SF speculations

Will Davies (ed) – Economic Science Fictions (Goldsmiths / MIT)

Sci-fi has always been a chrome, jet-powered ideas machine. Here sci-fi is the vehicle for political economists, sociologists and urban writers such as Owen Hatherley.

This book came out in 2018. Our ‘current economic reality is neither credible nor viable’ ran the slogan. In March 2020, that bites really hard.

Drawing on Ballard, editor Will Davies explains that ‘the so-called economy’ is a ’tissue of fictions’. He stresses that fiction does not mean falsehood, but that sci-fi and modernity are linked. Modernity emerges from a ‘reflexive’ engagement with industrial life in the nineteenth century; sci-fi then comes out of that as a fictional genre in relation to past, present and future.

Writing in the first wave of the coronavirus panic, I can add the science fictification of everyday life. Adam Tooze in the Guardian explains that the ‘relentless expansion’ of hypermodern economies in Asia and ‘the resulting mix of modern urban life with traditional food customs’ can create ‘viral incubators’. Where did many of us in the west see those scenes first? Bladerunner. But of course here is where we need to proceed with caution, and see that our fictions also contain judgements. Those judgements can have dire consequences.

Davies explains that ‘it is not just that all that is solid melts into air’, but that our ‘air is constantly materialising into solidity.’ He cites Ursula Le Guin, who asked science fiction writers to think that we live in capitalism – and that it seems inescapable – but so did the divine right of kings. Notably, Le Guin’s father was anthropologist Alfred Kroeber.

All of this runs two ways politically though, as Davies points out:

‘The literary fiction of Ayn Rand […] has very real consequences in the form of a libertarian Conservative clique that was inspired by it and now has access to the White House.’

Rand’s followers were called ‘the Collective’ but Rand preached the philosophy of selfishness. Sociology itself, Davies points out – citing Ruth Levitas – has always been a speculative, imaginative science. I will add to this the work of C. Wright Mills. The time for creative speculation is now. Even before coronavirus, as the storms flooded masses of people, it was clear that taken-for-granted industries such as the insurance business were no longer fit for purpose.

2020, whether we like it or not, is the start of an acutely painful transformation of the world: Will Davies has just dropped that article on the Guardian website. This volume, then, is going to be extremely useful.

The book is dedicated to Mark Fisher and the introduction is by him. It is incisive, cutting open Capitalist Realism further. Fisher describes how the neoliberal project had to push on to a place where even free market American doctrines are outpaced. This has now mutated into what Fisher called ‘market Stalinism’. The ‘choice’ in what was once a whole project of choosing has been slowly, invisibly, siphoned off until all that is left is brutal market logic: inhuman in the older philosophical sense and inhuman in the newer, algorithmic sense.

For over twenty years the inequality has been hidden by structural fixes at every scale: from the large scale to the individual; from national bank bailouts to personal loans.

The coronavirus crisis has uncovered the chasmic class divide all over again. The state pays businesses to pay their workers in a crisis, but only if they are fully tenured. Payment holidays for owners (the leaches) but not renters (the hosts) illuminates the real relationship. That this is the exact opposite to the picture painted on our sunny screens should come as no surprise. Our economic logic is being turned inside-out, at the same time as our societies are. This book decided to wilfully invert our default logics two years before the crisis. It is worth revisiting because of that alone.

The individual chapters are excellent. For Ha-Joon Chang markets are political and ethical constructs. The economists’ claim to be scientific, therefore, is a science fiction. Laura Horne, in her chapter ‘Future Inc?’, identifies the trope of the ‘evil corporation’ in science fiction. She delightfully explodes this and moves on to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, where the evil corporation was invoked and the worker co-op was the answer, particularly the Mondragon co-ops in Spain.

But Mondragon is very dull and businesslike. It isn’t quite the psychedelic alternative one might expect to find in sci-fi. But Horne anticipates my scepticism and moves to a concluding section which says just that. Every chapter here is similarly explorative. There is no table-hammering accelerationism here, even though the texts are somehow related to that phenomena.

It’s a bit rich of me to criticise this – because I don’t have a secret dossier of far-reaching ideas either – but the worker co-op is still pretty much the limit of our ability to imagine an alternative. And worker co-ops and co-ops more generally are often more hassle, not less.

But these wider questions – essentially around a capitalism that is still by default emancipatory, rather than about attachment – are present under the surface of all the texts here. Moving towards something more attached to human life and the planet we are on is key to survival. It is not going to be easy. The Anthropocene means nature is on the agenda and reason is knocked back – Will Davies says as much here – but all of this is still, I think, also a local struggle within Enlightenment, of a sort. Davies seems to suggest that in his recent Guardian article. The 1755 Lisbon earthquake – monitored by Kant and Voltaire – led to a spike in reason, not irrationalism.

But our recent crisis is showing us different forms in altogether unexpected places. Davies explains how anti-trust is the ‘central political weapon in the neoliberal armoury’, but we are seeing how competition laws might be suspended in the UK so that supermarkets can co-ordinate stock better. This could be a glimpse straight through consumer capitalism into communism, but it could also be the solidified future of full Market Stalinism – as Mark Fisher described it – right around the corner.

Temps are sucked into the swirl of supermarkets now drained by panic-buying stockpilers and necessary staff isolation. Some of those will be literally risking death for pennies. At the end of it, those who survive will be flung out again. But they have no choice. Our ‘best of all possible worlds’ looks exactly like it did in Candide, described by Voltaire’s Dr Pangloss, a sick joke.

The rhetoric on the supermarket websites is currently that workers are ‘not just stacking the shelves’ but ‘feeding the nation’. Shabby Johnsonian bluster. But people are swallowing it. The infantile fantasies of patriotism so often mediated through millimetre thin visions of World War Two seem to be everywhere.

For many others though, the line between believing in a social fabric and nihilism is wearing very sheer indeed. People are not starving, or even eating more. Fear is driving them into a purchasing frenzy, its main point is endorphin release in a situation of panic. You are not ‘doing it’ for your country, you are doing it for capitalism.

We should write down all the ways in which the world is warping before our eyes as it does so. It is likely that many contingencies will become new ways of life, for better or worse, and in Britain, probably worse. In his recent Guardian article, Davies writes that the ‘platform giants’ are going from strength to strength. We won’t necessarily come out of this holding hands singing songs.

Davies is a great communicator and clearly a deeply read scholar. Ludwig von Mises looked at 1914-18 to think about ‘The War Economy’. Already Coronavirus as an economic situation is being compared to wartime (though often in politically infantile ways). The point Mises made back in the 1920s and Will Davies returned to in 2018 is that the planned economy of crisis can be rolled out in ‘peacetime’. In 2020 we can add that this is relevant if you are fighting each other, or a ‘nova’ virus.

Davies says Ludwig von Mises and Hayek gave us a private vision of modernity – or rather a model for a series of private visions – around a fixed core of economies. Davies links this to postmodernity via Jameson, in which there are only islands of thought cut off from the mainstream: any collective vision of the future has now completely vanished.

This begins with Hayek and Rand and ends in the dead, futureless present Mark Fisher described. As Davies says a ‘revived historical consciousness is therefore a matter of existential urgency, though that doesn’t guarantee that it will occur.’ I guess it must also be said that the NSDAP count as an earlier example of ‘revived historical consciousness’ as much as Extinction Rebellion do.

‘Thanks to risk modelling’ Davies says ‘the unknowability of the future’, which ‘might otherwise be a basis for hope, becomes instead a source of further financial profit.’ Dominic Cummings is currently the default risk managing, freakonomics ruler of the land. 2020 might entail an entire restructuring of the world order, but ask yourself under whose auspices and under what logics. However, it is very much in Davies’s favour that he is not a naive interpreter of history, or for instance of neoliberalism, as he has demonstrated in other pieces of writing.

Davies explained that for some German neoliberal economists and political thinkers a generous welfare state was required in order to ensure that the market did not simply brutalise people. These details are often missing from the analysis of the British neoleft turn of 2017-19. I am also glad to see that Davies is still citing Lyotard. The Momentum period 2017-19 also saw the demolition of such thinkers – or certainly it did round my way – and it is clear now that Lyotard was right, that knowledge itself has different uses, it is not one substance, and that The Differend was still, up until a month ago at least, our default philosophico-political terrain.

I am also reminded of Unger actually, that great experimenter. His time is surely now. He hasn’t been popular precisely because he wants us to go against political orthodoxy, and 2016-17 saw a return to a fairly orthodox Marxist left in Britain (although returns are always re-inventions too).

There is hope though, when Davies says it is ‘often remarked that a utopia is not a plan or a constitution or a blueprint, but something that emerges among all of us as a need in the face of some lack.’ He may as well have been writing for 2020, two years before it happened.

Smart infrastructures are now in the hands of surveillance capital, Davies says, but imagine if that were inverted. A tectonic political shift is required. This book is about inversions and speculations: ‘If accounting holds a privileged position in the development of capitalist rationality, as Weber and others have argued’ then ‘alternative accounting practices’ should be explored for non-capitalist or post-capitalist societies. Lawyers interpret existing rules for those with money, but why not combine them with artists, activists and philosophers in order to create new situations to challenge what Davies calls ‘the rigidity of capitalist institutions, which are always partly imaginary.’

The chapter on money by Sherryl Vint is excellent in this sense. I wrote a little book called Clocking Off in 2016. It was part sci-fi and speculated on a form of currency that rotted away at specifically timed points. It had to be exchanged, it could never be hoarded. ‘The Future Encyclopedia of Luddism’ by Miriam A. Cherry is a fabulous kick more in the style of Stewart Home’s Mind Invaders. So is the report on Fatbergs and Sinkholes. Again, in 2016 I designed a series of t-shirts bearing the slogan sous le pavés la vide (‘under the pavement, the void’) printed on an image of the huge Manchester ring road sinkhole.

There is far too much in this book to cover in a single review. It begins on a concrete ground of economics and by the end it is beginning to dynamite it.

The purpose of this book is that ‘in a time when capitalism and socialism have collapsed into each other, obliterating spaces of alterity or uncalculated discourse in the process’, then just to ‘describe unrealised (maybe unrealistic) economic possibilities’ is also to ‘rediscover a glimpse of autonomy’. How loaded that statement now seems.

But what this book ultimately demonstrates is that the human brain is still one of the most sophisticated tools in the universe. Now we really need to use it.

– Steve Hanson

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