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  1. Culture
24 August 2023

EP Thompson’s dystopian visions

His science fiction novel tackled two fears: atomic annihilation and AI determinism.

By Samuel Rubinstein

An alien, sent from his own planet, “Oitar”, to assess whether Earth is suitable for colonisation, falls down to the ground. There he makes the demand on every alien’s lips: “take me to your leader”. Mistaken for the emir of a wealthy Gulf state, he somehow wrangles an audience with the “pee-em”, a woman “as nondescript in dress and manner as any common walker”. Margaret Thatcher intones some platitudes about their “very ancient alliance which goes back”, promises to keep the oil prices up, and offers to sell him Mount Snowdon. She has already privatised the River Severn, you see, and sold the Channel Islands to France.

This is the dystopian country Oi Paz discovers when he lands on Earth some time during Thatcher’s fourth or fifth term as prime minister in the 1990s, as wryly foreseen by the historian EP Thompson in his 1988 novel The Sykaos Papers. Its dismal portrait of Britain – a “little satrapy” of Nato, “used by its officers for parking their nukes” – is about as on-the-nose as one would expect from a former member of the Communist Party and activist for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Most of the people Oi Paz finds, like the Nato busybody “Mr Lacky” and the White House spokesman “Mr Fibbs”, appear to have been struck over the head by nominative determinism. So, too, humanity itself – we natives of “Sykaos”, the Oitarian word for “Earth”, really are “Sykotic”.

The Sykaos Papers is more than just a pell-mell compilation of gags like these (though there are plenty, and all the better for them). Like the best of Thompson’s writing, The Sykaos Papers is at once funny and profound. Indeed, it provides deeper insight into his thought than many of his more rambling essays in the New Left Review and the Socialist Register. Like the best of those essays, it pours its invective not only upon “that old bitch gone in the teeth, consumer capitalism”, but also on rival strains of Marxist thought.

As a novel it has its merits – for all its whimsy and topical commentary, it is surprisingly moving – but it remains an oddity. Why, 25 years after making his name with The Making of the English Working Class, did Thompson write a novel? And why one as weird as The Sykaos Papers?

Thompson’s first major work of history was a 1955 biography of the artist William Morris, to whom he was unfailingly devoted. His writings on Morris attempted to proselytise “Morrisism” to other Marxists, to restore to the socialist pantheon a man whose insights were “not icing on the Marxist gingerbread, but complementary to the discoveries of Marx”. Thompson clearly felt a kinship with Morris, and it’s not hard to see why. Both liked to write poetry almost as much as they liked to read it; both were overpowered by a strong aesthetic sense that caused them to detest industrial capitalism; both were attracted to a nostalgic vision of medieval rusticity; and both sought to domesticate Marxist “theory” with English “idiom”.

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So it is hardly surprising that when Thompson tried his hand at the novel, he turned to Morris’s most celebrated work of fiction, News from Nowhere (1890), for inspiration. There, Morris’s self-insert character, William Guest, is transported to a future, utopian, communist Britain. Guest serves as a kind of anthropologist of communist man: he studies their manners and gradually comes to admire them. Oi Paz finds less to admire in near-future Britain and, unlike in News from Nowhere, the “anthropology” cuts both ways: Thompson was not only using his near-future Earth, but also Oitarian culture, to criticise the world as he saw it. But the conceit of both Thompson’s and Morris’s books, if not their tones and conclusions, is the same. They are satire in the Swiftian mode: cultural critique from the outsider’s perspective.

Unsurprisingly for a book written by perhaps the most influential English historian of the twentieth century, The Sykaos Papers has much to say about the discipline of history itself. The whole story unravels within a creative framing device. The book is constructed as a kind of cache of historical evidence pertaining to Oi Paz’s misadventures on Sykaos: we read his diaries, newspaper clippings, and the various jottings of the academics who come to prod and study him. The primary sources, as it were, are then stitched together haphazardly by another Oitarian, Q, before being “transmitted by time warp” to Thompson. Q provides us with footnotes and marginalia that almost make him a character in the novel – an Oitarian historian. Yet, like many historians, he lacks the requisite knowledge and empathy to enter into the minds of the people he studies: glossing a reference to Christianity in a newspaper clipping, he explains that Jesus was a “celebrated ghost or em-pee in archaic mortal myth”.

History, when Oi Paz lands on Earth in the 1990s, is coming to an end, and not quite in the way Fukuyama intended. The détente of the late 1980s turned out to be fleeting: in Moscow Gorbachev was ousted by a belligerent general with a whiff of Yevgeny Prigozhin, and the American president has become “a prisoner of the apocalypse nutters”. Nuclear war seems inevitable.

From Oi Paz’s perspective, what matters is not the ideological contest between the two “blocks” (so called, he surmises, because “it is their business to block all rational intercourse between fellow-creatures on either side”). Rather, the Cold War is just the latest manifestation of tribal or national jealousy. Oi Paz is aghast that the people of Earth had formed themselves into primitive “language packs”: the Oitarians were all brought under the same language in their “medieval times”. The two “blocks” are driven against each other, to the point of risking humanity’s extinction, only because they contain within them the vices inherent to humanity. When Oi Paz meets a human baby, he is struck by how dreadfully “self-centric” it is, and it is that same impulse which is hurtling humanity towards nuclear destruction. It therefore seems to Oi Paz that humanity is “self-programmed to extinction”.

The Oitarians, with their ancient civilisation, seem at first to provide a glimmer of hope, a pathway out of the atomic morass. But the reason for their own survival – the reason they haven’t blown themselves to smithereens – isn’t just their eschewing of the nation-state; it is also, Thompson glumly implies, their total abdication of agency.

“Agency” is now quite a tiresome cliché in academic writing, and Thompson did much to make it so. It was his watchword. In his essay on “socialist humanism”, he wrote that it is “precisely the element of agency which distinguishes [man] from the beasts, which is the human part of man, and which it is the business of our consciousnesses to increase”. What he hated about industrial capitalism – and indeed about Stalinism – was that it stripped man of his agency.

The Oitarians are devoid of all individuality, devoid of all agency. All meaningful choices are made for them by artificial intelligence. Thompson, who did more than any other twentieth-century historian to rehabilitate the Luddites, castigates Oitarian over-reliance on technology for creating a species which suffers “real difficulty in making the least decision”. This being so, Oi Paz does not believe that we humans can really have what he calls “history”, because he understands “history” as unfolding “by rational decree” – by the direction of a single, omniscient will. “All the occurrences” on Earth, he notes with bafflement, “have emerged inconsequentially out of a competition of a myriad of contradictory wills whose outcome is a happenstance contrary to anyone’s intentions”. Human history, in other words, is the messy, incoherent totality of human agency. 

The Oitarian abdication of agency is, at its core, a rejection of humanity. Oi Paz thinks that his people have “immortality” because any Oitarian, after death, can be “reconstituted” by artificial intelligence. His human companion, the anthropologist Helena Sage, suggests to him that this “didn’t truly count as immortality, since these emanations are not self-motivating”; Oitarians brought back from the dead are not really alive because they have no “free will or choice”. Oi Paz does not and cannot understand this objection. Likewise, the Oitarians use the word “corpse” for living bodies as well as dead ones, having no real means to distinguish the two. To deprive oneself of “agency” – or to have conceded it to the computers – is, in a sense, to cease to be truly alive.

[See also: Simone Weil’s great awakening]

While in his earthly captivity, Oi Paz starts to read widely in human literature and philosophy. He singles out the French Marxist Louis Althusser for praise, because he “proved that each individual or bit was no more than the bearer of the Programme”. This strikes a chord with his own Oitarian mindset.

Introducing the 1995 edition of The Poverty of Theory, Thompson’s polemic against Althusser, Dorothy Thompson wrote that “readers of Althusser’s autobiography… may feel that the gulf between the two writers lies not only in their different intellectual approaches but in their whole lives”. The irony would not have been lost on readers that this sentence was written by Thompson’s loving widow: Althusser had killed his own wife in 1980.

Thompson hated Althusser, and it seems to me that he wrote The Sykaos Papers in part to finish the job that he had started in The Poverty of Theory. Althusser was guilty of “evict[ing] human agency from history”. Even worse, Althusser’s “theory” appeared to Thompson a continuation of Stalinism: they both “found a way of regarding people as the bearers of structures and history as a process without subject”. Stalin and Althusser, for Thompson, were both Oitarian thinkers – the Huxleyan dystopia of Oitar is one made in their image.

The moral message of The Sykaos Papers is therefore double-edged. Humanity should beware its grim near-future prophesied by Thompson, of nuclear destruction; but it should also beware becoming like Oitar, surrendering agency to the machines, becoming “immortal” but not human.

At the end of the novel, Helena Sage finds herself in Oitarian captivity, helplessly watching the destruction of the world from above. In despair she turns to her Bible. She reflects upon the archetypal moment of human agency, the Fall of Man. The “programme” – humanity – was, as the Oitarians correctly saw, “botched from Genesis”. “Original sin = primordial bug”, she writes in her journal; “just took a few millennia to work out”. Humanity “would have terminated earlier”, if only we “had had the means”.

Thompson did not entirely share in Sage’s defeatism: his emphasis on agency caused him to be wary of all forms of determinism. But he did write The Sykaos Papers as a “warning” to his fellow men. In the atomic age, our freedom might be the death of us all. Yet without it we are not human but Oitarian – so it is the only hope we have.

[See also: Hegel against the machines]

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