Snakes have always had a powerful hold on the imagination. Easily sliding in and out of various meanings and curling themselves elegantly around others, they have come to represent the highest and the lowest, the peak of wisdom and the pits of illusion, standing for poison and remedy, the fall and the rise through redemption.
Equally revered and despised, they are set apart even by their physical traits: their unusual reduction to pure length, the conspicuous lack of limbs, a body uniformly aligned with the head, and their seamless suit of skin covering their length from top to missing toe, eyes included.
Their reptilian composure, combined with stunning speed and alacrity, their elegant and yet repellant style of propulsion, the thin hiss and the flicker of their forked tongue do not endear them to popular imagination. Add to that their sometimes-poisonous fangs and their uncanny capacity to unhinge their jaw to devour prey many times their size, and fearful reactions become understandable.
Most important for our purposes— the design and introduction of a new set of metaphorical clothes—are their artistic traits: their ability to arrange their scaly fabric into intricate patterns and their readiness to enter the changeroom and redress. Their capacity to take off their old attire and tailor a new body suit marks them as nature’s own fashion designers and agents of transformation.
While they are individually capable of periodic change they are, as a suborder, marked by a curious fate, a retrograde evolution. Vertebrates emerged with the fishes and were followed by soft skinned amphibians who developed limbs. Reptiles continue the evolution of limbs, adding their sealed skin. But snakes lose their limbs on the way. This is a definitely a retrograde movement as the earlier serpents still possessed appendices. This loss of limb, this fall back onto the ground and into the grip of gravity, issues a warning to us who are at the point of taking evolution into our own hands.
To cover the human hand, the most universally capable of all limbs with the scaly fabric of the snake would be a sinister act were it not undertaken for salutary purposes. It may help us to recognize this one step forward, two steps back motion of the snake’s evolutionary dance when we try to take our next step as a political species. Let’s look at the recent past.
The Hiss of History
In the time after the First World War many European monarchies surrendered to the trend of democracy. This first step forward was quickly followed by two steps back into dictatorships: Hitler in Germany, Stalin in Russia, Mussolini in Italy, Franco in Spain, Salazar in Portugal and Horthy in Hungary. The result of these multiple fall backs was World War II. The bite of those wearing the glove and the poison they injected into the life of millions remains among the most terrifying lessons of history.
The European states that rebuilt themselves from the rubble of the catastrophe instituted the democracies we have today. It was certainly progress at the time.
It was two steps forward and only one step back. Forward into relatively successful attempts at parliamentary democracy but backward into what I have characterized as the ‘temporary monarchies’ – the current form of government which requires minimal participation from citizens. This worked for a while. But it does not work any more.
The reasons are complex. One of them is the speed of technological development and another the way that politicians have become part of the machinery that could lead us into an evolutionary cul-de-sac.
The average politician is beholden to a party. Their party in turn is dependent on the success of the national economy. This economy depends on world economy and world economy on multinational corporations whose size and power already exceed that of many nations. The fact that these mega-corporations are in the hands of very few individuals is a threat to democracy. The fact that these enterprises depend on vast and hypercomplex machines and surveillance mechanisms is a threat to civilization as we know it. And the danger that those who still rule over these machines may soon be ruled by them is real.
We usually imagine politicians at the top of the social pyramid when in actuality they are situated at the bottom of the mega-economic complex. More and more they resemble actors pretending to be in charge of powers that have long since left their jurisdiction. They are less and less able to act in the interests of those they represent. They are far too firmly embedded in the system to change it. Central to this system is the uncontested merger of state and economy. United they cannot but conspire through their confluence of interests. This happens by default and not because politicians are bad people. The obvious solution is a thorough separation of economy and state as suggested in the threefold social vision.
The only politician capable of achieving this separation is you and me, which means everyone concerned with the preservation of fundamental rights in the age of technocracy. No one will save our freedom for us. We must do it ourselves by either deploying means of direct democracy or developing them in the first place. Only by wearing the Crown of Grassroots do we have a chance to resist the Snakeskin Glove in its newest and most dangerous iteration: a scaly envelope covering a cold robotic hand controlled by algorithms.
Technology can liberate as well as imprison us. Unless we bend its will to ours, our three steps forward in automation will end in five steps back in de-humanisation. The limb we will lose is our freedom.