My Say: What The Expanse can teach us about power and politics

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on October 31, 2022 - November 06, 2022.
My Say: What The Expanse can teach us about power and politics
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The three genres of fiction that I enjoy the most are, in no particular order, murder mystery “whodunnits”, horror à la Stephen King and science fiction. While I have read the first two categories pretty much my entire life, I am much more of a newbie to the science fiction category. My initial forays into the genre were due to recommendations from friends; I was perhaps around 20 years old when a friend introduced Isaac Asimov’s short story, The Last Question to me. It remains my favourite science fiction short story.

And over the years, other friends have made further wonderful recommendations to me in science fiction. One such recommendation — which I am happy to forward to anybody — is the Three Body trilogy, by Chinese science fiction writer, Liu Cixin. It combines history, sociology, game theory, and “hard science” to tell the grandest of stories. From there, I have picked up more of Liu’s works, as well as the works of one of his translators, Ken Liu. They have all been excellent thus far.

Another recommendation, also from a friend, in the genre is The Expanse series, written by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. The Expanse is a nine-book series that essentially blends a political, economic, anthropological and sociological lens on human nature, asking the question, “How would we react if we suddenly discovered extra-terrestrial life and the powers or resources it may bring?”

Books one to six of The Expanse were developed into a television series of the same name, which is also excellent and well worth watching. In books five and six, mirrored as well by seasons five and six of the television series, an extremist leader kick-starts a revolution against the establishment government of the day by launching asteroids at Earth. This rebellion picks up speed, recruiting allies, factions and soldiers from the historically underrepresented masses living on the asteroid belt (known as Belters) between Mars and Jupiter.

The Expanse does as good a job as I have seen in any media in exploring and digging into the concept of power structures and how inequality in power structures have lasting effects on society. Consider the following conversation between the “Inners”, typically from Earth and Mars, who have historically held power in the solar system and the “Belters” who have been typically underrepresented in the politics of the solar system.

Inner leader: I give you my word that you and your people will be represented; equal status in dignity to Earth and Mars.

Belter leader 1: That promise has been made and broken more times than I can count.

Belter leader 2: Over and over, we have been told we can trust the Inners, that this time will be different and it never was.

Inner leader: I cannot unwind history.

Belter leader 2: The Belt will treat you with respect, you have my word. We will take our niche in the future and allow you yours, you have my word. Is that good enough? Will you take that? Why is your word enough for me and mine not enough for you?

Whether it is the Inners or the Belters, one can easily imagine this conversation happening in real life between groups who have historically held plenty of power and those who have historically held limited power. Those in power typically prefer the status quo; after all, rules were made by those who were powerful enough to set the rules in the first place. And while rules are ostensibly made for the benefit of all, they are rarely, if ever, made at the expense of those in power. And yes, those in power expect the ongoing trust — I give you my word — of those who have been sidelined by such rules. Further, those in power typically find it difficult to redistribute power, particularly to those who have been historically underrepresented. What if they rock the boat and shake things up too much?

To be clear, it’s not as if the world is suddenly split between those with power and those without. Even going back to prehistory, there has been tonnes of evidence on unequal power. In their book, The Creation of Inequality: How our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery and Empire, anthropologists Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus show how societies time and time again have changes in social logic — a set of explicit or implicit rules of social behaviour — that allow for and generate differentiation and hierarchy in a given society. In the past, such legitimacy in power differentiations typically came from mastery over religious aspects (“manna”), expertise and craftsmanship (“tohunga”), or bravery and warfare (“toa”).

In similar ways, governments, kingdoms, or empires throughout history have largely gained legitimacy through the same channels. They might derive popular support due to military might, religious leadership or economic strength, or some combination of those aspects. And, naturally, it is the elites in those governments, kingdoms or empires who then create rules and policies to preserve their position and to extend their legitimacy. If legitimacy is acquired via economic growth, or via a merchant class as in Great Britain following the Glorious Revolution, then we will likely see policies that promote economic growth.

In a previous article (My Say: Towards an inclusive and sustainable development bargain, The Edge, Issue 1437, Sept 5), I described a recent book called Gambling on Development by Stefan Dercon, a professor at Oxford University and former chief economist at the UK’s Department for International Development. The book’s essential thesis, as described by Dercon, is “… for take-off through growth and development, elites with power and influence in poor countries must be committed to growth and development, and be willing to make economic and political choices that reflect this. Such elite bargain is a development bargain.”

But how do we ensure that bargain is as inclusive as can be? In the same conversation in The Expanse, another character states, “[The masses] saw the future and they weren’t in it … You want to show someone you trust them, you put your life in their hands; you can’t just pretend to. If you can’t do that, you don’t really trust them. And if we can’t find a way to trust each other at this point, I doubt we ever will.” And maybe that’s a lesson for us moving forward into our upcoming general election.

The reality of economic development is that the elite bargain does matter. And we know that elites like to remain elites; this is not controversial. But they do respond to claims of legitimacy. As such, how we hold elites to account in any country therefore matters; leave them to go unchecked and a country will serve the few at the expense of the many. Have them be accountable to the people — and this is precisely why elections are so crucial — and perhaps we have a chance at a development bargain that will be inclusive and sustainable.

And as we look at manifestos, the technocratic policies of subsidy rationalisation, social protection and industrial expansion all matter. But perhaps we should go further — perhaps we should also evaluate those manifestos by how much they are willing to redistribute and delegate power, particularly to those who have been historically underrepresented. Maybe this is too idealistic, maybe it isn’t. In either case, we should all go out and vote.

Nicholas Khaw is an economist and head of research at Khazanah Nasional Bhd

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