I’ve recently had the pleasure of playing through Bioshock a second time, and, well, I’m more blown away than I was the first time. The first time through I largely missed the story, simple following instructions and playing through. On the second I sat and listened more closely, and enjoyed it quite a bit more.
Allegedly a first-person-shooter, Bioshock could be better viewed as a story about what happens when morality is removed from science, and when ‘the market’ is given full sway over the running of a society. A cautionary tale about what can go wrong when ego runs amuck, Bioshock is perhaps the single greatest artistic deconstruction of Rand’s “philosophy.”
In “Bioshock” the game is set in an underwater creator’s paradise called “Rapture”. In “Atlas Shrugged” the paradise is called “Galt’s Gulch.” The main question of the book Atlas Shrugged is the simple query, “Who is John Galt?” Adorned on poster’s throughout Rapture is a similar query, “Who is Atlas?” There are, most likely, agreat many more literary references in the games, but alas, it’s been a long time since I waded through Rand’s thousand page rants.
UPDATE: Someone put a good video together of Andrew Ryan’s speeches. These are interspersed throught the game.
The storyline of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead is largely the same. A true creator wishes to by unimpeded by petty morals and government and any social economic concerns, and strives for a Utopian idealistic objective existence, free from the influence of others. What makes the Bioshock storyline so interesting is that it begins as the Randian ideal society (“Rapture”) is falling apart after new wrinkle is thrown into the equation.
In Bioshock, this wrinkle is embodied in a type of sea slug that creates “Adam” a gene mutating/controlling substance refined and implemented outside of pesky government institutions like the FDA or FBI. All that matters is that it works for some people and there is a market for it. Sure, it drives people crazy and kills a few of them, but in the truly free Randian market, it is the buyer who must totally beware. The concept of product liability is an item left for the courts, of which there are none is Rapture, because who wants pesky judges deciding what is allowable and what is not. “Let the market decide” is the mantra of the objectivist, and of Andrew Ryan, Bioshock’s very own John/Howard Galt/Roark.
The problem with such concepts, and of Objectivism in particular, is that they essentially boil down to “might makes right.” This is easy to see in the objectivist viewpoint as illustrated by Rand herself.
If you want this translated into simple language, it would read: 1. “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed” or “Wishing won’t make it so.” 2. “You can’t eat your cake and have it, too.” 3. “Man is an end in himself.” 4. “Give me liberty or give me death.”
The biggest problem with this is in Number 3, which completely misses the fact that in order for something to be “true” in any objective sense, it must both be stated as a proposition and agreed upon by another. One man simply shouting the truth and assuming it to be the whole truth, is invariably alone and a bit whacked in the head. A single perspective simply cannot hold in the face of the fullness of reality. One viewpoint does not a complete picture make.
Indeed, as Rand illustrates in her further explanation…
- Reality exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.
- Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.
- Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.
…there is no place for emotion or love in this philosophy. To love oneself is a good thing, but this love is demonstrated in service to others, and those that show no love for others, demonstrate a lack of love for themselves. In Rand’s philosophy, to show love and provide service for another is a bad thing. Indeed, it is often considered the worst thing.
To be sure, there should be a fair exchange rate for services agreed upon, and Rand tries to deal with this in her fourth bullet point.
4. The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.
These concepts, as stated, are completely contradictory when put into practice, as Bioshock illustrates so graphically. How can a state and economics not be mixed? What does this look like the real world? Who is it that guarantees these freedoms? Obviously Rand relies on government as arbiter, but doesn’t want to pay for it, as all taxation is considered “theft.” The only way government can be an enforcer of rules is if it has the power to enforce them. The only way it can have that power is through underwriting and regulating the economic system of a country, and basically being the biggest player at the table. Someone, or something has to keep the playing field level for a market to stay stable. Without a regulating force, the table becomes tipped and the little stack loses to the big stack, to draw a Hold ‘Em analogy, more often than a level playing would predict.
As we have seen recently in the United States and global capital markets, without the oversight of someone, then there will always be that weak link, that greedy man lost to himself. The problem of objectivism when applied to the real world is that there is always someone like Bioshock’s “Fontaine,” ready to break one rule (the violence one) in order to follow the other rule (one’s own happiness is the highest good).
The compromise that free people of the world have settled upon is giving up that ultimate power to a system of government that, throug a series of checks and balances, reaches a certain type of stability. Perhaps the greatest single sign of this, in the U.S. at least, is the very well entrenched notion that ulitmate power is limited by time. Yes, a President can do many things in the name of peace and security (like go to war and spy on their own citizens), but in time that power fades, as the time is added to the equation. Naturally limiting a temporary imbalance of power.
It is in this time dimension that the power becomes balanced, as it allows the system to change and adjust itself in a natural feedback loop of democracy . Truly despotic systems have to be, essentially, stable ones. It is only through a long term, stable vision of despotism (viewed as one individual’s utopia), backed by the ultimate power of the state, wherein one’s dreams (other’s nightmares) can be realized. In this aspect the entire world owes a favor to George Washington, and any other “first” leader who follows him, in that they demonstrated how to relinquish the reigns of power as dictated by the laws of the state.
To humble themselves before the law, they make the changing law supreme, and not the fickle will of man.
The only constant is change, to put it poetically, and it is our own limited lifespans that create the need for a moral, a.k.a. emotional, element in the system. This is not to say that the emotional element should dominate the system, as system dominated by morals dictated from the top tend to eat themselves as they bask in their own greatness (i.e. the divine right of Kings), but morality is an essential part of any stable system.
And “morality” is a shared sense of the goodness (and badness) of things.
Objectivism, and “Rapture” both fail in this regard, as morality and emotion are necessary part of any stable economic system. Without them the system will eat itself eventually and often much sooner than much later.
Like it says in the title…from International Politics to Video Games.
General advice on playing Bioshock: Hack everything, especially turrets and camera. Use that wrench to save ammo. Then use ammo liberally on the Big Bros. Take pictures of everything, especially Houdini’s (it makes it a lot easier to reload when you are invisible) and Big Bros (any help you can get with kicking their ass is appreciated). Act morally toward the Little Sisters, as it matters in the end how you treat the weak and defenseless…
FINAL SPOILER: The Best of Andrew Ryan.