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 readingMeghnad 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.