Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Marxism Reinvented

Marx, Engels, Tele-Spargel
Marx, Engels, Tele-Spargel, Berlin, 2010

As a kid and through my teens, I read a great deal of science fiction. I started with the classics and worked my way forward from there – Isaac Asimov, A.E. Van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, Cyril Kornbluth, Stanislaw Lem, and so on and so forth. Just about when I finished with the good stuff up to the 1960's and early 1970's, the cyberpunk movement hit, and I got a whole bunch of exciting new stuff to read. William Gibson's early work is still very high on my list of favorites.

Then I ran out of interesting sci-fi to read, for a quite a long time, it seemed.

Until a few years ago, that is. A friend of mine handed me a book by one Iain M. Banks, and I quite liked it – space opera with a twist. Then I discovered Ken MacLeod, Hal Duncan, and China Miéville. Suddenly a genre that always seems to regress into cliché felt new and fresh and exciting again.

Each of these writers has a strong, unique voice. They have major differences of opinion and world-view; for example, Iain M. Banks is a utopian transhumanist, while Ken MacLeod is a dystopian genuinely scared of what's going to happen if/when we manage to build a self-aware computer.

There are some things they have in common, though. For example, they're unapologetic, blood-red Marxists, mostly of the Trotskyite persuasion.

Yet they're of an age where the collapse of really existing socialism must have had a profound effect on their political views. Ken MacLeod is the only one who uses classic Communist imagery in his fiction, and he uses it with a heavy dose of irony – for example, by having Moh Kohn, the protagonist of The Star Fraction lead a group of mercenaries called the Felix Dzerzhinsky Workers' Defense Collective, which contracts out to insurance companies for wet work.1

Karl Marx was no dummy. Many of his insights have become so deeply embedded into our worldview – even that of people adamantly opposed to his political program – that it's hard to appreciate how radical they were when he lived. He himself fell out of fashion with the collapse of the countries that attempted to make his program a reality, with such disastrous results. Now, he's on his way back.

The global financial crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession that followed have done a great deal to rehabilitate his ideas. Suddenly, we notice that whoa, dude, the poor stay poor and the rich get rich, and this does lead to all kinds of social and political problems. Some are even starting to notice that despite the trappings of representational democracy, the poor are kept safely corralled in and serving the system by being fed a steady diet of identity, dividing black from white, Muslim from Christian, Democrat from Republican, American/European/French/Finn from Mexican/Arab/Roma/Somali, just as effectively as the "opiate of the masses" and the drug of nationalism did a hundred-odd years ago, and that even the elites are prisoners of the system – Barack Obama failing to reform the creaky American polity and curb the power of Wall Street, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett pledging to donate the great majority of their obscene amount of wealth to charity, and so on. "Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains" is starting to sound eerily apposite again.

I will be very interested to see where this reinvention of Marxism will lead. It's clear that Ken MacLeod and China Miéville at least are painfully aware of how it went wrong last time, and are determined to make a whole new set of mistakes. To paraphrase MacLeod, the point isn't to go back to anything, it's to go forward, to make something better, freer, happier than consumerist capitalism, not the grim, gray enforced uniformity of Really Existing Socialism. It's also clear that MacLeod's free-market nuclear deterrence (courtesy of Kazakhstan) ain't it. Even his closest attempt at sketching a Communist utopia, in The Cassini Division, has a pretty strong undertone of "this ain't it either." His Ellen May Ngwethu is no paragon, and although her Communist world isn't exactly awful, it's not exactly something most of his readership would immediately want to trade up to (although most of the world's population certainly would!)

What, exactly, it is, I don't know. I don't think they do, either, which is what makes the explorations of Miéville and MacLeod so exciting. Their utopias are strikingly gritty and un-utopian, although I don't think they'd quite qualify as dystopias either, since (as William Gibson said of his Sprawl) most of the planet's population would probably be delighted to immigrate into them. As for Iain M. Banks, I'd absolutely love to go live in the Culture; the trouble is that he only managed to imagine it up by dropping a few pesky constraints we have to deal with, such as scarce resources and the annoying inability to make anything simply by wishing for it.

Marx's dissection of the dynamics of 19th century capitalism is highly applicable to the ills of 21st century electronic, real-time, globalized capitalism. The nation-state that moderated capitalism for about half of the 20th century is now gone, beyond recovery, although its ghost still haunts us, and will for generations to come. We still don't have a good idea of where to go from here. Soviet Communism died with the nation-state. Neoliberalism died in the crash of 2008. Nobody has yet formulated a new consensus about what kind of world we want to live in now. Whatever it is, Karl Marx will have something to say about it.

Recommended reading

Meghnad Desai: Marx's Revenge: The Resurgence of Capitalism and the Death of Statist Socialism
Parag Khanna: The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order
Ken MacLeod: The Star Fraction
China Miéville: Perdido Street Station
Hal Duncan: Vellum
Iain M. Banks: The Player of Games


1Felix Dzerzhinsky was the founder of the CheKa, the predecessor to the KGB that made the Gestapo look like a bunch of amateurs.


  1. I too would like to live in Banks' Culture universe. Have you read Matter yet? Really good one.
    China Miéville as well is incredibly imaginative.
    It is interesting how politics informs the worlds of the sci-fi writer.
    I began to notice that after reading Heinlein's Starship Troopers many years ago.
    One of many good things about fiction is that scenarios can play out in ways that the "real" world doesn't allowed. Experiments in world building as it were without the consequences.
    Makes me wish politicians had a little more imagination.

  2. Matter was okay, I thought, but not as good as The Use of Weapons, Inversions, or The Player of Games IMO.

    What irritates me about Banks is that his aliens are basically just Brits with funny hats on, and while interesting in a thought-experiment kind of way, I can't help thinking that completely dropping the material constraint when imagining a society is cheating. MacLeod and Miéville tackle those tough questions head-on, while permitting themselves pretty wild flights of fantasy.

  3. I liked Matter(& the Algebraist) a lot--haven't yet read the others. Perhaps Banks skimped the material limitations to emphasize that even having everything laid at your feet automagically doesn't make for a perfect universe or eliminate the problems between & within beings. The brits with hats observation is definitely spot on regardless--with maybe a few wogs thrown in.

    Looks like some excellent stuff on the reading list to pour over. Also enjoyed the examination of Marxism, of course-very interesting if things should get remade in an update of that mold--though the flow seems more to be going toward an incredibly diverse and powerful raging plutocracy over here, atm; but perhaps that kind of river inexorably leads to a burst levee of revolution--whatever is old is made new again, world without end, so they say.

  4. Ooh, you're in for several treats. Don't get me wrong, I really, really like Iain M. Banks too, I just like MacLeod and Miéville even more. I can't wait to read Surface Detail when it comes out in October! And I think you have his motivation for dropping those limitations spot on.

    I have to say that the past two years of American history have been a bit of an eye-opener. As you remember, I really genuinely though that the combination of a smart, sharp, charismatic and (generally) right-thinking President and comfortable control of both houses of Congress would have led to meaningful reform of the polity.

    Turned out not quite so; just tinkering at the edges to get the old rusty contraption moving again, with the same structural contradictions building (almost as) fast as ever. You know, those pesky little details like the trade deficit, erosion of infrastructure, degradation of the educational system, growth of income differentials, and so on.

    The last time around, capitalism did reform itself—but only when faced with an imminent and real threat of social(ist) revolution. That's not on the horizon now, but if things continue as they do, I can't see how it can stay that way.

  5. In the U.S., it is next to impossible to have an intelligent appraisal of socialism. Even in the serious news media, we barely see a distinction between european social programs and authoritarian Communism -- it's all "socialism" and this word ends the conversation. We have such a flat, stupid discourse. (And few here believe that neoliberalism is dead -- it's the zombie religion here, it refuses to die no matter how much suffering it causes.)

    The best known American intellectual who explicitly called for a democratic socialism was Howard Zinn, who recently passed away. With his passing, more people may take an interest in John Bellamy Foster, a sociologist who writes extensively on ecology from a Marxist perspective.

  6. Well, it's pining for the fjords.

    I admit that I may be getting ahead of things a bit. There may even be a hint of wishful thinking there.

    But, I was making a point nevertheless. There's a point when an idea or an ideology loses vitality; it stops being proactive and starts being reactive. Instead of new ways of attacking problems (for good or ill), it starts recycling old ways that may have worked in different circumstances (or never did at all). This happened to statist Socialism, it happened to the redistributive welfare state, and now I believe it happened to neoliberalism.

    The problem is that no coherent challenge to it has yet emerged. The people who would like to go back to the post-war redistributive state are kinda "Oh, so that's it then," but even they recognize that there's no way to turn back the clock. Yet there's no consensus about where we want to go. We recognize that there are some immense problems, but we're attacking them in an ad-hoc, piecemeal way.

    These are interesting times, and a new social order is emerging all the time. We bloggers are a part of forging it. When before was it possible to have a conversation about politics across three continents in near real-time? (Assuming NellaLou is in India.)

  7. I do agree that bloggers and just people with tech are instrumental in whatever intellectual & political movements come next, if only because they're so hard to control. In fact, as the amazing internet reporting of the recent Iran elections showed, they're one of the most hopeful signs that things are capable of change.

    AFA neoliberalism, reaganism,etc in the U.S, I think it's indeed at the stage of sewing decayed limbs onto a disambiguated corpse in many ways--but unfortunately it seems to be in the process of creating not just a bunch of useless,scary activity but a frankenstein's monster of a political movement which seems quite likely to run amok for a significant time before we can find anyone to bring out the torches and pitchforks. The present argument seems to boil down to who is the greater enemy of a media-programmed people, the government or big business, and big business is winning by adroitly diverting all the economic fear and unrest into the lap of Washington. They have the money and the power to buy whole news networks, run unlimited fearmongering ads, and now after the recent SCOTUS ruling, buy their own political candidates.It's only the internet that so far stands apart, because it doesn't take either money or power to sit at a keyboard and tell the truth.

    Of course, it's possible it all appears worse or more significant than it is due to that hope you mentioned (and we shared) that things had changed in 09 and people had come to their senses, but really, to continue lavishly mixing metaphors, taking the temperature of the body politic here atm indicates a major bad fever in the ward, up to and including delirium & hallucinations. I don't know at this point which patients are going to die of it, but I think some will.

    The only good thing I'm able to take from that is that an awful lot needs to die, or at least drastically change, and hopefully it will be the right stuff. And you're right, socially and historically,the next thirty years should be one of the most interesting in modern history--for those who are lucky or unlucky enough to "live in interesting times." I intend to cling stubbornly to a withered old age just to see how it all comes out. ;-)

  8. Ideas are tenacious. American discourse has managed to very thoroughly discredit even the concepts related to Communism, not just statist Communism itself.

    Take class consciousness, for example. I can't see how there can be substantive changes to the American body politic without a revival of class consciousness. As NellaLou wrote in her magnificent post the other day, the white underclass (and much of the white declining middle class) has been extremely successfully hoodwinked to support an elite with which it has no common interests whatsoever. Until it realizes that it has far more common interests with, say, Mexican illegal immigrants, poor inner-city blacks, and Native Americans than the Wall Street elite, the corpse of Reagan will continue to shamble along, sucking on their BRRRAAAIINNNSSS.

    Of course, if nothing is done, then the internal contradictions in the US polity will just continue building, and it'll end up in a second-world kind of situation – islands of modernity and prosperity in a sea of poverty, ignorance, and lack of basic amenities. That can only remain stable through coercion. (Hey, I think I've talked about this before. Haven't I?)

    Perhaps some relabeling is in order. Hey, righties do it, so why not lefties?

  9. Thanks for the reminder to check out Nella Lou's blog. I'd missed that post, and it's an excellent one.

    AFA Zombie Economics, the latest poll shows the fickle American public now somehow trusts the republicans more than the democrats to handle the economy.(/facepalm) I think it's time to recognize that our diminishing level of real education and rising mass media exposure has caused an inability to reason, or even remember, to flourish and allowed people to let others think for them on all levels. And that does, I think, lead us down the path away from progress and into the lower echelons of power and prosperity. I'm thinking while it may be bad for us it could go either way for everyone else, depending of course on what comes along to fill the vacuum. It's looking to me like your reinvention of Marxism may be a very viable movement once that happens. But it does need a whole new vocabulary, as well as the clearing away of a lot of delusions that are clouding the collective mind here atm.

  10. It's partly that, perhaps. Partly it's that you don't have any options. The Dems are clearly more competent than the Reps, and some of them certainly have their heart in the right place—but when you look at policy and how it impacts the little guy, it makes precious little difference who's in charge. Sadly, the one area where the administration does make an immediate and visible difference is foreign policy, but from the American POV that's of instrumental importance only. You used to reinvent yourself every fifty years or so. WTH happened?

  11. I think we're still in the process. At least I hope so. This current tussle between pure reactionary knee-jerk ultra-conservatism and progress, science and reason represent I hope the birth pangs of something better. And to introduce a more global factor, imo, Europe and the influence/success of the EU is actually part of where I pin my hopes--if you over there can pull out of the recession and lead a recovery, it proves that democratic socialism is not a failed economic model. I don't know if you can--as you know, economics is far from my strong suit, but I think whoever comes out of this first and thrives will be a huge force in the next century, and governments everywhere will be emulating the methods used to do so.

    And it's not all bad. I think the upside of all the current crazy fear-mongering and hate in the US, is that in its very divisiveness it performs a necessary function, airing things out and clarifying them. People really will have to take sides and decide whether they want to go forward or cling to a past that never really existed. We've always chosen to go forward--and as you say, is there actually any other option? I try to remain hopeful that this fever dream is just that, a hallucinatory sickness induced by a moribund economy, and people will return to reality-based life once the current battle has been fought to the very bitter end.

    If Sarah Palin is our next president, however, even I will formally give up hope. ;-)