An interesting sidelight of the shockingly-aw(e)ful, progress-defying first decade of the 21st century is that, while it didn’t realize earlier dystopian visions of nuclear war, the surplus population being turned into snack chips, or murderous androids dreaming of electric sheep, it was book-ended by two wildly popular science fiction movie parables of the dystopian future, The Matrix and Avatar. One allegorized corporate totalitarianism, the other corporate-sponsored rape of the natural environment. And unlike every left-wing tract that has tried to warn about either or both those scenarios, these movies, thanks in ironic part to a corporate-run delivery system in full global swing, were paid attention to by tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people. Movies are still the unchallenged purveyors of the zeitgeist, so the significance of such popularity can’t be dismissed, even if it can be debated. If people just want their escapism pure and cute, like ET, or pure and brutal, like Die Hard, what was it about these movies that rang such a big loud bell around the world?
I think the answer is obvious: movies are actually capable of reflecting at us, projected to a mythic dimension, our often unspoken understandings of the forces shaping our existence. The current delivery system would like us to believe that those forces are exclusively personal psychological ones: desire and fear primarily, Freud’s old eros and thanatos. Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays is responsible for masterminding the triumph of personal psychology in the socio-political realm: we call it PR. You can see it at work every day in the mainstream media. The excellent documentary The Century of the Self is still the unparalleled description of this historical phenomenon. It also points out that when peoples’ collective experience contrasts too strongly with the projections of the PR machine, they can begin to see other forces at work beyond their own personal desires and fears. The Matrix definitely kept its bread buttered on both sides with ample projections of personal power (all that kickboxing). But it also projected a legitimate collective sense that we had all become raw material to be extracted by a system that hid its predatory nature from us through a totalizing illusion.
Dystopia is not an ideologically fixed form: the enormously popular (at least in the US) Christian fundamentalist Left Behind series fits the bill as well. In Ecology of Fear, eco-sociologist Mike Davis has a whole chapter devoted to looking at how dystopian visions can turn into simple revenge fantasies: a convenient way to eradicate a cultural enemy: effete liberals, the working class, the Chinese: all have been dystopian straw men in one work or another. But the resonance of the corporation as predator paradigm in this century, like the paradigm of Mutually Assured Destruction in the last, ripples across the political spectrum. Whatever catastrophe-du-jour is used to metaphorize it, the dystopian mythos is usually in some way about enormous imbalances of power and the small collectives that form to try to redress them.
Well, zeitgeist-wise, then, let’s take a look at this scenario for a dystopian sci-fi blockbuster: on a near-future earth, an endgame has begun. In the previous century the only potential counterforce to a rapacious world system designed to extract the planet’s wealth at any cost and place it in the hands of a tiny elite has utterly failed. A new century begins with a spectacular series of terrorist attacks by a reactionary organization that was wholly created by the oligarchic empire it purports to destroy: blowback. But it’s a final rearguard action against the system by a group that offers no plausible alternative to it, only a hate-filled return to an hallucinated past.
While a declining but still powerful mega-state wastes its substance on an endless series of wars against this self-inflicted and misidentified foe, the processes of accelerated wealth extraction set in motion decades before continue to unfold, at an ever faster pace. But predictably, and yet somehow unexpectedly, these processes begin to slip out of the control even of those who had recently obtained the most apparently unlimited power because of them. Like a brakeless semi on a 7% grade, or maybe more like that subway train in The Taking of Pelham, 1-2-3, the overheated system roars toward a seemingly inevitable, and final, crash. Bits and pieces of its machinery begin to fail, more and more passengers are thrown under the wheels, even ones who’d been sitting comfortably just moments before. Panic and despair begin to spread.
Okay, it seems a thriller plot has hijacked our science fiction film (elevator pitch: It’s Speed meets Gattaca!). So let’s go with the thriller for now. The twist is that it’s not a lunatic terrorist at the helm of the runaway train, it’s the owners of the train itself. The speed-maddened owners and their drivers, even though they’ve now all become merely front seat passengers, are themselves the ones who sabotage all efforts by other passengers to slow or change the vehicle’s course. It’s actually dawning on them that a train-wreck is becoming inevitable (since they are helping make it so), but they have an endgame strategy: grab everything that’s left inside of any value and use it to position themselves not merely to survive the wreck but to come out of it with their power and possessions intact. (Technical advice for this portion of the script will be credited to investment counselors at the Wall Street Journal.)
This is a fantasy that even the oligarchs themselves don’t entirely believe—they know at least some of the currently well-positioned will be sacrificed too, along with the great masses of powerless and thus expendable humanity, if there’s a system-wide smash. But they are gamblers, and their gambling ability has utterly rewarded them up to this point (although admittedly they’d always gambled only with other peoples’ lives and money before).
So they press on, using the panic they’ve created as a successful distraction, setting passengers against one another as each blames the others for their predicament, while the owners systematically loot the remaining supplies: food, water, metals, energy. (Technical advice for this section can be credited to Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.)
One has to ask here: once it reaches this endgame stage, what kind of resistance force could possibly succeed against the sheer mad logic of such a system, a runaway train whose drivers were the ones who destroyed the brakes? It would seem none. There would be skirmishes breaking out here and there—heroic last stands in one railway car or another, but on a system-wide scale, it’s TINA-time: There Is No Alternative. Was this what you meant, Margaret Thatcher?
Alright then, back to our science fiction scenario: in the chaos of permanent war, financial crisis and mass impoverishment that this unfettered system has unleashed, the distracted populace at first pays only momentary attention to a new series of devastating, random strikes taking place around the world. A tidal wave kills hundreds of thousands of people in a single day. A giant storm depopulates a major city, exposing a criminally deficient infrastructure. A series of earthquakes kill tens of thousands and reveals that corrupt governments and developers have colluded to construct shoddy buildings that result in disproportionately large numbers of children, the old and infirm being killed. One single quake reduces an entire nation to a refugee camp. Massive floods displace hundreds of thousands around the world. A volcano erupts, and a wealthy continent’s commerce is disrupted for weeks.
Then, a master-stroke: a negligently maintained oil well explodes deep under water, and an entire sea is poisoned. Like the reactionary terrorists on their suicide missions, the agent of this strike is able to bear the consequences of self-inflicted damage without fear, without concern. And the strike is an unprecedented blow to the industry that powers the whole train.
The victims of all these events are not specifically targeted, and those who are killed or seriously injured are overwhelmingly the poor; i.e., not those most responsible for the system’s violence and suicidal tendencies. The disruptions largely affect civilian installations and personnel, not military ones. It is the very definition of terrorism, except for one thing: there is no human agent behind these acts, no will, no intent to terrorize. Because the perpetrator is the planet itself.
But it is blowback, because the scale of the destruction wrought is ultimately a result of humanity’s own heedless growth, stratification, and hubris towards the natural world. The planet is simply the only agent still powerful enough to weaken the totalizing system that humanity has failed to transform.
The planet is not a vigilante or a rebel army, it doesn’t seek anything like justice, vengeance, a new world order, any of that. It’s just doing what it does. This makes its destructiveness all the more terrifying. A slow awareness dawns, among almost everyone but the power-mad elites and a shrinking number of hangers-on: if humanity forces a final conflict between its own survival and the planet’s — the planet will win. The idea of a special destiny for man, whose survival, alone among species, had supposedly become dependent solely on his own skill and intellect, or was guaranteed because of his purported descendency from a supernatural being who conveniently looked just like him, is revealed to be, well, can you say “pathetic fallacy?”
But wait, it’s only a movie, right? And as thoughtful people are fond of saying, life isn’t like the movies. To which I respond: actually, that’s really only true of the endings.
And, of course, the ending of capitalism’s story, if that’s what this is, hasn’t been written yet. A typically thoughtful and erudite piece by John Michael Greer in his blog The Archdruid Report mentions the failure of imagination that results in many of those who view contemporary events critically (particularly in the Peak Oil crowd he belongs to) being unable to envision the future in other terms than “doomer porn” like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It’s catastrophists vs. cornucopians, those boosters who believe capitalism will pull a bright-green better mousetrap out of its hat right at the crucial last moment, and we’ll all be able to keep on driving to the multiplex (to watch Avatar II, III, IV…) for generations to come. And they’ll all get clean water in Africa, and solar-powered TVs in China, and electric trains in Latin America too.
Greer himself has another scenario, one I’ve heard increasingly among many of our Bay Area greens: it may be harsh, the post-abundance future, but in the formerly rich world, anyway, we’ll all get to know one another better, life will “re-localize,” people will be forced to collaborate to survive, a multiplicity of creative strategies for living will emerge amid the hardship and we will ultimately have fuller and better lives.
This is obviously appealing, and circumspectly non-utopian, but one has to remark that such abundance as there is, much of which is what the situationists called “pseudo-abundance” anyway, is extremely unevenly distributed. I live in a city where day-release prisoners sweep the streets in upscale neighborhoods so the residents don’t have to be wakened by those nasty loud trucks or move their Lexus every Monday. Where purebred Lhasa Apsos have better diets than children in public school. Where the impoverished and insane who dare to be visible are routinely demonized as “scum” on newspaper commentary pages. I just have this nagging doubt because I don’t see any limits to the lengths to which privileged people will go when their privilege is threatened, and inequity and privilege will not simply vanish when oil hits $200 a barrel, or whatever. Concentrations of power and power’s savvy ability to divide and conquer could still put a serious crimp in any efforts to obtain more real control over our own lives, just as they did even before capitalism’s shadow was cast over the quiet earth, or a single oil well was drilled. I’m just saying: if your analysis doesn’t include extreme inequality, and your proposed solution doesn’t address it (and a lot of alt-green thinking still does not), then you really are just fantasizing. Pitch it to Hollywood.
I don’t know how the movie comes out either, but I do know that the system that delivers food, water, energy and goods to us is radically unstable, and its instability increases every time more of those necessities are placed in fewer hands. I also know that while the systems of control we erect are perpetually tumbling, the human species is resilient. But that’s all I know right now. Has capitalism’s endgame really begun? Is there still a viable counterforce or a white (or green) rabbit, and I’ve just missed them? In either case, how will pushback from the planet alter the scenario?
I know I don’t see (or even want to see) John Wayne or Bruce Willis or Kevin Costner or Mel Gibson (!) on the horizon coming to redeem our gargantuan social and ecological failures with a well-placed kick to the groin. I do see a lot of good people, known and unknown, scrambling frantically on the wheel of social activism during the long day, trying to make a dollar out of the fifteen cents the system has left them to work with. But at night I just see all of us, activists, fellow travelers or baffled bystanders, sitting quietly, waiting in the dark. And wondering what’s going to happen next.
Maybe that’s okay. Right now, I trust the people who admit they don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t trust the people who say they do.