Tuesday, Jul 27, 1999 4:00 PM UTC

“An engine of anarchy”

Ken MacLeod talks about his rebellious youth, his political paradoxes and the visionary power of cyberpunk.

Ken MacLeod is the greatest living Trotskyist libertarian cyberpunk science-fiction humorist. It’s a safe claim to make, because he is undoubtedly the only such creature. The 44-year-old Scot and former computer programmer imagines futures full of both socialist unions and libertarian enclaves, warring with each other and within themselves. You don’t often find communist mercenaries working for capitalist insurance companies in science fiction. In Ken MacLeod’s future, such political incongruities are a joyous fact of life. Add your regular cyberpunk ingredients — machine consciousness, post-human trickery, cool gadgets and lots of good drugs and rock ‘n’ roll — and you have a heady, rollicking brew.

MacLeod’s political fiction is no pose. He’s a former Communist Party member who has won two Prometheus awards for best libertarian science fiction novel. After his American editor told me that MacLeod was a regular “trenchant” contributor to Internet-based discussion groups, I decided to do some cyberspace stalking. Where does he hang out? The bulk of his contributions are in the Usenet newsgroup “rec.arts.sf.written.” No surprise there — r.a.s.w. is one of the oldest watering holes on the Net — quite a few authors congregate there with their fans, critics and peers. But his next most favored spot is “alt.politics.socialism.trotsky” — and after that, a little down the list, “talk.politics.libertarianism.” One of MacLeod’s hobbies, it seems, when he’s between books, is plunging into the Internet fray to argue about what Marx and Engels really intended, and to engage in the endless hair-splitting dear to libertarians.

Working out a left-wing theory of libertarianism might strike some observers as a headlong dive into a thicket of ultra-thorny contradictions. Can’t be done, you might think. And certainly, there are no ultimate answers contained in the four-book arc — “The Star Fraction,” “The Stone Canal,” “The Cassini Division” and “The Sky Road” — that MacLeod has constructed since 1995. But MacLeod’s keen intelligence and sharp sense of humor make the journey more than worthwhile — and definitely beg the question: Who is this guy? Where did these politics come from? MacLeod agreed to answer some of these questions via e-mail.

Here’s a wild guess. The city of Glasgow, Scotland, is famous for boasting a left-wing tradition as proud as that of any city in Europe. So I’ll assume you come from a family of Glasgow Trotskyists who worked in the Glasgow shipyards. Your knowledge of left-wing factional infighting is simply too intimate not to be drawn from real life.

Not at all! My parents were quite conservative and deeply religious Scottish Highlanders. There’s a certain amount of radicalism scattered among my relatives that goes all the way back to the crofters’ [small farmers] struggles of the 19th century and the experience of two world wars. My parents were staunch supporters of the welfare state and equally staunch opponents of socialism. They strongly disapproved of my interest in Trotskyism. Naturally I thought they were terrible reactionaries but this was far from the case. They were of the generation that defeated fascism and established the welfare state — they never moved forward from that but they never retreated.

Anyway, I became a left-winger not through any influence from my family or even the Clydeside [Glasgow shipyards] labor movement but through the same process as a lot of my friends did at high school, via our rather marginal involvement in youth counterculture. It may seem ridiculous that a bunch of teenagers in Greenock, Scotland, should be reading Marcuse and Malcolm X and George Jackson, R.D. Laing and Timothy Leary and of course the so-called underground press and smoking the occasional joint, but that’s how it was. The context of Britain in the early ’70s, and big struggles like the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in and the war in Ireland, were part of the scene in that we took workers’ power for granted. France 1968 wasn’t that long ago, Poland 1970 was even more recent, and big strikes were fairly frequent. As one of the characters in “The Star Fraction” says, “I’ve seen the working class making days into history, and that isn’t something you forget.”

But how did a Trotskyist get interested in libertarianism?

After I graduated [from Glasgow University] I went as a post-grad to Brunel University in Uxbridge, just outside London, and immediately got stuck into political activity. I joined the International Marxist Group and was involved in a lot of campaigning on all kinds of issues, on campus and off. There were a lot of big struggles in London in the second half of the ’70s. I lived in a sort of licensed squat with people from England and Ireland and Kurdistan and life became much more intense. After that I lived in Finsbury Park in North London, and fell out with the International Marxist Group and later joined the Communist Party in the mid-’80s, just as it began to tear itself apart. I have to say I enjoyed being in the Communist Party more than I did being in the Trotskyist groups — it was much more open, and I think it was there that I lost my fanatical dogmatism. Because meanwhile, I’d been checking out other political ideas, I’d encountered the Libertarian Alliance and it and the debates in the Communist Party and the crisis of the Eastern Bloc stimulated me to think much longer and harder about socialism than I’d ever done before.

It wasn’t until after I read “The Star Fraction,” your first novel, that I’d learned you’d won two awards from the Prometheus Society for best libertarian science fiction novel. I found this pretty amusing because the hero of “The Star Fraction” is Moh Kohn, a communist mercenary who leads the Felix Dzerzhinsky Worker’s Defense collective. (Dzerzhinsky was the creator of the Soviet secret police.) Have you actually synthesized some kind of leftist libertarian world-view? Or are you just fooling around?

I’m not fooling around, but if I’ve synthesized a leftist libertarian world view I’d be very interested to know what it is! I do in fact agree with a lot of libertarian ideas and positions, like I’m against gun control and the war on some drugs and so forth, and I’m very proud of the two Prometheus awards. I think classical liberalism — what’s now called libertarianism — and classical Marxism have a lot more in common than many people think. Classical Marxism is very different from Trotskyism or any of the other varieties of Leninism, and I think even they have gone a long way downhill since the ’70s. The left is now more associated with repression and regulation than rebellion and liberation.

Wouldn’t the first difficulty inherent in merging leftism and libertarianism be trying to deal with the tension concerning individual rights and social justice? In “The Star Fraction,” your portrayal of a Britain fractured into countless tiny states, each with its own rules, is a libertarian utopia in the sense that all kinds of different approaches to ordering society are possible, but at the same time, life is hell within the confines of many of those mini-states.

Oh, absolutely, that’s part of the point. The politics of “The Star Fraction” — leaving aside the leftist element — is really trying to exacerbate a tension within libertarianism itself. If cultural minorities, religions and so on have their own little closed communities, they’re oppressive but if they aren’t closed, if they’re part of the wider society, they are themselves subtly altered. The libertarians aren’t really accepting the other world-views and lifestyles as having their own validity, they’re quietly banking on the notion that they’ll be assimilated. Whether this is a problem is left as an exercise for the reader.

Sitting here in front of my computer in Silicon Valley, it’s amazing how rarely one even hears the term “working class.” Sure, there are huge disparities of wealth, and plenty of temp worker exploitation and all that. But around here, receptionists and secretaries are as likely to have stock in a new start-up company as not. The so-called new economy that everyone talks about here almost tries to pretend that the working class is passi. That’s not quite the case in your books, is it?

I agree with the old Socialist Party of Great Britain argument that anyone who has to work for someone else for a living is a member of the working class. You may have stock options, but could you retire and live off them? If not, you’re still in the working class! It’s certainly true that there are big areas of overlap, fuzzy boundaries, and Silicon Valley is currently the El Niqo of class mobility in the U.S. … For the purposes of my stories, I assume that even if a lot of the heavy and dirty work continues to be off-loaded onto machines or onto the so-called third world, we’ll continue to see a growing proportion of the population dependent on a wage or salary, supplemented perhaps by self-employment and speculation. Even in “The Star Fraction” there are suggestions that things have moved on a bit — almost everyone in that book is a bit of a capitalist.

[But] the resurgence and the revolutions in my stories are not necessarily working-class even in the most generous sense, and they’re certainly not socialist. They’re presented in the stories as popular revolts against the New World Order, but which themselves only lead to further social breakdown: “What we thought was the revolution was only a moment in the fall.”

Your third novel, “The Cassini Division” struck me on first reading as less overtly political than your first two. Your American publisher has said that he thinks that the politics of your earlier novels may be a little too insidery for an American audience. But I’d hate to think you were watering down your politics to broaden your appeal.

I’d hate to think that, too. “The Cassini Division” is simpler than the other two because it has a less complicated structure and because it doesn’t have any bloody Trots! But I hope the conflicts over machine intelligence, morality versus might-is-right, and so on are just as satisfyingly unresolved as the more political conflicts in the other books.

American cyberpunks mostly seem to avoid really thinking about politics in any kind of organized way. Bruce Sterling’s most recent novel, “Distraction,” takes a whack at the topic, but the William Gibsons and the Neal Stephensons offer us societies in which critical thinking about politics seems to me to be absent. The cyberpunk author Pat Cadigan told me a few months ago that one could explain American cyberpunk obsessions from the fact that they were all the same generation of suburban-bred, TV-reared, baby boomers who grew up listening to rock ‘n’ roll and getting stoned. Marxist revolution doesn’t really fit in there, does it?

You’ve just named four of the writers I most admire! Bringing in the politics may be partly a British thing … From the North American cyberpunk side, it’s not just how they grew up but what they grew into; what they saw, correctly, as the bleeding edge of what was going on. And it was pretty prescient. They in a sense conjured up the Net and the Web, at least as much as Golden Age science fiction conjured up the space program. Long before I became a programmer, and indeed long before the Internet took off, I noticed that programmers talked like their minds were going into a virtual space, into something in their heads that was like Gibson’s cyberspace. And that was just respectable, commercial programmers. The hackers must have sounded much wilder.

The point being, they knew they were changing the world, and they were doing an end run around politics, as they thought. Politics did nothing but put obstacles in their way. The hacker ethos was to work around it. The Internet is an engine of anarchy even without anarchists, just because it’s there in a state of nature straight out of Locke or even Hobbes, and it works … As Murray Rothbard is supposed to have said of New York: “We already have the war of all against all, and it works fine!”

Looking at William Gibson’s more recent fiction, one of the things that struck me is how his villains have changed — they used to be transnational corporations and evil artificial intelligences, but now it’s media itself — tabloid TV, the endless fascination with celebrity. Do you think this is a reflection of the current economic boom in the U.S.? It seems to be hard for science fiction writers, especially out here on the West Coast, to think about the immediate future in the same kind of dystopian, shanty-town, drugs-and-AIDS catastrophe way that was so popular in the late ’80s. Instead, the new focus is on the media manipulators who specialize in operating in the new economy.

Funnily enough, the latest situationist-type rant, “Two Hundred Pharaohs, Five Billion Slaves …,” that I’ve stumbled across — massively researched, staggeringly erudite and apparently written by a complete unknown on an office PC — makes the very point that the two aspects, celebrity and poverty, software and sweatshops, are increasingly intertwined by the information industry and the industrialization of information. I haven’t checked this, but it credibly claims that 5 percent of the British work force is employed in 24-hour banking/credit telephone call centers — low-paid, unorganized, and working constantly on keyboards and phones, with a very high level of physical and nervous stress. There’s a lot going on there — the possible link-up between celebrity and surveillance, for example. We’ll all be on the telly, but most of us get our 15 minutes of fame on closed-circuit television.

Even so, there is a sense of hope running through all your novels, an essentially optimistic belief that, as suggested at the end of your second novel, “The Stone Canal,” there are no limits. In some ways, that’s the most Marxist thing about your writing — this idea that progress really exists.

I do think that progress exists, in fact I can dig up one of my favorite quotes from a Marxist, V. Gordon Childe’s conclusion to “What Happened In History”:

“These hints must suffice. Progress is real if discontinuous. The upward curve resolves itself into a series of troughs and crests. But in these domains that archaeology as well as written history can survey, no trough ever declines to the low level of the preceding one; each crest out-tops its last precursor.”

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