Deplorables

I’ve experienced racism as long as I can remember. As a small child in Greece, it was because I spoke German to my mother, so other children would mock me, screaming “Hitler! Hitler!” on the playground. As an adult living in Germany, it’s because I’m Greek, and Greeks are supposedly lazy and corrupt leeches. Racism and xenophobia have always been with me, and it’s not really gotten much better, especially with the economic crisis pushing all ideologies towards their extremes.

Now, with Brexit and Trump, I’ve seen a lot of people get very angry at the perceived “white working class” responsible for these things. That a lot of it actually comes from middle-class voters – and that non-white and non-male people also voted for these things – is a different issue; let’s stick with the racist underclasses for now.

I happen to know a lot of German working-class racists. I know even more who are so poor that they don’t qualify as working class, but as lumpenproletariat. I’ve heard them discuss their ideas, sometimes with me present. They think Greeks are crafty, greedy foreigners just looking to exploit honest, hard-working Germans. They think Greeks are lazy, living in luxury. They think Greeks work few hours, retire early, and get huge pensions. They think Greeks literally owe them money, which they are very angry about, because they are genuinely poor and struggling. They think Greeks should be punished for their crimes against Germany. The only thing they hate more than Greeks is those refugees, who are actually lying economic migrants, coming here to steal their jobs and rape their daughters.

“So, what, you want us to like these people? This is the working class you want to build socialism with?”

To answer your questions: 1) no 2) yes.

I mention my personal experiences – due to a sarcastic article I once wrote, this site still gets hits from people searching for “kill all Greeks” and meaning it – because these days the identity angle is frequently used to dismiss any solidarity with people whose voting habits we detest. But I’m not talking as a member of the “dominant majority” who has never experienced racism, I’m talking as a member of a group that has been relentlessly vilified by the system.

And that vilification is part of the reason. Where did those people who hate me so much get these ideas? Were they just born that way, genetically reactionary? Did they choose these ideas after long and careful consideration, so that we can say they truly represent their innermost beliefs? No, of course not. They are just bombarded with these ideas 24/7. Every tabloid is overflowing with that stuff. But where the tabloids are overt in their racism and perhaps easy to dismiss, others are much more subtle. On TV and in the fancier newspapers they might use the term “mit Migrationshintergrund” (with a background relating to migration), but it’s still a codeword for “filthy foreigners!” Government announcements deplore racism in one sentence while appealing to it in the next.

Perhaps more importantly, completely aside from tone, the “facts” that are presented, the reality that is constructed by both media and government, would logically lead you to believe horrible things about other people. The lies are so shameless and so pervasive that questioning makes you seem like a conspiracy theorist. During the EU-Greece negotiations, German politicians would come on TV and announce things that were literally the exact opposite of what had just happened. Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble have held long, condescending speeches about the Greek people describing a situation that is 100% false, contradicted by every single statistic produced by independent agencies. They lie right to people’s faces, and they do it so much that it seems like it must be the truth, because no-one would be so crazy as to repeat such nonsense over and over while millions of people are listening.

(Does that sound familiar? And yet these are the exact sort of serious technocrats that everyone wants to hand power to in order to avoid Brexit, and who we are told would have been so much better than Trump, because they know how to run the system. The only thing they know how to do better than Trump is sound coherent while lying.)

Now think of these working-class people – people who, I must remind you, personally hate me for being Greek – and consider how many chances they’ve had to be exposed to something else. Their education is minimal, their political education even less so. They certainly don’t teach anything politically useful in school, and some of them haven’t even finished school. They know how to use Facebook, but aren’t that familiar with the internet. The places where you are supposed to get “serious” information all spout versions of the same ideology. Meanwhile, their lives are constantly getting worse. Austerity in Germany is not what it is in Greece, but it’s nevertheless real. They struggle to get jobs, and when they do get them, they are terrible. They are constantly unsafe. They have little access to culture or anything uplifting. And the system is brilliantly calculated so that they stay just there, always surviving, never thriving, always available as a cheap workforce.

Sitting in a room with these people, hearing them talk about foreigners (like myself, unless I’m lucky; then I’m the exception, “not like the others”) is pretty disgusting. I have a temper when it comes to these things, so it’s a bit of a miracle I haven’t screamed at anyone.

But that’s a personal, emotional response. Those are all well and good, but they’re not the same as political analysis. Confusing the two is the basis of identity politics, and that’s part of why things have gone to shit as they have. The personal is not the political.

You may be familiar with a famous phrase from the last paragraph of the Communist Manifesto: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.” Look at that phrase carefully. Nothing to lose. The basis of socialist thought isn’t that the working class is socially and spiritually better. The goal isn’t to uplift the people who somehow magically deserve it more than others, because they are more advanced, more progressive, more hip. The proletarians have nothing to lose because they have nothing. To be more precise: the foundation of socialist thought is the systemic relationship between workers and capital, in which workers are exploited to produce profit, resulting in their economic, cultural and spiritual immiseration.

Reactionary ideologies are the result of immiseration. They are the result of the atomization of society, of life lived under pressure and in competition. They are also a tool, a method employed by the system to preserve itself. The hate towards Greek people promoted by the German government doesn’t have social or cultural roots; it is a way of dividing the international working class, a way of preventing German and Greek workers from understanding that they are both being exploited, that both their governments represent the same economic interests. It’s not necessary for a politician to hate a group of people to promote hatred against them. It only needs to be politically useful. And when it is politically useful, either those politicians will go with it, or politicians with more useful beliefs will take over their positions. I’m not describing a conspiracy here; it’s just how the system works. In many ways, it’s impersonal.

Despite what we are taught in schools, being determines consciousness: material conditions, not personal philosophies, determine the rise and fall of ideologies. The goal of socialism is to break that cycle, to assert human control over the economy, rather than the other way around. But for that we need the working class.

Why? For one thing, because the working class comprises the large majority of people. In many ways, it is the people – it is humanity. For another, because of what makes it the working class: the term does not denote a cultural group, but an economic relationship to the means of production. That is significant in two ways. One is that the majority of people have common economic interests, from which a huge coalition can be built, which in turn has profound social and cultural implications. The other is that the working class represents the beating heart of the system. Capitalism cannot operate without the working class. We’re frequently told that this is no longer true, because a handful of programmers and designers and artists are making a lot of money, or because of the stock exchange, or even more laughably, because robots will be doing all our jobs by next year. But the truth is that the vast majority of work, the work that actually keeps civilization going, is done by people. And if those people banded together, having understood the nature of their exploitation, they could change everything.

None of this implies compromise with reactionary political movements. As both liberals and traditional conservatives are supporters of capitalism, there is a politically logical tendency for some people from both camps to normalize various far-right movements once those have gained enough power. In Greece there was an attempt to make Golden Dawn (a neonazi criminal organization responsible for multiple deaths) seem respectable; in Germany many will point out that Alternative für Deutschland (a thinly-disguised fascist party) “does have some valid points” about migration; in the US, many will say that “he is our President after all”; in the UK… actually, the UK is such a mess that it deserves a separate article. In any case, the point is that there are those who are willing to adopt the reactionary ideologies that the system requires to preserve itself in order to gain more power inside that system.

Such people should be opposed without mercy. As should those who, despite their class, become so deeply dedicated to destructive ideologies that they become enemies of the people. That’s tragic, but such people exist, and they will have to be defeated. A better world will have to be created for them in spite of them.

However, to actually win against these people will require far more than just the most socially progressive individuals expressing their collective contempt for the misled downtrodden. It will require an analysis of why people are misled, and that analysis must include not just ideology, but economics. And then, on the basis of understanding how material conditions affect the totality of human experience, as many people as possible must be shown where their common interests lie.

The majority of working-class people are not actually reactionary; statistics show that over and over, and the Bernie Sanders campaign recently showed it again. Sanders is not a socialist, and the Democratic Party will never represent anything except the ruling class, but the enthusiastic reaction in poor regions to a Jewish self-proclaimed socialist says a lot. But there is a part of the working class that has fallen prey to deeply reactionary beliefs. I am not asking you to like them. I don’t like them myself. They are not my friends. But they are my comrades – or they could be.

If you want to win, you need people, even people you don’t like. If you want to get those people on your side, you need to fight for them, even if you don’t want to sit at the same table with them. History shows that if you fight for them, they’ll realize you’re not the enemy, and they’ll fight for the common cause with the determination of people who have nothing to lose. It also shows what happens when you look down at them and dismiss them.

Solidarity does not require friendship, but change does require solidarity.

But What Does This Tell Us About Art?

In my early university days in Germany, I made the rather painful mistake of picking something called Theatre, Film and Media Studies as one of my majors. I was fully aware that this department only cared about the theoretical/academic side of things and wouldn’t teach us how to make movies or direct plays, but I was under the impression that it would at least be useful in terms of expanding my horizons and giving me interesting material to sink my teeth into.

The reality was more one of mind-numbing boredom as tedious quacks with a hatred of popular culture and an unhealthy obsession with the misanthropic works of Theodor Adorno expounded endlessly on topics that even a small child could both understand and dismiss as precious nonsense. One bit stood out, though: their ideas about subversive art, particularly in the theatre.

As the majority of students tried to keep their eyes open – the rest choosing to sleep under the tables – our distinguished professors explained that for art to be truly subversive and transgressive, it had to break with the conventions of the form. Look, they said as they showed us a recording of naked actors babbling incoherently, with no artistic intent or thematic cohesion, look at how this breaks the conventions! This will truly shock the audience into engaging in a whole new way! The boldness of putting a naked man on stage! The radicalism of retelling the story from a Freudian perspective! The subversiveness of projecting some piece of unrelated video over the actors as they spoke their lines backwards!

A few years later, a friend went to the theatre with his mother. He thought the performance was odd. “Did it involve a naked man and a projection?” I asked. “How the hell did you know that?” he said, genuinely surprised. “They all do,” I sighed.

They all did, and it had been that way for decades. And yet the academics persisted in making grandiose claims about disrupting a status quo that no longer existed, and artists kept producing plays that consisted of nothing but such “radical disruptions” of a dead format. Art, storytelling, vision – all these things had been excised from the process, along with popular audiences who enjoyed the work itself, the latter replaced with elite audiences who cared about being seen enjoying the work.

This wasn’t a failure of imagination, however, although it grew from one. It was a deliberate scam, a hostile takeover by hucksters and con men. Much like the purveyors of “modern art” who are entirely aware that what they do is a business designed to create money without effort, these artists and academics had no belief in what they did. Instead, it was a kind of scammer symbiosis: the academics legitimized the meaningless nonsense cooked up by bored writers and directors (following a pretty much identical “radical” formula), who in turn produced material for the academics to write unreadable, jargon-filled essays about. A system of empty-headed idiots producing nothing and glorifying themselves for it, largely funded by taxpayers.

It’s surprisingly easy to set up systems like that, and they exist all over the arts. What makes them so effective is their two-pronged method of attack: if the artists produced this work on their own, to be judged by audiences, they would never be half as successful. But the legitimacy provided by the academic half of the scam makes questioning the supposedly “radical” works much harder – just say that artists like Duchamp or Beuys or Hirst are scammers and see the immediate outrage this causes, even though plentiful evidence of their true intentions exists. And the more shameless they become in their scamming, the more they just sell you their unused trash (like Duchamp selling his bottle rack as art, perfectly aware that he was just scamming people), the more they don’t even do any of the work themselves, exploiting other artists to mass-produce their simulacrum of art, the more those who have built an entire artistic world on their backs will defend them – if only because there’s money involved.

All of this is supported by the most ingeniously shallow yet seemingly deep question ever asked: but what does it tell us about art? With this vague, fundamentally meaningless meta-question, the worst, most obviously ludicrous work can be raised to a status of great artistic significance. Is a toilet seat art? Is a bathtub art? What does this lump of fat tell us about art? No vision, no talent, no transcendence is required – this question allows anything to become art, and thus anything to become product, to become the subject of essays no-one will read and exhibits no-one will enjoy, which will nevertheless generate meaningful amounts of money for the scammers involved.

Perhaps the worst effect of this feedback loop of deception is that, from the outside, the field appears to be healthy. Works are being produced and written about. The “scene” seems lively, if hard to understand for the unwashed masses. But underneath all is rot. It’s not just a lack of new ideas – it’s a lack of anything at all.

If death was apparent, if the field seemed empty, something new might take root. But the shambling corpse – still profitable to some – keeps going, disconnected from the people, disconnected from reality. And where are new artists to turn?

So they get swallowed up by this purposeless machine, the more cynical amongst them richly rewarded for consciously signing up for the scam, but even those who aren’t cynical, who have vision and talent, pushed and pushed towards conformity. The pushing doesn’t even need to be obvious: artists are desperate for validation, and giving them that validation only when they produce works within the accepted framework will guide them towards performing as the system desires. Tell them that they are radicals, that their work is subversive, and they will feel so proud of themselves for fighting the good fight that they’ll keep digging their own graves, thinking that they’re opposing the status quo.

The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled wasn’t convincing the world he didn’t exist, it was rebranding himself as God.

Art does not exist in a vacuum; each of us builds on what came before. But art also does exist in a vacuum, creating something mysteriously unique out of entirely common elements, not only because of its context but in spite of it – much like life. When art is reduced to a reaction, to a relationship to its context, it is stripped of what actually makes it truly powerful – the creative spark, the paradoxical, visionary process that creates meaning and transcends the limitations of the human beings creating it.

When art is sold to you purely on terms of how it relates to its context – groundbreaking, radical, subversive, experimental, brave, etc. – beware of scammers. Great art is great art, no matter which human being creates it, no matter where or when its creation takes place, because the thing that matters about art is that it’s a window to something greater than time and space. Great art does not need to subvert some imaginary status quo; its very existence challenges everything.

Faith in Humanity

There’s a quote from the glossary at the end of Star Maker – a book so good that even its glossary is worth quoting at length – that came back to me today. I’ve mentioned it before, but hadn’t thought about it for a while. I believe that it encapsulates most clearly what the world so desperately needs.

Religion.

(a) In the mouths of Communists the word means a particular sort of capitalist dope, namely certain doctrines and practices calculated to withdraw attention from the need for revolution, and to fix it upon an unreal world of fantasy, thus relieving the ‘religious’ person from the moral responsibility of serving the revolution. Some readers may condemn this book as ‘religious’ in this pejorative sense.

(b) In another sense ‘religion’ includes all that is best in the emotional attitude of Communism itself, namely the resolute will to live devotedly in service of mankind. ‘Religion’ in this sense includes also a conviction that this will has in some manner not merely terrestrial but also cosmical significance. Further, it includes the feeling that even the will to fight in life’s battle against the forces of death should be complemented by an ultimate piety toward something superhuman, and even super-vital, a piety toward fate, or the whole of being, or some inconceivable deity. This attitude, so well expressed by Spinoza, is alien to contemporary Communism; but it is not to be confused with capitalist dope, for those who have felt it most strongly have been amongst the most active in the service of mankind. [emphasis mine]

The political situation we find ourselves in is deeply depressing. But it’s not the rise of fascism that is so dispiriting; it is the lack of a meaningful opposition. Once radicals like myself attacked liberalism for its hypocrisy, its inability to stay true to the lofty ideals it espoused. But now the entire Left, liberal and radical alike, has been infected by a rank misanthropy and a nasty, nihilistic individualism. There is no hope on offer, no better world to build, only a slightly different distribution of misery and a celebration of each individual’s eternal victimhood. Even many who consider themselves radical have embraced Thatcher’s credo: there is no such thing as society. There is no such thing as the people. There is no such thing as humanity. We’re told this is freedom, but what it is is despair.

Bringing back the idea of humanity, beating back the tide of adolescent pseudo-profound misanthropic notions about our species, seems to me the most important intellectual task of the age. No successful political movement aimed at changing the catastrophic status quo will be organized without it. Art will continue to wither without a deeper connection to our shared history, past and future. Even on an individual level, people will continue to sink into depression, cast adrift on an ocean of relentless solipsism.

We need humanity, and we need it urgently. We need faith in our abilities, faith rooted in knowledge of history and recognition of potential. We need a radical belief in the value of civilization; not something vague and polite, but a deep, committed belief in the human project, shorn of the banal world-weary nihilism we are taught to believe is pragmatic and wise.

And I think everyone who still believes in humanity has to fight for the resurrection of this belief, fight for it tooth and nail, until it claws itself back into the world.

It’ll be really, really hard. It’ll mean opposing people who think they’re morally superior, people who think their anti-human attitude is enlightened. It’ll mean being called naive, being laughed at, being lectured about Human Nature. Against all that and worse, it will be necessary to say, over and over, without irony, without self-aware defensiveness: I love humanity. I believe in humanity. I will fight for humanity.

You’ll hear me saying this again. And again. And again. You’ll hear me saying it until I’m dead, and then you’ll hear me saying it from the Lands of Dream. I will not relent and neither should you.

I love humanity. I believe in humanity. I will fight for humanity.

Consecutive Cat Catastrophe Clustercat

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So, cats.

If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you may be aware that a few weeks ago we found a tiny starving kitten that had been abandoned by its mother. Given our lack of time and money, our pre-existing cat condition, and all the millions of complications cats bring with them, it would be foolish to take him in… so of course we did it.

He was just so… tiny!

Well, he’s no longer quite as tiny, but he’s cute and playful and happy and, most of all, alive. The bad news: he can’t stay with us. The good news: we found someone who’ll take him. The crazy news: delivering him will be something of an odyssey. We’ll have to drive across an entire country.

You may also remember our own cat, Cat. She came home the other day with a hole in her leg that was so deep you could see the bone. That’s just a couple of months after almost literally getting her throat torn out by another cat. She’s certainly not helping dispel the stereotype of black cats bringing bad luck.

Well, combined with the whole freelance writer thing, and moving, and games taking forever to finish… some money would be nice. So, if you happen to have some and want to throw it our way, one way you could do it would be to buy The Sea Will Claim Everything and A Postcard From Afthonia on itch.io for just $5. The itch.io version of TSWCE comes with a Steam key and Afthonia has been updated to be less rough around the edges. That update will also be applied to the Humble version later today.

If you already have the game on Steam, why not give the key to a friend who might enjoy it, or an enemy who might hate it?

We have a properly new game coming out soon, though, so if you’d rather keep your money for that, no problem. It’ll be quite cheap, though, just so you know. No pressure.

We’re also looking into putting some of our free games on Steam, with the option of buying some extras to support the developer. I like that model, but Greenlight eats a lot of time, so I don’t know when that will be ready, since I’m also working full-time on other projects.

Anyway. Cats.

Art Is Not Politics

It has become fashionable to treat art as politics. The inclusion of millionaires of a certain gender or “race” in the latest corporate entertainment product is taken to signify an improvement in the conditions of people who share superficial traits with those individuals, even as nothing changes in their wages, pensions, rights, or healthcare situation. Raging against individual works of art, or even individual artists – particularly on the internet, to audiences already familiar with an in-group terminology designed for this purpose – is taken as part of the struggle for equality, or even the struggle against fascism, even as the continuing crises of capitalism result in destruction on an unprecedented scale.

There are a lot of dangerous delusions when it comes to the entanglement of the artistic and the political. Some of these are politically dangerous; others are intellectually dangerous. Debates tend to sink into confusion or become clashes between the sanctimonious and the reactionary, between those who see politics everywhere and those who don’t want to see them anywhere.

To understand the nature of the problem, we must begin by distinguishing between politics (that is, participation in the affairs of the polis) and the political (that is, subject matter thematically relating to politics). These are not one and the same, and their conflation leads to weak art and weaker politics.

The idea that “all art is political” certainly contains some truth. There is little doubt that art frequently reflects the beliefs of the artist – though this is itself too simplistic a statement, as we will see later. It can also be truthfully said that a great deal of art expresses at least some notions about what is right and what is wrong, even if only in the most tangential of ways. However, even the most intentionally political work of art is only thematically political. A work can be Marxist or feminist or libertarian or neoliberal in the ideas it contains, in the story it tells or the characters it depicts; but to call a work of art Marxist or feminist or libertarian or neoliberal is an academic/critical assessment. A novel being Marxist is not relevant to the practice of Marxism; it is relevant to literary theory.

It is greatly tempting for artists and critics to blur this line. It is tempting to think that one can fight for a better world through one’s art or even one’s criticism, safely from one’s home, without having to go through the effort of organizing people and fighting the system in a real-world, material sense. There are archetypes that it is easy to be drawn to: the political artist who has a sexy, semi-saintly glow of being engaged while simultaneously being above it all, or the victim artist, emerging from great difficulty to express their pain and speak for their community. Even the most crudely political art can draw a strong response, and all artists desire attention. The internet has certainly contributed to the intensity of this effect: with a whole lot of people calling you a defender of all that is good in the world, and a whole lot calling you the incarnation of all that is bad, it’s easy to feel you are doing something.

But what is actually taking place is the shifting of struggles from the actually political to the politically themed. This is catastrophic for actual politics, because a perceived victory in the arts is utterly meaningless in material terms. It gives artists and critics and their hangers-on a hollow, narcissistic satisfaction, but it also turns them into tools of a system that is only too happy to distract people from ther misery. It alienates artists, even poor and oppressed artists, from the concerns of the people. The hollow victories of a self-satisfied class of artists will mean little to those who have no food or shelter.

This conflation is also catastrophic for art itself, however. Reducing art to a political tool robs it of its potential for transcendence. Art is significant precisely because it has no purpose; it exists because we want it to, humanity reaching for something beyond the basic functions of biology; it doesn’t matter whether you call it grace, or the divine, or a manifestation of the human capacity to imagine, what matters is that art at its best transcends the world we live in (even if it always begins there) and moves us in ways we cannot easily explain. If that is lost, then what we are producing is not art; it’s advertising. Turning art into a political tool – even for “political self-expression” – denies artists precisely that most important ability of reaching beyond, including beyond themselves.

This effect, it should be noted, is particularly destructive for those artists who are perceived to be part of a minority or otherwise oppressed, as they are strongly encouraged to turn themselves into avatars of an identity, capable of creating only things related to that one topic. (This was painfully and accurately satirized by Drew Hayden Taylor in alterNatives, where the protagonist is always being pushed to write the Great Native Canadian Novel, but really just wants to write science fiction.)

Art is vision, and visions should not be blinkered. Art is a journey, and sometimes the artist should have no idea where they are going. That’s why not even politically themed art should necessarily be tied to the author’s personal beliefs – it’s always possible to produce a work of art that makes even its creator uncomfortable, and that’s part of why art matters. It’s not just self-expression. Art has the capacity to be universal expression; artists have the potential to channel something that feels entirely alien and external to themselves.

None of that is to say that art should not engage with the political. You can’t transcend anything if you don’t know where you are; art must be deeply rooted in historical context, in the ongoing life of the human species in this strange universe we inhabit. But artists must be humble. Transcendence, no matter how minor or brief, is already a pretty significant gift. It is not wise to delude ourselves into thinking that we can use that gift to escape our responsibility as citizens and as human beings. Our artistic struggles matter to us, and we must fight them with dedication – which includes allowing inspiration to take us where it wants to, and not trying to impose our ideologies on stories that don’t support them. We must not pretend that our personal struggles are the struggles of the world, or that our triumphs help others.

The struggle for wages, for jobs, for peace and security and progress, will not be won by artists. It will be won by people organizing, fighting for labour rights, seizing control of the machinery of the state. Yes, that’s scary – a lot scarier than writing or drawing or composing a radical work of art. It scares me too. But that’s where the struggle is, and we’re part of that struggle. So let’s face the truth, no matter how painful or humbling it is.

Towards the Council

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You may have noticed an absence of updates both here and on the Lands of Dream site. The reason is simple: I’d set myself a deadline for releasing The Council of Crows (November 17th) and I was in full crunch mode trying to reach it. It has finally become apparent to me – with some help from my wife – that I simply can’t do it. It’s not a tech or design issue. I just can’t write enough words quickly enough, at least not without sacrificing everything that makes a Lands of Dream game good.

There are other reasons, too. I was getting so burned out from never having any time off that a lot of physical problems that had gone away over the last few months started coming back again. Headaches, back problems, that kind of thing. Too much sitting and staring at a computer screen. And Verena’s age-old problems with the skin on her hands are currently making it impossible for her to finish drawing the graphics. But the biggest problem is that it’s just too big and there just aren’t enough hours in the day. (What makes it especially challenging is the descriptions, because they’re not interrelated. You can’t develop a flow like you can with other types of writing. Every single mushroom forces you to restart the thought process. Sometimes you end up doing an hour of research just to come up with a new type of pun about fungal communism.)

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I know how ridiculous all of this is. Had I known it would take so long, I never would have gone for crowdfunding. I’m massively pleased with where the game is now, but the responsibility of having taken money from people and not delivered weighs heavily on me. I know I keep saying it’ll be worth the wait, but for that to happen the wait has to end at some damn point.

But we’ve done so much. We’ve made a game that feels very much like a Lands of Dream game, but isn’t a repeat of The Sea Will Claim Everything. You get to spend time in Fifth Pumpkin. You get to know Hyperborea and its people in detail. Time passes. Things change. You go on unexpected adventures. Hell, we have crafting. We have mini-games (daft ones, of course). We have the Lands of Dream version of RPG features. We have weird stuff that goes back to the older, more experimental games I used to make.

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And more importantly, the game is much more than just the little fairy tale I’d imagined making in the beginning. It’s still a fairy tale, but now it’s the proper kind, the old kind, with roots that go to deep and dark places. Speaking of roots, The Council of Crows is connected to every single previous Lands of Dream game in really important ways. You won’t need to have played all of them, not at all, but if you have, be prepared to meet a lot of old friends.

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My current plan is to release the game in February of 2017. It’s quite possible that I’ll release a smaller, older project before then, something I’ve been working on since before the Indiegogo campaign. The main point of doing so – apart from allowing me to come to The Council of Crows with fresh eyes – is to raise some money to make properly promoting The Council of Crows more feasible. We didn’t spend the money from the Indiegogo on anything other than the game, and we always expected to invest some money of our own as well, but it has taken a long time, and we don’t want to just throw the game out there without pushing it at least a little. Let me repeat, for clarity, that I’m not starting a new project or anything like that. Just finishing something old but actually quite good. It’s only a matter of days, really. Verena’s hands will hopefully heal enough in a week or two for her to be able to continue working as well. Then we’ll be working full time (but with weekends off so I don’t die, as Verena correctly insists I would if I kept up crunching like an idiot) until the game is done. It’s possible that backers will receive beta keys for the Steam release before the New Year.

By the way, I’ve been advised several times now to start a Patreon. I’d love to – God knows we could use some extra funds – and such a system would probably be much better for supporting the Lands of Dream as a whole. But I feel that I can’t take any kind of crowdfunding money until we’ve delivered the game people backed, even if it does have a different name. After that’s done, I’d love to find a way to keep the Lands of Dream going with your help – more stories, text games, podcasts, all kinds of stuff. But first we have to finish this story.

Thank you for your saint-like level of patience with the mysterious and annoying process of game development.

Serious Sam VR: The Last Hope

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So, hey, Serious Sam VR is out! Verena and I worked on this, so here are some thoughts about writing such a game.

This is the kind of project where you’ll sometimes hear people say “Why do you need writers for this?” And yeah, sure, it doesn’t have a huge storyline or anything. But you’ll notice that it does have narrative elements. It has an overall situation – you’re on a ship, you’re selecting missions – and it has scenarios, broken down into four levels per planet. And it has Sam himself, a highly distinct character who reacts to all this in a specific way (apart from blowing stuff up, I mean; Sam isn’t Sam without one-liners).

In other words, what game writers can provide is context and flavour. SSVR is not a philosophically or narratively ambitious game, and it doesn’t need to be. But those few elements we had to work with – like the level descriptions, or the overall concept of the game – do actually influence the experience, even if the player doesn’t pay much attention to them. Most players only actively notice this when those bits are badly written (or translated), breaking immersion, but they’re always there. They’re not the main attraction in any way, nor should they be. They’re just spices in a big soup. But if you spice your soup with ground-down turds instead of coriander, somebody’s probably going to notice.

From a writing perspective, this was a challenging but enjoyable exercise. When you have so little to work with, and the basic gameplay remains the same, you have to work really hard not to repeat yourself. Why is Sam on this planet? Why is he all alone? Where is he going this time? How can we create variety using only level names, descriptions, and a handful of lines voiced by John J. Dick? It’s like writing a kind of micro-fiction.

We came up with the main concept of a training simulation based on Sam’s experiences, which situates the story within the surprisingly elaborate Serious Sam canon, while also having the advantage of allowing some future narrative flexibility – Sam’s versions of what happened aren’t necessarily 100% accurate, if you know what I mean. You’ll see a bit more of that in future updates. We then presented Croteam with a bunch of different possible ways of introducing all this, all of them based on the very simple means we were given to communicate it, and Croteam went with what they thought most appropriate.

The individual mini-stories were built around the existing environments and boss battles, with some general input from Croteam as to what they wanted to establish in terms of world-building. We tried to draw some connections to the existing Sam universe (in the Earth scenario) and extend that universe in the direction Croteam wanted (in the Pladeon scenario), while keeping all the missions firmly in the spirit of Sam. After all, no matter where you put him, Sam is Sam. Pladeon was particularly fun to write, though.

And then there are the one-liners, of which there can never really be enough. Here some of them also serve narrative purposes, to transition you from one scenario to the next, or reward you for finishing a fight. This is where I’m particularly glad Verena is working on this project, because she’s really good at writing these totally hyper-macho lines for Sam. When we were in Croatia to work out the final script for Serious Sam 4, that really made a huge difference. My first draft had a lot of big ideas, most of which made it to the final draft and which I think will make SS4 a better game, but Verena was just fantastic at getting the tone right. Where I’d gone off in weird directions, she brought it down to Earth, adding more dry military humour and some pretty brilliant one-liners. (The criterion for whether it worked was pretty simple – when we came up with stuff in the room, did it make everyone laugh? Did we all think it was cool? It was a fantastic way to work, even though we put in long, exhausting hours and had to get our butts replaced with cybernetic implants at the end.)

What I’m happiest about so far is simply that people seem to be having a blast with the game. It’s very old-school, in a way, not trying to innovate, but trying to be really good at what it is. We had nothing to do with that, of course, but Croteam is family at this point, and it’s always great to see them doing well. And what I’m second happiest about is the feedback from people saying that the game feels like Sam. That’s the most important thing for us as writers on such a classic franchise, even if our contribution in this case was super tiny. I hope that when Serious Sam 4 comes out you’ll find that what we wrote made it better, not by changing its essence, but by embracing it.

We Are Not A Virus

In recent decades, there has been a growing tendency in the politics and philosophy of ecology that can only be described as anti-humanist. While this doesn’t constitute a coherent movement as such, there are several ideological assertions that crop up repeatedly across the entire spectrum of anti-humanist thought.

The anti-humanist argument tends to include the following ideas in one shape or another:

  • Humans are uniquely destructive.
  • The impact of human civilization on the environment is “unnatural.”
  • Humans (both as a species and as individuals) bear a moral responsibility (or guilt) for their environmental impact.
  • Any view that sees humans as exceptional due to their intelligence is hubristic.

In its most extreme forms – which are far more common that one would hope, particularly on the Left – this takes on the shape of “humans are a virus” and “the world would be better off without humans.”

Before I continue, I’d like to make perfectly clear that I take the scientific reality of anthropogenic climate change as a given. I’m not interested in questioning whether human civilization is having an impact on the environment of Earth; but I am interested in the historical, scientific and ethical context of this impact. Moreover, I think there is an unassailable case to be made for the idea that humanity is exceptional, precisely because only human beings are capable of making an ethical assessment of their environmental impact.

But let us begin with historical context. In fact, let us go back to the beginning of life on our planet: the origin of oxygen.

When we discuss anthropogenic climate change, we’re discussing changes in the chemical composition of the environments of the Earth (such as the atmosphere and the oceans) due to the activity of a species, and the impact of that activity on other species. We’re talking about terraforming. But terraforming the Earth is hardly a uniquely human activity.

One of the characteristics we associate most closely with the life-rich environment of modern Earth is its oxygen-rich atmosphere. But when life first developed on this planet, there was no free oxygen on Earth at all. That changed with the Great Oxygenation Event, approximately 2.3 billion years ago.

Oceanic cyanobacteria, having developed into multicellular forms more than 2.3 billion years ago (approximately 200 million years before the GOE), became the first microbes to produce oxygen by photosynthesis. Before the GOE, any free oxygen they produced was chemically captured by dissolved iron or organic matter. The GOE was the point when these oxygen sinks became saturated and could not capture all of the oxygen that was produced by cyanobacterial photosynthesis. After the GOE, the excess free oxygen started to accumulate in the atmosphere.

The increased production of oxygen set Earth’s original atmosphere off balance. Free oxygen is toxic to obligate anaerobic organisms, and the rising concentrations may have wiped out most of the Earth’s anaerobic inhabitants at the time. Cyanobacteria were therefore responsible for one of the most significant extinction events in Earth’s history.

(Wikipedia)

In other words: long before any humans evolved on this planet, cyanobacteria radically terraformed the Earth (triggering an ice age) and simultaneously caused an “ecocide” that utterly dwarfs the extinctions caused by human activity. This – although other examples of organisms spreading suddenly or developing features destructive to others are plentiful – by itself demolishes the first argument, of humanity’s unique destructiveness. In fact humanity is merely one of many species to outcompete others on a large scale, altering its environment and causing extinctions. This is not moral judgement; it is merely historical fact.

It is worth investigating the moral question, however. Given their actions, do we:

  • hold cyanobacteria morally responsible for their impact?
  • consider cyanobacteria to be “unnatural” because of this outsized impact?

The commonly-given answer to both of these questions appears to be “no.” Why?

In the case of the first question, the answer would appear to be that cyanobacteria are simply not moral agents. Lacking intelligence, they cannot have or be asked to have a code of ethics; they are incapable of morality or immorality. However, if cyanobacteria are held to be blameless, and humans are not, then there must be some significant difference in the moral nature of human beings and cyanobacteria. In fact, if we extend this to other species that have caused terraforming or extinction, and of all these find only humans to be morally responsible, then clearly human beings must somehow be extraordinary.

As for the second question, we must ask ourselves: what is unnatural? Is this term actually philosophically useful? The case of the Great Oxygenation Event illustrates the problem: if the impact of humans and cyanobacteria is in some way comparable, why is one natural, and the other unnatural? It cannot be their destructiveness, as they have that in common. It cannot be their changing of the environment, as they also have that in common. Are human beings not animals? Why would they exist outside of nature – in fact, how would it even be possible to exist outside of nature? Neither the building of colonies, nor the production of tools, nor the changing of the environment to fit one’s needs, nor an accidental impact on the environment, nor indeed the destruction of other species are unique to human beings. Either cyanobacteria are unnatural, or human beings are natural, or the term is useless.

Speaking of nature, where does the idea originate that the extinction of species is immoral? Anti-humanists will frequently deride human beings as not only a pest, a virus, a plague, but also as criminals; as murderers. But if we observe the history that preceded us – if we, that is, take a non-human-centric view of planetary history – then it becomes abundantly obvious that extinction is the order of the day. More species are extinct than live today, yet no other species are seen as particularly morally bankrupt for their participation in the continual holocaust that is the process of evolution.

Just as importantly, extinction events occur without any interference from living beings at all. In anti-humanist writing, reference is frequently made to humans upsetting a natural “balance.” 66 million years ago, the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event wiped out 75% of all species on Earth. Before that, 252 million years ago, the Permian-Triassic extinction event wiped out a stunning 90-96% of all species. (The latter may have partially involved microorganisms known as methanogens.)

How do we assess the morality of such events? If we assert the existence of some kind of natural order, or even the existence of some sort of controlling force (“Mother Nature”), then we must come to the conclusion that mass extinction and terraforming are, in fact, part of the plan. If we attempt to derive a code of ethics from pre-human natural history, that code cannot classify the actions of modern-day human beings as crimes. If such a force as “Mother Nature” truly existed, human beings would be perfectly in keeping with her previous methodology.

But what if we do, in fact, assert that the destruction of other species is not desirable? What if we express the concept that life, in its beauty and diversity, is valuable? As we have seen above, it is impossible to attribute such ethical concepts to Nature. There has never been a balance for humans to disrupt; the history of life is the history of constant disruption, extinction, destruction. Therefore we must acknowledge that the love of Life – not of individual life, but of the concept itself – is a wholly human trait. What distinguishes us from other species is not our destructiveness (which is very common) or our tendency to terraform (also very common), but our utterly unique ability to question and evaluate our impact on the biosphere.

It is important to acknowledge that human beings do occupy a different moral position than cyanobacteria. But that does not make humans transgressors against some imagined natural order. Humans are not setting out to cause destruction; we are, like so many species before us, setting out to live, to thrive. Like the cyanobacteria before us, we are very successful at it, and that’s having side effects. But what’s truly remarkable, what’s truly unique, is that we human beings can use our capacity to reason to observe material processes and seize control of them in order to change outcomes. We may not be unique if our ability to destroy, but we are unique in our ability to care.

The anti-humanist meme that “humanity is a virus” has little to offer us. Those who ahistorically and unscientifically suggest that humanity is a unique threat to the biosphere are perpetuating the same old myth of Original Sin that has so long been used to stifle the ingeniousness of Homo sapiens by those who profit from scarcity and fear.

There is a much better metaphor for what human intelligence could truly mean for this planet.

For billions of years, this planet has been ravaged by extinction events. From bolide impacts to supervolcanos to, yes, the effect of particularly successful species, the biosphere has been violently assaulted. Life on this little rock is under constant threat – by threats far worse than human beings. If you truly value Life, and are not merely lost in a haze of misanthropy, then you cannot simply shrug off these threats. If you truly value Life, then you must recognize that humanity’s capacity for reason does not represent a threat, but a possibility.

The dinosaurs didn’t have a space programme. Bacteria cannot tell what their chemical processes are doing to the atmosphere. No other species even has the concept of “protecting the environment.”

Humanity’s unique capacity for moral judgement on an abstract level, our equally unique productive capabilities, our insights into the origins of natural phenomena – all these signify that for the very first time in the history of the planet, there exists a species that can express belief in the value of Life and take meaningful action to protect Life.

We are not a virus.

We’re an immune system.

Human Nature

We can’t create a better economic system.

We can’t beat cancer.

We can’t achieve interstellar travel.

We can’t overthrow the Czar.

We can’t beat the plague.

We can’t create machines that fly.

We can’t overthrow the kings.

We can’t prevent the infants from dying.

We can’t cross the oceans.

We can’t work together with the other tribes.

We can’t grow those berries ourselves.

We can’t cross the swamps.

We can’t build better shelter.

We can’t build better tools.

We can’t heal ourselves when the spirits make us sick.

We can’t understand why the gods send lightning.

We can’t control fire.

This wheel thing is a bad idea.

 

It’s human nature, you see.

Humans are naturally selfish and individualistic, so nothing changes.

It’s human nature, you see.

Humans are naturally obedient and collectivistic, so nothing changes.

It’s human nature, you see.

Humans have a divinely-appointed place in the universe, so nothing changes.

It’s human nature, you see.

Human nature has always been exactly like this.

We’re all wolves.

We’re all sheep.

We’re all whatever is most convenient.

 

The only thing that really never changes is the people telling us that story.

So far.

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.