Review: New York 2140

Robinson, Kim Stanley. New York 2140. (Orbit Books, 2017).
Kim Stanley Robinson is one of the best science-fiction writers working today. Recurring themes in his stories include ecology, archeological exploration, anti-capitalist politics, and the ineluctable passage of time – all of which feature in New York 2140, which, like much of his work (including Icehenge, The Martians, 2312, Galileo’s Dream, and Aurora) fits almost-but-not-quite into the future history established in the Mars trilogy, his best-known work. (The inconsistencies are explained in Galileo’s Dream, where we learn that these various narratives belong to distinct but closely adjacent timelines.)

New York 2140 is a sprawling, magnificent tour de force. In its pages, the half-sunken (owing to global warming and consequent rising sea levels) but still-vibrant future Manhattan, criss-crossed by skybridges and streets-turned-canals, that figures peripherally in some of Robinson’s other works, here takes center stage, as average people eking out a precarious existence in the more sunken parts of the city band together to resist the twin threats of storm surges on the one hand and wealthy, predatory speculators from the higher and drier sections of the city on the other.

Like many of Robinson’s books, New York 2140 divides its attention among many characters rather than focusing on one or two protagonists. The chapters devoted to different characters’ viewpoints also vary in style, with some being told in first-person, some in third; some in present-tense, some in past; and so on. Periodic expository chapters, leavening their infodumps with sardonic commentary from an anonymous “citizen,” give the novel simultaneously a 19th-century and a postmodern tone.

A subplot, only tangentially related to the Manhattan storyline, involving an alternately zany and harrowing attempt to save polar bears from extinction by relocating them to Antarctica via airship (because science fiction writers love airships!) as part of an eccentric reality show, resurrects one of the central themes of Robinson’s Mars trilogy, namely the conflict between versions of environmentalism that favor active human intervention to create or preserve sustainable habitats and versions that valorize the natural, untouched landscape.

Predictably (for the same praise and criticism applies to the Mars trilogy), New York 2140 is terrific from a literary perspective, but a frustratingly mixed bag from an economic and political perspective. In many ways the book, and Robinson’s work more generally, epitomizes the tragedy of the Left: one foot in vital, grassroots, quasi-anarchist radicalism, the other in dreary, top-down, paternalistic authoritarianism (or “social democracy”), with this unstable union of opposites being held together by what I’ve come to call left-conflationism, i.e., the error of taking the perversities of corporate capitalism to be the result of, and so to be reasons to oppose, genuinely freed markets – and, relatedly, of seeing government as a check against, rather than a crucial enabler of, the power of economic elites: a safe and benign tool if we can only put the right people in charge of it. (Gary Chartier and I gave Robinson a copy of Markets Not Capitalism back in 2013, when, as he told us, he was just beginning to plan this “novel about markets,” but obviously we did not make a convert.)

Hence we’re treated to the spectacle of a purportedly egalitarian, anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist revolution whose guiding stars are Lord Keynes and the two Presidents Roosevelt, and whose ultimate payoff is to get one of the protagonists elected to Congress – a revolution that begins as bottom-up mutual-aid direct action via “dual power alternative networking,” only to fizzle out into the stale message that government is the heroic force that will save us all from the rapacious capitalists if we only just vote harder.

Robinson almost falls into self-parody when he describes the “private security firms” in his future New York as “play[ing] Snidely Whiplash to the NYPD’s Dudley Do-Right” – an absurdly kind evaluation of the NYPD, given its actual record. (I looked desperately for evidence that Robinson was being ironic here, but couldn’t see any.) Regrettably, Robinson’s view is simply a mirror image of Ayn Rand’s vision of corporate capitalists as the heroic force that will save us all from rapacious government, and is no more convincing. (Robinson likewise treats anthropogenic climate change as a product of unregulated markets, with no recognition of the ways in which it’s been fueled by corporate socialization of costs enabled by government intervention.)

Most disturbing is the disappointingly reactionary political program enacted by the novel’s victorious lefty radicals, which includes bank bailouts via nationalization, immigration restrictions into New York (“morally defensible” because those coming in “often had bad intentions” – a line that disturbingly echoes Donald Trump’s 2015 campaign rhetoric), mandatory national service (i.e., temporary slavery), and what amounts to martial law. Toward the novel’s end one protagonist responsible for much of this program briefly “pause[s] to wonder what it meant when a police state was aspirational, a staving off of a worse fate” – but quickly dismisses such worries to immerse herself in the minutiae of day-to-day policy. (Again, I’d like to think Robinson is offering an implicit critique here, but I see no signs that he is doing so.)

I highly recommend New York 2140 as a beautifully written, richly allusive, perpetually engaging and provocative novel. But I cannot recommend it as a lens through which to view the causes and likely cures of the social ills that beset us.

Acceptability: reason-giving vs. reasons

I have some questions about Estlund’s account of acceptability conditions on reasons (in public reasoning).  Here is the first one.

(1) Acceptability conditions make sense as conditions on the reasons that it is appropriate or permitted to give to each other (aside from whether they are good or true).  However, I think Estlund means for these conditions to apply to what reasons are appropriate even in private reasoning (when one is reasoning about when the state is permitted to coerce its citizens).  But why would the former imply the latter? Why should standards governing giving reasons to others speak to the appropriateness of a reason (distinct from its goodness or truth) in any kind of good reasoning? This seems almost like a category mistake of some kind.   Continue reading

The Idea of Public Reason Rejected

From this article in The New York Times. Michael, David, and I were making fun of Rawlsian public reason last night in our weekly philosophy discussion group, but then stuff like this comes down the pike, and you think, “Hey, we’re not denying that Rawls was addressing a real problem…”

The zeal to embody the whole truth in politics is incompatible with an idea of public reason that belongs with democratic citizenship.

–John Rawls, “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” Collected Papers, p. 574.

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Which Eternity?

Rand held her axiom Existence exists to include that the universe as a whole “cannot be created or annihilated, that it cannot come into or go out of existence” (1973, 25).[1] One would naturally suppose Rand was thinking that immunity from creation or annihilation means the universe has existed an endless time in the past and will exist an endless time in the future. Plausible as that picture appears, might the axiom Existence exists not strictly entail the endless duration of Existence? Continue reading

How to Face Down the Secret Service

More or less like this:

And not just the Secret Service, but any law enforcement agency that treats you as these officers treat her.

On the whole, I’d say she gets things just right. Some minor criticisms:

I would not have bothered to ask the agent about any charges the Secret Service might be contemplating; unless they’re formally making a charge, they won’t truthfully tell you what charges they have in mind. In any case, they have the legal authority to lie and bluff about whatever charges they’re contemplating, so there’s no reason to believe anything they tell you before they arrest you. If they have a formal charge to make, they’ll make it if and when they arrest you (or even more precisely, if and when you’re arraigned); otherwise, asking about prospective charges is a waste of time, and a good way of getting needlessly drawn into an unintentionally incriminating conversation with them, which is what they’re here for, and the last thing you want to do. Continue reading

Unreasonable Suspicion

I just called the cops on a guy who drove a van up to my garage, jumped out, took a picture of it, hurriedly jumped back into his van, and drove away with the tires screeching. With full certainty that the motherfucker was casing our house to burglarize it (as Rashida Tlaib might put it), I grabbed my phone and got a picture of the van driving away, doing my best to memorize what I could about it. I told the police dispatcher that the guy was taking a picture of the keypad to my garage.  The cops put out an APB on the guy, and sent an officer to our house. Continue reading

what I should have said before about “nullified” non-consent…

One problem with Estlund’s argument (Ch. 1, p. 9) is that only the denial of consent, not mere non-consent, is an event that typically changes the landscape of relevant permission/obligation.  Let’s look at two cases. Suppose that the initial conditions are that we are allowed to touch each other on the shoulder in order to get the attention of person who would be touched. We now have two cases:

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From the anti-vigilante principle to authority (a good intuitive argument for authority)

In Ch. 8 of DEMOCRATIC AUTHORITY, David Estlund argues for a certain kind of political authority on a purely intuitive basis (as a run-up to a more-principled or intuition-vindicating defense of political authority).  His argument starts with the intuitive (and Lockean) anti-vigilante principle (AVP):

when there is a system that serves the purposes of judgment and punishment without private punishment, then private punishment is morally wrong  

The idea here is that the obligation not to engage in relevant sorts of private punishment (even when the public verdict is known to be wrong) is generated by the system of public justice forbidding private punishment or vigilante behavior.  Since forbidding-generated as well as command-generated obligation (to obey) suffices for authority, what we have here is a kind of political authority. (Notice that, despite my language here, the system need not be public in anything like the governmental sense. The system could be privately-run but dominant in a geographic area.) Continue reading