Friday, August 20, 2010

Science fiction, history and government.

I have just finished rereading H. Beam Piper’s Space Viking, which, apart from being a good space opera romp, is certainly one of the best historical analysis books I have ever read.

Like all good fiction writers, H. Beam Piper was a student of the human condition. Like other very good historians, H. Beam Piper had a simple but profound understanding of the various streams of cause and effect in human culture. Like a very select group of exceptional science-fiction writers, H. Beam Piper told stories that reveal an enormous amount about how and why human civilisation and government develops.
This has been a consistent theme of the very best of science-fiction writers, who are to the 20th century, what novel writers were to the 19th century: a disreputable breakthrough group that eventually achieved cult status and finally even universal respect as important part of the canon of human literature. The early luminaries in the field like HG Wells and JRR Tolkien are already treated with respect by good university courses. Many others will inevitably follow.

As a historian myself - with a side interest in philosophy and politics - I’m always more interested by those writers whose stories reflect a clear understanding of how and why things change in human society’s. John Wyndham may be famous for The Day of the Triifids, or the Kraken Wakes or the Midwich Cuckoos stories, but if you really want a creepy insight into fragility of human society you should read his far less well-known but very clever The Trouble with Lichen. (Which I know for a fact has been used as a university text, because I set it for one of the Deakin University courses I taught in the early 90s, in contrast with the more famous - but I believe less astute - Brave New World.)

A less incisive, but far more recognized contemporary of Wyndham, was Robert Heinlein. His understanding of history was less impressive, but his fundamental concept of human nature has made very telling points. Unfortunately Hollywood, when attempting to convert his books to films, has failed miserably on every occasion. In particular, the Hollywood mindset - even though draped around the action hero - clearly fails to understand that Heinlein’s version of the great man is moderated by Heinlein’s version of the interaction of all men. So you get the horrible film versions of good books such as the much underrated Starship Troopers. The appalling Hollywood remix of this suggested that Heinlein’s society was simply a fascist government. Nothing could be further from the truth. Heinlein’s critique of how incompetent bureaucrats and governments drag peoples into war for little purpose, was to suggest that after the failure in one of the great world wars the returning veterans replaced the government with a government by the only people who they felt could be trusted: those who had demonstrated a willingness to risk their lives for their fellow citizens… fellow veterans. The fundamental idea was that unless you are willing to put your life on the line for your fellow citizen, you should not get a say in the running of the State. This combines Heinlein’s great man concept, with the democratic principle that participation is a responsibility rather than a right.

Clearly it is inconceivable to modern Hollywood figures that democracy is anything but a right. Which just goes to reveal how far from reality of their understanding of the world is. Heinlein was in fact reflecting on the ancient Greek and Roman version of democracy, where to be a citizen required that you be willing to don armour, practice fighting in your spare time, and go out and risk your life with your fellow citizens to get a vote. In fact, only the people who spent the most money on armour, and took the greatest risks in the front line, could ever be expected to deserve election to high office. This is certainly not fascism. This is the ideal of democracy based on a balance of rights with responsibility.

Modern democracies started the same way. To be an active citizen in the French system, was based pretty much on the property franchise. Of the 350 people in the average French village, maybe 50 or 60 were active citizens, of whom the adult male half would be allowed to vote. The American system was even less inclusive, with your tax or property franchise being further limited by your race. Other versions of the franchise in other states, have always limited the voting class by social rank, race, religion, tax status, property, or finally that most stupid of definitions, age. (Modern students it seems fundamentally struck that some magic number makes you a good voter. But they seem to like the idea that an intelligent 14 year old who can pass a simple test, should get a bigger say in the society than a stupid 18-year-old who can’t. And they are often more impressed with the idea that of some service to the community, either a year of military service or a year of helping the Salvation Army to feed the homeless, should be a pre-requisite for voting by demonstration that you put other people above your own interest.)

In fact a close and sensible reading of Starship Troopers, would reveal an incisive attack on the concept put together 30 years later by arrogant and foolish ivory tower academics, who made facile comments about the End of History. Would that such people had had the capacity to understand the science-fiction of their childhoods. The world might have been saved a lot of heartache since.

Not that Robert Heinlein delved into the nature of politics. A product of the American imperialistic nationalism of his generation, he only toyed with the flaws in democracy. (See Revolt in 2010.) Most of his characters only flirted with the nature of government, though the discussion of the process of setting up a government is quite well covered by The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

More recent American science-fiction writers have done better. Lois McMaster Bujold has looked at a wide variety of cultural imperatives, and consistently brings down a logical government structures based on the peculiar circumstances of the society she is dealing with. These range from her amusing purely male homosexual culture in Ethan of Athos, to the diverse governments of semi-feudal Barrayar, semi Chinese imperial Ceteganda, semi-piratical confederacy of Jackson’s Whole, and the semi-utopian Beta Colony: all in the Miles Vorkosigan series.

Bujold leads a pack of modern American writers to have become increasingly suspicious of the vagaries of democracy. They seem to be well aware that all political systems have weaknesses, but they certainly do not have the uncritical smugness associated with their American science-fiction forebears. Eric Flint for instance, in his amusing 1632 series, throws very democratically oriented Americans backing to post-feudal Europe where they have to contend with the rise of absolute monarchies. The series seems to be heading into accepting the necessity - and indeed superior flexibility - of constitutional monarchy with a universal franchise parliamentary democratic component.

Even more interesting are David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, where the benefits of the Constitutional Monarchy are clearly outlined. Though Weber has an equally impressive and incisive analysis of the weaknesses associated with hierarchical structures, and upper houses of Parliament based on hereditary privilege. (I have posted here on the flaws of completely replacing such his system with a weakened solution, but his points are well made.) Apparently these modern American writers are less than impressed with the idea that democracy is always the bet thing for all people, or indeed that it will ever work without very specific conditions and safeguards.

This comprehensive analysis of developing political theory, through the unusual testing of fictional scenarios, is probably better political analysis than that coming out of most university history, politics, or even philosophy departments. Compare it to a populist modern philosophy from Marxism’s fantastic and appalling theories, to Rawls’ horrible neo-Platonic (and therefore genuinely neo-fascistic - though many appear not to notice that) Theory of Justice. The modern university student would get a much better education on civics and citizenship from a few select science-fiction works than from the vast majority of supposedly serious texts from the post war period to recent ‘scholarship’.

Interestingly, the franchise in Weber’s Star Kingdom of Manticore is extended on the simple basis of positive contribution. The principal is that anybody who can fill out a simple one-page tax return (possibly of the most optimistically fantastic concept in his books), will get a vote, as long as they have contributed one more dollar per year to the tax system than they have taken from the government in benefits, for at least five consecutive years. This is a vastly simplified variation of the original French concept of active citizenship.

What this does avoid of course, is the issue of people who do not deserve to have a vote. The bread and circuses crowd, who are not contributing to society, and who unfortunately are not happy to be simply leeches on the system, but to vote on every occasion to damage a system that they think owes them an endless bounty. Webber appears to be referencing an idea most clearly stated in H Beamer Piper's Space Viking when he compares a far future demagogue (Makann) to Adolf Hitler:

The barbarians are rising; they have a leader, and they are uniting. Every society rests on a barbarian base. The people who don’t understand civilisation, and would like it if they did. The hitchhikers. The people who create nothing, and don’t appreciate what others have created for them, and think civilisation is something that just exists and that all they need is to enjoy what they understand of it - luxuries, a higher living standard, and easy work for high pay. Responsibilities? Phooey! What do they have the government for? And now, the hitchhikers think they know more about the car than the people who designed it, so they’re going to grab the controls…. Makann says they can, and he is the leader.

It wasn’t the [Great] war that put Hitler into power. It was a fact that the ruling class of his nation, the people who kept things running, were discredited. The masses, the home-made barbarians, didn’t have anybody to take their responsibilities for them… What they have on Marduk is a ruling class that has been discrediting itself. A ruling class ashamed of its privileges and shirking its duties. A ruling class that has begun to believe that the masses are just as good as they, which they manifestly are not. And a ruling class that won’t use force to maintain its position. And they have democracy, and they are letting the enemies of democracy shelter themselves behind democratic safeguards.

A later character follows the tale:

There’s something wrong with democracy. If it worked, it couldn’t be overthrown by people like Makann, attacking it from within by democratic processes. I don’t think it’s fundamentally unworkable. I think it is as if you are what engineers call bugs. It’s not safe to run a defective machine till you learn the defects and remedy them.

It may just be that there is something fundamentally unworkable aboutt government itself. As long as Homo Sapiens is a wild animal, which is always been and always will be until involves into something different in 1 million or so years, maybe a workable system of government is a political science impossibility, Just as transmutation of elements was a physical science impossibility as long as they tried to do it by chemical means. We’ll just have to make it work the best way we can, and when it breaks down, hope the next try will work a little better, for a little long

Personally I believe it is a great hope for the future that Democratic Triumphalism appears to finally be headed into the waste bin of history along with Marxism, Communism, Fascism, or many of the other fantastically utopian experiments on government that have been attempted in the last quarter millennium. Clearly some modern American writers have seen through the infantilism of their early educations, and are grappling seriously with how you make a stable system of government that would work for the sort of society that you might actually desire to live in.

I have said it before, and I will say it again: democracy is an important component of the system as long as there are plenty of other safeguards. Democracy within a government actually performs the function of a whistle on a steam engine, as a brilliant high-pressure release valve. But no one should ever believe that the part of the machinery that makes the most noise is the most important part. Democracy has to be balanced against both the interest groups that are vital to the economy (usually represented by an upper house), and the long-term perspective which in practical terms can only be properly represented by some sort of hereditary component within the system.

It is fascinating to watch some of the most creative and forward thinking people in our culture feeling their way towards a solution which undermines the facile twitterings of an obsolete and overly smug western education system. If only such ideas had broken through before the latest attempts to impose overly democratic republics on patently unsuitable environments… Like Iraq and Afghanistan…

We can only hope that future western political leaders are better read in Sci-Fi.


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