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Extraterrestrials and earth based political economy

August 23, 2011

Penn State researchers Seth Baum, Jacob Haqq-Misra, and Shawn Domagal-Goldman ask a pretty interesting question in their recent paperWould Contact with Extraterrestrials Benefit or Harm Humanity?  A Scenario Analysis”.  Interesting as an inquiry into our real place in the cosmos but also interesting as a starting point in thinking about key aspects of power within the global political economy of us humans.

Any extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) that visits earth, they note, would almost certainly possess far greater technology than us.  The outcome of any contact would therefore depend on whether the ETI had an “ethical framework” of selfishness or universalism – selfish being a desire to maximize its own self interest; universal if its desire was to maximize the interests of everyone, regardless of which civilization they belonged.

The authors create three different scenario buckets for analyzing possible ETI contacts – Beneficial, Neutral, and Harmful.  For this post, we’ll assume our visitors mean well and therefore fall into the Beneficial bucket.  This is the most likely probability according to the article, based largely on the assumption that any species that survives the development of advanced technology would have a cooperative and sustainable ethic.  The authors claim that a cooperative ETI could do us a lot of good in that an “advanced ETI may be capable of solving a great many of humanity’s problems such as world hunger, poverty, or disease.

But this raises a very crucial political economy question: how would we expect our human leaders to react to a friendly ETI offer to, say, provide the technology to permit everyone on earth to live full and prosperous lives?  Sadly, the answer is fairly obvious.  How would the auto industry respond to the idea of free advanced transportation for all?  Or the agricultural industry to free and unlimited food?  Or Wall Street to the elimination of debt and arbitrage?  Or anyone with great power to the prospect of losing it?  The truth is that a visit from a friendly ETI would be the worst of all scenarios for those at the pinnacle of prestige and power since their positions in society would be catastrophically destroyed.  We should expect any government that represented these interests to do all in its power to suppress and contain the dire threat of a friendly ETI.

The dynamic would seem very similar to that of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov when he faces Jesus reappearing in Spain during the Spanish Inquisition.  Recognizing the threat the returning Jesus posed to the existing power structure, the Grand Inquisitor immediately throws him in jail.  Here’s a few quotes from the Grand Inquisitor to Jesus – how easy it is to visualize the exact same conversation addressed to the ETI.

Why, then art Thou come to hinder us? .… I shall condemn Thee and burn Thee at the stake as the worst of heretics.…  (F)or nothing has ever been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom….  Oh, never, never can they feed themselves without us!… No science will give them bread so long as they remain free….  In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us ‘Make us your slaves, but feed us’…. They will understand themselves, at last, that freedom and bread enough for all are inconceivable together.… They will be convinced, too, that they can never be free for they are weak, vicious, worthless, and rebellious…. We shall deceive them again, for we will not let Thee come to us again.  We shall show them that they are weak, that they are only pitiful children, but that childlike happiness is the sweetest of all.  Go, and come no more – Come not at all, never, never!

We actually have firm confirmation that those in power would behave this way because that’s in fact the way they’re behaving now.  The human race doesn’t require the technology of an ETI to solve its problems; we already have in hand the needed knowledge, manpower, and technology.  Do we not have the technology to produce food for all, to provide proper shelter, clothing, health care, transport, and all important material wants?  I think it’s clear our technology has been sufficient for quite some time.  It’s not being done because it’s not beneficial to the current distribution of power.  It’s not profitable.

We don’t know if ETI is visiting earth today but we do know it’s a very taboo subject in the United States.  There’s actually quite a bit of fairly convincing evidence that ETI may in fact be here – see for example the Cometa Report written by senior French military officials or a good recent book “UFO’s – Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record” by Leslie Kean.  Influential International Relations theorist Alexander Wendt along with Raymond Duvall consider the apparent failure of the United States and other governments to take the UFO phenomenon seriously in light of this extensive evidence to be an “animating puzzle” they attribute to the “threat it poses to the anthropocentric metaphysics of modern rule”.

From the standpoint of modern rule, therefore, the threat of the UFO is not unlike that of the Christian’s Second Coming, a potential materialization of the metaphysical.

The physical threat, of course, is that ET presence in “our” solar system would indicate a vastly superior technology to human beings’, raising the possibility of conquest and even extermination. (In this respect it matters greatly that They might be Here, rather than far away as in the SETI scenario.)

The ontological threat is that even if the ETs were benign, their confirmed presence would create tremendous pressure for a unified human response, or world government. The sovereign identity of the modern state is partly constituted in and through its difference from other such states, which gives modern sovereignty its plural character. Any exteriority that required subsuming this difference into a global sovereignty would threaten what the modern state is, quite apart from the risk of physical destruction.

Regardless of whether or not ETI is visiting earth and, if so, whether the fact is being suppressed by psychological fears or simple power interests, is it not reasonable to conclude we’re being ruled today by aliens?  Alien in the sense of being alien to the needs of humanity; in the refusal to solve key human needs even though we have it well within our ability to do so.  This failure, in its essentials, is exactly the same as if ETI technology existed but the rulers hid it and kept it to themselves.  If we were to assign a scenario bucket for our rulers, it would certainly be the one marked “Harmful”.

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