Friday, October 21, 2011

Star Trek: A Future Abandon to Clowns & Rubes

Trekky; Trotsky

When I was in my early 20s all my friends were returning from trips to Europe telling stories about what rubes American tourist were and how universally Europeans hated them. The strategy everyone I knew seemed to have adopted, and I was instructed to use if and when I ever 'crossed the pond', was to pretend to be Canadian. I remember thinking that if all the cool, well-mannered Americans posed as Canadians, and only rubes and clowns admitted to being Americans, then who could blame Europeans for thinking Canadians were awesome and Americans crass? "Up to a decade or two ago," wrote Slavoj Žižek in his 1994 book, Mapping Ideology, "everybody was busy imagining different forms of the social organization of production and commerce (Fascism or Communism as alternatives to liberal capitalism); today" he then-continued, "as Fredrick Jameson perspicaciously remarked, nobody seriously considers possible alternatives to capitalism any longer." If only rubes and clowns admit to wanting a better world, dystopias will be the only futures serious people will know how to think about.

More recently Žižek addressed the protestors occupying Zucatti Park. "In mid-April 2011, the Chinese government prohibited on TV, films, and novels all stories that contain alternate reality or time travel. This is a good sign for China." Žižek told the crowd. "These people still dream about alternatives, so you have to prohibit this dreaming. Here, we don’t need a prohibition because the ruling system has even oppressed our capacity to dream. Look at the movies that we see all the time. It’s easy to imagine the end of the world. An asteroid destroying all life and so on. But you cannot imagine the end of capitalism." Žižek argues that we need "red ink: the language to articulate our non-freedom." But he makes the same mistake as those he is criticizing - Žižek imagines capitalism must end. That a blank page topped with fresh rubric will make room for the new script - but that is just another disaster movie. Non-freedom is something that has to be over-written, not with a yet another brand of freedom, but with a new brand of moral accountability. For that to happen serious people have to admit that no one has "oppressed their capacity to dream" besides themselves. It is long past due that the serious people abandon dystopia and austerity.
Zombie Futurism; Zombie Capitalism

There are two very different brands of serious people who no longer consider possible alternatives to capitalism. There are those like Žižek on the Left, who reside almost exclusively within academia or on its fringes, that for decades have seriously considered only dystopias as the only future - there are no positive alternatives. One wonders how many theses have been written on the The Matrix? How often have Children of Men and The Road been cited? Blade Runner invoked? Alien pointed to? and RoboCop lectured on? One does not wonder why the young Occupier protestors prefer crude cardboard placards. They imagine themselves to be destroyers like V For Vendetta's Guy Fawkes; occupying a ruin like half scalped hero of 28 Days Later; and as survivors like Mad Max. They are, like their academic mentors, are collapsitarians. 

In America serious people outside accademia no longer identify themselves as Leftists; it is a disqualifier from serious public discourse. Leftists are unelectable here. There are no Marxist judges. Serious commentators on national media dismiss Leftists as leeches, nostalgic, naive, as rubes and as clowns. In the absence of an alternative to capitalism there are only liberals and conservatives. Canny progressives describe themselves as centrists, independents and even libertarians. Our public life is dominated by two camps of very serious collapsitarians: conservatives who warn against looming dept and demand austerity, and liberals point to Global Warming and demand austerity; believers in what Kevin Kelly calls the "Long Doom."
Trekkie badge of honor; Occupiers' badge of honor

In his 'Red Ink' address, Žižek repeatedly warned the #OWS protestors not to fall in love with themselves - but that is not the danger - they are after all, very serious people. The real threat is self-hatred. That they will join other serious people imagining the end of capitalism is the end of consumerism, and they will dismiss those who dream of a better world as clowns. The problem is a better world looks exactly like consumerism - a future no serious person is ever going to endorse.

"In China today, we have Capitalism which is even more dynamic than your American Capitalism, but doesn’t need democracy." Žižek told the crowd. "The marriage between democracy and Capitalism is over. The change is possible." What kind of change is Consumerism? It began as a dream over-writing capitalism - Star Trek is a consumerist future as divorced from capitalism as capitalism is now divorced from democracy - I understand that it sounds clownish to say, but Star Trek is the red ink Žižek is looking for. 
Guy Fawkes; Blue Geeks

Not all divorces between democracy and Capitalism are equal. The difference between China and the "efficient, ruthless" Capitalism of the other post-Communists authoritarians Žižek invokes. The difference is one of dreams. In his book, The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama argues that the Chinese created a modern unified state millennia before they developed in Europe or the Middle East. "In other respects, however, the Chinese political system was underdeveloped. It never generated a rule of law or mechanisms of political accountability." But he also observes, "One of dynastic China's great legacies, then, is high-quality authoritarian government." And indeed, the difference between the "dynamic" authoritarian modernizers that share Chinese cultural heritage (South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and China modern itself), and the predatory kleptocracies of the former Eastern Block are stark. According to Fukuyama:
In an influential article, the economist Mancur Olsen posited a simple model of political development. The world was initially ruled by 'roving bandits'... These bandits were purely predatory and sought to extract as Many resources from the population as possible... the king, who claimed legitimate title to rule, was simply a 'stationary bandit' with motives no different from the stationary bandits he he displaced... The only problem with Olsen's theory is it isn't correct. The rulers of agrarian societies often failed to tax their subjects at anything close to Olson's posited maximizing rate... Chinese monarchs, no less than rulers of other premodern societies, often exhibited what economist Herbert Simon labeled 'satisfacing' rather than maximizing behavior.
Celisa Edwards uses Trek to teach science; The People's Mic

"The problem is not corruption or greed. The problem," Žižek told the Occupiers, "is the system. It forces you to be corrupt." But Fukuyama points that modern systems of checks and balances don't protect us from predatory elites - and systems without those sorts of systematic checks, can and often are fair. Wealthy powerful elites will only obey laws and support institutions if they believe in them first. It turns out that the taxes levied by Chinese emperors - especially the Ming - fell far short of predatory levels Olsen predicted. This despite the fact that they held "draconian powers of taxation and confiscation" and were not bound by either rule of law or other checks and balances: "The political system didn't have any downward mechanism of political accountability - that is, there were no local elections or independent media." What mattered most is what they and those around them believed themselves - the stories that the dynastic Chinese, rich and poor, told themselves about wealth and power. 

Fukuyama writes that, "In the early twentieth century, it was common to deride the Confucian ideal of the gentleman scholar with long fingernails who refused to work at anything other than government service as an obstacle to modernization." But that that ideal was an important contributor to the "satisfacing" of dynastic Chinese elites. "What China did not have was the spirit of maximization that economists assume is a universal human trait." he writes. "Today people in the West tend to look down on political systems whose rulers profess concern for their people but but whose power is unchecked by procedural constrains like rule of law or elections. But moral accountability still has real meaning in the way that authoritarian societies are governed..." It is important to add that moral accountability has real meaning to the ways democracies are governed as well - look at what has happened to our's in the absence of all moral accountability. 
The Hand-Jive of Trekkie Approval and Occupy Wall Street Approval.

"The way we are taught to speak about freedom— war on terror and so on—falsifies freedom." warns Žižek, and puts his finger right on the enemy, but misnames it: "You can travel to the moon, you can become immortal by biogenetics, you can have sex with animals or whatever, but look at the field of society and economy. There, almost everything is considered impossible. You want to raise taxes by little bit for the rich. They tell you it’s impossible. We lose competitivity. You want more money for health care, they tell you, 'Impossible,' this means totalitarian state." That isn't totalitarianism. It is the narrative of dystopia and austerity. It is the denatured freedom of the Long Doom.

Free markets are only as good as the rules and dreams that regulate them. If those who believe in it most strongly and want it expressed most purely are taken at their word, as a form of "freedom" capitalism isn't much to crow about. It is not a freedom to consort with whomever you please. Without laws preventing discrimination based on political affiliation, American employers routinely discriminated against socialists. Nor is it the freedom to speak your mind (try that in the American work place now). In the name of pure market freedom, so-called libertarians would take away hard won guards against work place discrimination based on gender and race. So what kind of liberty won't let you marry who you want to marry (or even be married), affiliate with those you agree and believe in, speak your mind, or, if you have the misfortune of being born the wrong sex or color, to be who you want to be.
Trekkie Swag; #OWS Swag

I was twenty-five the first time I traveled to Europe. I am not a rube. By the time I landed in France for the first time I had hitch hike through most of the lower forty-eight. I was very comfortable identifying myself as an American even when that became dangerous. On the eve of the invasion of Iraq I attended a loft party in Paris wearing a Captain America t-shirt. I confused everyone at the party, especially those who knew me and knew I did not support George W. Bush and was against the invasion, which was my intention. "If the only Americans flying the flag are hawks," I told anyone who asked, "then no one will understand that Americans are against this war."

I am aware that the tact I've taken in my posts over the past month or two may seem frivolous; that to seriously consider what it was that was on offer in the Star Trek myth, but also to champion consumerism is clownish, even amongst clowns. But I have done so because I believe that art - no matter how seemingly frivolous - has power; that the stories we tell one another powerfully frames the ways we treat one another. The measure of how terribly our current dream of a free-market 'real' is working are not just that the maximalist strategies it has engendered on Wall Street. Only a mind poisoned by malignant dream would, in the aftermath of a global financial melt down claim: “Financial services are one of the last things we do in this country and do it well." CEO, Bankers, and money manager can easily justify any action as market driven. In their minds, and under law, they answer not to society, but to only to their stockholders. 
Raiders: Consumerist vs Corporate

Like a lot of others on both the Left and the Right, Žižek sees our environmental and fiscal problems as a "tragedy of the commons" - it is worth noting, however, that Fukuyama reports that that tragedy was manufactured by a predatory elite. It was a bad dream, not a bad system. The oposite of austerity is not an amoral gluttony, those are two aspects of the same bad dream. The dream of moral accountability that Star Trek projected is a real alternative to capitalism, even if it looks too good to be taken seriously.

As artists, the serious job of criticality is not the only role we have - just the most well respected by serious people. When the status quo is dystopia and austerity it is important that we have the courage to stand with the rubes and clowns who don't know any better and love too dearly. In that regard Gene Roddenberry was a great artist. 
Gene Roddenberry going boldly where no one has gone before; Fredric Jameson seriously dismissing the possibility.



    U mught unjoy..

  2. amazing blog post/s John P. the entire series was a very engaging read.

  3. Clap.


    Clap. . . clap ... clap clap clap clap clap clap.


  4. Future Shock Doc w/Orson Wells basud on Alvin Toffler.. U probubly ulready knuw but thought U mught unjoy..

  5. John,

    Amazing post - made my night. I've been pounding away at a series of posts called Visualizing the Future, doing one a night for 23 nights - i'm about halfway through. You can find the first one here

    Anyway, would love to connect online or in-person - I'm based in Princeton but in the city most days. Keep writing - I'm a big fan.


  6. An excellent piece that deserves better presentation--typos in every sentence or two! Clean it up so it can travel more widely and be taken seriously.

  7. Thanks Michael, I am trained as an artist, writing is something I took up very late and I am aware of my weaknesses. I do my best to catch typos and always fix the ones that are pointed out to me. I have a fantasy of crowd sourcing editing... it would be great if this blog could function almost lie a wiki - in the meantime, I muddle along.