Volume 2, Number 2, April 1984

Oath of Fealty

By Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Pocket Books, 1981, $2.95
Reviewed by Jerry Keith
April, 1983

Bad Company

This review was written last year, after enough LFS members voted for Oath of Fealty to make it a finalist for the 1983 Prometheus Award.

But many people had misgivings about the book. Some libertarians think that Jerry Pournelle's "libertarianism" has fascist overtones. This note helps to explain why.

The author, Jerry Keith, died on April 7, in Sheridan, Wyoming. He was a member and an officer of the Wyoming LP. Since he will never get another chance to give us his views on Pournelle, I'm printing this review, late as it is, even though none of the members who voted for Oath last year nominated it for the Hall of Fame for 1984 (Maybe they had time to think it over. Besides I think this review has something to say about how some LFS's feel about future societies and the way we hope to live. For those who disagree, I invite your rebuttals.

The Editor

Niven and Pournelle have churned out another action-packed thrilled of no consequence, taking pains not to hide their prejudices behind any pantywaist proofs that one side or another is correct. First they steal the idea of the proprietary Community from an obscure group of futurist libertarians—this one being a city within a single building, run with a soft iron hand by managers who have solid contracts with the residents. The administrators provide a valuable commodity in this horror future: security. They have surveillance cameras everywhere, guards who watch everything, and special passes to keep out undesirables.

I have several problems with Niven, Pournelle, & Co.'s vision. Like many science fiction writers of renown, they are in the Far Right pro-tech faction, and are conservatives in the worst sense They are naive about power, even though they heave in a quote from some Lord Acton imitator about its effects. My unease starts perhaps in Lucifer's Hammer, where the only group opposed to the Champions of Truth, Justice, and Authority is a ragtag band of cannibals, environmentalists and Christian cultists, who are, even worse, largely black, and from the inner cities. It is almost the same in Oath: anyone who expresses some qualm about living in the Hive, as it is called, are bigots, Know-Nothings, or maniacs. The heroes, the Good Guys, are obedient to "duly constituted" authority, and this authority is omniscient (in Oath the managers get brain implants that hook them up to the omniscient computer), benevolent, and wise beyond measure.

It becomes positively obnoxious when Niven and Pournelle start tossing around libertarian arguments for that section of their audience, oh, it's clear; no one's rights are being violated except through the actions of the despicable Enemy; all the residents freely chose to live in the techno-feudal slave camp of the future; commerce is voluntary; the benefits are real. For instance, the city has negotiated a bargain that exempts all its people from filing taxes with any government; taxes are paid to some distant American state but it comes out of the price of the rent.

Niven and Pournelle (and many of their fellow propagandists) are libertarians only to the extent that they would use freedom of association to create rigid, intolerant hierarchies, incredible class divisions, and the Mew Militarist Man. Reagan and, ray-guns to the end of the galaxy. Bob Black put his finger on it: "Everything can be different in the same old way! Less taxes, more rent! Less cops, more Pinkertons!"

Hero worship, slavish obedience; modernist hierachies, and pure power are not libertarian, despite Ayn Rand and despite freely chosen submission. Contract or no contract we are talking about lockstep, lock-up, and lock-out. It is not libertarian to praise universal and inescapable surveillance no matter who wants it at what price and for what reason. To say that Niven and Pournelle are even faintly libertarian is to say that Pol Pot could be a Party member because everyone who saw what he was going to do had a chance to leave before be did it.

I am not one to prevent people from signing on with whatever dictatorial or discipline-oriented outfit they choose. Think of it as evolution in action, as the novel's obscene slogan goes. If people want to follow Jim Jones to Guyana, or Sun Myung Moon to blissful flower dispensaries, that is their business.

But I do have a valid objection to propaganda that lauds such behavior. Oath does not celebrate anything worth celebrating. The authors put Power on a pedestal scorning present governments in favor of their own, in which there is no possibility that any action of the State can be challenged or impeded, in which it is never questioned and conveniently never wrong. Oath creates insipid people in a mutual admiration society—they're all heroes because they obey the Boss; they fight only that authority which seems to get in the way of the hierarchy, but have no qualms about accepting a dictator. The obvious nature of relationships in brutal subcultures is glossed over. No more are the simpering, bootlicking weaklings, who turn cruel tyrant in evidence. No, authority is mediated, low-key, and no one in power ever pulls rank, revels in power, or does anything else that the dominant/submissive psychotic tends to do.

People who like this milieu, who enjoy living sans dignity and autonomy who pretend that submission can be the watchword in heirarchies, are writing books in favor of it—and they are lauded by too many infantile libertarians. They seize on the few recognizable libertarian sentiments and skirt the glorification of Power.

At the end of Niven and Pournelle's ode to dominance, the perfect leaders decide not to use their utter immunity and kill their helpless captives. Anyone, anyone who takes this as an accurate projection of behavior, given history, cannot call themselves literate or informed, and anyone who thinks that this book even approaches a treatment of libertarian ethics is an absurd, a-historical quack.

Libertarians who do not take a positive stance in favor of a tolerant ideal in various cultural and interpersonal codes do themselves grievous harm. All around us there are insidious preachers of the exact opposite of libertarian ideals who steal some of our arguments and foist off this garbage on an unsuspecting public. If these ostensible freedom-lovers are not exposed, and opposed by a positive alternative ethic, we will end up being lumped together. Apologists for Power are bad company, and if we don't watch out, correct prejudice against them will destroy us.

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