A Though Experiment on Totalitarian Property Rights

A Thought Experiment on Totalitarian Property Rights

[…]

Daniel zaps through the available Confedwars. They’ve completed all the main story missions by now, unlocking the Extro. A game designer at IA apparently thought it was a good idea to end the game with a level called “How it all began”. The extro level is set in Wyoming, October 2033, the earliest date of all Confedwar levels. Daniel picks the “neutral stranger” as his starting position and “foreign academic” as his character, planning to simply play himself. Launch.

He’s on a street corner and the first thing he notices is dust, as the opening chords of ‘Here’s to you’ start to play. A lot of dust, all over the place, and the graphics are different this time — not the usual Confedwars hyperrealism, but a Sepia-Filter giving the entire world a nostalgic touch. Then, what a cliché, a tumbleweed rolls across the road.

It’s high noon, and no one in sight, except a homeless person sleeping under the town sign. “Welcome to Rawlins” and below that, in smaller letters “Carbon County”, and even smaller “Wyoming”. Though the sign is faded and barely legible, he can still make out a single white star on blue ground in the upper right corner. He walks into town as the soundtrack reaches its peak. It’s all run down, including the few people scuttling along the streets. Most of the yards have for-sale signs, broken windows, weeds growing everywhere. More dust, and the song ends.

Two teenagers on bicycles, a girl and a guy. “Hey old man, how ya doin’?” The guy is a gangly redhead with a birthmark on his left cheek. Torn hoodie, jeans, baseball cap.

“Not too bad, how are you? I just got to town, looking for a bite to eat…” One of Confedwar’s most annoying features is the virtual hunger created by the neural stimulation of Daniel’s stomach area, it feels just like the real thing.

The girl points to the back of her bike. “Why don’t you just come with us? We still have some corn and eggs”, so Daniel jumps on behind. They head south, passing a burned out structure — the sign above the door says “Rawlins Coal Board”.

Daniel asks his driver: “What’s going on here, the burnt-out ruins…?” She gives him a guarded look. “You’re a foreigner, huh? Never heard of Burning November? There was a bunch of terror attacks last year. So everything shut down, all the mines are closed, and the little gas that’s left is pumped automatically. No jobs, no future, the tap water is still poisoned, Carbon County is dying. Anybody who can has already moved away. We’re lucky Jack’s parents have land, we at least get some food from there.” They’ve stopped at another ruined house, with another for-sale sign on the fence and go inside.

Ana decides it’s time for another personal reveal. She picks her real-life avatar and materializes by a fireplace, frying eggs and corn cakes in a cast iron pan just moments before Daniel arrives. “Hi stranger! I’m Ana.” Let’s see how long it will take him to figure out who she is playing. He’s only ever known her as Riki the Ninja.

The tall redheaded guy gives him a nod. “I’m Jack. Welcome to the Rawlins Raccoons!” The other girl is called Wicki — Jack’s girlfriend. She immediately retreats, pulls up her hood, and hunkers down in a corner, riveted to her laptop screen while they chitchat over corn cakes and eggs. The simulation of taste and texture in the mouth feels strange and unreal, but at least the simulated hunger goes away.

Without looking up, Wicki calls out to them: “Hey raccoons, get this. They passed a new law. The county can sell empty properties if the owner can’t be reached. Where do we go if they sell our hideout?”

A mobile phone rings, Jack checks his messages. “This is unreal. My parents. The first message in months, and guess what? They’re selling the farm and moving to Utah. Goddammit!”

And lights out. No more power. It’s new moon and pitch dark. Daniel is rapidly fading — another 10 out of 10 realism feature: He falls into real sleep on a virtual sofa. He couldn’t have said how much time passed in the outer world, but in Wyoming he’s sleeping in.

Ana gets up a little before him and shakes him awake. “Come on, you’ve got to see this…” She pulls him to the window. “Wicki got a job in that new store over there.”

Daniel hardly recognizes the Rawlins of yesterday. Big trucks, workers, renovations — they’re just putting up a “Wal-Rent-All” sign across the road. Ana and Daniel go in, and find Wicki stocking shelves. “Hey there! How’s it going?”

Daniel is looking around the seemingly random assortment of household items “What’s this store?”

Wicki replies: “Don’t ask me, but business is definitely booming. They’re buying all kinds of stuff and renting it out again. Clothes, vacuum cleaners, stereos, washing machines, just everything…”

Ana has played the scenario before and knows what to ask for: “We need two bikes.”

Wicki points across the aisle. “Over there, three dollars a week. Take the two green ones, they are in good shape.”

Daniel and Ana go back to the house, the place has already been fenced off. Jack is arguing with a security guy, “Sorry man, but this is private property. You can’t just walk in there like that.”

Jack is pleading. “Listen, we live there. Our stuff is all in there. You can’t kick us out just like that!” The security guard is unmoved: “I’m afraid we can. This house is owned by the Resiwal. I have to ask you to leave immediately, or I will call the police.”

Jack’s body is tensing up, but Ana has the presence of mind to hold him back. She leans forward and grabs his shoulder. “Let it go Jack, brawling with security won’t help. Let’s get Wicki and figure out what to do next. You can’t get anything done from jail, you’ve been there before, right?”

Daniel is watching their confrontation when a black SUV pulls up next to him. “Hi there! Are you Professor Proudhon?” Late thirties, blond hair, black business dress and heels.

“Yes?”

“Pleasure to meet you. I’m Nancy Foster, Outreach and Media Relations Manager at Walfrastructure. We’re looking to hire someone of your caliber. Interested?”

Daniel is confused: “Ehm, sure?”

“Come on then, I’ll brief you in the car” Nancy opens the rear door with a welcoming flourish.

Daniel looks over at Ana and Jack, and realizes he has to decide right now between the resistance and the evil empire! But then — IA games usually allow more complex decision pathways, too. He whispers to Jack, “Meet you at midnight, by the old high school.” Jack nods and Daniel hops into the black Ford.

“So, tonight the task is quite simple. As a professor, you certainly know the core literature on liberal market philosophy, right?”

“I sure do, the invisible hand, inefficiency of planning bureaus, creation of the public good through ‘every man for himself’ and so on.” Daniel quotes a few lines from Smith and Friedman from memory.

“And don’t forget Rand.”

Daniel sighs — Ayn Rand, the quasi-religious fanatic plutocratic idol with her endless rants. “Yes, sure, Rand, entrepreneurs are all good looking angels.”

“Excellent. We need five minutes of that on camera.” The car pulls into a parking lot next to the TV studio located in a double-wide trailer. The spotlight is on Daniel, and he reproduces classic Atlas foundation propaganda, cherry-picked Adam Smith and Milton Friedman quotes, the greatest threat to freedom is the concentration of power, and he raves on about how the only good state is a small state, just hire the night watchmen to keep your holy private property safe and leave everything to the invisible hand. And once you just let those great entrepreneurs do what they are best at, they will solve all our problems, John Galt even breaks the first law of thermodynamics. Daniel rambles through the entire pantheon of plutocratic utopian propaganda, fantasies he’s always considered toxic bullshit, but still knows well enough to play devil’s advocate for a few minutes.

Yet he can’t help himself from testing how well the game knows its own literature, and so he ends his speech referencing John Locke: “The highest power cannot take any part of a man’s property without his consent.” And indeed, the irony goes unnoticed, his speech is applauded without the slightest hesitation, despite Locke following up those words a few lines later by defining “his own consent” as the consent of the majority, putting this founding father of modern political philosophy well in line with his own anarchistic namesake.

Nancy Foster closes the live show by claiming, “And now Wyoming has done it — freed from the oppression of the state, the new man is born and evolves to his full potential.” Obviously the capitalo-facists are also abusing evolutionary theory, as their kind have always loved to do.

And that was that, he gets a thousand USD as promised, on a prepaid credit card. Nancy tells him, “I’ve got another gig for you. I’ll be driving to Cheyenne early tomorrow, it would be a $3'000 job for you this time. We need a consultant on privatizing the police force.” She proceeds to take him out to dinner with some other Wal-Corp employees, it’s the launch of a brand new club restaurant. Dinner with champagne, all kinds of fancy food, even caviar, woo-woo! Cheap symbolism. The business small talk is mind numbing, so Daniel decides to leave.

Fresh, cool air on his face, and Daniel starts walking towards the school. Losing his way costs him a few minutes, so he gets to the high school a little past midnight “Sorry, I got lost. What the hell is going on here? Where does all the money come from? And what’s their goal?”

Wicki, head bent down at her phone: “And Walton is behind all of it. Here, I found the info. An indymedia forum on the dark web: John Walton, the last living Wal-Mart heir, net worth estimated at a ludicrous trillion dollars. He owns Mediawal, Walsecure, Resiwal, Walfrastructure, Enerwal, Comiwalcations, CleanWalter, Rent-it-Wal, all of them. See that logo?” She shows her phone to the others — a walrus on a shield, and crossed swords below it.

“He definitely has a class-conscious sense of aesthetics…”

Wicki reads on. “The Indymedia journalist estimates Walton owns approximately 80% of all private property in Wyoming now, the trend is rising.”

Ana gives Daniel a wink: “We’re approaching the wealth singularity.”

“Where one person owns everything.” He’s finally recognized his ally’s identity. The Ninja is a quick learner, already applying the singularity concept to other realms of life. He smiles at the female teenage avatar, and gives her a little wink.

Jack interrupts: “Get this. Senator McPhail was out there promoting a new law to slow Wal down. She never made it to parliament on the day of the vote. Reason: she was driving on a Walfrastructure road with a non-licensed vehicle, namely her own. The terms of use allow only Rent-it-Wal cars to use those roads. They confiscated her car on the spot. By the time she made it to parliament on foot, six hours later, the vote had already gone down and her proposal was rejected.”

A moment of solemn silence, Wicki and Jack look at each other. Jack starts to sing in a low tune “Do you hear the people sing, singing the song of angry men…”

His voice is amplified, and the revolutionary hymn from Les Miserables acoustically guides a passive bike riding sequence, where Daniel and Ana watch their avatars from above. A guard stops them when they reach the “Welcome to Cheyenne” sign with the walrus logo, the song fades out as they re-enter first person view.

The Wal-Group has progressed much further here than in Rawlins. The entire town is waltified. The Walrus on the Shield is all over the place. Wicki has set up a meeting with the resistance on the indymedia forum. Waiting.

“She should’ve been here by now…” Wicki is clicking away on her phone. “Oh Daniel! They’ve seen your TV spot — sorry, now we can’t take you with us.”

Ana considers her options. She’s seen the end of the scenario from the corporate side before, and is curious how things play out at the resistance end. So she decides to separate from Daniel for a moment: “Wait, I have an idea! Here Daniel, take my phone and live-stream what happens the parliament.” Wicki and Jack agree, and Daniel gets moving.

Parliament is in a historical building, fake Greek pillars and all. Daniel goes through security and meets Nancy inside: “Finally, here you are! Come on in, there’s a special event in the main hall.”

A gray-haired guy in a blue suit talks from the podium. “… But now I will no longer bore you and will introduce tonight’s superstar. And not just tonight’s, no, John Walton is the superstar of the century! A true Randian hero who brought back our beloved Wyoming from the brink — using nothing but the sheer force of his will! A big hand of applause, please!” Standing ovation from the senators and congress members as John Walton comes onstage.

John has a look of serene determination and of certainty, a look of ruthless innocence which would not seek forgiveness or grant it: “Citizens of Wyoming, the American Dream is finally real. The entire state is organized on free market principles, efficiency, business sense. Thanks to the WalGroup and its investments!” He allows a rhetorical pause, which Daniel fills with his own thoughts. Free market, what a joke — capitalism, okay, but when all goods on the market are owned by John, who would even call it a marketplace, let alone a free market? The woman sitting next to Daniel apparently agrees with him — she’s holding up a banner and security forces are moving towards her. But John interrupts them from the podium. “Oh, Senator McPhail, you have something to say?” She hesitates, apparently sensing a trap, but still gets up on stage.

“But before I hand you the microphone — let me demonstrate a brand new function of the Wal-Group project management software.” He pulls out a tablet, and the wall behind them lights up with a picture of children in a schoolyard. “Sarah McPhail.” Walton pushes a button. “The jacket your daughter is wearing, isn’t that a Rent-it-Wall model?” Two policemen appear in the schoolyard. “Ladies and gentlemen, let me show you the true meaning of libertarian freedom. I, the owner, will no longer let the offspring of this leech rent” — he looks at the senator with arrogance, tension and scorn and raises his voice “my property.” He swipes left on the tablet, and the screen shows policemen closing in on the girl, forcibly removing her clothes. John Walton talks on, giggling madly: “I only hope her underwear is not from Rent-it-Wall, that would be a little embarrassing for the young lady.” The policemen force the girl to take her shirt off. The other kids have formed a circle around them, pointing fingers and laughing. “Let’s zoom in a bit…” And indeed, there is the Walrus on the logo of her underwear.

Walton swipes right, and the policemen stop: “So now, esteemed Senator, What was it again you wanted to complain about?” The senator is ashen faced, shaken and silent. Walton moves in front of the podium, spreads his arms and proclaims:

“Le marché, c‘est moi!” His French has a terrible accent.

“вся власть на рынке”, whatever that meant.

“Markt macht frei.” His German is even worse than his French, and while his eyes focus on an imaginary point over their heads he continues,

“Make the market great again!”

A moment of silence — broken by shattering glass. “Behold, I’m your only salvation!” John screams those words in terror and runs offstage like a scared rabbit as resistance forces swing in through the broken windows. Jack’s at the front, leading the attack, an AK-47 slung over his shoulder. The image freezes, fades to grayscale, the Confedwars logo fades in, again playing ‘Here’s to you’ as the credits start rolling, starting with a summary of the Confedwars:

- Six weeks of mayhem

- A death toll of 150'000

- 20'000'000 people lose their homes

- Six months of military rule

- The secession of Texas, the Holy State of Christ and the Confederate States

- The checks and balances for economic power amendment, article one of the renewed unions constitution and the world’s first absolute limit on private wealth.

* * *

This post is an excerpt from my new novel Liquid Reign. On Amazon.

Sources of Inspiration:

Les Miserables

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gMYNfQlf1H8

Nicola and Bart, and the hymn to them by Joan Baez and Ennio Morricone

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b9DsWSgkLTc

A fun story from one of the early readers of this book: When an acquaintance of hers married a Walton, the bride’s entire family was requested to sign a promise to never ask a Walton for money.

That other John

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/7218137-a-face-that-bore-no-mark-of-pain-or-fear

That other McPhail from

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Island_(Huxley_novel)

The Oxfam reports on wealth inequality

https://www.oxfam.org/en/tags/inequality

John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government

http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/locke1689a.pdf

The concentration of economic power

http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0025995