Or, the pitfalls of capitalist technocracy
Ever since its release, I’ve had a lot of discussions with friends about Fallout: New Vegas; the most interesting point of contention in these discussions lies, of course, in everyone’s differing preferences regarding the game’s resolution. Each one of us brought to the table our personal choices, and the reasons we made them; as an aside, I often stood out by saying my preference was Yes-Man (might expound on this later). These conversations, and a quick look at global achievement stats on Steam, left me with an interesting observation: people fucking hate the Legion and the NCR both, and I concur, but some will not extend the same scorn to Mr. House. This is perplexing to me; while he may not be as brutal as the Legion, nor as imperialistic as the NCR, Mr. House is probably the most tyrannical out of the three. Thus, I’ve decided to analyze Mr. House, his political philosophy, and the mechanisms of his power.
- An Old-World Capitalist
Before the war, Robert House was a billionaire casino owner who, through some admittedly brilliant moves, was able to predict and prepare for the coming nuclear war between China and the U.S. There is no question that the man is smart; that he could see the coming war, predict the ensuing revival of society, and safeguard most of Las Vegas against the nukes discards any doubt one may have. However, neither his intelligence nor his actions elevate him above ideological concerns. House is a capitalist through and through, with his goal being the establishment of New Vegas as a business. This is best illustrated by his attitude to the NCR and the Legion. He wants NCR out, but around, so that he may profit from tourism out of their territory. He wants the Legion gone, simply because he cannot profit from them; he has no say on their brutality, their use of slavery, their rigid stratification of society. In his eyes, the one thing that makes them undesirable is that they consider gambling, drugs and prostitution, all things House profits from, as degenerate practices.
Now, isn’t the result generally positive? Even if done for profit, isn’t he doing the right thing? To answer this, we need to look at what capitalism is, how it operates, and why, ultimately, motives matter. Very succinctly, Capitalism is an economic system founded on two basic things: private (or productive) property, and capital. In NV, the private property in question are the Strip casinos; House owns them, and so collects profit from them. Currency spent at the casinos goes to him. This accumulated currency is called capital; capital can be used however its owner sees fit. If House so desires, he can hoard all of it, leaving everyone else to fend for themselves. This is an interesting contradiction of capitalist economics: owners have incentives to hoard wealth, but this prevents others from spending at the owner’s properties. If, say, House has a monopoly on food production, this could lead to mass starvation, even though there is plentiful food. Nowhere in this equation do moral concerns appear; if working with the Legion provided greater profits, House would probably do so. If one sides with him at the end of the game, there is nothing preventing him from siding with any future fascist state for profit. This also ties into the nature of ownership under capitalism. Individual ownership of private (or productive) property entails that said individual makes every decision; any discontent is simply removed from the system at the whims of the owner. As in my earlier example, of siding with the Legion for profit, we can see how dangerous this could be for the inhabitants of New Vegas. Furthermore, if House ever comes to the realisation that he could do away with humans altogether, and rely solely on his robots, he could enact a wasteland-wide genocide without much effort.
But he will not have this realisation. Why? Because House illustrates a quote by Slavoj Zizek perfectly: “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” A capitalist at heart, House’s goals are to keep growing his wealth, even after a global apocalypse. What’s the point? What benefits does House gain from his wealth? He is immortal, yes, but only by remaining physically cooped up in a hibernation chamber. He can interact with the outside solely through his robots but does so only when strictly necessary. He does not seem to want anything beyond wealth. He gives no indication that he ever wants to restore his body, and walk the earth again; similarly, he loathes interacting with people from outside his casino. And yet, he meticulously plans out a way to continue gathering wealth after the end of the world. In the end, if House had any imagination outside of his cold, calculating, Capital-hoarding computer of a mind, he might be able to do some good with his immense resources. But he can’t. Because he’s an Old-World Capitalist. The reality of the wastelands is that survival should be prioritized; the whole genre of post-apocalyptic fiction speaks to this. But House cannot reframe his worldview without recognizing the futility of his own life.
- The cult of expertise and technocratic rule
The most common argument I’ve seen in support of house lies in his technical abilities, his access to resources, and his near-godlike powers of prediction. For the sake of this argument, I will treat all of these things as true; Mr. House I an intelligent man, nigh-omniscient and with access to near-unlimited resources. I still think he’d be a horrible leader. Of course, my earlier dissection of the profit-motive is disqualifying in and of itself, as is his desire for the continuation of capitalist economy. I first want to outline exactly the areas of House’s expertise; to mind, it is twofold. He is an expert in robotics, and a businessman; these qualify him to participate in a society as a roboticist, or a businessman. It does not qualify him to lead a society, let alone when he does not have popular consent.
This is quite a common fallacy; we often fall for it in our world. An expert in, say, astrophysics, pronounces himself on evolution/religion/climate change/feminism/etc. etc., and we tend to trust their judgment. Yet, they know less than fuck-all on the subject they’re talking about. Like… Einstein was a socialist, right? A lot of socialists thus pretend that their position is intellectually superior, because Einstein. Means shit-all, though; he might have been brilliant in his area of expertise, but Einstein’s opinions on politics are just that: personal opinions. Now, I happen to agree with Albert here- still doesn’t mean his thoughts should change anyone’s mind. Same goes for Mr. House; your first encounter with the man is carefully framed by him, so that you see things his way, see him as the god he sees himself as. However, go off-script for a second, and you’ll see he starts panicking like the scared bitch he is. All his calculations, all his planning, years and years spent securing himself a place in the new world- and you can just saunter over to his coffin and drive a sledgehammer through his face. This is the flaw in expert-oriented governance: experts have blinders on; anything outside their field is of no concern. Now, the best of them know this, and defer to others when faced with unrelated problems. But not guys like Mr. House; this type of expert will drive the world to extinction because they can’t see past their blind spots.
Furthermore, expertise rarely works alone. Scientists generally work in teams, engineers too, etc. etc. Knowing this, it becomes laughable that House would rule Vegas on his lonesome; his solutions to every problem seems to be either: throw money at it, or send in his robots; there are situations where this won’t change a fucking thing. Cooperation is necessary, as is diversity of tactics; however, this is a topic for my piece on the Followers of the Apocalypse.
- The Friendly Face of authoritarianism
House’s rule over Vegas is secured by his legions of securitron robots. These rolling TV screens usually showcase some cartoonish version of policemen or soldiers; what better way to flaunt your totalitarian power than that? Earlier, I mentioned that House could enact a wide-scale genocide on New Vegas at a moment’s notice, and I’d like to highlight this with the securitrons. By default, they lack proper drivers to run all their capabilities. This, however, still leaves them with: a 9mm submachine gun, laser rifles, and bulky appendages which they can use to beat on House’ opponents. Once upgraded, it gets scarier. They now have rocket launchers, self-repair protocols, tougher armor and, scariest of all: a grenade launcher for “crowd control.” Crowd. Control. A semi-automatic grenade launcher. For Crowd Control. Think about that. Do you really want the guy who thinks its fine to use fragmentation grenades for crowd control to rule a Wendy’s, let alone a crowded city?
Now, veterans of the game might be tut-tutting me right now with: “the securitrons aren’t unique to House, though. What about Yes-Man?” And don’t worry.
I’ll get to Yes-Man.