Voting, Democracy, and the People

Whenever another election nears, the world fills up with paeans to the power of voting and doom-filled laments about people failing to do their democratic duty. Whenever someone suggests that people should actively avoid voting, no matter how they arrived at this conclusion, they are immediately hit by an immense amount of outrage, usually expressed through various adages about apathy and “getting the governments you deserve.”

When it comes to voting, it would seem, everyone believes that democracy is sacred. (Less so, one might observe, when it comes to basic rights like privacy.)

But democracy is a lot more than voting. In fact, the name itself doesn’t directly say anything about voting; it refers to the power of the people (the demos). Abraham Lincoln most famously described the nature of democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” That is, a government not only controlled by the people and made up of the people, but also acting in service of the people.

It’s hard to argue that such a thing currently exists, or is represented by the current system of elections. In most cases, people are asked to choose between representatives of a financial elite whose interests are exactly opposed to those of the people. Frequently these candidates even form part of a political dynasty, being the second or third of fifth person by that name to rule the country. Choosing which quasi-aristocrat gets to be king is not democracy; it’s monarchy disguised as reality television.

On a fundamental structural level, the voting process is itself geared towards producing the desired results, as various complex, bizarre laws (from what is necessary for a party to be put on ballots to how votes are actually counted) give major advantages to the bigger, established parties. The details vary from country to country, but it’s rarely a clean, straightforward process.

To the degree that any democratic process exists, it is strongly distorted by the power of capital. With most of the world’s wealth owned by a minuscule fraction of the population, in a system that has profit as its core mechanism, the financial elite can push forward the candidates of its preference through mass media, tours, and direct corruption. When parties do exist that attempt to represent the interests of the people, their voices will simply not be heard, or campaigns of misinformation will portray them as dangerous or ridiculous. (Who can forget the media’s obsession with what sort of shirts Yanis Varoufakis wore?) Meanwhile, in times of crisis, when it appears that the regular political entities are not extreme enough in punishing opposition to the system, the financial elites will begin to strongly promote fascist entities, giving them airtime and slowly legitimizing their views.

Even when popular discontent is strong enough to push the establishment parties out of power, popular sovereignty is near to nonexistent. Vast swathes of policy are not determined by elected officials, but by unaccountable transnational organizations, corporate courts, trade agreements, and so on. In the EU, for example, it would be technically illegal for a government to implement any policies that fall outside of neoliberal capitalism. That is to say, not only would a change in economic system be forbidden, even if people vote for it, but even a different track within the same system (such as the various social-democratic paradigms Europe once espoused) are out of the question. The choice is only between various flavours of the same thing.

When an attempt is made to question such antidemocratic systems, the response is a mix of contempt and brutality. Voters are openly told by governing bureaucrats that they made “the wrong choice” and either blackmailed (as in the case of Greece) or just made to vote again (as in Ireland), all the while being terrorized by mass media predictions of doom should the vote not go as desired.

To describe such a process as “democracy” in any but the most superficial of senses is absurd, as is the notion that refusing to participate in this charade somehow constitutes a rejection of one’s rights as a citizen. If none of the things above were true, if there was actually such a thing as popular sovereignty, then perhaps the usual lament of “if only people voted!” would be accurate. Given the circumstances, it is not.

However, questioning the value of voting in the current system is not identical to abandoning democracy. If we keep to Lincoln’s definition of democracy – government of the people, by the people, for the people – then democracy can be fought for in entirely different ways. The people still run the entire machinery of industry. Everything real that is produced by our society is produced through the work of ordinary people. Financial elites, living off exploiting the labour of others, are by definition not indispensable. But without working people, nothing runs. That gives the people an incredible amount of untapped power, which can be harnessed not through voting, but through organization. The power of labour is the heart of democracy, and through it – through claiming power, not begging for it – the system can be changed so that it does truly become democratic.

Precisely because elites fear this power, society is regularly bombarded with a variety of misanthropic narratives. We are told repeatedly that people are stupid, that they cannot be trusted, that we should fear “the mob”. This notion, that democracy must urgently be regulated to safeguard it from ordinary people, has been repeated so often that it’s become something of a truism. In a world constantly on the brink of war, in the midst of an unending economic catastrophe and the biggest refugee crises in decades, we’re warned of the danger posed by the very people who have the least control over anything – or even better, we are told they are at fault, because they got the governments they deserve. It’s an incredible trick, to shift the blame from those wielding power to those suffering the consequences, but this profound misanthropy has been so tightly embraced, particularly in the largely middle-class world of academia and the arts, that it is rarely questioned.

(It’s not a coincidence that today’s art asks such “provocative” questions as “What if we must give up all of our principles to succeed against these horrifying but utterly fictional enemies?” and “What if everyone is secretly awful?” – these narratives are part and parcel of the decay of genuine democracy. Identity politics, with its focus on depicting oppression as something experienced by small, isolated groups of people and demonizing the broad masses of those who do not fit into these categories as the true oppressors serves to further alienate people from each other rather than realize their common democratic power. It is important to mention these two aspects, because the opposition to democracy does not come only from open reactionaries and fascists, but just as frequently from the liberal wing of capitalism.)

The current trend seems to be for political power to be transferred away from what we recognize as the classic capitalist State and towards largely opaque entities that are completely unaccountable. If voting was only a minor part of democracy before, it is increasingly not a part at all. So while it is possible that in some cases, voting will play a part in the struggle for a people’s government, genuine democracy will by definition never be given from above. It can only claimed by the actual demos.

Quick News Update Without Witty Title

What’s happening? A lot is happening!

  • I’m working on a project I can’t tell you about yet.
  • I’m working on another project I can’t tell you about yet.
  • The last bit of The Council of Crows finally clicked into place for me – a pretty amazing bit of story that’s going to make this game a significant part of the overall tapestry in a way I hadn’t quite anticipated. It’s a lot of additional work, but it’s necessary, and I finally feel like I know the full story. I’ll be announcing a release date soon, I hope. We’re getting there!
  • Verena and I are still working on Serious Sam 4, although it’s a quiet phase at the moment, as other stuff gets taken care of.
  • The Talos Principle 2 was announced. Tom and I are co-writing it, of course. But that’s still a ways in the future, actually. Yes, it’s happening, but the main priority is SS4 at the moment.
  • On a more personal note, some of you probably know I’ve been dealing with an increasing sense of depression. We’re making some changes to our living situation to change that. That’s taking a lot of time and effort (and money), but I think it’s incredibly necessary.
  • I feel like this is an important year for me. I’m working on a lot of stuff that I’m very excited about. My mind is constantly full of ideas – for games, books, movies, everything. But at the same time, I urgently need a change of scenery. If that gives me the boost of energy that I need, I’m going to have a metric ton of output in the next twelve months or so.
  • Verena and I have both worked really hard to get to this point, so I really hope this is all going to go well. We have so many cool projects at the moment – some together, some solo, but all of them really exciting. I want to stop wasting time and start telling all these stories! Especialy since there are even more stories waiting to take their place. I can feel the wordy little bastards creeping around in the shadows.

An Authentic Opinion

AUTHENTIC

In online debates, the idea will frequently show up that people who don’t belong to a particular (ethnic, sexual, cultural) group are not only ethically wrong to express an opinion on that group’s political situation, but are in fact incapable of doing so accurately due to being somehow essentially different from people belonging to that group. To put it in different terms, people belonging to these groups – i.e. people who are not white Americans – are fundamentally Other.

Well, since that means I’m fundamentally Other, let me share a tiny bit of my exotic wisdom with you strangers.

In this mysterious Oriental land called Ελλάδα, oppressed for four centuries by the Ottoman Empire, ravaged by world wars, scarred by foreign-backed dictatorships and plunged into ruin by austerity, a truly peculiar phenomenon persists. Yes, in this land populated by the descendants of many peoples, speaking an ancient common tongue, we, the people of the mountains, the islands, the cities, the children of refugees from Asia Minor and Πόντος, we who fought a terrible civil war within living memory… are not all the same.

Yes, dear reader! Astonishing as it may sound, there are vast political divides between us! Though we are all alike to you, in our huts and temples we clash with each other over how to proceed, like barbarians! More than that, such conflicts have a long history, and there are many different movements, some of which even – gasp! – look to countries beyond our own for solidarity. Some of us even embrace ideas developed by… believe it or not… Germans! Even a German Jew!

(Well, we did have one of the biggest and most significant Jewish cities in this world for several centuries, but let’s not confuse you too much.)

So, you see, beyond the cryptic veils of Otherness lie oceans of unfamiliarity! And with that in mind, prepare yourself for the greatest of revelations, a unique insight into the psyche of the Other. When you engage in your surely enlightened defense of our cultural Otherness, bravely guarding our πνευματική ιδιοκτησία, perhaps – in your neverending liberal kindness – consider the following.

Let’s say you are asking two people for their opinion on the great tragedy of modern Hellas. One of them is called Κυριάκος Μητσοτάκης. The other is called David Harvey. One is very Greek, yes? He’ll make a big deal of his Greekness, too, if you ask him. His identity really matters to him. He can sing Greek songs! He might even be able to recite some Greek poetry or something. The other guy is very, very English. The English oppressed the Greeks, right? Slaughtered the Greek resistance after WWII and put Nazi collaborators in power. So the second guy must be really wrong, and it’s really awful of him to express an opinion about a people he cannot understand.

Or what about Φώφη Γεννηματά versus Rosa Luxemburg? The latter is dead, but still, such a German name. And what did the Germans do to the Greeks? Wholesale slaughter. Forced loans. Wiping out the great Jewish city mentioned above. And then, a few decades later, enforced austerity, economic ruin, a total undermining of democracy. The Germans must be the enemies of the Greeks! Surely a German woman could never have a clearer, more useful opinion than a true authentic Greek like Ms. Gennimata!

But as I suggested, we strange Greek tribes with our foreign gods and our restaurants and our μπουγάτσες and our men who shout “opa!” for no reason, are not all the same. And the people who appear authentic to you, the people who care the most about ethnicity and identity, are the worst scumbags in the land. Wait, that didn’t sound exotic enough. They are the worst μαλακισμένα φασιστοσκουλήκια του κερατά in the land.

The people who come closest to your conception of authenticity, identity, appropriation, and so on – the heroic soldiers of Golden Dawn – are actual fascists. You are supporting fascists. Fascists are bad in our country, master. We no like them.

And the others, the evil Eurocentric socialists? Those are the people who are on our side. Those are the people whose analyses are actually accurate, whose ideas do describe our situation, and who are part of our fight. In fact, it’s not our fight, it’s just one big fight and we’re all in it together, because we’re humanists and internationalists. Αλήθεια! It’s not that those people are the rare foreigners who get the Greek stamp of approval. It’s that they’re not foreigners. They’re comrades.

At least according to me, and I must be right, because I’m authentic. So give up your segregationist ideas and join the revolution, or I’ll be offended.

Error and Sin

It is not because angels are holier than men or devils that makes them angels, but because they do not expect holiness from one another, but from God alone.

– William Blake

One of the major issues any social group has to figure out how to deal with is disagreement. Disagreement is inevitable, a natural result of human intelligence and diversity. But what happens when someone has a different opinion about something you are truly passionate about, an issue that defines your worldview? How do you treat this person now?

How do you classify this discrepancy?

You could classify it as a sin. That is, you could see it as a moral failing, a sign that there is something reprehensible about the other person’s innate characteristics. A sin is an individual matter, to be solved on an individual basis, usually through a public display of repentance. The alternative is usually some form of shunning, as no-one wants to surround themselves with people who are fundamentally bad.

You could also classify it as an error. That is, you could see it as an intellectual failing, a sign that the person has failed to correctly connect the dots, or has not been exposed to the correct information. This is not a moral matter, and very frequently it is not even an individual matter, but the result of systemic problems. The solution comes through logical argumentation and exposure to information. If that leads nowhere, the person may be deemed incapable of currently changing their mind, but that does not necessarily mean shunning, since no moral judgement has been made.

The difference between these approaches is particularly relevant when dealing with individuals with whom we share common goals or interests. Let’s take libertarians as an example. I’m a socialist. What is my goal, as a socialist? A society in which all human beings are truly free and capable of reaching their fullest potential. What is a libertarian’s goal? A society in which all human beings are truly free and capable of reaching their fullest potential. What do I think would happen if we all embraced libertarian politics? I think we’d end up living in a nightmarish dictatorship of capital where none of us would be free and human potential would be utterly wasted. But, crucially, that’s not what the libertarian is actually aiming at. I believe the libertarian analysis of economics and the libertarian understanding of power are utterly wrong; but I don’t think they’re evil. A libertarian can still be my friend. I can believe a libertarian is a good person, or at least that their being a libertarian has little bearing on their quality of character.

The same can go for a feminist. I believe in the liberation of all people from oppressive social roles. In fact, I believe in the abolition of all group-based social roles. I am a socialist because I believe in a better individualism. That means that the liberation of women (and gay people and trans people and so on) is an utterly essential part of creating a socialist society. However, unlike many feminists (though not all), I do not believe this can be accomplished through identity politics or similar means, but can only happen through a universalist movement aimed at abolishing the class structure of society. But neither of us wants women to be oppressed.

To some degree, when people are honest about their beliefs, this can and must be extended further. For cultural and historical reasons that go back hundreds if not thousands of years, people frequently hold positions that are profoundly erroneous, yet not intended to do harm. In many societies, for example, both men and women commonly hold sexist views – that is, they believe in restrictive gender roles. But sexism does not necessarily equal misogyny. Tradition is a powerful influence, and the idea that “this is what society is like, this is what’s normal, this is what people should do” is difficult to shake. When parents, for example, attempt to impose culturally-based restrictions on their children, they are frequently acting on the belief that this course of action will result in a happier outcome. It’s important to be clear that this is frequently tragically wrong and the cause of much misery in the world, but at the same time that does not mean it should be equated with the actions of deranged antisocial individuals who act out of hatred and resentment.

That is not to say that there are not those whose views are truly repugnant, or whose clear hypocrisy is not worth engaging with. But a systemic rather than personal view at least allows us to understand that such individuals are also not necessarily evil; their errors may simply be so fundamental and so strongly reinforced by society that it would take a radical change in the structure of said society for such individuals to ever change, or for similar people to turn out differently some day. That makes some people our enemies, but it is not against their personal morality that we struggle, but against the conditions that turned them into who they are.

Of course, the usefulness of all this depends entirely on your winning condition. What are you trying to accomplish? Are you trying to change the world? Do you believe it’s possible to win? Or are you trying to achieve a personal sense of moral purity in a world that cannot get better?

To understand disagreement in terms of error is to allow for the possibility of learning, for the possibility of change. Not just for others, but for yourself – the same mechanics apply to everyone, and that in turn leads to evolution, to an improvement and convergence of ideas that makes cooperation possible. The logic of sin, however, leads to loneliness. It may achieve a feeling of superiority, enhanced occasionally by confession, but the only change it leads to is personal. Constant moral judgement tears apart the bonds between human beings, who are after all not only fallible, but incredibly varied in their ideas of what is right and what is wrong.

In the end, from the point of view of the system, it hardly matters what flavour of sin you’re after. It doesn’t make a difference whether you’re hunting witches or bourgeois infiltrators, TERFs or the enemies of gaming. What matters is that you’re hunting individuals, living on outrage, never seeing the bigger picture. “All sin tends to be addictive,” W.H. Auden remarked, “and the terminal point of addiction is what is called damnation.” But there’s a reason Jesus admonished people not to judge, lest they be judged themselves. Those who constantly look for sin in others are themselves damned.

Strangely, then, it is in the systemic view, the impersonal view, that we can find a kind of grace. Empathy is more likely when we stop thinking in moral terms. Forgiveness is easier when we think historically. And justice may be more achievable if we worry less about criminals.

If there is to be any hope, we have to stop looking for sinners and start looking for solutions.

 

Links! 26/04/2016

straton

Whoa, there’s a lot of stuff going on right now. Big projects to work on, major decisions to make, that sort of thing. Also been violently, explosively sick a few times. So there hasn’t been much time for updates. Here’s the most important stuff:

  • I’m going to be at Reboot Develop. I’ll be doing a talk called “Narrative Depth, Literally” (about narrative structure, using The Talos Principle as an example) and also participating in a panel about storytelling in games. If you’re there, come say hi.
  • The Council of Crows got greenlit, which means it will make its debut on Steam, where people might actually hear about it. Now I just need to finish it.
  • Have you seen the reviews posted on the Lands of Dream site? Reviews of things from the Lands of Dream, that is. There will be more soon.
  • There was also this lovely interview with Ontological Geek in which I got to talk about literary influences, politics, and other stuff.
  • If you speak Greek, there’s also this interview I did over at Adventure Advocate, although I was quite sick at the time and don’t clearly remember what I said.

Seas and Crows

TSWCE

The Sea Will Claim Everything is now on Steam.

The Council of Crows is now on Steam Greenlight.

You can also get The Sea Will Claim Everything via the Humble widget on its Lands of Dream page.

We’ve been working on the Lands of Dream for, what, a decade now? I’m not good at doing the whole “selling yourself” thing, but I’m quite proud of what we’ve created. It’s a world, a strange and interesting and unique world with a life all of its own. It is rich in themes and imagery, deeply interconnected to literature and poetry, and full of shockingly daft jokes. And it’s not just games, it’s also the Oneiropolis Compendium and the children’s book and even the website itself, all part of this huge tapestry of stories.

I think it’s some of my best writing, but none of it would have been possible without my collaborators. Verena Kyratzes not only draws the graphics, she’s also an equal partner in the design process, coming up with all kinds of ingenious ideas. Helen Trevillion created amazing music for the first few games, bringing out the grace and beauty I wanted the Lands of Dream to have despite all the silliness. I didn’t think anyone could have kept the spirit of that music alive, but Chris Christodoulou has done so and gone even further, and his scores elevate everything we do.

We’re all extremely grateful to our kind and patient fans, who have supported us over the years even as we sometimes take ages to finish anything. A habit we are now trying to break by making some changes in our lives.

If you would like to support our games, the best thing you can do right now – apart from buying them, or buying copies for your friends, relatives, and/or enemies – is to write reviews on Steam. What we’re particularly keen on is reviews that explain why you enjoyed The Sea Will Claim Everything. It’s a strange game, after all, and one of our biggest challenges is just getting people to give it a go. Any positive review is hugely appreciated, of course, but what would be particularly brilliant would be reviews that are useful to other players, helping them to make up their minds about whether this is their sort of thing. Thanks!

Folks who’ve already bought the game: see the previous post. We’re working on getting Steam keys to you, although in a few cases it may take a few more days, depending on factors beyond our control. You’ll definitely get them sooner or later!

Some of you may also end up getting more than one key. Do us a favour and give it to a friend who might enjoy the game. Word of mouth is a big deal.

No doubt we are in for a whole bunch of confusion, chaos, and tech support. But we’ll try to do our best. If there’s a problem, get in touch and we’ll see what we can do. And most importantly of all, enjoy your time in the Lands of Dream.

TSWCE coming to Steam soon

morris

Good news, everyone!

The shiny new updated version of The Sea Will Claim Everything will finally be released on Steam on Thursday, March 24th, which also happens to be the birthday of William Morris. Did you know that Morris was not only a texture designer, translator, and a poet, but also a wonderful mythopoetic writer who inspired Tolkien? And a socialist on top of all that? Yep, he was a pretty cool guy. Read some of his books.

Where was I? Right. Steam.

I’ll be posting more about all this in the next few days, but for now I wanted to quickly answer a popular question: what about people who bought the game elsewhere?

If I was better at this whole capitalism thing, I’d probably give TSWCE 2.0 a subtitle and claim it was a completely new version, to be sold separately. But to be honest, while it’s much improved and does contain all kinds of small new things, that seems like cheating to me. Besides, I’m aware that we have a lot of fans who can’t easily afford to buy more games, and I know how much being poor sucks. (We’re not exactly wealthy ourselves, despite being better off than a few years ago.) So you can have the game if you’ve bought it before.

Here’s how:

  • If you bought the game via Humble, your account should get a Steam key assigned to it.
  • If you bought the game via FastSpring, you’re going to get a Humble copy.
  • If you backed Ithaka of the Clouds on Indiegogo, you’re getting a Steam key via email.

In case you bought it via a defunct website:

  • If you bought the game via Bundle in a Box or IndieRoyale or Desura, please send me a proof of purchase (order email, Paypal receipt, screenshot, anything like that) and I will send you a key.

If you end up having more than one Steam key, consider giving one away to a friend.

The Good Stuff

Gatsby

I’ve been depressed lately.

OK, bit of an understatement there. It’s actually been pretty crippling. On some days I barely function.

I’m not going to bore you with the details, except for the one relevant bit: most of the reasons I’m depressed are not personal. My work’s going well and my marriage is a source of constant happiness. No,  the reasons are largely external, and right now I only want to talk about one of them: the relentless negativity of the internet.

I don’t just mean the various reactionary trolls (liberal or conservative flavour doesn’t make much difference when it comes to segregationist misanthropic assholes) or other outright destructive behaviour. I mean the general negativity that seems to dominate the culture these days: the attitude that never engaging with anything, dismissing whatever you don’t immediately understand, constantly posing as a world-weary cynic whose only source of pleasure is nostalgia for particular brands, somehow constitutes being a healthy human being.

It’s almost like the internet wants things to be bad. People signal their belonging to “geek culture” by hating the right things, even if they’ve never seen or read or played them. It’s just what you do to show you belong, a hollow, ritualistic gesture. And then there’s signalling your moral superiority by hating things other people like. X is racist sexist transphobic heteronormative misogynoir filth! Y is SJW propaganda for cultural Marxists! How dare you like it! My group is above such things! It doesn’t matter whether it’s in any way factually true that Lana Wachowski secretly hates black people or Fury Road was written by feminist academics bent on destroying American classics that are actually Australian.

What matter is that you be seen hating the right thing.

And don’t get me wrong, talking about a work of art you hated can be fun, and so can listening to someone else take it apart. I enjoy Zero Punctuation. I am entertained by the Cinema Snob taking apart some crappy religious movie. But you know what? Most people aren’t as talented or as funny as the guys running those shows. And even under the best of circumstances, too much sarcasm can become mind-numbing, and if you focus too much on things you hate, you’ll start seeing things to hate everywhere. That happened to me with Battlestar Galactica, a TV show so profoundly misanthropic it actually made me start seeing misanthropy everywhere – even in shows that were truly great and didn’t deserve my scorn. I don’t want to be in that headspace.

Every now and then I end up seeing a terrible movie or reading a terrible book, and I come up with some snarky things to say about it. And I think… why? What am I contributing to the world with these remarks? Like I said, well-done criticism by funny people is something I approve of, but would you really be surprised that a Marxist ended up walking out of the sneak preview of Michael Bay’s Benghazi movie? What’s the point in telling you how much I disliked The Force Awakens? Am I doing anything other than contributing to the noise that’s threatening to drown out our humanity?

One of the most awful things about this fashionable negativity is the consensus that builds around certain works of art that have been labelled Bad. Some of my very favourite artistic productions (for example: the Matrix sequels, True Detective season 2) are not just disliked, but dismissed in a profoundly anti-intellectual way which doesn’t even try to engage with their complexities. What I find particularly worrying about these attitudes isn’t that someone disagrees with me, but the quasi-religious certainty and importance which is attached to these opinions. As I said above, hating specific works of art has become a signifier for belonging to specific groups, and actually knowing these works or trying to understand them on their own terms is irrelevant, while any disagreement is met with the kind of baffled disbelief rapidly mounting into anger that I associate with extremely conservative religious people finding out I don’t believe in God.

You have to keep in mind that many of today’s classics were dismissed in their own time. Blade Runner. The Great Gatsby. Moby-Dick. Pretty much the complete works of William Blake. You can make endless lists of works that were mocked as obviously awful and ridiculous that are now thought brilliant, groundbreaking, ahead of their time, and so on. And I wonder – is this attitude making it much harder for unjustly hated works to ever be recognized? If Blade Runner came out today, and the internet decided it was the biggest piece of shit ever made – “it ruined my love of Philip K. Dick books I pretend to have read!” – would the film still become a classic? If it became a byword for “bad adaptation” like the Matrix sequels have become bywords for “bad sequel”, referenced online not as a film but as a kind of code for tribal belonging, would anyone ever start engaging with it more deeply?

There’s obviously not a whole lot I can do to change these attitudes on my own, although they do depress me. But what I can do, and what I want to try doing far more from now on, is to focus on the good stuff. Instead of joining in with the chorus of negativity, or wasting my time trying to disprove the consensus on this or that work, I want to point out what I think is good. To talk about why I enjoy a certain movie or book or game. To direct your attention to good stuff you might have missed, to reasons for loving things, not hating them. (That’s why I wrote about Far Cry 2 and Austerity Ecology instead of terrible games I’ve played or ridiculous books I’ve read.)

And if I have nothing positive to say about someone else’s work, then I want to put more good things into the world myself. More stories, more ideas, more everything. I started updating the Lands of Dream site regularly. I finished the new version of The Sea Will Claim Everything (release date to be announced soon). I’m trying to find the strength to finish all my other projects. And we’re trying to move to a place that’s less soul-crushing than Frankfurt. I’m depressed, but focusing on that depression isn’t going to help. What helps – as the second season of True Detective illustrated – is doing our best to fight the good fight, even if we lose.

I don’t believe that changing ourselves changes the world. But I do believe that trying to change the world changes us. I do believe that our actions matter, as part of the greater story of humanity, and I want my contribution to that story, no matter how tiny, to be a positive one.

So here’s trying.

Austerity Ecology

Austerity Ecology

I’ve been struggling to articulate just why this book is so tremendously important – not because it’s hard to talk about, but because it’s just so full of utterly vital ideas and arguments. I want to see this book in every library and on every political reading list. If you have even the slightest interest in technology, civilization, and the environment, then this is essential reading for you. It’s not only the best book I’ve read about the climate crisis, it’s also an urgently-needed work of (political) philosophy.

That climate change is a huge and terrifying issue is something that more and more people are becoming aware of. But how do we respond? Forget about the people who pretend the problem doesn’t exist for a moment. The problem exists – but what is the solution? In liberal/leftist circles these days, the answer is frequently personal, small-scale, and anti-technological. We need to change our personal habits, the argument goes. We need fewer gadgets, fewer products. Everything has to be more local and “natural” (the latter, of course, a term with absolutely no scientific or philosophical basis, as it’s impossible to exist outside Nature). Frequently this is combined with a deeply flawed critique of “capitalism” – which here doesn’t refer to relations of production, but to a vague, moralistic opposition to “greed” and “consumerism.”

Leigh Phillips, a science journalist, carefully takes this dogmatic construct apart from every possible angle.

First of all, there’s the very simple question of effectiveness. Can we really stop climate change through individual action? If “we all cared just a little bit more,” would that make a difference? If we all recycled and drove hybrid cars and went vegan and only bought local and organic, would that solve the climate crisis? And the answer is a clear and simple no. That’s not a matter of ideology. Nor is it a matter of “at least doing something.” It’s a matter of mathematics.

It just doesn’t work. It’s nowhere near enough. It doesn’t even scratch the surface of the problem.

Already, this conflicts with what a lot of people want to believe. That’s odd, actually, because the same people who will invoke the work of climate scientists when trying to convince denialists have a great deal of trouble accepting the rest of what the numbers show us: current tactics are not even coming close to the necessary goals, and all the lifestyle changes in the world won’t make enough of a difference. Partially that’s because the scale of the problem is so immense, and partially – and this is another fact that makes many leftists uncomfortable – it’s because a lot of supposedly “ecological” solutions simply don’t work. In fact, much of what is praised as “green” is actually massively counterproductive.

A particularly effective example is Germany’s so-called “Energiewende” – a turn away from nuclear power, the bugbear of environmentalist activists, which has resulted in a significant worsening of Germany’s impact on global warming. Just because something sounds “natural” doesn’t mean it actually helps.

(In fact, just talking about nuclear power as a possible solution, especially with recent advances that make it much safer, is guaranteed to rile leftists up in a way that is distinctly reminiscent of religious fanatics getting angry about abortion or other taboo topics. The same goes for genetic engineering, which the book demonstrates has many applications profoundly relevant to improving global quality of life and protecting the environment, but which has become a taboo so strong that people are willing to kill over it. I think this reveals a lot about the antimodernist position.)

With every point that he makes, Phillips goes into detail and provides extensive citations. This isn’t some careless dismissal – although at times the writing cannot help but become sarcastic – but very solid argumentation based on decades of climate research. The book does not challenge the idea that the climate crisis is important; it doesn’t want environmentalists to abandon their struggles. What it does is carefully look at the known facts and ask: do you really want to solve this crisis, or do you want to feel good about yourself through lifestyle choices? Because if you really do want a solution, this isn’t working, and more of the same won’t make a difference.

So where does that leave us?

This is where the bigger questions come up. We are forced to deal with a problem on a huge scale that our current civilizational structures cannot overcome. Small-scale solutions are largely either ineffective or counterproductive.  We can’t keep going as we are. The road diverges: do we reject civilization, or do we embrace it? In other words, do we reject humanity, or do we embrace it?

Those familiar with my writing will know that there’s a text by Albert Einstein – “Why Socialism?” – that I greatly admire. In it, there’s a passage that I’ve always found particularly relevant to the modern day:

Innumerable voices have been asserting for some time now that human society is passing through a crisis, that its stability has been gravely shattered. It is characteristic of such a situation that individuals feel indifferent or even hostile toward the group, small or large, to which they belong. In order to illustrate my meaning, let me record here a personal experience. I recently discussed with an intelligent and well-disposed man the threat of another war, which in my opinion would seriously endanger the existence of mankind, and I remarked that only a supra-national organization would offer protection from that danger. Thereupon my visitor, very calmly and coolly, said to me: “Why are you so deeply opposed to the disappearance of the human race?”

I am sure that as little as a century ago no one would have so lightly made a statement of this kind. It is the statement of a man who has striven in vain to attain an equilibrium within himself and has more or less lost hope of succeeding. It is the expression of a painful solitude and isolation from which so many people are suffering in these days. What is the cause? Is there a way out?

The attitude at which Einstein expresses shock here is one which the book is designed to oppose. And the truly sad thing is that this is not an attitude common to the Right. Even Ayn Rand, miserable old hypocrite that she was, did not embrace such a nihilistic view of humanity. In fact, I’m guessing it’s Rand’s devotion to the ideal of a heroic humanity (if in an utterly antisocial way) that draws many enthusiastic people to her work. No, such misanthropic statements are actually a fairly common element of the modern Left. A postmodern Left that has not just abandoned but renounced the Enlightenment, and with it any belief in human beings and their ability to solve problems. A Left that is not just technophobic but, in its sanctimonious opposition to the vital human activities of consumption and growth, downright puritanical.

Why is it, Phillips asks, that the Left, which once stood for a vision of a better world in which humans used their ingenuity for the benefit of all, is now telling us that we need to do less, to reject the things that bring us joy, to go back to the land, back to some ill-defined Golden Age, to give up the incredible things our species has accomplished in its short lifespan in favour of merely subsisting?

Of course, many would scoff at this “archaic” idea of progress, claiming that humanity has never accomplished anything good, that we are merely a scourge. Here, too, Phillips uses an actual scientific understanding of the history of our planet to put things into perspective. Human beings are hardly unique in their destructive capabilities; everything on Earth, down to the air you’re breathing, is the result of life’s relentless terraforming. What we’re doing is completely normal. Where human beings are unique is in our ability to understand all of this – to make sense of the world, and to change it purposefully. (That, of course, and everything else that comes with our intelligence. Millions of species kill others, even to the point of extinction, but we’re the only ones writing books and making movies.)

This isn’t just about philosophy, though. Phillips makes a very strong case for our ability to solve problems through large-scale planning simply by demonstrating that there are loads of examples of humanity succeeding at it. If you set aside the anti-human and anti-technology point of view for a moment, if you just look at us as another species – like ants, say, who also like to build – then you can see that the things we have created are absolutely stunning. And they work, even when so many catastrophists claim over and over that they won’t. For centuries now, all the predictions about how humanity couldn’t solve its problems, how we’d all starve or die of diseases or be struck down by the gods, have been proven wrong. And though many problems exist, people do largely lead better lives now. Those who claim the opposite generally fail to understand the amount of human misery that existed before industrialization, or the effect of technological modernity on social freedoms (like women’s equality).

Small, Phillips argues, is not beautiful. Small is a reactionary fantasy that’s closer to right-wing survivalist bullshit than to anything in the history of the Left. What’s beautiful is humanity working together to survive, to expand, to grow.

Which brings us back to capitalism. A lot of environmentalists claim to be anti-capitalists, but their definition of capitalism, as mentioned above, is usually quite hazy. Their positions frequently end up amounting either to an ineffective social-democratic liberalism or to primitivist anarchism, neither of which is capable of dealing with the true extent of the crisis. (Nor, as we can see all too clearly, is capitalism itself, stifling innovation with its focus on profit and failing to organize its efforts on a large enough scale.) Phillips instead argues from a classical socialist perspective: the problem isn’t that capitalism is immoral, but merely that it is outdated. The structural and technological tools it has provided us with are not unnatural. They simply need to be used correctly.

There is a long history that shows we are capable of it, and a serious scientific argument that shows embracing modernity is not just the way to a better future, but the only way to save the planet.

If I have any criticisms to make of the book, they have nothing to do with its content, but with its production. The book could’ve used better proofreading, and the print edition is entirely too expensive. I’d probably recommend getting the ebook edition, although the paper version is fine otherwise.

All in all, though, like I said in the intro, this is essential reading.

Notes:

  • Yes, this book shares many concerns with The Talos Principle‘s Alexandra Drennan. There was a passage about how wonderful it is to have a planet full of six billion supercomputers that moved me to tears.
  • Did you see the movie Tomorrowland? It’s not about socialism, but it shares a similar belief in the human future, and a frustration with the abandonment of modernity in favour of apocalypse fantasies. The critics hated it, of course.
  • I suspect Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov would have appreciated this book. Iain Banks, too.

Links:

Worship the Algorithm

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Imagine there was a civilization that worshipped an algorithm. Not used an algorithm – understanding and applying it – but worshipped it. A civilization that allowed all of its capabilities to be guided by numbers produced by this algorithm without even remotely understanding what they meant. A civilization that made important decisions about its resources based on a graph that nobody could predict – and which, as far as anyone could tell, didn’t represent anything in the real world.

In this strange civilization, the very same set of material conditions – the same factories, the same technologies, the same population with the same needs – could one day be described as “everything is going really great” and the next suddenly mean that “the economy has failed.” Not because of a fire, or an earthquake, or the outbreak of a plague, but merely because the Magic Numbers suddenly looked different.

Wars could be started over this algorithm. People could lose homes, jobs, everything they ever had, even if they weren’t personally involved with the algorithm.

Meanwhile, attempts to stabilize this algorithm would have no scientific basis and yield no reliable results. Instead they would mostly focus on placating invisible forces considered to be extremely flighty, while there would always be an underlying fear of a smaller set of predatory invisible forces that delighted in chaos.

None of these forces could ever truly be controlled, the belief would go. There could never be an alternative to the algorithm. Pray to the algorithm and hope the magic numbers go up again.

What would we call such a civilization? Primitive? Superstitious?

I think we’d call it insane.