Cover image by Studio ZA/UM
Part One: The Immortal Science
Disco Elysium is a very good game. It’s one of those works where merely saying that it’s good almost does it a disservice. One particular point of praise is its depth of worldbuilding; though you see only a tiny slice of a single city, a far greater setting is implied at every turn. What’s especially remarkable is how this setting relates to our own world. At the start of the game, one might easily mistake it for a quirky but ultimately realist narrative. Only as you delve into its deeper details is an inherent alienness revealed. This I assume to be a deliberate strategy: even as the game invites a comparison with our own world, its supernatural aspects work to modulate that parallel to get a certain point across. We may recognize such a maneuver in the presence of the ‘Pale’, a world-encompassing emptiness which could be said to represent the weight or entropy of our collective history. But this is hardly its only strangeness.
In this piece, I would like to focus on another major aspect of Disco Elysium: communism. As befits a game developed mostly by Estonians, this narrative is very much involved with the legacy of revolutionary socialism. Here, it is mostly represented as a mix of failure and melancholy, a sincere love for the communist ideal which nevertheless acknowledges the historical farce of its statist implementations. The bourgeois are bastards, sure, but isn’t this sectarian bloodlust a little unproductive? The last communists are either bitter old soldiers or impotent academics, even as the actual working class suffers all the while. Though there is some glimmer of hope in the form of resolute labor organizing, the danger of reformist cooptation or a capitalist purge remains ever-present. In short, the oppressed people of Disco Elysium’s Revachol are stuck in a state of historical limbo, yet unable to discern their future freedom amid the ruins of the past. As a representation of the historical endlessness promoted by neoliberalism, it is surely a potent image.
If this were all that this game had to say about communism, I might as well end my piece here. However, the depth and ultimate sincerity of Disco Elysium’s engagement with this broad ideology allows me to claim a bit more. In particular, I find it remarkable that the writers have struck a brilliant balance between historical analogy and fantastical worldbuilding. For as much as we may recognize the history of the Commune of Paris in that of Revachol, the specific iconography of communism —white instead of red, the star-and-antlers instead of the hammer-and-sickle—could hardly be more different. An even more significant example of this can be found in the form of infra-materialism, a most confounding piece of revolutionary theory. To explain it, I need to delve even further into Disco’s weird worldbuilding.
For those who aren’t too familiar with the world of Disco Elysium, one of its major conceits is the so-called Antecentennial Revolution. Set about fifty years before the start of the game proper, this was a worldwide social convulsion in which communards led by Kras Mazov—a man who resembles Marx as much as he does Lenin—tried to establish new socialist republics in several worldwide polities. This effort mostly resulted in failure and repression, with the forces of capital combining into a reactionary coalition for “stabilité”. One of the few revolutionary states to survive this period is the People’s Republic of Samara, a regime which has long turned into a bureaucratic hellscape of the Soviet variety. However, what’s notable about it is that it still claims to follow the ideology of ‘Nilsenist-Mazovianism’, an augmentation of regular communism inspired by the work of one Ignus Nilsen. With the introduction of this figure, we’re getting one step closer to the point I am trying to make.
Before the game was patched to its ‘Final Cut’ version, all a player was likely to learn about Ignus Nilsen came in the form of dichotomous biographical snippets: where some saw him as an inspiring revolutionary and a solid theorist, others condemned him for his war crimes and ideological absurdities. In this way, his reception resembles that of many real-life revolutionaries, a nuance which ought to be appreciated. However, upon the release of the aforementioned Final Cut, an extra set of ‘political vision quests’ was added to the game, one of which touched on Nilsen’s work as an object of ideological study. In a side quest which proved as silly as it was slyly profound, the player is asked by two communist university students to read through a considerable theoretical volume called “A Brief Look Into Infra-Materialism”. This work discusses Nilsen’s main contribution to Mazovian communism, the eponymous concept of ‘infra-materialism’. Here is where the fun begins.
As the in-game book lays it out, the theory of infra-materialism began as Nilsen considered the connection between mind and matter, thought and reality. His central supposition was that the revolutionary fervor of the masses, if expressed correctly, could begin to have direct effects on the material world. Everything from turnip yields to facial hair might be enhanced through the ‘revolutionary plasm’ which this kind of mental power produces. Indeed, at a sufficiently advanced level, the principles of physics itself may begin to break down in the face of our collective ideals. In Nilsen’s case, it is said that his last meeting with Mazov, neither of them spoke a single word, exchanging their insights entirely through telepathy. While most of the evidence is apocryphal, and much of the theory was developed after Nilsen’s death, his work still contains one final suggestion about infra-materialism. Amid his sketches, there is one of a great inverted pyramid, a ministry building which is held aloft only by the collective generation of revolutionary plasm. Nilsen’s reason for this design is simple: “a state that has lost the faith of its people has forfeited the right to exist.” If only real states were as precarious.
So much for infra-materialism; besides its farcical implementation in Samara, the theory has almost no influence in the present-day world of Disco Elysium. As for its presence in the game itself, this could be said to reflect several things. The idea of revolutionary plasm is a textbook example of ‘mind over matter’, a kind of magical thinking which has been readily misused by the modern self-help industry. What’s more, the supposed materialism of this theory seems rather like idealism, something which Marxism was precisely supposed to react against. Besides this irony, we can also compare the superficial absurdity of Nilsen’s notions with various episodes of 20th century socialist weirdness, from the agricultural disaster of the Lysenko affair to the communist Ufology that is Posadism. In fact, going even further back, we might draw a pretty direct parallel with the thought of utopian socialists like Charles Fourier. Among other eccentricities, Fourier believed that the advent of socialism would see such weird developments as the spontaneous taming of animals and the transfiguration of the oceans into lemonade. Taken together, it would seem that there is nothing to infra-materialism but a bit of intra-communist satire, something that Disco Elysium generally excels at.
But again, I wouldn’t be writing this essay if I didn’t think there was more this. Even in the context of the game itself, it is odd that many of the player’s potential replies to learning of infra-materialism are to note its ‘strange beauty’. Clearly the writers weren’t positing this theory just to dismiss it as inherently silly; there is value in considering this kind of communist magic. What would that be, then? Well, here I would suddenly and inexplicably shift contexts into the realm of Daoist philosophy. My reason for this is relatively simple: while one could make a more straightforward comparison between infra-materialism and certain left-wing forms of magic, I think a more generally useful conclusion may be drawn from a more indirect approach. Not that I would disparage the art and craft of communist wizardry, of course. It just doesn’t fall within my personal expertise.
Part Two: The Science of Immortals
So, onwards to Daoism. In considering the impact of foundational Daoist works like the Dao De Jing, a lot of attention is naturally given to its central concept of Dao. You can’t have Daoism without it! Yet the related notion of De is not to be neglected, as it defines the Power or Virtue which is in us by following the Way. Those who develop the fullness of this Power are said to exhibit all kinds of miraculous traits, with immortality being perhaps the most notorious among them. But when this De is applied on a societal level, the results are even more wondrous: the world becomes a primordial paradise, a place where humans and other animals can freely wander the world without fear of violence and domination. It all sounds quite idyllic. But as with infra-materialism, I must wonder what to make of these utopian transformations. Are all these miracles merely the side benefit of signing up for a grand philosophical program? Is the development of De, like the generation of revolutionary plasm, just a way for ideologues to sing the praises of their creed? As I said, I think there’s something more significant going on here. And Daoism provides the answer.
Turning back to the philosophy of the classic Daoists, I believe a lot of its bizarre claims can be elucidated by dwelling on the way that De relates to Dao, and to the anarchistic ethic which unites them both. If there is a simple way to explain the concept of Dao—and the Dao De Jing fervently asserts that there isn’t—then I would call it a primordial creative course which founds and sustains all phenomena without force or coercion. And yes, this sounds a little bit like how the Force is described in Star Wars; the latter took a lot of inspiration from East Asian philosophies, with Daoism prime among them. That said, it is not the case that the Dao is just some kind of energy field which talented sages tap into, performing their great miracles like so many Jedi Knights. This would be to take a far too utilitarian approach to the De of Dao, to the Power of the Way. It’s even a reductive description of how the Jedi are said to ‘use’ the Force! Really, the relation between the Way and its follower is far more synergistic; indeed, since nothing really escapes its presence or influence, we cannot truly speak of any separation between them. In this sense, De is more a measure of how well the Dao flows through us, with all its wondrous effects merely being the natural course of a natural universe. When we rid ourselves and the world around us of domination and imposed design, whatever remains might surprise us in its flourishing. That is the thesis of Daoism.
With this in mind, I believe the aforementioned ‘strange beauty’ of the concept of infra-materialism becomes a little easier to understand. What attracts us about this idea is not so much that communism is shown to be a powerful ideology, something which is sure to bring liberty and equality to all. All this could be achieved within the traditional aesthetics of the Left: just show how communist workers are building the new society. Instead, I believe the value of theories like Daoism and infra-materialism is found precisely in the way that they transcend these aesthetics, which can be seen to rely on the deliberate and planned aspects of the revolutionary process.
What’s so remarkable about revolution, at least from the Daoist point of view, is that it often reveals how freedom escapes the boundaries of our intent, how even our wildest dreams or sharpest analyses can be exceeded by the actual effects of liberatory organization. What’s new about the new and revolutionary about the revolutionary is that we cannot foresee its contents, at least not entirely. Thus, rather than being something which we can wholly determine in advance, the development of freedom is always reliant on something outside of our determination, on the Way which is prior to our Will. While we are free to live our life according to our Will, this Way requires us to also attend to the freedom of reality itself, which consists of the free development of all phenomena.
To make this long and abstract story short, I would merely say that a truly free society is a diverse and complex entity. As such, it is something which cannot be designed from the outset, but which rather emerges through practice. In our immediate experience of it, a term like ‘miraculous’ would not be out of place. Whether its benefits are actual miracles or not is besides the point; from a secular perspective, we could simply say that liberation is a diffuse process, the effects of which are broad and uncertain. Whether we attribute such boundlessness to the Dao, to dependent arising, or to mere chaos theory, it’s a fact that cannot be avoided. In a word, freedom is holistic.
From this point of view, I believe that all the weird effects and powers of revolutionary plasm or Daoist De can be said to possess a clear metaphorical meaning. Even if we are also literally committed to transformations like immortality and anti-gravity, their function as part of a palette of miracles is to point to the powerful way that liberation transcends us. However, this is not to say that the future is closed off to us, that its inherent subversion of any present determination should keep us from fantasizing. Quite the opposite! It is exactly because we cannot know its wonders in advance that we are free to let our imagination of liberation run wild. While the seas might not turn to lemonade for real, by considering why that might be a joyous expression of true freedom, we already create the open and accepting attitude to revolutionary change which will be required of us. Whereas a pre-determined plan can only be as good as its perfect implementation, a practical understanding of autonomous communization embraces its own lack of absolute planning. Liberatory spontaneity, if its power can really be summarized, should be seen as an ongoing abundance of welcome surprises.
Yet this joyous serendipity only covers the social aspect of De. What remains to be explained is why we would associate the transformation of the world with certain personal augmentations. Now, while I’m no anthropologist of religion, I believe there are several ways in which one could explain the appearance of Power as Virtue. On the one hand, these features could be identified as the usual supernatural promises of spiritual systems. While I would find it reductive to wholly attribute such promises to a cynical or deceptive motive, they can certainly serve a malicious purpose in various cult-like contexts. In general, it is very dangerous to entice people with the assurance of great power, whether that assurance is true or not. Even the hypothesis of power knows a corrupting influence.
At the same time, however, I believe that the specific nature of creeds like Daoism and infra-materialism is such that they are mostly insulated against such misuse. In fact, their underlying philosophy points us to an entirely different way of understanding personal Power. On a basic level, this individual framing can be said to be a natural extension of the previously established social structure of De. Since the latter concept describes a total transformation of reality into a more natural and non-coercive shape, then it would be weird to suppose that this reshaping would have no impact at all on our individual constitution.
Let’s take the example of Daoist immortality. From the perspective of its general philosophical concerns, it’s not strange at all that Daoism would claim our ideal existence to be a long-lasting one. After all, if all the diseases and disasters which would otherwise fell us are absent, then what are the true bounds of our overall lifespan? Though we might not attain literal immortality, we certainly wouldn’t expire ‘before our time’. Indeed, this is how the Daoists themselves are wont to frame it: an effortless life begets an effortless lifespan.
Taking this example as representative, it’s clear that the personal weirdness of these philosophies is just an extension of their overall logic. This, then, is also what can keep De from effecting the same corruption as other types of power. In specific terms, it does this by liberating positive freedom from its confusion with authority; far too often, these antithetical concepts are caught up in our everyday use of a term like ‘power’. By conceiving of De as a power that’s inimical to authority, as something which transforms us into less controlling people, it avoids the common harms of our quest for godhood. Think here of the way that full infra-materialism requires the constant renewal of our revolutionary faith. Governments would surely be less harmful if we could topple them with a single thought. In the development of De, there is thus a clear interdependence between the social and the personal. As one realm is liberated, so is the other.
With all this resolved, I believe it’s time to come to some kind of conclusion. Overall, what should we make of the revolutionary power of De? Here I would make a final comparison to the Chinese art of geomancy, better known as feng shui. Beyond the validity of its particular claims, I would simply like to focus on its basic logic. At its most simple, feng shui supposes that the proper arrangement of lived spaces can effect the harmonious flow of certain energies, which in turn promotes our general fortune and well-being. In this abstract sense, I believe there is a lot of overlap between the art of geomancy and the disciplines of social ecology, green urbanism, and anarchist economics. All of these fields, in some form or another, emphasize the establishment of dynamic, self-regulating systems, creating spaces where humans and other beings can flourish according to their natural, non-coercive tendencies. In a way, what we need is already here, it’s just arranged in the wrong way. In another configuration, the world could become a cyclical engine of perpetual freedom rather than endless accumulation.
From this space-arranging point of view, the key insight of a concept like De is to propel us away from more authoritarian modes of design and organization, such as central planning and the domination of nature. What De proposes instead is that the beneficence of free infrastructures is always greater than we could foresee, getting the most out of our ingredients in a holistic and abundant fashion. While planning itself is no enemy to this praxis, what matters is that we don’t seek to pre-determine the course of our liberation. Even the spontaneity we might expect cannot be part of the plan itself, for that would mean that we’re already determining some aspect of its form or emergence. If we cannot account for its absence, then neither will we be able to deal with its presence. Only through Faith, the combination of maximal commitment and minimal control, can we ultimately realize the transformations we desire. This may be frustrating, but it’s worth it.
As my very final note, I would contrast the philosophy I’ve set out here with more positive esoteric traditions, like those derived from Russian Cosmism. Unlike the dreams of techno-optimists like Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the purpose of De is not to reshape the world by any specific design. This is a difference which greatly matters to me, for it separates my imagination from those who would control the cosmos. While I believe that the future evolution of nature and society will produce some bizarre and magical configurations, what distinguishes these visions from the usual capitalist fantasy is that they are neither forced nor entirely intentional. In this sense, I would consider the working of De to be an enemy of perfection, or at least of the completion of any singular perspective. If there is an ultimate end to reality, there really is no telling what it would be like. And in any case, that seems like a topic for another time.
Borrowed Thoughts is a series of short essays exploring the personal philosophy of The Inner Moon