The Ascenturian Collectives

Borg Cube with Enterprise D.wideWhat are the ascenturians? A movement? A revolution? A collective? Although I began by calling them 'a movement', I would suggest that of all these terms, only 'collective' could possibly apply to the science fictional people capable of taking human civilisation a further 48 centuries to the Tenth Millennium. Yet 'collective' is a risky phrase to take on in the context of sci-fi. After all, the most famous deployment of this phrase comes from Star Trek: The Next Generation's Borg Collective. Why would you even want to suggest a comparison with something that has this as its monstrous chat up line:

We are the Borg. Lower your shields and surrender your ships. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.

I think it's clear that the Borg's use of the term 'collective' is euphemistic. A better descriptor for the Borg's modus operandi would be 'empire', and they represent the science fiction exemplar of technocratic empire. In fact, it is easy to rewrite the Borg's opening gambit for use by the ancient Roman Empire, once we knock out contemporary terms like 'biological', 'technological', and indeed 'culture':

We are the Roman Empire. Lower your shields and surrender your ships. We will add your people and tools to our own. Your tribes will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.

Whatever the imaginary ascenturians might be, they are certainly not an empire. But it would be equally wrong to call what is being proposed 'the ascenturian movement' or 'the ascenturian revolution'. All of these terms - movement, revolution, collective - are metaphors of motion, and the images they conjure align with how these terms are used in our language.

Movements have a direction; they start by mobilising people sympathetic to their cause into aligning with their chosen direction, and end by incorporating that direction into everyone in society by reconciling with those that at first had to be opposed. I admire political movements, although it has been half a century since the last successful one, and the 'left' has seemingly entirely lost the necessary virtues, skills, and communities required to even attempt a successful movement. That's because in the contemporary political landscape we are forbidden to ever contemplate reconciliation with 'the enemy' - and that makes all movements impossible. All that are left are attempts at revolutions.

Revolutions, as the name suggests, tend towards being merely rotations. They seek to replace one set of people or values with another set of people or values - spin the wheel, take your chances! Revolutions have a dubious track record... the American Revolution arguably succeeded, while the French Revolution that followed soon after ended in bloody disaster. The question of whether the Iranian Revolution of 1979 succeeded depends upon what criteria for success you are inclined to count, while the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising was brutally crushed. Generally speaking, revolution rotates the people in power, but it does not by itself bring about social change. In so much as the American Revolution succeeded, it did so because it was both a movement and a revolution... the ideals that were instituted in the Declaration of Independence would come, by slow but inexorable roads, to become the ideals of the British as well. This reconciliation and thus eventual alignment of ideals is the mark of a successful movement.

The progressive and conservative factions that blight political discourse today are not even remotely attempting to work as movements, but are merely posturing for either imagined revolutions ('left') or their prevention ('right'). You might even call them 'unrevolutions', but perhaps their failure to bring about meaningful social change is already embedded in the term, especially if you accept my supposition that the few revolutions that do manage to effect a lasting change might be distinguished as 'revolutionary movements'. Even dignifying contemporary progressive and conservative politics with the name 'revolution' might be too generous. What is a good metaphor for a forceful swirling into ever decreasing circles...? A whirlpool? A vortex? A maelstrom?

Collectives imply motion of a different kind. The imagery here is not of movements in a specific direction, but rather metaphors of gravity and orbits. Saturn can be understood as a collective comprised of the planet, its moons and satellites, along with the disparate particles that are seen to our eyes as rings. Many different things held together by a gravitational system that they all participate in. Ascenturians too can only be a collective in this sense... disparate societies and culture bubbles orbiting around the same truth: the intent of ensuring another 4,800 years of human culture, the hope of human diversity lasting to the Tenth Millennium in some form - and we need not imagine what or how that happens for the thought experiment to render aid to our thinking today.

I suggested in the principle of assembly that the ascenturians might 'assemble a plurality of reciprocal collectives of any viable kind.' The metaphor of Saturn and its satellites provides an image of what 'reciprocal collective' means, but there is a danger here. Our mythos is still dominated by Feudal tendencies: it is not by chance that we talk about Saturn as the entity of merit, and everything else as secondary to it, nor indeed that astronomers felt the need to exile the dwarf planets like Pluto and Eris from consideration as planets. I maintain that 'dwarf planets are planets' on purely pragmatic grounds, and this might even serve as an ascenturian rallying cry if it is understood, because accepting dwarf planets as planets necessarily means admitting we do not know everything about planets yet. Likewise, recognising reciprocal collectives entails admitting we do not know everything about humans yet.

To found reciprocal collectives, or to recognise which societies and culture bubbles are already reciprocal collectives, requires us to appreciate what reciprocity entails, namely co-operation for mutual benefit, exchanges both actual and conceptual within collectives where everyone shares an equal status. Yet 'equal status' is far more flexible than we think. Consider just a few examples from the religious traditions. I have always admired the Jewish community for its lack of overt power structure: Rabbis are as much a part of that community as anyone else. But if we try and contrast this negatively against Catholic Christianity's role for a figurehead for their community, the Pope, we may mislead ourselves - for the Pope is as much a participant in Catholic tradition as any other practitioner, and contrary to the way it is usually understood, Catholics these days follow their own conscience far more than they are blindly obedient to edicts from their symbolic leader. Both examples, the Jewish community and the Catholic magisterium, are examples of reciprocal collectives, as is every major religion that successfully holds together a community, just as Saturn holds together its community of celestial objects.

Neither are religions the only source of reciprocal collectives. What impressed me about the LGBT community of the 1990s was precisely this: it was a collective, one of mutual aid, solidarity and love that endured despite its differences. That it later came to fail in this regard does not undermine its earlier successes, but rather an invitation to renew what has been lost. Similarly, I admire the way those who play games around a table together form reciprocal collectives - both in the sense of the wider community of board gamers and role-players, and also in the sense that playing games together strengthens the unity of a family. So too musicians and their fans, who reciprocate asymmetrically (like Catholics and their hierarchy of clergy) but with the same sense of solidarity and community that every religious community engenders - everyone engaging in the musical collective is brought together by a common love, every gig is its own ceremony of solidarity.

All that is required for a reciprocal collective are people united by a common mythos, common practices, or indeed, actual commons. But they must reciprocate, which is to say, share, hold, or exchange certain things collectively, and they must be a collective, which is to say a community of human interaction. This is not simply a matter of holding certain shared identity characteristics: having ginger hair does not magically create a reciprocal collective, not until those with that mere biological feature begin to relate to one another as a community. Likewise, it is no good declaring that we belong to a reciprocal collective because we have chosen to identify as such-and-such. Whether black, woman, lesbian, Asian, Latino, or whatever, these terms do not mark our reciprocal collectives automatically, and so assertion of identity is not sufficient to claim membership (although neither can it preclude membership). There are indeed black communities, communities of women, lesbian communities, Asian communities, Latino communities (although never Latinx communities) and so forth - but what binds them together is not these identity characteristics, which are incidental rather than essential. It is reciprocity, not identity, which binds any community together, and thus those 'on the outside' who want in must begin by respectfully knocking on the door, or else expect rejection.

Collectives do not preclude movements - they can indeed commence them, as the black Christian community began the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s. Likewise, we could imagine ascenturian movements in terms of steps to bring reciprocal collectives together, but as a whole there could not be an overarching capital 'a' Ascenturian movement in the singular, nor should there be any talk of ascenturianism... The suffixes 'ism' and 'ist' imply a certainty not available to an ascenturian, at least not in the context of thinking about ascenturian ideals. Rather, some ideas, concepts, movements, and collectives can be ascenturianish in their approach to the past, present, and future. More than this would be against the ideals of any imagined ascenturian. This implies that even 'collective' is too restrictive a term. There could not be something we could call 'the ascenturian collective', only many things that we could call 'the ascenturian collectives'. This is something the Borg, by stark contrast, could never permit!  

The progressive maelstrom is too focussed on the future and too divorced from the past, such that it casts out as demons and devils its 'enemies', which starts with its conservative opponents but always risks ending with the condemnation of anyone and everyone. You cannot make a successful movement or collective on the principles of the witch hunt. Progressive politics, as currently practiced, is not only alienated from ascenturian thinking, it is a danger to everyone who cannot keep track of the shifting future it happens to be imagining from one moment to the next. Having enthusiastically severed the rope tying it to the anchor of the past, progressive politics has acquired the schizoid paranoia of the French Revolution, where the heroes of one day are to be executed the day after.

Likewise, the conservative whirlpool, while more predictable in its gyrations than the maelstrom that opposes it, is far too focussed upon the past and insufficiently open to imagining the future. It is not even that great at connecting with the past most of the time, although in the last half century it has surpassed the progressives in this regard, since the most recent progressive attitude towards history is to burn it down entirely as offensive to our present sensibilities. In this regard, and quite paradoxically, the unimaginative, future-blind conservative whirlpool is somewhat easier to imagine leaning into ascenturianish thinking than its progressive opponents.

Crucial to the ascenturian concept is that it is not just about trying to ensure human civilisation celebrates its Tenth Millennium, but that it does so by preserving today's human diversity. This might raise objections. Am I saying racism has to be preserved? That warfare will be part of the future? That superstition will last forever? Well, I think pragmatically that all these things and more, depressing though they might be, will last in one form or another for as long as there are humans. We can try to minimise ignorance, prejudice, and fighting, of course, but we will certainly not achieve this through either empire or revolution, and it is telling that the most vehement attacks on bigotry today have in no way reduced hatred but have merely produced new forms of utterly unrepentant bigots espousing radically new forms of hate.

Neither am I saying that the ascenturians fail if the composition of the collectives of the Tenth Millennium do not contain all the diversity of today. I do not doubt this was never on the cards. Some societies and culture bubbles will fall along the way, some ways of thinking and being will become untenable to future situations we cannot imagine, and new ways of being and thinking will doubtless arise to supplement those we are familiar with now. It is not because ascenturians are obligated to build a human zoo that I claim that their imaginary task is to sustain the present - it is that they must be agnostic to the idea that 'the future is on our side' or that 'only the worthy survive'. For this ugly rhetoric, advanced in one form or another by both progressives and conservatives, is just another way of making enemies, of sustaining hatred, warfare, and ignorance.

Ascenturians do not have enemies, only opponents. While technocracy demands that we all follow one path, ascenturians merely hope that our many paths might yet converge upon the Tenth Millennium. Thus the first and most difficult step towards an ascenturian future is to deny our seductive technocratic desire to enforce a singular understanding upon everyone else, even against their will. The truth can only emerge when our own collective is able to talk to all the others and reveal what is true in all worlds, for the truth is the centre of gravity about which we orbit. It is a mistake to say all those moons and fragments orbit Saturn: the centre of gravity of the Saturn collective just happens to be inside the heaviest object, and its true position cannot be found without counting the contributions from every one of them. Likewise, the truth is forever hidden while the most powerful collective asserts its dominance. Rather, truth emerges from the practice of assembling. Everyone is welcome in the collectives, and nobody can ever declare what might or might not belong to these future collectives. All we can do is try to discover these possibilities together.

Throughout this 'Ascenturian Saga', I have proposed principles that might serve to guide our science fictional ascenturians in their thinking about how to sustain human diversity over a further forty eight centuries... but it could never fall to me or to anyone else to specify such principles in perpetuity. What makes a collective ascenturianish is its commitment to thinking about the future in the constant and reaffirming presence of the past - that is, the ascenturianish tendency is that of imagining a future worth having and sustaining a present worth cherishing, because both are informed by the past that made this particular present come to pass. This positive relationship between past, present, and future is the quintessential aspect of all imaginary ascenturians, for it is only by undertaking such a temporal connection that we can welcome all of human diversity - what has been, what is, what is becoming, and what is yet to come.

I proposed six specific principles for my imaginary vision of ascenturian philosophy, but I only ever meant these as a draft, an unwritten constitution for the collectives that is "merely possible", as Immanuel Kant said of his similarly imagined 'realm of ends'. Kant's moral and political philosophy is one of the many things from our collective past that inspires me in this science fiction adventure... Indeed, my ascenturian philosophy is little more than a specific way of imagining Kant's 'realm of ends', although what I am gesturing at is only bound to Kant's philosophy in the way that any present is bound to its past. These future ascenturians probably won't be Kantian in their thought... but they will still owe a debt to Kant, Mary Wollstonecraft, and all the other thinkers of the Enlightenment, for it is they who sought to unite as 'humans' what had previously been divided by differences presumed to be irreconcilable. Ascenturians are the inheritors of the ideal of the human that has been passed on to us.

Let me end with a confession. If I have tried to present my six principles as viable ways of thinking about the ascenturian problem, I have done so as much through the artifice of the science fiction author as by the conceptual artistry of the philosopher. So as a final rhetorical flourish let me now present these principles in the order that was always intended:

  • The Principle of Assembly: Assemble a plurality of reciprocal collectives of any viable kind.

  • The Principle of Sustainability: Reject accelerating technology for perfectible techniques.

  • The Principle of Commonisation: Create commons that are open to aid in the subsistence of all.

  • The Principle of Elevation: Secure solidarity by eliminating poverty.

  • The Principle of Normalisation: Achieve neutral population growth without abandoning families.

  • The Temporal Principle: Act in the memory of time past and the knowledge of time to come.

For where philosophy cannot persuade, sometimes a good acronym can still manage to take hold. Thus, if you do not wish to think of ascenturians as a future people, you might instead talk about the principles of ASCENT that I have outlined here - not as a gospel to remain unchanged, but as an offering to the present collectives, that we might yet become future collectives capable of healing the break between past (conservative) and future (progressive).

We live in time. Perhaps we should try to discover everything that means to us.

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