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#Exclusive: @HJBentham @ClubOfINFO responds to @Hetero_Sapien @IEET
After the reprint at the ClubOfINFO webzine of Franco Cortese’s excellent IEET (Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies) article about how advanced technology clashes with the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, I am interested enough that I have decided to put together this response. Changes in technology do eventually force changes in the law, and some laws ultimately have to be scrapped. However there is an argument to be made that the Second Amendment’s deterrent against tyranny should not be dismissed too easily.
Franco points out that the Second Amendment’s “most prominent justification” is that citizens require a form of self-defense against a potentially corrupt government. In such a case, they may need to take back the state by force through a “citizen militia”.

Technology and “stateness”

The argument given by Franco against the idea of citizens engaging their government in battle leads to a conclusion that “technological growth has made the Second Amendment redundant”. Arms in the Eighteenth Century were “roughly equal” for the citizenry and the military. According to Franco’s article, “in 1791, the only thing that distinguished the defensive or offensive capability of military from citizenry was quantity. Now it’s quality.”
I believe the above point about the state monopoly on force going from being based on quantity to quality can be disputed. The analysis from Franco seems to be that the norms of warfare and the internal effectiveness of state power are set by the level technology available to the state. Although there is of course a strong technological element involved in these manifestations of state power, it is more accurate to say “stateness” – which military power is only the international reflection of – is due to a combination of having more legitimacy, resources and organization. The effectiveness of this kind of “stateness”, including the ability of the most powerful states to overcome challenges of internecine warfare, has not changed very decisively since the Nineteenth Century.
In fact, stateness is said by many analysts to have declined worldwide since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Since that event and the subsequent dissolution of the USSR, the number of states facing internal crisis seems to have only risen, which suggests stateness is being weakened globally due to many complex pressures. Advanced technology is itself even credited with eroding stateness, as transport and the Internet only give citizens ever more abilities to get around, provoke, rebel and ultimately erode the strength and legitimacy of the state. In most arenas of social change, states face unprecedented challenges from their own citizens because of the unexpected changes in advanced technology that have taken place over the last few decades. Concerning the future of this trend, Franco aptly anticipates in his article that “post-scarcity” technologies would make things even more uncomfortable for the state, pushing it to rely on secrecy and suppression of knowledge to avoid proliferation of devastating weapons.
Much of this commentary on the loss of stateness may seem irrelevant to the right to bear arms in the United States, but it is relevant for reasons that will become clear in this article. We cannot say that the US government has a true monopoly on force due to its technology, and that the potential of a citizen uprising is gone. We have seen too many other “modern” states such as Yugoslavia, Somalia, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Mali quickly deteriorate into full scale civil war just because groups of determined citizens took up light weapons (many of those rebels have far less skill and technology at their disposal than the average US gun owner).

Internecine warfare in the United States

From what we have seen of civil war in other countries, we cannot know that simple rifles and handguns really are a useless path of resistance against a modern state tyranny, just because the tyrants will have more lethal options such as cluster bombs and nerve gas. Even the most crudely armed insurrectionists are capable of overthrowing their governments, if they are determined and numerous enough. Having a lightly armed population from the outset, like the US population, only makes it more likely that such a war against tyranny would be ubiquitous and likely to succeed swiftly from the outset.
If we do take the unlikely position of supposing that the United States will degenerate into a true tyranny in the Aristotelian definition, then US citizens certainly need their right to bear arms. More than that, their path of armed resistance using those light weapons could still realistically win. If their cause was just, we can suppose that they would be battling in self-defense against a tyrannical regime that has plummeting legitimacy, or is buying time for contingents of the military to break off and join the rebellion. In such a situation, the sheer number of citizens taking up arms would do more than just demoralize government troops and lead to indecision among them.
The fact of a generally well-armed population would, if they took up arms against their regime, guarantee the existence of a widespread insurgency to such an extent that the rulers would face many years of internecine resistance and live under the constant specter of assassination. Add the internal economic devastation caused by citizens committing acts of sabotage and civil disobedience, foreign sanctions by other states, and even international aid to the insurgents by external actors, and the tyrants could be ousted even by the most lightly armed militia units.
Explaining the imbalance that has prevailed between the military might of states and the internal ability of citizens to resist their ruling regimes with arms, Franco notes that the “overwhelming majority of new technological advances are able to be leveraged by the military before they trickle down to the average citizen through industry.” This is certainly true. However, the summation that resistance is futile would not take into account the treacherous opportunities that exist in every internecine war.
When the state projects force internally, it prefers to call that “law enforcement” for as long as it remains in control of the situation. Even if the violence gets more widespread and becomes civil war, the state denies such a fact until the very last moment. Even then, it prefers to minimize the damage on its own territory, because the damage would ultimately have to be repaired and paid for by the state itself. Even in a civil war situation, the technology brought to bear against citizens by the government would never be as heavy or destructive as the kind of equipment brought to bear against foreign states or non-state actors. This is for the simple reason that the state, in a civil war, has to try to avoid obliterating its own constituents and infrastructure for political reasons. If it is caught committing such a desperate and disproportionate act, it will only undermine itself and give a propaganda coup to its lightly equipped opponents by committing a heavy-handed atrocity.
The imbalance of the superior technology of the United States government in contrast to the basic handguns and rifles of its citizenry is real, but it would have zero significance if a real internecine war took place in the United States. The deadliest weapons in the arsenal of the United States, such as nuclear or biological weapons, would never be used to confront internecine threats, so they are not relevant enough to enter the debate on the Second Amendment.
The concept of taking back government via a citizen militia is not about defeating a whole nation in the conventional sense through raw military strength, but rather about a multifaceted political struggle in which the nation is able to confront and defeat the ruling regime via some form of internecine combat. The US would tend to prefer handling militant and “terrorist” adversaries on its own territory with the bare minimum of heavy equipment and ordnance at all times. Given this, the real technological contest would only be between opposing marksmen and their rifles (any advanced firearms would soon be seized by guerrillas and used back against the state). No ridiculously unbalanced battle with tanks, nukes and generals on one side and “simple folks” with shotguns on the other side would take place. In most civil wars, the use of tanks and warplanes (never mind nukes) only tends to make matters worse for the ruling government by hitting bystanders and further alienating the people on the ground. The US military leadership should know this better than anyone else, having condemned regime after regime for making that same mistake of heavy-handed escalation.
Anti-tyranny insurgency using only light (and easily hidden) armaments is as viable in 2014 as it was in the Eighteenth Century, and has proven sufficient to delegitimize and ultimately remove brutal regimes from power. Any sufficiently unpopular regime can be delegitimized and removed from power by the armed resistance of lightly-equipped militia forces.
Franco’s conclusion that the US should neither extend the Second Amendment to cover giving everyone access to ridiculously devastating weapons, nor scrap the Second Amendment altogether, is wise and relevant to helping US society make some difficult decisions. Law (and by extension stateness) is “uncertain in the face of technologies’ upward growth.” States that want to remain popular should try to be as adaptive as possible to new (and old) technologies and ideas, and not be swayed by any single narrow-minded idea or program for society. If the American people distrust their system of government enough to keep their right to bear arms, for fear of tyranny, then the Second Amendment ought to remain.

By Harry J. BenthamMore articles by Harry J. Bentham

This article originally appeared at the techno-politics magazine, ClubOfINFO

This essay was originally published by the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies

One of the most common anti-Transhumanist tropes one finds recurring throughout Transhumanist rhetoric is our supposedly rampant hubris. Hubris is an ancient Greek concept meaning excess of pride that carries connotations of reckless vanity and heedless self-absorbment, often to the point of carelessly endangering the welfare of others in the process. It paints us in a selfish and dangerous light, as though we were striving for the technological betterment of ourselves alone and the improvement of the human condition solely as it pertains to ourselves, so as to be enhanced relative to the majority of humanity.

In no way is this correct or even salient. I, and the majority of Transhumanists, Techno-Progressives and emerging-tech-enthusiasts I would claim, work toward promoting beneficial outcomes and deliberating the repercussions and most desirable embodiments of radically-transformative technologies for the betterment of all mankind first and foremost, and only secondly for ourselves if at all.

The ired irony of this situation is that the very group who most often hails the charge of Hubris against the Transhumanist community is, according to the logic of hubris, more hubristic than those they rail their charge against. Bio-Luddites, and more generally Neo-Luddites, can be clearly seen to be more self-absorbed and recklessly-selfish than the Transhumanists they are so quick to raise qualms against.

The logic of this conclusion is simple: Transhumanists seek merely to better determine the controlling circumstances and determining conditions of our own selves, whereas Neo-Luddites seek to determine such circumstances and conditions (even if using a negative definition, i.e., the absence of something) not only for everyone besides themselves alive at the moment, but even for the unquantable multitudes of minds and lives still fetal in the future.

We do not seek to radically transform Humanity against their will; indeed, this is so off the mark as to be antithetical to the true Transhumanist impetus — for we seek to liberate their wills, not leash or lash them. We seek to offer every human alive the possibility of transforming themselves more effectively according to their own subjective projected objectives; of actualizing and realizing themselves; ultimately of determining themselves for themselves. We seek to offer every member of Humanity the choice to better choose and the option for more optimal options: the self not as final-subject but as project-at-last.

Neo-Luddites, on the other hand, wish to deny the whole of humanity that choice. They actively seek the determent, relinquishment or prohibition of technological self-transformation, and believe in the heat of their idiot-certainty that they have either the intelligence or the right to force their own preference upon everyone else, present and future. Such lumbering, oafish paternalism patronizes the very essence of Man, whose only right is to write his own and whose only will is to will his own – or at least to vow that he will will his own one fateful yet fate-free day.

We seek solely to choose ourselves, and to give everyone alive and yet-to-live the same opportunity: of choice. Neo-Luddites seek not only to choose for themselves but to force this choice upon everyone else as well.

If any of the original Luddites were alive today, perhaps they would loom large to denounce the contemporary caricature of their own movement and rail their tightly-spooled rage against the modern Neo-Luddites that use Ludd’s name in so reckless a threadbare fashion. At the heart of it they were trying to free their working-class fellowship. There would not have been any predominant connotations of extending the distinguishing features of the Luddite revolt into the entire future, no hint of the possibility that they would set a precedent which would effectively forestall or encumber the continuing advancement of technology at the cost of the continuing betterment of humanity.

Who were they to intimate that continuing technological and methodological growth and progress would continually liberate humanity in fits and bounds of expanding freedom to open up the parameters of their possible actions — would free choice from chance and make the general conditions of being continually better and better? If this sentiment were predominant during 1811–1817, perhaps they would have lain their hammers down. They were seeking the liberation of their people after all; if they knew that their own actions might spawn a future movement seeking to dampen and deter the continual technological liberation of Mankind, perhaps they would have remarked that such future Neo-Luddites missed their point completely.

Perhaps the salient heart of their efforts was not the relinquishment of technology but rather the liberation of their fellow man. Perhaps they would have remarked that while in this particular case technological relinquishment coincided with the liberation of their fellow man, that this shouldn’t be heralded as a hard rule. Perhaps they would have been ashamed of the way in which their name was to be used as the nametag and figurehead for the contemporary fight against liberty and Man’s autonomy. Perhaps Ludd is spinning like a loom in his grave right now.

Does the original Luddites’ enthusiasm for choice and the liberation of his fellow man supersede his revolt against technology? I think it does. The historical continuum of which Transhumanism is but the contemporary leading-tip encompasses not only the technological betterment of self and society but the non-technological as well. Historical Utopian ventures and visions are valid antecedents of the Transhumanist impetus just as Techno-Utopian historical antecedents are. While the emphasis on technology predominant in Transhumanist rhetoric isn’t exactly misplaced (simply because technology is our best means of affecting and changing self and society, whorl and world, and thus our best means of improving it according to subjective projected objectives as well) it isn’t a necessary precondition, and its predominance does not preclude the inclusion of non-technological attempts to improve the human condition as well.

The dichotomy between knowledge and device, between technology and methodology, doesn’t have a stable ontological ground in the first place. What is technology but embodied methodology, and methodology but internalized technology? Language is just as unnatural as quantum computers in geological scales of time. To make technology a necessary prerequisite is to miss the end for the means and the mark for a lark. The point is that we are trying to consciously improve the state of self, society and world; technology has simply superseded methodology as the most optimal means of accomplishing that, and now constitutes our best means of effecting our affectation.

The original Luddite movement was less against advancing technology and more about the particular repercussions that specific advancements in technology (i.e. semi-automated looms) had on their lives and circumstances. To claim that Neo-Luddism has any real continuity-of-impetus with the original Luddite movement that occurred throughout 1811–1817 may actually be antithetical to the real motivation underlying the original Luddite movement – namely the liberation of the working class. Indeed, Neo-Luddism itself, as a movement, may be antithetical to the real impetus of the initial Luddite movement both for the fact that they are trying to impose their ideological beliefs upon others (i.e. prohibition is necessarily exclusive, whereas availability of the option to use a given technology is non-exclusive and forces a decision on no one) and because they are trying to prohibit the best mediator of Man’s ever-increasing self-liberation – namely technological growth.

Support for these claims can be found in the secondary literature. For instance, in Luddites and Luddism Kevin Binfield sees the Luddite movement as an expression of worker-class discontent during the Napoleonic Wars than having rather than as an expression of antipathy toward technology in general or toward advancing technology as general trend (Binfield, 2004).

And in terms of base-premises, it is not as though Luddites are categorically against technology in general; rather they are simply against either a specific technology, a specific embodiment of a general class of technology, or a specific degree of technological sophistication. After all, most every Luddite alive wears clothes, takes antibiotics, and uses telephones. Legendary Ludd himself still wanted the return of his manual looms, a technology, when he struck his first blow. I know many Transhumanists and Technoprogressives who still label themselves as such despite being weary of the increasing trend of automation.

This was the Luddites’ own concern: that automation would displace manual work in their industry and thereby severely limit their possible choices and freedoms, such as having enough discretionary income to purchase necessities. If their government were handing out guaranteed basic income garnered from taxes to corporations based on the degree with which they replace previously-manual labor with automated labor, I’m sure they would have happily lain their hammers down and laughed all the way home. Even the Amish only prohibit specific levels of technological sophistication, rather than all of technology in general.

In other words no one is against technology in general, only particular technological embodiments, particular classes of technology or particular gradations of technological sophistication. If you’d like to contest me on this, try communicating your rebuttal without using the advanced technology of cerebral semiotics (i.e. language).


Binfield, K. (2004). Luddites and Luddism. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.