Here's a line you may have heard floating around recently (I think it's from the movie The Pervert's Guide To Ideology): "How come it is easier for us to imagine the end of all life on earth – an asteroid hitting the planet – than a modest change in our economic order?" Let me take a crack at this, including how it relates to SF.
The first thing that comes to mind is that it isn't necessarily harder to imagine any such thing at all. What's harder to imagine is something consistent and sustainable. Any number of alternatives to capitalism have bubbled up over the centuries, but they tend to be hard to make workable at the scale demanded when you have seven billion mouths to feed. It's easy to dream, it's easy to dream big. It's hard to make those dreams real in a way that isn't deadly. To pinch a phrase from the Parisian student uprising, it's hard to have dreams that last longer than the night.
I don't want this to be an apology for all the horrible things people can do when they have too much money and not enough scruples. But I get the feeling a lot of the things we hate most about the current economic order are because all the mechanisms we've had for taming the beast have been systematically made into poison pills: strong government protections against monopolies, progressive taxation, representative labor collectives, etc. We all know the mantra: Taxes are bad. Government is bad. Unions are bad. Except as Martin Gardner pointed out in his essay "Why I Am Not A Smithian", it's not about any of these things being bad in themselves. It's about taxes being bad unless it's someone else being taxed, or government regulations being bad unless it's a competitor that's being regulated, or labor movements being bad unless you explicitly control them. What matters is that the discourse about such things has been tainted in favor of people who benefit most from their absence, and that the rest of us, when confronted with such a hypocrisy, simply shrug.
I should pause for a moment and single out the word "modest". It's not even hard at all to imagine modest changes along the lines of all the things I just described, because we had every single one of those things for quite some time before they were turned into political tirefires. The hard part is getting people in power to deal with that. The problem is less with the problems or any imagined solutions to them (because we've had both the problems and the solutions before), and more with the way certain people are afraid of only making billions of dollars instead of tens of billions of dollars.
Capitalism reminds me of democracy in that it's a least-worst solution to human problems that may well be entirely intractable as long as humanity remains recognizably human. The vast majority of human societies, great and small, have invented some form of abstraction of labor -- read: money -- so that tells me the problem of abstraction of labor, especially at anything resembling scale, is a problem as universal as sanitation. It's less some affliction that was visited sadistically upon us by the powerful than it is an emergent phenomenon, a property of life that comes into being when more than two people try to get something done together. Its existence provided, opportunistically, a fine toehold for said powerful to climb all over the rest of us. My sense is, in any world inhabited by people as we know them, we're doomed to invent money in some form. We might as well do it right. If we must have it, then the least we can do is have it in a way that doesn't force each of us to eat our neighbors.
Other kinds of changes are hard to imagine, because they involve changes in social norms most of us are not in the habit of noticing, let alone changing. But once those changes happen, it's hard to imagine life without them. (Chuck Klosterman's book But What If We're Wrong? was about issues like this.) Most such things are not changes in technology or even scientifically informed worldviews, but social convention -- e.g., being explicitly antisexist or antiracist as a social norm, instead of leaving the work of such change to women or nonwhites.
Now I come to the SF part of the discussion: in any world inhabited by people as we know them. Any number of utopian SF stories exist where the problems of labor and wealth and such are assumed to be solved problems. But few of them confront the fact that to do requires changes in human nature that may be impossible to enact in a humane way. To that end, some such stories involve those changes enacted in an inhumane way, as Brave New World did: don't wait for the old guard to get out of the way, just push them off the map and start over. Invent the new human being from whole cloth. The people of Huxley's world were steadfastly untroubled by the idea that some evils are emergent, and that taking a broom to them would sweep away all that they emerged from as well. They just decided to start over. And, in time, found themselves tediously rediscovering hard-won truths: that anything identifiably human is not rational, not even fully scriptable; that as Dostoyevsky put it, we are just as much in love with suffering as we are with joy; and that any society unable to confront this will be fragile.
Utopian thinkers have tangled before, many times, with the idea that the way to construct a new kind of future is with a new kind of human being. In some ways we already do this. We are not our ancestors, not even our own parents, by many measures. Barrows Dunham once noted how the medieval knight now lies buried along with his axe, that the return to some ideal and longed-for past is simply impossible. But there is as much continuity as there is change across the milennia. I sometimes imagine you could take an Assyrian or Babylonian or Egyptian and bring them to our time, and once they got over the shock of the superficially new, they would recognize quite a lot as being essentially unchanged. Many of the same hungers and dreams and pleasures, just in different forms, and many of the same regressive tendencies too. (As one wag put it: "Wage slavery? Is there any other kind?")
We have a hard time imagining a truly new future, a less exploitive and more generous one. Some of that is because we're not in the habit of doing so, or because we're in the habit of doing it only in ways that amount to wish-fulfillment. Star Trek is theoretically about a future where exploitation is passé, but there's never any real examination of how that's possible or sustainable, or what else it might cost. It's not really about any of that stuff; it's just a piece of set dressing. The Ferengi were about as close as the show(s) got to talking directly about it, but they were rarely marshaled in the service of the idea except as a borderline racist caricature of the problem.
The other reason it's hard to imagine anything really new is because continuity is the essence of human experience. We can only think about ourselves in relation to our self-images, something created by our passage through time. (This is why self-help gurus always say stuff like "be better than yesterday".) The more radical the break with the past, the less like ourselves we become -- the less like anything we want to call ourselves we become. If we leap a million years into the future, mentally, it's we who do that leaping, and we bring with us all the unexamined baggage of the present. We can only make the future an inch at a time.
Still, none of that should be an excuse to let existing power tell us what an inch is, or who "we" are. And, most crucially, it should not stop us from dreaming furiously -- not because we're trying to come up with a blueprint for a future to build and step into, but because we're trying to train our imaginations to range wide and leap high, to be more flexible for the sake of whatever comes our way. And to engineer the smaller, more immediate, more directly fruitful changes that need to be made, piecemeal, to bring all of us closer to something ... well, maybe not perfect, but certainly less bad.
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Other Lives Of The Mind