The Rich’s Search for the Key to Immortality Is Harmful to the Rest of Us

Many oligarchs are convinced that eternal life is a class birthright. It doesn’t matter that the elixir of life everlasting is likely a fantasy — it’s the quest itself that results in social and legal architecture that gives the rich unacceptable power.

Detail from The Allegory of Immortality, by Giulio Romano, c. 1540. (Detroit Institute of Arts via Wikimedia Commons)

Immortality is one of those concepts that is likely more appealing in the abstract than in practice. As a species with a tendency toward excess, the idea of prolonging our life span to exponentially greater lengths is, ironically, a death sentence for ourselves and those with whom we share the planet. But practical issues of production, consumption, pollution, and habitable space aside, extreme life spans present a class issue.

The eternal life industry is already the purview of the ultra-wealthy, who fund research into extending human life spans. This research, as with blood and tissue economies generally, has a deeply unsettling relationship with black markets and exploitative global supply chains. And it is this morally dubious aspect of the robber baron pursuit of deathlessness that makes the entire enterprise suspect. Even if the quest for immortality hits up against physical limits, the social architecture resulting from the commission of the quest ensures that it is the rich who will be first in line to reap the benefits of any goods that research might yield.

Plutocracy as Immortality

As Maggie Harrison writes in Futurism, one potential and disconcerting result of immortality would be the capacity to compound wealth forever. Given that wealth is power, the capacity to compound wealth over extreme periods of time implies a capacity to compound power over extreme periods of time, further consolidating and concentrating it, further entrenching oligarchy and class hierarchy. To take a nip from the holy grail — guaranteeing imperishable title and wealth — plutocrats need only repeal inheritance taxes.

In December, I wrote about how the promises of automation and artificial intelligence tend to serve the capitalist class over the rest of us. Despite the Left’s tradition of utopian hopefulness regarding robots, we ought to be wary of claims that technology is inherently liberating. While they may ease burdens and improve quality of life, technological advancements aren’t slam-dunk tools for liberation if they are owned and controlled by the few. We ought to apply the same big flashing klaxon warning to technologies that extend our life span. Indeed, such technologies may be even more dangerous and inimical to class liberation if they are not democratized.

The science of longevity is concerned with more nuanced goals than mere attempts to “live forever.” We can conceptually separate biomedical interventions aimed at curing disease or restoring biological functions from research in pursuit of keeping humans alive indefinitely. Late last year, a new variety of Crispr gene editing, which is a technology often discussed alongside the quest for immortality, saved a teenager’s life in the United Kingdom, sending her cancer into remission. It is an obvious and unmitigated good to save the lives of teenagers with cancer. When discussing technologies aimed at extending life — or eliminating aging and death — we ought to thus distinguish between ends.

Deathless Overlords

In 2018, Jon Christian wrote about the class dangers resulting from the pursuit of immortality. He quoted former Facebook president Sean Parker, who said, “Because I’m a billionaire, I’m going to have access to better health care . . . I’m going to be like 160 and I’m going to be part of this, like, class of immortal overlords.” This is cartoon villain stuff, but Parker’s quotation reveals the logic of the ultrarich, who tend to betray their sense of entitlement and grandiose plans in their flippant musings.

Technology, like workers, is there to serve them and their ends, whether those ends are capital accumulation or immortality. And as with capital accumulation, when it comes to extending life, there is to be a class of long-lived “overlords” and those who orbit them and enjoy the leftover scraps of their largesse.

Because life-extending technologies are bound up with power, they ought to be democratized so that no single class has structural access to them over any other class. Health care is a public good that ought to be shared by all. Privatized biomedical industries, however, work against that imperative.

One might be inclined to say that those who invest their capital in an industry take on a risk whose benefits, should things go well, they ought to enjoy. One might also say that it is not the business of the state to prevent individuals from enjoying the fruits of these labors, even if they are limited to the few over the many. That is, of course, the logic of private health care. If one can afford to go their own way on care, why should the state or anyone else prevent them from doing so? On this view, one’s private care has nothing to do with the public. This may be so, but it’s clearly a morally impoverished position and a grotesque way to organize health provision.

Expropriating Methuselah

When it comes to the quest for immortality, one’s access to attendant technologies is inherently public, since the potential compounding advantages of it will no doubt shape economic, social, and political outcomes. When we talk about the ultra-wealthy living to well-beyond one hundred years old, or, in theory, forever, it becomes obvious that we are no longer simply talking about one’s private medical care. The ability to hoard wealth and exercise compounding power over extraordinary periods of time — and thus to shape the world for the many — is intrinsically public in nature and must be treated and regulated as such.

We have a long history of adopting, and even normalizing, technologies before wrapping our heads around the ethical implications of them. When it comes to technological leaps, we often find states slow to regulate and protect the public good. In some cases, for instance social media, the lag time on sorting out the attendant problems can be decades — if the problems ever get sorted at all.

It’s not for nothing that the words of Ian Malcolm, Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park, have stood the test of decades and taken on their own meme-life. “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could,” says Malcolm, in awe and wonder and fear, “they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

With the pursuit of immortality, we face the same problem, except we have a class of oligarchs who are convinced eternal life is not just a good idea, but a class birthright. We can debate whether the idea itself is a good one — I doubt it — but we ought to begin by insisting that unless life everlasting can be a right extended to everyone who wants it, it should not be extended to anyone. If research into life-extending tech is democratically determined to be a social good worth having, whatever benefits the search produces must redound to the public good. If not, it should be abandoned. At the same time, we should do what we can to forestall and dismantle all traces of elite immortality in our tax codes, laws, and politics. We need immortal robber barons — or their ghostly legal constructions — like we need an eternal class of parking enforcement officers.