Monday, 15 July 2013

The Problems of Political Fiction

Political novels, especially those with a utopian/dystopian flavour, have been formative in the intellectual development of many an ideologue. Some are fairly uncontroversial, for instance 1984's critique of totalitarianism or Animal Farm's superb analysis of Stalinist communism (if one even considers Stalin's reign worthy of the honorific "communist"). Others lead to more contested ideological territory - Ayn Rand's work springs to mind as does Huxley's Brave New World. The former leads many readers to adopt an egoistic moral acceptance and worship of capitalist meritocracy while the latter seems to imbue its critique of hedonistic manipulation of man's nature with a healthy dose of sexual and moral puritanism.

The problem lies in the tension between the impact of the book on the political mind of the reader and its actual empirical value. It is hard to diligently critique the underlying assumptions and values imbued in a novel while reading it; the reader suspends disbelief and allows the author to set the rules. This is innocuous enough in a work of pure fiction, if George R R Martin wants to implicitly condone violence, rape and slaughter of civilians as "normal" within his universe then fine, it needn't spill out further than that - we can, on a limited basis, accept those norms in our reading of his work. It is when a work of fiction steps into the realm of polemic, of political-philosophical tract, that things get muddled. 

In Ayn Rand's universe the poor really are scroungers, moochers, takers; they do not create wealth, they are not exploited but in fact benefit from the schemes of the rich. Technology in Rand-land is the result of single, dedicated inventors who create miracle products - this hero-inventor mythos is patently false, ignoring the contributions of collective scientific advancement in laying the foundations for such advances and the origins of many modern technologies in military R&D projects (the internet for one).

In this alternate reality projects based on "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" really are ego-trips that inevitably lead to a poisonous climate of workers hiding their talents while other big up their needs. Back home on earth, workers are managing factories in Argentina without reliance on the talents of superhero-esque industrialists; in Italy the region of Emilia-Romagna produces 30% of its GDP through co-ops and is thriving for it; Mondragon continues to employ tens of thousands in a network of small, relatively egalitarian, cooperatives; and, collectivised workplaces with total income equality have a proven track record in the short-lived anarchist control of parts of Spain in the Civil War.

Monopolies are just and beneficial - after all, if everyone chooses one provider, why should they not be allowed to supply the entire market (yes, somehow this applies to natural monopolies such as Dagny Taggart's railway project, which miraculously is not a natural monopoly in the novel). The rich are superheroes, geniuses, mavericks, both highly virtuous and wholly selfish (not a contradiction in Rand's topsy-turvy political fiction).

It might not be true, but it is very effective - through simple conditioning the slog through all 1500 pages of Atlas Shrugged left me subconsciously reacting against certain phrases - innocent ideas such as "serving humanity", opposition to "profiteering" and "living for others" triggered mental red flags, brought my mind back to the depictions of Rand's novels - the witless and unsympathetic philanthropist, or the ego-tripping creators of the cooperative factory that set John Galt off on his task to destroy society to protect the privileges of the wealthy.

One striking point is that capitalistic novels are scrubbed clean of sympathetic "weak" characters. Oppressed members of other races, LGBT people, the disabled - all are missing or presumed worthless.

In reading Heinlein's "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress", a sympathetic portrayal of an anarcho-capitalist society on the moon, it is notable that Heinlein makes all women on Luna beautiful, earth diseases are rare to non-existent, all must work and there is no charity yet few appear to starve or go homeless. It is also interesting that very few characters seem to work as permanent employees of others on Luna - Mannie, the protagonist, chooses to do odd jobs because he says he was "born free" - other characters work on a short term basis or own smallholdings and trade goods at market.

Capitalism is invariably portrayed in fiction as involving independent people as bosses or without bosses per se, or toxic workplace hierarchies, or small business owners. It is an idealised vision of voluntary trade in a largely artisan or farming economy - this sidesteps innumerable problems that arise with large scale industrial capitalism. The idea of egoistic individuals promoting their own wellbeing, looking out only for themselves, is talked a lot in Heinlein and Rand's work but the pure egoist is never really shown - family and custom always constrain these "rational egoists"

Heinlein's work is not without merit of course and, aside from being a great read, does provide a lot of new ideas - something sci-fi is able to do very well by distancing us from current norms and models of politics and showing creative alternative models. The exploration of private law is interesting, its take on family structures and gender relations provides food for thought and its anti-authoritarianism is refreshing. The underlying political philosophy, "rational anarchism" is interesting and may be discussed in a later post.

Political fiction needs to be seen as just that, fiction, which doesn't mean it is useless but simply that we should be sceptical - interrogate the novel's premises - ask what the author is assuming and see if it appears to hold true here in the real world.

Now given my interest in politics and my desire to write, it is not unlikely that at some point in the future I may put together some work of political fiction, some unrealistic little utopia offset in a distant galaxy far far away where things function differently than in our parochial little here-and-now world.

In such a case I urge you to treat me with suspicion, dust off this little article and critique me with it.


  1. Don't worry - I do intend to treat your views with suspicion ;)

    1. passive aggressive.