Bioshock and the folly of libertarian utopias

What happens when you run a society based on the premise of unrestrained greed

“[Atlas Shrugged] is not a book to be lightly thrown aside. It should be thrown with great force.” – Attributed to Sid Ziff of the Los Angeles Mirror-News

Despite being a firm believer in reading your enemy (as evidenced by the copies of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and Milton Frideman’s Free to Chose that I have gathering dust somewhere), I must confess I have never read Ayn Rand’s most well known novel, precisely because of reviews like the one quoted above. Atlas Shrugged is something of a bible for libertarians since it delineates her philosophy known as Objectivism which is based around ‘rational egoism’ and the economic system best suited to promote it, laissez-faire capitalism. The book was critically panned during its day and Rand was never taken seriously as a philosopher (or a novelist for that matter) although this has not stopped the book from finding its way into millions of college dorm rooms by “edgy” econ and political science undergraduates who fail to realize the lifelong cognitive and moral impairment that reading it and believing in it might entail.

The book itself is about a group of industrialists who, oppressed by excessive government bureaucracy and regulation, decide to abandon their businesses in order to create a new community based entirely on laissez-faire principles. The community would be called Galt’s Glutch, named after the mysterious character of John Galt who masterminds the capitalist rebellion and also outlines the community’s philosophy. Since then, the idea of forming a real-life Galt’s Glutch has been something of an obsession for many libertarians, although finding a location for such utopias is not easy. There is not a square inch of land left on Earth that is not claimed by a government as sovereign territory. This leaves only one place where states have no authority: international waters.

Libertarians call this seasteading and has already been responsible for the creation of various micronations, such as Sealand in the North Sea (now ruled by “Prince Michael”, the son of its original founder) or Minerva in Micronesia, which was later invaded and annexed by Tonga. There’s even an NGO promoting this known as the Seasteading Institute, run by none other than Patri Friedman, a grandson of Milton himself and self-proclaimed anarcho-capitalist, transhumanist, and neo-reactionary; a veritable cocktail of asshole. Its creation was financed by Peter Theil, another (of many) Trump-supporting libertarians who once proclaimed, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible”.

Lovely people to start a utopia.

All of this may seem like a strange premise for a videogame. Enter Bioshock.

“No gods, nor kings, only men”

Bioshock is the story of Jack, an average guy who in 1960 survives a plane crash over the Atlantic, finding himself next to a mysterious lighthouse that is the entrance to the wondrous undersea city of Rapture. Founded in 1946 by debonair industrialist Andrew Ryan, Rapture is an Objectivist utopia, a city of towering Art Deco skyscrapers, neon lights, and boundless possibilities. As your bathysphere approaches the city in what is possibly the greatest intro to any videogame in history, a welcome announcement by Ryan himself explains his reason for creating a city where “the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, where the great would not be constrained by the small.”  Unfortunately, the city is a now a wasteland, ravaged by a civil war and with most of its inhabitants turned into zombie-like “splicers”, addicted to a drug called Adam that gives them superhuman powers.

The city’s Art Deco glory remains mostly intact

For those who haven’t played it, Bioshock is a hybrid first-person shooter from 2007 that combines elements of numerous other genres, mainly survival horror and role-playing. It takes quite a while before your character builds up a proper arsenal which means the first levels require you to outsmart your enemies rather than outgun them. A complement to Adam is Eve, another wonder-drug that allows you to use “plasmids”, which do things like shoot electricity, fire, create a holographic dummy of yourself to draw fire, and even shoot bees (yes, bees) to keep your enemies distracted. You can also hack into security drones and gun turrets to use them against your enemies. All this allows you a bewildering amount of ways in which to dispose of your enemies rather than just blast your way through. Brains rather than brawn also comes in handy when fighting the game’s iconic bad guys, the lumbering, dive suit-wearing Big Daddies armed with giant drills or rivet guns. You need to kill them to rescue the ghostly little girls known as Little Sisters who they always protect. I consider myself a semi-decent FPS player and I still got killed like 10 times before I managed to beat the first one. The game tests your morality as well, allowing you to either rescue the girls or harvest their Adam. The latter gives you bigger short-term rewards: more Adam means more plasmid upgrades and they really come in handy early on. But you just killed a little girl, you bastard.

Showdown with a Big Baddy with a Little Sister crouching behind it

The gameplay may be top notch (not without some annoyances) but alone a great game it does not make. What makes Bioshock stand out are its immersive environments which take the Art Deco motifs that adorn every cover of Atlas Shrugged (usually based on the statue of Atlas in Rockefeller Center) as the basis of every level in the game. Angled golden panels, sleek curved balcony rims, stylized male torso ornaments, 1940s era posters, it’s all there. Imagine taking the lobby of the Empire State Building and making an entire city out of it, glowing in the emerald sheen of underwater light. It is an environment that needs to be seen to be believed, and it’s hard not to conclude that the city, rather than any of the characters, is the true protagonist of this story. The splicers themselves also add to the atmosphere, sporting New Years Eve ball masks, Tommy guns, and speaking like Chicago gangsters or Manhattan socialites (“my dah-ling!”). Add to this the occasional nostalgic jazz crooning from record players or public speakers and you have the full 1940s vibe.

“We all make choices, but in the end, our choices make us.”

I won’t give away too many plot details, not least because part of the joy of playing this masterpiece is to gradually discover how Rapture turned into the dystopia that it did. There is also a mind-blowing plot twist around two-thirds of the game through. But as you go through each of the wonderfully designed levels, you see just how every facet of Rapture’s society gradually descended into greed, sociopathy, and ultimately bloodlust. One of the first levels, the Medical Facility, has you searching for a demented plastic surgeon, Dr Steinmann, who is obsessed with asymmetry and leaves his patients in various states of deformation, many of them found throughout the level on wheelchairs. Another level, the entertainment district known as Fort Frolic, is full of neon lights, stylish posters, grand staircases, and majestic theaters. It is also controlled by a psychopathic artist, Sandor Cohen, who has you murder four of his former collaborators before you lets you proceed. Not only do you have to kill them but also take a picture of their corpses for Cohen’s morbid quadtych. The entire level is littered with bodies covered in plaster, muses for his sadistic artistic experiments. The specter of World War II hangs heavily on this game, as some characters recall the brutality of the conflict as justification for further immoral human experiments or, in the case of the preciously few uncorrupted non-player characters, redemption for past sins.

Throughout the entire game you are also taunted by Ryan through your radio, as he lambasts the “parasites” who expect government handouts rather than work and who you are implicitly aiding by opposing him. “What is the difference between a Man and a Parasite? A Man builds. A Parasite asks, where is my share?” Similar phrases can be heard over the city’s loudspeakers, a chilling parallel to the type of public propaganda in communist regimes. For all its commitment to liberty, it turns out Rapture was very much ruled by Ryan’s iron fist, a legacy that is explored further in the game’s sequel, Bioshock 2, where we get a glimpse of the city’s brutal detention facilities and which were used mostly to detain Ryan’s enemies (in a possible nod to the US’s current prison-industrial complex, yes, Rapture’s prisons are also run for profit). Bioshock 2 also takes you to the city’s seedy underbelly, as you fight through slums as well as a red-light district known as Siren’s Alley where bodies of prostitutes lie on beds with their Johns slumped beside them, often with multiple syringes of Adam still on them. Behind its wondrous Art Deco facades, Rapture was just like any other city, with its haves and its have nots and where liberty coexisted merrily with oppression, usually with someone making a profit out of it.

Bioshock 2 is all about the have nots of Rapture’s society

“If Utopia is not a place, but a people, then we must choose carefully”

Saying that a fictional city like Rapture holds any lessons for the idea of a real life utopia, particularly one based on libertarian/Objectivist principles, is obviously stretching it. But it’s not hard to see the parallels of how too much freedom leaves society with far less of it in the longer run. The freedom of choice that sustains the American way of life leaves the average American with much less options in life than, say, the more restrictive continental European social democracies. Americans may indulge in their myth of freedom while Europeans actually live it. The late (sometimes) great Christopher Hitchens once said “I have always found it quaint and rather touching that there is a movement [Libertarianism] in the US that thinks Americans are not yet selfish enough”, and I also find it bewildering how someone can see the ravages of American hyper-capitalism on its society and conclude that the cure is more of it, rather than less.

The fact that most experiments in creating libertarian communities has ended in disaster seems, however, to confirm the Bioshock hypothesis. But leaving aside eccentric plans for micronations in abandoned offshore anti-aircraft batteries or remote Micronesian reefs, some more serious efforts have not fared much better. Perhaps the most illustrative is an actual libertarian community known as Galt’s Glutch in Chile where a group of mostly American libertarians and anarcho-capitalists planned to settle as they waited for the inevitable collapse of global fiat currencies amid central bank-triggered hyperinflation. Two years after its foundation, the commune was mired in legal disputes, with rivals accusing each other of being “drunks, liars, and sociopaths”. Turns out greed isn’t good, much less any ideology based around it. Who would have thought…

In the meantime, would you kindly go and play Bioshock?

Rational egoism never ends well, regardless of your decor

Extra: Don’t miss the chance to play the excellent DLC for Bioshock 2, Minerva’s Den. The story is enthralling and has a tear-jerker conclusion which is a fitting and highly humane finale for the Rapture story.

 

 

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