Scientific Truth and Political Reconciliation

Contains ideas some readers may find offensive.

Reconciliation

Between 1948 and 1994, South Africa suffered under apartheid, which treated 'whites' as superior to 'blacks', and maintained a state of segregation by force for decades. Under this brutal regime, South Africa's police force routinely tortured political dissidents and caused the violent deaths of a distressing number of black people. When this repressive government fell after the release and election of Nelson Mandela, the country faced an immense challenge: how could it rebuild trust between its citizens? Their solution was a 'truth and reconciliation' commission, which listened to the tragedies suffered and invited those who had endured the worst human rights abuses to testify. The commission offered amnesty from prosecution to all who came forth to speak the truth about what had happened under apartheid. South Africa rebuilt trust between its citizenry through pursuit of the truth, which fostered reconciliation between those who had once been enemies.

We too now stand in need of truth and reconciliation. Throughout 2020 and 2021, the world experienced its greatest catastrophe since the Second World War. Like that dreadful conflict, this disaster flowed forth from human technological advancement. The war in the 1940s was facilitated by the creation of tanks, planes, bombs, and advanced weaponry, culminating in the detonation of nuclear bombs. In one version of the many stories being told about the ruinous events we just endured, they were initiated by genetic tinkering with a bat virus and accelerated by a rash attempt to deny that a research lab was responsible. Whatever the truth about its origins, the crisis reached its calamitous apex through a witch's brew of psychological 'nudging', the polarising effects of social media, and the negligent substitution of computer modelling for empirical evidence. Citizens were turned against one another, segregation and subjugation was maintained by force in nations who had previously sworn to uphold the rights of their citizens, and a great many people died who need not have died - from both the disease and the measures deployed against it.

It will do no good to simply shrug and mutter 'public health', as if this abject failure of scientific process, medical safeguarding, human rights law, international aid, academic credibility, and journalistic integrity could simply be waved away by invoking this phrase. Public health, in the sense this term has traditionally been used, represents an alliance between medical research and political goodwill. Its effectiveness rests upon the trust that citizens have in the agencies which pursue collective health benefits for its citizens. When that trust fails, public health falls with it, as I argued last week in Decolonising Public Health. By choosing to align public health goals with political partisanship, rather than scientific evidence, we shattered the very conditions for good public health policy.

When the measures justified by those in charge of public health messaging are based upon political allegiance rather than due scientific process, we are no longer dealing with medicine as we have traditionally understood it. 'First do no harm' is an impossible principle when definitions of 'harm' fall out along partisan lines, for what one faction declares as essential will appear to their opponents as a cause of great harm, a situation we have already faced for half a century over abortion. Once this factional state of affairs infects medical discourse, 'public health' ceases to be either scientifically or ethically justified, and becomes instead an excuse for the anxious fears of the citizenry to manifest in authoritarian repression against those who do not share that terror.

As with South Africa, truth and reconciliation offers a possible path out of this disaster. Yet this route is blocked until we can admit the extent of our failure. This is something political partisans are largely incapable of doing, for at all times the origin of every problem belongs to the others, and it is their refusal to accept our arguments that we blame for everything that goes wrong as a consequence. We are blameless, because our politics defend the good whereas their politics are confused, ignorant, even barbaric... Not only public health, but scientific truth itself is endangered by this chasm of self-valorisation. Far from the twentieth first century becoming the golden age of achievement imagined by the science fiction writers, we have instead driven into the shadows the open debate that is central to good science.

This did not, however, begin with the SARS-CoV-2 debacle... On 17th January 2003, the best-selling author of Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton, delivered a blistering address at Caltech attacking the relatively new trend of declaring 'scientific consensus'. Crichton considered this development "pernicious", and all such claims of consensus as "the first refuge of scoundrels... a way to avoid debate by claiming the matter is already settled." He made his argument forcefully and coherently:

Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus. There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.

Crichton observed that whenever consensus is evoked, it is a sign of weakness. Nobody says that the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2 or that the sun is 93 million miles away - it does not even occur to anyone to make such assertions. Rather, consensus is claimed solely in those situations where 'bad' science is deployed to support 'good' policy - Crichton's chosen examples are nuclear winter and second-hand smoke. He included in this accusation global warming - the old name for climate change - drawing attention to the way that this subject relies far more upon computer models than empirical evidence. He noted that the renowned theoretical physicist Richard Feynman suggested to him that this obsession with computer modelling was a disease. Crichton offers a stark warning: "Our models just carry the present into the future. They’re bound to be wrong. Everybody who gives a moment’s thought knows it."

The concerns raised by Crichton in 2003 depressingly foreshadow the crisis that followed within a few scant decades. He presciently pointed a finger of blame at journalists, remarking that when even the most distinguished news providers cease to differentiate between factual content and editorial opinion, who is left that can hold anyone to any standard of truth...? Neither was Crichton's talk merely a diagnosis of the problem - on the contrary, he provided quite practical suggestions for how to defend research processes from political influence by pooling funding, thus reducing incentives to produce pre-specified conclusions. He also suggested separating decisions concerning how to gather data from the acquisition of that data, while ensuring that independent verification of evidence is always a priority.

We did not listen, and disaster followed as inexorably as the plot of one of Crichton's sci-fi disaster novels. The monsters would not remain inside their pens.

Now the very fact that climate change (in its old branding as 'global warming') is mentioned by Crichton in his speech is likely to raise some hackles. The fact I will extend this accusation to include community masking, lockdown policies, and blanket vaccination with incompletely-tested mRNA treatments will only make this resistance more ardent. Yet everybody who has a kneejerk emotional reaction here will almost certainly belong to just one side of the political spectrum. Let's call them the 'blue team', after the colour representing this faction in the United States. I note that in the UK, the corresponding party uses red as its colour, and elsewhere perhaps there may be countries sufficiently civilised to support more than two primary colours for its factions. But for simplicity, let's treat these divisions as 'blue versus red'.

Let's look at two competing hypotheses. The 'blue science is the best' hypothesis is that on climate change, face masks, lockdowns, and speculative vaccination, the blue team got all the correct answers because they had the best science. That's why they didn't need to gather evidence in support of community masking, why it was unnecessary to complete vaccine safety trials, and why climate change is indisputable, debate on the topic is forbidden, and Google is justified in demonetizing websites reporting inconvenient satellite data. This hypothesis is self defeating, as it claims that the best science is achieved neither by gathering evidence nor by debating the meaning of that evidence, and these activities are undeniably the quintessential elements of good scientific practice.

The competing 'red science must be silenced' hypothesis is that because universities in the United States gradually veered ever further into a political bias for hiring blue researchers, the research communities steadily became more and more polarised, thus disrupting effective pushback on live research topics. As a result, criticisms began to come mainly from red scientists who were largely outside of these universities. Frustration with these clashes led to the blue-aligned universities refusing discussion on scientific matters, justified all-too-conveniently by claiming that the science was beyond dispute, exactly as Crichton accused. The research community became so one-sided as to fail to pursue good scientific practice since no disagreements could be tolerated.

I note, as is so rarely admitted, that the fact that the 'blue science is best' hypothesis is internally self-defeating provides no evidence whatsoever as to the status of the 'red science must be silenced' hypothesis. This mistake, 'you're wrong and therefore I am right' appears to have been the main way that support for community masking went from being justified as a precautionary measure on weak evidence, to being self-evidently true, despite so few high-quality studies being commissioned. Worse, even among those that were commissioned, such as the DANMASK-19 study, results were simply ignored if they did not reach the desired result. The CDC website expressly informs readers that it doesn't count this key study, while accepting anecdotal studies of much lower quality that happen to align with its prior conclusions. The CDC neglects to provide an explanation for why it was not capable of commissioning its own random-controlled studies, something that it is inconceivable to claim a well-funded federal agency could not have done.

In other words, on all these topics from climate change onwards, a pre-existing political division infected scientific discourse and drove it into the state of pseudoscience where debate about the evidence could not happen - or more accurately, was not permitted. In the case of climate change, a valid (but difficult to quantify) claim about humanity's effect on the atmosphere was ludicrously inflated into undeniable certainty in a hopelessly ineffective attempt to strong-arm the red team into caring about the environment. In the case of community masking and lockdowns, anger that the red team wasn't willing to do anything and everything proposed to save lives obscured the fact that the actions being proposed were only ever hypothetically capable of saving lives. The actual scientific work to determine what was or was not effective at reducing the mortality burden of SARS-CoV-2 was, for the most part, never on the table - and even when it was, results were ignored if they did not support the 'correct' team, which is to say, the blue team.

If this argument is accepted - and obviously this will prove difficult for those on the blue team - it reveals that the state of pseudoscience has become a self-inflicted wound on scientific discourse, a wilful refusal to engage in the debate that has always played the most crucial role in the process of determining scientific truth. Experiments are never self-explanatory. They require interpretation, and this requires discussion. Seeing this, it becomes clearer why we are encountering more and more outbreaks of the state of pseudoscience, why media corporations like the BBC, Facebook, and Google could turn so swiftly and unwisely to censorship to defend positions that they rashly claimed were beyond dispute, and why the worst respiratory epidemic since 1968 turned into the worst cybernetic disaster since World War II - killing a great many people who did not need to die, bankrupting vast numbers of small businesses for no good reason at all, disrupting education for an entire generation of children, and destroying democracy and health care in Africa in the worst incident of colonial medicine the world has yet endured.

It has been over a year now since my wife and I began writing to our representatives to put forth the case for truth and reconciliation. We see this as a vital step towards repairing the social damage unleashed by the mishandling of SARS-CoV-2. But we are not surprised we have never truly been heard, since it is unthinkable that political parties will give up the leverage that springs from blame. The US midterm elections roll around later this year, and knives are already being sharpened for the 'enquiries' (inquisitions?) that will arrive in its wake. But this quest for retribution is as futile as it would have been for South Africa in the wake of apartheid. Mandela and his allies understood that what was required to rebuild the fabric of their nation was restorative justice, an attempt to make right what went wrong by assembling the truth of the horrors that had been inflicted, and thus reconciling the opposing factions such that they might share a future together.

Our own need for truth and reconciliation goes beyond trying to restore peace in the wake of our insane overreaction to the genuine harms of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. While it might be desirable to seek restorative justice in this regard, the greater issue is that legitimate public health policies have been rendered unobtainable by the state of pseudoscience. Even the possibility of establishing scientific truth has been blocked. The equivalent issue in climate science is arguably less serious by comparison, since while this fiasco might have driven us into this miserable corner, we still have time to address these particular problems by renewing scientific debate on environmental topics. The damage from making scientifically-informed public health impossible is far more immediate and too often irreversible. People have already been negligently killed, and many more will die if we cannot fix this problem.

What is the alternative to truth and reconciliation in public health? Shall we lurch between 'blue science' and 'red science' as the election cycle progresses...? Mandatory injection of incompletely tested vaccines while the blue team is in charge, then the collapse of vaccination programmes when the elected seats turn red? This is not a public health policy anyone could consider sensible, regardless of where you stand on vaccination or human rights, although I note that (contrary to the beliefs of the blue team), the red team is not against vaccination, they're just not as fanatical about it as the blues. What makes public health even conceivable as a policy is that scientific truth is supposed to transcend political divisions. The moment we begin making health laws on partisan grounds, the cause of public health itself becomes mortally wounded, if it is not already a rotting corpse. This is the madness of 'consensus science', which is Crichton's name for the state of pseudoscience, the abandonment of scientific discourse. We might just as well talk of consensus pseudoscience, for it is the truth of the matter.

Recovering scientific truth will require some degree of political reconciliation. It is quite unthinkable that we shall reconcile every issue that divides the red and blue teams... some of these political differences are fundamental, and will remain that way for decades, maybe even centuries. But on both public health and climate change, sustaining the limbo of consensus pseudoscience is beyond hopeless. It is to willingly choose catastrophe simply because we are too stubborn, too belligerent, and too unforgiving to engage in the cultural disarmament necessary to restore the trust required for collective public health and practical environmental policies.

Consensus pseudoscience ought to be unacceptable to anyone, but because far too many of us have faith in magical science, we accept ideology in place of methodology, and dogma over discourse. Gladly do we lay blame at the feet of our political opponents for everything that went wrong over the last two years. After all we did the right thing... even though nobody could possibly have ever known what the right thing was, because there was never any open scientific discourse to establish whatever that might have been! Yet still we cheered on as the media corporations censored every disagreement, championing pseudoscience as if it were something noble rather than an abject and murderous nonsense.

Many on the blue team, including former US President Barack Obama, seem to believe we still don't have enough censorship, effectively demanding further intensification of consensus pseudoscience. Obama is at least proposing greater scrutiny of social media algorithms, albeit solely by government... Forgive my inevitable concern about who is to watch the watchers watching the watchers. Further suppression of discourse will just lead to greater partisanship, making our situation even worse. The red and blue teams may have marched into this scientific disaster as bitter enemies, but if we are to escape from it, we will need to do it together. Let no-one take pride in having fought under the banner of public health while recklessly abandoning any legitimate scientific basis for what was demanded. Instead, let us collectively accept the shame of our mutual failure, and somehow commit to a reconciliation that might make collective public health a viable possibility once again.

There is much to be done if we are to rediscover our gift for scientific investigation, and recover the conditions that make public health something other than colonial oppression. We cannot afford to let corporations claim safety and efficacy on data they will not share openly, much less can we permit regulatory bodies to cherry-pick what counts as evidence. Neither can we afford to hinder collective plans for sustainability by substituting ideological certainty for open debate of climate data, as if the mark of good science was deciding what to censor. We need to bring an end to sheltering our muddled faith in magical science, and abandon the mistaken belief that unequivocal support for scientific salvation is beneficial. Our slender comprehension of the mysteries of the universe will be entirely undone by anything that fosters the state of pseudoscience - regardless of whether this disruption emerges from partisanship or censorship. Every attempt to silence debate is a betrayal of knowledge itself.

There are futures that may yet come to pass where our love of scientific knowledge is secured by a resolute commitment to transparency and debate. We must cultivate a far greater appreciation of the unavoidable fact that every science is a discourse where diversity and disagreement is a gift to treasure, not a curse to strike down in anger. The truth is something we can assemble together, but first we must remember how to talk to those who disagree with us. For that to happen, our sole hope is rebuilding the labyrinthine pathways that flow towards scientific truth through an unprecedented act of cultural disarmament and political reconciliation. It is my hope that, like the South Africans of 1994, we are worthy of seeking this future together.

The opening image is Reconciliation 2 by Lloyd Hornsby. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.


Decolonising Public Health

Contains discussion of death statistics some may find distressing.

Colour Colonisation

Is the proposition 'vaccines are safe and effective' a scientific claim or a political statement? Some contend that because this claim is scientific it is not a political matter at all. But this is a mistake, and a dangerous one at that, for it mistakenly presumes scientific truths circumvent debate, rather than depending upon it. If 'vaccines are safe and effective' is a scientific claim then it rests at all times upon methodically reviewing the evidence for each and every vaccine. The moment this process is disrupted, no scientific statement of this kind is possible, and the political battle between 'anti-vaxxers' and their opponents ceases to entail anything that can legitimately be called science.

To have a breakdown of scientific debate in a time of crisis is distressing. Yet this is the third such collapse in medical discourse in just two years. Institutions who were tasked with ensuring the good health of their citizens have failed in at least one undeniable sense: significant numbers of people no longer trust them. As a result, the very concept of public health is now in danger of collapsing, ironically because a zealous enthusiasm for this cause severed the balance between scientific discourse and political action. Medicine now faces as great an ethical crisis as the creation of the atomic bomb posed for physics. Now as then, our technical power outstrips our moral reasoning about it in troubling ways. As strange as it sounds, we must seriously consider whether the time has come to decolonise public health.

Wherever there is a power differential between cultures, there is a risk of some form of colonialism. Even the most generous gestures may hide this kind of inequity. Consider the Gates Foundation's mission to bring an end to polio. To our minds, this seems like a no-brainer: why wouldn't we want to get rid of a truly horrible disease like polio...? But entirely eliminating a disease is never as simple as distributing an appropriate vaccine - and even getting suitable vaccines is never easy. We still know of no way to create a vaccine capable of eradicating any strain of influenza or coronavirus, for instance. Even when appropriate vaccines can be developed, eradication requires enormous co-operation between countries, and substantial diversion of local medical networks. There are severe costs to the polio eradication project we never even paused to consider.

Eradicating a disease is something we desire disproportionately to its health benefits. After all, we have already eliminated polio from our own countries, yet still we are unsatisfied ('what if it comes back from over there?', we say, in this most colonial way of thinking about other people's countries - as a source of contagion). Committing charitable funds to the eradication of polio seems a lot less magical when we recognise that this objective is in competition with the provision of regional health services. Pursuing this agenda inadvertently usurped primary care in many poorer nations. The same money could have been used to help these nations with their own urgent health problems... but as Dr William Muraskin remarked of this vastly expensive crusade: "Nobody ever erects a statue for those who build primary care systems".

Worse, we pursued polio eradication recklessly. In our own countries, we vaccinate against polio using an injection based upon an inactivated or 'dead' virus. In the eradication crusade, however, we used the cheaper and easier-to-distribute oral polio vaccine, which contains live virus. Although this will inoculate against the disease, it does so by causing a mild infection of the poliovirus, and it is possible for this to mutate and spread. This dreadful risk manifested in 2019 when outbreaks of a new vaccine-originating polio strain struck several African nations, as NPR reported. The following year, these new polio strains had spread to more than a dozen African nations. Nobody is saying we shouldn't aim towards ending polio, but prioritising speed of eradication was a 'luxury' health project driven by the whims and egos of colonial philanthropy. We did not adequately safeguard the people in poorer nations whose safety we compromised to reach our chosen goals. And this is only one small aspect of our medical empire.

When we talk about 'colonial history' we are referring to what was called in French mission civilisatrice, the civilising mission. This is the darker side of the philosophical achievements of the 17th and 18th century. Having determined that our empires had become enlightened, colonial rhetoric inferred that it was only logical to share the triumph of reason everywhere. This swiftly became self-justifying propaganda for occupying land that was rich in natural resources that could be exported for enormous profit by the mercantile classes of the great seafaring empires (France, Great Britain, Spain, and Portugal). Then as now, colonial rhetoric conceals commercial motives.

The French chose admirable-sounding metaphors for their actions. They spoke of how the Algerians or the Vietnamese became évolué (evolved) by being forced to adopt French culture, and also of the moral duty to make this happen, since they were elevating the ignorant foreigners, bringing them 'up' to their level. Race (as in: skin colour) was undeniably a factor in this, but even if those abroad had been white-skinned the differences in culture would still have produced an equivalent prejudice (racism is never solely about skin colour). That the colonised people looked different just made it easier to look down upon them.

Today we do not even bother to make arguments to defend our colonialism. We simply know we are right, and therefore we are entitled to bully the world towards the health goals we happen to desire. Thus we push towards eradicating polio, with its majestic air of permanence. It feels like a titanic achievement to us, a self-evidently worthwhile project. Yet consider that in 2020 there were only 800 cases of polio anywhere in the world, 200 of the wild virus and 600 - three times as many - of the vaccine-derived strain we are responsible for. By comparison, in the same year there were 241 million malaria cases and 627,000 malaria deaths, while 800,000 children under the age of five died of pneumonia, and 1.6 million people died of diarrhoea, most of them infants and young children. These are just three of the causes of death we don't face 'at home' and therefore ignore, despite 3 million people dying each year from these diseases. Eradicating polio could have been pursued in tandem with strengthening primary care in every country, achieving the same goal far more safely while helping to prevent vastly greater numbers of deaths from other causes. But we do not help other nations in the ways they want, because we are still colonialists at heart.

If you doubt you are a medical colonialist, here is a simple test: did you ever invoke the 5.6 million deaths over two years attributed globally to COVID-19 to make a point, or nod approvingly while someone else did so...? Although it is forbidden to say so, those who tragically died from this respiratory infection were overwhelmingly the elderly citizens of the formerly imperial nations and their allies. For the UK, 90% of COVID-19 fatalities were older than 65, with a median age of 83 based on ONS data, while global data suggests an average age of death of 72.9. Every death is sorrowful, but those who died from this specific cause have been given a macabre hallowed status in our politics, despite these deaths representing just 5% of global mortality over this period. What's more, a great many of those that died after infection with SARS-CoV-2 were already in a precarious state, and would still have succumbed to their failing health within these two years, irrespective of this disease. There was never truly a question of saving those particular lives, which is in no way an argument for doing nothing.

Conversely, the six million largely young and overwhelmingly black and brown people who died of malaria, pneumonia, and diarrhoea over those two years could have been saved from death - and had their life expectancy more than doubled - with just a small fraction of the money we squandered on largely ineffective interventions against COVID-19. While it is reasonable to focus on public health problems 'at home', the extreme and ill-considered actions of the last two years that we deemed absolutely necessary achieved almost nothing except exacerbating health harms by disrupting primary care. Saving the lives of those others in Africa and South Asia was entirely achievable but never even considered, let alone considered necessary.

Not only is this politicisation of one cause of death above all others inherently unethical, it is deeply colonial in its spirit. When we invoke 5.6 million dead from COVID-19, we claim to care about global mortality yet deceitfully frame this around the one disease we have chosen for political importance, while wilfully ignoring all those other causes of death that have far greater impact in many of the nations whose dead we are ghoulishly 'borrowing' to make our chosen big number. Even the name 'pandemic' reveals our imperialism once we accept that this was not a disease that threatened all global countries equally. 'No-one is safe unless everybody is safe' certainly sounds humanitarian, yet this policy entails forcing our politically-motivated medical agenda onto other nations, all for a vaccination that cannot ever result in the desired eradication that this motto falsely invokes for its moral impact. Less than one hundredth of a percent of the African population died of COVID-19, so tell me this: why did anyone argue there was an urgent need to vaccinate Africans against this disease, if it was not because we never gave up being colonialists...?

Our public health empire operates globally, but is primarily an export of the United States of America, aided and abetted by European nations and the United Kingdom. Through the enormous influence federal agencies such as the FDA and CDC have upon the World Health Organisation (the US being by far their biggest donor), colonial health policies decided in the United States inexorably spread around the globe. Likewise, colonial philanthropy is dominated by the United States, because wealth disparity is greater there than almost anywhere else on the planet. Just as the empires of sail justified their colonial ambitions in terms of the benefits they brought to the occupied, so the medical empire has strong rhetoric supporting its colonisation of global health. And much like imperial colonisation, there are indeed significant potential benefits entailed. Nonetheless, for historical colonialism, we came to realise that this kind of cultural imperialism was horrifically racist. We have yet to awaken to this horror when it comes to colonial public health.

The bigotry of colonial occupation has become such an embarrassment today that enthusiastic protestors gleefully topple statues representing that era. Iconoclasm is far easier than owning up to our continuing commitments to colonialism, after all. In both cases - colonial invasion and medical empire - the fact that both positive and negative stories can be told clouds the issues through the familiar distorting effects of political factionalism. Yet in both cases, it is the negative consequences we need to pay the closest attention to, since the positive benefits (by definition) don't entail concerns. When we trumpet the gains and brush the loses under the carpets, we are being very human. When we do this to defend our ongoing colonialism, we are being all too human.

Our politicisation of science, the eruption of the state of pseudoscience into one topic after another, means that everyone who took up a banner on unresolved medical questions was blinded. Yet we do not need to get into the specifics of these scientific controversies to acknowledge colonial tendencies in the US health agencies. We can start by accepting that first lockdowns, then community masking, and finally COVID-19 vaccination all entered the state of pseudoscience, where rational debate of the evidence was no longer persuasive. We can admit our failure here without having to settle the truth of these matters, because even if we believe 'we know' while those terrible others 'spread disinformation', we can still see that at least one faction ('them') is clearly not open to rational debate. This acknowledgement opens the door to confronting the errors of colonial medicine.

We are currently prevented from establishing a scientific answer to the question 'are these new vaccines safe and effective?', but the question itself is revealing. Both the CDC and the FDA are committed to claiming that all vaccines are indeed safe and effective. Yet this is evidently a conflict of interests: is the purpose of the FDA to defend the idea that vaccines are safe and effective, or is it to determine which vaccines are safe and effective...? An organisation cannot pursue both agendas without tying itself into ideological knots. The former is a political goal while the latter is a scientific investigation - and as has become increasingly clear, these are not compatible forms of thought, even though they can and must intersect. Whenever a scientific institution seizes upon political goals, it can no longer openly pursue the ambiguities of research, and it risks falling into the state of pseudoscience whereby nothing can be determined scientifically for there is no longer any free discussion of the evidence.

The FDA's decision to grant full authorisation to COVID-19 vaccines in 2021 was a choice to bypass the long-term trials that were previously deemed essential to establishing vaccine efficacy and safety. It is no good claiming that the urgency justified skipping this step: the vaccines already had emergency authorisations. Neither the ethical nor the scientific requirement to complete all the relevant safety trials can be bypassed by a state of crisis - indeed, the emergency conditions make such trial data all the more vital. Yet because critics of these vaccines levelled accusations that they were experimental treatments, the US health agencies rushed to provide full authorisation in order to cry out 'look, they're not experimental anymore!'. This leapfrogging over the established protocols cannot be justified solely in scientific terms. It was clearly politically motivated.

Ironically, the FDA were so insanely desperate to defend the claim that 'vaccines are safe and effective', that they made vaccines less safe in order to more loudly shout 'safe and effective'! They intentionally lowered the bar of what constitutes 'safety', out of fear that people might otherwise distrust vaccination. In so doing, they counter-productively increased the very vaccine hesitancy they hoped to prevent, and made their own agency appear far less trustworthy. Neither is this problem constrained to the health agencies: as the journal Science reported, researchers are now wary of investigating COVID-19 vaccines for fear of driving up vaccine hesitancy. This medical negligence is compounded by the fact that the original trials upon which these vaccines were declared 'safe and effective' are still not fully available for independent review, as British Medical Journal editor Peter Doshi has repeatedly raised concerns about.

We find ourselves in a bizarre world where media corporations can censor anyone who breaks ranks with the mantra of 'safe and effective', despite the fact that those responsible for determining the conditions of safety and efficacy have undermined their own scientific procedures for establishing this. Journalists are now so politicised on these issues that they turn a blind eye to the FDA having torn up the rulebook while still dogmatically insisting that the agency can still act as referee. Neither is safety data the only place where the rules of the game were rewritten on the fly. Moderna's application to the US government asking for reclassification of its mRNA treatments in August 2020 makes it clear this request happened precisely because gene therapy had acquired a bad reputation:

...the classification of some of our mRNA investigational medicines as gene therapies in the United States, the European Union, and potentially other countries could adversely impact our ability to develop our investigational medicines, and could negatively impact our platform and our business.

No doubt Moderna is correct that having to market these treatments as gene therapy would have robbed them of the lustre of the word 'vaccine', borrowing the aura of eradication and community benefit that vaccines like the MMR invoke. But perhaps this would have meant fewer ill-informed colonial health vigilantes strong-arming young people into taking drugs that neither they nor those around them could plausibly benefit from. A disease whose mortality is overwhelmingly skewed towards the elderly will not be impacted by vaccinating those too young to be at significant risk with a treatment never designed to prevent spread. God forbid the long-term trials (if they even happen now) reveal some unpleasant consequences that the FDA, in its zeal to defend the pharmaceutical companies, neglected to investigate...

Critics of the FDA call its lamentable situation 'regulatory capture': an organisation that was expressly intended to establish the safety and efficacy of manufactured drugs has become an advocate on behalf of the very corporations it is supposed to regulate. This is not just a conflict of interest, it is an invitation to collapse medical discourse into the state of pseudoscience. Likewise, on the question of community masking, we do not have to resolve the truth of the matter to see that the CDC's actions were compromised: over the space of two years they commissioned zero random-controlled trials to investigate these interventions, despite the original argument for their adoption depending upon inconclusive evidence. Errors like this make the federal health agencies look either incompetent or duplicitous - and either way, trust in their ability to fulfil public health goals inevitably suffers.

Yet it is not solely the US federal health agencies at fault. They have been spurred on by the anxious political desires of the citizenry. As with the colonial philanthropy of polio eradication, so with the draconian enforcement of community face masking and the mandatory injection of COVID-19 vaccines - our naïve assumptions pre-empted scientific investigations that were absolutely necessary. Still, while the state of pseudoscience blocks debate of the evidence, it does not stop it accumulating. These forbidden zones now include evidence on the predicted poor performance of these vaccines against spread, confirmation of the superiority of natural immunity against reinfection, disturbing side effect data from Israel and Germany, risks of Original Antigenic Sin that might mean these vaccines made some situations worse, and unexplained actuarial data in the US indicating an unprecedented 40% spike in young adult deaths not attributable to COVID-19.

What does it all mean...? Who knows! How can anyone claim to have answers when we are not permitted to even discuss these topics in any public forum! Even pointing out ambiguities in the available data now invites accusations and censorship, and anyone with concerns can be pre-emptively denounced as an 'anti-vaxxer'. Indeed, these dreaded 'anti-vaxxers' now seem to be lurking everywhere, much like those dastardly communists of the 1950s... even once-respectable researchers, doctors, and Nobel prize winners seem to have turned to the dark side. Rather than assessing whether or not these new treatments are indeed as safe and effective as their manufacturers claim, we have been reduced to a blind imperialism where our medical desires are the only ones that matter because 'we know' and those who disagree with us merely 'spread misinformation'. What a catastrophic failure of public health!

Despite the prevalent dogma, it is not unreasonable to ask the question 'are vaccines safe and effective?' There are two essential approaches. Firstly, we can take this as an axiom, or indisputable claim, as those who favour colonial public health tend to do. But if it is our axiom that vaccines are safe and effective, then to qualify as a vaccine a candidate treatment must pass rigorous tests on safety and efficacy, as they used to do back in 2019. As soon as this painstakingly careful process was disrupted, we were at an impasse. For it might well be that 'vaccines are safe and effective' - but we can no longer tell whether any particular treatment is or is not a vaccine. The state of pseudoscience blocks us from establishing the truth.

Alternately, we can admit that some treatments called vaccines are not safe and effective, which is why they always require rigorous scientific testing. This approach is more grounded in fact: some treatments bearing this name did not pass their trials, and were consequently withdrawn, and vaccines previously distributed widely have later come into question, as happened for both smallpox and rotavirus vaccines - not to mention the disastrous backfiring of polio eradication. The difference between this pragmatic approach and the axiomatic path is a willingness to use the name 'vaccine' for something that is later demonstrated to be either unsafe or inadequately effective. Since we have never withdrawn the name 'vaccine' from treatments that failed in testing, this pragmatic account reflects established practices while the axiom 'vaccines are safe and effective' is a new proposition, one entailing severe risks of falling into the premature certainty behind all colonial endeavours.

The political battle between 'anti-vaxxers' and their opponents was always claimed to be about scientific truth, even as both sides devolved into a factionalism that disrupted anyone's ability to determine what that truth might be. In fact, despite the fervour of the zealots, the key question with respect to vaccines is arguably ethical and not scientific. On the one hand is the maxim that one life is too many to lose to a medicine, no matter how many lives it might save. On the other is the maxim that if a medicine saves more people than it kills, everyone must take it. There is a legitimate political debate to be had between these two positions, no matter how much we detest confronting it. Tragically, the entire issue risks becoming meaningless without scientific research capable of assessing the safety and efficacy of each and every vaccine, which our arrogant imperialism has now circumvented.

Resolution of the world's health problems cannot be achieved by the methods of empire without repeating the moral crimes of colonialism. If we want to take advantage of the collective health benefits that responsible vaccination offers, then we cannot afford to undermine trust in those treatments whose safety can be proven. But such proof depends upon rigorous scientific investigations, without which vaccine safety is simply unknown - to dogmatically mandate vaccines about which such ambiguities persist is to demand medical negligence. We not only enacted this shocking policy globally, we then condemned anyone who dared express their horror at what we were doing. Yet to be a public good at all, health topics must be open to debate by everyone, because such questions are always both scientific and political. Alas, because the political destabilises the scientific, we have descended into a grotesque medical empire, where the name 'vaccine' has become something to swear fealty to, and those with doubts are cursed as infidels. Our neurotic fear of our viral cousins has been weaponised to divide us.

I believe in the great people of the United States of America, but my trust in their health agencies is strained to the point of breaking. They have spectacularly failed to uphold the ideals of the medical profession, and if their officers will not now admit their mistakes, they should expect to be held accountable for their tragic errors. Public health depends upon trust in scientific institutions, and the last two years have savaged that trust, reducing nearly everyone to either cynic or zealot, pitting us against one other. Public health cannot be conducted as a war, and when it becomes a battlefield it abandons the claim to be medicine, since the doctor's highest ideal is 'first, do no harm'. If you care about the health of everyone in our world, as I do, if you believe that every cause of death matters, then we have an unavoidable duty to confess this failure, and commit to the greatest medical challenge the world has ever faced: decolonising public health.

The opening image is Color Colonisation by Terry Smith, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.


The Hunt for Gender Armistice

Hartigan.Male Image (1966).detailCan there ever be an end to the vicious cultural war over gender...? It is a question that troubles me greatly, and not only because I find the breakdown of the rainbow alliance inexpressibly heart-breaking. The political capital being squandered on this terrible and destructive in-fighting has meant that the most serious problems facing humanity today - whether poverty, environmental degradation, or anything else you might care to mention - have become impossible to address. Violence against trans people or anyone else is deplorable, but we will not prevent harm by refusing to discuss our disagreements about what liberty means. On the contrary, whenever new cultures encounter one another we must learn how to live together peacefully, which requires that we talk to one another.

It is now half a century since the last successful civil rights movements, and those liberation movements that were pursued beyond the 60s and 70s have devolved into the uncivil wars of identity. Perhaps the most merciless of these battlegrounds is that of gender, especially in the political conflict between trans activists and what might be called 'classical lesbians'. A lesbian in the classical sense of the word is a human female who is sexually attracted to human females or, if you prefer, a cis woman who is sexually attracted to cis women, or even (to complete this set of equivalent and yet politically opposed definitions) a natal woman who is sexually attracted to natal women. The wider gender warzone, of course, now involves far more than just trans people and classical lesbians, but the hostilities escalated from this initial battlefront and it was only later that other kinds of women became embroiled. Over that time, it has become increasingly acceptable to accuse classical lesbians of transphobia (hatred of trans people) for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, those accusations might well be justified. All too often, however, it seems as if 'transphobia' is being evoked simply to shut down discussion.

I'm going to say something that is forbidden. Transphobia may be something we dislike, but as with every other kind of prejudice it is not something we have any reasonable means to prevent. Any attempt to do so risks encouraging an equal an opposite form of hatred - transphobiaphobia. This phenomena, bigotry against those who are perceived as transphobic bigots, is a special case of what I called in Chaos Ethics 'intolerant tolerance', an essential problem of our time that we are absolutely failing to deal with. The trouble is that we know that those who believe in bigotry are evil... as such, we can act towards them in a manner appropriate to those who are evil. But this problematic line of reasoning allows us to become evil in order to fight evil, and this is not the way to effectively campaign for civil rights, but rather a terrifying way to recapitulate the wars of religion that beset humanity for millennia.

What bankrolls transphobiaphobia is the intense belief that those who can be accused of transphobia pose an existential threat to trans people - that they seek to nullify their existence, or even wish to kill trans people. Yet transphobia is an accusation levelled against a wide variety of situations, many of which do not entail threats of violence as such, and if an existential threat is indeed entailed to some degree, we should consider to what degree such an existential threat poses a genuine threat to life. I am open to the idea that those who insist on calling a trans woman a man, or a trans man a woman, do indeed pose an existential threat to the trans community. But the question remains: what kind of existential threats are we actually dealing with? And who is subjected to these existential threats? Just the trans community? Or the classical lesbian community as well...?

There are several degrees of existential threat worth considering here. At what might be called the first degree, the most extreme and horrific end of this grisly spectrum, there are existential threats of actual extermination against an entire class of beings. As a reasonable approximation of a politically neutral example, consider a major asteroid impact that could bring extinction to the entire human race: that would be an existential threat of the first degree to everyone. Then there are the horrific campaigns of extermination we humans have waged against each other: the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s was a first degree existential threat to Cambodian Viets, the 1994 genocide in Rwanda was a first degree existential threat to the Tutsis, the Holocaust was a first degree existential threat to European Jews. Mercifully, no such existential threat faces either the trans community or the classical lesbian community.

At the second degree, there are situations where death occurs, but as single incidents within a certain class, rather than against an entire class of being. These awful second degree existential threats apply to a vast variety of people - over gender, sexuality, culture, race, or religion - and if we wish to build an authentically inclusive society all such threats ought to be our concern. The trans community certainly does face these kinds of second degree existential threats and sometimes in unique ways. Consider the tragic death of Jennifer Gale in 2008, a trans woman who needed access to a homeless shelter in Austin, Texas, but was told she would have to shelter with the men. This incident was, in many ways, a call to action in the current trans activist movement. As such, we could judge this movement's success by its potential to prevent such a tragic event recurring. Yet based upon the significant rise in anti-trans violence since it began, I rather fear that this particular wave of activism has had the opposite effect.

At the third degree are political existential threats. In such cases, no actual threat of violence is involved, but rather a conceptual threat to existence occurs. An odd example of this that I mentioned back in 2018 happened when prominent 'New Atheist' Richard Dawkins suggested it was "consciousness raising" for parents to bring up their children with no religious tradition, so they could then choose their own religion at adulthood. Some people thought this was a wonderful suggestion; most practitioners of religious traditions saw this (quite logically) as an existential threat in the third degree. Dawkins was permitted to make these claims even though they posed an existential threat to religious people because they did not rise to incitement to violence (i.e. encouraging a second degree existential threat or worse), and this is where we have always drawn the line in free speech.

Accepting that we were right to let Dawkins voice these views no matter how offensive they may have been to religious people, we can use this example as a test case. If we approach the gender battlefield with the idea that there is one correct way of viewing sex and gender, it is not very hard to believe that gender-critical feminists, including classical lesbians, might indeed risk presenting an equivalent third degree existential threat to the trans community. So too with that subset of Christians and other religiously-motivated people who do not accept the trans community's various understandings of gender. But we must not fool ourselves here. Current trans activism imposes the same kind of third degree existential threat to classical lesbians, and arguably to certain other classes of women as well. It seeks to deny them their freedom of thought on issues of gender metaphysics that go to the very core of their being in the world. This situation, as I claimed back in 2018, is directly parallel to the example of Dawkins seeking to abolish every religious tradition rooted in the family (i.e. nearly all of them). Therefore, on parallel grounds, no nation should be making political commitments to third degree existential threats as policy, regardless of kind, since to do so is to further betray our human rights agreements and to mandate bigotry against some class of its citizenry as law.

I abhor third degree existential threats, I detest political opposition to other ways of being... but I accept that they are inevitably going to happen, and that you cannot attempt to stamp out such ideas without instigating an opposing third degree existential threat (or worse...) against those who make them. On such a path, there is no democracy, no freedom of thought. On such a path we are marching backwards towards tyranny and imperial monoculture, not forwards towards a more inclusive democracy and the beautiful chaos of individual freedom. The path to trans liberty cannot lie on such a path, for the path to no-one's liberty can lie on such a path.

And this is the problem with transphobiaphobia: it blocks the path to trans liberty. It is no help, for instance, denouncing the Salvation Army for its transphobia if our goal is to prevent anyone else dying in the tragic and avoidable circumstances that led to Jennifer Gale's death in 2008. She died primarily because of poverty, because she was rendered homeless - and the Salvation Army is one of very few organisations trying to help people who have become homeless due to poverty. They did not refuse to shelter her because she was trans, they offered to shelter her with the men and did not understand why she could not do this. This failure to understand her different way of being in the world was pivotal to the terrible circumstances of that tragedy. But it is not tragic that the Salvation Army tries to help homeless people, it is tragic that in this instance they failed to do so because they did not understand how to help this particular person. Yet transphobiaphobia will not help the Salvation Army understand trans people either. The Salvation Army is not so much 'transphobic' as they are completely ignorant of the many trans ways of being in the world, in part because we would rather accuse them of hate than try to talk to them in love.

Neither will transphobiaphobia resolve the culture war between trans activists and their allies on the one hand, and gender-critical lesbian feminists and their allies on the other. Last year, philosopher Kathleen Stock at the University of Sussex was subjected to a campaign of abuse, up to and including death threats (i.e. second degree existential threats), that forced her to resign in October 2021. These actions were initiated by a group calling itself Anti Terf Sussex, who claimed Stock presented a danger to the trans community, stating: "We're not up for debate. We cannot be reasoned out of existence". Unlike those who opposed her, Stock was up for debate... as a university academic, she was obligated to be so. Fulfilling her duty in this regard paradoxically resulted in her losing her job - and I am surely not alone in being shocked to discover that a classical lesbian can be forced out of a job she is good at merely for the thoughtcrime of holding the metaphysical beliefs of a classical lesbian. Yet I find it quite hard to see this incident in any other way, except perhaps that she was a victim of transphobiaphobia.

I have argued with Stock on various matters in and around this issue; I don't share her views on gender, but neither do I have answers to all the relevant political questions she has raised in this regard. Frankly, I don't believe anyone does, how can they? We aren't allowed to have the conversation ("We're not up for debate", announced Stock's persecutors, as they ceded democratic values in favour of vigilantism). But Stock has always argued with me and others with civility and an openness to fresh arguments, and I have always defended her academic freedom and the liberty to speak her mind, even when she has said things I disagree with. I would defend everyone's right to speak in this way, regardless of who they were, and would draw the line solely at whenever someone crosses over into second degree existential threats, that is, calls for actual violence, such as those levelled against Stock by her transphobiaphobic opponents.

Actively preventing debate on the kinds of disagreements Stock has honourably participated in cannot possibly improve anyone's understanding of the problems of trans existence. Indeed, in her willingness to argue against various trans philosophical positions, Stock paradoxically did more to advance the cause of trans liberty than most people in recent years precisely because she was willing to have the debate. Indeed, it was because she did engage in debate with trans philosophers that she came to my attention in the first place. I was excited at the possibility that we might clear away some of the barriers preventing acceptance of trans life experiences. The trans community still does not seem to appreciate that the deplorable prejudice against their many ways of being cannot be resolved by refusing to engage in discussions around the relevant political issues. On the contrary, every time this necessary discourse is curtailed, prejudice against the trans community festers and grows, and further hate and violence on all sides becomes depressingly more likely. As such, Stock's forced resignation is not a victory for trans liberty, it is merely another brick in the wall blocking the path to it.

Everyone says they want a more inclusive society, but nobody seems to truly appreciate what is required to achieve it. That might be because one of the things we need to make that new world happen is an ability to accept that some third degree existential threats will still be voiced. But fortunately, the vast majority of these kinds of threats are not advanced with the intent of provoking actual violence. Dawkins didn't call for actual violence against religious people; he is just irrevocably prejudiced against their numerous ways of being. He's hardly alone; the same prejudice is painfully common among classical lesbians and trans people too. Anti-religious bigotry, especially bigotry against Christians, is a very fashionable kind of hatred right now. Everyone has prejudices, nobody is pure, and the line between love and hate is wearing very thin indeed.

Classical lesbians are not to my knowledge calling for actual violence against the trans community, although many do speak very disrespectfully about trans people, an animosity that is all too frequently reciprocated. Regardless, almost all classical lesbians (and Stock is definitely included in this), celebrate those protections under the law that trans people now possess in the UK and elsewhere. But the classical lesbian's way of being in the world regrettably does seem to be perceived as a kind of third degree existential threat to trans people, just as the transphobiaphobia of trans activists presents a third degree existential threat against classical lesbians, and indeed a second degree existential threat whenever this uncontrolled hatred of haters paradoxically impels people into committing hateful crimes such as death threats.

In the world I want to live in, both classical lesbians and trans people are welcome, not to mention people of every religious tradition and those of none. I have no idea how to resolve all the conflicts inevitably entailed in building such a world. But then, it's abundantly clear that nobody knows how to build such a world, and as long as transphobiaphobia blocks the path to trans liberty such a world cannot be built at all. Of course, this is only one of the myriad barriers to our collective liberty... yet we ought not to be afraid to say this aloud if we are indeed striving for our freedoms, rather than merely marshalling hate against those we judge as our enemies.

I have focussed here upon the original fault line in this metaphysical battle over gender, the skirmish between trans women and classical lesbians... but this issue now extends far beyond these two camps. The trans community is supported by all those who hold the metaphysical view that our internal mental and emotional state is the ultimate truth of who we are. This is a strange collision between the freedom to make ourselves offered by existentialism and the appeal to certain truth entailed in essentialism. The opposing political camp is resolutely essentialist - "sex is immutable" - and represents a highly unusual alliance given that it is the first time that classical lesbians have found themselves aligned with politically conservative women over just about anything. It is a mistake to keep characterising this camp in terms of its 'radical feminist' roots, as the insult 'TERF' does: this is now a broad coalition rallying against what it can only see as blatant misogyny. It is naïve to expect the accusation of transphobia to hold sway here.

This culture war is all too often presented as if it were a bizarre choice between misogyny and transphobia, as if we are obligated to express hatred and our only choice is whom we turn upon. It is an intractable conflict unless either side shifts its metaphysical beliefs, which nobody should ever expect. As long as both sides uphold rival forms of essentialism a peaceful resolution might remain forever out of reach, a lamentable situation we have already suffered for half a century with the metaphysics of abortion. Yet while we cannot expect people to change their untestable views of the world, our metaphysical views will adapt when we encounter new circumstances, and debate - when it is attainable - carries the possibility, however remote, of forging new understandings. But in this terrible new battle over gender, the animosity is now so great that both sides are resolutely closed to new meanings, and indeed many of the voices with something to say are either banned from being heard or too afraid to speak up.

What we need now more than anything is an armistice, a ceasefire that allows us to attempt to open discussions. Since nobody is in charge on the gender battlefield, we cannot ask for generals to call a truce, but fortunately that means anyone and everyone is free to lay down their ideological weapons and come to the negotiating table. There are things we all want out of this, and we will get none of them without first trying to talk about it. I therefore encourage everyone to give up fighting in culture wars that pit identity against identity and to begin to practice the challenging skill of cultural disarmament. The civil rights movements that preceded this endless strife and hatred understood clearly what we have forgotten: that the end point of every political struggle is the necessity of building the beloved community together.

There is a world for everyone that we can make together. But to learn how to make it, we first of all must learn how to talk about that world together. We must be open to debate, open to hearing from others who are not like us, open to disagreements. We cannot always get everything we want, but rediscovering the lost art of compromise might help us all to get everything that we need. The path to trans liberty lies beyond a gender armistice we currently cannot even imagine, but that we can still seek. You cannot end hatred by hating haters, but perhaps we can hold our anger in check just long enough that the hunt for gender armistice might begin.

The opening image is a detail from Male Image, a 1966 painting by Grace Hartigan. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.


Our Own Utopias

Utopia paintingWhat do we mean when we talk about utopia? It may seem as if we have a clear conception of what this is supposed to be: a purely imagined place where everything is perfect. What's more, we intuitively know this to be a dangerous endeavour - the adjective 'utopian' has the entirely negative connotation of an unattainable state of affairs, and therefore we almost invariably assume a danger to utopian thinking.

There is a grave error here, for were it not for utopian thinking, were it not for our capacity to imagine utopias, democracy could never have been created or rediscovered, there could have been no transition to universal suffrage where all citizens are politically equal, and the civil rights movements could never have been mounted at all. There are risks entailed in imagining our own utopias, no doubt. But there are far greater risks in our denial of utopian thinking, for our fictions of utopia are inescapably bound up in our understanding of political reality.

We get the term from Thomas More's book Utopia published in 1516, more than half a millennia ago. It is significant that 'utopia' is Latin for 'no place'. The description of the island of Utopia is the focus solely of the second part of the book, with this discussion framed as accounts of newly discovered lands by More's fictitious traveller, Raphael Hythloday (whose surname can be translated "purveyor of nonsense"). It would have been quite clear to any reader of More's book - which was written in Latin - that we are not meant to have taken the description of the island of Utopia as a blueprint for social perfection. That is why Utopia is 'no place', and Hythloday a speaker of nonsense. But More means for us to think philosophically through these fictions - indeed, he is playing with Plato's Republic throughout, and does not hide this fact at all. Through Utopia, More invites his readers to think about the political problems of 16th century Europe.

Neither should we assume that those insights have nothing to say to us today. Consider this quote from Hythloday:

Though, to speak plainly my real sentiments, I must freely own that as long as there is any property, and while money is the standard of all other things, I cannot think that a nation can be governed either justly or happily: not justly, because the best things will fall to the share of the worst men; nor happily, because all things will be divided among a few (and even these are not in all respects happy), the rest being left to be absolutely miserable.

What's more, More has no expectation that what is being imagined will come to pass, and his fictionalised version of himself remarks in the story that "except all men were good, everything cannot be right, and that is a blessing that I do not at present hope to see." Thinking about Utopia, no place, is an opportunity to think differently about the real political world that we live in. So it was for More. And so it remains today.

The inevitable consequence of this recognition is that 'utopian' thinking (whether in a negative sense or otherwise) is not solely concerned with thinking about the future, but also manifests in our thoughts about the present or the past. For instance, if we view the industrial revolution in positive terms - focussing, perhaps, upon the benefits it brought to the middle class - this is a utopian interpretation of these events. We might just as plausibly look back on the industrial revolution in negative terms - as the acceleration of wealth disparity, or as the instigation of technocracy and escalating environmental harms. Indeed, one reading of the Scouring of the Shire at the end of Return of the King is precisely as this kind of accusation.

Our entire relationship with the political worlds we live in requires our imagination, as I wrote about at length in Chaos Ethics. It follows that our own utopias - whether or not we been able to express them in words - govern our thoughts about politics, because these ideal visions of how we might live are the yardstick by which we judge how we live together. We can choose to interpret the historical transitions that preceded us as utopian (as in the previous example with the industrial revolution) or we can choose to judge our present situation against our utopias (as every proponent of social reform does), but we have no way of thinking about politics without relying upon our own utopias as a point of comparison.

In a sense, what divides different political factions from one another is precisely their different utopias. Do we see utopia in an idealised past? We lean to the right. Do we see utopia in a soon-to-be-attained future state? We lean to the left. Do we lament the nonsensical demands of both left and right? We are a cynic, and have abandoned our own desires for utopia as unattainable. Yet still, we will not have escaped our utopias. Nobody can. Our imagined perfections are the very bedrock of our political judgement. When we truly appreciate this, we might even be thankful that there is no escape from our own utopias. Then, perhaps, we might try to choose utopias worth imagining.

For Chris Billows.


Doctor Multiverse, Episode 4: Dilemmas and Disasters

No doubt you've come across the trolley problem, Philipa Foot's thought experiment that so intrigued Judith Jarvis Thompson. Join renegade philosopher Doctor Multiverse as he explodes the dangerous nonsense at the heart of every attempt to substitute calculation for moral thinking. Caution: contains ideas some viewers may find distressing.

 


Doctor Multiverse, Episode 3: Sci-fi and Censorship

What does it mean to 'stop harmful disinformation myths in their tracks', as the BBC, Google, and Facebook have vouched to do...? Join renegade philosopher Doctor Multiverse in an adventure through the last century of media censorship. At stake is scientific truth itself, for when it comes to the sciences the only way to find out what's true is by having a frank discussion about the evidence. If we prevent that debate, all we're left with is science fiction.

 


Doctor Multiverse, Episode 1: Bats and Balrogs

What do we see when we look at a photograph? Much more than the picture itself. We are so skilled at 'filling in the blanks' that we don't always realise how much of ourselves goes into our seeing. Join renegade philosopher Doctor Multiverse in a strange and wondrous exploration of photographs, protests, and bats that might lead you to ask the unlikely question: do Balrog Lives Matter...?


The Ascenturian Saga

The Ascenturian Saga was a serial in five parts that ran here at Only a Game from January 18th to February 8th 2022. Blending science fiction with philosophy, it set off from an examination of the roots of Frank Herbert's novel Dune to explore a purely imaginary people - the ascenturians - who have committed to ensuring that all human diversity reaches the Tenth Millennium after the founding of civilisation, 48 centuries hence. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the “next” links to read on.

Here are the five parts:

  1. The Tenth Millennium
  2. Assembling the Future
  3. Sustaining the Present
  4. Restoring the Commons
  5. The Ascenturian Collectives

If you enjoyed this serial, please leave a comment. Thank you!


The Ascenturian Collectives

Borg Cube with Enterprise D.wideWhat are the ascenturians? A movement? A revolution? A collective? Although I began by calling them 'a movement', I would suggest that of all these terms, only 'collective' could possibly apply to the science fictional people capable of taking human civilisation a further 48 centuries to the Tenth Millennium. Yet 'collective' is a risky phrase to take on in the context of sci-fi. After all, the most famous deployment of this phrase comes from Star Trek: The Next Generation's Borg Collective. Why would you even want to suggest a comparison with something that has this as its monstrous chat up line:

We are the Borg. Lower your shields and surrender your ships. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.

I think it's clear that the Borg's use of the term 'collective' is euphemistic. A better descriptor for the Borg's modus operandi would be 'empire', and they represent the science fiction exemplar of technocratic empire. In fact, it is easy to rewrite the Borg's opening gambit for use by the ancient Roman Empire, once we knock out contemporary terms like 'biological', 'technological', and indeed 'culture':

We are the Roman Empire. Lower your shields and surrender your ships. We will add your people and tools to our own. Your tribes will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.

Whatever the imaginary ascenturians might be, they are certainly not an empire. But it would be equally wrong to call what is being proposed 'the ascenturian movement' or 'the ascenturian revolution'. All of these terms - movement, revolution, collective - are metaphors of motion, and the images they conjure align with how these terms are used in our language.

Movements have a direction; they start by mobilising people sympathetic to their cause into aligning with their chosen direction, and end by incorporating that direction into everyone in society by reconciling with those that at first had to be opposed. I admire political movements, although it has been half a century since the last successful one, and the 'left' has seemingly entirely lost the necessary virtues, skills, and communities required to even attempt a successful movement. That's because in the contemporary political landscape we are forbidden to ever contemplate reconciliation with 'the enemy' - and that makes all movements impossible. All that are left are attempts at revolutions.

Revolutions, as the name suggests, tend towards being merely rotations. They seek to replace one set of people or values with another set of people or values - spin the wheel, take your chances! Revolutions have a dubious track record... the American Revolution arguably succeeded, while the French Revolution that followed soon after ended in bloody disaster. The question of whether the Iranian Revolution of 1979 succeeded depends upon what criteria for success you are inclined to count, while the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising was brutally crushed. Generally speaking, revolution rotates the people in power, but it does not by itself bring about social change. In so much as the American Revolution succeeded, it did so because it was both a movement and a revolution... the ideals that were instituted in the Declaration of Independence would come, by slow but inexorable roads, to become the ideals of the British as well. This reconciliation and thus eventual alignment of ideals is the mark of a successful movement.

The progressive and conservative factions that blight political discourse today are not even remotely attempting to work as movements, but are merely posturing for either imagined revolutions ('left') or their prevention ('right'). You might even call them 'unrevolutions', but perhaps their failure to bring about meaningful social change is already embedded in the term, especially if you accept my supposition that the few revolutions that do manage to effect a lasting change might be distinguished as 'revolutionary movements'. Even dignifying contemporary progressive and conservative politics with the name 'revolution' might be too generous. What is a good metaphor for a forceful swirling into ever decreasing circles...? A whirlpool? A vortex? A maelstrom?

Collectives imply motion of a different kind. The imagery here is not of movements in a specific direction, but rather metaphors of gravity and orbits. Saturn can be understood as a collective comprised of the planet, its moons and satellites, along with the disparate particles that are seen to our eyes as rings. Many different things held together by a gravitational system that they all participate in. Ascenturians too can only be a collective in this sense... disparate societies and culture bubbles orbiting around the same truth: the intent of ensuring another 4,800 years of human culture, the hope of human diversity lasting to the Tenth Millennium in some form - and we need not imagine what or how that happens for the thought experiment to render aid to our thinking today.

I suggested in the principle of assembly that the ascenturians might 'assemble a plurality of reciprocal collectives of any viable kind.' The metaphor of Saturn and its satellites provides an image of what 'reciprocal collective' means, but there is a danger here. Our mythos is still dominated by Feudal tendencies: it is not by chance that we talk about Saturn as the entity of merit, and everything else as secondary to it, nor indeed that astronomers felt the need to exile the dwarf planets like Pluto and Eris from consideration as planets. I maintain that 'dwarf planets are planets' on purely pragmatic grounds, and this might even serve as an ascenturian rallying cry if it is understood, because accepting dwarf planets as planets necessarily means admitting we do not know everything about planets yet. Likewise, recognising reciprocal collectives entails admitting we do not know everything about humans yet.

To found reciprocal collectives, or to recognise which societies and culture bubbles are already reciprocal collectives, requires us to appreciate what reciprocity entails, namely co-operation for mutual benefit, exchanges both actual and conceptual within collectives where everyone shares an equal status. Yet 'equal status' is far more flexible than we think. Consider just a few examples from the religious traditions. I have always admired the Jewish community for its lack of overt power structure: Rabbis are as much a part of that community as anyone else. But if we try and contrast this negatively against Catholic Christianity's role for a figurehead for their community, the Pope, we may mislead ourselves - for the Pope is as much a participant in Catholic tradition as any other practitioner, and contrary to the way it is usually understood, Catholics these days follow their own conscience far more than they are blindly obedient to edicts from their symbolic leader. Both examples, the Jewish community and the Catholic magisterium, are examples of reciprocal collectives, as is every major religion that successfully holds together a community, just as Saturn holds together its community of celestial objects.

Neither are religions the only source of reciprocal collectives. What impressed me about the LGBT community of the 1990s was precisely this: it was a collective, one of mutual aid, solidarity and love that endured despite its differences. That it later came to fail in this regard does not undermine its earlier successes, but rather an invitation to renew what has been lost. Similarly, I admire the way those who play games around a table together form reciprocal collectives - both in the sense of the wider community of board gamers and role-players, and also in the sense that playing games together strengthens the unity of a family. So too musicians and their fans, who reciprocate asymmetrically (like Catholics and their hierarchy of clergy) but with the same sense of solidarity and community that every religious community engenders - everyone engaging in the musical collective is brought together by a common love, every gig is its own ceremony of solidarity.

All that is required for a reciprocal collective are people united by a common mythos, common practices, or indeed, actual commons. But they must reciprocate, which is to say, share, hold, or exchange certain things collectively, and they must be a collective, which is to say a community of human interaction. This is not simply a matter of holding certain shared identity characteristics: having ginger hair does not magically create a reciprocal collective, not until those with that mere biological feature begin to relate to one another as a community. Likewise, it is no good declaring that we belong to a reciprocal collective because we have chosen to identify as such-and-such. Whether black, woman, lesbian, Asian, Latino, or whatever, these terms do not mark our reciprocal collectives automatically, and so assertion of identity is not sufficient to claim membership (although neither can it preclude membership). There are indeed black communities, communities of women, lesbian communities, Asian communities, Latino communities (although never Latinx communities) and so forth - but what binds them together is not these identity characteristics, which are incidental rather than essential. It is reciprocity, not identity, which binds any community together, and thus those 'on the outside' who want in must begin by respectfully knocking on the door, or else expect rejection.

Collectives do not preclude movements - they can indeed commence them, as the black Christian community began the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s. Likewise, we could imagine ascenturian movements in terms of steps to bring reciprocal collectives together, but as a whole there could not be an overarching capital 'a' Ascenturian movement in the singular, nor should there be any talk of ascenturianism... The suffixes 'ism' and 'ist' imply a certainty not available to an ascenturian, at least not in the context of thinking about ascenturian ideals. Rather, some ideas, concepts, movements, and collectives can be ascenturianish in their approach to the past, present, and future. More than this would be against the ideals of any imagined ascenturian. This implies that even 'collective' is too restrictive a term. There could not be something we could call 'the ascenturian collective', only many things that we could call 'the ascenturian collectives'. This is something the Borg, by stark contrast, could never permit!  

The progressive maelstrom is too focussed on the future and too divorced from the past, such that it casts out as demons and devils its 'enemies', which starts with its conservative opponents but always risks ending with the condemnation of anyone and everyone. You cannot make a successful movement or collective on the principles of the witch hunt. Progressive politics, as currently practiced, is not only alienated from ascenturian thinking, it is a danger to everyone who cannot keep track of the shifting future it happens to be imagining from one moment to the next. Having enthusiastically severed the rope tying it to the anchor of the past, progressive politics has acquired the schizoid paranoia of the French Revolution, where the heroes of one day are to be executed the day after.

Likewise, the conservative whirlpool, while more predictable in its gyrations than the maelstrom that opposes it, is far too focussed upon the past and insufficiently open to imagining the future. It is not even that great at connecting with the past most of the time, although in the last half century it has surpassed the progressives in this regard, since the most recent progressive attitude towards history is to burn it down entirely as offensive to our present sensibilities. In this regard, and quite paradoxically, the unimaginative, future-blind conservative whirlpool is somewhat easier to imagine leaning into ascenturianish thinking than its progressive opponents.

Crucial to the ascenturian concept is that it is not just about trying to ensure human civilisation celebrates its Tenth Millennium, but that it does so by preserving today's human diversity. This might raise objections. Am I saying racism has to be preserved? That warfare will be part of the future? That superstition will last forever? Well, I think pragmatically that all these things and more, depressing though they might be, will last in one form or another for as long as there are humans. We can try to minimise ignorance, prejudice, and fighting, of course, but we will certainly not achieve this through either empire or revolution, and it is telling that the most vehement attacks on bigotry today have in no way reduced hatred but have merely produced new forms of utterly unrepentant bigots espousing radically new forms of hate.

Neither am I saying that the ascenturians fail if the composition of the collectives of the Tenth Millennium do not contain all the diversity of today. I do not doubt this was never on the cards. Some societies and culture bubbles will fall along the way, some ways of thinking and being will become untenable to future situations we cannot imagine, and new ways of being and thinking will doubtless arise to supplement those we are familiar with now. It is not because ascenturians are obligated to build a human zoo that I claim that their imaginary task is to sustain the present - it is that they must be agnostic to the idea that 'the future is on our side' or that 'only the worthy survive'. For this ugly rhetoric, advanced in one form or another by both progressives and conservatives, is just another way of making enemies, of sustaining hatred, warfare, and ignorance.

Ascenturians do not have enemies, only opponents. While technocracy demands that we all follow one path, ascenturians merely hope that our many paths might yet converge upon the Tenth Millennium. Thus the first and most difficult step towards an ascenturian future is to deny our seductive technocratic desire to enforce a singular understanding upon everyone else, even against their will. The truth can only emerge when our own collective is able to talk to all the others and reveal what is true in all worlds, for the truth is the centre of gravity about which we orbit. It is a mistake to say all those moons and fragments orbit Saturn: the centre of gravity of the Saturn collective just happens to be inside the heaviest object, and its true position cannot be found without counting the contributions from every one of them. Likewise, the truth is forever hidden while the most powerful collective asserts its dominance. Rather, truth emerges from the practice of assembling. Everyone is welcome in the collectives, and nobody can ever declare what might or might not belong to these future collectives. All we can do is try to discover these possibilities together.

Throughout this 'Ascenturian Saga', I have proposed principles that might serve to guide our science fictional ascenturians in their thinking about how to sustain human diversity over a further forty eight centuries... but it could never fall to me or to anyone else to specify such principles in perpetuity. What makes a collective ascenturianish is its commitment to thinking about the future in the constant and reaffirming presence of the past - that is, the ascenturianish tendency is that of imagining a future worth having and sustaining a present worth cherishing, because both are informed by the past that made this particular present come to pass. This positive relationship between past, present, and future is the quintessential aspect of all imaginary ascenturians, for it is only by undertaking such a temporal connection that we can welcome all of human diversity - what has been, what is, what is becoming, and what is yet to come.

I proposed six specific principles for my imaginary vision of ascenturian philosophy, but I only ever meant these as a draft, an unwritten constitution for the collectives that is "merely possible", as Immanuel Kant said of his similarly imagined 'realm of ends'. Kant's moral and political philosophy is one of the many things from our collective past that inspires me in this science fiction adventure... Indeed, my ascenturian philosophy is little more than a specific way of imagining Kant's 'realm of ends', although what I am gesturing at is only bound to Kant's philosophy in the way that any present is bound to its past. These future ascenturians probably won't be Kantian in their thought... but they will still owe a debt to Kant, Mary Wollstonecraft, and all the other thinkers of the Enlightenment, for it is they who sought to unite as 'humans' what had previously been divided by differences presumed to be irreconcilable. Ascenturians are the inheritors of the ideal of the human that has been passed on to us.

Let me end with a confession. If I have tried to present my six principles as viable ways of thinking about the ascenturian problem, I have done so as much through the artifice of the science fiction author as by the conceptual artistry of the philosopher. So as a final rhetorical flourish let me now present these principles in the order that was always intended:

  • The Principle of Assembly: Assemble a plurality of reciprocal collectives of any viable kind.

  • The Principle of Sustainability: Reject accelerating technology for perfectible techniques.

  • The Principle of Commonisation: Create commons that are open to aid in the subsistence of all.

  • The Principle of Elevation: Secure solidarity by eliminating poverty.

  • The Principle of Normalisation: Achieve neutral population growth without abandoning families.

  • The Temporal Principle: Act in the memory of time past and the knowledge of time to come.

For where philosophy cannot persuade, sometimes a good acronym can still manage to take hold. Thus, if you do not wish to think of ascenturians as a future people, you might instead talk about the principles of ASCENT that I have outlined here - not as a gospel to remain unchanged, but as an offering to the present collectives, that we might yet become future collectives capable of healing the break between past (conservative) and future (progressive).

We live in time. Perhaps we should try to discover everything that means to us.


Restoring the Commons

Frakes and Roddenberry.wideWhen actor Jonathan Frakes auditioned for the part of Commander Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation, he knew nothing about the Star Trek franchise. In one of his last screen tests for the role, he asked how he should understand the future that Gene Roddenberry, the franchise's founder, had in his head. Roddenberry replied: "In the 24th century there will be no hunger, there will be no greed, and all the children will know how to read." Rather like our relationship to the imaginary ascenturians capable of sustaining human diversity into the Tenth Millennium, Roddenberry did not have any idea how such a future would come about. His purpose was to envision a future worth having, not to unpick the philosophical and political problems of how to get there. For our ascenturians, however, we might need to establish some kind of principle that could lead to a future without hunger or greed - a future, in other words, without poverty.

The ascenturians are a science fictional people capable of taking all the diversity of human life today and sustaining it for another 48 centuries. Both co-existence and subsistence over such a long time span require some basis by which the different societies comprising this imagined future can interrelate with one another without exploitation or oppression. I take it as quite essential to the ascenturian dream that poverty is eliminated, or at least defanged in some way, but I leave open the manner in which that might happen. This is important, as we are frequently confused whenever we try to think about wealth.

We tend to look at the ultra-wealthy either with admiration and pride, or else with envy or disgust. Those who sway towards the positive (including the billionaires themselves) tend to underestimate the enormous advantages that helped them build (or more commonly, further build) their fortunes. But equally, those whose bile is raised by the 1% fail to recognise how our own comparative wealth (in global terms) contributes directly and indirectly to the poverty of others elsewhere. As aggravating as it may be to see wealth unnecessarily concentrated in a few essentially random individuals, the political problems of wealth inequality need not be addressed to eliminate poverty, and the issues certainly run deeper than the disdain of the well-off for those with even greater wealth.

To assemble the collectives that might provide a basis for the imaginary ascenturian world of the future, we need some principle under which solidarity can prosper, as I sketched in the principle of assembly. But to secure that condition, we will also need to tackle the problem of poverty. I therefore suggest a principle that can lift those who struggle to subsist out of the horrendous conditions of poverty, where there is not enough water, food, or adequate shelter. The following principle of elevation, while vague, might still be sufficient to establish our intentions:

Secure solidarity by eliminating poverty

It is important not to be mislead about what 'eliminating poverty' actually implies. It need not mean bringing those in the poorer nations up to the wasteful standards of living we have become accustomed to ourselves. I would remind everyone reading that despite the conveniences of contemporary technology, we are still a rather unhappy people, and my experiences in Africa taught me not to misunderstand the relationship between convenience and happiness. The Africans I met in Burkina Faso were far happier people than the Europeans I know, despite having incomprehensibly less of what we presume matters. We may also have to confront the possibility that eliminating poverty means bringing us down to a less wasteful form of life than we currently take for granted. The imaginary ascenturians will have to solve these problems, but we (like Roddenberry) can settle for establishing our ends, while leaving open the question of our means.

This brings us back to the question of the ultra-wealthy. The situations that create extreme concentrations of wealth always entail some essentially random circumstances beyond anyone's control. They rest on starting with access to capital-scale money, like Warren Buffet; on being within the circle of contacts that can supply capital, as with Jeff Bezos who gained such connections by working on Wall Street; upon having access to enough wealth to establish a company can be acquired by a far larger company, like Elon Musk; upon creating a technology that happened by chance to be capable of deployment into a previously unforeseen context for massive profit, like Mark Zuckerberg; or upon a fortunate oversight from a wealthy client corporation, like Bill Gates sleight-of-hand with IBM. Being white and male seems (unsurprisingly) to provide significant assistance too. This is not to say that ultra-wealth is purely a lottery: billionaires do contribute significant decisions towards their own success, and many potential billionaires fail to capitalise on their advantages. Yet it is unavoidable that the circumstances behind all billionaires depend to a great degree upon mere chance, just as the majority of people who live in poverty suffer the random misfortune of having been born into it.

What this implies is that while the ultra-wealthy have the means to change the world in whatever way they desire, they have no special qualifications to understand how or why the world ought to be changed. This is an enormous liability. Tech magnates have a nasty tendency, for instance, to view as 'philanthropy' their desire to spread their technology around the world... this is an understandable impulse - like calls to like - but it is overly generous to consider this merely as beneficent charity. Rather, this ought to be seen as a kind of colonial philanthropy... the empires of the Age of Sail, after all, also viewed their occupation of other nations as a beneficent 'civilising mission'. We are at great risk of continuing to repeat this mistake through our dogmatic propagation of accelerating technology.

The only truly altruistic form of philanthropy would be blind to its own agenda; this is not something that can be claimed of organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has fostered a form of corporate globalisation that is unquestionably made in the image of its founder. From the perspective of wealthy nations, the charitable activities Bill Gates conducts seem worthy enough... but this is all too frequently an illusion caused by our own cultural biases. Eradicating polio, for instance, seems like a worthy enough end. Yet every campaign to eradicate a disease entails co-opting the health systems of numerous countries where that disease wealthy white people fret about is a rather insignificant health risk, thus turning a blind eye towards (or even exacerbating) more immediate health concerns. Colonial philanthropy enforces its own ideology onto the world.

What I propose as an alternative is something radical: the use of the surplus capital that has accumulated (in part by pure chance) around the ultra-wealthy to create access to funding for anyone who needs it. Rather like the micro-finance non-profit organisation Kiva, which provides small loans to small businesses in places where money is hard to come by, access to charitable finance could be arranged by request, rather than by imperial magnanimity. Imagine the creation of a common pool of money that provides access to the small scale funding that communities need to solve their problems. This can operate rather like a bank, but a bank with the unprecedented remit to be allowed to lose money to overcome poverty. This is far from unthinkable. And the creation of such a fund - what might be called 'a capital commons' - would only require the ultra-wealthy to demonstrate the charitable impulse they are so fond of telling us they possess by giving money to a common fund over which they themselves no longer possess authoritative control.

I call this 'a commons', but we are quite far from remembering what this term means. In its original sense, this referred to land - village commons, common pasture, or wastelands on manor estates that any 'commoner' was free to use to gather wood or hunt game. These concepts date back to before the the rise of industrial economics, and Ivan Illich is surely correct to suggest that the arrival and acceleration of industry in the 19th century saw not only the enclosure of the commons, but the corresponding transformation of all forms of common lands into resources. Although ecologists managed to keep 'the commons' as a term in circulation through environmental concerns via what Garret Hardin dubbed in 1968 'the tragedy of the commons', almost immediately these terms were degraded back into industrial economic terms. Nobel prize winner Elinor Ostrom, for instance, preferred the term 'common-pool resource', and although her work was important and worthy of the praise it received, this framing of the commons as resources falls prey of everything Illich warns is entailed in the war on subsistence that industrial politics unleashed.

Most discussions of the commons focus upon the term as it was used in England, which is understandable given that most international law descends from English jurisprudence to at least some degree. But this is also highly problematic, as it will tend to draw us into thinking about these issues in terms of property, and a compelling case can be made that the commons are diametrically opposed to property claims. If we stick to thinking in terms of the history of English law, the commons were always owned by the manor and hence by the nobility, for all that free use of the spaces unfit for farming were granted to the commoners. The danger in looking at it this way now is that we might place 'law' above 'custom' in a situation that blurs the fact that the law is in itself only custom. As a result, there is much to be gained from looking at these problems in terms of the situations facing many different nations.

India, as just one example, inherited English law from colonial occupation, but has recognised a concept of village commons under a variety of different names for millennia. These lands were used as grazing pasture, or to maintain pools of water for cattle to drink or bathe in, for storing harvested grain, as a threshing floor, as playing fields for children, carnivals, and circuses, even as cremation grounds or graveyards. As legal systems grew up, they incorporated these communal lands as inalienable property of the villages that used them. Since Indian independence, however, these village commons have been gradually and unscrupulously acquired or occupied by property developers, either by illegal encroachment or through nefarious political machinations. Yet in January 2011, the Supreme Court of India took a heroic stand in defence of the village commons in the case of a village pond in the State of Punjab, which had been filled in by property developers. The courts forced the developers to restore the lands to the community.

This idea of the commons as land also provides an alternative or supplement to the capital commons I previously suggested. Another way that the ultra-wealthy could act in an authentically philanthropic manner would be to buy up land in order to restore it to the state of commons. Land purchased in this way would be secured for the use of everyone but only for the purposes of subsistence or everyday life, never as a commercial resource. This differs from the notion of a national park or similar reserve, and I do not want to downplay the merit in these kinds of land protection as well. But if our interest is in eliminating poverty, one previously unconsidered way to do so would be to turn land back into commons that are no longer eligible for the extraction of commercial resources, nor for the construction of buildings or factories. These new common lands would be free for anyone to roam, to gather wood, to grow or forage for food, to take water, to graze cattle, to bury or cremate the dead, or just to amuse themselves. It is heresy to propose such a regression of the state of property. Yet it is a heresy with the power to end poverty.

Why even suggest recreating common land? Why not focus on spreading wealth in the form of money? The answer is that just like a casino, the game of money is inherently stacked towards the house. What we call 'the developed world' has all the advantages, while what we call 'the developing world' are merely punters invited onto our gaming tables. It's far from clear that it is in their best interests for the poorer nations to play this game, since the essence of all industrial development is that whoever got there first has the insurmountable advantage (and this is especially true for banks). Extending these conditions to those places that have not yet succumbed to industrialisation is far less likely to end poverty than has been assumed, especially while we continue to raise the bar via ever more luxuriant technologies. Conversely, a patchwork of land commons (that are free for everyone) and reserves (wild lands) offer a potential path back to subsistence - a wholly unthinkable yet nonetheless utterly viable alternative solution to poverty that also happens to be more sustainable than any industrial solution yet proposed.

These two ideas - that of a capital commons, and that of restoring land to the commons - are compatible, and are doubtless not the only ways that we could fulfil the purpose of the principle of elevation that aims at eliminating poverty. Nonetheless, I would suggest as another guideline for our fictional ascenturians a principle of commonisation that could be stated as follows:

Create commons that are open to aid in the subsistence of all

I leave out the mention of 'capital' explicitly here (I don't want to rule out those fanciful futures where 'capital' loses its meaning) but the principle works for both capital commons and land commons, and indeed for many other kinds of commons that offer mutual benefits through cooperation. We have only just begun to explore creative commons, for instance, although perhaps it would be truer to say we have only just rediscovered them, since folklore was a magnificent cultural commons right up until the point we invented 'cultural appropriation' in order to both monetise and puritanise it.

It might be doubted whether the ultra-wealthy would consider supporting anything like these proposals for a philanthropy of the commons. Yet if this were to become what our future ascenturians saw as the only legitimate form of philanthropy - because all commons possess a certain immunity to colonial impulses - billionaires would have little choice but to accept these ideals as the conditions for charity going forward. What's more, they could still salve their vanity by choosing which of the many possible commons to donate funds towards. Perhaps it would be necessary for a few nations to contribute a tiny proportion of their tax revenue to get the ball rolling, but given how much money is squandered on things unnecessary or even harmful, it is far from unthinkable that this could be achieved. As with every aspect of this science fiction story we are writing, it does not have to be likely for it to be capable of being imagined. And I can imagine no better way for Jeff Bezos to atone for using the name 'Amazon' than to be personally responsible for buying all the land encroaching upon that rainforest and restoring it to the commons.

Creating a capital commons provides a route out of poverty by assuring that access to money is available to everyone, which would be a novel path to consider in itself. But creating a network of global land commons would be even more revolutionary - especially if, like the English bridleways, these lands could be connected. On such a path to the future, it becomes possible once again for people to choose to live through subsistence instead of being dependent upon the products of industrial production for their continued existence. It does not matter, from the perspective of our imaginary ascenturians, how many would choose subsistence and how many would prefer the seductive conveniences of industrial life. Either way, the principle of commonisation opens doors to previously unthinkable future forms of life where poverty can be rendered impossible. We cannot all become Kings and Queens, no matter how we organise society, but anyone can be a commoner - and the more we hold in common, the richer we all become. 

Gene Roddenberry's dream was that in the future there will be no hunger, there will be no greed, and all the children will know how to read. The dream I want to put into the minds of our science fictional ascenturians is that the restoration of the commons might protect against hunger, that greed might be blunted by the transfer of surplus wealth into community assets that are then no longer available as industrial resources, and that by learning how to share these newly restored commons we might discover how to live together. As for every child knowing how to read... that would be nice. But it is more than enough for me that we can imagine a future where children might still have a world worth living in.