Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Issues in Mirkheim

Times Three

In my opinion, Mirkheim by Poul Anderson is:
a good novel;
a good science fiction (sf) novel;
a good political novel.

Novel: it shows conflict and change, including age, in the lives of its characters.

Sf novel: its superb premise is that the core of a sufficiently large planet will survive a supernova and will then be coated with industrially valuable supermetals.

Political novel: it shows political changes both in the Solar Commonwealth and on the planet Hermes and its characters express every possible view - they are conservatives, aristocrats, bureaucrats, pragmatists, reformers, liberals, imperialists, faithful retainers, malcontents and a revolutionary seen as either fanatical or idealistic. It is also made clear that some social changes do occur whatever view is taken of them.

When reading The Time Machine by HG Wells, I enjoy the colourful detailed description of "time travelling" and engage with the characters' philosophical discussion, indeed with their Platonic dialogue, about the nature of time and the possibility or otherwise of "time travelling." Similarly, I enjoy Mirkheim and respect Anderson's views, which do shine through the fiction, by taking them seriously and by sometimes disagreeing with them. Here, I aim to indicate areas of disagreement but not to discuss them fully. I want to continue enjoying the fiction and to conduct political arguments in more appropriate arenas elsewhere. But disagreements should be mentioned here. Political opponents often ascribe discreditable motives to each other. I am convinced that Anderson advocated views which he saw as the most beneficial for society as a whole.

(i) "'...the issue has been what shall be the final arbiter. The state, which in the last analysis relies on physical coercion; or a changeable group of individuals, whose only power is economic...Oh, I know it's nowhere near that simple. Either kind of leadership might appeal to emotion, for instance - yes, does, in fact, because at bottom the choice between them is a matter of how you feel, how you see the universe. And of course they melt into each other.'" (1)
The speaker then says that, on Hermes, the state arose from private corporations and that, in the Commonwealth, a consortium of big corporations has become part of the state, strengthening its control and gaining its protection from competition. It is clear that Anderson regards the latter, "Home Companies," arrangement as bad. It is less clear what he thinks about Hermes. 
I wanted to comment, "It's not that simple," and "economic and political power are connected," but Anderson builds these points into his character's exposition. That is what makes this a comprehensive novel and a well-rounded discussion within the novel. The exposition makes the state sound simply (as opposed to relatively!) undesirable and also arbitrary. Surely the state, the body of armed men, the instrument of social coercion, arose with the accumulation of private property? Those who wield economic power need laws to protect property and a state (police, courts, prisons) to enforce the laws.

Their power also relies on coercion. We cannot be compelled to buy their products? Well, we have to buy some products to survive. And we have to work to be paid to be able to buy any products. And we create more value than the value of our labor power which is what we are paid in a market economy. Otherwise, there would be no profits or wealth for an investing minority. Of necessity, under present economic arrangements, most of us work for someone else, an employer, not for ourselves, our community. Society could be organized differently, I think. How? That does need discussion elsewhere.

Moving on -

(ii) "'After a while, the great bankers were not just handling money, they were creating it, with a vested interest in inflation.'" (2)
I agree but can this be prevented in a market economy? Bankers do not merely store or safeguard wealth. They lend money that is not theirs, lend more than is in their possession, charge interest and gamble that most, not necessarily all, borrowers can generate enough wealth to return the loan with interest. How does the part of capital that controls material production come to be in debt to the part of capital that makes marks on paper (or on computer screens)? If a debt is not repaid, where or what exactly was the money that was lent in the first place? Since money originated as a standardized means of exchange and an improvement on barter, can industrial capital not function without such a massive involvement of finance capital? Here I have only questions although again I do think that a different socio-economic system is possible.

(iii) Anderson introduces a fisherman and independent ship owner merely to have him state a political position which includes:

"'...once a government starts dividing property up, where does it stop? I worked hard for what I have, and I mean for my youngsters to have it after me - not a cluttle of zeds who can't be bothered to do anything for themselves save fart in unison when their glorious leader says to.'" (3)

Please! I accept that this is an authentic character and that there are people who take this sort of view and express it in this kind of language. But the majority who are not self-employed, who do not own their own ship (their own means of production), who are obliged to support their own "youngsters" by earning a wage or salary are not zeds who can't be bothered to do anything for themselves. If that majority builds a co-operative economy on Hermes, then they will do it by collective action, not by following a leader. I suggest that, if they continue to eat fish, then they could continue to buy it from independent operators like this Captain Romney and his heirs as long as those heirs are indeed willing to continue in his line of business. (There might be one or two of them who "can't be bothered to do anything for themselves"?) But, however the transaction is conducted, the Romneys or other independent traders will not be able to accumulate capital to invest in the labor of others. Those others, in a planetary co-operative, commune or whatever we want to call it, would have an equal stake in and responsibility for social labor.

(iv) "A set of ineffective but self-perpetuating welfare programs helped produce the votes useful for maintaining the corporate state." (2)

I think Anderson and I would have agreed that an industrial market economy generates more workers than work. The unemployed, the reserve army of labor, must be maintained for when they are needed. Other groups, the old, the sick and the disabled, have a claim on resources, however this is organized. Programs are "ineffective" when they are not a priority. Do they produce votes? The media can instigate hostility to welfare.

(v) "No system that mortals devise is perfect; all break their share of lives...those would always exist who did not have the special abilities or the plain luck...some were poisonously embittered." (4)

(I must summarize but Anderson's prose deserves to be read in full.) Here, Anderson acknowledges that the system he favors embitters some. I do not agree that all mortal systems have to break lives. Later in the Technic History, a character refers to:

"'...a technology that could make every last livin' being rich...'" (5)

(vi) "...that large percentage of mankind which never really wanted to be free...a majority yearned for security...A more active minority wanted solidarity behind exciting causes, and thought that everybody else should desire the same thing." (4)

Most of us don't want to be free? Most people dislike living under a dictatorship and, indeed, masses have moved, are now moving, to overthrow them. Certainly many of us do not aspire to run our own businesses in a market economy. Security is a reasonable aim within sensible limits. Life is insecure but I would feel safer if Earth had a laser defense system against comets and asteroids, for example.

"...exciting causes..." is a put down. There are some important causes. Most of the time, they are the concerns of minorities but there are times when the majority in a country acts.

(vii) When Falkayn is told that the Hermetian domains will be "democratised" and will conduct all their operations through a central trade authority, he comments:

"'A good, solid basis for a totalitarian state...'" (6)

Surely democracy and totalitarianism are opposites? Yes, but enforced "democratisation" is not democracy so I agree with Falkayn here. Also, a central authority controlling trade is a (potentially totalitarian) bureaucracy.
(viii) The Solar government will:

"...put the administration of private pension funds credited to employees who were citizens of the Commonwealth under the control of their unions." (7)

Van Rijn objects because unions are tied in with government and he does not want the latter running his business. My first thought was that workers' elected representatives should control how their pension money is invested. But, of course, it matters how democratic the unions are. Anderson shows union leaders as big investors fully co-operating with management to control the workforce. (2) My experience of work tells me that rank and file shop floor workers often need to organize both against management and against the intermediate social layer of trade union bureaucrats, many of whom are not elected officers but professionals employed by unions.

(ix) "Anti-trust actions penalised efficient management to the satisfaction of the less enterprising." (2)

This sounds like a squabble between capitalists in which I need not take sides! However, I hope technology will liberate humanity, not profit the "enterprising."

This is only one reader's response. It is good to get this much discussion from an sf novel. 

(1) Poul Anderson, Mirkheim, London, 1978, p. 132.
(2) ibid., p. 106.
(3) ibid., p. 172.
(4) ibid., p. 104.
(5) Poul Anderson, The Game Of Empire, New York, 1985, p. 166.
(6) Mirkheim, p. 167.
(7) ibid., p. 12.

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