Freedom (TM)

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Book: Daniel Suarez. Freedom (TM) (Dutton 2010).

(see also: Daniel Suarez. Daemon. Signet, 2009)


Kevin Carson:

"In Freedom, we see a full-blown war between the emerging Darknet society and this real government, acting on behalf of global finance and the corporate power structure.

The Major, a DOD liaison to the NSA whose very name is classified, represents this real government. His thirty-odd year career as a foot soldier for the national security state includes extensive involvement as a liaison to the global network of drug funded death squads, U.S.-installed military regimes, and secret prisons. The first life he ever took was that of a trade unionist in Central America.

The Major’s mindset is that of C. Wright Mills’ “crackpot realists” and Ward Churchill’s “little Eichmanns.”

- And that [the murder of the Central American trade unionist] began his awakening—his realization that the Western World was a bedtime story of comforting humanistic bullshit. Slavery existed everywhere—even in the United States. We were all slaves in one way or another. Slavery was just control, and control kept things running in an orderly fashion. It was what made progress possible.

- “’Bastards like me’ serve a purpose. People need order…. They need to be told what to think, what to do, what to believe, or everything will fall apart. This miracle of modern civilization doesn’t just happen. It requires careful management by professionals willing to do whatever is necessary to keep things running smoothly.”

In one chilling scene, The Major explains that nobody in the real government is stupid enough to think torture is useful for extracting information.

- “Torture is about control. You let me torture a thousand people, and I can keep five million working obediently with their heads down. The more innocent the victims, the better. And after they’re broken and maimed, you release them so that everyone can see what awaits those who resist…. So you see, there’s nothing you can tell me that will stop the pain…. The only thing you are is a billboard—on which I’m going to write my message: this is what happens to people who join the darknet….”

Natalie Philips and her hacker boyfriend Jon Ross, who at first see themselves as engaged in an idealistic struggle between a terrorist movement and the legitimate government of the United States, eventually come to understand that the U.S. government has long been hijacked by the global plutocracy. The struggle between the Daemon and the supra-national corporate economy is “a struggle between two artificial organisms.” And as The Major and the forces he represents begin to exercise naked power without any of their legitimizing masks, it becomes apparent to them that the cause Philips serves is the worse one. Eventually, just before Philips defects to the Darknet, she realizes she’s the only one in the intelligence community still trying to destroy the Daemon rather than bring it under corporate control.

As the conflict escalates, the global plutocracy shows its hand, taking control of the government on a scale greater than that of the Gilded Age. Global financial interests present a united front to the U.S. government and impose radical austerity measures, forcing the wholesale “privatization” of government functions to global corporations. Agribusiness and biotech companies like Monsanto, desperate to stamp out the spreading conversion to sustainable agricultural practices by near-bankrupt farmers in Iowa and Kansas, resort to increasingly heavy-handed police state tactics based on trumped-up “intellectual property” concerns. Threatened by such blackmail, increasingly disgruntled farmers are recruited by the Darknet en masse (applications for USDA subsidies drop by 90% in a large part of the Midwest). The ag companies’ intelligence and private security network notes, with alarm, a sustained pattern of “population movements, unexplained capital inflows, and infrastructure investments in alternative energy technologies, high-tech equipment, heirloom seed stock….” This is paralleled, in Russia and assorted Asian countries, by a drastic reduction in export crops and a growing portion of idle container ships no longer carrying industrial export goods.

The national security state undertakes a full-blown counter-insurgency operation in the Midwest, attempting to suppress the growing network of resilient communities. It helicopters in paramilitaries and death squads to destroy holons, and then manages the corporate news media to blame the destruction on illegal aliens and domestic terrorist elements radicalized by the growing unemployment levels (approaching 30%).

To quote The Major’s rules of engagement for the assault on Greeley, Iowa:

- “…kill everyone you can find, burn every structure, and destroy every vehicle. Without exception. The knowledge and equipment that makes these communities work must be eradicated. The cultural memory that they ever existed must be erased….

- “As for tactics, the irregular forces will prevent civilians from escaping, while your forces move through town destroying everything in their path. Psyops units will be filming as needed. It’s important that they get some footage that resembles an operation to dislodge an insurgent occupation. I expect the residents will oblige us by resisting with force, but if not, your men should facilitate that imagery.”

The real government obtains a Congressional/Presidential rubber stamp for its assumption of martial law powers, and delegates police state functions to private security firms like Blackwater. The United States government becomes something like the Allied States in Jericho, hardly even bothering to conceal its nature as a front for crony capitalists looters like Blackwater and Halliburton. Public fear is orchestrated to build support for the new security measures, giving government a freer hand to suppress opposition to the new austerity regime.

At the climax of the story The Major and the real government, having apparently been successful in hacking the Daemon, prepare to execute its “destroy” function against the computer networks of all corporations infected by it—except for those owned by the inner circle of the financial elite. The conspirators had carefully invested all their own wealth in a selected core of companies which were insulated from the Daemon’s “destroy” function. Their plan is to consolidate their power in the ensuing chaos and install full-blown corporate feudalism on a global scale.

Anji Anderson, a popular cable news reporter in on the conspiracy, was given her marching orders:

- “—but the change needs to be sold to the American people with a sudden disruption. Otherwise they’ll resist strongly. It needs to be the penultimate event that marks a demarcation between what came before and what must come after. It’s a psychological transition….

- “Our studies show that a period of general anarchy as brief as forty-eight hours would make the public willing to accept severe changes in exchange for security.”

But the appearance of having been hijacked turns out to have been a ruse by the Daemon: the flaws in its code which were exploited and hacked by the conspirators were deliberately planted by Sobol. Following the failure of the attack, the Daemon wipes the data of the supposedly “insulated” firms and erases the conspirators’ personal assets.

As announced by the recorded image of Sobol, playing on monitors at corporate headquarters worldwide:

- “What’s more, the Daemon will continue to destroy the resources of these individuals wherever they appear—in whatever form. And a log of your recent actions will be submitted to pertinent law enforcement agencies and the companies you were targeting. And as for the people who helped make all this possible? The assistants, lawyers, brokers, programmers, accountants, and security forces? To those people I say: your employers have no money. So do the smart thing—and just walk away.”

The Daemon, meanwhile, having hacked the conspirators’ internal surveillance system, broadcast a recording of the incriminating instructions to Anji Anderson mentioned above.

Parallel to the escalating conflict between the Darknet and the global plutocracy is another conflict within the Darknet itself: a conflict between the first wave of recruits—the misfits and sociopaths—and the average people building the new, networked democratic society. The former had the skills Sobol’s Daemon needed to set up the system and to wage armed conflict with the corporate state, but are becoming a hindrance to the long-term evolution of the Darknet society.

This first wave is personified by “Loki,” a cracker and identity thief, one of the Daemon’s earliest recruits. Loki—a two hundredth-level operative with only a half-star reputation ranking—is the chief human actor coordinating the Darknet’s war with the corporate state, commanding armies of hundreds of automated fighting vehicles. He is a sociopath on the same order as The Major, reveling in mayhem and destruction.

As he warns The Major at one point:

- “Freedom fighter? Is that what you think I am?” He laughed. “I don’t give a shit about freedom. And if I have to kill a hundred million innocent people to get my hands on you, I’ll do it….”

This conflict within the Darknet is the background to Pete Sebeck’s mission in Freedom. Sebeck, recruited by the Daemon in federal custody, is rescued from execution (by a ruse too complicated to get into here) and given a new identity. His mission is to determine whether the people of the new Darknet are capable of building a healthy society and governing themselves peacefully, rather than being cattle benevolently managed by the Daemon—in other words, “justify the freedom of humanity.”

As Sobol’s recorded message informs Sebeck:

- “I’ll tell you what the Daemon is: the Daemon is a remorseless system for building a distributed civilization. A civilization that perpetually regenerates. One with no central authority. Your only option is what form that civilization takes. And that depends on the actions of people like you.”

The question is answered at the end when Loki, completely out of control and attempting to launch an unending bloodbath after the defeat of The Major and his forces, is stripped of his powers by the Darknet community. By reining in Loki and controlling the abuse of Darknet power, the new society had passed Sobol’s test.

At that point both conflicts are resolved. The old corporate order is defeated, along with the dark side of the Darknet itself, and the networked resilient communities are free to build the successor society in peace.

As an anarchist, my main issue with Suarez is his assumption—expressed through some of his more idealistic characters—that the problem was the corporate plutocracy’s subversion of “our laws” and “the governments we create.” In the end, when The Major and the forces he represents are defeated, the conspirators are charged with treason and the atrophied American constitutional republic is restored to its dignity and independence. All that’s missing is someone saying “it would have worked if not for you meddling kids.”

This, I think, is fundamentally wrong-headed. The global corporate regime is not something that came about as a result of inadequate regulation by legitimate states. Rather, the corporate economy as we know it could not have come about at all without being imposed on society from above by a top-down revolution, on almost the same scale as Stalin’s collectivization and first Five Year Plan (see here, for example—scroll down to the section on the Great Betrayal). The reason the American model of spectator democracy has been allowed to function all these years is precisely that it worked so well for the ruling class—much less messy to pacify the public with an illusion of control than to suppress it by force.

Suarez, speaking through his characters, uses the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties (along with the present neoliberal order) as examples of periods when the plutocracy achieved ascendancy over democracy. The Progressive Era and New Deal, presumably, were examples of “our laws” and “the governments we create” reining in the excesses and restoring democratic control. But in fact the Progressive Era reforms and New Deal were just the agendas of a rival faction of state capitalists. Just look at the primary real-world effect of Progressive Era regulations as described by Gabriel Kolko in The Triumph of American Conservatism: to cartelize industry and create stable oligopoly markets by reining in destructive price and quality competition. Or the role of GE President Gerard Swope and the Business Advisory Council in the New Deal, as described by G. William Domhoff.

American politics has been a shifting coalition between two factions of capital. One faction, the Progressives and New Dealers, are like a smart farmer who thinks he’ll get more work out of his livestock in the long run if he feeds and houses them comfortably and works them only in moderation. The other faction, the faction of the Great Barbecue, of Normalcy and Reaganism, is like a farmer who thinks he’ll come out ahead by working his livestock to death and then replacing them. But both factions see us as their property, and are motivated primarily by the goal of maximizing their own long-term profit. Attempts by the smarter and more humane farmers to collectively regulate the treatment of their livestock (the collective action, any game theorist could tell you, is a common sense measure to prevent individual defection in the interest of short-term individual profit, at the expense of long-term collective loss) are what Marx dismissed, in the case of the British Ten-Hour Day Act, as the common action of farmers to mandate the manuring of their fields.

The corporate economy, from its very beginning, has been a structure of power based on massive collusion between big government and big business. From the very beginning of the corporate system, the primary function of government has been to subsidize the operating costs of big business, and to protect big business from competition through regulatory cartels. And from the very beginning of capitalism itself, the structure of “actually existing capitalism” (as opposed to a genuinely free market) has been a creature of massive state intervention: Enclosures, nullifcation of copyhold, absolutist suppression of the leagues of Free Towns, the Navigation Acts and conquest of the Third World—a story written, if you’ll pardon the allusion, in letters of fire and blood. As for the Founding Fathers Suarez celebrates, I hesitate to imagine how left-wing historians like Charles Beard or Merrill Jensen would respond to a characterization of a coup by Federalist war bond speculators and land-owners as “the government we create.”

Those who think otherwise, those who think the “good government” just needs to be reactivated to set things to right, are in my opinion like the Russian peasants who thought the “Little Father” was just misled by wicked advisers, and—if he could ever witness the sufferings of his people—would smite their enemies and dry all their tears. Government wasn’t hijacked by a ruling class at some discrete moment, as a departure from its past nature; government, in its essence, has been “executive committee of a ruling class” since the beginning.

Aside from that, I suppose I have some reservations about the fundamental premise of the story. I’d prefer to see the triumph of resilient communities and darknets, and our delivery from global corporate tyranny, come about some other way than by a megalomaniac billionaire acting as deus ex machina from beyond the grave.

My hope, a hope I’ve tried to make a case for elsewhere, is that corporate capitalism is simply unsustainable and will collapse from its own internal crisis tendencies. The crises of overaccumulation and underconsumption, Peak Oil, fiscal bankruptcy of government, the network revolution combined with the Streisand Effect and open-mouth sabotage, the unenforceability of “intellectual property” law, the growing worthlessness of most investment capital as the price of manufacturing machinery falls by multiple orders of magnitude—these are the things that will bring the system down. The building blocks of a successor society—relocalized agriculture, relocalized industry using micromanufacturing technology, networked organization—will serve as building blocks of necessity because they’re the only game in town.

But if a dead megalomaniac is the only way to do it, I’ll take that too." (