Monday, 25 October 2021

On Emphyrio and Vance's Libertarianism

Emphyrio is one of Vance’s most accomplished novels. It is also the closest we get to what one suspects is his personal philosophy. He had too much good taste to write allegory, but in Emphyrio he does delve into themes of political anthropology more deeply, interestingly and openly than in any other of his books.
The main setting of Emphyrio is the city of Ambroy, a metropolis half-ruined by ancient wars, and now ruled by families of Lords who, it is said, rebuilt its society in the aftermath of these disasters. Inhabiting towers known as “eeries” and collecting a 1.18% tithe on the products of Ambroy’s citizens (on which more below), these Lords occasionally descend to mingle with the hoi polloi, accompanied everywhere by ape-like guards known as Garrion. Otherwise they live an almost-literal “ivory tower” existence, punctuated only by trips across the stars in their space yachts.
The setting, then, is a curious mixture of the medieval and the futuristic. Ostensibly part of Vance’s wider Gaean Reach universe, it has nothing like the mood or feeling of a Demon Princes or Cadwal novel; the people of Ambroy inhabit if anything a world more akin to Viriconium or Nessus (and, indeed, the novel is suffused with the same kind of mood as the Viriconium and Book of the New Sun stories throughout). Their city bears some of the trappings of ancient technologies that, it is implied, are too advanced for the current inhabitants to understand (the “Overtrend”, a kind of monorail; the “Spay”, a telecommunications tool); otherwise they live like the people of pre-enlightenment Amsterdam or London, dreaming of becoming like the Lords and travelling across the stars.
This, though, is in practical terms impossible, because the people are kept in feudal drudgery by a system of smothering regulations administered by an almighty Welfare Agency, which has taken over the entire apparatus of public power. The people, referred to as “recipients”, receive “vouchers” in return for completing craft items of various kinds and otherwise abiding by the Agency’s regulations. These items are sold off-world, and any form of duplication or copying is hence prohibited on the basis that it will diminish the value of these artifacts and undermine the great monopoly, owned by the Lords, which controls trade.
Mass-manufacturing is thus outlawed; the people must in general belong to one of a number of guilds (scriveners, woodcarvers, etc.) and dedicate themselves entirely to perfecting their craft, delivering the items they make to the guild and receiving their subsistence vouchers in return. If they do anything “irregulationary”, such as duplicating an item or subjecting the regime to critique, they are visited with arcane punishments; the Agency owns a metal “deportment rod” for each inhabitant of the city, and each time one of them behaves in an irregulationary fashion, an electric charge is added to their rod, until it reaches a certain level and they are forcibly “rehabilitated”. The only release valves for the people appear to be drinking, watching the occasional puppet show or other mediocre entertainment, and their ritualistic religion, which consists mostly of inane “leaping” in complex pre-ordained patterns, designed apparently deliberately to diminish the capacity for independent thought. Their cooperation is overseen always by local Welfare Agents, each of whom takes responsibility for a small neighbourhood and makes it his business to involve himself intimately in the affairs of all of his charges. Part nosey-parker, part-social worker, part-policeman, part-NKVD operative, these Agents identify trouble-makers and “chaoticists”, and otherwise strictly enforce social harmony. The only way to escape is to become a “noncup” (for “noncuperative”) and live on the outskirts of society, receiving no public support and having to fend for oneself as a pseudo-outlaw or vagrant. Few take this route: most unthinkingly and gratefully abide by the Welfare Agency’s strictures, content to live out their lives secure in the knowledge that if they behave themselves they will always have their substantive needs met.
Those who have read their Tocqueville will recognise in Ambroy something akin to the dismal portrait he depicts of the fate of democracy. Democracies, Tocqueville warns us, may fall prey to violent tyranny, but they are far more vulnerable to a different kind of despotism altogether: the dominance of what, borrowing from Michel Foucault, I think of as pastoral power. Calling on us to imagine the future of the State, Tocqueville describes it as an “immense and tutelary power,” which takes it upon itself to secure the gratifications and “watch over [the] fate” of each and every individual - “absolute, minute, regular, provident and mild.” Like a parent who sees its task as to keep its population in perpetual childhood, such a State “willingly labours…to spare them all the care of thinking and the trouble of living”; in “cover[ing] the surface of society” with its “network of small, complicated rules”, it does not “destroy” or “terrorise”, but “compresses, enervates, extinguishes and stupefies a people” until they are reduced to “nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.” Ostensibly benevolent, it “chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter” of the people’s happiness, ensuring they “think of nothing but rejoicing”, and as a result robs them of their agency, their individuality, their initiative, and therefore ultimately their freedom.
Vance, in Emphyrio, thus places himself in a tradition of libertarian thought which is interested not so much in economics or politics but rather in the moral conditions on which freedom rests. Michael Oakeshott, in On Human Conduct, sets out two different conceptualisations of the relationship between morality and freedom: the morality of the “individual” and the “anti-individual”. In the former, moral choice is understood as properly inhering in the individual human being: it is for each person (in reference to her circumstances, culture, society, family background and so on) to decide for herself what is right or wrong in any given circumstance. In the latter, moral choice is exercised on the behalf of the population by a clerisy of experts, who create extensive laws, regulations, and policies to ensure that everybody does the “right” thing. In a system of individual morality, for example, it is up to everybody to determine for themselves whether they should eat chocolate and how much; in a system of anti-individual morality, the State must put in place “sugar taxes” to try to nudge them into eating less.
In no human society does individual or anti-individual morality completely prevail, and nor should it (few would wish, for example, to live in a place where the decision on whether or not to murder others is based on individual choice alone) but Ambloy is characterised very strongly by the latter. Its people are constantly supervised by the overweening and smothering presence of the Welfare Agents, who monitor what they buy, do or say so as to carefully ensure that they are never doing anything irregulationary. They cannot engage in commercial enterprise and are discouraged from spending time in any pursuit other than their allocated craft and the pointless “leaping” of their religion; their moral choices, in other words, are almost entirely circumscribed. What is right or wrong for them to do has already been predetermined in reference to the Agency’s regulations, and all that is left for them to do is to meekly obey. The quid pro quo, of course, is that they receive a continual supply of vouchers in return, such that they are relatively well-fed, well-housed, and healthy.
This is disastrous - a “moral enormity”, as Oakeshott would have put it – because, deprived of the capacity to make meaningful choice, the people of Ambloy are as a consequence deprived of the very conditions in which both individual freedom and morality itself are realised. What is freedom, in the end, if not the capacity to make choices, and what does morality consist of if not the exercising of choice so as to do the right thing when the wrong thing is also possible? To behave morally when the choice is pre-determined is no morality at all but merely the performance of good manners; to choose to do the right thing is not freedom at all when one is prevented from doing anything wrong in the first place. The people of Ambloy are reduced, in the end, to a mere performance of morality and hence an ultimately trivial existence: nothing they do is of consequence or import, either to themselves or others.
Worse than this, though, is that the habit of freedom has been drained out of them. The consequence of anti-individual morality, for Oakeshott, was that if given flight through law it would produce a population of “individual manqués” – passive, inert, lacking initiative, easily manipulated, looking always to the State to exercise choice on their behalf, and interested only in the satisfaction of a “conscript assured of his dinner.” Such a people, as Antony de Jasay warns us in The State, lose the capacity for spontaneous civic action entirely, becoming ever less capable of acting alone or with their families, friends and neighbours to solve their problems, and ever more reliant on the State to do it for them. This, as Vance shows us, is the consequence of inhabiting a society like Ambloy – an uncreative, uninteresting, and apathetic populace living out their humdrum lives, achieving nothing, going nowhere, and leaving no mark behind them when they die.
Vance, then, sits in the most thoughtful and provocative strand of libertarian thought, almost where it comes full circle, indeed, and overlaps with the extremes of critical theory. As Amiante, the real hero of the tale, puts it at one point: “Freedom, privileges, options, must constantly be exercised, even at the risk of inconvenience. Otherwise they fall into desuetude and become unfashionable, unorthodox—finally irregulationary.” Freedom, in other words, is something that one has to do, to perform, at all costs – to exercise. Here, he channels the arch-crit himself, Michel Foucault, who once said that “Freedom is practice . . . [it] is what must be exercised . . . I think it can never be inherent in the structure of things to (itself) guarantee the exercise of freedom. The guarantee of freedom is freedom.” It is not law or politics or religion or anything else which protects freedom, but the insistence of the populace on behaving freely in so far as it is possible to do so. If it fails in this task, freedom withers.
What is most interesting about Emphyrio is that Vance appears to have recognised that it is not only the State, but also private power, which threatens freedom on these terms. The people of Ambroy are not merely the pawns of the all-powerful Welfare Agency; they are also conscripted into guilds so that they can produce their beautiful artefacts for one single great monopolistic trading company which grows fat off the sales of their work off-world. They live out their choice-free, amoral lives not only for the furtherance of the State, in other words, but also literally for the purpose of generating wealth for the wealthy. There is in this a bleak foreshadowing of our own era, in which from an early age children are hooked on social media so that they can spend a lifetime producing the “clicks” and “eyeballs” for a few vast monopolistic firms, living lives as vapid, passive and enervated as any Oakeshottian individual manqué - their every decision pre-determined by the “choice architecture” of whatever platform they happen to inhabit at any given moment. In his recent work Matthew Crawford warns that a fundamentally passive future awaits us all unless we get back into the habit of practicing freedom for real. Emphyrio provides us with a final note of optimism that it might never be too late – but it may take an almighty hero to rescue us. 

In closing, it bears emphasising that Vance, unlike (say) Ayn Rand, was in the end a stylish, thoughtful, and tremendously entertaining writer. It is possible to read Emphyrio without considering really any of these themes, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. (I mentioned earlier that it is suffused with the mood of a Viriconium or a Book of the New Sun; I found it essentially their equal in terms of quality, and a great deal shorter to boot.) 


  1. A reasonable analysis of the book, keeping in mind that Vance always wrote to entertain his readers first and foremost, even when he was at his most thought-provoking. Always safe to recommend reading his work, unlike (to use your example) Ayn Rand. Even folks who don't want to engage with any message in a Vance book (usually wry social commentary) can expect to find pleasure in the story itself.

    1. I think the point with Vance is the social commentary is usually unconscious. He wants to write good stories set in interesting places. His views on society, law, human nature, etc., just come through by accident for the most part. This is what sets him apart from somebody like Rand.

  2. I love Vance and Virconium but haven't yet read Emphyrio, something I intend to correct asap after reading this great analysis.

    That said I would like to quibble slightly with the comparison to Ayn Rand - there is a big difference between her politics and Vance's which is not unrelated to the quality of their writing

    The idea of freedom as you have described it here - as a positive good which no ruleset can consistently ensure - is surely a liberal one, albeit liberalism with a small enough l to accomodate conservatives like Oakeshott and communists like Foucault.

    I know there is a significant liberterian faction that subscribe to it as well but Rand is firmly in the other camp: she thought she had discovered the Rules Of Freedom and that the problem with society is that people kept breaking them by doing things like passing income taxes or voting for the Democrats. So her freedom loving heroes are all straight-laced scolds who hate lying and love discipline, and when they rebel it's only in order to create a society where they wouldn't want to.

    Vance on the other hand is like Pratchett or Ian M Banks in that his admirable characters are usually a bit rogueish and his heroic characters behave quite similarly to his anti-heroes, though with more scruples and better motives. Which makes sense if you think freedom and virtue require skepticism towards rules rather than strict adherence to the right ones.

    1. Yes, I think that's broadly true. It's in the end the point that Foucault was making. It's not the rules that make you free - it's freedom itself that makes you free!

  3. As far as Vance getting political there's also Blue Planet. In this story the villains are reactionaries while the hero is a scientific-minded iconoclast. Vance seems to be broadly positive about the sort of society that is set up in Blue Planet absent the ways that it has been perverted by the reactionaries. While certainly libertarian, the society seems pretty left-wing in a lot of ways with it being quite communal and without much in the way of a market economy, but rather various guilds supporting the common good in various ways. In one part everyone pools their blood for a common project and this is portrayed positively in the book.

    This isn't to say that I think that Vance is a dyed in the wool anarcho-syndicalist with a bookshelf full of Proudhon but if the only thing by Vance you'd read is Blue Planet and you had to reconstruct Vance's political beliefs based on that one book that's where you'd land.

    I really don't think Vance is narrow enough to lay out his political philosophy in toto in any one book. There are a whole lot of things that Vance doesn't like from hypocritical priests, to inflexible traditionalists, to busybody bureaucrats, to exploitive corporations and different ones of those loom larger and smaller in his various works which makes it dangerous to read to much in any one of them in particular.

    He certainly isn't a dogmatic free market fundamentalist in the mold of Ayn Rand though.

    1. Yes. I think the underlying subcurrent of his fiction is an impatience with/dislike of being told what to do. That motivates almost all his heroes.

    2. Also worth noting that many of his protagonists are often morally ambiguous, and sometimes downright awful people. He doesn't represent their refusal to blithely accept the role they're handed by society as making them paragons of virtue or great role models by any means.

    3. noisms: agreed, and of course like Dick McGee points out even the "heroes" who are complete assholes like Cugel are also motivated by this. Often the people telling Cugel what to do are even worse than him but often it's just him being horrible to people who don't really deserve it.

      Seems like "dislike of being told what to do" is more just broadly human and natural unless its beaten out of people in Vance's thinking.

      And there's also a very broad difference between disliking by told what to do and having good ideas about building a functional society in which people aren't told what to do too often. Often you get people who hate being told what to do but when you start hearing their ideas about what to do to fix that then, hooooo boy, you get some horrible shit.

      In Vance's writing we also get a bunch more examples of nasty authoritarians (like Emphyrio) and not too many examples of him showing us the kind of society he'd like to see. I haven't read as much Vance as you but the only example I can think of in his writing in which he's showing us a society that he seems to approve of is Blue Planet.

      As a story Blue Planet isn't one of his best. It reads more like bog standard sci-fi (at least to me) and doesn't have as much of the unique stuff that makes Vance special as his other writing and "rationalist iconoclast vs. hypocritical reactionaries" isn't exactly breaking new ground but it DOES show a fairly functional libertarian society that Vance seems to approve of despite its flaws, so if you want to get a grasp of Vance's political thinking then Blue Planet might be worth checking out as it shows an example of what Vance thinks of in terms of alternatives to authoritarianism.

  4. Interesting. I just started reading some Jack Vance (per our recent conversation). I agree that stylistically it is very similar to Viriconium - and it was the styling that attracted me to Viriconium as a teenager (and still appeals to me greatly). But Vance's work seems to lack the iconoclasm and what I might clumsily call the meta-fantasy of Mike Harrison’s work, which for me made it ring rather more hollow. Fun read though!

    Regarding the political side of things, I wonder where anarchy fits into this government-control vs libertarian dichotomy? (Actual anarchy that is - i.e. a society run bottom-up rather than top-down - not the popular conception of anarchy as chaos and looting). To me it seems that anarchy combines the best of both worlds - a great deal of liberty, but there’s still such a thing as society, in fact moreso than when that society is imposed by government. (It may sound like a pipe-dream to run a society that way, but it appears to be working very succesfully in Rojava despite, or perhaps because of, the unbearable external pressures that the “autonomous region” exists under)

    1. Like I said upthread a bit, Blue Planet by Vance (not his best story by a long shot but interesting for this debate) has what seems like an anarchist society. At least kinda sorta.