What about how? What the sci-fi novels all miss

I have not read much science fiction. But the sci-fi books I have read usually fall into the “post-apocalypse” variety, such as The Road, Earth Abides, Parable of the Sower, World Made by Hand, and most recently, The Handmaid’s Tale. I read these stories out of my interest in what is likely to happen in the next few decades.

We are entering a New Great Transformation of the relationship of humanity to the complex of living adaptive systems (ecosystems) that some call Gaia – a sort of organism of organisms. The exponential growth of the global technosphere has forced that transformation and we must face its consequences.

Varieties of Dystopia

Some of the post-apocalypse stories are quite fascinating and imaginative. They all explore in one way or another what happens when individuals or small groups encounter an entirely new situation in which widespread devastation has become the “new normal.” They raise all sorts of human dilemmas, from simple survival and threats from others to the forging of new social relationships when the old institutions and infrastructure of the society they had known are gone.

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Dystopia Maybe?

In every case, at least in the books I have read, the apocalyptic event(s) that caused the post-apocalyptic condition remains shrouded in mystery. Alluded to in various ways and extent, what actually happened is not very clear.

In The Road, for example, a father and son travel away from the center of devastation in search of some safe new place, scavenging as they go. We get the impression that some major act of destruction such as an intercontinental nuclear exchange wiped out most of civilization on the East Coast of the U.S.A. But we are given no specific information about the event.

In Parable of the Sower, we follow a young woman leading a small group north out of Los Angeles and the chaos of marauding gangs of bandits, violent neighborhoods, and unsafe gated communities, all of which are under siege in one way or another. Yet we never learn what caused that urban dystopia. It might have been a single catastrophic event or a gradual collapse of society; we are not told.

Earth Abides, highly acclaimed when first published in 1949, is a bit different. A young man comes back to the San Francisco Bay area from a personal retreat in a mountain cabin to find that nobody remains alive; a pandemic has hit the world and apparently killed everyone except him. He had accidentally become immunized to the disease by a snake bite from which he almost died. Eventually he finds a few other survivors and they confront a world as it was but without people. The story is a classic well-told adventure of coping. In this case, the cause was quite simple, if not fully explained.

In World Made by Hand, a New England village struggles in a dystopian condition in which many factors of human conflicts and political disorganization play a role. As competing groups vie for power where most modern technology was somehow lost or destroyed, we never find out what caused that condition or what could have prevented it as the characters struggle to shape a new local-regional political order. The conflicts in World Made by Hand has some of the flavor of an old western movie.

The most interesting question (for me at least) is, how would a transition to a post-apocalyptic world happen? The New Great Transformation of the world as we know it, which we have begun to experience today, involves the destabilization of ecosystems and climate our industrial economy has caused. The environmental chaos, now well on its way, has already begun to trigger economic, political, military, and social breakdowns of increasing intensity, all likely to interact and even reinforce each other.

The New Great Transformation and the Peril Ahead

The popular classics of the genre of dystopian novels all contain a combination of some of the following: a totalitarian or theocratic state, censorship, surveillance, erasure of history, anti-intellectualism, consumption and entertainment as escapism, extreme inequality, and destruction of individuality and aesthetics. Read 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, even Hunger Games or Lord of the Flies, and you will see. Wait a minute, that list of dystopian characteristics sounds a bit too familiar…

Each post-apocalyptic novel I have read describes a different world than the others, but with often overlapping issues of human survival under extreme collapse of civilization and ensuing chaos or the rise of a totalitarian state. Some say science fiction is really about the present, but with imaginary advances in technology and totalitarianism.

Each post-apocalyptic novel I have read describes a different world than the others, but with often overlapping issues of human survival under extreme collapse of civilization and ensuing chaos. However, it seems to me that the most important and interesting question of the human condition today has to do with two things: 1) whether and to what extent people will finally realize that the world we have created is becoming un-survivable, and 2) what we will do about it.

Can we abandon our illusions of progress through corporate economic growth immediately in favor of a new creatively realistic response to the converging crises we face? Governments and corporations are the problem; they do not have the solutions. So is the industrial-consumer culture we have embraced. It is now up to people to counter the apocalyptic trend where we live. Our problem is not how to cope with an existing dystopia, but how to prevent the New Great Transformation from becoming one. That will require a great deal of hopeful realism.

Reform is not Enough

The violence continues. It seems pervasive. The list is long and diverse. Cops shoot unarmed Black men in every major American city. A lone deranged Air Force veteran kills five Dallas police officers. A disturbed marine Iraq-returnee assassinates three more in Baton Rouge. Suicide bombers turn Brussels, Paris, and Bagdad upside down. A wife-beating suicide truck driver runs over and kills at least eighty-four people leaving scores more injured on Bastille Day in Nice. Fear spreads wildly. No limits, no recourse, no solution. But what is the nature of all this? What is the common thread, or is there one?

Sociology in the West began in the conservative lament over the dissolution of traditional societal relations and the growing instability of institutions in the nineteenth century. Concepts like anomie and alienation became important explanations of “deviant” behavior. “Social problems” dominated the thinking of the American sociology that emerged somewhat later than its earlier beginnings in Europe, as the U.S. industrialized.

Some attribute the earliest sociological writing to Ibn Khaldun, the North African Muslim historiographer who chronicled forms of empire and conflict in fourteenth century Arab societies. Khaldun’s theories explored transitions from sedentary life to nomadic life, and processes of social conflict, social cohesion, and group solidarity (“tribalism”). They were early precursors to modern perspectives on social organization and social change. Modern sociological understandings of these concepts now seem little improved over those of Khaldun. Do sociologists understand today’s global social chaos? Does anyone?

Today, new forms of change further disrupt social cohesion and even arouse new forms of alienated tribalism and violence. Violent reactions to the instabilities of the faltering global industrial economy are as diverse as they are extreme. The dominant endless-growth model of economics destabilizes all other forms of society (family, community, cities, towns, villages) in the ubiquitous corporate pursuit of economic profit and political power. Violence frequently accompanies social destabilization and transformation.

Economic “Progress” and the Destabilization of Everything

Social change has accelerated since the Middle Ages. The Industrial Revolution and its application of the energy of fossil fuels to economic production processes brought on even more rapid change. The traditional “commons” shared for village-scale farming were “enclosed” by powerful landlords to facilitate the earliest forms of industrial agriculture. Confiscation of resources, whether land or the prizes beneath it, has been the underlying theme of economic growth in the petro-industrial era. Dislocation, impoverishment, and migration inevitably accompany dispossession. What has changed? Everything and nothing.

The American westward expansion had a similar, though perhaps more deadly, effect on the native population as did the enclosures in Scotland, England, and Ireland. Settlers confiscated tribal lands across the Great Plains and westward for ranching and farming to feed the growing population in the former colonies to the east. Many of those “pioneers” descended from those European refugees – peasants who had been forced into cities where conditions of labor were deadly, and who paid dearly for the Atlantic crossing.

The American Revolution was never quite completed. The English mercantile class that controlled economy and polity in the British colonies in America never lost its power. It  gradually morphed into the financial and corporate elites that dominate the U.S. politics and economy today. A decline of the middle class and the explosive growth of poverty in America accompanied the resulting concentration of wealth. Post-slavery urbanization, followed by outsourcing of manufacturing and loss of well-paid jobs, impoverished the urban working class. Responses to urban poverty gradually morphed into mass incarceration as the War on Drugs. Its incentives to oppress established The New Jim Crow in U.S. cities where Black folks are as isolated from economic opportunity as ever.[1]

The colonial nations of Europe dominated the world even after their colonies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America achieved formal independence. The American case was unique in that its independence and abundant resources allowed it to become the dominant power of empire in the post-colonial world. The difference between colonialism and empire has been mostly a matter of the form of domination and the means to achieve it. Economic domination replaced political supervision.

The deployment of new technologies of fossil fuel driven industrial and military might assured the U.S. position as the most powerful nation in the world. Before seeking greater resources abroad, the U.S. extractive industrialists exploited vast oil, gas, iron, other minerals, and agricultural production at home. This allowed a unique development of industrial and military superiority – the real form of “American exceptionalism” amidst a stifling cultural stagnation. Once it exhausted most of those resources, the corporate state turned to the rest of the world to keep the supplies flowing.

The means of domination by “the only remaining super-power” after the Cold War are many and varied, from financial to military.[2] U.S. efforts to establish an empire have focused primarily on controlling the main sources of petroleum in the Middle East. Images of the attacks on “the homeland” on September 11, 2001, symbolized resistance to tyranny for many victims of bombing campaigns, invasion and occupation. Diverse U.S. invasions and occupations from Iraq and Afghanistan to Yemen and Libya have attempted to serve the energy corporations. Those ventures have produced far more terrorists than oil. Imaginary future victories continue to define current abject failures. All the while, the corporate state ignores the devastating effects on the environment.

The purpose underlying protestations of “bringing democracy” to these nations is to secure corporate control over global resources and assure continued growth of extractive capital. The “War on Terror” was in part a genuine reaction to 9-11. It was also a cover for the prosecution of diverse largely unsuccessful resource wars. The consequences of indiscriminant drone attacks, targeted killings, and counter-insurgency night-raids has been to feed new recruits to the very terrorist groups the U.S. intends to destroy. The consequent disruption of traditional and even modern forms of social cohesion has achieved an order of magnitude unimaginable by Ibn Khaldun.

Chaos and Illusions of Social Control

The leviathan of the corporate-state may seem unstoppable. Yet wars of occupation and counter-insurgency are not won. Once they fight to stalemate and widespread destruction, occupying forces abandon the resulting chaos. More enemies are created, found and targeted.

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Police in Ferguson, Missouri

Domestic attempts to suppress dissent and protest over oppressive economic conditions and police violence in “the homeland,” also produce little social order. Nor are law enforcement institutions able to control general urban violence. The ebb and flow of overall crime rates has little to do with “enforcement” practices – except for the differential police actions against the poor in prosecuting the War on Drugs. Overall crime rates have declined, but “law and order” memes dominate police thinking. Militarization of police harden “us vs. them” images of the Warrior Cop. Without revolutionary transformation of law enforcement in the U.S., the bloody stalemate will continue.

Myths abound concerning the control of urban populations in the U.S. and abroad. A standoff between more forces than are recognized is occurring. In the U.S., crass demagoguery pits police authority against minority and immigrant populations. Police and politicians conflate peaceful protest against police violence with general urban violence and terror attacks. Trump’s tropes incite nativist white tribalism, a latter-day resurgence of social cohesion in the form of a pseudo-patriotic racism not unlike fascism.

The billionaire business cheat succeeded in framing his grab for political power as an anti-establishment rebellion. That feat by the crass bully astounded establishment liberals. They underestimate the nation’s susceptibility to demagoguery. The corporate media, which will succumb to any hint of sensationalism, dutifully provided billions of dollars in free television exposure to a sociopathic narcissist billionaire. (What would have happened if Bernie had had that kind of coverage?)

Analysts remain confused. All sorts of ad hoc media explanations of diverse instances of chaos and violence fall short of plausibility. Authorities seek “terrorist” propaganda associations to explain the mass murder in Nice by a mad trucker. The mad men of Nice, Dallas, and Baton Rouge, maybe even Orlando, seemed to mix confused ideological fragments with the desire for suicide by cop. These seem more like individual pathology absorbing some political patina than organized terrorism, which is happy to exploit such pathology. Even the allegiance of the San Bernardino killers to ISIS seemed more aspirational than organizational. More is likely to come.

We seek to fight the enemies we have made, without understanding the processes by which we have made them. They are many but diverse. Through it all, images of absolute good and evil distort the social realities, allowing ignorance and fear to prevail.

Reform or Revolution

Sustaining a culture of civility provides the social cohesion that characterizes a stable social order. The failure of U.S. invaders to establish stability in Iraq resulted from eliminating the individuals and institutions that had maintained a certain level of civility. Such civility had existed, particularly between Sunni and Shiite populations, even under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. The character of the occupation bred not only insurgents, but also civil strife.

The character of the criminal justice system in the U.S. in some ways parallels the occupation of Iraq. Police in the U.S. increasingly look like an occupying force. Their role has become one of “controlling the population,” not to “protect and serve” those whom many police despise. Too many police view urban populations as the enemy. The technology of smartphone, dashboard, and body-cam video, now facilitates the documentation of widespread police violence, primarily in communities of color. The evidence of hatred abounds.

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Black Folks Response to Police Killings

The Black Lives Matter movement responded directly to the disproportionate experience of police violence by Blacks and Hispanics. The constant flow of revelations of police violence by citizens’ smartphone video on social media rivals the broadcast of racist Trump tropes on the corporate mass media. However denied, dehumanized police conduct and attitudes have achieved full public exposure. Black Lives Matter is a non-violent movement publicly protesting police violence.

The characterization of Black Lives Matter and Occupy movements as advocating violence against police, crudely promotes a self-serving prejudice against all protesters. The validity of the protest is delegitimized by the bigoted claims of the likes of Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump. “Blue Lives Matter” implicitly denies police culpability in a well-documented national pattern of “excessive use of force,” while projecting that same violence onto those who peacefully protest against it.

What a civil society might otherwise sustain as indigenous law enforcement increasingly appears as a foreign occupying force. The police-versus-the-population image of law enforcement, whether held by officers, chiefs of police, or citizens, is doomed to create more chaos and violence. Minor ‘reforms’ – sensitivity training or use of force training for the violence-prone, or even more selective recruitment to weed out those with violent tendencies – will not be nearly enough.

This is where it gets even more difficult. We are witnessing the consequences of a deeply violent culture. White nativist memes deny diversity of this nation of immigrants, in service to their illusions of a “real America.” To achieve a civil society with a civil police will require a sea change in attitude and organization. No amount of piecemeal reforms will break the cycle of police violence, protest, and suppression of aggrieved populations.

The necessary seems so far from the possible. Is a revolutionary transformation of the law enforcement and justice system even possible? Illusions of American Exceptionalism prevent recognition of the obvious successes of nations like Portugal and Finland.

To root out the culture of violence and “them against us” policing will require a total transformation of police institutions and personnel. Society must pay officers much more highly and hold them to much higher standards of civility and respect for human dignity.

In the context of the corporate cult of privatization of everything, too many view police,  since they are mere public servants like teachers, as very low-level functionaries not worthy of significant pay. As I have argued elsewhere, we must recruit them carefully, pay them very well and hold them to very high standards. That includes very high standards for admission, very high standards for training, and very high standards of conduct. One case of abuse of a citizen should mean that you are out. To achieve these things would constitute revolutionary change in law enforcement, requiring revolutionary change in society. The very difficult is very necessary.

[1] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010) provides an exceptionally lucid, ground-breaking, though culturally denied, account of how mass incarceration of the vulnerable populations of mostly urban communities of color has replaced slavery as the primary force oppressing Black and Brown folks in America in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

[2] For an astounding and enlightening account of the exploitation of potential client nations by U.S. corporate-government cooperation in the use of financial and covert power, including assassination, to dominate the economies of those nations, see John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2004).