I’m a bit late on this—like, two months late—which means you’ve almost certainly seen this video by now:
It’s hard to take seriously, sure—it’s got a weird “expensive production values on a shoestring budget” aesthetic, and the final seconds are ridiculous (but, to be fair, it’s impossible to make “FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY” sexy, no matter how many flames you put behind it). And, of course, it was widely mocked as soon as it hit the internet, mostly for blatantly ripping off The Hunger Games (or the trailers, anyway) while simultaneously completely inverting the franchise’s ideology (or so the criticisms go: I’ve neither seen nor read The Hunger Games series, and have no idea what sort of political statements it makes).
The point I want to make—which seems (at least in my cursory reading about this … video) to have been overlooked—is that dystopian/post-apocalyptic narratives lend themselves much more readily to conservative agendas than to progressive ones.
I’m using the terms “conservative” and “progressive” fairly loosely, and—reductively, I admit—as shorthand for “change is bad” and “change is good,” respectively. But even if these definitions flatof socio-political nuance, I think they’re still sufficiently accurate to be useful. And while I tend toward the progressive end of things—”traditional” sometimes means “racist/sexist/oppressive,” and contemporary American conservative politics is based on inaccurate nostalgic fantasies about the early union—I also recognize that changes to complex systems (such as those that exist in a nation of 330 million people) often/always have unexpected/unpredictable results, which are not always positive.
Having gotten that out of the way: the dystopian/postapocalyptic narrative is, almost by definition, a conservative narrative¹—things are okay, something happens, then things are terrible. Change is bad. Were things better in The Road before the bombs fell? Of course. (Ditto for basically every narrative with nuclear explosions.) Were things better before Ingsoc? Yes. Did things get worse after Skynet became self-aware? Obviously! (Well, except for the robots. Ditto for the machines in The Matrix.) How about Independence Day? Sure, Bill Pullman and Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum saved humanity from the aliens, but only after the destruction of ‘every major city’ and the loss of countless human lives. (Roland Emmerich also destroys the world in The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, neither of which I’ve seen, so I can’t make accurate jokes about them.) Are zombies ever good news, or outbreaks of virulent and fatal diseases? No (unless, again, you’re a zombie or a virus).
Back to the video: what is it trying to sell us? Ostensibly, anyway, it’s trying to sell us “fiscal responsibility, Constitutionally-limited government, [and] free markets” (in all-caps, no less). I’m going to ignore those, because they aren’t what we’re supposed to take away—they seem like a complete non sequitur, in fact. The video is trying to sell us revolution—a repeat of the Revolution, which (even though the video shows nothing more violent than people glowering at each other) has violent, bloody connotations. The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, after all.
What happens after a revolution? After the execution of Charles I, Cromwell established a military
dictatorship protectorate; the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Haitian Revolution under Dessalines—all resulted in dictatorships of varying duration. The American Revolution is different only in that it resulted in an oligarchy (which persists to this day) rather than rule by .
The “people” certainly participate in revolutions, but they don’t organize them: cabals and juntas and provincial gentry organize them for the purpose of acquiring more power. A revolution results—in the short term, at least—in the transfer of power from elite to elite, and not in the dissemination of power from the elite to the people. That is: the people have, on the whole, no more liberty after a revolution than before, though they may have exchanged some liberties for others.
But, ironically, the Tea Party Patriots (like other ‘revolutionaries’ before them) are couching this movement in terms of greater individual liberty. “Limited government” is good, and (at least for libertarians) “limitedness” and “goodness” are inversely proportionate, so that almost no government is best (no government is anarchy, for fuck’s sake, and we can’t have that). Right? And with small government comes greater individual liberty—which reminds me, irresistibly, of the Hobbesian state of nature, in which individual liberty is completely unrestrained (nevermind that life is nasty, brutish, and short, and a war of all against all). So: governmental power should be consolidated (but not diminished), and individual liberty should be expanded, so we can all be assholes to one another. Cool.
I was going to write about The Walking Dead (the comic)—all those patriarchal, dictatorial tribes (Rick’s included) trying to make a “new life” in the brave new world of the undead—but I don’t think I can right now. The more I’ve tried to make sense of that video, the less sense it makes to me—maybe it doesn’t make any sense?—and I think I’ve already made the point I want to make … which is just that the dystopian tone is actually sort of generically appropriate. That’s all.
I had a revelation during my commute this morning—and, lucky you, I’m going to share it with you. But first, I’m going to give you a brief and reductive history of my personal politics.
I grew up with liberal Democrats for parents—which meant that, as a rebellious teenager, I decided to become a conservative Republican, which lasted until the Bush administration’s response to 9/11 made being a conservative Republican distasteful to me. Which meant, of course, that I had to be an adult and decide on my own politics.
In my early-to-mid twenties, things like social democracy and distributism and Utah Phillips appealed to me, I suppose primarily for their idealism, which appeals to people in their early twenties, I guess. For a while I flirted with libertarianism, but eventually decided (or realized) that it was based on a fantasy about the Founding Fathers, who were slave-owning oligarchs, and maybe not the best guys. I realized at roughly the same time that I was too much of a radical leftist to be libertarian, and so started flirting with anarchism (though there was probably a long period where I was both a libertarian and an anarchist—what kept me attracted to libertarianism was its (conservative) anarchism).
The problem with anarchism, though, is that it doesn’t really work on a massive scale—because, you know, the state of nature, the world before/without government, it’s not a nice place, whatever Rousseau may have said——and, also, in my later twenties, idealism seemed both naïve and impractical. I got around (or tried to get around) this by calling myself an “anarcho-pragmatist”—working toward the goal of a stateless, non-coercive society, but aware that it was an unreachable goal. I still use that label to identify myself politically when such a label is necessary, although I’m not sure how useful (or applicable) it is.
So, the revelation: What I want is a government constrained by Asimov’s Three (Four) Laws of Robotics:
- A robot [government] may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot [government] must obey the orders given to it by human beings [constituents], except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot [government] must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws. [Maybe this one is less necessary.]
Also, the zeroth law: A robot [government] may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
I have no idea how workable this is as a politics: it only just occurred to me this morning. Certainly there are ambiguities waiting to become serious problems in the definitions of, say, “injure” and “harm”—and, as Asimov himself notes (or has R. Daneel Olivaw note in Foundation and Earth), how do you decide what is “harmful” to “humanity”? Also, a robot is a singular entity—an individual, a “person”—and a government is a system, an organization, a structure: is it meaningful or possible to apply the three laws to such a thing?
Maybe it’s just idealism masquerading as science fiction masquerading as political theory, or something—another way of saying “do unto others as you would have done unto you” or “be excellent to each other,” except with the government as one of the others. Maybe it’s just another way of writing/defining democracy: government for, of, and by the people (which is maybe itself an idealistic fantasy).
Maybe I just read the Foundation series too many times as a kid.
In the spring of 1963, Mr Brian Smith went to work at Hyam’s Sunshine Farms Fruit Processing, Packing, and Distribution Plant in Topeka, Kansas.
Mr Smith was a man without a past. That sounds more mysterious than it actually is: he had a past, an ordinary and uneventful one, uneventful enough that it had withered, died, and blown away, leaving nothing behind. He lived alone, he had no friends, he had no family. He was a regular at a local grocery, a local diner, a local bar, but in each of these places he was more a piece of furniture than a person: he spoke as little as possible, was as forgettable as possible, was taken for granted.
Hyam’s Sunshine Farms Fruit Processing, Packing, and Distribution Plant — or just Hyam’s, as the locals called it, the full name being too cumbersome for everyday conversation — bought in bulk bananas, oranges, grapefruit, lemons, and other such fruits as do not grow in Kansas, repackaged them, and then sold them to grocers across Kansas, Nebraska, and Missouri. In late 1961, Mr Hyam began negotiating with a chain of grocery stores in Oklahoma, but that deal was still “in progress” when Mr Smith went to work for Mr Hyam.
Mr Smith’s primary responsibility was placing the Hyam’s label on the fruit, after it was uncrated, before it was re-crated. Sometimes Mr Smith had to place the Hyam’s label over some other label: the label of the farm that grew the fruit, or the label of the distributor that sold it to Hyam’s, or sometimes, with fruit imported from South America, a label affixed as the fruit went through customs, coming into the United States.
Mr Smith worked quietly and diligently for Mr Hyam for ten years, clocking in and out at the same time every day, drinking one cup of black coffee on his morning break, eating a sandwich and a pickle for lunch, smoking two Lucky Strike cigarettes on his afternoon break. He did his job well, but not exceptionally: he was, as his supervisors remarked to one another, thoroughly and merely adequate.
In the summer of 1968, when Mr Smith was well assured that his work was not closely monitored — the regularity and adequacy of his labeling having been unvarying for five years — Mr Smith began affixing altered labels to the fruit moving through Hyam’s Sunshine Farms Fruit Processing, Packing, and Distribution Plant. The alterations were minor, at first, and accountable for as printing errors: “Toepeka” or “Ham’s” or a PLU with the central numbers transposed. Mr Smith went no further than this for another two years, watchful for any sign that his alterations had been noticed.
They were not.
Mr Smith’s altered labels became progressively transgressive, incorporating profanity, communist slogans, anti-war sentiments — and still, nobody took enough notice to contact the public relations department at Hyam’s.
There is no indication of why Mr Smith embarked on this venture, or whether he took the job at the fruit-packing plant only to put this odd plan into action. The early, misprinted stickers were procured by altering the plant’s standing order with the local printer, Donnelley and Sons. Mr Smith seems to have special-ordered the later stickers from a printer’s shop in Tulsa, under a false name, and paid cash: this is only guesswork, though probably as close to the truth as anyone is likely to come.
In the last weeks of 1972, Mr Smith took his altered labels a step further, a step too far: all the labels featured was a crude drawing of uncircumcised male genitalia, white on red. These, at last, attracted the attention of the management at Hyam’s, and Mr Smith was soon identified as the culprit. He was summarily fired on a Tuesday afternoon, March the sixth, 1973.
He was seen later that evening, driving westward out of town, and never heard from again.
I have nothing to say to you.
You’re all either living in thatch-roofed huts and scraping by on squirrel and wild apples, because society collapsed under its own weight between us and you, or you’re all cybernetic super-people with no senses of humor, and you won’t get any of my jokes, which are both numerous and quite funny.
If you’ve all been swept up by the Singularity and turned into prosthetic-enhanced Nietzschean super-people, good for you, I guess. It doesn’t sound all that awesome to me, but I’m a Luddite and I don’t like things that are fun or exciting, either.
My guess, though, is that you’re all living in huts, because western civilization is probably going to crumble any day now. Too many people, too much stuff, not enough vegetables, bad television, ugly shoes, poorly-designed cities, and not enough beer. It’s like someone built a model of the Empire State building out of dominos, and then put it on top of a slightly-rotten orange: it doesn’t make sense in the first place, and it’s a pretty bad idea on top of that, and there’s no way it’s going to work. So in light of your post-disaster existences, I have some advice for you:
- Build your hut near running water.
- Don’t shit upstream.
- Skin the squirrels before you cook them.
- If you don’t have a gun with which to defend yourself — and you’ll want one, because you’re living in a Hobbesian state of nature, and everyone is trying to kill everyone else — I say, if you haven’t got a gun, kill someone who does and take theirs.
- You should have stockpiled seeds and gardening tools.
- Enjoy yourself while you can, because you’re probably going to die in your early thirties (if you make it that far) from a minor infection that is totally treatable now, but not in the future — your now — because there are no antibiotics.
- Nobody likes you.
Alright, that last bit isn’t really advice, in the traditional sense, but it’s still a good thing for you to keep in mind.
I’m sorry that I didn’t do more to stop the collapse while there was still time — but honestly, there’s not really anything I could have done, and I had better things to do, anyway, like drink beer and watch bad television and look at pictures of cats on the internet.
Those cat pictures aren’t going to look at themselves. Speaking of which, I’ve wasted as much of my time on you as I’m going to, future people, and now I’m moving on to something more important: sitting at the airport, staring into space, thinking about how awesome and meaningful my life is.
Some dude from the past.
The Book provides an “Above the law” pass for today, which I’m supposed to use to violate the law of my choice.
Before I could decide on what law to break, though, I had to decide what category of law the individual law should come from. Probably the Book had civil or criminal law in mind: shoplifting (there actually is a shoplifting day later in the year), urinating in public, tax fraud, speeding (which I do anyway), &c. I have a strict don’t-get-arrested-or-fined policy, though, and choosing a law which the breaking of might get me arrested or fined violates that policy, so I didn’t choose one of those.
There are ethical and moral laws that I
could violate violate all the time. The problem here is one of authority. For example: Mormons don’t drink coffee, but I’m not a Mormon, and so my drinking coffee doesn’t break that law. This is a problem because my personal ethical and moral code doesn’t prohibit any of the things that I like to do, and so I’d have to do something I find distasteful in order to violate it – which is not the case with civil/criminal laws (I like pissing outside, dammit).
I wanted a challenge. I wanted to violate a natural law, a fundamental principle of the universe: I wanted to keep a fixed quantity of an ideal gas at a constant pressure while increasing the volume; I wanted to change the speed of light; I wanted to make dU not equal to δS minus δW; I wanted to know the position and momentum of a subatomic particle, at the same time.
I eventually decided to be in two places at once – which is totally impossible, you guys. So, while my father and I wrestled my old, leaky hot water heater out of its place, and wrangled my new, bigger-but-not-as-heavy-because-the-old-one-was-inexplicably-still-full-of-water hot water heater into the recently vacated place where such things go —— I was also getting shit-faced (at four in the morning!) in Moscow. The real one, the one in Russia, not any of these other Moscows. If you don’t believe me, well, you’re wrong this time.
You may wonder how I managed to pull this off, seeing as being in two places at once is against the law. Well, let me tell you: Nature tried to stop me. Told me I was violating the laws of physics. So I showed Nature my “break any law you want” card, told her to fuck off, and went on my ways.
Karma caught up with me, though: I realized after Lowe’s had closed that I was going to have to replace a hose I hadn’t counted on replacing. I should’ve known I was going to have to replace it; if I hadn’t been getting really drunk halfway around the world at the same time, I think I might have noticed. But I didn’t, and I get to go back to Lowe’s in the morning – four trips and $500, all told, to replace the damned hot water heater – and tonight is one more night we don’t have hot water.
I’m glad I took that shower in Russia.
An interesting concept: assuming that 29% of your income goes to the government as income tax, everything you’ve earned until today hasn’t belonged to you, and everything you earn from today forward is yours! Yours to spend on bills and more bills and some other bills and groceries and gas and whatever else you have to spend your money on – “yours” in the sense that you get to give it to entities other than the government.
Honestly, though, I wouldn’t mind paying taxes – which is easy for me to say, considering I’m one of those people who not only doesn’t pay taxes, but gets money back at tax time – poor grad student, two kids, all that – I say, I wouldn’t mind paying taxes if the government would spend the tax money it collects in a responsible and efficient way. The government’s a bureaucracy, though, and it is in the nature of bureaucracies to be inefficient; inefficiency is, indeed, one of the few essential characteristics of a bureaucracy.
That’s not to say that I hate the people who work in one bureaucratic institution or another; on the contrary, I’m sure many people who work in bureaucracies are decent enough. No, what I hate is the system itself, the structure, bureaucracy qua bureaucracy.
In a bureaucracy, individuals cease to be individuals; they cease, even, as far as the system is concerned, to be people. They are parts of the machine.
That is, perhaps, a somewhat unsophisticated way of thinking about the problem. The case may be, rather, that a bureaucratic system allows individuals to renounce their humanity, at least in a limited way, within the system: the bureaucracy allows the individual workers to think of themselves as small cogs in a giant, incomprehensible machine, which allows them to abdicate responsibility.
That is, I think, the crux of the problem: no one person, no group of people, even, within a bureaucracy, is responsible for whatever callous or cruel or destructive or evil things the bureaucracy as a whole, as a system, perpetrates. This is true of small, simply-structured bureaucracies and complex, sprawling, unmappable ones; of homeowner’s associations and city councils and multinational corporations and federal governments.
We can say that BP is responsible for the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon and the resultant environmental catastrophe, but we cannot also say that the employees of BP are collectively also responsible; we can perhaps scapegoat a few executives, which serves to distract us all from the fact that this (and many others) disaster was made possible, at least in part, by vast numbers of people – BP employees, BP customers, people who use gasoline or benefit from someone else’s use of gasoline – all of us, in short – abdicating very small amounts of responsibility on a more or less daily basis.
Bureaucracy is a disease, a cancer; the evils that are usually attributed to capitalism or socialism or communism or liberalism or conservatism or terrorism or whatever-ism are all, I think, actually attributable to bureaucracy working under those various guises.
It’s like kudzu, though, bureaucracy is, or like the common cold: ineradicable, unstoppable, inevitable. Nothing we can do will stop its steady advance; though we might win a skirmish here or there, temporarily, provisionally, any bulwarks we establish – any hills we think we’ve taken – will soon be overrun, and our lifeless bodies will be swept away in a tide of unnecessary paperwork and endless meetings.
Best just to take off and nuke the whole thing from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.