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Transhumanism: A Progressive Vision of the Future or Liberal Capitalism's Last Ideological Resort?
1  Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) - Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis (KIT-ITAS)


As an organised socio-cultural and increasingly politically active movement, transhumanism is a rather new phenomenon. It has its roots in those segments of US society in the 1970s and 1980s which – against the backdrop of wide-ranging expectations concerning the ‘Space Age’ – merged ideas and habits of the counter-culture of the 1960s with strong, often quasi-religious hopes for a future society shaped by science-fictionesque high-tech  (Schummer 2009; McCray 2012). While this proto, or early transhumanist movement already evolved within some organisational networks of structures (e.g. the L5 Society which promoted the colonisation of extra-terrestrial space), organisations specifically dedicated to the promotion of transhumanism as an encompassing worldview emerged only in the 1990s. Since then, we have witnessed some organisational re-shuffles within the movement and recently the emergence of (small) political organisations of transhumanists, including some (very small) national political parties.

In order to adequately assess the current relevance of transhumanism, it would, however, be short-sighted if we only look at the organised movement in a narrow sense. Much of its current relevance is due to fact that is embedded in a much broader socio-cultural milieu which includes, for example, major figures of the IT industry. The propinquity to transhumanism displayed by influential networks in the IT industry and other powerful elements of digital capitalism (e.g. in US science policy) has been pointed out in policy-oriented and ethical discourses on various fields of science and technology (such as nanotechnology) for quite some time now. Since the late 2000s, we have witnessed, however, a surge of broader public interest in the question to what extent transhumanism plays a role in the visions of the future, or even in the short-term business strategies of key players in digital capitalism. As such, transhumanism is often deemed a radical variant of what has been termed ‘Californian ideology’ (Barbrook and Cameron 1996).

The surge in public interest has entailed a considerable amount of mass media reporting (e.g. McCracken and Grossman 2013), which in turn created some interest by policy makers in this topic; and we have also seen an increase of anarchist, socialist or ecologist critiques, for example in France (PMO 2015) and in Germany (Jansen 2015; Wagner 2015). On the other hand, some fashionable currents of the Left, such as accelerationism, have brought forward notions of progress and of emancipation through technology closely resembling some such transhumanist notions.

This brings us to another – and, as will be argued, crucial – aspect of transhumanism, namely the fact that the transhumanist movement of our times is in many respects deeply indebted, if indeed not merely epigonic, to thinkers in the last third of the nineteenth and the first third of the twentieth century which developed, even in some technical detail, genuinely transhumanist visions of the future. For our discussion, this aspect is crucial because these thinkers tended to, or openly promoted socialist visions of the future in which the creation of a socialist world society is portrayed as the basis of a much larger endeavour of the human (and increasingly cyborgised, transhuman) species, namely the conquest of extra-terrestrial space by a civilisation in which the human intellect is embodied in technoscientific devices.

In the present paper, it is argued that, in order to answer the question raised in the title of this workshop – namely if transhumanism should be seen as a “proper guide to a posthuman condition” or deemed a “dangerous idea” –, we first have to ask in which visions of a future society transhumanism is embedded. While much of discourse on transhumanism since the late 1990s has focused on a perceived dichotomy of (ultra-)liberal and individualist, largely US-American transhumanism versus a variety of anti-individualist (conservative, ecologist or socialist) critiques of transhumanism, a historical perspective may allow us to better understand the multi-faceted ideological character of transhumanism. As has been argued (Coenen 2014), the increasing relevance of transhumanism in current discourse on science, technology and the future demonstrates that global players in today’s digital capitalism still follow an agenda which was developed in Britain in the heyday of imperialism and after the Great War as a reaction to a perceived crisis of progressive thinking and as a contribution to the establishment of technoscience in society. Notwithstanding its focus on individual choices, the ideological foundations of current transhumanism are thus collectivistic. Due to its largely quasi-religious character, transhumanism could and can be an element of politically quite different projects, such as British imperialism, scientistic communism and ‘digital capitalism’; and current transhumanism, as an ideology for technoscience, still expresses the belief in a grand narrative about the future of humankind in which technoscience is portrayed as a means of salvation.

In light of the strange fact that the transhumanist grand narrative about the future has fascinated, and continues to fascinate representatives of a wide variety of political persuasions, it appears advisable to analyse the question of the desirability of transhumanism against the backdrop of different societal visions and political stances evident in the history of transhumanism. With a view to the above-mentioned current political discussions about the role transhumanism in our ‘digital age’, we may then first ask if transhumanism provides us with a progressive vision of the (far) future of our species, or if it should better be deemed liberal capitalism's last ideological resort, competing with nationalist and (openly) religious ideologies. On the basis of such an analysis, more specific questions concerning the desirability of transhumanism can be raised, for example with regard to the potential consequences of its rise for the goal to create a sustainable global society.


Barbrook, R., Cameron, A. (1996): The Californian Ideology. Science as Culture 6(1), 44-72

Coenen, C. (2014): Transhumanism and its Genesis: The Shaping of Human Enhancement Discourse by Visions of the Future. Humana.Mente. Journal of Philosophical Studies 26, 35-58

Jansen, M. (2015): Digitale Herrschaft. Über das Zeitalter der globalen Kontrolle und wie Transhumanismus und Synthetische Biologie das Leben neu definieren. Schmetterling, Stuttgart

McCracken, H., Grossman, L. (2013): Google vs. Death. Time, 30 September 2013 (title story)

McCray, P. (2013): The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future. Princeton University Press, Princeton

PMO (Pièces et main d’œuvre) (2015): Transhumanisme: du progrès de l’inhumanité;

Schummer, J. (2009): Nanotechnologie. Spiele mit Grenzen. Suhrkamp (edition unseld), Frankfurt am Main

Wagner, T. (2015): Robokratie: Google, das Silicon Valley und der Mensch als Auslaufmodell. PapyRossa, Köln