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Elon Musk, Wokeness, and the Myth of Meritocracy

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Content Warning: This episode contains discussion of racism and antisemitism.

When I was a kid, long before the 2008 film made him a household name, Iron Man was my favorite superhero. I liked him because he didn’t get powers because he was an alien like Superman, wasn’t given them by someone else like Green Lantern, wasn’t born with them like the X-Men. He wasn’t a hardcore athlete with a single-minded fixation on crime like Batman. No, Tony Stark became a superhero by using his brain, creating something with his own intelligence and a fortune that intelligence had helped build. And on top of that, within the 80s milieu of my childhood where intelligence and tech-savviness was synonymous with stereotypes of glasses-taped social inverts, Stark was a charmer and a ladies man. He was a model, in other words, perhaps the only one in American media of the time, of someone at once smart, powerful, rich, and attractive to boot. The perfect power fantasy for an antisocial nerd.

At the time, I wasn’t sensitive to the more misogynistic overtones of his womanizing, where he often seemed to treat women as a prize and a distraction rather than people. (It’d be some years before his secretary Pepper Potts, originally married off to Happy Hogan, would be brought back as his love interest.) And certainly I didn’t pick up on the more frighteningly militaristic implications of Stark being a weapons manufacturer, more pronounced in the early, jingoistic comics where Stark was regularly shown developing weapons of mass destruction like a jet-mounted ray that could destroy a city, and shown regularly fighting evil and often racist Communist caricatures from Vietnam, China, and the Soviet Union. In an interview, Iron Man co-creator Stan Lee said he created the character to be the kind of person he thought his young, idealistic 1960s readers wouldn’t like but that he would make them like him.

Tony Stark is a genius. This is textual, in the comics and films he’s shown as someone who’s not merely very intelligent but whose intelligence takes on a magical quality of creating things that others can barely comprehend—as illustrated by the scene in Iron Man (2008) where the villainous Obadiah Stane’s highly-paid engineers and vast resources can’t reproduce something Stark put together in a cave in Afghanistan. In the comics, Stark’s exoskeleton technology is so singular and irreproducible that the Armor Wars storyline (1988-1989) revolves around the technology being stolen and Stark’s fight to take it back. By this point, rather than Stark being an asset to the US military, he’s someone who jealously hoards his tech from them, with the danger of the armor falling in public rather than private hands being emphasized by the military’s own Stark-tech Firepower armor being equipped with a literal nuclear warhead, to nearly disastrous results. (The alternate universe of the Ultimate line of comics took Stark’s miraculous abilities to their logical conclusion and simply made his genius an actual mutant superpower.)

In ancient Rome, a ‘genius’ was a kind of attendant spirit of a person, place, or family, something like a guardian angel whose divine power could move through a person and bring them to perform great works. By the European Middle Ages, it was thought that great works of art were granted by God, the artist merely a vessel through which the art passes (and through much of the period artists went unnamed, as who they were wasn’t thought to be important since the Lord was the ultimate author). In the 18th century, the word took on its modern meaning of a person with exalted mental abilities and artistic sensibilities and, particularly in the wider culture, maintained its overtones of the mystical and divine, implied in the ubiquitous language used to discuss it—like calling it a “gift”. (A gift from whom, after all, if not the divine?)

What intelligence actually is and how one might go about measuring or understanding it is a hotly debated topic, but it’s clear that genius doesn’t exist the way it appears in stories like Iron Man. While the media continues to love stories about lone geniuses, and having things like “Stark tech” or “Pym particles” as the product of singular minds that no one else can create provides convenient MacGuffins for stories, in reality contemporary discoveries and technological advancements usually happen as the result of collaboration and people building on the work of others. Albert Einstein is practically synonymous with genius, but his theories of Relativity relied on the work of countless scientists who came before, colleagues who assisted him, and work on developing and proving his theories was taken up by the scientists who came after. The book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn (1962) explores in detail how radical scientific revolutions happen not because of Great Men and their Great Ideas, but because of build-ups of knowledge and experimentation that reach inflection points where new scientific ideas become necessary and impossible to proceed without. Scientific change is a group effort.

Thomas Edison, another name frequently synonymous with genius, famously filled his laboratories with scientists who constantly experimented and collaborated, and one of his most famous quotes is that “genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration”. Edison did not somehow intuit exactly how to make a lightbulb, but building on the known phenomenon of electricity causing materials to glow, tried with his team 2,774 different filaments before discovering one that worked.

The more you look at people who seem to have been “born” with miraculous abilities, the more you find people who trained hard at them typically from a young age like Tiger Woods being taught golf from toddlerhood or Wayne Gretsky’s father creating an ice rink in his back yard so he could focus on hockey as a child.

Moreover, the idea of genius as genetic, as a “gift” a person is “born” with, naturally plays into eugenic ideas. If genius is genetic, we should logically breed more geniuses. If idiocy is genetic, we should breed fewer idiots. Or perhaps we should identify those with heritable talents early on and put them on a path to leadership while we funnel the more modestly endowed into lives of subservience and humble trades. And in effect, in the United States and around the world, this is often exactly what we do. In our schools, we segregate children as young as four into “talented and gifted” programs which themselves stem directly from the work of eugenicists like Lewis Terman and Leta Hollingsworth. And these programs typically have admittance by standardized testing, often IQ tests.

The IQ test began as a tool designed by French psychologists Alfred Binet and Théodore Simon to help identify children who would have difficulty in school. Binet, however, did not believe that the IQ test could be used to measure some kind of single, permanent, inborn intelligence level, instead believing that “intelligence was far to broad a concept to quantify with one number”. But this didn’t stop American psychologist Lewis Terman as taking it up as just that, averring that intelligence was just as measurable as height and weight. In 1928, Terman selected 1,528 subjects between the ages of 3 and 28 with high IQs and proceeded to follow them throughout their lives, sure that this group represented the future leaders and pivotal figures in their fields. Though from a scientific standpoint he poisoned the study by actively mentoring the children and aiding them behind the scenes to, for example, get into Stamford (thus proving more about the power of privilege than intelligence), in the end the study only showed that the group he followed were by-and-large normal people who lead normal lives, and the various accomplishments they showed could have been predicted by their greater-than-average socioeconomic status alone. Further, when looking at the most successful and least successful people in the study, the IQs were virtually the same, while the true differentiating factor between the two turned out to be “confidence, persistence, and early parental encouragement”.

Indeed, even since Terman’s time, the IQ test was known to have problems based not on inherent intelligence but on education level. Many of the questions on IQ tests rely on knowledge of vocabulary or mathematics, things that are taught and teachable. This, for example, is a problem with a lot of studies cited in The Bell Curve by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray (1994), the racist tome that claims to scientifically prove that some races are superior to others, but relies entirely on studies that run the gamut from hopelessly flawed to outright fraudulent.

Further, IQ scores overall have been going up over the course of decades, which is theorized to be the result of the ascendency of standardized testing in school which generally makes students simply better at the kind of standard tests that the IQ test represents, further emphasizing how IQ test results are affected by preparation and study rather than some mere genetic predisposition, as well as the effect of better nutrition and healthcare.

A huge body of evidence, thus, has shown that IQ just isn’t a great measure of cognitive ability.

The point of all this being not that genetics have nothing to do with intelligence, but that focusing on intelligence as a source of status or as something miraculous and magical feeds into pernicious ideas of natural hierarchies and damages the self-worth of people deemed ‘unintelligent’ by the system when the reality is that persistence and privilege are much bigger determiners of success. And the fallout of these pernicious ideas in our culture often result in formerly “gifted” children crashing hard against reality (see: “gifted kid syndrome”) or providing cover for rationalizations for the legitimacy of wealth and power (witness Donald Trump’s obsession with “high-IQ” people and “low-IQ” people) to outright racism (Donald Trump again). In other words, it becomes part of the justification that those who have wealth and power do so because they deserve it, because they have greater merit than other people.

Meritocracy is the notion that a system does (or should) function so that people advance purely on the basis of ability and worth; those best able to do certain jobs will naturally rise to do them and likewise those best able to lead will become leaders, while those only suitable for menial work will find their own respective level. On its face, this sounds rational. However, to have a true meritocracy, people would have to begin with the same opportunities—as the right wing saying goes, “equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome”. And yet equality of opportunity obviously is not what we have anywhere. For example, in much of the US, local education systems are funded by property taxes. This means people who live in wealthy areas get a better education than those in poor areas, creating better opportunities and thus better outcomes. This shouldn’t be a controversial point, it’s plainly obvious. And this is one of many examples of the systemic inequalities built into our system that produce unequal opportunities. Yes, a poor person might be able to overcome these inequalities and achieve success of whatever measure, but there’s no question they’re going to have a harder time of it than a rich person or even a comfortably middle class person. And if someone really wanted to create a meritocratic system, eliminating these systemic inequalities would be top priority.

And yet for some funny reason the biggest boosters of the idea of meritocracy are the same who routinely deny that systemic inequality even exists, while simultaneously fighting tooth-and-nail to keep those same structural inequalities in place. The term “woke” is just the latest volley in this game of how to dismiss anyone who fights for equality.

“Wokeness” is a nebulous term that even its supporters often have trouble defining (as even Donald Trump hilariously pointed out), but the communications director for Florida governor Ron DeSantis, one of the country’s biggest boosters of “anti-woke” propaganda, openly defined “wokeness” as “the belief there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them.” And perhaps no greater example exists of the Right’s insistence that inequality of opportunity does not exist is DeSantis’ erstwhile presidential rival Nikki Haley’s frequent statement that “America has never been a racist country”.

How could anyone make a statement so plainly false in a country built on chattel slavery and genocide? Haley’s argument, a common one with those on the Right who routinely lament the fall of patriotic feeling in America, is not that America doesn’t have “problems” but that by teaching people that America itself is “bad” (or whatever other negative adjectives), you’re teaching them that the country will always be against them and to embrace “victimhood”. In their view, programs like Affirmative Action, DEI, and Welfare only teach people to be dependent on the state or on not having to work the hard to get ahead, which you might as well do if you believe America doesn’t grant them the blessings of liberty and opportunity. But this is a circular argument; America grants everyone an equal opportunity so anyone who says it doesn’t is an unpatriotic victim because America grants everyone an equal opportunity.

You simply can’t fix a problem if you aren’t willing to acknowledge it exists. People are on welfare because someone working 40 hours a week at the Federal minimum wage would still be $11,000 below the poverty line. Kicking those people off welfare wouldn’t ‘motivate’ them to get a better job (as if being below the poverty line wasn’t motivation enough), it would only starve them. But then much of our country’s business depends on having an impoverished and desperate strata of workers who will take any job that’s offered; even better if their undocumented migrants willing to work below minimum wage—again, these inequalities are built into the system and help to propagate it. Affirmative Action exists because centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and racism prevented black Americans from building wealth like their white peers, and so weren’t able to become legacies at universities or pass greater opportunities on to their children. DEI exists because racism, even subconscious racism, makes it more difficult for black people to get work than whites, as shown by an experiment where the same resumes were sent out with both stereotypically white names and black names, and the white names were 50% more likely to get a callback from employers. In other words, these programs exist to help combat structural inequalities and create equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. They don’t exist to be “racist against white people”.

It’s not that meritocracy is necessarily a racist idea. But if you insist the country is meritocratic when it isn’t you inevitably backwards engineer yourself into racism. You will conclude that if a disproportionate number of poor people are black or if a disproportionate number of crimes are committed by black people, there must be something inherently wrong with black people. If you don’t believe structural inequalities exist then there’s simply no way around this conclusion, which makes it little surprise that the Right Wing has found itself overrun with people who describe themselves as “race realists”. Which is to say, “racists”.

All this folds neatly into the worship of tradition that typifies conservative thought which I talked about back in Loki, or How Conservatives Becomes Fascists. As I said there, if you believe tradition holds important truths that should be revered, and your tradition includes prejudice, then you’re going to revere prejudice as somehow essential to your morality and identity and react violently when that prejudice is challenged.

If America is already a land of equal opportunity, if everyone already can make their way purely by merit, than those who are successful deserve to be, and those who aren’t also deserve not to be. The poor deserve to be poor, and helping them isn’t only futile it’s actually wrong because it upends the ‘natural order’ of things and empowers the inferior over the superior, the weak over the strong.

DeSantis directly brands ‘Anti-Wokism’ as socialist under the banner of the old term ‘Cultural Marxism’. The Cultural Marxism narrative states that Marxists, beginning with Antonio Gramci (1891-1937) and the Frankfurt School (a group of German-Jewish intellectuals who fled Nazi Germany in 1936), ‘realized’ that the poletariat was not playing the role proscribed by Marx in creating the global Communist revolution, and Marxists therefore needed to focus on destroying traditional, Christian culture and morality to apparently “drive the disoriented masses to Communism”. Forget that the postmodern project of the Frankfurt School was often critical and at odds with Marxism and that it didn’t promulgate Marxist ideas. Forget that this whole concept is fundamentally incoherent. Forget that people invoking Cultural Marxism (who’s current form dates only back to the 1980s) don’t seem to be familiar with the actual work of the Frankfurt Schoo l or the ideas that came out of it. The term is merely the latest dog whistle for the age old “vast Jewish conspiracy” idea which dates back centuries. Ultimately, some faction of conservatives will always blame whatever they don’t like on the Jews.

The implicit connection is that Marxists just want to destroy the “natural” hierarchies around which our society functions and that includes racial and gendered hierarchies. And so of course even the mild, center-left policies of the Democratic Party of the United States like raising taxes on the rich or modest immigration reform are hilariously painted as ‘radical Marxism’ by the Republicans.

Meanwhile, if white men lead the world in the past, if white men are justly in positions of power, then they should be represented in our media as our heroes and role models and changing this to place women and minorities in those same roles becomes affront to ‘natural hierarchies’, tradition, and to the identity it represents. Those who criticize representation in media often couch it in terms of being “forced” or a “lazy” or a “substitute for good storytelling”, but the average comments section for one of these videos will quickly disabuse you of the idea that it’s anything but rote prejudice. Such people see a movie poster that doesn’t put someone like them at the center and it enrages them.

wokism.jpeg

The truth is, there really is a problem with representation in media, but it’s not the one being complained about by racists nor one even being widely discussed. Our media is still obsessed with “special people” born with “special gifts” (like Tony Stark) but it needs to ignore or deny the eugenic implications of that premise. And thus we get the message succinctly articulated in the film Ratatouie (2007), which proudly declares that “greatness can come from anywhere”. A literal rat can become a master chef. And I say “become” but in truth we never see Remy the Rat learning anything at all; our murine hero is a brilliant chef from the moment he steps on screen, crafting actual garbage into culinary masterpieces and knowing how to create award-winning French dishes without ever having been trained or having worked in a kitchen. The one training sequence we get is of the hapless human the rat controls having to learn how to chop properly, keep his station clean, and his sleeves clear of the food. This isn’t to say that we expect absolute realism in a film about a talking rat, but that the way we portray intelligence in media has meaning and consequences, it tells our children how things in the world work and what to expect, with the implication that if you’re not a master chef now you never will be. And we see this same strategy in how Marvel Comics, lone, singular geniuses still abound but now they can be people who aren’t rich, white men, but black girls from more modest backgrounds like Riri Williams and Moon Girl. If anything this is less coherent than the racist position that genius is inheritable and breedable; here genius seems to happen purely by random chance to anyone at all with little regard for privilege or effort, a cosmic lottery played by every baby on Earth.

During the eugenics era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the genetic origins of heroes mattered. This was true not just in how non-white people were portrayed as racist stereotypes, but which white people got to be heroes. For example, when Tarzan was left as a baby to be raised by apes, it was the intelligence and physical ability granted to him by his aristocratic bloodline that allowed him to become the hero of the jungle while the African natives all around him remained common savages. The first wave of superheroes from the 1930s and 40s like Superman or Wonder Woman likewise followed this general pattern of having powers by virtue of their lineage or magical conception, while Batman is the son of a wealthy industrialist, the closest America has to royalty. Even the exceptions to this trend aren’t as straightforward as they seem. Captain Marvel, a homeless newsboy turned veritable god, was watched by the wizard SHAZAM from the moment of his birth and was actually destined for wealth and privilege until he was turned out by his wicked uncle after the death of his parents, and the package of powers he receives represented by the wizard’s name includes the “wisdom of Solomon” and the “courage of Achilles”. Similarly, Captain America, so scrawny he was turned away from military service, is given a serum that increases not only his stature and musculature but also his intelligence, science granting him the mind that mere genetics had not, just as magic does for Captain Marvel. Always there was the implication that ordinary people simply didn’t have the psychological make-up to be real heroes without help.

The 1960s, however, saw a wave of superheroes from ordinary backgrounds who have greatness “thrust upon them” like Spider-Man or the X-Men. (Obviously, this isn’t true of all 60s heroes—Thor for example is still both a royal and a literal god—and there are plenty of heroes from this period who come from wealthy backgrounds like Iron Man. But we do see a deliberate movement away from the racial overtones of the idea, with the Black Panther, for example, being both royalty and a black African (though it would take some years before his country’s depiction changed from a savage backwater to a technological utopia).) And so the superhero gradually transformed into a genre where any unprepossessing person with a good heart and grit might be blessed with fabulous powers. And this way of dealing with the fantastic extends far beyond the superhero, for example the Potterverse with its natural born wizards and “muggles”, and where muggles can have wizard children but the status remains an unalterable accident of your birth. Only in quasi-medieval high fantasy do ideas like the “birthright of kings” still tend to matter, and even there the good king’s restoration of order and justice as depicted in Tolkein’s Return of the King has largely been replaced by the more cynical (and realistic) gamesmanship of unbridled ambition implicit in the title Game of Thrones, where lineage only matters for the claim to power it represents and being righteous and pure of heart is liable to get you beheaded.

The notion of a cosmic genius lottery helps justify wealth and power for the wealthy and powerful on whatever side of the political aisle. At its most comic, we see this when Hollywood nepo-babies insist the film industry is meritocratic. But perhaps the most iconic example of a man in denial of his own privilege as well as how the idea of “giftedness” trends backwards towards eugenics is the richest man on Earth.

When I first heard of Elon Musk, he was already being referred to as the “real life Tony Stark”. Cartoon Lisa Simpson even called him “possibly the greatest living inventor”. I remember looking up Musk’s CV and being profoundly confused. Tony Stark was the CEO of Stark Enterprises, certainly, but even more than a businessman he was an inventor, constantly shown tinkering away at some new gadget or improvement to his armor. Musk, as far as I could tell, had never invented anything. Born into money, he’d started a business with funding from his father and venture capitalists, who refused to let him be the CEO and where the extent of his technical expertise amounted to updating a website. He lucked out on an acquisition windfall that {he then used to start an online bank called X.com, which merged with PayPal} where he was removed as CEO because of his incompetence and leadership style, and lucked out on another acquisition windfall from that. He took that money and muscled his way into someone else’s electric car company and then carefully crafted the lie that he’d founded the company or had anything to do with its technology. He’d famously proposed replacing the California High-Speed Rail project with something called a “Hyperloop” which, as I suspected when I read about it, turned out to be a nonsense idea made of nonsense, and which Musk later admitted was just a ploy to stall or sink the rail project because he hates trains and public transit more generally. (He did eventually get to build a tunnel in Las Vegas through which people… drive cars. A true genius!) And well before the Twitter fiasco outed him as a fool to the public at large, I’d read a Wired article about him that made it clear he had no idea what he was doing and treated his employees like hot garbage. But the complete sins of Elon have been elaborated elsewhere at length—I recommend the episode of Some More News on the subject.

So how had this rich, trust-funded asshole convinced the world that he was a genius inventor? The answer seems to be the same way he seems to have convinced himself. Musk is someone with geeky interests—a man who can casually refer to the science fiction novels of Iain M. Banks (even as he seems to completely miss their politics). And, as anyone who’s been to a science fiction convention knows, it’s easy for someone to confuse an interest in geeky or nerdy things with actual intelligence or competence. But reading a lot of science fiction novels does not actually make you a scientist. Further as our planet spirals towards climate collapse, Musk carefully positioned himself as a figurehead for technological solutionism, the idea that we can engineer our way out of the disaster, with electric cars and solar panels being two of the most promising solutions and ones for which he made himself the poster boy. We as a society wanted so badly to believe that someone like Tony Stark could exist and that he would use his magical intellect to save the world that we impressed those dreams onto Elon Musk.

Elon Musk is a walking example of how you don’t need a great intellect to find yourself in a position of wealth and power but it’s not a conclusion he can allow himself to believe. No one creates the kind of hype machine around himself like Musk did without a narcissism complex hiding a thin skin and a desperate need for approval. Not only is he a genius who can and will save the world, even if he has to save it from itself, but like Raskolnikov he believes his status makes him exempt from the common rules of society and morality. So what if he’s beta-testing fundamentally unworkable self-driving on his customers leading to deaths? So what if Tesla is suspected to have programmed cars to automatically switch off self-driving moments before a crash so it wouldn’t show up in self-driving crash numbers? So what if Teslas are hastily and shoddily built and yet the company routinely blames customers for parts it knew were defective including “wheels falling off at speed, collapsing suspensions on new vehicles, and sudden and unexpected braking”? So what if he seems to think labor laws and health and safety regulations are suggestions? So what if he treats his employees like human cattle for his mercurial and frequently changing whims? What are they even there for if not his glorious purpose?

In a recent interview with professional dickwad Bill Maher, when asked about the “woke mind virus”, Musk said “I think we need to be very cautious about anything that is anti-meritocratic”. But of course he believes in meritocracy. He believes in meritocracy so hard that he leveraged himself up to his neck to buy Twitter for an outrageously inflated price as part of his war against ‘Wokeness’. And because he’s so convinced of his own hype, of his own righteousness, he seems to have been completely rattled when this resulted in a backlash from the liberal media strata who’d previously fawned over him and his ecological crusade.

And so now he finds himself in a curious position, increasingly embracing the right-wing grift-o-sphere that adores his anti-wokeness but still committed to electric vehicle and solar technology that these same grifters and assholes despise. But he can’t turn back, can’t allow himself to face the notion that he might have made a mistake with this whole Twitter thing and so as he sinks further in we uncover, like an archeologist sifting through foundational layers, more of the racist and classist underpinnings of his belief system.

As an easy example, recently on Twitter he agreed with a tweet from someone suggesting that United Airlines shouldn’t have a program to grant interviews to students at three historically black colleges for pilot development programs because students at these colleges have low SAT scores which “correlates reasonably well with IQ scores”, with Musk suggesting this policy would lead directly to airplane crashes. This post is simply lying; SAT scores at these colleges are actually within the national average. SAT scores can’t be easily correlated with IQ. And we’ve already established that IQ is not a good measure of either intelligence or practical ability. But then the whole conversation isn’t actually about facts or reality, it’s about rationalizing racist beliefs. Musk is here agreeing with someone who openly implies that white people are simply smarter than black people.

To follow this through to its logical conclusion, Musk replied to a tweet opining that Jews promoted a “dialectical hatred” (whatever that is) against whites and support “hordes of minorities … flooding their country” with “you speak the actual truth”. (This resulted in an embarrassing, weird, and confusing apology tour to Auschwitz accompanied by alternate history tweets apparently supposed to show how Twitter could have prevented the holocaust.) Later he agreed with right wing Dutch politician Geert Wilders that there was a “collapse of our own culture and Western values due to open borders” and that an “uncontrollable amount of non-western asylum seekers” was the “biggest problem we face today”. Because Musk believes in the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory that Jews are bringing inferior non-white people into the country in a plot of manipulation and control. You remember, the idea that had white supremacists with tiki torches chanting “the Jews will not replace us” not so long ago?

Meanwhile, Musk laments that “wealth, education, and being secular” (which is hard not read as referring to rich white people) are all indicative of lower birth rates and “if each successive generation of smart people has fewer kids, that’s probably bad”. This naturally has prompted him, as a self-convinced genius, to have as many kids as possible (eleven so far)—though he actively works to strips rights from the one who is trans.

What Elon Musk illustrates is that the ideas we embrace as a culture, the ideas we promote in our media serve to propagate real, destructive behaviors. And the people who own and control that media and the means of its reproduction and dissemination are the people who benefit from the current power structures of our society, and so on one level or another are likely to create narratives that make themselves worthy heroes who deserve what they’ve gotten. The message may have transformed from genetic destiny to one in which “anyone can be great”, but if the result is that wealth and power are deserved by an accident of your birth that will always necessary play into narratives of natural hierarchies, of a universe where the worlds of “wizards” and “muggles” are firmly and permanently divided.


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Bibliography and Further Reading

How will Capitalism End? The Orville, Eduard Bernstein, and What is to be Done

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When Star Trek’s Federation is brought up as an example of how “actual” socialism might work, as I did in Star Trek into Socialism, frequently one is met with the objection that it only works in Star Trek because they’ve solved the problem of scarcity. Replicators can produce whatever they want whenever they want, and so there’s essentially infinite resources to keep everyone fed and happy. Of course, in Star Trek into Socialism, I talked about the problem with this line of thinking, though that didn’t stop people who apparently couldn’t be bothered to watch it from popping up in the comments section to helpfully explain it to me.

A similar point to the one I made, though, actually makes an appearance in popular culture in an unexpected place: not in Star Trek but in Seth MacFarlane’s ostensible parody-turned-pastiche of it, The Orville.

While modern Star Trek has to a greater or lesser extent embraced the darker, grittier aesthetic of ‘peak TV’ (with even the comedy Lower Decks seeing characters behave in amoral ways that would’ve seemed alien to th Star Trek of old), The Orville seems bent on reaching self-consciously back to the Trek of the 1990s, with its unrelenting optimism about the future and the uncomplicated basic decency of the core characters. And while NuTrek sometimes seems practically embarrassed of the idealistic post-scarcity premise of Next Generation-era Trek, The Orville has wholeheartedly embraced it in a way that in the 2020s seems refreshing, even if the show can otherwise be almost gleefully uneven and derivative.

The third season finale of The Orville, “Future Unknown”, sees someone from a world something like 21st century Earth (though we’ll come back to the way it’s not) escaping to the Orville and begging to be allowed to stay. While The Next Generation always couched its future economy in terms like “we eliminated poverty”, First Officer Kelly Grayson here straight up explains that in The Orville’s Union of Planets, nobody has to have a job, people just do the things that they love. This refugee from our present then proceeds to steal the show’s equivalent of a replicator in order to bring it back to her world so that the people there can enjoy what the Union have. And when caught, Grayson explains to her precisely why you can’t simply give people a cure for scarcity and expect their world to turn into an egalitarian utopia. They’d tried it before, in the early days of the union.

When they got to Gendel Three, they found a divided world, bristling with nuclear weapons, continents sliced up by national borders. So they landed. They revealed themselves, their technology, everything. They figured it was the right thing to do, that maybe they could help this planet skip over the nasty growing pains that all worlds seem to have to go through. But they couldn’t control the spread.

Nation-states fought each other, wars broke out everywhere, because they all wanted to use the advancements for personal gain and for political dominance. They wiped themselves out in five years. Nine Billion People. Gone.

In Star Trek into Socialism, I put this a bit more prosaically,

Capitalist billionaires riding around in big dick rockets want you to think that they’re the ticket to a Star Trek future, that they’re going to invent it for us. But the truth is that we could create the means to end scarcity tomorrow, we could just have Star Trek replicators come out of a lab somewhere, and those same billionaires would make sure we artificially limited and metered their output so that they could extract profits from it. They’re not creating the future, they’re standing in its way.

The point being that the technology to end scarcity by itself is not going to cure poverty and want without massive social and political changes to go along with it. After all, we already have enough food to feed everyone, and there are far more houses than homeless people. Poverty, inequality, and the suffering that goes with them are choices we make as a society. And either you’re okay with living in a world where people sleep under bridges and children go without food or you’re not. And if your reaction to that fact is to say that poverty is a choice they make as individuals and they just need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps or something, then you’re just proving my point: that we as a society are okay with some percentage of people falling by the wayside as long as we can tell ourselves that they “deserve” it.

This problem that Grayson points out, of how exactly to get from a divided, capitalist world to a cooperative one based on maximizing human welfare rather profit is called in socialist theory the “transition problem”. Or, to use a phrase long associated with socialism, “what is to be done?” In this piece I’m not going to be talking about why we want to move away from capitalism, or even what a post-capitalist society might look like (and why it’s not Soviet-style Leninism), because I already did that in Star Trek into Socialism. Here I’m going to set my sites squarely on something I think I got short shrift in that episode, the question of how. And strangely, part of the answer can inadvertently be explained by the “savage” world the girl escapes from in “Future Unknown”.

But to understand that we’re first going to have to take a bit of a dive into how we got here and why earlier predictions about the end of capitalism failed. (I know I said last episode I’d do some shorter stuff. Forgive me, I couldn’t help myself. Take a breath, like, subscribe, contribute to my Patreon for early access and exclusive author’s notes, okay, here we go.)

When socialist thought first emerged in the early 19th century, there were a number of different ideas about how capitalism would end and how socialism might function. (And here I’m using “socialism” in its broadest sense to include all anti-capitalist movements, though we’ll talk more about terms later.) By the late 19th century, the most popular model became that of Karl Marx. As much as Marx cautioned against creating “recipes for cook shops of the future”, and thus was characteristically vague on details, the basic idea went like this: Capitalism’s various contradictions cause inevitable cycles of boom and crash which as capitalism developed would only get worse as wealth accumulated at the top and im poverished everyone else. Ultimately, the working people, miserable and exploited but increasingly organized, would find things so intolerable they would rise up and seize the means of production for themselves and, because capitalism is a global, interconnected system, this would happen on an international scale. The workers could then dismantle the class system entirely and reorganize society along democratic, egalitarian, and co-operative lines, ultimately reaching a point where everyone would receive what they needed and contribute what they’re able. Government itself would shrivel and lose its political character to the point where it could hardly be said to be a government at all, transformed into a ‘management of things, not people’. (This is the irony with how so many today associate communism with a large government controlling everything; in Marx’s vision of communism, the government practically ceases to exist.)

Frequently, Marxists have thought the moment of this reckoning was nigh. Marx and Engles’ Manifesto of the Communist Party of 1848 was rushed out to coincide with revolutions then sweeping across Europe. Those revolutions were primarily powered by the bourgeoisie, which is to say the capitalist, business-owning class, burgeoning with wealth following the First Industrial Revolution and seeking to sweep away the remnants of feudal, aristocratic power that still dominated much of Europe. But these bourgeoisie were joined by the proletariats (the workers), who saw hope in the bourgeois promises of equal representation and economic freedom. In the Manifesto, Marx advises working people to “fight with the Bourgeoisie whenever it acts in a revolutionary way” and predicted “bourgeois Germany will be but a prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution”. But after securing a few concessions from the aristocrats, the bourgeois turned against the proletarian rebellions and aided in putting them down. The only thing, it turned out, the bourgeois capitalists hated more than the aristocrats who had the power they wanted was the workers who wanted to share that power. And so, instead of communism, what followed 1848 was a wave of anti-socialist reaction and shoring up of conservatism and tradition.

In 1871, in the midst of the Franco-Prussian war, workers took control of Paris and set up what became known as the Paris Commune, ruling the city via democratically elected committees. The Paris Commune was violently put down by the French army two months later, but in it Marx saw an example of what his communist transition might look like. In 1872, Marxist leader August Bebel confidently predicted that capitalism would collapse in 20 years, and as if to convince everyone he was right, in 1873 the “Long Depression” s et in, the greatest economic crisis in the world up until that point, increasing participation in socialism around the world. In 1890, following the election of a record number of socialists to the principle German legislative body, the Reichstag, Friedrich Engels predicted that by 1900 most of the military would vote socialist, leading to the possibility of a “quick and relatively bloodless takeover by the proletariat”.

However, soon after Engels’ death in 1895, one of his closest friends and proteges began to publicly express doubts. Eduard Bernstein, a one time bank clerk and son of a train driver, had ascended to become the editor of one of the German socialist movements chief periodicals, The Social Democrat (Der Sozialdemokrat). (Here I should note that these terms—socialist, communist, social democrat—were all used more-or-less interchangeably at this point.) However, Bernstein had gradually come to believe that two specific predictions Marx had made didn’t seem to be born out by contemporary data. First, Marx had predicted that the working class would grow progressively poorer as business owners depressed wages to maximize profits, and second, that wealth would concentrate in ever fewer hands, the bourgeois class getting smaller while the proletariat grew. This not only would cause instability by the sheer immiseration of the poor—increasing their likelihood of revolt—but because it created a situation where ever-fewer people had any sort of buying power, capitalism would kneecap its own ability to grow or sustain itself, making the whole edifice prone to ever greater crisis. Indeed, many Marxists at this point, like Bebel, had come to believe that the revolution would happen following an inevitable crisis so complete that capitalism couldn’t possibly recover, an utter collapse of the capitalist system that increasingly took on an eschatological character.

But by the 1890s, this didn’t seem to be happening. Instead, in the advanced capitalist countries of Germany, Britain, France, and the United States, the number of business owners, landlords, and shareholders (the bourgeoisie) had steadily grown, and with them had also overall grown the average wages of the working class. Meanwhile, particularly in Bernstein’s (and Marx and Engels’) native Germany, the widening of suffrage and political participation had resulted in massive, unexpected gains in representation for socialist parties in democratic institutions. And that increased participation had yielded massively increased rights and benefits for the unpropertied class of people. This process had started as early as 1802, when Britain had passed the first of what became known as ‘Factory Acts’ that regulated working conditions in factories, the first of their kind, beginning with restricting the hours children could work to ten, and ensuring that they worked in clean, properly ventilated conditions, and not sleep more than two to a bed. In 1833, they banned child labor by children younger than nine. (Remember the next time someone complains about regulation, that it took regulation to get the six-year-olds out of coal mines.) Karl Marx himself had dubbed the Factory Acts “the first time that in broad daylight the political economy of the middle class succumbed ignominiously, ludicrously, before the political economy of the working class” and while qualified and imperfect (and not always properly enforced), the Factory Acts were the first proof that within the boundaries of liberal democracy, without war or overt violence, the working people might wrest concessions from the ruling class. Where in previous centuries, there had been effectively no way to nonviolently press for positive change from below—serfs did not have any kind of voice or advocacy in the feudal system, for example—the capitalist era had come with democratic reforms. Violent action, meanwhile, had only to this point lead to reactionary backlash, as in 1848.

And so Bernstein reasoned, since capitalism didn’t appear to be heading towards collapse, the solution was to stop viewing everything in terms of some future revolution and instead focus on the progressive, incremental reforms that could meaningfully benefit the working class in the here and now. This way they could create, as they had a been creating already, a mixed socialist and capitalist economy that could evolve into a more egalitarian one over time. And rather than being un-Marxist or anti-Marxist, Bernstein claimed, if Marxism was meant to be scientific as Marx had always sought, like any science it should be willing to update itself based on new evidence, otherwise it would merely be dogma. And so his ideas became known as ‘Marxist Revisionism’, and went off like a bomb in the midst of the then-Marxist-dominated socialist movement of the time.

Debates roiled socialist meetings, and major leaders like Rosa Luxemberg and Bernstein’s formerly close friend Karl Kautsky wrote pamphlets and books of their own to denounce his ideas. Capitalism may have found ways to temporarily adapt to changing conditions, they argued, but that had done nothing to alter the underlying instability on which it was based. Ultimately, inevitably, the workers would have to seize control.

It’s important to note that the ruling class had not taken the rise of socialists and advance of socialist power in Germany easily. Conservative German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had banned socialist parties and publications in the country in 1878, and exiled many socialist leaders including Bernstein himself, who made his way to England where both Marx and Engels already lived. (In a line that should sound familiar, Bismarck pronounced these socialists “un-German”, not believing in core German values (like loyalty to the emperor) and therefore traitors in all but name.) But, while their parties were officially banned, socialists could still run for office unaffiliated, and so continued to have power in the Reichstag, while their publications were regularly smuggled into Germany.

Bismarck’s second line of attack against socialism was more surprising. This authoritarian arch-conservative so hostile to liberal ideals and the notion of basic rights that he’d once remarked that “the only effective weapons against democrats are soldiers”, almost single-handedly invented the welfare state.

Over a series of reforms from 1883 to 1889, Bismark introduced the world’s first nationally funded health insurance, accident insurance, old age, and disability insurance. Bismarck himself referred to the program as “state socialism”, remarking in 1881, “call it socialism or whatever you like, it’s all the same to me.” The purpose of all this was to weaken support for socialist politicians and socialist parties by alleviating some of the problems they complained about without having to change the underlying system.

And so these policies were controversial not just among capitalists, who saw it as the government interfering with private markets, but also (surprisingly to a modern audience) among the actual socialists.

Led by Engels (Marx having passed away in 1883), Marxists complained that the problem with the new welfare state was that it gave power over workers health and well being to Bismark’s government. (Again, this is ironic given socialism’s modern reputation of being ‘when the government does stuff’.) Things like health care or unemployment insurance should, rightly, be under the control not of the government but by trade unions or other workers groups that could be trusted to act in their best interest. To quote Bernstein in The Social Democrat at the time, “the so-called social reform is being used as a tactical maneuver to divert the workers from the correct path.” And so while the conservatives proudly called their legislation ‘socialism’, the actual socialists denied it was anything of the kind.

Bismarck’s reforms, though, actually did nothing to dampen socialism’s popularity. The number of socialists in the Reichstag continued to grow. All Bismarck had proven was that if socialists advocate hard enough, the ruling class will actually improve conditions for working people in response.

In 1890, a new German emperor finally dismissed Bismarck and repealed his anti-socialist laws. The primary socialist party, formerly the Social Democratic Workers Party, reconstituted itself simply as the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands or SPD). In 1901 Bernstein was finally allowed to return to Germany and soon was elected to the Reichstag himself.

But Germany and the Social Democratic Party itself were rapidly changing. Where the bourgeoisie had formerly been the middle layer between the proletariats and the aristocrats in the decades after 1848 the bourgeoisie and aristocratic classes had essentially merged into a new ruling class. In their place, a new middle layer had come into existence, as Bernstein noted in 1905: “Between the bourgeoisie proper and the working class are a great intermediary strata or classes whose interests incline partly towards one camp and partly towards the other.” This strata included “the army of officials of all kinds, holders of so-called free professions, and the mass of retailers, petty managers, and smallholders as well as intellectuals whose high society status belies their often meagre income levels.”

This was the emergence of what Barbara and John Ehrenreich would in 1977 label “the Professional Managerial Class”, a new layer of educated professionals and bureaucrats who were technically proletarian because they made their primary income through wage labor but on the whole secured a higher salary and social status than industrial workers and as a result often had a condescending, paternal attitude towards them and a greater fondness for maintaining the status quo. (In Bernstein’s time many of these professionals were actually petty bourgeois “free professionals”, but increasingly as the 20th century went on, professionals like doctors and lawyers increasingly found themselves working for wages rather than themselves.)

And, with the SPD having grown to the point where it could pay its party functionaries at a level to attract educated professionals, it began to see them take over. And these new ‘socialist’ functionaries grasped onto Bernstein’s revisionism as a cover for making ‘practical’ moves that might play into popular capitalist or conservative rhetoric, such as embracing nationalism or colonialism.

Indeed, the conservatives and capitalists saw in nationalism a survival strategy against the growing power of the internationalist socialists, and used it to paint them as unpatriotic and traitorous, and increasingly resorting to conspiracies portraying socialism as a Jewish plot to undermine country and society. (This despite the fact that most of the SPD’s leadership were not Jewish, eg. August Bebel, Karl Kautsky, Karl Liebknecht, Friedrich Ebert, etc.). Thus the SPD’s embrace of nationalism and move towards the center helped play into the hands of their enemies.

Still, SPD membership expanded along with the trade unions it supported. The SPD received the most votes in every German federal election from 1890 to 1912, but never had a majority of seats in the Reichstag thanks to an undemocratic electoral system that favored rural votes over urban ones (something that should sound familiar to Americans today). And by 1912, the SPD had grown to a truly remarkable organization, including thousands of employees, 90 daily papers, schools, women’s organizations, libraries, reading societies, leisure organizations, and representatives embedded in most of the major unions in the country, forming in many ways a kind of “state-within-a-state” of Germany. The true revisionists could see this apparatus as evidence of a socialist society growing peacefully within a capitalist one, while the revolutionaries could dream of it forming the organizational core of the government to follow the revolution. Indeed, at the time the SPD was by far the largest and most powerful socialist organization in the world, and despite its slide towards compromise and revisionism it was believed by many that the global revolution would begin in Germany.

Ironically, the SPD leadership’s new direction often put these ‘revisionists’ at odds with Bernstein himself, who recoiled at them subordinating worker power and socialist aims in the name of supposed ‘practicality’. For example, as the trade unions gained more recognition and acceptance as part of industrial manufacture, the issue came up as to whether it was acceptable to use mass strike—that is the kind of strikes that extend to a national level and can paralyze an economy—to secure worker’s aims. The new, practical SPD leaders were willing to make this concession to the ruling class in favor of more moderate reforms, especially as capitalist and government leaders railed against the mass strike as horrifying and unpatriotic. Bernstein, meanwhile, joined the Orthodox Marxists in praising the mass strike as one of the most useful tools workers had to win major concessions against intolerable conditions. Thus Bernstein found himself increasingly isolated within his own party, rejected by both traditional Marxists as well as the ‘practical’ bureaucrats who had no use for his idealism.

The confluence of rising economic power and nationalist sentiment finally broke on the shores of the First World War, and when it did it tore the SPD in two. The SPD leadership joined the rest of the political establishment in a wave of patriotic fervor, supporting the war effort that the Kaiser promised would be over before autumn 1914. Bernstein, however, as with the mass strike issue, found himself in agreement with the more traditional Marxists who saw the war as an imperialist effort that sacrificed the lives of the poor for the aims of the ruling class. Ultimately, this caused Bernstein and the other anti-war socialists quit the party entirely and form their own Independent Social Democratic Party (Unabhängige Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands or USPD).

Four years later, with the war effort in tatters, the same mass public who’d so enthusiastically embraced it at the beginning flooded the streets demanding an end. Joined by masses of defecting military regiments, this protest turned into a full-on revolt. The emperor abdicated, and the chancellor handed the reigns of the country to the leader of the SPD, Friedrich Ebert. Against all expectations, the socialists were suddenly and with relatively little bloodshed in charge of Germany. Ebert declared the country a republic. At around the same time on the other side of Berlin, USPD leader Karl Liebknecht declared the country a socialist republic. The seeds of a showdown between two different visions of the future had been planted.

We should pause for a moment here to talk about council democracy as a form of government. Inspired largely by the Paris Commune of 1871, the concept is relatively simple—a government formed by a series of successively larger, democratically elected workers’ councils. A steelworker might vote for a representative to a local steelworkers council, which would in turn elect delegates to a regional council, which would in turn elect delegates to a national council. (There’s different ways to organize this, and ways to account for people who aren’t workers, but this is the general idea.) And workers councils could also be formed before a revolution that gave them power, as a kind of cross between a union and a political action group, and ultimately aid the process of transition. With the councils in control of businesses and the people in control of the councils, one would have a socialist, democratic government in which the workers directly controlled the means of production.

Workers councils had begun to be formed in earnest in Russia after the failed revolution of 1905, and when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Russian government 1917, it was council democracy they were ostensibly creating, putting the Russian word for council in the name of their new state: ‘soviet’. Of course, in the face of civil war and revolt from other leftist political parties, Lenin had suspended the ‘democratic’ part of the system along with freedom of speech, transforming his ‘council democracy’ into just another form of state capitalism.

The German socialists criticized Lenin for this betrayal of principles. Rosa Luxemberg and Eduard Bernstein were fierce ideological opponents, but both of them repeatedly framed socialism and democracy as being coextensive; as Luxemberg put it, “there is no socialism without democracy, there is no democracy without socialism”.

The German socialists now saw themselves in a position to do council democracy properly. In the wake of the German revolution, workers councils had sprouted up all over the country, and it seemed inevitable with the socialists in charge of the government that they would simply become the government. Indeed, this had already happened in the German province of Bavaria as well as Hungary. And socialists believed that Germany’s socialist revolution would not only help secure the new Soviet Union’s survival, but be the key event in setting off the global Marxist revolution that would finally end the era of capitalism. And if it failed, as Lenin put it in 1918, “At all events, under all conceivable circumstances, if the German revolution does not come, we are doomed.”

However, unlike his predecessor in the leadership of the SPD, Bebel, Friedrich Ebert was a consummate professional bureaucrat and no revolutionary. He saw in the Russian Revolution a cautionary tale, and saw in Liebknecht a potential Lenin who might sweep away democracy and civil rights in one rebellious stroke and plunge the country into a civil war as ruinous as the one then engulfing the former Russian Empire. If anything, the capitalist class in Germany was far more wealthy and powerful than those in still-quasi-feudal Russia, and their wartime enemies were already bearing down on them and would like nothing better then an excuse to overthrow the government by force and put whoever they pleased in charge. And so Ebert, the leader of the world’s largest socialist party, said he hated the idea of socialist revolution “like he hated sin”.

But revolutionaries were filling the streets, and when Ebert ordered military units to return to Berlin and disarm revolutionary paramilitaries, the units refused and simply dispersed. In order to secure control of the situation, he formed a “Council of People’s Deputies” to govern the country and invited the USPD to join it in a junior partnership. However, after Ebert repeatedly used the council to put down socialist revolts around the country, much of the USPD quit the council. (Bernstein himself stayed on in the sinecure post of Assistant Secretary to the Treasury, and fruitlessly begged the USPD members to stay, have solidarity, and trust the democratic process.)

After the Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin had renamed the Bolsheviks the ‘Communist Party’, reviving a semi-dormant word that evoked the Manifesto of 1848. Following suit, these disaffected USPD members formed their own firmly revolutionary Communist Party of Germany. And in January of 1919, the Communists broke out in open revolt against Ebert’s council.

Unfortunately, unlike the Bolsheviks, who’d been an illegal organization devoted to violent revolution for almost their whole existence, the German Social Democrats had been long integrated into the political establishment and were not at all prepared to coordinate a military operation against their own government. While the revolutionaries managed to take over parts of Berlin, they then spent about four days basically milling about while their leadership frantically debated the next course of action.

Ebert, meanwhile, had learned his lesson about trusting the regular German military. Instead (and while Bernstein characteristically pleaded with him to meet with the revolutionaries and find a peaceful solution), Ebert and his crew turned to the proto-fascist mercenary company the Freikorps, who reveled in brutally putting down the rebellion and smashing as many socialists as they could. They followed this up by hunting down the hiding places of Karl Liebknecht (who’d helped plan the revolt) and Rosa Luxemburg (who’d had nothing to do with it, but was the other most well-known Communist leader) and extrajudicially beat and murder them.

Ebert then put Berlin under a martial law administered by the Freikorps, sweeping any remaining revolutionaries off the streets*.* In the months that followed, Ebert’s government would crush the socialist governments of Bavaria and the city of Bremen, violently shut down down the nascent Workers’ Executive Council and most of the other workers’ councils, and massacre strikers and revolutionary military units, with around 3,000 summary executions being carried out in March of 1919 alone. The socialist revolution had been thoroughly broken, and in its place Germany had the Weimar Republic, led for the moment by a Social Democratic party that had gutted much of its own base and organizations as well as its most passionate and inspiring leaders and aligned itself firmly with the conservatives and bourgeoisie in the name of order and stability and preserving as much as possible the structure, apparatus, and ruling class of the German Empire.

There’s a myth that Hitler was democratically elected. In fact, in his efforts to both shore up his own power and maintain continuity, Ebert had given the German presidency (his position) many of the unilateral powers previously enjoyed by the Emperor, including the ability to appoint whomever he wanted as chancellor. In 1933, the Nazis were a minority party in the Reichstag, but when then president, conservative Paul von Hindenburg, failed to form a coalition government, he decided to make Hitler (who’d never even held elected to office) the chancellor thinking he’d be easy to manipulate and help keep the socialists in check given their resurgence in popularity in the face of the Great Depression. Instead, Hitler used arson at the Reichstag building as an excuse to jail many of his political opponents, and then filled the Reichstag with armed blackshirts and forced the representatives to grant him dictatorial powers he insisted he needed to fight the communist threat. Further, Hitler might have been stopped back in 1923 when he attempted to overthrow the government in Munich. However, Ebert’s SPD had done nothing to change the judiciary, which was populated almost to a man with reactionary monarchists who resented the republic and sympathized with the Nazis, allowing Nazis who murdered communists to go free while the reverse would get death or hard labor. And so Hitler only served nine months in prison when convicted of literal treason, and no measures were taken to prevent him from holding public office afterwards.

In other words, in addition to drastically weakening the SPD and leftist groups that might have resisted the Nazis, Ebert’s desire to maintain as much of the status quo as possible directly created the conditions that allowed the Nazis to take power.

Bernstein himself had returned the Reichstag following the resumption of elections. But he complained bitterly that no one listened to him anymore and spent the Weimar period politically isolated and ignored, writing socialist history books and giving ever more impassioned and futile speeches about the dangers of both Stalinist bolshevism and the rising threat of the Nazis. He died three weeks before Hitler took power, banned the SPD, arrested and/or executed its leaders, and set about committing genocide against his whole ethnic group.

Leftists love raking over counterfactuals about what would have happened if the Communists had actually succeeded in taking over Germany in 1919. Leibknicht and Luxemberg were not the proponents of centralization and vanguardism that Lenin was and fierce critics of his abolition of democracy, so they might’ve avoided Lenin’s authoritarian trap. At the same time, during the Russian Civil War, Britain, France, and the US invaded Russia to assist the White Army and the Communist victory in that war defied all expectations at the time. There’s no reason to think that the allies wouldn’t also invade a Red Germany and whether they could pull off the same unlikely win that the Bolsheviks did is anyone’s guess. In any case, it seems unlikely that Red Germany would’ve set off the cascade of revolutions the Communists imagined, with Marxism embracing the world. The British, French, and US governments weren’t weak in the way that Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, or the Ottoman Empire were at the end of the War, and it’s hard to imagine workers uprisings finding success there even if financed by Germany and the Soviet Union. As Lenin put it, to have a revolution you first have to have a ‘revolutionary situation’. If Germany, with the largest and most organized socialists in the world couldn’t manage a Marxist revolution at a moment of governmental collapse, how could it happen in the rest of the developed world?

[A correction here: It’s true that when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government (which in turn had overthrown the Tsar a few months earlier), the allied powers of the US, Britain, and France joined the White Army’s effort and invaded Russia.However, their goal was actually less to overthrow the Bolsheviks per se (though Winston Churchill, then merely a Conservative MP, in particular was chomping at the bit for it), but to put people back in power that would get the Russians back into the War, since the Bolsheviks had pulled out. Once the war was actually over, the Allies withdrew their forces because their reason for being there was gone. Thus, it’s entirely possible, even likely, that if the Germans had become Communist, as long as they’d still surrendered to the Allies, they could’ve stayed in power. Now, there certainly were other challenges they’d have faced—Bernstein, for example, was firm in his belief that council democracy was unworkable in Germany—but Communism going the distance there is not nearly so unlikely as I supposed.]

In the end the revolutionary efforts of the German Communists and the revolutionary councils only amounted to an excuse for a reactionary crackdown, much as they had in 1848. And after the German Communist revolution failed, the Soviet Union worked to make every Communist revolution that came after take a distinctly Leninist/Stalinist form, often (such as during the Spanish Civil War) actively destroying non-Stalinist revolutionary socialist movements.

When the SPD reemerged after the Second World War, far weaker and with most of its institutions shattered, they were not only led by the same breed of professional bureaucrats but caught up in a Cold War that found their country literally divided in half. They ultimately removed all mention of Marxism and the abolition of capitalism from their platform in 1959. And this trend followed with much of the ‘Social Democratic’ Parties of Europe. Thus “Social Democracy” came to mean a center-left position where capitalism is preserved with a strong safety net, unions, and similar reforms to counteract its worst effects. “Democratic Socialism”, meanwhile, came to be associated with Bernstein-style gradual dismantling of capitalism through peaceful, democratic means (with those means often overlapping with ‘social democracy’), and “Communism” with revolutionary Marxism, or at least the psuedo-Marxism crafted by Stalin. And today across the world, even in modern so-called ‘Communist’ states like China, most countries resemble some sort of mixed economy where capitalist enterprises share duties with government-owned ones and cooperatives coupled with welfare states funded by progressive taxation.

And as the 20th century wore on, much as Bernstein had predicted, working class wages and living conditions steadily improved, at least for a while. And the size of the professional-managerial class exploded, as ever more of the working class gained higher educations, spurred on in the US by the GI Bill, resulting in a five-fold increase in college graduates between 1946 and 1950. The social democratic status quo (known in America as “liberalism”, which can be confusing for people from countries where “liberalism” describes something closer to libertarianism) became the core of the Professional-Managerial Class ideology.

As mentioned, generally speaking the PMC are technically proletarian and not the people who own the bulk of capital. But because of their education and professionalism, they often come to think of themselves as a technocratic elite who know better than the grubby, ignorant masses. At the same time, while they’re often put in positions of power in executive suites and the government, and are usually the ones creating the media and crafting educational programs, they regularly come into conflict with the people who actually own the businesses and therefore run the economy. In America, this manifests for example in billionaires like the Koch Brothers or Rupert Murdoch spending fortunes to convince poor white people that the PMC Democrats in the cities are ‘rich elites’ who want to take their stuff and give it to poor minorities, substituting class war for culture war in order to secure the tax cuts and lack of regulation they know are massively unpopular. And so the Republican party becomes this curious marriage between actually wealthy capitalists, petty bourgeois small business owners and landlords, and a segment of poor whites trained up on resentment and traditionalism, who pit themselves against PMC Democrats, minorities, and everyone else. But of course, the PMC aren’t interested in fundamentally changing a system that’s treated them well, and so give in to Ebert’s impulse to change as little as possible in the name of ‘practicality’ and ‘stability’, becoming the party of ‘nothing will fundamentally change’ even while everything else is changing all around them. And so an actually-conservative bureaucratic establishment gets painted as “left wing” by reactionaries posing as conservatives. And this besides the fact that given the current state of campaign finance and economic orthodoxy, Democrats inevitably find themselves with their own capitalist masters to report to.

The right wing’s accusations of the PMC Democrats representing “educated urban elites” resonates because there’s truth in it, even though billionaires and actually-rich people overwhelmingly support Republicans, and even though the majority of Democrats are not in the PMC. And often the response from PMC Democrats themselves is, well, why wouldn’t you want to do what educated people say?

(I’ll note here for full transparency that I should very much be counted among the PMC myself, and further I grew up in a comfortable household with PMC parents.)

A common understanding amongst the PMC is that poor whites as a mass vote against their own interests because they’re uneducated and easily swayed by disinformation, propaganda, culture war bullshit, and racism—the thesis of the book What’s the Matter with Kansas (2004) by Thomas Frank. This may be true for some, but in reality the majority of poor whites vote for Democrats. The public is not actually quite so foolish as we’re often lead to believe, despite article after article by hand-wringing, PMC journalists about why some random trucker or whatever is in the tank for Trump. The Republicans and their policies are actually wildly unpopular, which is why they’re so invested in voter suppression, gerrymandering, preserving undemocratic institutions like the electoral college, as well as in promoting a cynicism about our institutions as if nothing better is possible (a cynicism that perhaps backfired in the creation of candidate Trump, who’s popularity rides on the perhaps-true belief that nothing can really change in America without someone taking a sledgehammer to the whole system, even if his particular sledgehammer is made of nothing but grift). And yet you’ll still hear Democrats occasionally complain about ‘too much democracy’ or agreeing with radical Republicans that we need a ‘national divorce’ to get the Red States out of our hair, condemning those same states to continued undemocratic rule. Democrats are not running on fixing American Democracy (or, more accurately, creating it in the first place) or the ongoing threat to it from the right, and a big part of the reason why is that Democratic politicians think, as one Democratic strategist condescendingly put it, “most Americans can’t even spell democracy.”

In an episode of The Orville called “Majority Rule” (right, yes, we are actually talking about The Orville), the crew travels to a planet much like contemporary Earth except that things are run by ‘absolute democracy’. What this means in context is that everything from policy to criminal justice to facts themselves are juried by public vote, compared in the episode itself to the TV singing contest American Idol, in an elaborate metaphor for Cancel Culture and social media.

An away team goes to the planet to investigate the fate of two anthropologists who’ve disappeared. As with a lot of early Orville episodes, there seems to be a gap between the presumed Star Trek: The Next Generation-type competence of the crew and their actual behavior. The away team, despite ostensibly being under cover, makes basically no effort to understand the culture before going down, leading to an incident where one of them dry humps a statue unaware that this will get him downvoted and forced to make an “apology tour” where, if he can’t sufficiently win back public favor, he’ll get this world’s equivalent of a lobotomy.

(Contrast this, for example, to actual Next Generation stories where the crew made extensive efforts to hide themselves or understand what they were getting into before going incognito on an alien planet, for example “First Contact” (the episode, not the film) or Star Trek: Insurrection. It would be different if The Orville crew were supposed to be idiots who are terrible at their job, like the officers in Wellington Paranormal for example, or if they were like Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies who always succeeds in the end despite the fact that he’s an incompetent buffoon. But The Orville’s characters are often simultaneously supposed to be supremely competent overachievers and bumbling everymen/everywomen.)

At the climax of “Majority Rule”, the crew confronts one of the people of the society and tries to explain why ‘absolute democracy’ is bad, saying condescendingly, “A voice should be earned, not given away,” and dismissing the will of the people as the will of the “mob”. There’s even a cringe-worthy dig at ‘identity politics’, where another character is at risk of downvoting because she’s wearing a hat associated with a particular culture, which someone from that culture finds offensive.

The crew frees the imprisoned crewmember at the last moment by flooding the world’s network with deepfakes and social media hacking to create false narratives around his life. The message here, intentional or not, is that manipulating public opinion with misinformation is good as long as it’s the right people doing it for the right reasons. The problem is that the dumb public is so easily swayed, not that a few people have so much power over our media by virtue of their wealth.

It’s not hard to see how someone, particularly someone with a certain sort of position of privilege, might look around and decide this story is a good idea. MacFarlane said he got the idea after reading the book So You Have Been Publicly Shamed, which talks about people whose lives were ruined over things like posting something stupid to Twitter. And the narrative around the election of 2016 and the role of social media in it blames Trump at least in part on the ‘post truth’ bubble in which many people seem to have found themselves, as they’re swallowed down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories.

But of course, while it’s true that many people were taken in by billionaire and oligarch-funded disinformation and conspiracies around Trump, most people weren’t. Just as with the myth that the Nazis were elected democratically, Trump became president not because of democracy but because of anti-democratic flaws in the system. And while it’s true that public shaming can be a problem, so-called “Cancel Culture” also delivered criminals like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby to justice after the actual justice system and social norms failed for decades, actually creating meaningful social change. But this complexity is completely lost in the blunt critique of “Majority Rule”.

This episode, in other words, exposes The Orville’s simple disdain for the ability of ordinary people to make good decisions and its preference for an educated elite of highly skilled individuals, like (ostensibly) the crew of the The Orville, a misanthropic, cynical, and condescending view of the public at large as stupid, cruel, and sheep-like at the heart of the PMC worldview. In Star Trek into Socialism I talked about how while the Federation is portrayed as a representative democracy, we spend almost all our time in the strictly hierarchical Star Fleet. And this hierarchy is portrayed as intensely meritocratic, with authority and responsibility bestowed based on experience and proven ability.

This, not democracy, is the actual PMC fantasy.

Both The Orville and the universe of Star Trek may be post-scarcity, post-money, and post-poverty, but the fantasy you step into when you put on one of these shows or movies isn’t one of democratic cooperation but of meritocratic technocracy, of living in a world managed by the well-intentioned and hyper-competent. And in the final episode of Season 3 of The Orville, it’s this world of ‘absolute democracy’ that the person escapes from and desires so desperately to fix.

The PMC don’t want the common people participating in their government, they want them to shut up and listen to educated experts who know best what’s good for them. And it’s not that education and expertise are bad, they’re great. It’s not that the people at large aren’t often being fed garbage information by selfish actors taking advantage of their relative lack of education. Information from real experts should be made available to the public by a media answerable to the public and designed to actually serve them. But there’s an assumption that people are fundamentally stupid and don’t know what’s good for them at the heart of this analysis, a nasty cynicism embedded in much of our cultural rhetoric. This is what we’re amused by when we laugh at George Carlin’s joke, “Think about how stupid the average person is and then know that half the people are stupider than that.”

But in reality, people are smarter than they’re given credit for, even in the face capital’s constant propaganda.

To pick one telling example of how this often works, when Bill Clinton gutted the American welfare state, he justified it by pointing to opinion polling that showed overwhelming support for welfare reform. This support had been in many ways created by a huge campaign by the right including 8 years of Reagan complaining about “moochers” and non-existent ‘welfare queens’. However, the way Clinton reformed Welfare, by strictly limiting the amount of money people could receive, how long they could receive it, and implementing work requirements (with horrific results) wasn’t actually what the majority of people wanted when you actually talked to them. According to a paper by Kathleen Kost and Frank W. Munger published by the New York Law School in 1996, while people did support welfare reform, “six in ten of those polled favored better job training for the unemployed even if it meant raising taxes, while seven in ten opposed time limits on welfare as long as welfare recipients worked for their benefits. Other polls have shown that the public supports providing day care for welfare recipients and continuing benefits for adolescent mothers.”

In other words, people didn’t actually want the supposedly popular, bipartisan policy they actually got.

As I also pointed out in Star Trek into Socialism, the public today overwhelming supports left-wing policies like Medicare for All (yes, essentially the same service Germans have taken for granted since 1883), and so it’s actually the undemocratic machinery of the American Republic that’s standing in the way of progress that an actual ‘majority rule’ situation might have given us long ago.

And when folks complain to the political establishment about the structural problems standing in the way of what the people actually want, they’re just as likely to receive a shrug and wave of their hands at how impractical it all is and we’ll just have to settle. Consider, for example, when Hillary Clinton was asked if she’d support Medicare for All during her presidential campaign, her response was that it was “the right goal” but “it can’t pass”, and in fact will “never, ever come to pass”. In other words, this policy, supported by the vast majority of Americans, wasn’t worth fighting for because it wasn’t practically possible, and rather than an indictment of our system and proof it needs radical change, this is merely “the way things are”.

Of course, it’s not that the PMC are unaware of the shortcomings of wealth inequality and capital accumulation at the top. For example, The Orville contains a plot line about the Kaylons, a race of artificially intelligent androids who long ago murdered the cruel creators who used them as slave labor. The ultimate trigger for the genocide comes when the big boss decides to deal with misbehaving androids by installing a “pain” chip. In the end though, the blame is shifted to the dumb public who will go along with it, and the only person we see objec is, tellingly, a bureaucratic functionary, who has no response to the claim that the public is too dumb to care.

The traditional PMC, with their belief in educated technocracy benefiting everyone, has always had a fundamental conflict with employers who want to maximize profits at all costs. And yet as a group they fell head-over-heels for the Neoliberal order in the late 70s, turning into yuppies and Clintonesque figures who allowed themselves to be convinced that there might be something to all this ‘unleashing entrepreneurial capitalism’ and ‘finding market solutions to problems’ business.

And you’ll never guess what the results were.

On the one hand, the new Neoliberal order was great for the PMCs at the top of the pyramid. Upper management and executives were granted substantial stock options that sent their earnings into the stratosphere. If you want to know how exactly CEO pay increased from 20 times that of the average worker in 1965 to nearly 400 times in 2021, it’s because they started receiving the bulk of their earnings as stock rather than wages. Steve Jobs’ “official” salary was $1 a year, but his stock grants made him one of the richest people on Earth. But, of course, this fundamentally changes their relationship to the means of production. If they’re receiving most of their income from capital ownership rather than wages, they’re not proletarian at all anymore. They’re bourgeoisie.

Meanwhile, for the rest of the PMC and especially in fields like media production (particularly journalism), education, research, and for people at the lower ranks of the corporate structure, things changed the other way, as capitalists hollowed out wages and pushed overworking and ‘grind culture’. And all this while the cost of a university education, which traditionally granted membership in the PMC, exploded by nearly 500% since 1985 causing graduates to be chained to ever larger debts, only to find on graduation that the well-paying jobs they were promised don’t actually exist. And as AI and outsourcing come for white collar work the way automation came for manufacturing work in decades pastthis trend looks only likely to continue.

In other words, much of the former educated elite are being pushed back into the same condition as the rest of the proletariat, disintegrating the layer of practical bureaucrats and professionals that worked so hard to keep politics from moving into radicalism. As Barbara and John Ehrenreich, who coined the term ‘Professional/Managerial Class’ in the 70s, themselves said when they returned with an update in 2013, the PMC is dying.

In 2014 economist Thomas Piketty published the aptly-named Capital in the 21st Century, which used mainstream economics techniques and research in order to show that reducing taxes and allowing more wealth to accumulate will, surprise surprise, actually result in increasing inequality, poverty, and lack of economic mobility. However, far from a Marxist inevitable slide towards calamity, Picketty reminds us that these trends can be reversed as they were in the past when Eduard Bernstein first took note of them. We don’t even have to look as far back as the great post-World War II social democratic compromise to see evidence of this. A study published by the National Bureau of Economic Researchrecently showed that, while wage inequality has steadily increased over the last four decades, that increase had reversed by one quarter during the pandemic (specifically between the top 90th percentile and bottom 10th percentile of wage earners). What caused this reduction in wage inequality?

There were some aspects that weren’t directly related to economic policy. For example, so many workers getting laid off or furloughed at the beginning of the pandemic forced them to try and find something better instead of staying in the same low-paying job. Closing the borders and years of anti-immigrant policies have reduced the number of (often undocumented) migrant workers willing to work for low wages. However, the bulk of this improvement is due to the suite of spending bills passed in the first year of the pandemic, including enhanced and expanded unemployment insurance, economic impact payments, aid to states and localities, child tax credits, and temporary protection from eviction. All of these things allowed people to find better jobs, get education for better jobs, relocate for better jobs, start new small businesses, and so on. And this is just in the United States which had far fewer of these sorts of interventions than most of the developed world.

Of course, the response from the employer class has not been celebration. Instead, we get a parade of complaints that “nobody wants to work anymore” rather than businesses adjusting to the simple supply-and-demand equation and raising their wages until they can attract the workers they need. And the government has responded in turn by ending or allowing to expire all the aid programs from the pandemic, and further in many states actually relaxing child labor laws so that children can be exploited for lower wages, the latest salvo in the Right’s chipping away at the protections of the Progressive and New Deal eras (and eerily on the same battlefield in which the very first rights were won with the British Factory Acts).

Meanwhile, the Fed has responded to inflation by making efforts to actually reduce wages and increase unemployment, threatening to role back the meager gains already accomplished, even though there’s ways to fight inflation that don’t require us to hike up interest rates and punch the economy in the face.

Marx had a term for these sorts of policies and rhetoric, and its a term we should bring back to people’s lips: class war. It may not be conceived as such by the people doing it. The business owners crying about the cost of labor are just looking at their bottom lines. The trained economists at the Federal Reserve are simply acting in the Professional-Managerial tradition of technocracy, believing their education gives them the clarity of knowledge to act in the most rational fashion, even if the actual results of that supposed ‘rationality’ are increased human suffering (which they themselves admit when they say euphemistically that these policies cause “pain”). But the result is the same, the ownership class and their allies acting in the interests of the ‘economy’, which is defined not as what’s best for labor or for the people at large, but as what makes the money go ‘round.

When Republicans say that the national debt is a huge crisis and that we have to cut social programs for the poor and elderly to deal with it, and then turn around and celebrate cutting taxes on the rich which sends the deficit to the moon, what is that if not class war? When Google fires 12,000 workers months after a stock buy-back to enrich its shareholders that would have paid those employees salaries for the next 27 years, what is that if not class war?

However, as wages at the very bottom have come up, as union organizing and almost as important awareness of union organizing begins to reverse trends of union destruction of the last forty years, and pivotally as the PMC who governed the 20th century have been steadily destroyed as a class, we seem to now stand at a crossroads.

And so we finally come back to the question with which we started: how will capitalism end?

Back in the 1910s, Bernstein would draw a loopy line of hills and troughs to illustrate Marx’s prediction of successive, downward trending crises as capitalism buckled under its own contradictions.

He would then contrast that with a line illustrating what his data showed happening, hills and troughs actually getting smaller and less frequent as capitalism stabilized and gradually evolved into socialism.

Of course, Bernstein’s model did not anticipate the massive trough of the Great Depression, but afterwards the industrialized world saw a period of social democratic reforms creating exactly Bernstein’s predicted stability until the 1970s. Forty years of Neoliberal policies of tax cuts and deregulation, however, have seen forty years of the return of frequent economic troughs and with them increased inequality.

The four largest stock market crashes since the Great Depression all happened in the last forty years, with three just in the last twenty five years.

The problem both with Orthodox Marxist historical materialism and Bernstein’s materialist ‘evolutionary socialism’ is that they put far too much faith in forces outside of our control to produce some teleological end. Today, its’ not as hard to imagine as it once was that some sort of catastrophic collapse is in our future. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

We find ourselves in a period of realignment on a scale we haven’t seen since the 1970s. The Neoliberal order is crumbling, replaced by a kind of economic nationalism that sees the resurgence of tariffs and other protectionist policies which go against the Neoliberal demand for free trade and open markets. John Birch-style paranoia and conspiracy has completed its takeover of the Republican party, with the result of them largely abandoning their ‘small government’, ‘low taxes’ rhetoric in favor of moral panics to dictate Christian fundamentalism and railing against vaccines and climate science. Meanwhile, the old guard of PMC Democratic leaders are on their last legs, with the new generation more likely to follow the Squad into more genuinely socialistic thinking, with young people in this country ever-more moving in their direction in the face of a cost of living crisis and lack of opportunities.

The current conservative association of socialism with government control actually gives us a useful tool. American unions are approved of by 71% of Americans. Membership in the Democratic Socialists of America has grown from almost nothing to 50,000 people, with openly affiliated candidates like AOC winning elections. Worker cooperatives are barely on conservative’s radar and not seen by the public as socialist at all.

And so the government could almost without friction make policies to boost cooperative businesses the way they already boost capitalist ones, as Bernie Sanders did with the WORK act which created a fund to help create cooperatives and passed through congress without much comment. We can help create cooperative associations like Spain’s Mondragón, which employs over 80,000 people. If we can’t resurrect quality public housing, we can help create cooperatively owned housing with internal rules that prevent prices from raising like Co-Op City in the Bronx, which houses over 60,000 people.

We can help create consumer co-ops like Norway’s OBOS, a housing developer owned entirely by over 500,000 homeowners whose homes they’ve built. Instead of non-profit organizations being run by wealthy boards of directors who are essentially answerable to no one but donors, we can encourage the creation of non-profits owned and managed by their own employees. Instead of sports teams which will leave for whatever new city gives them the best tax breaks, you can have a team like the Green Bay Packers which is owned by the Green Bay community with no one allowed to own more than 200,000 shares. Consumer cooperatives aren’t even hugely different from the joint-stock corporation that are the foundation of capitalist corporate structure, it’s just a matter of structuring stock ownership and distribution so that instead of a few capitalists being able to monopolize ownership, it can be more evenly distributed among the people who the company directly serves. This is actually why the joint-stock corporate structure was so exciting to Marx, it proved that the owners (the stockholders) weren’t actually necessary to run the business of a corporation, and therefore could be eliminated entirely (as in a worker coop) or replaced with the customers themselves (as in a consumer cooperative) or by the people in general (as in public ownership), or even, ultimately, perhaps allowing us to move beyond our parochial conceptions of private property entirely.

While we’re doing this we can also put the focus from merely forming unions and having them fight for rights, to putting union leaders on corporate boards of directors to give them direct influence over a company’s direction, as most countries in Europe already do to greater or lesser extents.

These things already exist in the world, we just have to make a lot more of them. We already live in a mixed economy, where publicly-owned businesses controlled (ostensibly) democratically by the people, worker and consumer coops, and other organizational structures rub shoulders with the traditional capitalist model of ownership by wealthy shareholders. Moving to a cooperative society is far less radical and unthinkable than capitalists would like you to believe it is.

And by building up cooperatives, unions, and socialist organizations, what we do is create a power base from which to operate politically, one with membership and financing to influence the government and economy the same ways the capitalist power base does today. One that can work to wrest political and economic power away from the capitalist establishment.

This isn’t something that will happen overnight. Capitalism took literal centuries to displace Feudalism in a process that encompassed numerous wars and both violent and nonviolent regime changes as well as peaceful reforms, and also saw lots of reactionary backsliding before it was done. I honestly think one of the key mistakes of Marxism is to assume that the break between economic systems would be sudden, clean, and total.

Attempts to violently seize power through revolution thus far have largely lead to either reactionary backlash or authoritarian vanguardism. Bernstein made a mistake in putting so much faith in the mechanisms of liberal democracy and the bureaucracy of an organization like the SPD to always gradually move things in the right direction.

Cooperatives still represent a tiny percentage of employers, but they’re growing with around 1,000 worker cooperativesand 65,000 consumer cooperatives in the US alone and around three million cooperatives globally. And while capitalist corporations have become cooperative in the past it’s almost unheard of for things to go the other way.

Make no mistake further crises are coming and as global warming continues to accelerate these crises are liable to get progressively worse. However, previous crises have created opportunities for radical change, whether the Great Depression providing the mandate for FDR’s New Deal or the 2008 crash giving the Democrats control of the White House and Congress with a supermajority in the senate. In 2008, though, we didn’t have the kind of organizational pressure we need to accomplish more than a Neoliberal market solution to health care, the barest possible minimum of lukewarm progressive accomplishment literally cribbed from a Republican governor (that the Republican party nevertheless proceeded to paint as pure communism). What 2008 does prove though is that a big enough crisis can hand one party decisive control even when that country is already hugely polarized.

There’s a saying in Latin America that the United States is the only country where socialism could actually work because it’s the only country that couldn’t be interfered with by the United States.

So here’s how capitalism ends: a series of crises in which left parties in liberal democracies are given power. Those parties could pursue policies like universal health care, a national job guarantee, or universal basic income, and they should, but the pressure must be on for them to also create cooperative ownership in the economy, things on the scale, for example, of the way the US government today guarantees basically every mortgage and allows homeowners to write off their mortgage payments on their taxes to encourage people to buy houses. We could, for example, make it easier for businesses undergoing bankruptcy protection to be taken over by their workers, guaranting loans the same we now guarantee mortgages. We could make it easier for grants and loans to be given to community land trusts, organizations owned by communities that buy up properties for the people.

These cooperatives and organizations could then take advantage of the same tools capitalist organizations do to tilt the government and media in their favor, in a snowball effect that could massively increase their prevalence and power in society and in the economy. Cooperatives and political organizations themselves could also assist in creating more cooperatives by aiding workers to buy businesses and providing loans to create new cooperatives.

A situation in which all capitalist owned businesses are replaced with cooperative ones which continue to compete in a market economy is a form of what’s called market socialism. Market socialism has its own issues, of course, but there’s no question it would be an improvement over market capitalism. And perhaps ultimately these cooperative businesses might discover they can participate with each other rather than compete, working for the public benefit rather than mere profit and making and distributing goods in a fully cooperative or participatory economy. I don’t know. It’s not really my job to create recipes for the cook shops of the future any more than it was Marx’s. But as climate change makes life progressively more miserable for the majority, the minority of wealthy capitalists are unlikely to feel much of a pinch with their wealth to insulate them. Only by expanding control of our economy democratically to the people can we hope to give the people the power they need to steer us away from the cliff. Otherwise, even if capitalism isn’t destroyed by its inherent contradictions, it might be destroyed by the collapse of our ecosystem, and I have a hard time imagining that the end result of that catastrophe would be classless communism.

One thing I do know for sure is that there is no socialism without democracy, and there is no democracy without socialism.

Hey remember at the end of the last episode when I said that I was going to make shorter more frequent episodes? Yeah, I guess I failed at that. I just couldn’t get Bernstein out of my head and kept reading and writing and rewriting until what I had took shape into this. I hope you liked it. I really am truly I promise going to try to do some more frequent, shorter episodes again. For real guys.

As always there’s a bibliography in the show notes.

Yes, there will be excerpts of deleted material on the Patreon at patron.com/ericrosenfield, which you can get access to for as little as $1 an episode, and also get exclusive author’s notes, draft excerpts, and early access to episodes. There’s also a whole thing I wanted to get into here about the role of identity politics in all this, but it was too complicated and too much of a digression from the main point, so I’ll probably talk about it there.

I’d like to thank my Patrons: Kathryn Carruthers, Gabi Ghita, Hristo Kolev, Kevin Cafferty, Ulysse Pence, Wilma Ezekowitz, IndustrialRobot, Not Invader Zim, Jason Quackenbush, Arthur Rosenfield, and Nancy S. Rosen

Bibliography

My primary literary sources were:

  • The Preconditions of Socialism by Eduard Bernstein, 1899, edited and translated by Henry Tudor, 1993 (originally published in English as Evolutionary Socialism)
  • Eduard Bernstein on Socialism Past and Present: Essays and Lectures on Ideology, edited and translated by Marius S. Ostrowski, 2021
  • The Quest for Evolutionary Socialism by Manfred B. Steger, 1997
  • The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism by Peter Gay, 1952
  • The German Revolution 1917-1923 by Pierre Broué, 1971 (translation 2005)
  • The Manifesto of the Communist Party by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engles, 1848
  • Capital Vol. 1 by Karl Marx, 1867
  • Critique of the Gotha Programme by Karl Marx, 1875
  • “The Bourgeoisie and the Counter-Revolution” by Karl Marx, 1848
  • “Speech to the International Workingman’s Association” by Karl Marx, 1863
  • Socialism: Utopian and Scientific by Friedrich Engles
  • Anti-Dühring by Friedrich Engels, 1877
  • Reform or Revolution? by Rosa Luxemburg
  • “The Russian Revolution” by Rosa Luxemburg, 1918
  • Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty, 2014

Other sources:

  • Various episodes of The Orville and Star Trek that I’m not going to bother listing out
  • “Using Corporate Governance to Understand Socialism” by Matt Brunig, YouTube, 2023: https://youtu.be/MmeIGcI60oc?si=YgjhXtfe_XpRzEW9
  • Bismarck calling his welfare state “socialism”: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/bismarck-tried-end-socialisms-grip-offering-government-healthcare-180964064/
  • “The Professional Managerial Class” by Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich, 1977: https://library.brown.edu/pdfs/1125403552886481.pdf
  • “Death of a Yuppie Dream: The Rise and Fall of the Professional-Managerial Class” by Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich, 2013: https://www.rosalux.de/fileadmin/rls_uploads/pdfs/sonst_publikationen/ehrenreich_death_of_a_yuppie_dream90.pdf
  • “How Educational Differences are Widening America’s Political Rift”: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/08/us/politics/how-college-graduates-vote.html
  • Billionaires overwhelmingly support Republicans: https://qz.com/american-billionaires-political-spending-overwhelmingl-1849751449
  • 10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less by Garett Jones, 2020
  • What’s the Matter with Kansas by Thomas Frank, 2004
  • Majority of poor whites actually vote for Democrats: https://eprints.lse.ac.uk/65940/1/blogs.lse.ac.uk-Debunking%20the%20myth%20that%20poor%20whites%20vote%20against%20their%20interests%20for%20Republicans%5B1%5D.pdf
  • Complaining that America has “too much Democracy”: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/12/too-much-democracy-is-bad-for-democracy/600766/
  • The divide among Democrats over Democracy: https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2022/08/21/democrats-democracy-danger-midterms-00052748
  • “The Myth of the Welfare Queen”: https://newrepublic.com/article/154404/myth-welfare-queen
  • Clinton’s welfare reform had horrific results: https://www.vox.com/2016/6/20/11789988/clintons-welfare-reform
  • Paper showing that what people actually wanted for welfare reform wasn’t what they actually got: https://digitalcommons.nyls.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1840&context=fac_articles_chapters
  • The majority of Americans support left-wing policies: https://www.cnbc.com/2019/03/27/majority-of-americans-support-progressive-policies-such-as-paid-maternity-leave-free-college.html
  • Hillary Clinton saying that Medicare for All can’t pass: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/07/us/politics/hillary-clinton-elizabeth-warren-medicare.html, and would never pass: https://www.cnn.com/2016/01/29/politics/hillary-clinton-bernie-sanders-health-care/index.html
  • CEOs are paid nearly 400X their average worker: https://www.statista.com/statistics/261463/ceo-to-worker-compensation-ratio-of-top-firms-in-the-us/
  • College costs went up 500% since 1985: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-08-26/college-costs-surge-500-in-u-s-since-1985-chart-of-the-day
  • College graduates struggling to find jobs: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-05-19/can-i-get-a-job-college-grads-struggle-to-get-hired-in-2023
  • AI will cause job losses for white collar workers: https://www.itpro.com/technology/artificial-intelligence/ibms-ceo-just-said-the-quiet-part-out-loud-on-ai-related-job-losses
  • Capital by Thomas Piketty in 10 graphs: https://radioopensource.org/capital-in-10-graphs/
  • Wage inequality in the US reduced by 25% during the pandemic: https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w31010/w31010.pdf
  • More on the cause of the reduction in inequality and its causes: https://www.epi.org/publication/swa-wages-2022/
  • The Fed’s plan to increase unemployment: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/fed-interest-rate-hikes-unemployment-increase-layoffs-inflation/
  • You can fight inflation with targeted price controls rather than raising interest rates: https://www.project-syndicate.org/magazine/inflation-targeted-price-controls-alternative-to-interest-rate-hikes-by-isabella-m-weber-2023-03?barrier=accesspaylog
  • The rich celebrate tax cuts when previously they worried about the deficit: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-08-24/how-wall-street-learned-to-stop-worrying-about-the-debt-and-love-tax-cuts?leadSource=uverify%20wall
  • Google lays off 12,000 workers months after a stock buy-back that would have paid their salaries for the next 27 years: https://pluralistic.net/2023/10/03/not-feeling-lucky/
  • The result of Neoliberal policies on the economy: https://journals.openedition.org/regulation/7729
  • The movement from Neoliberalism to Economic Nationalism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bl6iepwdgrA
  • The current cost-of-living crisis: https://www.primerica.com/public/Fact_Sheet_Primerica_Financial_Security_Monitor_Q2_2022.pdf
  • 71% of Americans approve of unions: https://news.gallup.com/poll/398303/approval-labor-unions-highest-point-1965.aspx
  • The DSA has 50,000 members: https://www.economist.com/united-states/2018/08/30/socialism-in-america
  • Bernie Sanders’ WORK act promoting co-ops: https://www.sanders.senate.gov/press-releases/news-sanders-longstanding-legislation-to-help-workers-expand-employee-ownership-passes-the-senate-in-2023-omnibus/
  • Most countries in Europe have union reps on boards of directors to represent worker interests: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Worker_representation_on_corporate_boards_of_directors
  • Number of co-ops in the US: https://www.fiftybyfifty.org/2022/02/latest-worker-co-op-survey-shows-more-co-ops-but-fewer-workers/
  • About consumer co-ops: https://ncbaclusa.coop/resources/co-op-sectors/consumer-co-ops/
  • Capitalist corporations becoming co-ops: https://www.fastcompany.com/40572926/more-u-s-businesses-are-becoming-worker-co-ops-heres-why
  • How the US government guarantees mortgages: https://www.cbo.gov/system/files/2022-05/51297-2022-05-mortgages.pdf

Star Trek into Socialism

Or Who Deserves the Future

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Star Trek (1966-1969) was in many ways an exploration of the idea of utopia, of what happens when people look around and say ‘surely, we can do something better’. In episode after episode, the starship Enterprise encountered some paradise which would ultimately, inevitably, be revealed to be some sort of fiction, whether the totalitarian “unity” of “The Return of the Archons”, the brainwashed prisoners of “Dagger of the Mind”, or the computer-controlled primitives of “The Apple”. We also see a parade of strivers trying to find or create utopias, like the charismatic eugenicist Khan Noonian Soong in “Space Seed” or the band of hippy hijackers of “The Way to Eden”. However, the strange thing about all these flawed Utopias that separates Star Trek from most similar works of its type is that they all exist in contrast to the one utopian vision that actually works without catches or downsides, the Federation itself.

Admittedly in The Original Series the Federation was at best loosely sketched, merely backdrop to a show pitched as “Wagon Train to the stars”, which is to say a Western-style adventure show set in space. In fact, at first Captain James T. Kirk said he came from the “United Earth Space Probe Agency”, with the Federation only mentioned in episode 18. Still, even the words ‘United Earth’ implied a planet in which war was a thing of the past, and to underscore this the second season brought on a Russian (but not Soviet) crew member while in real life America was in the depths of the Cold War. Further, it’s made explicit that this future is one where racial and gender prejudices are a thing of the past (even if the primary leads were still white men (though one played a bi-racial alien), and there were at maximum precisely two non-whites in the bridge crew and one woman following the booting of Grace Lee Whitney after eight episodes).  In “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield”, Captain Kirk describes the Federation as a place where “we live in peace with full exercise of individual rights.” And in “Whom Gods Destroy”, he more poetically calls it “a dream that became a reality and spread throughout the stars.”

But it was only while engaging with fandom that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry discovered how this idea of a future free from the kind of strife and oppression of the present hit a nerve, particularly during the social and political tumult of the 1960s and 70s. And so after The Original Series‘ cancelation, the idea developed and churned in his mind until it’d blossomed into a fully moneyless, classless society. This version of the future made it to screen with Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987. As ship’s Counselor Deanna Troi describes to Mark Twain in the midst of a time travel escapade:

TROI: Poverty was eliminated on Earth a long time ago, and a lot of other things disappeared with it. Hopelessness, despair, cruelty.

TWAIN: Young lady, I come from a time when men achieve power and wealth by standing on the backs of the poor, where prejudice and intolerance are commonplace and power is an end unto itself. And you’re telling me that isn’t how it is anymore?

TROI: That’s right.

Over the course of the series, we discover that the Federation is a place not only where poverty is gone, but also the need to work to survive. Replicators produce  almost anything one can imagine from basically nothing, eliminating scarcity. A Federation citizen could join Starfleet and explore the stars if they wanted, or spend their life on an arts colony or a pleasure planet. People of the Federation have a kind of freedom most of us couldn’t imagine.

In a sense, though, there actually was a catch to Roddenberry’s imagined future, if not the one you might expect. Unlike in The Original Series, for The Next Generation he said that humans had matured not only out of poverty and want, but from interpersonal conflict itself. The people of the Federation would “never let their passions overwhelm them”, and he even included former lovers in the form of Commander Riker and Counselor Troi (who acted as the ship psychiatrist, because psychological maturity is an ongoing process) to show people who’d broken up but still remained friends without any animosity. (In other writing, Roddenberry demonstrates a fondness for polyamorous relationships as well, though there was only so much he could put into a prime time show in 1987.)

This notion has two major problems. The first and most obvious is that interpersonal conflict is one of the key drivers of contemporary drama, and so this edict constantly frustrated the show’s writers who had to come up with elaborate ways to prevent the show from becoming too repetitive and bland (and led to successive Star Trek shows increasingly including non-Federation cast members or, in the case of Enterprise, taking place before the creation of the Federation itself).

The second problem is philosophical. It creates the impression that in order to achieve economic freedom, one would need to almost shed one’s humanity, to become psychologically perfect and worthy. For Roddenberry, this was a natural extension of his conception of the Vulcans and The Original Series‘ most popular character, Mr. Spock. As a race, the Vulcans had perfected their minds through rigorous psychological training so that they could approach any of life’s problems from a place of perfect logic and reason.  And it’s easy to see how such an idea would appeal to someone like Roddenberry, who’s personal life could charitably be described as “messy”, including numerous affairs, divorce, drug addiction, and an intransigence and troublesomeness so severe it would get him successively removed from each of the three versions of Star Trek he’d created (The Original Series, the film series, and The Next Generation).

And so the implication is that to get to a utopian future its necessary to change ourselves first, that systemic change only arises from personal change. It’s also easy to read this as a kind of confirmation in general that building a society around cooperation rather than competition goes against ‘human nature’, that is our ‘natural’ human inclinations.

And these are notions that back to the birth of capitalism and the philosophical system that arose to justify it, and so in reality works against the utopian ideals it claims to represent. To understand why, let’s take a little slingshot around the sun and into a time warp.

Under Feudalism, class mobility was almost unheard of. All land legally belonged to the monarch, who parceled it out to nobles as fiefdoms, who in turn lived off the produce of the serfs and peasants in their fief. The dominant philosophical system of medieval Christianity taught an ethos of subservience to authority—peasant to lord, lord to monarch, and all before God and the Church—and greed and pride, those markers of growing above one’s station, were considered deadly sins.

However, with the rise of capitalism, the ostensibly peasant merchant class began gaining wealth on a level to rival the nobility for the first time, and with it power. A new philosophical framework emerged during what became known as the “Enlightenment”, one that emphasized the ideal of the “self-made man”, someone who through a combination of basic competence, grit, and inspiration, can master his own fate and rather than following the rules, bent them to his will and natural sense of justice. This is the archetype of James T. Kirk, a common man from Iowa so profoundly gifted that, leading his trusty crew, he can unwind and upend any false utopia he comes across. And in real life, it’s represented most fully by American founding father Benjamin Franklin, who went from an apprentice printer to a successful businessman, investor, inventor, public intellectual, and finally a revolutionary casting off the crown entirely in favor of a republic founded on Enlightenment ideals.

Franklin’s writing includes some of the earliest self-help material ever created. In The Way to Wealth, a collection of pithy adages culled from his regular almanac, Franklin advises hard work and industriousness in phrases like “early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy wealthy and wise”. His most fully realized self-help program however is found in his autobiography, which was required reading in American schools for generations. Here, Franklin describes how as a young man he made a list of 13 “virtues” that he felt he needed to follow in a “bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection”, including moderation, sincerity, and industry (described as: “Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions,” Franklin anticipating hustle culture). In a notebook, he made a grid with a column for each virtue and a line for each day, and would mark any day where he felt he’d made an offense against one of his virtues. (This pairing of industriousness with morality is what would later be described as the “protestant work ethic”.)

But there was a problem with these American notions of “liberty” and “freedom”, a contradiction in the heart of Enlightenment values most clearly expressed by Ben Franklin’s friend Thomas Jefferson writing “all men are created equal and endowed… with certain inalienable rights… among these are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” while simultaneously owning chattel slaves.

Feudalism was an awful and highly inequitable system. However, it had some characteristics that might be surprising to modern people who have been conditioned to think of capitalism as a kind of state of nature. As mentioned, all land legally belonged to the crown, and thus the state. (In practice, of course, the extent and reality of this legal principle varied based on region and time period, but the general idea stands.) For the vast majority of people, the peasantry, ownership of land wasn’t a concern. Serfs were forbidden from moving off their farms in any case, essentially treated as features of the property for the lord like a tree or a pond, and peasants and serfs often farmed and grazed “commons”, land shared by everyone. (The so-called ‘tragedy of the commons’ is a myth dispelled by almost every actual commons in history.) However, with the emergence of capitalism, lords increasingly enclosed their land to use for private enterprise, forcing now landless serfs into factories where they labored typically in horrific conditions for subsistence wages. Indeed, indentured servitude and debt peonage often reduced formerly free people to slavery, and in the ‘company towns’ that eventually arose people might be paid in a company scrip that could only be used at a company store where they’d intentionally be paid actually less than they needed to survive so that they perpetually went into debt and thus debt peonage. And, of course, millions of people in Africa were simply kidnapped and forced into entirely unveiled slavery for the sake of their owner’s profits. For people born with certain advantages, like Ben Franklin who could read and write and whose father could acquire an apprenticeship for him, becoming “self-made” might be possible. But most people for most of the history of capitalism were just as trapped in their subservient condition as before, if not put into far worse positions. Someone telling these folks that they could improve their class status in society by improving themselves would be laughable.

Enlightenment philosophers would posit “freedom” as being free from state interference, and thus interference by the crown that had dominated the previous system. They would propose for the first time that people had “natural rights”, including a right to equal treatment under the law, freedom of speech and assembly, and all the other things that guaranteed they could criticize the state that might oppress them. And most especially they had a right to property, to own things like land and businesses, and to enter into contracts with each other free from state meddling, a notion buoyed by works like Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), which proposed that when left unregulated commerce would inevitably find the most efficient and productive economic modes through the “invisible hand of the market”. Within this framework, the best thing the individual could do not only for themself but for the public interest would be to pursue their own “enlightened self-interest”, to improve both themself and their place in society. (This philosophical system has a name, though it’s confusing for Americans. The name is ‘Liberalism’, which in America is usually referred to as ‘Classical Liberalism’ to distinguish it from the very different notion of American Liberalism. This is also why the resurgence of this philosophy today is called ‘Neoliberalism’, or the new liberalism.)

Roddenberry sought to contrast his post-capitalist Federation on The Next Generation with a new Big Bad species who based their entire society around rapacious, unchecked capitalism and the pursuit of profit: the Ferengi. (It should also be noted, though, that the Ferengi illustrate Roddenberry’s continued blind spot to insensitive cultural depictions of ethnic groups which also marked the early black-faced Klingons; with their hunched figures, prominent noses, and appetites for non-Ferengi women, the Ferengi can be easily seen as Jewish caricatures.) The Ferengi, of course, never really gelled as feared antagonists, too comical to be intimidating. But still, particularly through the Ferengi character Quark on the show Deep Space Nine, the Ferengi became the primary way that Star Trek was able to comment directly on capitalism.

Liberal philosophy is best expressed in Star Trek in the Deep Space Nine episode “Prophet Motive”, where Quark defends the Ferengi to a group of nearly omnipotent aliens.

QUARK: There’s nothing wrong with acquiring profit. … Our ambition to improve ourselves motivates everything we do. Without ambition, without, dare I say it, greed, people would lie around all day doing nothing. They wouldn’t work, they wouldn’t bathe, they wouldn’t even eat. They’d starve to death. Is that what you want?

The aliens dismiss this argument as specious, obviously people wouldn’t starve to death without profit. And in context, the statement is downright ludicrous with the Federation right there as a counter-example. But here in the real world you’ll find many people today who agree with Quark, including people writing under this clip on YouTube, ‘Quark is right’. As immoral financial trader Gordon Gekko put it in Wall Street (1987), “greed is good”. In the capitalist mindset, greed, ambition, and self-improvement are all intertwined, and the best and indeed only way to improve society is through improving the self. In this view, because greed and self-interest is the ‘natural’ focus of human behavior, trying to create any kind of more egalitarian society at all, a society in which people share the products of their labor, is ‘unnatural’ and ‘goes against human nature’. This despite the fact that humans lived primarily in egalitarian bands in the thousands of years before the rise of agriculture, that native Americans before the arrival of the Europeans often held goods in common for the whole tribe (eg. the Iroquois Confederation), and so on. This is not to say tribal societies were perfect, and in fact they were highly varied in form and structure, simply that they were almost always far more egalitarian, as were early examples of cities like Çatalhöyük, which thrived over 9,000 years ago in what’s now Turkey, in which almost all the dwellings were the same size, indicating a lack of material hierarchy. This recognition (and subsequent romanticization) of primitivism shows up in Star Trek as some of the only non-Federation examples of successful utopianism, for example in “The Paradise Syndrome” where Kirk gets amnesia and joins a tribe of Native Americans who’ve been mysteriously transported to an alien planet (though this depiction, as frequently with ‘noble savage’ narratives, is both condescending and racist). We see this idea of primitivism as utopian again in Star Trek: Insurrection (1998), where a group of aliens has decided that the only way they can live in peace and harmony is to abandon all advanced technology and live lives of simple farmers.

If there’s a problem with the Ferengi as conceived, it’s that their critique of capitalism is too simplistic. I wish that one of the so-called Rules of Acquisition, the appropriately self-help-style text the Ferengi treat as scripture, were more like the first ‘habit’ from the ultra-capitalist self-help guide The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Take responsibility for your life, don’t be a victim. In other words, any systemic or structural problems that might be standing in the way of someone’s happiness or success–socio-economic background, race, education level, and so on–are just excuses for your lack of success that you could overcome through grit and determination, that you like anyone could still be a ‘self-made man’. Capitalists like to talk a lot about having ‘equality of opportunity’ not ‘equality of outcome’, and yet even pointing out that not everyone has the same equality of opportunity is something they’ll dismiss as victim-talk. So what if without a good education or support you have no choice but take a terrible job or starve? You have the same ‘freedom’ as everyone else, don’t you? You shouldn’t expect anyone to give you a handout. Capitalists will say ‘if you give a man a fish he’ll eat for a day, but teach him to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime’, and yet when you suggest funding educational programs to ‘teach them to fish’ you discover what they really want is to leave a man to starve to death and then feel smug because they deserved it and did it to themselves.

There’s an episode of Deep Space Nine that begins to address this problem and how to go about solving it. In “Bar Association”, the employees of Quark’s bar, led by Quark’s brother Nog, decide to form a union. This is an action that would be outright illegal on their home planet Ferenginar—capitalists also love to talk about freedom of association except when its their employees associating to demand better salaries and working conditions. As Rom complains, “You don’t understand. Ferengi workers don’t want to stop the exploitation. We want to find a way to become the exploiters.” After all, everyone is free to become a robber baron under capitalism, if only they dream big enough.

The space station Deep Space Nine, on the show a unique collaboration between the Federation and the non-Federation world Bajor, is not Ferenginar and the bar staff strike. This leads to the only time in my knowledge that Karl Marx has been quoted in Star Trek, as Rom confronts his brother:

QUARK: Rom, can’t we talk about this? 

ROM: There’s only one thing I have to say to you. (reading) Workers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains. 

QUARK: What’s happened to you?

Of course being a television show in the modern entertainment paradigm, the story still must focus on an individual and their ‘character arc’, how the story personally effects them and their development. In this case, Nog goes from being subservient to his brother to a brave strike leader, and in the end he’s rewarded with a better job and even gets the ‘girl’. While in reality, systemic change for the benefit of those below is always achieved through group action and organization, contemporary television demands a ‘hero’. Every episode of the Star Trek franchise that deals with class conflict must be resolved chiefly through the actions of a single character; for example The Original Series episode “The Cloud Minders”, and Voyager’s “Critical Care” both depend on the lead character kidnapping one of the privileged people and transporting them to the place where the poor live to turn the tables and show them the error of their ways. And this focus on individual heroism to solve social problems plays well with the liberal idea that great things happen by the will of great men, singular geniuses born to lead and uniquely capable of remolding society. You can see how this might lead naturally to authoritarian thinking, that what we all really need is a strong hand at the top to steer the ship without interference by lesser people, as opposed to the messy and sometimes frustrating process of working collectively together from below as a democratic whole.

How Deep Space Nine ultimately resolves the Ferengi class consciousness storyline becomes a perfect illustration of this problem. Quark and Rom’s mother Ishka becomes something of a feminist activist. She then lucks into a relationship with Zek, the Grand Nagus, who basically functions as the CEO/dictator of the entire Ferengi Alliance. Through her influence, the Ferengi implement a series of what are essentially Social Democratic reforms, as Quark discovers from another Ferengi, Brunt:

BRUNT: You haven’t been keeping up with the latest reforms, have you? Zek instituted progressive income tax three months ago. 

QUARK: You call that a reform? Taxes go against the very spirit of free enterprise. That’s why they call it free. 

BRUNT: The government needed revenues to fund the new social programs. Wage subsidies for the poor, retirement benefits for the aged, health care for— 

QUARK: Stop, stop, stop! I had no idea things had gotten so bad. This is all Moogie’s (Ishka) fault. She’s been polluting Zek’s mind with notions of equality and compassion. Whatever happened to survival of the fittest? Whatever happened to the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer? Whatever happened to pure, unadulterated greed? 

BRUNT: Things change. 

Ultimately, Zek and Ishka retire to a pleasure planet after appointing Rom the new Grand Nagus. (For a while it bothered me that they would choose an electrical engineer with no political experience for the role, until I realized that an absolute ruler appointing their own entirely unqualified step-son to secede them is actually pretty in keeping with history.) While making sense in terms of storytelling and entertainment, this is not how progressive political change happens at all. No progressive policies have ever been passed without enormous pressure from organizations and activism from below; it’s not about one person heroically steering society to a better world, but the people united doing it together. Imagining the Grand Nagus changing Ferenginar without public pressure is like imagining LBJ and the Democrats passing the Civil Rights Act without the Civil Rights Movement marching in the streets. (Indeed, one problem with how the Civil Rights Movement is often portrayed in media and in our collective imagination is its own focus on heroic figures, chiefly Martin Luther King, Jr., which makes it easier for culture to quietly sand off the fact that he was a fervent socialist and try to delegitimize further anti-racist movements like Black Lives Matter by absurdly claiming that he wouldn’t have supported them. As if the white establishment was so enthusiastic about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Movement he represented at the time (spoiler: they were not).)

Which brings us back to Rom’s favorite leftist thinker, Karl Marx. We’ve already seen two different definitions of ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ that appear to be at odds with each other. There’s the freedom of being in the Federation, a freedom to spend your life doing whatever you please. And there’s the freedom of the Ferengi, the freedom to own property and businesses and enter into contracts with others for your own benefit without interference from the state or anyone else. Marx pointed out that there were always people who had the first kind of freedom, whether it was the slave owning ‘citizens’ of ancient Rome and Greece, the nobility of the feudal era, or the wealthy owners of capital under capitalism, whom the second kind of freedom seemed tailor-designed to benefit. Further, the business owner became wealthy by capturing the profit of their business while paying their employees as little as possible given the job market. In other words, their freedom was supported by the labor of those beneath them, just as the freedom of the feudal lord was created by the labor of the peasants and serfs on their fiefs.

What if there might be another way of doing things? What if the workers controlled the businesses themselves? What if they held the land in common like their peasant ancestors had, rather than paying rent to some landlord? What might society look like then?

This is a deceptively powerful notion.

Imagine for a moment you have a business that creates widgets. An invention comes along that allows the business to make the same number of widgets in half the time. Under capitalism, the business owner or owners might then fire half the employees, and thus be able to make the same revenue with half the labor costs. However, if the workers controlled the business, they might vote to keep the same number of employees at the same salary, but work half the number of hours. Thus who controls the business determines if the workers have the power to choose between profit and freedom. 

Of course, this sort of business already exists, it’s called a workers co-op, and there’s thousands of them all over the world with the largest group of cooperatives being the Mondragón Corporation, a federation of cooperatives in Spain employing nearly one hundred thousand people.

But Marx didn’t just want cooperative businesses. He wanted a cooperative society. Inspired by the Paris Commune of 1871, he imagined, in the first draft of The Civil War in France (published the same year), the whole of France as ‘self-working and self-governing communes’ using universal suffrage to elect representatives to a national council that would administer ‘a few functions for general national purposes’ including (as he said in an address on the subject and book later) regulating ‘national production upon a common plan’. But Marx also warned against creating ‘recipes for cook-shops of the future’. An egalitarian society should not be planned from on high by anyone, not even him, it should be self-organized from below by the people themselves. And contrary to his image as a revolutionary absolutist, Marx believed that some countries might be able to transition to this sort of ‘communism’ peacefully through representative democracy once universal suffrage had been achieved. Communism in Marx refers simply to a situation where the ‘means of production’ are owned communally by the people and run for the public benefit rather than being owned by a handful of wealthy capitalists and run for the profit of their shareholders. Marx wanted to abolish, in other words, what he called ‘private property’, which is to say land and businesses. This term has caused no end of confusion though, since Marx distinguished ‘private property’ from ‘personal property’, which is stuff like your tooth brush that no one wants to take away.

In the popular imagination, of course, Communism has come to mean something else entirely. The term has become synonymous with the Soviet system especially as developed by General Secretary Joseph Stalin, a centralized and undemocratic bureaucracy supervising not only every aspect of the economy but seeking to colonize as well the minds of its populace and purge out any dissenters as ‘enemies of the people’ in a way starkly similar to Fascist Dictator Benito Mussolini’s conception of ‘totalitarianism’. This version of ‘Communism’ would be basically unrecognizable to Marx. Communism, in Marx, is global, stateless, classless, self-organizing, and fundamentally democratic. But in between capitalism and communism, you’d have what Marx called the “dictatorship of the proletariat”—which didn’t mean a dictatorship in the modern sense, but simply just a situation in which the workers would be in charge. (Engels even said the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ would take the form of a democratic republic.) Following the First World War, Revolution, and Civil War that had laid waste to the former Russian Empire, Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin decided to shore up the economy by both allowing small business ventures again and by having his government take over (or remain in control of) major industries. But a situation where a few unelected private capitalists running businesses have been replaced by a few unelected bureaucrats isn’t communism, or even socialism. It’s what Lenin himself called ‘state capitalism’. And it was supposed to be temporary as the Soviets worked towards global revolution, until Stalin decided, against Marxist doctrine, that the Soviet Union could establish ‘communism in one country’ and made state capitalism permanent.

These decisions were not without critics on the left. For example, contemporary Communist thinker Rosa Luxemburg wrote,

To be sure, every democratic institution has its faults and limitations, which it has in common with all human institutions. But the remedy discovered by Lenin and Trotsky, the abolition of democracy, is worse than the evil it is supposed to cure, for it shuts off the lifespring from which can come the cure for all the inadequacies of social institutions.

Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution (1918)

Socialism was always supposed to be democratic. After all, if the workers aren’t in control of the means of production, you don’t have socialism at all.

Of course, capitalists are happy to point to this and call it evidence that ‘socialism never works’. But then, in the capitalist mind, the Stalinist system is the negation of capitalism’s focus on the individual. And this negation of the individual has been dramatized in Star Trek in various ways , such as in The Original Series episode “The Return of the Archons”, where a population lives under the absolute control of a fanatical computer. But the most full version of this is The Borg, cybernetic beings who spread peace and harmony through the universe by transforming all beings into mindless drones. Among the Borg, the queen is the only one with anything resembling actual freedom, living the ultimate dream of the totalitarian dictator where their subjects thoughts themselves are merely an extension of the leader’s will.

Channeling this, a capitalist will take any loss of power to the state at all, even such innocuous things as universal healthcare or social security under a functioning democracy as akin to Stalinism and essentially evil. The Ferengi want you to think there’s no option between them and the Borg.

However, there’s a strange contradiction here, isn’t there? As we’ve explored, capitalist corporations have a history of reducing their workers to as abject conditions as possible, whether that was literal slaves, indentured servants, debt peons, undocumented immigrants, or simply workers employed at far below a living wage. Open slavery still exists in America, after all, where convicted prisoners are forced to work for pennies or for nothing to make products of for-profit businesses. But this is part-and-parcel with the fact that capitalist corporations are themselves not democracies, that their CEOs and boards of directors have the same sort of absolute power reserved in the political world for dictators and oligarchs. 

Neoliberal politicians insist they want ‘small government’, and yet always seem to provide massive subsidies to private corporations, shifting our tax money into capitalist hands. But the truth is, of course, whatever so-called anarcho-capitalists tell you, there is no capitalism without the government. Capitalism depends on contracts, on binding agreements between employer and employed, and between different businesses to coordinate production and distribution. As the Grand Nagus himself once said, “contracts are the very basis of our society”. And a contract is only as good as the legal system in place to enforce it. The government is the entity that grants charters of incorporation and creates the conditions—the rules—in which those corporations can operate, and thus every capitalist owes their winnings ultimately to the state and the system it governs which permits them to control production and capture profits. This is why the ‘anarcho-capitalist’ fever dream of corporations without government oversight would always devolve into feudal-esque warlordism, where power would accrue to whoever had the most powerful private security, much as political power on a national scale often goes to whoever has the most powerful army, whether or not their claims are legal, just, or ethical.

But then Neoliberals don’t actually want to eliminate the government. What they want to eliminate is any sort of commons and public welfare, anything that privileges the weak or the poor, anything that prevents them from taking as much money and power as they can while feeling justified that they deserve it, confusing privilege combined with rapacious, amoral greed and ambition for intelligence, worthiness, and merit. Meanwhile, they’ll preach an almost religious faith in the ‘free market’ to solve every possible problem and benefit everyone while reality demonstrates the irrationality and moral bankruptcy of this position every time someone dies because they can’t afford insulin.

In reality, the notion that ‘socialism never works’ is contrary not only to the reality the Paris Commune of 1871 or similar experiments like the anarchist communes of Revolutionary Spain or the Ukrainian Makhnovshchina which were all destroyed from the outside by authoritarians, or modern ongoing situations like the Zapatista Autonomous Municipalities in Mexico or Rojava in Northern Syria, not to mention various smaller communes around the world. But as Marx himself pointed out and as illustrated by the aforementioned destructions, this kind of pure egalitarian society is difficult to maintain in the midst of global capitalism, which is why he believed communism was only possible if it spread globally.

However, that doesn’t mean that socialist ideas haven’t accomplished great things. During the deprivations of the Great Depression, membership in socialist and communist organizations soared. Franklin Roosevelt was no socialist, but under the pressure of union, socialist, and communist power and the threat of mass action, he adopted 90% of the platform of Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party presidential candidate. Unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation, the abolition of child labor, social security, the 8-hour workday and 5 day workweek (though Thomas originally wanted 6 hours!), and minimum wages were all socialist ideas before they became mainstream, and we now have these things we take for granted thanks to the long efforts of socialist agitation, organization, and activism. And every one of them were at the time opposed by right wing businessmen crying “socialist” like a curse and promising they would ruin the economy and country and undermined our values of ‘freedom’. (It’s worth noting though that Roosevelt’s “New Deal” specifically carved out exceptions to worker rights in industries where workers were predominantly black in order to get the backing of Southern Democrats.) He also implemented British economist John Maynard Keynes ideas about using direct management of the economy in order to avoid the cyclical recessions that had plagued the 19th century.

The result, for America and most of the post-WWII west, was what’s now known (as dubbed by socialist thinker and founder of the Democratic Socialists of America Michael Harrington) as the “Social-Democratic Compromise”, coinciding with what economists term the “long boom”, a period lasting until the mid-70s of untrammeled growth, economic stability and prosperity, and a burgeoning middle class mostly free from the levels of abject inequality that marked the Gilded Age. (At least, for white people.) This is also, perhaps not coincidentally, the period that gave birth to Star Trek itself, a period where Democratic Socialist forefather Edward Bernstein’s vision of socialism growing gradually within capitalism as capitalism had grown within feudalism might be working.

Somewhat ironically, the same capitalist types who protested every one of these programs as ‘socialism’ will turn around when we say this is evidence that socialism works to lecture us that this isn’t socialism at all. But it is what Keynes referred to as a kind of ‘semi-socialism’. Private property—which remember, only refers to businesses and land—has obviously not been abolished, but large swaths of the economy and land have been brought under the regulation or proprietorship of the state which, at least ostensibly, is managed democratically by the people. Here in America, roads, parks, beaches, all sorts of forests and natural spaces, government buildings, and so on are all publicly owned, as is lots of public housing. And the government runs all sorts of businesses and business-like services, like the Post Office, libraries, public transit, schools, and so on, not to mention law enforcement and the penal system. Hundreds of municipalities run their own broadband internet access for their citizens, and the people in these municipalities are consistently the only Americans who express satisfaction with their ISPs. (This hasn’t stopped many red states from banning municipal  broadband altogether, though, to protect the profits of corporate ISPs.) The US military, whatever other problems there are with it, is a massive, government-run institution that not only employs over a million people, but manages just the sort of centralized logistics of production, labor, and distribution on a scale that critics of central planning often claim only the free market can do. (And really, if market competition were always so superior to central planning, then Amazon would allow trucking companies to compete for its business rather than owning its own trucks. Every company that vertically integrates is a triumph of central planning over market competition.) And slews of regulations govern working conditions and seek to limit predatory business practices. 

Other countries have gone considerably farther than the United States, of course. In the UK, all the hospitals are owned by the government and doctors and nurses are public employees, working for organizations whose remit isn’t profit but public welfare. The entire oil industry in Norway is owned and run by the government. In Vienna and Singapore, most people live in public housing and because it’s properly funded and managed the people love it and the fees they pay are far lower than rent would be on the open market. And far from destroying society, these publicly-run endeavors have often worked demonstrably better than private alternatives. Almost everyone already agrees that some things should be provided to the public at no or low cost. 

The socialist suggests that maybe, just maybe, we could do more things this way. There are disagreements about how much should be controlled by the state or devolved into communities or independent cooperative businesses and family operations. Maybe some housing could operate the way Co-Op City does in the Bronx, a privately owned housing development where the bi-laws have strict rules about how much you’re allowed to sell your apartment for with a large portion of the sale profits going back to the co-op itself. There’s options. But the point is that the system where one person can control huge chunks of the economy and personally reap the greatest rewards from it is fundamentally unjust. 

And here’s the real kicker about private property in the Marxian sense. While today 65.8% of Americans own a home (or live in a home owned by their family), homeownership rates for people under 34 is only 34%, falling 10% between 1960 and today as housing costs skyrocket and large firms buy up housing to transform into rentals, rentals they can then afford to warehouse to artificially drive up rental prices. The idea that housing should be an investment is one in which homeowners pursue policies that limit housing developments and affordable housing initiatives to protect their property values, and landlords vie to create conditions where they can charge ever higher rents. And so housing inevitably grows out-of-reach for first-time buyers who must give ever more of their earnings to landlords as ‘passive income’.

Meanwhile, only 8.9% of Americans can be described as a “business owner”. 10% of Americans own 89% of the stock market, and a lot of the rest is in retirement accounts and pensions controlled by a relatively small number of fund managers. And only 7% of Americans are landlords. The vast majority of Americans make the bulk of their incomes from wage labor, not capital ownership. In other words, not that many people in America actually own private property other than their own home. The economy of our “free market” is actually controlled by a tiny number of wealthy actors, and yet millions of Americans fight like mad for the right to keep it that way. In some ways its reminiscent of how in the antebellum South millions of whites were willing to fight to the death for slavery, despite less than 5% of southern whites actually owning any slaves (and only 1% owning large plantations).

Anyone can start a business, certainly, but everyone can’t. In a capitalist system, someone’s always left flipping burgers for peanuts or making your paper towels in prison, and in fact if someone doesn’t want to do this, capitalists through up their hands and exclaim ‘no one wants to work anymore’.

Is there private property in Star Trek? At first glance the answer is obviously yes. Captain Picard’s family, after all, owns a vineyard in France, Captain Sisko’s father runs a restaurant in New Orleans, and other, similar examples can be found. And yet, what’s interesting is that because almost all action takes place in the quasi-militaristic Starfleet (Roddenberry always compared it to the Coast Guard rather than the Navy), the stories of Star Trek mostly take place without private property, at least for Federation members. The Enterprise itself is the property of Starfleet, on a mission of exploration not profit. Thus the cast all live and work in a publicly owned environment, eating together in a mess hall, socializing in ten-forward, and sharing recreational facilities like the holodeck. Which means that while the Federation itself might have private property (though no money, so how private property is managed is unclear), Star Trek as a narrative vehicle is one that operates almost entirely in the realm of public property. (Though to be fair, the highly hierarchical organization of Starfleet is still not exactly a socialist ideal either.)

Anti-socialist forces were hardly dormant during the Long Boom. With the Cold War as cover, the Right were able to destroy communist and socialists groups, and the breaking of union power came soon after, aided by increasing automation and outsourcing that began to decimate the American middle class’s industrial base.  In short, they rid themselves of the loci of worker power that had forced concessions on the ruling class in the first place. Then when the oil crisis of the 1970s, among other factors, caused the economy to falter, they struck, bringing back the Liberalism of the pre-war era as Neoliberalism. “The government is not the solution to our problems,” Ronald Reagan told the public, “the government is the problem.”

Over the past 40 years, the gains of the social democratic period have been steadily winnowed away. Progressive taxation, which was intended to ensure those who made more money paid a higher percentage of taxes has been hilariously inverted so that billionaires pay a lower tax rate than their secretaries, so that now the middle class actually have the highest tax burden. Minimum wage, which was intended to ensure that anyone who worked forty hours a week stayed above poverty level, hasn’t increased since 2007. Social Security, which likewise was intended to be a living wage, is now a shadow of that. Medicare and Medicare are both being steadily privatized through plans like Medicare Advantage, which scams both enrollees and taxpayers. Biden has meanwhile continued a further privatization of Medicare pilot started by the Trump administration. Another Democratic president replaced welfare for the poor with ‘workfare’ and slashed its payouts. Republicans are even now proposing repealing child labor laws. And so on, as regulations and so-called ‘entitlements’ that were so hard-won have been peeled back. And rich plutocrats constantly scheme about how they can get rid of all these things, forming “think tanks” like the Peter G. Peterson Foundation which spends fortunes to convince the media to convince us that Medicare and Social Security are insoluble and will create a deficit that will bankrupt us, meanwhile the same people who fund that foundation cheered when Trump massively cut all their taxes, causing the deficit to balloon to never-before-seen highs. Almost as if it was always a lie all along to benefit the rich and powerful at the expense of everyone else. Almost as if it was always a con.

To justify their tax cuts, the rich will repeat the Ferengi-esque mantra that ‘taxation is theft’. But if you think taking some money from rich people and using it to feed the starving or give health care to the dying is morally wrong, then you value property rights over human rights.

Back in 1930, John Maynard Keyes had predicted that in the future, as productivity increased, we’d be working four hour days. Instead, as productivity has skyrocketed, hours have remained the same or even gotten worse and wages went from matching productivity to stagnating right as America’s Neoliberal turn took place. From there, all the extra revenue generated by that added productivity has been captured entirely by the 1%.

This is what was stolen from us.

Today, there are far, far more empty houses than homeless people and we have enough food for everyone but people still starve. This is a moral calamity that we refuse to even admit to, and contrary to capitalist predictions, the last forty years of Neoliberal deregulation and tax cuts has only made the poor poorer and the middle class smaller.

Today 64% of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck and 63% of Americans don’t have enough savings to cover a $500 emergency. America is now the only developed country where people go bankrupt from medical expenses, where people literally die because they can’t afford insulin. At the same time, 2021 was the most profitable year for American corporations since 1950 and during the pandemic American billionaires got 62% richer. CEOs of large corporations now make a record 399 times the pay of their average workers while 48% of workers in the US make less than $31,000 a year.

We find ourselves once again in a time of record inflation, with wages not rising nearly as fast as the cost of goods, so that working people find themselves with the equivalent of constant wage reductions. And the Neoliberal plan to battle this is a Reagan-style “Volker Shock”, where interest rates get raised in hopes of crippling the economy and preventing wage increases (after all, nothing reduces worker’s bargaining power like mass unemployment). They’ve even advised companies not to raise worker wages in the face of crushing cost of living increases. This is their best plan.

And yet while politicians and pundits blame inflation on stimulus money that actually helped workers, or supply chain issues, or the war in Ukraine, corporations rake in record profits proving that underlying conditions are not the primary cause at all but corporate greed and opportunism. As Bernie Sanders pointed out, if the oil price per barrel today is the same as it was in 2010, and yet gas is selling a dollar more per gallon, that price isn’t the result of underlying conditions. There’s a reason Shell Oil reported more than double profits in the third quarter last year as in the same quarter the year before. Corporate profits reached an all-time high of $2.5 trillion last year while real wages declined more than 8.5%.

Capitalism has never worked.

Allowing a few people to own housing and charge however much rent they want for it, or to own a business and treat and pay their workers however they can get away with, is a disaster for human wellbeing. We can do better than Amazon warehouse workers peeing in bottles, suicide nets at Foxconn factories, and mentally ill people freezing to death on street corners. If an alien came down to Earth and you explained it to them, they could tell you how highly illogical this all is.

In Star Trek’s own diegetic history, the path to the end of capitalism begins when, following a cataclysmic Third World War and international governmental collapse, scrappy genius Zephyr Cochran and his team create the Earth’s first warp drive. This attracts the attention of the Vulcans, who come down and help usher in a new age. In real life, though, we can’t rely on heroic leaders to save us any more then we can rely on benevolent aliens, nor can we sit around waiting for an eschaton or collapse to fall upon us in hopes we’ll survive long enough to build something better in the ruins.

Of course, it’s difficult to even imagine substantial change in the American government today due to its sheer disfunction, undemocratic institutions, and corruption. The House of Representatives is undemocratic because of gerrymandering, the Senate is undemocratic by design, and the presidency is undemocratic thanks to the electoral college. And that’s not even mentioning intentional voter suppression and the ongoing campaign to take over and subvert the mechanisms of elections, which contrary to the popular narrative dates back long before Donald Trump’s “Big Lie”. More importantly, our government is corrupt to its bones, thanks to the legalized bribery of campaign spending. How can we expect politicians to raise taxes on their own campaign donors, or to advocate for policies that disempower them? Hell, we even give rich people tax breaks to donate to the so-called “think tanks” that lobby for legislation that favors them, instead of their money actually going to the public good. Over half of the members of congress are millionaires themselves. Should we be surprised when they look after their own class interests? Like should we be surprised when Nancy Pelosi defends the practice of trading stocks whose value depends on her own policies, when this practice personally makes her millions? 

Further, democracy depends on freedom of the press, and yet how free is our press if its controlled by a small number of the ultra-rich as part of ever larger conglomerates, funded by advertising from other ever larger conglomerates. Is it a surprise we get pundit after pundit in the news media decrying even the backwards-looking proposals of Sanders and Warren as ‘socialism’ and therefore bad and wrong and evil? Is it really a surprise that an obvious fascist like Tucker Carlson gets a popular TV show while there isn’t a single genuine leftist on television? This isn’t a conspiracy, media moguls aren’t gathered in a room plotting to keep the working man down. It’s a simple case of class interests and, as economists are fond of saying, incentives. Meanwhile the right continues to laughably portray the ‘mainstream media’ as ‘left wing’ by playing up their bigoted “Woke” Culture War bullshit. The result is what philosopher Antonio Gramci called a cultural hegemony that renders any more egalitarian way of doing things not only evil but unimaginable. Capitalism, despite being only a few hundred years old, is portrayed as a state of nature from which there is no alternative. Or, as my father used to paraphrase Winston Churchill, capitalism is the worst system except for all the other ones, which renders capitalism essentially beyond criticism. Hence the expression ‘it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’. Capitalist billionaires riding around in big dick rockets want you to think that they’re the ticket to a Star Trek future, that they’re going to invent it for us. But the truth is that we could create the means to end scarcity tomorrow, we could just have Star Trek replicators come out of a lab somewhere, and those same billionaires would make sure we artificially limited and metered its output so that they could extract  profits from it. They’re not creating the future, they’re standing in its way.

As I explored in my Loki episode, the same conditions that created socialist political change during the Great Depression also created the conditions for the rise of fascism, and the wealthy will invariably choose fascism over socialism because fascists will let them keep their private property. (Anytime someone tells you the “National Socialists” were actually socialist, show them how they were bankrolled by the rich and powerful.) And they’ll tell us this is for our own good because it prevents “mob rule”, which is just a euphemism for poor people having opinions above their station.

And even that just scratches the surface of the ways the rich dictate policy. Like, did you know there was this DA in San Francisco whose policies worked against the interest of real estate developers, and those real estate developers and their finance chums spent seven million dollars on a successful smear campaign to have him recalled? This despite his policies being shown to work and be popular?

A  study in 2014 confirmed suspicion that economic elites and business interests have a massive effect on public policy, while the preferences of average citizens have little or no influence. But we don’t need a study to see this when it’s in front of our face, a majority of Americans favor a wealth tax on the rich, Medicare for All, codifying Roe v. Wade, paid maternity leave, raising the minimum wage, government funded childcare, free public college, and so on.

And our enemies point to the disfunction and corruption they themselves work to create and maintain and tell us this is why government is bad and we should just trust undemocratic corporations to govern themselves, while they happily hand out our money to those same corporations in the form of tax breaks, subsidies, and bail outs. But tell me again how capitalism benefits everyone.

Of course, one wing of the socialist movement will tell us the solution, the only real solution, is violent revolution. It’s easy to see the logic of their viewpoint, to conclude that if you’re barreling towards a cliff and the bus driver won’t listen to reason, you need to just lop off their head and take the wheel. But, even putting aside the danger of falling into an authoritarian trap à la Lenin, and putting aside the piles of of dead innocents that every violent revolution in history has produced, to have a violent revolution you need to have what Lenin himself called a ‘revolutionary situation’. Russia at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution was beset by mass starvation, poverty, and warfare, and thus had a population desperate enough to risk death for the sake of change. At least in most of the west we’re simply not there yet, and honestly we wouldn’t want to be if we have a choice. So, let’s instead look to options that don’t require breaking out the guillotines.

As we’ve seen in the example from Roosevelt and the New Deal, mass movement and organization can force changes in policy. There’s evidence that merely getting 3.5% of the population to peacefully demonstrate can force political change. The constant cycles of economic crisis since the onset of Neoliberalism have created an upsurge in interest in unions and socialist organizations not seen since the Depression. But what specifically should we be fighting for?

One obvious answer is to try and reclaim what we once had, to rebuild the protections and programs that existed before the Neoliberal era. And that’s a lot of what Democrats propose–it’s even in the language that gets used, like “The Green New Deal”, and “Build Back Better”. Even new programs like Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for All” is both the expansion of an earlier program and the realization of the universal health care that Franklin Roosevelt tried to establish back in the 30s, which would merely bring us up to parity with most of the rest of the developed world. There’s an almost reactionary pining for a golden age of the past when you watch someone like Elizabeth Warren talk about everything the Neoliberals have stripped away. They point, with justification, to the Scandinavian countries and their “Nordic Model” that has given them the highest levels of happiness in the world. The rhetoric here is often that we need to rebuild the social-democratic compromise so that we can ‘save capitalism’.

The problem with the social democratic compromise is that by permitting capitalists to keep accruing as much power as they can, they’ll inevitably turn and try to destroy the social democracy for their own gain, just as they’ve done since the dawning of the Neoliberal era. Even in places like Sweden, capitalists have been stripping apart the hard-won social safety network for parts. You haven’t solved the problem, you’ve just kicked the can down the road. Given the magnitude of the issues we face and the ecological collapse on the horizon, it’s clear we need change of a more fundamental nature and we need it urgently.

One option frequently bandied about is Universal Basic Income. This idea has a lot to recommend it. Every person, regardless of income, would receive a flat payment from the government. By making it universal and not means based, you ensure there isn’t a benefit cliff, where someone starts making more money and actually loses money. Instead you simply take back money from the wealthy through higher taxes. Also because the middle class receives it rather than just the poor, it becomes much harder to take it away later.

If this payment were an actual living wage, you might have found the easiest way to Federation-style freedom. People could spend their lives doing the things that actually gave their lives meaning, and actually essential functions would get done because if they’re actually essential the jobs would pay enough to make it worth someone’s while.

Various real-life experiments have shown that UBI produced great results. However, it has fundamental problems (none of which are “how would we pay for it” when no one asks how we pay for ever-ballooning military spending increases and tax cuts for the rich). The corporate-controlled congress could easily make the payment far less than a living wage and then use it as justification for cutting other social services that people might depend on that give more. In this scenario, it’d be easy for corporations to lobby for eliminating minimum wage and paying workers far less, resulting in greater profits for rich business owners, while since the UBI still wouldn’t be enough to live off of, workers would still need to keep terrible jobs on threat of homelessness and starvation. In other words, rather than a support system for the people, it’d simply become a gift to the payroll costs of employers, a mass subsidy for corporate capitalism and, given the current tax structure, one substantially paid for by the middle class. In fact, we can already see that happening with welfare programs here, where companies like Walmart intentionally pay employees too little to live on and then gives them instructions for applying for welfare. Who is this Welfare meant to actually be benefiting, exactly? And at worst, with UBI and welfare you can end up with an underclass of people automated out of their jobs with no opportunities for anything better, living off a barely subsistent UBI, piled high in godawful housing like in something out of Ready Player One. Meanwhile, the rich would still be living high off the hog in a world built just for them, while dismissing the unemployed as ‘lazy’.

This is not socialism.

Which is to say that UBI and welfare more generally are good ideas worth doing, but still wildly insufficient on their own. For a different strategy, let’s look at the most ambitious democratic socialist policy ever attempted. In the 70s, Sweden formulated something called the Meidner Plan for Wage Earner Funds. Essentially, a percentage of profits from for-profit companies would be used to buy shares of public Swedish companies, with those shares being placed in funds controlled by unions. Thus, ultimately the entire economy would transition to almost total worker-ownership within a few decades. Capitalists, to put it lightly, did not like this plan, and used their considerable resources to organize the largest demonstration against it in Swedish history. By the time it had been implemented in 1984, the tax to fund it had been starkly reduced and it had provisions to specifically weaken worker control. In 1991, the right wing took control of the government and ended the plan entirely, privatizing the funds. In fact, Sweden then followed Norway’s lead into partially privatizing their pension funds. At first glance, this might seem like using the government’s money to own segments of the private economy, but in practice this is simply like the plans to privatize social security in the US, a way of funneling tax money into the hands of private business owners while giving the people little say or interest in the actual management of the companies themselves. 401k plans were touted over pensions as giving average Americans a stake in the economy, but without a mechanism for collectively exercising any power over the corporations 401ks are invested in, all this amounted to was a giveaway of wage earner money to corporations, while employees lost the guaranteed pensions they once had in favor of plans that are chronically underfunded and insufficient.

Other, less ambitious policies can increase cooperative ownership of businesses. For example, in 1985, Italy passed the Macora Law which allows unemployed workers to get advances on unemployment benefits and pool them together with other workers to start worker cooperatives. This scheme has so far created 257 cooperatives involving 9,300 worker-owners.  In the US, Bernie Sanders recently got legislation passed to allow coops to receive SBA loans and funding nonprofits to aid and advise people on creating and managing coops. There’s also been local efforts to support cooperatives, for example many municipalities in California have enacted legislation to aid the creation of cooperatives and help employees purchase businesses from their employers. But compared to the Meidner plan all of these are tiny, incremental drops in the bucket in the face of the enormous, multinational conglomerates that dominate the global economy for the sake of their billionaire masters.

People often use the term ‘radical’ these days as a way to write off someone’s ideas, anything ‘radical’ implied to be not sensible, or practical, or valid. But sometimes radical change is called for. Sometimes its necessary.

To illustrate all of this, let’s turn one final time to Star Trek and one of the best episodes they ever did about class inequality. In the Deep Space Nine episode “Past Tense”, members of the crew travel back to the mid-21st century, two of whom find themselves in a walled-off encampment for the homeless and unemployed amid rampant inequality. This encampment is in an area with apartments, so there’s housing of a sort, but of course it’s run down, unmaintained, and there’s too little of it. There’s food, but not enough and it’s spoiled and awful. In other words, this is the nightmare scenario of UBI, where the surplus poor are given just enough to be kept alive and tucked out of sight. When the people of the encampment rise up in a riot, Commander Sisko finds himself taking part in a hostage situation, demanding Federal jobs and ‘not handouts’ (like the Civil Works Administration of the New Deal which funded infrastructure projects as a mass employment strategy). Finally, Sisko engineers a way for the people of the encampment to tell their stories through the global network, beginning the process of America “correcting the social problems it had struggled with for over a hundred years”. Without this incident, we discover, the Federation will not come to be.

It’s true that this story still has a focus on a heroic individual doing work to bring about change, and there’s even an element where Dax must convince a wealthy businessman to help them get access to the network that will let them share their stories. But the overall story is about the people engaging in mass action to take control of their lives.

One might expect somebody in the story to be talking directly about capitalism, to be complaining about the corporations that dominate society and the rich in their penthouses while ordinary people starve, but DS9 in 1995 can’t be so direct without coming off preachy and overbearing, and without alienating much of an audience steeped in the cultural hegemony of Neoliberal capitalism. But the show is still firmly on the side of the disenfranchised, of homeless, hostage taking rioters in a way rarely seen on mainstream television then or now (especially considering how politically toothless modern Star Trek has generally become). This isn’t some Marvel-style commentary where the villains have noble aims irredeemably marred by immoral means. In the story, even the wealthy are portrayed in a sympathetic light, which helps hammer home the idea that no one person is responsible for any of this. The problem is the system itself. And unless the system is changed, nothing will change. And it believes with all it’s blessedly optimistic Trekkie heart that this change is possible if only we work together to create it.

We must continue focusing on organization, on building up unions, cooperatives, mutual aid groups, and actually left wing political organizations. And we must use the power of those organizations to demand real, substantive change in the structure of the economy through ideas like the Meidner plan and policies to increase the prevalence and power of unions and worker coops, as well as electoral reform to increase the democratic character of the state itself to make further change less difficult. And, as I’ve said, we must do all of this while being vigilant against the ever-present threat of an authoritarian seizure of power from the right, one currently being actively pursued with the steady takeover of electoral institutions.

Fittingly, in contrast to the typical television format where the best lines are always given to the leads, the best line in “Past Tense” is said by one of the supporting characters, some common ‘nobody’ who’d never be seen on the show again. At one point, a hostage relates a story about a woman at the encampment she regrets she couldn’t help more. Doctor Bashir tells her, “It’s not your fault that things are the way they are.” And she replies, “Everybody tells themselves that, and nothing ever changes.”

Let’s see if maybe we can change things.

Well. That took a long time to make. This was one of the most difficult episodes for me to write because of the amount of research I did and how I wanted to make sure I got it right and gave these ideas their due. By my notes, this is the fourteenth draft of this thing. Early drafts had long digressions into what happened in the Russian Revolution and Civil War, and an in depth exploration of Democratic Socialist thinker Eduard Bernstein and his ideas. His story is still fascinating to me in all sorts of ways and something I hope to come back to in the future. But all that, ultimately, seemed to distract from the central point I was trying to make. Also my family all finally got Covid during the production of this one, so that took a bit  of the wind out of its sails especially since I was in the middle of recording the audio and then found myself with a persistent hoarseness.

This is liable to be one of my most controversial episodes (the comment section is liable to be cancer), but I hope even if you disagree with me I’ve given you something new to think about. I’ve done so many videos already criticizing capitalism, and will do many more in the future, that I felt like I had to be able to answer the objection that capitalism may be bad but no viable alternative exists, which is the narrative capitalists have been feeding us in the west for decades now.

For those who might be wondering when I’ll get back to episodes of a more reasonable length, I’m planning on some shorter, more frequent ones next so be sure to subscribe, and hit that like button! Do you prefer longer or shorter episodes? Let me know in the comments. I’m really curious, actually.

You can support this project on Patreon at patreon.com/ericrosenfield, and for as little as $1 an episode get access to exclusive show notes and early access to episodes. (That’s like $1 a year the way I’ve been doing things, surely you can afford that.) I’ll even put up there some of the digressions I mentioned. As always I’d like to thank my patrons, Jason Quackenbush, Industrial Robot, Wilma Ezekowitz, Benjamin Pence, Kevin Cafferty, Hristo Kolev, Gabi Ghita, Arthur Rosenfield, and Nancy Rosen. Thanks!

Special thanks for input and help with this episode goes to Aristide Twain and Hidden Behind the Sun.

Literate Machine is available as a YouTube channel, podcast, and newsletter. For more information, visit LiterateMachine.com.

Bibliography and Further Reading

  • Obviously, the work of Marx and Engels is key to this piece. Particular texts I drew on here include The Civil War in France (1871) (modern editions contain the first draft and the address on the Civil War) and The Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875). Marx’s La Liberte speech (1872) is where he proposes that some countries might transition to communism peacefully: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1872/09/08.htm
  • One of my chief inspirations for this piece and in general is the book Socialism: Past and Future (1989) by Michael Harrington, founder of the Democratic Socialists of America. Socialism does a good job of summing up the history of socialism, the rise of democratic socialism, the problems we faced in the 20th century, and where we might go from here.
  • The Preconditions of Socialism (1899) (also published in English as Evolutionary Socialism) by Eduard Bernstein is a fascinating book by the father of the democratic socialist movement and the idea of achieving socialists goals through gradual reform. A controversial figure both in his time and today, both with orthodox Marxists and modern democratic socialists, his story is one I find endlessly fascinating. Much as during the Social Democratic period of the mid-20th century, when Preconditions was first published, it seemed as if gradual socialism was working in Bernstein’s native Germany. Then of course the First World War brought Germany to its knees. Bernstein himself, who’d become a member of the Reichstag, would die three weeks before Hitler came to power, undid all the achievements of his party, executed its leaders, and most of the members of Bernstein’s ethnic group. While researching this piece, I also drew on The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism: Eduard Bernstein’s Challenge to Marx (1952) by Peter Gay, and the excellent introduction to the English translation of Preconditions from 1993 by translator Henry Tudor.
  • For the history of the Russian Revolution, I highly recommend China Mieville’s October (2017), a highly readable retelling of the story of the revolution and the events around it.
  • I am highly indebted to the work of Richard Wolff, whose Democracy at Work (2012) and associated website and YouTube channel opened my eyes to the possibilities of worker cooperatives as a tool for workers to control the means of production within a capitalist society and so create a mechanism not only to improve the lives of workers in the near term, but to build up worker power and control in the long term.
  • I’m also indebted to the continued work of Cory Doctorow in and out of his Pluralistic project, with too many useful and informative pieces to list here. For example, Pluristic turned me onto how municipal broadband providers are the only ones with consistent customer satisfaction, or his piece in Boing Boing about how the notion of the “tragedy of the commons” is based on lies and fraud. Other important pieces include What Comes After Neoliberalism and Excuseflation.
  • Carlos Maza’s excellent video essay “The Pay for It Scam” is essential for understanding the ways in which only programs for the social good are ever asked “how will you pay for it”, while corporate subsidies, tax cuts, and the military budget piles on the debt.
  • Most of my research on Gene Roddenberry comes from the book The Impossible Happened: The Life and Work of Gene Roddenberry, Creator of Star Trek by Lance Parkin (2016)
  • For more on the “primitive communism” of the Iroquois and other native tribes, I recommend The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021) by David Graeber.
  • More on how modern corporations actually show the power of a centralized economy, a piece inspired by the book The People’s Republic of Walmart (2019).
  • How the Reagan administration talked of “small government” while simultaneously funneling public money into corporate subsidies
  • How homeownership rates are declining in the US
  • The study showing that policies supported by the affluent get passed while policies only supported by ordinary people don’t.
  • Social Security’s supposed problems could be solved by simply lifting the cap on Social Security tax that makes it regressive. Social Security needs more funding, not less.
  • More on the Meidner Plan to use tax money to give power to workers
  • More on Çatalhöyük, one of the earliest cities which appears to have been organized on an egalitarian basis
  • Rosa Luxemburg wrote her thoughts on the Russian Revolution in the pamphlet The Russian Revolution (1918)
  • Other sources can be found inline in the essay above

Loki and How Conservatives Become Fascists

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This episode spoils the first season of Loki

Here’s a story you might’ve heard before: Loki, prince of Asgard, has always been smarter and more capable than his older brother Thor. And yet their father, King Odin, perpetually favors the lunkhead, and intends to abdicate and make Thor king in his place.

Why should a lesser be raised up before him? There must be some ulterior motive, a motive that finally becomes clear when he discovers he’s not Odin’s biological son at all, but instead one of the enemy frost giants.

And now it all makes sense. He was secretly hated because of his race. But this reversal of the natural order will not stand. He will take what is rightfully his by any means necessary. He will heroically stand against the darkness.His first plan fails, but he finds a new ally and comes to Earth to establish himself as its ruler as a stepping stone back to Asgard. And why shouldn’t he rule these primitive apes? As he tells a group of humans he commands to kneel before him:”Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It’s the unspoken truth of humanity, that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.”

It’s here that the fascist subtext of Loki’s story becomes text. A man with a holocaust tattoo refuses to kneel, and tells Loki there are always men like him. Loki is prevented from executing him by the arrival of Captain America, Nazi fighter and Hitler puncher, who says “The last time I was in Germany and saw a man standing above everybody else, we ended up disagreeing.” Soon the Captain is backed up by Iron Man, the personification of the American military industrial complex.

It’s not subtle.

It would have been more honestly fascist, though, if Loki had portrayed this subjugation as liberty. They should be grateful for his ‘glorious purpose’ to free them from the burden of responsibility, which they plainly cannot handle. ‘Work makes you free,’ as the motto on the gates of Auschwitz had it. Or per Orwell, ‘freedom is slavery.’

After Loki’s defeat at the hands of the Avengers, he’s hauled away to be imprisoned on Asgard, and to eventually be murdered by Thanos.

Or is he? During the time travel shenanigans of Avengers: Endgame, this story is rewritten. Loki gets ahold of the Tesseract as he’s being escorted out of Stark Tower and uses it to escape to Mongolia.
But his escape is short-lived. Soon agents of the Time Variant Authority (TVA) abduct him to their bureaucracy beyond space and time, where he will stand trial for his crimes against the ‘Sacred Timeline’, the one true course of history that the TVA exists to protect. Loki is a ‘variant’, and variants cannot be allowed to exist.

This doesn’t really make sense, does it? If the TVA can reset the false timeline with one of the devices we see them using, why do they need to abduct and try the variants at all? Why not just let them get reset? But then, why Loki’s change in the timeline is bad while the Avengers’ actions in Endgame are fine is hand-waved away by saying those things were “supposed to happen”, just one of any number of things in the MCU that doesn’t really track. I mean, Thanos’ thinks randomly wiping out half the universe will save it from conflict over resources. But the Earth had two billion people in 1900 and six billion in 2000, so easily within a hundred years the planet would be right back where it started. It’s nonsensical. People compare it to Malthusianism, but Malthus proposed ceasing aid to the poor, unproductive, and undeserving so that they could naturally die off and preserve resources, which is horrific and became a core component of eugenics and through it fascist ideology, but at least it’s logically consistent. And because Thanos’ plan is fundamentally and thematically incoherent, it can be read in all sorts of absurd ways, like as a metaphor for radical environmentalism.

But then thinking about this stuff too hard spoils the fun, doesn’t it? A Marvel project isn’t about coherence, it’s about, as Hollywood screenwriters love to say, the emotional journey you’re being taken on, the way the story makes you feel. The TVA can’t simply reset Loki because then there would be no story, would there?

But just before Loki can be executed, a TVA agent approaches the judge. This agent, Mobius M. Mobius, has a hunch, a gut instinct that this Loki might be useful. We recognize the archetype right away, the detective with the unorthodox hunch that an authority figure reluctantly allows him to follow is a trope as old as pulp fiction. It’s traditional. Mobius, we learn, wants to use this Loki to help him track down another Loki variant that the TVA has been hunting through space and time. Our Loki, inevitably, tries to escape and engages in schemes to conquer the TVA itself. But as he fails, Mobius dismantles Loki’s fascist exterior. Loki first accuses the entire apparatus of the TVA and their supposed ‘Sacred Timeline’ of being a ‘cruel elaborate trick conjured by the weak to inspire fear. A desperate attempt at control.’  Mobius responds by asking him if he enjoys hurting people. By the end of the episode, when Loki is confronted with the repercussions of his deeds and his own death in the main timeline, Loki admits that he doesn’t enjoy hurting people, but its part of his own cruel and elaborate trick to inspire fear and attain control.

Fascism at its heart is about the weak embracing a narrative to make them feel strong at someone else’s expense.

Mobius’ has a narrative bigger than Loki’s daddy issues and self-aggrandizement, though. He must protect and conserve the Sacred Timeline, thus preventing multiversal war and maintaining peace and stability. For all time this mission has sustained the TVA, handed down from the hard-won wisdom of the Time-Keepers who created them. Moebius is, in other words, a Conservative.

Conservative pundit David Brooks defines Conservatism as a philosophy that puts value in tradition, which he defines as “the latent wisdom that is passed down by generations, cultures, families, and institutions.” This wisdom doesn’t need to be understood on a conscious level because it “shows up as a set of quick and ready intuitions about what to do in any situation.” People don’t need to think about what’s morally right, they can feel it, right away.

He contrasts this with “rationalists”, which he associates with the arrogance of those who would try to rebuild society from scratch or control it through central planning. The Conservative knows that change should happen slowly and carefully, and that ethics should derive not from thoughts but from feelings. He quotes Enlightenment philosopher David Hume in saying, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.”You can see the problem with this notion, though, right? If my tradition is based on bigotry, and I rely on tradition for my morals, well then I’m a bigot. You’re going to find yourself in a situation where you’re rejecting people based solely on “ick factor”. 

To his credit, Brooks acknowledges this issue, writing, “Conservatism makes sense only when it is trying to preserve social conditions that are basically healthy. America’s racial arrangements are fundamentally unjust. To be conservative on racial matters is a moral crime.” You don’t say, David? And he writes that one of the problems with American conservatism is that it never properly grappled with this problem.You can also see how this framework results in the conservative obsession with “trusting your gut”, which finds George W. Bush saying he looked into Putin’s eyes and saw someone “straightforward and trustworthy”. You can even see how it devolves into Stephen Colbert’s parodic “truthiness”, where one believes things not based on evidence but because they ‘feel’ right. After all, your gut intuitions are based on generations of carefully cultivated wisdom. How could they be wrong?

But, I hear you protesting already in the comments section, I thought conservatism was about personal responsibility, individualism, and a belief in the power of free market capitalism? As Brooks explains this is certainly the American version of Conservatism, but since it’s a philosophy based on a tradition, it’s different in different places and times. Indeed, historically Conservatism in Europe was usually associated with maintaining the power of the monarchy and aristocracy, in other words the very people whose power and influence had been eaten away by the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism.

But let’s come back to American conservatism later. For the moment, let’s see what Loki is up to.Loki hits upon the idea that the variant they’re looking for might be hiding in apocalypses–catastrophes so severe that nothing done within them can possibly matter to the timeline. Using this information, they track down the rogue variant during a severe future weather event that will wipe a town in Alabama off the map. Loki proceeds to escape with the variant, who turns out to be a woman who calls herself Sylvie.

Sylvie was abducted by the TVA as a child, but she (unlike our Loki) managed to escape. From there she grew up hunted and on the run, past and identity ripped away from her while she strode from one apocalypse to the next. This experience has transformed her into a terrorist with a single goal: not to conquer the TVA, but to destroy it, so that no one else will suffer the way she has suffered.Ultimately, the TVA captures both Lokis, but before they do Sylvie reveals a discovery: the TVA agents weren’t created by the time keepers at all. Instead, they’re all variants themselves who had their minds wiped and new identities imprinted upon them.

Their identities, in other words, are pure inventions in service of those in power.Under Feudalism, the peasant didn’t think of himself as belonging to a country so much as to a region and a lordship. The lords were largely autonomous from the crown and they were the ones to whom the peasants would owe fealty and pay taxes, typically as serfs with no rights of their own. Aristocrats, meanwhile, had more in common with the aristocrats of the neighboring countries than they did with the peasants under their yoke, and would generally only fraternize and intermarry with other aristocrats. Often, as in Norman England, the classes didn’t even speak the same language or dialect, and peasants from different regions might speak different languages or dialects from one another, especially in large, multi-ethnic empires. Religion played a much greater role in forming identity and belonging and the Church wielded massive power. There was a reason that when the Vikings invaded England they were called “The Great Heathen Army”–their religion, not their ‘nationality’, was their greatest marker of difference.With the development of capitalism, the rise of the merchant middle class, and the Protestant Reformation, the old feudal order broke down and central governments took steps to take direct control of their entire populace. To unite these subjects together, the rulers invented the idea of the nation, a shared culture, traditions, and identity common to the people in their domain, the nation-state.

It’s a bit of a funny idea, the nation-state, isn’t it? It became part of the ideology that conquerers and colonialists use to oppress those they rule over, saying our nation is inherently better than yours. It’s used as an excuse to conquer regions and countries with similar cultural backgrounds as yours. The concept of ‘race’ was invented in the time of nation-states and became caught up in it and used as an excuse for chattel slavery and genocide. Concerted programs sprung up to convert conquered people to the dominant nation through both forced cultural education and cultural prohibition, as in the Russification of the Russian Empire or the abduction of Indian Children into boarding schools in an effort to ‘civilize’ them in the United States and Canada. And some conquered people decided they’d had enough of exploitation and oppression and formed their own national identity and with it their own right to statehood. Moreover, people within your country who do not fully assimilate become seen as foreigners in their own lands, like Jews and Roma.

There is us, and there is them.

Strictly speaking the term ‘nationalism’ means the belief that a nation and state should be congruent. But when someone calls themself a nationalist, they usually mean something more than that. They mean that there is something inherently good about the cultural traditions that make up their ‘nation’, something worthy about it that means the people with those traditions deserve to control the state. By itself this isn’t necessarily bad, especially when it’s a position held by people whose culture is actively oppressed by the political apparatus above them. But nationalism within the already dominant culture can all too easily be weaponized against minorities, or become a way to exclude those you feel are insufficiently loyal to your specific interpretation of that culture. People who are not ‘patriotic’ (and nationalists love the word ‘patriot’), and therefore are in some sense treasonous. And while nationalism is not necessarily racist, nationalism and racism go hand-in-glove, since the other side of the notion that your nationality is inherently good is that other nationalities are inherently bad. It’s easy to believe that some nations are made to lead while others serve. Or that some nations, especially those ‘foreign’ elements within your own country, must be crushed, expelled, or exterminated.

And, of course, this all gets easily bound up in conservatism’s focus on tradition and heritage.Fascism was originally a nationalist political movement created in Italy and led by Benito Mussolini, who rooted Italian national identity in the Roman Empire and the supposed ‘civilizing’ force it represented. (The word ‘fascism’ derives from ‘fasces’, an ancient Roman symbol of a bundle of sticks tied around an axe that represented unity and strength.) But for Mussolini, the function of the nation was seen as fundamentally spiritual, a process of “individuals and generations bound together by a moral law, with common traditions and a mission … [that] builds up a higher life, founded on duty”. After all, if tradition (and through it the Nation) are the source of morals and goodness, it’s not hard for that tradition to take on a religious, cult-like, flavor. And further if moral law and goodness come from the nation, and the state represented the nation, then logically the state (when properly nationalistic) is goodness. “For the fascist,” he wrote, “everything is in the state, and no human or spiritual thing exists, or has any sort of value, outside the state.” He called this idea “totalitarianism”.

Fascism would inspire other political parties that would come to be identified as broadly ‘fascist’, namely the Nazi Party in Germany and the Falange Party in Spain. (One might also include the National Union Party in Portugal, though Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar always insisted he was not a Fascist and looked down his nose at the regimes in Germany and Italy as being insufficiently Catholic.) Just as the Italians embraced Ancient Rome, each of these movements rooted their national identity in a ‘Golden Age’ or ages in their past that might be redeemed through the process of fascism; for the Germans this was the first two Reichs, for the Spanish the height of Spanish imperialist power in the 16th century. This Golden Age would become a fundamental part of the aesthetic of each of these nations, and all of them would share the fascist resurrection of the Ancient Roman salute. For each of these movements, the conservative trust in intuition and gut instinct became expressed as a love of ‘action for action’s sake’, (in the words of Umberto Eco) with an associated distrust and hatred of intellectuals, eg. the Fascist brownshirts referring to intellectuals as ‘eggheads’ because their heads shattered so easily. And all of these movements saw their efforts in terms of a never-ending holy war against the enemies of the nation within and without who are solely responsible for its weakness and troubles. These corrupt, perverse, treasonous, and evil elements could be safely dehumanized as ‘Others’, justifying the plentiful violence employed against them and the heroic character attributed to those employing that violence. (Heroism is core to the fascist mindset, and statues of heroes always proliferate in fascist regimes.) But one day, the leaders promised, this war would be won, and fascism would bring about heaven on earth.

And most of all because the nation was defined by this narrative of holy war to return to a Golden Age, that narrative became a matter of sacred dogma. Any evidence that contradicted the narrative were lies created by the enemy. Anyway, it didn’t really matter what was true or not, the value of the narrative wasn’t factual it was moral; the emotional journey of the narrative provided stability, guidance, purpose, and identity. Questioning and criticizing it in any way could only be explained as treason by those who wanted to destroy morality itself.

Wait a minute! Hang on there for just a second! An identity and life that is entirely built around the state? A cult-like worship around a sacred narrative, depicted as a holy war? A promised paradisiacal end-state that will likely never come? An aesthetic rooted in the past? Enormous statues of its heroes? A belief in the importance of stability over truth? A duty to destroy anyone who represents a deviation from the narrative? A whole category of people whose life has no value? Jackbooted thugs meeting out death in and out of sham trials?The TVA is a fascist organization!Look at this conversation between Ravonna and T-15: {Ep. 1×5}”You were disloyal to the TVA.””The people need to know the truth””No, the TVA needs stability.”You even have the rote bureaucrats found behind the doors of every fascist state, punching away numbers around their atrocities in what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil”.

But I thought I said earlier that Mobius was a conservative? Now I’m calling him a fascist? What gives?While it’s true both the fascist and the conservative hold tradition as the source of moral value, they are not the same. As Brooks would have it, one of the keys to conservative thought is that change must be prudent, anything too extreme threatens the fundamental social order and risks destroying the very traditions on which a good society is founded. The fascist, meanwhile, is more than happy to overthrow the government, shoot all their enemies, and rewrite history to glorify themselves.

So who were these ‘conservatives’ charging the Pentagon on Jan. 6, 2020 and what happened to them to make them think staging a coup was consistent with their ideological beliefs?In his article, David Brooks points to a problem with conservatism while not getting at its root cause or coming around to why his fundamental belief system might be mistaken:

Conservatives are supposed to be epistemologically modest—but in real life, this modesty can turn into a brutish anti-intellectualism, a contempt for learning and expertise. Conservatives are supposed to prize local community—but this orientation can turn into narrow parochialism, can produce xenophobic and racist animosity toward immigrants, a tribal hostility toward outsiders, and a paranoid response when confronted with even a hint of diversity and pluralism. Conservatives are supposed to cherish moral formation—but this emphasis can turn into a rigid and self-righteous moralism, a tendency to see all social change as evidence of moral decline and social menace. Finally, conservatives are supposed to revere the past—but this reverence for what was can turn into an abject deference to whoever holds power.

And what does all that look like in practice, David? What name should we call that?

But wait, conservatives in America can’t be fascists. We said American Conservatism is about small government and personal freedom, which is the opposite of the totalitarian state. No American conservative would ever embrace fascism. Right?

But is small government and personal freedom really what American Conservatives believe in at all?
American Conservatives are, for example, happy to vote to lower taxes for the wealthiest Americans, but then turn around and propose raising taxes for the poorest in the interest of ‘fairness’. (They’re also happy to continue the policy of taxes for investment income (ie. capital gains) being lower than for most wage labour which disproportionately benefits the 10% of Americans who own 89% of the stock market.) They’ll say they’re in favor of free speech and free enterprise, but then talk about nationalizing the social media platforms that refuse to let them spread lies and misinformation. They’ll even talk about dismantling the Disney corporation for speaking out against their bigoted laws. They’ll make laws to have the state arrest parents and take children away if they and their doctors agree to give them a kind of health care they don’t approve of, putting the government between children and their doctors. They’ll campaign on low taxes, family values, and child welfare and then let the Child Tax Credit expire allowing 3.7 million children to fall into poverty.

Brooks desperately wants conservatism to be about compassion, prudence, and generational wisdom, about a love of innovation tempered by a humility before tradition. But it isn’t, not really. In reality conservatism exists to prop up existing hierarchies, institutions, and prejudices in the name of ‘tradition’. The supposed “healthy society” in which Brooks’ says conservatism would work doesn’t exist, and has never existed. There have always been unjust hierarchies, one group stepping on the neck of another for a conservative to defend as ‘traditional’.

Conservatism exists to defend the status quo. And when the status quo starts to break down, conservatives will run to ‘restore’ it.

And with that we’re finally, finally ready to see how a conservative becomes a fascist.

Here’s a story you might have heard before:

In the 1950s, under conservative president Dwight Eisenhower, Americans reaped the boons of both being the last major economy standing after the Second World War and the Keynesian and social democratic policies of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. These social democrats had finally given America things we take for granted now, like the 8 hour workday and the two day weekend, as well as social security and FDIC insurance. Eisenhower then built out the American highway system with massive government spending. The highest marginal tax rate was over 90%. A single person with a high school education could get a job that would support a family of five, with a nice suburban house and two cars in the garage. People would work for the same company their entire careers and receive a pension as a reward at the end on which they could retire comfortably. While things were still not great for most minority groups, and women suffered under the yoke of sexist gender roles, prosperity reigned for the white majority, and they easily found identity in their work and in their community.

As the decades wore on, however, that stability and prosperity Americans took for granted got chipped away. The Cold War became an excuse to crack down on all left leaning people and organizations. Disastrous foreign wars shocked America and took the lives of its young men. The racial fault lines of American oppression split violently during the Civil Rights Movement, minorities demanding a share of that same prosperity. Conformity became stultifying for a generation of young people who wanted something more. And conservatives responded by diving head first into the Neoliberal agenda of Barry Goldwater, aided by the racial animosity stoked by the ‘Southern Strategy’. This movement saw itself come fully to power in the age of Ronald Reagan who proceeded to dismantle the economic and social safeguards that protected the country. This, coupled with the increased ease of globalizing trade by technological innovations, allowed corporations to crater the economies of whole regions in favor of cheaper labor overseas, prioritizing corporate profits over the wellbeing of the people who’d built these companies. Communities were destroyed and hollowed out as old jobs disappeared and young people moved to bigger cities where service economy jobs could be found, offering worse pay and working conditions than their parents had enjoyed. Meanwhile, the commoditization of housing and the desire of NIMBYs to protect their property values by opposing new construction caused housing costs to skyrocket, making those same cities unaffordable. Working at a particular job for only a few years became normalized, pensions disappeared to be replaced by either nothing or 401k plans to which employees have to contribute out of their own salaries and which are subject to the whims of a destabilized market that seems to crash at least once a decade.

The strong local communities that conservatism thrives on, what Brooks (quoting Edmund Burke) called the “little platoons [which are] the factories of moral and emotional formation”, were destroyed. And this was true not just for poor areas, which is why the question of ‘economic anxiety’ fueling fascism (or not) is such a misdirect; the more affluent white suburbanites surrounding Detroit, for example, watched in horror as the economic heart of their region died even while they blamed exactly the wrong people for what happened.

The loss of community leads one to try and find community elsewhere. A Colombian immigrant might find community with other Colombians, an affinity group like the LGBTQ community can become a source of strength especially for those who might have been rejected by their family because of their identity, or one might become more closely knit with their religious group. Indeed, media today is full of ‘found family’ narratives, from the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy to Stephen UniverseCommunityKobrai Kai, and on and on. It’s in the air.

But often this new community will define itself in opposition to those they blame for taking away what they may have lost. Mobius loses his identity as a TVA agent and finds common cause with those opposing it. Sylvie has her entire identity and life taken away from her, and replaces it with an all-consuming drive for vengeance.

If the actual culprits are complex or culturally unacceptable, a convenient scapegoat can be found, as the Nazis blamed the Jews for the German loss in World War I and the humiliating conditions of the Treaty of Versailles that ultimately led to the destruction of the German economy during the Great Depression. It doesn’t matter if that story is incoherent. The important thing is the emotional journey it takes you on, after all.

Indeed, you might find a whole industry of media telling you exactly who is responsible for your troubles, exactly who to blame, flooded with money from kind billionaires like Rupert Murdoch, the Koch Brothers, the Mercers, and Peter Thiel who have selflessly devoted massive amounts of their fortunes to educating the populace. They’ll help you find your identity in your nation, where a real patriot can wave a Confederate flag, a symbol of sedition and treason, because they believe in American values while simultaneously and paradoxically media tells them that the Confederacy was a Democratic (and therefor Liberal) plot. A media that tells you half the country aren’t “Americans in any meaningful sense”. Your community becomes a Social Media echo chamber, pounding the message again and again that you and your nation are under threat from seditious, perverse foreigners who like socialism, a term that grows in definition to simply mean anything you don’t like.

But wait, I’m also told that ‘socialism’ (whatever that is) is obviously wrong and dumb and stupid and evil. How could so many Americans be duped by something like that? It must some kind of plot, hatched by the evil billionaire George Soros and the wealthy elite who hate America and American values and aren’t like the good billionaires we like. They must be behind this plot to make America less religious and less white. These lesser races, after all, are easily manipulated.

(Immigrants tend to be poor anyway, which is more evidence of their lack of intelligence and inferiority, since we live in a meritocracy and if they were worthy they would rise to the top like those model Asians. We already know black people are inferior for the same reason, which is why they vote for Democrats too.) There must be shadowy figures orchestrating all of this, manipulating these lesser races so that they can fill up the country, replacing the good white people, and become dependent on the state, which will give the shadowy figures complete control and domination. It just makes sense right? And everyone knows who these shadowy figures are. ((Hint: they’re Jews.))

Maybe we shouldn’t let them take our freedom away. Maybe we need to take drastic measures. Democracy is too easily manipulated and gives the votes to the wrong people. Democracy is not compatible with freedom. Look at what a good job Vladimir Putin and Victor Orbán are doing keeping out the influence of Soros. Maybe we need something like that here. Maybe what we really need is to overthrow the government and eliminate the foreigners once and for all, so we can return our country to a mythologized past when the nation was pure and everything was so much better.

Maybe it’s the only way we can Make America Great Again.

Now, I’m not saying all Trump voters believe all of the above. But I am saying Trump supporters fall somewhere on a sliding scale towards torch-bearing chants of “The Jews Will Not Replace Us”, and polls show that nearly half of Republicans believe in ‘Great Replacement Theory’. And Qanon is the logical endpoint of all this, since it’s after all merely a reframing of conspiracy theories about Jews controlling the world that date back centuries and were promoted by the Nazi government, who made children read The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in school. There’s a short jump, after all, from Jews kidnapping Christian babies to use their blood to make matzo and ((elite globalists)) kidnapping children to extract adrenochrome to get high. Forget that many of the billionaires who support and astroturf the right are also Jewish (Ike Perlmutter, Sheldon Adelson, Barre Seid). Reality isn’t the point of any of this. It’s how it makes you feel, it’s the emotional throughline it gives you.
Consider this ad from JD Vance where he says:

Are you a racist?

Do you hate mexicans?

The media calls us racist for wanting to build trump’s wall. Joe Biden’s open border is killing0 ohioans with more illegal drugs and more democrat voters pouring into this country.

Does it matter that 77% of drug traffickers are US citizens and most illegal drugs are brought in through ports of call including airports? That the border ‘war zone’ Vance is talking about has no basis in reality?  Of course not. It’s just cover so you don’t have to feel like  a racist, the liberals are the real racists after all because they hate white people. The real point is the second part of the ad. The Democrats are bringing in immigrants because they’ll vote for Democrats aka Socialists a. k. a. ‘the Jews will not replace us’.

And as Sylvie shows, when you lose your identity, there might be no lengths you might not go to in order to wreck vengeance on those you feel responsible.

So as American conservatism slides into American fascism, it places ever more emphasis on the importance of national narrative and the tradition it represents. The conservatives cannot abide the 1619 Project or the specter of ‘Critical Race Theory’ because they’re a threat to the national narrative on which they’ve built their identities. As they’ll say over and over, the “radical left” is “teaching people to hate America”, which is to say to reject the narrative and therefore reject morality itself. It doesn’t matter that America’s supposed traditions of liberty, free enterprise, and private property were built on the backs of slavery, stolen land, and genocide. Instead of looking honestly at our past and discovering how we might prevent the exploitation of marginalized groups going forward, they want play pretend that nothing is wrong at all. Strength and stability is more important than truth, after all. The solution is to repeat the phrase “America is not a racist country” like a mantra until everyone believes it, and continue portraying racism as something that happens to individuals instead of something built into the systems under which we live. Anything to keep people from looking too hard at the injustices built into our society or trying to do anything that upsets the existing structure of white power.

Democrats and Republicans aren’t playing the same game anymore. While Democrats talk about sensible policy decisions and the evidence that supports their passage, Republicans are fighting a holy war for the soul of the natio, in which the rules of the game are at best inconveniences to be bypassed.

I mean, look at this from the 2016 Presidential debate between Trump and Clinton:

Chris Wallace (moderator): (to Hillary Clinton) You also voted against a ban on late-term, partial-birth abortions. Why?

Hillary Clinton: The kinds of cases that fall at the end of pregnancy are often the most heartbreaking, painful decisions for families to make. I have met with women who toward the end of their pregnancy get the worst news one could get, that their health is in jeopardy if they continue to carry to term or that something terrible has happened or just been discovered about the pregnancy. I don’t think the United States government should be stepping in and making those most personal of decisions.

A very reasoned and emotionally resonate argument, Secretary Clinton. I wonder how Mr. Trump will respond:

Donald Trump: Well, I think it’s terrible. If you go with what Hillary is saying, in the ninth month, you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby.

Trump isn’t even bothering to engage with what Clinton said. Why should he, when he can make up a lie about what she believes and decry that instead? He’s not there to have a good faith discussion of conflicting political ideas, he’s there to wage a crusade against a devil woman who murders babies.

Why should he accept the results of an election when he can make up lies about it being stolen with no evidence whatever, and his people, who know what he says is true because they feel it in their gut, will happily throw all of their rhetoric about loving the constitution and the rule of law in the toilet in an effort to physically overthrow the American government?

Jan 6th was a moment where it became clear that a genuine conflict like the Spanish Civil War, where a fascist military uprising followed a left-wing electoral victory, is frighteningly more possible than most people ever suspected. However, given what Republicans are currently doing to the election system, the more likely scenario is that they will simply steal elections outright while Democrats are too devoted to order and civility to do anything about it but complain. The Republicans  are following the playbook of their idols Putin and Orbán to quasi-legally change the rules until the democratic state becomes an authoritarian one.

Democrats’ solution has been to make compromises, to reach across the aisle, only to for example find their Republican-proposed health care plan rebranded ‘Obamacare’ and treated like Mao’s Great Leap Forward, or their centrist compromise Supreme Court nominee Merick Garland bumped in a historically unprecedented seat theft. This is a strategy with which Democrats can only loose, by inches when they compromise or miles when their compromises are rejected. People are losing their identities, losing their futures, and looking for someone to blame. The Democrats need to show them who’s really to blame, to reframe the narrative. The wealthy and powerful use capitalism to take everything they can while telling people to be grateful for the scraps of low wage shit jobs they leave behind.

Moebius and B-15 are both true believing fascists at the beginning of the series, and come to rebel against it when they discover the lies they’ve been told about who they are and what they’re doing. You can argue it’s naive to believe something like that might work in real life, that true believers only dig themselves in deeper when confronted with information that contradicts their beliefs. But the Trump movement didn’t happen because a bunch of people woke up one day and decided to become fascists. Part of the reason Trump did as well as he did against folks like Clinton and Biden is because Clinton and Biden represent the status quo, they ironically represent conservatism now. But the status quo has failed the public. People are yearning for something different, for something to believe in, for a new identity that will give them hope.

At the end of the first season of Loki, the One Who Remains offers Loki and Sylvie a choice. You can either take my place, he tells them, and run the TVA, or kill me, destroy the TVA, and bring about the inevitability of multiversal war that I created the TVA to avoid. There is no choice, in other words, between fascism and chaos, which is of course the terms that all fascists reduce things to. Sylvie decides chaos is still preferable, allowing multiversal plotlines and all their crossover potential to proliferate throughout Disney’s ever broadening portfolio. But here in reality, which  isn’t ruled by narrative logic no matter how much we sometimes want it to be, we need to stop playing the game on the enemy’s terms. Because in reality, there is no downside to stabbing fascism in its heart.


I hope you enjoyed this episode of Literate Machine. You might have noticed that I haven’t had a new episode in a while. This is because I had something of a major life event in the form of the birth of my second child, so, you know, I’ve been a little busy. Hopefully I’ll be able to make episodes more regularly going forward.

If you enjoyed this please consider sharing it, as word-of-mouth is how shows like this grow. Also consider contributing to my Patreon at Patreon.com/ericrosenfield. For as little as $1 an episode you get exclusive author’s notes, early access to episodes and other goodies. Patrons had the script for this episode at least a month before the video went out.

As always, a bibliography and further reading are below. Literate Machine is available as a blog, podcast, mailing list, and YouTube videos. More information can be found at literatemachine.com.

I’d like to thank my Patrons, Kevin Cafferty, Wilma Ezekowitz, IndustrialRobot, Hristo Kolev, Benjamin Pence, Jason Quackenbush, Nancy S. Rosen, and Arthur Rosenfield.


Bibliography and Further Reading

The Confused Ideology of Schitt’s Creek

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This piece spoils the entirety of the show Schitt’s Creek.

Around Christmas, there was a meme going around about Hallmark Christmas movies and how they all have about the same plot: a woman who’s prioritized her career in the big city returns to the small town she came from and resents only to fall in love and discover her old home is where her heart (and the meaning of Christmas) was all along.

Make your own!

This notion of small towns as homey paradises where people have a connection that can’t be found in the world of the big city is hardly new. It’s easy to think of idealized small towns in popular media, going at least as far back as shows like Leave It to Beaver (1957-1963), The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968), and so on. Nor is the story of a big shot, big city type coming to the small town and falling for it anything new. Hell, even just looking at my teenage years I can think of examples off the top of my head, such as Doc Hollywood (1991), Groundhog Day (1993), and Northern Exposure (1990-1995). And all of these narratives happen in more or less the same sort of place, filled to the brim with goodhearted but quirky folks, always there when someone needs them, whose simple, wholesome lives leave them basically happy and satisfied in a way that contrasts with the unfulfilling ambition of the big city.

This fetishization of the small town might come as some surprise to those who like to imagine Hollywood (and by Hollywood here I’m referring to the entire pop media machinery) as populated by out-of-touch, big city elites who look down their noses at “flyover country”. But I think this speaks to a contradiction in the (particularly white) Coastal imagination about small towns in the middle of nowhere, which are at once dull backwaters best to escape from and places you could imagine fleeing to, free from the daily grind where housing is affordable, folks are neighborly, and one could find a sense of community.

TheAndy Griffith Show is an interesting case because of the way that folks on the right still like to bring it up as an example of the kind of values we supposedly need to get back to. {clip} Yet the actual values on display don’t really line up. Griffith’s Sheriff Taylor refused to wear a gun because he said “when a man carries a gun all the time, the respect he thinks he’s getting might actually be fear”. {clip} There was a running gag where his deputy, Barney Fife (Don Knotts) had a gun but had only been given a single bullet he never got to use. This was of course in stark contrast to the real life American South (the show takes place in North Carolina) at the time of airing, where protestors in the civil rights movement were being beaten and shot for the temerity of sitting at lunch counters, riding buses, and trying to vote. Ted Koppel did a whole piece on CBS Sunday Morning on how the right’s fetishization of Griffith’s Mayberry is a yearning for a past that never happened fueled by the same sort of people who believe the absurd claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election.

No, these small towns are by-and-large as much a fantasy as anything in Game of Thrones. And as the real-life small towns in North America have been hollowed out by outsourcing, conglomeration, and predatory capitalism, this Hollywood version has become ever more disconnected from that reality in a way that illustrates how we’re all blind to everything we’ve lost.

Which brings us, at last, to Schitt’s Creek.

Now, I want to say right off that I like Schitt’s Creek. As with The Trial of the Chicago 7, one can enjoy a piece of media while also finding fault with its ideological bearing or point-of-view (intentional or otherwise).  Full of heart and generous sentiment, it’s a show about people finding reconnection, love, and community in a time of distress and loss. It’s hardly a surprise this warm blanket of a show became popular during the era of Trump and Pandemic. But the ways in which it’s a warm blanket perfectly encapsulate the lies we’ve been telling ourselves as a culture about the society we live in.
Ostensibly, you see, Schitt’s Creek is a show about poverty.

The show tells the story of the Rose family, whose patriarch Johnny (Eugene Levy) built a massive fortune off a VHS rental chain, only to find themselves destitute after their financial planner absconds with all their money. After their palatial, marble-fitted mansion is seized by a non-denominational “revenue authority”, they’re left to live in a motel in a small, rural town that Johnny once bought as a joke. (What it means in legal terms that they “own” the town is never really clear, and it doesn’t seem to grant them any particular property rights–they’re only allowed to stay in the motel at the sufferance of the mayor, the improbably named Roland Schitt (Chris Elliott).) Thus the premise is what happens when rich people find themselves utterly destitute, and the thrust of the show is about their quest for the means to get themselves back on their feet.

As a viewer, I thought I knew how this story was going to go, like any big-city-to-small-town Hallmark narrative. And this is how it seems to be going for much of its runtime. The Roses learn humility and heart from the local townspeople, discovering the hollowness of the life they used to live and the lack of real connection with the people they’d known. Again and again we’re shown members of the Rose family interacting with people they knew while they were rich, who are revealed to be selfish, venal, and inconsiderate, good time friends who disappear when they’re most needed. The implication is that wealth has a corrosive effect, that it makes you lose touch with your humanity and lose sight of what’s important in life. In the small town with salt-of-the-earth people, on the other hand, they discover who they really are.

But at the same time the Roses are steadily building back their finances, often through improbable good luck, and the show finally swerves completely from the typical narrative by having Johnny get venture funding for his new business and all but one member of the family leaving town in the last episode to go right back on the road to wealth. Which seems to contradict all the themes that had been established so far about wealth being soul-destroying and small town values being superior to those of the big city. It would be one thing if this was a straight-up subversion of the clichéd ending, if this somehow commented on the ways in which the Hallmark Christmas movie distorts reality. But nothing else about the show supports that reading; it just seems like after spending four years developing and growing as people, the Rose family simply decides that wealth and the big city aren’t so bad after all. The ending, in other words, is confused, and confused in a way that makes me think that the writers weren’t actually aware of the thematic implications of what they were doing.

But the clues that this might be the case were there all along. For a show about poverty, after all, Schitt’s Creek can never bear to show us what actual poverty looks like. There’s no opioid epidemic here. No Walmart destroying local businesses and paying poverty wages. Nobody blaming immigrants and liberals for their problems and spiraling into mires of insane conspiracy theories. The closest glimpse we get of small town financial struggle is an early episode focusing on the very real epidemic of Multilevel Marketing scams in small communities. The Rose family buys into an MLM and tries to sell the poor quality cosmetics they receive to the townspeople, only to discover they’ve all already bought into it themselves in years past. But there’s no sense here that the MLMs prey on small towns precisely because they tend to have so much desperate poverty, and there’s no sense of anyone being financially ruined by their involvement in them.Further, there’s no one finding refuge from their troubles in the Church, despite that institution being central to the cultural life of most North American small towns. There are no Bible thumpers here, none of the zealots who would occasionally corner me to talk about my immortal soul even when I lived in towns in Liberal states like Connecticut and Vermont. We don’t see pregnant teenagers and shotgun weddings because people don’t believe in using or distributing information about contraception and have made it nearly impossible to get abortions.

And we don’t see the worsening urban/rural divide that’s caused white, rural and suburban Americans to rail against the phantom of “Critical Race Theory” and bash immigrants, poisonous distractions that allow the politicians they support to continue executing the very lassez faire capitalism that’s destroying their communities.

Indeed, there’s no politics at all in Schitt’s Creek, despite one of the major characters being a professional politician and a plot line revolving around the mother Moira (Catherine O’Hara) running for and winning a seat on the town council. I counted two political jokes in the entire series: when the town community theatre is putting on a musical and there’s a joke about Cats being a more political show than Cabaret (a show about literal Nazis); and then when David Rose (Dan Levy) says he doesn’t like sports because ‘Given today’s political climate, we don’t need to divide ourselves any more’ (despite the fact that we never see any evidence of that division). And we see no intolerance, bigotry, or racism. The closest we get is a scene where David thinks his fiancé Patrick’s parents are upset to find out he’s gay, but are actually only upset because he didn’t tell them. “For a minute I thought this was gonna get very dark,” David says in relief. Fortunately for him, the show could never bear such darkness.

Of course, this is all what we’ve come to expect from the Hollywood version of small town America, a function of the show as a warm blanket. But the elisions becomes glaring in a show that’s premised on showing us the effects of poverty on a family. They’re noticeable.

Further, the show seems to have no idea how the working class lives or works. Almost no one in town, for example, is involved in wage labor. Everyone is either a small business owner or becomes a small business owner by the end of the show, often through luck. Motel manager Stevie, for example, who appears to be the only employee of the motel in which the Roses reside, unexpectedly inherits the whole business when it’s revealed that it was owned by an unseen aunt who dies and leaves it to her. The son David Rose gets a job as a salesperson in a clothing store when unexpectedly his employer is offered money for the name of the store by a foreign business with the same name looking to expand. David and his sister Alexis (Annie Murphy) help her negotiate for more and are rewarded with a large check, which David uses to start a local retail store. Alexis (after temporarily working reception in her boyfriend’s veterinarian business, a position, it’s made clear, she’s not remotely qualified for) decides to start a public relations company, is hired by her mother to help promote her own resurgent acting career, and unexpectedly causes a fiasco at a press conference that goes viral and transforms her ‘company’ from a notional idea to an in-demand concern. Stevie practically begs Johnny Rose to help her run the motel because she has no business experience, which he then works to expand into a chain that ultimately allows the family to leave town. Even the mayor Roland becomes co-owner of the motel business by (recklessly) mortgaging his house when they need extra capital.

Meanwhile, Ted is a veterinarian with his own practice (though, yes, he later gives it up for a dream job doing research on Galapagos). Ronnie is a contractor. Bob owns a car repair business. Ray runs a one-man real estate agency among other businesses. Even Moira’s acting career is a kind of small business in the way all independent artists are, always needing to line up the next gig. In terms of what’s depicted here, wage labor is seen as at worst a temporary inconvenience to be overcome when you finally start your own business, which hopefully will fall in your lap when you’re ready for it.

And this despite the fact that those who do work wage labor jobs before their entrepreneurial ascension, Alexis, David, Stevie, and Twyla, are all shown to be pretty content in their jobs while they have them.
But it’s Twyla (Sarah Levy), the waitress at the local diner, who’s story is the most glaring example of the problem here, the way in which the show seems completely oblivious to the problems of working wage labor.

In the second-to-last episode, Alexis Rose is preparing to move back to New York to pursue her publicity career. She visits the diner to give Twyla some clothes she’s decided not to take with her. (Much as Stevie is the only employee we ever see at the motel for most of the series, Twyla is the only employee we ever see at the diner.) When Alexis comments that she doesn’t want Twyla to pay for the clothes because she’s seen how people tip there, Twyla reveals a secret:

Twyla: Alexis, between us, I don’t do this for money. I won some money in the lottery a few years ago.

She further reveals this amounts to tens of millions of dollars, and dates back to when the Rose’s had first arrived in town. So why would she continue waiting tables?

Twyla: If I’ve learned anything from how my mom spent the money I gave her, It’s that money can buy a lot of snowmobiles, but it can’t buy happiness. So it’s about how you live your life. You know, doing what makes you smile. And being here, getting to hear your stories over the past few years, even the scary ones, that makes me smile.

This is the ‘theme stated’ moment, the theme of the show said aloud. Money can’t buy happiness, it’s about how you live your life. This is a perfectly sensible sentiment, but its made absurd to the point of self-parody in this scene. I’ve known lots of people who’ve waited tables, and I can say categorically that none of them would continue doing it if they won tens of millions in the lottery. Waiting tables is a hard, shit job. But as we’ve explored, the problems with blue collar wage labor don’t seem to exist in the Schitt’s Creek universe, and Twyla in particular exposes like an open sore how out-of-touch the writers seem with the literal subject of their work.

Alexis’ response then modifies the theme statement in a telling way. She says “Every now and again, spending like a little bit of money on something really special, it might not buy you happiness, but… it can definitely help make you smile.” And what is the thing this inspires Twyla to buy with her wealth? Why, it’s the diner she works at, transforming her from a wage laborer to yet another small business entrepreneur.

Thus we have my whole case.

Schitt’s Creek wants to tell us that wealth has a corrosive effect. But it can’t quite ever bear to consider what the lives of the impoverished are like, and creates a world in which all anyone needs to do to succeed financially is to become an entrepreneur and work hard, as if systemic issues have nothing to do with it. And this is a fundamentally right wing conception, one that lines up with Jerry Rubin’s yuppie “entrepreneurial capitalism will save us all” proposition I talked about in the Chicago 7 episode. This is Reagan’s America, and it’s an ethos that the right uses to justify cutting public assistance because it’s going ‘make people dependent on the government’ and ‘encourage people not to work’. After all, if anyone can make it with a business plan and a little gumption, if poverty is a choice, then offering assistance is just abetting laziness for the undeserving poor. (Granted that Johnny Rose does get unemployment assistance early in the series but not much is made of it.) And the dumb luck the characters in this show consistently experience becomes a stand-in for the privileges that the privileged are blind to, the way whiteness, or education, or having family that can help you out, or any of a thousand other things alters the playing field.

So what you get is a show that makes overtures to culturally liberal values like gay marriage while giving us yet another economically conservative, neoliberal worldview. And I don’t even think the writers of the show were aware they were doing this; this worldview is so ingrained in their minds it’s invisible. This is why the right’s frequent claims of “liberal media” are such a joke, honing in entirely on the most surface level signifiers while the actual themes of our media are by-and-large made by a class of people for whom neoliberalism has done pretty well. It’s also why in America we have one center-right party and one far-right party, because Democratic politicians are mostly from that self-same class of people as the Republicans and media creators, going to the same schools and given the same educations. (Ted Cruz and Barak Obama are both graduates of Ivy League universities and Harvard Law School, as an easy example.)

Could a show like Schitt’s Creek that actually confronted the problems of small town North America work? I could imagine something like an updated All in the Family, where at least some of the inhabitants of the town were the kind of racist Trump supporters that, for example, Rosanne Barr turned out to be (unlike the sanitized version of the Trump supporter that she portrayed on the revival of her television show). One could imagine them actually meeting people who lived in trailers or crumbling old houses they couldn’t afford to keep up, people in their 30s who still lived with their parents, people whose livelihoods had disappeared when nearby industries moved offshore. A show where the lead characters maybe don’t find it quite so easy to extract themselves from the mire, or find themselves caught in cycles of credit card debt trying to keep afloat.

That show might not be as much of a warm blanket in troubled times. But it might be the show we need.


Bibliography and Further Reading


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I’d like to thank my Patrons, Kevin Cafferty, Wilma Ezekowitz, IndustrialRobot, Hristo Kolev, Benjamin Pence, Jason Quackenbush, Nancy S. Rosen, and Arthur Rosenfield.

Defund the Paw Patrol

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Content Warning: this episode includes discussion of police brutality

Part 1: ‘Round Adventure Bay

Consider, if you will, a town.

You have never seen a hospital in this town. You have never seen a school. Instead, prepubescent children work full-time jobs without adult oversight. It’s never really occurred to you that not one of them seems to have parents.
The political apparatus of the town consists of a mayor so self-aggrandizing she erects a solid gold statue of her chicken in the center of town, a move reminiscent of the dogs of the brutal dictator of Turkmenistan

Otherwise, if you’re wondering where the town budget goes, direct your gaze to a tower (you can’t miss it) on a defensible island with a single bridge, a tower topped with a retractable periscope so that its residents might, Sauron-like, keep watch over their world. From within the cavernous subterranean garages of this tower pour forth a bewilderingly massive fleet of vehicles–cars, trucks, ATVs, construction equipment, hovercraft, helicopters, boats, submarines, snowmobiles, and jetpack-sporting aviators. And all of it, for some reason, under the command of a 10-year-old boy and his team of trained puppies. Every concert in town, every parade, every celebration seems to center around this circus-like emergency and law enforcement crew. Look now, there’s an underage Dalmatian behind the wheel of a fire truck with the entire team on board, a truck that would plow through cars in its way, if the roads weren’t conveniently empty whenever the team came through as if cleared in advance just for them. Look, the Dalmatian has hopped out of his truck, doing his work as the town’s only medical provider. A woman has an injured leg. Voice activated, from the dog’s backpack emerges a screen which flickers into life as a fully-operational X-Ray, and is applied to the leg without the least regard for safety, probably ensuring that everyone around will get cancer.
Why does such a small town need such an overfunded rescue and law enforcement operation outfitted with enough military surplus to defend a small nation? Because this town is constantly under attack, primarily by the mayor of a neighboring town who, aided by his underage nephew and crew of kitties, will twirl his mustache and steal anything that isn’t nailed down. And why not? He knows he won’t be punished, not really. After all, the show must go on.

No one ages here. Nothing changes. Nothing except the emergency and law enforcement service’s ever expanding surplus of high-tech, military-grade equipment, continuing to pile up within and beneath the tower.

Part 2: A World Without Irony

Created by a toy company literally called Spin Master, Paw Patrol continues the tradition of toy-commercials-as-TV-shows dating back to the Reagan-era repeal of regulations regarding product placement in children’s shows, which resulted in waves of shows based on toy lines including, for example, Transformers, My Little Pony, and G.I. Joe. And this is the true purpose of Paw Patrol: to function as the center of a marketing effort for an ever-expanding line of toys.

The most remarkable thing about Paw Patrol as a TV show compared to other shows of its type is just how unremarkable it is. It’s not merely anodyne, it’s actively backwards-looking; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen another show quite so unexamined and unreconstructed. The lead human character is a white boy and the core group of puppies are all boys except one, playing into the same self-fulfilling stereotypes of toy makers that boys don’t want girl cooties in their entertainment, and white people won’t tune into shows lead by non-white people. Girls are thus tokenized in any show not only aimed at a male audience, but a crossover on, just as BIPOC are. And of course, the girl’s color scheme is pink, because girl, and her femininity is signaled by extra-large eye-lashes, as if puppies use lash curlers and eye liner.

Among the pups, the defacto leader is the police dog. Of the main cast, there are two token non-white characters, both of whose ethnic identity has no bearing whatever on their personality or background. The ostensibly black Mayor Goodway plays washtub bass in hoedowns, a style of music literally popularized as a way of countering the influence of “black” music in the 1920s. Goodway was even played by a white actress until season 7, a form of voice acting blackface. As for Farmer Yumi, she doesn’t seem to have much personality to speak of at all.

The main villain, Mayor Humdinger, meanwhile, is a sissy stereotype straight out of vaudeville, his effeminate mannerisms linked closely with loose morals and cowardice.

The show is, in other words, mired in moldering tropes without the least self-examination or apparent knowledge of the larger discourse around these tropes that’s been going on for decades now. Where many other programs actively tilt away from this sort of thing, from Sesame Street to Bluey, and more progressive programs like Steven Universe actively work to undermine them, Paw Patrol embraces them enthusiastically and without the tiniest bit of irony.

But then irony doesn’t exist in the world of Paw Patrol. Where SpongeBob Squarepants crammed irony into every subversive frame of nautical nonsense, an adventurous Paw Patrol joke will at best consist of a pun. While SpongeBob characters might have complex, ambivalent emotions–Sandy’s simultaneous care for and annoyance with SpongeBob for example–there’s no room for such complexity in Adventure Bay. People are either good and trying to do good things, or they’re bad and trying to do bad things. Even when characters should be annoyed by another–Marshall slamming into and knocking over the other pups every episode for example–no such annoyance materializes. There’s no room for any negative emotions here. And while the characters in The PJ Masks, for example, might learn and grow with a proper character arc over the course of an episode, with villains sometimes even switching sides on a temporary or permanent basis, there is absolutely no possibility of this in Paw Patrol. At best, a character might learn to have more confidence in themselves.

Part 3: These Paws Uphold the Laws

At first glance, Paw Patrol isn’t the most obvious show at which to level the accusation of “copaganda”. It’s not about a police force, per se, it’s not Law and Order, or Blue Bloods, or Brooklyn 99, where a sympathetic portrayal of a police department is built into the show’s premise. Only Chase even has a police theme, while the other dogs have such inoffensive “occupations” as construction worker, firefighter, ocean rescuer, or (strangely) recycling truck driver. And much of what they do falls into the category of search and rescue operations as opposed to law enforcement. Even when Chase does get the spotlight, he’s often doing such unglamorous things as directing traffic or laying down traffic cones. In the early episodes in particular, the pups were more likely to help baby turtles cross a busy road or find a lost elephant calf than do battle with criminals.

But this actually gets at part of the problem with how the police exist in the public imagination. They’re frequently lumped in with firefighters, for example, as ‘real heroes’. (Meanwhile, other workers no less heroic like EMS workers don’t get the same treatment, and definitely don’t get anything like the pay, criminally underpaid and overworked.) Police are thus presented as just another arm of the municipal services that keep us all safe. Which is, of course, what they’re supposed to be.

And yet the police’s remit is different from that of firefighters, trash collectors, or construction workers. The police have power they don’t, a right to detain, imprison, and use violence. And the problem with giving any group power over other people is that you have to be sure they use it responsibly. That kind of authority, after all, will attract exactly the sort of people most willing to abuse it.

I’m not going to rehash the list policy brutality cases that set off the wave of protests last year, not going to once more subject you to horrifying videos. If you want that sort of thing, it’s not hard to find. But I want you to consider something.

Derick Chauvin was recently convicted after being filmed murdering George Floyd on camera. But there were three other police officers on the scene with him, who have also been arrested and are awaiting trial. Why didn’t one of them pull Chauvin off while he knelt on the man’s neck for nine minutes, a man who begged for his life and asked for his mother? Well, we know why. Police who issue complaints about other officers are called “rats” (as if the police forces were the very criminal organizations they’re supposed to be fighting) and shunned by their fellow officers, as famously in the example of Frank Serpico, or more recently Baltimore police officer Joe Crystal. This phenomenon is called the “Blue Wall of Silence” and is so well known it has its own Wikipedia entry.

Even after the event, the police released an autopsy report that said there was no evidence of death by asphyxiation and blamed “underlying conditions”. (A second, independent autopsy, found that asphyxiation was indeed the cause of death.) The police would rather lie than hold one of their own accountable. And to make matters worse, prosecutors are famously unmotivated to pursue police misconduct trials, or prosecute them fully, because they don’t want to alienate the same police that they have to work with.

In other words, if it wasn’t for the event being caught on film and the widespread public outcry that followed, Chauvin would have gotten away with murder because the whole system is built to allow him to.

The current culture of policing in this country and the apparatus of law enforcement and prosecution around it discourages the existence of “good cops”. A “good cop” would have pulled Chauvin off of Floyd’s neck and arrested him on the spot for assault. But everything about our current police system makes that unthinkable.

I have a friend on Facebook who complained of a neighbor harassing her. The problem was that the neighbor was a cop, and an internal affairs officer to boot. The comments to this post are a despairing glimpse at public perception of the police. The consensus was that she didn’t have a lot of options short of moving. Because everyone knows that the cops do not hold their own accountable, and that reporting a police officer for misconduct will more likely make your life worse than it will theirs.

The police are responsible for policing themselves, with predictable results, and meanwhile calls to have independent, civilian oversight of police departments, such as recently made by New York Attorney General Letitia James, are met with dismissal from those in charge and howls of “anti-police agenda” from the comically abhorrent police unions. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, police departments aren’t largely being defunded, or are being refunded after being defunded, and despite more rhetoric to the contrary, there’s been no correlation between cities that defunded police and a rise in crime compared to cities that did not.

Meanwhile, on television, we have show after show where the police are not only the incorruptible good guys, but often have to work “outside the system” in order to mete out justice. Police sometimes just have to rough a guy up to get the truth. Wouldn’t you? After all torture works. (Spoiler, it doesn’t.) It wasn’t that long ago that New York police officers abused Abner Louima by sodomizing him with a broomstick, one of a parade of egregious police brutalities going back literal centuries. We should really be more incredulous of positive portrayals of police brutality, but somehow we’re not.

Is it any wonder that so many police officers seem to idolize a psychopathic murderer of a fictional character like the Punisher instead of a more upright superhero like Captain America? Police are fed warrior mentality nonsense that tells them that they’re the only thing standing between innocent people and the wolves who are out to prey upon them. And whatever they have to do to stop the wolves is justified. Even if the “wolf” in question is just passing a maybe counterfeit bill or even just happen to be in a house in which the police mistaken think there is criminal activity.

Back to the matter at hand, plenty of shows have “good guys” and “bad guys”, of course, but few so clearly divide characters into categories of criminals, civil service law enforcement, and innocent civilians who need to be protected. So of course Adventure Bay should pour as much money into law enforcement as possible, outfit them with all manner of military gear, every high-tech gizmo imaginable. They’re the thin blue line that keeps Adventure Bay safe. (The fact that the real reason the Paw Patrol needs constant infusions of new gear is so that Spin Master can keep pumping out toys even lines up in its way with reality. The real reason American police departments are so flooded with surplus military gear is that the government constantly buys excess gear that the military doesn’t even want as pork barrel for military contractors who give heavily to political campaigns, and so it needs a way to dispose of it all. Everyone knows this about the military, and yet there is no will at all to do something about it in or out of congress. Isn’t capitalism grand?)

Part 4: A Shining City on  a Hill

It’s been well documented at this point that conservatives don’t understand irony. I’m not being glib, there’s actual studies to back this up. I don’t mean that every individual conservative doesn’t get irony, but it’s a common trait to them as a group. This is why Liberals get comedy shows like ColbertThe Daily ShowLast Week Tonight and so on to skewer current events and show the emperor has no clothes. Conservatives meanwhile get unspeakably earnest, unhinged tirades from the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and, at worst, Alex Jones. (The fact that anything could be worse than the lightly veiled fascism of Tucker Carlson tells you how far we’ve fallen.) What does pass for conservative comedy is typically found in the smug dickishness of folks like Stephen Crowder or Ben Shapiro, where cruelty stands in where irony should be.

Conservatives also value hierarchy. Going back to Edmund Burke, the father of conservative ideology, conservatism has been concerned with maintaining existing social hierarchies and relations, particularly concerning class, race, and gender, and draping this defense of the status quo in clothing of tradition and through tradition, patriotism. Or as conservative YouTuber John Doyle put it, “Conservatives believe in hierarchy and natural law.”

In America, this belief in hierarchy and tradition usually lurks beneath the guise of “meritocracy”–the people who are wealthy are that way because they deserve it by merit and the poor simply envy them. Why aren’t there more women and minorities in executive suites, or in tech and finance in general? It can’t be anything systemic or cultural, it must be because they’re not naturally suited to it. The “small government” crowd, followers of Mises, Hayek, and Rand, will tell you that the invisible hand of the market will naturally sort the wheat from the chaff if it’s just allowed to without interference, no matter whose lives are trampled in the process. The evangelical Prosperity Gospel crowd will tell you the order of things is divinely ordained, except the parts they don’t like which are naturally the product of the devil. And the wealthy and powerful will bankroll millions of hours of talk radio and conservative TV programs, will put money into the coffers of politicians on both sides of the aisle, in order to make sure that their wealth and power continues to go unchallenged. After all if the poor deserved to be not poor they’d figure out a way enrich themselves. Giving them anything they didn’t earn just encourages them to stay poor. Forget the advantages the wealthy are born with, forget the systems and prejudices designed to disadvantage the poor and in particular minorities, forget that some types of work like teaching and elder care just aren’t rewarded on the level of others while still being necessary and valuable to society. No, poor people must be “lazy”, otherwise how could they be poor? And thus the order of things self-propagates and defends itself.

Where was I? Oh right, Paw Patrol!

Let’s look for a moment at the villainous Mayor Humdinger. His motivation generally consists of the fact that he’s the mayor of the dreary, fog-covered town of Foggy Bottom instead of the bucolic Adventure Bay, and he is envious. Oh boy, is he envious. Of course, he could devote his energy to self-improvement, or simply renounce his mayoralty and move somewhere else, but he won’t. Like a Liberal trying to tax the rightful wealth of the billionaire instead of trying to make a billion themselves, Mayor Humdinger simply wants to take what isn’t rightfully his. Almost all of his schemes revolve around larceny, after all. And everything about Humdinger’s dress and demeanor practically shouts “effeminate elite”.

Everyone on the show is happy with their lot except for the villains. There are no artistic types in Adventure Bay to speak of, save maybe a film crew that occasionally comes through with a giant robot. People work simple jobs, like mayor, farmer, restauranteur, and pet grooming salon-keeper. The pups do interact with genuine aristocrats, though, spending a number of episodes working for the royal family of the Kingdom of Barkingburg, fending off the queenly aspirations of the uppity royal pet who wants to take the place of the rightfully born.

It all lines up fairly neatly, even if unintentionally, with a conservative view of the order of things.

In fact, the main thing here that doesn’t line up with conservative ideology is that Humdinger and company are usually let off with little more than a slap on the wrist. At worst, he’s given a broom and told to clean up his mess, which is hardly being tough-on-crime. Of course, there’s two reasons for this–first that no one wants to depict prison on a show for young children, and second that they want the villain to come back and make more plots go.

And it’s ironically this second, metatextual reason that most resonates with conservatism in our world.

The purpose of the penal system for conservatives is twofold–to bestow punishment on criminals so that they suffer for their crimes, and to be able to use them in what is essentially a system of slave labor in which major corporations outsource their labor to prisoners who are paid pennies and generally don’t have much choice in the matter. While liberals fight for prisons be places for rehabilitation and education, so that prisoners can rejoin society and become better people (and leftists would like to abolish prisons altogether, which a completely different subject), conservatives tend to see anything for the benefit of prisoners (rather than their punishment) is mollycoddling the wicked, using up valuable resources on people who don’t ‘deserve it’. And yet, as is easy to see, if you let people out of prison with no skills beyond manual labor and no education beyond what they had when they went in, and you have a society that makes it difficult for people with records to get jobs, what you get is a recipe for recidivism. But in the conservative view, recidivism is simply the fault of the individual and proof of their poor moral character.

Mayor Humdinger has no backstory, he has no reason to steal except that he’s the stealing “type”. That’s just his role. And the role of the Paw Patrol is to defeat his larcenous plans, return property to its rightful owner, and restore the order of things. Everything must go back to the status quo by the end of the episode. And Humdinger must cause trouble again. It’s what he’s does. It’s what he’s for.

It’s almost too neat an allegory for the way police function in our society, and the way they should function according to the right-wing mindset. The purpose of the police might be ostensibly justice or law enforcement, but in reality they’re there to defend property rights and the status quo. And we know that police value property more than human life. One only has to look at the person they murdered because he was accused of passing a counter-fit bill. Hell, police will openly warn the public to do what the police officers say if they value their lives. Because apparently disobeying a police officer is a capital offense in the United States. At least, if you’re poor and particularly if you’re not white.

To reiterate, it’s probably not intentional that Paw Patrol so neatly presents a conservative worldview. I don’t think its creators sat down with the intention of doing anything more sinister than sell toys. But I think that by lazily using an incredible array of tired, unexamined tropes and constructing a world built around a rescue/law enforcement organization with a bewildering array of high tech gizmos and vehicles, they’ve accidentally made a right-wing paradise to rival anything Glenn Beck could’ve come up with. And even if we don’t consciously register how this presentation affects how we think of the world and the police, it does, and it especially does for our children who gleeful dress up as these characters and pile up their toys. It’s an easy example of the principle that every piece of media is political, and if you don’t think it’s political then it’s probably just defending the status quo. Or in some cases, defending actual regression.


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Bibliography and Further Reading

How the Hippies Became Yuppies: The Trial of the Chicago 7

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There’s a moment in the film The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) where we most clearly see the way that writer/director Aaron Sorkin manipulates historical events to fit his particular worldview and how he wants us to feel about the matter at hand. The movie tells the “true” story of the at first eight and then seven activists who were arrested for involvement in the anti-war protests turned riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In the film as in real life legendary activist Abbie Hoffman, co-founder of the flamboyant Yippie activist group, testified on the stand. In the film Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) has this exchange with the prosecutor, Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt):


SCHULTZ
Do you have contempt for your government?
ABBIE
I think the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things that, right now, are populated by some terrible people.

Abbie Hoffman never actually said this. Instead, here’s a sample of what Abbie Hoffman actually said during his testimony at the trial:


HOFFMAN: [fellow defendant] Jerry Rubin told me that he had come to New York to be project director of a peace march in Washington that was going to march to the Pentagon in October, October 21. He said that the peace movement suffered from a certain kind of attitude, mainly that it was based solely on the issue of the Vietnam War. He said that the war in Vietnam was not just an accident but a direct by-product of the kind of system, a capitalist system in the country, and that we had to begin to put forth new kinds of values, especially to young people in the country, to make a kind of society in which a Vietnam War would not be possible.

In the film, beyond the anti-war activism (and the black rights activism of Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and the Black Panthers), you only get the vaguest sense of the larger goals at play here. Hoffman does refer vaguely to the ‘revolution’, and there’s a scene between Hoffman and Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) where Hayden refers to “equality, justice, education, poverty, and progress”. But those are all concepts so shorn specifics they could mean almost anything. You get no sense that Hayden was a guy whose most famous piece of the writing, the Port Huron Statement, advocated for replacing the American system of government with direct democracy, where all laws would be subject to votes from the entirety of the citizenry. You get no sense that when Abbie Hoffman talked about ‘revolution’, he literally meant overthrowing the American government. You get no sense of how these defendants were fundamentally against the small-l liberal Capitalism which they blamed for American involvement in the war in the first place. Jerry Rubin, the other Yippie on trial, remarked later that “During the five-and-a-half month trial I agreed more with the government’s analysis of our behavior than with our defense. … The government said: these men are radicals who wanted a disturbance in Chicago to disrupt American society and protest the war.”


No, the words the film puts in Hoffman’s mouth are pure Sorkin. Further, in the film, the Johnson administration is positively contrasted with that of Nixon, with Johnson’s Attorney General Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton) getting a hero moment where he testifies that the police started the riot in Chicago (which he never said). And it feels like even though Sorkin, to his credit, opens the story with a clip of Johnson announcing escalations of the war effort, he still can’t help himself but show the Democrats in a positive light. Because Sorkin believes that the American system works well when in the hands of the right people, and the right people are Liberal Democrats—as illustrated by every frame of every episode of his liberal fantasia The West Wing—despite the fact that American involvement in the war being protested was begun and escalated under two Liberal Democratic administrations, and the Chicago Seven were arrested protesting the Democratic National Convention and beaten by police operating under the authority of a Liberal Democratic mayor.


Over and over again, the film invokes the theme that American values are good, and the people who the Right accuse of being anti-American or un-American are actually the most patriotic ones of all. This is why in the big climax Hayden reads into the record the names of American soldiers who died in the war, causing everyone in the courtroom to stand including the prosecuting attorney Schultz. Meanwhile in real life it was pacific David Dellinger who read the names of the dead into the record, and he included both the American and North and South Vietnamese war dead. Because it wasn’t about proving who was the most patriotic, it was about criticizing the horrors of war itself.


All mention of the evils of capitalism or any inherent problems at the heart of America are completely stripped away in this presentation. It’s very much a piece with Joe Biden saying that the Jan. 6 2021 riots at the US Capital “do not reflect a true America”, when in fact nothing reveals the true face of America better than entitled white people thinking they can take whatever they want without consequences. Indeed, the famously awful Judge Hoffman (Frank Langella) (no relation to Abbie) is portrayed as overtly Trump-like, and when the he bars Ramsey Clark’s testimony from the jury (which did happen, because the judge felt he hadn’t provided anything relevant), Clark whispers to the defense attorney to “just get to work on the appeal” (which he also never actually said in reality). In other words, the representative of Democratic Party politics is saying, we’re going to lose here but we’ll win later, as if promising the future Biden administration to the audience. Don’t worry, the good guys will win out in the end.

And while it’s true that the members of the Chicago 7 who were convicted were later freed on appeal, it’s also true that none of the police officers who assaulted them were ever brought up on charges or saw the least consequences and that American involvement in the war would continue for another five years, and not before expanding illegally into Cambodia.


In the film, yippie Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) chiefly serves as a comic foil and sidekick to Hoffman, with his main plot lines (both invented for the film) involving him falling in love with an undercover operative and being hilariously still hung up on her and feeling betrayed. “Does she ever mention me?” he calls after the prosecutor Schultz when they run into each other in the park. And he get one significant scene where he saves a protesting woman holding an American flag from being raped during a riot (a bit on the nose as a metaphor there, Aaron).


The real Rubin is a fascinating figure and is going serve as the central spoke of the argument I want to make in the rest of this piece to explain the relationship of Sorkin and his film to the larger hippy and activist culture of the 1960s. As indicated by Hoffman’s testimony and his own quote about the trial above, Rubin was a radical firebrand, a self-described Communist who wrote a book in which he encouraged young people to burn down their universities, join communes, and arm themselves. “Antiwar pacifists,” he wrote, “are only as strong as the crazy revolutionaries behind them ready to burn the whole motherfucker down.” Now, after learning all that, you might be surprised to find out that by the 1980s, Rubin had cut his hair, donned a tie, and gotten a job as a securities trader on Wall Street. How did such a thing happen?


Jerry Rubin, fresh out of college and working as a journalist, had a formative experience when he visited Cuba and met Che Guevara. Guevara told him and his young friends that they were doing the most important fight of all, fighting in the belly of the beast. When he returned to the United States he was arrested for the first time for his trip and his future path was set.


Rubin enrolled in grad school at Berkeley, but soon dropped out to join the throngs of “non-students” who’d taken to living around the school and hanging out on campus. These burgeoning hippies were mostly middle class, white baby boomers, born into the long prosperity in the wake of the New Deal and America’s flourishing of wealth following the wholesale destruction of the European economies, kids whose parents had enthusiastically embraced the suburban, post-war dream following the privations of the Great Depression and the war and embraced a conformity their children now found stifling.


It’s almost impossible for those of us who weren’t there to imagine what an irruption on the social fabric the hippies really were in the 1960s, and how they could really believe that their movement would reshape society. Rubin referred to the people living on the streets and in the low-cost housing around Berkley as “living Communism”, sharing things in kind and making whatever money they did need through selling drugs or hawking copies of the local indie paper. Rubin and his fellows imagined a future “New Nation” where hippy communes in the country could trade food directly with hippy communes in the cities who would provide services like free schools, health care, and cultural products, completely bypassing the capitalist economy. The real conflict, then, was not one of class but of generations, the old against the young who saw new possibilities and could imagine a better future, and every young person who ‘turned on, tuned in, and dropped out’ was another link in the chain bringing them toward that future. The strategy, then, was to show young people that it was just more fun on their side of the fence, and to that end Rubin and the kindred spirits he soon found in Abbie Hoffman and the rest of the merry pranksters of the Yippie group began their campaign of ‘guerrilla theatre’. The Yippies (members of the “Youth International Party”) played pranks to draw attention to their message such as throwing dollar bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange to watch the brokers dive for them, or holding a press conference to nominate a pig for president.


Of course, creating a Utopia was never going to be quite so simple as performing stunts until all the youth were on their side. The War in Vietnam was a symbol of American imperialism forcing the same young people who should have been turning on and dropping out to die and kill in a foreign jungle. And in the hippy communities at home, police would regularly harass, arrest, and beat people with the tacit approval of folks like the Berkeley administrators who saw the throngs of unwashed literally encouraging their student body to drop-out as an existential threat. And, of course, as the hippy movement and anti-war protests became widespread, the government infiltrated the Movement (as it was known) with undercover operatives under the vast web of the Cointelpro operations to (illegally) disrupt and subvert leftist and antiwar political groups. It’s little wonder that Rubin came to believe that the Movement needed to arm themselves against an establishment that would never go down without a fight, and he dreamed of the day when, like his idols Fidel and Che, he might overrun the American government by force. (Though admittedly he never actually quite got around to building anything like a guerrilla army, and Che and Fidel would probably have been aghast at his utter lack of interest in the fine points of Marxist theory and governance.)


After the trial, Hoffman and Rubin had become properly famous and were in demand as speakers at campuses across the country. They both authored books, including Rubin’s Do It: Scenarios of the Revolution; and Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book, a guide to fighting against corporations and the government. But even before America had finally withdrawn from Vietnam in 1973, things had started to unravel for the Yippies and the Movement as a whole.


For Rubin, the Yippies started to turn on him as early as 1972 on his 34th birthday which happened to occur during protests at the Democratic National Convention in Miami. He got called a hypocrite for sleeping in a hotel rather than in the park with the other protesters (not quite being an exemplar of “living communism”) and young yippies showed up at his hotel, saying that the man who’d once helped popularize the phrase “Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30” was now old enough to be retired, and gave him a pie in the face. More seriously, back at home he found his car vandalized, windows shattered, by young activists who resented him not dropping out as a leader of the Movement.

Rubin wrote that, “When we in the movement realized we weren’t going to dismantle the system, we turned our hostility towards each other.” This factionalism and infighting is one of many reasons he gives for the Movement’s ultimate dissolution. Others include women abandoning it because of the chauvinism of its leaders; people scared off by the possibility of state violence after the Kent State Massacre, in which National Guardsmen gunned down unarmed student protesters; moderates driven away by the violent rhetoric of leaders who demanded a willingness to die or kill; paranoia seizing everyone because of FBI infiltration—tapping phones, opening mail, searching trash, and impersonated protesters; the younger generation rebelling against the hippies by joining the establishment; and finally, the economic recession that began in 1975, finally putting an end to the post-war economic boom and sending people “back into the system to survive”.


Anyway, the war was finally over and Nixon had resigned. The will to protest dried up. Rubin himself started feeling like a hypocrite getting paid to speak at Universities where he told students to burn the schools down. And so he turned inward, moving almost too neatly for the purposes of this essay from the poster child for hippy protesters to the poster child for Tom Wolfe’s “me” decade. As described in Wolfe’s famous New York Magazine article [https://nymag.com/news/features/45938/], the ‘70s became a time when the counterculture turned towards personal fulfillment, personal development, and self-help. Rubin didn’t know who he was after the revolutionary goals which had defined him had fallen away and it became clear he was never going to be Che Guevara. And so he set out to “find himself”, cycling through a laundry list of alternative and fad therapies including yoga, acupuncture, chiropractic therapy, Rolfing, bioenergetics, Reichian therapy, gestalt therapy, Est therapy, Arica training, and more. The new movement he took part in he dubbed the “consciousness movement”, where society might move away from treating symptoms in the Western tradition towards an Eastern concept of treating causes, of changing yourself and your lifestyle in order to be healthier and happier. And he saw in this a new way to rebuild society, writing:

“In the sixties we exposed the degree to which external institutions controlled us and created poverty, injustice, and alienation. The seventies have been a somersault: ‘I am responsible for my own condition.’ This self-responsibility has liberated people to work from within to change social institutions. … I have a positive vision that America will peacefully elect a politically humanistic government. … A political movement will emerge out of the awareness revolution to implement the new consciousness.”


In other words, by focusing on the self, individual, the “man in the mirror” as Michael Jackson would later have it, we will change the world. This is an incredibly seductive idea. After all, you have much more control over yourself than you do on society at large, and it’s a heckuva lot more pleasant to do yoga than to get gassed, beaten, and arrested at a protest. Besides which, everything in our society encourages centering the self, in line with the capitalist principle of rational self-interest that’s supposed to govern the economy.


So why shouldn’t you provide well for yourself? Making yourself happy brings more happiness to the world, and seeking your own interest keeps the economy moving and creates jobs.


Which is how Jerry Rubin, Marxist revolutionary who satirized Wall Street by throwing bills on the floor of the stock exchange, transformed into Jerry Rubin, Wall Street securities trader.


Once again, the story moves so perfectly that if I made it up it’d be called unrealistic. Rubin even undergoes his final transformation in 1980-81 right at the start of the decade and the dawn of the Reagan era. The term “Yuppie” itself is popularized by a newspaper article about Rubin from 1982 called “From Yippie to Yuppie”, and Rubin took the term as a brand of honor and became a major booster of it.


Rubin groused that his previous reputation cost him deals and connections, as many in the business world just didn’t want to be associated with a guy who used to tell people to overthrow the government. Still, the economy was changing in exciting ways with the new buzzword “the Information Age”. As Rubin would point out, fueled by new technologies, ten times more companies were being started by the 1980s per year than had in the 1960s, and most new jobs were created by those new companies. This burgeoning “entrepreneurial capitalism” would replace the old industrial capitalism and the jobs it would create would solve the problem of poverty entirely. We shouldn’t hate those who are successful in the capitalist economy, the successful people were going to save us.


Following on the idea of generational conflict and change, Rubin posited that the Baby Boomers who had been the hippy generation hadn’t “sold out”, they were “taking over”. He wasn’t a fan of Ronald Reagan, comparing him to an old cowboy, a 19th century ideal, but he predicted that in 1988 a baby boomer would be elected president and that would mark the transition to a new kind of politics in the United States. The Boomers, powered by the lessons of both the hippy and consciousness movements, would introduce a kinder, more gentle form of capitalism with progressive social politics to cure America of sexism, racism, and disastrous foreign wars. He said,

When they write the history of the past decade they’re going to say that in the 60s they fought and in the 80s and 90s they implemented what they fought for in the 60s.


Rubin would actually have to wait until 1992 to see the Boomer he’d predicted come to the White House, but Bill Clinton would sound uncannily like him with his rhetoric of social progressivism, jobs, and technology. During the election of 1992, SNL had a skit where George Bush Sr. (Dana Carvey) looked over at Clinton (Phil Hartman) and saw a tie-die wearing hippy, and Clinton looked over at Bush and saw a dowdy grandmother. They might as well have been describing Rubin’s view of the world. Rubin even channeled the same right-wing talking points that Clinton absorbed, referring to poor people becoming ‘dependent’ on hand-outs from the government and the scourge of drugs on the street (which he regretted helping to popularize).


Rubin, who died tragically in a car accident in 1994, becomes a kind of rosetta stone for what happened to America politically and socially as the Baby Boomers came of age. Entrepreneurial Capitalism has resulted in thousands of blossoming start-ups sailing rivers of venture capital, and produced a gaggle of monstrously large Information Age tech firms that dominate our economy, largely founded and run by Boomers and the Gen Xers who followed them. These tech companies, as parodied for example on the TV show Silicon Valley, are perennially caught between the “make the world a better place” rhetoric of the Bay Area’s hippy past and the rapacious, amoral demands of investor capitalism. (No more perfectly embodied on Silicon Valley than by the figure of tech mogul Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) who says things like “I don’t know about you people, but I don’t want to live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place better than we do,” before consulting with his grifter Indian “guru”.)


And while there have been notable and welcome gains on social issues as Rubin also predicted, entrepreneurial capitalism has comically failed to end poverty, we have continued getting involved in disastrous foreign wars, and it’s now the Boomers pushing back against the youth while we all watch the economic system Rubin thought would liberate us literally and not so gradually destroy the world.


And one particular Baby Boomer who 1980s Rubin sounds a lot like is the guy who wrote a television episode in which the representative of an almost angelic Democratic Baby Boomer president dismisses WTO protesters as not understanding how capitalism helps everyone.


That is to say, he sounds like Aaron Sorkin.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 , cleaned almost completely of the anticapitalist revolutionary beliefs of its actual historical subjects, becomes a liberal fantasy of the matured Baby Boomer, a revisionist history that 1960s Jerry Rubin would have been disgusted by and 1980s Jerry Rubin would have wholeheartedly approved. Like everything Sorkin produces, the writing is excellent, full of snappy, well-crafted dialogue and a building progression of layered meanings and character growth. But it believes wholeheartedly in American liberal, capitalist democracy, if only we can steer away from the “American Taliban” Tea Party set on the right wing, as Sorkin’s TV show The Newsroom had it, if only we can select the right people. As if those right wing fundamentalist activists just appeared out of nowhere and weren’t created by think tanks and astroturfing and a never-ending onslaught of right wing media funded by a cabal of greedy billionaires who will do anything to preserve their wealth and power including watching the world burn down all around them. As if the system which creates and abets those billionaires doesn’t simultaneously create all the problems we’re now faced with.


If you enjoyed this please consider sharing, since word-of-mouth is how shows like this grow.

This episode took a while, in part because of issues I had recording the audio. However, the text version has been up on Patreon for weeks now, and for as little as $1 an episode you too can get early access to episodes, as well as exclusive author’s notes at Patreon.com/ericrosenfield.

The author’s notes this time will have a lot of material that was excised from earlier drafts, as there was a lot of stuff on the subject of Rubin, Hoffman, the Yippies, and the rest of the Chicago 7 that didn’t really work for the flow of the piece but is still really interesting, so you’ll want to read that.

I’d like to thank my Patrons, Kevin Cafferty, Wilma Ezekowitz, IndustrialRobot, Hristo Kolev, Benjamin Pence, Jason Quackenbush, Nancy S. Rosen, and Arthur Rosenfield.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Pixar’s Soul: Finding Yourself Under Capitalism

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This piece spoils Soul (2020)   

The protagonist of Pixar’s film Soul (2020) is a middle aged man who’s spent his life trying and failing to make it as a Jazz musician. As a middle aged man myself whose last twenty years represent a litany of artistic failures, I feel seen. I’m not sure there’s ever been a film in which I feel more seen. It’s a curious choice for the protagonist of a children’s movie, but Pixar goes a long way to show the fallacy of the idea that children’s media should primarily feature either children or anthropomorphic non-humans of some kind. And at the end of the film I felt moved, not just seen but spoken to in the way only a work that seems crafted especially just for you can speak to you. At the same time, in the glow of all of that, there was something missing, something hollow at the core of what the film was trying to say that it took me some time to get a handle on.

In many ways, Soul feels like the climax of a narrative about living in the world that its director, Pete Doctor, has been creating over the course of his career at Pixar. Monsters, Inc. (2001) is about threading the needle between the need to make a living and the need to live an ethical life. Up (2009) is about being able to let go of who you used to be in order to find out who you are. And Inside Out (2015) is about being honest with yourself about your feelings and how negative emotions help you cope with the world around you.

Soul is about nothing less than how we find meaning in life itself. And here, at some kind of philosophical pinnacle of Doctor’s world view, we can clearly see the blindspots and the problems that it creates when followed to its logical conclusions.

The movie tells the story of Joe (Jamie Fox), a jazz pianist working as a music teacher who’s always dreamed of the big time. He finally gets a shot thanks to a successful audition when he summarily falls down an open manhole and dies. In Joe’s effort to get back to the living world from the afterlife, he ends up in the body of a cat while an unborn soul named 22 (Tina Fey) ends up inside his body instead. Hijinks ensue, as Joe tries to find a way to get his body back while 22 learns the value of living. In the end, with everything back to normal and the job he’s longed for secured, he tells famous saxophonist Dorothea (Angela Bassett), “I’ve been waiting for this day for my entire life. I thought I’d feel… different”. Dorothea tells him a parable about a fish trying to find the ocean without realizing he was in it the whole time, nailing down the theme that outward markers of success aren’t the thing that really make you happy.

This theme has been artfully planted throughout the film, perhaps no more fully in the person of Moonwind (Graham Norton), an aging hippy-type who makes his living as a humble roadside sign twirler. Moonwind has elevated sign-twirling into an art form, regularly getting into the ‘zone’ where, in the movie’s mythology, one can traverse into the astral plane, the space between the living world and the afterlife. Moonwind uses this ability to find depressed souls in the astral plane and help coax them out of their funks (it gets pretty metaphysical).

In one sense this is profoundly anti-capitalist; Moonwind is doing something that is not valued by society at large, and making what is assuredly a meager wage for it. And yet he’s portrayed as perfectly happy with his life. At other points of the film, it’s emphasized that the things that make life worth living are small, like the taste of pizza or watching a leaf fall from a tree, and one of the lost souls that Moonwind rescues is a hedge fund manager who, once his soul is properly restored, asks “what am I doing with my life?” and runs out of his office. Obviously this is a far cry from capitalisms push for the endless consumerism and “productivity” which it needs to sustain itself.

But there’s a niggling issue with all this, something key that its eliding. Stick a pin in Moonwind, we’ll come back to him. Instead, consider a scene where 22 (in Joe’s body) is getting a haircut. (Some have noted that for much of the runtime the white Tina Fey is speaking through Joe’s black body, which is uncomfortable and smells of blackface, but others have written about this more eloquently than I can.) 

22 hasn’t allowed herself to be born in the world because she hasn’t been able to figure out what her “spark” is, what her purpose in life should be. (Everything in this film is built around its theme.)

She and the barber, Dez (Donnell Rawlings), have this exchange:

DEZ (chuckles)

I wouldn’t call myself stuck but I never planned on cuttin’ heads for a living.

22

Wait, but… you were born to be a barber. Weren’t you?

DEZ

I wanted to be a veterinarian.

Joe looks at Dez, surprised by this.

22

So why didn’t you do that?

DEZ

I was planning to. When I got out of the Navy. And then my daughter got sick, and… barber school is a lot cheaper than veterinarian school.

22

That’s too bad. You’re stuck as a barber and now you’re unhappy.

DEZ

Whoah, whoa, slow your roll there, Joe. I’m happy as a clam, my man. Not everyone can be Charles Drew inventing blood transfusions

So Dez would have been a veterinarian, but because his kid got sick he had to go to barber school. But hey, it’s okay! He’s perfectly happy! Not everyone can invent blood transfusions!

It hardly needs to be said that if Dez had been born into wealth then his future would not have been so circumscribed. Hell, if Dez had been born in a country that didn’t mercilessly relegate its healthcare system to the free market his future might not have been so circumscribed. But that’s okay, we shouldn’t worry about Dez, he’s happy as a barber.

Does it seem like the implication here is that it’s okay that people don’t have the same opportunities in life, because they can be happy doing whatever? Because it sure seems like that’s the implication to me.

Now, it would be fair to object that I’m complaining that the movie is about something other than what I want it to be about. This story isn’t about wealth inequality. It’s not The Hunger Games. But telling people to appreciate the little things and find meaning in the life in front of them has a history, and it’s important to understand what that history is and why it can be such a problem.

Which brings us back to Moonwind, who works a physically demanding, low wage job in New York City, one of the most expensive places on Earth. One wonders what Moonwind would do if he threw his back out and was no longer able to twirl signs, especially with the American welfare state in the sorry condition? Would he be able to afford a place to live? Or would he have to find happiness sleeping in a cardboard box under a bridge?

It’s fitting, though, that he’s portrayed as a hippy/New Age type. In the 70s, and particularly after the end of the Vietnam War and its role as a rallying political cause, the hippy movement turned inward from political action and towards “being in the moment” and “focusing on the self”, which is why Tom Wolfe dubbed it the ‘me’ decade. Where once, Wolfe argued, society had been built around the family and the community at large, now the counterculture revolution had turned people towards the relatively new coinage of “personal fulfillment”. This wasn’t a bad thing per se—it’s not hard to think of ways the bounds of family, community, and tradition have stifled people, and complaining about the loss of ‘family values’ is typically the province of the reactionary. But this movement gave people an excuse, a license, to prioritize themselves and their own needs over the larger problems facing society and the world. (Interestingly, Wolfe argues that this development in America was linked closely with the ‘long boom’ that lasted from the New Deal to the end of the 70s, where for the first time elderly parents didn’t need to be cared for by their children, and children could live on their own at the unthinkable age of 18.)

Further, as the Guardian has explored, the distrust of the government that came with the war, the Nixon Administration, the revelations about COINTELPRO and MKULTRA, the Kent State Massacre, the legacy of Jim Crow and treatment of minorities in general, and on and on, primed much of the hippy movement for Libertarianism’s distrust of government as a concept. There were large swath of hippies for whom Reagan’s slogan of “government isn’t the solution to our problems, government is the problem” rang true. And ultimately, this all led a large portion of former hippy and counterculture types to try to improve themselves by improving their financial situation, in the process transforming into the yuppies of the 1980s, the very establishment professionals they’d once turned up their noses to. (This is a huge generalization, but one with a basis in reality I hope to explore in more depth in a later episode.)

Moonwind is not a yuppie, certainly, he’s a pretty unreconstructed hippy. And he devotes himself to helping people, so selflessly he gets essentially no acknowledgement or credit from the lost souls he brings back from the brink. But he does this purely on an individual level, helping people one-by-one with no sense that there might be a larger system involved in, say, alienating people from their lives so that they become lost souls in the first place. (How did that hedge fund manager get that way, exactly?) Everything is atomized to the world of the personal, which is capitalism’s favorite move and one which America has not only embraced but created a narrative that places it in our DNA, despite the communal, agricultural lifestyle that characterized much of the United States before the 20th century, to the point where now you not only can’t solve the larger problems of a society that’s built around profits over human welfare, you can’t even see them, you don’t even know they exist, and if someone tried to explain them to you, you would shrug and say, well, there’s no alternative, is there

And so if there’s no alternative to the alienation and dehumanization we suffer under capitalism, then the solution becomes to turn inward and to find beauty, to find our humanity, in the “little things”, in whatever we happen to be doing. The implication of Soul is that the only thing there is to fix is yourself. And so, rather than being anti-capitalist as it appears on the surface, it actually serves to help us accept our place in an unjust social hierarchy and never demand more. It falls into the same logic, in other words, that right wing pundits use to claim we don’t need to raise the minimum wage because “money can’t buy happiness”, as if poverty doesn’t buy a whole lot of suffering.

Dez should not be ‘happy as a clam’ that his daughter’s sickness kept him from the career he wanted. He should be outraged.

Bibliography and Further Reading


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Special thanks to my Patrons: Kevin Cafferty, Wilma Ezekowitz, Industrial Robot, Hristo Kolev, Not Invader Zim, Benjamin Pence, Jason Quackenbush, Nancy S. Rosen, and Arthur Rosenfield.

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Why Stories? Henry Fool and What the Artist is For

Audio Version (or search for “Literate Machine” in your podcast app)

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Content Warning: Rape, suicide

This piece spoils the films Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and Henry Fool (1997).

In the film Sullivan’s Travels (1941), Hollywood director John L. Sullivan decides he’s unhappy with the silly comedies with which he’s made a name for himself, and wants to do a serious movie about the plight of the poor. For research, he dresses up like a hobo and sleeps in shelters, but he returns to his wealthy life whenever things get too dire, and never really understands what it means to be poor. Finally, through a mishap, he’s arrested for a crime he didn’t commit and put in jail under a different identity. There, sentenced to hard labor, he sees that the prisoners receive great relief from watching silly comedies and escaping from their difficult lives. After finally securing his release, he decides to make comedies again, realizing their value.

Sullivan’s Travels is in the Criterion Collection, consistently listed among the best movies ever made, and holds a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

I hate Sullivan’s Travels. And I hate it because of its intensely superficial estimation of the value art, and the way it pats itself and the entire Hollywood film industry on the back not despite of its tendencies towards status-quo reinforcing mindless pablum, but because of it. And I hate the way it implies that we must accept being poor and downtrodden as an inevitable condition, and the best we can do for them is to entertain them for a while.

The central conceit of the film is that some narratives are escapist and some are non-escapist, and that escapist art is still important and valuable.

[While this is a good antidote to the snobbish thinking that divides art into “art” and “trash”], I tend to dislike this entire way of thinking about narrative. To me, narrative is about creating meaning in the world around us. Even something as ostensibly escapist as Star Wars helps people understand the world they live in, to see themselves in the Jedi or the rebels or what-have-you, which is why people love to paint their enemies as the Dark Side and themselves as the Light. The question then isn’t whether the narrative helps you escape or not, but what meanings the narrative is creating and for whom and how. What do we think a work is trying to tell us about the world we live in, and how might people interpret that work differently? (And granting that what the creator intended may have no relation to what people see in a work, cf. Lucas creating the rise of Palpatine in the Prequels as an intentional critique of the Bush administration while the Republicans simultaneously refered to Nancy Pelosi as “Darth Pelosi” and compared themselves to the rebels.)

Which brings me to my favorite film of all time: Henry Fool (1997) written and directed by Hal Hartley.

Recently released from prison, the title character Henry (played by Thomas Jay Ryan) lets a room in a townhouse in Queens where middle aged Mary (Maria Porter) lives with her grown children, Fay (Parker Posey) and Simon (James Urbaniuk). Henry is a writer and, despite no publishing credits to his name, he fronts like Jack Kerouac, Hunter Thompson, and Norman Mailer rolled into one, a walking embodiment of a certain 20th century ideal of literary masculinity. Here is how he describes the memoir he’s working on:

I’ve been bad. Repeatedly. But why brag? The details of my exploits are only a pretext for a far more expansive consideration of general truths. What is this? It’s a philosophy. A poetics. A politics, if you will. A literature of protest. A novel of ideas. A pornographic magazine of truly comic-book proportions. It is, in the end, whatever the hell I want it to be. And when I’m through with it, it’s gunna blow a hole this wide straight through the world’s own idea of itself!

Despite the title, Henry is not the hero of this movie. That’s actually the son Simon, a garbageman who is so quiet and unprepossessing that growing up people thought he was mentally disabled. Henry notices that Simon has an interest in poetry and begins mentoring him, gradually coaxing him out of his shell.

This story might easily have followed the format of other stories about an eccentric master mentoring a young talent, like Finding Forrester or Good Will Hunting. But it’s not that kind of story. Henry, you see, is an awful, awful person. When he says he’s been “bad, repeatedly”, he isn’t kidding and, like one of Raskolnikov’s Great Men, he seems to think his artistic powers gives him license to do whatever he wants. At one point he actually rapes Mary, having sex with her while she’s so drugged up she can’t really consent, an act he seems incapable of understanding as wrong. (She straight-up calls him a rapist; the film knows what he is even if he doesn’t.)

And so part of Henry’s method of training Simon is to take him to strip clubs, to encourage him towards violence, to invite him to “impose himself” on women he’s attracted to.

But while Henry believes in Simon, nobody else does; his sister and mother laugh at his literary ambitions, and the publications to which he sends his work reply with shattering rejections (for example: “this tract you’ve sent us demands a response as violent as the effect your words have had upon us. Drop dead.”).

And yet, it gradually becomes clear that what Simon is doing isn’t just good, it’s miraculous. Hartley intentionally never actually lets us see or hear Simon’s poetry for ourselves. We only see its effect on people. And that effect is dramatic: A woman who has been mute since childhood reads it and bursts into song; it makes his sister’s period come early; some teenagers read some of it and put it in their yearbook, causing a media furor over its perceived pornographic elements.

Finally, Henry convinces Fay to put the poetry up on the nascent internet and with all the magic of computers on film in the 90s it takes off like a rocket and catapults Simon almost instantly to the kind of fame no American poet has attained since Allen Ginsberg or maybe Robert Frost.

Of course, the central irony becomes that while Simon’s poetry is spectacular, Henry’s memoir is unreadable dreck. Henry insists that Simon use his newfound fame to get the work published anyway. Simon refuses:

Look, Henry, I did it! I wrote. I wrote poetry because you told me to! I worked! I worked while you sat back and comfortably dismissed the outside world as too shallow, stupid and mean to appreciate your ideas.

In other words, while Henry was prancing around being someone’s idea of a hard-drinking, misbehaving writer, Simon was actually doing the work. Simon evolves into a self-possessed and sensitive young man, someone who doesn’t need Henry-style antics to prove anything to himself or the world. Simon outgrows Henry.

There’s more to the film, so much more, including a Pat Buchanon-esque politician who decries the loss of family values and the fanatics who follow him and denounce Simon’s work as pornography. There’s Henry’s romance with Fay which crashes predictably but not before they have a child. There’s the unspeakable reason Henry was sent to prison which when revealed drives us straight towards the ending. A more conventional film might have Henry turn into a more straightforward villain by the end, so that Simon and Henry could have a proper climactic showdown of some kind, probably with a tragic ending. Instead, Henry is given something of a redemption in a last terrible, heroic action which sends him once again on the run from the law. (And this is not to at all bring up the film’s two sequels which shockingly recontextualize the narrative as well as the character of Henry.)

Henry as a character is a bit harder to stomach now in the age of #metoo when the consequences of men who feel like they’re entitled to women’s bodies has been given a much more appropriate spotlight. Stories about awful men given last shots at redemption ring more hollow these days and Henry is perhaps all too sympathetically portrayed in the film for a guy who does the kinds of things he does. I don’t blame anyone who shuts the movie off mid-way because they can’t put up with it. And it’s not helped that the two primary female characters, Fay and Mary, mostly exist in the story to react off of what Simon and Henry are doing. (This is rectified to a great extent in the sequel, in which Fay is the lead character.) I will note though that the film isn’t about giving Henry a pass because of his great artistic ability, because he doesn’t have any, and the crushing of that delusion is the focus of his whole arc.

As a counter-point to Henry, let’s talk more about poor Mary, who seems to have unspecified psychiatric disorders for which she’s heavily medicated. At one point Simon finds her playing the piano to herself, something she apparently never does, resulting in this exchange:

SIMON

That was nice what you were playing.

MARY

Yes, it was nice. But it was unremarkable.

Simon waits. Eventually…

SIMON

Does that matter?

MARY

(looking right at him)

Yes. It does.

Soon after, Mary finds Simon’s poetry and reads it for the first time. When Simon arrives home, Mary is lying cold in the bath tub with her wrists slit.

So here in the film we have three ways people can view artistic talent: Henry assumes he has it and is inherently special because of it; Mary assumes she doesn’t have it and is inherently not special at all; and Simon who starts writing just because it gives him a voice in the world that he wouldn’t have otherwise. Simon who just does the work.

And it’s not that he doesn’t get discouraged—unlike Henry, he takes other people’s opinions seriously. It’s that whether or not he’s discouraged he’s going to keep working anyway.

And ironically, this is exactly what Henry tells him to do in one of my favorite scenes in the film. Simon has been assaulted by neighborhood bullies and propped himself up on the floor of the bathroom with fractured ribs. Henry has found Simon’s notebook and read his work for the first time. Henry vaults into the bathroom:

HENRY

Are you willing to commit yourself to this? To really work on it? To give it its due? In the face of adversity and discouragement? To rise to the challenge you yourself have set?

Simon just blinks, looks away and wonders.

HENRY

And don’t gimme that wonderstruck ‘I’m-only-a-humble-garbage-man’ bullshit, either.

SIMON

It hurts to breathe.

HENRY

(nodding)

Of course it does.

It’s not that Simon is a genius and Henry and Mary are not. That reading is shallow and not justified by the text, despite the quasi-magical powers Simon’s work ultimately has. The point is that neither Mary nor Henry can face the disconnect between who they are and who they want to be. Henry meets this disconnect with denial—he is who he wants to be and it’s the rest of the world that’s wrong. Mary, meanwhile, simply takes herself out of the world entirely. Simon doesn’t have pretensions. He doesn’t presume that his art is going to ‘blow a hole in the world’s own idea of itself’. He just wants to make it because it fulfills something inside him. And that’s why he succeeds.

This all isn’t to say there aren’t commercial considerations to artistic production, or that there’s some problem with meeting a market when and where you find it. There’s nothing wrong with treating art as a job, and one that should pay. In reality, becoming commercially successful isn’t as simple as just throwing your work on the internet and hoping for the best, as any self-publisher will tell you. You can follow your passion and give it your all and still fail, utterly.

There are so many easier ways to make a living.

But when art is good, it’s good because it resonates with someone, even if that someone is only yourself. 

In reality, people don’t ‘make it’ simply because they deserve to, even though that’s an effective narrative device. Perhaps this fact has something to do with why Simon’s success is so meteoric and magical (he wins the Nobel before the tale is out). It signals that this is a fantasy, that Simon’s work takes off not because it’s real but because it’s true, which are two different things. Simon’s success gives meaning to our story. 

And that is, after all, what stories are for.


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Special thanks to my Patrons: Kevin Cafferty, Wilma Ezekowitz, Industrial Robot, Not Invader Zim, Benjamin Pence, Jason Quackenbush, Nancy S Rosen, and Arthur Rosenfield

You can support this project financially by going to https://patreon.com/ericrosenfield. For as little as $1 an episode you can get early access to text and audio of episodes and exclusive authors notes.

Doom, Myst, and the War for the Soul of Video Games

Podcast Version

In the 1990s, Doom and Myst fought a war for the soul of video games. Myst sold almost twice as many copies. Within ten years, the entire industry had remodeled itself around Doom.

The seeds of the war had been sewn at the dawn of personal computing. As has been widely reported, computer programming was once the domain of women, positions descended from their earlier roles as human “computers”, solving mathematical problems for corporate and governmental work, labor considered rote and therefore “women’s work”.

As computer programming became more complicated, it gradually shifted to men, aided by personality tests used by employers that prioritized “stereotypically masculine traits and, increasingly, antisocialness”. Still, women in computing were common until the late 1970s when personal computers began to appear. These personal computers were marketed primarily towards boys, parents bought them for boys, and as a result computer science classes began to fill with those same boys who had grown up with the machines.

There’s a trend here

Marketing towards boys accelerated following the video game console crash of 1983. Then-dominant Atari had flooded the market with cheap and poorly produced games and the result was a loss in consumer confidence paired with the idea that the new multi-purpose personal computers had made dedicated consoles obsolete. And so it was when, in 1985, the Japanese company Nintendo decided to bring their new Entertainment System to the North American market, they packaged it with a little toy robot that would follow the player character around on the screen, so that it could be marketed not as a game console at all but as a toy. The console migrated out of the electronics shops and into toy stores.

As anyone who’s entered a toy store knows, the toy market is starkly gendered, with girl products in their rows of bright pink cordoned off from that of boys. Nintendo’s research said that boys played more games than girls, and so (as had happened with personal computers) they marketed their products exclusively to boys, creating a feedback loop attracted more boys while excluding girls. It wasn’t that girls couldn’t enjoy these games, it was that the company told both kids and their parents that this was a boys toy for boys.

By 1989, when the Sega Genesis launched in North America, boys who had grown up on the Nintendo were now hitting puberty. Sega marketed their product as the cool game system, not like that childish Super Nintendo. The Genesis wasn’t just for boys, it was for the kind of boys who didn’t like icky girl things or little kids things or boring things. “Alpha” boys. Their mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog, perhaps tried a bit too hard to seem cool while embodying the fast action ethos of the company, but all the ads and marketing would prime the pump for what was to come. Marketing to boys became marketing to pubescent boys became marketing to stereotypes of pubescent boys, to make things fast and loud and free of thoughtfulness. Masculinity turned to toxic masculinity quick, and by the 90s all the game systems were flooded with ads that played up stereotypes and lurid pandering to the hilt. A Sega ad advertised a beautiful naked woman you wouldn’t notice underneath all these game screenshots. In a NeoGeo ad, a model in lingerie pouts at the camera while her boyfriend plays video games in the background with the text “I remember when he couldn’t keep his hands off of me!” A particularly infamous Sega ad showed a hand on a joystick reading “The more you play with it, the harder it gets!”. In 1998, there was even a Playstation TV ad in which a character is shown having to choose between playing manly games or being “totally whipped” by his girlfriend.  (Discovered via an excellent article about sexist video game ads on Slate.)

NeoGeo is so exciting!

In 1992 the Genesis gained two titles that would make it infamous and marked the natural result of the prurient bro-boy marketing strategy: Mortal Kombat and Night Trap. Originally in the arcades, Mortal Kombat was a fighting game whose characters literally pulled skeletons out of bodies amid geysers of blood. Night Trap involved the player watching ‘live surveillance’ of a family home where five teenage girls disappeared. While tame by today’s standards, the game’s focus on watching young women in scanty outfits get assaulted by vampires became caught up in one of the periodic video game moral panics and led to Senate hearings.

While console games fled fast into a single, boy-focused marketing segment, computer games had followed a different tack. Unlike consoles, basically anyone with a computer could make software that ran on these machines, and so a much wider variety of content appeared on them, including adventure games.

Adventure games had begun as text-only programs, where the player would get a description of a room or environment and then type a command of what they wanted their character to do. Quickly, graphics were added to these games, until companies like Sierra and LucasArts were turning out what became known as “point-and-click” adventures, where a character walked across a screen and the user would click on the objects or people they wanted to interact with. In this way, the player could explore a world, solve puzzles, and take part in an unfolding narrative.

While these games (like all computer games) were played predominantly by boys, the creators often pitched them towards a much wider audience and dreamed of a future where the computer game would stand beside mediums like film and television, enjoyed by people of all genders and age groups. With the dawn of the CD-ROM drive and the massive amounts of data it could store (many times that of the default storage medium of the time, the floppy disk), the imaginations of many game developers turned to so-called “interactive movies” using live action actors. As Sierra CEO Ken Williams put it, “I always thought the future of storytelling was on the computer. I predicted that computer games would be bigger than films, and still believe there is huge potential with story-telling games – if done correctly. Watching a story from the inside is more exciting than from the outside.”

Adventure games were pitched to the whole family

But the true future of gaming would come not from the big name companies dreaming of celebrity castings, but from a rag tag group of men in their 20s operating out of a rundown riverfront house in Shreveport, Louisiana who came to call themselves iD Software. Their first game became a huge hit in the small Shareware scene of indie games at the time, a platformer in the Mario Bros. model, unflaggingly wholesome in both name and content: Commander Keen (1990-1991). (Shareware was a model in which software was distributed in part or in whole for free with the user paying for the rest of the program, or documentation, support, or simply to support the game makers. The tradition lives on in software trial periods, Patreon-funded developers, and so on.)

For their next game, they aimed for something more ambitious, and much more graphically violent. Deciding to make a shooter, they chose a homage to one of the original of the breed, Castle Wolfenstein (1981). Instead of the top-down view of the original game, or the side-view of a platformer, iD would place you inside the head of the protagonist, looking out on a 3D world. And the game would strip out everything but the barest essentials: here are Nazis, shoot them before they shoot you.

And thus was born the genre-defining Wolfenstein 3D (1992), which took off like a rocket, becoming probably the best-selling shareware game to that point, and getting reviews in mainstream publications that other shareware titles had only dreamed about.

Time to shoot some Nazis

Two months later, a long-anticipated A-List game came out with a similar 3D, first-person perspective—Ultima Underworld. And while the first person play was far more well-realized in this game (for example, you could move up and down, which you couldn’t in Wolfenstein 3D), as an RPG game the gameplay was far more cerebral, with puzzles, clues, maps, and skill leveling. There was a plot. Ultima Underworld was a successful game, but Wolfenstein, a game which had taken far less time and effort to make, ran absolute rings around it and became the game of 1992.

For their follow-up, iD improved the 3D engine to match Ultima Underworld, allowing true three dimensional views and movement and multi-level environments. They created a much wider variety of weapons, and instead of Nazis, the player would face all manner of creatively imagined demons and monsters. There would even be a handful of minor puzzles, places where the user had to, for example, push a button to open a door in another location. They would make the game that would lift them once and for all out of the indie, shareware world and into the stratosphere of the top mainstream game companies, creating a franchise that would last for decades. Doom.

Doom let you shoot monsters and… shoot more monsters

Meanwhile, back in 1988, two brothers operating out of their parents’ basement in Spokane, Washington, were inspired by the new graphical development tool Hypercard (1987) for the Macintosh. With it, they created three children’s games focused less on achievable goals and more on simply exploring worlds, and founded the company Cyan, Inc. to sell them. By 1990, they decided to make a game for adults using the same system called Myst. Much as iD had stripped the action game down to its barest essentials, Cyan stripped down the point-and-click adventure game. Instead of a player-character walking around the screen, their game placed you inside the head of the protagonist, looking out on a 3D world. While this game would have bits of live-action video, the bulk of time would be spent exploring, finding puzzles, solving them, and unraveling the mysteries of the backstory and characters.

Welcome to Myst

As first-person, 3D games Myst and Doom are actually quite similar. The primary difference between the two is philosophical.

In Myst, your character fell through a book into a world of fantasy. In Doom, your character was sent to a space station to put down out monsters. Gameplay in Myst involved exploration, unraveling a mystery, and solving puzzles. Gameplay in Doom involved shooting demons. Myst required a CD drive and the latest in SVGA graphics. Doom fit on a few floppies and ran on common VGA graphics. Myst had been released first on the rarefied Macintosh. Doom had been released first on ubiquitous MS-DOS machines. Myst was the game you bought to show off your new machine. Doom was the game you played on whatever you had. Myst appealed to a broad demographic, and actually, finally, had more female players than male. Doom was marketed to the same core demographic of pubescent boys who’d eaten up Mortal Kombat. Myst was beautiful. Doom was cool.

To be clear: it’s not that girls and women can’t enjoy shooting games. It’s that they’re not who these games were marketed to, targeted at, or who parents would think to give them to in our gender normative culture. Stripped down shooters like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom left in only mindless violence, which our culture associates primarily with masculinity.

Like Wolfenstein, Myst ascended from its humble origins to outsell the biggest, most expensive games on the market. It would have been the game of 1993, except of course that year also saw the release of Doom.

The sales numbers for these two games exponentially dwarfed most of their competitors. In a world where selling a few hundred thousand copies was considered a major hit, Doom moved over three million units, and Myst more than six million, and in doing so these games ushered in the era of the PC game blockbuster. And while it is true that Myst sold nearly twice as many copies as Doom, that statistic doesn’t tell the whole story. Like Commander KeenDoom was distributed as shareware, which meant that the first few levels of the game could be freely copied and passed around. And those free levels traveled far and wide, making it onto store shelves in shareware compilations, as free giveaways with magazines, copied from person to person on floppies and CDs, and showing up on the dial-up bulletin boards, Gopher sites, newsgroups, and the primitive websites of the period. And so, while fewer people paid for Doom (and to be clear, many, many people still paid for Doom), an order of magnitude more people played Doom.

The end result of all this would take years to become clear. Companies fell over themselves to duplicate these games, in hopes of duplicating their sales. Doom-style games like Doom II (1994), (the aggressively sexist) Duke Nukem 3D (1996), and Unreal (1998) continued to sell like gangbusters. Meanwhile, Myst-style games like Zork Nemesis (1996), Lighthouse: The Dark Being (1996), and Obsidian (1997) were commercial disappointments. (Though Riven: the Sequel to Myst (1997) was successful, selling 4.5 million units.) And with them the point-and-click adventure fell out of fashion along with the dream of the “interactive movie” for the whole family. More and more games began to look like Doom. Other types of game play and game-player were pushed to the cultural periphery. The war had ended and Myst lay in a pool of blood and nostalgia.

So what happened? Why did the children of one blockbuster succeed while those of the the other failed?

People bought Myst for its beautiful graphics and intriguing story, and learning to play was as easy as clicking on things. However, the difficulty curve on the puzzles was sharp. The creators of Myst would later remark that most people probably didn’t make it off the first island/time period of the game (out of five). (I should also mention here 7th Guest (1993), another puzzle-based, point-and-click adventure game that sold well in part by showing off the potential of people’s computer systems, released in the shadow of Myst and benefitting from its favorable early reception.)
But the failings of Myst as a game (even if it turned people off of similar games) does not alone explain how the once booming adventure genre fell into decline, and why companies like Sierra and LucasArts largely stopped producing them, especially since Myst’s own sequel was a success. People sometimes blame ‘moon logic’ for the fall of adventure games, the tendency in them to have puzzles that were ill-thought-out or illogical. But LucasArts games were known for being largely absent of such issues and their games got rave reviews, so that explanation alone doesn’t cut it. (Though Jimmy Maher of the Digital Antiquarian opines that the LucasArts games actually did suffer in quality following 1993.)

As we saw earlier, after the rise of Nintendo, video game marketing focused almost exclusively on boys, turning gradually more stereotypical and toxic. The 90s were a decade that saw massive growth in PC home ownership from 20% of American households at the beginning of the decade to 50% by its end. Further, as home consoles and PC ownership rose, arcades—once the primary way kids played video games—declined. And so as the boys who had been marketed to in the 80s and early 90s grew up into teenagers, they became the dominate block of what came to be known as Gamers. And game companies under the capitalist impulse towards massive growth didn’t want to chase moderate success, they wanted the blockbusters they now knew were possible. Even LucasArts decline in quality can probably be attributed to the companies renewed focus on action-oriented Star Wars games. It wasn’t so much that the adventure game audience left as game makers left them.

And yet, what the similarities between Doom and Myst show is that there’s nothing about the first-person, 3D game that inherently means the primary activity must be violent. That’s a choice, and it’s a choice that game makers keep making even when trying ostensibly to make their games more narratively rich, thoughtful, and meaningful. Games like Half-Life (1998) would successfully mix the first person shooter with elements of adventure games, developing stories and characters and puzzles to be solved, demonstrating that there was still an audience for this type of thing, and future games would follow suit, absorbing, for example the dialogue tree method of interacting with characters. And yet because the core mechanic hasn’t changed, there are a huge number of people who will never discover the nuances of Bioshock (2007) or Mass Effect (2007), et al, because they have no interest in a game where you have to shoot people over and over to make the story go.

Of course, adventure games never completely died, and the rise of the internet, smartphones, and tablets have proved a fertile ground for new indies and revivals of classics. There’s even a much-touted VR adaptation of Myst on the horizon. But these are all on the fringes of what has become “gaming culture”, or, like casual games (think Candy Crush (2012) or Angry Birds (2014)), an ignored or ridiculed thing that is not part of that culture at all. Today, excluding sports games, almost any list of the most popular games is dominated almost exclusively by action games in the Doom mold. Myst might have been the last time (maybe the only time) a top-selling game of this class had more female players than male ones. Game companies essentially stopped trying to market to them at all. 

Again, it’s not that girls can’t enjoy such games, it’s that they’re not the target audience of the game-makers. And it’s not that games like Doom are bad per se. The problem is with the methodology of slicing off a demographic, targeting to it relentlessly, encouraging people to associate brands with their self-identity, making what they sell not just a product but a lifestyle. It’s with aggressively crafting and marketing that brand through toxic masculinity because it sells, without any regard for the repercussions. And the result is what’s become “Gamer culture”. And when people have tried to point out that maybe some of this stuff is sexist, retrograde, or tasteless they’ve been shouted down, demonized, and literally terrorized, and from this toxified loam rose GamerGate.

GamerGate has been written about elsewhere at length better than I could hope to, but in short what began as a jilted ex trying to slut-shame an indie game maker by pointing out that that she’d slept with a gaming journalist ballooned into a campaign of harassment and persecution against women in gaming in general and women who pointed out sexism and lack of diversity in games in particular. And this provided a template for harassment campaigns against supposed “social justice warriors”, a festering cesspool of white, male grievance from which shooting rampages happen. (As Slate pointed out, the actual connection between real shootings and video games is not violent games causing violent behavior directly as hang-wringing moralists and bad-faith gun activists have claimed, but rather the culture that has risen up around them.)

There was a moment in the 90s where this seemed like it wasn’t going to come to pass, where the popularity of Myst and the drive towards narrative games aimed at a wide audience might have created a gaming culture more like the general culture, an audience as wide and vast as that of other mass media. But a capitalist would argue that this result was simply the law of the marketplace: First Person Shooter games sold better and so their rise was inevitable. But choices had been made all along, beginning with the marketing computers primarily to boys at the dawn of the PC, which meant that even when Myst was popular with women and wider audiences in general, the culture didn’t exist for them to become a part of, while Doom found a massive audience primed and waiting. The war had never been a fair fight, the entire playing field tilted in favor of Doom and its successors.

Of course, video games are now more popular among ever wider audiences, and adventure games are having a bit of a revival. Maybe, while everyone’s distracted by ‘esports’ and streaming celebrities, a new kind of gaming culture is just beginning to emerge.


Special call out to Jimmy Maher at the Digital Antiquarian (https://filfre.net) whose work covering early video games I drew on extensively.

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Cerebus: Misogyny and Madness

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Content Warning: Suicide, sexual abuse, rape, grooming, and extreme sexism.

The 1970s were a time of death and rebirth for the comic book industry. Traditionally, comics had been sold at newsstands, but the newsstand market was drying up and people predicted the whole industry’s demise. However, inspired by the hippy head-shop scene where underground, independent comics had been sold since the 60s, the first dedicated comic book stores started opening and with them the first dedicated distributors. While this development helped close off comics from the general reader and gear it towards the enthusiast crowd who came to dominate its fandom, the newly abundant shelf space in need of filling became amenable to small publishers and self-publishers in a way the medium had never seen before.

It was in this environment, in 1977, that a 21-year-old Canadian artist/writer named Dave Sim produced the first issue of Cerebus the Aardvark, a parodic mash-up of two popular comics of the era, Conan the Barbarian (based on the pulp stories from the 1930s), and funny animal in the modern world comic Howard the Duck, and aimed squarely at the heart of the burgeoning geek audienceOne of the early successes of comics self-publishing, Sim would continue producing his comic almost every month for the next 30 years. Over those years, Sim became an exemplar of the kind of idiosyncratic, iconic artist who did exactly what they wanted however they wanted, and in so doing would push medium in strange and exciting directions.

The first issue, looking accurately like the work of someone barely out of high school

And Cerebus might be primarily known in these terms, a cult phenomenon from before the dawn of the web that paved the way for utterly singular and independent visions in narrative media like, say, Homestuck. Except that if you’ve heard of Dave Sim, one thing about him overshadows everything else: Dave Sim is a misogynist.

Now, Sim himself will talk at length about how he’s not a misogynist, he’s simply “anti-feminist”. And the truth is, he’s not a misogynist the way your uncle who watched Fox News is, or in the way we see misogyny in the world around us all the time. No, much as his comic book is bigger and weirder than anything else, his misogyny is bigger and weirder than anyone else’s. Everyone talks about the big break in the middle of the Mother’s and Daughters storyline where a barely fictionalized version of Sim cuts in to explain how women are psychic vampires, voids that feed off of male light; where he writes things like “If you look at her and see anything besides emptiness, fear and emotional hunger, you are looking at the parts of yourself which have been consumed to that point.” That’s when most sane people threw the comic away and went about their business. But that was barely half-way through the series’ run. Before it’s over, Cerebus the Aardvark dresses up like the superhero Spawn but with a Charlie Brown shirt and stilts and a scorpion stinger tail to pose as some kind of demon and lead a rebellion in which women who are too uppity get executed unless they’re too pretty to execute, in which case they’re put in a kind of garden preserve so they can be ogled until they’re old enough that they’re not pretty anymore and can safely be executed.

That’s the sort of misogynist Dave Sim is.

The garden of women too pretty to kill, aka an excuse for Sim to trace models

And yet–and this is true–Sim forces anyone who wants to so much as talk to him sign a document affirming that they don’t think he’s a misogynist. He doesn’t hate women, he wants you to know. He just thinks they’re incapable of rational thought and should be stripped of all rights, completely subservient to men. What’s misogynist about that?

More recently, much has been made of Sim apparently grooming a 14-year-old fan for sex, though he claims this is okay because he didn’t actually have sex with her until she was 21, which is kind of the definition of grooming. (Dave Sim is not a good person.)

If you know anything else about Sim, you probably know that he’s mentally ill. He was diagnosed with “borderline schizophrenia” and does not treat his condition, and it’s very easy to read through the Cerebus volumes as a document of his deteriorating mental condition. You see, there was a point in the mid-80s, before Mothers and Daughters and everything after, when he self-identified as a liberal and Cerebus was hailed as a comic with well-rounded female characters, celebrated by feminists because its women characters had complexity and depth so often lacking from other comics of the period. And what a strangely magnificent and magnificently strange comic it was at its peak of popularity.

According to Sim’s self-mythology, in 1979 he discovered LSD and, enamored of its effects, ate it basically continually for a week and a half. This resulted in a nervous breakdown during which his wife had him committed to a mental hospital. There he received both his diagnosis and a creative epiphany about his future: he would transform his little, humorous aardvark comic into a vehicle to tell the story of his character’s whole adult life until death, an epic fantasy narrative that would take 300 monthly issues. The fact that he actually went ahead and did what he set out to do as a drug-addled 23-year-old is nothing short of miraculous, a testament to sheer will.

Cerebus had always been a vehicle for parodic characters, beginning with ones related to his fantasy milieu like Conan flame Red Sonja or Michael Moorcock’s Elric the Albino (who becomes “Elrod of Melvinbone” and speaks and acts like Foghorn Leghorn). The comic takes its first strides into brilliance with the introduction of Lord Julius, who is simply Groucho Marx as the leader a medieval city state. The move not only gives Sim an easy way into political satire—as demonstrated by Duck Soup (1933), making the comically venal and fast-talking Groucho into a head of state is inherently satirical. (Sim also has a knack for comic pastiche, nailing Marx’s vaudevillian sense of humor as he later would that of comedians from Rodney Dangerfield to the Three Stooges.) Further, it creates an avenue where Sim can introduce other real people into the narrative to increasingly post-modern effect as Chico Marx, Mick Jagger and Keith (or “Keef”) Richards, and even obscure historical figures like Adam Weishaupt (the founder of the Order of the Illuminati) all become players on the political stage as Cerebus is manipulated into becoming the prime minister of a city-state himself and ultimately pope. Cerebus also makes an excellent foil for all the pretentiously self-important and manipulative people around him by remaining a stubborn and single-minded simplification of the already simple character of Conan. (His first command when becoming pope is that everyone, everywhere must bring him all their gold. Cerebus is not a good person.) Throughout all this, Sim’s art improves from its modest beginnings to masterful levels, and he brings in a background artist named Gerhard who gives his world palpable depth and texture.

The pope storyline climaxes in the surreal, as President Weishaupt and Cerebus battle for an orb that will create a spinning tower who’s surface is carved entirely out of skulls. Upon winning the battle, Cerebus walks up the side of the tower to the moon. There he meets the Judge, a parody of Marvel Comics’ omniscient character The Watcher who for some reason looks like an actor who played a judge in the obscure film Little Murders (1971). The Judge tells Cerebus a story about the beginning of the time, where a male void rapes and shatters a female light, giving birth to the universe.

Cerebus and the Judge on the gendered moon

Wait wait, you’re thinking, wasn’t Sim’s whole game about female void and male light? Why would he make a metaphor that appears to condemn toxic masculinity and sexual abuse? (And he makes this explicit, saying that men break women and tell them they were ‘asking for it’.)

Sim himself later calls this the “ultra-female” reading, setting up the revelations that would come later after the judge is revealed to have been “lying”. At any rate, it shows how the deep the gender issue went in his personal cosmology, serving as the climax of the story.

When Cerebus is sent back to Earth, we discover that in the chaos and war leading up to and following his ascent, his region of the world had been conquered by the Cirinists, a fascistic matriarchal cult. Still, it’s not yet clear that something is terribly wrong with Sim and the story he’s telling; other than all being women, the Cirinists more closely resemble the right wing, with the women all wearing masks a la conservative Islam and with social order and activity kept under tight control. I mean, one of the Cirinists is Margaret Thatcher, for Pete’s sake (and she’s delightfully creepy)We don’t yet know that the Cirinists are Sim’s idea of feminists, of leftists, of what his incoherent fever dreams imagine as liberal’s endgame. That they’re just “feminazis”.

Perhaps this is somewhat unfair; there’s a second group of feminists called the Kevillists who oppose the Cirinists and want freedom and equality in a way more recognizable to the modern reader. (These are the “daughters” who oppose the “mother” Cirinists that value motherhood above all else.) Their leader is a woman named Astoria, whose schemes made Cerebus prime minister, and who comes off as a fascinating character torn between ends and means. One of the earliest Cerebus scenes that people took issue with was after Cerebus becomes pope he has Astoria imprisoned and rapes her. (Cerebus is a piece of shit).

The impression of this scene is bifurcated by what comes later. At the time it seemed Cerebus’ rape was, like his demand for gold, another example of how everyone thought he could be manipulated because of his simple-minded and unbridled self-interest, only to discover that giving power to a monster benefits no one. (One thinks of certain contemporary political figures who also seem like a cartoon in a world of humans.) It’s also a canny send-up of the whole concept of the “barbarian hero”, showing that someone who behaved like Conan would be less of a anti-hero and more of a straight villain.

But of course this interpretation of Astoria and the Kevillists is later contradicted. During Mothers and Daughters, Sim even has Astoria claim she manipulated Cerebus into raping her in hopes of having an aardvark child, who in this world are figures with great destinies. The rape is, in other words, the woman’s fault. The Kevillists are just amorally self-interested users of men, no better than Cerebus himself.

Following the big pope/moon story, Cerebus’ adventures become much more small-scaled and introspective. The next storyline is about Cerebus hiding out with his love interest Jaka, who’s married another man, and it’s mostly just this quiet unrequited love story, with Oscar Wilde poking about and delivering one-liners. (The scene where Wilde meets Groucho Marx is one of the all-time classics of the series.)

Oscar Wilde meets Groucho Marx (in a dress for no reason)

The story climaxes when the Cirinists arrest Jaka for illegally exotic dancing, summarily executing her incel-like employer. There’s an emotional scene where the Cirinists reveal to her husband that she aborted the child he desperately wanted, and he hits her and they punish him for it. Sim calls it a story without a villain, and despite a cringe-worthy sequence where Jaka is interrogated by Thatcher and seems to have no sense that her dancing has any sexual component at all, the portrait of her has depth and nuance, with a series of flashbacks to her childhood fleshing her out as a character. The ending came off as much more thorny before you knew Dave Sim’s feelings about abortion.

Thatcher has Jaka’s husband punished. Notice the use of shadow and the lettering.

Amid all of this, the storytelling techniques Sim deploys, his layouts and pacing, the expressiveness of his figures, even his lettering are so compelling and original that it’s hard not to get swept away; it’s with Jaka’s Story, I think, that it becomes clear that Sim is one of the most skilled comics artists working. Also during this time, Sim championed self-publishing in comics, helping to create the “Creator’s Bill of Rights” for comic book artists and giving boosts to lots of up-and-comers, including the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles when that was still a self-published, black-and-white comic no one had heard of, and Jeff Smith’s Bone.

After this storyline we get, unexpectedly, an elaborate adaptation of the last years of the life of Oscar Wilde, making extensive and compelling use of extracts from his letters and with no hand-wringing at all about the man’s homosexuality. (In this world Wilde was punished by the Cirinists for a lack of “artistic license” rather than for sodomy by the courts of Victorian England.) In the previous storyline, Wilde had even stood up to Jaka’s employer and his homophobic insults. This is fascinating since later Sim becomes ardent in decrying the homosexualist agenda, and has said that he thinks homosexuality “belongs at the margins of society and behind closed doors.” But clearly he loves Wilde and is rapt by the same dramatic fall which has long since made him the gay martyr.

After this, it’s the four-book arc of Mothers and Daughters, whose lose plot climaxes when Cerebus finally confronts Cirin, leader of the Cirinists and a fellow aardvark, and the whole thing is entirely overshadowed by the textual insertions where Sim lectures us about the world. He describes a new, inverted version of the Creation, with male light impregnating the female void and builds to the famous issue 186, where all pretenses are ripped away. “It’s not your body they’re after but your soul,” Sim helpfully tells us when explaining how women siphon the power of men, and how they must be held tightly in check. Women have no business working or voting or doing much of anything besides rearing children and having sex. They’re not really people in the same way men are, they can’t reason, they can’t be trusted.

And we’re now confronted with a floodgates-open display of his mental illness. One of his many claims about women, for example, is that they can literally read minds, and the names of the sub-volumes of Mothers and Daughters spells this out (“Women Reads Minds, Guys”). (Technically the first volume of Mothers and Daughters is Flight and Guys is an epilogue, but whatever.) Everything in the universe it seems, even abstract concepts like Birth and Death, are gendered in Sim’s mind and this gendering reveals secret truths about the workings of the universe. (In later issues, Sim even genders the laws of physics, positing, for example, that hydrogen is female (because it desires to “merge”) while helium is male (because it doesn’t).)

It’d be nice to attribute his turn to misogyny entirely to this psychotic break, to say he just went crazy. Did he really write the Judge’s version of creation just to knock it down later? Did he really think of Astoria and Jaka as psychic vampires incapable of reason even has he wrote them so sympathetically? It’s impossible to know for sure, but the Cirinists were introduced as early as issue 20, when Sim still described himself as a politically liberal. If Sim himself is to be believed, he felt this way about women for a very long time. In any case, his mental illness appears to have taken his misogyny and ballooned it to monstrous proportions.

Reading about Sim online, I get a little frustrated when I see otherwise intelligent people claim that Sim isn’t really mentally ill at all, or that his mental condition has no bearing on his work, even while they also tell you that Cerebus can be properly read as a document of the inside of the man’s head. Someone who thinks that women are telepathic, that they syphon all rational ability from men and are incapable of differentiating between [humans] and animals is not someone in touch with consensus reality, and the only way to make that claim is to avoid describing his beliefs in depth.

And Sim’s mental illness has had tragic consequences for his own life; he’s alienated almost everyone he knows personally including Gerhard, and become a virtual hermit and self-described “voluntarily celibate” (though he sometimes rewards himself with trips to a local dance club so he can ogle young women).

On the subject of his own diagnosis, Sim has written, “the definition of schizophrenia—the inability to perceive the difference between reality and fantasy—is, to me, self-evidently ludicrous because it presupposes that there is universally agreed upon perception of what reality is”. Which I suppose is at least how Sim can still think of himself as sane, by denying any such thing as sanity exists in the first place.

At the climax of Mothers and Daughters, Cerebus is spun off into space again on a floating cube that brings him to Pluto where Dave Sim personally speaks to him as a voice in his head. Sim confirms something a character previously said, that Cerebus is in fact intersex, with both male and female sex organs, this assumably explaining his over-emotionality. He berates Cerebus for never learning his lesson, for still wanting to be with Jaka. Cerebus asks for Jaka to love him unconditionally, and Sim shows him several alternate futures where Cerebus is abusive, Cerebus is a cheat, where Jaka kills herself in remorse. (Did I mention that Cerebus is fucking awful?) Finally, he’s sent back to Earth.

Cerebus finds Jaka’s suicide, and is transported back to Pluto

Sim himself has said that the Cerebus narrative essentially ends with Mothers and Daughters, and everything after it is postscript. In the following books, the character is barely a lead, drinking in a bar for page after page before Jaka shows up again, and then they go off and there’s books where Earnest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald appear and Sim examines their lives in a way which doesn’t really directly connect to anything else in the series.

Jaka, the once great character, is here reduced to a shrill bimbo, and Cerebus ultimately rejects her when they travel to meet his parents only to find out they’ve died while he was away and this is somehow Jaka’s fault for being a distraction. (Notably, Dave Sim refuses to talk to his own parents.) He then leads a final revolution against the Cirinists which results in the Spawn-dressing and uppity women executions I described earlier.

After this, Woody Allen wanders in with the literal Torah (the first five books of the Bible). Sim, once an atheist, at some point had a complete religious conversion where he decided he was simultaneously a Christian AND a Jew AND a Muslim (but really a kind of syncretism of the three of his own devising). Allen and Cerebus spend several issues on an exegesis of the book of Genesis in which the details of Sim’s new beliefs are outlined. Genesis, when read correctly we find, secretly tells the story of a war between a male diety, God, and a female diety, YHWH (Yahweh in the Jewish tradition, though Sim refers to her derisively as “Yoowhoo”). Which is to say that his “light and void” idea of creation is not a metaphor, or an interpretation, or even a theory as we once might have thought, but the capital-T Truth found in holy scripture. (As pointed out by one of the excellent posts on the subject of Cerebus by Tegan O’Neil, it takes a certain chutzpa for someone to look at Genesis, the most read and reread book in the history of world, and decide he’s the only one that knows what’s really going on with it.)

In Sim’s belief system, we live in a kind of fallen world, an age of the Female Void. “We are already past the point of no return,” he wrote. He believes civilization’s been on a downward slope towards feminization since the death of the prophet Muhammed, and rejects basically all post-enlightenment philosophy as “bafflegab”. He does not have a cell phone or an email address (though he bought a computer some years ago which he says is specifically for Google Image Search). He claims artists who use computers in their work aren’t artists at all but “technicians”.

Cerebus came to its intended conclusion in 2004, with the lead character, as predicted by the Judge, dying alone, unmourned, and unloved when he trips, farts, falls and is sent to Hell. (Sim at least knows Cerebus is not a good person.)

In the following years, Sim released a few comics projects including Judenhass, a straightforward retelling of the story of the Holocaust which relies heavily on primary sources, and Glamourpuss, a parody of fashion magazines that also included a serialization of a history of the now unfashionable “fine line” comics art style which he practices. Because he stridently believes in creator ownership, he gave Gerhard half ownership of Cerebus, and has been progressively buying back those rights from him.

In February 2015, Dave Sim started suffering from an unknown condition causing tremors in his hands and hasn’t been able to draw since. He’s refused any modern medical treatment because he doesn’t “believe in medical science,” which also explains his lack of a diagnosis. He sees the condition as a divine test of some kind because “any other assumption… begs credulity.”

Since then he’s released a series called Cerebus in Hell, in which public domain art like that of Gustave Doré is collaged with old Cerebus artwork in order for Sim to continue expounding on his ideas about the world. Recently, he’s produced a free Coronavirus special packed full of flaccid jokes about how we’re all panicking over nothing.

Cerebus stands as curious thing. It’s an indelible part of comics history by one of its most skilled practitioners whose whiz-bang pyrotechnics of graphical storytelling–framing of pages, sequencing actions, establishing a mood, communicating emotion, are virtually unrivaled. It’s plot seems to meander off into whatever Sim happens to be thinking about at the time and has very little relation to classical notions of structure or character development, with long textual passages and virtuosic pastiches of the styles of other writers and various comedians. It is the singular and untrammeled vision of a creator, and in a world where every marginally notable piece of art is hailed as unique, it can truly be said that there is nothing even remotely like it. And it’s an example of how someone can make it completely on their own, earning a good living creating precisely the art they want unencumbered by interference from major corporations.

It’s also thousands of pages of unbridled hate speech.

And so it’s difficult to recommend reading Cerebus to anyone at all. Perhaps it will be a rich vein for academics of 20th century graphic storytelling and popular culture. And perhaps artists in the future will find ways to mine and remix its innovations. In this way, and despite itself, Cerebus may finally find its legacy.

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Bibliography and Further Reading

Pink Floyd’s The Wall and the Rise of the Alt-Right

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The Worms
The Face of the Alt-Right

One of the first things I learned to play on piano for myself, rather than for a piano teacher, was the Pink Floyd song “Nobody Home” when I was 12 years old, an ode to “having a strong urge to fly” but “nowhere to fly to”. The song comes from The Wall (1979), a theme album (and subsequent film (1982)) about a maladjusted, mentally ill rock star who becomes progressively more isolated, building up a “wall” between himself and the world around him. As a narrative it’s less a plot with characters than a cycle of emotional states layered on top of each other, more poetry than prose. The kind of thing that’s perhaps too easy for a moody young person to identify with. That is, at least, up until two thirds into its run time when the lead character has a breakdown, completes his wall, and it’s revealed that he beats his wife and he subsequently (whether in fantasy or reality, it’s not clear) becomes a Neo-Nazi leader out to route out the Jews and the coons and the queers.

It was a twist I didn’t get at all at the time. Up until this point, the lead character (“Pink Floyd”, a joke on how the band’s name was always confused for a person’s) is portrayed as victimized, oppressed by his mother, his school system, his adulterous wife. He’s sympathetic, if entirely in a bourgeois kind of way (cue the SNL skit about “white male rage”). In fact, he’s similar in broad strokes to the put-upon, adulated, Messianic white male protagonists of other ‘rock-operas’ of the era, such as The Who’s Tommy (1968) or David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972).

But there’s nothing sympathetic about becoming a Nazi, and no direct references to Nazism in the build-up to the twist that would give you a clue that it’s coming. And anyway, Nazis? I’d grown up with them as like this cartoonish villain, as real and present as Viking raiders or pirates. Why was this what Pink Floyd had decided to depict?

As an adult looking back from the vantage point of 2020, however, the arc of the character strikes me as not only ringing true, but prescient in ways I never could have anticipated.

At my high school there was a guy who oversaw the computer lab, fresh out of college and not so much older than me at the time. (This was the kind of upscale Connecticut public high school that had a computer lab in the early 90s.) We started talking about computers, but soon the topic turned to politics and he was ecstatic to turn me on to the wonders of Libertarianism and the wisdom of Ayn Rand.

Subtitle: How to be an Asshole

This was before the Web had become ubiquitous, before Google, before you could just go online and research something. I didn’t really have context for Libertarianism. But this guy was friendly and exuberant and I was lonely and soon I found myself reading The Fountainhead and parroting Libertarian talking points like the benefits of abolishing income tax and privatizing schools and roads and just about everything else. Submitting to Rand’s unrelenting selfishness-as-political-philosophy made me feel powerful and special and destined for greatness like the hero in her book.

One of the people I knew at school tried to warn me away from the guy–after all, he’d also been known to talk about “racial problems” and reference The Bell Curve. “What do you call ten people talking to a Nazi?” My acquaintance asked, invoking a very old expression. “Eleven Nazis.”

But how could he be a Nazi, I thought? Libertarians were about freedom and Nazis were about authoritarianism. The phrase “the Libertarian-to-Fascist Pipeline” had not entered the public consciousness. (The shortest explanation for how Libertarians become Fascists is that because by “freedom” they primarily mean property rights, they see Fascists as the only ones who can absolutely guarantee property rights against the inferior masses that might seek to take them away from their betters–this is what figures like Peter Thiel mean when they say they “no longer think freedom and democracy are compatible“. In other words, an even shorter explanation might be “racism”, because it’s inevitably minorities who are seeking to take your property away with absurd demands like ‘taxes’ for ‘health care’ and such.)

And as for the race question, well, I obviously didn’t agree with that, but of course I wasn’t racist so what did it matter if he was as long as he wasn’t racist against me?

When you’re insecure, you’ll do anything to not feel insecure. And so when someone offers you a narrative where you’re actually powerful and special, you grab ahold of it with both hands and refuse to let go. And thus, as the album would have it, the worms ate into my brain.

When we talk about the related subjects of the rise of the Alt-Right and the rise of Trump, what you’re talking about is a mass of people who feel loss and aggrievement over their fallen status. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that white male voters backed Trump because of the perceived threat to their dominance in society. As has been pointed out by others, when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like discrimination. White people, and white men in particular in this country, feel humiliated and powerless. They resent the so-called “left wing media” for trying to make them feel ashamed of their history and heritage just because their ancestors enslaved Africans and murdered off and displaced native peoples.

At the near end these feelings of aggrievement gives you your average Trump Supporter, eager to keep out the mythical Mexican coming to take his job, and at the far end this metastasizes into full-on Neo-Nazis marching with torches and chanting slogans about the Jews. This mirrors how the rise of Nazism in Germany was directly related to the feelings of disempowerment and shame felt by the German people after their loss in WWI and the crippling economic conditions the war debts put them under especially during the Great Depression.

Sociologist Michael Kimmel, author of books on masculinity and the Neo-Nazi movement, talks about how many men feel “aggrieved entitlement … that sense of entitlement that can no longer be assumed and that is unlikely to be fulfilled.”

He elaborates on what causes people to fall down the slope of Nazism and violence in a recent interview in the Guardian:

Many of [the Neo-Nazis], especially the American guys, were sexually abused, beat up, bullied as children. Some of them have basically the same sort of profile as the victims of the Catholic priests. Growing up they were deeply ashamed of themselves; they didn’t do well in school, they didn’t have friends, they were sad, miserable, and they escaped into themselves. That just made them better targets, and the far right drew them in.

The camaraderie of the community validates their masculinity, and – even more importantly than that – gives them a sacred mission. That is really powerful for these guys.

Which brings us back to The Wall. Pink’s embrace of Nazism isn’t a strange side-track in the story of his feelings of emasculation and shame from his mother, teachers, and wife. They’re a direct outgrowth of them. Indeed, the (admittedly sexist) focus on overbearing mother and cheating wife (literally making Pink a cuckold, that most Alt-Right of insults) jibes well with this idea of a Right driven by the threat of emasculation. Pink embraces the narrative of Nazism because he needs something to hold onto now that the wall between himself and the world is complete. And there’s a neatness to the fact that the ideology he chooses is the same one that killed his father as a soldier in the Second World War, a way for the narrative to come full circle.

Trump voters and Nazis alike want to feel powerful again. And so Trump supporters love ‘owning the libs’ because by making liberals freak out they’re asserting their own dominance, giving themselves a thrill of schadenfreude in lives where they feel like they have no control. They see no problem with separating families and putting children in cages. Cruelty, and the power it represents, is the point.

Back to myself as a disgruntled teenager, Ayn Rand made me feel powerful where in the rest of my life–especially my social life—I felt utterly powerless and confused. In the long run I was saved from this ideological slip-n-slide in no small part because I was surrounded by left-leaning people in my little bubble of educated, privileged North Easterners. But it’s not hard for me to see how things could have gone in a different direction. Even just living somewhere else, with others who shared these ideas waiting to show me camaraderie and make me feel like I belong, and my belief system might have become different. This fact haunts me in ways I still find hard to admit.

Racism makes white people feel powerful. That’s the tool that rich slave owners used to make poor whites hate the poor blacks with whom they actually had much more in common. And it’s the tool that someone like Donald Trump uses to fuel his cult-like political tsunami.

All that really needs to be said about The Bell Curve

And so The Wall works because racism has nothing to do with logic or reason, as much as racists might protest otherwise. It isn’t about reading The Bell Curve and suddenly understanding that racism is science. If that were the case, then something like Shaun Skull’s epic 2.5 hour deep dive into the book which exposes exactly how the studies it’s based on are fundamentally flawed and intentionally misused would put a rest to the whole thing. Racists will proudly proclaim that they’re simply willing to go where the facts take them, while they blithely ignore facts that contradict what they already believe.

No, racism, and the drive towards fascism with which it’s fundamentally bound, are both about making people feel powerful and providing cover for dehumanizing behavior. And the people who most need to feel powerful are people like Pink–sad, sad boys (and girls) desperate for something to reach out and hold on to. For something out beyond the Wall. Even if doing so transforms them into something monstrous.

I don’t think Roger Waters–Pink Floyd’s bassist, lyricist, songwriter, and architect of the album–could have remotely anticipated the irony to come when masses of Trump voters would shout “build the wall”. But as I said, when you’re insecure you’ll do anything to not feel insecure, and that goes for building a wall around your country as easily as it does for building a wall around yourself.

It would have been an easy thing for Waters to make Pink a more sympathetic character all the way to the end. He could have taken the tack of a film like Joker, which portrays its protagonist in such a way that his horrific actions are somehow justified and even celebrated by society (the problems of which are explored in depth in an excellent essay by Film Crit Hulk). But it doesn’t. The Wall looks straight at its protagonist and doesn’t blink. From the moment Pink sings “I need you, babe/to beat to a pulp on a Saturday night”, you see the creature he’s already become well before the descent into Nazism. Pink isn’t a hero. He’s a warning.


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Bibliography and Further Reading

Superheroes and the Police

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  1. Hydra
Policeman’s Benevolent Association

In the film Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it’s revealed that S.H.I.E.L.D, the government organization Captain America and the Avengers have been working for, has long since been infiltrated and taken over from within by the Nazi splinter group Hydra. After battling these compromised government agents for most of the film, our hero discovers that Hydra has taken control of three enormous Helicarriers linked to spy satellites with the goal of ‘stopping threats before they start’.

And so Captain America picks up a protest sign and peacefully marches as the Helicarriers take off.

I’m just kidding, he actively sabotages them, destroying millions of dollars in government property. But it’s fine because his ally, the Black Widow, appears before a Senate subcommittee and explains everything, and everyone in the Senate and the public accept that destroying the Helicarriers was the right course of action, the end.

Meanwhile, in the real world, police departments all over the country have been infiltrated by White Supremacists as reported by PBS Newshour. This has been known for years, and very little has been done about it, which is why in recent protests, we’ve seen them routinely take the side of white nationalist vigilantes. That’s why when white supremacists marched on state capitals demanding their right to be infected by a plague, the police gave them free rein. And when the police murder black people, prosecutors let them off the hook because they need to work closely with the police to do their job. The Internal Affairs people who are supposed to police the police (and are ironically hated for that role) are in fact police themselves beholden to the same police authorities. Anyway, if you actually try to file a complaint you’re liable to followed and harassed.

And so the people peacefully protest. And so these protesters are tear gassed, shot at with disabling rubber bullets, assaulted, and pepper sprayed indiscriminently. Over and over again we see evidence of peaceful protesters being attacked by police unprovoked, police brutalizing innocent people while whey cover their badge numbers and cameras. And inevitably, some of the protesters fight back. Some protesters lash out.

Some of the protesters riot.

This appears to be a deliberate tactic on the part of the police. Commit violence, watch as violence is instigated in turn, and then point to that as justification for further crackdowns, and the media goes along with this framing because the media values sensationalism even while the police are spraying them in the face.

There’s a lot of talk about how the rioters were white anarchists and not the black protesters, or out-of-town opportunists, or they were cops trying to make the movement look bad, or white supremacists doing the same.

And I’m here to tell you that none of that actually matters. How many times now have we peacefully protested? How many times have we flooded the streets? Athletes started peacefully protesting at their games, and people lost their minds. Peaceful protests have not stopped the police (and others) from murdering black people with impunity. Peaceful protest has not freed the children in cages on the border. Peaceful protest has not brought an end to this criminal presidency. And historically, rioting can lead to real political and social change.

Or to quote Martin Luthor King, jr, as did his son, “a riot is the language of the unheard”.

  1. President Luthor
President Luthor Shows Off His Small Penis

DC Comics did a storyline beginning in 2000 where it was not George W. Bush who won the presidential election but Superman arch-villain Lex Luthor. Luthor’s an interesting character; in the beginning he was a mad scientist, a cheap knock-off of the (original) Captain Marvel villain Doctor Sivana. By the 1970s Superman movie, he’d become “the greatest criminal mind of our time”, a figure a la Professor Moriarty. In the 1980s, he was cannily transformed into another kind of villain: a greedy businessman with near endless resources. Luthor would emblazone his name in huge letters across his every project, build giant black towers in Metropolis, and then be elevated to the highest station in the land.

Batman Spreads Fake News

While in power, Luthor frames Superman by claiming that he was controlling a kryptonite comet headed for Earth, a claim for which he provides no evidence (but you would believe it if you saw it, we’re assured). He rounds up some other superheroes to apprehend Superman (they fail or switch sides). In the end he takes the drugs the Batman villain Bane typically uses to ‘roid out and gets into a kryptonite backed fistfight with the superhero. In the midst of this drug-fueled battle, he confesses to allying with the evil dictator of an alien planet, Darkseid. Batman records this confession, everyone accepts the clear revelation of collusion between him and a hostile foreign power on its face, and Luthor is removed from office while missing and presumed dead.

Meanwhile in the real world a supervillain more cartoonishly evil than Luthor could ever hope to be responds to the protesters with a quote from a racist 1960s police chief, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a statement that as clearly as possible expresses the sentiment that property is more important than human lives. He uses the National Guard to clear out peaceful protesters (whose right to protest is guaranteed by the Constitution) from in front of the White House with tear gas and flash bombs so he can have a photo-op holding a bible in front of a church.

The government is the body given monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. In the super hero world, allowances are also made for heroes, though this is often debated with various programs to regulate and control superhero violence by the government causing “civil wars” among the heroes, but ultimately always rejected. Superhero powers are, after all, typically (though not always) intrinsic to the hero’s body, and therefore regulating it would be like regulating people themselves. With this is the idea that the superheroes are, in a word, heroic, in a way that the government too often is not. In the film Captain America: Civil War, the Captain puts it succinctly:  “What if this panel sends us somewhere we don’t think we should go? What if there is somewhere we need to go, and they don’t let us? We may not be perfect, but the safest hands are still our own.”

You’ll find no better of example of the disillusioned veteran than Captain America. And like him, we as a people do not trust the government to always do the right thing. Because we’ve seen what their monopoly on violence looks like in the real world, and it looks like a knee on a man’s neck until he dies. And it also looks like drone bombings and the mass deaths of civilians in the name of bringing them “freedom”.

Actual Context has a great pair of videos on how so many in the police seem to fetishize one super hero in particular. He’s not a cop, or a literal symbol of American ideals like Captain America. Instead, he’s a psychopathic murderer who takes the law into his own hands: The Punisher. Which is telling about how these police officers see themselves: not as patriotic defenders but as brute killers on a mission of war against crime.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to abolish the police altogether?

Part 3. The Paw Patrol

What Happens When Police Are Replaced with Puppies

As someone with a three-year-old child, I’ve been subjected to more than the recommended dosage of Paw Patrol. From the beginning of the series, the show is about a team of puppies with various different vehicles and specialties–Rubble has a bulldozer, Marshall has a fire truck, and so on. Most of the adventures these canines go on don’t involve defeating villains, but mundane issues like rescuing a treed kitten or a beached whale or helping some baby turtles get safely to the sea.

But there’s a special episode in between season 7 and 8 where a mysterious meteor comes to town and grants the Paw Patrol members superpowers. It also grants superpowers to the nephew of the mayor of a rival town and the he and his uncle become antagonists with whom the Paw Patrol must do battle. This is, of course, all very G rated and as non-violent as superhero action can be (much like the similar show PJ Masks, which eschews any punching and kicking and always ends with the bad guys slinking away).

This change completely reframes the series from being about civil services organizations that helps out in the community to a crime fighting unit that must defeat the enemies of law and order.

A counter-intuitive example, I admit, in a piece about Superheroes fighting against a corrupt state, but of course the PAW Patrol are overtly modeled on government services like the police, the fire department, recycling services, search and rescue teams, etc. And while their funding as far as I can tell is murky, they operate like public servants without any apparent monetary reward.

And so there’s a sense in their transformation from a rescue operation to superheroic crime fighters that they’ve moving from serving the public to fighting an enemy.

Some More News did a great piece on how the police have been overtaken with a warrior mindset, trained to do battle and become predators. And this has been exacerbated by a military unloading surplus onto them, providing even small town police departments with military vehicles, armor, and equipment and turning them into a virtual paramilitary force. The police have been trained to see the very people they’re supposed to be serving and protecting as the enemy they must war against, as if they’re in a foreign country and we’re all insurgency.

After all, if the only problem with police were a few bad apples, then why aren’t the “good cops” arresting the “bad cops” for the egregious battery they’re performing on protesters that we’ve seen in video after video? Have any of those arrests happened? Has a single good cop of their own accord stood up to a bad cop and arrested them?

If there’s only a few bad cops, why are so many of them literally cheering the Buffalo officers who pushed down an old man and sent him to the hospital in broad daylight and on video. Why are they talking about calling in sick in Philadelphia in solidarity with an officer who was arrested for beating a college student with a baton?

But we why this all is. Consider the case of Adrian Schoolcraft. Adrian Schoolcraft was a police officer who reported misconduct and the falsifying of reports. As a result he was hounded, harassed, and forcibly committed to a mental hospital. The truth only came to light because he recorded his superiors committing their crimes.

The police actively drive out good cops. This isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. It’s almost as if the police don’t actually exist to uphold the law. It’s almost as if they exist to protect the property of the rich and terrorize the poor into submission.

Which is why it’s taken days of protests and riots to even get a small group of police arrested for murder that was caught on video in plain daylight, and it remains to be seen whether prosecutors will actually do anything meaningful to them.

But, I still hear you say, this all just means that the police need to be reformed. Not abolished.

Indeed, the idea of abolishing the police altogether might seem bizarre, especially to white people raised on a culture of lionizing the police in every cop and crime show on television. It’s kind of astonishing that we find ourselves at a place where such a stodgy news organ as the New York Times is published a piece advocating defunding the police. (Of course, they counter this by publishing an op-ed by Tom Cotton saying we should send in the military and treat our own populace like enemy combatants.) Abolishing the police, like abolishing prisons, is one of those ideas that has appeared in leftist thought for ages but always seemed impossibly out of the public consciousness. Now it’s definitively inside the Overton Window.

I know what you’re thinking: what about murderers? Who’s going to apprehend Charles Manson? And if you abolish prisons too, what will you do with him?

Hear me out here.

We’ve tried reform for the last however many years. For example, the Minneapolis police “implemented trainings on implicit bias, mindfulness, de-escalation, and crisis intervention; diversified the department’s leadership; created tighter use-of-force standards; adopted body cameras; initiated a series of police-community dialogues; and enhanced early-warning systems to identify problem officers” according to the Guardian. And they still let an officer with multiple complaints about his record murder a guy on video while his compatriots watched.

The vast majority of crimes investigated by the police are never solved anyway, as explained in the book The End of Policing by Alex S Vitale available now as a free ebook). And most calls to police for things like domestic disturbances or people with mental health issues aren’t things police are well trained to deal with anyway. Some places, like Dallas, have actually started responding to some 911 calls with social workers instead of police officers, with great results. Things could further be improved by decriminalizing recreational drugs, like they did in Portugal, which would lead to us ceasing to treat addicts like criminals and more like the victims or innocents they actually are. Alcohol prohibition only made money flow into the hands of violent gangsters, and drug prohibition has had the same effect, while punishing the very victims–the drug users–it ostensibly seeks to protect. The same can be said about other victimless crimes like prostitution and gambling.

So what about Charles Manson? Well, here’s the thing about old Chuck: The arrest that landed him in prison was the third time he’d been arrested. He’d been in and out of prison for years. It’s almost like arrest and imprisonment didn’t deter him at all. It’s almost like he had serious mental health issues that were never addressed by the present system.

Our current criminal justice system practically breeds recidivism; ex-cons have difficulty finding work because of their records, difficulty finding housing, and they’ve often spent so long in prison they’re maladjusted to life on the outside. It’s a formula that, rather than helping them reform their lives, actually incentivizes them to return to crime and imprisonment.

And it would be easy to argue this is all by design, since in America prisoners are essentially used as slave labor for various corporations, funneled into for-profit prisons, paid pennies or nothing at all. After all, it’s painfully clear who this ‘tough on crime’, ‘law and order’ system benefits and who it punishes.

Which is why we need to start defunding and demilitarizing police, massively reduce prison populations with an eye towards shuttering them completely, and use the funds saved for efforts that reduce criminality from the source. We need to replace the police with unarmed civil servants with active community and independent oversight and make them part of the community rather than aligned against it.

The idea of the superhero is aspirational; they’re supposed to represent how any of us, if given extraordinary abilities, could go out and do good for the world. And over and over again we’ve been given examples of superheroes fighting against corrupt systems in the government and the establishment. Well, I’m here to tell you those corrupt systems are here, except instead of Hydra being in control of S.H.I.E.L.D., it’s white supremacists with permission to deploy violence against minorities and the poor without consequences. It’s time for that system to be replaced with something better.

This is not a ‘ far left’ idea. This is clear and obvious sense.

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I’d like to thank my Patrons, Nancy Rosen, Arthur Rosenfield, JF Quackenbush, IndustrialRobot, and NotInvaderZim. You can support me for as little as $1 an episode at https://patreon.com/ericrosenfield.

Bibliography and Further Reading

How Can I Save You? 12 Monkeys and the Coronavirus

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Reopen the economy, they said…

This piece spoils the entirety of the film 12 Monkeys (1995), written by David and Janet Peoples and directed by Terry Gilliam.

It’s 2020. A science fictional sounding year. You wear the mask your wife made and a pair of latex gloves to go out for groceries. Everyone on the street wears masks and it adds a layer of weirdness to just walking around, like you’ve stepped into an alternate reality of the neighborhood you know and love.

You hurry to the supermarket a few blocks away. The line to get in stretches around the block, everyone trying to keep their distance, if not strictly the recommended six feet. You’d use services like FreshDirect or Amazon Fresh, except it seems impossible to get a slot. Besides your wife is concerned that the slots there are should go to people who really need them. And so the simple act of getting groceries has become a fraught proposition, and you can never be completely sure if you’re going to bring home the plague.

While you wait, you fiddle with your glasses because they’re fogging up over your mask, though you’re not supposed to be touching your face. After about half an hour, you get inside. You try not to touch anything other than what you want to buy, and probably don’t pay as much attention as you should to keeping six feet from other people in the claustrophobically spaced aisles of a New York Supermarket.

Once home you follow a strict routine: leave the shoes at the door, strip off the gloves, the mask, the coat and sweater, haul whatever you bought to the sink so it can be washed unless it’s in a cardboard box in which case you put it by the door and don’t touch it for 24 hours since that’s supposedly how long the virus lasts on cardboard. Take off your pants and put on pajama pants, wash your hands for 20 seconds, disinfect the phone and the AirPods and the wallet and the keys by rubbing them over with a Clorox disinfecting wipe. You wash the groceries and put them out to dry.

You live with your wife and daughter in a 1.5 bedroom apartment in Queens. You talk about what to do if one of you gets sick, isolating them in the bedroom. But since you can go up to two weeks without showing symptoms, if one of you gets sick all of you are probably going to get sick. And if it gets bad and all three of you are feverish, you don’t know what you’re going to do.

It’s 2035. James Cole (played by Bruce Willis in the prime of his abilities and popularity) is “volunteered” for a trip to the surface world from the cage in which he’s kept for unspecified violent crimes. Enveloped in a transparent space-suit with an elaborate, Gilliamesque breathing apparatus, he wanders a ruined, overgrown, and snow-laden Philadelphia. A lion stalks the roof of a building. Cole collects a huge beetle in a jar and is startled by a roaming bear. The bear wanders away. Cole stalks an eerily empty and ruined department store.

Back underground, Cole is thoroughly hosed down and scrubbed with long brushes by men in similar suits. He must draw his own blood sample to be tested for any trace of the virus which has wiped out the bulk of humanity.

Good news: not only isn’t he sick, he’s impressed the scientists with his diligence and his memory. They have a special job for him.

It’s 2020. Sometimes you think everything is normal and then you realize the only car traffic you hear is ambulance sirens and you remember what’s really going on. You live a short walk from Elmhurst hospital, the epicenter of the epicenter of the outbreak. There’s a large playground in front of it where you used to take your kid, and a fantastic Thai restaurant across the street.

You and your wife have been working from home for weeks now. You’re happy to have jobs–people you know have lost theirs, others had their pay cut. The day they shut down the nursery school, your three-year-old daughter saw the nanny in the morning, realized she wasn’t going to school, and burst into tears. You’re nervous about still giving the child to the nanny, but if she were home it’d be difficult to keep working and you both need to keep your jobs.

Every day you check the numbers on the nyc.gov website and update a spreadsheet you’re keeping of cases and deaths in the city. Hundreds of New Yorkers drop off the face of the earth every day. It’s the kind of thing where if you don’t know people who’ve died you know people who know people who’ve died. One of your friend’s grandmothers died of it. Another friend’s aunt died of it. One of your wife’s co-workers had 6 members of her family die.

Some of your friends and family literally haven’t left the house in weeks, prisoners of the virus.

Here Because of the System

It’s 1990. Cole has been sent back in time to gather information. He’s supposed to find a pure original sample of the virus that can be used to synthesize an antidote. He quickly ends up in a sanitarium, where he meets patient Jeffrey Goines (played by Brad Pitt at his twitchiest in a breakout role which would earn him a Golden Globe and his first nomination for an Academy Award).

Goines has some ideas about why they’re really all locked up in a mental institution, giving us much of the film’s thematic material:

Goines

Very few of us here are actually mentally ill. I’m not saying you’re not mentally ill, for all I know you’re crazy as a loon. But that’s not why you’re here, that’s not why you’re here, that’s not why you’re here! You’re here because of the system. There’s the television. It’s all right there. All right there. Look, listen, kneel, pray. 

Commercials. We are not productive anymore, they don’t need us to make things anymore, it’s all automated. What are we for then? We’re consumers. Okay, buy a lot of stuff, you’re a good citizen.

But if you don’t buy a lot of stuff, if you don’t, what are you then I ask you? You’re mentally ill!

Cole is brought before a panel of psychologists at the institution. He explains to them what happened:

Cole

Five billion people died in 1996 and 1997, most of the entire population of the world. Only about 1% of us survived. 

Psychologist

Are you going to save us Mr. Cole?

Cole

How can I save you? This already happened. I can’t save you, nobody can.

It’s 2020. “In a city ravaged by the coronavirus, few places have suffered as much as central Queens, where a seven-square-mile patch of densely packed immigrant enclaves recorded more than 7,000 cases in the first weeks of the outbreak,” reports the New York Times.

At least one person in your apartment building has reported to the co-op board of feeling Covid symptoms and self-isolating here.

You hold the front door open for an elderly woman hauling two overstuffed grocery bags, every inch covered except her eyes which peer from behind thick glasses over a ski mask. “Hold your breath,” she says in her muffled voice as she goes inside. Is she saying that as a general precaution or is she the one with the virus? According to the letter the board put under your door, the person is self-isolating, but how could they enforce that?

You hold your breath until she’s well on her way.

One person you know who works in the food industry said that there’s an estimate going around that 75% of restaurants in the city won’t reopen when this is all over. Here, in the greatest restaurant city in the world. Most of the restaurants are already shuttered for at least the duration. You order Thai food once (not from the place across from the hospital) and it takes 2.5 hours to arrive. Another time you order a pizza and pick it up. Otherwise, you cook your own food, more cooking than you and your wife have ever done in your years together. New Yorkers are famous for eating out, for not knowing how to cook, and why should you when when such an abundance and variety is waiting outside your doors. Was waiting.

Your wife likes cooking. It takes her mind off everything that’s happening.

The board puts up a sign-up sheet for people who want to help those in the building who might need it. You sign up. They send out a message that no one has asked for help yet. No one wants to feel helpless, you guess.

Every night at 7PM the neighborhood erupts in clapping, banging on things, horn blowing, bell ringing, and otherwise making noise. Your daughter loves it, clapping enthusiastically out the window. You’ve read that the first responders in the hospital appreciate it. Still, it feels like just something given for us all to do so we can feel like we’re contributing something, anything at all. After all,“essential workers” (at least outside the hospital) are often less heroes than hostages forced to work in dangerous conditions for very little money or starve.

It’s 1996. Cole has been sent back again. He kidnaps the psychologist who’d been treating him in 1990, Dr. Kathryn Railly (played by the underrated Madeleine Stowe, whose grounded performance does much to help the unfolding insanity work even if she’s inevitably overshadowed by the larger-than-life turns of her costars). He forces her to drive him to Philadelphia where he believes he can find the group behind the virus, the “Army of the 12 Monkeys”.

On the way he repeatedly sticks his head out the window to breathe the air and exults at the music on the radio. 

Cole

Love this music. We don’t have this, we don’t have anything like this.

They listen songs from the 50s and 60s. All the film’s cultural references are similarly dated, with a Marx Brothers movie making an appearance, and an Alfred Hitchcock film. A modern film where someone time traveled to the 90s would ostentatiously remind us of the decade, this one has no need to evoke the year the viewing public would already be in. Instead, by digging into what would be their past, it evokes the nostalgia Cole would be feeling for the world he watched die as a child.

In Philadelphia, they discover that the “Army of the 12 Monkeys” is run by his old fellow patient, Jeffrey Goines, and further that Goines’ father is a world-famous virologist.

Cole subsequently tracks down Goines at his father’s house, but fails to do anything except find out Goines got the idea to kill the world from Cole when they were back in the sanitorium. Cole becomes enraged, attacks Goines, shouts,

Cole

We live underground! The world belongs to the dogs and cats! We live like worms! 

At the edge of his wits throughout the story, Cole finally cracks and decides that Railly was right all along, he is crazy and so he gets to live in the ‘real world’ of 1996 where he can breathe the air and drink the water and doesn’t have to ‘live like worms’ underground. Unfortunately, it’s at this moment that he’s spirited back to 2035.

It’s 2020. Everyone’s obsessed with a TV Show about the godawful people who own private zoos and the godawful things they do to each other. The godawful things they do to the animals gets far less focus, buried under the weight of their collective inhumanity to one another.

A tiger at the Bronx Zoo catches Coronavirus from an infected handler. Fortunately, the case is mild and the animal is expected to make a full recovery.

It’s 1996. After several of Cole’s predictions come true and other circumstantial evidence is uncovered, Dr. Railly becomes convinced that Cole was telling the truth all along and tries desperately to circumvent the apocalypse with what little she knows. Outside the headquarters of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, she finds Cole stumbling towards her. He tells her he’s come to his senses. 1996 is the real world. He played the future scientist delusion like a fiddle and convinced them to send him back one more time, and now he’s ready to get treatment and become healthy again.

Now it’s she who convinces him that the world is ending. They leave one last message for the future, and then decide all they can do is buy disguises and flee to Key West to ride out the coming plague. (Cole has never seen the ocean.)

Jeffrey Goines and the Army of the 12 Monkeys raid the Philadelphia Zoo and release the animals from their cages. Lions, tigers, and bears run riot through the streets. This was their plot all along. All they wanted to do was save the animals. Free them.

“I think we’re gonna make it,” Railly says, laughing as they pass a giraffe in the cab on the way to the airport. She thinks the virus won’t happen after all.

But, of course, the film has a secret villain, a character who appears briefly in all of three scenes. His name is Dr. Peters (played by a perfectly cast David Morse, who oozes with detached psychopathy), an assistant to Goines’ father. I only know his name because I looked it up. Why does he want to release a plague to kill everyone in the world?

He tells us in his longest piece of dialogue, delivered to Dr. Railly while she’s distracted and barely listening.

Dr. Peters

Surely there is very real and very convincing data that the planet cannot survive the excesses of the human race: proliferation of atomic devices, uncontrolled breeding habits, the rape of the environment, the pollution of land, sea, and air. In this context, isn’t it that “Chicken Little” represents the sane vision and that Homo Sapiens’ motto, “Let’s go shopping!” is the cry of the true lunatic?

Proving one man can make a difference

This critique of consumerism jibes with what we heard Goins say in the earlier scene, and it’s easy to conclude that diegetically (in-story) the two characters know each other (certainly possible since the one works for the other’s father), and non-diegetically (in reality) the screenwriters wanted to make sure they got their point across. (And characters having similar ideas actually works in favor of a movie as dreamlike and with as much repeated imagery as this one, where in a more mimetic film it might grate.)

One might complain here that we have the same problem we saw in the Doctor Who episode “Kerblam!” last episode. Indeed, Goines’ speech in the sanatorium or Peters’ speech here might not have sounded odd coming out of the terrorist character from Doctor Who, if that script had had a tenth of the teeth and savvy this one does.

But here’s the key difference: at no point does anyone tell either Goines or Peters that they’re wrong in their philosophies. Certainly, no one wants Peters to murder everyone, but the film takes the correctness of his general criticisms as a given. People tell Goines to calm down. No one tells him the system is not the problem.

Equally, it’s significant that Peters is barely in the film, hardly a character at all. Why is he like this? What’s his backstory? What sets him off? It doesn’t matter because it’s not the point. Peters might as well be a natural disaster, or a systemic threat vast to the point of insolubility. Peters is an oncoming, implacable storm.

It’s 2020. The president hawks untested drugs in which his family has investments at his press briefings like the two-bit snake oil salesman he is. He and his party have so eroded faith in the media that millions of people ignore advice on how to stay safe, call the whole thing a liberal hoax, and pack into churches. And so simple safety advice during a pandemic is transformed into part of a larger culture war, chucked out along with facts and science in general.

Dr. Peters has a coherent philosophy behind his death-dealing, a kind of twisted altruism. Our real-life villain is simply a soulless charlatan who has miraculously ridden a wave of rage and racism into the highest office in the land and proceeded to use it to enrich himself, dismantle oversight and regulation, and punish his enemies while his party refuses even the remotest accountability as long as he fills the courts with their contemptible cohort.

South Korea had its first recorded case on the same day as the United States, and squashed it despite having a super carrier in the form of a cult leader who infected thousands of people (which is a whole insane story in and of itself). Other countries from Australia to Norway managed to get the situation under control relatively quickly and save untold lives. Our federal government on the other hand ignored the problem until it was too late, and even now is confiscating PPE on the way to individual states, handing it over to for-profit businesses, and then making the states bid on it again no matter the state’s actual need. Maryland has taken to literally hiding the Covid tests it’s bought with the National Guard to defend it against the Federal Government.

Writer Ted Chiang says we wouldn’t believe this story if we read it in a book because it’s an “idiot plot” where everyone acts like a fool. I think he’s off the mark. We wouldn’t believe this story if we read it in a book because the antagonists are too one-dimensionally evil, because we wouldn’t believe that the system could be so utterly corrupted, because we wouldn’t be able to believe that it could all go so wrong so easily. 

Trump is one inheritance and an obsession with big cats away from being a character on Tiger King; which is to say, someone without moral scruples and an almost psychotic need for attention. You don’t identify with characters on Tiger King so much as you gape at them in disbelief. Reality consistently makes a less satisfying story, because real people are often horrible and inhuman to one another in a way that the average movie audience would find ‘unsatisfying’.

And yet you write all this, only to discover that a disturbing percentage of people have a positive opinion of the Tiger King subjects–between 30-40% of viewers—with the lowest approval ratings going for the most innocent character, who happens to be a woman. Something which one wry Twitter user notes, is why Trump won.

You can’t even.

It’s 1996. Cole and Railly arrive at the airport and buy plane tickets under assumed names without any ID, and you remember how innocent a time this really was. Railly discovers that Dr. Peters is in the airport, remembers him from the lecture, coincidentally sees in the newspaper a picture of him with Goines’ father (recently tied up in a monkey cage at the zoo by his son), and puts the pieces together. Peters has a bag full of virus samples and he’s on his way on a world tour of death. Symptoms won’t even begin to appear for a week, this incubation period giving the plague ample time to spread among the populace.

A fellow time traveller arrives at the airport to give Cole a gun. “Who am I supposed to shoot?” he asks, just as Railly runs up to tell him the news. On first viewing, you think maybe they might actually stop Dr. Peters and give the whole story a different shape. This is their chance.

If you’ve been paying attention, though, you know this isn’t going to happen. Throughout the film, Cole is haunted by a dream in which a man is gunned down in an airport. But it isn’t a dream; as a child, Cole watched it happen but repressed the whole thing. The man is Cole himself, shot dead by the police while running with his gun towards Dr. Peters.

It took a Google search for me to figure out why the scientists had set him up this way. They needed him to identify Dr. Peters as the culprit. Though couldn’t the fellow time traveller have just waited until he found out and asked him?

But as Cole had said before, this all already happened. He couldn’t change it, he couldn’t escape, he couldn’t save anyone. Dr. Peters doesn’t even notice him.

It’s 2020. In one week, three people commit suicide by throwing themselves in front of the 7 train, which goes through your neighborhood. Economic collapse has a vivid human cost.

While other countries cover 70-80% of laid off workers’ income, we pat ourselves on the back for giving billions to wealthy corporations while giving most people a one-time check equal to a month’s worth of our absurdly low Federal minimum wage, excluding students, the elderly, and many of the disabled. Republican officials and pundits alike tell us that we should reopen the economy as soon as we can even if it means hundreds of thousands of deaths, because not to do so will ‘kill the country’. Astroturfed protestors even storm state capitals demanding the right to get infected. Never before have we seen so clearly that the Right cannot conceive of any system that takes care of people without demanding they work for it, no matter how many lives it costs.

Of course, a percentage of homeless people starving in the street was always considered a viable cost to them, so this position isn’t new, it’s just exposed on a grander scale. The minimum required to survive in this world should be a right, but it isn’t, and so we accept an economic system where farmers are plowing over fresh produce and dumping milk and eggs they can’t sell to restaurants while food banks don’t have enough to provide for the needy, because all that matters is whether one can turn a profit.

The real solution is obvious and simple. Putting aside the fact that the Federal Reserve can literally print money and that it’s unlikely to cause the dreaded hyper-inflation in this particular situation, fantastically few people are still hoarding massive amounts of wealth. The government can simply take this wealth (in the form of taxes) and redistribute it in the form of a UBI [https://qz.com/1355729/universal-basic-income-ubi-costs-far-less-than-you-think/] or whatever [https://www.iftf.org/uba/] and keep people alive. Rich people will be a little poorer, and poor people will survive.

But elements of our society have spent generations convincing poor people to hate other poor people and think anything that smells like socialism is the same as Stalinism. And so Trump keeps poor whites hating immigrants to distract them while he raids the government apparatus for the profit of himself and his friends. This is hardly a new observation, and its age actually makes having to restate it again and again all the more exhausting.

It’s 1996. Dr. Peters gets on a plane to San Francisco with his suitcase full of virus samples, embarking on his voyage of global cleansing. Next to him is a woman you recognize as one of the scientists who sent Cole back in time. They make small talk. She tells him,

Scientist

I’m in insurance.

The film ends. The assumption is that, thanks to Cole’s information, she gets the pure virus sample the scientists have been after so that they can synthesize a cure. Cole did make a difference after all. Yes, the bulk of humanity still dies, but on the other side of unthinkable trauma there’s hope for the future. They can rebuild.

It’s 2020. A pandemic has largely stilled the machinery of capitalism. For a brief, terrifying moment, homo sapiens’ lunaticcry of ‘let’s go shopping’ has been put to bed. The air is clear and clean. Dr. Peters would smile.

Further, the ethos that one must work to survive, even if no work is forthcoming, has been shown a murderous lie. It should now be clear to all that a for-profit health care system is one that considers the poor expendable. We may now be ‘living like worms’ and the streets ‘belong to the dogs and cats’, but we have a unique moment to consider–to demand–that things be different.

There’s a Medium essay going around about how we can build a better world out of this if we only overcome the inevitable gaslighting that the corporate interests will engage in once this is over, to try and convince us that everything can go back to ‘normal’ and that’s okay because ‘normal’ was good.

But ‘normal’ didn’t address the fundamental problem, called out in this movie 25 years ago. Capitalism is still destroying the planet and consuming our lives.

It’s justifiable to ask how much we can realistically hope for. How much we can realistically do. The reigns of power are still held by the most contemptible, and our best hope is a presumed Democratic nominee who promises “nothing will fundamentally change” and thinks he can work with the same Republicans who refused to give an inch to the previous administration (of which he was part).

And while stay-at-home orders have caused the disease to plateau nation-wide, it’s not declining, and experts say it won’t decline without much more aggressive testing and contact tracing which we don’t seem to be ramping up nearly fast enough. Meanwhile, suicidal states are already opening back up, which will only make things so much worse.

You give to charity, for what it’s worth. It’s not like you can lead a revolution, raise your pitchfork high while you drag the billionaires from their mansions and lead them to the guillotines. You’ve got enough to worry about paying the mortgage and keeping your family safe.

And so like Cole, we’re all caught in a system beyond our comprehension, manipulated by forces we cannot understand, barreling towards a future we cannot control. And like Cole we do the best we can with what we’re given, and hope we’re making a bigger difference than we understand in the moment.

And so you’ll put on your mask, and your gloves, and head out to the grocery store.


Sorry this episode is later than usual, it’s longer and was difficult to write.

 I’d like to thank my Patrons Arthur Rosenfield, Jason Quackenbush, IndustrialRobot, and Not Invader Zim. You can become a patron of this show for as little as $1 an episode and help support it at patreon.com/ericrosenfield.

A reminder that this episode is also available as a YouTube video and PodCast episode, and you can get these episodes in your inbox by joining the mailing list.

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Bibliography and Further Reading

Unfortunately, the film 12 Monkeys is not on any streaming service as far as I know, but you can rent and buy digital and physical copies from the usual locations.

There is No Alternative: Doctor Who, “Kerblam!”, and the Specter of Technological Unemployment

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They’re here to steal your jerb

There’s a moment at the climax of the Doctor Who episode “Kerblam!”, where the titular time traveling alien known only as the Doctor confronts a terrorist. This villain seeks to murder hundreds of innocent people in an effort to disgrace and collapse the Kerblam! Corporation, an interstellar Amazon.com analog he blames for rampant unemployment as it’s automated the bulk of its workforce.

“We can’t let the systems take control!” He exclaims.

“The systems aren’t the problem,” the Doctor replies. “How people use and exploit the system, that’s the problem.”

These sentences have been justly seized on as reactionary by segments of the viewing public, including a recent article in the Guardian. In context, if we’re being charitable, the Doctor is specifically referring to the AI itself, consistently referred to as “the system” throughout the episode. Therefore, the idea is that the computer itself is a tool, and it can only be judged by those who wield it. But it’s just another way in which the episode refuses to face or even acknowledge the actual problem it’s trying to grapple with in any real way.

The premise is simple and fairly typical Whovian fare. The Doctor gets a message asking for help from the homeworld of the far-future Kerblam! Corporation. She and her human companions infiltrate the corporation by acquiring jobs, and there they proceed to ferret out the mystery of why employees are turning up dead.

Part of the narrative is how most of the employees have been replaced by robots, and the robots and their AI controller are assumed to be the most likely culprits (fitting in with a long tradition of Who episodes where contemporary technological fears are channeled into tales of murderous androids and megalomaniacal computers). This is, however, a feint and in truth a relatively clever one, where the culprit actually turns out to be the aforementioned terrorist, whose plan is to essentially put a bunch of bombs in boxes Kerblam! is shipping out to cause a backlash that will shut down the corporation which has automated away so many jobs. And the message asking for help was actually sent by the AI itself.

The episode is thus primarily about the oncoming threat of technological unemployment, where technology has rendered the bulk of labor unnecessary. In other words, it’s a ‘ripped from the headlines’ premise in a world where management consulting firm McKinsey & Company predicted that by 2030, one third of all US workers could be unemployed due to automation, and a recent White House report posits that 83% of jobs making less than $20 per hour will be subject to automation and replacement, and between 9% and 47% of jobs may become irrelevant.

And even the human jobs that Kerblam! does have are described as completely unnecessary, dull, repetitive labor only assigned to humans as a sop to laws that require an at least partially human workforce. “Work gives us purpose, right?” Says one of the people thus employed. “Some work, maybe,” accurately replies one of the Doctor’s companions.

The Kerblam! Corporation is shown to be completely unregulated; it’s even responsible for policing itself, leaving no one to call as people are murdered throughout the episode. And while this point isn’t dwelled on, it’s a self-evidently horrifying end result of a corporation being beholden to no one.

The episode, in other words, presents some evidence of knowing what the real problem is: rapacious, unchecked corporate power and dispelling the myth that creating bullshit jobs that no one really wants is a suitable solution to technological unemployment. Except the climax and denouement undermine all of this, where the only person really trying to change the system is portrayed as a terrorist, the system itself declared not a problem, and ultimately the corporate functionaries vowing to solve the problem by filling the company with more humans working bullshit jobs. And so terrorism (even in failure) is the only thing that succeeds at creating material change, but really that material change is hardly anything at all. Which could be seen as a satire of capitalist society, if there were any evidence the episode wanted it to be seen as such.

Missing completely from the equation, after all, are the owners of the company, the executives, board members, and investors, who actually have power over the situation. In all the talk of rampant unemployment in the galaxy, there’s no mention of a wealth gap, of the wealthy at all, simply a “system” nebulously being “used”. The real question hanging over everything is never asked: who’s fault is it that people are starving simply because they don’t have jobs? Why should they need jobs at all when most of the jobs can be automated away? What’s the purpose of forcing your population to starve or work boring, soul-crushing jobs when the jobs are completely unnecessary and there’s enough wealth for everyone to live a fulfilling life if we simply shared it more equally?

And so we arrive at the expression coined by Slavoj Žižek (paraphrasing Fredric Jameson) that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of Capitalism, something proven over and over again by Doctor Who’s depiction of the former and lack of depiction of the latter.

Anarchy in the UK

Terrorism as a response to automation has real-world antecedents. In the early 19th century, English textile factory owners began replacing highly-skilled artisans with mechanized looms that could be run by low-paid laborers. In 1811, the artisans began to respond to the sudden loss of their livelihoods with violence, breaking into factories and smashing looms to pieces. In the manifestos these artisans would subsequently release, they’d credit their movement to one General Ludd, a fictional, Robin Hood-like military leader.

The British government responded by making the destruction of looms a capital offense and sending in the military. Many artisans were gunned down, others hanged, still others merely shipped off to penal colonies in Australia. The back of the movement broken, the textile companies were free to “modernize” their factories and the term “Luddite” came to refer to anyone who hates and fears modern technology.

Missing from the typical version of this narrative is the fact that the Luddites weren’t originally opposed to mechanized looms. Resistance only happened when it became clear that the factory owners were going to replace them with cheap, unskilled labor. And the artisans’ first response was to suggest measures to preserve their quality of life–a minimum wage, guaranteed pensions, and the establishment of safety standards for these dangerous new machines. After all, the owners stood to make more money than ever. Why shouldn’t they share it with the people actually doing the work? This logic might in fact have carried more weight in earlier decades, but the writings of Adam Smith had been recently published, and the minds of the ruling class swam with ideas of the fundamental value of self-interest and the “invisible hand” of the market working to the benefit of all.

While concerns at the time that mechanization would lead to mass unemployment would turn out to be unfounded, as the 19th century wore on the bulk of skilled artisan jobs transitioned into relatively unskilled industrialized wage labor. And with no check on business owners’ exploitation of their employees, the leisurely lifestyle of the artisan (who could dictate their own hours) gave way to a situation where by 1890 a US government study found that laborers across industries worked an average 100 hours a week. And the hazards of factory conditions during this period are the stuff of legend, with workers routinely ending up maimed or dead without any of the modern expectations of workers’ compensation, health care, or life insurance.

This state of affairs wasn’t an accident of industrialized capitalism, it was the obvious end-result of it, where business leaders and their investor co-owners do whatever they can to maximize profit over all other considerations, especially the welfare of labor.

Workers unions and their allies in the Progressive movement battled against this system (often literally as the police, military, and mercenaries were turned against strikers) and ultimately won concessions including the 8-hour-day and the 2-day weekend that we now take for granted. Part of the rational for these measures, taken during the Great Depression, was to reduce unemployment, since businesses would need to hire more people to do the same amount of work. Indeed, there was a tantalizing idea in the minds of Progressives at the time that mechanization could actually free us from work. Economist John Maynard Keynes, for example, famously predicted in 1930 that people would soon work 15-hour weeks with no loss of pay. By the middle of the 20th century, taxes on the wealthy had gone up dramatically, social security had been created, and things had greatly improved for most Americans in economic terms. That all shifted with the resurgance of laissez-faire free market ideals in the form of Neoliberalism beginning in the late 70s, where tax cuts and large-scale deregulation gave the wealthy the means to begin the process of destroying the hard-won middle class.

As a result of this Neoliberal agenda, today the wealthy have taken all the gains in productivity and labor efficiency that automation and computerization have allowed and hoarded it all for themselves, leaving 78% of Americans living paycheck-to-paycheck and 61% of Americans unable to cover a $1,000 emergency and having to turn to GoFundMe to cover their medical expenses. And this is all felt more keenly in the time of a pandemic.

Keynes and his cohort would have seen the modern rise of technological unemployment as an opportunity rather than a crisis, where we as a society could reduce the number of hours people have to work just as progressives did during the Great Depression, or even do away with work as a prerequisite to survive altogether using strategies like Universal Basic Income or better yet Universal Basic Assets or some other scheme funded through expanded progressive taxation of the wealthy few who can afford it better than ever.

But conservatives, as alluded to in the Doctor Who episode, would have it that humans need work to give us purpose. However, spending the bulk of your life in the soul crushing tedium of a position that could just as easily be performed by a robot doesn’t sound like much of a purpose, especially while the children of the rich have unlimited opportunities to make their life however they please simply by virtue of their birth.

In a world where the middle classes have been gutted while the burgeoning lower classes find themselves at the sword point of the aforementioned rise of technological unemployment, “Kerblam!” represents a situation where the house is on fire and someone just wrote a parable where the villain wants to blow up the house with everyone in it to put the fire out and in the end the heroes resolve to stay cool by drinking more ice water.

And yet, for so many, this seems to be the limits of their imagination, not just for this problem but all the major problems our society is currently facing. It’s apiece with telling those concerned about Global Warming to drive electric cars and recycle more. The problem isn’t the system, after all. It can’t be the system. I mean, there’s nothing better than the system. As Margaret Thatcher would have it, there’s simply no alternative.

And so there’s nothing left for us but to be thankful we have jobs at all while the world around us burns.

# # # # #

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed it, please tell people about Literate Machine. Word-of-Mouth is how things like this grow. Everyone stay safe and don’t forget to wash your hands!

Bibliography and Further Reading

A Mind Forever Voyaging into Neoliberalism: Steve Meretzky and the Video Game That Saw It All Coming

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“Wake Up Inside Your Favorite Novel”

— Infocom Marketing Tag Line

The first election I remember is the presidential election of 1984. I was 6 years old, and the results came as a shock; my parents and, it seemed, every adult I knew voted for Democratic nominee Walter Mondale and yet Reagan took the prize in a historic landslide. For the first time I glimpsed the chasm between my small corner of the world and the rest of the country. Mondale won only a single state–Minnesota–unthinkable today in the era of “red” states and “blue” states. Indeed, 1984 was the last time a Republican candidate would win New York. (The last time a Democrat won Texas was Carter in 1976.)

The same year, my family bought our very first computer, an Apple //e. It had a screen resolution of 140×192 pixels in glorious 16 colors, had two 5½” floppy disk drives, no hard drive at all, and 64k of RAM which we upgraded to 128k and thought we were pretty hot. And it ran my favorite genre of games: text adventures.

Explaining text adventure games nowadays often results in confused looks. They’re computer games with no graphics. In text, the game describes where your character is in second person, and you navigate the game by typing simple commands, eg. ‘go north’, or ‘take lamp’, or ‘kill ogre with sword’ and so on. In the early-to-mid 80s, text adventure games were produced by dozens of companies and represented some of the best sellers in the young medium.

To understand this, you have to understand that the primary way of interacting with computers at the time was the command line–a place where you would type commands to the computer and get responses. While graphical interfaces and mice first hit the mainstream in (coincidentally) 1984 with the introduction of the original Macintosh (though less successful products predated it, including the Xerox Star and the Apple Lisa), the concept didn’t become ubiquitous until eleven years later with the release of Windows 95.

So in a world where you already typed instructions into your computer, there’s something magical about the idea of typing instructions to a fictional character instead–at least there was to me as a child–as if the computer is a direct portal into another world, and specifically to the world inside of a book. When you’re a bookish, socially awkward kid, there might be nothing more appealing.

My favorite text adventure games were written and designed by Steve Meretzky, who watched the same election of 1984 with apprehension and horror, unsure how to process so many people getting things so very wrong. And so, he did the only thing he felt he could; he took his frustration and poured it into his chosen medium. Into a game.

Legendarily, Meretzky had once hated computers. During his time at MIT studying construction management, he’d refused to even touch one. (This was a time when you could get a degree at MIT without touching a computer.) And yet he became chummy with the fellows in the school’s famed computer lab, who frequently cooked up games for fun in their spare time. Ultimately, a bunch of guys (they were all guys) from the lab left the school to start one of the first software companies, Infocom, with their first product a fantasy text adventure called Zork. Meretzky’s roommate after graduation happened to work as the company’s only beta tester [Edit: After reaching out to Meretzky, he wrote to correct me that Meretzky’s roommate was a tester, not a beta tester, who were outside players they brought in for testing later], and he brought the game home one day to show it off. Meretzky made a show of refusing to, but over time the roommate starting noticing that the keyboard or items on his desk had moved slightly. Finally, Meretzky copped to secretly playing the game and asked for a hint.

Zork became a genre-defining smash hit on release in 1980, and Meretzky would go on to become the second beta tester at Infocom. Soon enough he graduated into creating his own game, Planetfall (1983), about a luckless space janitor and his robot pal wandering an eerie, ruined world.

Planetfall took off, which lead to his next hit game Sorcerer (1984), and then the plum job of creating the official adaptation of Douglas Adams’ bestselling book series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1984). This became the company’s best-selling title after Zork (Adams himself was a text adventure fan, and worked with Meretzky on it). And so by the time Meretzky came to his employers with the idea to do a political game as a response to Reagan’s Neoliberal policies, the company let him do what he wanted.

The game he finally produced, A Mind Forever Voyaging (1985), wouldn’t be anything like what he’d done before. Or really like anything anyone had ever created before. It invented a new genre of gameplay that would later be called an “environmental narrative game”, or more critically, a “walking simulator”. A typical text-adventure involves the player character encountering puzzles to be solved–a sheet that must be ripped and tied to make a rope to tie to a railing to climb down out of a window to escape a room, that sort of thing. For most of its run-time AMFV does away with this artifice. Instead, what you’re doing is recording a world over the course of several decades as it steadily goes mad all around you.

The year is 2031. A charismatic right-wing Senator-cum-presidential candidate is pushing through a plan that will radically remake the economy of the Country. The Plan for Renewed National Purpose (anticipatory shades of “Make America Great Again”) is a raft of proposals reminiscent of those that spill out of right wing think tanks past and present: Cut taxes in half, cut regulations, decentralize the government while increasing the power of the (right wing) president, end licensing for guns (and cars!), radically increase border security, ramp up policing and prison sentences, plus mandatory conscription for criminals and “troublemakers” (while this last isn’t something that’s come true, it does have a resemblance to the current situation where prisoners are effectively used as slave labor).

You play PRISM aka Perry Simm, an artificial intelligence raised in a precise simulation of a fictional town in South Dakota. Your job is to visit versions of your home town under this plan at intervals of 10, 20, 30, 40, and 50 years in order to see how things are going and deliver a recommendation to congress. To gather evidence, you record yourself doing ordinary things like going to a restaurant or movie, talking with a priest or a city official, riding public transit, reading a newspaper, and most notably visiting your simulated wife and child in your middle-class apartment. Much of the joy of the game is in wandering the massive town, soaking in the details, and experiencing how the various locations change across time.

The game is not subtle.

10 years on and everything seems to be working. The streets are clean, violent crime is down, construction is booming and there’s plans for a lunar mining operation. Wife and child are happy and healthy.

However, as the years progress, things deteriorate rapidly. Forests are replaced by strip mining. Police casually raid apartments and dorm rooms looking for any evidence of crime. An extreme religious order rises in power (beginning by occupying public land, similar to what would happen with Ammon Bundy’s group in 2016). Public transit closes down for lack of funding. The death penalty is increasingly used until the local sports stadium develops into a place to watch first public executions and then criminal-vs-robot or -wild-animal gladiator matches. The government is subsumed by the religious fundamentalists who put all non-believers in camps (a particularly climactic moment takes place when your grown son has your wife taken away for thought-crime). And finally, 50 years on, civilization has collapsed entirely and marauding groups of survivors wander the ruins attacking anyone they come across. In the end, back in the real world, you play the only puzzle-focused act of the game where you have to stop the Senator from shutting you down and burying your report through your control of the automated systems of the building that houses you.

If the notion that Reaganite policies would lead to an apocalyptic collapse seemed a touch hysterical in the 80s, it feels distinctly less so now. Imagine, if you will, the same premise applied to our world as it actually unfolded from the year of the game’s original release.

It’s 1985. By some Weird Science-style 80s technological magic, an AI is able to enter perfectly accurate simulations of the future.

In 1995, things seem to be going rather well. The Cold War is over, the stock market is booming, unemployment is low, cities are cleaning up, and America is in an unprecedented state of peace. Plus, there’s this thing called the Internet that sure seems promising! Tax cuts made during the Reagan administration (and are still in place) don’t seem to have harmed much, and the president is even paying off the budget deficit for the first time since 1969. Sure income inequality is starting to rise. And sure, there are draconian prison sentences for minor drug crimes and the prison population as a result is expanding to never-before seen levels, but crime is on the downswing nationwide so who’s complaining? And scientists are talking about something called “global warming” but who’s got time to think about that now?

Now it’s 2005. An attack on the US has led to two Middle Eastern wars. Muslims are blamed and persecuted. A president who won without the popular vote has put Christian fundamentalists in the highest positions of power and they’re promoting policies that further persecute the LGBTQ community. Teen pregnancy spikes drastically under abstinence-only education. The prison population has become the second highest per capita after Russia. While the economy is recovering from the bursting of the dot-com bubble and the decline that followed the 2001 attack, the government responds by passing historic tax cuts for the wealthy. A regular pattern of mass shootings has started with two high school students in 1999, and the NRA-backed congress and president refuse to even talk about gun control. A major American city drowns in a hurricane caused by the slow-motion climate disaster in progress, and the government’s laughable response to it causes a humanitarian disaster.

It’s 2015. There’s a black president (hooray). The economy is recovering from the biggest crash since the great depression, and while things have picked up thanks to a stimulus program, the banks responsible are bailed out with taxpayer dollars and no one has been prosecuted for the vast network of fraud that lead to the crash. Meanwhile, a Supreme Court case has functionally eliminated all campaign finance restrictions leading to what amounts to open bribery of elected officials. And in response to the Democratic White House, a billionaire funded quote-unquote “grass roots” movement has taken over large swaths of Congress who literally shut down the government on a regular basis in order to put through what amounts to an anti-agenda–a movement to transform the legislative branch into a body that does nothing except lower taxes and blocks liberal judges (and rubber-stamps conservative ones). The prison population in the US is now the highest per capita in the world. The changing climate causes more cities (and countries) to be hit with monstrous hurricanes, and large stretches of California routinely catch fire forcing mass evacuations. Horrific shootings break out continually, schools across the country have regular shooting drills, and elected officials offer only their thoughts and prayers. The Democratic president deports more immigrants than any president in history, and no one talks about it because it doesn’t fit the narrative. America is continually at war with no end in sight, a never-ending conflict like something out of the novel 1984. (Note that this was written before the recently announced peace deal with the Taliban, about which I could say a lot. But for now let’s just be cautiously skeptical considering that US forces are still in Iraq more than eight years after that war officially ended, and more than two months after the Iraqi government officially asked us to leave and we summarily refused.)

Of course, worse is on the horizon in 2017 and beyond, the con man in the white house and babies in cages and everything else. The progression may not be nearly as cut and dry as the one in the game, and you might not be able to divine all of it by walking around a random city and reading the latest newspaper. But taken in slices, the pattern clarifies.

In an interview from 2012, Meretzky saw much of the Bush administration in his game, but felt hopeful about Obama. “There’s different issues I’d focus on today, compared to 1985,” he says and mentions gun violence and the anti-science denial of evolution and climate change. Still, “the Republican Party feels exactly the same as the Republican Party of 1985, only even more so.” The understatement of the decade. Even Reagan (who backed things like a path for citizenship for undocumented immigrants and gun control) would be considered too far left for the party of Trump.

AMFV did not sell well, and Meretzky moved back to more commercial fare. In any case, computer graphics improved rapidly over the 1980s and text adventures, which had once seemed the burgeoning of a new literary medium, came to look like simply a fad. In 1989 Infocom, the standard bearer of the genre, shut down entirely.

In those days before the Internet gave us news at the touch of our fingers, I didn’t find out about the shuttering of Infocom until I asked a sales clerk a local software store (remember those?) when the next game would be coming out. Some time before I’d received the final installment of the official Infocom newsletter, The Status Line, but that had promised a new full-color magazine to replace it called ZQ which never materialized.

This came as a blow to someone who’s dreamed of growing up to write text-adventure games, of the futuristic-seeming promise of the interactive novel. After Infocom’s demise, a former Infocomer founded Legend Entertainment and put out new text adventure games (with accompanying graphics) for a few years, including a cringingly bawdy series of sex comedies about wizard school by Meretzky himself. But this was a last gasp, and soon the era of text adventure as a commercial proposition was over. In its place, an enthusiast community rose up, creating and passing around games for each other’s enjoyment. In that way this situation could be compared to other art forms with enthusiastic creators and little commercial viability, like poetry, but without that form’s institutional and cultural support (there aren’t many professors of text adventure games or grants for their creation).

Meretzky himself moved on to a noted career in casual games and now serves as the vice president of game design at King, the makers of Candy Crush. While this strikes me as a sweet gig, it’s not exactly one that allows for much political commentary or science fictional extrapolation.

AMFV stands as a lonely reminder of what we lost when we embraced Reagan-era Neoliberalism and began down the path to the present, with Meretzky as a Cassandra who saw the problem clearly decades before most people did.

And so rather than waking up inside our favorite novel, as per the old Infocom tagline, we’ve all woken up inside my favorite game.

Heaven help us.

Bibliography and Further Reading

I could not have written this piece without the website The Digital Antiquarian and its many excellent articles about Infocom and Interactive Fiction by Jimmy Maher

See in particular his series of posts on A Mind Forever Voyaging, beginning with this article.

This post also draws on Jason Scott’s documentary about text adventure games, Get Lamp, more information about which can be found at the official website.

See also “A Mind Forever Voyaging – Interview with Steve Meretzky”EUROGAMER.de, 2013

If you’d like to play A Mind Forever Voyaging for yourself, you can play it online, or you can legally download the game file on Github (click on “COMPILED”) which can be played with numerous interpreters that can be found cataloged on the Inform Fiction website.

If you’re going to play the game, you should also check out the supplementary materials that came with it for the full experience including much about the backstory and world.

For this piece I played the game again on my Mac using the interpreter Gargoyle.

Vintage Season: C. L. Moore and the “Golden Age” of Science Fiction

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“All golden ages look like bronze from the inside.”
– Barry Malzberg, Breakfast in the Ruins 

‘Snatched from university’ by the Great Depression, as she would later put it, Catherine Moore switched to vocational school and landed a job as a secretary at a bank in the early 1930s. Every spare moment she would practice her typing, tapping out random sentences to improve her speed and facility. Soon, to pass the time, she began to work on a weird space Western called “Shambleau” in the mode of her favorite magazine, Weird Tales. Once she finished, she sent it off to the magazine–why not?–thinking if it got rejected she’d go on to other things.

The editor of Weird Tales bought the story on the spot for the then-impressive sum of $100 and, according to legend, shut down the offices for the rest of the day to savor it.

The story appeared in the November 1933 issue under the name C. L. Moore, which Catherine claimed was not to disguise her gender but simply to hide what she was doing from her employer. Still, all the pseudonyms Moore would later use would be male, and female authors hiding behind male pseudonyms was a common practice at the time.

Reading “Shambleau” nowadays, we might cringe at the racially tinged title character, a brown-skinned cat girl hunted by a lynch mob along the canals of Mars, concealing a nest of Medusan serpents beneath a red leather turban–a seductive, persecuted Other revealed in the end to be truly monstrous. None of this was an issue in 1933, though, and its style, novelty, and sensuality caused a sensation and immediately established Moore’s career. “It is probably impossible to explain to modern readers how great an impact that first C. L. Moore story had,” editor Lester Del Ray would write in 1976. “Science fiction has learned a great deal from her many examples. But if you could go back to the old science-fiction magazines of the time and read a few issues, and then turn to ‘Shambleau’ for the first time, you might begin to understand.”

Moore soon quit her job and began churning out stories full time for the pulp magazines–so named because of their cheap paper stock. And “churning out” is an apt term. The same Great Depression that had reoriented Moore’s life had created a down-and-out public with a seemingly limitless demand for cheap entertainment. In this age before television, with paperback books as we know them not yet invented (they first started appearing in 1935 and didn’t reach their full maturity until the 1950s), the pulps boomed, brimming with thrill-a-minute, scintillating tales, and selling in the millions of copies. The money flowing into the publishers’ coffers didn’t precisely trickle down, however. The Depression had created demand, but it’d also provided supply, with every unemployed, would-be writer having plenty of time for the typewriter. Publishers paid on a work-for-hire, per-word basis– writers got a flat fee and no royalties or rights to speak of no matter how well that work sold or into what mediums it was adapted. This created an unusual situation, where low rates but high demand meant that to make a living a writer simply had to pump out as much material as they could as quickly as possible. The result was writers in the mold of Lester Dent or A. E. Van Vogt who routinely produced 200,000 words (about 700 pages) a month. 

Often, as not uncommon at the time, Moore would write so many stories in a given month that she’d use pseudonyms for many of them so that they could appear in the same issue of a magazine.

In 1936, a young writer sent Moore a fan letter thinking she was a man. His name was Henry Kuttner, and he made ends meet while he developed his writing career with a low level job at a literary agency. (While there he incidentally discovered Leigh Brackett’s work in the slush pile, one of the few woman SF writers to publish under her own full first and last name at the time, and launched her acclaimed career.)

Moore and Kuttner began a romance and married in 1940, commencing a unique writing partnership where they collaborated on almost every story. The two worked so seamlessly that often neither could remember who wrote which part of a given piece, one making way for the other at the typewriter often mid-paragraph or even mid-sentence.

And by this time, the markets were changing. The generation who’d grown up on pulp fiction was aging out of the kind of cheap thrills they’d specialized in, while the younger generation increasingly turned to comic books, just now hitting its stride as a medium and taking all the air out of the pulps of yesteryear. Weird Tales, the magazine that had launched both Moore and Kuttner’s careers, entered a long decline.

In response to these changing tastes, when editor John W. Campbell took over the pulp Astounding Tales, he soon changed its name to Astounding Science Fiction and began aiming its contents at an older, more sophisticated audience. Campbell wanted to create something that felt like a contemporary fiction magazine of the future, with stories that didn’t require lengthy explanations of technology and would instead foreground human behavior. (This is first of many times the paraliterature of science fiction would reinvent itself in an effort to gain adult respectability.) For this work, Campbell was willing to pay higher rates than many of his competitors.

Moore and Kuttner became part of Campbell’s core stable, and this involvement increased from 1942 when many other writers headed off to war (including Campbell’s star, Robert Heinlein). The paper shortages of the war took a heavy toll on the pulps, but Astounding soldiered on. Many of Moore and Kuttner’s best stories stem from this period, at the height of their demand in Campbell’s (still freelance, work-for-hire) employ. 

In 1943, Moore and Kuttner published “Mimsy Were The Borogoves” under the name Lewis Padgett, perhaps their most frequently anthologized tale (and one adapted in 2007 into the film The Last Mimzy). In this story, two children discover a box of toys sent back from the far future, and it slowly begins transforming their understanding of reality much to the confusion and consternation of their parents. This proves an excellent example of the period’s movement away from page-turning plots into something more cerebral and emotional, and it anticipates some of the later work from Kuttner’s protégé Ray Bradbury like “Zero Hour” (1947) and “The Veldt” (1954) where children’s open and frankly alien minds allow them to understand things adults never could.

In 1946, Moore wrote (mostly without her husband) what is arguably her masterpiece, “Vintage Season”, published in Astounding under the pseudonym Lawrence O’Donnell. It concerns a group of time traveling tourists who voyage back to the idyllic past of 1946-or-thereabouts to witness an apocalyptic event. The protagonist is a young man of the present who can’t understand why these odd people are so interested in his run-down house, not knowing it will have the best view of the coming pandemonium.

As the 1940s neared its end, the war was over, the atom bomb existed, and America had changed on a fundamental level. Science fiction grew darker, thick with visions of nuclear annihilations. In 1948, Moore and Kuttner, getting older and perhaps wearying of the word rates necessary to continue supporting themselves writing, went back to school for English degrees so they could supplement their income teaching.

Anyway, things weren’t so rosy at their primary market, Astounding. Campbell, once a paragon the scientifically plausible, had become enamored of pseudoscience like telepathy and psychic powers, buying more and more stories featuring them, while his personal and political views–idiosyncratic, right wing, and outright racist—became ever more apparent. Finally in 1949, Campbell edited and published the first appearance of his friend L. Ron Hubbard’s book Dianetics in the pages of his magazine, becoming an outspoken convert to the system that would evolve into Scientology. Writers of any credibility scattered from his pages. Campbell, for his part, descended ever further into reactionary thought, to the point where in 1965, in response to the Watts riots, he suggested that black people were happier as slaves, and in 1970 he implied that the student protester victims of the Kent State Massacre had it coming. Famously, he also rejected a story by Samuel R. Delany with an explanation that his audience didn’t want a story with a black protagonist.

But back in 1950, a new boom was about to begin. Paperback publishers finally seized upon science fiction and writers found they could score good deals and actual royalties. New magazines started to proliferate along with now trendy (if typically shlocky) sci-fi movies, and venues like The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy stepped into the position of primacy vacated by Astounding. Pay rates rose and folks like Heinlein and Bradbury broke into mainstream magazines like The Saturday Evening Post which paid very well indeed. Everything seemed on the up-and-up until, perhaps inevitably, the boom became a glut and ultimately bust.

In 1954, numerous magazines shut down as the oversaturated market spread the audience thinner than it could sustain, including Moore and Kuttner’s original mainstay Weird Tales

Bad turned to worse in 1955 when the largest distributor in the country, the American News Company, had a major strike. More than half of all magazines in the US at the time were sold through the ANC, as well as 25-35% of popular books, and it also owned a system of newsstands that made it the largest magazine retailer in the world. And so, while the company refused to settle with the strikers, boxes of stock sat in warehouses for months or got returned entirely unsold to their publishers, crippling any magazine or book publisher without the resources to weather the storm.

In 1957, capitalist machinations delivered what would prove to be the killing blow for much of the industry. An opportunist investor realized that the American News Company’s commercial holdings were undervalued, bought the whole thing for a song, sold off its properties at a huge profit, and liquidated the company. The result of the sudden disappearance of the country’s largest distributor and retailer was a massive contraction and dieback in magazine and book publishing. 

Just as in the late thirties Moore and Kuttner had shifted from weird fiction to science fiction, by 1956 they’d seen the way the wind was blowing and primarily moved to writing detective and mystery novels while making overtures towards television, where in addition to a steady salary they might even be able to get health care.

The 50s was the decade where television had finally transformed from a new curiosity into a mass medium, and had also served to take attention and dollars away from written fiction. In 1950, just 9% of US households had television sets; by 1955 it was 65%; and by 1960 fully 87% of US households owned one.

In 1958, Moore and Kuttner finally received their first television script assignment. On the cusp of the next chapter of their writing careers, Henry Kuttner died of a stroke in his sleep at the age of 44.

A month earlier, SF writer Cyril Kornbluth had died of a heart attack at the age of 34, and there was a palpable feeling among their fellows in the trenches that these men had died from the constant need to produce in the pay-per-word mills, especially through the long crunch of the mid-to-late 50s. “I was only twenty-three, then,” writer Robert Silverberg would say later, “but I somehow realized right away that these two men had literally died from writing science fiction and I was afraid that I was going to die too. I had some bad months.”

More writers would fall away over the next few years; Mark Clifton dead of a heart attack in 1963 at 57, H. Beam Piper a suicide in 1960 at 60. Still others quit prose fiction altogether. Isaac Asimov, for example, turned to cranking out nonfiction books at his customary breakneck pace and wouldn’t come back to fiction until the ’70s. Leigh Brackett took up a noted film career, including scripts for Rio Bravo (1958), The Long Goodbye (1973), and The Empire Strikes Back (1980), among many others.

Moore for her part completed the transition to television, writing for Maverick, Sugarfoot, 77 Sunset Strip, and other shows under the name Catherine Kuttner. But in 1963 she remarried a physician and quit writing altogether.

It’d be easy to speculate that her new husband didn’t want his wife writing, but she herself said in a later interview, “Since I don’t have to write for a living anymore, I just don’t have the motivation to resume writing, although I wish I did.” There’s a sense in this sentence that the pressures of commercial fiction had sucked out whatever passion Moore had once had for writing–all that giddy glee in which she’d typed out that first story for fun back in 1933–transforming it into just another job. And when the need for that job evaporated so did the desire to do it.

In 1981, Moore received both the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement and the Gandalf Grand Master Award at the World Fantasy Convention. Later in her life (I haven’t been able to determine the exact year) she was nominated for the Science Fiction Writer’s Association Grand Master Award as well, but her nomination was withdrawn at her husband’s request because her Alzheimer’s had progressed too far for her to be able to attend the ceremony.

Catherine Moore passed away from complications with Alzheimer’s in 1987 at the age of 76.

When the “Golden Age of Science Fiction” occurred is still a matter of debate. People tend to mark the beginning at 1937 when Campbell took the reigns of Astounding and began the movement away from thrill-a-minute pulp yarns to more modern science fiction. The ending is sometimes marked at 1942, when so many writers went to war and magazines closed because of paper shortages; sometimes it goes to 1946, 1949, or all the way to 1953. Others have argued (notably Robert Silverberg) that the boom from 1950-1953 was the real golden age, and produced some of the most notable works of the era.

Sometimes you can catch modern writers pine for the days when you could throw a manuscript over an editor’s transom for them to find in the morning, when a short story could pay your month’s rent or make your career, and when demand was such that writers rarely got rejected or even had to rewrite their work. However, Catherine Moore is a useful lens to look at how, for the creators on the ground, the period was marked by rapacious exploitation at low wages, zero benefits, no job security, and ruinous market volatility. Writers were notorious for living hand-to-mouth and only a handful of big names like Heinlein managed to successfully escape the treadmill.

If that sounds familiar in this age of the ‘gig economy’, know that the way our economic system is structured isn’t accidental. Creators exist at the mercy of capital. Still, you never know what you’ll find on the other side of the apocalypse from the latest vintage season.


If you enjoyed this please consider telling your friends (word of mouth is everything) and contributing to my Patreon.

Special thanks to the eminent Dr. Gary K. Wolfe for his assistance in researching this piece

Bibliography and Further Reading

  • Breakfast in the Ruins by Barry Malzberg
  • The Time Machines: The Story of the Science Fiction Pulp Magazines from the Beginning to 1950 by Mike Ashley (2001)
  • Transformations: The Story of the Science Fiction Magazines from 1950 to 1970 by Mike Ashley (2005)
  • “Science Fiction in the Fifties: The Real Golden Age” by Robert Silverberg (2010)
  • The Best of C. L. Moore by C. L. Moore, introduction by Lester Del Ray (1975)
  • The Best of Henry Kuttner by Henry Kuttner, introduction by Ray Bradbury (1975)
  • “Interview with C. L. Moore”, 1979
  • “Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore, Lewis Padgett et al” by James Gunn, collected in Voices for the Future edited by Thomas D. Clareson (1976)
  • Magazines in the Twentieth Century by Theodore Peterson (1956)
  • The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, edited by John Clute, David Langford, Peter Nicholls, and Graham Sleight (2019)
  • Statistics on Television ownership in the US in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, The Buffalo History Museum website