In 1958 the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin gave a lecture which introduced an influential concept into political analysis: the two types of liberty. According to Berlin, liberty can be interpreted as the freedom to do whatever one wants, without rulership and constraints. He called that negative liberty. The opposing concept of positive liberty revolves around the idea that self-discipline and self-governance could be used to improve an individual’s development, to increase their freedom.
In EVE Online, we are initially released into an environment mostly characterized by negative liberty. In the sandbox each player is free to choose their path, theoretically with nothing but game mechanics and in-game material constraints standing in their way. The further one moves from the starter systems, the more one would expect negative liberty to be the dominant aspect of the environment. After all, the rules of the game become less restrictive outside highsec. Interestingly enough though, it is positive liberty that plays a major role in the regions beyond CONCORD control and crime mechanics.
The Citizens Of The Void
One of the central precepts of positive liberty is the freedom of individuals to choose their form of self-governance. This can be traced back all the way to the early democracies of ancient Greece and their concept of citizenship. In EVE the agency of the individual in a group also plays a significant role because there is a strong incentive for people to band together into larger groups. Efforts like gaining and holding sovereignty, settling a wormhole system or controlling a lowsec warzone are too massive to be undertaken by individuals. In addition to that, the multitude of features in the game are too complex to be easily and quickly understood by everyone. It is almost inevitable that a player will have to look for information from third parties to learn how they can improve and develop their gaming experience. Joining a group of more experienced players who have built a structure and strategy for their playstyle is arguably one of the best ways to learn how to play. A player can choose to align their interests with such a group and effectively become citizens of an in-game community. To establish a system of governance, such a community needs to develop a set of principles which are tied together by a narrative. That narrative forms the basis for an individual player’s choice to become member of one group or another. It constitutes the in-game citizenship and the principles of self-governance for every member of the group. This mechanism of social organisation is strongly rooted in the concepts of positive liberty. We can observe, that despite an environment initially offering the full potential of negative liberty, players choose to create systems of governance in lowsec and beyond.
Isaiah Berlin himself recognized the potential within positive liberty to become the justification for totalitarianism. When an individual delegates self-governance to a higher authority, they can become subject to those who hold positions of power and control the narrative which defines the precepts of citizenship. Influential and charismatic personalities can appropriate the principles of self-governance and claim that it is them who know best which path leads to success and prosperity. In EVE, great fleet commanders and alliance leaders are in the perfect position to conflate the prosperity of the community with their personal value judgements. Isaiah Berlin stated quite clearly that such paternalism is not an actual realization of positive liberty. His idea was, that constraints on individual freedom can only come from those individuals themselves as a result of their social agency, not because someone else decided what is best for them. Despite the fact that he was very much in favour of positive liberty and saw it as the only reasonable basis for a functioning democratic society, he struggled with the fact that it can become a tool in the hands of dictators.
That dilemma has been at the centre of political discourse throughout the 20th century up until today. In the political landscape of EVE Online we can see a reflection of those developments.
Doomed To Fail?
In EVE Online, democracy is considered as an ineffective framework for organisations. Usually this is stated by rulers of major powers who underscore the merits of their own interpretation of positive liberty instead. Not surprisingly, the very same line of argumentation has been applied by totalitarian rulers in real-life politics as well. The most fundamental charge levelled at the idea of democratic self-governance is based on the very nature of the environment of EVE and its propensity to favour negative liberty. Considering that players are effectively immortal in-game and face very few constraints, it is argued that the lack of strong leadership would result in chaos. Another common argument against democratic organisations is, that they are at a disadvantage when it comes to war. Again it is stated that only a strict hierarchy of command can be effective in leading people during such times. Democracies would supposedly be paralysed by the social agency of their individual members who seek only personal advantage and refuse to follow. Since conflict is virtually perpetual in EVE, that may seem like a very strong argument.
The proponents of the totalitarian interpretation of positive liberty – just like their real-life counterparts – fail to address a few basic principles of democratic self-governance though. Concerning the military side, it is fundamentally wrong to assume that democracies do not make use of organisational hierarchies in battle. Even the Anarchists in the Spanish Civil War appointed commanders and officers in their militias and had great successes until outside support for their fascist opponents and destabilizing Soviet intervention on the Republican side broke their momentum. Those who argue the case for totalitarianism make it seem like every decision would have to be discussed in a democratic forum and voted on, but it is a fallacy to claim that democratic organisations will necessarily descend into ineffectual bickering and are unable to come to quick decisions. What democratic self-governance based on the principle of positive liberty actually means is that the constituency of a community get to decide on the rules and the framework that will guide them in their decisions. In our Western societies this is given form as the rule of law. The major difference between that and the totalitarian form of governance is that every person in society is subject to the constraints laid down in the law. In totalitarian systems, the leadership is exempt from such rules. Following the understanding of positive liberty that Isaiah Berlin intended, those legal constraints are determined by all the agents within the body politic through popular vote.
Detractors of democracy in EVE will point at failed examples from in-game history, but none of those organisations were true democracies with a rule of law in place. They were at best republics with ruling councils who would vote on decisions. As The Mittani correctly states in an old article, leaders should not be tied down in meetings during wartime. This is why democratic systems supplement themselves with executive bodies and hierarchies which facilitate quick decision making. That is not in contradiction with the principles of positive liberty as long as the constituency decides to create those institutions as expression of their social agency.
True democracy might be difficult to organise in a game like EVE, but as far as its effectiveness is concerned, the jury is still out. If the great real-world conflicts of the 20th century can be any indicator of organising military success, then it appears that democracies are not as ineffective as detractors might claim. The organisational complexity of a democratic system likely plays a bigger role. The level of integration necessary for a working democracy has only been reached by in-game organisations very recently. Democracies do not tend to spring out of nowhere or are installed, history has shown us that they need to evolve. Their time in EVE might not have come yet.
The Liberties In Balance
The popular discussion topics in EVE often gravitate towards the great powers of nullsec, but when it comes to this particular topic, many smaller groups figure prominently because they often embody a special case. Pirate gangs, small wormhole corporations, groups of small-gang PVPers in nullsec and lowsec commonly operate on a balanced application of both liberties. At the centre of their self-image lies the full embrace of EVE’s negative liberty and they choose to be subject to no-one. The narratives which hold them together will have that notion at their centre. On the other hand, they apply the purest form of positive liberty by taking full responsibility for the group as individuals.
They are not democratic per-se, but in many cases they do not even have a formal structure of leadership at all. There may be FCs who are more prominent than others, but each individual in a fleet is supposed to take over operations or at least handle themselves properly in a fight without being told what to do. When it comes to logistics and the daily chores of EVE, members of such groups will also take it on themselves to serve the common interest. They will scan routes through wormhole space, make tactical bookmarks, produce or transport goods which are needed and gather intelligence on potential targets. Effectively many small and successful corporations of that sort operate like an anarchist meritocracy. They do so because of a very strong interdependence between individual members and at the same time the need to stay flexible and promote high skill.
Parallels And Tangents
EVE-Online is often considered by researchers as a petri-dish of sorts for social and political dynamics. Unfortunately for him, Mr. Berlin died before he could witness its emergence. Since his lecture in 1958 he pondered and struggled with the ideas he had on the two kinds of liberties. I am sure he would have found much food for thought in EVE. For example, how it happens that some of the most lawless areas of the game environment become the most organised and well governed. On the flipside, highsec space – which is subject to most mechanical constraints facing the individual pilot – has become home to those who revel in negative liberty: gankers, scammers, mercenaries, market traders, unbound fighters like Red vs. Blue and the many players just mining and running missions without much care about anything or anyone. They all just do whatever they feel like doing and choose not to subject themselves to any significant form of self-governance. The further outward one moves in observation of the EVE playerbase, the more codes and regulations play a role. From the rigorous self-discipline of the PVP elite and wormhole settlers to the totalitarian states of sov nullsec with their feudal empires, oligarchies, military dictatorships and bolshevik-style cadre-led communism.
It is certainly an interesting subject for anyone who likes to think about socio-political developments. So far, the discourse has been dominated by the totalitarian rulers of major groups in their ideological publications and statements. To answer the question why we have indeed not seen the development of large-scale democracies in EVE, it will not be sufficient to have only one side providing an explanation.
Tags: democracy, leadership, politics, tarek
Former nullsec spy (no not under that name of course) and current failure at lowsec solo PVP, Tarek spends his time not logging in to the game as much as he keeps thinking about its social and metagame nature and sharing some of those thoughts with the CZ readers.