Libertarians in Space

During my junior year of high school, I was a libertarian.

My primary influence was not Ayn Rand -- the philosopher whose books have shaped generations of libertarian thinkers and activists -- but science-fiction writers like Robert Heinlein. My copy of Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – in which a lunar colony secedes from earth to establish an anarcho-capitalist society – was marked by folded corners, underlined passages, and marginalia. Like most teenagers, I felt trapped by the institutions in which I lived most of my life. Heinlein’s philosophy of individual freedom and self-reliance seemed to point to a way out.

Shaped by sentimental memories of the American frontier, libertarianism is a quintessentially American political philosophy that first found literary expression in tales of the Wild West. The classic Western looked back romantically to a time when rugged individualists roped steers, women tended the hearth, the only good Indian was a dead one, and swamps were there to be drained, not protected, dammit. When the two-fisted horse opera exhausted itself – there were only so many Indians to kill – it moved on to the "new frontier" of outer space.

Science-fiction writers extended Manifest Destiny into futures where eccentric professors invented antigravity in their basements and sent their beautiful daughters into space with the college football captain and his best friend. There the kids encountered tentacled aliens whom they slaughtered by the thousands with Daddy’s death ray. (For a discussion of a competing tendency in sci-fi, technocratic utopianism, see "A World, Not a Nation," D&S, September/October 2001.)

When it became obvious in the mid-20th century that real space exploration involved thousands of scientists and engineers working at great expense on small technical problems within a vast bureaucracy, space lost some of its romance. The best sci-fi writers – such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel Delaney, and Kurt Vonnegut – turned inward to speculate about the ways that humanity could survive progress. Spurred on by the social movements of the 1960s, most science fiction outgrew its adolescence and entered young adulthood.

Not everyone went forward. In the 1970s, a proudly retrograde cabal kept the space opera alive. Writers such as Poul Anderson, Jerry Pournelle, Gregory Benford, and Robert Heinlein gradually adopted libertarianism as their official ideology, which included a dash of militarism (apparently, libertarians in space still need government to defend the property stolen from the natives). Championed by these award-winning authors, libertarian science fiction grew into a sub-subculture, with its own organizations, conferences, anthologies, and award, the Prometheus.

Meanwhile, in what we call the real world, Ronald Reagan took office with the support and influence of libertarians and their think tanks. Former Ayn Rand protege Alan Greenspan went on to chair the Federal Reserve. Today George W. cuts taxes with abandon while leading a cavalry to save corporate homesteads on the Middle Eastern frontier.

As the right has advanced, left-wing utopias and the hopes they represent have receded. Conversely, libertarian novelists have turned to imagining what writer Ken MacLeod has called "libertarias," utopias that allow individuals to freely pursue their self-interest without the interference of a state. Unlike most classic utopias – from Plato’s Atlantis to Ursula K. Le Guin's Anarres – libertarias seek Darwinian competition instead of peace and harmony. The result may not be a "good" society in the conventional sense, but it is one that allows "man to be true to his nature as a predator," as one writer puts it.

L. Neil Smith’s 1993 novel Pallas, for example, is set on a colony established by billionaire industrialist "Wild Bill" Curringer, based on the philosophy of Mirelle Stein (who is obviously a stand-in for Ayn Rand). Smith’s Pallas is an asteroid encased in an atmosphere-holding envelope, with no laws or government. On their sprawling homesteads and in their citified saloons, each well-armed Pallatian cultivates a folksy accent and tinkers with quaintly Victorian machinery. The only "worm in the apple" of Pallas is the Greeley Memorial Utopian Project, a Stalinist commune governed by the villainous Gibson Altman.

Filled with unintentionally amusing scenarios and chapter-long rants against vegetarianism, agriculture, and public transportation, Pallas tells the rough-and-tumble tale of Emerson Ngu, who escapes the Greeley Project to become the wealthy and sharp-shooting hero of Pallas. The novel’s explicit nostalgia for the Wild West would be kitschy fun if it weren’t so rigidly ideological.

Smith is like most American libertarian sci-fi writers in that he’s essentially a small-town boy trapped in a big world populated by people and ideas he doesn’t understand. Much more interesting is Ken MacLeod, a Scotsman and former Trotskyist whose imagination cooks up dark and knotted libertarias.

In his novels, MacLeod never assumes that an armed and ungoverned citizenry will solve all problems. His libertarias are deeply dysfunctional societies where the "war of all against all" generates a self-undermining neurotic vitality. MacLeod dispenses with the interminable speechifying that characterizes most libertarian fiction, and instead shows rather than tells us what a "libertaria" might look like.

MacLeod’s 1996 novel The Stone Canal takes place on New Mars, a planet 10,000 light years away settled by offshoots of an anarcho-capitalist "space movement." Effectively immortal due to cloning and memory-storage technologies, New Mars’s human, humanoid, and android citizens murder each other at will -- the revived victims often suing their killers in privately run courts. War doesn’t exist on New Mars, but then neither does peace.

The Stone Canal is interesting pro-market propaganda, which is why MacLeod's next book in 1998, The Cassini Division, surprised many readers. While New Mars developed in isolation from Earth, it seems that the solar system the New Martians left behind grew into a vast anarcho-socialist society, the Solar Union. There is no government, but unlike on New Mars, there is also no money or property.

The result is boring but stable, a utopia where life is "simple, self-sufficient, low-impact, and ecologically sound." In The Cassini Division, the anarcho-socialist Solar Union contacts the anarcho-capitalist New Mars in order to confront a shared enemy. Several centuries before, the technicians, engineers, scientists, and "desperate rich" of Earth abandoned their chaotic planet and uploaded their consciousness to virtual environments in orbit around Jupiter. There -- after what one character calls "the Rapture of the nerds" -- they live forever in fantasylands of unlimited personal freedom. Cut off from the rest of humanity, they gradually go mad and bombard the Solar Union with computer viruses. When New Mars is also exposed to the "post-human" attack, it finds itself unable to cope, leaving the socialist Solar Union to bail the New Martians out – "at some cost," notes a New Martian, "to themselves." To which the book’s arch-capitalist David Reid replies, "What else are communists for?"

The Stone Canal and The Cassini Division are about the promises and limits of freedom. For a relatively mature science-fiction novelist like MacLeod, the adolescent yearning for total freedom and transcendence must always come into conflict with the reality of interdependence, which entails obligations and responsibilities. You don’t need to agree with libertarian politics to understand its appeal. In a world of limits imposed by nature and history, libertarianism represents a powerful vision of escape.

I still believe the libertarian analysis of power as corrupting and the state as intrinsically threatening to the individual is accurate. But as I’ve aged, it’s become clear to me that libertarianism hasn’t had anything useful to say about racism and sexism, oligarchy and monopoly, pollution and global warming, or how commerce can damage culture. In fact, libertarians typically respond either that these problems don’t exist or that they can be easily solved by just getting government out of the way.

This simplistic view is not shared by much of the rest of the world, but libertarianism exerts a powerful influence on American culture and public policy. Who among us dares love those pointy-headed bureaucrats in Washington? What politician these days boasts of raising taxes or regulating commerce?

Today, libertarianism is at what I hope will be the height of its influence. While I would like for our society to retain its skepticism of power and its freewheeling entrepreneurism, we must eventually face the consequences of the selfishness that libertarians call a virtue. After all, everyone has to grow up sometime.

Jeremy Smith, former publisher of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice, is the director of membership services at the Independent Press Association.

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