Alignments

on April 14, 2011

I found the previous entry hard to pull together but I couldn’t put my finger on why, so I went ahead and posted it, even though it felt somehow incomplete. But over the new few days, I realized the problem was that I’d been laying out two separate dichotomies — higher knowledge vs. institutionalized knowledge and liberal vs. conservative values — without quite realizing they weren’t the same thing.

At that point, I decided to clarify my own understanding by listing current political factions and the relationships among them. To my surprise, the rough framework that resulted looked like nothing so much as a simplified version of the alignments system of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

In its classic form, the AD&D system is based on two intersecting polarities — good vs. evil and lawful vs. chaotic — with various shades of neutral in between. Liberals, for example, might be defined as lawful good. They’re “good” because they care deeply about altruism and justice and “lawful” because they see government as the most effective means of implementing those values.

Anarchists, on the other hand, could appropriately be described as chaotic good. They’re dedicated to much the same values as liberals, but they regard the institutions of government as an impediment to achieving them. As a result, even though liberals and anarchists have many issues in common, they differ substantially in methods, ultimate goals, and personal style.

A third grouping consists of social and religious conservatives. Their primary commitment is not to universal ideals but to tribal values — knee-jerk patriotism, deference to authority, and an obsession with sexual purity — while their concern for caring and fairness tends to be relatively lukewarm and confined within their own tribe. They also love having rules to enforce, so it seems appropriate to label them as lawful neutral.

Finally, there are the libertarians, whose prioritization of personal freedom leads them to distrust government and reject any appeals to altruism or egalitarianism. They fall very neatly into the chaotic neutral slot.

Social conservatives and libertarians have had a far more fraught relationship than liberals and anarchists — going back to at least 1969, when there was an epic blow-up at the annual convention of the Young Americans for Freedom whose aftermath was still reverberating this past winter, when YAF kicked Ron Paul off its board of directors.

Despite these tensions, the two groups have frequently managed to work together, united by their shared belief that government has no place in caring for the poor and infirm or promoting tolerance and equality. The Tea Parties, for example, began with a wave of Paulists who were soon outnumbered by social conservatives — an alliance no doubt made more palatable to both by a heavy infusion of corporate cash.

At present, the deepest fault lines in our culture are based on the acceptance or rejection of communal values, but this has not always been the case. Until recently, our two-party system operated on the basis of a working relationship between lawful-good Democrats and lawful-neutral Republicans — an understanding which at this point has been abandoned by almost everyone except President Obama.

There are also certain areas where anarchists and libertarians are able to work together. The two groups share many interests, a point which is often emphasized by describing anarchists as “left-libertarians” or libertarians as “anarcho-capitalists.” That doesn’t stop the AnCaps and the lefties from getting into flamewars, of course — but the very intensity of the debates suggests a search for common ground.

This relationship, however, is still very much in flux, in part because it it is so recent. For most of the 20th century, in fact, the framework I’ve described would not have worked at all. The political spectrum of that era was defined by the struggle of democracy against totalitarians of both the left and the right — a struggle in which mainstream liberals and conservatives were allies and anarchism no more than a footnote.

This was still true as late as the 1950’s. The distinction in D&D between lawful and chaotic derives from Poul Anderson’s “Three Hearts and Three Lions” (1953), but in that story it is essentially a non-moralistic substitute for good vs. evil. Anderson’s heroes are upholders of order, while chaos is identified with both the Nazis of our world and the alluring but treacherous Faerie folk of the other world.

Chaos began to be treated more respectfully during the countercultural 60’s, first in the fantasies of Michael Moorcock and eventually by Anderson himself. Even so, when the original Dungeons & Dragons was published in 1974, chaos was depicted in largely negative terms.

The crucial shift occurred only with the appearance of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in 1977-79. That was when the alignment system was expanded to include good vs. evil in addition to lawful vs. chaotic, making it possible for the first time to play chaotic-good outlaws, rogues, and wanderers.

The change came at an extremely significant moment in the history of the chaos vision, when it was giving up its transcendent wildness and entering into a dominant partnership with the democracy vision. In response, its own successor — the creative imagination vision — was developing rapidly and taking on the power and chanciness that chaos had lost.

Chaos and creative imagination both represent attempts to make sense of the universe in terms of inner experience — but where the chaos vision was based on a concept of the subconscious that emphasized madness and fragmentation, the creative imagination vision regards the mind as an active co-creator of reality.

When I wrote last year about the emergence of the creative imagination vision in the 1970’s and early 80’s, I drew mainly upon statements by neo-pagans and chaos magicians. However, the same shift in perception was taking place among all the overlapping elements of geek culture, including computer hackers, science fiction fans, and participants in AD&D and other role-playing games.

The role-players provided a particularly crucial function, because more than any of the others they operate freely within myth space. Their adventures take place in purely imaginative realms whose configuration and rules are molded by desire and not by the constraints of reality. But what they do in those worlds feeds back into the everyday and can actively reshape it.

If the image of existence built into role-playing games has helped to mold current political attitudes, it would explain why the AD&D alignment system offers an effective template for those attitudes. It may also furnish clues to the growing popularity of the chaotic-good alignment.

In the 1970’s, libertarians had a strong presence among all the groups that were part of the shift to creative imagination, while anarchists were nowhere to be seen. That slowly began to change in the 1980’s, due in part to the impact of Richard Stallman’s free software movement, followed by the release in 1991 of the Linux operating system.

By the late 1990’s, there was a notable divergence between Stallman’s “free as in freedom” approach and the more corporate-friendly concept of open-source software. As described by Wikipedia, “In 1998, some companies met to create a marketing campaign for free software which would focus on technology rather than ethics. After this Eric Raymond and Bruce Perens, founded Open Source Initiative OSI, which promotes the term ‘open-source software’ as an alternative term for free software. OSI does not agree with the free software movement’s position that non-free software is a social problem or that it is unethical.”

During this period, Julian Assange was an active participant in the cypherpunk movement, a group rooted in the same San Francisco hacker circles that had spawned the Electronic Freedom Foundation. But he grew increasingly disillusioned with the right-libertarians who dominated those discussions — and his sticking-point was one of morality.

According to a recent article in the New Zealand Herald “Almost all cypherpunks were anarchists who regarded the state as the enemy. Most but not all were anarchists of the right, or in US parlance, libertarians, who supported laissez-faire capitalism. … [But] at no stage did Assange show sympathy for the anarcho-capitalism of the cypherpunks mainstream.”

“In October 2001,” it continues, “Declan McCullagh expressed ‘surprise’ when a ‘critique of laissez-faire capitalism’ appeared on the cypherpunks list ‘of all places’. Assange replied: … ‘You don’t need a Nobel to realise that the relationship between a large employer and employee is brutally assymmetric [sic] … To counter this sort of assymetery. [sic] Employees naturally start trying to collectivise to increase their information processing and bargaining power. That’s right. UNIONS Declan.'”

Right now, the idealistic appeal of chaotic-good appears to be overtaking the more nihilistic attraction of chaotic-neutral — no doubt partly as a result of the growing influence of the holism vision, with its emphasis on “doing good” and “saving the world.” WikiLeaks reflects that shift, and even the shadowy hivemind known as Anonymous appears to have dedicated itself to righting wrongs.

“We are with them,” one recent Anonymous statement says of the current global protests. “We are them. Where the weak stand together to demand freedom we will stand with them. … The time has come for the people of the world to unite. You can not wait for a revolution. You are the revolution. We are the revolution. … The people of the world are calling for your help.”

Although Anonymous’s manifestos can come across to a jaundiced eye as a bit cliched and self-dramatizing, their real contribution may be that they achieve a seamless blending of traditional anarchist rhetoric with Stallman’s Hacker Ethic.

Ultimately, though, it comes down to fun. In the 1960’s, young libertarians were clearly having more fun than the social conservatives, and both sides knew it. And if being chaotic-good is currently more fun than being chaotic-neutral — more engaging, more intellectually stimulating, and more personally fulfilling — then that will be just as obvious.

Related:

A listing of all my posts on the emerging counterculture can be found here, a listing of my posts on emerging visions can be found here, and a listing of my posts on higher knowledge here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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