by Russell Dobular
Sci-fi writers have a long history of predicting future technologies and social transformations. From Jules Verne and H.G. Wells predicting the submarine and the tank, respectively, to Philip K. Dick describing CGI, and Isaac Asimov foreseeing the self-driving car 50 years before Tesla began experimenting with the idea, science fiction authors have an uncanny track record of nailing the future. But aside from tech predictions, the heart of most great sci-fi lies in its vision of social and economic arrangements. In cinema, these visions are generally dystopian and/or apocalyptic, although in literature there’s a more balanced ratio between positive and negative imaginings. For every 1984 nightmare, there’s a Stranger In A Strange Land, projecting a future in which humanity overcomes it pettiness and learns to live in peace and prosperity.
But in film, setting aside Mad Max-type post-apocalyptic scenarios, there are two distinct camps: worlds in which corporations have essentially become governments unto themselves, and, well, Star Trek. One of the reasons the franchise is so enduring and beloved is that it’s one of the only positive visions of humanity’s future to ever come out of Hollywood. In Blade Runner, Tank Girl, Code 46, Resident Evil, the Aliens franchise, and a host of others, corporations have either entirely displaced the government, or become so powerful that governments are essentially working for them. Ripley and her crew of salty Marines aren’t fighting for flag or country. They work for “the company,” as a private mercenary force.
Star Trek, on the other hand, presents us with a Marxist utopia, in which technology has provided so much material wealth that the need to earn a living has been eliminated, leaving humanity with nothing to do other than to self-actualize. In a world of “replicators” that can produce food on demand, unlimited clean energy, and advanced, largely automated, medical technology, capitalism just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It may not seem like it with Donald Trump in the White House and corporate power over government a lot closer to the Aliens scenario than Roddenberry’s utopia, but both futures are at hand, and a lot of the social turmoil of our historical moment boils down to a battle between them.
Capitalism, as we’ve known it, can not survive without the need for human labor. The economic collapse of former manufacturing regions gives us a case study in what will happen to most of the country when AI comes for not only blue collar jobs, like truck driving, but service industry jobs like customer service, receptionist, sales clerk, waiter, and cashier and then goes on to displace white collar occupations like paralegal secretary, and medical assistant. In the next phase, even highly skilled professionals like doctors and architects will be displaced by AI’s that can do their jobs more cheaply and with less room for human error. At that point, capitalism can only be maintained in one way: with the use of force. Its no accident then that fascism is on the rise in America. Only a fascist state will be able to preserve our current economic system, even as more and more people fall into poverty and wealth becomes increasingly impossible to attain for anyone who isn’t a media celebrity, a politician, or an heir.
Seen in this context, the fight between Sanders-style progressives, and Donald Trump’s GOP, represents two different responses to the same underlying reality: the center will not hold, and a future in which jobs are almost impossible to come by, is going to be shaped by either socialism or fascism. In other words, its going to either be Star Trek or Aliens. We’re either going to be getting a UBI check every month and going to the doctor free of charge, or we’re going to be living in a corporate-owned police state in which dissenters are labelled “terrorists” and indefinitely detained. Neoliberal capitalism is no longer on the menu, and those who think we can return to a “normalcy” that could only have existed in an economic context that is further deteriorating by the day, are like the 19th Century royalists who desperately tried to preserve a feudal system that could not possibly have survived the industrial revolution, as demands for democracy erupted all around them.
This then is the fight of our times: not neoliberals vs. progressives, or “moderate Republicans” vs. Trump. In the end the real fight is between socialism and fascism. The economic arrangements and assumptions of the last century are simply no longer tenable in the face of rapid advances in AI and automation technology. If you’re still arguing for “good capitalism,” at this point, all you’re doing is throwing up white noise and getting in the way of society having an honest conversation about our most realistic options. The best thing you can do right now, is pick which of these two futures you want, and fight for that future with everything you’ve got. ‘Cause you’re going to be living in one of them either way. Personally, I’m for the one with UBI and transporters.
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