May 17

Socialists to the Stars

Science fiction, because it deals in extrapolated futures, has a long
tradition of employment as a vehicle for political argument. More than that,
science fiction encourages politically-minded writers to narratize their
beliefs in ways that can sometime reveal more than the writers intended
about the problems and contradictions in their own theories.

I was powerfully reminded of this fact while reading Ken MacLeod’s
latest The Sky Road. A reference in the book led me to
think about Iain Banks, and from there I flashed on some recent
analyses of post-9/11 confusion among the European left. And I
realized that MacLeod and Banks between them inadvertently reveal some
interesting things about socialism in the post-Soviet world.

Ken MacLeod and Iain Banks are two of the most interesting young
writers in science fiction. Both are rooted in Scotland, and both
manage the peculiar and somewhat arresting trick of writing rather
hard SF from a Marxist political stance. For multiple historical and
structural reasons, the dominant strain in the politics of SF has long
been individualist, anti-authoritarian, even libertarian in tone —
and this has been most true near the hard-SF heart of the field.
MacLeod and Banks, then, are almost unique in proposing SF narratives
in which socialism has a heroic future — and in doing so giving us an
SFnal window into how socialists in the post-Soviet world think,
and the unrecognized contradictions in their ideas.

Banks is the less explicit of the two. His Culture novels
(including Excession, Use of Weapons,

The Player Of Games, and Look To Windward
are wide-screen space operas in which the good guys are a communist
utopia. In the Culture, there is no money and no want and no markets;
the economy is run by the vast AIs called Culture Minds, who somehow
centrally plan everything so that human beings never have to make
unpleasant scarcity choices. It’s Marxist eschatology entire,
with the withering-away of the state sustained by deus ex machina.

But Banks never refers to communism or capitalism or any feature of
present-day politics by name. You get his politics by indirection,
mainly by noticing how he thinks economics and history work. In his
universe all the non-communist cultures are barbarians waiting to be
assimilated by Culture contact expeditions. The cat gets let out of
the bag in a historical aside; Banks imagines Earth itself being
subsumed. Marx’s dialectical imperative having failed us, Banks is
imaginatively counting on invasion by superior aliens to sweep
capitalism and markets into the dustbin of history.

Banks’s Culture is not quite the dreary exercise in correct-think
the above description might suggest; in fact, the Culture is a lot of
fun to read about. But there is a black hole at the center of Banks’s
construction. Leaving aside all the tendentious political questions
about who gets to use force in the Culture, and when, and for what
reasons…the economics can’t possibly work. The Culture Minds, if
they existed, would run slap-bang into F. A. Hayek’s `calculation
problem’. In 1936, Hayek showed that a planned economy, deprived of
the demand signals generated by markets, will inevitably malinvest its
way to collapse. The Soviet Union took less than sixty years to act
out Hayek’s prediction, and in 2002 there is really no better excuse
for an SF writer not understanding this than there would be for
getting the physics of a story gimmick wrong.

If Banks narratizes the fundamentalist version of socialism
(believe and heaven will take you up), MacLeod gives us something
rather weirder and more complex. Unlike Banks, he is economically
literate. His characters are staunch old socialists who have figured
out that Marxism is a total crock and the Soviet Union was a doomed,
murderous failure. In fact MacLeod is an anarchist at heart, and his
futures succumb to the inevitability of markets in the absence of
state control. And yet, his characters cannot let go of that old-time
religion — they fetishize posters of Che Guevara and hate
“imperialism” and sing the Internationale and get all misty-eyed over
hammer-and-sickle emblems and even obey orders from the shadowy
remnants of the Communist Party.

MacLeod gives us post-Communist Communism, heavy metal irony,
socialist camp — indeed, one of the two viewpoint characters uses the
latter phrase to describe the “worker’s state” she runs in Central
Asia. The program is gone, all that’s left is the attitude and the
conspiracy and the dreary verbal cliches and the resentment.
Including the hatred of capitalism. The results in MacLeod’s weiting
sometimes have an appealing gritty contrarianism, but more often just
the morbid fascination of a bad auto accident. One pities his
characters in the way one might pity any gifted obsessive. In
fact, one pities MacLeod himself.

Banks’s denial-drenched wish-fantasy. MacLeod’s
self-loathing-tinged politics of resentment, intermittently
intelligent but unable to escape the sentimental gravitational pull of
the old Soviet evil. Voila! The two poles of the European left after
the fall of the Soviet Union, and especially after 9/11. Neither one
of them which much sustainability or mass appeal.

Leftist theory has been in a state of accelerating disintegration
ever since “real existing socialism” fulfilled the fate Marx predicted
for capitalism by collapsing under the weight of its own
contradictions. Once the European left could no longer seriously
propose a Marxist program, it had to settle for a defensive
hunker-down around the socialist-inspired institutions of state — the
dole, national health services, and so forth. This is why ever since
Margaret Thatcher, most of the dynamism of European political change
within countries has come from the right — and the European Union,
always an enterprise of the left, may now be in jeopardy under
populist and nationalist pressure.

Pim Fortuyn and Jean-Marie Le Pen (to name the two most ecent
upsetters of the Euroleftist applecart) really had very little in
common except for having been branded “right-wing” by left-sympathizing
journalists. In fact, both their platforms are traditionally left
on economic policy. What they did have in common is that they were
both shrewd opportunists who stepped into the vacuum created by
the ideological collapse of the traditional left.

Nowhere in either Banks’s or MacLeod’s mythologizations of future
socialism is there any hint of an answer for the rising political
problems of the present. The failure of multiculturalism as a strategy
for preventing inter-ethnic and sectarian strife is the one Fortuyn
and Le Pen exploited. There are others; environmental policy,
information privacy, biotech. The European left, an increasingly
tired anachronism in a capitalist world, no longer has either the
energy or the intellectual heft to tackle any of these. The best its
parties can hope for is to do as the British Labor party did; shift
towards centrist pragmatism while making obeisances to left rhetoric
that everyone involved recognizes as increasingly meaningless.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that both Banks and MacLeod
are creatures of the post-Soviet world. Their fantasies of
socialism to the stars may be all the Left has left.

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