Archive for the ‘film’ Category

Bibliophilia & Anarchism in Star Trek: Picard

October 7, 2022

Co-written by my mother and myself. Published on Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, 6 October 2022

Following up on our previous analysis of the political and philosophical affinities between Mikhail Bakunin and Richard Wagner, in which we discussed social ideologies such as feminism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and anarchist revolutionism in the epic opera The Ring (1874), we turn now to an examination of the first two seasons of Star Trek: Picard (2020/2022). We hope our artistic study of this television show might help to elucidate the anti-authoritarian themes present in its first and second seasons, as well as draw attention to the numerous literary allusions and extensive bibliophilia (‘book-love’) present in both. Our purpose here is to illuminate the anarchist values and revolutionary messages conveyed in the show through the presence of literature. Reader be forewarned: this text contains spoilers for both seasons.

Star Trek’s Radical Politics

The brainchild of former Army Air Force officer and ex-LAPD cop Gene Roddenberry (1921-1991), Star Trek paradoxically owes debts to the left-wing, counter-cultural, and Civil Rights Movements. As an experiment in psychological and sociological utopianism, set centuries to millennia from now, Star Trek combines “social critique and description[s] of human flourishing in a society […] quite unlike any other.”[1] To begin with, the first two notes of the series’ theme sample “Symphony No. 1” by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), a Jewish Romantic composer and socialist-vegetarian.[2] In addition, the design of the flagship of multiple series, the USS Enterprise, is highly suggestive of a mushroom. As such, it may symbolically allude to the therapeutic and mind-altering functions of the fungus psilocybin, as psychedelic youth had learned during the 1960’s, and as psychiatry is now openly recognizing. Moreover, it was on the Enterprise in The Original Series (TOS, 1966-1969) that Lt. Nyota Uhura (played by Black actor Nichelle Nichols) served as communications officer. In this sense, the positive future envisioned by Roddenberry would involve Black women in positions of relative authority. It was also on this series, in 1968, that television’s first inter-racial kiss took place—this, between Lt. Uhura and Captain James Kirk.

Although the highest-ranking officers of the USS Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG, 1987-1994) are (as in TOS) white males—Captain Jean-Luc Picard and Executive Officer William Riker—Lt. Geordi LeForge and Lt. Worf (played by LeVar Burton and Michael Dorn, respectively) are crucial to the Enterprise’s missions. Building on these precedents, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999) features the Black male Captain Benjamin Sisko, played by Avery Brooks, just as the Black female Captain Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) stars in Star Trek: Discovery (2017-present). In addition, Discovery is unique in comparison to most of the other series, for it centers women and LGBTQ experience.

Not only does Star Trek promote feminist, internationalist, and LGBT-friendly messages, but it also champions anti-capitalism. The United Federation of Planets (UFP) depicted in the series symbolizes a future vision of ‘cosmic communism,’ whereby member planets unite in a cooperative, inter-species, and post-capitalist association, while the peoples of Earth abolish poverty and class in parallel. As José-Antonio Orosco observes, Star Trek’s “vision of the future is one that puts a radical anti-racist, egalitarian, post-colonial, and environmentalist message at its core.”[3]

That being said, if the Federation is progressive, it is not necessarily anarchist. Although its anti-authoritarian rationalism shares much with the anarcho-communist vision, the UFP has not abolished military rank or bureaucracy. Moreover, as we see during flashback sequences in Picard, season 2, patriarchal family structures exist within the Federation. Speculatively, it may be due to Roddenberry’s rumored attraction to Trotskyism and membership in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) that the Federation resembles the Fourth International, which was founded in 1938 by former Red Army commander Lev Trotsky himself. Perhaps echoing such politics, in TNG, the Federation’s totalitarian nemesis, the Borg, brings to mind the “dystopian socialism” espoused by Stalinists. Seen this way, the travels of the Enterprise, Discovery, and Picard’s La Sirena can be viewed as visionary explorations in permanent revolution that champion socialist and anarchist values.

Read the rest on Perspectives on Anarchist Theory!

From “Trotsky in Tijuana” to “Chernobyl”: Caution & Reason

July 22, 2022
“Chernobyl,” photographed by Jorge Fraganillo (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)

Originally published on Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, 21 July 2022

The promise of historical and speculative fiction is the reconstruction of the past in the present, or of the present in the past, and the contemplation of what might have been, or of what might still be. As the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud wrote, creative writers furnish “world[s] of [their] own” by “rearrang[ing] the things of [their] world in a new way which pleases [them].”[1] Between Dan La Botz’s novel Trotsky in Tijuana (2020) and Craig Mazin and Johan Renck’s HBO miniseries Chernobyl (2019), we find two fictionalized accounts bookending the tragic history of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), from the Bolshevik centralization of power following the anti-Tsarist Revolution of 1917 to what Rohini Hensman terms the “democratic anti-imperialist revolution” of 1991.

Trotsky in Tijuana is an intriguing and well-written book of alternate (or counter-) history, in which La Botz imagines Lev Davidovich Trotsky (1879–1940) surviving his assassination in Mexico City by the Spanish Soviet agent Ramón Mercader. In La Botz’s vision, the famed Ukraine-born Jewish Marxist then continues to organize against social-democratic reformism and Stalin’s Communist International through his organization, the Fourth International. This book combines neo-Trotskyist critique of Stalinism with libertarian-socialist themes as an imaginative “second world” to our own, illuminating divisions on the left among anarchists, Trots, and “tankies” (who support “anti-imperialist” dictators). Yet, as we shall see, despite the novel’s beauty and insights, Trotskyism appears to overpower anarchism in La Botz’s historical retelling.

For its part, the Chernobyl miniseries dramatizes the explosion that took place on April 26, 1986, within the core of the Vladimir I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant, located near the cities of Pripyat and Chernobyl in northern Ukraine. Chernobyl lays bare the dangers of nuclear energy specifically and technological hubris more broadly, while implicitly critiquing Soviet State capitalism and, perhaps by extension, private forms of capitalism—like those we confront in the United States. Chernobyl shows how the combination of workplace hierarchy, high technology, hyper-masculinity, and the performance principle threatens our collective self-destruction.

On February 24, 2022, Russian military forces invaded Ukraine as part of a brutal campaign announced by President Vladimir Putin to supposedly “demilitarize and de-Nazify” the country. However, this “denazification” campaign in reality represents yet another instance of white Russians carrying out genocide. Having penetrated Ukraine’s northern border, the Russian army quickly overran the Chernobyl site, where, for over three weeks, the facility’s workers were forced by the occupiers to work nonstop. The radiation spike seen at Chernobyl at the start of the Russian invasion—a twenty-fold increase—can be explained by the churning of irradiated soils through the movement of military hardware.

On March 3 and 4, 2022, Russian shelling on the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in southeastern Ukraine—Europe’s largest nuclear plant—set an administrative building on fire. Fortunately, the site’s six reactors (better protected than their now-deactivated counterparts at Chernobyl) remained undamaged, and as of early March, local levels of radioactivity were normal. Even so, we should bear in mind the warning of Professor Kate Brown, author of Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future (2019), that “any […] nuclear even[t]” cannot be “isolated within sovereign borders,” owing to the physics involved. In this light, although Russian forces withdrew from the Chernobyl region in early April, Putin’s threats of nuclear blackmail following the invasion remain unsettling.

In this article, I will review Trotsky in Tijuana and Chernobyl from an anti-authoritarian perspective by exploring some of the overlap with, and divergences from, anarchism in these artistic works. I will also present an overall critique of nuclear energy, to contrast with the ideological support Chernobyl’s screenwriter, Mazin, provides to the industry—regardless of the scope of the disaster he portrays.

Front-5

Trotsky in Tijuana

In Trotsky in Tijuana, Natalia Ivanovna Sedova, Trotsky’s second wife, fatefully questions the man she knew as Frank Jacson’s choice to wear a heavy raincoat during a visit to their fortress-home in Coyoacán on August 20, 1940. However, in La Botz’s counternarrative, Sedova’s doubts do not go unheard. Historically, Mercader wore this same coat to cover up the ice ax he would use to fatally injure the exiled communist revolutionary, as the latter reviewed an essay with which his counterpart sought to distract him. Yet, in La Botz’s imagination, Ralph Bucek, a fictional US-American guard of the “Old Man,” enters his charge’s office and hits the Spaniard in the head with a baseball at the last moment, saving the day.

Rather than replay Trotsky’s murder—as John P. Davidson’s novel The Obedient Assassin (2014), Antonio Chavarrias’s film El Elegido (The Chosen, 2016), and the Russian TV miniseries on Trotsky (2017) do—La Botz’s book envisions the founder of the Red Army escaping this brush with death through exile to Baja California, where he continues to theorize about current events, especially World War II, and even find time for erotic love.

Not long after Trotsky, Sedova, and their retinue resettle in the so-called Cantú house in Tijuana, Trotsky’s own anarchistic secretary, Jan van Heijenoort, abandons Mexico for Europe, plotting a long-term mission to assassinate Stalin. La Botz imagines that Van’s plan dovetails with the “doctors’ plot” of 1953, when Soviet Jewish physicians had supposedly conspired with Western imperial powers to murder Stalin, his propagandist Andrei Zhdanov, and other party bosses. In retaliation for the discovery of this “plot,” Stalin ordered the arrests of hundreds of Soviet Jews and/or physicians, and planned to expand the Gulag to imprison more Jews, in a final homage to his “frenemy,” Adolf Hitler. Yet, just as a possible second Holocaust and nuclear war between the USSR and the West are threatened, La Botz’s depiction of Van’s assassination plot succeeds. The same day, the Soviet agent “Étienne” (Mark Zborowski)—who had murdered Trotsky and Sedova’s son, Lev Sedov, in Paris, and then boldly posed (in La Botz’s imagination) as Trotsky’s new secretary in Tijuana—kills Lev Davidovich by poisoning.[2]

While La Botz is sympathetic to his martyred subject, he is not uncritical toward the Bolshevik leader’s legacy. He surely does not shy away from depicting Trotsky’s narcissistic, delusional, and dogmatic tendencies. Rather, he insinuates the need for twenty-first-century updates to the brightest ideas of this “polymath,” who was “lost in time.” These ideas include class struggle, the united front, and the permanent revolution. Historically speaking, Trotsky adapted the last of these from the French anarchist Élisée Reclus, who asserted in 1899 that “[a]s long as iniquity endures, we, international anarcho-communists, will remain in a state of permanent revolution.”[3]

This dynamic only reinforces the anarchist hypothesis that Marxists aim to appropriate revolution for themselves and their bureaucratic franchises, rather than the liberation of the working classes and humanity—as Marx’s own expulsion of Mikhail Bakunin and James Guillaume from the First International in 1872, and Lenin and Trotsky’s crushing in 1921 of the Kronstadt Commune and of the peasant-anarchist Revolutionary Insurgent Army of Ukraine, prove. While the mutiny by Red sailors at Kronstadt demanded that the Russian Revolution advance without the dead weight of the Communist Party, the Revolutionary Insurgent Army was cofounded by the Ukrainian peasant guerrilla Nestor Makhno, who also organized with the Nabat (Tocsin) anarchist confederation after the fall of Tsar Nicholas I in 1917. Despite the Makhnovists’ proclamation of free soviets and their actions that arguably saved the Revolution through their fierce resistance to the reactionary White armies during the Civil War (1918–21), just as the Kronstadt sailors had previously served the cause at key points, forces loyal to Red Army commander Trotsky crushed both groups.

Notably, La Botz does not acknowledge that Lev Davidovich Bronstein adopted the surname Trotsky in 1898, after his jailer in Odessa. Psychoanalytically, this choice suggests identification with the aggressor, which is consistent with sociopolitical authoritarianism.[4] Arguably in this sense, there is a direct line from Lev’s adoption of his prison warden’s name to his own atrocities in the Revolution. Indeed, Trotsky in Tijuana’s coverage of the Russian Revolution conveys its author’s neo-Trotskyism. For instance, throughout the novel, the totality of the revolution is reduced to the Bolsheviks’ October 1917 seizure of power, with little to no mention of the “people’s epic” from February 1917, which in fact began the earthquake. This elision amounts to a minimization of the role played, specifically, by the proletarian women who lit the spark in Petrograd that overthrew the Romanov Tsars. La Botz even suggests that “revolution” emanated from Lenin’s persona, as though this were his superpower. Likewise, in a 2015 column in New Politics, the author writes that in both “February and October 1917,” the “Bolshevik[s] led the Russian working class to overthrow the Czarist autocracy.” The only problem with this claim is that all of the Bolshevik leaders were in exile during February 1917.[5]

In reality, the book glosses over its subject’s wickedness, in a move that functions to boost Trotsky’s radical credentials. Although La Botz acknowledges that the Bolsheviks “incorporated […] Tsarist officers” into the Red Army early on, the mass murder of the insurgent Kronstadt sailors—overseen by Trotsky in March 1921—is not mentioned until the second half of the book. At that point, La Botz describes the war commissar as merely “support[ing] the decision” to suppress the mutineers, rather than supervising the ex-Tsarist officer Mikhail Tukhachevsky’s use of overwhelming force toward this end.[6] Neither Makhno nor the Makhnovshchina is mentioned at all.

In short, while La Botz’s historical counternarrative champions direct action and critiques bureaucratic authoritarianism, the author’s affection for the “Old Man” somewhat clouds the novel’s treatment of the period between 1917 and 1921. A more anarchist approach might have portrayed Lev Davidovich as haunted by the counterrevolutionary brutality he oversaw and carried out during that time. Although La Botz’s condemnation of Stalinism is most apt—especially in light of “tankie” support for Putin’s war crimes in Syria and Ukraine—and despite the author’s good-natured satire of the titular character, the story neither adequately questions the role of “revolutionary” authority nor proclaims that it is the workers and peasants, not the party, who drive revolutionary change.

ChNPP_Unit1control

“Control room of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant,” Carl A. Willis (Creative Commons Attribution 3.0)

What Happened at Chernobyl in 1986?

Like Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, Trotsky was an enthusiast of bourgeois principles of management, political centralism, and the domination of nature. When crystallized in high-risk technologies such as nuclear energy, it is unsurprising that such Promethean social ideologies, imaginaries, and institutional structures would result in disasters like the one experienced at the Vladimir I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant, featured in Chernobyl.[7]

The basic idea of nuclear fission is this: uranium, after having been mined and enriched, is subjected to neutron bombardment in a nuclear plant’s reactor core. This leads to the fission, or splitting, of the nuclei of uranium, and the resulting production of intense heat, or radiation. This radiation is then combined with coolant to produce high-pressure steam, which in turn moves turbines, thus producing electricity.[8] The RBMK-type reactor used at Chernobyl, as in many other Soviet nuclear power plants, shared this basic function with the Western light-water reactors (LWRs) presently in use. One of the major differences between the two designs, however, is that RBMK reactors lacked the steel-reinforced containment shields surrounding the core found in LWRs.

On April 26, 1986, a safety test was scheduled to be performed within Chernobyl’s reactor number 4 during the day shift. However, to accommodate the needs of Soviet state capitalism, the test was delayed by ten hours, leaving it to the less-experienced night shift. As part of this experiment, the plant’s crew deactivated the automatic safety and warning systems, including the emergency cooling system. They also removed most of the control rods from the reactor core, lowering energy output far below normal. Accordingly, without adequate power to pump water into the reactor to either remove excess heat or produce electricity, the core became unstable.[9]

At this point, Chernobyl depicts several of the plant’s workers, all of whom present as cisgender men, as protesting the idea of proceeding with the safety test. Nevertheless, reflecting toxic masculinity and the phenomenon of abusive supervision, Anatoli Dyatlov, the plant’s chief engineer, orders the experiment to proceed. Linking megalomania and the performance principle (or the compulsion to keep the capitalist machine going) with the masculine derogation of femininity, Dyatlov bullies his subordinates, Aleksandr Akimov and Leonid Toptunov, into obedience. He does so by threatening their jobs, and specifically by associating Toptunov with his mother, due to his youthful and androgynous appearance.[10] Then, when the test goes haywire, Akimov engages the emergency shutdown system known as AZ-5, thus introducing graphite-tipped rods into the reactor core. This unexpectedly increases reactivity, leading to a chain reaction that causes a critical buildup of steam, a partial meltdown, and a core explosion that would irradiate much of Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and the rest of Europe.

Chernobyl tells the dramatic tale of this experiment gone awry, together with some of the responses taken by the state, individuals, and collectives to this unprecedented catastrophe. Mazin and Renck portray desperate scenes of exploited labor, as firefighters and helicopter pilots struggle to douse the numerous fires set off by the explosion, miners are forced at gunpoint to build a tunnel beneath the reactor to accommodate a heat exchanger, and human “bio-robots” are used to clear radioactive debris from the facility’s roof. Notoriously, the firefighters who initially responded were neither warned of the risks of exposure, nor provided any sort of protective equipment. As a result, many of these working-class heroes died of acute radiation syndrome. Still, this grisly story foregrounds the state capitalist domination of (cis) men: with the exceptions of female nurses attending to irradiated patients and the fictional Soviet physicist Uma Khomyuk, who is an amalgam of the scientists investigating the incident, women are mostly absent from Chernobyl.

Èernobyl - památník požárníkù

“Monument to Those Who Saved the World,” photographed by Martin Cígler (Creative Commons Attribution 3.0)

Trotsky and Chernobyl’s Critiques of Party-Boss Despotism

In terms of understanding the destruction of the Russian Revolution, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, we might benefit from contemplating the close relationship between Leninism and Stalinism. In Trotsky in Tijuana, La Botz includes Trotsky’s insightful prediction that the Bolshevik Party would come to be dominated by Lenin, simply due to the pyramidal structure he proposed for it. The author portrays Stalin, as Lenin’s successor, being haunted by Trotsky’s accusation from 1927 that he was the “gravedigger of the Revolution!” Still, he entertains the idea that it was only Grigory “Zinoviev’s military Bolshevism,” a “Bolshevism characterized by authoritarianism and intolerance,” that had “created Stalinism”[11]—thus letting Lenin and Trotsky off the hook.

Even so, almost approaching Paul Mattick’s left-communist critique, La Botz explicitly acknowledges how wrong Trotsky was to consider the USSR a “workers’ state” of any kind.[12] As outlined in The Revolution Betrayed (1937) and other writings, the exiled theorist’s self-serving position about Stalin’s USSR being a “degenerated workers’ state” is perhaps understandable, but it is nonetheless delusional. Indeed, Trotsky’s own responsibility for the suppression of the Kronstadt Commune and the Makhnovist peasant-anarchist movement in Ukraine paved the way for his rival’s takeover. As the Bolshevik autocracy eliminated the most radical elements among workers, peasants, and fighters, it sealed the fate of the Revolution: namely, to give rise to a Communist hell.[13]

Along these lines, Chernobyl can be seen as a visual exploration of the horrors of bureaucracy, state capitalism, and high technology. To protect the reputation and power of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), the Politburo executives covered up and downplayed the news from Chernobyl from the start. Reflecting the lack of freedom of the press, free speech, or freedom of movement evident in the Soviet Union, authorities forced Western correspondents to remain in Moscow in the aftermath of the accident. Meanwhile, the KGB filtered information flows from the disaster site. In reality, the “two million residents of Kyiv,” located eighty miles from the plant, “were not informed despite the fallout danger, and the world learned of the disaster only after heightened radiation was detected in Sweden.” Mikhail Gorbachev, the CPSU’s last general secretary, did not publicly acknowledge the reality of the situation until May 14, well over two weeks after the explosion. In fact, despite Ukrainian appeals to the contrary, Gorbachev ordered the 1986 May Day march to proceed in Kyiv, so as to feign that the explosion posed no health risk to the public—this, despite the fact that the winds were then carrying fallout toward the city.[14]

The injustice of the situation is accentuated by Con O’Neill’s almost mafioso performance as Viktor Bryukhanov, Chernobyl’s manager. Shielded from the risks faced by workers, Bryukhanov keeps a lid on vital information as he sacrifices first responders. Echoing not only tsarist times, when St. Petersburg was constructed on wetlands using the mass conscription of serf labor, but also Stalin’s deportations, forcible collectivization, and the “Great Patriotic War” against the Germans, the CPSU mobilized over six hundred thousand so-called “liquidators” to deal with the fallout from Chernobyl. A 2005 report from the Irish Times finds that since 1986, twenty-five thousand liquidators had died, and that seventy-thousand had been permanently disabled.

While it set the stage for the collapse of the Soviet Union, as Gorbachev later admitted, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster caused 350,000 people to be permanently resettled, and its radioactive emissions have coincided with a regional increase in childhood thyroid cancer rates. While Mazin conveys a death toll of between four thousand and ninety-three thousand owing to the accident, Kate Brown estimates that “[b]etween 35,000 and 150,000 people died from cancers, heart problems, [and] autoimmune disorders” resulting from the disaster. Plus, as the recent movements of Russian units have reminded us, the soils surrounding Chernobyl remain highly irradiated. Ominously, less than a month into the all-out war, forest fires began to erupt, sending airborne radiation levels skyrocketing.

Chernobyl, Eros, and Anarchism

Perhaps surprisingly for an HBO series, Chernobyl features themes sympathetic to queerness, anarchism, and their intersections. For instance, as Akimov confronts the moral distress of carrying out Dyatlov’s unreasonable orders to proceed with the safety test, he gently whispers to Toptunov: “I’m with you.” We can draw a parallel here to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), which proposes homoerotic union among the crew of the Pequod against the deranged Captain Ahab, who is leading them toward a watery grave. Tragically, in both cases, the crew do ultimately perish, in an allegory of the self-destructive tendencies of capitalism, the domination of nature, and toxic masculinity. In parallel, the miners from the Donbas region who are conscripted to build a tunnel under the stricken plant are shown as especially defiant to the authorities, in a way that may recall the Ukrainian peasant-anarchist movement led by Makhno. Though the miners agree to the CPSU’s terms, Mazin and Renck depict them as doing so proudly, in terms of laboring to save humanity. Furthermore, they are shown performing their communal work in the nude, and this verbal image suggests free love as a means to dissolving hierarchy, or what the late researcher Christopher Chitty refers to as “sexual anarchy.”[15]

On the one hand, Chernobyl celebrates the heroic labor and mutual aid performed during and after the disaster by workers, including engineers, first responders, nurses, miners, and scientists. On the other, it portrays party bosses, from Bryukhanov to Gorbachev, as parasites and autocrats. With this dichotomy in mind, in his review for the New York Times, Mike Hale complains about the miniseries’ “one-dimensional heroes and villains.” Perhaps Mazin and Renck exaggerate a bit, but then again, the bureaucratic authoritarianism exhibited by Dyatlov and his superiors follows from the Soviet context, established by “Red hangmen.”[16] After all, the Soviet political system was based on a combination of the Tsarist “administrative utopia” and the “revolutionary statism” preached by Marx and Lenin.[17] Though he ended up killing Trotsky, Stalin “copied and far surpassed” his rival’s plan for the militarization of labor.[18]

In this sense, despite Chernobyl’s production by HBO, the visual narrative may well be influenced by Mazin’s own apparent solidarity with the struggle against class society. In his review on Red Flag (Australia) of the miniseries as an “anti-capitalist nuclear horror story,” Daniel Taylor observes that “the disaster we’re seeing is transpiring in, and largely a product of, a bureaucratic, managerial society divided into rulers and ruled, bosses and workers.”[19] Therefore, “strip away the Stalinist veneer and it is easy to recognise the system we have today: a managerial society run by bosses and bureaucrats who lie and kill to maintain their social dominance, and who threaten the whole world as long as they remain in power.” Taylor is right, but let us radicalize the implications beyond the nostalgia he expresses for Lenin and Trotsky. By focusing on the intersection of the exploitation of labor and ecological disaster, Mazin may be conveying implicit and/or unconscious sympathies with green syndicalism and social ecology, beyond democratic concerns about political dictatorship.

In parallel, we can draw lines from Trotsky and his Stalinist assassin Étienne, in La Botz’s presentation, to Dyatlov. Both Trotsky and Étienne are portrayed as automatons incapable of friendship, who typically view others only as tools, to be treated as either subordinates or superiors within a military hierarchy.[20] Such depictions, when juxtaposed with Mazin and Renck’s illustration of Dyatlov’s megalomania, communicate the continuities between Marxism-Leninism and bourgeois society—thus questioning what progress the Russian Revolution really brought. Indeed, in a chilling echo from the past, the blatant lie perpetrated by Trotsky and Lenin that the Kronstadt revolutionaries were led by tsarist officers—which subsequently inspired Stalin during his show trials—is now being reproduced by Putin’s regime, when it claims absurdly that Ukrainians are neo-Nazis.

Conclusion

Proponents of nuclear energy are often quick to dismiss the Chernobyl disaster as an aberration that reflects the flaws of both the reactor’s design and the Soviet autocracy, rather than any problems with nuclear fission as such. While the reactors in use today may be safer than the earlier Soviet designs, the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, provoked by a tsunami, still tells us that the lessons of Chernobyl have been neither learned nor applied. Moreover, besides the immediate safety issues owing to the risk of core meltdown, most nuclear fission plants in operation today share Chernobyl’s problems of radioactive waste disposal, dependence upon mining, and proliferation of materials usable in a nuclear weapon.[21] Much of this would also be true for the much-hyped hypothetical form of energy production known as nuclear fusion. Like the region surrounding Chernobyl, Diné (Navajo) lands and water-sources in the southwestern United States have been made into sacrifice zones for uranium mining concessions, resulting in radiation sickness and unusually high cancer rates among the Diné. Moreover, it is clear that nuclear energy has no role to play in averting catastrophic climate change.

Such critical thoughts, taken together with reflections on Mazin and Renck’s miniseries, may reveal the systemic nature of our predicament, linking Chernobyl with the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the Fukushima disaster, global warming, the current war by Russia on Ukraine, and ongoing nuclear brinkmanship. Both Chernobyl and Trotsky in Tijuana are cautionary tales and appeals to reason. While the former highlights “the dangers posed by Stalinism as a uniquely bureaucratic system of social organization,” the latter serves as a call for a united front among “all of us on the left who oppos[e] both Hitler and Stalin,” plus their contemporary followers.[22] While La Botz may not be as critical of Trotsky’s authoritarianism as I might like, his counter-history does recognize the importance of anarchism within revolutionary struggle. Looking to the future, the same mechanisms of social hierarchy, aggressive hyper-masculinity, and adherence to the performance principle that have driven catastrophes like Chernobyl and Russia’s war on Ukraine could be opposed and perhaps overcome by autonomous class struggle; internationalist, anti-militarist, and feminist resistance; and a global transition to wind, water, and solar energy.

Notes

[1] Sigmund Freud, “Creative Writers and Daydreaming,” Collected Papers, vol. 4, trans. Joan Riviere et al., ed. Ernest Jones (New York: Basic Books, 1953), 421.

[2] Dan La Botz, Trotsky in Tijuana (St. Petersburg, FL: Serge Books / BookLocker, 2020), 82–85, 91–92, 185–91, 422–50.

[3] Ibid., 24, 62, 196–69, 242–44, 305, 324, 328–29, 347.

[4] Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, trans. Ulrike Kistner (London: Verso, 2016), 71–72.

[5] Ibid., 66, 308; Voline, The Unknown Revolution (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1975), 136–37.

[6] La Botz, Trotsky in Tijuana, 57, 297.

[7] Irvin Sam Schonfeld and Chu-Hsiang Chang, Occupational Health Psychology: Work, Stress, and Health (New York: Springer, 2017), 9; Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 50–52; John P. Clark, The Impossible Community: Realizing Communitarian Anarchism. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 3.

[8] G. Tyler Miller, Living in the Environment: Principles, Connections, and Solutions, 12th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth / Thomson Learning, 2002), 345–46.

[9] Ibid., 350.

[10] Schonfeld and Chang, Occupational Health Psychology, 206–7; Jessica Benjamin, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination (New York: Pantheon, 1988).

[11] La Botz, Trotsky in Tijuana, 20, 289, 311.

[12] Paul Mattick, “Bolshevism and Stalinism,” in Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution, eds. Friends of Aron Baron (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2017), 259–72.

[13] Stites, Revolutionary Dreams, 171–72.

[14] Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 310–11.

[15] Christopher Chitty, Sexual Hegemony: Statecraft, Sodomy, and Capital in the Rise of the World System (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020). See the discussion on group marriage in Friedrich Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884).

[16] Alexandre Skirda, Nestor Makhno: Anarchy’s Cossack (Oakland: AK Press, 2004), 389.

[17] Stites, Revolutionary Dreams, 19.

[18] Mattick, “Bolshevism and Stalinism,” 259–60; Stites, Revolutionary Dreams, 242.

[19] Daniel Taylor, “Chernobyl: an anti-capitalist nuclear horror story,” RedFlag, June, 9, 2019. Available at: https://redflag.org.au/node/6814.

[20] La Botz, Trotsky in Tijuana, 384.

[21] Miller, Living in the Environment, 349.

[22] La Botz, Trotsky in Tijuana, 317.

Science Fiction as Protest Art (Part III): On The Shores of Communist H(e)avens

November 21, 2021
The U.S.S. Enterprise in Earth orbit (Star Trek: The Next Generation)

In this concluding part of our analysis of speculative fiction as protest art, we will wrap up the discussion of ‘capitalist hells’ from parts I and II; consider a few cases of art-works combining utopian and dystopian elements, including Elysium, Octavia’s Brood, and Palestine +100; and then pivot to contemplating the ‘communist heavens’ and ‘alternative’ and/or ‘anti-modern utopias’ envisioned by William Morris, Ursula K. Le Guin, Gene Roddenberry, and Kim Stanley Robinson, among others.

First published on The Commoner, 21 November 2021. Feel free to support them via their Patreon here

Correction to part II: Pardot Kynes, from Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965), is an imperial, not Fremen, ecologist; in the novel, he is father to Liet-Kynes, and grand-father to Chani. Liet is played by Max von Sydow in David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation, Karel Dobry in the 2000 Sci-Fi edition, and Sharon Duncan-Brewster in Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 version.

So far, in this three-part series on visionary fiction, we have considered some of the critical functions that protest art may serve, in terms of the links between the imagination and political resistance. Against the ruling ‘master symbols’ that impart unreason and brutality, ‘countersymbols may arise,’ as reflections of ‘an ideal community of the imagination.'[1] In the anarchist tradition, such counter-symbols include red and black color schemes and flags, the circle A, the idea of ‘One Big Union,’ and songs such as ‘The Internationale, ‘Solidarity Forever,‘ and A Las Barricadas.Anti-authoritarians have also long used photography, poetry, theater, novels, journals, essays, periodicals, comics, zines, and films to convey our hopes for better futures. Indeed, writer Jesse Cohn observes that we anarchists ‘practice culture as a means of mental and moral survival in a world from which [we] are fundamentally alienated.’[2]

In their much-anticipated new study, The Dawn of Everything (2021), the archaeologist David Wengrow and the late anthropologist David Graeber affirm the ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s idea that ‘mythological thought […] is better conceived as a kind of ‘neolithic science’ inseparable from our humanity, from the very beginning. For this reason, Wengrow and Graeber celebrate the cultural phenomena of carnival and inversion, which feature in speculative fiction and protest art: ‘In carnival, women might rule over men and children [might] be put in charge of government. Servants could demand work from their masters, ancestors could return from the dead, ‘carnival kings’ could be crowned and then dethroned, giant monuments like wicker dragons built and set on fire […].’ They find such festivals significant, because they remind participants and observers alike that ‘other arrangements are feasible,’ compared to what is dominant at any given time.

Even so, while celebrating how artistic counter-symbols sustain the mental and physical possibilities of ‘striv[ing] to realize [anarchist] communit[ies] in actuality’ by ‘evok[ing] a sense of possible worlds worth fighting for,'[3] we must recognize that verbal and visual images critical of capital and authority have been thoroughly commodified in popular media. As voiced by Thomas Wilson Jardine, the concern is that this phenomenon of recuperation will merely function as a safety valve which ultimately ends up serving the end of social control, besides generating investors in the entertainment industry a great deal of profit.

Along these lines, at the end of The Matrix Revolutions (2003), the conclusion to the original cyberpunk trilogy The Matrix (1999-2003), the protagonist Neo responds to his nemesis Smith’s query as to why he persists in his seemingly hopeless struggle by saying, ‘Because I choose to.’ While this is not the same as disclosing that he is driven by some radical duty or cause, Neo’s reply nonetheless echoes the U.S. anarchist poet Hayden Carruth’s observation that:

‘the real revolutionary is the one who can see
all dark ahead and behind, [their] fate
a need without a hope: the will to resist.’ [4]

Be that as it may, the trilogy’s anti-systemic messianism champions the epic hero of Western iconography, emblematically centers masculinity and whiteness, and emphasizes individual over collective action. After all, Trinity and Morpheus are mere supporting characters for Neo in the original films, and it remains to be seen whether the much-anticipated The Matrix Resurrection (2021) will improve on this dynamic. Like Dune, these movies remind us that subversiveness cuts both ways—sometimes, simultaneously—to portend both recuperation into male authority and racial capitalism, as well as the creation of liberatory counter-publics.

With this dynamic in mind, we will defend anti-authoritarian subversiveness and visionary existentialism in this concluding part of our series on speculative fiction as protest art, wherein we consider “capitalist hells,” “communist heavens,” and “alternative” and/or “anti-modern utopias.”

Visionary Fiction, from the Turn of the Twenty-First Century to Present

Still from Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011)

Deus Ex (1999-2016): Although the various role-playing games in the cyberpunk Deus Ex universe are relatively open-ended, they jointly communicate Kafka-esque, Orwellian, and ‘negative-anarchist’ visions of totally administered worlds.[5] In the original Deus Ex (1999) and in its more recent iterations, Human Revolution (2011) and Mankind Divided (2016), the main characters, who are vaguely queer-coded cyborg super-soldiers, undergo thematic journeys of self-discovery and exile, as they encounter political corruption, inequality, ultra-violence, homelessness, medical abuse, and discrimination as ‘Augs.’ Players begin Deus Ex on the side of the police and the State, but—echoing Blade Runner (1982) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017)these ‘red detective[s]’ slowly realize the folly of power by bearing witness to the conspiratorial brutality of the authorities and the lies of the mass-media. Players end up defecting to anti-systemic resistance movements.[6] (The alternative options, admittedly, are to serve the ‘Illuminati’ [an anti-Semitic trope], or oneself.)

At their best, the augmented playable characters in Deus Ex are ‘Anarchist Action M[e]n’ who recall Alex Murphy at the end of RoboCop (1987), Douglas Quaid in Total Recall (1990), the T-800 from Terminator 2 (1991), and Neo from The Matrix. Furthermore, they are reminiscent of Miguel Cervantes’ classic knight-errant Don Quixote, ‘a figure sincerely beloved by anarchists’ for his idealism and commitment to direct action.[7] Although only in Deus Ex: Invisible War (2003) can gamers choose to play as a female heroine, thus reflecting and perpetuating the toxic masculinity for which the industry is notorious, the Deus Ex series not only creatively satirizes many of the social, political, and economic ills of our time, but also allows players the virtual choice to perpetuate or contest these.

Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (1999): This innovative computer strategy game, which builds on the well-known Civilization series, imagines human groups settling on ‘Chiron’ in the Alpha Centauri star system, located 4 light-years from Earth. Having reached Alpha Centauri in the twenty-second century, the interstellar travelers break up into numerous political factions upon planet fall. Gamers can choose to play as the Green ‘Gaia’s Stepdaughters,’ the fundamentalist ‘Lord’s Believers,’ the capitalist ‘Morgan Industries,’ or the despotic-collectivist ‘Human Hive,’ among others. The expansion pack Alien Crossfire (1999) adds the syndicalist ‘Free Drones,’ cyborgs, ‘Data Angels,’ and two indigenous alien factions. With a highly customizable interface that permits mod-ability, includes an expansive technology tree, and integrates astute speculation on the future course of humankind, Alpha Centauri makes for a unique experiment in the digital construction of new societies that goes beyond the typical one-dimensional game. Indeed, as we shall see below, an unacknowledged source for the makers of Alpha Centauri may have been Kim Stanley Robinson’s original Mars (1992-1996) trilogy.

In parallel to the game, back on Earth, anarchists are divided among ourselves, and we confront numerous enemy forces, from the State to capitalists, fascists, and Stalinists. Hopefully, we can unite and find allies to propel global anti-authoritarian and ecological revolution, before world leaders lead humanity to our doom through war, future pandemics, totalitarian takeovers, and/or ecological catastrophe.

Cover image of Elysium

Elysium (2013), Sleep Dealer (2008): Elysium, written and directed by District 9’s director Neil Blomkamp, is a slice of life from the apocalyptic landscape of Los Angeles in 2154, juxtaposed with the orbiting space-station Elysium, which is home to the affluent capitalist overlords of the future. While on Elysium there are many green, open spaces, with mansions adorned by pools and maintained by servant-bots—akin, perhaps, to the humanoid ‘Tesla Bots‘ recently announced by Elon Musk—Earth-dwellers confront veritably infernal conditions. In fact, the “Earth” scenes were filmed in the Bordo Poniente landfill in Mexico City (one of the largest in the world, before its closure), while the Elysium scenes were shot in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The film’s protagonist, Max (played by Matt Damon), is seriously injured by a workplace accident in LA, due to negligence and pressure from his supervisor. With mere days to live, Max tries desperately to find a way aboard the remote and highly fortified space station, where highly advanced therapeutic machines hold out the promise of freeing the body from all ailments and disease. With the help of his mostly Latin@ comrades, Max overwhelms Elysium’s defenses and sacrifices himself to ensure that all Earth residents become Elysian citizens, and so are allowed free, life-saving medical treatment.

In its internationalism, its cosmopolitan focus on migration, and its concern with militarism and labor exploitation, Elysium shares many themes with its fellow dystopian social science-fiction film Sleep Dealer, which envisions Mexican proletarians renting themselves out digitally to work as labor-bots in factories on the other side of the U.S.-Mexico border—which is closed, and patrolled by killer drones—all while remaining in their home country. This is something that U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris has urged. Both films therefore critique borders, inequality, and labor in a manner consistent with anarchist principles, calling to mind the ongoing importance of class struggle, humanism, cross-border organizing, and migrant solidarity.

Cover of Octavia’s Brood

Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (2015): This striking volume of visionary fiction, written mostly by people of color, renders homage to Octavia Butler’s profound contributions to the development of anarcha-feminist and anti-racist themes in sci-fi and protest literature. In ‘Revolution Shuffle,’ Bao Phi imagines Asian- and Arab-Americans, ‘Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, Chicanos, and Black people’ thrown into concentration camps by the authorities en masse, as guerrillas look on, contemplating launching a war ‘that might just turn into something like a revolution.'[8] In her contribution, co-editor Walidah Imarisha imagines an itinerant, avenging Black Angel who rescues Palestinians and Mexicans from marauding neo-Nazis and ICE agents, respectively, using overwhelming force. Having been expelled from heaven for questioning God’s complicity with wickedness, A. seeks to be one of the righteous ones ‘who fight against [oppression], who push the forces of destruction back.’[9]

In a similar vein, disability activist Mia Mingus envisions a commune of people with disabilities (‘UnPerfects,’ or ‘U.P.s’) finding solace in autonomous life on a distant planet, far from Earth, where a new wave of annihilatory attacks on ‘U.P.s’ recalls the horrors of Nazi Germany.[10] In an excerpt from Aftermath (1997), LeVar Burton, of Roots and Star Trek: The Next Generation, foresees the Black Dr. Rene Reynolds inventing a ‘Neuro-Enhancer’ that could cure all disease, but then being enslaved by traffickers who target dark-skinned people. Grimly, these slavers turn around and sell the skins of their victims of color to whites for the purposes of grafting, or ‘skin fusion,’ to protect the latter against cancer, in light of the catastrophic depletion of the ozone layer.[11] Notably, as well, Octavia’s Brood includes an excerpt from Terry Bisson’s Fire on the Mountain (1988), an alternate utopian history of the U.S., wherein slaves and abolitionists successfully liberate the South from Confederate rule, leading to the founding of the independent Black socialist State of Nova Africa. Octavia’s Brood therefore represents a timely and intersectional intervention that can animate a politics of resistance and decolonization against white supremacy, fascism, and ableism, in keeping with Black Lives Matter, Antifa, and disability-justice movements.

Palestine + 100 (2019): In this collection of speculative stories about Palestine’s future a century after the Nakba—the ethnic cleansing of up to three-quarters of a million Palestinians, on which Israel was founded in 1948—Palestinian writers defamiliarize and question their everyday lives, which under Occupation amount to ‘a kind of a dystopia,’ according to editor Basma Ghalayini. Contributors Saleem Haddad and Selma Dabbagh report that they found the writing process to have been therapeutic, and unexpectedly liberating. Along these lines, Palestine + 100 has the power to ‘ope[n] up a whole [new] world’ for writers and audiences alike, proclaims Dabbagh. In her review of the volume, Ramona Wadi observes that the volume’s fiction ‘offers an alternative to imagine and communicate these fantastical forays into a not-so distant future, while never forgetting about the historical trauma impacting generations since the Nakba.’ Indeed, in June 2021, following another shooting war between Israel and Hamas that took the lives of at least 248 Palestinians and 12 Israelis, Palestinians attested to the centrality of the radical social imaginary in their ongoing struggle for justice by dreaming online of life as if the Occupation had ended, using the hashtag #TweetLikeItsFree.

Heavenly Communism

Alongside the “capitalist hells” from history and present that pervade sci-fi, visionary fiction also features previews of “communist heavens” at the terrestrial, interplanetary, and galactic levels. Inspired by the Russian Marxist Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star (1908), a two-volume novel set three hundred years in the future in a ‘Martian-Marxian society’ observing full communism, Russian science-fiction writers from the early Soviet period lyrically explored modernization, ‘the outer reaches of technical innovation,’ and the use of science to dominate nature, while proclaiming ‘the ultimate triumph of the shining pravda [truth] of social justice over the dark krivda [wickedness] of greed and power hunger.’ In this sense, in contrast to the pessimism of the Fabian socialist H. G. Wells, author of The War of the Worlds (1897), Soviet speculative writers marshaled revolutionary ideology and critical sociology to optimistically envision utopian futures—in turn, presumably moving Ursula K. Le Guin, Gene Roddenberry, and Kim Stanley Robinson to do much the same, as we shall see.[12]

Along these lines, in April and May 2021, artists from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region publicly mused about the future through the prism of sci-fi. For this series, the Egyptian novelist Ahmad El Fakharany exclaims that ‘Heaven is the world’s motor, the mirage it needs. We will never lose its effects. We will never stop pursuing it.’ Likewise, the Egyptian poet Khadija Al-Saadi identifies fiction as a ‘certain reality that contributes to change and transformation—what I think about, I work on. Ideas are free and roam different worlds.’ She adds that ‘[s]cience fiction is accessible to anyone who thinks about it in depth, calmly and methodically. After thinking, the images come, and then answers.’

William Morris & Co., ‘The Orchard’ (1890; courtesy Albert and Victoria Museum, 2021-2026)

To this point, the British eco-socialist poet and designer William Morris (1834-1896) wrote News From Nowhere (1891) as an ‘Epoch of Rest’ and a ‘Utopian Romance.’ Although this novella depicts communist h(e)avens, it may more accurately be classified as an anti-modern utopia integrating Romantic, pastoral, and even proto-solarpunk themes.[13] Recalling Tao Qian’s ‘Peach Blossom Spring‘ (421 C.E.), Morris’ alter ego, William Guest, awakens the morning after a discussion at the Socialist League about the ‘Morrow of the Revolution,’ only to find himself in a paradoxically future-medieval London, set in 2102, from which the factories and associated pollution have disappeared. Remarkably, he discovers that poverty and class have been eliminated, that workers are healthy in body and mind, and that the people’s social character is warm, joyous, and humanistic, such that they resemble a ‘bed of tulips in the sun.’ In place of a ‘country of huge and foul workshops,’ railways, and robber barons, England and its fields have become ‘a garden, where nothing is wasted and nothing is spoilt,’ and ‘made for the pleasure as well as the livelihood of all.’ In this liberated world, capitalism, industrialism, and Puritanism have been overthrown, and ‘mastery has changed into fellowship.'[14]

During a boat ride down the Thames River, Guest and his fellow dreamer Ellen encounter ‘a mill […] as beautiful in its way as a Gothic cathedral,’ and amidst the sounds of blackbirds, doves, rooks, and swifts, they visit an old house built by peasants from Guest’s timeline, and there jointly contemplate what the psychoanalyst Nancy Chodorow might term the ‘living’ or ‘unconscious past.'[15] Ellen presents socialist-feminist reflections on how she would have been ‘wrecked and wasted […] either by penury or by luxury,’ had she had the misfortune of being born in the nineteenth rather than twenty-second century.[16] Yet, soon after joining his friends for a communal feast at a medieval church, Guest awakens, hoping passionately that his reveries could become a political vision for the future.

The importance of Morris’ Romantic-revolutionary outlook should not be underestimated. All of it remains relevant today. In Cohn’s words, the message of News from Nowhere speaks to a ‘key component of anarchist dreaming’: that is, ‘the process of reconciliation and reintegration that would constitute a society of equals without producing another Terror.'[17] In Spaces of Hope (2000), David Harvey employs the motif of falling asleep amidst a bout of political despair to envision a radically different, non-repressive future society. The film Total Recall (1990)—starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a disaffected worker who either goes to Mars to lead a successful planetary insurrection against the capitalist overlords, or merely fantasizes about doing so—relies on a very similar premise. Riffing off Morris’ communalist anti-industrialism, Paul Glover’s eco-utopian Los Angeles: A History of the Future (1984) envisions the peoples of Santa Monica and Boyle Heights reaching self-sufficiency and replacing car-centric urban planning designs with orchards that are communicated by bikeways and solar-powered rail.[18]

Hopefully, with greater movement toward unionization of the U.S. working class during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the ‘Great Resignation‘ of laborers quitting ‘bullshit jobsen masse, the power of State and capital can be further destabilized, so that workers and communities come to replace the State and capital as decision-makers in the future. Green and community syndicalism hold more promise for reaching a sustainable, egalitarian future, when compared to the gross negligence that has been exhibited by world leaders for decades, in the face of the collective death sentence posed by global warming.

In a similar vein to News from Nowhere, Alexander V. Chayanov’s 1920 fictional work, My Brother Alexei’s Journey into the Land of Peasant Utopia, begins with a proletarian leaving his job one night in 1921, ‘disgusted at the mechanical extremism of the socialist regime in which he lives.’ He falls asleep, awakening over sixty years later in a future Russia wherein the Bolsheviks have been overthrown by the Socialist Revolutionaries, and large cities and the centralized State destroyed. Self-evidently, such a vision deviates radically from Marxist prescriptions for the future. That having been said, for envisioning an agrarian society that would be self-governed by cooperatives, but not necessarily opposed to private ownership or traditional peasant culture, Chayanov perished in Stalin’s GULAG in the early 1930’s.[19]

Le Guin’s Ambiguously Utopian Futures

Cover of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed

The visionary anarcha-feminist Ursula K. Le Guin’s award-winning novels The Dispossessed (1974) and Always Coming Home (1985) combine elements of heavenly communism with anti-modern and alternative utopianism to contemplate possible anti-authoritarian futures for humanity. Following in the steps of her parents, the ethnologists A. L. and Theodora Kroeber, Le Guin (1929-2018) uses anthropological approaches to narrate these “ambiguous utopias.”

The Dispossessed describes a future anarcho-communist society in the Tau Ceti solar system being constructed on the desolate moon Anarres, whose courageous inhabitants have broken away from the bourgeois-patriarchal society based on the more ecologically bountiful home planet of Urras. Led by the prophetess Odo, the Anarresti resist socio-political authoritarianism by engaging in cooperation, encouraging free love and sexuality (including LGBTQ dimensions), and creating a new language that lacks possessives, thus consciously building what Le Guin terms ‘the most idealistic, and […] the most interesting, of all political theories.’ The Anarresti physicist Shevek, the work’s protagonist, visits Urras, only to encounter class divisions, sexual repression, and militaristic State violence. By contrast, Shevek’s experience in the capitalist hell of Urras does not mean that life on Anarres is perfect, for Le Guin warns of the risks of group conformity and stagnation, even among mindful anti-authoritarians who have consciously overcome many of the problems faced by the Urrasti.

The novel’s title is likely a play on Fëdor Dostoevsky’s The Possessed (1871-1872),[20] and its plot presents a critique of the opportunistic and deranged social character which Dostoevsky imputes to anarchists in his reactionary satire. In this sense, when the Marxist literary commentator Fredric Jameson criticizes the links Le Guin traces among ‘institutionalized warfare, centralization and psychic aggression’ as ‘preoccupations of a characteristically liberal type,’ he merely tells on himself, while echoing Dostoevsky and Marx’s authoritarian caricatures of anarchism—not to mention those propagated by neo-Stalinists in the twenty-first century.[21]

Beyond the political novel of The Dispossessed, Always Coming Home synthesizes speculative ethnology with poetry, parables, music, spiritual journeys, and emblematic memoirs to construct the world of the so-called Kesh, an egalitarian people who institute a society based on anarcha-feminism, free love, communal horticulture, and the gift economy in ‘the Valley’ of California in the deep future. In ecological terms, this future-world is marked by capital’s infernal devastation of the global climate. Implicitly speaking to the threat of sea-level rise posed by the melting of the world’s glaciers and poles, a certain Grey Bull recalls a journey by boat to what must previously have been the San Francisco Bay Area, whose houses, buildings, streets, and roads now lie at ‘the bottom of the sea.'[22]

‘Under the mud in the dark of the sea there
books are, bones are […].
There are too many souls there.'[23]

Speculatively, there may be a connection between this estranging journey into the effects of global warming, and the premise of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017), which is set in a future wherein the polar ice caps have melted, and New York—like other low-lying cities—has been irreversibly inundated. In spite of the ecological constraints imposed not only by climate catastrophe, but also by past chemical pollution of the environment, Le Guin’s sympathetic portrayal of Kesh society in Always Coming Home arguably constitutes an (an)archaeology of the future: a vision, in other words, of ‘what [we] can become.'[24] The Kesh and their mysteriously advanced allies, ‘the Exchange,’ use soft technologies, including cybernetics and solar energy, to decentralize industry and society—thus integrating the past visions of Peter Kropotkin, Marshall Sahlins, Morris, and Lev Tolstoy.[25] The climate is fortunately stable enough to support horticulture. Through the practice of ‘heyiya,’ or the recognition of the links between the sacredness and interconnection of life, they institute Hermann Cohen’s vision of a ‘religion of reason.’

As a foil to the Kesh, Le Guin introduces the Condor People, a nomadic group of marauding male-supremacists and propertarians, who practice militarism, ultra-misogyny, and cruelty toward animals. Accordingly, in this work, ‘[t]he patriarchal […] is identified with the imperialistic.'[26] Through their casteism, sexism, and ultra-violence, the Condor soldiers recall the Vikings, the Mongol empire, conquistadores, and Euro-American slaveowners of yore, as well as the Hindutva, Taliban, and Christian fundamentalists of today.

In sum, according to John P. Clark, Le Guin condemns ‘the manipulative world of domination we actually find ourselves in,’ while affirming ‘the cooperative world of freedom we are capable of creating.'[27]

Star Trek: Communism in Space

The U.S.S. Enterprise confronts a Borg cube (Star Trek: The Next Generation)

The various Star Trek series (1966-present), the brainchild of Gene Roddenberry (1921-1991), closely follow Morris and Le Guin, in that they mix visions of communist h(e)avens with high-tech utopianism to consider a ‘good future’ for humanity. This arrives through the United Federation of Planets, which is co-founded among Earth and the planets Vulcan, Andor, and Tellar in the year 2161, after victory against the Romulan Star Empire, which had launched a nuclear war on Earth six years prior. The Earth-Romulan war, in turn, comes a century after World War III, which similarly involved the use of atomic weapons.

In this sense, the backstory of Star Trek pays tribute to the Russian engineer V. D. Nikolsky’s epic In A Thousand Years (1927), which involves a journey via ‘chronomobile’ into the future that anticipates the victory of socialism and humanism over capitalist imperialism, following a desperate period of nuclear war and bourgeois dictatorship.[28] In turn, Roddenberry renders homage to the Argentine Trotskyist Juan Posadas, who adopted Michel Pablo’s concept of nuclear catastrophism, whereby the workers of the world would survive the ‘destruction of all bourgeois and bureaucratic institutions in nuclear war’ to rebuild the world as socialist. Such an optimistic, catastrophic spirit might be germane to our own time, beset as we are by COVID-19 and unchecked global heating.

Broadly speaking, Star Trek can be viewed as a rationalist Enlightenment narrative about humanity’s self-overcoming of infancy, mastery, and brutality. For instance, in ‘Past Tense,’ from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1995), we learn that the ‘Bell Riots‘ of San Francisco (2024) paved the way for the coming of the Federation, and Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG, 1987) opens in the twenty-fourth century with the supernatural entity Q putting humanity on trial for the ‘multiple and grievous savageries of the species.’ Proving Q wrong, the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise liberates an alien lifeform that had been imprisoned and exploited by the humanoid Bandi species at the Farpoint station. Such utopian visual images arguably connect to today’s Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, trade-unionist, climate-justice, and Total Liberation movements, not to mention the Syrian or Rojava Revolutions.

In The Original Series (TOS, 1966-1969) and TNG, the Federation and its military-exploratory wing, Starfleet, are shown as constantly at odds with the Romulans—who follow the classical despotism of the Romans, instituting an authoritarian State, reified law, and private property[29]—and the Klingons, who are reminiscent of the Mongol, Qin(g), and Japanese Empires. Klingon ‘Birds of Prey‘ could be likened to Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s war planes, due to the cruel purposes they commonly serve, while the Romulans hold a mirror up to the sordid history of Western ‘civilization.’ For their part, the menacing, authoritarian-collectivist Borg may be meant to satirize Stalinist or Maoist state-capitalism, corporate capitalism, and/or the dangers of technology. In this sense, Roddenberry affirms Enlightenment and socialist humanism through the idea of the Federation struggling against the fascistic Borg, while conveying a future vision of the Third-Campist motto—devised by U.S. Trotskyists amidst the depths of the Cold War, and likely adapted from Shakespeare—of ‘A plague on both their houses’: namely, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., or the Romulans and Klingons. In this vein, a similar critical analysis of present-day rivalries between the U.S.A. and the People’s Republic of China would be in order.

Whereas the Star Trek universe presents a cooperative, inter-species, post-capitalist future, wherein the peoples of Earth have abolished poverty, scarcity, and profit, it also resembles Le Guin’s ‘ambiguous utopias,’ as hierarchies of gender and race arguably persist in the Federation. The franchise’s representation of Klingons as invariably Asian and/or Black also reproduces white supremacy—especially, as in TOS, when these Klingons are played by Euro-American actors. At the same time, Black, Asian, and/or female characters and actors play productive roles in several Star Trek series, and so contest racism and sexism, in an implicit nod to the Civil Rights Movement (contemporary to TOS). Nonetheless, due to the machinations of producer Rick Berman, LGBTQ representation and feminist themes were hampered for decades over multiple series.

At its best, Star Trek helps defamiliarize and question mainstream politics. The TNG episode ‘Force of Nature’ (1993) foresees the Federation Science Council imposing fleetwide limitations on warp speeds, due to concern that further high-warp emissions would prove destructive to the fabric of space. In contrast, in our world, ‘the systems that were meant to validate and respond to’ the initial alert about COVID-19 ‘were too slow,’ and much the same could be said about the official response to the climate crisis, which threatens our future radically. To this point, although the third season of Star Trek: Discovery (2020) is set in an alternate future in the early fourth millennium, wherein the Federation has collapsed following a mysterious ‘Burn,’ anti-authoritarians and rebels committed to Starfleet principles still find each other and engage in high-tech communist insurrections. Likewise, the trailer for season 2 of Picard (2022) suggests that the crew of La Sirena goes back in time to our day to prevent a fascist takeover in an alternate future, without the Federation. Accordingly, the Star Trek franchise both encourages and profits from horizontalist politics and internationalist struggles.

The Mars Trilogy and Red Moon

‘[D]o the best you can! Help all good causes!'[30]

The progressive visionary Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy—Red Mars (1993), Green Mars (1994), and Blue Mars (1996)renders homage to Bogdanov’s Red Star in its portrayal of the near-future colonization of the red planet, and its subsequent terraforming into a green and then blue planet, laden with oceans. Robinson, or KSR, integrates a utopian blending of red and green figurative imagery and eco-political thought to envision a Martian cultural and political revolution against the capitalist despotism based on Earth.[30] Many of the place-names he invents for the red planet pay tribute to the German critical theorist Ernst Bloch’s Principle of Hope (1954-1959). In his own words, KSR was forever ‘changed’ by reading Le Guin, whom he described upon her passing in 2018 as ‘a complete person of letters and an important public intellectual.’

Among the scientists who settle Mars in 2026 in KSR’s imagination, certain characters stand for different socio-ecological alternatives. For example, the prophetess Hiroko Ai, a leader of the ‘Green’ movement, which seeks to terraform Mars, stands for ‘viriditas’ and life, while her foil, the geologist Ann Clayborne, initially avows a ‘Red’ position of ‘Mars First!’, which is radically opposing to any form of geoengineering. In contrast, Ann’s erstwhile colleague Phyllis Boyle stands for capitalist modernization and the death drive, whereas Arkady Bogdanov, whom she assassinates, symbolizes anarcho-syndicalism. The engineer Nadia Cherneshevsky, his partner—whose last name alludes to the Russian revolutionary Nikolai Chernyshevsky, author of the social utopia What Is To Be Done? (1863)—emphasizes the critique of violence and social reconstruction following Terran retaliation against the First Martian Revolution, which takes place at the end of Red Mars. Furthermore, the Trinidadian anarchist stowaway known as ‘Coyote’ plays a crucial role in propagating ‘eco-economics,’ utopian socialism, and the gift economy in Green Mars. Ultimately, the Martian colonists succeed in transforming the planet into a ‘second Earth’ which has abolished private property, patriarchy, and social violence. As Blue Mars closes, on the newfound beaches of the fourth planet from the sun, the transformed elder Ann Clayborne reflects proudly:

‘Beat on, heart. And why not admit it. Nowhere on this world were people killing each other, nowhere were they desperate for shelter or food, nowhere were they scared for their kids. There was that to be said.'[32]

Cover of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Moon

In Red Moon (2018), KSR contemplates similar themes in a compelling visionary thriller that features inter-imperialist rivalry between the U.S. and China, as well as resistance movements in both countries that contest capitalist authoritarianism for the sake of a better future. The year is 2047, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has colonized much of the moon, integrating it into the State as a ‘Special Administrative Region’—akin to the internal colonies of Tibet, Xinjiang, Macau, or Hong Kong, among others (not to mention much-coveted Taiwan). Although nationalism explains much of the impetus for China’s lunar presence, KSR describes how the moon also serves as a site to which the most polluting industries could be transferred, as well as an untapped source of mineral extraction, and a launchpad to the rest of space. Through estrangement, KSR presents a dual critique of the ‘G2’ of China and the U.S. as mirror-image ‘[p]artners in crime,’ while he metaphorically ponders ‘what it will take to achieve escape velocity […] and fly off into a new space.'[33]

Red Moon ‘s main character is the revolutionary Chinese leader Chan Qi, a so-called ‘Party princess’ and daughter of the CCP’s finance minister, who is sympathetic to the New Left and a critic of Confucian sexism—but not a Party member. With the help of the U.S. quantum mechanic Fred Fredericks, Qi evades the nefarious bureaucratic forces that would capture or kill her, whether on Earth or the moon, to change the lunar-planetary system, by means of an inside-outside strategy. From her lunar hideout, Qi calls for an uprising in China, resulting in the popular occupation of Beijing. This mobilization for the ‘China Dream’ of a ‘just world’ in turn inspires a similar movement in Washington, D.C., galvanizing ‘a global people’s revolt,’ starting with a ‘G2 people’s revolt,’ that has ‘no leader.’ As in The Ministry for the Future (2020), such popular uprisings lead to significant governmental reforms, but also to the recovery and rehabilitation of State power. This paradox is reflected in the Daoist poet Ta Shu’s declaration—likely echoing KSR’s own contemporary views—that ‘[u]ltimately you need both’ pressure from below and top-down reforms to resist capitalism and combat global warming.[34]

While a grassroots strategy based in green and community syndicalism, feminism, and intersectionality may theoretically provide the best chance for radically mitigating climate destruction, overthrowing class society, emancipating humanity, and saving millions of other terrestrial and marine species from extinction, the ‘receiving sets‘ for such revolutionary transformation are arguably missing at present. Moreover, as critical theorists and psychoanalysts emphasize, capitalism and hierarchy tend to reproduce themselves both in mind and reality through children’s socialization and education, proletarians’ working lives, and the imperatives of the culture industry. Along these lines, COP26 has shown the world yet again that the only measures which can be contemplated by capital and the State on the most fundamental questions about climate catastrophe fall radically short of the basic demand—presumably shared by everyone—for a livable planet.

Conclusions

In this series on speculative fiction, we have seen numerous examples of the intimate connections binding radical artists, the social imaginary, visionary art, and revolutionary struggle across time and space. Utopian science fiction flourished in early Soviet Russia until Stalin banned it, according to his goal of figuratively performing a ‘fantasectomy’ of the revolutionary imagination, thus facilitating social control and the counter-revolutionary cause. As the German anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker argued, Stalinism and Fascism were ‘part of a transnational process reinforcing hierarchies in which the worker was inevitably reduced to an anonymous piece of machinery in mass society.'[35] As such, these totalitarian regimes had more in common with Fordist capitalism than not. It is not for nothing that Henry Ford and Hitler mutually admired each other, or that Ford and Stalin made a deal in 1929.

As opposed to the dystopias of capitalist and Communist hells alike, the competing emancipatory vision of exile, equality, and autonomy is conveyed by the Daoist dream of a ‘Peach Blossom Spring,’ Raúl Cruz’s imaginary Mayan steampunk creatures, and the egalitarian ‘new history of humanity‘ uncovered by David Graeber and David Wengrow. The cause of collective liberation resonates in several of the art-works we have examined in these three articles: for example, We, The Great Dictator, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Word for World is Forest, THX 1138, Star Wars, Terminator, The Parable of the Sower, Elysium, Octavia’s Brood, Palestine + 100, ‘Imagining the Future in the Middle East and North Africa,’ News from Nowhere, The Dispossessed, Always Coming Home, Star Trek, the Mars trilogy, and Red Moon.

Like Octavia Butler, who believed the ‘highest imperative’ to be ‘action to create change,’ Walidah Imarisha rightly declares that ‘[a]ll organizing is science fiction.'[36] For this reason, while Jardine is right to warn us to be wary of media corporations trying to sell us anti-authoritarianism and anti-capitalism and lull us into interpassivity, perhaps more importantly, we should be mindful of the immense power our imaginations have to break capital’s infernal grip—not only over the mind, but also over reality, from which it is inseparable. In this series, we have seen how visionary protest art permits explorations of social problems and creative solutions to the same in past, present, and future.[37] In this sense, we would do well to heed Pranav Jeevan P’s invitation for us to ‘revisit and re-imagine these visions, understand and imbibe the ideas behind them and work towards creating our [own] Begumpura,’ our Peach Blossom Spring, our global Federation.


[1]Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills, Character and Social Structure: The Psychology of Social Institutions (Routledge: London, 1954), 288.

[2]Jesse Cohn, Underground Passages: Anarchist Resistance Culture, 1848-2011 (Oakland: AK Press, 2014), 15 (emphasis in original). Some examples of anarchist protest art might include Колокол (‘The Bell,’ 1857-1867), War and Peace (1869), L’Homme et la Terre (‘Humanity and the Earth,’ 1905-1908), Regeneración (‘Regeneration,’ 1900-1918), ‘Written in Red’ (1911), Living My Life (1931-1934), Animal Farm (1945), The Rebel (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952), Salt of the Earth (1954), Can Dialectics Break Bricks? (1973), Libertarias (1996), La Commune (2000), Maggots and Men (2009), World War III Illustrated (1979-2014), and Processed World (1981-2005).

[3]Gerth and Mills 288; Cohn 269.

[4]Hayden Carruth, Brothers: I Loved You All: Poems, 1969-1977 (New York: Sheep Meadow Press, 1978), 93-4 (emphasis in original).

[5]Michael Löwy, Redemption and Utopia: Jewish Libertarian Thought in Central Europe (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), 71-94.

[6]Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 172-3.

[7]Cohn 63, 287.

[8]Bao Phi, ‘Revolution Shuffle,’ in Octavia’s Brood, eds. Adrienne Marie Brown and Walidah Imarisha (AK Press/Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2015), 11, 14.

[9]Walidah Imarisha, ‘Black Angel,’ in Octavia’s Brood, 50 (emphasis in original).

[10]Mia Mingus, ‘Hollow,’ in Octavia’s Brood, 109-21.

[11]LeVar Burton, ‘Aftermath,’ in Octavia’s Brood, 215-23.

[12]Stites 32-3, 172.

[13]Stites 174.

[14]William Morris, News from Nowhere and Other Writings (London: Penguin, 2004), 43-8, 105, 211-6, 226, 228.

[15]Nancy Chodorow, The Power of Feelings (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999).

[16]Morris 215, 223.

[17]Cohn 209.

[18]Ibid, 322-4.

[19]Stites 185-6.

[20]Cohn 228.

[21]Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (Verso: London, 2005), 276; Rohini Hensman, Indefensible: Democracy, Counterrevolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018).

[22]Ursula K. Le Guin, Always Coming Home (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 138.

[23]Ibid, 390.

[24]Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future (New York: HarperCollins, 1987), 5.

[25]Le Guin 379-80.

[26]Jameson 67.

[27] John P. Clark. ‘On Living in the World: Always Coming Home Revisited.’ Fifth Estate, forthcoming.

[28]Stites 176-7.

[29]Martin Malia, Alexander Herzen and the Birth of Russian Socialism (New York: Universal Library, 1961), 301-9.

[30]Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Moon (New York: Orbit, 2018), 288.

[31]Jameson 409-16.

[32]Kim Stanley Robinson, Blue Mars (New York: Del Rey, 2017), 761.

[33]Robinson, Red Moon, 148, 181, 227, 232, 234-42.

[34]Ibid, 142, 157-9, 209, 231, 267 (emphasis in original), 268-9, 276-7, 327, 363-73, 410

[35]David Bernardini, ‘A different antifascism. An analysis of the Rise of Nazism as seen by anarchists during the Weimar period.History of European Ideas (2021), 6.

[36]Tananarive Due, ‘The Only Lasting Truth,’ in Octavia’s Brood, eds. Adrienne Marie Brown and Walidah Imarisha (AK Press/Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2015), 270; Imarisha 3.

[37]Stites 189, 226.

Science Fiction as Protest Art (Part II): Dystopias of Domination

September 21, 2021

This is the second entry in a three-part response to Thomas Wilson Jardine’s December 2020 essay, ‘Cyberpunk: An Empty Rebellion?’ In this section, we will briefly examine around twenty instances of dystopian “capitalist hells” in speculative fiction, whether literature or films. See our final installment for an analysis of alternative and anti-modern utopias, together with the dialectic between dystopia and metaphorical heavens in Ursula K. Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels and the Deus Ex game universe. Originally published in The Commoner, 18 September 2021. See part 1 here.

The protest art made by Soviet utopian sci-fi writers last century, and many of the producers of speculative and visionary fiction who have followed them since, share a common concern with the infernal nature of capitalism, whether openly or by implication. In this sense, Thomas Wilson Jardine is surely right to warn that media corporations cynically exploit these ‘rebellious’ themes for profit and self-aggrandisement. At the same time, the unfortunate existence of this dynamic in no way delegitimises the righteous concerns raised by speculative artists throughout history to the present.

As we have argued in part I of this essay, visionary fiction has a rich history. Here, in part II, we will focus mostly on the meaning of negative, dystopian art. In this sense, many Soviet sci-fi writers followed Jack London’s lead in The Iron Heel (1908), a novel that foresees an authoritarian-capitalist US State calling in the military to suppress an insurgent Chicago Commune—much as the Communards of Paris had met a brutal fate in 1871, at the hands of forces loyal to Versailles. In Tomorrow (1924), Yakov Okunev inverts the dismal conclusion of The Iron Heel, envisioning the defeat of global capitalism as ‘the Atlantic fleet goes red, the German workers’ army attacks Paris, and the Soviet army liberates India [from the British Empire], setting the stage for a world-wide federation of soviets with its capital in London.’[1]

Soviet General Secretary Joseph Stalin (r. 1924-1953) notoriously banned utopian science fiction in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and mandated its replacement with the upbeat and uncritical genre of socialist realism, as an integral part of his counter-revolutionary ‘war on the dreamers.’ However, the late historian Richard Stites emphasised that the anti-capitalist and anti-militarist ‘scaretopias’ produced during the first decade of the 1917 Russian Revolution themselves anticipated the horrors of World War II. These included ‘the 1941 skies blackened with German aircraft,’ the ‘huge herds of machine-powered vehicles and tanks rolling across the flat landscape,’ and ‘millions of civilians perishing in a war without well defined rear areas.’[2]

Along similar lines, the Terminator (1984) series begins with apocalyptical scenes of machines hunting down human survivors of a nuclear war, by employing battle tanks and aircraft that resemble the ‘Osprey’ used by the US Marines Corps. With his dystopian vision about ‘the very real possibility of the destruction of the human race by its own machine-based creations,’ Karl Čapek, author of Rossum’s Universal Robots (1921), sampled from the individualist anarchist Henri Ner’s 1896 novel, La Révolte des Machines,[iii] and projected the grim lessons of World War I into the future. In this sense, it should not be surprising that the US, UK, Israel, Australia, and Russia presently oppose any regulation of lethal autonomous weapons systems, otherwise known as ‘killer robots.’

Cover of a 1979 edition of Captain America

Perhaps ironically, in light of the role he has played in legitimising US imperialism in the post-war social imaginary, the superhero Steve Rogers, otherwise known as Captain America, is made into a Super Soldier during the Second World War to assist the Allies against the Nazis. In parallel, the Red Guardian, his Soviet counterpart, fights heroically against the fascists, too. After the war’s end, comic writers of Captain America, Batman, and the X-Men—many of them, like Stan Lee, being Jewish in background—used their platforms to raise consciousness about the Holocaust and denounce Nazi crimes. Indeed, the militant mutant leader Magneto from X-Men, whom some have compared to Malcolm X (and Professor X, in turn, to Martin Luther King, Jr.), is given an origin story in the 1990s as a Holocaust survivor. Along these lines, Magneto can also be read as an extremist Zionist and follower of the Rabbi Meir Kahane, and his rival Professor X as a Jew who instead preaches assimilation. Similar conflicts surge in Black Panther between T’Challa, the scientist-king of the African realm of Wakanda—played by the late Chadwick Boseman in the comic’s 2018 film adaptation—and his insurgent Machiavellian rival, Erik Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan).

Below, we will briefly examine twenty instances of dystopian ‘capitalist hells’ in speculative fiction, both in literature and films, or games.

The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926): Franz Kafka, a German-speaking Bohemian Jew, typifies the rebel pariah-intellectual analysed by the anti-fascist theorists Hannah Arendt and Enzo Traverso.[3] Influenced by German Romanticism, Jewish messianism, and anarchism, Kafka conveyed his revulsion with industrialism, capitalism, and bureaucracy through his art. Labouring at the Workman’s Accident Insurance Institution by day, he would subvert its ossified grip over the imagination by night. In the absurdist novels The Trial and The Castle, Kafka portrays alien, frustrating ‘world[s] without freedom in which redemption asserts itself only negatively.’ In the absence of any ‘positive message,’ Kafka’s iconoclasm corresponds to a theologia negativa and a negative anarchism.[4]

To this point, in 2009, The Onion reported satirically on the ‘oppressive atmosphere’ at the fictional Franz Kafka International Airport, and in ‘Kafka’s Last Laugh’ (2015), Vagabond foresees the figure known as ‘Resister’ being subjected to forced labor at a ‘Prison Mall’ as a means of being rehabilitated into bourgeois society—this, after she had been arrested while occupying the New York Stock Exchange.[5]

In The Castle, the author’s alter ego K arrives at an unnamed village posing as a surveyor of a certain castle, the administration of which has mysteriously hired him. Then, suddenly, it decides it does not need him—but cannot clarify his work status either way. ‘It could mean that the affair is in process, but it could also mean that the official process hasn’t even started at all.’[6] Metaphorically attempting to salvage his dignity in the face of stifling bureaucracies, K questions ‘why I should allow myself to be interrogated, or why I should go along with a joke or some official whim.’[7] In keeping with his vision of a utopia negativa, and his weakly optimistic anticipation of a different world, Kafka implies in the final chapter of this unfinished manuscript that the State’s systematic deception ‘would not last forever, as the people have eyes, and after all, their eyes would tell them the truth.’[8]

We (1921): Serving as the main inspiration for George Orwell’s anti-Stalinist dystopia 1984 (1948), Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We contrasts the mechanised, ultra-centralised, and conformist urban life of the United State (the Soviet Union, a thousand years in the future) with nature, Eros, and fantasy, which are banished to the countryside that lies ‘beyond the green wall.’ This liberated space, in turn, is reminiscent of the ‘Peach Blossom Spring’ of Daoist antiquity, and suggestive of the contemporary anarchic and exilic movements of the Russian Revolution, which had sought a ‘Third Revolution’ against the Bolshevik autocracy. In fact, Zamyatin and the insurgent Kronstadt sailors shared a common revulsion over the Communist Party bureaucrats’ enthusiasm for the propagation of enslaving Fordist and Taylorist forms of management and workplace organisation. Indeed, the nameless citizens of the United State are reduced to mere Numbers in this novel, in keeping with the Soviet and Western fetishization of machines. As a fierce critique of Marxism-Leninism, We was first published in the USSR only during the period of glasnost (‘openness’) in 1988, and Ursula K. Le Guin considered it the best sci-fi work ever written.[9]

In a similar vein, Alexander Belyaev’s Battle in the Ether (1927) and A. R. Palei’s Gulfstream (1928) anticipate workers in the USA being ‘made into robots of the Taylor System.’ In Palei’s vision, proletarians are subjected to ‘extreme specialisation of labour, mind-blunting routine, regimented family and homelife, mandatory TV, and a gradual reduction of human speech.’[10] In this light, speculatively, we can say that these titles may have influenced the creative process for Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953). In this work, Bradbury condemns the stifling conformism and anti-intellectualism of post-war American society, drawing an implicit link between the contemporary McCarthyist persecution of artists, labour organisers, and political dissidents—and the Nazi practice of burning books, and people.

Metropolis (1927), Modern Times (1936), Playtime (1967): These films—directed by Fritz Lang, Charlie Chaplin, and Jacques Tati, respectively—satirise the ‘new high-velocity’ worker, the capitalist ‘frenzy for order,’ the dehumanising pace of the assembly line, and the ‘thorough-going Americanisation of life,’ together with the concomitant sacrifices borne by the working classes, in terms of freedom, health, sexual satisfaction, and even survival.[11] According to the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, the capitalist combination of Taylorism and puritanism amounted to ‘the biggest collective effort [ever made] to create, with unprecedented speed and a consciousness of purpose unique in history, a new type of worker and [person].’[12]

Like Zamyatin, these filmmakers were critical of bourgeois society’s instrumentalisation of the proletariat. Metropolis reveals how the majesty of industrialists depends upon structural violence against the working class. Still, the reformist nature of Lang’s conclusion—wherein the male protagonist brings together the foreman with his father, the city’s boss—suggests an affinity with social-democratic, rather than revolutionary anti-capitalist politics. Monsieur Hulot, Tati’s recurring protagonist, is endlessly disoriented and bewildered by the frenetic and impersonal nature of life in modernity. He stands instead for friendliness and social connection, a slower pace of life, the pre-modern moral economy, and the integration of city with countryside.

Moreover, we know that Charles Dickens’ novels, which depict the dreary impacts of early industrial capitalism on English society, resonated with the young Charlie Chaplin. In Modern Times, his cinematic alter ego burns out due to speed-up on a conveyor belt, and ends up jailed numerous times for his radical iconoclasm—including being mistaken for the leader of a workers’ strike. According to Michael Chaplin, the artist’s eldest son, The Great Dictator (1940) was ‘the only film at that time that showed what was happening to the Jews in Germany’: that is, dispossession and ghettoization, as preludes to genocide. In his iconic speech at the film’s end, the elder Chaplin, who considered himself an anarchist,[13] outlines his humanist-internationalist vision:           

“I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone, if possible: Jew, Gentile, Black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery […].

Soldiers, don’t give yourselves to brutes! Men who despise you, enslave you, who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel! Who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men—machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines; you are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate […]. Soldiers, don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!

In the seventeenth chapter of St. Luke, it is written: ‘the Kingdom of God is within [you]’ […]. In you! […] Let us fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all [people]’s happiness. Soldiers, in the name of democracy, let us all unite!”

Dune (1965): Set in the deep future over twenty millennia from now, the novels comprising Frank Herbert’s Dune universe contain themes critical of ecological destruction and political centralism. Feuding aristocratic dynasties and capitalist rackets merely reproduce the imperialist depredation our world knows so well, until the messianic figure Duke Paul Atreides—loosely based on the British Orientalist officer, T. E. Lawrence (AKA ‘Lawrence of Arabia’)—leads the autonomous, desert-dwelling, and Arab-coded Fremen in overthrowing the galactic fascism upheld by the Harkonnen and Corrino dynasties.

That being said, the sequel, Dune Messiah (1969), merely proves the Fremen ecologist Pardot Kynes right: ‘No more terrible disaster could befall [one’s] people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero.’ In this vein, the revolution led by Paul merely reproduces previously-existing authoritarianism, raising it to an even higher level: billions lose their lives, and nearly a hundred planets are sterilized, as the ‘fanatic hordes’ plunder the universe in his name.[14] Presumably, this is in part a comment on the course of modern revolutions in the real world, whether American, French, Russian, or Chinese.

Yet, in a disturbing parallel to Georges Sorel, the syndicalist theorist who inspired Fascism by advocating a synthesis of socialism and nationalism, Herbert—an agent of the US Republican Party—betrays worrisome fixations with genetics, racialism, caste, myth, and violence in his six Dune novels. For example, Dr. Yueh, who betrays the Hellenic House Atreides to their Harkonnen rivals in the original story, is described as having Asian features, including a Chinese name.[15] Considering the profit to be made by new films revolving around such reactionary themes, in light of the Trumpist intersection of ‘rebellion’ with persistent hypermasculinity, we can expect Legendary Pictures to produce several sequels to the much-anticipated film version of Dune (2021) in the near future. After all, this year’s film adaptation covers only the first half of the first volume in the series.

The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), The Lathe of Heaven (1971), The Word for World is Forest (1972): In these visionary works, Ursula Le Guin fashions her own “anti-Dune” worlds.[16] Reading The Left Hand of Darkness, audiences vicariously visit the icy planet Gethen and meet its inhabitants, who are abstinent and genderless for most days of every month, save for their brief cyclical entrance into ‘kemmer,’ when they become transiently male or female and erotically inclined. In The Lathe of Heaven, set in Portland, Oregon, Le Guin retells Frankenstein to critique the intersection of science with hierarchy and abuse. The Daoist protagonist George Orr discovers that he has a superpower which allows him to change history and the present through his dreams. He is an ‘effective dreamer,’ who, fearing his dreams, avoids them. Seeking out the psychiatrist William Haber, Orr finds that his emergent psychokinetic abilities will be exploited for Haber’s own purposes by means of an ‘Augmentor.’ Haber’s sadistic and technocratic visions, inserted into Orr’s consciousness while in the Augmentor, result in evermore bleak outcomes—until turtle-aliens invade the moon, and then Earth, ultimately for peaceful purposes.

The Word for World is Forest, which unfolds on the fictional forested planet of Athshe, functions to denounce colonialism, genocide, and ecocide in an allegory for the Vietnam War. Le Guin portrays humans from Earth as enslaving the indigenous humanoid Athsheans and logging the planet’s woods for profit. Echoing the real-life repulsion of the French and American imperialists from Vietnam through guerrilla warfare, such super-exploitation leads the Athsheans to rise up and expel the humans from the planet altogether.

THX 1138 (1971), Star Wars (1977): George Lucas’s first film, THX 1138, examines the title-character’s rebellion against—and ultimate escape froma politically repressive and sex-negative future-society. The plot alludes to Plato’s allegorical ‘ascent of the soul’ from the darkness of the underground cave to the sunlight. In this hell envisioned by Lucas, humans serve as little more than automatons who labor to construct robot-police, and so reproduce their own oppression. As in Palei, Zamyatin, and Bradbury’s dystopias, the social control of workers in THX 1138 is attained through television, religion, the pharmaceutical suppression of Eros and emotion, and police brutality. In this way, the film shows human love, exile, and bricolage (‘making do with what is on hand’) to be important anti-authoritarian strategies for rebellion and survival.

In the film, ‘Thex’ falls in love with ‘Luh’ after she switches out his sex-inhibition drugs. Then, after Luh is summarily executed for her erotic disobedience, Thex appropriates a police-car to escape from this dim world. The robot-police retreat, just as Thex reaches the surface by ladder, simply because the operation to neutralize him had by that point surpassed its allocated budget.

The Star Wars saga,which has produced billions of dollars for its producers, directors, and investors over the past near half-century, extends the political anti-authoritarianism of THX 1138 into a space opera, set—as we know—in a distant galaxy, ‘a long time ago.’ The classic struggle between the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire at the heart of the original trilogy (1977-1983) served as allegories for the Vietnam and Cold Wars, and the mysteriously productive concept of the light side of ‘The Force’ can be likened to the paradoxical advantage that guerrillas fighting for a cause often have over their technologically and numerically superior opponents. (It is also reminiscent of the Fremen’s incredible power arrayed against Houses Harkonnen and Corrino in Dune, and perhaps ironically, of the Taliban’s recent blitzkrieg to seize power in Afghanistan.) The Death Star recalls the atomic and thermonuclear weapons developed and used by the US, and the dark side of the Force brings to mind the violence of the Nazis, the British Empire, and US settler-colonialism. Therefore, Star Wars can be viewed as Lucas’ symbolic rebellion against the father figure represented by Uncle Sam. At the same time, for Mumia Abu-Jamal, the double-sided meaning of Star Wars for the US-American imaginary is this: ‘we were rebels; we are Empire.’ [17]

Terminator (1984-present): The six films that comprise the grimdark Terminator series explore the concern that the Russian astrophysicist Iosif Shklovsky and the Polish sci-fi writer Stanisław Lem had expressed in the 1960s about humanity’s future prospects: specifically, that, besides the risk of self-destruction through weapons of mass destruction, artificial intelligence (AI) must be considered a threat to our survival. The first two Terminator films (1984, 1991), co-written and directed by James Cameron, peer into this future dystopian world, based on the established power of technocratic bureaucracy, capitalism, and militarism in our own. The result is a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, marred by nuclear war, and ‘controlled by a vast Terminator army, seeking daily to destroy the remnants of humanity. The ground is littered with human skulls and corpses. [Humanity] is completely subjugated, and those who haven’t been killed are forced to work for the machines to clean up the bodies.'[18]

As cybernetic organisms, or cyborgs, the Terminators sent back through time by the military AI known as Skynet ruthlessly target the leaders of the future Resistance—Sarah and/or John Connor, Dani Ramos, and their friends. They will stop at nothing to complete their missions: they will drag anyone ‘beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital.’ Ironically, though, in the original Terminator, we learn that the machine overlords send their cyborg assassin back in time in a bid to change the past, given that the Resistance ultimately overwhelms them on the battlefield—in an illustration of quintessential human resilience.

As profitable social-protest films, the Terminator series helpfully illuminates the ultra-violence lurking just beneath everyday life under capitalism. Along these lines, we see that violence against women and political reaction go hand in hand; that the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) is simultaneously the Terminator’s self and Other; that the T-800 and T-1000 sent by Skynet in the first two films clearly resemble neo-Nazi terrorists; and that the ‘right to bear arms,’ enshrined by the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, facilitates mass-murder. Likewise, the machinery used in construction to destroy buildings resembles the tanks and artillery used in shooting wars—much as the concept of a ‘Walking Cargo Vehicle’ inspired George Lucas’s design of the Imperial AT-AT’s in Star Wars. Living out disaster communism, Sarah Connor crushes the first Terminator inside a hydraulic press.

In her Cyborg Manifesto (1985), the feminist ecologist Donna Haraway asserts that we are all, by this time, ‘fabricated hybrids of machine and organism—in short, cyborgs.’ Although cyborgs such as the Terminators are born of militarism, ‘patriarchal capitalism,’ and ‘state socialism,’ they too can join the anti-fascist rebellion, and aid in its victory.[19]

Jurassic Park (1993 film): Based on Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel of the same name, Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park amounts to a ‘scaretopia’ warning us of the risks of genetic engineering in particular, as well as of capitalism and instrumental rationality more broadly. This latter concept of instrumental reason refers to the compulsion to “get things done.” Under capitalism, this is accomplished by workers complying with orders handed down by the bosses, rather than through the free use of the mind. In this case, for workers to have autonomy would allow them to ‘stop to think if they should’ in fact proceed with the plan to resurrect dinosaurs 65 million years after their extinction. Considering how the dinosaurs rebel against their confinement and smash the infrastructure encaging them for the purposes of commodification and human entertainment, Jurassic Park can be viewed as a variation on Frankenstein that implicitly affirms the cause of animal liberation and the subversive meaning of chaos theory and fractals—Crichton’s disastrous late turn to climate-denialism notwithstanding. In this light, it appears that the investors currently backing the Colossal biotech firm’s bid to resurrect woolly mammoths in the Arctic to help preserve the melting permafrost missed the lessons of Crichton’s novel, and of Spielberg’s film adaptation of it.

The Parable of the Sower (1993): The first installment in the two-part Earthseed series, Octavia E. Butler’s The Parable of the Sower integrates this Black feminist author’s adverse childhood experiences with racism, poverty, and depression into a social novel which champions struggle to transform the world. Butler’s youthful alter ego, Lauren Olamina, is an empath who begins the story living with her family in a gated ‘company town’  in Southern California that effectively provides slave labor for corporations. Marauding murderers and rapists linger just outside the compound’s walls. One day, robbers break into their community, killing Lauren’s family, destroying her home, and turning her out. Suddenly made homeless, Olamina sets out for northern California by foot, finding companions, comrades, and a lover along the way. Following from her Buddhistic discovery that the ‘only lasting truth is change,’ Olamina founds the humanistic Earthseed religion, which emphasizes proactive social reconstruction, community, and proselytization, proposing a destiny for its adherents among the stars.[20]

Conclusion

Visionary science fiction flourished in early Soviet Russia until Stalin banned it, according to this autocrat’s goal of figuratively performing a ‘fantasectomy’ of the radical imagination[21]. Such repressiveness facilitated social control and sounded the death-knell of the Russian Revolution, as we see portrayed in We, in much the same way that Puritanism, Taylorism, and Fordism have reproduced capitalist oppression in US society—as the dystopias Metropolis, Battle in the Ether, Gulfstream, Modern Times, Fahrenheit 451, and THX 1138 show. In this vein, the German anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker was right to observe that Stalinism and Fascism formed, ‘part of a transnational process reinforcing hierarchies in which the worker was inevitably reduced to an anonymous piece of machinery in mass society.’[22] As such, the totalitarian regimes of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany represented not alternatives to capitalism, but, rather, intensifications of its governing maxims: namely, to manipulate, instrumentalise, and dominate the working classes and nature. Following the resolution of the Communard(e)s of Paris, and anticipating the 1921 battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia, Jack London’s The Iron Heel envisioned the State adopting an authoritarian, militaristic strategy to ensure that the workers in revolt would not succeed in overthrowing capitalism. Along similar lines, Henry Ford and Hitler mutually admired each other, whereas Ford and Stalin made a deal in 1929. In turn, a decade later, Stalin would effectively ally with Hitler to conquer Poland, the home of Europe’s largest Jewish community, and launch World War II.

That being said, it is remarkable to consider how utopian and dystopian anti-capitalist themes from early Soviet art have resonated in the literature, films, and games created over the past century—even, and especially, by Western artists, to this day. The Terminator and Matrix franchises are testaments to this dynamic, and the same could be said about the Star Trek and Deus Ex universes, as well as the utopian literature of Ursula Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson. In the concluding part to this series, we will explore these works—alongside News from Nowhere, Octavia’s Brood, ‘Imagining the Future in the Middle East and North Africa,’ and others—as ingenious attempts to reach communist h(e)avens.

For now, we are left to marvel at The Lathe of Heaven and Jurassic Park as variations on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Implicitly, all three works function to critique the instrumental or technical reason underpinning bourgeois society. In parallel, Star Wars borrows heavily from Dune in its critique of imperial domination, although George Lucas integrates his opposition to the Vietnam War into the original trilogy, thus presenting a more humanistic, and optimistic, resolution to his films than does the left-right syncretist Frank Herbert in the Dune universe. For his part, Franz Kafka was right to portray life under bureaucracy (whether capitalist or ‘socialist’) as a nightmare. Finally, Octavia Butler’s Earthseed series vividly portrays the intersections of racism, patriarchy, and the exploitation of labor in late-capitalist society, while tracing the dialectical struggle between oppression and liberation—the movement from dystopia to utopia.


[1]Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 181.

[2]Ibid, 182.

[iii]Jesse Cohn, Underground Passages: Anarchist Resistance Culture, 1848-2011 (Oakland: AK Press, 2014), 167.

[3]Michael Löwy, “Jewish Messianism and Revolutionary Utopias in Central Europe: Erich Fromm’s Early Writings (1922-30),” Erich Fromm’s Critical Theory: Hope, Humanism, and the Future, eds. Kieran Durkin and Joan Braune (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020), 43-4.

[4]Michael Löwy, Redemption and Utopia: Jewish Libertarian Thought in Central Europe (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), 71-94.

[5]Vagabond, “Kafka’s Last Laugh,” in Octavia’s Brood, eds. Adrienne Marie Brown and Walidah Imarisha (AK Press/Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2015), 177-86.

[6]Franz Kafka, El castillo, trans. Luis Rutiaga(México, D.F.: Grupo Editorial Tomo, 2006),165 (my translation).

[7]Ibid, 117 (my translation).

[8]Ibid, 265 (my translation).

[9]Stites, 52, 147-8, 169, 187-9.

[10]Ibid, 181.

[11]Ibid, 145-61.

[12]Christopher Chitty, Sexual Hegemony: Statecraft, Sodomy, and Capital in the Rise of the World System (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020), 170.

[13]Charlie Chaplin and Kevin Hayes, Charlie Chaplin: Interviews (Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 2005), 121.

[14]Frank Herbert, Dune (New York: ACE Books, 1965), 269, 309.

[15]Ibid, 37.

[16]Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (Verso: London, 2005), 268.

[17]Mumia Abu-Jamal, “Star Wars and the American Imagination,” in Octavia’s Brood, eds. Adrienne Marie Brown and Walidah Imarisha (AK Press/Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2015), 257.

[18]Jeffrey Ewing, “James Cameron’s Marxist Revolution,” in Richard Brown Kevin S. Decker (ed.), Terminator and Philosophy: I’ll Be Back, Therefore I Am (2009), 103.

[19]Donna Haraway, Manifestly Haraway (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 7, 9-10.

[20]Tananarive Due, “The Only Lasting Truth,” in Octavia’s Brood, eds. Adrienne Marie Brown and Walidah Imarisha (AK Press/Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2015), 259-77.

[21]Stites 236.

[22]David Bernardini, “A different antifascism. An analysis of the Rise of Nazism as seen by anarchists during the Weimar period” (History of European Ideas, 2021), 6.

Science Fiction as Protest Art (Part I): Exploring ‘Capitalist Hells’

August 8, 2021
Mars landscape from Total Recall (1990)

This is the first entry in a two-part response to Thomas Wilson Jardine’s December 2020 essay, ‘Cyberpunk: An Empty Rebellion?In part one, we introduce the late historian Richard Stites’ framework on the speculative critique of ‘capitalist hells,’ and provide a number of examples of science fiction functioning as protest art. In part two, we will focus on Stites’ concepts of ‘communist heavens’ and ‘alternative, anti-modern utopias,’ analyzing Kim Stanley Robinson’s literature and the Deus Ex game universe as case studies.

First published on The Commoner, 8 August 2021. Shared using Creative Commons license

‘The concept of progress is to be grounded in the concept of catastrophe. That things ‘just go on’ is the catastrophe. It is not that which is approaching but that which is. [August] Strindberg’s thought: Hell is not something which lies ahead of us—but this life here.’ – Walter Benjamin[1]

In a world facing uncertain, bleak, and even terminal futures, capitalist media companies compete to maximize their market share by exploiting humanity’s artistic, political, and erotic fantasies. Simply put, the culture industry cynically sells our symbolic and real rebellions against oppression and dehumanisation back to us. Still, our individual and collective psychosocial reveries can be interpreted, at least in part, as compensatory means of coping with capital’s nihilistic, destructive impetus. Seen in this light, such emotional coping mechanisms serve the important ends of mental health and survival.

At the same time, writing in The Commoner in December 2020, Thomas Wilson Jardine rightly underscores the risk that the increasing incorporation of critical, anti-authoritarian themes into such media as film and video games may ultimately just prey on our alienation and promote ‘interpassivity.’ The danger is that audiences will passively consume the recuperation of ‘revolutionary iconoclasm,’ or ‘the abolition of authority, authority figures,’ and ‘master symbols,’ in ways that merely reproduce what the French Situationist Guy Debord famously termed ‘the society of the spectacle.’[2]

In this essay, I want to question whether the dynamic between art and audience is so straightforward. Do the iconoclastic themes and fantasies which writers, artists, and game developers incorporate into speculative fiction only serve to reproduce class society and social hierarchy in themselves and their consumers?

Reflecting on the genres of cyberpunk and steampunk, I agree with Jardine that there is a strong risk of interpassivity, of psychic substitutionism, and of what an implanted-memory salesman from the film Total Recall (1990) terms ‘a vacation from the self,’ otherwise known as ‘LARPing’ (live-action role-playing). Games like Deus Ex (1999), BioShock (2007), or Ascent (2021), which incorporate subversive cyberpunk and steampunk themes, are rather different from the traditional action games, like the Counter-Strike (2000), Battlefield (2002), or Call of Duty (2003) series, which glorify militarism and the War on Terror. To this point, Brie Code, founder of the Tru-Luv development studio, comments that the gaming industry ‘has focused on a narrow subset of human psychology for several years,’ specifically ‘help[ing] people feel a sense of achievement or dominance.’ In this sense, titles with cyberpunk or steampunk themes may attract different ‘markets’ for game corporations: perhaps ones that are comprised of those who are younger, and/or more politically progressive or radical.

Even so, the gaming experience depends upon the alienated labor of developers, together with that of miners and electronics workers, all of which is made invisible, according to Karl Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism. To this point, Jardine critiques Cyberpunk 2077 (2020), one of the industry’s most highly-anticipated games, which cost over $300 million to produce. They write, ‘I do not see V (your character) and Johnny Silverhand going to establish a better or new system and uniting the exploited cyborg proletariat in a popular uprising against Arasaka and Militech [corporations].’ As I have not played Cyberpunk 2077, I cannot comment on this particular aspect of the plot, much less any other.

Be that as it may, in keeping with the utopian origins and function of speculative fiction, subversive social commentary is relayed, and social revolution even envisioned, in certain games. Red Faction (2001), for instance, begins with a miners’ strike on Mars, echoing the revolutionary fantasy of worker unrest and heroic anti-capitalism on the red planet in Total Recall. As this dynamic suggests, compared with the relatively new medium of video games, literature and film have had an expansive history of promoting humanist, anti-authoritarian, and ecological themes, thus advancing what Walidah Imarisha calls ‘[v]isionary fiction’: namely, speculative art that seeks to build ‘new, freer worlds,’ starting with the decolonization of the mind.[3] In this multi-part essay, we emphasize the continuities among literature, film, and games as protest art in this sense. We will see how reason and emotion are intimately tied to the struggle for individual and collective liberation. We will explore some of the links between history and the present, and see how the best sci-fi operates through the critical displacement—or defamiliarisation—of infernal capitalist modernity.

A Brief History of Speculative Fiction and Protest Literature

Uncle Zeng, Peach Blossom Spring

Speculative, visionary fiction has an enduring history. In 421 C.E., the Chinese writer Tao Qian (365-427) composed ‘Peach Blossom Spring.’ This is a tale about a fisherman who discovers a utopian community located in a high valley at the terminus of a river lined with pink peach trees. The villagers of this exilic Daoist space, a ‘level land’ wherein ‘white-haired elders and tufted children alike were cheerful and contented,’ are either unaware of the Qin and Han imperial dynasties, or do not recognise them, for their ancestors had fled from the centralising Chinese State. Like the Cossack communities founded by peasants, who avoided serfdom by ‘exiting’ from early State formation in Russia during the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries,[4] the Daoist community at the source of the peach blossom stream ‘had first left men’s society to escape the troubled world.’ In 718, the poet Wang Wei (699-759) expanded on this vision, imagining that the inhabitants of this community ‘were peaceful, calm, [and] kind,’ and the valley ‘fertile and full of animals.’

‘We stayed until we saw what it was: a good place.
To live here would be fulfillment.’

Moved by his experience, the narrator returns home, seeking to resettle with his family in this utopia. However, upon setting out to move there, they ultimately cannot find the community, for it was but a ‘moment in time’—or maybe just a dream, after all.[5]

In a similar vein, the Indian poet Guru Raidas (c. 1450-1520) envisioned Begumpura, a ‘land without sorrow,’ five centuries ago:

‘The regal realm with the sorrowless name:
they call it Begumpura, a place with no pain,
No taxes or cares, none owns property there,
no wrongdoing, worry, terror, or torture.
Oh, my brother, I’ve come to take it as my own,
my distant home where everything is right.
That imperial kingdom is rich and secure,
where none are third or second – all are one;
They do this or that, they walk where they wish,
they stroll through fabled palaces unchallenged.
Oh, says Ravidas, a tanner now set free,
those who walk beside me are my friends.’

This Begumpura, as the Dalit anarchist Pranav Jeevan P comments, is a stateless, classless, and casteless commune. It represents the ‘imagination [mobilizing] against caste, class, state, Brahmanical hierarchies and patriarchy,’ and foreseeing a ‘society living in harmony and free from all forms of discrimination.’ Considering the humanistic, emancipatory impulses that inform this dream, together with its continued acute relevance, both in BJP-dominated India and beyond, Pranav invites us to engage and re-engage with such visions, and ‘work towards creating our [own] Begumpura.’

Fast-forward to Summer 1816. The English novelist Mary Shelley (daughter of the proto-anarchist William Godwin and the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft), while visiting Switzerland with her husband (the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley), produced Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818), in response to Lord Byron’s bid for a competition to see who could write the best horror story. Composed on the shores of Lake Geneva, this Gothic art-work is often considered the first example of modern science fiction. The ghastly novel, bearing the imprints of the thought both of the author’s parents, as of the Swiss-born philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau, depicts the ‘mad scientist’ Victor Frankenstein, who successfully creates a humanoid assembled from body parts of the deceased in his laboratory. This creature, who is physically strong and loving yet anxious and hideous, is rejected both by Frankenstein and by society at large. Viewed as a ‘monster, a blot upon the earth,’ and denied fellowship and sexual satisfaction, the Creature declares ‘ever-lasting war against the species.’[6] The nameless Creature poses the question: ‘Am I thought to be the only criminal, when all human kind sinned against me?’[7]

This allegory functions as a sympathetic portrayal of human development, feminist and Romantic commentary on ableist social relations and the Promethean-masculinist ethos of capitalism, plus an endorsement of sociological approaches to criminology that would incorporate consideration for environmental and psychosocial factors driving crime. Its message runs parallel to Percy Shelley’s own Prometheus Unbound (1820), a lyrical drama which presents its author and his characters as Romantic heroes. From Ursula K. Le Guin in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) to the creators of the eco-documentary Chasing Ice (2012), many have rendered homage to Frankenstein‘s climactic chase in the Arctic.

In the conclusion to his latest novel, The Ministry for the Future (2020), sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson suggests that the utopian socialist Charles Fourier was a ‘secret influence’ on the visionary French novelist Jules Verne, author of Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) and Around the World in Eighty Days (1872), among other works.[8] In like fashion, the late historian Richard Stites finds that, in the wake of the Russian Revolution which overthrew Tsarism and landlordism, ‘[t]en editions of Fourier’s works appeared between 1917 and 1926 and many books about his ideas. [Fellow utopian socialists] Owen, Cabet, Buchez, Blanc, St. Simon and others enjoyed new translations in the 1920s. Their influence on the science fiction of the period is apparent, though never acknowledged.’[9]

A similar story could be told in 2021, a century after the Czech artist Karel Čapek wrote Rossum’s Universal Robots (1921). This was the first work to envision synthetic ‘robots,’ or slave workers, who would replace human labourers and soldiers, and ultimately rise up and destroy humanity—as the Terminator series likewise foresees. Like today’s producers of science fiction, and especially climate fiction, who often convey either pessimistic ‘grimdark’ or optimistic ‘solarpunk’ messages, speculative writers from Russia’s early Soviet period often focused on social and political problems in their production of what amounted to protest literature.

The late Howard Zinn defined protest literature as ‘any form of communication that engages social consciousness and may move someone to action.’ It is similar to the genre known as social science fiction, which includes such titles as Plato’s Republic (c. 375 B.C.E.) and Thomas More’s Utopia (1516). There was also the radical intelligentsia who, in their artistic, subtle, and indirect ways, crucially defamiliarised Tsarism in the nineteenth century, and so inspired the Russian Revolution. Following from their example, Soviet speculative writers expressed themes critical of capitalism, militarism, ‘Taylorist exploitation, death weapons, and mad scientists.’[10] Most sci-fi in our own time, whether developed primarily with society or profit in mind, is an adaptation of precisely this ‘revolutionary critique of the old world’ from a century ago, in a reflection of the staying power of hierarchy, brutality, and irrationality.[11]

Thus, in the following two parts of this article, we will trace the continuities of utopias (and dystopias) in time, between past and present. Starting from the Freudian idea that fantasy disguises an unconscious desire for wish-fulfillment, we will see how speculative exercises in ‘[t]aking off into a better world’ are linked with the goal of overcoming ‘capitalist hells,’ reaching ‘communist heavens,’ and so integrating our deepest hopes with reality.[12]

Footnotes

[1]Walter Benjamin, ‘Central Park,’ New German Critique, no. 34 (1985), 50. Emphasis in original.
[2]Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 183; Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills, Character and Social Structure: The Psychology of Social Institutions (Routledge: London, 1954), 276.
[3]Walidah Imarisha, ‘Introduction’ to Octavia’s Brood, eds. Adrienne Marie Brown and Walidah Imarisha (AK Press/Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2015), 4.
[4]Andrej Grubačić and Dennis O’Hearn, Living at the Edges of Capitalism: Adventures in Exile and Mutual Aid (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016), 48-62.
[5]Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Moon (New York: Orbit, 2018), 344.
[6]Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (London: Penguin, 2003), 123, 138, 150.
[7]Ibid, 224.
[8]Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future (New York: Orbit, 2020), 558.
[9]Stites 168 (emphasis added).
[10]Ibid, 180.
[11]Ibid, 236.
[12]Ibid, 171-4; Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London: Routledge, 1981).

Audio-visual recordings of “Kronstadt as Revolutionary Utopia” now available

May 1, 2021

Please find links to the recordings of “Kronstadt as Revolutionary Utopia: 1921-2021 and Beyond” here (on the blog) or here (YouTube playlist).

These recordings include four panels, a video address by the historian Jaroslav Leontiev (and an interview with him), a discussion with the filmmakers of Maggots and Men, and the closing session with co-sponsors.

A link to The Commoner’s review of the conference can be found here.

Thank you.

Guardian: “World’s oceans facing biggest coral die-off in history, scientists warn”

October 11, 2015

Bleaching in Samoa. Left image taken in December 2014, right in February 2015. Credit: XL Catlin Seaview Surve

Coral bleaching in Samoa. Left image taken in December 2014, right in February 2015.
Credit: XL Catlin Seaview Survey

In an 8 October column for the Guardian, Karl Mathiesen reports on scientific findings regarding the current third global coral-reef bleaching event, due principally to a “a massive underwater heatwave, driven by climate change,” and intensified by this year’s strong El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO).  The previous two global bleaching events took place in 1998 and 2010 (both also ENSO years), but Dr Mark Eakin, coordinator of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Coral Reef Watch program, fears that this current episode may be the worst yet, as 2015 and 2016 are expected to be the hottest years ever recorded–in keeping with the profoundly alarming warming trajectory for which global capitalism is responsible.  The major differences between the current bleaching episode and the two prior ones have to do with the now-higher baseline temperature of the oceans and the longer duration of excess heat to which coral are exposed.  As Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg observes, “It’s like a hospital patient. If you’ve got a chronic disease then you are more sensitive to a lot of other things and if you want a recovery then you need to take all those other stresses off.” These symptoms are now evident in a 4,600 square mile region of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, as well as the Caribbean sea.

Coral reefs comprise 0.1% of the ocean floor and support a quarter of all marine species.

These distressing news come just as the Climate Action Tracker (CAT) concludes that, even if all UN member-states somehow fulfilled the considerably weak carbon-reduction pledges they have put forth for the upcoming Paris climate talks (COP21), global temperatures would soar far beyond the internationally “accepted” 2C limit above the temperatures that prevailed during pre-industrial times.

Decline in coral health in Samoa this year. Courtesy of XL Catlin Seaview Survey

Decline in coral health in Samoa this year. Courtesy of XL Catlin Seaview Survey

Burn! at the NYC Anarchist Film Festival

May 15, 2014

burn post

I will be screening a shortened version of Gillo Pontecorvo’s epic, radical film Burn! (1969) this Sunday at the New York City Anarchist Film Festival for day two of the Eighth Annual NYC Anarchist Bookfair.  A “sequel” of sorts to Pontecorvo’s 1966 Battle of Algiers, Burn! stars Marlon Brando as a British agent sent to a fictional Caribbean island colonized by the Portuguese (“Queimada”) who foments a slave insurrection against the colonial masters only to have Queimada’s white plantation-owner class declare formal independence on terms favorable to the British Crown.  Brando’s character, Sir William Walker, is then called back to the island ten years later to put down a revolution led by the same ex-slave he originally had used to displace the Portuguese from rule.  The film clearly was an allegory for the Vietnam War, and it bears the strong imprint of Frantz Fanon’s writings on decolonization, in addition to recalling the course of the Haitian Revolution–with the difference that Napoleon’s failed attempt to recolonize the republic and enslave its citizens succeeds in this version.  Moreover, Pontecorvo’s work has much to say about the present environmental crisis, for Queimada (“Burnt”) had originally been entirely burnt down by the Portuguese in an attempt to eradicate the resistance of the island’s indigenous inhabitants.  In this sense, as John Bellamy Foster writes cogentlyBurn! can also be taken as an extended metaphor for global warming, given that this increasingly fatal tendency bears its origins and is undoubtedly perpetuated and exacerbated by the totalitarian need of the capitalist class to hold onto power.  

As Adorno notes, “The bourgeoisie live on like specters threatening doom.”

Reviewing Elysium: Working-Man’s Death and Multitudinous Struggle

August 26, 2013

elysium

Originally published on Counterpunch, 23 August 2013

Elysium, the newly released sci-fi film from 33-year old director Neill Blomkamp starring Matt Damon as the proletarian hero Max, is not to me an escapist artwork. Instead, I believe Elysium to lie within the contemporary genre which we might call “art of the transition”—that is, which depicts the struggles and various contradictions and negations of the ongoing historical shift away from capitalism and rampant social brutality. (Other prominent recent examples from the world of film I would include in this line would be Children of Men, Blomkamp’s very own District 9, Avatar, and the Matrix, among others.) Invoking (and inverting) a trope seen in classic sci-fi art works like Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, which contrast social conditions on an emancipated anarchist planetary body (Anarres/Mars) versus those seen on the capitalist-totalitarian Earth or its stand-in (Urras, in LeGuin’s world), Elysium is a revolutionary slice of life from the seemingly-apocalyptical landscape of Los Angeles in 2154—wherein generalized impoverishment and oppression are starkly present, reminiscent of “Baghdad” (says Damon)—which contrasts with the orbiting space-station Elysium, home to the affluent and capitalist overlords. While on Elysium there any many green, open spaces, with mansions adorned by pools and maintained by robot servants, Earth-dwellers inhabit a veritable hell. That the Earth scenes were filmed in a landfill in Mexico City (reportedly the second-largest in the world), with the Elysium scenes shot in Vancouver, BC, speaks clearly to the types of inequalities Blomkamp concerns himself with in his new work.

I do not wish to spoil too much of the film’s plot, so as not to degrade the experience of those others who have not yet seen it. Yet, briefly, to explain: Max, the protagonist and hero, is a presumably orphaned child raised by Mexican (or Central American?) nuns who comes to land a job working assembly-line production of robot police-units after having done time for stealing private property for a few years. As in George Lucas’s THX-1138—Lucas’s very first and his most anti-authoritarian work, which I would claim directly inspired Max’s assembly-line occupation in Elysium—disabling accidents take place at the workplace, with no accountability processes in place to check managers and upper administration. Max falls victim to such a workplace accident, due to negligence and pressure from his overseer—who flatly warns Max that, if the latter refuses to perform the risky maneuver, he will demand Max’s resignation and easily replace him with any number of other prospective workers, to be called up from the mass labor-army reserve. Following this negative turn of events, and with mere days to live, Max tries desperately to find a way aboard Elysium, where seemingly every building famously contains a highly advanced therapeutic machine which can free the body of all ailment and disease. To get Max onto Elysium is a difficult demand to fulfill—as Max’s clandestine/criminal electronics collaborator Julio knows well, various spacecraft carrying wounded and ill Earth-humans have been incinerated by the capitalist security forces as their desperate voyages approached Elysium’s perimeter.

To observe the scenes from the Elysium station—particularly those involving Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster)—is to confront legitimate depictions of the closely-knit ties binding the most privileged to State repression. Blomkamp is certainly presenting a left-wing account of politics here, with the wealthy minority turning ever-increasingly to fascist means to uphold their privilege—a tendency observed last century by Herbert Marcuse, as by Chris Hedges in the present one! On the other side of the dialectic, a veritable revolutionary humanism informs the struggle-from-below shown in the Earth scenes, as symbolized most centrally in Max’s journey from proletarian to disabled ex-worker and artificially augmented revolutionary militant. In positive (and realistic) terms, the Earth-based opposition we see in the film is ethnically diverse—mostly Latin@, with Max as the exception—as against the white-washed country club of Elysium. Unfortunately, a specifically feminist critique of the hegemonic oppression depicted in Elysium is largely lacking—Delacourt, at the top, coordinates the Elysium station’s “defensive measures” against incoming “undocumented” space-flights of refugees from Earth (thus depicting “liberal feminism”), while the only other female lead, Frey, is a nurse and mother who, other than for helping to heal a wound incurred by Max in his escape, is largely passive in her roles.

The film provides a great opportunity to reflect on prevailing power relations, and how it is that they might project into a future like that shown in Elysium. While the film’s course does not directly examine the historical turns and negations which led Earth into near-total oppression, with the physical separation of the ruling class into an orbiting station—the film is not Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which dedicated two episodes to a time-warp to Earth that takes the crew to a time just before a popular uprising by the poor, which would ineluctably pave the way for the transition beyond capitalism and the founding of the Federation—it viscerally demonstrates to the audience how that likely did arise: through militarized, unchecked exploitation of the Earth and its working classes by the vampiric capitalist class. Dialectically, in its presentation of globalized (and extra-terrestrialized) solidarity and resistance to the machine—and particularly in Max’s impressive strength and combat skills, as exercised against the guardians of the system—Elysium also advances an anti-statist, internationalist message which speaks to the revocability of given oppressive power relations. In this way, the film explores an important set of principles that arguably correspond to present and future hope for the human race: mass-struggle, as through the multitude.1

So then, assuming the rule of Elysium is indeed overthrown and the formerly privatized advanced medical technologies socialized (I will not say whether the terrestrial proletarians are victorious in the end), the question arises: what would the peoples of Earth decide to do? How would they respond? Would they also socialize production on Earth and fairly redistribute the concentrated wealth previously held by the overlords of Elysium? Would they collectively decide to dedicate significant resources to address the catastrophic ecological changes wrought on Earth by the capitalist system—insofar as this is possible? As a first act, they would doubtlessly abolish the gross inequalities separating Elysium from Earth.

To contemplate the prospect of overthrowing the neo-feudal powers-that-be, as Elysium helps us to do, is an exciting prospect. Regardless of what Blomkamp feels he must say so as not to alienate potential investors in his future films (“It’s just human nature” that “the gap between rich and poor on Earth will simply get worse and worse, no matter how hard we try to change it”), to watch Elysium might perhaps serve to strengthen one’s hopes for and commitment to the successful future anti-capitalist revolution.

Hopefully it will not take until 2154 to achieve.

1Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude (2005); see also Empire (2001) and Commonwealth (2010).

Is There in Truth No Beauty? Peace and Long Life

February 2, 2013

A parting declaration as expressed between Dr. Miranda Jones and Mr. Spock in the transporter room of the U.S.S. Enterprise, from “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” (1968).  The two speak of their experiences with Kollos, an alien ambassador from Medusa, whose entity is formless–Dr. Miranda being his telepathic colleague, and Spock having achieved a mind-meld with him.

truth beautyMirandaRose

“I know now the great joy you felt when you joined minds with Kollos.”

“I rejoice in your knowledge and in your achievement.”

“I understand, Mister Spock. The glory of creation is in its infinite diversity.”

“And the ways our differences combine to create meaning and beauty.”

“Peace and long life, Spock.”

“Live long and prosper, Miranda.”

spock beauty