Posts Tagged ‘dystopia’

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Mark Tansey, “The Occupation” (1984)

It’s not the best of times. In fact, it feels increasingly like the worst of times. I’m thinking, at the moment, of the savage attacks in Pittsburgh (at the Tree of Life synagogue) and Louisville, Kentucky (where 2 black people were recently gunned down by a white shooter at a Kroger store) as well as the election of Jair Bolsonaro (who represents, in equal parts, Rodrigo Duterte and Donald Trump) in Brazil. So, it seems appropriate to change gears and, instead of continuing my series on utopia, to turn my attention to its opposite: dystopia. 

Mainstream economics has long been guided by a utopianism—at both the micro and macro levels. In microeconomics, the utopian promise is that, if the prices of goods and services are allowed to reach their market equilibrium, everyone gets what they pay for, everyone is equal, and everyone benefits. Similarly, the shared goal of mainstream macroeconomics is that, with the appropriate institutions and policies, capitalism can be characterized by and should be celebrated for achieving full employment and price stability.

But that utopianism has been disrupted in recent years, by a series of warnings that reflect the emergence of a much more dystopian view among some (but certainly not all) mainstream economists. For example, the crash of 2007-08 and the Second Great Depression have raised the specter of “secular stagnation,” the idea that, for the foreseeable future, economic growth—and therefore the prospect of full employment—is probably going to be much lower than it was in the decades leading up to the global economic crisis. Moreover, what little growth is expected will most likely be accompanied by financial stability. Then, there’s Robert J. Gordon, who has expressed his concern that economic growth is slowing down, it has been for decades, and there’s no prospect for a resumption of fast economic growth in the foreseeable future because of a dearth of technical innovations. And, of course, Thomas Piketty has demonstrated the obscene and still-growing inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth and expressed his worry that current trends will, if they continue, culminate in a return to the réntier incomes and inherited wealth characteristic of “patrimonial capitalism.”

Such negative views are not confined to economics, of course. We all remember how readers sought out famous dystopian stories—for example, by Sinclair Lewis and George Orwell—that connected the anxieties that arose during the early days of the Trump administration to apprehensions the world has experienced before.

However, Sophie Gilbert [ht: ja] suggests that, over the last couple of years, fictional dystopias have fundamentally changed.

They’re largely written by, and concerned with, women. They imagine worlds ravaged by climate change, worlds in which humanity’s progress unravels. Most significantly, they consider reproduction, and what happens when societies try to legislate it.

She’s referring to speculative-fiction books that parallel the themes in and draw inspiration from The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood—novels such as Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God, Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks, and Bina Shah’s Before She Sleeps. 

With the help of Jo Lindsay Walton, coeditor of the British Science Fiction Association’s journal Vector and editor of the Economic Science Fiction and Fantasy database, I have discovered another burgeoning literature in recent years, representing and critically engaging the dystopian economics in fantasy and science fiction.

A good example of a dystopian scenario is “Dream Job,” by Seamus Sullivan. As the editor explains, it is a “cutting parable for a generation that undersleeps and overworks to get underpaid—where paying your student loans is quite actually a waking nightmare.” The protagonist, Aishwarya, lives in Bengaluru and works for low wages in a call center. In order to supplement her income, to pay back her loans, she attaches wireless electrodes that arrive by courier from SleepTyte and sleeps for an extra hour or two a day on behalf of someone else (such as as banker in Chicago), who gets more waking hours in the day without feeling tired. An eight-hour shift pays more than the call center and her customers tip her well. But even though Aishwarya manages to save enough rent for her own apartment, the increasing number of hours she’s spending sleeping for someone else leads to her own ruin, as her body deteriorates and she can no longer control the break between her customers’ dreams and her own living nightmare.

As Robert Kiely and Sean O’Brien explain, while much twentieth-century science fiction tends to traffic in a certain techno-optimism, a growing body of recent work looks to counter that narrative and emphasize the negative effects of the existing (or, in the near future, imaginable) technologies of capitalism, especially increased automation and the rise of digital platforms.* The themes include, in addition to the capitalist takeover of sleep time, the automation and digitization of both the labor process and the distribution of commodities, the proliferation of new border zones and heightened constraints on the circulation of laboring bodies, the reappropriation by capital of ameliorative measures such as the universal basic income, the development of performance-enhancing drugs for the workplace, the development of surveillance technologies and a concomitant increase in hacking tools designed to evade detection, and the intensification of climate change. The result is a dystopian landscape of impoverishment and impasse,

not a transitional space on its way to postcapitalism, but an immiserated space going nowhere at all, a wasted landscape of inequality and insecurity built on the backs of precarious workers and hardwired to keep them in their place at the bottom of the slagheap.

The fact is, utopian literature has always been accompanied by its dystopian opposite—each, in their own way, showing how the existing world falls short of its promise. Both genres also serve to cast familiar things in a strange light, so that we begin to notice them as if for the first time. What distinguishes dystopian “science friction” is the warning that if things continue on this course, if elements of the economy’s current logic remain unchecked and alternatives are not imagined and implemented, the outcomes may be catastrophic both individually and for society as a whole.

As is turns out, mainstream economic theory, when viewed through the lens of speculative fiction, is replete with its own dystopian narratives. As Walton points out, the story of the origin of money offered by mainstream economists—that money was invented in order to surmount the problems associated with barter—is not only a fiction, which runs counter to what anthropologists and others have documented to be the real, messy origins of money as a way of keeping track of debts and as a result of the actions of sovereigns and the state; it rests on a dystopian vision of a money-less economy.** The usual argument is that barter requires the double coincidence of wants, the unlikely situation of two people, each having a good that the other wants at the right time and place to make an exchange. Without money, producers (who are always-already presumed to be self-interested and separate, in a social division of labor) are forced to either curtail both their production and consumption, because they can’t count on exchanging the extra goods and services they produce for the other goods they want to consume. People would have to spend time searching for others to trade with, a huge waste of resources. Barter is therefore inconvenient and inefficient—a presumed dystopia that can only be superseded by finding something that can serve as a means of exchange, unit of account, and store of value. Hence, money.

The barter myth is eager to argue that money arises from the uncoordinated, self-interested behavior of individuals, without any role for communal deliberation or governmental authority. Simultaneously, it tries to insinuate that money is a completely natural part of who and what we are. It tells us that learning to use money isn’t too different from an infant learning to move around, or to make their thoughts and feelings known. In other words, money has to be the way it is, because we are the way we are.

The theory and policies of mainstream economics are based on a variety of other dystopian stories. Consider, for example, the minimum wage. According to mainstream economists (like Gregory Mankiw), while the aim of the minimum wage may be to help poor workers, it actually hurts them, because it creates a situation where the quantity demanded of labor is less than the quantity supplied of labor. In other words, a minimum wage may raise the incomes of those workers who have jobs but it lowers the incomes of workers who can’t find jobs. Those workers, who mainstream economists presume would be employed at lower wages (because they have little experience, few skills, and thus low productivity), would be better off by being allowed to escape the dystopia of a regulated labor market as a result of eliminating the minimum wage. Similar dystopian stories undergird mainstream theory and policy in many other areas, from rent control (which, it is argued, creates a shortage of housing and long waiting lists) to international trade (which, if regulated, e.g., by tariffs, would lead to higher prices for imported goods and less trade for the world as a whole).

Dystopian stories thus serve as the foundation for much of mainstream economics—from the origins of monetary exchange to the effects of regulating otherwise-free markets. Their aim is to make an economy without money, or a monetary economy that is subject to government regulations, literally unthinkable.

But, Walton reminds us, “the relationship between dystopia and utopia is intensely slippery.” First, because it’s possible to go across the grain and actually want to inhabit what mainstream economists consider to be a dystopian landscape—for example, by embracing the forms of gift exchange that can prosper in a world without money. Second, once everything is torn down, it is possible to imagine other ways things can be put back together. Thus, for example, while Laura Horn argues that the ubiquitous theme of corporate dystopia in popular science fiction generally only allows for heroic individual acts of resistance, it is also possible to provide a sense of what comes “after the corporation,” such as “alternative visions of organising collectively owned, or at least worker-directed, production.”***

Dystopian thinking can therefore serve as a springboard both for criticizing the speculative fictions of mainstream economics and for imagining an “archaeology of the future” (to borrow Fredric Jameson’s characterization) that entices us to look beyond capitalism and to imagine alternative ways of organizing economic and social life.****

 

*Robert Kiely and Sean O’Brien, “Science Friction,” Vector, no. 288 (Fall 2018): 34-41.

**Jo Lindsay Walton, “Afterword: Cockayne Blues,” in Strange Economics: Economic Speculative Fiction, ed. David F. Shultz (TdotSpec, 2018), 301-326.

***Laura Horn (“Future Incorporated,” in Economic Science Fictions, ed. William Davies [London: Goldsmiths Press, 2018], pp.  41-58).

****Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2005).

 

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The warnings about the consequences of global warming are becoming increasingly dire. And with good reason.

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Just last month, a report by a multidisciplinary research team published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences made the case that even fairly modest future carbon dioxide emissions could set off a cascade of catastrophic effects, with melting permafrost releasing methane to ratchet up global temperatures enough to drive much of the Amazon to die off, and so on in a chain reaction around the world that pushes Earth into a terrifying new hothouse state from which there is no return. Civilization as we know it would surely not survive.

Climate change during the Capitalocene (in its last stage?) has also spawned a new genre of science fiction novels—the so called cli-fi (climate change fiction) genre. It includes Octavia E. Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Kim Stanley Robinson’s the Science in The Capital trilogy, Margaret Atwood’s The Maddaddam trilogy, Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, and Jeff VanderMeer’s TheSouthern Reach trilogy.

Both the scientific and fictional literatures now paint a distinctly dystopian picture for planet Earth—unless, of course, radical changes are made to mitigate the effects and eliminate the sources of global warming.

It’s not clear to me which way the dystopian tenor of recent attempts to grapple with the consequences of climate change cuts. I know all kinds of people—students, friends, and neighbors—for whom the impending apocalypse generates intense and sustained activity to both publicize and push for changes to curtail global warming. However, Per Espen Stoknes, a psychologist and economist recently appointed to the Norwegian Parliament, warns that dystopian scenarios may overdo the threat of catastrophe, making people feel fear or guilt or a combination of the two.

But these two emotions are passive. They make people disconnect and avoid the topic rather than engage with it.

One group that does engage with climate change generates an equal amount of passivity: the technological utopians. They promise a kind of magical, technical fix to the problem of global warming.

We’ve all seen their proposals: Growing kelp. Cap-and-trade markets. Behavioral “nudges.” Also, nuclear fusion, supercapacitor batteries, lab-grown meat, carbon engineering, and smart cities. In fact, Bill Gates, along with some of the world’s richest people (such as Jeff Bezos from Amazon, Jack Ma from the Ali Baba group, and Richard Branson), has launched the Breakthrough Energy Coalition to invest in solutions driven by technology. It promises to bring together governments, research institutions, and billionaire investors to limit climate change.

As I explained back in June, few if any of the contemporary affluent, high-tech enthusiasts have even considered the possibility that, far from being innovative or unusual, their campaigns are part and parcel of a longstanding tradition of technological utopianisms.

They are merely the latest in a long line—starting with the late-sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century Pansophists (such as Tomasso Campanella, Johann Valentin Andreae, and Francis Bacon) through the utopian socialists of the early nineteenth century (especially Henri de Saint-Simon) through the numerous technological utopians of the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth centuries (including Edward Bellamy, Henry Olerich, Edgar Chambliss)—of prophets of progress and the possibility of achieving utopia through the introduction and expansion of new technologies.

Fortunately, people are beginning to sound the alarm about purely technological solutions to climate change. Adam McGibbon [ht: db], for example, warns that “geoengineering projects are fraught with unintended consequences”:

Scientists don’t know how spraying clouds with sea water would affect precipitation, potentially devastating the food systems. Dumping iron filings in the ocean would have unknown effects for marine life. Injecting aerosols into the atmosphere could cause droughts. Meddling with climatic systems we don’t understand, in the service of solving global warming, could just make the crisis worse.

But unintended consequences are associated with any attempt to radically change existing arrangements—or, for that matter, of not changing them.

As I see it, the biggest problem with technological utopianism is not unintended consequences (although they may be substantial), but that it takes politics out of the equation—whether in imagining solutions to economic and social problems or refashioning the role of technology in a radically different kind of economy and society. Technology thus becomes a substitute for politics. As Aleszu Bajak has recently explained with respect to finding a solution to climate change,

Relying on a technological fix that’s just over the horizon avoids the mountain moving required to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, bring hundreds of countries into agreement on how to limit and clean up emissions, and alter the consumption habits of an entire civilization. Those are systemic complexities ingrained in our economies and cultures. Propping up glaciers to limit sea level rise, sprinkling iron dust into the oceans to encourage plankton growth to absorb carbon, or spraying the skies to reflect the sun’s heat just seems simpler.

That doesn’t mean utopia is irrelevant to the problem of climate change. On the contrary. The dystopian consequences of current trends clearly invite a utopian response. But it needs to be of a different nature from the various forms of technological utopianism that are currently circulating.

It starts with a critique of the discourses, activities, and institutions that together, within the Capitalocene, have led to concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that have reached (and, by some accounts, will soon surpass) the ceiling with regards to acceptable climate risk. What I’m referring to are theories that have normalized and naturalized the current set of economic and social structures based on private property, individual decision-making in markets, and class appropriation and distribution of the surplus; activities that have accelerated changes in the Earth system, such as greenhouse gas levels, ocean acidification, deforestation, and biodiversity deterioration; and institutions, such as private corporations and commercial control over land and water sources, that have had the effect of increasing surface ocean acidity, expanding fertilizer production and application, and converted forests, wetlands, and other vegetation types into agricultural land.

Such a ruthless criticism brings together ideas and activists focused on the consequences of a specific way of organizing economic and social life with respect to the global climate as well as the situations of the vast majority of people who are forced to have the freedom to try to eke out a living and maintain themselves and their communities under present circumstances.

Broadening participation in that critique, instead of directing hope toward a technological miracle, serves to create both a shared understanding of the problem and the political basis for real solution: a radically transformed economic and social landscape.

 

 

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Utopian novels, it seems, are no longer published.* Instead, bookstores now feature non-fiction books about utopia (the latest of which is Erik Reece’s just-released Utopia Drive: A Road Trip Through America’s Most Radical Idea) and, as a counterpoint, a burgeoning section of dystopian fiction. Whereas books about actual utopian experiments (especially, as in Reece’s book, those that were imagined and enacted in nineteenth-century America) are inspired by a sense that things could be better (indeed, much better), and we might have something to learn from our radical predecessors, dystopian novels move in the opposite direction, imagining a much worse world, one created by our own evil impulses and institutions (or at least each author’s fears concerning the possible effects of one or another negative feature of contemporary reality).

Dystopias are, perhaps not surprisingly, popular among young-adult readers. Just think of the success (in both book and film form) of Suzanne Collins’s trilogy of novels, The Hunger Games, which take place at some unspecified time in North America’s future. Part social commentary (in the case of the Katniss’s world, a critique of both reality TV and of grotesque inequalities in the wider society), part a mirror of adolescent disaffection and angst (of life with unsympathetic parents and cruel schoolmates)—they’re mostly about “what’s happening, right this minute, in the stormy psyche of the adolescent reader.”

Adult dystopias are something different—more didactic, more scolding, in which the author often issues a dire warning about the dangers of one or another current trend. They make sense when the idea is readers can do something to correct the situation, which most adolescents do not share. The latter are caught in the maelstrom; adults are supposed to be able to shape events (or at least to be held responsible for not doing the right thing).

Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 is certainly that. It warns, it scolds, and it seeks to teach—perhaps even more than other novels in the new sub-genre of dystopian finance fiction. Given the financialization of the U.S. economy in recent decades and the spectacular crash of 2007-08, which has come to be closely identified with the bubble-and-bust trajectory of Wall Street, it should come as no surprise that the sub-genre itself exists.

But The Mandibles is perhaps even more didactic than other novels in the area, such as the closely related Cosmopolis: A Novel (published before the crash, in 2003) by Don DeLillo. While DeLillo’s novel certainly presents a disturbing view of reclusive billionaire Eric Packer and his financial machinations (including a spectacular bet against the yen, which goes badly for him as he travels in his limousine across New York City to get a haircut), it is more an exaggerated portrayal of certain features of contemporary life (including the deregulation of finance, the growth of inequality, the role of information, and the decline of affect) than a clear explanation of why and how we’re headed to the apocalypse if things continue as they are.

Shriver, however, uses the saga of four generations of the Mandible family after the “crash of 2029” to tell such a didactic story. And the story she has chosen to relate is a pointedly right-wing libertarian version of a cascade of possible events (reinforced by some absurd future slang) that stem from, in her view, a bloated Keynesian state and its escalating national debt (accompanied by out-of-control migration from south of the border and a coalition of hostile foreign powers).

The thinly veiled critique of contemporary political economy, borrowed in equal parts from Rand Paul and Donald Trump (with, toward the end, a celebration of the Free State of Nevada, of which Ayn Rand would be proud), does have its humorous, liberal-tweaking moments. I had to chuckle as I read about the head of the Federal Reserve (Krugman) and, later in the novel, the new presidential administration (of Chelsea Clinton), as well as the fact that one group of academics (economists) are mostly left unemployed as the economic crises unfold.

But, overall, the economics of the novel (and the author does present a great deal of explicit economic theorizing, from the mouths of members of all four of the generations, especially the precocious self-taught economic savant Willing) are decidedly from the right-wing of the current political and economic spectrum. The economic apocalypse that engulfs the Mandible family and the entire country stems from the precipitous decline in the value of the U.S. dollar occasioned by a debt-financed explosion of federal financing for entitlement programs. A desperate nation (led by a Hispanic president) renounces its debts, both foreign and domestic. Other nations respond by devising an alternative currency, the “bancor” (the hypothetical name for the international bank money of an international currency union once devised by Keynes), which is not convertible into U.S. dollars. To refill the treasury, the federal government confiscates citizens’ gold, right down to their wedding rings.

We are then witness to the inevitable slide that tears apart the entire country, with a focus on East Flatbush where the various members of the clan are forced to gather. Fortunes are lost and people are evicted from their homes. Hyperinflation causes mind-spinning changes in prices, shortages provoke hoarding, and then, when basic goods are no longer available, life as we know it devolves (the replacement of toilet paper by cloth “ass-napkins” is the final ignominious assault on middle-class sensibilities). As for public order, the crime rate soars and public utilities no longer function properly (with water now in short supply). The Mandibles are forced to escape by traveling upstate to work on a farm (although a mercy killing-suicide en route means not all of them make it).

Years later, the remaining members of the clan (at least those who haven’t died or made it across the wall into the newly prosperous Mexico), led by now-grownup Willing, travel across the country, past factories (now owned by foreign capitalists and staffed by low-wage American workers) and geriatric facilities (for the elderly sent from abroad, attended to by low-wage American orderlies) to the only remaining sanctuary: the Free State of Nevada. The seceded state is on the gold standard, with a flat tax rate of 10 percent, no social safety net and no gun control, and where everyone has a chance to be a successful entrepreneur. It’s a society everyone there describes as “not a utopia”—with the obvious implication it’s the best alternative to the oppressive liberal-paradise-turned-dystopia the Mandibles have left behind.

If only they’d listened to the warnings about the “dodgy hocus-pocus” of Keynesian economics and the social-welfare state. They could have avoided the breakdown and their self-inflicted dystopia. That’s the lesson Shriver wants us to learn today.

As readers know, there is a well-founded critique of Keynesian economics and the problems of contemporary capitalism (which I’ve attempted to develop in some detail on this blog). However, the pressing issue, at least in the United States with its own sovereign currency, is not national debt or “easy money.” That’s for the Chicken Littles who stoke fears about a falling fiscal sky and want nothing more than low taxes, a diminished safety net, and the freedom of capital.

But that’s Shriver’s story and she spares no moment or patch of dialogue over the course of more than four hundred pages to attempt to drive it home.

 

*In fact, Fredric Jameson argues in his recent book, An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army, that the last real utopian novel was Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, published in 1975.