May 12, 2015

"The free development of each is the condition of the war of all against all": Some Paths to the True Knowledge

Attention conservation notice: A 5000+ word attempt to provide real ancestors and support for an imaginary ideology I don't actually accept, drawing on fields in which I am in no way an expert. Contains long quotations from even-longer-dead writers, reckless extrapolation from arcane scientific theories, and an unwarranted tone of patiently explaining harsh, basic truths. Altogether, academic in one of the worst senses. Also, spoilers for several of MacLeod's novels, notably but not just The Cassini Division. Written for, and cross-posted to, Crooked Timber's seminar on MacLeod, where I will not be reading the comments.

I'll let Ellen May Ngwethu, late of the Cassini Division, open things up:

The true knowledge... the phrase is an English translation of a Korean expression meaning "modern enlightenment". Its originators, a group of Japanese and Korean "contract employees" (inaccurate Korean translation, this time, of the English term "bonded laborers") had acquired their modern enlightenment from battered, ancient editions of the works of Stirner, Nietzsche, Marx, Engels, Dietzgen, Darwin, and Spencer, which made up the entire philosophical content of their labor-camp library. (Twentieth-century philosophy and science had been excluded by their employers as decadent or subversive — I forget which.) With staggering diligence, they had taken these works — which they ironically treated as the last word in modern thought — and synthesized from them, and from their own bitter experiences, the first socialist philosophy based on totally pessimistic and cynical conclusions about human nature. Life is a process of breaking down and using other matter, and if need be, other life. Therefore, life is aggression, and successful life is successful aggression. Life is the scum of matter, and people are the scum of life. There is nothing but matter, forces, space and time, which together make power. Nothing matters, except what matters to you. Might makes right, and power makes freedom. You are free to do whatever is in your power, and if you want to survive and thrive you had better do whatever is in your interests. If your interests conflict with those of others, let the others pit their power against yours, everyone for theirselves. If your interests coincide with those of others, let them work together with you, and against the rest. We are what we eat, and we eat everything. All that you really value, and the goodness and truth and beauty of life, have their roots in this apparently barren soil. This is the true knowledge. We had founded our idealism on the most nihilistic implications of science, our socialism on crass self-interest, our peace on our capacity for mutual destruction, and our liberty on determinism. We had replaced morality with convention, bravery with safety, frugality with plenty, philosophy with science, stoicism with anaesthetics and piety with immortality. The universal acid of the true knowledge had burned away a world of words, and exposed a universe of things. Things we could use.1

What I want to consider here is how people who aren't inmates of a privatized gulag could come to the true knowledge, or something very like it; how they might use it; and some of how MacLeod makes it come alive.

Their Morals and Ours

One route, of course, would be through the Marxist and especially the Trotskyist tradition; I suspect this was MacLeod's. In "Their Morals and Ours", Trotsky laid out a famous formulation of what really matters:

A means can be justified only by its end. But the end in its turn needs to be justified. From the Marxist point of view, which expresses the historical interests of the proletariat, the end is justified if it leads to increasing the power of man over nature and to the abolition of the power of man over man.

Other2 moral ideas are really expressions of self- or, especially, class- interest, indeed tools in the class struggle:

Morality is one of the ideological functions in this struggle. The ruling class forces its ends upon society and habituates it into considering all those means which contradict its ends as immoral. That is the chief function of official morality. It pursues the idea of the "greatest possible happiness" not for the majority but for a small and ever diminishing minority. Such a regime could not have endured for even a week through force alone. It needs the cement of morality. The mixing of this cement constitutes the profession of the petty-bourgeois theoreticians, and moralists. They dabble in all colors of the rainbow but in the final instance remain apostles of slavery and submission.

But if you really want to know whether something is good or bad, Trotsky says, you ask whether it really conduces to "the liberation of mankind", to "to increasing the power of man over nature and to the abolition of the power of man over man". Intentions don't matter, nor do formal similarities; what matters is whether means and acts really help advance this over-riding end. Thus, explicitly, even terrorism can be justified under conditions where it will be effective (as when Trotsky practiced it during the Civil War).

Trotsky did not, of course, have occasion to contemplate eliminating an extra-terrestrial civilization, but I think his position would have been clear.

The Historic Route

The good-means-good-for-me, might-is-right theme is also one with a long history in western philosophy, often as the dreadful fate from which philosophy will save us, but sometimes as the liberating truth which philosophy reveals. The means that something like the true knowledge could, paradoxically enough, be developed out of the classical western tradition.

The obvious way to do this would be to start from figures like Nietzsche who have said pretty similar things. Most of these 19th and 20th century figures would of course have looked on the Solar Union with utter horror, but even so there is, I think, a way there. Many of these philosophers simultaneously celebrate power and bemoan the way in which great, powerful are dragged down or confined by the weak. This creates a tension, if not an outright contradiction. Who is really more powerful? Clearly, if the mediocre masses can collectively dominate and overwhelm the individually magnificent few, the masses have more power. As Hume said, albeit in a somewhat different context, "force is always on the side of the governed". (Or again: "Such a regime could not have endured for even a week through force alone".) Someone who was willing to combine Nietzsche's celebration of power with a frank assessment of both their own power as an isolated individual and of the potential power of different groups could well end up at the true knowledge.

Even less work would be to go further back into the past, to the great figures of the 17th century, like Hobbes and, most especially, Spinoza. Here we find thinkers willing to found, if not socialism, then at least social and political life on "pessimistic and cynical conclusions about human nature". The latter's Political Treatise is quite explicit about the pessimism and the cynicism:

[M]en are of necessity liable to passions, and so constituted as to pity those who are ill, and envy those who are well off; and to be prone to vengeance more than to mercy: and moreover, that every individual wishes the rest to live after his own mind, and to approve what he approves, and reject what he rejects. And so it comes to pass, that, as all are equally eager to be first, they fall to strife, and do their utmost mutually to oppress one another; and he who comes out conqueror is more proud of the harm he has done to the other, than of the good he has done to himself. [Elwes edition, I.5]

Spinoza is equally clear that one's rights extend exactly as far as one's power3, and that the reason people band together is to increase their power4. It is precisely on this basis that Spinoza came to advocate democracy, as uniting more of the power of the people in the commonwealth, especially their powers of reasoning. Of course Spinoza's political views were not the true knowledge, but he actually provides a surprisingly close starting point, and reasoning from his premises and the stand-point of someone who knows they are not going to be at the top of the heap unless they level it all would get you most of the rest of the way there. This would include Spinoza's idea that obedience, allegiance, even solidarity are all dissolved when they are no longer advantageous.

I want to mention one more pseudo-ancestor for the true knowledge. I said before that the themes that might is right, and "good" means "good for me", are an ancient ones in the history of philosophy, but they were introduced as the awful dangers which ethics is supposed to save us from. All the way back in The Republic, we find clear statements of the idea that might is right, that the alternative to pursuing self-interest is sheer stupidity, and that cooperation emerges from alignment of interests. We are supposed to recoil from these ideas in horror, but they can only arouse horror if it seems like there's something to them5. The danger with this tactic is that the initial presentation of the amoralist ideas may end up seeming more convincing than their later refutation. (I think that's the case even in The Republic.) And then one is reduced to talking about how refusing to accept that some transcendental, unverifiable ideas are true will lead to bad-for-you consequences in this world, and the game is over.

Evolutionary Game Theory as the True Knowledge

No doubt some scholars in the Solar Union will, as I have done above, play the game of trying to find retrospective anticipations of some idea in the words of people who were really saying something else. On the other hand, at some point the true knowledge leaves its bonded-labor camps, joins up with the Sino-Soviet army, and starts expanding "from Vladivostok to Lisbon, from sea to shining sea". As it moves into the wider world, it encounters scientific knowledge considerable more up to date than Darwin and Engels. Does this set the stage for another shameful and self-defeating episode of an ideology trying desperately to hold on to a bit of fossilized science?

I actually don't see why it should. There are scientific theories nowadays which try to address the sort of questions that the true knowledge claims to answer, and I don't think the answers are really that different, though they are not usually presented so starkly.

Biologically, life is a process of assimilating matter and energy, of appropriating parts of the world to sustain itself. Nothing with a stomach is innocent of preying on other living things, and even plants survive, grow, and reproduce only by consuming their environment and re-shaping it to their convenience. The organisms which are better at appropriating and changing the world to suit themselves will live and expand at the expense of those which are worse at it. Those organisms whose acts serve their own good will do better for themselves than those which don't — whether or not that might in some extra-mundane sense be right or just. Abstract goods keep nothing alive, help nothing to grow; self-seeking is what will persist, and everything else will perish. And then when we throw these creatures together, they will inevitably compete, they will rival and oppose. Of course they can aid each other, but this aid will take the form of more effective exploitation of resources, including other life.

There is now a whole sub-field of biology devoted precisely to understanding when organisms will cooperate and assist each other, namely evolutionary game theory. It teaches us conditions for the selection of forms of reciprocity and even of solidarity, even among organisms without shared genetic interests. But those are, precisely, conditions under which the reciprocity and solidarity advance self-interest; it's cooperation in the service of selfishness.

Take the paradigm of the prisoners' dilemma, but tell it a bit differently. Alice and Babur are two bandits, who can either cooperate with each other in robbing villages and caravans, or defect by turning on each other. If they both cooperate, each will take $1,000; if they both defect, neither can steal effectively and they'll get $0. If Alice cooperates and Babur defects by turning on her, he will get $2,000 and she will lose $500, and vice versa. This has exactly the structure of the usual presentations of the dilemma, but makes it plain that "cooperation" is cooperation between Alice and Babur, and can perfectly well be cooperation in preying upon others. It's a famous finding of evolutionary game theory that a strategy of conditional cooperation, of Alice cooperating with Babur until he stops cooperating with her and vice versa, is better for those players than the treacherous, uncooperative one of their turning on each other, and that a population of conditional cooperators will resist invasion by non-cooperators6. Such strategies of cooperation in exploiting others are what the field calls "pro-social behavior"[^nbandits].

Since evolutionary game theorists are for the most part well-adjusted members of bourgeois society, neither psychopaths nor revolutionaries, they do not usually frame their conclusions with the starkness which their own theories would really justify; in this respect, there has been a decline since the glory days when von Neumann could pronounce that "It is just as foolish to complain that people are selfish and treacherous as it is to complain that the magnetic field does not increase unless the electric field has a curl." If we could revive some of that von Neumann spirit, a fair synthesis of works like The Evolution of Cooperation, The Calculus of Selfishness, A Cooperative Species, Individual Strategy and Social Structure, etc., would go something like this: "Cooperation evolves just to the extent that it both advances the self-interests of the cooperators, and each of them has enough power to make the other hurt if betrayed. Everything else is self-defeated, is 'dominated'. Typically, the gains from cooperation arise from more effectively exploiting others. Also, inside every positive-sum story about gains from cooperation, there is a negative-sum struggle over dividing those gains, a struggle where the advantage lies with the already-stronger party." A somewhat more speculative addendum would be the following: "We have evolved to like hurting those who have wronged us, or who have flouted rules we want them to follow, because our ancestors have had to rely for so many millions of years on selfish, treacherous fellow creatures, and 'pro-social punishment' is how we've kept each other in line enough to take over the world."

There is little need to elaborate on how neatly this dovetails with the true knowledge, so I won't7. This alignment is, I suspect, no coincidence.

Given these points, how do we think about choices between who to cooperate with, or even whether to cooperate at all? Look for those whose interests are aligned with yours, and where cooperation will do the most to advance your interests — to those with the most power, most closely aligned with you. To neglect to ally oneself when it would be helpful is not wicked — what has wickedness to do with any of this? — but it is stupid, because it leads to needless weakness.

At this point, or somewhere near it, the Sheenisov must have made a leap which seems plausible but not absolutely compelling. The united working class is more powerful than the other forces in capitalism, the last of the "tool-making cultures of the Upper Pleistocene". To throw in with that is to get with the strength. Why solidarity? Because it's the source of power. At the same time, it's a source of strength which can hardly tolerate other, rival powers — organized non-cooperators, capitalist and statist remnants, since they threaten it, and it them.

These arguments would apply to any sort of organism — including Jovian post-humans as well as us, and so Ellen May seems to me to have very much the worse of her argument with Mary-Lou Radiation Nation Smith:

"They're not monsters, you know. Why should you expect beings more powerful and intelligent than ourselves to be worse than ourselves? Wouldn't it be more reasonable to expect them to be better? Why should more power mean less good?" I could hardly believe I was hearing this. ... I searched for my most basic understanding, and dragged it out: "Because good means good for us!" Mary-Lou smiled encouragingly and spoke gently, as though talking someone down from a high ledge. "Yes, Ellen. But who is us? We're all — human, post-human, non-human — machines with minds in a mindless universe, and it behoves those of us with minds to work together if we can in the face of that mindless universe. It's the possibility of working together that forges an us, and only its impossibility that forces a them. That is the true knowledge as a whole — the union, and the division."8

(The worse of the argument, that is, unless Ellen May can destroy the fast folk, in which case there is no power to either unite with or to fear. "No Jovian superintelligences, no problem", as it were.)

But What If It Should Come to Be Generally Known?

As I said earlier, contemporary scientists studying the evolution of cooperation do not usually put their conclusions in such frank terms as the true knowledge. I don't even think that this is because they're reluctant to do so; I think it genuinely doesn't occur to them. (And this despite things like one of the founders of evolutionary game theory, John Maynard Smith, being an outright Marxist and ex-Communist.) Even when people like Bowles and Gintis — not Marxists, but no strangers to the leftist tradition — try to draw lessons from their work, they end up with very moderate social democracy, not the true knowledge. Since I know Bowles and Gintis, I am pretty sure that they are not holding back...

Why so few people are willing to push these ideas to (one) logical conclusion is an interesting question I cannot pretend to answer. I suspect that part of the answer has to do with people not having grown up with these ideas, so that the theories are used more to reconstruct pre-existing notions than as guides in their own right. If that's so, then a few more (academic) generations of their articulation, especially if some of the articulators should happen to have the right bullet-swallowing tendencies, could get us all the way to the true knowledge being worked out, not by bonded laborers but by biologists and economists.

This presents points where, I think, the true knowledge might not lead to the attractive-to-me Solar Union, but rather somewhere much darker. If I am a member of one of the subordinate classes, well, the strongest power locally is probably the one dominating me. Maybe solidarity with others would let me overthrow them and escape, but if that united front doesn't form, or fails, things get much, much worse for me. The true knowledge could actually justify obedience to the powers that be, if they're powerful enough, and not enough of us are united in opposition to them.

The other point of failure is this. If I am a member of an oppressing or privileged class, what lesson do I take from the true knowledge? Well, I might try to throw in my lot with the power that will win — but that means abandoning my current goods, the things which presently make me strong and enhance my life. My interest is served by allying with those who are also beneficiaries of inequality, and making sure the institutions which benefit me remain in place, or if they change alter to be even more in my favor. Members of a privileged class in the grip of moralizing superstition might sometimes be moved by pity, sympathy, or benevolence. Rulers who have themselves accepted the true knowledge will concede nothing except out of calculation that it's better for itself than the alternative. Voltaire once said something to the effect that whether or not God existed, he hoped his valet believed in Him; it might have been much more correct for Voltaire's valet to hope that his master, and still more rulers like Frederick the Great, feared an avenging God.

My somewhat depressing prospect is that our ruling classes are a lot more likely to talk themselves into the true knowledge by the evolutionary route than the rest of us are to discover revolutionary solidarity — though whether the occasional fits of benevolence on the part of rulers really make things much better than a frank embrace of their self-interest would is certainly a debatable proposition.

Clicking and Giving Offense

If anyone does want to start propagating the true knowledge, I think it would actually have pretty good prospects. A number of sociologists (Gellner, Boudon) have pointed out that really successful ideologies tend to combine two features. One is that they have a core good idea, one which makes lightbulbs go on for people. Since I can't put this better than Gellner did, I'll quote him:

The general precondition of a compelling, aura-endowed belief systems is that, at some one point at least, it should carry overwhelming, dramatic conviction. In other words, it is not enough that there should be a plague in the land, that many should be in acute distress and in fear and trembling, and that some practitioners be available who offer cure and solace, linked plausibly to the background beliefs of the society in question. All that may be necessary but it is not sufficient. Over and above the need, and over and above mere background plausibility (minimal conceptual eligibility), there must also be something that clicks, something which throws light on a pervasive and insistent and disturbing experience, something which at long last gives it a local habitation and a name, which turns a sense of malaise into an insight: something which recognizes and places an experience or awareness, and which other belief systems seem to have passed by.9

I think MacLeod gets this — look at how Ellen May talks about the true knowledge "struck home with the force of a revelation" (ch. 5, p. 89). But the click for the true knowledge is how it evades the common pitfall of attempts to work out materialist or naturalist ethics. After grounding everything in self-interest and self-assertion, there is a very strong tendency to get into mere self-assertion; "good" means "good for me, and for me alone". The true knowledge avoids this; it gives you a way of accepting that you are a transient, selfish mind in a mindless, indifferent universe, and sloughing off thousands of years of accumulated superstitious rubbish (from outright taboos and threats of the Supreme Fascist to incomprehensible commands from nowhere) — you can face the light, and escape the bullshit, and yet not be altogether a monster.

(Boudon would add something to Gellner's requirement that an ideology click: the idea should also be capable of "hyperbolic" use, of being over-applied through neglecting necessary qualifications and conditions. Arguably, the whole plot of The Cassini Division is driven by Ellen May's hyperbolization of part of the true knowledge.)

Clicking is one condition for an ideology to take off; but there's another.

Though belief systems need to be anchored in the background assumptions, in the pervasive obviousness of an intellectual climate, yet they cannot consist entirely of obvious, uncontentious elements. There are many ideas which are plainly true, or which appear to be such to those who have soaked up a given intellectual atmosphere: but their very cogency, obviousness, acceptability, makes them ineligible for serving as the distinguishing mark of membership of a charismatic community of believers. Demonstrable or obvious truths do not distinguish the believer from the infidel, and they do not excite the faithful. Only difficult beliefs can do that. And what makes a belief difficult? There must be an element both of menace and of risk. The belief must present itself in such a way that the person encountering, weighing the claim that is being made on him, can neither ignore it nor hedge his bets. His situation is such that, encountering the claim, he cannot but make a decision, and it will be a weighty one, whichever way he decides. He is obliged, by the very nature of the claim, to commit himself, one way or the other.10

The true knowledge would have this quality, that Gellner (following Kirkegaard) calls "offense", in spades.11

I'll close with two observations about this combination of click and offense. One is that it is of course very common for a certain sort of fiction, and science fiction often indulges in it. Heinlein, in particular, was very good at it, and in some ways The Cassini Division is, the color of Ellen May's hair notwithstanding, a very Heinleinian book, and Ellen May explaining the true knowledge to us is not that different from being on the receiving end of one of Heinlein's in-story lectures. (I know someone else made these points before me, but I can't remember who.) One of the things which makes me like MacLeod's books better than Heinlein's, beyond the content of the lectures appealing more to my prejudices, is that even in the story world, the ideas get opposed, and there is real argument.

The other observation is that MacLeod of course comes out of the Trotskyist tradition, part of the broader family of Communisms. During its glory days, when it was the "tragic hero of the 20th century", Communism quite certainly combined the ability to make things click with the ability to give offense. This must have been one of MacLeod's models for the true knowledge. MacLeod is not any longer any sort of Communist ("the actual effect" of Communism "was to complete the bourgeois revolution ... and to clear the ground for capitalism") or even Marxist, but there is a recurring theme in his work of some form of the "philosophy of praxis" re-appearing. One of the core Marxist ideas, going all the way back to the beginning, is that socialism isn't just an arbitrary body of ideas, but an adaptive response to the objective situation of the proletariat. Even if the very memory of the socialist movement were to vanish, it is (so the claim goes) something which life under capitalism will spontaneously regenerate. One symbol of this in MacLeod's fiction is the scene at the very end of Engine City, where a hybrid creature formed from the remains of three executed revolutionaries crawls from a mass grave. The formation of the true knowledge is another.

I don't, of course, actually believe in the true knowledge, but I find it hard to say why I shouldn't; this makes it, for me, one of MacLeod's more compelling creations. I have kept coming back to it for more than fifteen years now, and I doubt I'm done with it.


  1. The Cassini Division, ch. 5, pp. 89--90 of the 1999 Tor edition; ellipses and italics in the original.^

  2. Notice how Trotsky says the "interests of the proletariat" lie in "increasing the power of man over nature", not increasing the power of the proletariat over nature, and in "the abolition of the power of man over man", not abolishing the power of others over the proletariat (either as a whole or over its individual members). Thus he can reconcile saying that all moral ideas express a class standpoint with saying that his goals are for the benefit of all humanity. There is an implicit appeal here to an idea which goes back to Marx and Engels, that, because of the proletariat's particular class position, the only way it can pursue its interest is through universal liberation of humanity. What can one say but "how convenient"?^

  3. "every natural thing has by nature as much right, as it has power to exist and operate" (II.3); "And so the natural right of universal nature, and consequently of every individual thing, extends as far as its power: and accordingly, whatever any man does after the laws of his nature, he does by the highest natural right, and he has as much right over nature as he has power" (II.4); "whatever anyone, be he learned or ignorant, attempts and does, he attempts and does by supreme natural right. From which it follows that the law and ordinance of nature, under which all men are born, and for the most part live, forbids nothing but what no one wishes or is able to do, and is not opposed to strifes, hatred, anger, treachery, or, in general, anything that appetite suggests" (II.8); "Besides, it follows that everyone is so far rightfully dependent on another, as he is under that other's authority, and so far independent, as he is able to repel all violence, and avenge to his heart's content all damage done to him, and in general to live after his own mind. He has another under his authority, who holds him bound, or has taken from him arms and means of defence or escape, or inspired him with fear, or so attached him to himself by past favour, that the man obliged would rather please his benefactor than himself, and live after his mind than after his own" (II.9--10).^

  4. "If two come together and unite their strength, they have jointly more power, and consequently more right over nature than both of them separately, and the more there are that have so joined in alliance, the more right they all collectively will possess." (II.13).^

  5. It would be horrifying if everyone were followed around by a drooling slimy befanged monster, careful to hide itself out of our sight, which might devour any one of us without warning at any moment. A philosophy which offered to re-assure us that lurking monsters do not follow us around would arouse little interest.^

  6. The basic tit-for-tat strategy is not evolutionarily stable against invasion by more forgiving conditional cooperators, which leads to a lot of technically interesting wrinkles, which you can read about in, say, Karl Sigmund's great Games of Life. But various attempts to dethrone "strong reciprocity" (e.g., "Southampton" strategies, "zero-determinant" strategies) have all, so far as I know, proved unsuccessful.^

  7. If I were going to elaborate, I'd have a lot to say about this bit from The Cassini Division (ch. 7, p. 144): "Without power, respect is dead. But our power needn't be the capacity to destroy them — our own infants, and many lower animals, have power over us because our interests are bound up with theirs. Because we value them, and because natural selection has built that valuing into our nervous systems, to the point where we cannot even wish to change it, though no doubt if we wanted to we could. This is elementary: the second iteration of the true knowledge."^

  8. Cassini Divsion, ch. 10, p. 216, my ellipses.^

  9. The Psychoanalytic Movement: The Cunning of Unreason, first edition (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1996), p. 39.^

  10. The Psychoanalytic Movement, pp. 40--41.^

  11. The Cassini Division, ch. 5, pp. 93--94: "I think about being evil. To them, I realize, we are indeed bad and harmful, but — and the thought catches my breath — we are not bad and harmful to ourselves, and that is all that matters, to us. So as long as we are actually achieving our own good, it doesn't matter how evil we are to our enemies. Our Federation will be, to them, the evil empire, the domain of dark lords; and I will be a dark lady in it. Humanity is indeed evil, from any non-human point of view. I hug my human wickedness in a shiver of delight."^

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