• Allan Dyen-Shapiro

Political Economy from Science Fiction Writers

Although the pandemic has been awful in many ways and killed far too many—and I would never dare to minimize this tragedy—it has led to some innovations likely to persist beyond it, the rise of the virtual conference, for example. I've attended many and been on panels for some of them.

As this is an election year, some writers have used these platforms to expound upon real-world policy. The waters cloud when the same people speak of real-world and near-future science fiction economics. They become downright muddy when the question of a good slogan versus good policy comes up.

I don't pretend to be an expert with all the answers, but I'm hoping I can filter through some of the turbidity and extract, if not the clarity of pure-water ideas, at least a light-colored liquid. Err … yeah … something like that. It's probably best to let this metaphor die at this point, but it's a reasonable representation of the murkiness I'm seeing in this type of thought.

I'm writing this post on the day I watched B-Cubed Press's Facebook forum with four excellent writers, all of whom expounded on politics and economics. One of them, Louise Marley, made the statement in response to David Gerrold's comments on the political inutility of the Democratic Socialism label that her posts will use the term Sustainable Capitalism in the future. Gerrold appeared to like this response, as evidenced by his using it in a Facebook post less than one hour later.

I did a little Googling and traced that phrase to a 2004 Mission Statement for the company formed by Al Gore after his election loss. Gore goes all the way back to Adam Smith, who clearly laid out that controlling "negative externalities" will never be in the interest of a corporation. Corporations use resources, they pollute, they use public investment in infrastructure and an educated workforce. It is government's role to regulate corporations to minimize production of negative externalities and supply resources that no one company would find it in their interest to create from scratch.

This sounds good until you hit the real world. In theory, a government could regulate corporate behavior down to the point that allowed pollution was the precise balance between the benefit given to society in terms of jobs, goods, and services and the cost to the environment. However, that assumes a government operating impartially and equally on behalf of all citizens. That is not currently the case: capital owns government rather than the other way around. This country started with the opposite balance: very few corporations were given charters to operate, they were for limited terms, they were rarely renewed, and they could be and were revoked at the whim of the state governments. Corporations weren't so powerful at this point—the US was an agricultural nation, not an industrial one.

Today, a corporation exists in theory for the benefit of its shareholders and in practice for the benefit of the upper management class that makes the decisions (the latter claim supported by numerous studies of corporations). If the goal is to skim money off the top and funnel it to either group, those "profits" are not returning to minimize damage to the environment or to benefit labor. Indeed, Marxian economics speaks of surplus value—the extra money charged for a product over the cost of labor and materials—and views the "theft" of this value by the rentier class to be the central crime of capitalism.

How can an entity charged with returning maximum value to shareholders (or to management) prioritize labor or the environment?

Oh, say the liberals, we just regulate them and make them do such. Well, the track record isn't so wonderful. Moreover, the regulators are always behind the eight ball: the corporation creates negative externalities in a quest to satisfy either its stated or its true mission (rewarding shareholders or rewarding upper management) and then pays lawyers to delay any regulatory action. If the crimes against labor, consumers, or the environment are too big, instead of paying them, the corporation can declare bankruptcy, with the principals finding some way to make off with all the assets.

And the regulators often come from the ranks of corporate leaders.

So, "sustainable capitalism" as an achievable goal? Fuggedaboudit.

On the other hand, Marley and Gerrold may be correct in the term having propaganda value. Although most people under thirty in the US now label themselves as socialists, they are correct that this term brings up memories of the USSR for the older generation. Or of Castro, or of any other authoritarian you want to name who called his (and they were generally male) economic program socialism.

And democratic socialism itself is a misnomer. Bernie Sanders has redefined it for the younger generation as equivalent to the European "third way": a safety net to abolish poverty and provide medical care, education, and jobs for all, but with nearly all of the means of production in the hands of private individuals and corporations. That's not socialism; it's social democracy, but the US will now never know the difference.

Let's say for the moment that Gerrold is correct that in the US, any mention of the word "socialism"—regardless of modifiers—is political poison. What other options exist?

This brings me to another panel at a science fiction convention one month earlier, specifically one on which Kim Stanley Robinson expounded at Future Con. He used the phrase "post-capitalism." In his eyes, what had been called socialism prior to the last few years has many features that a sustainable, post-capitalist system would include, but tying one's vision to any 19th-century ideology is problematic.

So far, so good. So, what's post-capitalism? Robinson says it's the system of sustainable economics that will emerge from the ruins of capitalism. He has more specifics laid out, apparently, in his latest novel, one I intend to read but haven't read yet. (Probably fodder for another blog post at some point in early 2021, as my local SF group plans to discuss the novel in January.)

What of anarchism? Right now, in West Kurdistan (the areas of Syria controlled by the Kurds and their allies), for the first time since Spain in the days of the Spanish Civil War, an anarchist government has been declared. The specifics are laid out in a manifesto written from a Turkish jail by the Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, which is required reading for anyone who wants a serious discussion of the practical possibilities of an anarchist state. The secular union of free people into voluntary organizations that work for a common purpose was the goal before the US pullout from the fight against ISIS led to a laissez-faire attitude toward the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. At present, the fundamentalist Sunnis running Turkey plus the fundamentalist Shi'a running Iran plus the fascists running Russia have allied against the Kurds, who are desperately trying to live according to their ideology. You have to give them an A for effort—their military even includes an all-LGBT unit and all-female units of Yazidis they saved from genocide and liberated from sex slavery. The Kurds at least have the French on their side, but they are struggling.

This situation encapsulates one problem of an anarchist world, writ small: non-anarchists will band together to wipe them out and preserve imperialist and/or authoritarian interests. Another problem is that of time: sure, given one hundred years, the problems of anarchism would sort themselves out to the point that the world's anarchist unions could ban together to deal with the global climate catastrophe. The world doesn't have one hundred years.

Bottom line: are the flawed governments we have necessary in the interim? Perhaps, but in examining China and the US, it's not clear whether a state socialist system with elements of American-style entrepreneurialism married to a Soviet-style "five-year plan" (the Chinese preferring ten-year plans, but whatever) is or is not superior to the dissolving remnants of what the US still erroneously calls capitalism but which is really kleptocracy, cronyism, kakistocracy, and Pentagon socialism.

What about the Chinese system with some sort of twist? That's the basis of the novel I'm currently trying to sell. My twist comes from biotech, but biotech that I think I could have made work if I'd been given twenty-five years of continuous funding back in my scientist days.

I hope that sometime in the not-too-distant future, I'll be able to tell you this novel has sold, and my science-fictional vision will be out in the world, but for the moment, I'll leave you wallowing in the mud.

Sorry. I told you I didn't have all the answers. Hopefully, I've clarified a few of the questions.

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© 2016 by Allan Dyen-Shapiro

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