Rationalism and True Knowledge

The introduction to the American edition of The Star Fraction contains Ken MacLeod’s second-most famous dictum – “History is the trade secret of science fiction, and theories of history are its invisible engine.” The Fall Revolution books are all about history and people trying to make it (or perhaps more accurately, histories, and people trying to make them). They’re also books that reflect a very specific historical period – when the Berlin Wall had fallen or was about to fall but the Washington Consensus had yet to gel – a moment where the cold logic of nuclear deterrence still held, sort of, while the political transformation of Eastern Europe and the new market anarchism of Sachs, drugs and rock and roll was starting to get going. Maybe the closest thing to the manic intensity of the first three books (and chunks of the fourth) is the Zone of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow – black markets, hustlers, ideas, freewheeling politics, and the frozen arc of the Rocket still hanging above it all. They’re also (and much more so than Pynchon, whose zaniness is often forced) very funny books – they don’t play anything for obvious laughs, but are riddled through with intellectual black comedy.

For me, one of the most interesting things in the book is how they play with theories of rationalism. I don’t know how much of this is deliberate, and how much the result of MacLeod being interested in “theories of history” like Marxism (some variants), market socialism and classical economics that are heavily influenced by rationalism at second hand. But MacLeod’s most fascinating idea in these books (at least, as measured by people other than Ken MacLeod being visibly fascinated) is obviously a close cousin of self-interest based rationalism: the True Knowledge.

Cosma has already quoted MacLeod’s description of the True Knowledge’s content, so I don’t need to do it again (although nb that his read is a little different than mine). We find out about it in the third book, The Cassini Division, where it paradoxically becomes the basis for a solar-system wide distributed socialism (it is only through recognizing our selfish interests that we can set ourselves free). It’s created by a group of North Korean expatriate indentured workers, who have nothing to read except for a bunch of classic 19th century texts in social theory and evolution, and end up deriving their own all encompassing social philosophy from them (we meet the workers – sort of – in the fourth book, The Sky Road, which is set in a different history than the third book). The True Knowledge is a kind of ideological hodgepodge, which doesn’t always work very well to describe reality, and which comes with ancillary assumptions that are of even more dubious value (such as the unfortunate belief of the protagonist of the The Cassini Division that artificial intelligences can’t have self consciousness, and are necessarily inimical to organic life). But it’s a recognizable hodge-podge – it’s unmistakably a close cousin of many of the undercurrents of modern thought.

The True Knowledge smacks of Darwin, of Marx (in Capital rather than Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts mode), of Spencer, and of a whole host of nineteenth century economists. It’s an alternative intellectual history buried within an alternative intellectual history (our future has already diverged dramatically from MacLeod’s imagined ones). Its authors have been deprived of other reading materials, so that they have to construct their own idiosyncratic understanding of twenty-first century politics on the basis of nineteenth century social thought.

That’s what makes it an interesting analogue to the shaping ideas of our own age, which are, although we don’t usually think about it, trying to pull much the same trick. As Charles Tilly notes in one of his books, nineteenth century social and political thought reflects nineteenth century social and political problems – but we still are its unwitting slaves a century and a bit later. The parallels between the True Knowledge and the rational choice theories underlying economic and political theory (the most influential nineteenth-century-ideas-carried-into-the-21st) are clear. Socialism based on crass selfishness is straight out of the No Bullshit Marxism project (a popular approach around these parts – Harry once remarked on how many of Crooked Timber’s members had been shaped by our encounter with it), which aimed to remake socialism on micro foundations grounded in individual self interest. Making peace out of our “capacity for mutual destruction” is a variant on the arguments of the deterrence theory developed by Thomas Schelling and his colleagues.

Like rational choice theory, the True Knowledge isn’t actually right, but it’s not actually wrong either. What it is is powerful – a set of ideas that have compelling force, and that are capable of creating a self-reinforcing social logic. The True Knowledge then isn’t so much a universal acid as a vivid encapsulation of influential assumptions about rational self interest, pushed to their logical conclusion and a little bit further again.

The True Knowledge isn’t present in all of MacLeod’s Fall Revolution books – it’s the dominant idea in the third book and plays a minor role in the fourth. However, related themes of rationalism and its unexpected implications play through the Fall Revolution books, providing them with much of their energy and black humor. Sometimes the intertwined rationalisms are contrapuntal; sometimes different strands of the music clash with each other. Our dominant theories of the market and the Rocket, of economic and warlike relations, may both be derivatives of theories about rational self interest, but they have evolved in very different directions. MacLeod has a lot of fun in looking at the incongruities between them. The closest analogy I can think of to what he does is a weird one – to Michele Piccione and Ariel Rubinstein’s lovely article on the “equilibrium of the jungle,” which comes as close as an economic model can get to Swiftian satire, by playing through the hidden relationship between brutality and violence and the purportedly happy results of free market exchange. MacLeod is interested in similar kinds of dissonance.

This is best illustrated by the clever wheeze of the Kazakh International Scientific and Technical Workers’ Republic in The Stone Canal. Faced with difficult economic times, it decides to market the only commodity that it possesses in abundance – nuclear deterrence.

Not the weapons themselves – that, perish the thought, would have been illegal – but the salutary effect of possessing them. Our contract was pretty standard, and it simply gave us an option to call in a nuclear strike on anyone who used nuclear weapons against us, and who didn’t provide full compensation. Anyone who nuked us – even accidentally or incidentally – had to pay up or get nuked themselves. The beauty of this arrangement was that any number of clients – the more the better – could have a claim on a relatively small number of nukes, an effect rather like fractional reserve banking. It also meant that anyone who wanted to tempt the ISTWR with a first-use deal would have had to offer more than the income from all the deterrent clients, and that would have cost far more than just building or stealing their own nukes. So the chances of the system being used for nuclear aggression were minute. Above all, for the first time, nuclear deterrence was available to anyone willing to pay for it, and the cost was reasonable enough for every homeland to have one. Especially when the competition caught on: rogue submarine commanders, missile crews in Siberia and Alaska who wanted payment in real money for a change, groups of ambitious junior officers in Africa all started selling off shares in the family plutonium. Another triumph for the free market.

The whole idea of fractional reserve nuclear deterrence is gloriously loopy. Someone who took it too seriously might start muttering about Schelling, credibility problems and whether or not the ISTWR could be trusted to deliver on its contract, and whether doubts about the same would lead to rapid destabilization and so on. But they’d be missing the joke, a joke which implicitly depends on the collision between two kinds of rational credibility – the credibility underlying markets (and, in particular, banking and credit markets), and the credibility of threatening nuclear obliteration against anyone who dares to nuke you. I doubt that MacLeod seriously believes that something like this would ever work – but he very obviously does believe, and quite correctly too, that it’s an interesting and enjoyable something to_ think with._ If a deterrence theory based on fractional claims on nukes is fundamentally incredible, so too, perhaps, is fractional reserve banking – both rest on the assumption that one will never actually have to draw on one’s full resources and are liable to decohere very rapidly if one does, and one doesn’t have some outside stabilizing force to step in and help out. As MacLeod notes (in a double entendre), ‘some weapons are best kept in reserve.’

There are, of course, many other collisions between the rationalities of war and market in the Fall Revolution books, such as the wildly complicated system of mercenary companies, ransoms and lawsuits that provides security in The Star Fraction, and the radical libertarianism+binding arbitration of The Stone Canal. The most interesting (returning to the True Knowledge) is the Special Circumstances-esque vexed relationship in The Cassini Division between the Union of peaceable and decentralized socialism which works across the inner Solar System and the ‘Cassini Division,’ a narrow and self selecting military elite dedicated to maintaining a blockade against renegade libertarian artificial intelligences.

On the one hand, it’s the Cold War through a distorted mirror – like economic theory in the 1960s, the True Knowledge provides both the ideological underpinnings of the economic order, and the strategic vocabulary for the military that maintain it against the outside. On the other, it’s a way of playing with different implications of rational self interest. The self-same theories that justify the (selfish) cooperation of the Union, also justify the Division, which sets out to limit, and perhaps take down, those with inimical interests . Union and Division (and the pun is intended) reflect fundamentally different readings of the True Knowledge, with different implications for behavior.

This plays out in the key conflict of the book – whether or not the pacific or militaristic version of the True Knowledge holds. Jupiter has been colonized by the Fast Folk – renegade AIs distantly descended from Glenn-Reynolds-like extropian arseholes who have fled the inner solar system after committing some mid-level atrocities. They are returning – bearing gifts, or at least the promise of gifts. Should they be trusted, or should they be destroyed?

On the one hand, the Union wants to give them a chance. The Solar Council delegate, Mary Lou Smith, rebukes the war party by pointing out how the True Knowledge provides a basis for mutual trust between rational beings whose interests are aligned.

You’ve endured two centuries of apparently endless conflict, two centuries for your personal dislikes to rankle into hatred. You’ve had even longer for the harshest aspects of the true knowledge – its dark side if you will – to overwhelm its truth. because the truth is the whole, and in raising the aspect of struggle way out of proportion to that of cooperation, you’ve turned it into a lie.

For Smith, the True Knowledge leads to a kind of near-obligation for all minded beings to work together if they can, in the face of a mindless universe. The “possibility of working together” creates its own ‘us’ of people who can be trusted.

On the other, the protagonist, Ellen May Ngwethu works for the Division, and believes throughout most of the book that anyone from the other side is inherently untrustworthy. If she weren’t herself a Commie, she’d believe that the only good ones are dead ones. It isn’t just that the renegade AIs are descended from scumbags – she believes that their ambitions must necessarily clash with those of human beings. Ngwethu reads as though she stepped from the pages of one of the more paranoid Cold War thrillers. She’s a bit of a monster and Smith is right to insinuate that bitter personal experience, combined with the semi-demented rationalism of a paranoid version of the True Knowledge, have made her so.

But what makes the book interesting is that it doesn’t go for the obvious lefty conclusion of a Grand Reveal in which Ngwethu’s paranoia is completely unjustified. Even if her distrust is partly rooted in xenophobia, she turns out to be right. As soon as the Fast Folk get the opportunity, they cheat, and try to borg everyone they can reach.

The Fast Folk can’t be trusted, in part because the game theoretic ‘shadow of the future’ is very short for them (they die or evolve into new beings too quickly for future retaliation to have much consequence for them). They also can’t be trusted, because once they break out from Jupiter they will become vastly more powerful and more difficult to constrain. As I argue in an old paper that namechecks MacLeod, actors who are enormously powerful simply cannot be trusted to take the interests of the weak into account. And actors who are about to become much more powerful cannot credibly commit to the soon-to-be-weak that they will not abuse their power when they come into it. Hence, there’s a rational case for going to war with them before it’s too late (indeed, the rationale that MacLeod describes is remarkably close to one of Jim Fearon’s ‘rationalist explanations for war’.

If I’m right that the Fall Revolution books have a lot to say about rationalism, the rest of MacLeod’s oeuvre doesn’t to nearly the same extent (except when rationalism gets tangled up with free will, religion and Covenanting). But one aspect of the struggle between the light and dark versions of the True Knowledge lives on – the vexed relationship between pacific economic relations and the military force needed to underpin them. MacLeod has long ceased to be a Marxist, and become an idiosyncratic libertarian. Many of his political positions – on questions like e-cigarettes (which I couldn’t care less about) and global warming (which I could) aren’t mine. But he combines a libertarian cynicism about politics and the violence of the state with an understanding not only of their inevitability, but their sometime necessity. Utopia – any utopia – will have a Cassini Division.

In a weird way, Ngwethu and the other members of the Division are not so much rational as rationalizers. They’re part-time altruists, who are willing to protect the Union at the cost of their own lives, justifying it in terms of their not-very-well articulated goals. This is what allows the relationship between the Division and Union to work – the willingness of powerful enforcers to restrain themselves from enforcing their self-interest against their peaceful brethren. If they were self-interested in the sense e.g. that many or most twenty-first century politicians are self-interested, there would be trouble; the Division is closer to the Fast Folk than it realizes (which perhaps helps explain some of Smith’s distrust of it). Rationalism isn’t at the heart of MacLeod’s work. But one could make an argument that rationalism – as depicted in the Fall Revolution – is one expression of a broader tension that is at the core of his thought – the inevitable contradiction between a fragile space of freedom, and the specialists in violence who purport to protect it. The true dark side of the True Knowledge is the routinization and commodification of torture in the not-so-alternate-realities of Intrusion) and The Execution Channel.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.