My Review of Daniel Suarez, Daemon and Freedom(TM)

[Cross-posted from P2P Foundation Blog]

Daniel Suarez.  Daemon (Signet, 2009); Freedom(TM) (Dutton 2010).

I should have known how good these books would be when I saw John Robb of Global Guerrillas listed among Suarez’s advisers on the Acknowledgements page of Daemon.  If you’ve been following Robb the last year or so, you know he writes a lot about resilient communities and darknets.  Recently, against the backdrop of disruption of the Icelandic volcano, he stated the two principles of resilience:

*Localize production
*Virtualize everything else

Those are, perhaps not coincidentally, the central organizing principles of the new society that emerges in Suarez’s two novels.  As Robb describes it in his review of Freedom,

it is a fictional account of the next American revolution (AR 2.0) using resilient communities, open source warfare, systems disruption, individual super-empowerment, parasitic predation, hollow nation-states, etc, (all staples of global guerrilla thinking) as central themes.  Very cool.

Any regular reader of this blog, anyone on the P2P Research or Open Manufacturing lists, anyone who follows John Robb, Jeff Vail or David Ronfeldt, should run—not walk—to buy both of these books.

Daemon kicks off with the death of genius software and gaming mogul Matthew Sobol.  News of his death triggers a Web daemon—”A computer program that runs continuously in the background and performs specified operations at predefined times or in response to certain events.”  Or as one of the characters puts it, ““a narrow AI scripting application distributed over a peer-to-peer network architecture to avoid core logic disruption.”

It gets off to a pretty exciting start.  The newly activated Daemon triggers an assortment of booby-traps that kill former close associates of Sobol with an inside knowledge of the Daemon’s  construction.  It also activates a horrendously effective automated defense system at Sobol’s estate, which houses a sizeable server farm in the basement.  During the siege, dozens of county and federal law enforcement officers suffer deaths that should translate very well to the big screen.

After that, the public drama dies down and the Daemon pursues its agenda more quietly, infesting corporate and government computer systems with assorted worms.  It continues to react to real-world events, as monitored news on the Internet triggers its scripts.

Natalie Philips, a hot young cryptographic genius handling the NSA’s investigation, describes the Daemon’s capabilities (as it turns out a very low-ball estimate) early on in the story:

“Huge amounts of money flowed from Sobol’s bank accounts immediately after his death.  ACH wire transfers totaling tens of millions of dollars went offshore.  He also took out large lines of credit in the months before his death.  This money, too, went overseas the day he died….  Picture the combination of a widely distributed, compartmentalized application with high failure tolerance—perhaps thousands of copies of each component, able to reconstitute itself if any x-percentage of its components are destroyed….

.

“Now combine an application like that—a widely distributed entity that never dies—with tens of millions of dollars and the ability to purchase goods and services.  It’s answerable to no one and has no fear of punishment.”

Not long after this, the Daemon manages buy itself time and slack by framing up Detective Pete Sebeck as the real mastermind behind the terror incidents, so that the press and government largely lose interest in what is what is dismissed as “the Daemon hoax.”

Given the widespread pyrotechnics associated with the Daemon’s appearance, the reader’s natural reaction is to view Sobol as a sociopath, a sort of James Bond villain.  As these things usually go, you expect his face eventually to appear on a giant screen at the UN Security Council, announcing the nuclear destruction of New York and St. Petersburg and delivering his ultimatum.  But as the plot develops, Sobol’s motivation becomes increasingly clear—and it no longer seems quite so crazy.

As it turns out, the large-scale sabotage of government and corporate organizations that kicked things off was only secondary, a way of running interference on behalf of the Daemon’s primary objective.  That objective was to create a Darknet:  as one of the characters describes it, “a network, like the Internet, but more sophisticated and more exclusive, populated only by humans the Daemon has recruited.”

The major part of that recruitment effort is carried out by scripts built into a backdoor of Sobol’s extremely popular computer games, which select players for skill and certain personality traits.  These recruits—thousands of them, and disproportionately disaffected misfits and sociopaths—are set to work building the Darknet and the initial human infrastructure associated with it.  The Darknet, built on the mapping software of Sobol’s multi-player online games, allows members with net-connected HUD glasses to access information from “D-Space,” a virtual world layered on top of the physical one, with semantic tags attached to virtually everything and everyone.  (The Acquis operation on Cyprus had something similar in Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids.)     The  tagging system makes for total transparency:  every individual carries a reputational rating that’s visible to anyone viewing the world with the augmented reality layer superimposed.  Every individual has a ranking within a range of two hundred levels, much like the ranking system of players in a game, that regulates his powers in the Darknet.

“In essence Sobol is using the GPS system to convert the Earth into one big game map.  We’re all in his game now…

.

“…[T]here must be some way for Daemon operatives to interact with this presentation layer.  If my theory holds, then the Daemon must have created equipment that permits its operatives to ‘see’ into this extra-dimensional space so they can use it.”

.

Philips nodded.  “That could be why we’ve been unable to track Factions in the real world—because they’re communicating with each other through this virtual space.”

The humans recruited into the Darknet carry out the Daemon’s agenda in the physical world.  That agenda includes, at the outset, recruiting assorted micromanufacturing facilities and machine shops into the Darknet to serve the Daemon’s agenda.  Their primary order of business at first is modifying SUVs and motorcycles into automated combat vehicles—essentially a more sophisticated generation of armed predator drones using automobiles as platforms.   One brief vignette should be of interest to members of the Open Manufacturing list:  a machine shop equipped with a Haas mini mill—a CNC 3-in-one drill-lathe-router—connected to the Darknet and modifying cars and bikes to the Daemon’s specifications.

As the story progresses, especially in Freedom, the Darknet becomes the nucleus of a human social organization, its overall makeup shifting as the initial thousands of sociopaths and misfits recruited are followed by the millions of normal people attracted by an idealistic vision of a better life.  And that human social organization, as per Sobol’s plan, supercedes the Daemon in importance and begins to exist for its own purposes.   The new human society organized through the Darknet, we learn, was Sobol’s objective all along:  to create a resilient, networked successor society that would continue after global corporate capitalism collapsed from all of its assorted pathologies.  The Daemon, and all the spectacular combat capabilities associated with it, was just a midwife; or as one character puts it, “Sobol was willing to be our villain to force necessary change.”  Sobol’s avatar argues, at one point in the story, that absent a takeover by the Daemon the inevitable collapse of global capitalism would have led to the death of billions.

As the networked production facilities continue to expand, economies built around meeting real human needs—instead of building cool fighting vehicles—become the primary focus.  The Darknet evolves into a network of resilient local communities (holons) with micromanufacturing facilities, sustainable farming methods, and renewable energy sources.  Take, as an example, this example of a farmer living near the Greeley, Iowa holon:

“We’re raising the animals on grass—not corn.  We put in a good blend of natural prairie grasses. Big bluestem, foxtail, needlegrass, switchgrass.  It grows naturally here on the prairie, so it’s turning solar power into beef—no fossil fuels necessary.  And we rotate animals through the fields.  Chickens follow the cows out to pasture, picking the bug larvae out of the manure and eating bugs and worms from the broken turf left behind by the cattle.  The chicken dung, in turn, makes the field fertile for crops.  It’s all an integrated, sustainable system….

.

“Got two ten-kilowatt wind turbines and some flywheel batteries to store the power.  Every other darknet farm in this holon is working for the same thing.  Regional energy and food independence.  We rely on Greeley for our critical manufactured goods—printed electronics, micromanufactured precision equipment, tools, software.  They, in turn, rely on us, along with other farms, to provide their food and raw materials.”

A description of Greeley itself (including the residents’ D-Space interactions), from another perspective:

Unlike many Midwestern towns, Greeley appeared to be undergoing a renaissance. Main Street was lined with recently renovated brick storefronts and micro-manufacturing shops with their roll-top doors opened to reveal machinists and customers poking at D-Space objects, negotiating and ordering 3-D plans off the darknet. CNC milling machines hummed in the workshops beyond.

.

In the street dozens of young adults, young families, and even middle-aged folks with call-outs over their heads walked, clicking on one another’s data, interacting in multiple dimensions as though it were a natural extension of reality.

The story, as you might suspect, heads toward a climactic confrontation between the new society built around the Darknet and the increasingly desperate old corporate order.

Toward the middle of Daemon, elements within the intelligence community begin to suspect and then conclude for a certainty that Sebeck was framed and that the Daemon is real.  The decision is made to proceed with Sebeck’s execution and maintain the hoax story for public consumption.

In the meantime, the Daemon begins showing its hand, using the threat of wiping out their finances to exercise strategic control over the thousands of corporations infested with its worms.  Its control of IT functions is backed by recruitment of internal defectors within the firms—a very easy task, considering the number of disgruntled employees in a time of continued downsizings and benefit cuts.  As Sobol explained in a video recording for corporate officers:

“The reality is that my Daemon now controls your global IT function.  Your business will operate as before, and no one will suspect that there is anything unusual going on—except that perhaps your systems will run better than they did when you were responsible for them.

.

“Your natural inclination will be to resist this indignity, of course, and so you will be tempted to contact the authorities.  That is your choice—although the moment my Daemon detects such contact, it will wipe your company’s data off the face fo the earth….

.

“I hope you and my Daemon can peacefully coexist.  I think you’ll find that, as the years roll by, you’ll be glad indeed that you didn’t try to defy it—especially as you take market share from those companies that did defy it.”

At the same time, the Daemon eradicates the child pornography business, along with several other of the more unsavory activities of organized crime, and collects protection money from the criminal gangs allowed to survive.  One of the more gratifying episodes is the targeted assassination of thousands of spammers worldwide, which reduces the volume of spam clogging ISPs by 80%.

Later, at the beginning of Freedom, the Daemon targets dozens of financial executives and hedge fund managers.  If there’s ever a movie version of this book, the scene of armed motorcycle drones fighting their way through a fortified compound and hacking a billionaire executive to death in his safe room should translate pretty effectively onto the screen.

The real government of the United States (the intelligence community, the black ops people, the private security firms and service contractors attached to the global military empire, the global drug trade funding death squads—not their errand boy in the White House), having become aware of the Daemon’s continued existence, get the idea of hacking it and controlling its powers in their own interest.  The idea is to use the Daemon to restore their control of the faltering global financial system and create a neofeudal order backed by universal surveillance technology and predator drones:

“See, in medieval Europe a mounted knight in armor could defeat almost any number of peasants.  The modern elite warrior is much the same—they can mow down mass conscripted armies with superior technology.  So what happens when small elite forces can overwhelm citizen forces of almost any size?  We return to feudalism—landless serfs and a permanent ruling class.  Just look at the fortified upscale neighborhoods now being built with their own private security forces.”

In Freedom, we see a full-blown war between the emerging Darknet society and this real government, acting on behalf of global finance and the corporate power structure.

The Major, a DOD liaison to the NSA whose very name is classified, represents this real government.  His thirty-odd year career as a foot soldier for the national security state includes extensive involvement as a liaison to the global network of drug funded death squads, U.S.-installed military regimes, and secret prisons.   The first life he ever took was that of a trade unionist in Central America.

The Major’s mindset is that of C. Wright Mills’ “crackpot realists” and Ward Churchill’s “little Eichmanns.”

And that [the murder of the Central American trade unionist] began his awakening—his realization that the Western World was a bedtime story of comforting humanistic bullshit.  Slavery existed everywhere—even in the United States.  We were all slaves in one way or another.  Slavery was just control, and control kept things running in an orderly fashion.  It was what made progress possible.

* * *

“’Bastards like me’ serve a purpose.  People need order…. They need to be told what to think, what to do, what to believe, or everything will fall apart.  This miracle of modern civilization doesn’t just happen.  It requires careful management by professionals willing to do whatever is necessary to keep things running smoothly.”

In one chilling scene, The Major explains that nobody in the real government is stupid enough to think torture is useful for extracting information.

“Torture is about control.  You let me torture a thousand people, and I can keep five million working obediently with their heads down.  The more innocent the victims, the better.  And after they’re broken and maimed, you release them so that everyone can see what awaits those who resist….   So you see, there’s nothing you can tell me that will stop the pain….  The only thing you are is a billboard—on which I’m going to write my message:  this is what happens to people who join the darknet….”

Natalie Philips and her hacker boyfriend Jon Ross, who at first see themselves as engaged in an idealistic struggle between a terrorist movement and the legitimate government of the United States, eventually come to understand that the U.S. government has long been hijacked by the global plutocracy.  The struggle between the Daemon and the supra-national corporate economy is “a struggle between two artificial organisms.”  And as The Major and the forces he represents begin to exercise naked power without any of their legitimizing masks, it becomes apparent to them  that the cause Philips serves is the worse one.  Eventually, just before Philips defects to the Darknet, she realizes she’s the only one in the intelligence community still trying to destroy the Daemon rather than bring it under corporate control.

As the conflict escalates, the global plutocracy shows its hand, taking control of the government on a scale greater than that of the Gilded Age.  Global financial interests present a united front to the U.S. government and impose radical austerity measures, forcing the wholesale “privatization” of government functions to global corporations.  Agribusiness and biotech companies like Monsanto, desperate to stamp out the spreading conversion to sustainable agricultural practices by near-bankrupt farmers in Iowa and Kansas, resort to increasingly heavy-handed police state tactics based on trumped-up “intellectual property” concerns.  Threatened by such blackmail, increasingly disgruntled farmers are recruited by the Darknet en masse (applications for USDA subsidies drop by 90% in a large part of the Midwest).  The ag companies’ intelligence and private security network notes, with alarm, a sustained pattern of “population movements, unexplained capital inflows, and infrastructure investments in alternative energy technologies, high-tech equipment, heirloom seed stock….”  This is paralleled, in Russia and assorted Asian countries, by a drastic reduction in export crops and a growing portion of idle container ships no longer carrying industrial export goods.

The national security state undertakes a full-blown counter-insurgency operation in the Midwest, attempting to suppress the growing network of resilient communities.  It helicopters in paramilitaries and death squads to destroy holons, and then manages the corporate news media to blame the destruction on illegal aliens and domestic terrorist elements radicalized by the growing unemployment levels (approaching 30%).  To quote The Major’s rules of engagement for the assault on Greeley, Iowa:

“…kill everyone you can find, burn every structure, and destroy every vehicle.  Without exception.  The knowledge and equipment that makes these communities work must be eradicated.  The cultural memory that they ever existed must be erased….

.

“As for tactics, the irregular forces will prevent civilians from escaping, while your forces move through town destroying everything in their path.  Psyops units will be filming as needed.  It’s important that they get some footage that resembles an operation to dislodge an insurgent occupation.  I expect the residents will oblige us by resisting with force, but if not, your men should facilitate that imagery.”

The real government obtains a Congressional/Presidential rubber stamp for its assumption of martial law powers, and delegates police state functions to private security firms like Blackwater.  The United States government becomes something like the Allied States in Jericho, hardly even bothering to conceal its nature as a front for crony capitalists looters like Blackwater and Halliburton.  Public fear is orchestrated to build support for the new security measures, giving government a freer hand to suppress opposition to the new austerity regime.

At the climax of the story The Major and the real government, having apparently been successful in hacking the Daemon, prepare to execute its “destroy” function against the computer networks of all corporations infected by it—except for those owned by the inner circle of the financial elite.  The conspirators had carefully invested all their own wealth in a selected core of companies which were insulated from the Daemon’s “destroy” function.  Their plan is to consolidate their power in the ensuing chaos and install full-blown corporate feudalism on a global scale.  Anji Anderson, a popular cable news reporter in on the conspiracy, was given her marching orders:

“—but the change needs to be sold to the American people with a sudden disruption.  Otherwise they’ll resist strongly.  It needs to be the penultimate event that marks a demarcation between what came before and what must come after.  It’s a psychological transition….

.

“Our studies show that a period of general anarchy as brief as forty-eight hours would make the public willing to accept severe changes in exchange for security.”

But the appearance of having been hijacked turns out to have been a ruse by the Daemon:  the flaws in its code which were exploited and hacked by the conspirators were deliberately planted by Sobol.   Following the failure of the attack, the Daemon wipes the data of the supposedly “insulated” firms and erases the conspirators’ personal assets.  As announced by the recorded image of Sobol, playing on monitors at corporate headquarters worldwide:

“What’s more, the Daemon will continue to destroy the resources of these individuals wherever they appear—in whatever form.  And a log of your recent actions will be submitted to pertinent law enforcement agencies and the companies you were targeting. And as for the people who helped make all this possible?  The assistants, lawyers, brokers, programmers, accountants, and security forces?  To those people I say:  your employers have no money.  So do the smart thing—and just walk away.”

The Daemon, meanwhile, having hacked the conspirators’ internal surveillance system, broadcast a recording of the incriminating instructions to Anji Anderson mentioned above.

Parallel to the escalating conflict between the Darknet and the global plutocracy is another conflict within the Darknet itself:  a conflict between the first wave of recruits—the misfits and sociopaths—and the average people building the new, networked democratic society.  The former had the skills Sobol’s Daemon needed to set up the system and to wage armed conflict with the corporate state, but are becoming a hindrance to the long-term evolution of the Darknet society.

This first wave is personified by “Loki,” a cracker and identity thief, one of the Daemon’s earliest recruits.  Loki—a two hundredth-level operative with only a half-star reputation ranking—is the chief human actor coordinating the Darknet’s war with the corporate state, commanding armies of hundreds of automated fighting vehicles.  He is a sociopath on the same order as The Major, reveling in mayhem and destruction.  As he warns The Major at one point:

Freedom fighter?  Is that what you think I am?”  He laughed.  “I don’t give a shit about freedom.  And if I have to kill a hundred million innocent people to get my hands on you, I’ll do it….

This conflict within the Darknet is the background to Pete Sebeck’s mission in Freedom.  Sebeck, recruited by the Daemon in federal custody, is rescued from execution (by a ruse too complicated to get into here) and given a new identity.  His mission is to determine whether the people of the new Darknet are capable of building a healthy society and governing themselves peacefully, rather than being cattle benevolently managed by the Daemon—in other words, “justify the freedom of humanity.”  As Sobol’s recorded message informs Sebeck:

“I’ll tell you what the Daemon is:   the Daemon is a remorseless system for building a distributed civilization.  A civilization that perpetually regenerates.  One with no central authority.  Your only option is what form that civilization takes. And that depends on the actions of people like you.”

The question is answered at the end when Loki, completely out of control and attempting to launch an unending bloodbath after the defeat of The Major and his forces, is stripped of his powers by the Darknet community.  By reining in Loki and controlling the abuse of Darknet power, the new society had passed Sobol’s test.

At that point both conflicts are resolved.  The old corporate order is defeated, along with the dark side of the Darknet itself, and the networked resilient communities are free to build the successor society in peace.

As an anarchist, my main issue with Suarez is his assumption—expressed through some of his more idealistic characters—that the problem was the corporate plutocracy’s subversion of “our laws” and “the governments we create.”  In the end, when The Major and the forces he represents are defeated, the conspirators are charged with treason and the atrophied American constitutional republic is restored to its dignity and independence.  All that’s missing is someone saying “it would have worked if not for you meddling kids.”

This, I think, is fundamentally wrong-headed.  The global corporate regime is not something that came about as a result of inadequate regulation by legitimate states.   Rather, the corporate economy as we know it could not have come about at all without being imposed on society from above by a top-down revolution, on almost the same scale as Stalin’s collectivization and first Five Year Plan (see here, for example—scroll down to the section on the Great Betrayal).   The reason the American model of spectator democracy has been allowed to function all these years is precisely that it worked so well for the ruling class—much less messy to pacify the public with an illusion of control than to suppress it by force.

Suarez, speaking through his characters, uses the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties (along with the present neoliberal order) as examples of periods when the plutocracy achieved ascendancy over democracy.  The Progressive Era and New Deal, presumably, were examples of “our laws” and “the governments we create” reining in the excesses and restoring democratic control.  But in fact the Progressive Era reforms and New Deal were just the agendas of a rival faction of state capitalists.  Just look at the primary real-world effect of Progressive Era regulations as described by Gabriel Kolko in The Triumph of American Conservatism:  to cartelize industry and create stable oligopoly markets by reining in destructive price and quality competition.  Or the role of GE President Gerard Swope and the Business Advisory Council in the New Deal, as described by G. William Domhoff.

American politics has been a shifting coalition between two factions of capital.  One faction, the Progressives and New Dealers, are like a smart farmer who thinks he’ll get more work out of his livestock in the long run if he feeds and houses them comfortably and works them only in moderation.  The other faction, the faction of the Great Barbecue, of Normalcy and Reaganism, is like a farmer who thinks he’ll come out ahead by working his livestock to death and then replacing them.  But both factions see us as their property, and are motivated primarily by the goal of maximizing their own long-term profit.  Attempts by the smarter and more humane farmers to collectively regulate the treatment of their livestock (the collective action, any game theorist could tell you, is a common sense measure to prevent individual defection in the interest of short-term individual profit, at the expense of long-term collective loss) are what Marx dismissed, in the case of the British Ten-Hour Day Act, as the common action of farmers to mandate the manuring of their fields.

The corporate economy, from  its very beginning, has been a structure of power based on massive collusion between big government and big business.  From the very beginning of the corporate system, the primary function of government has been to subsidize the operating costs of big business, and to protect big business from competition through regulatory cartels.  And from the very beginning of capitalism itself, the structure of “actually existing capitalism” (as opposed to a genuinely free market) has been a creature of massive state intervention:  Enclosures, nullifcation of copyhold, absolutist suppression of the leagues of Free Towns, the Navigation Acts and conquest of the Third World—a story written, if you’ll pardon the allusion, in letters of fire and blood.   As for the Founding Fathers Suarez celebrates, I hesitate to imagine how left-wing historians like Charles Beard or Merrill Jensen would respond to a characterization of a coup by Federalist war bond speculators and land-owners as “the government we create.”

Those who think otherwise, those who think the “good government”  just needs to be reactivated to set things to right, are in my opinion like the Russian peasants who thought the “Little Father” was just misled by wicked advisers, and—if  he could ever witness the sufferings of his people—would smite their enemies and dry all their tears.  Government wasn’t hijacked by a ruling class at some discrete moment, as a departure from its past nature; government, in its essence, has been “executive committee of a ruling class” since the beginning.

Aside from that, I suppose I have some reservations about the fundamental premise of the story.  I’d prefer to see the triumph of resilient communities and darknets, and our delivery from global corporate tyranny, come about some other way than by a megalomaniac billionaire acting as deus ex machina from beyond the grave.

My hope, a hope I’ve tried to make a case for elsewhere, is that corporate capitalism is simply unsustainable and will collapse from its own internal crisis tendencies.  The crises of overaccumulation and underconsumption, Peak Oil, fiscal bankruptcy of government, the network revolution combined with the Streisand Effect and open-mouth sabotage, the unenforceability of “intellectual property” law, the growing worthlessness of most investment capital as the price of manufacturing machinery falls by multiple orders of magnitude—these are the things that will bring the system down.  The building blocks of a successor society—relocalized agriculture, relocalized industry using micromanufacturing technology, networked organization—will serve as building blocks of necessity because they’re the only game in town.

But if a dead megalomaniac is the only way to do it, I’ll take that too.

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