We are living a collective illusion known as the civilized world. We feign concern for our horrendous conditions of poverty, socioeconomic inequality, deteriorating public health, and severe environmental degradation (to which climate change is merely one factor), but everything we do belies that distress. These issues comprise the largest risks to the survival of the human species, as well as the most significant amoral atrocities on the planet. Both individually and as a species, our health, safety, and ability to live a decent, dignified life have always been imperiled by these predicaments. Yet, we continue along with complete cognitive dissonance in that the crux of our lives – our jobs, our consumer culture – all contribute to, perpetuate, and exacerbate the unsustainable and morally reprehensible conditions of our existence. But while we are all marginally responsible for the multitude of calamities befalling us, the one group who bears the brunt of the blame for our social and ecological decay is the wealthy.
The government policies that exist today started with a set of beliefs of one kind or another, which over time transformed themselves into many stories, which in turn married each other and created new bastardised versions. Now we have the story that someone can own a piece of the Earth, and then charge everyone else for having to be somewhere on it; there’s the peculiar story of money; the anthropocentric story that some Big Man in the Sky made everything for Mankind which The Latter then has dominion over and can do with as He likes; Cartesian stories, Newtonian stories, Darwinian stories; stories by Smith and Marx and Friedman. There’s the story of fractional reserve banking where our masters – the banks – magically produce money out of thin air and then lend it to us in a way that means that we have to give them not just the capital they invented, but some interest also, using money that was produced by our sweat. Let us also not forget the story that it is now only the birds, badgers and other wild animals that are allowed to make their own little nest out of local materials to live in – the same story that insists that humans must, at all times, be charged, surveilled and regulated in all that they do. This is also part of the story that Freedom is for Nature, and that we are outside it.
In his fantastic book The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America, Paul N. Edwards forwards a quasi-literary reading of the way power and subjectivity operate in the age of the computer, focusing primarily on the lineage running from the Vannevar Bush’s Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) to the birth of cybernetics and their proliferation during the Macy Conferences to the electronic battlefields of Vietnam, and, finally, to the Reagan administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative – the “Star Wars” program that propelled the growth of Silicon Valley and its corollary Californian Ideology, as well as the globalization of information technology across the 1990s. For Edwards the collision of massive government subsidies and steering of computer research and the geopolitical imperatives of the Cold War – dressed in the rhetoric of “containment” – produced the metaphoric construct for which the book is titled: the…
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Scott is well aware that much of this story is not entirely new. Big-picture historians such as Jared Diamond have acknowledged that for most people quality of life fell when agriculture replaced hunting and gathering. Yuval Noah Harari’s idiosyncratic, best-selling story-of-everything, Sapiens, describes settled agriculture as “history’s biggest fraud” for the same reasons. Even Adam Smith acknowledged that hunter-gatherers were more egalitarian than settled folk, and saw the state as arising “for the defense of the rich against the poor.” Highlighting the state’s role in ruling-class exploitation is central to the Marxian tradition of writing history, in which ancient slave societies serve as an early example of the extraction of surplus labor.
Part of what makes Scott’s story novel is the central and esteemed place he gives the barbarians. The infrastructure-building, law-codifying, biopolitical states of antiquity are not the starting points of universal history for Scott, as they were for both Marx and liberal historians. They are instead a kind of usurpation of a longer and quite possibly richer human practice of mobility and freedom. Here, too, Scott is echoing strands of a long tradition: The Roman historian Tacitus suggested that German barbarians were more virtuous than settled Romans; Anglo-Americans often traced their democratic identity to the “Anglo-Saxon” liberty of the forest rather than the cities of the Mediterranean; and today both paleo diets and the popularity of the bearded, nomadic wildlings on Game of Thrones suggest a hankering for rude barbarian health and liberty