degree of reverence because I simply cannot imagine how they are piecing things together.

How the Nazis took advantage of this in the 1930s was by appealing to people’s sensibility and nostalgia. While on the one hand they would tap into what technology had to offer, they would offer them comfort in values that they could relate to. Accelerating technological change can also give rise to a call for radical action. You also need a psychologically primed populace. A catastrophic event will create a populace that is hysterical or primed for a strong central authority figure to tell them what to do and how to do it. The regime will take advantage of that and scare the populace with threats in hopes of keeping them in control that way. This is a common political tactic. A psychologically primed populace will be both welcoming of and supportive of a regime that comes in and take away those civil liberties.

Despite the previous slide, where I went over conditions, there are drivers that will speak to 21st century politics. How are we going to restructure our politics such that we will avoid wisespread catastrophes and human extinction? We are going to need our political institutions deal with the managing of ongoing disasters. Right now what comes to mind are the environmental disasters that appear to be looming on the horizon. However, one could imagine a pandemic of some sort, a nano-disaster, not at an existential level. Meeting the demands of managing these disasters and dealing with disaster recovery are going to be cost prohibitive to say the least. As usual, the economy is going to be a huge issue in the 21st century.

There are some secondary drivers as well that may again lead to some more sense of instability. That is the emergence of disruptive technologies. That will have profound socio-economic effects that have been somewhat outside the bounds of this symposium. There is nanotechnology, for example, and what it will mean to the manufacturing sector. There is robotics and what it will mean to unemployment. Then there will be dealing with the restructuring of society that will be on the scale of the previous industrial revolution that will happen because of AI.


Another possibility, one that could be considered extreme, is do-nothingism. That is denial, underestimation and circumvention. Today we are seeing corporate interests interested in obfuscation and disinformation. For their own selfish interests they will see the world burn. Political self-preservation, scared politicians that are simply afraid to do anything, may only be interested in maintaining the status quo. It also might be an issue of human nature. We are victims often of our own psychologies, denial or our inability to grok probabilities, and so on. We may fail to realize a threat is on the horizon.

There is also the possibility of isolationism. Countries that do not want to deal with this will not follow the path of meeting this threat. Also, there is backwardness, simply not comprehending the issue at hand. Look at Africa over the past thirty years now largely being in denial of the AIDS epidemic. That is a massive disaster in its own right.


Moving on to assessing the various threats, I broke them down into authoritarianism, totalitarianism, paramilitary groups and radical social groups. What are the drivers for an iron-fisted government? I cannot stress enough both the positive and negative injunctions for making people act in a certain way. A state that distrusts and is fearful of its own citizens will pick quick, easy and lazy ways to deal with crisis situations, such as circumventing due process by tweaking the Constitution or putting it aside.


This type of regime can manifest itself through an existing democratic regime like the United States or Canada. It is just a matter of putting the right tools into action to make it happen. For instance, the Nazis were voted into power. It could be a coup, a junta, an occupying force through the establishment of police states and dictatorships. There was a coup d’etat in Pakistan in 1999 with Musharraf taking control of a nuclear-capable country. What can an authoritarian state do to deal with the threat of there being a disaster? It can declare a state of emergency, suspend elections, dissolve the government, ban all criticism and protests, reduce privacy and mobility rights, conduct illegal arrests and torture.


This would certainly be a threat in terms of the gross diminishment of our rights and civil liberties. It would provoke reactions internally and abroad, working to destabilize the situation even further. I think you could devote an entire symposium to the future of totalitarian threats. It is important to address, simply because it is an existential risk unto itself.


Why would an authoritarian threat want establish totalitarianism? It is the need for absolute social control, to mobilize the people and get them to think the way that is in the state’s best interest through the imposition of an ideological imperative. This could be a religious imperative, or it could be regime based on getting itself back on its feet after a global catastrophe. I think some of the same technologies that would work to enable totalitarianism in the 21st century would also work to undermine the instantiation of totalitarianism. Namely, communications technologies could be use to hack the system.

This could manifest itself through an existing regime. It might not be through the radical left or right as we know it. It could be the emergence of neo-totalitarianism under new conditions. The political tools would be the same as authoritarianism, but other things that they have at their disposal could be a monopoly on all political activity, on the ideology, on the means of coercion and the means of persuasion. All economic and professional activities of the state would become subject to the state.


Mac said...

Sweet -- you even included the slides. Do your readers we have permission to do an Al Gore with this? ;-)

ZarPaulus said...

I personally don't think that mass democracy is such a great idea, though I have to wonder if it's at all possible for people to retain most of their civil rights under a government that prevents the majority from voting.