To be clear, I am in no way using "fan fiction" as a derogatory label. I enjoy fanfic and have even written some - but the way fanfic works best is when it is in agreement with the fictional world it is set within. Both Westworld and Man In The High Castel are based within fictions - the fictions of the "supermanager" and "master race" - fictions that buttress, rather than undermine oligarchs and racists. I am not arguing that the makers of Westworld necessarily believe in, or in any way support oligarchy over democracy, or that anyone the production of Man In The High Castle are white supremacists or antisemites. But as actual American Nazis-wannabes Sieg Heil President-Elect Donald Trump, and as we look forward to an ever growing divide between the super rich and everyone else, the fictions these programs embrace over-write real facts - facts unfriendly to the worst - and do so at a time when we all need to be at our most critical.
“Quite reasonably" Saadia writes, "Star Trek predicts that once poverty is overcome, whatever the means or the process, most of the behaviors and pathologies that usually follow in its wake will disappear. Hunger, crime, war and most forms of social turmoil will be disposed of. Having grown up in a world where material want is unknown, a thing of the past, Federation citizens can be productive, satiated and unconcerned by death, at peace with themselves and with the universe. No wonder they cruise around the galaxy like Bodhisattvas.”
A world without even a hint of poverty or economic scarcity literally changes its inhabitants' brains. When watching Star Trek, one easily forgets what poverty truly is and the kind of toll it takes. For poverty does not only consist in economic hardship. It is not just a matter of money or accounting. The debilitating effects of financial distress go well beyond limited spending power. Poverty breeds uncertainty and anxiety. It occupies your every waking thoughts and it even sneaks into your dreams. It ties you down and prevents you from planning for the future, because you must worry first and foremost about meeting your immediate needs and those of your family. You might not make the rent, or you might have to choose between the rent and skipping several meals. You are constantly faced with bad choices, it is exhausting, it is scary, it is backbreaking. Poverty creeps into all aspects of your existence, from parenting, education and opportunity to social relations, the incidence of chronic disease, violence, life expectancy and even, love. It has been shown that the many stresses associated with poverty have a direct and measurable physiological impact on children's brain development. They also tend to rob people of their capacity to make rational economic decisions. In places where poverty is prevalent it reproduces itself and gets passed on from one generation to the next. Getting into poverty is considerably easier than getting out of it.I would add only a clarification, that the citizens of the Federation do not owe their alien Bodhisattva-like natures to being rich, they owe it to the total absence of poverty - the two are entirely different. That isn't fanfic, that is supported by reality, by statistical facts.
Notwithstanding the extravagance of some of their characters, these nineteenth-century novelists describe a world in which inequality was to a certain extent necessary: if there had not been a sufficiently wealthy minority, no one would have been able to worry about anything other than survival. This view of inequality deserves credit for not describing itself as meritocratic, if nothing else. In a sense, a minority was chosen to live on behalf of everyone else, but no one tried to pretend that this minority was more meritorious or virtuous than the rest. In this world, it was perfectly obvious, moreover, that without a fortune it was impossible to live a dignified life.The fantasy of the West is the fantasy of "making one's fortune", "the self-made man", of escape from "a patrimonial society characterized by a hyperconcentration of capital, in which inheritance and marriage played a key role and inheriting or marrying a large fortune could procure a level of comfort not obtainable through work or study." This is exactly the world we see shadows of in Westworld: William is a perfect Balzacian or Austenian striver. He is visiting the park with his future brother-in-law, Logan. William works, and is poor, Logan owns, and is rich.
This is an amazing idea: if you are a rich person in a country with a low gini coefficient, like Japan, you and your family are more likely to live a longer, be healthier, and less likely to suffer from mental illness, violence, or obesity. While if you are a rich person from a country with a high gini coefficient, like the USA, the opposite is true. Depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, and narcissism are all higher in unequal societies. Illegal drug use, death from alcohol abuse, and Pickett points to the UK's "epidemic of self-harm in young people" - grim - but not inevitable. As she explains:
Almost all countries in the Western world have seen big rises in income inequality over the past few decades… Those rises aren't due to some natural phenomena, they’re a result of political choices; they’re a result of the grip that Neoliberal economics took hold as a model for how we construct our economies - how we do capitalism. And the thing is, is that the people who put that model together, they didn’t know about the links between income inequality and health and social problems. They thought a rising tide would lift all boats, and that actually the economic model that they were proposing was going to lead to increased prosperity for for all. They were wrong, but they did it from a position of ignorance, the data were not available then. We are in a different place. We know. We know that their model didn’t work, and we know know that inequality has a causal effect on health and social problems. We can see it being lived out in the bodies and minds and feeling of our young people every single day.
The myth of meritocracy over-writes the reality, that of the Rentier - an increasingly permanent class of inherited wealth, whose capital "rent" earns more money than any form of human labor possibly can possibly hope to match - so even supermanagers like William will need to marry into wealth. It is the reality that the myth of the frontier offered an escape from in the 19th century, but in Westworld, is inescapable.
The first time I can remember this fictional image of the Nazis questioned, was as a high schooler, in an afterward by the scifi author David Brin, for his novella, Thor Meets Captain America. I've been thinking of David's words a lot in the past few weeks, it's worth repeating in full:
The parallel-world story is another mainstay of SF. It explores the old question: What would have happened if…? If a fly buzzing above a bowl of soup had dipped too low, getting caught, disgusting a Roman centurion, who took his wrath out on an underling, sending him out on an extra patrol, which detected Hannibal's army in the Alps early enough to catch it far from Rome… You see the point. Sometimes we like to frighten ourselves. The most frequent what if seems to deal with alternate realities in which the Nazis won World War II. Something about that loathsome possibility just invites a horror story. Trouble is, I never could believe it. Mind you, Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle is a classic, a great work. But its premise—that an early assassination of Franklin Roosevelt would have led to an inevitable Axis victory—is hard to swallow. They were just such schmucks! I mean, it's hard to think of any way a single altered event would have let the Nazis win their war. They would have needed an entire chain of flukes even to have a chance. In fact, it took quite a few lucky breaks for them to last as long as they did, and to have the time to commit such atrocities.
National Socialism strove for a transcendental state of being as well; the Nazi world of illusions into which the Germans were to be enticed often used techniques of intoxication. World-historical decisions, according to Hitler's inflammatory text Mien Kamf, had to be brought about in states of euphoric enthusiasm or hysteria. So the Nazi Party distinguished itself on the one hand with populist arguments and on the other with torch parades, flag consecrations, rapturous announcements an public speeches aimed at achieving a state of collective ecstasy... The idea was to replace politics with a state of social intoxication.Ohler argues that the social euphoria didn't last however, it was quickly replace by stronger stuff - branded "Pervitin" - aka methyl-amphetamine; the Nazis were meth-heads. While Nazis sold themselves as purists, outlawed "seductive poisons" and even executed drug addicts, they were encouraging secretaries and shop clerks to take Pervitin as a "confidence booster and performance enhancer", and were even selling house wives chocolates laced with the stuff.
Well, [German historian of the Third Reich Hans] Mommsen always told me not to be mono-causal. But the invasion of France was made possible by the drugs. No drugs, no invasion. When Hitler heard about the plan to invade through Ardennes, he loved it [the allies were massed in northern Belgium]. But the high command said: it’s not possible, at night we have to rest, and they [the allies] will retreat and we will be stuck in the mountains. But then the stimulant decree was released, and that enabled them to stay awake for three days and three nights. Rommel [who then led one of the panzer divisions] and all those tank commanders were high – and without the tanks, they certainly wouldn’t have won.Like Westworld, Man In The High Castel treats Nazis myth as its text, giving the Nationalist Socialists a future they could never have achieved. Of all the perverse images in Westworld of sadism, and Man in the High Tower of a Nazi dominated America (practically the shows' raison d'etre), it was the image of an elderly Hitler dying peacefully in bed that I found the most hideous, most unforgivable, and most profoundly unbelievable. It was the myth I can't find it in myself to forgive.
No matter how ugly our political moment, Kate Pickett makes a point that is worth holding onto: The levels of inequality we are at now are already unsustainable, and that the reason to fight inequality is public health and public good, but Thomas Piketty is right too, closing the gap between the rich and the poor is also a matter of civic survival - the growing gap demonstrably endangers our democracy, it is poisoning our shared civic life. America's crony capitalism and drug fueled nationalist euphoria will implode just like the Nazis did, and for the same reason. The Thousand Year Reich imploded inside of a decade, not because of American courage, but because the entire Nazi project was hair brained, the dream of meth-head resentment.