Episode 16: Transcript
Our Opinions Are Correct Episode 16
Transcribed by: Keffy Kehrli
Annalee: [00:00:00] Welcome to Our Opinions Are Correct, a podcast about science fiction. I’m Annalee Newitz. I’m a science journalist who writes science fiction.
Charlie Jane: [00:00:09] I’m Charlie Jane Anders. I’m a science fiction writer who dreams about science.
Annalee: [00:00:12] In this episode, we’re talking about a question that’s on a lot of people’s minds, which is: Can we survive capitalism? And what does science fiction have to tell us about that? And it’s an interest question because right now there’s a new wave of anti-capitalism sweeping through the west and this is a trend that science fiction’s been on for a really long time. So, we’ll be exploring not just how you can survive capitalism (and we will have some suggestions about that) but also, what is capitalism and how has it changed, and how have our ideas about it changed over time.
[00:00:50] Intro music plays: Drums with a bass drop and more science fictional bells and percussion.
Charlie Jane: [00:01:17] So, anti-capitalism is obviously having a bit of a moment in American politics, and we’re all becoming more aware once again of the down-sides of capitalism. But how do we even see the shape of capitalism on our lives, and more importantly, how does science fiction define capitalism? How does it depict capitalism?
Annalee: [00:01:33] It’s a really good question and this is something that science fiction has been grappling with, really, since the beginning, because of course science fiction is kind of an industrial age genre if you consider Frankenstein to be one of the first ones, that’s sort of early 19th century. But to answer your question about how science fiction imagines capitalism, let’s listen to a very famous scene from the first Matrix movie where Morpheus offers Neo a chance to learn the truth.
Matrix Clip: [00:02:03] Morpheus: The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work. When you go to church. When you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
Charlie Jane: [00:02:30] Yeah, I love that scene. And what does that teach us about capitalism, though?
Annalee: [00:02:35] So, the thing that’s great about that scene, which I have to say, has been analyzed endlessly by academics and cultural critics because it is this really pivotal moment and it leads to the scene where Morpheus says, you know, you can take the red pill and know the truth or you can take the blue pill and just stay ignorant and remain within the illusion. This of course, even, has spawned a bunch of memes about what does it mean to take the red pill and stuff, so this is really—much in the way that things like Big Brother from 1984 have kind of worked their way into our culture, like the red pill has become this idea in our culture for seeing behind this illusion. Which, when Morpheus describes it, at first it kind of sounds like he’s just talking about virtual reality. He says, well, you see it everywhere. You can see it in the streets. You can see it in church. You can see it at work.
But, then, later, once we have that moment where Neo, of course, takes the red pill and he finally re-meets Morpheus, and Morpheus says, “Welcome to the desert of the Real,” and it’s like super badass and super great.
That is actually a quote from a famous late 20th century Marxist named Jean Baudrillard who writes in his book Simulation and Simulacra about how capitalism in our contemporary world of hypermedia and hyperbranding and digital resources and all that stuff becomes a way of tempting us into working and consuming by hiding the truth of what’s really going on. And the truth, for a Marxist like Baudrillard, and I think this is the truth even in The Matrix in a certain sense is really how all of these bright shiny things around us come to be made. What are the—what Marx would call the “means of production”? Who are the laborers that are bringing all this stuff to us? And that’s what’s hidden from everyone in the Matrix movie is where is all the labor coming from to make up this world that we live in. And then of course what we find out is it comes from humans being batteries. Which, admittedly is one of the silliest tropes ever.
Charlie Jane: [00:04:45] Right.
Annalee: [00:04:46] But it’s great metaphor.
Charlie Jane: [00:04:48] And so, commodity fetishism is sort of the blue pill. It’s sort of the world of illusion in that sense?
Annalee: [00:04:55] I guess so. So, you’re bringing up another thing about capitalism, which is this idea of commodity fetishism, which I think comes up again a lot in science fiction. And, commodity fetishism is just a term for how the objects that we buy kind of seem magical. And partly they seem magical because advertising and branding makes us think that buying water will cure cancer, basically. You’ll become a wonderful person if you wear white sneakers or whatever. But the other part of it is to go back to that illusion that capitalism creates is that a commodity fetish comes to us magically. It’s like, you go into the Adidas store and you buy a pair of sneakers and it’s like, look! Magically there are sneakers here. Where did they come from? I don’t know. You don’t know who made them, you don’t know where the materials came from for the shoe. You don’t know the chain of ownership that brought it to the Adidas store, and so that’s why, again the commodity feels magical. Because unlike, say, if you were living in a pre-capitalist world. Like, say you’re living. You’re gonna know who made your frickin’ shoes. It’s like the dude up the road who made your shoes. And where did the materials come from? Well, maybe from a cow who was slaughtered who provided leather from its skin.
So, all of that stuff is not magical. You know exactly where it comes from. You know where your food comes from. But when we move into late capitalism where we are. A lot of our commodities come through us robbed of that context. So for someone who is a Marxist or who’s just even in the anti-capitalist tradition, that’s a profound psychological. It’s a psychologically damaging state to be in. It’s like wandering through an illusion, or wandering through a virtual world because you are cut off from all these human relationships that would have existed before. Like, with the person who made your shoes or with the person who grew your food.
[00:06:53] All of those relationships are destroyed and replaced with commodities and brands and labor that results in commodities that you never see again. You know, like, I make a shoe and it goes away somewhere and someone consumes it and I never know what happens to it. And so this is part of the illusion. That’s just one little piece of the illusion that Morpheus is talking about in that scene. But science fiction has always, especially now, really is obsessed, I think, less with these questions about labor relationships that I was sort of describing, and more with just, “Why are commodities so shiny and exciting and how do they brainwash us?”
Charlie Jane: [00:07:31] You’re right, which is why there’s so much science fiction about advertising. And actually, in the cities episode, we kind of talked about the Blade Runner future, which you also see in Altered Carbon, and a loto f other recent stuff where there’s just like… neon, shiny interactive blipity blip, you know, blip-verts. There’s like ads everywhere that are just like constantly in your face that are personalized or that are kind of like, do you think that that’s linked to this feeling of general sort of alienation and dislocation?
Annalee: [00:07:59] I think yeah. I mean, again, alienation of course is part of—comes out of this illusion, again, the Matrix. The Matrix has you in its grip and you become alienated in all kinds of ways. Really in science fiction, I would say the beginning of that kind of blip-vert of sort of critique that we’re talking about, and of course “blip-verts” comes from Max Headroom, one of my favorite anti-capitalist shows.
[00:08:23] So, one of the milestone works in this area is called The Space Merchants and it was published in 1952. It’s by Frederick Pohl, who later became a very distinguished publisher of science fiction and Cyril Kornbluth, and amazing science fiction writer, very funny and satirical. So, you kind of team them up, Pohl and Kornbluth and you get this amazing, very Philip K. Dickian view of the future where everyone is enthralled by the ads around them. The main character writes ads. All of the products in the world of The Space Merchants are addictive. They also are addictive in relation to each other, and so like, smoking a cigarette makes you want to have gum. Having gum makes you want to eat, eating makes you want to have a cigarette. And so people are just bombarded with these hyperaddictive commodities. They all live in these tiny depressing places. Like, a lot of people live literally on a stairway, like they own one stair on a stairway and that’s where they sleep at night, and they go to work the next day. The air is full of blimps saying, you know, go to our offworld colonies!
[00:09:31] Part of the plot of the book, which is really good, I highly recommend it, I feel like The Space Merchants would make a great series or movie and I’m kind of shocked that it hasn’t been made yet. But one of the—I mean it is a sort of corporate conspiracy plot—and we find out about how the space colonization effort is—how the branding might be different from the reality. And it’s great to see it through the eyes of someone who’s in advertising, and I think that kind of sensibility then goes really mainstream with Philip K. Dick’s work and that’s where we really see that exploding into science fiction, this kind of awareness of the illusion of branding, the illusion of advertising, the capitalist city. And that’s when you get classics like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? for example.
Charlie Jane: [00:10:12] Right, and so, I mean there’s plenty of dystopias in science fiction and it feels like there’s a subset in particular that kind of talk about class warfare, and exploitation, and you know, what do we learn from how science fiction deals with kind of the exploitation of workers, but also, like, class conflict.
Annalee: [00:10:31] It’s interesting because we’ve been talking about kind of the science fiction where you’re like trapped in a world of illusion. Which is kind of about being in a comfortable middle class existence. You know, we’re kind of, “Oh, we’re surrounded by falsity but we’re not actually being beaten or starved.” Whereas, then there’s a whole other strand, as you say, that’s really dealing with what does it mean to live in capitalism when you’re on the pointy end of the stick? And obviously The Hunger Games novels and films are a recent example of this where it’s a very clear class war and part of Katniss—the main character—‘s job in those books is to try and unite the people who have been oppressed and divided by the ruling class, and so—which is a common tactic in capitalism. That the capitalist fat cats want to divide the workers from each other by inventing racism and all kinds of other neat ways of keeping us from knowing who’s really on our side.
[00:11:34] There are really interesting early murmurings about this in science fiction long before Hunger Games, and there’s this movie called Born in Flames, that came out in 1983 by a director whose name actually is Lizzie Borden. I think her name is originally Elizabeth Borden, but she decided to go by Lizzie Borden and she came out of the art scene in New York City. She wanted to make a science fiction film that was instead of it being post-apocalyptic, it’s post-revolutionary, where a radical feminist social democracy has been created in the United States. And so it’s about what happens to people after that. Like, how do you—once you’ve had the worker’s revolution, how do you maintain it? And one of the ways they do it is through music and through reaching people through the radio. And so we have a clip here from the film where one of the leaders of the women’s liberation army is speaking on the radio.
Born in Flames Clip: [00:12:29] [Background music plays throughout.] Good evening, this is Honey coming directly to you from Phoenix radio. A free radio station. A station not only for the liberation of women, but for the liberation of all. Through the freedom of life which is found in music.
[00:12:51] We are all here because we have fought in the wars of liberation and we all bear witness to what has happened since the war. We still see the depression from the oppression that still exists both day and night.
[00:13:08] We are the children of the light and we will continue to fight. Not against the flesh and blood, but against the system that names itself falsely.
Annalee: [00:13:17] And the thing that’s great about this film is that it’s—like I said, it’s a sort of early example of science fiction dealing with class warfare, dealing with having a revolution where people are kind of coping with capitalism by trying to improve it, but it also isn’t just about class. It’s about race and it’s about gender. The cast is super intersectional. Which, again, it’s ’83, so you know, hats off that they actually had a clue about that. There are some kind of evil white feminists in it as well, which is sort of delightful, and also feels anachronistic but wonderful.
Charlie Jane: [00:13:51] Those evil white feminists are timeless, they’re always appropriate. Yeah, and you know, I feel like in the robot episode, the episode we did about killer robots, we talked a bit abt R.U.R. and we talked about other stories of robot uprisings and how those are often a metaphor for workers who are oppressed and workers who are rising up.
Actually one book I wanted to mention that I read recently was Waste Tide by Chen Qiufan who also goes by Stanley Chan, which is coming out I think next year from Tor Books, and it is about a group of super oppressed workers on a peninsula in China and who are basically processing e-waste with their bare hands. They’re sorting like old e-waste that includes like brain implants and sex dolls, and it’s like, in the future so there’s the like the e-waste is really bizarre and heinous. But it’s also just like a really unflinching look at people who are at the very very very bottom of the capitalist system who basically have no way out except for to rise up, and how they’re treated and how they all get sick from handling these toxic substances in these old electronic components which I think is a real issue now and is going to be even more of an issue in the future.
Annalee: [00:15:05] Yeah, I mean, I think that in stories like this, and there’s tons of them. Like you said, some of them are sort of figured as robot uprisings, but there’s plenty of worker uprisings in science fiction or holographic doctor uprisings, which, I love those episodes in Star Trek.
The question in a lot of these stories is always when is it right to rise up, and especially, rise up violently, because that’s often really the only option for these characters because they’re in such dire circumstances because they’ve been horribly colonized, or because they’ve been horribly depressed and deprived of their health and deprived of housing or whatever. One of the things I think that’s interesting is that in a series like Hunger Games, for example, we actually see a critique within that story about what it means to engage in a violent uprising. Because Katniss is kind of used by everyone. A lot of questions are raised, especially toward the end, about whether it’s really going to be any better if the workers rise up. I think part of that is coming out of the fact that in the early 20th century a lot of the soviet revolution was inspired partly by science fiction and also gave birth to a lot of science fiction. Soviet science fiction is very much an important part of the whole history of the genre. At the same time, I don’t think anyone would have a hard time agreeing that life in the Soviet Union didn’t turn out to be as great as we hoped based on the science fiction that inspired it. It was not a worker’s paradise. It may have been ruled by people who didn’t come from the traditional aristocratic classes but it ended up being horribly oppressive for new reasons. Science fiction is still coping with that and trying to figure it out. And so you see that theme in a lot of science fiction, especially in the mid-20th century up to now, really. It forces us to ask what does come after capitalism. We’ve been talking about stories where people are kind of coping with it, or fighting against it, or they’re just sort of overwhelmed by it, but what happens in science fiction where we’ve kind of gotten past it? What are some of the ways that science fiction helps us imagine other systems?
Charlie Jane: [00:17:22] I mean, it’s interesting, because I think that for us, like, thinking of the moment of history we’re in now and trying to imagine what it’ll look like after capitalism, it’s sort of like trying to imagine life after The Singularity, which is that famous kind of computer nerd rapture thing where basically computers are going to get so incredibly advanced that reality itself will be changed. Everybody is going to live forever, we’re all going to learn how to fly. We’re going to be like the people in the Fame theme song.
It’s really hard to imagine a world after capitalism. And in some ways it’s easier to imagine just going to another planet and visiting a society where they’ve organized it in a different way from the beginning, and we do have science fiction stories where we visit alien worlds and they have a different economic system or they have a different social arrangement. You have things like Octavia Butler, where aliens show up and they’re like, “We don’t have the idea of hierarchy. Hierarchy is dangerous.” And I think obviously if you remove the concept of hierarchy, capitalism kind of collapses under its own weight immediately.
[00:18:25] When you try to imagine a post-capitalist Earth, like our real world, only in the future after capitalism, it’s really difficult to do that, because part of what capitalism does, as you said, is it kind of creates this pervasive illusion that kind of is all around us and inside us and that it’s—every time we eat or buy something or go anywhere, we’re kind of participating in this thing, and it kind of has this sense of like permanence and natural-ness. We can’t imagine not existing in that system. So it’s hard to imagine, and so I feel like two of the ways that science fiction kind of engages with the idea of a world after capitalism is either the kind of optimistic scenario, which is that we have a socialist utopia of some sort which usually but always goes along with some kind of post-scarcity society and actually here’s a clip from Star Trek Next Generation where Captain Picard describes in very general terms what that would be like.
Star Trek Clip: [00:19:27] A lot has changed in the past 300 years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We’ve eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy.
Charlie Jane: [00:19:41] And part of what I love about Captain Picard saying that, and about how TNG in particular depicts this idea, is that it’s not just that we’ve gotten rid of the idea of accumulating possessions and all that ego-driven kind of whoever has the most toys wins, as Artie from Warehouse 13 kind of says to Data in that one episode, but we also have kind of rethought our focus and realized that control over your own destiny in the way that money lets you have in a capitalist system is always an illusion. You never really control your own destiny, and also, the real prize is knowing yourself and developing your own potential and like, learning to paint. Learning to play the trombone, like Riker, or…
Annalee: [00:20:23] Learning to do stand-up comedy, like Data.
Charlie Jane: [00:20:25] Learning from Joe Pescapo, like Data. Like, learning from the best. And I think that that’s really, it’s kind of sweet and nice. Obviously there’s a lot of questions about that, like Manu Saadia in his book Trekonomics, tries to delve exactly into how this would work, and like, when we see Ben Cisco’s dad operating a restaurant, like a Cajun restaurant in that one Deep Space 9 episode, how does he decide who to give Cajun food to? Does he charge money? Does he—how does that work? We’re never really told. We don’t actually know how his restaurant operates and exactly how he gets ingredients. I guess he replicates them maybe. Or he has some arrangement, but…
Annalee: [00:21:07] I mean that’s a big part of this post-scarcity fantasy, right? Is it really depends on having endless resources. I mean, that’s the meaning of post-scarcity. But like, it… you have to have some kind of MacGuffin. You have to have a replicator. Iain M. Banks’s novels, they have basically replicators. They can live forever. They can upload their brains. In Walkaway, Cory Doctorow’s latest novel, he kind of pins the post-scarcity revolution on eliminating death. So that life itself is no longer scarce. So, once you can eliminate death through uploads, that’s the moment when we have that kind of singularity that you were describing. Not the AI singularity, but the post-capitalist singularity. I think Cory’s idea’s a very popular one. He’s not the only person to think that up. But I think there’s other ways that we can get there, too. It doesn’t have to be that we learn to be angels inside virtual reality or whatever, right?
Charlie Jane: [00:22:05] I mean, first of all, I think that it’s weird and interesting that we can’t imagine a post-capitalist world without some kind of miraculous black-box technology that just kind of gets rid of a lot of the constraints that we’re facing right now. I feel like, the first half of Walkaway, Cory Doctorow’s novel, kind of gestures at the idea that we could have a post-capitalist world without that, and then at some point he introduces uploads and then the book kind of shifts and becomes about what if we got rid of death? I also think that it’s interesting because we already have enough resources to eliminate scarcity now. We don’t have unlimited resources but we have enough, and the only reason why we have scarcity is because we’ve decided as a society that we want certain people to have so much stuff that there’s not enough for everybody else. And if we only got rid of that idea, the hierarchy idea, then we wouldn’t have to worry about that.
[00:22:57] But yeah, so that’s the optimistic scenario. It’s like, some kind of post-scarcity thing, some kind of socialist utopia, where we’ve realized that it’s immature and kind of selfish to try to accumulate as much stuff as possible for one individual. The sort of pessimistic view is the kind of post-apocalyptic, kind of collapse of civilization, return to some kind of feudal civilization… some kind of falling back to an earlier state because capitalism was as good as we could possibly do and we couldn’t sustain it and so now we’re just going back to something worse, basically.
[00:23:32] I’ve just been watching this show Into the Badlands and that’s a perfect example, it’s—
Annalee: [00:23:35] I love that show.
Charlie Jane: [00:23:36] I don’t think they have—I mean maybe they have money. They have gold. I guess there’s a whole subplot involving gold.
Annalee: [00:23:40] Yeah, they have gold. They opium. They have oil. It’s a very like, if you’re a gamer, like this is a perfect like gamer world, because it’s like very simple. It’s like there’s the five different houses—
Charlie Jane: [00:23:49] Barons.
Annalee: [00:23:49] –and they each have—yeah, the barons. And they each have their own thing and they have their own banners and their own colors and like, it’s delightful. There’s a lot of fighting. A lot of martial arts.
Charlie Jane: [00:23:59] And the one baron wears red, but for some reason nobody ever calls him The Red Baron, which seems like a huge missed opportunity, but you know, so… Into the Badlands is a perfect example of “we’ve returned to feudalism.” Because, basically there’s a feudal lord. There’s the serfs. There’s his like, knights or whatever. And it’s like explicitly, like, once capitalism goes away, we return to feudalism. That’s just what happens.
[00:24:20] So I think that those are kind of the two main things that you see a lot of, is the kind of utopian and dystopian post-capitalist world. There’s not very often post-capitalist worlds that are just sort of in the middle where it’s like, you know, we didn’t eliminate scarcity and need entirely. We didn’t invent a magic device that just gets rid of a bunch of the constraints that we’re under, but we also found a way to get rid of some of the exploitation that was happening under capitalism. You don’t see those as often. Maybe Infomocracy a little bit, by Malka Older.
Annalee: [00:24:53] Gosh, those books are so great. I really—I want to—I could talk about them for the whole episode. I was trying to think about the thing you were saying about feudalism and whether there’s ever like a happy feudalism. And I feel like actually I was just re-watching the first Lord of the Rings movie for reasons, and it’s actually… Hobbiton, the Shire, is kind of happy feudalism, I want to say. Or maybe it’s like early mercanitilism or something like that. But it’s very peaceful and like, everyone’s just sort of smoking pot, and like eating yummy cheese and stuff like that. And farming. It’s agricultural. But that’s fantasy, it’s not scifi, and it’s not really the future, right? It’s like the past of an alternate world or whatever. So, we don’t really…
Charlie Jane: [00:25:33] It’s the idealized. Yeah. Past.
Annalee: [00:25:36] It’s the pastoral, idealized blibbity-blib. Yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:25:38] And fantasy is full of worlds which offer kind of various alternatives to capitalism, but they’re often kind of gauzy and it’s like, sort of happy rural pleasant, bucolic, whatever you want to say, kind of stuff. I think that part of it is that science fiction, its roots, as you said, its roots are in the industrial revolution. Its roots are in kind of the rise of colonialism and a lot of science fiction is explicitly colonialist and is explicitly about: we’re going to go out and find new worlds and exploit them. I mean, and make friends with them.
Annalee: [00:26:10] That’s how you expand the economy, is by colonizing. I mean, literally in the 19th century that was what major powers were doing, both in the west and in the east and I think that’s part of what we, I mean it’s built into scifi, right? We will go colonize these worlds and get cool shit, right? And hopefully hook up with a hot green dude while we’re there, you know, I don’t know.
Charlie Jane: [00:26:32] I think that’s part of the logic of science fiction, is that we are going to keep expanding and growing and discovering and building and so we can’t imagine a world where we basically kind of slow down that, or where we stop thinking in terms of like, endlessly being able to exploit more stuff because that’s kind of in the DNA of science fiction. So, when we imagine a happy post-capitalist world, it’s always one where there’s just endless amounts of stuff. Like, we’ve gotten rid of the limits to our ability to exploit stuff because there’s just endless stuff.
Annalee: [00:27:02] Yes, forever exploitation. So, that reminds me of what you were saying about Stanley Chan’s novel, Waste Tide, which is really about the dark side of capitalism, but also about environmental destruction, right? And it’s sort of tying the problems of capitalism to the problems of unsustainable production and pollution. Stanley’s not the only one, I mean there’s the whole subgenre now of people thinking about these issues. Jeff VanderMeer is like one of the more famous people who’s dealing with this question of how ecology fits into economics in the future, and so I’m wondering, do you think that part of thinking about life after capitalism, does that involve thinking about environmental collapse, or thinking about the opposite, somehow actually creating a sustainable relationship with the environment.
Charlie Jane: [00:27:55] I think that the two things are completely inseparable, and I think that part of when we imagine the end of capitalism, there’s almost always a component of ecological collapse because part of how capitalism has fueled itself is through exploitation of natural resources at an unsustainable rate, and you have multiple unsustainable systems operating at the same time. You have a financial system that kind of wants to accumulate more and more debt and more more and leverage and more and more wants to keep growing at a crazy rate, and you have this exploitation of the environment that’s also unsustainable. You have farming practices that are unsustainable. Capitalism is basically like a Jenga tower that we’re just building out of all these things that can’t possibly go on. The only iron-clad rule of economics is that if something can’t go on forever, it won’t. Inevitably…
Annalee: [00:28:40] That’s like a rule of physics, too, I think.
Charlie Jane: [00:28:43] I mean, it’s true. But I think economists always cite that as the one thing that we know for sure, is that if you can see something and like, you’re like, this can’t go on forever, then you have to assume it won’t go on forever and that has to shape your overarching assumptions. So, I think that when we imagine the end of capitalism, it inevitably involves collapses of some of these unsustainable systems and it’s a disruption and then you have things like N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, you have a whole bunch of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels where he kind of deals with this. Also Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller has a lot of stuff about this.
Annalee: [00:29:15] And I feel like Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series is also—I mean, it’s explicitly about colonial conquest of planets for natural resources and why that is unsustainable, and in fact we watch it collapsing in the trilogy. I don’t think that’s a spoiler, by the way.
Charlie Jane: [00:29:29] Right, and Avatar.
Annalee: [00:29:30] Yes. In fact, before this episode, you and I talked about should we talk about Avatar, because it has this whole problematic white savior thing, let’s set aside our feelings about white saviors, because we have many feelings about that, but it is about how environmental destruction and capitalist accumulation are like best buddies. They go hand-in-hand.
Charlie Jane: [00:29:50] Here and now, in 2018, in the middle of capitalism, in like the throes of late capitalism, how do we imagine worlds beyond capitalism? How do we survive capitalism? How do we kind of situate ourselves in a way that we can kind of get through capitalism without being turned into drones or whatever.
Annalee: [00:30:12] Without being turned into batteries in someone else’s machine.
Charlie Jane: [00:30:16] Exactly.
Annalee: [00:30:18] People who care about capitalism in a kind of critical way often talk about being in late capitalism, which I think is… very optimistic. I think, like you said, I think we are in the middle of capitalism. If you consider how long feudal economics lasted, if you consider how long the kind of economic systems of the ancient world lasted, I mean, these were systems that lasted for centuries and in some cases millennia and capitalism has not yet conquered every tiny part of the earth, yet. It has not yet colonized our minds completely. It hasn’t colonized the rest of the solar system. I think we’ve got a lot more capitalism to go, and so the question, then, becomes, what does science fiction suggest the pathway out is? You can be on the pathway out for a long time and still be within that crazy illusion. Within the Matrix, you can still be trying to find your way out and kind of nibbling on little pieces of the red pill and little bits at a time.
Charlie Jane: [00:31:18] Try to find a payphone. Like where’s the payphone?
Annalee: [00:31:20] Where’s the phone that makes capitalism end. And unfortunately that phone, you know, it’s far away. I think we do take a lot of solace in stories about revolution and about how a hero is gonna come and make things better for groups of people who have been cast out of middle class life, or cast out of the good life, affluence, and I don’t know that that’s the right way. I think that other stories are about, as we’ve been talking about, removing your illusions, so about kind of ripping away what you’re told to think and sort of seeing the truth of like how, to go back to my Adidas sneakers, how were those really made? I think there’s a lot of social movements around showing sweatshop conditions and exposing what the true labor conditions are so they’re sort of being critical about it.
[00:32:11] But then I think, there’s also these questions that are raised by what you were just talking about. Like, do we want to try to aim ourselves in the direction of post-scarcity? Do we want to try to aim ourselves in the direction of environmental sustainability which is almost the opposite. Charles Mann’s latest book, The Wizard and the Prophet is kind of about this question, like which direction do we go? And he kind of feels like we’re at a crossroads where we have to pick one or the other and like we’re not going to be able to do both at the same time, which I totally disagree with. I think there’s got to be a middle path.
Charlie Jane: [00:32:43] Part of what I was thinking about before this episode was the question of indirect costs and social costs, and environmental sustainability is at the center of that, because if I build a factory, or I build a hog lagoon, or I build—I used to live in North Carolina, and I remember the hog lagoons. They’re horrible. If I build a factory and I’m polluting a river that a bunch of people use for drinking water, I don’t pay the costs of that pollution. I don’t pay the medical bills of the people who drink the water from that river. I don’t pay the costs to fishers whose fish, fishing supplies have been impacted by me polluting that river. I only pay the costs of building my factory, and like, paying my workers, and in an ideal world we would make sure that whoever builds that factory, pays all of the costs associated with it, including the associated social costs. And to think about all of the costs that aren’t directly related, and that would change the logic of capitalism implicitly, because it would no longer be quite so cheap to just go out and exploit lots of things and people, because we would have to really think about the kind of knock-on effects of our exploitation, rather than just the immediate costs. And I think that’s part of it. Also, the thing that Captain Picard talks about, the whole question of ownership and accumulating goods and seeing ourselves as power or successful because of our accumulation of resources as individuals or as corporations. We need to chip away with that. We need science fiction and fantasy stories that chip away at that idea, and we need to just keep questioning our reliance, as Octavia Butler would say, on hierarchy and on being the top of the heap. And, actually before we were recording this episode, you were saying something really interesting about other kinds of labor that aren’t compensated in our capitalist society.
Annalee: [00:34:29] Yeah, and I think that that directly fits into what you were saying about the unacknowledged costs of a lot of the kind of work that we do, and emotional labor is one of those costs. Parenting is one of those costs. In order to reproduce ourselves as a civilization, we need lots of people who are raising children. One of the illusions that the Matrix jams into our brains when it plugs into our heads is it says, oh, rearing children isn’t labor. That’s just something you do out of love. And it’s like, oh yeah? If that’s true, then why do women have to stay home and do it for all those hours? What are they doing? Are they just jacking off during that time and watching TV?
Charlie Jane: [00:35:09] Oh, God.
Annalee: [00:35:09] No, fuck you. Okay? They’re doing work, and that is central to thinking about how capitalism might function a little better, is compensating people for doing that kind of labor. The most important labor. It’s the same thing with education, it’s the same thing with caregiving labor. These are fields, like, say, nursing, or health aides, or teachers who are among the most degraded and uncompensated laborers in our culture, and who are actually doing the work that is the most important. This is literally the work of making sure that human beings are healthy and survive and are able to do all this fancy colonizing and other crap that you want to do with the fucking hog ponds and stuff. Sorry to get a little worked up about this, I have a lot of feelings.
Charlie Jane: [00:35:59] I mean, so do I, and I think that you’re absolutely right and part of what we need to do to imagine past capitalism, and also reshape the world we’re living in right now is to really focus on all of the people who are being underpaid, including factory workers, but also including teachers and home health aides and everybody.
Annalee: [00:36:20] And mothers and fathers.
Charlie Jane: [00:36:20] And mothers… and all of the ways in which people are not being compensated…
Annalee: [00:36:23] And nonbinary parents.
Charlie Jane: [00:36:25] For their labor, and I think that when we chip away at the logic of capitalism with—through things like that, and through things like acknowledging the indirect costs of building a factory, we start to kind of see outside of the Matrix a little bit, maybe.
Annalee: [00:36:40] Yeah, I think that that’s right. Basically, there is hope, and I think, again, the thing that’s great about science fiction is it shows you that path as we were saying. It’s a pathway to the payphone that takes you out of the illusion and it doesn’t mean that science fiction predicts exactly how we’re gonna do it. We may not have an armed uprising, it may bne something way more complicated than that, or it may be a series of uprisings that take a form that we can’t even imagine. But we can always be on that path. We can be trying to get out of a system that we think is unfair. And, even if we don’t get to see in our lifetime how that system goes away, we can still be trying to be on that road.
[00:37:23] Transition music plays. Drums with a bass line including bass drops.
Annalee: [00:37:30] We are gonna switch gears just to do a final segment on what we’re obsessed with this time period. This two week time period.
Charlie Jane: [00:37:40] This fortnight.
Annalee: [00:37:40] This fortnight. Yes, oh my God.
Charlie Jane: [00:37:41] Our fortnightly session.
Annalee: [00:37:43] Why have we not been using the world fortnight repeatedly on this show? So, Charlie Jane, this fortnight, what are you obsessed with?
Charlie Jane: [00:37:51] So, my fortnight, incidentally, is a pillow fortnight.
Annalee: [00:37:58] Even better.
Charlie Jane: [00:37:58] So it’s a very soft and plushy fortnight.
Annalee: [00:37:59] Is that like 15 days, just throw in an extra.
Charlie Jane: [00:38:02] Yeah, it’s a baker’s fortnight. But I’ve been really obsessed with this Brazilian science fiction TV show called 3%, which is a Netflix Original. It’s on Netflix. It’s actually more popular worldwide than Stranger Things and 13 Reasons Why and a bunch of other big Netflix shows. It is actually directly related to what we’ve been talking about in this episode, because it’s a sort of future dystopia in which the wealthy few or the lucky few, I guess, live in like a luxurious post-scarcity beautiful place full of amazing technological miracles called the offshore. And the rest of humanity, the other 97% live in slums. Live in total squalor with basically nothing really works. Everything is screwed up. Everybody is just living in their own filth. When you turn 18, you are given the opportunity to take a series of tests and to go through a whole program that if you pass, you can go live in the offshore and be one of the wealthy few. The first season, especially, is about a group of teenagers who go through these tests and it’s very kind of like, the basic concept is very kind of cookie-cutter dystopia. It’s very Hunger Games. It’s very similar to a lot of these other things, and it’s very much commenting on the same ideas as the Hunger Games. But the characters are great. The performances are really fun. I’ve been watching it partly to learn Portuguese, and so that’s been really fun.
[00:39:24] But also, it kind of slowly turns into this really nuanced and kind of very incisive commentary on the question of meritocracy and what does it mean to say that we’re choosing the best people. That the people who have the most merit are the ones who are getting to become part of the elite. And it kind of shows very carefully over a period of time how meritocracy is a myth. How it’s actually in some ways choosing the worst people and also how it’s based on a bunch of bullshit about social roles that we’ve all internalized. And it’s great because part of the logic of our current system is that we live in a meritocracy and that if you are really smart and work hard you will rise to the top of the heap by pulling on your own bootstraps or whatever. And it’s actually—it’s a genuinely thrilling, exciting show. Season two is a little bit more convoluted but it’s still really entertaining and awesome and I can’t wait for season three.
[00:40:17] So, what are you obsessed with now?
Annalee: [00:40:19] I’m excited about a new book, a non-fiction book called The Poison Squad by Deborah Blum who is a Pulitzer Prize winning science journalist. Her previous, really famous book, she’s written a bunch of books, but her previous famous book is also about poison, and it was called The Poisoner’s Handbook and it was made into a PBS documentary and it was really great. She loves writing about history and people being poisoned, basically.
[00:40:47] So, The Poisoner’s Handbook was about early forensic analysts who figured out how to trace poison in murderers. And, The Poison Squad is about the beginning of our food and drug laws in the late 19th century and the heroic scientists, chemists, who started lobbying the government, or lobbying from within the government to get some rules about what you’re allowed to put in food. And Deborah’s a friend of ours and she’s been scaring us for years with stories about this. She’s been researching this book for, I don’t know… almost six or seven years. It’s incredibly, meticulously, recreating history in the 19th century, and she’s a great writer. She loves crime novels and you can tell. Like, it feels like you’re reading a crime novel where the victims are all the people who are eating food that’s like… For example, milk used to be cut with formaldehyde, and there were all these creepy additives and Deborah was telling us that people would sell milk out of carts in New York City and other big cities, and to make the milk look really nice and frothy they would take animal brains and froth the brains and put them in the milk along with the formaldehyde. So, you’d be buying basically this mix of like rancid organ meat. So, this had to be stopped and the book is just this incredibly great story about the people involved in figuring out which foods were poisoned. There’s some pretty weird heroes, like the guy who founded Heinz, the Heinz ketchup empire was actually an early proponent of natural foods, basically and putting ingredients on the label and stuff like that. It’s really fun, it’s out now. It’s called The Poison Squad, and I highly recommend it.
Charlie Jane: [00:42:29] Awesome. Well, that’s our show. Thanks so much to Chris Palmer for the music and to Veronica Simonetti for production, and if you enjoyed our show please subscribe on Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, Stitcher, or any place else that podcasts are found.
Annalee: [00:42:43] And leave a review on Apple podcasts or whatever because it helps people find us if they can get a review.
Charlie Jane: [00:42:48] Please leave a review, yeah.
Annalee: [00:42:48] You can follow us on Twitter at @OOACpod.Twitter. Sorry.
Charlie Jane: [00:42:55] Twitter.com/OOACpod.
Annalee: [00:42:59] I know how to do internets.
Charlie Jane: [00:43:00] And we’re also on Facebook as Our Opinions Are Correct, and we’ll be back in two weeks. Thanks a lot.
Annalee: [00:43:05] Buh-bye.
Charlie Jane: [00:43:06] Bye.
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