This interview was originally conducted in 2013 with Mondo 2000 legend R.U. Sirius who was also the founder and editor of High Frontiers and Reality Hacker in addition to being a presidential candidate for the Revolution Party. Our interview was mysteriously deleted by a group of Silicon Valley
spooks soccer moms, yet has now been retrieved from the vaults for the public to read. Enjoy!
Rachel Haywire: How do you feel about the current state of transhumanism? What intrigues you and what bores you?
R.U. Sirius: Honestly, I could never take transhumanism all that seriously as a movement or a singular sort of thing that’s a force in the world. I guess if it does anything useful, it probably inspires some people to do the actual work in technology and science that might be helpful. For the rest of us, it’s mostly a sort of club where we get to pontificate and score points with or against one another. (I don’t entirely exclude myself) I was dispassionately happy with any voice as long as it wasn’t exceedingly dull. I suppose transhumanism is a philosophy, but even there, doesn’t it seek to replace itself with higher intelligence?
I spend more time thinking about the whole discourse around techno-optimism that I attached myself to in the 1980s. This may just be my ego speaking, but I think it was necessary then because, in 1984 when I started, alternatively-minded people were so mopey and defeated, and they needed a shot of speed. They had to catch up. And, in fact, we didn’t just catch up, we dominated, at least in a cultural sense.
Now I think techno-optimism is suspect. It can be a tool of the ruling plutocracy. To detourne Woody Guthrie, the promise is there’ll be pie in the sky when you don’t die. In other words, future hope can be a control mechanism that stands in for religion’s promise of a better afterlife.
I think that a politically minded techno-optimism and transhumanism can still have something to say in terms of criticizing austerity as obsolete… and I’m sure, a few other agenda items.
RH: How would you suggest that transhumanism detach from the ruling plutocracy? Or is it too late?
R.U. Sirius: I don’t think it’s a question of any ism detaching per se. Individuals and groups who want to oppose economic domination can simply do that, consciously, with intention.
So it’s not detaching we need, but opposition. We need active opposition against the imposition of austerity by finance hypercapitalism in the face of automation, and we need to puncture the global debt narrative by using the uber-tech theme of transparency. To wit: transparency in currency leads inexorably to the delegitimization of national debts which leads to either a radical renegotiation (for the sake of continuity) or its elimination (global jubilee).
You know, it’s funny, but everybody is shouting about Rand Paul standing up to the non-transparent use of drone warfare. Nobody talks about the fact that he has put forward an “Audit the Fed” bill this year, as did his father earlier. Nobody talks about the fact that the Democrats in the Senate quietly killed the last one after hearing from a near-hysterical Ben Bernanke. I understand why they did it too. The Democrats see themselves as the responsible ones who don’t want to do anything that will send the system spinning out of control; and an audit of the fed would undoubtedly deeply undermine confidence in the value of our currency in a sort of pull back the curtain and it’s just the Wizard of Oz in a projection booth sorta way.
I am decidedly not a libertarian — if I were to take a label I would be a leftist with a strong libertarian streak (or at least leftist by North American standards) — but damn, those Paul guys sure do shame the liberals on a whole bunch of issues at regular intervals.
Anyway, I think, if you’re not actually making the technology that can make post-scarcity possible (and I suppose longevity and other enhancements are against scarcity… scarcity of years and good medicine, scarcity of intelligence, and so on) then this may be the time to get engaged in a very feet on the ground and head out of the ass way with politics and economics and focus on these main issues of opposing austerity and boosting transparency for the powerful, particularly in the area of currency.
RH: How would you define yourself politically? Have your politics changed throughout the years?
R.U. Sirius: While I have lots of inconsistencies, and practically worship uncertainty, I have never been right-wing. I mean, when I was living in Berkeley, I might have been right-wing relative to the established PC sensibility there — and in fact, there will be some funny stories in the MONDO history book around that — but never by my own analyses.
Before I was anything else, I was a politics nerd. At fifteen, in high school, I was reading New Left Notes — an intellectual political journal, and I was reading Marxist journals. It was 1968, an exciting time for that. But at the same time, the whole psychedelic counterculture thing was going on, and that was where one went as a young person to have fun and be wild and sexual and rebellious and so on. So in 1969, I read Revolution For the Hell of It by Abbie Hoffman and it subverted my serious political nerd self and made me more of a countercultural leftist with an anarchist streak. I actually became a Yippie.
In some ways, I never stopped being a Yippie. But I was increasingly influenced by dadaism and surrealism. And then, in 1972, the local Binghamton New York Chapter of the Yippies was actually criticized in the Yippies’ national newspaper as “too dada.” This was because a very self-serious leftist who ran the local health food collective wrote a letter complaining about our behavior. We would tell him: “Fuck this. We’re going to McDonalds.” Which, of course, we did just to provoke a reaction, but also, we actually were going to McDonalds.
I think I rather left “the movement” right around then. My political sympathies were still to the left, but being around “movement” people — or really any movement people from any perspective (as per my earlier remarks about transhumanism) — for any length of time gives me hives. You just have to go along with too many assumptions that are peripheral to any causes of any value or you have to fall into endless picayune arguments. Timothy Leary once said: “Politics should only be discussed on all fours.” Of course, we all still do anyway. And it’s still necessary (as are all four of our limbs.)
Anyway, in the mid-seventies, I fell under the influence of Leary and Robert Anton Wilson — among other things, they were early transhumanists — and they called themselves libertarians, although if you follow the things they said over the years, that’s a very wavy line indeed. But anyway, they were so unusual in their professed libertarianism that I didn’t give it much thought.
Then, when I moved to California and started a psychedelics and science magazine called High Frontiers (which would become MONDO 2000), that was the first time I ever met one of those exotic creatures. The Libertarian. And particularly as I was not emphasizing politics in life or work at that time, they seemed altogether agreeable as people and as collaborators. In fact, I’ve found most of the libertarians I’ve interacted with to be particularly generous; and less prone to self-righteous judgment than a lot of liberals and leftists and new agers. Of course, for several years, I didn’t know that any of them voted Republican. That’ll always get my knee-jerking wildly.
As for my own philosophical development, I let the libertarians influence me in one big way. I’m very conscious of coercion as an issue. That doesn’t mean that I conclude that an entirely coercion-free society is plausible, but I always give it a second thought and therefor frequently feel that the left and/or the liberals are overreaching.
I would say, broadly, that I’m left wing on big issues like guaranteed income, distrust of big money institutions and prosecuting the shit out of them when they do slimy things, intervening against the market when it comes to big environmental issues, and questioning the entire narrative of the unalloyed wonders of a free market and some of the unexamined cliches about the “cold war” and its outcome. I’m libertarian on issues like telling people what is permissible to think or say or eat or drink; on complicated bureaucratic interferences with small businesses and property owners, on not getting all whiny every time a Starbucks or a box store goes up in your neighborhood. I usually grow to dislike local “progressive” governments. And, in the proper context, I can be a bit libertarian about personal income tax, but that would have to not come at the expense of basic income and services, so it requires a complicated approach.
A few more thoughts on libertarianism and/or anarchism and why they’re impossible or irrelevant as totalistic ideals. Whatever one may think about the idea of human nature — whether there is such a thing that can be analyzed in a biological, Darwinian sense as the evolutionary psychologists think, or whether its just a fecund proliferation of lots of tendencies and what comes out is very dependent on a societies’ emphasis as Noam Chomsky says, I think it’s obvious, given a large enough population of humans (as we now have on Earth), you’re going to have successful dominator types. And they’re going to dominate. They’re going to run things, to one extent or another — whether they’re plutocrats or commissars or slick politicians or gang leaders or warlords. In other words, some of them are going to “govern,” even where there’s no government — in fact, quite likely, particularly where there’s no government. Good old fashioned democracy, combined with strong civil liberties, is the closest we’re ever going to get to an equalizer. We wreck it at great risk.
The most important thing is to have contestation of prevailing trends. You need Marxists and social democrats and moderates and anarchists and libertarians and all sorts in dynamic contestation with one another. But sometimes when things drift too far, you need a much stronger push in one direction. And right now, however many statistics the right may want to throw around about “entitlements” (so-called entitlements are the place where socialism and capitalism fought to a stand-off during the 20th Century) and how things aren’t so bad; everybody, or almost everybody, knows the actual story is plutocratic class domination and the destruction of anything like economic security for the Western working (middle) class.
If you don’t have economic security, you don’t have economic freedom. Any implicit or explicit contractual arrangement made by an economically insecure person with a wealthy company or person is, intrinsically, illegitimate… made under duress. It’s all coercion, top to bottom, unless there’s a safety net that’s appropriate to the level of wealth of a society. And that’s the day-to-day coercion that most effects most people. So the whole narrative of economic freedom is a croc of shit until there’s a guaranteed income.
RH: Moving on from politics to culture, how have things changed since Mondo 2000? Is the new generation carrying on the same message as the old?
R.U. Sirius: The ’90s were really loose and very hip. And I mean that as a good thing… and not as an exclusive thing. I mean it in a broad cultural sense where the so-called Generation X could raise NWA to the top of the hit parade even though the radio wasn’t playing them, and you could have Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails on top and so on and now you’ve got Justin Bieber and empty-headed singers who emoted on American Idol. Can you imagine American Idol during the GenX era? Every other performer would have been telegraphing enough irony to choke Portland.
The irony is absolutely necessary to deal with survival and opportunity in the world as it actually is. It’s more important to not buy in than to not sell out. People who are flatly earnest will very likely turn reactionary when life’s vicissitudes force them to compromise because they will have to convince themselves that they’re doing the right thing.
One of the fun things about the ’90s is that you could pull off the sort of decadence that Leary was doing in Beverly Hills or Hunter Thompson was doing in Aspen or that — in our own small way — some of the MONDO crowd was doing in Berkeley and it wouldn’t seem terribly inappropriate. Not that I mind being inappropriate, depending on the mood. But again, when things are austere and when you’re living under mega-surveillance in a virtual panopticon and there’s a perpetual war of at least some sort, the mood becomes less generous. In the late 20th Century, starting in the mid-1960s, hedonism was being democratized. Now, we again associate hedonism with excess privilege, so that’s a narrative that needs to wait. But I do get tired of people being so very pinched. They don’t have to be that pinched.
I don’t know if that’s an answer to your question. I don’t know what MONDOs message was… if it wasn’t a kind of bipolar swing between cyber-revolution and a fuck-all court jester attitude.
RH: Since the mainline people have taken over the “hip” meme… can we now conclude that it is hip to be against everything hip?
R.U. Sirius: Hipster shoot hipster? Errr… I kind of give up on the whole thing, except to the extent that I have habitual or residual attachments. The whole idea of hipness served an actual purpose in terms of status, and whether we like to admit it or not, status is important biologically to humans, particularly since it used to be related to reproduction. I’m not sure what replaces that now for outsiders, at least in the flesh world. I mean, you can have status within your alternatively-minded group, but that status is not going to become Big Status, as it did for the counterculture in the ’60s or for all sorts of hip variations in the ’90s.
RH: Do you think that most cyberpunks “grow out of it?”
R.U. Sirius: I think I grew out of it before I started with it. I can only remember two people during the ’90s who actually called themselves cyberpunks and one of them was moonlighting for the NSA (which I guess can be pretty cyberpunk in its way.) So there’s that whole question of too seriously adapting a subcultural identity. I don’t know. I may just be too meta for that sort of thing. In my idealized fantasy, my relationship to cyberpunk would be sort of like Malcolm McLaren’s relationship to the Sex Pistols.
Seriously though, I think, even as something that escaped from Science Fiction into the real world, cyberpunk was more a genre than a subculture. You’d go to events that had a cyberpunk vibe or you’d publish (as in my case) a magazine that sometimes labeled itself cyberpunk, but when you’d go home, you probably wouldn’t look in the mirror and thing, “Hey, I’m a cyberpunk!” I guess maybe some outlaw hackers could legitimately have been said to have been cyberpunks. Anonymous is a great cyberpunk fantasy come to life.
I do think that — in the sense that cyberpunk projected this sort of macho tough guy/tough girl image and attitude, most people do “grow out of it” as they’re forced to acknowledge vulnerability (of course, one can always be delusional instead). From a broad perspective, all human beings are more or less equally vulnerable. A tiny virus will put down the big shot Nietzchean strongman as fast as the presumably wimpy philosophical moderate. The anti-environmentalist who thinks of himself (or herself) as a tough guy realist will get brought down by cancer or a tidal wave just like anybody (or perhaps, everybody) else. I would think, particularly, if we’re imagining the posthuman or enhanced human, one major enhancement would be to overcome our material vulnerability. So it ought to be obvious to anyone thinking in those terms that from the perspective of the posthuman, all current humans are more or less equally vulnerable, equally weak, equally stupid and so on. So where cyberpunk or transhumanism starts to drift into superiority trips, it’s kindergarten sandbox bullshit. And I do think people tend to grow out of that as they get older.
RH: What would you say to young fringe culturists following in your footsteps?
R.U. Sirius: Don’t do it! Seriously though, I don’t know. I like William Burroughs’ advice to young people: “Never get in the middle of a boy-girl argument.” I would say keep a sense of humor and avoid totalistic beliefs, but they’ll probably do better if they become fanatical advocates and purists. Uncertainty is always downmarket.
Rachel Haywire is the Founder of Trigger Warning and your hostess for the new insurrection. She is a consultant, author, musician, and model. Currently, she is running for President of the United States under the banner of the United States Transhumanist Party.