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.