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Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization and P.W. Singer’s Wired for War


Two recent books on the future, both seeking to interpret selected aspects of a rapidly moving, technologically complex world, are each deeply flawed but well worth examining for what’s missing. One author fears we are heading toward global entropic destruction of the Earth’s biosphere unless we reinterpret history in light of new scientific evidence that proves  humans are an empathic species. The other, more narrowly focused, explores the advent of military robotics, the revolutionary technology that promises to dominate future battlefields.

 

The first book, The Empathic Civilization by Jeremy Rifkin, is the second major treatment of empathy to appear in recent months. It “outwords”  Frans de Waal’s The Age of Empathy by a door-stopping 675  pages to a mere 304 [1].  The second book, Wired For War by P.W. Singer, is a disturbing but impressively detailed account of the American military’s current and anticipated use of robotic warfare.

 

Rifkin, a frequent advisor to CEOs, senior corporate management and European Union officials, has authored 17 books on "big trend” topics, not infrequently self-proclaimed ones.  His previous work has featured doom and gloom warnings about imminent apocalyptic crises. Were Rifkin a meteorologist he’d be drawing unemployment.

 

On occasion, an unpopped kernel of radical potential can be discovered. This was true about his early book on “pension fund socialism,” in The North Will Rise Again (with Randy Barber, 1978) and again in The End of Work (1995), both of which I assigned for my political economy courses. But his arguments are never carried to their logical anti-capitalist conclusion and that remains the case here. Thus he can accurately proclaim:

 

"The ability to extend individual empathy across national cultures, continents, oceans, and other traditional divides is enormous, with profound implications for the humanization of the human race" (p.427).

 

And further, although the social creation of surplus is a foreign concept to Rifkin, he does support ordinary citizens having access to a better quality of life and a more inclusive society.  The problems arise when RIfkin attempts to operationalize his objectives.

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Jeremy Rifkin, The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness In A World In Crisis New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2009, 675 pp.

 

P.W. Singer, WIRED FOR WAR: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century. New York: Penguin, 2009, paper, 499 pp.

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Rifkin is conversant with the evolutionary and biological origins of  our brain’s hard-wiring for empathy.  He clearly grasps the importance  of mirror neurons and how they’ve fundamentally recast our understanding of human nature.  However, beyond summarizing  this robust evidence his muddled guidance for realizing an “empathic civilization,” won’t raise any serious objections at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business where he lectures in the Executive Education Program.

 

The problem, as Rifkin defines it, is our "intensive energy flow-through" which may well doom the planet before our empathic disposition prevails.  To avoid extinction of our ecosystem and the human race, Rifkin advocates a Third Industrial Revolution of "distributed capitalism. It will be led by visionary entrepreneurs and global business leaders who will achieve ecological salvation by adhering to four pillars: renewable energy, green infrastructure, reliance on hydrogen fuel cells (the subject of an earlier book) and reconfiguring power grids  with a premium on sharing.

 

Rifkin believes that biosphere consciousness will only occur if people in wealthy societies like the United States seek  personal happiness in something other than materialist values and accumulation of wealth. Why will this occur? Because people want to contribute to the common good and will experience "joy" in doing so.

 

Consistent with the books’s accommodation to ruling politico-economic interests,  Rifkin attributes the recent high public profile for empathy — Homo empathicus —  to President Obama’s frequent references to the topic. This leads Rifkin to write that “The president has made empathy the core of his personal philosophy and the centerpiece of his political decisions, from the conduct of his foreign policy to  the selection of Supreme Court Justices” (p.177).

 

Except for the chapter on his vaguely defined distributive capitalism  there are only two references to capitalism  in the index and both are uncritical historical citations.  Rifkin envisions a transition from outmoded, entropy-producing geopolitics to forward looking, twenty-first century biosphere politics.  That new world is collaborative, responsible and reflects a new consciousness, not unlike what political theorist H.Y. Jung has termed ecopiety, where we all live in harmony in a new digital commons. Again, barring an unlikely Saul to Paul conversion experience by elites, how this will occur remains murky at best. The problems is that capitalism requires the methodical foreclosure of our moral instinct for empathy and the manufacture of  Cultural indifference to quell this response.

 

Tellingly, Rifkin  lavishes praise on new management styles that incorporate empathic sensibility toward  employees and in selling products. [2]  Caring bosses will be a priority. Again, he fails to acknowledge the empathy-denying imperatives of capitalism itself. Michael Parenti, explaining how ecology is subversive of capitalism states the motives of global plutocrats clearly:  "…like us all, they live not in the long run but in the here and now. What is at stake for them is something more immediate than global ecology. It is global accumulation. The fate of the biosphere seems a far-off abstraction compared to the fate of one’s immediate investments." [3]

 

The distance between Rifkin’s empire-free analysis and the means being developed to maintain that empire are brought into sharp relief by P.W. Singer’s book, Wired for War. Whereas Rifkin would have us understand the story of civilization as the gradual evolution of empathy, Singer views human history as primarily a history of warfare and the latest iteration is military robotics.

 

Singer, a former Defense Department employee and defense policy adviser to President Obama’s election campaign, reveals that when  US forces invaded Iraq in 2003, they had no robotic units in action. Now they have 12,000 “robotic Systems” in Iraq performing 33, 000 missions a year, including surveillance and dismantling bombs. One of these, the SWORD, can fire a machine gun and a rocket launcher. Taken together, robots perform the “Three D’s,” the roles that are dull, dirty, or dangerous.  The projected dates for humanoid robots to largely replace “boots on the ground” in combat, range from 2020 to 2035 but few specialists doubt this eventuality.

 

Throughout Wired for War there’s a deluded and self-satisfied vision of U.S. foreign policy. To wit, some insiders fear that because wars will be too easy and one-sided,  the robotics revolution “might rob us of our humanity” in future conflicts. They’re distressed that Washington’s overwhelming advantage may give the false impression of evil U.S. robots overwhelming the good guys. Lawrence J. Korb, who served as Reagan’s assistant secretary of defense and administered 70 percent of the defense budget, told Singer that misusing robotics will “undermine [our] moral standing, and the U.S. can’t be a global leader without such standing.”  (Here I thought of  James Cameron’s  politically powerful film Avatar where one observes this outcome combined with a prescient depiction of how and why robotics might be employed. My take on the film is that both Jake Sully and the audience’s empathy slowly gravitate toward the alien Na’vi).

 

Others worry that robotic technologies “will snip the last remaining threads of connection” between military and the public. However, Singer doesn’t make clear why decision makers would have a problem with this unless it’s to maintain the fiction that the government only acts in the public’s best interest and with its consent.

 

Clearly there are both personal and public political reaction issues in play here. One U.S. military officer tells Singer that he prefers the tactical mobile robot PackBot in Iraq because “When a robot dies, you don’t have to write a letter to its mother.”  The historical record reveals a real fear in some quarters that the public won’t tolerate too many casualties, hence the appeal of unmanned systems. The author quotes Major General Robert Scales who frets that “dead soldiers are America’s most vulnerable center of gravity.”  In similar fashion,  Senator John Warner, the once powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, openly advocated major funding for robotics because he worried that the public’s intolerance of casualties would inhibit U.S. foreign policy objectives.

 

Singer doesn’t overlook the aforementioned role of mirror neurons that account for emotional attachment. And he quite correctly points to the existence of inter-species empathy which even extends to machines, in this case to the robots themselves.  Recognizing this and in a perverse twist, some roboticists seek to strengthen the bonds between humans and their hard-wired creations to produce more efficient killing units. Again, the ends are simply assumed to be just so why not further perfect the means.

 

The video images of these conflicts, rather than engendering empathy can take the form of entertainment and dull the senses.  Singer cites a popular “war porn” clip on YouTube that “shows people’s bodies being blown into the air by a Predator strike, set to the tune of Sugar Ray’s snappy pop song ‘I Just Want to Fly.’ “ Of course, clips of U.S. soldiers — rather than the enemy — being torn to pieces won’t be allowed as that might provoke an undesirable emotional response. This is relatively painless warfare that attempts to remove certain political risks from engaging in war. As Johann Hari recently noted, imagine if there’d been virtually no American casualties in Vietnam or only a few now in Iraq or Afghanistan. What if only some of “them” appearing on a screen were made to disappear?

 

Singer terms the new U.S. combatants “cubicle warriors,”  as they dispatch death from 7,500 miles away in Las Vegas, suburban Washington D.C., or Beale Air Base in California. One Predator squadron commander tells Singer, “You are going to war for twelve hours, shooting weapons at targets, directing kills on enemy combatants, and then you get in the car, drive home, and within twenty minutes you are sitting down at the dinner table talking to your kids about their homework.”  Singer also notes that these weapons encourage a psychological disconnection where the actual bomber pilot, half a world away, doesn’t share even an instant of danger.  And as robots obtain more autonomy, “…emotions won’t just be limited or changed, but taken completely out of the equation.”

 

In 2006, the US First Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq, requested unmanned drones mounted with laser weapons. “The request said it should be like ‘long-range blow torches or precision flame-throwers.’ They wanted to do with robots things they would find almost unthinkable face-to-face.” [4] Not surprisingly, neither Singer nor his innumerable sources show the slightest interest in or awareness of the  grievances and hence motives of those whose lands are under American military occupation. A U.S. Navy researcher sums this up nicely as he tells Singer, “To me, the robot is our answer to the suicide bomber.”

 

Slight digression: I’m wary of ascribing guilt by pedigreed association but Singer mentions an intellectual debt that invites it. Early on, he has kind words for his Harvard mentor, the late and morally repugnant Samuel P. Huntington. Singer writes “I am a scholar who studied under Sam Huntington, one of the most distinguished political scientists of  the Twentieth Century.”  In 1968, as  a counter-insurgency advisor to the U.S. State Department,  Huntington promoted the infamous concentration camp or “strategic hamlet”  program in South Vietnam. Earlier he argued in print that apartheid South Africa was a “satisfied society” and recommended that President P.W. Botha establish a powerful state security apparatus.  I vividly recall a Huntington lecture where he described touring a South African Bantustan while hunkered down in a tank and dispensing advice.  To my everlasting regret I didn’t stand up and confront him that day. His key role in the Trilateral Commission is well known and at another point he was hired to conduct research secretly funded by the CIA.  At the end of life Huntington was advancing racist, xenophobic, empire-defending positions for capitalist elites. In short, he epitomized what Noam Chomsky’s has characterized as the power-serving secular priesthood, perhaps even rising to archbishop.

 

Unquestionably, Singer’s book is the product of copious research but within an ideologically blinkered context. And I’m at a loss to explain the book’s favorable response in some left publications. Unlike Rifkin, who appreciates the potential role of empathy,  here there is an inevitability, a conviction, woven throughout the text (often preceded by the word “sad”) that humans are not  only wired for war (surely, an aspect of our nature)  but bound to engage in endless warfare. He offers generalizations such as:  “One of the original sins of our species is its inability to live at peace” (p.5).  We are “obsessed” with war and “…war brings out the the most powerful emotions that define what  it  is to be human” (p.6).  The failure to differentiate this pathological “we” from the rest of us is the overarching fatal flaw in the book.  Further, Singer attributes everything from the specialization of labor, class stratification and the creation of politics to war. Finally, there is the truly mind boggling assertion that “Avoidance of war has been a traditional tenant of our foreign policy” (p.6).

 

Of course his analysis dovetails nicely with the designs of those who prize scholarly- sounding rationalizations for behavior they must undertake in defense of empire. As a bonus, his story reinforces the insidiously effective scapegoating of human nature as a rationale for predatory behavior.

 

Ultimately, what concerns Singer the most?  That this entire enterprise might be based on deeply flawed assumptions about human nature and or national security?  Apparently not for an instant.  Above all, he’s vexed about science fiction’s “Finagle’s Law” which states that “Anything that can go wrong, will — at the worst possible moment.” He is preoccupied with mistakes, the rapidity of change and reaction times when technology is involved.

 

In sum, one author is unwilling or more likely, unable to name the system that demeans any manifestation of our hard wired empathic disposition. The other offers a comprehensive introduction  to the hard-wired robots being deployed to enforce that system around the globe. We need to appreciate the limitations of the former’s analysis even as we expose the unstated goals served by the latter.

 

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Gary Olson chairs the Political Science department at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. For the past few years he’s been writing on the political implications of recent neuroscience research findings on empathy. Contact: olson@moravian.edu

 

Notes:

 

1. Gary Olson, "The Age of Empathy,"  www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/16246

2. Gary Olson, " Empathy Marketing 101," www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/21587

3. Michael Parenti,  "Why the Corporate Rich Oppose Environmentalism, " www.energybulletin.net/node/7902

4. Johann Hari,The Independent/UK, 1.22.2010.

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