top of page
  • Writer's pictureleodoulton

Historical Resiliencism: towards a cyberpunk teleology of history

In the beginning, there was a small group of hunter-gatherers, known as ABC. And all were equals, since in a context of survival-activity, there were limited choices to make. “Shall we acquire sustenance to maintain our existence?” is a question with only one answer.


Over time, two problems emerged. First, sometimes the animals wandered off, and the berries did not grow. One hunter gatherer observed these things, and we will call her Carla.


Second, another group of hunter-gatherers known as DEF tried to take the surplus of ABC by force, and sometimes ABC wanted to take the surplus of DEF by force. Not all of ABC’s members were good at this, but one was very good at it, and we will call him Max.


Both clever Carla and murderous Max had acquired a level of specialisation. It became apparent that, rather than deliberating over how best to take DEF’s resources, trusting Max to decide allowed quick decisions.


Similarly, trusting Carla to know where to go to find food in that season was generally wise, and she taught others what she had learnt.


One day, Max decided he wanted more food than his usual share. Since he was making the decisions that day, it was accepted.


Until the day he insisted on yet another botched raid on DEF, at which point, one-eyed Reg smashed his head in with a rock.


***


This is a state-of-nature metaphor. It’s a way of thinking about the past in broad terms, even though there are dramatic disagreements about what life was like back then. This is merely one possible past.


***


Let us move forwards a few generations. By this point, ABC have formed a small village, and farm the land.


Max 6 (no relation, but the same archetype) has learnt from the deaths of Max 1, 2, 3 & 5 (4 died of natural causes). He now has two close associates, Emma and Lula, who he absolutely trusts. While he sleeps, one of Emma and Lula always keeps an eye on his hut.


Carla 6 (likewise no relation, but the same archetype), meanwhile, continues to be useful to the village. Although there’s quite a few people sharing the knowledge, those who have it are important and trusted.


One of the things she’s learnt is how to persuade people. So when Max 6 dies of natural causes, his second-in-command expects to rise to the top.


But Carla really wants someone in charge who isn’t only interested in war. She persuades everyone to say they want one of her pupils. Someone who’ll play the long game, and stop taking ABC to fight other villages.


So Max 7 ends up being a student of Carla’s.


***


A ‘teleology’ is an idea that history moves towards an inevitable end.


‘Progress’ is a famous teleology. In the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, many people thought human civilisation was an inevitable march towards ever-greater civilisation.


Other teleologies include ‘Jesus is going to come back’ and ‘eventually, the working people will control the means of production’.


There isn’t, as far as I can tell, a word for what I’m reflecting on here, so I’m making one up: ‘resiliencism’.


***


The village has grown into a pretty permanent base by the river.


Max 22 is getting older, and really, really wants his second-in-command to take over after he dies.


He’s seen what Carlas 6 to 21 have done; it’s how he got his job.


So he sits down with Carla 22 and his second-in-command and gets them to make each other a promise: if Carla 22 will back Max’s preferred successor as war-chief, then that successor will make a council, where Carla will have a guaranteed position. By working together, they can run ABC forever.


Carla 22 agrees.


Max 23 has a council including Carla 23, Emma 23, and Lula 23. Sure, Carla doesn’t always get what she wants, but neither does anyone else. And between them, they always choose the next warchief, and the next Carla.


This arrangement works until Lula 27 decides that actually, she’d like a go being in charge without interference. She poisons the council at their next meeting, and declares herself Max-and-Carla 28.


***


See, most teleologies promise things get better.


I’m currently in quite a pessimistic mood.


Cyberpunk offers us an alternative teleology altogether:


Things are going to get worse, and it’s only going to get harder to change that.


***


Max 43 and Carla 43 are clever. They have official tasters make sure their food isn’t poisoned, bodyguards, and always honour their pact to stay in the council (other than a tiff between Max 34 and Carla 34, that’s been the case for ages).


What neither of them realise is that Emma 43 is very persuasive indeed. She’s not officially in charge, but she’s been able to get Max 43 and Carla 43 to make decisions that will ensure Emma’s family will have the very valuable orchard currently held by DEF… as soon as Max takes it.


It’s a few generations before Max 49 and Carla 49 notice. By then, it’s part of the game, as Lula and Emma and Carla compete to have Max fight or not fight in a way that suits their interests.


***


What if we had a teleology that said that governments learn?


Above all, what they learn is how other governments fall.


Those who have power generally don’t want to lose it.


***


Council 59 have a good thing going. They’ve been in charge for ages, and get away with most of their schemes.


So they think.


Then one day Fred (remember him?) and a bunch of his mates burst in with rocks and smash their heads in.


Turns out, Fred did notice his taxes going up, and Fred is mates with most of Max’s guards.


***


In ancient times, power was held fairly loosely. Palace coups were an expected part of life.


And each generation took new precautions to stop that. “You will take off your swords in the presence of the monarch”, “the monarch has bodyguards”, “you, my great rival, shall go off to be ambassador a very long way away.”


What the limited-franchise democracies of Athens and Rome institutionalise is the idea that the person with power should change on a regular basis.


What they also institutionalise is the idea that only a limited group of people should decide who that person with power is, ensuring their type of person gets to keep it.


Yes, both had ways for the common people to be recognised (notably, Roman tribunes).


But never women. Women could have social power, but never political rank.


***


Council 68 are smart. They’ve built up ABC’s village into a nice little town, controlling a few villages around it.


Emma 68 and Lula 68 each control a few villages, Max 68 controls the town, and Carla 68 advises all of them on how to make sure their fields stay fertile and their animals healthy.


Each of them - even Carla 68 - has a small militia. That way, any future Freds can’t overwhelm them; the system’s too big… unless Fred 68 travels between the villages, and the council doesn’t normally let people do that.


Nobody really notices Lula 68 and Emma 68 chatting. When their militias turn up in town, Max 68 fights for a bit, and then yields.


***


The medieval period had a very simple means of keeping the person at the top in charge: if the monarch wanted to go to war, they needed troops.


Those troops were held by the monarch’s vassals. So if the vassals said no, the monarch couldn’t go to war today.


And if the vassals wanted power, they could gather enough troops to have a fair shot at the monarchy themselves.


Since most of the troops were peasants being given a spear to shake, there was also a way for peasant revolts to occasionally succeed.


Looming over all of this (in Europe) is the most stable institution of them all: the Roman Catholic Church.


In addition to its own territories, it had a spiritual authority that could be used to remove legitimacy from a monarch.


And sometimes popes discovered that their own grip on power was being challenged.


Most concerning of all, however, were the heresies. The idea that the church itself was illegitimate.


Eventually, protestantism would break the church’s hold on vast parts of the world.


***


Around the time of Council 98, a new figure appears. Richard 98 is a merchant; someone who’s got very rich selling surplus from his farm, lending other people the money, and getting it back with interest.


It was a previous Richard who loaned Lula 68 and Emma 68 the money to arm their militias, and he did very nicely out of the spoils of their victory.


But one day, Richard 98 approaches the council and makes it clear that they’re all in his debt, his taxes are funding all their little projects, and actually, he’d quite like a seat at the council.


The council refuses.


Richard 98 makes it very clear that if they refuse again, he’s going to call in all their debts.


The council accepts.


It’s very easy, in the end.


Seeing this, Fred 98 asks to be on the council too.


The council agree: no.


And when Fred 98 tries to start another workers’ revolt, he discovers why the past few dozen councils have been letting Max have more and more troops, until eventually he’s the only one with any.


They’re really good troops. Well-armed, well-funded by Richard 98, and very easily capable of crushing a rebellion by a bunch of amateurs.


And, admittedly, occasionally fighting a war overseas.


***


Then we get to the modern age: an era of centralised professional armies (not least because gunpowder weapons are really expensive), industrialisation, and limited democracy.


The institutions change, and slowly we see successful rebellions become a thing of the past.


Instead, the whiff of revolution fills the air.


***


Fred 103 has a plan.


He’s been telling everyone that people like Fred deserve a place on the council.


Lula 103 has said she agrees. She’ll represent Fred 103’s interests, if only he’ll back her.


Fred 103 accepts. When Fred 103 and his friends rise up, Lula 103 is allowed to remain as part of the new council.


Max 103 is brought under control. He can only use his troops with the permission of Lula 103 and Emma 103 - representing the interests of Fred 103, of course.


Meanwhile, Lula 103 and Emma 103 check the locks on the doors of the new council chamber, post a few extra guards, and ask Richard 103 for a loan to pay for some new schools for Fred 103’s kids.


***


Revolutions very rarely work.


When you imagine the glories of 19th century Paris, London, and Vienna, never forget that those wide streets were built in part because they’re much harder to build a barricade across than old-school narrow medieval streets (you can still see medieval street plans in York and parts of the City of London to get an idea of this).


Governments watch revolutions, and work out how to stop them.


Secret police forces, bribes, and limited concessions are used to make sure that, even if the individual with power changes, the institution stays the same.


***


Council 145 ends with a dramatic shift, where Emma 145a is replaced by Emma 145b.


Lula 145a watches with a smirk, alongside Lula 145b through to Lula 145x.


Fred 145’s feeling unhappy. He can’t help but feel that when he was given a choice between Emma and Lula, he rather wanted to be able to choose himself.


After all, Emma 145 and Lula 145 both go to Richard 145’s midwinter party.


But when he tries to get voted into the council, he finds out that nobody outside his village has heard of him.


And ABC is vast now. Thousands of villages, hundreds of towns, and dozens of cities.


Fred 145 hasn’t got a chance of getting influence that way, unless he agrees to join Emma or Lula.


Fred 145’s been working for Richard 145 for years, and still doesn’t have the kind of money that Richard 145 has just from skimming off the top.


And Carla 145’s also unhappy. She used to mean something, but now all her research has to be funded and approved by Emmas, Lulas, and Richards.


So they try and organise a new party.


It succeeds.


By the time of Council 148, the Fred-Carla faction is in charge.


They stride into the council chamber, and find Richard 148 sitting there, with a note on their tax policy, his ability to move to another country, and his ability to make the ABC’s currency worthless.


Carla 148 agrees to Richard 148’s suggestions. Fred walks out the room.


***


A larger, more complex, state makes it harder to hold people to account.


Who’s in charge? It’s very hard to tell.


Power is held in a compromise.


The EU offers some sort of democratic accountability as it standardises regulations to facilitate trade across a continent - it’s certainly better than many US-led free trade agreements - but nonetheless, it’s very difficult to change.


That’s the point, of course. Most people fundamentally like stability.


Governments have got better at maintaining it.


They have built up their resilience to being shaken and shook - from below and above.


***


Council 203 makes a bold move. They’ve teamed up with DEF, GHI, and JKL to keep Richard 203 in line. He can’t ignore all of them.


They’re right (and also, more able to work against the dastardly MNO, while keeping PQR out).


Working with Richard 203, Council 203 makes a workable balance between the interests of the people they represent and Richard 203.


Fred 203 gazes up at them and wonders whether he might ever be able to be among them. Most of his neighbours are basically happy with the arrangement - Richard 203 sells good stuff, and Council 203 makes sure it won’t set their homes on fire - but he just feels unhappy.


He realises that, even if he took a rock to every single one of their heads, the system would still survive.


He tries to set up an independent system, but nowhere’s available.


And over the years, Council-Richard gets better and better at making sure that, wherever Fred turns, there’s no angle he can target them from.


***


Cyberpunk takes this tendency towards authority-resilience (the ability of an authority to resist dissent) to an extreme.


Having systems of government, rather than individuals, makes it harder to change them.


Having systems of government that can’t be easily understood due to their interrelationship with other networks of social and economic power makes it harder to change them.


Having an entire system to exist in that is controlled by unknowable powers makes it harder to change them.


I write this on a device that, frankly, I don’t understand.


But it’s certainly within the device-maker’s ability to change my device.


I can’t change them.


That’s the cyberpunk nightmare.


That, by survival of the fittest, authorities have learnt how to keep their power, reshape the world to suit their interests, and make sure that, no matter what, Fred will never be able to bring them down.


Maybe it’s true.


***


But in time, there’s another change.


Gamma 364 joined Council-Richard 364, adding an artificial intelligence to the potentates of the world.


And another.


The union of ABCDEFGHIJKL finally joined forces with MNO under Gamma-Council-Richard 495.


And another.


Having grown and grown, a lack of resources for communications devices forced Gamma into extinction, shortly followed by any meaningful coordination across the territories led by Council-Richard 1001.


And so Fred, suddenly alone, took charge.


“Max is a good name,” he thought.


***


Maybe it’s not true.


‘Christ will return as saviour’ was a prediction in the context of oppression.


‘In the state of nature, humanity is brutal/generous’ was a guess in the context of debates about freedom.


‘The workers will control the means of production’ was a prediction from the industrial revolution’s exploitations of workers and colonies.


Maybe a cyberpunk teleology is exactly that: a prediction reflecting its own time, a time of rising inequality and entrenched power.


In time, we may see what comes next.



3 views

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page