The Comforts of Dystopia

March 21st, 2014  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy, Shameless self-promotion, Socialism  |  5 Comments

I’m currently working on a longer treatment of Four Futures, my social science fictional speculation about the possible successor systems to capitalism, in a world characterized by pervasive automation and ecological crisis. That book is slotted for Jacobin‘s series; more about that at a later date.

Four Futures was, itself, an extension of “Anti-Star Trek”, a post that still gets some love around the Internet from time to time. The core intuition of both pieces of writing was that while we live in a world that abounds in utopian potential, the realization of that potential depends on the outcome of political struggle. A rich elite that wants to preserve its privileges will do everything possible to ensure that we don’t reach a world of leisure and abundance, even if such a world is materially possible.

But one of the things I’ve struggled with, as a writer, is the tendency of my more speculative writing to mine a streak of apocalyptic quiescence on the radical left. To me, the story I’m telling is all about hope and agency: the future is here, it’s unevenly distributed, and only through struggle will we get it distributed properly. I suppose it’s no surprise, though, after decades in retreat, that some people would rather tell themselves fables of inevitable doom rather than tackling the harder problem of figuring out how we can collectively walk down the path to paradise.

So of the four futures I described, the one that I think is both the most hopeful and most interesting—the one I call “communism”—is the least discussed. Instead it’s exterminism, the mixture of ecological constraints, automation, and murderous elites, that seems to stick in peoples’ brains, with the anti-Star Trek dystopia of intellectual property rentiers running a close second.

But strip away the utopian and Marxist framework, and all you have is a grim dismissal of the possibility of egalitarian politics. You get something like this, from Noah Smith, which echoes my account of exterminism but updates it to our present drone-obsessed times. For a lot of isolated intellectual writer types, it can be perversely reassuring to think that achieving a better world is not just difficult, but actually impossible. How else to explain the appeal of Chris Hedges?

Another piece of news that recently aroused this sensibility was this Guardian post about an alleged “NASA study” predicting the “irreversible collapse” of industrial civilization. Here, via Doug Henwood, is a critique of the study itself and the lazy media that propagated it. And another Twitterer links to this, which is even more damning. In short, the study—which the original author didn’t even bother to link to—had little to do with NASA, and was a crude theoretical model based on a handful of equations. Frankly, as far as futurology goes, I think “Four Futures” was built on a far sounder scientific foundation.

What depresses me is not so much the perambulations of a crank with a Guardian blog, such people will probably be with us forever. But many people I know and like were eager to share this thinly sourced bit of nonsense around Facebook and Twitter, suggesting that it spoke to a desire for apocalyptic scenarios among ostensibly pragmatic leftists.

This fatalism is the perfect complement to the equally inane positivity that pervades bourgeois discourse, whether it’s coming in the form of self-help as dissected by Barbara Ehrenreich, or as the phony utopianism of silicon valley plutocrats. The ruling class tells us that the future is inevitably bright, while left curmudgeons reassure themselves with the conviction that it’s inevitably gloomy. We don’t win from playing this game, taking our meager emotional returns while our opponents take their payment in a much more tangible form.

Responses

  1. Sandwichman says:

    March 21st, 2014 at 4:20 pm (#)

    I saw that Guardian blog entry on the “NASA study” and was able to locate an early write-up of the project. A very rudimentary predator/prey model with, I think, one (1) environmental input. Whether intended by the authors or not, the model was programmed to predict collapse.

  2. IMB Seventy says:

    March 21st, 2014 at 10:13 pm (#)

    Chris Hedges has appeal because he’s right about a lot of things. He’s not a “doomer” like you’re making him out to be.

  3. Peter Frase: The comforts of dystopia | NYC Startup News says:

    March 22nd, 2014 at 5:03 am (#)

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  4. jawrust says:

    March 23rd, 2014 at 3:09 pm (#)

    I agree that apathy can be an easy out in the face of climate (and so much other) turmoil, and I appreciate your appeal to optimism here.

    But I think you’re off in saying that the popularity of the Guardian article on social media simply means folks want to sulk and stay idle. That’s quite an assumption. I think it means they are concerned, at the very least. They see the tumult around them and share the piece.

    So I wonder, how can you say the article’s popularity simply equates to a penchant for leftist fatalism? Seems to me you are peddling as much, if not more, gloom with your assumptions than the article does in highlighting features of a quite-plausible catastrophic future.

  5. Ralph Haygood says:

    September 7th, 2014 at 7:25 am (#)

    A little while ago, I commented on another post here that exterminism has always seemed to me the most likely of your “four futures”. I’d like to make clear, however, that I don’t find any fatalistic comfort in that judgment. I’d really like to see a plausible path from here to a better future. In fact, I feel like I’m slowly withering and dying from the lack of any such vision, toward the realization of which I could contribute. I’m just not seeing it.

    I’m very cautious, perhaps excessively cautious, about the human tendency to concoct and embrace comforting delusions. This has something to do with the fact that I was raised by christian fundamentalists. They claimed to believe and tried to make me believe loads of hogwash, which had, however, the function of helping them cope with what they experienced as a bewildering, frightening world. So I’m stubbornly insistent on evidence and logic. (Professionally, I’m an evolutionary biologist, with an extensive background in math, physics, and computer science.)

    I do recognize the sensibleness of David Graeber’s question, “When has social change ever happened according to someone’s blueprint?” But I’d like a strategy that’s credible, in view of what we know about history, psychology, and anthropology. It isn’t so much what a better future looks like as how to get there from here. Reading various ideas about that, I’m often reminded of Sidney Harris’s famous cartoon of two guys at a blackboard covered with mathematical scribbling, in the middle of which appears, “Then a miracle occurs.” As one guy says to the other, “I think you should be more explicit here in step 2.”

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