Space Ramblings

Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein, Libertarianism and Fascism

Ed Neumeier ‘s and Paul Verhoeven ‘s rendering of Starship Troopers is resented so much precisely, because with a little gilding of satire, it renders Starship Troopers for what it is, a fascist text.

Robert Heinlein’s defenders are typically insulted by having their grandmaster called a fascist. They’ll point out that he was a libertarian who believed in human freedom. But this is the same Robert Heinlein who initially called for a one world state in order to avoid nuclear war. A profoundly liberal position that would have done a whole lot more to destroy American sovereignty and individual rights as any tyranny.

Robert Heinlein also proposed forcible relocations of millions of people from areas that might be targeted in a nuclear war and assigning them to jobs they’re not fit for. Heinlein even sneeringly imagines an exchange between an accountant and a soldier who throws him out of his home and tells him he’ll have to learn how to be a lumberjack now.

The trick of it is that Heinlein’s libertarianism did not stem from a belief that individuals were better qualified to make decisions for themselves than governments. It was a purely egotistical belief that he Robert Heinlein and some of those he considered worthy, were better qualified to make decisions for themselves than the idiots in government or the weak minded sheeple of society. Heinlein did not believe in human freedom. He believed in his freedom. For the rest he had no problem prescribing a totalitarian society run by people like himself who were smart enough to force the sheeple down the right path.

His libertarianism was the libertarianism of his disciplines, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Oath of Fealty in which the superior elite form a society within a society that resists the corrupt liberal decay of the masses around them and strives for excellence and defends itself against the inferior outsiders with lethal force. This formed the kind of survivalism that the Heinlein school thrived on. The deserving rising up to test their will against a corrupt society. Whether it’s the marching black cannibal hordes in Thor’s Hammer, it’s the same premise and it was the same premise at the heart of the rise of fascism. Dedicated people who resist social corruption by force and build a society embracing the true path and defeat the forces of the old society.

Neither Oath of Fealty or Thor’s Hammer extend far enough to show us the people actually taking power over wider areas, but they are also an inevitable part of the story. Starship Troopers goes whole hog by actually taking it just that far. The Mote in God’s Eye, gives us an Empire of nobles fighting evil democracies. The nobles are of course superior.

The very premise of survivalism is closely interlinked with the kind of libertarian fascism Heinlein was peddling all along. So many of these narratives follow the same track, the old worthless society is destroyed and isn’t mourned so much as seen as an opportunity to rebuild the proper kind of worthwhile society. A chance to get back to basics, to a world where men are in charge and shoot anyone who opposes them and women know their place and black people… well black people are marching cannibal hordes and anyone in government is dead.

The gap between this and armed compounds in Idaho is only that these kinds of books are usually written by middle to upper class aging keyboard jockeys like Jerry Pournelle and S.M. Stirling, who don’t actually want to live off the land. They just want to glory in the fantasies of doing it. S.M. Stirling’s widely praised post-Nantucket Emberverse series is yet another rehash of the same survivalist material, with Wiccans substituted for Christians, and without even the merit of having any logic behind it. Steam power and guns no longer work, because the author decided real men should fight with swords and bows and arrows.

But that is the whole logic of survivalism in the first place. Robert Heinlein’s postwar essays claimed that if only a few urban centers were hit, American society would instantly collapse into crazed cannibalistic mobs killing and eating everything and everyone in sight. Thirst crazed cannibals, his words not mine, would overrun Los Angeles. (If they’re thirsty, they probably would be looking for something to drink, instead of consuming more salty human flesh.)

Now this was a vision of a nuclear war when nuclear weapons were just getting started. The kind of nuclear war Heinlein was envisioning was not a planetary armageddon, but the deaths of maybe 10 or 20 million Americans in major urban centers. Yet Heinlein believed that without this sort of centralized control, the average American would within minutes be trying to beat your brains for your can of stewed peas. Despite the fact that Americans had for most of our history managed to live in towns and villages without constant centralized government supervision, Heinlein like the survivalist writers who would come after him, believed that without constant government control, Americans would quickly become murderous homicidal mobs.

This delusion is rooted in his contempt for the average person and his belief that only totalitarianism could keep them in check. That was Heinlein’s fascism. That is the fascism reflected in Starship Troopers, which says that fascism is the only way to meet a crisis. It’s the fascism that burbles to the surface in the novels of his acolytes like Jerry Pournelle, it’s the belief in the slavish inferiority of the average man, and a limited libertarianism applied to the Heinlein Man, the superior rugged individual who can lead and build up a new society under his own iron rule.

Underneath the survivalist narrative is the inappropriate eagerness by the writer to overthrow society, nuke those corrupt urban centers full of minorities and uppity college going women and rebuild a society based on the stockade and the rifle and knife. It was not a libertarian belief based on the individual value of man, but an egotistical limited libertarianism based on the belief of the value of the chosen elite. The men who should lead. Fascism.

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  • sarcasmus May 26, 2008 at 6:45 am

    i think you hit several nails on the head here. i’ve been wanting to explore this topic more thoroughly. Most libertarianism, particularly the Randian Anarcho-capitalists seems to be veiled fascism. (primarly American) science fiction and techno-utopians dream these worlds where ‘somebody’ seems to know best (perhaps the Secret Masters of Fandom). in effect, the super-brain Alphas will know what’s best; the implication being, if only our society was run by these particular ‘individuals’ that know best. i don’t know for sure, these are just suspicions of mine. British SF is less of an Optimist Club. And then there’s Brave New World, which I’m rereading right now and 1984–and I have a tendency to blame the whole genre. And it hurts too, because I really like Heinlein books. They are great, well written adventures. Crime and Punishment is the anecdote. I am trying to keep an open mind. I got into an argument with a Libertarian tonight who said I wasn’t letting the facts get in the way of his prejudice. It’s my way. .But I”m trying to improve…

  • O_Deus May 26, 2008 at 10:35 am

    It’s the Competent Man syndrome. A lot of people who call themselves Libertarians are really just egotists who don’t think anyone should be able to tell them what to do, but that they should be able to tell others what to do because they’re the competent ones. Of course they can never seem to get the point where they can tell anyone what to do which frustrates them even more. So their best hope is to see the world end and things go back to basics

  • glen.h November 6, 2008 at 5:44 am

    Good posting! It tends to reinforce my opinion of rabid RAH fans and Libertarians- That they are convinced of their own superiority over the rest of us, despite the lack of any evidence of it. The one question I have to ask about Robert Heinlein,though, is- did he actually beleave in the things he wrote in books like “Starship Troopers” or did he write to fill a market that had particular views on politics and life, and tailored his books and writing persona to suit?

  • O_Deus November 6, 2008 at 11:10 pm

    I’m sure he believed what he wrote, especially since there wasn’t that much of a market for libertarian Science Fiction until much later in the game. He might have conceivably shifted his views to accommodate Campbell, but I see no real evidence for that.

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