Posts Tagged ‘Ursula Le Guin’

Video Recording: “Ecology and Revolution”

November 18, 2021

This is the recording of a panel on “Ecology and Revolution,” which took place at the Ninth Biennial International Herbert Marcuse Society Conference, on October 9, 2021.

Speakers in order of appearance:

– Thais Gobo, “Authentic Ecology and Liberation: The Refusal of the Domination of Nature Against the Apparatus”
– Sergio Bedoya Cortés, “Ecological crisis, Capitalism and Critique”
– Dan Fischer, “Let Nature Play: Total Liberation from Compulsory Work”
– Myself, “Critical Theory in Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home”

Critical Theory in Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home

October 11, 2021

These are my comments, presented on October 9, 2021, at the Ninth Biennial International Herbert Marcuse conference, on the panel “Ecology and Revolution.” My co-panelists were Thais Gobo, Sergio Bedoya Cortés, and Dan Fischer.

“’Is the world at its end?’

[…] ‘There is no end.’” (Le Guin 281)

In the realm of speculative fiction, the late historian Richard Stites identified three emergent themes in art from the early Soviet period: namely, portrayals of capitalist hells (or dystopias), alternative and anti-modern utopias, and communist heavens (Stites).1 In the century since the Russian Revolution, utopian and dystopian anti-capitalist themes have resonated in science fiction, including literature, films, and games. For instance, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921) inspired George Orwell’s 1984 (1948), while the visionary anarcha-feminist Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home (1985) pays tribute not only to Zamyatin but also to their common predecessors: namely, the anarchist novelist Lev Tolstoy, and the anarcho-communist theorist Peter Kropotkin. A generation before the Russian Revolution overthrew Tsarism and landlordism, the British poet William Morris had written News from Nowhere (1890) as an imaginative journey to a liberated England of the future, organized along free-communist and ecological lines.

In this sense, Le Guin’s award-winning2 novel Always Coming Home combines elements of heavenly communism with anti-modern and alternative utopianism to seek out a “good place” for humanity, even within the precarious context of a future climate-devastated Earth (Le Guin 19). In the words of John P. Clark, this book “is a critique of ‘living outside the World.’ And it is a critique aimed at us” (Clark). In this presentation, I will elucidate Le Guin’s reconstructive vision, which heralds our potential for harmony and “liv[ing] inside the world,” while also contemplating her portrayal of the grim realities of socio-political oppression and ecological crisis (156). I will then compare Le Guin’s views on technology, gender, and authoritarianism with the critical perspectives of Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse, before concluding.

Always Coming Home

Rendering homage to her parents, the ethnologists Alfred Louis and Theodora Kroeber, Le Guin (1929-2018) uses anthropological approaches to narrate this exploration of ‘future history.’ As an interdisciplinary work, Always Coming Home combines speculative ethnology with poetry, parables, music, spiritual journeys, and emblematic memoirs to (re)construct the world of so-called Kesh culture. In “the Valley” of California in the deep future, the Kesh have set up an egalitarian society based on anarcha-feminist principles of care, free love, and the gift economy.3 Among the Kesh, hierarchies between mental and manual labor are relics of the past. Valley people practice both hunting and gathering as well as communal horticulture, insofar as the two-season climate (wet-dry) allows. The lands surrounding each Kesh settlement are divided into “hunting” and “planting” sides. Although five Houses exist in the Valley, they are “not arranged in any hierarchy of power, value, etc., nor [i]s there rivalry among them for status.” On the one hand, to be “rich” in Kesh society means to be generous; on the other, Kesh culture associates violence with masculinity (Le Guin 44, 70-1, 83, 93, 128n123, 158, 175), such that, in this work, “[t]he patriarchal […] is identified with the imperialistic” (Jameson 67).

The Kesh practice matrilineal exogamy: in other words, men go live with their wives’ families after marriage, and partners bond across communities (8-9, 44). They are also sex-positive: men proposition women erotically from positions of supplication, not domination, as adolescent boys engage in gay banter, and LGBT couples freely cohabitate (219, 366). The Kesh “dance the Moon” every year, when all marriages and partnerships are temporarily dissolved, and men and women ritualistically join together for nights of lunar-inspired group sex. Comprised of groups of towns within the wilderness rather than cities dominating the countryside, Kesh settlements are organized around the heyimas, a sacred space dedicated to learning, book-making, and the creation of art (Le Guin 242-50, 274, 298, 314-6).

Through the practice of “heyiya,” or the recognition of the sacred and boundless interconnectedness of humanity, flora, and fauna,Valley peoples practice a religion lacking gods. As such, their belief-system recalls Daoism, Buddhism, Hermann Cohen’s vision of a “religion of reason,” and the Lakota philosophy of mitakuye oyasin (or the interrelatedness of all life). It hearkens back to the Neolithic, when it is believed that there was “no separation between the secular and the sacred” (Eisler 23). Moreover, Le Guin’s concept of heyiya resembles the traditional Chinese idea of qi, or “life-force,”and the Freudian libido. The interconnected spirals of the heyiya-if, known as “the visual form of an idea which pervaded the thought and culture of the Valley,” strongly resemble the Daoist taijitu, with the latter’s dualities of light and dark (Le Guin 45).

Through heyiya, the Kesh do not repress contemplation of mortality, but rather, integrate reflection on death into song, dance, and poetry. Like Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, they acknowledge that existence is pervaded by pain and suffering. Valley people recognize rather than deny humans’ animality, and seek to emulate the mutual aid practiced by our cousins, who “live softly” and peacefully, and “don’t make it hard to live.” Though they utilize animal products, the Kesh refer to non-human animals as people, as in the Russian животные (“living beings”) (Le Guin 83-94, 112, 114, 160, 366-7).

In ecological terms, this future-world is marked by capital’s desolation of the global climate. Implicitly speaking to the threat of sea-level rise posed by the melting of the world’s glaciers and polar ice caps, Grey Bull recalls a journey by sailboat 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” (Le Guin 138).

“Under the mud in the dark of the sea there

books are, bones are […].

There are too many souls there” (Le Guin 390).

Speculatively, there may be an intertextual connection between this estranging journey into the effects of global warming portrayed by Le Guin, and the premise of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017), which features a future wherein the polar icecaps have melted, with New York—like other low-lying cities—irreversibly inundated. Steven Spielberg’s film Artificial Intelligence (2001) is similarly set in a flooded Earth of the future. Likewise, at the conclusion of Planet of the Apes (1968), audiences learn that this dystopian world is in fact our own, deep in the future, after human society has collapsed. By contrast, in Always Coming Home—despite the ecological constraints imposed not only by catastrophic global warming, but also by chemical and radioactive pollution of the environment—Le Guin’s sympathetic portrayal of Kesh society arguably constitutes an (an)archaeology of the future: a vision, in other words, of “what [we] can become” (Le Guin 136-41, 159; Eisler 5). With the help of an information “Exchange,” the Kesh use soft technologies, including cybernetics, railways, and solar energy, to decentralize production and decision-making—thus integrating the past visions of Peter Kropotkin, William Morris, Lev Tolstoy, Murray Bookchin, and Marshall Sahlins, among others (Le Guin 379-80).

Valley vs. Condor: Kesh vs. Dayao

Le Guin’s narrator and alter ego Stone Telling emblematically experiences “two radically different cultures” (Clark): namely, that of the “introverted but cooperative” Valley people (or Kesh), and that of the Condor people, otherwise known as the Dayao. The Condor are a nomadic group of marauders who practice militarism, ultra-misogyny, slavery, and cruelty toward animals (Le Guin 29). Being the daughter of a Valley woman known as Willow and the Condor commander Terter Abhao, Stone Telling finds herself between worlds. As an adolescent, she embarks on a dystopian spiritual journey of exile from the Valley north with Abhao, and suffers in the City of Condor for seven years.

Named by the Kesh for the gruesome carrion bird, the Condor are “Men of no House [or home],” who are “at war with every peoples of the lands […]” (Le Guin 16, 192, 379). Theirs is a dominator society, where “male dominance, male violence, and a generally hierarchic and authoritarian social structure [are] the norm” (Eisler 45). Farmers known as tyon serve the military bureaucracy, which in turn invests in “Great Weapons” with which to conquer, extract, and enslave. Stone Telling describes with dismay how Condor men brutalize non-human animals, and questions why they ever had tried to resurrect imperialism. For the author, hyper-masculinity, domination, and violence are all linked: “Everything among the Dayao had to have a chief […]. Everything they did was war.” In other words, they “stood in no relation to anything in the world” (Le Guin 38, 190, 199, 349, 380).

In this pyramidal society, “True Condors” can only be men, and literacy is violently restricted to the soldier caste. “Condor Women” occupy an intermediate position in the social hierarchy, while “all other women, foreigners, and animals” are viewed with contempt as “hontik,” or “half-animal[s].” The Dayao effectively practice purdah, or gender apartheid, as well as polygamy, and wives are expected “to have babies continuously.” Given the hegemonic view among the Dayao that women are viewed as men’s property, honor killings are normalized and even encouraged. This contrast starkly with Kesh grammar, thought, and social practice, which—like the Anarresti language in Le Guin’s other ‘ambiguous’ anarchist utopia, The Dispossessed (1974)—“makes no provision for a relation of ownership between human beings” (Le Guin 42n40, 193-9, 200, 340-8, 345-6).

Through their casteism, gross sexism, and ultra-violence, the Condor soldiers recall the ancient Greeks, Vikings, Mongols, conquistadores, and other slaveowners of yore, plus the Hindutva and Taliban of today—not to mention Frank Herbert’s fictional portrayal of House Harkonnen in Dune (1965). The reactionary modernism and technical reason they practice—evinced in their use of napalm, and in their reconstruction of battle tanks—bring to mind U.S. and Nazi imperialism.

Having realized the “wrong way” of life in the City of Condor, Stone Telling recruits her father into helping her leave with her infant daughter Ekwerkwe and servant Esiryu. Though Terter is killed for his insubordination, the female trio succeed in escaping. Returning to the Valley not to intimidate or colonize, as Abhao—who “was in mind and heart no warrior at all”—had done under orders decades prior, Stone Telling renames herself “Woman Coming Home” (Le Guin 34-6, 353-8, 368). Ultimately, the author closes by denouncing “the manipulative world of domination we actually find ourselves in,” and affirming “the cooperative world of freedom we are capable of creating” (Clark).

Elements of Critical Theory in Always Coming Home

Le Guin was an anarcha-feminist who was well-versed in the writings of Bookchin, Kropotkin, and presumably also Tolstoy. I am unaware of her having read or directly engaged the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School. Nonetheless, they were contemporary radicals for many years, and many of the concerns raised in Always Coming Home closely parallel the critical analyses made by Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse. Indeed, Le Guin all but cites Fromm’s The Sane Society (1955) when she concludes that “[w]hat we call strength [the Condor] calls sickness; what we call success it calls death” (Le Guin 380). Here, I will briefly examine three common themes found in Le Guin, Fromm, and Marcuse’s social theories: the dialectical analysis of technology, the avowal of feminist humanism, and the framing of psychosexual sadomasochism and political authoritarianism as dynamic systems.

Considering that the Kesh ‘economy’—such as it is—bases itself on hunting, gathering, and communal horticulture, and that the world depicted in Always Coming Home has been devastated by global warming and industrial pollution, some might take Le Guin to be a Luddite, and/or sympathetic to undialectical “anti-civ” discourses. Yet, neither such interpretation would be convincing. The author clearly favors literacy, learning, and life-long education for all, together with the egalitarian practice of medicine, and the use of “soft” technologies, such as gardening, sailboats, trains, and solar energy. In this sense, Le Guin takes a dialectical view of technology, whereby the so-called “Exchange” can help the Kesh designs tools with which to build an anarchist society, but it can also facilitate the Dayao’s militarist and genocidal expansionism.4 In turn, as we know, Marcuse and Fromm saw modern technology as a double-edged sword that could radically reduce the need for alienated labor and provide enough for all while also greasing the wheels toward fascist authoritarianism and collective self-destruction through war and ecological collapse.

Beyond this, Le Guin’s anarcha-feminist vision overlaps with aspects of Marcuse’s socialist feminism and Fromm’s psychosocial interest in matriarchies. Dialectically, the psychoanalyst Nancy Chodorow critiques Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1955) as advancing an “anti-masculinist stance,” while also “manifest[ing] a near-complete invisibility […] of women as subjects” (Chodorow 140). Although it is true that Marcuse took several decades to advance a specifically feminist critique, in his last decade of life, he strongly endorsed the feminist movement for the potential he saw in it to transform society in a non-repressive way. In “Marxism and Feminism,” Marcuse hails the women’s rights movement, envisions a “feminist socialist” future, and endorses the androgynous ideal (Marcuse 165-172). Likewise, Fromm studied the findings of anthropologists like Robert Briffault to contest the orthodox-Freudian idea that the Oedipus complex is universal. Taking into account matriarchal and matrilineal societies of the past, such as Minoan Crete and Çatal-Hüyük, Fromm proposed that all love and altruism derives from the relationship between mother and child. Like Le Guin, he found in matrilineal societies a life-affirming alternative to Puritan and capitalist oppression (Jay 94-6).

Lastly, Le Guin closely echoes Fromm’s humanistic psychology in her examination of the psychodynamics of hierarchy: that is, of “the slave mind” (Le Guin 358). Particularly regarding gender, Le Guin illuminates domination as contingent: she shows that patriarchy and women’s self-derogation are upheld by attitudes, behaviors, and institutions that affirm male privilege and authority, and that, for the same reasons, such forms of oppression can be undone. For Le Guin, as for Fromm, defective social relations—including sexism, authoritarianism, and exploitation—persist because the less powerful party within such relationships—whether they be partners, workers, or slaves—resign themselves to such dehumanization. At the same time, as Hegel recognized in his dialectic of lordship and bondage, such relations of domination can be upset, if and when the subordinated party chooses to rebel. After all, mutual recognition is the humanistic alternative to involuntary sadomasochism (Chancer).

In Always Coming Home, we see how Terter Abhao professes his thoughtless faith in hierarchy: “As I give orders, I obey orders. In this matter I have no choice.” Additionally, when Stone Telling is enthralled to Condor culture in exile, she considers Esiryu “my slave, whom I obeyed.” Yet, back in the Valley, expressing anarcha-feminist humanism, Stone Telling returns to reason. She proclaims that “[t]here is no way that men could make women into slaves and dependents if the women did not choose to be so” (Le Guin 39, 198, 355).

Conclusion

Ursula Le Guin’s ‘ambiguously’ utopian anarchist masterpiece, Always Coming Home, is not only a classic of visionary fiction, but also an allegorical exploration of how we might salvage the future, within the context of catastrophic global warming. Following Bookchin’s framework of social ecology, and echoing the foundational message of Critical Theory, Le Guin shows how social, political, and economic domination are irrevocably tied in with ecological destruction. Her anarcha-feminist critique is disturbing in its persistent relevance: like the shocking recent femicides of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa in London, and of Gabby Petito in Wyoming, Le Guin’s book speaks to the centrality of “[m]ale violence against women […] in the fabric of our society,” and the need to “rip[ it] out” (Bate). Ultimately, against those who, with “their heads on wrong,” would perpetuate authoritarianism and self-destruction, Always Coming Home proposes that our best recourse is mutiny, rebellion, exile, and autonomy (Le Guin 159).

Works Cited

Bate, Marisa 2021. “Sarah Everard’s murderer has been sentenced. Now, Cressida Dick must go.” Open Democracy, 30 September. Available online: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/sarah-everards-murderer-has-been-sentenced-now-cressida-dick-must-go. Accessed 3 October 2021.

Chancer, Lynn S. 2020. “Feminism, Humanism, and Erich Fromm.” Erich Fromm’s Critical Theory: Hope, Humanism, and the Future. Eds. Kieran Durkin and Joan Braune. London: Bloomsbury. 96-107.

Chodorow, Nancy 1999. Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Clark, John P. “On Living in the World: Always Coming Home Revisited.” Fifth Estate, forthcoming.

Eisler, Riane 1987. The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future. New York: HarperCollins.

Enzinna, Wes 2017. “Bizarre and Wonderful.” London Review of Books, vol. 39, no. 9.

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

Jay, Martin 1973. The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950. Boston: Little, Brown and Co.

Le Guin, Ursula K. 1985. Always Coming Home. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Marcuse, Herbert 2004. “Marxism and Feminism.” The New Left and the 1960’s: Collected Papers, volume 3. Ed. Douglas Kellner. London: Routledge. 165-172.

Stites, Richard 1989. Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Notes

1For example, Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star (1908), Alexander V. Chayanov’s My Brother Alexei’s Journey into the Land of Peasant Utopia (1920), Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921), Yakov Okunev’s Tomorrow (1924), Alexander Belyaev’s Battle in the Ether (1927), V. D. Nikolsky’s In A Thousand Years (1927), or A. R. Palei’s Gulfstream (1928).

2The Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize (1985).

3Indeed, the portrayal of this “Valley” in California may be Le Guin’s tribute to the peaceful, stateless Valley community envisioned in the Daoist story, “Peach Blossom Spring,” written by Tao Qian in 421 C.E.

4Referencing her earlier work, The Dispossessed, Le Guin wrote to Bookchin, saying that she had based her novel in part on his idea of post-scarcity anarchism (Enzinna).

Panels on “Alternative Futures” at the Ninth Biennial International Herbert Marcuse Society Conference

September 27, 2021

On Saturday, October 9, 2021, I’ll be participating on three panels at the Ninth Biennial International Herbert Marcuse Society Conference. The theme this year is “Alternative Futures: Marcuse’s Dialectic of Technology.” While the conference will be held both virtually and in-person at the University of Arizona in Tempe, all panels will be accessible online via Zoom.

“Ecology and Revolution”: Saturday, October 9, 2021, 8:00-9:50am Pacific/local Phoenix Time

Video Recording

Chair: Thais Gobo

  • Thais Gobo, “Authentic Ecology and Liberation: The Refusal of the Domination of Nature Against the Apparatus
  • Sergio Bedoya Cortés, “Ecological crisis, capitalism and critique
  • Dan Fischer, “Let Nature Play: Total Liberation from Compulsory Work
  • Myself, “Critical Theory in Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home

“The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in the Twenty-First Century”: Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, 10:00-11:50am Pacific/local Phoenix Time

Video Recording

Chair: Javier Sethness

  • Myself, “Realism, Egalitarianism, and Internationalism
  • Bill Weinberg, “For Solidarity; Against Dictators and Campism
  • Anner G., “The Responsibility to Protect in Tigray”

“Marcusean Politics Today”: Saturday, October 9, 2021, 3:00-4:50pm Pacific/local Phoenix Time

Video Recording

Chair: Andrew T. Lamas

  • Shon Meckfessel, “Anti-Humanism on the Left”
  • Rocío Lopez, “Fascism as Bourgeois Reaction”
  • Myself, “A Critical Theory of Authority”

We welcome discussion, and hope you can join us!

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.

Toward an Ecologically Based Post-Capitalism: Interview With Kim Stanley Robinson

March 17, 2018

NY 2140

Copyright Truthout.org. Reproduced with permission

Kim Stanley Robinson is an award-winning, New York Times-bestselling author. A science- and climate-fiction novelist, Robinson has written more than 20 books, including the bestselling Mars trilogy and the critically acclaimed Forty Signs of Rain, The Years of Rice and Salt, and 2312. In 2008, he was named a “Hero of the Environment” by Time magazine, and he works with the Sierra Nevada Research Institute.

In this interview, Truthout talks with Robinson about his books Green Earth and New York 2140. Set in the present or near future, Green Earth portrays struggles over climate science in the US capital, whereas New York 2140 depicts life in a 22nd century metropolis that has been inundated by the melted polar regions.

Stan, thank you kindly for being open to participating in this interview. First, Ursula K. Le Guin passed away recently. Her influence on your own creative writing is marked. Do you have any reflections on Le Guin’s life and work that you wish to share?

I wrote a memorial statement after her death for Scientific American. What I can add to that now as I continue to feel the loss of her living presence, is that in listening to the science fiction community talk about her, I’m struck by how beloved she was, both her and her work, and I’m thinking now that this was a very unusual quality in her work and her person. Also, less crucially, her work always had a quick sureness about it; she didn’t waste words or pile on details. She cut a clean line, as surfers would say. That’s the mark of a good style: distinctive and clear. Her prose has a poetry to it.

One major theme in Green Earth and New York 2140 is democracy versus capitalism. New York 2140 begins with a statement of Proudhonian or Marxian value analysis: The coders Mutt and Jeff (as workers) create the surplus-value (profit) that drives the capitalist monster which persists even in the year 2140, after it has melted Greenland and parts of Antarctica, raising sea levels by 50 feet and devastating coastal and low-lying regions. You clarify that it is capitalism that is responsible for such ecological catastrophe, in parallel to the grossly unequal wealth and power distribution it engenders. Capital’s class divisions are symbolized in New York 2140 in the struggle between flooded lower Manhattan and the intertidal region versus uptown, where the superscrapers of the rich stand on higher ground. Ultimately, you envision mass popular resistance building up from a rent strike toward a global general strike to overturn this oppressive system. Is this how we should wield revolutionary democracy and organize?

A fiscal strike is one possible way to exert people power. Finance is systemically over-leveraged — and therefore in a precarious position — if something like the 2008 crash were to occur again. Such a crash will happen anytime there is a crisis of confidence in the markets and in the value of money, and the various money-surrogates. People could all together and at once refuse regularly scheduled payments, or less radically, they could together remove their money from banks and put them in credit unions. Done as a mass-action, this would crash the system. After that, there would have to be a plan to rescue the banks by nationalizing them, as we did to [General Motors] in 2009. This is just one tactic and just one step on the road to post-capitalism, but it does point out the power people have as the ultimate source of value, including financial value. Finance is parasitical on ordinary people, so some modes of detoxification are available. The parasites can’t live on their own.

Your exploration of the exercise of autonomy and egalitarian cooperation at the MetLife Tower, transformed into a cooperative living residence, and via the Lower Manhattan Mutual Aid Society in New York 2140 recalls the anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin’s analysis in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902). Indeed, your Mr. Hexter advises his youthful counterparts that “[h]elping animals or helping people” would be just ways of being in the world. May I ask to what degree libertarian socialism inspires you?

I have never read a definition of the word “libertarian” that makes any sense to me, nor sounds attractive as a principle, so I avoid that word as much as I can. Maybe “democratic socialism” is the better term for me — the idea being that people in democracies would elect representatives that would then pass laws based on socialist principles. That is a story I’m often interested in telling, as something that could and should happen in our near future. It’s my form of utopian science fiction. The social democracies of north Europe and the name “social democrat” also resonate for me, although these political parties, when in power in Europe, have had to make alliances and compromises with capitalism that make them far from satisfactory. But from the viewpoint of the United States, they look like at least a step along the path to more justice. There would be more steps later. I usually favor stepwise reform, but I have to admit we need the steps to come really fast, one after the next, now that climate change is about to overwhelm us.

In both Green Earth and New York 2140, you raise many imaginative possibilities in terms of collective responses to climate catastrophe that we might want to consider: redirecting excess sea-level rise into East Antarctica and inland deserts; introducing Arctic polar bears to Antarctica to avoid extinction; designing floating cities; rebuilding beaches and shorelines; and infusing the Arctic Ocean with vast quantities of salt transported in container fleets in order to restart the thermohaline circulation, or Gulf Stream, threatened by global warming. The emphasis on cooperatives and the commons in New York 2140, in parallel to Green Earth‘s examination of simple living, “freeganism,” and the transition to wind, water and solar energy gives us a lot to think about.

Some of these ideas have been explored by research institutes since I wrote about them in my novels. I don’t think the researchers involved read my novels; I think they are ideas that emerge naturally given the problems we are facing. So, pumping seawater up onto the Antarctic ice cap could be done, but would require something like 7 percent of all the energy humanity creates. Even so, it might be considered a good idea compared to losing all sea level infrastructure and beaches and ecologies. Assisted migration is being planned and even tried experimentally, and this will continue, but polar bears to Antarctica was my idea of a joke. It has been taken up and studied, however. Salting the Gulf Stream would probably not work, and yet it might be tried if the Gulf Stream stalled, just to see.

Still, you have caught the drift of my fiction — I’m interested in describing actions like these. Some are geoengineering, some are political economy and involve return of the commons, socialism, clean energy, etc.

Over the course of Green Earth, we see “gradualist-progressive” elements within the State evermore placing science center-stage in the struggle to curb capitalism’s contributions to climate change. We encounter Charlie Quibler, the young aide to Sen. Phil Chase, drafting a bill to legislate the implementation of recommendations made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), only to have the law inevitably watered down by legislators, including Chase himself. Then, Washington, DC, is struck by a massive storm, and it is on the flooded Mall that Quibler confronts Chase, imploring him to finally do something about climate change. Subsequently, Chase announces his Democratic presidential candidacy at the North Pole — or what’s left of it — and upon being elected as the “first scientific presidential candidate,” he launches an emergency climate mobilization in the “first 60 days” of his administration. In New York 2140, similarly, there is a revolutionary, popular upsurge which follows a massive hurricane that sweeps through the city; yet here, too, the revolt “lives on” through the State. In light of these social-democratic models you present for evidence-based policy-making and your view that scientific inquiry is linked to justice and fairness, what do you make of the status of science now one year into the Trump regime?

It’s been a year of continuous assault on science and justice by the Trump administration, and it’s been shocking to see how many people there are willing to implement such a … wicked vision…. But all of these poor people will immediately run to a scientist the moment they feel sick — that’s their doctors. They believe in science when they’re scared for their lives. What this reveals is their hypocrisy … and greed, but also, the strength of the system they’re attacking, which enfolds them completely. We live in a world that is a scientific achievement, and we can’t live without the scientific achievements, and even though some of the scientific achievements have definitely led us to our current crisis — public health and agriculture leading to quick population rise, and carbon-burning energy leading to climate change — still, it’s science in action that will be involved in all the solutions, along with politics aiming our scientific work.

I think the science is robust and will survive this attack from Trump, his supporters, the Republican Party in the US and capitalism worldwide. There will be damage, and the political battles will never end, but over the long arc of history. You know the rest.

In New York 2140, you cite John Dos Passos recalling a meeting with Emma Goldman at which “everybody [gathered] was for peace and the cooperative commonwealth and the Russian Revolution.” It is clear that your work features several anarchistic characters and themes, yet you also often invoke Lincoln’s vision of government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” as an ideal. So, 100-plus years since the Russian Revolution, do you consider the state necessary for the transition to an egalitarian, ecological post-capitalist world?

Yes, I do. This is not an easy thing to say, given how much that is bad has accrued around what we call “the state” in world history. But the term is probably too broad and philosophical. If you want to use it, and speak at that level of broad generality, I’ll join briefly and say, we need the state itself to become just and scientific, and the expression of everyone alive agreeing how to live together. That agreement formalized as laws becomes the state…. Best to focus on creating a good state based on just laws. For getting through the climate change emergency, I think it’s the only way that will work.

In closing, do you have any thoughts for the ongoing struggle of promoting “compassion for all sentient beings” (Green Earth) within the context of the sixth mass extinction?

Time is running short in terms of dodging a really bad sixth mass extinction that would result if we create a much, much warmer world by our burning of carbon into the atmosphere. If we can quickly reduce our carbon burn, which is really what powers our culture now, that would be a huge change and would allow all sorts of other good potentialities to come to pass. We have to keep emphasizing the need to decarbonize fast. Fortunately, the technologies to do this include women’s rights (this stabilizes population) and economic equality (this reduces impacts of poverty and over-consumption). Justice is a climate-change technology of great power, so there is no need to set up false dichotomies as to which good cause we support. The good causes reinforce each other and we need them all at once. This is why capitalism has to give way to an ecologically-based post-capitalism, which, in some features, will be aspects of socialism chosen democratically. We have to figure out a way to pay ourselves to do the work of survival.

Ursula Le Guin on Art, Resistance, and Change: National Book Award 2014

November 22, 2014

Ursula K. Le Guin’s comments to accept the 2014 National Book Award’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

“Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want—and should demand—our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.”