Space Madness

Donald Trump wants The Expanse to be real. If there were ever a president who could watch a show about a solar system constantly at war with itself and miss the entire point, it is this man. Picture it: Trump, late at night, holed up in the President’s Bedroom. Crumpled Big Mac wrappers litter the foot of the bed. The curtains are closed, the only light in the room is the ghostly blue of the television. 

Having heard that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos recently rescued the beloved-but-canceled SyFy favorite from oblivion, the President has decided to see for himself what all the fuss was about. As he watches residents of Earth, Mars, and the Asteroid Belt betray, lie, and kill each other off in power grabs, he begins to mumble to himself… “Hmmm… space… yeah, space… force… space force… yeah, space force. It’s a great idea, very important. Space force!”

And thus a press conference is called…

The above did not happen (or at least we don’t know if it happened). Trump has promised a space force before, and despite his official-sounding pronouncement on Monday, he has yet to sign anything like an executive order. Instituting a sixth branch of the military — the first new one for the United States since 1947 — is a massive and expensive undertaking. It will require congressional approval, and when asked about it last year, Trump’s own defense secretary Jim Mattis went on record to say it was a bad idea. 

Nonetheless, the wonders of outer space appear to be returning to a high place in the American popular imagination. Now is about the time in this piece where the author might trot out that overused Fred Jameson quote about it being easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. That remains true, but it is also worth considering the following sentence: “we can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world.” Enter the architects of late neoliberalism’s escape plan.

Today’s most beloved moguls are, rather shamelessly, no mere titans of a single industry. Elon Musk is CEO or founder of no fewer than three companies vying in the worlds of everything from auto to neuroprosthetics. Richard Branson brings us air travel, records, jewelry and more. Amazon has transformed the way logistics are thought about and made obvious that literally every consumer product relies on them. A colleague of mine who worked for a time at one of Amazon’s distribution centers was told on his first day by management “Thank you for helping us take over the world.” Tongue in cheek? Sure, but the kind of thing that makes you shudder with dread too.

All three are, of course, very publicly and enthusiastically engaged in the enterprise of private spaceflight. Bezos announced that Amazon had picked up The Expanse at a conference where he also received an award for “space settlement advocacy.” The lines between fiction and reality become more than a bit blurred in all this adulation. Saving a much-loved sci-fi show becomes symbolic of the future he is supposedly building.

Same with Musk. His proponents and defenders believe in his utopia, pointing to how courageously idealistic he comes across when spouting his dreams of an intergalactic future. And while Musk may appear confused over what exactly makes someone an anarchist, socialist, or capitalist, he reveals much more than he likely realizes in his confusion. When he writes on Instagram of “true socialism,” he puts himself — knowingly or not — in the vein of those who see a just society as a matter of technocratic social engineering. The liberal imagination doesn’t just tolerate but enthusiastically applauds this vision, be it in the shaping of leisure time, the way our brains are wired, or the willingness to colonize Mars. In all instances, the human material is just that. Material.

Musk and Bezos have, it is true, been at loggerheads with Donald Trump recently. To some this is enough to earn them a place in “the resistance.” It’s a low bar when that same resistance can shriek for a continuation of war on the Korean peninsula. America is an empire in deep crisis, or at least an empire being forced to pivot quickly and clumsily as the world changes radically around it. The days of a unipolar world are over. Trade blocs and international communities are in flux. History has restarted, and it’s brought with it the beginnings of a new Cold War.

The emergence of Trekkie Howard Hughes types alongside talk of a “space force” in the midst of this is unnerving. People who remember Reagan’s Star Wars program surely remember how it felt in equal measures laughable and terrifying. In 2007 and 2008, China and the US of the Bush administration engaged in a show of capabilities by firing missiles to down their own decommissioned satellites, prompting a brief worry about an arms race in space. What Reagan and Bush didn’t have were billionaires launching cars and reusable rockets into the atmosphere, pitching a populist tone about how an entrepreneurial spirit will open up the wonders of space to all of us.

All of which is to say that the apparent discord between Trump and today’s captains of industry is deceptive. Enterprise on this massive level needs the state. Musk has already used billions in public funds to build his sprawling empire. The way that industries and private companies combine and interweave with governments to assert their interests around the world is an evolving one, but it is not one that will be going away. When virtually every facet of daily life is already being militarized, there is no reason this should change beyond the stratosphere.

Musk and Bezos pitch their dreams for humanity in space as a solution for a profoundly troubled civilization, riven with inequality and climate disaster and refugee crises. But all of this waxing utopian is only believable if a society’s technological advances can be extracted from the broken bodies that make them feasible. Bezos’ ability to drop a USB cable on your doorstep a half hour after you order it doesn’t happen without distribution employees worked to death. Musk’s lightning fast underground transport tunnels don’t exist without the millions of proles left struggling to get to work on time.

Can we therefore feasibly imagine a colonized moon without all of those left behind to scrape by on an increasingly uninhabitable planet? Or perhaps terraformed refugee camps where children are separated from their parents?

If all of this sounds like a thought exercise, then it is worth remembering that discussion of a Trump presidency felt the same way two years ago. And that’s the point. Dystopia, once merely a feared future, has become reality. And it has shown itself to be far more insidious and sneaky than we thought. It does not explode onto the world’s stage all at once; it unfolds over time, creeping and insinuating itself into the norm, even alongside entirely opposed visions for the future. The sticking point of course is that the latter is dependent on the former. I would say Trump should watch Elysium to have this point driven home, but he is liable to get the wrong idea from it.

This post originally appeared at an earlier blog that I used to run. I have migrated it with its original post date.

Detroit’s Exterminating Angel

Before RoboCop was released in theaters thirty years ago this month, it was given an X rating by the Motion Picture Association of America. Director Paul Verhoeven, knowing that this was guaranteed box office death, went back and scrubbed his film no fewer than eleven times trying to achieve its eventual R rating. He toned down at least three execution scenes and cut out countless blood spatter shots. He also, in what would prove to be one of the film’s most ingenious features, added in the humorous advertisements for such products as the 6000 SUX sedan (8.2 miles per gallon!) and the Nukem board game.

The MPAA relented and RoboCop was a box office success. The irony of Verhoeven’s addition of the satirical commercials, however, is that their flagrant profiteering off of degradation and suffering made the violence in the rest of the film register as more callous, less remorseful, and the world that formed it less worthy of redemption. Verhoeven knew this. The MPAA didn’t.

There is a similar irony to watching RoboCop today, as world events have apparently transformed it from a cautionary tale into a rather twisted blueprint for salvation. Consider how riot cops dressed in 1990, three years after the film’s release:

And compare that to today:

(This is to say nothing of last month’s underreported story from Dubai, in which one of the world’s richest cities is now pilot-testing a robot to patrol and identify criminals. Though unarmed, the real-life RoboCop will be the first of many. If the pilot is successful then the aim is for the robots to eventually make up 25 percent of the city’s police force.)

Adopting the dominant logic regarding crime and policing today, RoboCop watches as a fun-mirror equivalent of how it was intended. The militarization of police is no longer read as an exacerbating factor in the rise of cruelty and crime. Instead, these points of reference can very be easily seen as reversed, the militarization justified by street thug depravity. There was certainly, in the midst of Reaganite “law and order” rhetoric, always the possibility of this misreading. But it is important to acknowledge that the a priori setting of RoboCop – a bankrupt Detroit hollowed and devastated – seemed far less real than it does today.

Verhoeven’s choice to set the film in Detroit was deliberate. There was, by 1987, plenty of worry regarding the future of America’s car hub, spurred on by jingoistic fears of Japan’s seemingly unstoppable entry into the world auto market. (The embarrassing third entry into the RoboCop franchise shamelessly tapped into this jingoism; thankfully Verhoeven was long gone by then.) No doubt, anyone who was honest about it could see that Detroit was in decline. But even as it was released twenty years – almost to the day – after the urban rebellions that rocked the city, RoboCop appeared to emphasize the “if” in “what if” by an extent far more measurable than today. That, along with an uninspired script, are likely why the 2014 remake failed to gain any substantial praise.

There is of course a narrative relentlessly pushed by establishment politics as to what caused the collapse of America’s fourth largest city and center of industry. The dominant take is a mixture of social irresponsibility and indulgence of greedy union workers swirled together into a world where the untamed hordes have to be kept in check. Any institutional excesses toward that end are merely a necessary evil.

It’s here that a few speculative thoughts are merited for the upcoming film Detroit. An attempt to portray the social explosion of the rebellion through the murders that took place at the Algiers Motel, critical reaction has been mostly positive. Plenty have noted how impossible it is to view the film without thinking of Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile.

It’s more than a passing temptation to assume the worst of this film considering its director and writer. Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal are the team also behind The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Whatever handwringing they as generally liberal artists might have exhibited over the notions of militarization were long finished by the time they began making these films. It would be truly monstrous of them to use one of the turning points in the transformation of civil rights into the Black Power movement as an excuse to promote that same notion. It seems clear that Bigelow and Boal acknowledge American racism as a reality, but the usage of the revolt as context (and therefore its being painted as somehow “senseless” instead of as a reaction to that reality) seems to create problems in the filmic portrayal of a structural problem.

K. Austin Collins at The Ringer:

In Boal’s script, it’s easier to imagine that there were good cops – even amid what the movie characterizes as systemic police violence – than it is to imagine just what effect this event had on the black community. History, it seems, stands in for all of that: We apparently already know how the community feels. This is how I felt about David Simon’s HBO limited series Show Me a Hero, too; it’s how I generally feel about the work of liberal artists who seem much more invested in wrestling with how to represent black victimhood than they are in wrestling with what comes after. These are two parts of the same story. And the gaps here more or less mean this movie isn’t really about black people as people, nor history as a lived experience, but is instead invested in a dutiful, “just the facts, ma’am” reenactment that pretends those other things are already a given. Boal, and Bigelow beside him, refuse to speculate about – or imagine – the rest.

If Collins’ review accurately captures the film’s shortcomings, then he is describing a blind spot that most of Hollywood suffers from: namely that it has no clue how to tackle themes related to the institutional or systemic because it accepts the fundamental narrative of those systems and institutions. Even when liberal filmmakers attempt to take on “issues,” they end up sliding into trite and sloppy ruminations on human nature.

This isn’t to pass premature judgment on Detroit, but merely to illustrate how well-meaning liberalism constructs an aesthetic rationale (a myth if you will) around its fundamental belief in how the world works. Bigelow and Boal exemplify this rationale. Zero Dark Thirty is not intended as a pro-torture movie, but purposefully or not it becomes one through the course of its story of a good person trying to do right in a world spun by vicious anti-Americanism. Likewise if the bigotry of Detroit is one of personal belief then we are left with demands that the system merely “do better” both in regulating its own racism and in quelling social unrest.

This logic constitutes a very slippery slope in a world where policing is increasingly used as a substitute for a social safety net. Basic rights like food and healthcare are increasingly framed as “benefits” and those who demand them as adding to social discord. Stability is found in social regulation, by force if need be. Rather than fix the broken infrastructure of New York City’s subway system that is leading to massive delays and overcrowding, MTA head Jake Lhota proposes removing seats and adding more cops. The decay of one institution allows for the further ascendance and bolstering of another that simply speeds up the process, creating new problems that exacerbate the old in all-too-familiar ways.

RoboCop, at its strongest, both illustrates and anticipates a step in this spiral. Its sympathetic portrayal of Alex Murphy, Anne Lewis and other Detroit police officers doesn’t reflect a sympathy for police so much as it poses a very unsettling question: What happens when the only industry with any stable investment left is that of policing? In real life, police unions behave more like organized crime than any kind of organization dedicated to the defense of labor, but in RoboCop they are pushing back against another, far worse institution directly fomenting and profiting off the chaos. RoboCop/Murphy is a conduit for this tension, an avatar both for a human nature that is far more complex than many of Verhoeven’s contemporaries can muster and what happens when this nature becomes entangled with a very inhuman (or at least anti-humanist) drive.

For sure, there is a lot of money to be made off chaos. And a lot of political clout to be built off playing it up. Donald Trump’s speech earlier this week made that very clear. Verhoeven, when he originally made RoboCop, intended its satire and grotesque violence as a method of achieving critical distance from the cycle that pathologizes violence both materially and ideologically.

The very real militarization of law enforcement in the thirty years since its release reveals how little it was listened to – or, perhaps less sensationally, how limited the impact of art really is on policy. The artistic pranksters who have for the past six years been planning and assembling a giant RoboCop statue in Detroit may have been couching it in at least a healthy dose of irony, but they also (perhaps inadvertently) exposed something rather troubling about the embrace of the idea by their city’s government and police department. In 2014, Detroit decided to put on a “RoboCop Day,” coinciding with the DVD release of the mediocre remake. A costumed RoboCop threw out the first pitch at Comerica Park on that day. Though ultimately canceled, a ceremony was planned to unveil the molds for the bronze statue… in front of Detroit’s police headquarters, and attended by hundreds of police officers. All less than a year after the city declared bankruptcy.

The point here is not to say that there is some conscious decision on the part of policy makers to mold the world in the image of a 1987 movie. Nor is it to say that Paul Verhoeven – a director of definite left sympathy – has the ear of these same politicians. Capitalists have their own angels of history, their own archetypes adopted and memed through their universe in order to mediate the wreckage and rubble thrown at their feet. With the late capitalist imagination becoming more and more enfeebled, is it too great of a stretch that, to some, the logic skewered in the figure of RoboCop becomes that angel?

This post originally appeared at an earlier blog that I used to run. I have migrated it with its original post date.

The End Has to Begin Somewhere

An observation: in today’s world, “pretentious” is normally code for “this is something I would rather not think about and therefore I am going to judge it harshly without considering it.”

During the 2016 American presidential election, a poll was conducted that jokingly included an option for a giant meteor. In other words, it was asked whether potential voters would rather a massive asteroid collide with the Earth than any available candidate become president of the United States.

The poll found that 13% of those surveyed preferred the meteor. Hillary Clinton received 39%. Donald Trump – the eventual victor, as if we need reminding – got 35%. The meteor got a higher percentage than any of the third party candidates who actually appeared on the ballot.

On the surface it’s comedic. In that bitter, sardonic kind of way. It naturally says something about the unpopularity of both Clinton and Trump and the intransigence of the American political system (now might be the right time to reiterate that had the Democratic establishment not been so characteristically terrified of the specter of socialism, Bernie would have indeed won). But in my estimation it says something even broader and more fundamental.

Apocalypse is no longer something in a far-off, speculative future. It is an undeniable part of the now. Beneath the insufferable shiny-happy insistence of advertising, “official” politics, and the fantasies of billionaire moguls, the notion of an unfolding/ongoing catastrophe is woven into just about every facet of culture and common logic. Attempts to cover it up just make it that much more unavoidable and dark.

Nowhere

In 1890, William Morris published what is arguably the first successful example of modern communist speculative fiction: News from Nowhere. As much propaganda as pulp literature, it was written as a direct response to Edward Bellamy’s technocratic socialist vision Looking Backward. In it Morris reimagined London through a radical lens that as free of pollution, poverty, and theft of time.

There is plenty in the book that we would find simply outdated, in particular its portrayal of women. But News from Nowhere was a sincere and creative attempt to pivot from the degradation of industrial capitalism. It was naturally imbued with the romantic Morris’ nostalgia for pre-capitalist pastoralism, but it also self-consciously avoids unproductive wistfulness that pines for turning back the clock. The radical’s view of history as an overlapping and cumulative process is what allows the book’s incorporation of sustainability and egalitarianism come alive. News from Nowhere personifies the Marxist’s ambivalence toward modernity: savvy to how its productive capacities made possible real equality and solidarity, horrified at how its hierarchies produced unprecedented degradation

The book’s very title was a nod to its first-glance infeasibility: “utopia” being translated literally, prior to Thomas More, as “nowhere.” As in “nowhere exists this type of world.” But Morris’ sly trick was to pull this out of the realm of absolute fantasy by adding a subtle “yet…”

There is, of course, an adjacent apparent impossibility to cobbling together a utopian vision with a dystopian reality; two conjunctures that cannot coincide. Indeed at first they seem diametrically opposed. But there was also a time not so long ago when the dystopian seemed equally far-fetched and far-flung as its mirror opposite.

Reality has intervened, and not for the better. Climate change has accelerated, making food scarcity, droughts and devastating floods a fact for huge swathes of the globe. We know that we have already crossed the point of no return for a warming planet. The degradation of soil, should it continue, will leave the planet with perhaps 60 full harvests.

Mass refugee crises, never-ending war and the shuttering of borders are casually woven into news coverage and polite conversation. The line between the unimaginable and reported reality disintegrates.

Insipid morning show hosts might try to soften the blow, telling the inspirational story of the exceptional suburban mom doing food drives for refugee kids, or move quickly from coverage of the UN’s latest predictions for climate catastrophe into that day’s guest celebrity chef. But cultural awareness never takes things at face value. Deep down, we know we’re fucked. Remember ten years ago when Children of Men seemed more an eerily prescient warning and not a portrayal of the world as it is? Fun times…

In other words, catastrophe is everywhere. Giant Meteor 2016 isn’t just an instance of dark comedy. It is, indirectly anyway, a reflection of the connection between persistent devastation and the persistence of a political and economic system whose pretense of a plentiful/prosperous future is on very shaky ground. It is a 21st century version of Amadeo Bordiga’s reminder that rich people also drowned with the Titanic. If we can’t stave off impending doom, at least we can take solace in the fact that mismanaged capitalism will eventually overtake those who have subjected us to the fallout of mismanagement.

Of course it’s never that simple. The rich passengers aboard the Titanic disproportionately were able to get to lifeboats, unlike the poor folks in steerage. Should the planet become uninhabitable, it’s entirely plausible that the ruling class will be able to construct their own Elysium. That’s precisely the motivation behind such projects as Eko Atlantic in Nigeria and others like it. More often than not they will find a way to shield their selves and their lifestyles from consequence. We, as always, get the wreckage.

The dystopian is already a reality. The impossible has once again proven possible. Any kind of useful realism must, therefore, take this dynamic into account, seeing the utopian not as a dream, but as a demand.

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So did the writing on the walls remind us in Paris, 1968. This blog is an attempt to cobble together – sloppily, perhaps self-indulgently – one aspect of a dys/utopian praxis: the vivid radical imagination; one that isn’t so much an escape as it is an escape plan.

Devastation

What I am here calling “dys/utopian” is hardly groundbreaking. And I can’t take credit for it. There are other writers and publications on the contemporary Left who have been exploring this for at least a few years prior to my starting this blog. Evan Calder Williams’ Combined and Uneven Apocalypse comes to mind. So does much of the work of the recently and tragically departed Mark Fisher, whose notion of “the slow cancellation of the future” has been essential in forming the ideas here.

Enzo Traverso’s recent book Left Melancholia attempts to salvage the dreams of a fractured Left in the midst of capitalism’s perpetual false starts. And, as long as we’re using the term, I can’t pass up the chance to mention the always-indispensable journal Salvage.

All of the above are brilliant attempts to forge some kind of intellectual and material praxis for a Left that has had the reset button hit on it. It’s my hope to add to this in a constructive way.

The enumeration of the above atrocities has normally provoked a familiar refrain: “It doesn’t have to be this way.” True of course, but insufficient. Is another world possible? It is unquestionably necessary, but its feasibility is by no means a given. The planet has already passed several points of no return with climate change, which in turn brings each future turning point closer with increasing speed.

This quickly approaching mass historical moment is ironic considering the past few decades of capital’s trajectory. Ever since the collapse of “actually existing communism” we have been stuck in a kind of momentous feedback loop. Neoliberalism’s adaptability means that its undead husk can keep shuffling on indefinitely. As long as it does, its cultural logic – the declaration that the new can never really be new – drags along behind it. The pressure for us to be “flexible” with our time, to accommodate more of our lives to accumulation of profit, grows greater. Crises worsen, but they don’t stop happening. Disasters stop being benchmarks and start being daily occurrences folded into our routine.

Perhaps we should have seen it coming: the problem with “the end of history” was always that it wouldn’t be able to stop starting.

The question (a very open one in fact) is whether the Left, that contingent who historically have fought the hardest for things to not be this way, can manage to break out of the feedback loop. Whether it can get creative and do things differently. Whether it can gain the wherewithal to soberly assess the already-existing wreckage around it and figure out how to repurpose it, to become the coming catastrophe so that it is only society’s rulers caught up in it rather than ourselves. Either we continue to allow the monuments to be built on top of the rubble with us inside it, or we figure out how the build our own from the same refuse.

Revolution

Others have said that the Left’s present state is one of devastation. This is obviously fitting given the general state of things. Just as the working class has had its coherence and institutions robbed of it, so have Left and revolutionary organizations found themselves sidelined and treading water. For sure, there are green shoots of hope for those who wish to end this state of affairs: the election of Corbyn as head of the Labour Party in the UK, some victories for Leftist parties in Europe and elsewhere, the Sanders campaign in the US and the explosion in popularity for socialist ideas in its aftermath.

These are the most hopeful signs for radical renewal in decades. They are also not enough, and are emerging in the midst of odds that remain slim. Can socialism be won and built when half the planet is a sacrifice zone? We may have to address this question in real time, and we will not be able to do so by relying on the same answers we always have. A level of cultural sophistication and vision – the kind which has not been so much lacking as it has been forgotten in the midst of the great neoliberal shakeup – is urgently needed.

Now the inevitable question: will this be a project of doom and gloom? To a certain but ultimately limited degree it has to be. It is not, however, melancholic. I would rather characterize it as being grounded in the thought of Marxist writers and activists whose sensitivity to culture opened them up to a practical revolutionary pessimism: Antonio Gramsci, Walter Benjamin, Anatoly Lunacharsky, André Breton, José Carlos Mariátegui, Suzanne and Aimé Césaire, Pierre Naville, Raoul Vaneigem, Frantz Fanon, Michael Löwy.

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All of these figures possessed zero faith in the possibility of capitalism to provide any salvation. All knew that the act of mourning, of recognizing just how much we have lost and just how bad it has gotten, was an unavoidable step in grasping radical social change.

All knew that reforms were only a delay of the inevitable. All saw revolution (to borrow from Benjamin) as the handbrake preventing history from careening off a cliff, partaking in revolutionary thought and action not because it filled them with optimism but because it was the only way path toward basic survival.

Finally, all saw in artistic expression the ability to psychologically straddle the gap between the real and the visionary. A widening of the field of imagination, revealing the machinations of capitalism as intrinsically corrupt but also for a more vivid notion of revolution.

Culture is an expression of the economic and political substructure of society, but this does not mean it is static. Its relationship is, in fact, quite far from the Manicheanism that has plagued Left frameworks on arts and culture for decades. Being able to put aside this wooden, almost caricatured method allows for the dynamic to be revealed. For the possibilities, however dim, to animate. For contradiction to cease being just something that merely exists and to become the key to rupture and liberation.

I would contend – and will do so repeatedly on this blog – that we are surrounded by contemporary cultural artifacts that reveal this multifaceted character: marked simultaneously the brutality of the past and present, and the fading prospects for a future worth living. Much like Morris’ time-traveler, our starting point must be now, but if we aren’t daring to rigorously think through the implications for a radical vision, then there isn’t any real reason to ponder in the first place.

Or, on the other hand, maybe it really is all just pretentious. But pretense is a right, not a privilege. And sometimes a giant meteor is just a giant meteor.

This post originally appeared at an earlier blog that I used to run. I have migrated it with its original post date.