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

by Cosma Shalizi on May 12, 2015

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.

I’ll let Ellen May Ngewthu, 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.[^ellenmay]

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.

Other[^trot] 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 power[^spin1], and that the reason people band together is to increase their power[^spin2]. 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 them[^horror]. 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-cooperators[^tft]. Such strategies of cooperation in exploiting others are what the field calls “pro-social behavior”[^bandits].

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’t[^power]. 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.”[^marylou]

(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.[^cunning1]

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 truths do not distinguish the believe 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.[^cunning2]

The true knowledge would have this quality, that Gellner (following Kirkegaard) calls “offense”, in spades.[^dark]

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.

[^ellenmay]: The Cassini Division, ch. 5, pp. 89–90 of the 1999 Tor edition; ellipses and italics in the original.

[^trot]: 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“?

[^spin1]: “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).

[^spin2]: “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).

[^horror]: 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.

[^tft]: 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.

[^bandits]: And here we get to philosophical ancestors again: it goes back at least to the character of Socrates in The Republic that even a band of robbers must follow some principles of justice among themselves if they’re to rob effectively. Strauss taught that the esoteric Socratic doctrine was that this was all justice is, but that this was kept hidden because it cause too much fuss were it generally known. (Strauss also taught that the esoteric doctrine was true in both parts.)

[^power]: 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.”

[^marylou]: Cassini Divsion, ch. 10, p. 216, my ellipses.

[^cunning1]: The Psychoanalytic Movement: The Cunning of Unreason, first edition (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1996), p. 39.

[^cunning2]: The Psychoanalytic Movement, pp. 40–41.

[^dark]: 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.”

[^tragic]: Do I need to add that the hero of a tragedy is often not a good person, nor one to be emulated?



Neville Morley 05.12.15 at 6:51 pm

A minor addendum to your tradition of retrospective anticipation: all the way back before the Republic, ideas of Might and Right, the irrelevance of ideas of justice except between equal powers, the pointlessness of holding on to illusions about the universe etc. were set out by Thucydides, without any explicit indication that we’re supposed to recoil in horror and rush off to embrace ethics. There is a fairly strong argument that Thucydides did not expect his readers to accept the arguments of the Athenians in the Melian Dialogue at face value, but it’s ambiguous enough that there is a substantial tradition of reading this as Thucydides’ own profound insight into the reality of human relations – most obviously in the Neorealist strand of IR theory in the late C20. One of the grounds for Nietzsche’s admiration for Thucydides’ determination to see only the true, amoral nature of the world.

I once wrote a blog post attempting to argue for a signifucant influence of Thucydides on The Cassini Division; quite persuasive, I think, except that MacLeod confirmed to a colleague of mine that he’s never read it…


Neville Morley 05.12.15 at 7:03 pm

Thucydides also admired by a number of game theorists, including von Neumann; sorry, I know this is something of a tangent…


geo 05.12.15 at 7:15 pm

Fascinating post, Cosima. Off the top of my head:

1) Is a socialism based on “pessimistic and cynical conclusions about human nature” something entirely new? Marx and Engel’s magisterial conclusion in the Communist Manifesto that class struggle must end in “either a revolutionary constitution of society at large or the common ruin of the contending classes” — commonly condensed to “socialism or barbarism” — seems to rest on the same insight: that once a society gets sufficiently complex and interdependent, it is vulnerable to large-scale conflicts, which must either be resolved or suppressed. This has always seemed to me one of Marx’s most profound, original, and enduring insights.

2) I defer (though a bit warily) to game theory, but I wonder if it allows sufficient scope for generational change. My great-, great-grandfather was (I presume) a humble Sicilian peasant, quite possibly the one Henry James had in mind when one of his characters referred to “… a squalid, savage-looking peasant, a tattered ruffian of the most orthodox Italian aspect.” And yet, here am I, only five generations later … well, I’ll cast aside my customary modesty for the sake of the argument … a comparative paragon of wisdom, compassion, learning, charm, and wit, as well as (and perhaps more demonstrably) healthier, longer-lived, financially well-off, widely travelled, etc. At the core, I’m really the same bundle of suspicious, violent, selfish, and pigheaded impulses and dispositions as my near-ancestor, but I’ve been immeasurably more fortunate in my opportunities for development. I don’t see why my case isn’t, in principle, universalizable.

3) Trotsky was certainly a mass-murdering bastard, but I think the passages of his you cite are unimpeachable. The only valid answer I know of to “Their Morals and Ours” was by Dewey, who said, in essence: “I accept your reasoning; it is indeed permissible to inflict even considerable suffering on the innocent if it is certain to spare future innocents much greater suffering. Only, you had no good reason to think that shooting and starving millions of peasants was certain, or even likely, to produce a heavenly society, no matter how far in the future. You did it to save your necks.” (See me: http://www.georgescialabba.net/mtgs/1994/10/the-worst-policy/print/.)

4) You’re unfair to Marx, Engels, and Trotsky at the end of footnote 2: “What can one say but “how convenient”?” They gave a perfectly good reason for calling the proletariat a universal class: because it represents those who sell labor rather than buy it and live off the surplus it produces, and because the dynamics of capitalism — concentration and competition — will progressively sharpen and universalize this distinction. As indeed it is doing.


geo 05.12.15 at 7:51 pm

Sorry, I meant, “Fascinating post, Cosma.”


SimonH 05.12.15 at 8:32 pm

There’s much to comment on here but I think it’s best to get something short out of the way. I’ve discussed this with Ken Macleod himself and though he may have changed his mind nothing I’ve seen invalidates what he said to me. That being of course that he believes in communism/socialism but that to fully realize it we need more advanced technology then we currently have. This is clear by his describing himself as a techno-utopian socialist.
Let’s not forget one of the major points that I at least came away with from his latest Descent. Capitalism is beset by crisis and nothing not even the Big Deal of that book could thwart that in the long run.


Henry 05.12.15 at 9:25 pm

I once wrote a blog post attempting to argue for a signifucant influence of Thucydides on The Cassini Division; quite persuasive, I think, except that MacLeod confirmed to a colleague of mine that he’s never read it…

I had a similar beautiful-hypothesis-slain-by-ugly-fact when I put my thesis that John Crowley’s “Beasts” was a sly modern version of the Renaissance mirror-of-princes with particular reference to Il Principe (the putative ruler’s advisers being a lion and a fox). Sadly not vero, but definitely ben trovato.


Luke 05.12.15 at 10:08 pm

I really wish the great minds who have insisted on declaring the nature of ‘humanity’ over the years had had the restraint to speak for themselves alone. Anyway. The True Knowledge never quite clicked for me. I think my chief objection to it and its real-life analogues is that, as with the bit of Monod Macleod cites in the linked post, it declares all else ‘animism’ or illogic while asserting an animisim of its own.

If you can insist that all morality is illusion and the universe is a meaningless place populated by a beastly humanity, I don’t see why I can’t insist that humanity, the universe, beastliness and meaninglessness are all illusions invented by people in search of meaning (or justification). The whole thing smacks of scientism. Historically, the pessimism the write about is inseperable from a particular ideological thrust: before we even mention Spencer and Darwin we should discuss Malthus and the psychologist Benedict Morel. Actually existing pessimism runs up against the critiques of your Friedrich Nietzsches, Michel Foucaults and Andre Pichots pretty quickly.

A small note on the Cassini division: something that I think went largely unmentioned in the novel was the fact that the Fast Folk were never particularly trustworthy in the first place. I always felt there was a tension between the narrative of the True Knowledge and the fact that slave-driving, mass-murdering posthumanist libertarians would be first against the wall in my revolution even if I were a Kantian. Perhaps these themes could be seen as reinforcing one another — the association of the alien and the discomforting? — but for me they fell flat. MacLeod did too good a job of making his aliens creepy, and I have a deep-seated mistrust of the SF convention that what is alien should be frightening.


bob mcmanus 05.12.15 at 10:20 pm

I of course love this, being buried at this very moment in Frederick Lordon’s

Willing Slaves Of Capital: Spinoza And Marx On Desire 2014, state of the art in whatever post-Marxist post-Deleuzian post-Negri places I visit. “Unemployed Negativity” is a blog that discusses the book at length. I have pages of notes and quotes, and will have to re-read the OP carefully to see what would be relevant. For now, what offends and clicks for me (Lordon’s caps):


However, while Spinoza certainly understands affects as ‘affections of the body by which the body’s power of acting is increased or diminished’, he also sees them as ‘at the same time, the ideas of these affections.’ Thus, in so far as they are ideas of the body’s affections, affects also have a mental part. But because these ideas belong to the attribute Thought, and in so far as this attribute is absolutely distinct from the attribute Extension, they – our feelings or states of mind, as much in the common usage as in the Spinozist sense – are strictly without a site: localisation only applies to things that have extension, from which ideas in general, as well as the particular ideas of our affections, are excluded by definition. Consequently our states of mind, barring patent absurdity, cannot be said to be in any way ‘interior’, since ‘interior’ is a topological indication and topology is limited to the attribute Extension.

But only from this standpoint; in other respects they are very different, and it is not for nothing that they make those who experience them say sharply contrasting things, such as ‘I consent’ versus ‘I yield’. Their true difference however always comes back to the fundamental polar opposition between the joyful and the sad. One can see a sign of the displacement of this difference in the double meaning of words such as ‘enthralled’ and ‘captivated’, which refer both to tyrannical enslavement and to enchanted acquiescence. In both cases one is indeed chained – to the order of causal determination – but with opposite affects in each. The difference is surely not minor, but nor is it what it is commonly believed to be – in any case it is not the difference between the free will that says yes wholeheartedly and the one that was temporarily made to yield by a superior force. Those who consent are no freer than anyone else, and are no less ‘yielding’ than the enslaved; only, they have been made to yield differently and thus experience their determination joyfully. There is no consent, in the same way that there is no voluntary servitude. There are only happy subjections.

Joyful affects, however, are not especially conducive to thinking”

Holbo calls me Nietzschean. Well, the problem with the “Last Men” is their ressentiment, and sad desire for mastery. I seek no mastery or dominance, but a joyful submission.

Socialism is a happy subjection. (I have some sympathy for late Lukacs)


mdc 05.12.15 at 10:50 pm

“cannot be said to be in any way ‘interior’ “

Not sure this is right. “In” is said in many ways, and any attribute of substance can be said to be “in” that substance, I think. Thus, ideas are in God’s mind, which is in the one substance that is God.


Consumatopia 05.13.15 at 1:40 am

If one’s reasons for cooperating in the prisoner’s dilemma are based on the game theory of iterated replays of the game, that’s True Knowledge.

But not if you see the prisoner’s dilemma and Newcomb’s paradox as the same problem, and you would still cooperate even if you knew there was only one iteration of the game.


Peter T 05.13.15 at 2:16 am

“increasing the power of man over nature and…”

How long will it take for politics to catch up to Darwin?


Matt 05.13.15 at 3:46 am

Up front: I liked The Cassini Division a lot. I thought that both New Mars and Ellen May Ngewthu (and by extension the Solar Union) committed atrocities. At the same time I thought that the vast majority of people in either society were much better off than in any large scale society of the present day. Walking away from Omelas, I came to the city Salemo, where an innocent child suffers just as much but all the other burghers are miserable too…

I didn’t mind having a narrator who commits genocide and is unwavering in her justification because I don’t require protagonists to be likable. I don’t want to have a beer with them. Ellen May Ngewthu: fascinating, like Walter White, though she kills on a scale orders of magnitude greater.

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.

This seems like a big cop-out in a future where natural selection has long been superseded. Maybe nobody wants to want to kill children-recognized-as-human, but probably some people want to want to protect the interests of themselves or their families above and beyond all conventional morality or hesitation. Once someone becomes an adamant defender of the In Group interests, the killing of Out Group children comes naturally though that was not the explicit goal. We hardly need to turn to science fiction to see how that can happen.

“Humanity” becomes as exclusive or inclusive as you like it since you can rewire your brain to select who’s in the In Group. Maybe it’s just people with the right facial structure. Maybe it includes machine intelligences and aliens. Maybe it’s so wide that you won’t hurt a brother lobster or so narrow that you’ll shoot the next beggar child who tries to mind-control you with her pleading gaze.

Maybe the third iteration of the True Knowledge reveals that no cooperation is required when programmed machines have defanged mindless nature and all other minds are dead. First one to reach the next iteration of True Knowledge kills all the others. It will be like Bradbury’s There Will Come Soft Rains but with the initiator and sole survivor of the genocide enjoying the luxurious, fully automated, finally and truly safe world cleansed of all potential rivals.

The monstrous conclusion does not mean the premises are incorrect: it could just be that kind of world. It does mean that you can’t discard all prior “bullshit” morality and still be not-a-monster by the lights of that same discarded morality. A True Adherent of the True Knowledge won’t care about others’ perception of monstrosity any more than atheists care about what the Pope says about contraception.


floopmeister 05.13.15 at 4:26 am

Maybe the third iteration of the True Knowledge reveals that no cooperation is required when programmed machines have defanged mindless nature and all other minds are dead. First one to reach the next iteration of True Knowledge kills all the others. It will be like Bradbury’s There Will Come Soft Rains but with the initiator and sole survivor of the genocide enjoying the luxurious, fully automated, finally and truly safe world cleansed of all potential rivals.

Sounds like the castle of Sade as described by Camus in The Rebel. The last Master, having killed off all rivals, wandering around an empty charnel house with no one left to be Master over. Not a happy ending for said Master.

Anyway haven’t read anything by McLeod but I’ll certainly be chasing up a copy of the The Cassini Division. If only because The Rebel is one of my favourite books and it sounds as though The True Knowledge is in direct contradiction with…

“All ethics composed in solitude imply an exercise of power”


William Timberman 05.13.15 at 7:24 am

If one were tasked to provide an epistemological foundation for Hell, I suppose The True Knowledge, as defined here, would do as well as any. I haven’t read The Cassini Division, although I’ve read several other MacLeod novels. My sense of them: how nice it is to see a good gray socialist take on the future for a change — a bit of rain and coal smoke, and a certain cynical earnestness being much more to my taste than the libertarian cheerleading with rocketships that was far more common when I first started reading science fiction.

A great post, and more to come. I can’t wait to read MacLeod’s own reply to these appreciations. CT’s book events are a delight. I just wish there were more of them.


Neel Krishnaswami 05.13.15 at 3:25 pm

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-cooperators.

This is conventional wisdom, but one I never found very persuasive.

The whole iterated prisoner’s dilemma setup is exquisitely sensitive to exactly how you set it up: with infinite iterations you can get cooperation depending on the discount rates, but if it’s a fixed number of rounds, then by backwards induction you should defect always, but if you randomize the number of rounds (ie, each turn there’s a probability p of another go), then whether or not you should play depends on the product of the probability and the discount rates, and there are likely more variations you can introduce, and if you allow binding agreements then the whole noncoperative game aspects evaporates and turns into an exercise in computing the Shapely value.

As a result, you can use the iterated prisoner’s dilemma to produce a plausible argument for pretty much anything you like. (I have as a minor ambition to write a pop-sci book which uses slight-but-incompatible variants of the iterated prisoner’s dilemma to argue for different stupidly contrarian positions in each chapter. Unfortunately the joke-to-work ratio of writing Freakatrollonomics does not look favorable.)


stevenjohnson 05.13.15 at 3:58 pm

“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.”

Why we shouldn’t? Because by and large, people need affection as well as material goods, not just from children and lovers but friends, with all due respect to the variant distribution of these needs in the population (and the existence of outliers.) Because if you’re a child or disabled or elderly or sick, the True Knowledge is not the way even to material happiness. Because any true knowledge is not a logical demonstration from first principles but a collective enterprise where knowledge is attained by manipulating nature and making history. Because evolutionary game theory can’t define payoffs for life and can’t specify the number of iterations of the game and can’t even list the games and their rules and when they’re being played.

I think it likely the reason this seems so seductive is that by and large it’s a restatement of the human nature implicit in orthodox economic theory. I also suspect this common ideology is not expressed in such stark amoral terms because it’s alien to the way most people think, i.e., it’s not true knowledge about people. It would seem like a madcap, even perverse, pursuit of a conceit.

As for The Cassini Division, written in the early stages of MacLeod’s ever speedier trajectory to the right, I would have thought a person with a economics background would have commented on how libertarian New Mars functions as Galt’s Gulch. I think the fast folk are not very good science, indulged to create a straw man. It’s hard to say how this doesn’t vitiate the alleged moral dilemmas in the novel. But if I remember correctly, the extermination of the fast folk was done at New Mars too by libertarians? Isn’t then questionable what the True Knowledge has to do with that at all? The novel ends with the nasty Commies hiding in space, plotting imperial conquest. This nicely replicates stock Red Scare hysteria. I guess all you need add is that they will inevitably become more and more backward, suffering terrible deprivations and tyrannical horrors.

The fast folk as crap science designed to disguise devils from melodrama is complemented I think by The Restoration Game’s computer Gods, equally crap science in my view. Iain M. Banks’ Surface Detail also imagined this, but unlike MacLeod, Banks was pretty negative in his depiction. (I recently finished Iain Banks’ The Quarry. A character dying of cancer tried to throw away his denunciations of old friends. Could the author have had the same impulse about some his friends?) The Restoration Game is also quite positive about the restoration of capitalism. The thing is, how do a working religion and capitalist restoration go together in a non-horror novel?

If I recall correctly, Learning the World has a generation ship traveling to another star. The population is therefore rather small in human terms. Yet MacLeod seems to think that this microsociety can implement a futures market in its children’s prospects! Honestly, this seems to me to be so nuts it should be noticed.


RichardM 05.13.15 at 5:28 pm

Because by and large, people need affection as well as material goods

The fact that people need affection is hard, testable, materialistic, and pretty well known. So, by definition, it can’t be in contradiction with the True Knowledge. In fact, the book already implies it is an organic part of it:

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.

The Solar Union only knows how to work together with humans and human-like things – those who feel things like affection and regret and guilt and fear, and you can model when.

It’s not pure abstract game theory, or they could build a machine that embodied it.

You bring up Banks, and this is relevant; the Culture is not so limited. Both have the same fundamental technology: computing machines that outperfom a human brain like a fusion reactor does a human heart.

But only one knows how to work with it…


Matt 05.13.15 at 6:14 pm

FTL movement of matter or information has never been observed in nature or the laboratory, and there are ample theoretical reasons to think it is simply impossible. Yet it remains a staple of SF, including the novel under discussion here, and readers who find FTL eye-rollingly ridiculous on grounds of special relativity seem to be few. In truth I do find FTL eye-rollingly ridiculous when people seriously propose it but I don’t mind it in fiction. On a scale of suspension-of-disbelief-effort I think that Fast Folk devils are less taxing than wormhole engineering.


SimonH 05.13.15 at 10:39 pm

Steven as I’ve stated earlier I don’t think Ken has gone to the right. I always read the end of Cassini Division positively, building an alternative that people on New Mars fed up with an-cap could gravitate to. That being said I found New Mars to be to pleasant a form of libertarianism, for one thing I think the plight of children in such a society would be far darker then the whole children as media thing, which was actually a silly idea even in just the concept.


William Berry 05.17.15 at 8:41 pm

With a tip of the hat to floopmeister’s mention of Camus, above:

Don’t know why we can’t recognize the “True Knowledge” for what it is/ appears to be: a relatively accurate description of the material world we live in. We keep it (not too far) in the back of our minds where it serves as the censoring function, the reality check.

Then, fueled by love and longing, we carry on with the construction of the Humanist Project.

Again, with Camus: We bend our bow and release that “shaft that is inflexible and free”.

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