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Some Further Notes on Libertarian Science Fiction

Mises Daily: Friday, March 11, 2011 by

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[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "Libertarian Science Fiction II"]

This essay is about four writers, none of whom was a libertarian, but each of whom wrote something back in the 1960s that made a significant contribution to the libertarian tradition.

The first of the four was a science-fiction writer, though only occasionally. He was born 94 years ago last week, on February 25, 1917, in suburban Manchester, England. His name at birth was John Burgess Wilson. His family was Roman Catholic, which at that time virtually guaranteed that he would be confirmed in the Church at the age of about seven. He had, therefore, already come to be known as "Jack Wilson" when, in the mid 1920s, he was, as he puts it in his autobiography, "confirmed in the name of [Saint] Anthony." This made him John Anthony Burgess Wilson from the time of his confirmation onward and gave him the pen name under which he would eventually become famous.

Anthony Burgess, or just Burgess, as I shall call him from now on, was the son of a musician, Joseph Burgess, who drifted from playing piano in movie theatres as accompaniment for silent films to playing piano in pubs to owning and running his own pub. Joseph wound up a tobacconist. His son shared his love of music and wanted to study music at the University of Manchester, but he was not accepted to the program because of his mediocre secondary-school grades in physics. So he majored in English instead. After graduating in 1940, he spent six years in the army during and just after World War II, then put in six more years as a literature instructor at various English secondary schools.

By now it was 1954, Burgess was 37 years old, and he wasn't earning enough money teaching school. He had decided to try his hand at a couple of novels. But when one of the publishers to whom he had submitted one of these novels wrote to him, requesting that he come to their London offices to discuss his manuscript, he found he was too broke to travel the 75 miles he would have had to travel to keep such an appointment. As he put it in his autobiography, "I was in debt to the grocer and overdrawn at the bank. I could not afford a return train ticket from Banbury to London." In the end, he did find a way to make the trip, but his novel was rejected, anyway, not only by the publisher that had asked for the meeting, but by every publisher that looked at it. The other novel fared no better.

On the other hand, the British Colonial Service had offered him a job as a teacher and educational administrator in Malaya. He took it, and spent the next five years in the Far East. It was there that he became a published novelist and there that he first publicly called himself Anthony Burgess. As he wrote years later in his autobiography, "When I published my first novel I was forced to do so in near-disguise. I was an official of the Colonial Office at the time, and it was regarded as improper to publish fiction under one's own name." By the time he returned to England in 1959, Burgess was 42 years old and had published no fewer than three novels under his newly assumed name.

The problem was not only that he had got off to something of a late start in his new career as a novelist, but also that his prospects were not particularly good. Just before leaving Southeast Asia, he had collapsed in his classroom on the island of Borneo and had been rushed to a local hospital, where he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and given a year to live.

Back in London a few weeks later, he set about quickly writing several novels that his wife might be able to cash in on after his death. One of these novels was what he later described as "a jeu d'esprit knocked off for money in three weeks." A jeu d'esprit is, of course, a literary display of wit or cleverness, usually short, from the French for "play of spirit." The title of this particular jeu d'esprit was A Clockwork Orange. It was published in 1962, when its author was 45 years old.

A Clockwork Orange is the story of Alex, a juvenile delinquent in a fairly near future London. Alex skips school and sleeps all day, then goes out in the evening to get his jollies committing acts of what he calls "ultra-violence" — assault and battery, rape, murder. He is apprehended by the authorities and subjected to the latest brainwashing technology, which renders him incapable of even witnessing, much less engaging in, acts of any sort of violence, without suffering extreme discomfort and nausea. When he is released into the outside world again, he commits no more acts of ultra-violence, but he is also unable to defend himself when hoodlums and thugs who haven't yet been reprogrammed, including some of his own former associates in crime, make him their victim.

In despair, he attempts suicide, but is rescued by political activists who are organizing against the government program to brainwash violent criminals. These activists use Alex to promote their cause. They create a public scandal and arrange to have his brainwashing reversed. He thereupon immediately resumes his old, ultra-violent ways.

A Clockwork Orange is not an easy book to read, and I don't mean because of the ultra-violence, though that is pretty sickening, certainly. What I mean when I say it's not easy to read is something about the language in which it's written. Alex tells his own story in the first person, speaking directly to the reader. And the English he speaks is not the English we're used to hearing spoken, the English we're used to reading between the covers of books. It incorporates the teenage slang of Alex's time as well as words borrowed or adapted from Russian. Reading it is a bit like reading Shakespeare for the first time — obscure at first, but you get the hang of it within 10 or 20 pages.

Like Elizabethan English, Alex's English is basically modern English with some unfamiliar words mixed in. Once you've picked up those words, you're home free. Alex does not have an unusually large vocabulary. Despite the difficulties Burgess's short novel posed for the unwary reader, however, it enjoyed considerable success in the marketplace even before Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film version of the story made it virtually a household word throughout the English-speaking world. That same film made Burgess a rich man and forced his departure from England, first for Italy, then for Monaco. He was forced to depart, that is, unless he chose to pay the high tax bill that would have been presented to him by British authorities. Like most of us, Anthony Burgess could summon little enthusiasm for taxes.

I know of no reason to suspect, however, that he opposed taxes in principle — that he was, in any meaningful sense, a libertarian. He did write on nonpolitical subjects for Inquiry, the libertarian opinion magazine published back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, first by the Cato Institute, then by the Libertarian Review Foundation. But that seems to have been the extent of his connection with the libertarian movement. On the other hand, his most famous book is an unmistakably libertarian utterance. As Burgess himself paraphrased it nearly 25 years after the original publication of A Clockwork Orange,

a human being is endowed with free will. He can use this to choose between good and evil. If he can only perform good or only perform evil, then he is a clockwork orange — meaning that he has the appearance of an organism lovely with colour and juice but is in fact only a clockwork toy to be wound up by God or the Devil or (since this is increasingly replacing both) the Almighty State.

A Clockwork Orange was intended in part as entertainment of a kind, Burgess acknowledged. "But," he wrote, "the book does also have a moral lesson, and it is the weary traditional one of the fundamental importance of moral choice." Alex loses his own power of moral choice because of brainwashing technology, but the novel is not really just about the dangers of brainwashing. On a more abstract symbolic level, it is about any method the state uses to limit or defeat the right of the individual to choose. The Libertarian Futurist Society saw to the heart of the matter when, in 2008, it presented its Prometheus Hall of Fame Award for classic works of libertarian fiction to A Clockwork Orange.

No comparable recognition has ever been extended by any libertarian institution I know of to the American writer Philip K. Dick. Yet, in many ways, Dick is quite comparable to Burgess. Like Burgess he never gave anyone any reason to think he was a libertarian. Like Burgess, he buried all such evidence in his fiction. The big difference between the two writers is that while Burgess wrote one unmistakably libertarian novel and nothing else that was even remotely libertarian — or even remotely political — Dick scattered his own equally unmistakable libertarian inclinations across perhaps as many as a dozen novels published during the 1960s and '70s.

Most of the best known of Dick's novels, like most of Anthony Burgess's novels, don't concern themselves with politics at all. Any libertarianism that may be in novels like The Man in the High Castle or Ubik is in the background; the foreground in Dick's best-known novels is filled more with psychological or metaphysical or epistemological concerns than with political ones.

But during the 1960s, Dick wrote some more explicitly political science fiction. Think, for example, of The Zap Gun, first published in 1967, in which American society is divided into two classes, the "pursaps," who believe that the federal government of the United States is protecting them from harm by designing and building ever bigger and scarier weapons systems, and the "cogs," who understand — that is, are cognizant of — the truth, which is that none of these advanced weapons actually work, except in filmed simulations. Both major powers are in on the fraud, which they perpetrate in order to prop up a permanent Cold War economy.

Or think of The Penultimate Truth, from three years earlier, in 1964. In this novel, most of Earth's population lives underground, hiding from a thermonuclear war they believe is raging on the surface, being fought by robots made in underground factories. In fact, there is no war. It is a fiction maintained by a small elite which lives on the surface of the planet in palatial estates and devotes itself mainly to personal pleasure. To make sure their racket continues, the members of the elite also devote some time to programming an android politician they call Yancy; Yancy keeps the underground masses properly stirred up and misinformed. His task is not all that difficult, of course, for, as Douglas A. Mackey puts it in his 1988 book on Dick's life and work, "they want to be misled; they cannot accept the truth. And the leaders give them what they want: the illusion that war is necessary and inevitable."

Mackey notes also that Joe Fernwright, the main character in Galactic Pot-Healer, first published in 1969, lives at the beginning of the novel "in an oppressive future dystopia where policemen stop people for walking too slowly, all phone calls are monitored, and everyone is programmed to have a common dream every night." Mackey calls this society "the ultimate Communist denial of personal consciousness."

Philip K. Dick was born in Chicago on December 16, 1928, the son of a federal bureaucrat. He grew up in the Windy City, in Washington, DC, and in the San Francisco Bay Area, where his mother took him to live after she and her husband divorced. Dick graduated from Berkeley High School in 1947 and enrolled at the University of California, but quit very quickly when he discovered that all male students at the university were required to take ROTC.

He had developed an interest in classical music when very young and by the time he was in high school had become something of an authority on the subject. He worked in record shops until, in 1952, at the age of 23, having published a few short stories in pulp science fiction magazines, he decided to try his hand at writing full time. He wrote full time for the next 30 years, publishing 36 novels, 121 short stories, and 14 short-story collections during those three decades. He died of a stroke 29 years ago this week, on March 2, 1982, in Santa Ana, California. He was 53 years old.

I've mentioned three of Dick's novels from the 1960s which seem to me to include broadly libertarian attitudes and ideas. Consider a fourth. The Simulacra was published in 1964. It is probably the most explicitly political novel Dick ever wrote. It depicts a future America now merged with Europe and ruled by a one-party state controlled in turn by a council made up of the owners and directors of a group of giant commercial cartels. There is an election every four years, but the winning candidate is always a simulacrum, an animated life-size doll, an android, completely under the control of the council.

To judge by reports in the mass media, the real power in the USEA — the United States of Europe & America — is wielded by the first lady, Nicole Thibodeaux, who always remains First Lady regardless of "who" may be "elected" every four years. But in fact Nicole is only the latest in a long series of actresses who have played this part in the national media, helping the cartels to keep the wool pulled securely over the eyes of the citizenry.

In brief, The Simulacra, like a number of other Philip K. Dick novels, portrays a world in which government is evil, duplicitous, and bent on concealing the truth from the public. Or, as Douglas Mackey puts it, the world of Philip K. Dick's political novels is one in which "the way society appears to be structured is a complete fake, and … media manipulation conceals the real centers of power." It seems to me you could pick up some pretty libertarian attitudes from reading Dick. Ayn Rand has been called the gateway drug for those who are destined to become addicted to libertarianism. But it seems to me the more explicitly political novels of Philip K. Dick could serve much the same purpose.

And just as Ayn Rand's great libertarian novel Atlas Shrugged presents an extraordinarily accurate picture of the fascist policies actually pursued by the US government, so Dick's libertarian or quasi-libertarian fiction presents an extraordinarily accurate picture of the actual nature of government and the mass media in American society. Anyone who doubts this should consult a couple of nonfiction books published back in the 1960s — books written at around the same time Dick was writing his novels.

The first of these two books is Who Rules America? by G. William Domhoff, a professor of psychology and sociology at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Who Rules America? was originally published in 1967, when its author was in his early 30s. Though Domhoff was not and is not a libertarian, his book had quite an impact on a number of people who became involved in the libertarian movement during and just before the 1970s.

So did the second nonfiction book I have in mind — Tragedy & Hope: A History of the World in Our Time by Carroll Quigley, an American historian with a Harvard PhD. He taught at both Princeton and Harvard before spending the last 35 years of his life at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Washington. In effect, Quigley's book, which was first published in 1966, provides the historical background of the ruling elite Domhoff was to discuss a year later from the point of view of an investigating sociologist.

Quigley's book also explains why the federal government of the United States of Europe & America in Philip K. Dick's novel The Simulacra is a one-party state — and why those who still believe at this late date that there is any significant difference between Republicans and Democrats is indulging him- or herself in childish fantasy. As Quigley put it,

The argument that the two parties should represent opposed ideals and policies, one, perhaps, of the Right and the other of the Left, is a foolish idea acceptable only to the doctrinaire and academic thinkers. Instead, the two parties should be almost identical, so that the American people can 'throw the rascals out' at any election without leading to any profound or extreme shifts in policy. … Either party in office becomes in time corrupt, tired, unenterprising, and vigorless. Then it should be possible to replace it, every four years if necessary, by the other party, which will be none of these things but will still pursue, with new vigor, approximately the same basic policies.

No, Quigley wasn't a libertarian either. He basically accepted the "wisdom" of rule by a self-appointed cabal of moneyed interests; he only believed the activities of this ruling elite ought to be out in the open, rather than concealed. But his book has exercised great influence over libertarians, just as G. William Domhoff's book has, and for the same reasons.