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Review: “The Handover: How We Gave Control of Our Lives to Corporations, States and AIs” by David Runciman

(R Boed/Creative Commons)

The Handover is, at bottom, a plea for liberal democratic states to discipline, if not disempower, the sociopaths and psychopaths who currently have control of the technologies and resources which are changing us and our environment and promise to change both ourselves and the planet we inhabit more radically still.”

Introduction: A Liberal Straussian

Homer Simpson loves donuts. He daydreams about them. He injects them into his veins. He screams in terror at the prospect of living in a world without them. When the opportunity arises, he even exchanges his soul for a donut with the devil. Similarly, David Runciman—Professor of Politics at the University of Cambridge regular Guardian contributor, and host of Past Present Future, a popular bi-weekly history of ideas podcast—loves jelly beans. In chapter two of his extraordinary new book, published in 2023, The Handover: How We Gave Control of Our Lives to Corporations, States and AIs, the United Kingdom’s preeminent liberal public intellectual cannot, apparently, think of much else. A “friend of a friend knows the number of jellybeans!,” he tells us excitedly in a discussion, ostensibly, about the wisdom, or madness, of crowds. Jelly beans “are much bigger/smaller than they look!,” he goes on in the same animated fashion. “Brexit, and war, are not jellybeans in a jar,” he forlornly reminds us, invoking instances of group wisdom, when the public gets things right. “Mmm jellybeans in a jar.”

For around 90 pages or so, Runciman appears to be bewitched by the bean-shaped sugar candies, so driven to distraction indeed that he fails to define core concepts, such as robot and state. Sidetracked by thoughts of the soft candy shells, he offers simple, roughly hewn commentaries on the capacity of states and corporations to operate independently of the individuals of which they are comprised, ignoring, for example, civil disobedience and protest, active and passive. Preoccupied by memories of their thick gel interiors, Runciman advertises his innocence using the plural, first-person pronoun “We” when claiming that states and corporations were “made for our own convenience, to allow us to lead safer, healthier, happier lives.” Tormented, as Homer is, by thoughts of his favorite confectionery, here Runciman neglects to consider ideas of class domination and profit. Do not be fooled, however: David Runciman is not the Homer Simpson of political theory. Far from it.

When Homer sells his soul to the devil for a donut, the interaction is surveilled by his evil billionaire industrialist boss, Mr. Burns, who inquires: “who’s that goat-legged fellow? I like the cut of his jib.” While Homer is both credulous, imagining he can outsmart the Prince of Darkness, landing up eventually in Hell, where he is compelled to eat all the donuts in the world, and oblivious to the fact he is being watched, Runciman is extra-sensitive to the Satanic forces which seek to tempt us into sin and self-destruction, enslavement, perhaps. Unlike Homer, he is hyper-aware of the knavish actions of the egoists, narcissists, and megalomaniacs among us. A liberal Straussian, Runciman is a master—a genius indeed—of esoteric prose writing, delivering his somewhat terrifying thesis with stupendous skill and subtlety.

Embedded in his immensely erudite and always interesting but nevertheless contradiction-ridden analysis, is a difficult, uncomfortable, to put it plainly, frightening message which he cautiously invites only the discerning reader to extract. It is not the science fiction nightmare of killer robots—intelligent machines without a conscience, a heart, or a soul, but the capacity to make decisions for themselves, and, therefore, potentially to destroy us—we need to worry about. Rather, it is the robots in our midst: not the benign robots, the mass of people in Western societies manipulated and indoctrinated by the hidden persuaders that run our corporations, but the malign ones who do the persuading. It is the CEOs, chiefly, lacking in empathy and guilt, the “fakes” pretending to be human, but making a very poor job of it, if only we chose to see, that concern Runciman most as we stand on the precipice of the “Second Singularity,” a new transformation of human subjectivity brought about by the digital revolution. The Handover is, at bottom, a plea for liberal democratic states to discipline, if not disempower, the sociopaths and psychopaths who currently have control of the technologies and resources which are changing us and our environment and promise to change both ourselves and the planet we inhabit more radically still.

The first section of this review article reconstructs Runciman’s primary concern in the book. The second section examines his use of the concept of evil. Section three looks at the history of thought control. Section four considers Runciman’s analysis of Big Tech and how it is being regulated across the world today. Section five illuminates Runciman’s neo-Keynesian sympathies. And section six claims to detect a muscular liberal proposal for a United States of Europe in Runciman’s work.

Can You Relate?

For those seeking enlightenment about the present condition of artificial intelligence and its conceivable future, The Handover is not the best place to start. Runciman, naturally, introduces us to DALL-E (an AI system that can create realistic images and art from a description in natural language), GPT-3 (a large language model which generates text in a range of registers), Alpha Zero (an algorithm designed to teach itself how to play chess and Go), LaMDA (a Google conversation bot that can discuss “its feelings,” or rather mimic human speech), the distinction between Narrow AI (AI supplied with a purpose) and AGI, or artificial general intelligence (a machine, yet to be constructed, that can think like a human, deviating from, or switching back and forth between, its assigned tasks according to the value it gives them), the robots administering care to patients in Japanese care homes, and automatic weapons systems, self-driving military vehicles, and AI-based battle management command structures. The inventions emerging from Silicon Valley and other non-California-based technology corporations, however, interest Runciman in only a secondary way. What interests him most is the relationship between states, corporations, and thinking machines.

At the heart of the book, he explains, is “the relationship between thought and action.” The story of giving up our freedom to determine how our lives play out by transferring that responsibility to thinking machines—the story, that is, of how we participate in our own subjugation, risking even our extinction as a species in the name of improving our quality of life—is not a new one. Taking his departure from the 17th century English philosopher and social contract theorist, Thomas Hobbes, Runciman argues that we have specialized in building humanoid machines for centuries. However, we do not call them robots or machines: We simply call them states and corporations. For Runciman, it is the interaction among states, corporations, and robots that requires analysis: On the one hand, the “competition between states and corporations for robots;” and on the other, the more sinister prospect of cooperation among states, corporations, and robots—a form of cooperation, namely, which excludes the vast majority of human beings from their considerations.

Famously, the state, according to Hobbes, is an “artificial person.” It is a machine manufactured from human parts, living human beings, in fact, who consent to be used for the purpose of becoming an artificial agent. The state is not uniquely intelligent. Its superpower is not its capacity to devise peculiarly far-sighted solutions to otherwise insoluble problems. On the contrary, states are typically less intelligent than the individuals who make them up. This, however, is of small consequence, initially at least, since the state, in the first instance, offers a route out of anarchy, out of the Hobbesian state of nature, the war of all against all. It offers security and, more importantly, durability, the promise, that is, of security in the future. Besides, the state is designed to function irrespective of the talents of its human components.

Brilliant people can make states work. So, too, can fools, so long as someone—anyone—takes responsibility for setting the machine in motion, or keeping it going. It is for precisely this reason that Runciman claims that “modern states have more in common with smart machines than they do with their premodern forebears.” Like ordinary, inanimate machines, they are replicable. A state does not cease to be a state when its leader ceases to lead. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for instance, is not Russia. No more than Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is the United Kingdom. Modern states and corporations materialize a form of impersonal rule. While they share much in common with their ancient predecessors, the Roman Republic, the Roman Empire, and the Roman Catholic Church—”scale, durability, variety, continuity, representation”—they differ insofar as they are not monoliths. Modern states allow other states and state-like entities to emerge. In contrast to the Roman Empire, they are not a kind of Death Star; they do not habitually eliminate imitators and rivals.

Or do they?

Runciman, as we know, is an unreliable narrator, and nowhere is he more unreliable than he is here. He concedes, for example, that, actually, Russia is “Putin’s to dispose of,” and President Putin does, in fact, seek to annihilate competitors. The war in Ukraine is testament to this fact and who is to say if Russia should remain in one piece, instead of disintegrating into multiple smaller states, or indeed statelessness, if President Putin is disposed of himself. Ah, but Russia is exceptional? Hardly, Runciman goes on: Witness China’s imperial expansion over much of the globe, especially Africa, through the vehicle of loans and infrastructure projects. Empire, Runciman writes, flagrantly controverting his earlier remarks, “remains the default model of human political organization.” The identity, too, of President Xi Jinping is increasingly the identity of China itself.

And then there are the corporations, the “lesser commonwealths,” as Hobbes put it, that dwell “in the bowels of the greater, like worms in the entrails of a natural man.” Often now, they, likewise, are similarly monolithic, presided over, also, by autocrats who believe that “competition is for losers.” Commerce, in other words, has become the terrain of empires too, with corporations frequently adopting a “vertically integrated” model, where they seek to do everything in-house, making them, ideally, totally self-reliant. Gargantuan, monopolistic, and stamped with the personality of a single, ruling individual—President Putin, President Xi, Mark Zuckerberg, Peter Thiel, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk—these, then, at best, are imperfect iterations of the Hobbesian artificial person. In some cases, they barely resemble Hobbes’s archetype, on Runciman’s account, at all. Runciman, too, it turns out, is a lackluster disciple of the author of Leviathan.

Evildoing: Radical and Banal

Even in the instances where modern states and corporations are paradigmatically Hobbesian, Runciman frets over our collective propensity to defer to the will of the machine, abandoning our responsibility as ethical agents to dissent when the machine behaves badly, recklessly, irresponsibly, and selfishly—when, for instance, a person kills on behalf of the state in an unjust war or when a citizen chooses to work for a multinational oil company which pursues short-term, profit-driven objectives, while ravaging the natural environment, posing an existential threat to us all. Alarmed by how human beings are dehumanized by machines, rendered, at times, impotently stupid, Runciman cites the counter example of “Vassili Arkhipov, the second-in-command who refused to authorize the launch of a nuclear warhead at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” thus averting mutually assured nuclear destruction in the 1960s. Such counter examples, however, are rare. Mostly, we yield to authority, whatever it is we are asked to do, safe in the knowledge that we did not will it independently. Runciman, in other words, is anxious about evil-doing as a “banal” phenomenon, evil actions, that is, committed casually, unthinkingly, through the simple performance of duty.

Runciman, though, is forgiving—especially now in an age of resurgent propaganda and relentless, omnipresent advertising, at a time when it has perhaps never been more difficult to think for ourselves. Rejecting the notion that we are an inherently rapacious species—Homo rapiens, as the philosopher John Gray dubbed us—Runciman argues that “[w]e are at heart an altruistic species.” Only a few of us are monsters. But, unfortunately, it is the monsters who are in control. When Runciman says “[i]f the world ends—because we blow it up, or we render it uninhabitable by the insatiable consumption of natural resources—it will not really be us who did it. It will be states or corporations,” what he actually means is: It will be the heads of states and the individuals running the corporations. The Handover is, above all, a warning about the existence, and enormous influence, of radical evil on earth. A muscular liberal socialist, masquerading (for the most part) as a Hobbesian, Runciman, however, does not let on that this is his chief objective.

Spurning the label Anthropocene, the term used to describe the period in which “human activity has become the dominant force in shaping the earth’s ecosystems,” Runciman argues that “Leviacene” is in fact a more apt moniker; “Sociopathocene” is the label he would truly like to give it, or at least its latest phase. But Runciman is responsible. The Handover is a scholarly work for a popular audience. He does not wish to scare his readers. All the same, when he compares the greenwashing activities of global corporations to what it is like to encounter “a humanoid entity that is dead behind the eyes,” it is fairly obvious that he has specific, identifiable individuals—public relations workers and CEOs—in mind. The same is true when he speaks of “non-human ways of reasoning” in connection with states and corporations; it is not the latter who are the “artificial persons,” he implies, it is the people running them. It is true again when Runciman invokes the notion of “uncanny valley”—namely, the disgust people often experience when they encounter artificial creatures that closely resemble us. If we are not repulsed by the antisocial egomaniacs who, through their economic and political supremacy, wield a phenomenal amount of power in the twenty-first century, because we have yet to realize that they are more like robots than people—heartless, soulless, without conscience—then we probably will be when the penny finally drops.

Placing the prospect of human extinction due to genocide by killer robots last in his hierarchy of possible doomsday scenarios, behind extinction due to nuclear war, climate change, and biological disaster, Runciman writes that “[s]pecies-ending experiments are what artificial persons contemplate; after all it is not their species.” Runciman does not mention the Silicon Valley billionaires who have bought property in New Zealand as “apocalypse insurance.” Nor does he mention Musk’s ambition to colonize Mars, establishing a “back-up drive” for civilization. He does not need to. While recognizing their talents, or Musk’s talent—”a true visionary,” perhaps, as well as “a chancer”—Runciman is consistently contemptuous of the infantile and unscrupulous, sovereign individual-worshiping, union-busting, tax-avoiding, myth-peddling, technology-entrepreneurs. Certainly, the future of humanity cannot be entrusted to “Musk and his like.” They are exploiting the control they exercise over the thinking machines we have already to make money and, sometimes, political capital too, consciously degrading our individuality and capacity for reasoned thought by manipulating our cognitive biases and encouraging addictive behaviors. The control they might exercise over the vastly more sophisticated AIs which can be envisaged but have yet to be invented, in an atmosphere, probably, of environmental collapse and extreme geopolitical tension, does not bear thinking about.

The battle for control of AI is, in short, a battle for our collective self-preservation. It is a battle the state, in the West at least, is currently losing—losing to corporations.

Brainwashing—Communist and Capitalist

It is not, of course, the first time in human history when intellectuals have expressed concern about the ability of nefarious individuals or groups to transform other individuals or whole populations indeed into machine-like tools or robots. In the wake of the Korean War, for example, the notion of “brainwashing,” a term coined by the American journalist and intelligence officer, Edward Hunter, entered public discourse. Less about “cleansing,” as such, and more about “destroying and substituting,” remaking a person’s subjectivity—how they perceive the world and their place within it—in 1953, Hunter relayed the story of how 21 American POWs elected to take up citizenship in the People’s Republic of China instead of returning home at the end of the war as they were freely able to—clear evidence, he claimed, of effective psychological enslavement. The Soviet show trials, before the Second World War, were also widely discussed during the Cold War years, in tandem with Pavlovian techniques of mind control. And the case of Patty Hearst, the young heiress kidnapped in the 1970s by the far-Left terrorist group, the Symbionese Liberation Army, turned the label Stockholm Syndrome—a person’s identification with their captors—into a household name.

But brainwashing and its auxiliary practices—”conditioning,” “re-education,” “thought reform” etc.—was not something simply that communists did. The “organization man,” or “normotic character,” or “normopath,” a groupthinking conformist, pathologically committed to “just fitting in,” brought into being by an “ideology of collectivization,” was a source of disquiet for American intellectuals such as William H. Whyte observing events at home in the 1950s. Even more disconcerting was the rise and consolidation of the advertising industry.

The notion that advertising was a threat to liberal society was far from leftfield in the 1950s and 60s. Already in 1942, the influential political economist Joseph Schumpeter had complained that its “direct attacks on the subconscious” had reduced democracy to “a stage-managed simulacrum,” a largely choreographed affair, where the irrational, pliant masses performed the role of puppets for cynical party managers who had successfully learned to pull their strings, moving them this way and that. President Harry S. Truman, as well, lamented that advertisers had “taken a leaf out of the books of Karl Marx and Adolf Hitler.” They “were following the Soviet and Fascist lines.”

Analyzing the manipulative strategies of the “commercial shrink” or “psychological guru,” Ernest Dichter, “Freud for the supermarket age”—the pioneer of Motivational Research, a form of “mass psychoanalysis” designed to sell lifestyles, products, and values—and Madison Avenue more generally, the journalist and social critic Vance Packard warned, likewise, how liberty was constantly being undermined, “even as it was sold as the bedrock of Western societies.” The dismay was so deeply felt, in fact, that Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew, and one of the other officiants indeed at the marriage between business and psychoanalysis, felt compelled to speak out too, cautioning his fellow citizens: “We are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”

This was before the algorithms that shape our viewing habits and discipline our consumption patterns now, long before the neuromarketing and eye-tracking devices that can help the advertisers read “the brain’s secret whispering,” and long before corporations held the vast banks of information about us that we casually give away for free every time we use the internet. As we learn from Daniel Pick in his immensely important recent account of the history of thought control—Brainwashed, published in 2022—from which all of the above is drawn, there was also greater legal protection for consumers in the past.

Because of the just, if sometimes exaggerated, anxieties about the invasion of the privacy of our minds, advertising was not simply a “free for all.” Consumers had rights and they were made aware of their vulnerabilities by institutions such as Citizen Advice Bureaus (in the United Kingdom) and the Consumer Federation of America. Those rights and institutions have not gone away, of course. But in the digital age they are no longer satisfactory, either. With the development of science and new digital technologies, our susceptibility to corporate predation has increased prodigiously. While it is possible to overstate the impact of advertisers (less so the drug-like quality of social media that harvests our data for them), overlooking the ways in which we adapt and offer resistance to their duplicitous schemes, it is difficult to dispute the idea that the giant technology corporations require regulation, if not breaking up altogether, or in fact expropriating. When one factors in that the “AI race is, literally, an arms race”—command over the latest technological developments is what will win or lose wars in the future—the need for an alternative model of managing these new technologies to the one which is operative in the United States becomes starkly apparent. In the United States, technology corporations have almost carte blanche to do as they please. It is not hard to fathom that the template of competition between corporations for market share and competition with the state for relative autonomy will likely end in disaster, with corporate overreach leading to loss of competitive edge, stagnation, and, eventually, imperial fall or corporate greed, inequity, resulting in social disintegration. Runciman cites two alternative models.

Regulating Big Tech, Recovering Hobbes?

First, China.

The Chinese model is based on “co-option.” Announcing a “common prosperity” approach in August 2021, the Chinese leadership clamped down on fake advertising, increased oversight of how recommendation algorithms target users, and made it a requirement for the biggest companies—Alibaba, Baidu, Tencent—to open their platforms to each other to prevent their monopolies expanding further. Judged to be having a deleterious effect on the nation’s youth, the state also wound up the online tutoring industry, curtailed access to online gaming, and subjected the entertainment industry to stricter control. In China, it is supposed that “the advantages of smart technology can be fully realized only if the control of that technology is reclaimed by the state in the name of the common good.” Janus-faced, with one face turned to the past—the example, chiefly, of how the American military-industrial complex turbocharged innovation in the 1950s and 60s—and the other looking to the future, Runciman explains how “the Chinese state is more interested in directing corporate research toward productive technologies such as semiconductors and renewables rather than the gamified, algorithmic froth from which social media companies have been making their vast profits.” It is hard to resist the conclusion, too, that, reluctantly, Runciman approves. Certainly, he thinks the second model, the European Union’s, is anemic.

In the United States, Senator Elizabeth Warren’s promise to “break up big tech” if she were made President during her candidacy for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2020 fell on deaf ears. The bureaucracy that runs the European Union (EU), at least, is serious about limiting the power of Big Tech companies. Its Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act, for example, aim to introduce greater competition, thwart monopolistic practices, provide rights for individuals over how their data is used, and give monitoring bodies the ability to remove harmful material from online platforms; and its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) legislation requires online platforms to secure the consent of their users in how their data is shared with advertisers. That said, as a union of states, as opposed to a state itself, the EU cannot enforce its rules. For that, it relies on its member states to comply with the decisions its bureaucrats reach independently. The technology companies too— none of which are European—must submit to EU regulations. They often do not. Users, similarly, are typically more frustrated by, rather than grateful for, the new consent boxes they have to tick due to GDPR rules, which disrupt the rapidity of their movements online. Regulating Big Tech is not a policy popular with either American or European electorates. Runciman does not commit the words to paper, but he says as much anyway: When people do not know what is good for themselves, the EU’s so-called “democratic deficit” is a boon. He is a recovering Hobbesian, after all.

In increasing its control over its technology giants, China, then, is doing something right. The Chinese state was prudent in the first instance in creating an economic environment in which its indigenous Big Tech firms could flourish and thus compete with their counterparts in Silicon Valley. There is no French equivalent of Amazon, but China has Alibaba. There is no German equivalent of Google, but China has Baidu. There is no Italian equivalent of Facebook, but China has WeChat. China, in short, is not exposed to the Machiavellianism of “the world’s worst boss” (the International Trade Union Confederation’s assessment of Bezos) and his equally ruthless rivals. And in punishing its home-grown technology corporations it has, wisely, subordinated their interests to those of the Chinese people.

Make no mistake, Runciman is no wide-eyed naïf. He is well aware that the Chinese state, a true Leviathan, risks becoming an AI-state, a state, that is, which abuses its own monopoly on algorithms and deep learning technology to surveil its citizens. Perhaps it is an AI-state already? At the bare minimum, the Uighurs of Xinjiang, a 12 million strong ethnic Turkic group of mostly Muslims, experience the Chinese state as an instrument of totalitarian terror. Nevertheless, Runciman can look reality in the face: when two of China’s most influential public intellectuals—Liu Xiaofeng and Gan Yang—that the current Western conception of progress, which ties itself to corporate-fueled economic growth at the expense of tradition and social solidarity, is irredeemably flawed, he happily concedes that they are right. The crimes the Chinese state commits against its Uighur population, accused of Islamic extremism, does not change that. Besides, are Western states not at risk of becoming AI-states, too—AI-company-states?

Latent Leninism and Ne0-Keynesianism

At this point, Runciman takes a surreptitious Marxist-Leninist, or Luxury Communist, turn, adapting Lenin’s phrase “Who, whom?,” turning it into “Who Works for Whom?” to explore the future of class relations in an automated, post-work world. Following Aaron Bastani, the author of the 2018 book Fully Automated Luxury Communism, Runciman advances the at once utopian yet realist notion that our future working lives could revolve around a combination of caring, learning, and teaching, warning simultaneously that, if action is not taken, it is perfectly plausible to imagine that human beings—or most of us—those without the knowledge of how the new technologies work—will go the way of the workhorse in the nineteenth century: made obsolete and forcefully retired from duty. Alluding, finally, to the labor theory of value, the concept of alienated labor, and class oppression, Runciman pejoratively notes that there is “nothing Davos man likes talking about more than the coming of the bots. But the bots do not take part in their discussions. They are simply tools, lacking in agency, waiting to be deployed by their masters for better or for worse.” For “bots,” read “proletariat.” It is a Wellsian dystopia, like that depicted in The Time Machine, H. G. Wells’ novella of 1895, where human beings have split off into two separate sub-species, the childlike Eloi and the simian Morlocks, descendants of the bourgeoisie and proletariat respectively, that Runciman fears. Yet the techno-aristocracy of the future are unlikely to be stupid and defenseless, as the Eloi are. Instead of living side by side in a state of blighted coexistence, the “bots,” or proles, will probably become the property of the techno-aristocrats, rather. Which is to say, they will become slaves, where, that is, there is a continuing need for them, when they are not disposed of altogether.

As Pick convincingly establishes in Brainwashed, Chinese history has often been misrepresented in the West, simplified and distorted to fit a Manichean freedom-loving versus freedom-denying Cold War narrative. The story of the POWs is a case in point. Far from being just passively brainwashed, Pick shows how the POWs actively made their choices, albeit with imperfect information at their disposal. He shows how they were drawn to China for idealistic reasons, because of ideology, or pragmatism, an escape from poverty, or because they associated the US South “not with the Free World, but with violence, hatred, and lynching.” The language we use to describe the Chinese political system today is similarly revealing: “totalitarian state” rather than “authoritarian one-party system.” China is frequently treated as one single, “total” society, as opposed to a society with significant “regional variations, suggesting shades of totalitarianism.” Committed to their own self-serving ideological schemes, instead of dispassionately uncovering the truth, commentators rarely reach for the phrase “approaching totalitarianism,” although it is probably correct to say that China currently occupies only an interim stage on the journey toward it. Whatever the case, Runciman does not approve of China’s “New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan” because he is a covert communist. He is not a covert communist; he is a Neo-Keynesian.

Runciman teases us with the suggestion that the plan of Salvador Allende’s socialist government in Chile in the early 1970s to “engineer an entire economy with real time data,” efficiently matching production with demand—what had hitherto been impossible in socialist economies—is possible now in the twenty-first century; he waggishly floats the idea that the time for Allende’s “Project Cybersyn,” or a viable form of state socialism, has perhaps arrived. It has not, he quickly concludes—ambivalently. But what has arrived is the time for an ambitious industrial policy, the resurrection of the “entrepreneurial state,” which was the source of the digital revolution in the first place. The Chinese state is entrepreneurial. It serves as “an investor of first resort.” It takes risks. Rather than simply fixing market failures, it guides the direction of the economy. If liberalism is to have a future, the member states of the European Union must be entrepreneurial too.

Economic theory is notoriously abstract. It is a field of intellectual enquiry where fairy tales thrive. Runciman takes aim at two such stories for children. The first fairy tale he seeks to refute is the tall story that only markets pick winners; states are too inept and risk-averse. This view was confounded long ago by Leon Trotsky, or, more respectably, Alexander Gerschenkron, who both broadly argued that, with the exception of the United Kingdom, the first industrial nation, in “the history of market innovation, the state comes first.” The state picks winners indirectly by adopting protectionist policies, which insulate domestic firms from the competition of the international market. States, moreover, so far from being risk-averse are far more reckless than even the most venturesome corporations. (They can be. Frequently wealthier, with debt-raising powers that corporations do not usually have, states have much less to lose if their gambling does not pay off.) This is particularly true when states are at war. When states are at war “they fund all sorts of hair-brained schemes, most of which fail.” But some do not. ARPANET, for instance, “a system for connecting computers and enabling them to communicate with each other”—sound familiar?—succeeded. ARPANET succeeded spectacularly; out of DARPA, the research arm of the US Department of Defense, founded in 1958 in response to the fear that the launch of the Sputnik satellite marked a turning point in the Cold War innovation arms race, came the internet. Email emerged from DARPA too. In fact, the key technologies that make up the iPhone and iPad also originated with publicly funded research in the United States and the United Kingdom; the origin stories peddled by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs that the success of their corporations is due to “supersmart individuals having a supersmart idea” are also mythic, then.

According to Runciman, what distinguishes Silicon Valley founders is not typically their intelligence but rather their pitiless business philosophies and hypocrisy, their willingness to mercilessly target and crush their competitors and do business with the state. Notwithstanding their self-professed libertarian ideals, Silicon Valley’s collective attachment to the greed-celebrating, market fundamentalism of the Russian-American novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand, Thiel has made most of his fortune from state contracts; Bezos’s most lucrative customers are government organizations; and Musk has benefitted massively from state investment. What do American citizens receive in return? Disinformation. Disruption. Contempt for their privacy. Disdain for their mental health—the respect for which, as the World Health Organization’s first director, the Canadian psychiatrist Brock Chisholm, argued was a prerequisite for “sustaining liberal democracy against calamitous political extremes.”

An advocate of euthanizing the rentiers (or, at least, significantly diminishing their power)—Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, plus the gig economy titans: Airbnb, Amazon, Uber—Runciman’s Keynesianism is mediated by the radical Anglo-Italian economist Mariana Mazzucato. His critique of neoliberalism and his account of the digital revolution as a state-driven initiative are borrowed directly from her book of 2013, The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths. A responsible revolutionary, a kind of reputable, liberal counterpart to Dominic Cummings, the British political strategist and former advisor to Boris Johnson during his time as Prime Minister—equally impatient with low-grade leadership, organizational indolence, short-termism and the lack of vision and talent characteristic of Whitehall—Mazzucato is bolder than Runciman. She openly states that there “are a variety of different forms of capitalism, and we have the wrong one.” If we wish to survive as a civilization, our governments must cease the “practice of socializing risks and privatizing rewards.” They must adopt “mission-oriented policies,” using their imaginations to “decide where and how to invest, regardless of the business cycle,” as China does now. Runciman agrees. But he is diffident. He insists on communicating in code.

Our so-called innovators, he freely admits, are little more than advertising executives, con artists and parasites, akin to Dichter and his predatory colleagues who made huge fortunes out of what is “meant to be an add-on to core economic activity,” not core economic activity itself. Nevertheless, when Runciman writes “[w]hen, and how, the big leap from deep learning mimicry to general artificial intelligence might happen is an open question,” he does not state explicitly that the deep learning mimics are, to his thinking, the technology entrepreneurs and the general artificial intelligence is the state. When it does happen, at any rate, returning to those terms their literal meanings (Runciman’s utterances are routinely double-edged), it will, he avers, “require the involvement of the state.”

Exiting the Sociopathocene: a United States of Europe

In contrast to Mazzucato, and Pick, who both believe that we must revive a form of participatory democracy in order to solve our problems, Runciman, consciously echoing Cummings’ misgivings (Cummings’ critique of the state is “trenchant,” he affirms), is more apprehensive here too; democracy is part of the problem. A liberal Straussian, with a secret penchant for Lenin and aspects of Confuscian-Maoist-Dengism, the residue of Hobbes still clings to him: The only way out of the Sociopathocene is the state—an artificial person, infused with the wisdom and compassion, hopefully, of living, breathing human beings. One can only surmise about this: But one might legitimately suppose that, for Runciman, that means a unified Europe—Europe transformed from a mere union of states into a federation. If so, he is probably correct. If there is hope for liberty—and there is—a United States of Europe, governed as a radical social democracy, is what it inheres in.

Europe, unlike Homer Simpson, and perhaps the United States, has not sold its soul to the devil, or to the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, rather. Its leaders, in contrast to former President and Republican Presidential nominee, Donald Trump, who made Thiel part of his transition team in 2016 (appointing him to advise his incoming senior staff on science, technology, security, and intelligence matters, in addition to helping to fill jobs in the Plum Book), do not like the cut of their jib. Not surprisingly. When Mr. Burns is sent to prison in The Simpsons, he is relieved of his personal belongings by a warden at the reception; itemizing Mr. Burn’s possessions in a logbook, the warden states out loud: “Social security card.” “That’s just an SS card, you dummkopf,” Mr. Burns angrily responds, not the slightest bit abashed. A large and miscellaneous group, the Silicon Valley technology entrepreneurs are not Nazis. But the ones President Trump courts—sometimes successfully, sometimes not—are far from hostile to far-Right ideas—great replacement theory, anti-democratic “neo-monarchism,” semi-ironic white supremacism, as well as outright anti-Semitism.

In a healthy liberal democracy, these ideas are confined to a tiny, insignificant, barely audible or visible, minority of disagreeable—no, despicable—cranks. Today, they are increasingly mainstream, popular among techno-utopians especially. If President Joe Biden is re-elected President this year it is essential that he actually takes on the power of Silicon Valley, not just the “idiotes” concerned only with their personal fortunes and indifferent to the public sphere but the idiots also who combine their reactionary beliefs with efforts to gain access to our thoughts with mind-reading technology. It is not only Ukraine’s right to self-determination which we need to defend, the Baltic states’ right to self-determination, Moldova’s, Taiwan’s, with Musk’s Neuralink chalking up further advances, it is the right to self-determination over our brains. The robots, as Runciman artfully argues, must not succeed in subsuming states to their will, whether that is Musk or Thiel or Putin.

Seamus Flaherty is a historian of ideas and the author of Marx, Engels and Modern British Socialism. He lives in the United Kingdom. 

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