Forum Comments

The Hour of Trust
In Gene Wolfe
CEG
Oct 17, 2019
This is an interesting conversation. I think one way to assess Wolfe's ideology is not to assess his point-by-point beliefs, but the kinds of conversations he wants to contribute to, and thus who his implicit interlocutors are (e.g. Chesterton). It strikes me that Wolfe sees himself as playing a role in intra-conservative discourse similar to one that a Ross Douthat plays today: more steeped in Catholicism than markets, and tending to judge policies and institutions by how much they support traditional family structures, communities, and (particular visions of) freedom. It's even more clear to me that Wolfe does not see himself as part of ongoing conversations on the left. While we've seen him write a little about the Civil Rights Movement, he is relatively uninterested in the more expansive versions of the black liberation movement. I've never seen his stories really engage with feminism, women's rights, or the gay rights movement. Given how preoccupied Wolfe is with exploring identity, this omission is striking--except that he is obviously more interested in exploring universal forms of identity (like, say the universality of the soul) than he is in exploring particular expressions of identity (like, say, the experience of being a black woman in 1960s America). It's funny, one can imagine Thecla-varian becoming a queer icon if Wolfe's ideological orientation were a little different. But Wolfe is not Le Guin, whose ambisexual Gethenians are clearly meant to be part of a larger conversations on the left about gender and sexuality. FWIW, I am a Jewish lefty and Catholic conservative Wolfe is my favorite writer. That speaks to the generosity of his soul, his gifts as a writer, and--as @stephenfrug says--that Wolfe can't be reduced to his politics. He's much more interesting than that. Still, I do often find myself daydreaming of a world in which Gene Wolfe was the modal Republican.
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Hour of Trust
In Gene Wolfe
CEG
Sep 17, 2019
The Powell memo was super important to the modern conservative movement, but I really doubt Wolfe had access to it. Still, nice connection and it really goes to show how these ideas were in the air! IMO the two most prominent pieces that would've been on Wolfe's mind would have been John K. Galbraith's The New Industrial State (1967, 1972) and Milton Freidman's 1970 NYT essay that declared business has no social obligations to society. Freidman's doctrine would later be formalized by economists like Michael Jensen as the "shareholder theory of value." Wolfe's story reads like the future Galbraith feared--but one that never came to pass because of the influence of people like Freidman. This may sound like I'm defending Freidman but I am most certainly not. (The Freidmanites may have ended corporate empire building, but they are responsible for popularizing the idea that firms should act like sociopaths, which has led us to the brink of ecological collapse.) 1. First thought: Wolfe's recognition that managers of business were increasingly similar to managers of war was a popular insight among scholars of the corporate form like Alfred Chandler. 2. Glenn and Brandon note a character sardonically noting the goal of business is power, not profit. From Wikipedia on Galbraith: Galbraith argues that the "industrial system" – by which he means (in general terms) the companies which control around two-thirds of output in key sectors of the economy – are controlled in practice by a technostructure rather than shareholders; he claims that the technostructure does not act to maximise profit (as that involves the risk of failure) but principally to maintain the organisation and, as a secondary aim, to ensure its further expansion. This was the era of corporate empire builders, who wanted nothing more than to build the largest, unwieldiest conglomerate. Did it make sense for a wig company to own a TV network and a microwave manufacturer? No, but what is more prestigious than being the CEO who oversees the largest corporate empire! 3. Glenn and Brandon also noted that none of the executives seemed to have any experience with their industries, and in fact were completely removed from the realities of production. This too is consistent with research on business transformation in the era! The sociologist Neil Fligstein analyzed the backgrounds of corporate executives. He documented how the tendency of executives in this period to have backgrounds in industry ("I'm a third generation washing machine guy") was slowly giving way to promoting executives from outside the industry. 4. What changed? Friedman and the shareholder theory of value. Instead of third generation washing machine guys, Fligstein documents the increasing tendency to promote executives with marketing and finance backgrounds (who had no connection to the industry, or even the regions, that they suddenly became kings in. Corporate founders tended to have dense social ties with local community, but finance and marketing guys were interlopers who would not hesitate to close factories and offshore production, and they were especially happy to sell off "underperforming assets"--which meant corporations giving up entire industries and subsidiaries. Hence, the Rust Belt. As it turned out, shareholders loved downsizing. Executives were no longer like generals, happy to preside over the biggest corporate bureaucracy they could get their hands on. Instead, they tried to juice stock prices by presiding over as few workers as possible. This was the beginning of the rise of contract labor, the Uberization of work, and factory-less companies (like Nike and Vizio). Companies today employ shockingly few employees per market cap as compared to companies of Wolfe's day. 5. This was a longwinded way of my saying: I think this story is Wolfe extrapolating a Galbraith-Freidman hybrid dystopia. He extrapolates (accurately) from Galbraith about what 1994 would look like if corporate executives continued to build empires, and the countervailing powers of labor and the state continued to wither. He is also extrapolating from Freidman's championing of the sociopathic corporation, freed from all responsibility to community, employees, and indeed society. Wolfe failed to predict (and who could blame him) how the Freidman-view would so utterly dominate the Galbraith view, making corporate empire building a thing of the past (but still ushering us into a completely different utopia). In 2019, corporations haven't become the state. Rather, they have hollowed out the state such that the wealthiest global citizens have been emancipated from all obligations to the communities that generate wealth for them.
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Slaves of Silver
In Gene Wolfe
CEG
Mar 28, 2019
I think there are two (related) historical contexts that have been missed in these discussions about "Slaves of Silver" that are especially relevant to Wolfe, as a Republican, responding to the recent Civil Rights Movement. First, for any Republican in 1971 wanting to associate with the right side of history, there were still champions of civil rights in the party, most famously Nelson Rockefeller, George Romney, and (before '68) Jackie Robinson. As long as the Democrats relied on a large bloc of southern segregationists (as they would into the mid-90s), there was still the possibility that the GOP wouldn't travel further down the road of the southern strategy. If Wolfe in 1971 hoped the GOP wouldn't permanently abandon what was (until the 1960s) actually a pretty decent history of championing civil rights, he may have been drawn to explore the ideological origins of his party's opposition to slavery. Whether directly or indirectly, Wolfe may have been aware of Eric Foner's landmark book on this topic that was published in 1970 entitled "Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War." This was the motto of the 1850s Republicans, and it bears a very close resemblance to the motto "Free markets and free robots" on which Wolfe's society is founded. The GOP motto led to the passage of the three civil rights amendments during Reconstruction--just as "Free markets and free robots" led to the passage of the Civil Rights law in Wolfe's story. Note that these parallels make sense chronologically too: Wolfe's story is set in a neo-Victorian era with a neo-civil rights movement in its recent past, just as the real Victorian era (or Gilded Age in the U.S.) came on the heels of the Civil War and Reconstruction. What does this do for our thematic interpretation of the story? From OPERATION ARES, we know Wolfe was concerned with the dignity of work. Well, so were antebellum Republicans--in fact, that's the thesis of Foner's book! Foner shows that, unfortunately, vanishingly few Americans were *moral* abolitionists. Most anti-slavery voters supported the Republicans precisely because they believed slavery undermined the dignity of their work: "[Foner] also shows how northern ideas of human rights--in particular a man's right to work where and how he wanted, and to accumulate property in his own name--and the goals of American society were implicit in [Republican] ideology. This was the ideology that permeated the North in the period directly before the Civil War, led to the election of Abraham Lincoln, and led, almost immediately, to the Civil War itself." In Wolfe's world, robot slavery had squeezed out free labor (just like Lincoln's Republicans feared it would) and thus the dignity of work had been taken away from (almost) all humans. However, the robot Civil Rights Act allowed robots like Westinghouse to achieve dignity (exceeding that of most humans, even) through their work. I've only read the story once, and I'd need to spend some more time on it to fully work out these parallels. The most notable difference between the antebellum era and Wolfe's story is that one exists in an era of scarcity, and one exists in a world of abundance. What are we to make of free labor ideology in a post-scarcity world of universal basic incomes? Important differences aside, I'm pretty convinced that Wolfe had the Lincoln-era Republican Party on his mind while he was writing this. (And now for some wild speculation: when the robot in the TRI-D utters "DREAD," which is such a particular word, this could be an allusion to one of the most famous enslaved man of the antebellum era, Dredd Scott.)
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