babble on ‘five

Under the leadership of its final commander, Babylon 5 was a dream given form: a dream of a galaxy without war, when species from different worlds could live side by side in mutual respect…. Babylon 5 was the last of the Babylon stations. This is its story….”

– monologue from the Pilot, spoken by Londo Mollari

I seem to be one of the very few libertarians who can make the following 2 claims:

  1. I’ve seen every episode of all five seasons of Babylon 5;
  2. I really dislike the show…

Not only did this particular libertarian not like the Babylon 5 series, but he can’t begin to understand how any libertarian possibly could.

Is it like Star Trek: statist, but what choice do we have?

That’s not the impression I get. The impression I get is that libertarians see something positive in the show itself — not just scifi eye-candy, but something somehow related to what we believe. If so, I have no idea what that could be.

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been listening to a lot of science fiction podcasts while I paint the house. What baffles me about these podcasts is that the hosts of shows I really like will enthusiastically endorse other podcasts that I quickly decide I can’t stand.

One common theme between my discomfort with Babylon 5 and my dislike of these briefly sampled podcasts is their militarism. My two favorite science fiction television shows — Farscape and Firefly — involve ex-soldiers and non-soldiers as heroes and current professional soldiers as badguys.

Now I can imagine libertarian fans of Bab5 pointing out that the military on that show is the badguy, too, but I’m not buying it. First of all, all the goodguys are government officials, all representing world governments. When trade is mentioned at all, it’s either negotiated between governments (a la NAFTA and the rest of the neoliberal agenda), frowned on as black market (violent, criminal, immoral), or sneered at as corrupt and all-powerful “megacorp” (where political capitalism is the only variety of capitalism even contemplated).

The political background of the show is like a love letter to the Clintons, the Democrats, and the Left Establishment in general — the people in charge of the executive branch when the show was being made.

I can imagine a libertarian (one of the decentralist variety) praising the show as pro-secession. Yes, the decentralist would concede, the show opens with the hero pronouncing Abraham Lincoln his hero, and trying to deliver one of Lincoln’s speeches, but the way events unfold (with the station declaring independence from the corrupt world government of Earth) the Lincoln references are clearly there to reassure viewers that the show is not blind to the history of slavery just because it ends up embracing the right of secession.

Even if I were to accept the secessionist argument, it’s still not evidence of libertarianism, since the secessionist government of Babylon 5 is every bit as authoritarian as the world government it has seceded from. (In the same way that the Confederate Hamiltonians took over when the Confederate Jeffersonians went into battle: tariffs and taxes; the first military draft; political centralization, etc.) The station is still run by a military elite who don’t hesitate to boss everyone else around. That doesn’t automatically make the show pro-military — any more than Archie Bunker’s bigoted rants made All In The Family pro-racism — but at no point are we given the sense that any of this hamfistedness tarnishes the armor of Bab5’s supposed goodguys.

Yes, I know: at the end of everything, there are “free” elections, but that’s democracy, not freedom. Majoritarian elections do not equal liberty.

Finally — and here is the biggest problem with Babylon 5 from my perspective — the heart and soul of the show is about the struggle between war and peace, not just in history, not just within ourselves, but as necessities of progress. In one of the very last episodes of the series, the doctor gives a speech about how terrible war is, but how necessary it is to progress.

The two ancient races vying for influence with humanity and the other younger races, represent violence and chaos on the one hand, and peace, order, and stagnation on the other. Them’s yer choices; take yer pick. We want peace, but we need war. Suddenly the love letter isn’t just addressed to the Clintons. Now it’s meant for the Roosevelts and the Keynesians.

Yes, Babylon 5 is five seasons of the Broken Window Fallacy — of the destructivist myth ingrained in us by teachers and textbooks that the progress of civilization is the history of struggle. Peace, it seems, is stagnation.

One of the most profound awakenings I’ve had in my Misesian education has been to the classical liberal doctrine of peace and prosperity, the two inseparable. The progress of civilization has taken place despite the history of struggle, not because of it. Cooperation and the division of labor have advanced us; war and conflict have dragged us down.

This was not the lesson of my schooling, not even at the hands of Quaker pacifists. Their love of peace was principled, spiritual, aesthetic, but not practical. Pragmatically, they were all FDR-brand New Deal so-called liberals: those who thought that the burning of crops and the mass slaughter of livestock saved us from the Great Depression, at least until World War II saved us from the Great Depression. These people believe that it was the Marshall Plan that brought Europe back after the war, not the resumption of trade after fascism had been defeated.

Boring old peace is the path to prosperity. That may not make for good science fiction, but it’s the reason we can afford the leisure to read and write science fiction in the first place. For the creators of these fictional worlds to pretend that struggle and destruction are necessary to our overall well-being is as painful and ironic as the children of the productive bourgoisie decrying capitalism as the source of poverty and suffering.


Peace

There are high-minded men who detest war because it brings death and suffering. However much one may admire their humanitarianism, their argument against war, in being based on philanthropic grounds, seems to lose much or all of its force when we consider the statements of the supporters and proponents of war. The latter by no means deny that war brings with it pain and sorrow. Nevertheless, they believe it is through war and war alone that mankind is able to make progress. War is the father of all things, said a Greek philosopher, and thousands have repeated it after him. Man degenerates in time of peace. Only war awakens in him slumbering talents and powers and imbues him with sublime ideals. If war were to be abolished, mankind would decay into indolence and stagnation.

It is difficult or even impossible to refute this line of reasoning on the part of the advocates of war if the only objection to war that one can think of is that it demands sacrifices. For the proponents of war are of the opinion that these sacrifices are not made in vain and that they are well worth making. If it were really true that war is the father of all things, then the human sacrifices it requires would be necessary to further the general welfare and the progress of humanity. One might lament the sacrifices, one might even strive to reduce their number, but one would not be warranted in wanting to abolish war and to bring about eternal peace.

The liberal critique of the argument in favor of war is fundamentally different from that of the humanitarians. It starts from the premise that not war, but peace, is the father of all things. What alone enables mankind to advance and distinguishes man from the animals is social cooperation. It is labor alone that is productive: it creates wealth and therewith lays the outward foundations for the inward flowering of man. War only destroys; it cannot create. War, carnage, destruction, and devastation we have in common with the predatory beasts of the jungle; constructive labor is our distinctively human characteristic. The liberal abhors war, not, like the humanitarian, in spite of the fact that it has beneficial consequences, but because it has only harmful ones.

Ludwig von Mises, “The Foundations of Liberal Policy”

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4 Responses to babble on ‘five

  1. Thanks for writing up your thoughts on militarism in sci-fi. I think there is a great aesthetic difficulty here. Even if a libertarian, who thoroughly grasps the anti-civilizational aspect of war, wants to avoid the mistakes you point out there is the problem of creating epic drama. War of some sort becomes difficult to avoid if you’re not going to tell a boring tale.Now let us see you analyze some cases of sci fi where the story is much more aware of the problematic nature of war and centralization but still includes war for dramatic purposes. For example Enders Game and (to some degree) Star Wars.

  2. CC says:

    Just a quick comment on the B5 part of your post: I am not by any defenition a liberatiarin (though I do know several) though I have seen every episode of Babylon 5 and LOVE it. Don’t think I’m trying to sway you; on the contray, I’m here to thank you for watching every episdoe of a show you didn’t like. It means a great deal to the fantics like me :) CC

  3. J. Fox says:

    Yes, I know I’m commenting on an old post, but it’s new to me. First time I watched Serenity I only saw part of it. Recently watched it again and liked it. It intrigued me enough (particularly River’s comment in the classroom at the beginning) to want to check out Firefly. Found the whole series at the library and been watching it. I like it a lot! Told my brother (whom you know) he should check it out. He hadn’t seen it, but mentioned you were a fan (which doesn’t surprise me). Haven’t seen Babylon 5 or a lot of the other shows mentioned, but it’s quickly becoming my favorite sci-fi show since Lexx. One thing I like about it (aside from its libertarian philosophy, and just being a dang good show w/ cool characters and dialogue) is that it demonstrates morality in the midst of anarchy. A morality not based on laws or religion, but on a personal sense of empathy. We friends (or at least tolerate each other) until you mess w/ me or mine. Then we got a problem. Seems to me that it’s easy enough to poke holes in any so called system of moral rules (Utilitarianism, Categorical Imperative, etc.), and that this sense of empathy is really what morality boils down to. On a side note, I’m nearing the end of the third book of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. If you haven’t read them, I highly recommend.

  4. RM says:

    As a lapsed libertarian, I don’t want to offend anyone with statist heresies, but the dichotomy between war and peace in B5 is I think a good one: it makes two important points (1) whether a given action is bad or good is in the opinion of the person giving the appraisal e.g. a war of liberation for some is a war of rebellion for others (2) the only way to ensure an absence of negative effects is not to act at all. Therefore, the dichotomy is better defined as being between Action/Dynamism and Being/Stillness. Not surprisingly, a balance must be found between the two in human endeavour.

    This is particularly true of warfare. To believe that “peace” can ever be chosen over “war” is choosing the result without the process. The natural state of humanity, like all animals, is conflict: over resources, safety, status, and above all, domination over all other things. So conflict is natural, and warfare is the application of human ingenuity and ambition to conflict. This is represented in B5 by the Shadows, whose question “What do you want?” in season 2 is designed to trigger the limitless ambition and capacity for deceit and violence which is the birthright of every human (and in the show every sentient being). Hence their dissatisfaction with G’Kar’s response that his ambition was limited after the Centauri had been annihilated. However, because humans have the ability to transcend their immediate desires through reason, and offset immediate gain for greater long-term gain, they can cooperate – warfare becomes more regimented and less random, and the power to commit violence is limited in fewer hands. Eventually, you have a situation where the majority of individuals can go their whole lives in reasonable safety, due to the reduction in violence. So peace is created, due to the regularisation of war. Without organised violence (war) there would be no peace, only disorganised violence.

    And not only peace but human advancement in general is aided by the processes of organised violence. First, within the state created by the war-making leader, the reasonable safety he has now created means individuals can specialise, gain skills and accrue property, safe in the knowledge that someone else won’t be able to kill them. Thus practically every body of knowledge we possess began its life however humbly in the empires of the Near East between 3000 and 1000 BCE. Second, the leader’s desire to defend and protect his realm (which in the absence of any higher power, is the same thing due to the uncertainty of anarchy) leads to advances in engineering, bureaucratic organisation, medicine, agriculture, etc. This link between the military and technological progress has continued right up to the present day, as seen in the military-industrial complex. It’s obverse, where peace is universal, is seen in those cultures with a low level of state-based conflict e.g. Imperial China: while specialisation and the accruing of property could occur due to the state providing security, innovation did not proceed at the same rate as in the West from 1600 to 1800 – crucial years which eventually proved to be their undoing. This would be the peace promised by the Vorlon – safety, yes, limited satisfaction maybe (although when Sheridan asks Kosh “what do you want”, the Vorlon rounds on him and hisses “don’t ever ask that question”) but also stagnation, and potentially even degeneration.

    The key therefore, remains the same for the Interstellar Alliance as it does for the Babylonian Empire: regularise the competitive urge in humans through meritocratic practices, use regulation and enforcement to create a security and predictability that allows for diversification, use public provision to limit the extent of “losing” at any one time, and to embrace conflict between states.

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