Kim Stanley Robinson: social democracy on a terraformed Mars

Science fiction: Aiming for the mixed economy

Even in science fiction the left’s horizons have shrunk, says Eddie Ford

As this paper has consistently argued, the present-day left is completely lacking in self-belief - suffering from a collective identity crisis. The ‘vision thing’ has gone. Who are we and what do we stand for? From reading the left’s often boring publications or attending its meetings, you get almost no sense that Marxism is powerful because it is true or that the working class is the agency for revolutionary change - more like a permanent slave class, grateful for every small crumb it gets from the master’s table. Not that the working class gets many of those these days.

In fact, the situation is worse than that. Large sections of the left deride the very idea of putting forward an unambiguously revolutionary perspective or programme, convinced that no-one will listen if we start talking about “dead Russians” or socialism, let alone something as mad as communism - doesn’t everyone associate that with Stalinism and tyranny, right?

This morbid fear of revolutionary politics is a dreary feature of all the ‘unity’ projects: Socialist Labour Party, Socialist Alliance, Respect, Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, etc. Now, of course, we have Left Unity, which regrettably has adopted the hopelessly eclectic Left Party Platform as the official aims of the new party. Instead of boldly describing the society of the future that we want to usher in, our maximum programme, LU is committed to a woolly wish-list or “alternative set of values” that many a clause four socialist or bog-standard left Keynesian could sign up to - “equality and justice”, “feminist”, “environmentalist”, “against all forms of discrimination”, etc. Against all things that are bad and for all things that are good.

Comrade Tom Walker perhaps summed up the lowest-common-denominator approach at LU’s founding conference with his disingenuous comments that he does not want to be in a party which requires a “socialist entrance exam” (who apart from the Socialist Party of Great Britain has ever argued that?), but rather one where he can rub shoulders with “anarchists and autonomists.”1 A very “broad” party.

Why the timidity? The lack of clarity? The desire to blur programmatic differences? It is clear that the left no longer believes it can win. That what it needs to aim for is not the rule of the working class and human liberation, but something much, much more modest. Given the domination of one particular story in current news reporting, it is worthwhile contrasting this lack of self-belief with Nelson Mandela and the leadership of the African National Congress. They always knew that their struggle against apartheid would be successful. That is what imbued courage, spurred them in action and enabled them to endure years of exile or harsh prison sentences.

Not surprisingly, the left’s low horizons are reflected in the field of literature, not least in science fiction. For example, we have Richard Morgan’s Market forces (London 2004), dedicated to all those globally whose “lives has been wrecked or snuffed out by the great neoliberal dream and slash-and-burn globalisation”.2 Career advancement in 2049 is not based on meritocracy, political wheeling and dealing or any soft-soap crap like that - rather executives can issue Mad Max-style challenges to each other, which are usually fought to the death on empty highways. It is an unrelentingly bleak story of mega-capitalism, where monstrous corporations are unfettered by any sort of democratic control or accountability, constantly battling to rule entire countries and use humans being as disposable pawns. Resistance is futile.

However, one particularly interesting - and instructive - example is the novel, 2312, by the much lauded Kim Stanley Robinson.3 Robinson specialises in highly speculative stories or ‘thought experiments’ that explore often utopian alternatives to modern capitalism - one of his primary themes being ecological sustainability. His best known work is undoubtedly the Mars trilogy written between 1993 and 1996 (Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars). In this series capitalism is presented as an outgrowth of feudalism, which needs to be replaced by a more democratic economic system. Then there is Pacific edge, which looks at, and attacks, the legal framework behind corporate domination and explores more socially egalitarian alternatives. Therefore it is not entirely for nothing that Robinson’s fiction has been described as “probably the most successful attempt to reach a mass audience with an anti-capitalist utopian vision since Ursula K Le Guin’s 1974 novel, The dispossessed4 - and in that sense you can place him with other socialist science fiction writers like Ken MacLeod and the late Iain Banks.

However, with 2312 things are different - this is clearly a dystopian and pessimistic work, for all the shiny, whizz-bang technology and epic scope. More to the point, the political agenda underpinning the book is totally muddled and ultimately backward-looking.

Anyhow, 300 years from now there has been a revolution - that is the good news. But the bad news is that it did not happen on Earth, but rather on a fully terraformed Mars, and this revolution has spread to Mercury, Venus, the moons of Saturn and beyond - humans now have a presence on all the habitable surfaces within the solar system, and almost all of the solar system’s asteroids have been hollowed out to form ‘terrariums’ - complete with an artificial environment designed to mimic various biomes5 found on Earth. In this solar-wide system, known as the Mondragon, capitalism has been relegated to the margins and replaced by a planned economy based on that old SF McGuffin - yes, super-advanced quantum computers possessing staggering levels of artificial intelligence (‘quibes’) that have been miniaturised enough to be painlessly implanted into people’s heads or retinas. Thanks to this miraculous technology, humanity in the Mondragon is able to flourish. One particular development is that gender and sexuality is highly fluid. Many people, handily, have both penises and vaginas.

Earth, on the other hand, itself suffers under the cruel heel of capitalist oppression and ecological devastation. As Robinson explains, “And there were still powerful nation-states that were also corporate conglomerates, the two overlapping in Keynesian disarray, with the residual but powerful capitalist system ruling much of the planet and containing within it its own residual feudalism, there to fight forever against the serfs, meaning also against the horizontalised economy emerging within the Mondragon. No, Earth was a mess, a sad place” (p90). As for workers, they were “not only the cheapest robots around”, but for many tasks “the only robots that could do the job” - just “give them three thousand calories a day”, a “little time off” occasionally and “you could work them at almost anything”; indeed, give them “some ameliorative drugs and you had a working class, reified and cog-like” (p307).

The main thrust of the story involves a cadre of individuals (‘spacers’) spread across the solar system intent on sparking resistance to the hated ruling class on Earth, the main dilemma being how to jump-start the revolution and save the Earth’s biosphere without using the “immensely powerful terraforming techniques” - no “slamming comets” into Earth, for instance (p90). We discover that the origins of humanity’s great leap into off-planet space settlements is precisely a consequence of the very failure to transform the social order in time to stave off ecological apocalypse. Hence we read that with the “success of the Martian revolution” and the “emergence of its single planet-wide social-democratic system”, the gates were opened for the rest of the solar system to follow - and, though many space settlements remained colonies of Terran nations and combines, the “ultimate result was a patchwork of systems somewhat resembling anarchy” (my emphasis, p127).

Entertaining though it is, the problem with Robinson’s schema is fairly obvious. The downtrodden workers on Earth are a crushed slave class not too dissimilar to Morgan’s 2049 workers. Their ‘revolution’ depends entirely on outside intervention from the more advanced ‘spacers’ - saviours on horseback, or should we say spacecraft? Self-activity and revolution is ruled out, though I suppose you could argue that socialism on one planet is impossible anyway. The Mondragon ‘empire’, as we have seen, is a benevolent form of social democracy - quibes and all. It is surely meant to represent some form of progressive advance or model.

Yet it is fundamentally fallacious to present social democracy in such a timeless, ahistorical fashion - even with science fictional escape clauses. The real social democratic settlement came into being under the concrete circumstances arising after World War II. As the war came to a close, the bourgeoisie was faced with a powerful working class movement, plus the threat (real or imaginary) from the Soviet bureaucracy. In order to prevent revolution and keep itself in power, the ruling class had to make substantial concessions - anything else would have been suicidal. They did not do it out of generosity or the invention of some super-gizmo, that is for sure. One consequence of this deal was that the power of the organised working class grew - though in contradictory ways - until the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the bourgeoisie finally pulled the plug and went for financialisation as a form of class revenge. All features of capitalist decline.

This being the case, any project which aims to go back to 1945 and recreate social democracy would require a world war and replacing US imperialism with ... what, China? Thus the very idea of a new, benign social democracy is nonsense.

In the hands of an imaginative SF writer it is harmless nonsense - and, hey, who would not want to be a walking quantum computer with both a penis and a vagina on an off-world space settlement? But in the hands of today’s left it is dangerous nonsense, given that many of them do want to recreate another Labour Party - albeit a slightly more leftwing and ‘right on’ version of it. But sowing illusions in the busted flush of Labourism/social democracy is the road to disaster. The only rational and viable alternative to capitalism is communism - a world system predicated on production for human need and not private profit or gain. If we want to serve the working class, and not mislead them, we need to say this loudly and clearly - and honestly.



1. Would they be the same “anarchists and autonomists” who are burning copies of Socialist Worker on Sussex University campus? See http:// sussexasn.tumblr.com/post/69499029324/swp-off-campus.

2. www.amazon.com/Market-Forces-Richard-K-Morgan/dp/0345457749.

3. London 2012.

4. www.raintaxi.com/online/2001summer/robin­son.shtml.

5. Biomes are climatically and geographically defined as contiguous areas with similar climatic conditions on the Earth, such as communities of plants, animals, and soil organisms - and are often referred to as ‘ecosystems’.