2044: “The problem isn’t Big Brother. It’s Big Brother, Inc.”

Eric Lotke’s first novel packs a polemical punch, and also succeeds as a story.

The basic flaw in libertarian reasoning is its neglect of all the ways freedom can be threatened by private (including corporate) action, rather than public action.  There is no doubt a fine essay to be written on that topic; probably someone has written it.

But to make an actual political point no essay is as good a strong story; can anyone doubt that Harriet Beecher Stowe was a more effective abolitionist than William Graham Sumner?   Orwell was a great essayist and (with the huge exception of Animal Farm) a distinctly second-rate novelist, but in terms of both readership and impact Nineteen Eighty-Four is orders of magnitude above “Politics and the English Language” and “Notes on Nationalism,” which have more or less the same conceptual content but not a fraction of the emotional impact.

Eric Lotke is a lawyer and a progressive activist, not a professional novelist, but his book 2044 is, just as a novel, a far more polished performance than its Orwellian model; for one thing, the characters are more or less human, and the author is capable of making you care about their fates, which is more than can be said for Winston Smith (whom Orwell deliberately made a thoroughly uninteresting “last man”) or Julia.

As a tract, 2044 pursues the same strategy as its predecessor:  it takes some of the more noxious features of contemporary society and imagines a future in which they have grown to monstrous proportions without really changing their fundamental shape. Malcolm Moore, like Winston Smith, is a bureaucrat.  Instead of working for the Ministry of Truth, he works for Tentek Corporation.   Somewhat against his will, he finds himself in opposition to his employer and to the transnational corporate/state symbi0sis of which Tentek is an element.  The book’s subtitle states its theme:  “The problem isn’t Big Brother; it’s Big Brother, Inc.”

Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth ploughed some of the same ground half a century ago in two fine science-fiction novels, The Space Merchants and Gladiator-at-Law.  If Lotke lacks some of their invention, his superior grasp of the actual social and economic processes involved more than makes up for it; Tentek is as frighteningly plausible a workplace as MiniTrue.

Regrettably, 2044 is samizdat, which means that few bookstores will carry it and – more damagingly – few reviewers will bother to notice it.  But there’s always a chance that word-of-mouth will pluck it from undeserved obscurity, especially since the Kindle price is only 99 cents.  Take a look.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

35 thoughts on “2044: “The problem isn’t Big Brother. It’s Big Brother, Inc.””

  1. I'm puzzled at the notion that the problem of corporate/state symbiosis is supposed to blindside libertarians. It is, in fact, one of the major problems with powerful government: It's power is either going to be for rent, or used for extortion. (The difference between the two can be difficult to distinguish from the outside.)

    Either way, the problem is the state's power. Exactly who is abusing it is a secondary issue.

  2. Odd use of the term samizdat in its literal translation, "self-published," as many thousands of books are these days (in this case by print-on-demand at iUniverse), rather than the historical meaning, the clandestine printing and distribution of government-censored material.

  3. Don't forget the original 1975 film Rollerball, about the power of massive corporations. Great sci-fi flick, remade poorly many years later.

    On libertarianism, I distinguish "reasonable libertarianism" from "simplistic libertarianism", where the former acknowledges threats to liberty from nongovernmental actors:

    http://backseatdriving.blogspot.com/search?q=mang

    Not the fine essay Mark's looking for, but it's what I've got.

  4. Based on extensive reading (the one-paragraph blurb)I think there's something unfortunate about the theme. It's a little reminiscent of Ayn Rand's "Reardon metal" fantasy. Also, if one were to pick a process to be radically transformed by a new technology, surely there would be something better than one (desalination) which does in fact have a significant minimum free-energy consumption set by thermodynamics.

  5. I'd pick desalination: While there is a minimum energy requirement to accomplish it, it's been known for some time that, if you simply dropped a pipe with a reasonably efficient osmotic separation membrane across the bottom end of it into the sea, the result would be a fountain of fresh water. No magic, the salt dropping the to bottom of the ocean provides the energy to separate it from the water, if the pipe is deep enough. (Technically, equal columns of fresh and salt water weigh differently, producing a pressure difference to drive the system.)

    The catch has always been that osmotic membranes are usually very inefficient, and pack up rapidly. Produce an efficient, durable membrane, and desalination would be essentially free in any location with deep sea water available. With enough depth, you'd even get energy out of the system, too.

  6. One slice of this corrupt pie:

    How can we discover which, if any, of our elected officials are being blackmailed by operatives holding surveillance file dirt over their heads? Dave Letterman confronted his problem publicly, and it worked ok for him. Ratings are up. Maybe we could find a way to reward officials for coming forward when someone tries to blackmail them.

  7. I've been beating the drum for years about how the libertarian celebration of "freedom" means the freedom of large, powerful entities to dominate in the absence of a countervailing force (i.e. the government).

    "freedom" is what you hear from Palin, Bachmann, and virtually every elected Republican in Congress. They use "freedom" as an emotional touchstone to conjure up thoughts of the American Revolution – all the way to the liberation of Europe in WW2. But there is an economic element to freedom which sounds just fine at the small-scale level (e.g. small vendors competing against each other at an outdoor market), but at the national-monopoly-level can be a steamroller over individual rights and consumer choice.

  8. Yeah, and "human welfare" is what you hear from Democrats, but somehow "human welfare" always translates into, "Everybody does as I say". Because you just assume that "human welfare" will be advanced by anything you feel like doing, no matter what the people you're doing it to think about the matter.

    Look, the largest, most powerful entity around is the government. And most examples of really horrific abuse by non-governmental entities involve them coopting the power of government in some manner to accomplish the abuse. So it really does make sense, if you're concerned about human liberty, to be mostly concerned about government. Kind of like my doc is more concerned about my cancer than my bronchitis. He'll get around to the coughing problem AFTER the chemo works.

  9. Part of the problem here is the seemingly universal tendency to treat incorporation as some sort of natural state of doing business, rather than an institution created by government. Incorporation is a government created institution in which some of the risk of running your business is shared by the community at large. It is an extremely valuable service provided by the government, it is not some natural state of affairs, that is yours by right. Given that it is valuable, it is only right and proper, and is in no way and infringement upon the freedom of the incorporated entity, that the value be traded for something of equal value. The most straightforward way to curb the abuse of incorporation is to require something of comparable value in return, rather than giving it away, with no obligation on the part of the recipient. The libertarian (at least the simplistic ones as identified by Brian) erroneously believe that limiting the use of this property or requiring payment is an infringement upon the liberties of the recipient. Nothing could be further from the truth. Such restrictions are no more than the restrictions that are an normal part of any ordinary trade. One can take the benefit, and pay the price, or pass up on the benefit and save the price. Having the government create this enormously valuable property, on the other hand, and then giving it away with no obligation of the part of the recipient is the infringement upon the liberty of all those not so richly favored.

  10. The problem with this attitude towards incorporation is that people don't incorporate for yucks. They do so because the law and tort doctrine make it terribly perilous, and often outright illegal, to get together to do many things without incorporating. The government is essentially forcing people to incorporate.

    You can't run any business bigger than a lemonaide stand without incorporating.

    I take the position that the government can't pressure you to do something, and then use the fact that you did as they pressured you as an excuse to deprive you of your rights.

  11. Brett,

    Bullocks. You most certainly can run a business bigger than a lemonade stand without incorporating. You can run any business without incorporating. It is just enormously more risky to run certain businesses without incorporating. It also is often too risky to run a business beyond a certain size without incorporating. But these all amount to the same thing. Incorporation is valuable. This value should be traded, not given away as an entitlement. You say that government is essentially forcing people to incorporate. Give me an example. I would love to explore it with you.

  12. Michael, you admit running a large, (Heck, one man!) business without incorporating is dangerous. But did you somehow fail to notice that it's not dangerous because a meteor might strike you? It's dangerous because the government might come after you! The government isn't giving you something you wouldn't have if there were no government. It's giving you conditional immunity from it's own depredations.

    Incorporating is valuable for the same reason the insurance Tony Soprano sells is valuable.

  13. The government might come after you for what? Are you seriously trying to claim that if you set up a large business as a private company the government will come after you and force you to incorporate? Give me an example.

    I do believe that if you set up a large business and, in the course of that business, do some large amount of damage to other people's property then the government will come after you to replace the value of the property. But for one thing, in the absence of the government, those to whom you owe money due to debt or to damage your business has done, would come after you themselves. To take your example, try explaining to Tony Soprano that yes you accidentally destroyed $1Million of his property, but your business was incorporated and only has $10,000, so that's all he gets. It's the government that makes that kind of conversation possible. Secondly, why should you not be expected to make good on the debts and damage you are responsible for. Now let me say that I understand the advantages to having laws like bankruptcy and incorporation, but it is not as if there is some moral principal that you should be allowed to keep your wealth and leave those who you have injured without compensation.

    So the actual state of affairs is that in the absence of incorporation you are free to run your business as you please, but if you do damage to the property of others or take on debts you may be required to compensate those to whom you are liable, even if that is ruinous to you. With incorporation, I, and the rest of the population absolve you of some of that responsibility and take on some of the risk of running your business. Should you damage my property in excess of the value of your business then you are protected and I take on some of the loss. If we agree to this arrangement, many businesses are much more valuable than they would be without incorporation. Great. This arrangement, I should note, is arranged by the government and also nis making your business much more valuable than it otherwise would be. All I'm saying is that is perfectly reasonable for you to pay some of that increased value added to your business back to those of us who are taking on the risk. Your position seems to be that we are obligated to just accept this risk to ourselves and expect nothing in return, because otherwise you wouldn't get to be as rich as you want.

  14. The basic flaw in libertarian reasoning is that it denies the human condition. To put things bluntly, human beings will lie, cheat, steal and brutalize unless prevented from doing so. We celebrate the glories not of those who worked hard and played by the rules, but of those "leaders" who killed their own siblings and offspring, and the occasional progenitor, in their quest for power. We celebrate not the glories of those entrepreneurs who developed new technologies, but of those corporations who through their own unabashed wielding of power, took those technologies and cornered the markets to create powerful profit machines at the expense of entrepreneurial creativity.

    Civilization relies upon

  15. Actually, folks, the reason people incorporate their business is to escape personal responsibility to others, not the government. That is the very essence of incorporating. If the business tanks and it's a corporation, it takes a lot more lawyering to get to one's personal assets.

    So next time a corporate leader tells you the problem with welfare dependency is a lack of personal responsibility, tell him or her to drop the corporate veil and accept personal responsibility for their own actions. That will make you very popular at the country club!

  16. Civilization relies upon some ordering of appetites, some limitations on human nature, to succeed.

    Galeano notes of human beginnings: "To me mouth or mouthful, hunter or hunted. That was the question. We deserved score, or at most pity. In the hostile wilderness no one respected us, no one feared us. We were the most vulnerable beasts in the animal kingdom, terrified of night and the jungle, useless as youngsters, not much better as adults, without claws or fangs or nimble feet or keen sense of smell. Our early history is lost in mist. It seems all we ever did was break rocks and beat each other with clubs. But one might well ask: Weren't we able to survive, when survival was all but impossible, because we learned to share our food and band together for defense? Would today's me-first, do-your-own-thing civilization have lasted more than a moment?"

  17. To put things bluntly, human beings will lie, cheat, steal and brutalize unless prevented from doing so.

    So, which alien species should occupy the offices of government?

  18. Since no alien species is available, maybe we should just shrink the offices as much as feasible?

    We could also take Madison's advice and have a system based on oversight and transparency.

  19. Brett Bellmore says:

    "Since no alien species is available, maybe we should just shrink the offices as much as feasible"

    Great idea, Brett! If only we could elect a GOP government, those guys would do that in a hurry.

  20. Brett Bellmore's "shrink-the-government" comment gets us back to the original point. We can shrink the government, but businesses are also not run by angels. And the smaller the government, the greater the opportunity for businesses to exploit their workers, cheat their consumers, create risks of accident, and trash the environment. It's true that corporations are willing to ally with governments to screw everyone else, but it's not true that they need governments' help in doing so. They do just fine left to their own devices.

    This is not to deny that business, like government, serves essential purposes. But just as governments need to be restrained by laws, by independent courts, by a free press, and by democratic politics, businesses need to be restrained by governments. And in each case, the project of restraint can go too far: civil-service hiring, lowest-bidder procurement, and "sunshine laws" have all been taken to excess. Reasonable libertarians (Steve Teles points me to Julian Sanchez) understand this, and understand that all these choices involve balancing acts. But there's no reasoning with the shrink-the-government-until-it's-small-enough-to-drown-it-in-the-bathtub" crowd.

  21. Reasonable libertarians…

    ROFLMAO! Meaning no disrespect to anyone real or imagined, that phrase belongs in the Oxymoron Hall of Fame!

  22. I agree that, lacking some game changer, it would be possible to shrink the government SO MUCH, that it we'd get more private sector evil than the public sector evil we eliminated. I just don't think we're anywhere near that point now, and we're getting further from it all the time. In the meanwhile, you really need to take seriously the possibility that more powerful government isn't going to shut down private sector wrong-doing, but instead enable it. Just because you think a powerful government could restrain corporations, doesn't mean it IS going to restrain them. The people running it might find it more profitable to aid corporations, or take them over.

  23. I think this discussion sums of the unreasonable nature of libertarians. Even Mr. Bellmore is unwilling to concede the idea that corporations are capable of doing harm. One small anecdote can sum it up succintly. In my city the water is provided by wells. Residents complained about the water quality to the water department, who then formed a commission to investigate. They discovered that a pharmaceutical company in the area had buried chemicals nearby to the well. These chemicals had leached out, causing dangerous spikes in manganese to the local water supply.

    This is a clear example of a corporation causing harm and damage to individuals. Who is to protect people from these negative externalities? Libertarians like to give the "faeries and unicorn" answer, that in some theoretical fantasy land this will damage the company's profits in some way and other companies will take advantage of this. But it doesn't in any way explain who actually pays the cost of cleaning up this mess. And it is never explained why these companies will lose money. Why should any consumer in Peoria care about what a company does to people in another state? No one cares about sweatshops.

    In this real world example, the city had to bear the cost because the company that buried chemicals in the 1970s no longer exists. Thus the taxpayers had to foot the bill for a the negative externalities rung up by a company.

    So yes, to reinforce the main idea of this post: libertarians live in a fantasy land and are totally irrational and unreasonable people. Their ideology is no different than believing in Scientology or magic crystals. Hence the title of this blog.

  24. Maybe the essay is by American Revolutionary Samuel Adams, in the Boston newspaper, the Independent Advertiser of 1748, and cribbing a bit from earlier English writer James, Duke of Monmouth:

    “Civil Government is of all human Things the most inestimable Blessing that Mankind enjoy – It was originally instituted by GOD the common Father of all, and that not for the private Interest or personal Greatness of any individual Man, but for the Happiness and Security of all. All Men are by Nature on a Level: born with an equal share of Freedom, and endow’d with Capacities nearly alike; but there being in every Man a strong Propensity to Superiority and Dominion, and a natural Inclination to act for his own Interest, however destructive to that of his Neighbour, it soon became necessary to enter into political Society, to protect themselves from the Injuries of one another.

    . . .

    From hence we may fairly conclude – that if there be any particular Form of Government among Men, where the supreme Magistrate is not vested with sufficient Power to protect the People and promote their Prosperity – if there be any such Constitution as enable the Prince to injure and oppress the Subject; such Constitutions . . . are inconsistent with civil Society."

    So Adams saw two different and equal threats to the liberty of a people: not just that a ruler might "injure and oppress," but that the ruler might lack "sufficient Power to protect the People and promote their Prosperity."

  25. What state has been the closest thing to libertarianism – all jokes aside about failed-ones?

    Just as no one seriously talks about communism anymore, must some band of yahoos prove once and for all how idiotic libertarianism is? Of course, most libertarians are really mixed-economists like the rest of us, but need a bit more attention.

    OMG, business and government can be forces for good or evil! The complexity!

  26. The author was ill served by a really crappy conversion of his pdf version to the Kindle. I sprang for the $0.99. Kindle version but am not sure I can finish reading it, it is so poorly formatted.

    The Kindle version could have been previewed as an html file on any browser, but I guess Amazon is not nice enough to provide a preview before rippin off the author.

    Caveat emptor – I should have asked for the free preview before buying. But you might have given a glance at the Kindle version before recommending.

  27. I'd like to give a shout-out to Margaret Atwood, who plowed much of the same ground in Oryx & Crake. IIRC, she has written another novel on the same theme: corpocracy.

  28. Read 2044 on the kindle. Quick read, actually, and not very satisfying.

    There's a ginormous logic hole in the middle of the macguffin, so large that I'm shocked that the author went ahead with it. Don't wish to spoil anything, so if you're intending to read the book stop reading this.

    If the protagonist had succeeded, the earth could easily be destroyed by accident.

  29. "Even Mr. Bellmore is unwilling to concede the idea that corporations are capable of doing harm."

    Of course they're capable of doing harm. Maybe you could admit that governments are capable of doing harm, too? And in the last century did quite a bit more of it than corporations did? Let's not resort to a cure that's quite a bit more deadly than the disease.

  30. George Orwell was a great essayist, and 1984 was his greatest, most developed essay. It's not a BAD novel, it's not a novel at all; it's a sneaky way to sell some of his most thoroughly developed thoughts. I'm reading it to my wife — her first time with the book, my third or fourth — and we're both engrossed, but I'm also able to confirm that every new read-through reveals additional layers of depth. Although one of the new layers, in this case, is how perfectly "doublethink" has come to describe the entire central premise of the Republican Party…

  31. I'd also add, though, that Winston and Julia *are* believable characters, and to me sympathetic ones (though not especially likeable). Orwell's book is more than clear on how thoroughly distorting their world is; if they don't act like you or I would, it's because you or I could not exist, in anything like our current form, if we were unlucky enough to be Party members. Winston and Julia are central to his point; making them strong and vivid would ignore the way the entire society is set up to strangle vividness as quickly as possible.

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