The following is an extended quote (I apologize for the length, but I couldn’t see cutting it down any further) from Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. It’s probably unfair to characterize this as Robinson’s vision of politics as it is actually the vision of one of the characters in the book – Sax Russel. One of the things I like most about Robinson’s writing is that each character has a very developed personality and approach to the world; Michel’s alchemy, Maya’s anger, Frank’s subtle manipulation, and Boone’s cosmopolitanism. These are all depicted equally and rational in their own peculiar ways. Sax is probably one of the most interesting characters. A rigid scientist who is nonetheless very pragmatic in his understanding of social organization and politics. He approaches these issues the same way he would approach a scientific or technical challenge – by thinking it through carefully, deliberately, and in an experimental fashion. He recognizes that he cannot control everything, but offers hints, suggestions, and nudges here and there to move things, ever so slightly, in a desired direction. Below are his musings on the political organization worked out in Da Vinci – a cooperative of scientists working on terraforming Mars. I thought it was interesting, and I hope you will too.
As Sax wandered on, half listening to the conversations he passed, he was struck again by the apolitical nature of most scientists and technicians. There was something about politics they were allergic to, and he felt it as well, he had to admit. Politics was irreducibly subjective and compromised, a process that went entirely against the grain of the scientific method. Was that true? These feelings and prejudices were subjective themselves. One could try to regard politics as a kind of science – a long series of experiments in communal living, say, with all the data consistently contaminated. Thus people hypothesized a system of governance, lived under it, examined how they felt about it, then changed the system and tried again. Certain constants or principles seemed to have emerged over the centuries, as they ran through their experiments and paradigms, trying successively closer approximations of systems that promoted qualities like physical welfare, individual freedom, equality, stewardship of the land, guided markets, rule of law, compassion to all. After repeated experiments it had become clear – on Mars at least – that all these sometimes contradictory goals could be best achieved in polyarchy, a complex system in which power was distrubuted out to a great humber of institutions. In theory this network of distributed power, partly centralized and partly decentralized, created the greatest amount of individual freedom and collective good, by maximizing the amount of control that an individual had over his or her life.
Thus political science. And fine, in theory. But it followed that if they believed in the theory, people then had to devote a fair amount of time to the exercise of their power. That was self-government, by tautology; the self governed. And that took time. ”Those who value freedom must make the effort necessary to defend it,” as Tom Paine had said, a fact which Sax knew because Bela had gotten into the bad habit of putting up signs in the halls with such inspirational sentiments printed on them. ”Science is Politics by other means,” another of his signs had anounced, rather cryptically.
But in Da Vinci most people did not want to spend their time that way. ”Socialism will never succeed,” Oscar Wilde had remarked (in handwriting on yet another sign), “it takes up too many evenings.” So it did; and the solution was to make your friends take up their evenings for you. Thus the lottery method of election, a calculated risk, for one might get stuck with the job oneself someday. But usually the risk paid off. Which accounted for the gaiety of this annual party; people were pouring in and out of the French doors of the commons, onto the open terraces overlooking the crater lake, talking with great animation. Even the drafted ones were beginning to cheerup again, after the solace of kavajava and alcohol, and perhaps the thought that power after all was power; it was an imposition, but the draftees could do some little things that no doubt were occuring to them even now – make trouble for rivals, do favors for people they wanted to impress, etc. So once again the system had worked; they had warm bodies filling the whole polyarchic array, the neighborhood boards, the water board, the architectural review board, the project review council, the economic coordination group, the crater council to coordinate all these smaller bodies, the global delegates’ advisory board – all that network of small management bodies that progressive political theorists had been suggesting in one variation or another for centures, incorporating aspects of the almost-forgotten guild socialism of Great Britain, Yugoslavian worker management, Mondragon owndershp, Kerala land tenure, and so on. An experiment in synthesis. And so far it seemed to be working, in the sense that the Da Vinci techs seemed about as self-determined and happy as they had been during the ad hoc underground years, when everything had been done (appartently) by instict, or, to be more precise, by general consensus of the (much smaller) population in Da Vinci at the time
So running Da Vinci was a successful experiment, despite the fact that the citizens showed no interest in it. If they had they might have been less happy. Maybe ignoring government was a good strategy. Maybe the definition of good government was the government you could safely ignore, “to finally get back to my own work!” as one happily buzzed ex-water-board chief was just now saying. Self-government not being considered part of one’s own work!” (p. 433-535)