23 November 2009

A SciFi critique of Economic Reason

I was re-reading part of Andre Gorz's essay collection "Capitalism, Socialism, Ecology" this morning, specifically an interview given to John Keane in 1990 entitled "Which Way is Left? Social Change in the Post-Industrial Age", and a particular exchange caught my eye in which Keane asks:
"In all the countries of Europe, from the Atlantic to the Urals, virtually everyone today is in favour of the unhindered play of market mechanisms. Yet in your writings you argue for an increasing restriction of the sphere of commodity exchange. You are one of the few still to claim a central role for planning and for public control of macroeconomic decisions. But aren't market mechanisms, contrary to what Marx thought, something more than - and other than - characteristics of "bourgeois society? Aren't they necessary to some extent, if only to prevent shortages and bottlenecks? And doesn't the idea of abolishing commodity relations to make room for the self-management of production and exchange bear the imprint of last century's egalitarian utopias, which simply cannot be translated into reality?"
to which Gorz replies:
"You are quite right that there can be no complex society without commodity relations or markets. The total abolition of market relations would presuppose the abolition of the social division and specialization of labour, and thus the return to autarkic communities or a society of kibbutzim. Ursula Le Guin conjured up a planetary kibbutz of this kind in her novel The Dispossessed, which is the most striking description I know of the seductions - and snares - of self-managed communist, or in other words, anarchist society."
I can't believe that I didn't pick up on this before, moments like this are the Reese's Peanut Butter Cups of my ecosocialist angst, where someone gets their neo-Marxist chocolate into the peanut butter of my secret SciFi-loving shame. These moments are what made Battlestar Galactica particularly enjoyable, with its Jungian robots in cocktail dresses thrown into a Mormon West-Wing, with the odd drop of Eugene Debs by way of John Henry. Who could resist such a tasty smorgasbord?

Of course "The Dispossessed" is not your typical SciFi book, written in that glorious age of the late 60's and early 70's when a wide range of authors used Science Fiction as a medium for exploring political, religious and cultural conceits in a way that does not seem to be prevalent in more contemporary offerings, where a greater emphasis is placed on space-opera potboilers and the four-colour fantasies of pubescent males.

The importance of this genre for socio-political and cultural exploration was recognised in part by the Nobel committee when it awarded the 2007 Prize for Literature to Doris Lessing, who has never shied away from the label of Science Fiction writer, and while Le Guin is unlikely to be similarly honoured, "The Dispossessed" remains one of the best political examinations in modern fiction.

There is a lesson here for philosophers, economists and political theoreticians though, in that one should feel free to make reference to genre writing as useful thought exercises to support one's current academic modeling, however when doing so one should carefully choose an author that will stand the test of time; Ursula Le Guin is a safe bet, Charlie Stross is not.

I'm looking at you, Krugman.

Gorz and Keane quotes are from the out-of-print but occasionally available "Capitalism, Socialism, Ecology", page 81. You can read the rest of Gorz's response on Google Books on page 82. Interestingly enough the Le Guin quote doesn't appear in the available preview, though the three pages beforehand and the page after do. Make of that what you will.

The Dispossessed is much easier to find

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