Charles Stross discovers the Cathedral
Poor Charles Stross. Not that he’s the first revolutionary to discover that the revolution bus doesn’t stop where the sign said it was supposed to stop. And not that he’ll be the last. But still—can’t we be a little sad? Just a little?
(At least if 20th-century Britain is your milieu, the masterpiece of revolutionary disenchantment is Malcolm Muggeridge’s autobiography. Suffice it to say that Muggeridge’s wife was the niece of Sidney and Beatrice Webb—suffice it also to say that he was a Guardian correspondent in Moscow in the ’30s. A lovely paper, the old Grauniad, I read it every day. No, really.)
Reader, I knew Charlie, once. A long, long time ago in a galaxy long since destroyed, he was an promising young SF writer and I was a promising young CS grad student, and we were both regulars on the same Usenet newsgroup, alt.peeves. I met him once when he visited Berkeley. I even read his unpublished novel—which I thought was good, but not great.
Indeed this age has quite the glut of good writers. Great ones? Greatness is not a quality of our time. A great writer, having read his Orwell, would never let himself get away with abusing the English word dictatorship to mean “government I don’t like.” Do we live in a beige dictatorship? Really? Who, then, is our beige dictator? Valerie Jarrett?
Of course the word Charlie’s looking for is oligarchy, and he even finds it further down the page. He quotes Robert Michels, for God’s sake! Comrade! I have to hope you’re just dropping Wiki links, comrade. You can’t have actually read this book. It’s on the restricted list—dangerous even for a loyal Party man in good standing. Weren’t you assigned Hardt and Negri? Have you finished?
I mean, if you’re reading Michels, what will you get into next? Ostrogorski? Mosca and Pareto? Maine? Froude and Carlyle? Marijuana leads to heroin, you know. A couple more clicks and suddenly, you discover that you’ve spent the whole day marinating your delicate cortex in R.L. Dabney. Definitely no way to crank out the next cyberpunk space-opera blockbuster.
And Comrade Stross, I’d endeavour not to bring the Party into disrespect with palpable absurdities. To wit:
Something has gone wrong with our political processes, on a global scale. But what? It’s obviously subtle—we haven’t been on the receiving end of a bunch of jack-booted fascists or their communist equivalents organizing putsches.
If you want to point out that progressive democracies in the West have developed some of the same bureaucratic pathologies as the Eastern peoples’ democracies, that’s one thing. But don’t you think it’s a little difficult to pretend that Western progressive democracy is equidistant from Hitler and Stalin? From Comrade Stalin—leader of progressive mankind? Really?
Your reader may not know much about 20th-century history—hardly anyone does, really. But you can’t keep him from knowing that his government didn’t collaborate with Hitler to smash Stalin. (I have no joke—I just like saying, “Stalin was feeling extremely gay.”)
No, comrade. It’s much better to come right out and lead the audience in a rousing rendition of that great New Laborite anthem, The Red Flag. Don’t try to pretend the revolution didn’t happen. That only distracts us from the critical task of figuring out who betrayed it. Was it Ralph Miliband’s kids? But they seemed so promising!
This is how all great magicians work. They keep you looking for something “obviously subtle,” while they saw the lady in half right in front of your face. What happened? Um, the revolution happened. Slowly, it’s true.
A big favorite of the early 20C Laborites, English Dissenters to the marrow, was Blake’s great hymn (doesn’t Billy Bragg do a version?):
I will not cease from Mental Fight, Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand: Till we have built Jerusalem, In England’s green and pleasant Land.
How’s that New Jerusalem workin’ out for ya? Actually, pretty well:
Meanwhile, it may with little fear of contradiction be asserted that there never was, in any nation of which we have a history, a time in which life and property were so secure as they are at present in England. The sense of security is almost everywhere diffused, in town and country alike, and it is in marked contrast to the sense of insecurity which prevailed even at the beginning of the present century.
There are, of course, in most great cities, some quarters of evil repute in which assault and robbery are now and again committed. There is perhaps to be found a lingering and flickering tradition of the old sanctuaries and similar resorts. But any man of average stature and strength may wander about on foot and alone, at any hour of the day or the night, through the greatest of all cities and its suburbs, along the high roads, and through unfrequented country lanes, and never have so much as the thought of danger thrust upon him, unless he goes out of his way to court it.
Oh, wait. My mistake. That’s not the New Jerusalem, it’s the old one—London in 1876. Victorians! Anglicans! Morons! What did they know from Mental Fight? Exterminate the brutes! Whereas, after a century and a half of Progress:
A teenager who pleaded for his life as a gang armed with knives and swords chased and fatally stabbed him in the street was named yesterday as Hani Hicham Abou El-Kheir.
Witnesses described how the 16-year-old tripped while he was being pursued by a group of up to 15 youths close to home on a housing estate in well-heeled Pimlico and shouted “don’t do it” as he was surrounded. His mother rushed to the scene and had to be held back from a police cordon as medics battled in vain to save his life.
Police said last night they were keeping an open mind about the motive for the attack. A youth worker said there had been a concerted attempt by drug dealers to move into the area in recent months but although Hani’s name had been mentioned “on the periphery” of a gang, he had not been considered a significant or known member.
The attack shortly before 7pm on Sunday night took place close to Pimlico Tube station on a street flanked by multi-million pound houses and an estate of local authority tower blocks where Hani is believed to have lived with his mother.
One onlooker said that his killers ran away “as if nothing had happened” after having “jumped on him like a pack of dogs”. He was heard to plead “don’t do it” as the gang, many of whom witnesses said were wearing hoodies and bandanas across their faces, repeatedly stabbed him.
I guess someone’s sword isn’t sleeping in his hand. Swords! I love swords. Always and everywhere, science fiction needs more swords. Meanwhile, the great SF writer himself recently spent a weekend in our own vibrant metropolis of “warm, sunny Detroit,” where I’m sure he took the time to “wander about on foot and alone.” Nah. Just kidding. I’m sure he took an armored vehicle straight from the airport to the hotel. And back again. Ah, the 21st century.
Am I digressing? No, I’m not digressing. Crime and government are the same thing—power imposed by force. Always and everywhere, crime is nano-tyranny. In the last minute of Hani Hicham Abou El-Kheir’s life, there was only one government that mattered—a tiny circle of sovereignty, containing oppressed (Mr. El-Kheir) and oppressor (15 “youths” wielding swords). This government, smaller than the Queen’s but no less real, condemned Mr. El-Kheir to death, no doubt for some real or imagined offence, enforced the penalty, and then dispersed. Hopefully the Queen’s grim stormtroopers will at some point capture the rebel regime, perhaps issuing the leader a stern Asbo.
One great Englishman, King Ine of Wessex, wrote eloquently of this phenomenon, nano-government. By the laws of King Ine, if there are up to 7 sword-wielding “youths,” they are thieves; from 7 to 35, bandits; and if over 35, an army. This is objective social science at its finest.
If the young Englishmen of Pimlico care to be taken seriously, then, they’d best recruit at least 20 more good English youths. With swords. But how hard is that? Can’t you print a sword, or 20, with a Makerbot? Moreover, though there are only 20 million Englishmen and thus potential swordsmen, it’s the 21st century. Change has come. And anyone with two legs who isn’t a bird is an Englishman. At least, if Ralph Miliband’s kids have issued him the proper documents. And paper, you’ll note, is even easier to print than a sword.
This sort of thing doesn’t bother a good Party man, of course. Democracy, as we know, is messy. (Look at the Arab Spring! Glorious! But messy!) And kids are always up to some kind of shenanigans. No, England’s real tragedy is that government services are being outsourced.
Indeed, it’s quite possible that whoever had to clean Mr. Al-Kheir’s four gallons off the Pimlico pavement was, in fact, a private contractor. (Probably an Englishman of, well, Polish descent. Why work, when you can import slaves?) How low can England sink? What would Lord Passfield say?
Okay. Now I am digressing. This is just ridicule. Indeed, England’s real tragedy is that England has become, for possibly the first time since Gildas was a little boy, ridiculous. This precious stone, set in the silver sea… sceptered it remains; but the scepter is, unmistakably, Nerf; and the hand that once so bravely wielded it, now, appears to be, well, stroking….
But I do have a serious answer to Charlie’s question. Because, after all, we agree. A “beige oligarchy”—definitely not a “brown paper bag” reference—is exactly what we have. It’s exactly what we’ll always have, until some other Aristotelian form replaces it. (A good comrade can read Aristotle, but not apply him.) Per Aristotle, there are three forms of government—by the many, by the few, by the one; democracy, oligarchy, monarchy. In England and elsewhere, how do we escape the beige oligarchy and get back to democracy?
Ha! How does a cow fly to the moon? It doesn’t. We can’t.
I realize that this is very difficult to accept for people brought up to see democracy not only as what ought to be, but also as what is. Here at UR, we believe that not only shouldn’t it be, but it isn’t. Moreover, it can’t be.
Always and everywhere, the strong rule the weak. 15 youths with swords rule 1 youth with no sword. If Mr. Al-Kheir had wanted to “wander, on foot and alone,” through the wilds of central London, he had a simple way to do so. He should have brought his sword and 14 friends. He felt that he had a natural right to “wander, on foot and alone,” and the Queen’s law supported him in this opinion. But it was not the Queen who ruled this patch of Pimlico. Had Mr. Al-Kheir been more attentive to what is, not what ought to be, he might be sitting at home reading a Charles Stross novel.
The constitution of a country is a mockery and a sham unless it reflects the real structure and possession of power in the country. Suppose “Martian invaders” invade America and take over Washington. All power is held by the Martian invaders, with their death-rays. But they don’t bother to cancel the Constitution—why should they? We therefore see a divergence of power between the real authorities, the Martian invaders, and the nominal authorities, the American people. In this case, is America still a democracy? Nominally, yes. Really, no.
While there are no Martian invaders, it is relatively straightforward for us to distinguish between two kinds of democracy: one kind, in which power genuinely flows upward from what people want, and another kind, in which power flows downward from the beige oligarchy / Martian invaders, is converted into what they’re supposed to think, and regurgitated dutifully at the polls.
Charlie, do you really want a political system in which power genuinely flows upward from what most people want? I have two words for you. The first is the name of a Biblical prophet. The second is “Powell.”
In postwar Europe, there is a codeword for a political persuasion in which power flows upward. The codeword is “populist.” Needless to say, no more vile slur can pass the lips of a good Party man. A “beige dictatorship?” Please, man. Don’t complain about the dish you ordered.
But I don’t care to frighten you with bugbears. The reality of the 20th century is that populists lose. Populists lose because populism is democracy, and democracy is weak. For instance, democracy as a form of government originated in mob violence. It was a mob that chased Charles I out of London. Then, democracy was strong and monarchy was weak, and as always the strong ruled the weak.
There is still mob violence in London, of course, but it is not organized and therefore cannot exercise power—and in any case, it is underclass violence, and therefore aligned with the Party. There is certainly no populist violence in London, and there hasn’t been any for 50 years. The beige oligarchy has zero tolerance for that.And even the idiotic “race riots” of the ’50s were a pathetic shadow of the Elizabethan mob, which had no trouble at all in ripping the throats out of every Flemish merchant in the City if they thought they were being gouged on the wool price.
So we have an interesting situation, in which a political force, once physically powerful, became represented in formal authority as a way to recognize and regularize its capacity for violence. But it no longer has that capacity for violence. Nor does it have any capacity to govern—not that it ever had any, really. And without the capacity to govern, it also lacks the capacity to retain its position of genuine authority, either by political craft or brute force.
Therefore, we can expect exactly the result that we observe—retention of symbolic authority, loss of actual authority. Of course, for any such loss, there must be a gainer. Hence the beige oligarchy.
Democracy is a historically rare and transient phenomenon, of course, but retention of symbolic power when real power has been lost is a very common trope. It’s just a trope that usually happens not to democracies, but to monarchs—who are pwned usually by bureaucratic oligarchies, though sometimes by other monarchs (consider the Merovingian kings).
When I think of the Western democratic electorate, as a force which claims the capacity and reality of ruling, yet has been utterly used by the utterly anti-democratic beige oligarchy, I find it very easy to translate it into the language of monarchy. We all hate monarchy, of course—the Party has taught us well! But somehow, we still know its language.
Imagine you’re the King of France. You have the hereditary right to rule France, just as Englishmen have the hereditary right to rule England. Why? Because. It’s the constitution. So, sovereignty is yours, unlimited and absolute sovereignty, and everyone has to do what you say.
Except—there’s just one problem. The problem is: you’re seven years old.
There’s simply no way that France will be ruled by a seven-year-old. But sovereignty is conserved. Always and everywhere, France is ruled by someone. At best, it might be ruled by someone who claims he’s taking orders from a seven-year-old. It might even be the case that the seven-year-old, if bright, actually writes down the order, which the wise minister has suggested to him. But there is no possible way in which, in reality, France is ruled by a seven-year-old.
There’s a great passage in Ray Huang’s classic, 1587: A Year of No Significance:
When Wan-li was in his early teens, he merely followed Big Companion Feng’s instructions, affixing his own rescripts in vermilion ink on certain papers to make official the drafts in black submitted by Tutor Chang’s office. The documents that he personally worked on involved simple replies such as Approved and Acknowledged. When the rescripts involved complicated phraseology, the work was, as a rule, delegated to Feng Pao’s staff of assistants. These proceedings were completely in agreement with the dynasty’s established practice. An instruction written in red in the emperor’s presence carried the authority of the throne. On the other hand, any unauthorized use of the vermilion brush constituted falsification of imperial orders, a crime subject to the mandatory death penalty.
It must have been some time before the young emperor grasped the mechanics of the institutional process, of which he himself was the central figure. There is no evidence, for instance, that, when in those early days he carried out his official duty in a way not fundamentally different from calligraphy lessons, he fully understood the import of his own rescript Acknowledged, which really meant that the suggestion or request embodied in the paper had been politely rejected, and that, considering the noncontroversial nature of the proposal, no action would be taken against the writer of the paper or others mentioned therein.
One duty Wan-li could not delegate had to do with his power of appointment. The problem was solved in this way: whenever there was a vacancy in a high office, Tutor Chang and the ministers always submitted more than one candidate for the emperor’s selection. When he circled one person’s name with his vermilion brush, that person was appointed, and the emperor had ostensibly made a decision of his own. However, he had early been indoctrinated to believe that the person whose name topped the list was best qualified.
Could any more penetrating portrait of an American election be penned? “Not fundamentally different from calligraphy lessons.”
There is one difference between democratic electorates and child monarchs. Child monarchs grow up. Unless they are Henry VI, they become men. They acquire virtue, capacity, and strength. And at that point, the day of “Big Companion Feng” is over. Here’s (per Hume) how one of the greatest of English kings dealt with his own “Big Companion Feng”:
It was impossible that these abuses could long escape the observation of a prince endowed with so much spirit and judgment as young Edward, who, being now in his eighteenth year, and feeling himself capable of governing, repined at being held in fetters by this insolent minister. But so much was he surrounded by the emissaries of Mortimer, that it behooved him to conduct the project for subverting him with the same secrecy and precaution as if he had been forming a conspiracy against his sovereign.
He communicated his intentions to Lord Mountacute, who engaged the Lords Molins and Clifford, Sir John Nevil of Hornby, Sir Edward Bohun, Ufford, and others, to enter into their views; and the Castle of Nottingham was chosen for the scene of the enterprise. The queen dowager and Mortimer lodged in that fortress: the king also was admitted, though with a few only of his attendants: and as the castle was strictly guarded, the gates locked every evening, and the keys carried to the queen, it became necessary to communicate the design to Sir William Eland, the governor, who zealously took part in it.
By his direction, the king’s associates were admitted through a subterraneous passage, which had formerly been contrived for a secret outlet from the castle, but was now buried in rubbish; and Mortimer, without having it in his power to make resistance, was suddenly seized in an apartment adjoining to the queen’s. A parliament was immediately summoned for his condemnation.
He was accused before that assembly of having usurped regal power from the council of regency appointed by parliament; of having procured the death of the late king; of having deceived the earl of Kent into a conspiracy to restore that prince; of having solicited and obtained exorbitant grants of the royal demesnes; of having dissipated the public treasure; of secreting twenty thousand marks of the money paid by the king of Scotland; and of other crimes and misdemeanors. The parliament condemned him from the supposed notoriety of the facts, without trial, or hearing his answer, or examining a witness; and he was hanged on a gibbet at the Elmes, in the neighborhood of London.
Simple, dramatic, final, and effective. Of course, the Earl of March had only one neck. How do you hang a beige oligarchy? There’s an easy answer, which is “more gibbets.”
But this is the wrong answer, really. There are two right answers. One is that English democracy is no more capable of hanging, deposing, or even slightly troubling its beige oligarchy, than a cow of flying to the moon. That’s the bad news. The good news is: Aristotle didn’t say there were only two forms of government. He said there were three.
There is only one thing that can replace a “beige dictatorship”—a non-beige dictatorship. That is, monarchy in the dictionary sense of the word—concentration of official authority in one man, or at least one office. This man, or office, can hang anyone (or someone has authority to overrule him, which means the monarchy is no monarchy at all); and doesn’t need to hang anyone.
Why not? Because the former bureaucratic oligarchs will crawl up to his feet and lick them, begging to retain their jobs. Most will be disappointed, but so what?
Not only is none of them the Earl of March, but none of these Party men are desperate, bomb-throwing revolutionaries, however much they like to believe it. They are silky-soft bureaucrats. It’s 2013, not 1913, and all a Party man knows how to do is cozen for power. If he can no longer find appropriate bureaucratic employment, he can always drive a cab. Maybe someone will find some testicles and throw a bomb, and in this case he does unfortunately need to be hanged—pour encourager les autres. I assume the ol’ Sceptered Isle still has a gallows or two in some back room.
What is England’s problem? What is the West’s problem? In my jaundiced, reactionary mind, the entire problem can be summed up in two words—chronic kinglessness. The old machine is missing a part. In fact, it’s a testament to the machine’s quality that it functioned so long, and so well, without that part.
I don’t even need a reactionary to be king. Let’s just find someone talented with a lot more fans than me—such as, I don’t know, Charlie Stross. Is he enlightened? Of course he’s not enlightened, though this Michels thing is quite promising. It doesn’t matter. The job will enlighten him—or anybody with the capacity to do it.