Space the Nation: A political scientist weighs in on The Expanse's OPA

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Feb 26, 2019

Before getting started on part two of our analysis of the politics of The Expanse, we should address the controversy that erupted over our decision to align the Rocinante's least talkative crew member, Amos, with charming-but-eccentric outsider candidate Tulsi Gabbard.

Many correspondents deemed this entirely unfair to Amos, for two reasons: First, because Gabbard supports Syrian President Bashir al-Assad — and Assad has overseen bombing campaigns whose signature images are that of burned and bloodied children. Amos’ drive to protect children, these correspondents argued, would mean he could never support Gabbard. Point taken.

The second objection was the original explanation for why Amos might back Gabbard: he’s not a great judge of character, we reasoned then. The pushback: Amos is a great judge of character — it’s just that his criteria for judging whether someone is “good” or not is pretty different than most people’s. (He is basically okay with violence, but very concerned about whether people keep promises!) We concede this is, in fact, the case. Really, to the extent Amos is a “bad” judge of character, he acknowledges that he’s not great at big moral quandaries, which is why he often out-sources those decisions to Naomi Nagata. Naomi has made some questionable calls, to be sure (especially in her murky, pre-Rocinante past); the difference between her and Amos — between Amos and most of us — is that she can make a million errors in moral judgment but still believe she’s basically good at it. Amos knows himself better than most.

So who would Amos support? Upon further reflection, it’s possible he’d just refuse to participate in elections—especially in American elections as they are structured today. All that corporate “dark money”? Russian hacking? A media culture that emphasizes horse race narratives over substance? And, of course: A system that always sticks it to the poorest among us, no matter who’s in charge. What would the point of voting be? That seems like the most Amos reaction to 2020.

With that said, everyone should vote! You should vote! Voting is the only way to change the system! Still, our initially incomplete analysis of Amos suggests that mapping characters’ worldviews directly onto 2020 candidates doesn’t capture the subtleties of politics inside The Expanse universe or our own.

So we’ve once again recruited Actual Political Scientist and Expanse scholar Dan Drezner, this time to help us understand how the Outer Planets Alliance illustrates the promise and the perils of nationalist insurgencies in general. Rather than try and figure out who Anderson Dawes would vote for if he was involved in American democracy, we asked Drezner about whether democracy stands a chance in the Belt.

So, what can historical insurgencies tell us about the future of the OPA?

Drezner: Well, if real-life insurgencies ever win, what inevitably happens is fragmentation. The moment that there's a contestation for power after the imperial threat is removed, that's when factions inevitably emerge.

Is Mars a counterexample? It seems to have held together, post-independence.

Drezner: Yes, but that's a different dynamic, more like a settler colony seceding from the metropole.

And they’re richer, right?

Drezner: Well, that's the weird thing. Mars has been painted as growing more dynamically, but I've never heard them referred to as resource-rich. Whereas the Belt is the source of raw materials for both Mars and Earth. And places rich in extractable raw materials (oil, diamonds) are also more likely to fall prey to civil war because the resources help to fuel the conflict.

So what’s a good historical parallel for the Belt?

Drezner: Let’s see: you have a downtrodden population, immiserated by colonial exploitation, and rather decentralized and based along almost tribal structures...That suddenly wins some measure of autonomy, but not necessarily through their own devices...

I want to say Pakistan.

And isn't Pakistan notoriously hard to traverse? Mountainous, difficult terrain? That aligns with how the Belt is literally fragmented.

Drezner: Yeah, the Arab Middle East post-World War I might be the best example.

What happens to the former colony when sudden wealth is introduced, in the way that the Belt suddenly controls access to the Ring Gates?

Drezner: That's like the 1973 oil shock. It's usually a recipe for massive corruption UNLESS the society already has a strong rule of law and political institutions in place (i.e., Norway). That influx can also be temporarily stabilizing because a ruler can throw money at problems. Over the long haul, however, it usually promotes decay and corruption

What about the "first world" actors, Earth and Mars? How does their relationship with the former colony evolve?

Drezner: There can often be resentment of colonial power, particularly if that power tried to foment cleavages in the colony to enable divide and conquer. [Which obviously is the case with Earth and the OPA!] The interesting question is if there continue to be elite ties between a newly independent state and the former colonizer. Like, do OPA cadres go to Earth for university? Or to the Earth university on Ceres? You get the idea.

So a certain amount of “selling out” among the leaders of the revolution is a good thing.

Drezner: Well, there's a logic to it, but of course it leaves revolutionaries-turned-rulers vulnerable to charges of elitism. But yeah, selling out also signals to the former rulers that the new state won't be a revolutionary actor. Compare Saudi Arabia [lots of interaction between American and Saudi elites] with Iran after the revolution, for example [not so much interaction!].

Is it possible to sketch out the "geo-political" (astro-political?) fallout from the availability of hundreds of new planets to settle?

Drezner: There’s a way in which new settler opportunities should help increase Earth's political stability. Lots of opportunities for the underclass to strike out on their own. Same for the [underclass] of the OPA.

Of course, stability for in post-colonial powers on Earth usually came at the cost of subjugating whole cultures. That's what will make the future of settling beyond the gates interesting: Does humanity learn any f*cking thing?

Drezner: (whispers) No.

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