From fission to fusion: The technological germ of a future past

Sociology follows technology. This has always been clear, as much as the following truth: politics follows economics. In language derived from seventeenth-century political theorist James Harrington, the ‘superstructure’ follows the ‘foundation’ of society. According to Harrington’s principle of ‘ballance’, the structure of politics follows the structure of the material world underpinning it. And according to neo-Harringtonian political economist Karl Marx, human society follows the technology employed to manage the Darwinian natural world, of which the Smithian market is an imitation. Competition drives technological development, as liberalism argues. But so does conflict drive technological growth, as realism has contended. And as Marx indicated, technology in turn conditions what kind of society we live in.

Fusion Forever? The State of the Sun.

After the Second World War, the old fossil fuel economy came under increasing strain, with oil crises in the 1970s stimulating a change in political society, with the tempered and hesitant rise of nuclear fission as a high-energy alternative to coal, oil, and gas as the energic bases of the modern economy. Today, the age of nuclear fission is coming to an end, and with it the society of fission which it accompanied. This society failed; and with it, its key technology. The age of fission was never realised because it was a fantasy. The new reality is one not of fission, but if fusion — technologically, and politically. Let me explain.

Nuclear fusion is accelerating faster than we thought. The possibility of generating economically useful energy from fusion — not just weapons of mass destruction — has been raised by investment in research and development in contemporary capitalism. The future of fusion is uncertain. Its necessity, and thus in this sense its inevitability, is clear. In an era of climate collapse and economic crisis, the need for high-energy and high-efficiency technology to power the world economy is more pressing than ever.

Unlike carbon-generating fossil fuels, weather-dependent renewables, and radioactive nuclear fission, the possibility of a stable system of nuclear fusion to sustainably power our teetering terrestrial civilisation is one we should take both seriously and literally. But the analogy goes further. For just as fission was a techno-social order of things, so is fusion a techno-social reordering of people and planet in an era of power and profit.

Nuclear fusion is only the first step towards a new society. The fusion of technology precedes the fusion of society according to the principles of unity and balance, rather than divided imbalance. The old ‘biopolitics’ is set to be replaced by a Terrapolitics of geo-power and eco-profits. The threat of totalitarianism looks large over this brave new world. But such a risk is exacerbated by continuing the status quo, not leaving it. If we adapt to the world as we find it, not as we wish it to be, we will not fall prey to the vain pretences of propaganda and paranoia. We will be realists, not fantasists. We will leave an age of fission and corresponding disunity in favour of an era of fusion and corresponding unity. Is this a utopia?

The threat of dystopia arises from the condition of technological development: war among great powers. Internally totalitarian and externally tyrannical, states will be prey to their technology, not masters of it. A timocracy of technological tyrants will not be favourable to free thought or self-reflection. It will be a parade of narcissistic egoism, and a grim darkness of perpetual warfare will descend, like a cloak, unto a world caught up in the false security of peace and its corresponding complacency.

The investor Peter Thiel has complained that the left fears war more than the other risk: totalitarianism. Indeed, for liberal realist Francis Fukuyama, the ‘deep state’ is preferable to its alternative: a return to nineteenth-century patronage ties and an age of renegade oil barons. Thiel ironically implies this is true by comparing Saudi Arabian state religion (Wahhabism) to woke liberalism, by distinguishing their technological springs: oil and silicon-based high tech. Both, as it happens, are relevant to U.S.-China conflict, which pivots on the sourcing of semiconductors from Taiwan and oil to, through, and from the South China Sea. We are still in the old world. The new world of nuclear techno-politics is yet to be born. The old world of Earth-bound geo-politics remains the lord of our lives. Perhaps one term for the eco-illogical economy of material extraction and moralistic exorcism for monetary gain is ‘Terrapolitics’. This new age of ultracapitalism is torn between fission and fusion. Imbalance rules even as the need for balance becomes ever-more pressing.

The new rulers are struggling to be born in a world of mistrust parading as faith in one side or the other of a de facto identical and therefore indistinguishable political ‘spectrum’. The LSE’s Professor Christopher Coker refers to the ‘strategic autism’ of geopolitical actors, inexperienced with great power war. Perhaps this could be attributed to social classes in modern trade, too, as what Barbara Ehrenreich has termed the ‘professional-managerial class’ has seized the reigns of market power. Rather than balancing capital and labour, the ‘PMC’ drives these classes to madness at the idiocy of their mediators in the middle. In this ‘narcissistic society’, as Christopher Lasch diagnosed our postmodern condition, there is only the fantasy of the ego. Reality relies on opening our eyes to the crucial condition of real fusion, beyond illusory fission: that you or I might be mistaken. In the terms of Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign run: ‘Not Me. Us.’

If this stylistic injunction can be given the substantial weight of economic civic rights for all, anchored in a techno-social structure of nuclear and organic fusion of society according to principles of real liberty and philosophy, then we might free ourselves from the constraints of our present predicament. In turn, we may risk unleashing the horrors of a new world, and the challenges of ‘cosmopolitics’, as described in the popular science fiction works such as Three-Body Problem and its accompanying ‘Dark Forest’ theory of a Hobbesian fight for survival at a galactic level, where secrecy is the key to power. But our vision of that world is filled with the fear of our own world. And if Buddhism is right about our being in the world, it is hanging onto the past that makes the present worse. Facing the future avoids the hazards of narcissism and hero-worship, by engaging with the open fields of the future on the terms of the future.

These terms are unknown to us. Perhaps they can be best approximated by fusion of our own vocabulary. But even then, we would not understand from the ‘thesis’ and ‘antithesis’ what the future ‘synthesis’ could concretely become. We have to embrace the new age of fusion without getting lost in the act, maintaining the Harringtonian insistence on ‘ballance’ even as Hobbesian ‘Unitie’ becomes an increasingly pressing requirement against the deadly disorder of climate change, capitalism, and the rise of China. Balance may be possible with fusion more than with fission. But possibility is not probability, the calculation of which is nigh-on impossible in our fragile risk societies. The only certainty is uncertainty. That is the real key to whatever the future may hold. In a world of superficial opposition, we face the key to all real change: acceptance.

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