Police state

The last three entries serve as an introduction to the general rationale behind the formation of a police state. Order must be maintained, loyalty sustained. The barbarians are at the gate, and unless every effort is put into keeping them out they are sure to overrun us all. Whether the barbarians are humans or mind worms makes little difference – survival hangs in the balance either way. It is therefore essential to build sturdy gates situated in imposing walls, to keep everyone where they belong.

These walls can be both physical and metaphorical. When it comes to physical walls, their necessity is obvious, and it might even be possible to rally popular support in their construction – especially if there really are barbarians out there. Over time, however, the walls are internalized. There are us and them, and it is imperative beyond everything else that the difference is maintained with rigor and swift ruthless severity. As with physical walls, it is impossible to be on both sides at once; either you are with us or against us.

In Modernity and Ambivalence, Bauman explores the mindset of modernity by taking a detour to the humble act of gardening. Gardening is a very ordered and structured activity, especially when it comes to large garden. There is a plan to things – these plants grow in these spots, and this other area is reserved for these other plants. Everything has a designated place. The art of keeping the grounds is making sure that everything is where it is supposed to be, whilst at the same time keeping out the things that are not supposed to be. Weeds, in particular, are to be rooted out with swift efficiency – if they are left unattended, they will grow exponentially and ruin the carefully laid out plan. If the designated plants are to live up to their full aesthetic potential, every other plant must die. There is and can be no ambivalence on this point. Just ask the Caretakers.

The same line of thinking is present in society as a whole, albeit for the most part in subtler forms. Modernity is keen on making plans and policy documents describing how things are supposed to be. Once these blueprints are made, the work of making them manifest in reality begins. Whatever happens to slow down or hinder the progress of the work is removed, like so much weed in a well-kept garden. Progress must be made, order must be maintained. Those who do not comply are the enemies of progress, who must be removed and taught a lesson in how the future is going to take shape.

It might seem something of a leap from removing weeds in a garden to removing politically inconvenient opponents, but both are born from the same impulse to maintain order. The only difference is in what the impulse is directed at. In both cases, the end results might very well be impressive works of art: a well-tended garden and/or a well-ordered society. If the only thing you have to go on is the end result, both might even speak to the same sense of aesthetic enjoyment. As William Gibson said of Singapore: it is Disneyland with the death penalty.

The point of this detour is to point out that few police states are ends in themselves. They are almost always motivated by some external pressure or future telos. If the barbarians are at the gate, it makes sense to crack down on internal dissent so as to be able to focus the entirety of society’s resources on keeping them at bay. If society needs to be radically restructured to meet the demands of the future (be they economic or aesthetic), then allowing luddites and anti-future elements to have full political freedom is counterproductive. Progress must be made. The ends justify the brutality of the means.

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Democracy

Democracy is an active process. As such, it is not a characteristic or attribute that a polity has; democracy is something that a polity does. If the act of performing democracy continues, so does democracy; should the activity ever find itself slowing or ceasing, democracy goes away and is replaced by some other form of government. The transition can be fast or slow, instant or gradual, a result of a radical shift in rulership or the already existing potentates squandering their democratic heritage. Whatever reason, the end of democracies always boils down to a singular cause: the democratic activities faded away, to be replaced by other forms of being together in the world.

The most popular (pun intended) democratic activity is free and open public elections. But it would be a mistake to reduce democracy to this single intermittent act of public participation in governance. Rather, it is the most visible instantiation of the democratic principle that those in power have to make themselves relevant to those they govern, in such a way that their way of governing makes sense and is overall agreeable. Voting is an expression of this principle in action, but it is not the only one.

de Tocqueville wrote of democracy in 19th century (northern) United States that it was characterized by a strong sense of participation in communal affairs. This he attributed to the vast amount of associations the citizens formed – every issue, no matter how big or small, had spawned some sort of association to make sure things got done, problems solved and politicians involved. Every association was an exercise in democratic governance in and of itself, and thus their prevalence ensured that everyone got an education in democratic virtues. Free individuals coming together to discuss what to do and how to prepare for the future is the essence of democracy – indeed, much like the hokey pokey, that’s what it’s all about.

Thus, democracy is not defined by a particular set of institutions and a particular way of transferring executive power every so often. To be sure, these institutions are important and have to be there, but they do not constitute democracy. Democracy is a way more decentralized and widely distributed form of government. From the lowliest of drones to the brightest of talents – everyone’s included, both on voting day and every other day.

Ensuring that these lofty ideals are in place and in action on Chiron is not something that happens on its own. Even among the Peacekeepers, whose explicit goal is to further democratic governance whatever it takes, the tendency to accidentally slip into authoritarian modes of conduct is present. More so in other factions, whose commitment to democracy (liberal or otherwise) is not as enshrined as sacred principle. As we saw in the case of Fundamentalism, it is possible to simply slip into a non-democratic form of government by sheer force of inertia and externally imposed necessity. The colony must survive; with regards to this overarching goal, holding elections and forming coalitions to sway public opinion are not activities whose immediate usefulness are obviously apparent to everyone involved. Despite them being involved.

The game simulates this by having Democracy impose a malus on a faction’s Support rating. In game terms, this means that units cost more minerals to maintain and new bases lose their production bonus upon being founded. This is a gesture towards the inherent contradiction of democracies: given that democracy is an active process which takes a lot of effort to keep going, a lot of productive capacity can be let loose upon the world should it be but refocused from performing democracy. There is always the temptation to do less of democracy and more of something else – Yang, of course, taking this tendency to its logical conclusion. But this contradiction is present even in smaller contexts. As de Tocqueville noted, it begins with local associations and extends from there.

Free market

A free market has the advantage of solving the problem of distribution. There are a lot of questions that do not have to be answered in any explicit way, yet which sort themselves out by means of what is commonly referred to as “market forces”. A company specializing in producing hammers (pun intended) does not have to seek out people who are interested in hammers before doing a production run; the hammers will, through the system of stores and retailers, find their customers at the same rate as customers find themselves in want or need of hammers. Supply and demand will find each other, and the optimal levels of production will sort itself out over time, without the need of five-year plans.

This also brings with it the advantage of allowing people and institutions to focus on one thing at a time. The hammer company can focus on producing the best hammers possible, as can the shoe company, the wheel company, and so on. As each company specializes on doing its thing (or narrow range of things), they accumulate skill and knowledge related to producing these things, and can thus produce more of them. Rather than everyone being mediocre at everything, everyone becomes really good at one thing. This ensures that the overall quality of products increases, as well as the quantity of them.

The drawback, of course, is that profitability becomes the measure of all things (literally). The quality of things is notoriously difficult to measure, and tends to differ from use case to use case. The quantity is easier to measure, as is the output per material and energy input. Unless there are strong proponents of quality at hand at the site of production – either in the form of a strong company ethos or strong personalities – the definition of what is rational to produce over time tends to slide in the direction of quantity. If it is quicker and cheaper to produce hammers of slightly lower quality, market forces will inexorably insist that this method is used. The bottom line is, after all, the bottom line.

Another drawback, as is illustrated by the drastic penalties to Planet and Police ratings, is that a myopic focus on the bottom line will lead to neglect in other areas. Building a mine that will supply the ever increasing demand for raw materials has the potential to be profitable, but five companies all opening new mines at the same time is sure to have negative environmental consequences – even if they all turn out to be hugely successful, financially speaking. Similarly, closing down businesses that provide stable jobs and vital social functions merely due to their lack of immediate profitability – is not conducive to long-term social stability. Similarly, a blind trust in the power of market forces to get things done ib but left undisturbed (as manifested by a lack of will to impose environmental or workplace safety regulations) will over time create Dickensian conditions, fomenting social unrest even as production continues at ever higher rates.

Planned

One of the limitations of previous iterations of planned economies is technology. In the iterations we remember from history, it more or less literally had to be performed by means of pen and paper. Which, if you think about it, is a real feat, even if it was only ever partly pulled off. Planning just how much of everything there needs to be everywhere – that takes a lot of time, efforts, analysis, manpower and pens. Even more so to make sure that people actually stick to the central plan. Especially if they were far away and engaged in modes of production which are not entirely known or understood by those in charge of central planning. In short, the technological limitations were real.

By making Planetary Networks a prerequisite for the planned economy policy, the game posits that the biggest bottleneck in the whole endeavor is indeed technological. Suddenly, the tech is in place to pull it off. Barcodes for tracking individual items or shipments, databases for compiling the vast quantities of data required to plan what goes where, network connectivity to ensure that everyone in the production chain knows what to do and are in fact doing it. The five-year plan isn’t just the future; the five-year plan is now.

As with the fundamentalist policy, a faction can either strive to attain this state of things, or end up in it by accident. As Morgan implies in his quote for Industrial Economics, a certain amount of planning is necessary to get the economy going. Indeed, everything on Chiron requires planning; bases do not build themselves, after all, and you can not improvise infrastructure on a planet where system failure means death. The key point is the degree to which the centralized management of the economy becomes established as a fait accompli. It is one thing for a government to order – in  both senses of the word – x number of air filtration units because that’s how many are needed in the new base under construction, and quite another to apply this same control and command approach to all the things. The tendency for one to become the other is built in to the situation as a whole; whether by accident or design, it is one of the possible routes a colonial society can take.

As you might imagine, planning all the things sounds like a very inefficient way to go about things, and it is modeled as such (the minus two to Inefficiency is not subtle). However, it is ironically also very efficient at getting things going – once the basic infrastructure is in place, it is possible to get more things done than would be otherwise. It is an obvious point, but: once a society gets it together and focuses on getting something done, that thing will get done. To be sure, it might get done to the exclusion of other things, but if all you need is a certain amount of metric tonnes of hammers to solve the problem of nailing the economy, then making it a priority makes sense. Whether it be for the long or the short haul remains to be seen; the economy is a sickle beast.

Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism is the first of the social policies we’ve encountered, and thus it would be proper to give a brief introduction to how policies work in Alpha Centauri. There are four categories of policies, each with four options available upon discovery of the requisite technologies. One option in each category is a default option, which provides neither bonuses nor penalties; the rest tend to confer two positive modifiers along with one negative. Only one policy per category can be active at any one time, but they do not preclude each other across categories. Thus, it is possible to see free market fundamentalists seeing the pursuit of knowledge as their highest value; the seemingly contradictory combinations available is an interesting foil to project ideological thought upon. Fundamentalism is one of the three political policies, and is mutually exclusive with the democratic and police state options.

Seeing as fundamentalism is unlocked by the Secrets of the Human Brain technology, it is easy to make the assumption that an increased understanding of what makes humans tick is used to motivate them into new and improved levels of commitment to the cause. Cha Dawn and his cult are obvious examples of this tendency, as are the Believers. However, we should avoid tying fundamentalism to religion. It is equally possible to think that any of the factions could slip into a fundamentalist mode, albeit with regards to different sets of beliefs. We have already alluded to free market fundamentalists, and Spartan fundamentalists would make for a scary group of people indeed. As a policy, fundamentalism does not connote religion, but rather a fanatical societal devotion to a set of beliefs and values, be they secular or religious (or some volatile mix between the two).

Given the context of the early days – the memory of Earth still fresh on everyone’s minds, and the daily reminder that the chosen way of life has to be the correct option if humanity is to survive – slipping into a fundamentalist mode of social organization is not too far off. Traumatized people constantly struggling for survival form strong bonds, through necessity and grit. As a social development, it might not even be a matter of choice – things might have just ended up this way, after one mind worm attack too many that cut too close for comfort. The technological capacity to foster increased fervor might end up bolstering tendencies which had already manifested in other ways, albeit slower or in a less directed fashion.

To be sure, these ruminations are ever so slightly undermined by the deterministic nature of the game (the Believers will always be fundamentalist, the University are precluded from choosing it, and from a gameplay point of view it is usually mathematically disadvantageous to pick this policy). Thus, my deliberations on the various policies will not be too dogmatic with regards to what works and what does not work from a gameplay perspective. A faction might choose to become fundamentalist, or accidentally happen into it; be it by design or by happenstance, it is one of the trajectories which humanity can go.