The Limits of Utopia
Dystopias infect official reports.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) demands a shift in our emissions by a third to avoid utter disaster. KPMG, in the leaden chattiness of corporate powerpoint-ese, sees the same horizon. NASA part-funds a report warning that systemic civilizational collapse ‘is difficult to avoid.’
We may quibble with the models, but not that the end of everything is right out there, for everyone to discuss.
The stench and blare of poisoned cities, lugubrious underground bunkers, ash landscapes… Worseness is the bad conscience of betterness, dystopias rebukes integral to the utopian tradition. We hanker and warn, our best dreams and our worst standing together against our waking.
Fuck this up, and it’s a desiccated, flooded, cold, hot, dead Earth. Get it right? There are lifetimes-worth of pre-dreams of New Edens, from le Guin and Piercy and innumerable others, going right back, visions of what, nearly two millennia ago, the Church Father Lactantius, in The Divine Institutes, called the ‘Renewed World’.
[T]he earth will open its fruitfulness, and bring forth the most abundant fruits of its own accord; the rocky mountains shall drop with honey; streams of wine shall run down, and rivers flow with milk; in short, the world itself shall rejoice, and all nature exult, being rescued and set free from the dominion of evil and impiety, and guilt and error.
And it’s never only the world that’s in question: for Lactantius, as for all the best utopias, it’s humanity too. The world will rejoice because we at last will be capable of inhabiting it, free from the evil and impiety and guilt and error with which we’ve excoriated it. The relationship between humanity and what we’d now call the environment will be healed.
But so rich a lineage has hardly stopped countless environmentalisms from failing, not merely to change the world, but to change the agenda about changing the world.
We who want another, better Earth are understandably proud to keep alternatives alive in this, an epoch that punishes thoughts of change. We need utopias. That’s almost a given in activism. If an alternative to this world were inconceivable, how could we change it?
But utopia has its limits: utopia can be toxic.
What price hopelessness, indeed? But what price hope?
In 1985 the city government announced that it would locate a trash incinerator in South Central Los Angeles, a year after California Waste Management paid half a million tax-payers’ dollars to the consultancy firm Cerrell Associates for advice on locating such controversial toxic facilities. The Cerrell Report is a how-to, a checklist outlining the qualities of the ‘“least resistant” personality profile’. Target the less educated, it advises. The elderly. ‘Middle and higher-socioeconomic strata neighborhoods’, it says, ‘should not fall at least within the one-mile and five-mile radii of the proposed site.’
Target the poor.
That this is the strategy is unsurprising: that they admit it raises eyebrows. ‘You know,’ one wants to whisper, ‘that we can hear you?’
In fact the local community did resist, and successfully. But what are sometimes called the Big Ten green groups – The Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, the National Resources Defense Council, the Wilderness Society, and others – refused the request to join the campaign. Because, they said, it was not an environmental, but a ‘community health’ issue.
The fallacies of Big Green. Start with heuristics like rural versus urban, nature versus the social, and in the face of oppressive power you easily become complicit, or worse, in environmental injustice, in racism. Such simplistic urbophobic utopianism can unite the most nostalgic conservative, seeking solace in a national park with the most extropian post-hippy touting an eco-start-up.
For Lactantius, it was God who would heal a broken nature. This is a more secular age – sort of. But not everyone leaves such messianism aside: some incorporate it into a new, and newly vacuous, totality.
In 1968, Stewart Brand opened the first Whole Earth Catalogue with an image of the Blue Planet, Spaceship Earth, a survival pod in which we mutually cuddle. Beside it the text read, ‘We are as gods and might as well get good at it.’
Here, says the image, is a beautiful Gaian totality. Here, say the words, is the ecological subject: ‘We’. Which obviously leaves unanswered, in the famous punchline to the blistering, uneasy joke, Tonto’s question to the Lone Ranger: ‘Who is “we”?’
Faced with the scale of what’s coming, there’s a common and baleful propriety, a self-shackling green politeness. ‘Anything’, the argument goes, ‘is better than nothing.’ Hence solutions to tempt business, and the pleading for ecologically-inflected economic rationality. Capitalism, we are told by Jonathan Porritt, an eminent British environmentalist, is the only game in town.
And businesses do adapt, according to their priorities. Whatever the barking of their pet deniers, the oil companies all have Climate Change Divisions – less to fight that change than to plan for profit during it. Companies extend into newly monetised territories. Thus the brief biofuels boom, and that supposed solution to the planet’s problems drives rapid deforestation and food riots, before the industry and market tanks. The invisible hand is supposed to clean up its own mess, with Emissions Trading Schemes and offsetting. Opportunities and incentives for shady deals and inflated baseline estimates increase, as, relentlessly, do the emissions. EU carbon bonds remain junk. New financial instruments proliferate: weather derivatives that make climate chaos itself profitable. What are called ‘catastrophe bonds’ change hands in vast quantities, because one of the minor casualties of capitalism is shame.
Citizens fret about their own refuse, which we should, absolutely, minimise. But in the UK only ten percent of waste is down to households. Recall that the very concept of litter was an invention of the American packaging industry, in 1953, in response to a local ban on disposable bottles. The caul of atomised and privatised guilt under which we’re encouraged to labour is a quite deliberate act of misdirection.
At a grander scale, the most conciliatory green organizations obfuscate the nexus of ecological degradation, capitalism and imperialism in which they’re caught up. In 2013 the US Environmental Protection Agency presented its National Climate Leadership Award, for ‘tackling the challenge of climate change with practical, common-sense, and cost-saving solutions’, to Raytheon.
It isn’t clear whether Raytheon’s drones will be embossed with the award’s symbol, so their commitment to sustainability can flash like a proud goldfish fin as they rain death on Afghan villages.
In the service of profit, even husbanding trees supposedly to counteract emissions can be violence. Far worse than merely a failure, UN-backed emission-reduction forest offsetting schemes – known as REDD – legitimate monocultures and seize land, in the name of the planet, all so corporations can continue to pollute. In Uganda, 22,000 farmers are evicted for the UN-Accredited New Forests Company plans. In Kenya, Ogiek people are threatened with violent expulsion from the Mau Forest, in a project blessed by the UN. And in case we need an unsubtle metaphor, the Guaraquecaba Climate Action Project in Brazil, bankrolled by Chevron, General Motors and American Electric Power, locks the Guarani people away from their own forest, and to do so it employs armed guards called ‘Forca Verde’ – Green Force.
This is environmentalism as dispossession, what the Indigenous Environmental Network calls Carbon Colonialism.
And stocks of heavy industry go up. The recent IPCC report left financial markets unmoved: the value such markets continue to grant oil, coal and gas reserves ignores the international targets according to which the bulk of such reserves not only are still in the earth, but mustremain so. This carbon bubble declaims that the choice is climate catastrophe or another financial one.
Or, of course, both.
Forget any spurious human totality: there is a very real, dangerous, other modern totality in commanding place, one with which too much environmentalism has failed to wrestle. As Jason Moore puts it, ‘Wall Street is a way of organizing Nature.’
The very term ‘Anthropocene’, which gives with one hand, insisting on human drivers of ecological shift, misleads with its implied ‘We’. After all, whether in the deforestation of what’s now Britain, the extinction of the megafauna in North America, or any of countless other examples, Homo sapiens, anthropos, has always fed back into its –cene, the ecology of which it is constituent, changing the world. Nor was what altered to make these previously relatively local effects planetary and epochal, warranting a new geochronological term, the birth (as if, in too many accounts, by some miracle) of heavy industry, but a shift in the political economy by which it and we are organised, an accelerating cycle of profit and accumulation.
Which is why Moore, among others, insists that this epoch of potential catastrophe is not the ‘Anthropocene’, but the ‘Capitalocene’.
Utopias are necessary. But not only are they insufficient: they can, in some iterations, be part of the ideology of the system, the bad totality that organises us, warms the skies, and condemns millions to peonage on garbage scree.
The utopia of togetherness is a lie. Environmental justice means acknowledging that there is no whole earth, no ‘we’, without a ‘them’. That we are not all in this together.
Which means fighting the fact that fines for toxic spills in predominantly white areas are five times what they are in minority ones. It means not only providing livings for people who survive by sifting through rejectamenta in toxic dumps but squaring up against the imperialism of garbage that put them there, against trash neoliberalism by which poor countries compete to become repositories of filth.
And it means standing directly against military power and violence. Three times as many land-rights and environmental activists were murdered in 2012 than a decade before. Environmental justice means facing down Shell not only for turning Nigeria’s Ogoniland into a hallucinatory sump, a landscape of petrochemical Ragnarok, but for arming the Nigerian state for years, during and after the rule of Sani Abacha.
Arms trading, dictatorships and murder are environmental politics.
Those punching down rely not on the quiescence, but on the weakness of those against whom they fight. The Cerrell Report is clear: ‘All socioeconomic groupings tend to resent the nearby siting of major facilities, but the middle and upper-socioeconomic strata possess better resources to effectuate their opposition.’
The poor should be targeted, in other words, not because they will not fight, but because, being poor, they will not win. The struggle for environmental justice is the struggle to prove that wrong.
So we start with the non-totality of the ‘we’. From there not only can we see the task but we can return to our utopias, to better honor the best of them.
Those rivers of milk and wine can stop being surplus. There’s nothing foolish about such yearnings: they are glimmerings in eyes set on human freedom, a leap from necessity. Far from being merely outlandish, these are abruptly aspects of a grounded utopia incorporating political economy, a yearning on behalf of those who strive without power. In the medieval peasant utopia Cockaigne it rains cheese. Charles Fourier imagined the seas turned to lemonade. The Big Rock Candy Mountain. These are dreams of sustenance out of reach of the dreamers, of the reduction of labour, of a world that will let exhausted humanity rest.
We can dispense with the most banal critiques of utopia. That it is unconvincing as a blueprint, as if that is what it should ever be. That it is drab, boring, faceless and colourless and always the same. The smear that the visionary aspiration for better things always makes things worse. These canards serve stasis.
There are sharper criticisms to be made, for the sake of our utopias themselves and of the day-to-day interventions without which they risk being – and this, itself, is one of those criticisms – valves to release pressure.
Utopia, for one thing, has never been the preserve of those who cleave to liberation. Settlers and expropriators have for centuries asserted their good environmental sense against the laziness of feckless natives, in realizing the potential of land spuriously designated empty, of making so-called deserts so-called bloom. Ecotopia has justified settlement and empire since long before the UN’s REDD schemes. It has justified murder.
There is a vision of the world as a garden, under threat. Choked with toxic growth. Gardening as war. And the task being one of ‘ruthlessly eliminating the weeds that would deprive the better plants of nutrition, the air, light, sun.’
Here the better plants are Aryans. The weeds are Jews.
SS-Obergruppenfuhrer and Reichsminister of Agriculture in the Third Reich, Walther Darré coagulated soil science, nostalgia, pagan kitsch, imperialism, agrarian mystique and race hate in a vision of green renewal and earth stewardship predicated on genocide. He was the most powerful theorist of Blut und Boden, ‘Blood and Soil’, a Nazi ecotopia of organic farmlands and restocked Nordic forests, protected by the pure-blooded peasant-soldier.
The tree may not have grown as Darré hoped, but its roots didn’t die. A whole variety of fascist groups across the world still proclaim their fidelity to ecological renewal, green world, and agitate ostentatiously against climate change, pollution and despoliation, declaring against those poisons in the service of another, the logic of race.
Of course reactionary apologists for Big Pollute routinely slander ecological activists as fascists. That doesn’t mean those committed to such activism should not be ruthless in ferreting out any real overlaps: very much the opposite.
Aspects of eliminationist bad utopia can be found much more widely than in the self-conscious Far Right. Swathes of ecological thinking are caught up with a nebulous, sentimentalised spiritualist utopia, what the ecofeminist Chaia Heller calls ‘Eco-la-la’. Crossbred with crude Malthusianism, in the combative variant called Deep Ecology, the tweeness of that vision can morph into brutality, according to which the problem is overpopulation, humanity itself. At its most cheerfully eccentric lies the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, advocating an end to breeding: at the most vicious are the pronouncements of David Foreman of Earth First!, faced with the Ethiopian famine of 1984: ‘[T]he worst thing we could do in Ethiopia is to give aid – the best thing would be to just let nature seek its own balance, to let the people there just starve’.
This is an ecological utopia of mass death. That we could also call an apocalypse.
Apocalypse and utopia: the end of everything, and the horizon of hope. Far from antipodes, these two have always been inextricable. Sometimes, as in Lactantius, the imagined relationship is chronological, even of cause and effect. The one, the apocalypse, the end-times rending of the veil, paves the way for the other, the time beyond, the new beginning.
Something has happened: now they are more intimately imbricated than ever. ‘Today,’ the bleak and sinister philosopher Emile Cioran announces, ‘reconciled with the terrible, we are seeing a contamination of utopia by apocalypse … The two genres … which once seemed so dissimilar to us, interpenetrate, rub off on each other, to form a third’. Such reconciliation with the terrible, such interpenetration, is vivid in these Deep Ecological hankerings for a world slashed and burned of humans. The scourging has become the dream.
This is not quite a dystopia: it’s a third form – apocatopia, utopalypse – and it’s all around us. We’re surrounded by a culture of ruination, dreams of falling cities, a peopleless world where animals explore. We know the clichés. Vines reclaim Wall Street as if it belongs to them, rather than the other way round; trash vastness, dunes of garbage; the remains of some great just-recognizable bridge now broken to jut, a portentous diving board, into the void. Etcetera.
It’s as if we still hanker to see something better and beyond the rubble, but lack the strength. Or as if there’s a concerted effort to assert the ‘We’ again, though negatively – ‘We’ are the problem, and thus this We-lessness a sublime solution. The melancholy is disingenuous. There’s enthusiasm, a disavowed investment in these supposed warnings, these catastrophes. The apocalypse-mongers fool no one. Since long before Shelley imagined the day when ‘Westminster Abbey shall stand, shapeless and nameless ruins, in the midst of an unpeopled marsh’, these have been scenes of beauty.
We’ve all scrolled slack-mouthed through images of the Chernobyl zone, of Japan’s deserted Gunkanjima island, of the ruins of Detroit, through clickbait lists of Top Ten Most Awesomely Creepy Abandoned Places. This shouldn’t occasion guilt. Our horror at the tragedies and crimes behind some such images is real: it coexists with, rather than effaces, our gasp of awe. We don’t choose what catches our breath. Nor do the images that enthrall us read off reductively to particular politics. But certainly the amoral beauty of our apocatopias can dovetail with something brutal and malefic, an eliminationist disgust.
We can’t not read such camply symptomatic cultural matter diagnostically. What else can we do with the deluge of films of deluge, the piling up, like debris under Benjamin’s angel of history, of texts about the piling up of debris?
Symptoms morph with the world. One swallow, of however high a budget, does not a summer make, but one doesn’t have to be a Žižek to diagnose a cultural shift when, in Guillermo Del Toro’s recent Pacific Rim, Idris Elba bellows, ‘Today we are cancelling the apocalypse.’ Perhaps we’ve had our fill of the end, and with this line we usher in a different kind of aftermath – the apocalypse that fails. We’re back, with muscular new hope.
A similar shift is visible in the rise of geoengineering, ideas once pulp fiction and the ruminations of eccentrics. Now, planet-scale plans to spray acid into the stratosphere to become mirrored molecules to reflect radiation, to scrub CO2 from the atmosphere, to bring up benthic waters to cool the oceans, are written up by Nobel laureates, discussed in the New Yorker and the MIT Technology Review. A new hope, a new can-do, the return of human agency, sleeves rolled up, fixing the problem. With Science.
This planet-hacking, however, is utterly speculative, controversial, and – according to recent work at Germany’s Helmholtz Centre – by the most generous possible projections thoroughly inadequate to halt climate chaos. It is, by any reasonable standards, absurd that such plans seem more rational than enacting the social measures to slash emissions that are entirely possible right now, but which would necessitate a transformation of our political system.
It’s a left cliché to prounounce that these days it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism: Andreas Malm points out that with the trope of geoengineering, it’s easier to imagine the deliberate transformation of the entire planet than of our political economy. What looks at first like a new Prometheanism is rather capitulation, surrender to the status quo. Utopia is here exoneration of entrenched power, the red lines of which are not to be crossed.
What price hope indeed?
Seventy percent of the staff at the mothballed Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, India, had been docked pay for refusing to break safety routines. Staffing levels were inadequate, readings taken half as often as intended. None of the six safety systems worked as it should, if at all. The trade union had protested, and been ignored.
On 3 December 1984, twenty-seven tonnes of methyl isocyanate spewed from the plant. Between 8,000 and 10,000 people died that night. 25,000 have died since. Half a million were injured, around 70,000 permanently and hideously. The rate of birth defects in the area is vastly high. The groundwater still shows toxins massively above safe levels.
Initially, the Indian government demanded $3.3 billion in compensation, which Union Carbide spent $50 million fighting. At last, in 1989, the company settled out of court for $470 million, 15 percent of that initial sum. The survivors received, as lifetime compensation, between $300 and $500 each. In the words of Kathy Hunt, Dow-Carbide’s public affairs officer, in 2002, ‘$500 is plenty good for an Indian.’
Why rehearse these terrible, familiar facts? Not only because, as is well known, Warren Anderson, Carbide’s ex-CEO, has never been extradited to face Indian justice, despite an arrest warrant being issued. Nor because Carbide, and Dow Chemicals, which bought it in 2001, deny all responsibility, and refuse to clean the area or to respond to Indian court summonses. There is another reason.
In 1989, the Wall Street Journal reported that US executives were extremely anxious about this first major test of a US corporation’s liability for an accident in the developing world. At last, in October 1991, came the key moment for this discussion: the Indian Supreme Court upheld Carbide’s offer and dismissed all outstanding petitions against it, thereby offering the company legal protection. And its share price immediately spiked high. Because Wall Street knew its priorities had prevailed. That it was safe.
A real-world interpenetration of apocalypse and utopia. Apocalypse for those thousands who drowned on their own lungs. And for the corporations, now reassured that the poor, unlike profit, were indeed dispensable? An everyday utopia.
This is another of the limitations of utopia: we live in utopia; it just isn’t ours.
So we live in apocalypse too.
Earth: to be determined. Utopia? Apocalypse? Is it worse to hope or to despair? To that question there can only be one answer: yes. It is worse to hope or to despair.
Bad hope and bad despair are mutually constitutive. Capitalism gets you coming or going. ‘We’ can fix the problem ‘we’ made. And when ‘we’, geoengineers, fail, ‘we’ can live through it, whisper ‘our’ survivalist bad consciences, the preppers hoarding cans of beans.
Is there a better optimism? And a right way to lose hope? It depends who’s hoping, for what, for whom – and against whom. We must learn to hope with teeth.
We won’t be browbeaten by demands for our own bureaucratised proposals. In fact there is no dearth of models to consider, but the radical critique of the everyday stands even in the absence of an alternative. We can go further: if we take utopia seriously, as a total reshaping, its scale means we can’t think it from this side. It’s the process of making it that will allow us to do so. It is utopian fidelity that might underpin our refusal to expound it, or any roadmap.
We should utopia as hard as we can. Along with a fulfilled humanity we should imagine flying islands, self-constituting coraline neighborhoods, photosynthesizing cars bred from biospliced bone-marrow. Big Rock Candy Mountains. Because we’ll never mistake those dreams for blueprints, nor for mere absurdities.
What utopias are are new Rorschachs. We pour our concerns and ideas out, and then in dreaming we fold the paper to open it again and reveal startling patterns. We may pour with a degree of intent, but what we make is beyond precise planning. Our utopias are to be enjoyed and admired: they are made of our concerns and they tell us about our now, about our pre-utopian selves. They are to be interpreted. And so are those of our enemies.
To understand what we’re up against means to respect it. The Earth is not being blistered because the despoilers are stupid or irrational or making a mistake or have insufficient data. We should fight our case as urgently as we can, and win arguments, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves: whatever the self-delusion, guilt, or occasional tears of a CEO, in a profit-maximizing world it’s rational for the institutions of our status quo to do what they do. Individuals and even sometimes some organizations may resist that in specific cases, but only by refusing that system’s logic. Which the system itself of course cannot do.
The fight for ecological justice means a fight against that system, because there is massive profit in injustice. This battle won’t always be over catastrophic climate change or land expropriation: in neoliberalism, even local struggles for fleeting moments of green municipal life are ultimately struggles against power. The protests that shook the Turkish state in 2013 started with a government plan to build over Gezi Park, one of the last green spaces in the city.
Rather than touting togetherness, we fight best by embracing our not-togetherness. The fact that there are sides. Famously, we approach a tipping point. Rather than hoping for cohesion, our best hope lies in conflict. Our aim, an aspect of our utopianism, should be this strategy of tension.
There is bad pessimism as well as bad optimism. Against the curmudgeonly surrender of, say, James Lovegrove, there are sound scientific reasons to suggest that we’re not yet – quite – at some point of no return. We need to tilt at a different tipping point, into irrevocable social change, and that requires a different pessimism, an unflinching look at how bad things are.
Pessimism has a bad rap among activists, terrified of surrender. But activism without the pessimism that rigor should provoke is just sentimentality.
There is hope. But for it to be real, and barbed, and tempered into a weapon, we cannot just default to it. We have to test it, subject it to the strain of appropriate near-despair. We need utopia, but to try to think utopia, in this world, without rage, without fury, is an indulgence we can’t afford. In the face of what is done, we cannot think utopia without hate.
Even our ends-of-the-world are too Whiggish. Let us put an end to one-nation apocalypse. Here instead is to antinomian utopia. A hope that abjures the hope of those in power.
It is the supposedly sensible critics who are the most profoundly unrealistic. As Joel Kovel says, ‘we can have the accumulation of capital, and we can have ecological integrity, but we can’t have both of them together’. To believe otherwise would be quaint were it not so dangerous.
In 2003, William Stavropoulos, CEO of Dow – who has, recall, no responsibility to the chemically maimed of Bhopal – said in a press release, ‘Being environmentally responsible makes good business sense.’
And that, in the pejorative sense, is the most absurd utopia of all.
An earlier version of this piece was given on 20 April 2014, as a keynote at the Earth Day Conference of the Nelson Institute, University of Wisconsin-Madison. I’m very grateful to Paul Robbins and all at the Institute.
A Strategy for Ruination
An interview with China Miéville
Editor’s Note: Writing about China Miéville in the Guardian, fantasy luminary Ursula K. Le Guin opined, “You can’t talk about Miéville without using the word ‘brilliant.’” Miéville is a rare sort of polyglot, an acclaimed novelist—he has won nearly every award for fantasy and science fiction that there is, often multiple times—who is equally comfortable in the worlds of politics and academia. Combining his skills as a storyteller and Marxist theorist, his most recent book, October, regales readers with the key events of the Russian Revolution. In this interview, Miéville discusses the intersections between his creative oeuvre and the political projects of utopia and dystopia.
Boston Review: You are often quoted as saying that you want to write a book in every genre. Nonetheless, many of your books have centered around themes of utopia and dystopia. Do you feel as though dystopia has finally, well-and-truly slipped the bounds of genre?
China Miéville: Dystopia and utopia are themes, optics, viruses that can infect any field or genre. Hence you find utopian, dystopian, and heterotopian aspects in stories across the board: westerns, romances, crime—let alone, more obviously, in science fiction, speculative fiction, and fantasy.
There has not in living memory been a better time to be a fascist. We live in a utopia: it just isn’t ours.
To the extent that, before anything else, texts are -topias (particularly utopias) narrowly conceived—warnings, suggestions, cookbooks, or proposals—they are mostly uninteresting to me. Still, the often-repeated slur that utopias are “dull” has never been politically innocent: it bespeaks reaction. When Emil Cioran attacks utopias for lacking the “rupture” of real life—“the totality of sleeping monsters”—he ignores the ruptures and monsters that lurk in -topias too. As texts, -topias get interesting to the extent that they deviate, underperform, or do too much. Rather the excess of the Big Rock Candy Mountain, with its cigarette trees and lemonade springs, than the plod of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888). In their conflicts, aporias, and surpluses, they can captivate. Alexander Bogdanov’s 1908 science fiction novel Red Star, for example, is fairly stodgy gruel until the protagonist, Leonid, veers unexpectedly and seemingly off-script through madness and the pedagogy gets opaque.
None of which is to argue against -topias of any prefix, still less of utopian yearning tout court. They are indispensable. But the -topian drive is more contradictory and succulent than some of its vulgar advocates, no less than its critics, make out.
BR: Do you find, in this moment of political nadir, that your sense of the kinds of utopias or dystopias that you want to talk about has changed? This may be another way of asking, as you do in “The Limits of Utopia,” whether there are better ways to despair or worse ways to hope right now.
CM: It is hard to avoid the sense that these are particularly terrible days, that dystopia is bleeding vividly into the quotidian, and hence, presumably, into “realism,” if that was ever a category in which one was interested. At this point, however, comes an obligatory warning about the historical ubiquity of the questionable belief that Things Have Got Worse, and of the sheer arrogance of despair, the aggrandisement of thinking that one lives in the Worst Times.
But hot on the heels of that, we need a countercorrective to a no-less arrogant assumption that things will likely be alright, out of fear that thinking otherwise would indeed be arrogant. Against surrender to the complacency and historical myopia of steady-state politics—of precluding, as a real possibility, epochal degeneration.
There has not in living memory been a better time to be a fascist. I think these are dreadful, sadistic times, getting worse—though with abrupt and salutary countertendencies—and there is no reason that their end point might not be utter catastrophe. For me, facing that is urgent, as is the deployment (or anti-moralist rehabilitation) of categories such as “decadence” and “Barbarism” (as in “Socialism or . . .”).
It is not as if the world has not long, long been one in which vast numbers live in dystopian depredation. The horizon is more visible now to many who had thought themselves insulated, if they thought about it at all. And dystopia for some is utopia for others. To repeat something I have said elsewhere, we live in a utopia: it just isn’t ours.
The technocratic, centrist, neoliberal project of the Democrats and New Labour is in major crisis. I mourn that project not one iota. It deserves to die.
Certainly there are better and worse ways to hope and to despair. Despair need not—should not—mean surrender, as anyone who has read John Berger on Palestinians’ “stance of undefeated despair” knows. And hope, as Terry Eagleton insists, is not optimism. The former is necessary and (because the two are not coterminous) indicated; the latter is a hectoring vacuity, at least as often a fetter as a force for progress.
That is not to say optimism is never legitimate—I am considerably more optimistic since the Jeremy Corbyn Event, the unexpected consolidation of power by a principled socialist at the head of the British Labour Party, than I was scant weeks previously—but it has to be specific to the concrete. Optimism, like pessimism and hope, has to be earned.
BR: The terms “salvage” and “salvagepunk” are often associated with your work. In Railsea (2012), you portray a world in which denizens of the future survive by grazing on the trash of our civilization, finding in those remnants the components they need to make a life. You have also collaborated on launching a magazine, Salvage. What role do you think salvage and bricolage must play in imagining a viable future?
CM: Salvage keeps me going. And obviously not only me: clearly also, for example, my collaborator (and coiner of the term “salvagepunk”) Evan Calder Williams, and my comrades at the journal Salvage, particularly Rosie Warren, Richard Seymour, and Jamie Allinson.
Why is not quite clear: there is always something evasive about why particular metaphors resonate as they do. Which is fine by me. Of the various concepts that are politically/aesthetically powerful and formative—helpful—to me, salvage has for a long time been primus inter pares. Word-magic. A retconned syncretic backformation from “salvation” and “garbage.” A homage to, rather than repudiation of, the trash-world wanderers and breakfasters-among-the-ruins that always transfixed me. An undefeated despair: “despair” because it’s done, this is a dystopia, a worsening one, and dreams of interceding just in time don’t just miss the point but are actively unhelpful; “undefeated” because it is worth fighting even for ashes, because there are better and much, much worse ways of being too late. Because and yet.
This shit is where we are. A junk heap of history and hope. I am done with the Procrustean strategy of whipping playbooks out of our pockets and squinting to make what we see fit their schema. These days—these particular astounding days—I can’t politically take seriously anyone who still refuses to be surprised, anyone faithful to the cosplay radicalism of the know-it-all left, of permanent preemptive certainty. But bricolage precisely because this is not about some arrogant sneer of revisionism, of “new times”–posturing dispensing with tradition: it’s about scrabbling to put its scobs together anew. It’s too late to save, but we might repurpose. Suturing, jerry-rigging, cobbling together. Finding unexpected resources in the muck, using them in new ways. A strategy for ruination. For all of us at Salvage, this is a redoubled radical commitment, a groping for emancipation. (Please subscribe!)
BR: This seems related to an avatar that you propose for our age: the “porcupine angel,” a creature who takes shelter from the winds of history within the wreck of civilization itself.
CM: I mooted the “porcupine angel,” Angelus erethizon, as an exemplary figure chimera-ed from two travelers in the storm of history: Walter Benjamin’s back-blown angel, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s articulation of a Swampy Cree notion of the porcupine bracing itself in a crevice in the face of danger, “to speculate safely on an inhabitable future.” We are buffeted, but still we might brace, and bristle.
We deserve a revolution, an upheaval, an overturning of existing social priorities and dynamics, and the unhesitant demand for it is by far our best hope.
What is most vivid for me in the porcupine angel is its motion. It is too squat and heavy to fly. It stilt-walks, instead, on its wingtips. A motion that seems for a moment quite new, but that we realize we have seen before. When we watch bats crawl. Faced with unusual difficulties, certain animals move in deeply strange, unfamiliar ways, ways that seem abruptly alien, and/but that remain absolutely theirs. Occult motion, part of, hidden in, their quiddities. Watch those bats pick their wingtip ways. Watch octopuses stilt-walk on weirdly stiff limbs, watch hares or horses swim. In those moments utopia feels so close it is hard to breathe.
BR: Your new book, October, is a novelistic retelling of the Russian Revolution. You begin it with a quote from Alexander Kaun: “One need not be a prophet to foretell that the present order of things will have to disappear.” If Marx is right that history repeats itself, “first as tragedy, then as farce,” does it feel to you as though, on the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Donald Trump’s rise to power on a populist tide represents a farcical betrayal of the spirit of revolution?
CM: We have to be careful about our terms. I’ve no particular beef with “populist” as a shorthand or placeholder, but the problem—especially when it comes before the word “tide”—is that it can imply there is something fundamental shared across all broadly anti- or non-centrist political projects. That is what lies behind the plethora of—maliciously or criminally stupid—headlines conjoining Trump, Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, and even Marine Le Pen.
Trump came to power due to a number of factors: a radicalized Republican base drawn by his consolidation of various racist ideologemes, for the propagation of which Democrat leadership, as well as Republican, bears deep responsibility; clusters of previous Obama voters in the Rust Belt flipping in the face of a wretched, contemptuous campaign by an entitled neoliberal hawk; a deeply undemocratic system; and, in places, collapsing voter turnout, thanks to a systemic hollowing-out of democracy that centrists have long been perfectly happy to accommodate. Such specifics tell us a lot more about how we got to this catastrophic situation, and what we might do to get out of it, than a more nebulous anxiety about “populism.”
It is perfectly, abundantly true that the technocratic, centrist, socially neoliberal project of the Democrats and New Labour (to name but two) is in major crisis, and that in the cracks new forms grow. I mourn that project not one iota. It deserves to die, and the jeremiads about its passing are overwhelmingly predicated on elitism and nostalgia. What does not follow, of course—see Trump—is that whatever rises in the rubble is an improvement.
Certainly, for me, a radical, systemic change is the best hope we have for moving away from this system of sadism, and I hold the alt-center’s hope for a return to the status quo ante (rule by “the adults in the room”) to be not only an indefensible project but a doomed one. So yes, a wholly different kind of project—a revolutionary one, an upheaval, an overturning of existing social priorities and dynamics—is what we deserve, and the unhesitant demand for it is by far our best hope.
BR: Is it part of your project in October to reach general readers to inform them, first, of what real political revolution looks like and, second, that it is not a foregone conclusion that revolution ends badly?
CM: I would express the “aims” of my “project” (vis-à-vis writing) cautiously, not because they are not real but because the mediations between intent, text, and reader are so very many and various. With October, I hope, first, that those who wanted to know more about the world-historic moment of the Russian Revolution will be somewhat swept up in the revolution’s rhythms, and come away with a clearer sense of, literally, what happened, when, to whom, and of course why. What those who fought were fighting for. And I hope to make a case that whatever one’s opinion of the politics, or of the revolutionary project’s chances, that the liberal or right-wing nostrum that this utopian yearning was always doomed is not just unjustified, it’s an abdication of analysis. An effort to pick apart what ultimately went so terribly wrong is a universe away from the dutiful, rote assertion that it was always going to go wrong. The revolution remains an intense inspiration to me.
My attitude toward political violence is to never turn necessities into virtues. By any means necessary, of course. Which does not mean the celebration of any necessary means.
BR: Did writing October change (or reinforce) your views about the uses and limits of political violence?
CM: My attitude toward political violence was not particularly altered by the research. I did come away with a reinforced certainty that, however tempting it is to turn necessities into virtues, it is a dreadful mistake. By any means necessary, of course. Which does not mean the celebration of any necessary means, still less the deflation of what counts as “necessary,” still less “by any means.”
BR: In “The Limits of Utopia,” you propose the following route toward progress: “A start for any habitable utopia must be to overturn the ideological bullshit of empire and . . . revisit the traduced and defamed cultures on the bones of which some conqueror’s utopian dreams were piled up.” There is a way in which turning to the past can be a deeply conservative impulse: for example, contemporary evangelicals and biblical literalists contend that they are doing the same, as do many other moralizers, celebrators of the “traditional” family, white supremacists, and men’s rights activists. What guidelines can we use when turning to the past to guarantee that our efforts remain progressive? How do we “overturn the ideological bullshit of empire” without becoming the next empire?
CM: I realize this is a discussion that could easily and fruitfully extend to books’-length, so this can only be a ludicrously partial and maybe glib placeholder. But I suspect one way to negotiate this might be to reiterate (repeatedly) that neither memory nor prediction, neither mourning nor anticipation, generate radical, emancipatory politics on their own, any more than they do reactionary, sadistic politics. The question has to be what (like metaphor) they provoke in us in particular circumstance, and, more, how they are deployed. The valence of no memory is a given. I see no reason one can’t look both back and forward (and sideways, and diagonally, and inward) to find inspirations.
I honestly don’t know why “overturning the ideological bullshit of empire” should necessary make us particularly prone to “becoming the next empire,” unless the implication is that “revolutions always eat their children,” which is a kind of reactionary tragedianism that I don’t accept. That things might go wrong, sure, but that would always be about specifics, not simply because we would be in a position of having overturned shit. Whatever difficulties would follow—and they would—that would surely be a good problem to have.
BR: Your novels often deal with themes of radical otherness: human protagonists partner with ancient gods and personified oceans (as in 2010’s Kraken), and, in Embassytown (2011), with the alien Hosts, whose prelapsarian language makes them incapable, without intercession, of communicating with humans or even recognizing us as sentient. Do you feel as though the process of puzzling through such fictional relationships has given you any useful insights into how to bridge more commonplace divides between ourselves and those we consider to be other?
CM: I’d be wary of thinking that any facility in representing alterity would necessarily give a person political insights, about everyday divides or anything else. There are plenty of writers of otherness (including very brilliant ones) whose politics cleave in a very different direction, of course. More fundamentally, I would suggest that any convergence of political and aesthetic thought in that manner is either relatively contingent, or, more to the point, that the line of causality does not run at all neatly from the fiction to the social and political. That is just, I think, not how fiction works, for writer or reader. I don’t think, in other words, that it’s writing the fiction that has given me political ideas.
The best I can get at the relation is that my head, like all heads, is a saucepan containing a simmering soup of ideas, drives, desiderata, concerns, fascinations, anxieties, insights, opacities. I dole that broth into different bowls using different ladles and set to with different spoons depending on whether I am doing fiction or nonfiction (or anything else). Different dinnerware, same ingredients.
The political task is to operate with two horizons: that of the immediate aim, the shorter-term, potential gain, the moment-by-moment; and that further, the utter, unsayable.
BR: As both a novelist and a political thinker, what kinds of daily practices do you advocate for and gloss when you use “utopia” as a verb, as in “We should utopia as hard as we can”?
CM: Everyone who holds that, first, this shit isn’t necessarily it, and, second, that it would be better if it were better, is, to some extent, utopia-ing. (Which of course includes those on the right.) For me, all I can say is that, though I have been extremely politically pessimistic at times, my pessimism has always been founded on an absolute belief not only in the possibility, but the urgent necessity, of fundamental radical change. The political task is to operate with two horizons: that of the immediate aim, the shorter-term, potential gain, the moment-by-moment; and that further, the utter, unsayable. We have talked about this in Salvage: if you hold, as we do, that—whatever reforms we can and must fight to instantiate—this system can’t ultimately be reformed out of being one of exploitation and oppression, then we have to mediate that fight for quotidian amelioration with a strategy of tension, an unflinching antinomianism. To reclaim the slogan from the defeated attempt to oppose Greek austerity measures, an Oxi (“no”) underlying all. Precisely because it isn’t impossible; because of the scale of what it would mean; because of how we’d come to other ourselves in the process, changing ourselves to fit the world we would, will, have remade; far, far more than to outline any particular prescriptions, to utopia must be to say no.