I don’t normally comment in these essays on the political affairs of other countries. As I’ve noted more than once here, the last thing the rest of the world needs is one more clueless American telling everyone else on the planet what to do. What’s more, as the United States busies itself flailing blindly and ineffectually at the consequences that its own idiotically shortsighted decisions have brought down upon it, those of us who live here have our work cut out for us already.
That said, a sign I’ve been awaiting for quite some time has appeared on the horizon—the first rumble of a tectonic shift that will leave few things unchanged. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t happen in the United States, but I was somewhat startled to see where it did happen. That would be in Britain, where Jeremy Corbyn has just been elected head of Britain’s Labour Party.
Those of my readers who don’t follow British politics may not know just how spectacular a change Corbyn’s election marks. In the late1990s, under the leadership of Tony Blair, the Labour Party did what erstwhile left-wing parties were doing all over the industrial world: it ditched the egalitarian commitments that had guided it in prior decades, and instead embraced a set of policies that were indistinguishable from those of its conservative opponents—the same thing, for example, that the Democratic party did here in the US. As a result, voters going to the polls found that their supposed right to shape the destiny of their nations at the voting booth had been reduced to irrelevance, since every party with a shot at power embraced the same set of political and economic policies.
That might have been bearable if the policies in question worked, but they didn’t, they don’t, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that they never will. Proponents of the neoliberal consensus—I probably have to explain that label, don’t I? It’s a source of wry amusement to anybody who knows the first thing about the history of political economy that the viewpoint considered “conservative” in today’s America is what used to be known as liberalism, and still has that label in economics. Unrestricted free trade, no government interference in business affairs, no government protections for the poor, and an expansionist and militaristic foreign policy: these were the trademarks of liberal political and economic thought all through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Those same policies came back into fashion as neoliberal economics, and as “conservative” politics, in the late twentieth century. Since then, proponents of neoliberalism have insisted that deregulation for industry and finance, tax cuts and government handouts for the rich, a rising spiral of punitive austerity measures for the poor, and a violent and amoral foreign policy obsessed with dominating the Middle East by force, would bring economic stability and prosperity at home and maintain peace overseas. That was the sales pitch that was used to sell these policies. I think most people have begun to notice by now, though, that the policies in question have had precisely the opposite effect, not just once but wherever and whenever they’ve been tried.
I encourage my readers, especially those who favor the neoliberal policies just outlined, to stop and think about that for a moment. Around the globe, where businesses have been deregulated, taxes cut for the rich and government money poured into their hands, harsh austerity measures imposed on the poor, and foreign policy turned into a set of excuses for lobbing bombs at Middle Eastern countries, stability, prosperity, and peace have not been forthcoming—in fact, quite the contrary. At best, neoliberal policies bring a brief burst of relative prosperity, followed by a long slide into increasingly intractable crisis; at worst, you go straight into the crisis phase, and then things just keep getting worse.
Logically speaking, if the policies you propose don’t yield the results you expect, you change the policies. That’s not what’s happened so far in this case, though. Quite the contrary, the accelerating failures of neoliberalism have been met across the board by an increasingly angry insistence from the corridors of power that neoliberal policies are the only options there are.
What Jeremy Corbyn’s election shows is that that insistence has just passed its pull date. Corbyn’s an old-fashioned Labourite of the pre-Blair variety, and he’s made it clear for decades that he supports the opposite of the neoliberal consensus: more regulation of finance and industry, higher tax rates and fewer handouts to the rich, more benefits for the poor, and a less aggressive foreign policy. When he entered the race to head the Labour Party after Ed Milliband’s embarrassing electoral defeat earlier this year, party apparatchiks rolled their eyes and insisted that he didn’t have a chance. What they hadn’t noticed, and what the establishment across the industrial world has by and large never noticed either, is that the consensus is only a consensus among a privileged minority, and most people outside those rarefied and self-referential circles will vote against it if they’re given half a chance.
That’s what happened in the Labour Party election. When the ballots were counted, Corbyn had staged a monumental upset, winning by a landslide on the first ballot with a total three times as large as his nearest rival’s. What’s more, since his election, people who’ve stayed out of party politics in Britain have been joining the Labour Party in droves, convinced that at long last they have the chance to have their voices heard. Until and unless he loses a general election or some other Labour Party figure mounts an effective challenge against him, Corbyn’s now the leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition and the heir apparent to No. 10 Downing Street should Labour come out ahead in the next election.
Whether that’s a desirable outcome or not is not something I propose to discuss here, as that choice is up to the people of Great Britain and nobody else. Myself, I’m not a great fan of Corbyn’s variety of socialism, or for that matter most of the others; it seems to me that there are many better ways to run a society—though it’s only fair to say that the neoliberal consensus is not one of these. What makes Jeremy Corbyn’s meteoric rise important is that it shows just how fragile the neoliberal consensus actually is, and how readily it can be overturned by any politician who’s willing to break with it and start addressing the concerns of the eighty to ninety per cent of the population who don’t agree with it.
That fragility need not lead to better things. Here in the United States, Donald Trump remains sky-high in the polls for exactly the same reason Jeremy Corbyn now heads the Labour Party: he’s willing to talk about things the political establishment refuses to discuss. In his case the unspeakable issue is the de facto policy, supported by both parties, of encouraging illegal immigration to the United States in order to drive down wages for the working classes and maintain a facade of prosperity for the privileged.
A great many Americans are concerned about that, and not unreasonably so. Whether allowing mass immigration to the United States is a good idea or not, it’s fair to say that sharply limiting the number of legal immigrants and then turning a blind eye to illegal immigration lands us in the worst of both worlds. The only people who benefit from it are the employers who get to pay substandard wages to illegal immigrants, and the privileged classes whose lifestyles are propped up thereby. Since the voices of the privileged are the only ones that have been let into our collective conversation about politics for the last three and a half decades, the concerns of the broader public haven’t been addressed; now Trump is addressing them, and he just might end up in the White House as a result.
He’s not the only one who’s riding that particular issue to the brink of power. Marine Le Pen, to name just one example, is more or less France’s Donald Trump—though, France being France, she has better fashion sense and a less absurd hairstyle. Europe’s privileged classes encourage unlimited immigration, just like their American equivalents, to force down wages and break the political power of the working classes, and Le Pen’s Front National has harnessed the resentment of all those French voters who have been on the losing end of those policies for decades. Nor is France the only European nation where that’s an explosive issue. The British politicians and pundits who are busy decrying Corbyn’s election just now might want to temper their rage and consider the alternatives: if Corbyn falls, Nigel Farage and the UKIP party are waiting in the wings to harness the public’s frustration with the abject failure of business as usual, and if Farage falls in his turn, what replaces him could be much, much worse.
The mere fact that a failed consensus is cracking at the seams, in other words, does not guarantee that what replaces it will be an improvement. All it means is that there’s an opening through which a range of alternative visions can enter the political conversation of our time, and perhaps find an audience among the disenfranchised and disillusioned. That some such window of opportunity was on its way comes as no surprise; as a student of history, I’ve long taken comfort in the fact that even the most thoroughly entrenched political and economic orthodoxies have finite life spans, and will eventually be hauled out with the trash. Much of what I’ve done over the last nine years on this blog has been a matter of getting ready for the opening of that window, putting certain ideas into circulation among those few who were ready to hear them.
That’s a more important step than I think many people realize. In Germany in the early 1930s, when a failed consensus finally came apart, the only alternative visions that had any significant presence were the Leninist version of Marxian socialism, on the one hand, and a bubbling cauldron of racist fantasies and radical antirationalism on the other; the latter triumphed, and no doubt most of my readers are aware of what followed. In other places and times, less psychotic options have been available, and the results have generally been much better. The Zapatista rebels in southern Mexico a while back favored the slogan “another world is possible,” and of course they’re quite right—but a great deal depends on what kind of other world people are prepared to imagine.
This is why, for example, the last three posts here on The Archdruid Report have been devoted to a narrative describing a future very different from the one that most Americans like to imagine: a future in which the United States slams facefirst into a brick wall of unintended consequences, plunges into a bloody civil war, and fragments thereafter, and in which one of the fragments pursues a set of political and economic policies that go zooming off at right angles to the conventional wisdom of our time. I expect to resume that narrative next week, and to continue it with an assortment of interruptions thereafter, precisely because a less impoverished sense of the possible futures open to us is so crucial in facing the rising spiral of crises that defines our time.
It’s a source of some amusement to me that I’ve fielded a fair number of comments insisting that I have to reshape the narrative just mentioned to fit one or another version of the conventional wisdom. This blog’s focus being what it is, most of them have fixated on one or another aspect of what might as well be called the Ecotopian model—the last really imaginative vision of the future in this country, which was midwifed by Ernest Callenbach in his brilliant 1974 utopian fiction Ecotopia. If you know your way around today’s American Green scene, even if you haven’t read a word Callenbach wrote, you know his ideas, because they still shape an enormous amount of what passes for original thought today.
That’s not a model I’m interested in rehashing. Partly that’s because not that many people outside the San Francisco Bay region find Callenbach’s vision especially appealing; partly it’s because some aspects of the model, notably the claim that solar and wind power can support something akin to modern middle class American lifestyles, haven’t held up well in the light of experience; but it’s also partly because other worlds are also possible. The Ecotopian conventional wisdom is not the only option. It’s an option toward which I have a nostalgic fondness—I was wildly enthusiastic about Callenbach’s book back in the day—but it’s not the only game in town, and all things considered, it’s not the option I would choose today. Thus Retrotopia, as the name suggests, is not going to be full of avid spandex-clad cyclists who dine on the produce of permacultured edible forests, or what have you. It’s heading in directions that are far more threatening to the status quo—including, by the way, the Ecotopian status quo.
The crying need for an abundance of alternative visions of the future, apart from the conventional wisdom of our time, has also driven another core project of this blog, and with that in mind, I’m delighted to announce the winners of this year’s Space Bats challenge. Those of my readers who are new to The Archdruid Report may not know that since 2011, this blog has hosted a series of contests in which readers have submitted short stories set in a variety of deindustrial futures—that is, futures in which industrial society as we know it is a thing of the past, our current complex technologies have faded into legend, and human beings are busy coping with the legacies of the industrial age and leading challenging, interesting, and maybe even appealing lives in that context.
The first Space Bats challenge was a shot in the dark, and to my delighted surprise, it fielded a torrent of fine short stories, the best of which were duly published by Founders House Publishing as an anthology titled After Oil: SF Visions of a Post-Petroleum Future. A second contest duly followed in 2014, and produced two anthologies, After Oil 2: The Years of Crisis and After Oil 3: The Years of Rebirth. The fourth contest was launched in March of this year; as before, I was deluged with an abundance of excellent stories, and had a hard time choosing among them; I owe thanks to everyone who submitted a story and made the choice so difficult; but the following stories will be included in the next anthology, After Oil 4: The Future’s Distant Shores:
“Sail Away Home” by Alma Arri
“Finding Flotsam” by Bill Blondeau
“Alay” by Dau Branchazel
“Crow Turns Over a Rock” by Eric Farnsworth
“Notes for a Picnic” by Phil Harris
“The Remembrancer” by Wylie Harris
“The Bald Eagle, the Lame Duck, and the Cooked Goose” by Jonah Harvey
“The Bald Eagle, the Lame Duck, and the Cooked Goose” by Jonah Harvey
“The Baby” by Nicky Jarman
“Northern Ghosts” by Gaianne Jenkins
“Caretaker Poinciana” by Troy Jones
“Scapegoat” by Cathy McGuire
“Flowering” by John W. Riley
I trust you’ll join me in congratulating the authors and, more to the point, in reading their stories once those see print.
In its own small and idiosyncratic way, my experience with the Space Bats challenge parallels the political earthquake currently shaking the British landscape. All I did was ask readers to come up with stories that broke with the conventional wisdom concerning the future—to set aside the weary, dreary, endlessly rehashed Tomorrowland of spaceships, zap-guns, and linear technological expansion along the same lines we think we’re following today, and imagine something different—and as it turned out, that’s all I had to do. Given the opportunity to write about some less hackneyed future, scores of readers lunged for their keyboards and flooded each contest with quirky, thoughtful, interesting futures...you know, the kind of thing that science fiction used to feature all the time, back before it got sucked into the role of cheerleading for a suffocatingly narrow range of acceptable tomorrows.
There will be another Space Bats challenge, beginning in the spring of next year. I invite my readers to propose potential themes for that challenge—this fourth anthology consists entirely of stories set at least a thousand years in the future, and I’d like to have some equally offbeat focus or limitation on the next contest, in the hope that it will inspire an equally stellar collection of stories.
I’m also pleased to note that the After Oil anthologies and my post-peak novel Star’s Reach are far from the only contributions to a growing genre. Founders House, for example, has also recently published Ralph Meima’s novel Fossil Nation, the first volume of a trilogy, which offers its own lively and readable glimpse at a future that cuts across the conventional wisdom of our time and heads off in new directions. Other projects are in the works, at Founders House and elsewhere.
At the same time, it’s worth remembering that the same process is under way on a much vaster scale, and with much more serious consequences. As the neoliberal consensus shatters and the failure of its policies becomes impossible to ignore any longer, another world is not merely possible, it’s inevitable. The question is purely what ideas, visions, dreams, hopes, and shuddering terrors will shape the world that will emerge from neoliberalism’s smoldering corpse—and that, dear reader, will be determined in part by what you yourself are willing to imagine, to work for, and to struggle for, during the difficult years ahead of us.
One other note may be relevant in this context. Many of the readers of this blog will be familiar with my alternative-future novel Star’s Reach. Ever since it was published, I’ve fielded requests for more fiction set in the same imaginary future, and while I’m flattered by the requests, my fiction is heading in other directions at least for now. As a result, Founders House Publishing and I have been talking about the possibility of transforming the setting of Star’s Reach into a shared world to which many authors can contribute, and doing at least one anthology—and possibly more—of short stories set in 25th-century Meriga, or the wider future in which Trey sunna Gwen and his companions have their place.