The Sudden, Inevitable Rewiring of the American Left

When the Democratic Party gave up on technology, progressivism malfunctioned. Now, technophile liberals are preparing to fix a movement.


In 1962, the year President John F. Kennedy promised a crowd of Rice University students the moon, 2.6 percent of the federal budget was allocated for non-defense research and development. By 1967, that number sat at 5.8 percent, and JFK lay under an eternal flame. Neil Armstrong took his lunar stroll in 1969, and returned to slash budgets as non-defense research had crashed to 4.3 percent on its way toward today’s 1.6 percent. The American government currently spends $67.8 billion annually on the quest for knowledge, at least $40 billion less than China, against the $78.9 billion it spends lubing the Defense Departments sprawling skunkworks.

The privatization of innovation runs counter to broadly accepted narratives of progress, the leftist, Enlightenment-era idea that “natural orders” are perpetually ripe for disruption. The technological half of this premise drove American policy through the 1960s, with Eisenhower embracing the pill, and rejecting the pre-JFK military industrial complex. But when workplace computing and consumer technology put innovation at the center of the American industry, the left’s geek community was torn apart. The nerds flocked to Silicon Valley; the wonks took D.C.

The technophile left clashed with a libertarian insurgency in Palo Alto, California, pushing data-driven communitarianism, even as social politics moved to the top of the Democratic Party agenda in Washington, D.C. Technical expertise looked poised to make an eastern migration when President Obama named a national chief technology officer (CTO), but ultimately, the 44th president met the acceleration of discovery with the same deceleration of investment as the six presidents before him. Hillary Clinton, his anointed successor, proceeded to run a luddite campaign, embracing a Democratic Party platform that made innovation a bullet point beneath job creation.

Technoprogressives were shocked, but less surprised than the rest of the left that Clinton lost to a climate change denier who’d spent the bulk of his campaign promising to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States on the eve of their automated extinction. When stories about universal basic income started getting passed around, almost immediately, in the wake of the election, it became clear what was happening: The implosion of the neoliberal left had created the conditions necessary for voters considering alternative futures. The clear and present danger presented by an existential threat, climate change, a political menace, and institutionalized bigotry, turned an ideology into a fractured movement within the space of a few days. Techno-progressivism suddenly thrives in opposition.

And it owes some of its sudden credibility to Facebook.

“You still see a lot of implicit and explicit suggestions that the internet is just superficial relative to other political phenomena,” says writer Nick Srnicek, author of Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. “The role of social media in Trump’s election is something that will be analyzed for years to come, but I think it’s quite clear that many people have had their views of him primarily shaped by internet discourse.”

Because Trump was buoyed to victory, at least in part by millions of algorithmic feeds, politically engaged Americans on both sides of the spectrum have had to embrace what Srnicek claims is self-evident, that “the internet is the dominant public sphere.” In accepting this, they must also accept the premise that technology can radically alter traditional systems. From there, the debate becomes about the use of specific technologies. That’s the conversation technoprogressives are eager to have and are, in fact, already having.

The 1962 World's Fair Monorail

Flickr / Seattle Municipal Archives

Elon Musk is arguably the poster boy of techno-progressivism. Musk doesn’t habitually take a political stance, but he rallies a mass audience around projects fundamentally at odds with the current, late-capitalist natural order. SolarCity was designed to change how power works. Tesla’s Gigafactory flooded Sparks, Nevada, with $25-an-hour jobs. SpaceX hopes to make mankind a multi-planetary species, a cause that necessitates radical, political thought. Musk performing neutrality isn’t exceptional — especially in light of his government contracts. Because the Democratic Party has not historically viewed business experience as an important qualification for public service, many potential technoprogressive leaders haven’t been given an opening to make political pivots. Silicon Valley is a libertarian hotbed in the national imagination, not because it’s actually libertarian — donation stats don’t bear that out — but because of the lack of party-affiliated agitation on the left.

“I call it an ‘ideological tendency,’ one that can be found as a strain of pro-technology thought in progressive politics for the last two hundred years,” explains John Hughes, Chairman of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET). “We can find it popping up in feminism, environmentalism, disability rights, civil rights, and left economics. Getting these diverse voices to understand that they have something in common, and to begin acting in concert, is the project.”

Hughes says that there will never be a technoprogressive ur-text, just a “political coalescence interacting with events.” Trump’s election seems to be such an event, preceding similar ones touched off by his decisions in office. After all, his right wing entourage is full of “bioconservatives,” the traditional anti-science big bads, for not just the transhumanism-loving left, but anyone prepared to engage with the transformative power of innovation, whether at Davos or in the Futurology subreddit. Under Trump, human genetic engineering and nanomedicine is likely to become a partisan issue, though it remains largely unclear which direction technologically conservative evangelicals, like Mike Pence, and technophile wildcards like Peter Thiel, will push his administration. Whether or not Trump tries to leverage technology to retrench cultural norms or create new ones, he’ll face resistance on the left.

The IEET will be part of that resistance. The organization, which historically explored and debated extreme longevity, body hacking, and neurotechnologies on an intellectual level, without engaging too much in policy, pivoted slightly at the beginning of this month. The organization is now focused on “the explicit project of building a global technoprogressive ideological tendency to intervene in debates within futurism, academe and public policy. Hughes is the mastermind of this switch and he believes that it’s critical that technoprogressive thinkers be less insular — their political opponents, after all, haven’t been.

“The IEET emerged partly to give voice to the technoprogressive, or left technophile point of view in order to balance the hegemonic influence of the libertarian viewpoint coming from Silicon Valley billionaires,” says Hughes. “Now we have a new threat to contend with, the populist or fascist technophiles, like Peter Thiel and Newt Gingrich. GOP control of American politics and the Trump regime — and [its connection to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s support for a global network of far right parties — suggests that technoprogressives may need to set aside struggles against the libertarians and left Luddites to work in a popular front against the fascist threat.”

Hughes is describing an uphill battle, and not just because the Republican Party — or whatever it has become — controls Congress and the White House, but because technoprogressives were already advocating policies running contrary to entrenched business interests. If the renewable energy movement can be described as a mainstream example of technoprogessivism in action — it’s certainly democratizing and science-centric — it can also be described as an opening salvo begging for return fire. And it has received exactly that. Just five oil and gas companies spent over $25 million on campaign contributors during the 2015-16 cycle. Exxon Mobil and Koch Industries each spent over $8 million lobbying. That money doesn’t fund progress in any sense of the word.

Pavillions at the 1964 New York World's Fair


Taken as a whole, the Republican Party and the fossil fuel industry form what New School professor and critical theorist McKenzie Wark calls the “Carbon Liberation Front,” a political and economic movement to release carbon from earthly imprisonment. There is a militancy to this movement, and it is currently being met with disorganized resistance from clusters of non-profits and advocacy groups on the left.

“I think the reason we have so much money and hysterical energy pouring into climate denialism is that it’s the only way dinosaurs like the fossil fuel barons can imagine staving off just such a global, cooperative movement to remake the world,” says Wark, whose book Molecular Red goes deep on the subject. “They’d kill us all rather than give up their privileges. And they have armed and fortified themselves in advance, for whatever they say in public they know what they’ve done, and that soon we’ll be burning them in effigy.

How they’ve done it involves politics and the conflation of economic growth with human well-being. Organizations like the World Bank focused on statistics like GDP, under the apparent assumption that prosperity would lead to capitalism and to democracy and to sustainable policy. Not only did this not happen in China, where technology has created a middle class and calcified a lower one, but it also utterly failed to work in America. Income inequality has risen in the U.S. since the early 1970s. Trump voters don’t seem too pleased about it.

“I think we still need our utopians, but we can think about them differently,” says Wark. “If you think utopias are not ‘realistic’, well, look around. This world we’re in is an unrealistic utopia, a bubble world so preposterous that it could pop within our lifetime or the next.”

Candidate Trump seemed to argue in his economic policy speeches that the pop had already taken place (“The Obama-Clinton agenda of tax, spend, and regulate has created a silent nation of jobless Americans.”) and for the reconstruction of the bubble (“America is ready to prove the doubters wrong.”), but that messaging didn’t congeal into policy during the campaign, which makes sense given the President-elect’s reflexive pro-business stance. And it still hasn’t. Trump’s plan to invest in infrastructure might create jobs in the short run, but he’s given no indication of how he might bring people back into the labor force, bucking a global trend. Technoprogressives assume he simply won’t, and believe it’s important that politicians plan accordingly.

Capitalists may love efficiency, but capitalism is allergic to it in high doses. As computers and new tools have made workers more efficient, the need for workers has dipped. The diminishment of the manufacturing sector is not an American issue and it cannot be written off as a product of out-sourcing. China is losing jobs as well. This means that the assembly line positions Trump and Clinton were all too happy to promise the Rust Belt wasn’t coming back. Without a paradigm shift, that would be a real bummer.

Nick Srnicek says that shift doesn’t need to be about how we work so much as how we think about working. The issue, after all, isn’t a lack of labor, but a surplus we can credit to machines. And it’s a natural impulse to share surpluses (homeless people in New York make more than minimum wage). Srnicek argues that people in all manners of professions should embrace the change. This is especially critical for Americans, who work more than two months more per year than their German counterparts.

“We should see it as an immense achievement that we no longer have to work 40 hours a week, and instead we should aim to immediately reduce the working week by one day: creating a three day weekend without any reduction in pay,” he says. “It would relieve mental and physical stress on people, it would reduce carbon emissions, and it would tighten up the labor market and give workers more power.”

The China Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo

Getty Images / Feng Li

The problem, he is quick to admit, is that modern Western Civilization is obsessed with work. It is the central theme of society, determining social value and carrying immense moral freight. People who don’t work are called welfare queens and written off as scum by the very political class that would most benefit from basic income if they could see through to the core logic of the idea: Everyone should benefit from technological progress. But personal progress seems to forever eclipse the idea of communal progress, at least in America.

“What we need to do is reconceive of work – a project which is necessarily long-term,” say Srnicek.

The project of re-thinking work is, on some level, the project of rethinking American society as a whole. The Protestant work ethic, tired as it may be from three centuries of toil, is still strong enough to push back on the idea of an entitlement society. And the personal value found in work is not easy to replace. There is no easy solve for dignity, no blade sharp enough to easily sever its connection to aging ideas of diligence and toughness. There is only the slow work of changing minds. Technoprogressivism doesn’t have a peoples’ champion in this moment, but there is a sense that a person like that — Bernie Sanders with a HoloLens — is coming.

For now, it’s just a matter of digging in.

“The progress of Enlightenment values has been slow, but steady, explains Hughes. “Nonetheless there are periods of retrenchment, and the current hegemony in America of politicians who reject realities like climate change is hopefully as temporary as the hegemony of evolution-deniers was previously.”

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