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01.23.06



writing science fiction
during the third world war

by Eleanor Arnason

 
 

 

Editor's note: This is an expansion of the guest-of-honor speech that Eleanor Arnason gave at Wiscon in 2004. Due to circumstances beyond her control, it is just as relevant now as it was then.

 

What follows is a description of what I've been reading and thinking during the past couple of months, while watching the war in Iraq play out over the Internet.

I'm going to start with some ideas from Immanuel Wallerstein, a sociologist who has clearly been influenced by Marxism, though I don't know if he would call himself a Marxist.[1]

According to Wallerstein, we are living within a political and economic system which originated in ­Europe about 500 years ago, but is now worldwide. Politically this system is characterized by nation states. Its economic form is capitalism.

Wallerstein believes this world system is now in crisis, a crisis from which it will not recover. I'm not sure I entirely agree with his reasons for the economic crisis, though I do agree that capitalism is in trouble.

What I find interesting is Wallerstein's analysis of what's happening to nation states.

First, he argues that capitalism — for all that capitalist thinkers thunder against government interference — needs national governments. Nation states provide capitalists with protection in the form of patents, copyrights, tariffs, and armies. They create an infrastructure which capitalists may not want to build themselves but are happy to use. Examples in the US are the railroads, funded by huge government land grants; the interstate highway system, built during the Cold War with tax money; and the Mississippi River, which the Army Corps of Engineers has turned into a barge canal. I have spent my life on the Mississippi. A lot of freight gets moved along it — and through the St. Lawrence Seaway, another government project.

Nation states fund R&D, turning the results over to manufacturers under cost or for free. They funnel large amounts of money into specific industries, such as war industries. And they control what were called in the 19th century "the dangerous classes" — poor and working people. Part of this control is direct, through cops and prisons. But the so-called advanced or western nations also provide services — education, health care, pensions — which make life more tolerable and citizens less desperate.

Finally, nation states provide hope, which Wallerstein argues may be their most effective form of control. For more than two hundred years, since the English and American and French revolutions, people have seen the possibility of using national governments to improve their lives, sometimes through revolution, more often through the expansion of suffrage, the creation of political coalitions, and the making of laws.

This era — when people hoped to make a better future by gaining control of the state through election or revolution — ended in the late 20th century, according to Wallerstein. By this time, Russia and China had demonstrated that revolutionary states did not provide people with peace, justice, and freedom. The Social Democratic states of western Europe demonstrated that elected socialists were unable to deliver on the promises of socialism. And the postcolonial states of Asia, Africa, and Latin America failed to achieve humane postcolonial societies. Nations of every kind remained enmeshed in a world system dominated by capitalism's drive to accumulate wealth, no matter what the cost to humanity and the planet. My own private image of capitalism and capitalists is the great white shark — a primitive animal, in many ways limited, but very good at what it does. One cannot build a humane society on a base of great white sharks.

According to Wallerstein, because the world system of nation states has failed to deliver a decent life for most people, it has lost credibility. People no longer see the state as a tool to be used to improve human existence.

For him, the key year is 1968, when there were revolutions in France and Czechoslovakia, a brutally ­suppressed student uprising in Mexico, and violent struggles against war and racism in the US. The late 60s is when the American cities burned. If you're too young to remember or weren't living in a burning city, I recommend Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany, a terrific portrait of big American cities in the late '60s. Detroit in 1968 and '69 was exactly like Dhalgren. Even the poets were the same.

France, Czechoslovakia, Mexico, and America are the struggles I know about. Wallerstein says there were others worldwide. According to him, these were not efforts to seize the state, but struggles against the state, against all states and the very idea of states.

He's arguing that ideas have power. As long as people believe in the state as something worth having, they will work to maintain a state apparatus. At the very least, they will obey laws. When they give the state up as hopeless and useless, its ability to survive is threatened.

One example of this is the collapse of the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc. The second most powerful nation on Earth simply fell apart, with remarkably little violence for a change so huge.

Another example may be the US, where the current administration appears to dismantling the federal government. This isn't being done accidentally. Grover Norquist, a conservative thinker and mentor for the Bush Administration, has said that he wants to weaken the federal government until it can be dragged into the bathroom and drowned in the bathtub. Pat Robertson has advocated nuking the US State Department. These people aren't kidding. Their language may be colorful, but they mean what they say.

Why are they bent on destroying the federal government, if capitalism needs nation states? Short term, they will be rid of many tiresome government regulations, and the opportunities for stealing of publicly owned resources will be huge. Long term — I suspect Pat Robertson is already working on plans for a new Christian government to succeed the US of A.

If Wallerstein is right, the next 50 years of human history will be a period of breakdown and chaos. It won't be a comfortable period. It's likely to be dangerous. It's also likely to be full of possibility. A stable system is almost impossible to change, according to Wallerstein. Huge efforts produce very small results. The system always tends to restabilize. But when a system is breaking down and off-balance, a small effort can create large changes. I think Wallerstein is influenced by chaos theory here, and the gentle flapping you hear in the background is the famous Amazonian butterfly.

The end of the crisis is not certain. The new society which emerges may be as bad or worse than the one we live in now. The kind of theocracy described in Native Tongue and The Handmaid's Tale seems much more possible to me than it did a few years ago. But if we think and act — we in general, the human race — we may be able to create a new society that is genuinely decent. According to Wallerstein, now is the time to think about what kind of society we want to emerge from chaos — and what we are going to do to create that new society.

I am going to move now to the ideas of William S. Lind, Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation. Lind is, as his title suggests, a conservative. I suspect he and I don't have a lot in common. But he has some interesting things to say about modern warfare.

He divides modern war into four generations, beginning in the mid-seventeenth century in Europe. I'm going to skip the first three generations, except to say that in all three wars were fought by conventional armies, employed by and controlled by nation states.

Fourth Generation warfare is radically different. In some ways, it is guerrilla warfare, but unlike the American Revolution — an early example of a modern guerrilla war — Fourth Generation warfare is not controlled by a state. It is decentralized, carried on by what might be called non-governmental organizations. At times, as in Iraq now, the organization is so loose that one isn't sure an organization exists.

At this point, I'm going to quote Lind.

All over the world, state militaries find themselves fighting non-state opponents… Almost everywhere, the state is losing…

At [the] core of [Fourth Generation warfare] lies a universal crisis of the legitimacy of the state, and that crisis means many countries will evolve Fourth Generation war on their soil. America, with a closed political system…and a poisonous ideology of 'multiculturalism' is a prime candidate for the homegrown variety of Fourth Generation war.[2]

I don't agree with Lind that multiculturalism is poisonous. But I agree with him that the collapse of the official, white, Christian, flag-waving, Indian-killing, Fourth-of-July American culture is dangerous to the status quo. That culture is what makes all of us — ­­oppressors and the oppressed — a single, unified nation. It legitimates our government and our economic system.

Now for another quote. It's from an essay by Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, which appeared in the Toronto Globe and Mail on April 7, 2004.

There are more than forty so-called low-intensity conflicts in the world today. Maybe it is not the Third World War if you are living in Manchester or Stockholm, but if I were living in Madrid when in the bombs at the station went off, it would seem very much like the Third World War to me.

As soon as I read this, I thought, "Yes. The prince is right. We are living in the middle of the Third World War."

To sum up, if these three very different men are correct, the near future is likely to be a period of collapsing governmental structures and warfare so widely spread that it can be called a World War. Much that is bad may result from this era of collapse and violence: the rise to power of right-wing religious movements, the reversion to a world comprised of tribes and tribal loyalties. The position of women may well worsen. We've already seen ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, genocide in Rwanda, and something between ethnic cleansing and genocide in Palestine.

Is there a bright side to this dark vision of the future? Do I see hope anywhere? Yes.

Political and social struggles worldwide — struggles I would call progressive — are increasingly aware of one another and connected, via the mass media and the Internet. I have been following the war in Iraq through Internet postings by independent reporters and peace activists now in the country, as well as posting by Iraqis, especially the wonderful Riverbend, an Iraqi woman currently living in occupied Baghdad. I strongly recommend her weblog Baghdad Burning.

I'm going to talk briefly about a few of these struggles, starting with the Zapatista Liberation Army. This is an organization of poor Native American farmers, living in the mountains of Chiapas in southern Mexico. It emerged into public view on January 1, 1994 — the same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect. From the start, the Zapatistas have addressed themselves to the world. Their remarkable PR man, Subcommandante Marcos, appears to have spent the past ten years in the Mexican jungle, armed with a computer, modem, and satellite dish. His manifestoes are wonderfully eloquent, clever, and funny. There's a rumor that Marcos has an advanced degree in mass communications. The university that trained him ought to advertise. "You too can charm and amaze the world."

I'm going to quote from the "First Declaration of La Realidad for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism," issued two years after the Zapatistas first appeared the world stage.

A new lie is being sold to us as history. The lie of the defeat of hope, the lie of the defeat of dignity, the lie of the defeat of humanity… In place of humanity, they offer us the stock market index. In place of dignity, they offer us the globalization of misery. In place of hope, they offer us emptiness. In place of life, they offer us an International of Terror. Against the International of Terror…we must raise an International of Hope. Unity, beyond borders, languages, colors, cultures, sexes, strategies, and thoughts, of all those who prefer a living humanity. The International of Hope. Not the bureaucracy of hope, not an image inverse to, and thus similar to, what is annihilating us. Not power with a new sign or new clothes. A flower, yes, (the) flower of hope.[3]

Starting in 1999, a series of internationally organized demonstrations protesting globalization have occurred at almost every meeting of the World Trade Organization.

Globalization is a slippery and dishonest word. It has nothing to do with internationalism; it is an attempt to remove national and local barriers to the movement of capital, and national and local limitations to the power of capital. This includes laws protecting the environment, natural resources, and workers. If the WTO has its way, nothing will be safe from the sharks.

The first in the series of demonstrations — the Battle in Seattle in 1999 — shut down the WTO's Third Ministerial Meeting. The ministers simply could not go on. Since then, WTO meetings in Prague, Genoa, Montreal, and Cancun have been met with demonstrations made up of labor union members, farmers, environmentalists, students, and indigenous people from all over the world. The most powerful people on Earth meet to divide the Earth up, and they can't do it unless they hunker down behind a wall of cops, concrete, and razor wire. There is no place on Earth where the rich and powerful are truly safe.

The most recent meeting in Cancun ended in failure, due to a rebellion of Southern Hemisphere nations, led by President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva of Brazil. As far as I can tell from news reports, the demonstrations — and especially the protest-suicide of one of the demonstrators, a South Korean farmer — helped the southern hemisphere representatives hold firm.

The future of the WTO is currently uncertain.

We now come to the Invasion of Iraq and the world-wide peace demonstration held just before the Invasion. This was an amazing event. Something like ten million people marched in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The US coverage was not good, so I read Internet editions of English, French, Cuban, and Mexican papers. There were demonstrations in Malaysia, Bangladesh, India, the Middle East, most Latin American countries, I no longer remember which countries in Africa — all acting in concert, all aware of one another.

I will end this catalog of resistance with a simple observation. Whenever people demonstrate anywhere about anything, some of their signs are in English. People no longer speak only to their locality or nation. They address the entire world.

Do I have any idea where this new international consciousness will lead? Or whether the current international struggles for peace and against capital will produce a better world? No, of course not. I am simply indicating that — as the chief defenses of the old society, nation states and national armies, lose power — a loose, worldwide organization is taking form. It has a decentralized structure and is run from the bottom up. It may represent a new kind of social structure, or it may be a dead end. I have no idea how it will develop or if it will develop at all.

The world is still full of nuclear weapons. AIDS is killing much of Africa and spreading through the former Soviet Union, along with multi-drug-resistant TB. We are running out of fresh water. Our soil is degrading. Hundreds of millions of people live in dire poverty, at the edge of starvation. Right now, the starvation is due to poverty, not absolute lack of food worldwide. But Earth's farmers have not produced enough food to feed humanity for the past four years. We've been making up the difference with stockpiled food. This cannot continue indefinitely — or for long.

Petroleum production may be peaking right now, at a time when the demand for oil and gas is rising worldwide. Royal Dutch Shell just wrote down their petroleum reserves. They had been lying about how much oil they had. Who else may be lying? I read one expert who has doubts about the Saudi oil reserves.[4]

I haven't even gotten to the Greenhouse Effect.

We are living in an age of revolution and in a science fiction disaster novel. No, we are living in several science fiction disaster novels at once. The stakes are huge. Human civilization may be at risk. The solutions are going to require science and technology, as well as political and social struggle.

What are we — as science fiction readers and writers — doing about this? Historically, science fiction has been about big problems, use and misuse of technology, the broad sweep of history, and every kind of change. Historically, it has been a cautionary and visionary art form. Are we continuing this tradition? Are we writing books that accurately reflect our current amazing and horrifying age? Are we talking about the kind of future we want to see and how to begin creating it?

Or are we, in the immortal words of the preacher in Blazing Saddles, just jerking off?




I gave the above speech in May of 2004. What can I add eleven months later?

The problems listed have not gone away. To give three examples from March 2005…

On March 30, the Millennium Ecosystem Synthesis Report was released. According to the report, 60% of the world's ecosystems are being degraded or used unsustainably, leading to the increasing likelihood of abrupt changes that affect human well-being. Among these changes are new diseases, sudden changes in water quality, creation of dead zones along coasts, collapse of fisheries, and shifts in regional climate.

"Abrupt" and "sudden" are scary, science-fictional words.

On March 31, the International Energy Agency released a new emergency plan, to be put into effect if world oil production drops 1-2%, as it did during the oil lockout in Venezuela in 2002 and the Iraq invasion of 2003. The plan includes reduced speed limits, driving bans, free public transportation, and a shorter work week. The plan is only a suggestion. Nations need not comply. But the plan suggests that the IEA no longer believes that the world's oil industry can compensate for disruptions.

As with the ecological changes, we are looking at sudden crisis, rather than slow and graceful change: more evidence that we now live in a science fiction disaster novel.

On March 23, 2005, the Indian parliament amended Indian patent law to conform with the World Trade Organization's TRIPS (trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights) regime.

This doesn't sound especially dramatic. Why does it matter?

The generic anti-viral drugs that are used to treat AIDS in poor countries come mostly from India, where national law has permitted pharmaceutical companies to analyze and copy patented drugs. The Indian manufacturers sell their anti-viral drugs at a fraction of the price charged by the American and European patent-holders. According to theNew York Times, Indian exports to Africa helped drive the cost of AIDS drugs down from $15,000 a year to $200 a year.[5]

As of March 23, Indian manufacturers must pay royalties to patent-holders, which will increase the price of their drugs; and the law makes copying new drugs more difficult and expensive. It's almost certain that people will die because of this change in Indian patent law.

Obviously corporations are going to protect their patents, even though people die. No one in his or her right mind would argue that capitalism is inherently moral. The argument since the 18th century has been: private individuals working for their own personal benefit, untouched by altruism and uninterested in the happiness of others, will create a greater good for all.

In a world where natural resources, including water, are diminishing, international business makes the obvious decision: get control of the resources. If water is running short, you can make money selling it. If oil is running out, sell as much as you can as fast as you can.

This brings us to the struggle against business as usual.

In Bolivia in 2003, massive demonstrations, work stoppages, and transportation blockages forced President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozado to resign and flee to the United States. The key issues were privatization of water, oil, and gas and the proposed construction of a pipeline. The pipeline would take Bolivian natural gas to Chile, where it would be shipped to California. The Bolivian people would lose a valuable natural resource, which could be used to develop their desperately poor country; and — thanks to privatization — their government would not get a fair price for the gas.[6]

Bolivians had seen this before. Starting in the sixteenth century, a huge fortune in silver and tin was taken out of Bolivia, leaving the native population with nothing.[7] The Bolivians did not want to lose another fortune. They took to the streets. They are still in the streets in April 2005, demonstrating against the current president Carlos Mesa.

In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez — a democratically elected, populist president — has been engaged in a multiyear struggle to keep his job. A coup d'etat in April 2002 failed when hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans demonstrated in support of Chavez; he was returned to power after 48 hours.

In December 2002 the management of the Venezuelan state oil company staged a lockout and shutdown, demanding that Chavez resign. This "general strike" against Chavez did not spread beyond the largely white upper and middle classes and ended in failure. Chavez fired the oil company managers.

The opposition then began collecting signatures for a referendum on Chavez. In 2004 he won the referendum and was confirmed in office. His position is not entirely secure, given the hostility of the US government. But for the time being, he is proceeding as he promised: to use the oil wealth of Venezuela for the benefit of ordinary Venezuelans, who are desperately poor people of Native American and African descent.

In late 2004, the citizens of Uruguay elected their first left-of-center president ever and passed a constitutional reform defining water as a public good and guaranteeing public participation at every level of water management.

Comparable struggles against water privatization are occurring in India, where Coke is depleting water tables in farming districts to make bottled water for the Indian domestic market.

Two things should be noted about these struggles. (1) They are largely nonviolent. (2) Instead of a vanguard party or guerilla army, they involve mass demonstrations, work stoppages, barricades on roads, and elections. In addition, there are recurring issues: the right to honest elections, popular control of natural resources, and the right of ordinary people to stay alive.

What does this have to do with Immanuel Wallerstein's theory that the state lost credibility after 1968?

President Sanchez de Lozado fled Bolivia because of mass demonstrations against the state. President Hugo Chavez retained his position in Venezuela due to popular interventions in the business of the state and the political classes. We can add the demonstrations against the WTO; worldwide peace marches in 2003; mass demonstrations in Spain after the Madrid train bombing and the government's attempt to lie about the bombing; mass demonstrations in Georgia, the Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan after possibly corrupt elections; and mass demonstrations in Iraq against the occupation. Apparently there are many people in the world who are unwilling to let the state make decisions for them. As the wonderful movie Chicken Run says, "The chickens are revolting."

Chicken Run came out in 2000 and must have been in production prior to 1999, so we can't call it a post-Seattle movie. Maybe it's a Zapatista movie. Instead of taking over the farm, as Orwell's animals did, the chickens escape and establish a new democratic society, similar (it can be argued) to the self-governing "autonomous villages" that came into existence in Chiapas in the 1990s. The Zapatistas say explicitly that they don't want to seize power. Instead, they want to exercise power where they are in the villages of Chiapas.

Is this a revolution? Not yet. Will it become one? I don't know. But I do not think corporations — and the governments which represent them — will give up business as usual; and I find it hard to believe that billions of people will go quietly into death so business as usual can continue.

I'm going to end this with a quote from China Mieville, from the Nebula Awards Showcase 2005. He is talking about his particular sub-genre of sf, called New Weird. I know nothing about New Weird, but I like his vision of what science fiction can be:

It's my opinion that the surge in the un-escapist, engaged fantastic, with its sense of limitless potentiality and the delighted bursting of boundaries, is an expression of a similar opening up of potentiality in "real life," in politics. Neoliberalism collapsed the social imagination, stunting the horizons of the possible. With the crisis of the Washington Consensus and the rude grassroots democracies of the movements for social justice, millions of people are remembering what it is to imagine. That's why New Weird is post-Seattle fiction.[8]

 

Endnotes

1. My understanding of Immanuel Wallerstein comes from The Decline of American Power: The US in a Chaotic World (New York, The New Press, 2003). [return to footnoted text]

2. William S. Lind, "Understanding Fourth Generation War," January 15, 2005, Antiwar.com. [return to footnoted text]

3. "First Declaration of La Realidad for Humanism and Against Neoliberalism," www.ezln.org. [return to footnoted text]

4. "Get Ready for $50 US Oil!!" Energy Bulletin, June 15, 2004 and "Shell Cuts Oil and Gas Reserves for the Fifth Time," Energy Bulletin, February 5, 2005. [return to footnoted text]

5. "India Alters Law on Drug Patents," New York Times, March 24, 2005. [return to footnoted text]

6. The government's share of oil and gas revenues dropped from 50% to 18% after privatization. [return to footnoted text]

7. The silver mine at Potosi in Bolivia produced 137 million pounds of silver between 1545 and 1835. This amazing wealth funded much of the economic development of Europe. The silver was mined by Indian and African slaves. It's estimated that the average miner lasted six months before he died, and that eight million workers died in Potosi. Though largely depleted, the mine is still worked today. Contemporary miners usually begin working in their teens, though there are younger workers in the mine. Their life expectancy is 40 years. [return to footnoted text]

8. Nebula Awards Showcase 2005 (New York, Roc, 2005) p. 50. [return to footnoted text]

 


Eleanor Arnason is the author of five novels and a number of short stories and poems. Her novel A Woman of the Iron People won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award and the Mythopoeic Award.

You can read her story The Gramarians's Five Daughters and an interview with Eleanor at at Strange Horizons.

This essay is included in her recent collection, Ordinary People, from Aqueduct Press.

 


 

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