la knabo (_boy_) wrote,
la knabo

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even mediocre sci-fi can have a point

Combining my dual interests of utopian novels and stuff to read in the bathroom, I've been reading Mack Reynold's Commune 2000 A.D.. The book is inspired by a dystopian look at a world similar to Bellamy's 1887 utopia Looking Backward (which I have available to anyone via my BookCrossing hobby); a few of his other books are also inspired by Bellamy, for better or worse. Considering we shared an interest in Bellamy (and Bellamy's flaws), not to mention an interest in Esperanto, I figured I'd give Reynolds a try.

The book reads like someone who really wanted to make one point, but felt it necessary to build an incidental story around the points rather than just writing a more direct essay. His attempt at inventing the slang of the future is embarrassingly lame and the sexism is unbelievable at times; the plot was predictable and I caught on to the sinister dystopian master plan 154 pages before the PhD protagonist (the book is 181 pages long). Despite its failings, it has a couple of good points, which I will reproduce here to save anyone else undue pain (unless you're looking for 'undue pain', in which case, by all means read the book).

A note of explanation: productivity has increased to the point where only ten percent of the population works to provide abundance for all; everyone else collects a share of the nation's wealth as Universal Guaranteed Income and looks for ways to kill time; only occasionally are people "drafted" to work by a computer at the National Data Banks, based upon their skills and aptitude - the Ability Quotient; most people never work.

People are starting to leave the metropolises to form communities based upon common interests - some art, some ancient Greek Revival, some lesbian, etc.

Here, is dialogue between Bat Hardin, a member (and "unofficial cop") of a travelling artist's colony called New Woodstock, and Ted Swain, the dense ethnologist protagonist investigating the commune phenomenon. Hardin questions Swain's conventional notion of who contributes to society and who "deserves" to gain from society:
...Ted said, "Tell me, where do you plan to go when your town is completely assembled?"
..."Down the Pan-American Highways to South America, taking our time, stopping where we wish and staying for as long a period as we want to at each stop."
...Ted frowned at him. He said, "But those of your members who work, how will they get back and forth to the job? Certainly a vacation wouldn't last that long."
..."That's it," Bat Hardin said. "None of us work. We're all on Universal Guaranteed Income."
..."All five hundred homes?" Ted Swain was incredulous. "Nobody at all has been taken on job-muster day?"
..."That's right," Hardin said, his voice even. "Most of us, though not all, are artists of one type or another. Painters, sculptors, writers, ceramists, even one composer. The rest of us are attracted to the arts, and possibly the so-called Bohemian life. We wouldn't want to take a job even if we were selected on muster day."
...Ted Swain said, "Well, suppose your town was underway, on the trip, down in, say, Panama, and muster day came and a couple of your people were selected. They'd have to come back and take the job."
...Bat Hardin looked at him. "No, they wouldn't. You see, we're really a commune. We pool our resources. Everybody's income goes into the kitty. If somebody is unfortunate enough to lose their rights to Universal Guaranteed Income, it doesn't make any difference. With five hundred homes, most of them with more than one inhabitant, we can afford to carry a few dropouts. But that's one of the reasons we don't like National Security officers, or snoopers from the National Data Banks, coming around. Theoretically, it's illegal not to respond to a muster-day call, if the computers select you for a job."
..."Look here," Ted said. "I don't want to roach you. It's none of my business. But this is an aspect of the communes and that's what I'm trying to find out about. Now, the way I see it, man has finally gotten to the point where he can apply that old adage, 'from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.' Who was is who first said that, Marx?"
..."Search me," Hardin said. "Go on."
..."The thing is that so little labor is needed now that most of us haven't the chance to hold down a job. We're simply not needed. We get our Universal Guaranteed Income, whether we work or not, and nobody gets any more than anyone else. However, I think we owe it to our society to respond if and when we are called on job-muster day. Do you?"
..."Not necessarily."
..."Why not?" Ted demanded.
..."Let those work in production who want to. This community isn't composed of a group of loafers. It's an art colony. Creation of art is work. It's usually a damn sight harder work than tending some machine in an automated factory. Under the present socio-economic set-up there's no artist's guild, and for good reason. One thing a computer can't come up with, in delving into the Ability Quotient needed for some job, is figuring out the ability of an artist, a writer, a sculptor. So an artist, of whatever type, gets his Universal Guaranteed Income, along with everyone else, and is free to do his thing as best he can."
..."Who decides if he's an artist or not?"
..."He does, just as he has all down through history. The artist does his work because he has to. If his fellow man doesn't like the end product, it's too bad, but he keeps doing his thing."
...Ted Swain said doggedly, "I'm in rebellion because I can't get a job. I'm ashamed to take my Universal Guaranteed Income. But here you are saying this whole commune wouldn't do their share, even if requested."
..."You're doing your share," Hardin said reasonably. "You're trying to work. So are all the artists in New Woodstock. It's just that the human race has gotten to the point where practically no work is necessary to produce plenty."
...He leaned forward and for a moment stared down at the back of his hands as he worked it out. "Look at it this way, Swain. Take an ultramated textile-factory today. Two or three men on a shift supervise the machinery. Seemingly, they produce, say, a hundred thousand pairs of men's pants a day. In actuality, however, it isn't they who are doing the producing. It's thousands of generations of human beings whose accumulated efforts have come down to us through the centuries. Somebody had to invent fire, develop metals, agriculture, invent the wheel, develop the sciences. Each generation added its mite and passed on its accumulated knowledge to the next generation. This is a common heritage among all human beings. Working alone, those two or three supervisors couldn't produce more than half a dozen pairs of pants a day. It took the whole human race contributing through the centuries to build that ultramated factory, so it's perfectly right that the whole country profit by it, rather than just three men who have been selected for their jobs."

And the climax of the book... a rant against collectivism, couched as a revolution against the welfare state, which demonstrates well that the cradle-to-grave welfare state is not socialism - a point lost on many both sympathetic and antagonistic to socialism.

Here, after Ted finds that his playboy/news anchor/gossip columnist friend Mike Latimer is actually part of a revolutionary underground, Mike gives a nuanced critique of their welfare paradise and roots for economic democracy and the "withering away of the state".
..."Let's have some facts, Ted. What kind of government would you say we had?"
...Ted Swain grimaced. A lot of curves were being thrown very fast. He said, "Why, actually, it's a sort of dual government. A political one largely based on the old Constitution, though considerably altered at the Second Constitutional Congress, and an economic one headed by the Production Congress, which plans production, communication, transportation, distribution and so forth."
..."Yes," Mike said. "And we democratically elect our political representatives, but the computers select, supposedly based upon Ability Quotient, those who are to hold positions in the economic field."
..."What do you mean, supposedly?"
..."Can't you see?" he demanded. "We continue to think of our society as a democratic one, in which we cherish our freedoms. But the political part of our dual government has become all but meaningless. They continue to play the game, to pay lip service to democracy so that we'll be appeased, but the real clout is held by the economic division. Who controls industry - and when I say industry I, of course, include education, health, entertainment, and all necessary types of work - controls the country. And that in spite of whoever we might vote in as President, Senators, Representatives or whatever."
...Ted Swain said impatiently, "But what's this suggestion that the computers don't select workers for industry based upon Ability Quotient?"
..."Oh, they do, they do, on lower levels. No reason why not. If you need someone to supervise a line of automated textile-producing machines, or someone to tutor on the grammar-school level at a TV school, or someone to monitor a half dozen laser moles in the Mining Guild, then the computers come up with the very best person available."
..."But anyone competent enough to operate a machine can figure out some manner of gimmicking that machine, and the computer is only a machine."
...He sat down again, across from Ted Swain.
..."You mean...?" Ted said.
..."Yes. The National Data Bank computers can be and are being gimmicked."
..."By whom?"
..."By those who would profit, obviously. By those in the highest brackets of our society... It's true that in our ultrawelfare society no one goes without. But man doesn't live by bread alone. Our New Class has power, privilege public esteem, and they wish to keep these and pass them on to relatives and friends. And today they're doing it. And, as with every other class in power in the history of class society, they're willing to do anything to maintain their positions."
..."so this commune underground of yours; what does it want to do?"
..."Carry on to the next level in the evolution of society. First, simply eliminate the vestiges of a socio-economic system based upon political division. Remember the royal family and other feudalistic remnants in Great Britain when you were a boy? They were an anachronism. They were of no value to the nation but they hung on for a century after they had become worthless before the British eliminated them. That is what we plan to do with the remnants of the political state; eliminate it."
..."And democracy along with it?"
..."No. We plan to transfer democracy to the economic sphere. We think that officials in industry should be democratically elected, from the bottom up, rather than by computers. Sure, we'll keep some of the aspects of Ability Quotient. A person wouldn't be eligible to run for an administrative position unless he held the qualifications. But the final decision as to who holds a post would be in the hands of his colleagues, not some machine that could be gimmicked."

I'll probably muse on these thoughts in a later post.
Tags: kibbitz, politics, sci-fi
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