Tuesday, October 6, 2020

(M:tAs) Convention Book: Syndicate

Convention Book: Syndicate is going to be a challenge for me because I know it's operating on at least four levels of critical irony - It wants to correct the prior depictions of the Syndicate that made them out to be cartoonishly villainous, but it also wants to downplay early Revised's overcorrection into making the Technocracy heroic, but also the people the Syndicate is based off of are real life villains, but also we are so steeped in the ideology of capitalism that we'll often construct apologetics for capitalism without even realizing it.

I'll give you a concrete example from the book. Here is how it describes the subprime lending crisis:

A handful of overly ambitious shithead Financiers gave some very bold advice to the people who write the laws that govern how loans work in these United States. They needed more fluid capital to work with and figured that if a bunch of poor people got loans for houses they couldn't afford, well, then they could just drain them dry and they'd have some easy money. . .

Part of the compensation plan has been to back a rewrite of the whole American bankruptcy law. People were taking out loans they knew they could not afford and then just claiming bankruptcy and making the state take care of them -- parasites with little to no judgement or self-control.

What do I even do with that? Well, the first thing would be to walk it back a little by pointing out that in the three paragraphs I cut out of the quote, the narrator does express some sympathy towards the middle class for the "foreclosure and misery [that] reigned over [them] for the last decade." It's important to acknowledge that they are less callous than their counterparts on real Wall Street. But once that acknowledgement is out of the way, I'll have to immediately walk forward again by pointing out that rest of the book advances the party line that the crash happened because "A few Financiers . . . attempted to accelerate consumer wealth - primarily through home ownership."

What is even going on here? That's where the layers of irony come in. On one level, we really shouldn't take the word of the Syndicate at face value. A lot of their talk about the crash is simple ass-covering. Another theme that gets repeated is that the financial crisis happened because the Technocracy needed money. This is a bit more truthful, even if it's framed as a defense. They created exotic financial instruments and then endlessly sold them and resold them to each other because they wanted money and they didn't care who they had to hurt to get it.

But we also have to consider that this is a fantasy game. An explicit goal of the book is to present the Syndicate as people who "struggle between the desire to be noble and the need to be pragmatic." So maybe there is something to the idea that they were sincerely trying to help, but suffered a paradox backlash. That's not how it went down in real life, but Mage: the Ascension isn't real. . .

It's an idea that could work, but it yields a gaming supplement that feels like it could be praised by National Review. That's the danger of incorporating real events into your fiction. You blur the lines between characters reacting to plot and the author reacting to events.

That's just a tension you have to be comfortable with if you're going to enjoy Convention Book: Syndicate. The Syndicate are the heroes of their own story, but they're also unreliable narrators. If you want the opinion of this grumpy leftist, it's not a tightrope the book always walks successfully. Often, it reads more like a villain book than the original 2e splat, where they explicitly villains.

What it comes down to for me is that a central pillar of their philosophy is utterly toxic. They are dedicated elitists who don't believe in equality. Not only do they think it's impossible, thy think it's inherently undesirable. According to a sidebar "wealth only has value because it is unequal. If everybody has equal wealth, then nobody is wealthy." The Syndicate enforces a system that is hierarchical to its core, and they can't be separated from that.

A funny thing about that, though is that the Syndicate sets itself against medieval feudalism, claiming that "aristocrats are a drain on the economy. They produce nothing." The real irony of the statement is not that it's being said by a capitalist, but that it tracks very well with Marx's historiography. Capitalism is the progressive historical successor to feudalism, much as socialism is to be towards capitalism, but the Syndicate views itself as the end of history. Truly, they are those who stand athwart history, yelling "stop."

Overall, I'd say that Convention Book: Syndicate is another piece of evidence in support of the notion that the Technocracy's time has passed. They are the "Defenders of the Status Quo," the one anti-progressive faction in a group defined (for good and for ill) by its progressivism. They have a niche in the World of Darkness, and they are the heart of the version of the Technocracy that represents the excesses of European imperialism, but in a world where you want the narrator of the book to be a Ghanaian woman who has internalized the values of American capitalism, where the one unironic thing about the splat's presentation is its newfound commitment to being a genuinely gender- and color-blind meritocracy, then it becomes ever harder to see what ties the Technocracy together.

I suppose that's the undercurrent of the NWO vs Syndicate civil war metaplot. The Union is, in fact, in danger of flying apart. It's an idea that has been teased repeatedly in the new Convention Books, and gets its fullest expression here, where the Syndicate is absolutely dripping with contempt for the NWO, but which, as far as I recall, is completely abandoned (aside from the obligatory optional sidebar) in M20.

I'm probably too ideologically alienated from the fantasy of capitalism to truly enjoy this book as a player resource, but it does do the job of fleshing out one of Mage's more one-dimensional factions, and there's some value in that (no pun intended).

Ukss Contribution: The "Mercenary" sample character is a "warfighter who can run the numbers, so they can find economic solutions to violent conflicts." It's an interesting combination that could inspire a whole company of forensic accountants/nation builders/guerilla warriors.

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