Thomas Pynchon’s New Novel, Anarcho-Capitalism, and Insurance Companies

For those readers who are unaware, Thomas Pynchon–author of V. , The Crying of Lot 49 , Gravity’s Rainbow , Vineland , Mason & Dixon , Against the Day , Inherent Vice , and, most recently, Bleeding Edge –is by far one of my favorite authors. In fact, he probably takes second place at the moment, behind only the excellent Roberto Bolano. Although the bulk of what is known about Pynchon is gleaned only from his novels–the man is a recluse who, save from two appearances on The Simpsons , has totally shunned the spotlight–it’s reasonable to suggest that he probably identifies politically with a “left-leaning” strand of mutualist or voluntarist anarchism. Certain strands of Gravity’s Rainbow and Bleeding Edge (the “Zone” and “DeepArcher” sections, respectively) indicate that although Pynchon can be skeptical and even hostile toward capitalism and the mainstream vision of “the Free Market,” he genuinely seems to celebrate examples of free, uncoerced exchange between consenting individuals.

As I’ve been working my way through Bleeding Edge , my interest in political philosophy has drawn me to pick up on these touchstones throughout the text. Although I’d love to put together a comprehensive analysis of Pynchon’s anarchism throughout Bleeding Edge and even his canon in general, that is a full-length, graduate degree dissertation project that my other projects at the moment simply do not even come close to allowing time for. However, I would like to briefly comment on one scene in Bleeding Edge in particular, as I think that it communicates a cleverly executed little dig at anarcho-capitalism that readers who are unfamiliar with that particular strain of political philosophy may not have picked up on.

First, some background. Anarcho-capitalism differs from other strains of anarchism in that it eschews primarily the state, but does not view other forms of hierarchy (such as those that exist within the workplace or among different groups within society) as fundamentally problematic by definition. This is, admittedly, a very accelerated definition, so I’m exposing myself to a lot of nitpicking on this one. Anyway, this sometimes leads adherents of other strains of anarchism to argue that anarcho-capitalism is not a true form of anarchism. I’m not sure I really have a view on this one way or the other, or that it really matters, but it’s worth noting that Pynchon, who possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of, well, just about everything, could very well be aware of this obscure little rift in political philosophy.

Second, many anarcho-capitalist thinkers insist that, in the absence of a state, insurance companies would most likely emerge as the arbiters of and safeguards against many types of conflict, incentivizing for and against certain behaviors on the basis of lowered or inflated premiums, respectively, and using contract law and rights to property as a means of trying to organize society according to the wishes of the “citizenry,” if you could call it that. (For more on these ideas, for instance, see Robert Murphy’s Chaos Theory ). Again, whether or not you agree with these ideas, the fact of the matter is that they are frequently vocalized by adherents of this strain of political philosophy, and anyone who is familiar with what I’ve written about in the previous paragraph is likely familiar with this as well.

Now, this brings me back to Bleeding Edge . Toward the end of the book, after September 11th occurs within the text, Pynchon’s characters explore the possibility that Gabriel Ice, a fictional character who serves as the primary villain in the novel, has helped to orchestrate a massive conspiracy related to the attacks.

***SPOILERS DIRECTLY BELOW***

Earlier on in the novel, Maxine Tarnow, the main character who works as an accountant and fraud investigator and who has been looking into Ice and his company, receives a tape of men practicing the use of Stinger missiles on New York rooftops, under the watch of men armed with sniper rifles on an adjacent rooftop. After the attack, Maxine has the following conversation with her friend March, who is Ice’s mother-in-law and also a prominent leftist activist online conspiracy theorist (again, fictional).

But March, relentlessly on the case, brings up Reg’s DVD. “Suppose there was a Stinger crew deployed and waiting for orders to shoot down the first 767, the one that went on to hit the North Tower. Maybe there was another team stationed over in Jersey to pick up the second one, which would’ve been circling around and coming up from the southwest.”

“Why?”

“Anti-compassion insurance. Somebody doesn’t trust the hijackers to go through with it. These are Western minds, uncomfortable with any idea of suicide in the service of a faith. So they threaten to shoot the hijackers down in case they chicken out at the last minute.”

“And if the hijackers do change their minds, what if the Stinger team do the same and don’t shoot the plane down?”

“Then that would explain the backup sniper on the other roof, who the Stinger people know is there, keeping them in his sights till their part of the mission is over. Which is as soon as the guy with the phone gets word the plane’s committed–then everybody cleans up and clears out. It’s full daylight by then, but not that much risk of being seen ’cause all the attention is focused downtown.”

“Help, too byzantine, make it stop!”

***END OF SPOILERS***

Now, some might argue that what I’m proposing here–a Pynchonian critique of an obscure area of political philosophy masked as an outlandish 9/11 conspiracy theory, all from this outrageous mother-in-law who, from a psychoanalytic perspective, probably just hates her son-in-law’s guts–is a little far-fetched. Honestly, they’d probably be right, but it’s just so hard to know with a writer like Pynchon. I prefer to think this is a clever little joke that he is making to readers who are familiar with these ideas and debates, as if to take the idea to a very extreme end and show how horribly wrong he believes it could go.

None of that’s to say I agree with him on any of that (if that’s what he’s doing), because I don’t, but I was an English major once a long time ago, so when it comes to things like this I suppose I just can’t help myself.

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