Here is the acceptance speech by Travis Corcoran for 2019 Prometheus Award for Best Novel for Causes of Separation. (Corcoran could not attend the Dublin Worldcon but wrote this acceptance speech to be read there at the ceremony.)
I would like to thank the LFS for this year’s award, but more generally, I’d like to thank them for existence of the Prometheus award, all forty years of it. It’s good that our subculture has a long-lived award to recognize excellent science fiction, especially pro-liberty science fiction.
But the Prometheus award is not merely recognition, it’s an incentive!
In fact, I might not have written my novels without the Prometheus to aim for. But the Prometheus is not a financial incentive. The one-ounce gold coin on the plaque is nice, but neither I nor any of the other winners over 40 years would ever trade or sell it, and thus – ironically – it has no financial value.
And yet the award – a recognition by a community – is a huge incentive. There’s an interesting argument here about anti-libertarian tropes like the not-so-veiled anti-semitic and anti-capitalist propaganda of socialist Star Trek’s Ferengi, the
bourgeois virtues, and the non-market human flourishing that only human liberty unleashes, but that’s a rant for some other day. Thomas Aquinas said “Homo unius libri timeo” – “beware the man of one book.” The meaning has shifted – almost reversed – from “beware the man who has studied one topic intensely” to “beware the man who has only one simple view of a thing.” I concur with this advice (in both forms!). Libertarianism is absolutely correct in its magisteria (the morality of freedom vs coercion), but we need other theories to augment it when we move our sights from individual liberty and financial incentives to other topics, like culture formation – and culture subversion.
In my quest to understand the constructed social world, I’ve stuck my toe in libertarianism for a theory of autonomy, in neo-reaction for a theory of organizational incentives, in Judeo-Christian theology and classical history for theories of deontology and virtue ethics, in biology for a theory of energy flows, growth, and parasitism.
The book “The Runaway Brain: The Evolution Of Human Uniqueness” by Christopher Wills made the argument that at a certain point in human evolution we’d de facto conquered the physical world around us, and the majority of evolutionary pressure over the last 100,000 years has been sexual or social selection. An individual’s chance of passing along its genes depended less on the size of its ability to manipulate the physical environment through fangs and fur, and more on its ability to manipulate the physical environment through alliances, treachery, gossip, and stories. The game of “Risk” was put on the shelf and replaced with “Diplomacy”.
Every ideology and subculture likes to tell stories about how it will naturally and obviously win. Nineteenth century Protestant missionaries knew that European Protestantism was the way of the future. 20th century Marxists knew that Marxism was. In the early 21st century Wired magazine told us that “netizens” would use technology to create a brave new world. The fact that every one of them has been wrong so far should inform our Bayesian priors. Perhaps cryptography, bitcoin, and the internet aren’t going to create a libertarian future. Perhaps the future looks a lot more like Orwell’s boot stomping on a face, forever.
Why might this be, and – if it does – how might we respond to it?
Last year I spoke about the essay “Geeks, MOPs, and sociopaths in subculture evolution” by David Chapman, which argues that new subcultures are pioneered by geeks, appreciated by members of the public, and taken over by sociopaths. His thesis is a particular example of a more general case.
There’s also Pournelle’s – yes, that Pournelle – iron law of bureaucracy” which states “In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.”
Robert Conquest’s third law expresses something similar: “Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.”
Chapman’s essay and Pournelle’s and Conquest’s laws are three observations of a single underlying phenomena: the collectivists always worm their way in and take over. We know THAT this happens, but WHY does it happen? How can we model it and understand it?
Living on a farm, my thinking turns to biology and ecosystems – which is really just another way of saying economics. Earth’s ecosystem is driven by sunlight – 1,367 watts per square meter. Everything that is alive – and everything that has ever been alive – lives off of the differential between that insolation and the dark of space.
An organism can capture the sunlight directly (like clover does), or it can eat something that captures the sunlight (like sheep do), or it can eat something that eats something that captures the sunlight (like humans, wolves, and parasites like liver fluke do).
It’s currently believed that predation evolved not long after unicellular life did. Evolution may be a blind watchmaker, but it operates as a massive parallel computation. Of course evolution stumbled into the clever hack of gaining energy from others who had done the hard work of harvesting it from the sun.
My theory, which unites Chapman’s “Geeks, MOPs, and sociopaths”, Pournelle’s Iron Law, and Conquest’s Third Law is this: organisms, whether they’re unicellular, multicellular, or purely information, like Dawkin’s memes, egregores, and ideologies, mutate, evolve, and are selected for. Those that are best at surviving and reproducing soon dominate the population…and one of the best ways to survive is secure energy resources by hunting, killing, and eating (or, more gently, parasitizing) organisms that do the hard work of harvesting energy and building structures.
David Hines has a great essay at the status451.com blog titled “Days of Rage” where he discusses the surge in left-wing organizing and terrorism in the US in the 1970s. One thing that Hines points out again and again is that collectivists plan, they train, and they invade. I note that their organizations also exchange members and ideas (mate) and fission (reproduce). We are looking not just at a parasite, but at a class of parasite, forged and refined in the Darwinian furnace.
Evolution is a harsh mistress.
I touched on the topic of collectivist entryism last year when I spoke of the Gramscian long march through the institutions, but what I want to make clear is that there is not a single villain. We cannot cut the head off the beast, because it is the gradient of the universe that we’re fighting. Or, rather, we can cut the head off the beast, but the beast is a hydra.
In the Second Punic War, the Roman general Fabius Maximus avoided direct confrontation with the Carthaginians, preferring to harass them, wear them out, and sap their will, confident that victory would eventually be his. It is after this general that the British socialists named their “Fabian society” in 1884.
As “Saint Rev” has said on twitter, there is an entire class that lives by killing organizations and cultures and then wearing the corpse as a skin suit.
This is not a new phenomena. The Fabians have been doing it for well over a century.
Predation and parasitism are selected for in the biosphere because they are efficient. They’re selected for in the realm of human culture for the same reason. It’s easier to harvest energy from a parasitized host species than it is to grow leaves, and it’s easier to take over a subculture than it is to create one. Thus science fiction will always suffer wave after wave of entryists, trying to claim the
subculture for themselves. And, like Orwell’s Big Brother, they will rewrite history to declare that they invented it. “Let me join your club. You have to change now that I’m here. You have to leave now. We all agree that I made this, decades ago.” We see that all entrusts do this (“The United States was always about social justice ; the Jewish faith was always about social justice ; this TV station and car line and toothpaste were always about social justice”) and we conclude that they do because it is the optimal strategy, tested and chosen by evolution.
So, is that it? Are we doomed to lose all battles, to be preyed upon and parasitized?
In the biosphere, only a minority of organisms are predators or parasites. How could it be otherwise? Someone still needs to do the hard work of capturing solar energy and building biological matter. So too in the world of human culture. Tax-thieving governments and culture-thieving brigands can’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg. The Lotka-Volterra equations, first developed in 1910 to describe chemical reactions, but echoing Pierre-François Verhulst’s logistic equation from almost a century earlier quantified the mechanism.
And, since biology is economics is sociology, I note that Mancur Lloyd Olson Jr.’s theory of roving bandits, which are willing to loot everything from a village, and stationary bandits, who learn to restrain themselves so as to keep the village alive, and capable of being pillaged (or “taxed”) again reaches the same conclusion: predators can never outpopulate the prey … at least not for long.
Based on Lotka, Volterra, and Olson, then, I suggest that the collectivists’ social entryism will never be total. Negative feedback loops will ensure that. When will the entryist wave peak? Perhaps it already has. The last decade saw the cultures of video games and comics under attack from entryists, but perhaps the high water mark has already been reached, as we’ve seen several horrific market
failure, such as the female Ghostbusters fiasco, Mass Effect: Andromeda, or that time when Zoe Quinn of comicsgate / Five Guys fame was given a DC Comics title. As the Twitter meme says “get woke, go broke”.
But on the other hand, perhaps not. Strauss–Howe generations theory, which I tentatively give the nod to, suggests that we’re going to be deep in the suck for quite a while yet.
I hear that the next 007 is going to be female and Blade is going to be rebooted as a Muslim. Some media executives are always trying to ice-skate up hill.
So perhaps we’re not out of the woods. Perhaps more cultural warfare, more predation, more entryism is our future, where “our” means both the west as a free Enlightenment society, and also science fiction lovers as a subculture: repeated waves of invasion, ongoing predation and constant parasitism, but … survival. Of a sort.
What strategies can we use to improve our odds, to make life somewhat more tolerable in a world where Darwinianism means that threats are ever present?
Look to biology.
We can evolve physical defenses, we can evolve camouflage, or we can adapt to new environments that are less conducive to predators.
What do these mean in social terms?
Physical defenses means organizations building mechanisms to keep entryists out – a topic on which I am not an expert…and Pournelle’s Law and Conquest’s Third Law suggest that perhaps no one is.
The social equivalent of camouflage is a mixture of esotericism (in dangerous times people speak in code) and foot-dragging Vichy coexistence. Scott Aaronson and Slate Star Codex wrote essays on “Kolmogorov complicity” (a good pun on Kolmogorov complexity), and I urge you to read them.
My favorite, is the third option: moving to where the predators aren’t. Which – surprise – boils down to my old favorite, exit.
Jame C Scott talks about exit extensively in his book “The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia” and in his later book “Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States”. He makes the core point that when you see a populace that does not have certain social technologies, that does not mean – contra the default narrative – that they never evolved them. Sometimes populations intentionally abandon technologies because those techniques make them legibile to control and subversion by the overculture. If you want to avoid computer viruses, rip the computers out of your Battlestar. If you want to avoid land taxes, burn down the land registry, or become nomadic. If you want to avoid having your subculture taken over by collectivists … what, exactly?
In 2011 I started writing a story about anarchocapitalism, economics, lunar colonization, social media, genetically modified dogs, strong AI really big guns, but the core question on my mind was “how do humans achieve freedom?” The result was two novels: The Powers of the Earth, which won the Prometheus Award in 2018, and Causes of Separation, which won the Prometheus Award this year.
Now, as I’m writing the final two novels in the Aristillus series – Right and Duty and Absolute Tyranny – the question on my mind is a different one, the one above: how does an organism protect itself from parasites? How does a culture avoid being taken over by entryists?
My answers, if any, will be delivered in a few years.
…but I have some intuitions now.
I’m tempted to quote from the last chapter of Heinlein’s “Farmer in the Sky”, about moving outward, ever outward, but there’ve been too many farm and biology references in this speech, so let me quote instead from the end of Bruce Sterling and William Gibson’s short story “Red Star, Winter Orbit”, where a plucky band escapes the gravity well.:
“They said we’d never make it living in the balloons, but we were the only ones who could make them work. It was our one chance to get out here on our own. Who’d want to live out here for the sake of some government, some army brass, a bunch of pen pushers? You have to want a frontier – want it in your bones, right? We grabbed those power cables and just pulled ourselves straight up. And when you get to the top, well, man, you either make that big jump or else you rot there. And you don’t look back, no sir! We’ve made that jump, and we’re here to stay!”
And thus, my thesis: perhaps freedom exists only on the frontier. We need to keep pushing on. We need to make that big jump, and not look back.
And in conclusion: Boston Delenda Est.
Note: The Prometheus Awards are voted on by LFS members. Membership in the Libertarian Futurist Society is open to any freedom-loving science fiction fan.