Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Is Optimism Dead?

‘Make It So’: ‘Star Trek’ and Its Debt to Revolutionary Socialism

H. G. Wells’s foundational work of political science fiction, “The Time Machine,” predicted a future in which a small utopia of sprightly elites is kept running by a subclass that lives below the ground and is reduced to bestial violence. This prediction, carried to a horrifically logical extent, represented the intense wealth disparity of the Victorian England in which Wells wrote the novel. Judging from the major political narratives of the fictions of our era, films like “The Hunger Games,” “Elysium” and “Snowpiercer,” the certainty of a future rendered increasingly barbarous by class division remains essentially the same.

But this was not always the case. In 1920, Wells met Vladimir Lenin, a fellow world-building visionary who planned “the inauguration of an age of limitless experiment” to rebuild and industrialize his country from ruination by years of war, abolishing class society in the process. Wells was impressed by the pragmatic revolutionary and his planned “utopia of electricians.”

If Wells had been less skeptical of Communism and joined the party, he wouldn’t have been the first sci-fi or futurist thinker to do so. Alexander Bogdanov, an early political rival of Lenin’s, wrote “Red Star,” a utopian novel about a Communist colony on Mars where everything was held in common and life spans were greatly extended through the use of parabiosis, the mutual sharing of blood. Along with Anatoly Lunacharsky and Maxim Gorky, Bogdanov proposed a program of “God Building,” which would replace the rituals and myths of the Orthodox Church through creation of an atheistic religion.

For his part, Gorky was a fan of the Cosmism of Nikolai Fyodorov and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a scientific and mystical philosophy proposing space exploration and human immortality. When Lenin died four years after meeting with Wells, the futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky’s line “Lenin Lived, Lenin Lives, Lenin Will Live Forever!” became not only a state slogan, but also a scientific goal. These Biocosmist-Immortalists, as they were known, believed that socialist scientists, freed from the constraints of the capitalist profit motive, would discover how to abolish death and bring back their comrades. Lenin’s corpse remains preserved for the occasion.

Bogdanov died in the course of his blood-sharing experiments, and other futurist dreams were sidelined by the industrial and militarist priorities that led up to World War II. In the postwar period, however, scientists inspired by Cosmism launched Sputnik. The satellite’s faint blinking in the night sky signaled an era of immense human potential to escape all limitations natural and political, with the equal probability of destroying everything in a matter of hours.

Feeding on this tension, science fiction and futurism entered their “golden age” by the 1950s and ’60s, both predicting the bright future that would replace the Cold War. Technological advances would automate society; the necessity of work would fade away. Industrial wealth would be distributed as a universal basic income, and an age of leisure and vitality would follow. Humans would continue to voyage into space, creating off-Earth colonies and perhaps making new, extraterrestrial friends in the process. In a rare 1966 collaboration across the Iron Curtain, the astronomer Carl Sagan co-wrote “Intelligent Life in the Universe” with Iosif Shklovosky. This work of astrobiological optimism proposed that humans attempt to contact their galactic neighbors.

Interest in alien life was not just the domain of scientists and fiction writers. U.F.O. flaps worldwide captured pop cultural attention, and many believed that flying saucers were here to warn us, or even save us, from the danger of nuclear weapons. In the midst of the worldwide worker and student uprisings in 1968, the Argentine Trotskyist leader known as J. Posadas wrote an essay proposing solidarity between the working class and the alien visitors. He argued that their technological advancement indicated they would be socialists and could deliver us the technology to free Earth from the grip of Yankee imperialism and the bureaucratic workers’ states.

Such views were less fringe and more influential than you might think. Beginning in 1966, the plot of “Star Trek” closely followed Posadas’s propositions. After a nuclear third world war (which Posadas also believed would lead to socialist revolution), Vulcan aliens visit Earth, welcoming them into a galactic federation and delivering replicator technology that would abolish scarcity. Humans soon unify as a species, formally abolishing money and all hierarchies of race, gender and class.

“A lot has changed in the past 300 years,” Captain Picard explains to a cryogenically unfrozen businessman from the 20th century in an episode of a later “Star Trek” franchise, “The Next Generation.” “People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We’ve eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy.”

For all its continued popularity, such optimism was unusual in the genre. The new wave of sci-fi in the late ’60s, typified by J. G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick in the United States and by the Strugatsky brothers and Stanislaw Lem in the East, presented narratives that undercut this theme of humans’ saving themselves through their own rationality.

The grand proposals of the ’60s futurists also faded away, as the Fordist period of postwar economic growth abruptly about-faced. Instead of automation and guaranteed income, workers got austerity and deregulation. The Marxist theorist Franco Berardi described this period as one in which an inherent optimism for the future, implied by socialism and progressivism, faded into the “no future” nihilism of neoliberalism and Thatcherite economics, which insisted that “there is no alternative.”

The fall of the Soviet Union cemented this “end of history,” in Francis Fukuyama’s phrase, and signaled a return to late-capitalist dystopian narratives of the future, like that of “The Time Machine.” Two of the most popular sci-fi films of the ’90s were “Terminator 2” and “The Matrix,” which both showcased a world in which capital had triumphed and its machinery would not liberate mankind, but govern it. The recent success of “The Road,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Walking Dead” similarly predict violent futures where only small underground resistance movements struggle to keep the dying flame of humanity alight.

Released the same year as “Star Trek: First Contact” — and grossing three times as much — “Independence Day” told a story directly opposed to Posadism, in which those who gather to greet the aliens and protest military engagement with them are the first to be incinerated by the extraterrestrials’ directed-energy weapons. (In Wells’s 1897 vision of alien invasion, “The War of the Worlds,” the white flag-waving welcoming party of humans is similarly dispatched.)

The grotesque work of 1970s white supremacist speculative fiction, “The Camp of the Saints” by Jean Raspail — recently referenced by the White House strategist Steve Bannon — has a similar story line. A fleet of refugee ships appears off the coast of France, asking for safe harbor, but it soon becomes apparent that the ship is a Trojan horse. Its admission triggers an invasion of Europe and the United States.

The recent rise of right-wing populism indicates a widening crack in the neoliberal consensus of ideological centrism. From this breach, past visions of the future are once again pouring out. Peter Thiel, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg feel empowered to propose science fiction premises, like space colonization and post-scarcity economics, as solutions to actual social problems. Absent, however, are the mass social movements of the 20th century calling for the democratization of social wealth and politics. While rapid changes in the social order that are the dream of Silicon Valley’s disruptors are acquiring an aura of inevitability, a world absent of intense poverty and bigoted hostility feels unimaginable.

Shortly after World War II, Wells became so convinced of humanity’s doom, without a world revolution, that he revised the last chapter of “A Short History of the World” to include the extinction of mankind. Today we are left with a similar fatalism, allowing the eliminiationist suggestions of the far right to argue, in effect, for a walling-off of the world along lines of class, nationality and race, even if this might condemn millions to death.

If humanity in the 21st century is to be rescued from its tailspin descent into the abyss, we must recall the choice offered by the alien visitor from the 1951 sci-fi film classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”
“Join us and live in peace,” Klaatu said, “or pursue your present course and face obliteration.”

I think of it as science fiction’s useful paraphrasing of Rosa Luxemburg’s revolutionary ultimatum: “socialism or barbarism.”


A. M. Gittlitz is a writer from Brooklyn who specializes in counterculture and radical politics.

No comments: