Sunday, April 5, 2020

(M: tAs) Syndicate

Oh, man, this was the book I was born to critique. And like any case where someone meets their destiny, I am gripped with a deep existential terror. How do I even begin here? Good and bad and good and evil are all mixed up, and as much as it's my job to sort them out, I'm not sure that it's actually even possible.

The history chapter of this book has a framing device. A Syndicate enforcer is doubting his allegiance, and he says to a confidante, "No legitimate business runs like this." The recommended reading section wraps up with a list of periodicals ranging from the Wall Street Journal to the Nation and caps it with the quip, "What? You thought we were exaggerating . . . ?"

And there's a certain amount of "no shit" factor at work here. Where is all this transgressive posturing coming from in a book that didn't even bother to WoD-ify the Coca Cola death squads? The year is 1997 and a goth is whispering in my ear, "psst . . . capitalism is . . . sometimes . . . not good. Don't tell anyone I told you that."

But as a critique of capitalism, Syndicate has approximately zero precision. The opening fiction features the return of our friends in the Arcanum. Secret Agent John Courage has entrusted them with a document dump that details all of the Syndicate's activities and the Rolex-wearing, high fashion archivist lady tells her lackey, "Please find whatever companies in here we hold stock in . . . and get us the hell out." Where did she previously think her "casually wearing a $6000 suit" money came from?

Setting aside the financial recklessness of such a move ("a conspiracy of finance mages is manipulating the economy for their personal benefit - I'm sure that divesting from their corporations won't affect our bottom line"), it's hard to see what has her so spooked. The Syndicate has ties to organized crime. Which isn't, you know, good or anything, but is such small potatoes compared to the 300 year history of global capitalism that you have to wonder if maybe the authors couldn't think of any other way to make "being rich and owning a lot of stock" sound sinister.

At one point, we're treated to the startling revelation that the World of Darkness' Robin Hood-analogue was actually a prominent member of the Syndicate's precursor organization. The narrator compared him, in an embarrassingly "lost cause" sort of way, to Robert E Lee. "A good man . . . who wound up on the wrong side." And this sort of cuts to the heart of what's wrong with Syndicate as a book.

The narrator is unreliable; known by his very nature as a Syndicate bigwig, to be evil. This is confirmed by the fact that Robin Hood is his enemy. But Robert E. Lee is also his enemy (the Syndicate sided with "the industrial North" rather than "the quasi-feudal South" during the American Civil War), but he treated Lee with respect. And all of this was happening in the context of him trying to persuade a recalcitrant operative to stay in his job. So the thing with Lee was probably just a conventional piety, supporting a half-truth, in service to the rehabilitation of a historical villain . . .

But none of it is even remotely close to relevant, because the issues at play in both the Robin Hood story and the American Civil War is a stratified social order in which the murderous greed of the people at the top led to the utter degradation of those at the bottom (in addition to a deeply sick racial pathology the USA has still not fully recovered from) and you can't just gloss over it, because the feudal relationships you so condemn were the embryonic form of capitalism's private property regime and it's an undeniable fact that the industrial revolution was financed by the profits of a dozen generations of slave empires.

That's why the gangster-Syndicate rings so false. It's almost as if it's trying to say that violence and exploitation are foreign to the system, something that needs to be brought into it from an exterior force. The Syndicate Enforcers are mafia legbreakers. The sheriffs that the Financiers send to your house when they manipulate the banks to foreclose, those guys are just doing their job. The terror imposed by the cartels is shocking, but British colonial misrule in Ireland and India, the manufactured famines that killed millions - those barely merit comment.

You can, of course, have a villain who horrifies with their obliviousness. When the narrator suggests that the Syndicate's hoarding of stolen Jewish wealth post-WW2 is all part of their commitment to honor contracts, regardless of personal preference, it's obvious that he's being self-serving and callous, but it's only apparent that this was intentional because the doubting character called him on it. It's much harder to judge irony by omission.

Don't get me wrong, this book is not exactly kissing the ass of the capitalist class. It's just that when they describe the Syndicate deliberately searching for prospective employees who have gotten in over their heads with credit card debt, so that the Technocracy's generous wages will make them extra loyal, that's so much less evil than the use to which real capitalism put pre-employment credit checks (and oh man, do not get sucked into the rabbit hole of credit agencies justifying the practice on their websites).

There's a revealing detail, when the book discusses the Syndicate's reaction to the publication of The Communist Manifesto. The narrator says, "It was a call for a return to the Dark Ages in a lot of ways."

Now, I don't want to get involved in a discussion about the historical legacy of 20th century communism, but this is a bad take on Marx. Now, given who is doing the talking, it's not surprising that it's a bad take. It's actually the exact sort of bad take that you'd expect from an arch-capitalist. Which is exactly the problem. Hypertech finance magicians should not be getting their talking points from PraegerU. You can either satirize the rich by pointing out that money tends to make one dumb as hell (or, at the very least, that being a willfully ignorant blowhard is no barrier to riches) or you can talk about the sinister globalist cabal that controls all the banks, but trying to have it both ways would require a virtuoso level of artifice that this book simply can't attain.

The point is, the Syndicate should probably be the sort of self-aware villains that only really exist in fiction ("of course the system is rigged, we're the ones who rigged it"), but Syndicate, the book, isn't ready to really explore what villainy means in the context of the global economy. The closest you get is the Special Projects Division and its relationship to Werewolf: the Apocalypse's Pentex corporation. Pentex is a front for monsters that want to destroy the Earth, and the SPD subcontracts with them because they're greedy and want to make a profit. The implication is that if the rest of the Syndicate found out what SPD was doing, they'd be horrified, but I repeat the question I had about the well-heeled Arcanum lady - where did White Wolf think the Resources Level 10 money was coming from if not environmental destruction, corporate lawlessness, and the exploitation of labor?

The only intrinsic evil of capitalism the book feels the need to warn about is consumerism. Video games are going to rot our minds, man and television is killing our sense of wonder. And while I think there's a lot to say about the complex relationship between consumerism and the other evils of capitalism, what we get here is a damned shallow read.

Thus gangsters.

Overall, I'd say Syndicate actually ranks as near the top of this batch of Technocracy books, but that is fairly faint praise. It is somewhat useful as a source of antagonists and somewhat useful as a player's guide, but it excels at neither task. What it really needs is a stronger point of view. Like I said with Destiny's Price, it feels a lot like a White Wolf is operating from a very conservative point of view and building a form of in-house liberalism that is mainly a knee-jerk reaction to that. Not something that is necessarily the best vantage from which to approach a faction that embodies the excesses of the American system.

Ukss Contribution: One of the sample magic items (sorry, devices) is called Clout Perfume. It has a variety of effects, including the stereotypical "ultra alluring pheremones," but one variant caught my eye - you can use this perfume to add a bonus to intimidation rolls. I like that. A cologne that makes you smell intimidating.

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