Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A Time for Retrovation

It's been a little more than a year now since I started the narrative that wrapped up last week. The two weeks that Peter Carr spent in the Lakeland Republic in late November of 2065 ended up covering a little more ground than I’d originally intended, and of course the vagaries of politics and culture in the twilight years of the American century got their share of attention on this blog. Now that the story’s told and the manuscript is getting its final revisions before heading off to the publisher, I want to talk a bit about exactly what I was trying to do by taking an imaginary person to an imaginary place where things work better than they do here and now.

Part of it, of course, was an attempt to sketch out in detail the practical implications of a point I’ve been exploring on this blog for a good while now. Most people in today’s industrial society believe, or think they believe, in progress: they believe, that is, that human history has a built-in bias that infallibly moves it from worse things to better things over time. These days, that belief in progress most often attaches itself to the increasing complexification of technology, and you get the touching faith in the imminence of a Star Trek future that allows so many people these days to keep slogging through the wretchedly unsatisfactory and steadily worsening conditions of the present.

Faith does not depend on evidence. If that statement needs any further proof, you can get it by watching the way people respond to technological failure. Most of us these days know perfectly well that every software “upgrade” these days has more bugs and fewer useful features than what it replaced, and every round of “new and improved” products hawked by the media and shoveled onto store shelves is more shoddily made, more loaded with unwanted side effects, and less satisfactory than the last round. Somehow, though, a good many of the people who witness this reality, day in and day out, still manage to insist that the future is, or at least ought to be, a paradise propped up by perfectly functioning machines. That the rising tide of technological failure might be something other than an accidental roadbump on the way to utopia—that it might be trying to tell us something that, by and large we don’t want to hear—has not yet entered our society’s darkest dream.

It so happens that in very many cases, older, simpler, sturdier technologies work better, producing more satisfactory outcomes and fewer negative side effects, than their modern high-tech equivalents. After most of two years taking apart the modern mythology of progress in a series of posts that became my book After Progress: Reason and Religion at the End of the Industrial Age, and most of another year doing the more pragmatic posts that are being turned into a forthcoming book tentatively titled The Retro Future, I decided that the best way to pursue the exploration further was to imagine a society very much like ours that had actually noticed the declining quality of technology, and adjusted public policies accordingly. That was the genesis of Retrotopia: the attempt to show, by means of the toolkit of narrative fiction, that deliberate technological regression as public policy didn’t amount to a return to the caves—quite the contrary, it meant a return to things that actually work.

The form that this exploration took, though, was shaped in important ways by an earlier venture of the same kind, Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia. I don’t know how many of my readers realize just how dramatic a change in utopian literature was marked by Callenbach’s solidly written tale. From the days of Thomas More’s novel Utopia, which gave the genre its name, utopian literature worked with the contrast between the world as it is and an ideal world as imagined by the author, without any connection between the two outside of the gimmick, however worked, that got a viewpoint character from one to the other. More’s Utopia was a critique of the England of Henry VIII, but there was never any suggestion on More’s part that England might be expected to turn into Utopia one of these days, and nearly all the utopian tales that followed his embraced the same approach.

With William Morris, things began to shift. Morris was a socialist, and thus believed devoutly that the world could in fact turn into something much better than it was; during the years that his commitment to socialism was at its height, he penned a utopian tale, News from Nowhere, which was set in a future England long after Victorian capitalism had gone gurgling down history’s sewer pipe. (Later on, in the pages of his tremendous fantasy novel The Well at the World’s End, he wove a subtle but pervasive critique of the socialist views he’d championed—socialism appears there in the stark and terrible symbolic form of the Dry Tree—but that’s a subject for a different post entirely.)

News From Nowhere was quite the controversial book in its day, not least because the socialist future Morris imagined was green, agrarian, and entirely free of the mechanized regimentation of humanity that played such a huge role in the Marxist imagination then as now.  Still, the historical thread that linked Morris’ utopia to the present was very thin.  The story was set far off in the future, and Morris skimmed lightly over the process that led from the dark Satanic mills of Victorian England to the green and pleasant land of his imagined socialist England.

That was where Callenbach took hold of the utopian narrative, and hammered it into a completely new shape. Ecotopia was set barely a quarter century in Callenbach’s own future. In his vision, the states of Washington, Oregon, and the northern two-thirds of California had broken away from the United States in 1980, and the usual visitor—journalist William Weston, from what’s left of the United States—came to pay the usual visit in 1999. Over the nineteen years between independence and Weston’s visit, the new nation of Ecotopia had entirely reshaped itself in the image of the Whole Earth Catalog, adopting the technologies, customs, and worldview that San Francisco-area eco-radicals of the 1970s dreamed of establishing, and here and there actually adopted in their own lives.

It really is a tour de force. One measure of its impact is that to this day, when you ask people on the leftward end of things to imagine an ideal future that isn’t just a lightly scrubbed version of the present, dollars will get you organic free range doughnuts that what you’ll hear is some version or other of the Ecotopian future: wind turbines and solar panels, organic farms everywhere, and everyone voluntarily embracing the social customs and attitudes of the San Francisco-area avant-garde circa 1975 in perfect lockstep. While I was writing Retrotopia, until some of my readers got the hang of the fact that I don’t crowdsource my fiction, I fielded any number of comments and emails insisting that I really ought to incorporate this or that or the other aspect of the Ecotopian future into my narrative. I didn’t take offense at that; it was pretty clear to me that for a lot of people nowadays, Ecotopia is literally the only alternative to the status quo that they can imagine.

We’ll get to the broader implications of that last point in a moment. Just now, I want to talk about why I didn’t write a mildly retro version of Ecotopia. I could have; it would have been easy and, frankly, quite entertaining to do that. I’ve imagined more than once writing a tale about somebody from our world who, via some bit of science-fictionish handwaving, is transported to an alternate America in which Ronald Reagan lost the 1980 election, the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant underwent a full-scale Fukushima Daiichi meltdown with tens of thousands of casualties, and the United States had accordingly gone careening ahead toward the sustainable future we almost adopted. I may still write that story someday, but that wasn’t what I chose to do this time around.

Partly, of course, that was because Ernest Callenbach was there already forty years ago. Partly, though, it’s because not all the assumptions that undergirded Ecotopia have worn well in the decades since he wrote. It’s become painfully clear that renewable energy sources, valuable and necessary though they are, can’t simply be dropped into place as a replacement for fossil fuels; huge changes in energy use, embracing issues of energy concentration and accessibility as well as sheer quantity, will have to be made as fossil fuels run out and we have to make do with the enduring power sources of sun, wind, water, and muscle. It’s also become clear, painfully or amusingly as the case may be, that the notions that Sausalito intellectuals thought would save the world back in the 1970s—communal living, casual pansexuality, and the like—had downsides and drawbacks that nobody had gotten around to noticing yet, and weren’t necessarily as liberating and transformative as they seemed at the time.

Ecotopia also fell headlong into both of the standard pitfalls of the contemporary liberal imagination. The first of these is the belief that a perfect society can be attained if we can just abolish diversity of ideas and opinions, and get everyone to believe what the affluent liberal intelligentsia think they ought to believe. That’s why I put ongoing controversies between conservative and restorationist blocs into the story.  It’s also, on another level, why I put in repeated references to religious diversity—thus there are people running for public office in the Lakeland Republic who end an oath of office with “So help me Jesus my Lord and Savior,” just as there are military officers there who spend every Sunday at the Greek Orthodox cathedral in Toledo, and politicians who attend the Atheist Assembly.

The second pitfall, which follows from the first, is the belief that since you can’t get “those people” to have the ideas and opinions you think they ought to have, the proper response is to hole up in a self-referential echo chamber from which all unacceptable views are excluded. Ecotopia assumes implicitly that the United States, and by inference the rest of the world’s nations as well, are utterly irredeemable; the nation of Ecotopia thus barricades itself inside its borders and goes its green and merry way, and the climax of the story comes when William Weston decides to stay in Ecotopia and become one of the good people. (He had a significant other back home in the USA, by the way; what she thought of his decision to dump her for a San Francisco hippie chick is nowhere mentioned.)

We’ll be discussing both those pitfalls at length in future posts, not least because they bid fair to exert a massive influence on contemporary politics, especially but not only in the United States. The point I’d like to make here, though, is just how deep the latter habit runs through the liberal end of our collective imagination. I’m thinking here of another powerful and morally problematic work of fiction to come out of the same era, Ursula K. LeGuin’s haunting story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” The core of the story is that there’s a splendid city, Omelas; its splendor depends on the infliction of suffering on one helpless person; now and again, people get upset by this, and leave the city. It’s stunningly well written but evades a crucial question: does walking away do anything to change the situation, or does it just let the ones who walk away from Omelas feel morally superior?

That was one of the reasons why the conclusion of Retrotopia didn’t feature Peter Carr chucking his Atlantic Republic passport and moving in with Melanie Berger. Instead, he caught the train back home, having committed himself to the challenge of trying to move his own country in the direction that the Lakeland Republic has already taken, in the full knowledge that he might not succeed. I had the entire last scene in mind from the beginning of the project, partly as a deliberate challenge to that aspect of Ecotopia, partly because that sort of leap into uncertainty seems much more relevant to our present predicament. We don’t know, any more than Carr did, what lies behind the clouds that hide the future.

Of course the primary difference between Ecotopia and Retrotopia was that my narrative was meant to explore a very different approach from Callenbach’s. He was trying to propose a new, avant-garde, cutting-edge future—it’s often forgotten that the kind of thing Callenbach was talking about really was seen as the next great wave of progress in the 1970s, before the current fad for schizoid withdrawal into a cybernetic Neverland took that title away from it in the 1980s. I’m trying to explore the possibility that going back to what worked is a better idea than plunging forward along a trajectory that leads to no place any sane human being would want to go. He was talking about innovation, while I’m talking about retrovation: the strategy of using the past as a resource for problem-solving in the present.

Retrovation used to be utterly unthinkable in modern industrial societies. At the moment, it’s making the transition from utterly unthinkable to unspeakably heretical—thus another term for it I introduced in a post a while back, the heresy of technological choice—but a lot of people still can’t get their minds around it at all. When I’ve proposed steampunk technology as one model for the future, I’ve inevitably fielded a flurry of comments insisting that you can’t possibly have Victorian technology without child labor and oppressive gender politics—and of course while I was writing Retrotopia, quite a few readers assumed as a matter of course that the tier system in the Lakeland Republic governed every detail of daily life, so that you weren’t allowed to have anything belonging to a post-1830 technological suite if you lived in a tier one county.

Not so. The word I’ve coined for the strategy under discussion, retrovation, is obviously backformed from “retro” + “innovation,” but it’s also “re-trove-ation,” re-finding, rediscovery: an active process of searching through the many options the past provides, not a passive acceptance of some bygone time as a package deal. That’s the strategy the Lakeland Republic puts to use in my narrative, and those of my readers who know their way around the backwaters and odd corners of history may find it entertaining to figure out the sources from which I lifted this or that detail of Retrotopian daily life. The rhetoric of progress, by contrast, rejects that possibility, relies on a very dubious logic that lumps “the past” together as a single thing, and insists that wanting any of it amounts to wanting all of it, with the worst features inevitably highlighted.

I’ve long since lost track of the number of times I’ve been told that rejecting the latest new, shiny, and dysfunctional technology, in favor of an older technology that works, is tantamount to cheerleading for infant mortality, or slavery, or living in caves, or what have you. I’ve sometimes thought that it might be entertaining to turn that around—“if you won’t use a cell phone, you must be in favor of bringing back a balanced global climate!”—or simply taking it in directions a little more absurd than it’s gone already—“if you prefer rail travel to air travel, why, you might as well just restart the Punic Wars!”  In either case, the point that might be made is the silliness of the progress-worshippers’ insistence that the past, or the present, or for that matter the future, is an all-or-nothing deal.

That’s also why, to return to my narrative for a moment, I made a point of showing that the sexual mores of people in the Lakeland Republic didn’t correspond to how people behaved at some point in the past—or, more to the point, the mythical notion of how people behaved in the past that’s been circulated by certain pseudoconservatives in recent decades. Thus industrial magnate Janice Mikkelson is a lesbian with a lovely wife, Peter Carr happens to see two young men who’ve just gotten married on their way to their honeymoon, and when Peter and Melanie go out for dinner and an opera, the evening ends in her bedroom. I know that was uncomfortable for the social and religious conservatives among my readers, but it had to be there, for two reasons. 

On the one hand, as a moderate Burkean conservative, I see absolutely no justification for imposing legal restraints on what consenting adults do in the privacy of their own bedrooms, or for that matter in that dimension of the public sphere that pertains to marriage licenses—and, after all, this is my utopia and I’ll permit what I want to.  On the other hand, just as I put devoutly religious people into the story to discomfit the sort of doctrinaire liberals who believe that nobody should follow traditional religious teachings, I put married gay and lesbian people into the story to discomfit the sort of doctrinaire conservatives who believe that nobody should follow contemporary sexual mores. In both cases, the point I hoped to make is that the Lakeland Republic, with its policy of retrovation and its relative comfort with a diversity of ideas and lifestyles, hasn’t gone “backward,” or for that matter “forward,” but off in a direction all its own—a direction that can’t be defined in terms of the monomaniacally linear fixations of the worshippers of progress.

And of course that’s the crucial point, the most important thing that I hope my readers got out of the narrative. At the heart of most of the modern world’s insoluble problems is the faith-based claim that human history is a straight line with no branches or meanders, leading onward and upward from the caves to the stars, and that  every software upgrade, every new and improved product on the shelves, every lurch “forward”—however that conveniently floppy word happens to be defined from day to day by marketing flacks and politicians—therefore must lead toward that imaginary destination.

That blind and increasingly untenable faith, I’ve come to think, is the central reason why the only future different from the present that most people can imagine these days, if it’s not Ecotopia, is either a rehash of the past in every detail or some kind of nightmare dystopia. These days, as often as not, that even extends to science fiction, once our society’s most effervescent cauldron of novel futures. While writing an essay on the genre for a new magazine of science fiction and fantasy, Mythic, it occurred to me—and not for the first time—how few recent works of science fiction seem to be able to portray a future society that isn’t either a straight-line extrapolation from the present, complete with all its most parochial features, a carbon-copy rehash of some specific society of the past, or a smoking wasteland.

Not all that many decades ago, SF authors routinely spun future societies as radically different from ours as ours is from, say, the ancient Maya, but such visions are rare now. I don’t think that’s accidental.  To borrow a metaphor from Retrotopia, when you’ve driven down a blind alley and are sitting there with your bumper pressed against a brick wall, the only way forward starts by backing up—but if you’ve been convinced by your society’s core ideological commitments that “backing up” can only mean returning whole hog to the imaginary, awful past from which the ersatz messiah of progress is supposed to save us, you’re stuck. There you sit, pushing uselessly on the pedal, hearing the engine labor and rattle, and watching the gas gauge move steadily toward that unwelcome letter E; it’s no surprise that after a while, the idea of a street leading somewhere else starts to seem distinctly unreal.

Other futures are possible. Retrotopia isn’t the only option, though I have to say it strikes me as a much more pleasant choice than what we’ve got now, and retrovation isn’t the only tool we need to get us out of that blind alley, though I suspect it’s more useful than a good many of the more popular items in our contemporary toolkit. Still, time will tell—and if my narrative irritates some of my readers enough to get them working on their own, radically different visions of a future that breaks free of the blind alley of linear progress, all the better.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Retrotopia: The Cloud that Hides the Future

This is the twenty-fifth and last installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator spends his last few hours in the Lakeland Republic, finds an answer to a question that has been bothering him, and boards the train back to Pittsburgh and the unknowns that wait there...

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There wasn’t much more to be said after that, and so we all mouthed the usual things and I headed back to my hotel. The rain had settled in good and hard by then, so I didn’t dawdle. Back in the room, I got my coat and hat hung up to dry a little, and then turned the radio on to the jazz station, settled into the chair, and read the morning news. I had one more appointment at noon, and a train to catch at 2:26 that afternoon, and not a thing to do until then; I knew that I was going to be up to my eyeballs in meetings, briefings, and two weeks of unanswered textmails the minute I got back home; and just at the moment, the thought of taking some time at the Lakeland Republic’s less frantic pace and trying to make a little more sense of the world had a definite appeal.

I’d already read the headlines, so there weren’t too many surprises in store, though a United Nations panel had issued another warning about the zinc shortage, and meteorologists were predicting that the monsoons would fail in south Asia for the third year in a row. Two more satellites had been taken out by debris; a second jokulhlaup down in Antarctica had chucked another thousand square miles or so of ice sheet into the Indian Ocean; stock markets everywhere outside the Lakeland Republic had had another really bad day; the ceasefire negotiations in the California civil war had gotten off to a rocky start, and more details had gotten through about the opening rounds of the Texas-Confederate war—both sides’ offshore oil fields had taken even more of a hit than the original reports suggested.

That was only about half of the first section, though, and it was the other half, and the rest of the paper, that held my attention. That was the stuff that wasn’t about shortages and crises. It was about what people do when they’re not being held hostage by shortages and crises. There were birth announcements, marriage announcements, obituaries; a new streetcar line out to one of Toledo’s eastern neighborhoods was in the planning stages, with public meetings scheduled to sort out the route over the winter and tracklaying planned to start next May; a high school student was honored for volunteering more than a thousand hours reading the daily newspaper over one of the Toledo radio stations, for blind people and shut-ins; the big local shipyard had just bought another piece of property and would be hiring another three hundred people to meet the demand for shipping.

Then there were the help-wanted ads, pages and pages of them, looking for shipwrights, file clerks, millworkers, secretaries, mechanics, all the jobs that got automated or offshored out of existence back home and were keeping people busy and self-supporting here. There were two full pages of apprenticeship ads—if I’d wanted to become a carpenter, a pharmacist, a plumber, a doctor, an electrician, a millwright, a teacher, or a lawyer, just for starters, I would have had no trouble in the world figuring out where to apply.

All the while, though, the thoughts that had circled through my head on the trip back from Janice Mikkelson’s mansion hung in the air around me, and not even Louis Armstrong’s trumpet solos on the radio could chase them away. People knew long before I was born that the things we were doing were going to end really, really badly, and yet everyone just kept on marching ahead, making the same dumb decisions over and over again, convinced that if they just did the same thing one more time it would undo the bad results they’d gotten every other time they’d done it. If you discover that you’re in a hole, the saying is, the first thing to do is stop digging—but that’s exactly what nobody was willing to do, because they’d convinced themselves that digging the hole deeper was the only way to get out of it.

That was the thing that twisted like a knife. The climate mess that was dumping icebergs off Antarctica and had already turned half of Manhattan into a rusting ruin that flooded deeper with every high tide, the Kessler syndrome that was busy putting an end to the space age, the cascading shortages that were taking a bigger bite out of the world’s economies every single year: none of those had happened by accident. They weren’t the result of fate, or destiny, or any of that claptrap. We’d progressed straight into each of them.

Of course progress also churned out plenty of good things back in the day—that’s why the jobs in the help-wanted ads weren’t limited to “peasant.” Somehow, though, most people outside the Lakeland Republic never got around to noticing when the costs of progress started to outweigh the benefits. Everybody kept talking about how progress was supposed to make people’s lives easier and better even when it started making people’s lives harder and worse, and when some part of that became too hard to ignore, everybody insisted that the only option was to go in for yet another round of progress.

And somehow, I thought, I’m going to have to explain all this to the people back home.

So I was in a pretty sour mood, all things considered, by the time the radio stopped playing jazz and the eleven o’clock news came on instead. I turned it off, got my coat and hat back on, grabbed my suitcase, and headed down to the lobby to check out.  After two weeks in the Lakeland Republic, I wasn’t too surprised when the clerk wrote something with a pen in a notebook full of sheets of paper, took my key, and wished me a good trip home in less time than it would have taken a hotel clerk elsewhere to get the computer to do whatever it is hotel computers do. Then I was out on the sidewalk under the canopy in front of the hotel door. The rain was still pelting down, but I flagged down a cab to go the train station.

Not quite half an hour later I got out in front of the station, paid my fare, got my suitcase, and headed in. The big vaulted space with benches on one side and ticket counters on the other was pretty well stocked with people going about their lives. I headed over to a window to one side of the ticket counters, stashed my suitcase with the clerk there—I’d asked Melanie about that and so knew what to do—and then headed for one of the restaurants on the side closest to the street. The place was starting to fill up with the lunch trade, but a glance back at the big clock on the wall above the platform doors showed me that I was still early. I went in anyway, asked the greeter for a table for two, got seated at a little table over by the windows looking at the street, shed my coat and hat, and ordered a chicory coffee to kill the time.

I’m not sure how much time passed, and how many cabs stopped to disgorge their passengers on the curb out front, before one of them finally let out the person I was waiting for. It was Melanie, of course, bundled up in a raincoat and broad-brimmed hat the way she’d been when we’d first met. She got most of the way to the station entrance before she spotted me there in the window; she waved, so did I, and then she hurried inside out of the rain and came around to the restaurant entrance. A few moments later she was settling into the chair across the table from me.

The waitress came over pretty much the moment Melanie sat down, so we got menus and talked about little things that don’t matter for a bit, until the waitress came back and took the menus and our order. I waited until she was gone, and then said, “I admit I’m really curious about Meeker’s reaction.”

“I bet,” she said, with a sly smile.

That was what I expected her to say, and she knew that I expected it, so I smiled too. Everybody in my line of work makes jokes about horizontal diplomacy; of course it’s discouraged, and of course it happens, and if you’re in politics and get into that kind of situation you know exactly where the lines are, and edge up to them now and then just to firm up the boundaries. When you get a relationship between two people in politics, you make extra sure that both know where the boundaries are so they don’t get in the way of the relationship, and one of the things that I liked about Melanie was that she was as professional about it all as I was.

“I’ll say this much,” she said after a moment. “You took him by surprise, which isn’t easy to do—but it was a pleasant surprise. If there’s any help you need from our side to help push things along, let us know and we’ll see what we can do.”

“Please thank him for me,” I said. “I don’t have much more of a clue about how to push this thing than I did this morning, though.”

She nodded. “May I offer a suggestion?”

“Of course.”

“Focus on cutting subsidies. It costs a lot to prop up the illusion of progress, and if you actually make every technology cover all its own costs, things sort themselves out really quickly.”

“Granted,” I said, “but you know as well as I do that the tech sector and some of the other resource hogs are going to scream the moment anybody tries to push them away from the feed trough.”

“True. The one advantage of this wretched war is that Ellen Montrose may have a little less trouble making that happen.”

I nodded, conceding. “The war and the economy,” I said. “Our stock market had another ghastly day yesterday, and I’m pretty sure the impact of losing the Gulf oil fields hasn’t really hit yet.”

The waitress came back with lunch, made a little conversation, and headed off to the next table. “One thing that might help,” I said then, “is if more people from our side of the border come here and see what you’ve done on this side. I know I was completely clueless about what was going on here, even after reading a pretty fair stack of briefing documents.  I’d like to see more people see for themselves, if that can be done without putting too much of a burden on you.”

“We can handle it,” said Melanie.

“I also meant you personally,” I said with a smile.

“I survived the Honorable Velma Streiber,” she said, with a smile of her own. “After that I think I can handle just about anything.”

I laughed, and so did she. We busied ourselves with our respective plates for a few minutes.

“I wonder,” she said then. “If you really want people from your side of the border to see what we’re doing on ours, President Montrose might want to make an official visit. We’d be happy to host something like that.”

I considered her. “That’s a real possibility.” Then: “Have you had any other heads of state visit?”

“A few.” She gestured with her fork, dismissing the idea. “Once diplomatic relations got reestablished after the Treaty of Richmond, we let it be known that we’d be happy to welcome any head of state that wanted to pay a visit, and reciprocate. The President of Chicago’s been here, of course—show me a country in North America he hasn’t visited—and we’ve exchanged state visits with Quebec and Missouri, but everyone else has backed away uneasily from the suggestion.” The fork jabbed down into her chef’s salad. “We’re still North America’s pariah nation, you know.”

“Even though your way of doing things works,” I said.

“No.” She glanced up at me. “Because our way of doing things works.”

We ate in silence for another few minutes. Of course her words made me think yet again of the same frustrating question I’d been brooding over earlier. It must have showed in my face, because she said,
“Penny for your thoughts.”

“Just wondering why it is that everyone else keeps making the same mistakes over and over again, trying to fix their problems by doing more of what made the problem in the first place.”

“Progress?”

“Yes.”

“I have a suggestion.” When I gestured for her to go on: “I think it’s because all your talented people get put to work building new gadgets, instead of coming up with solutions for the problems that gadgets can’t fix. That means you have too many gadgets and a serious shortage of solutions.”

I stared at her for a moment. “And since your talented people aren’t working on gadgets—”

“We’ve found some solutions. Yes.” Then:  “There was nothing wrong with seeing how far progress could go and still get useful results. The problem was simply that people forgot to stop once they passed that point. We’ve got all the gadgets we need; you’ve got more than you need—and maybe it’s time to stop putting all our talents and our efforts into more gadgets and get to work on some of the other things that go into being human.”

I nodded after another, longer moment, but I knew already that I had my answer.

We talked about other things after that, mostly personal; I promised to write—the Atlantic Republic still has a postal system, though it’s nothing like as good as the one the Lakeland Republic has—and so did she; I paid the bill, we kissed, and then she went back to the Capitol and I got my suitcase from the baggage room and headed for the doors to the platforms. 

“Ladies and gentlemen, Train Twenty-two to Pittsburgh via Sandusky, Canton, and Steubenville,” someone called out. “Now boarding at Platform Six. Train Twenty-two.”

I showed my ticket, and a couple of minutes later I was on Platform Six. A conductor took another look at my ticket and sent me three cars up, to a car that was going all the way to the end of the line. I climbed aboard, got my suitcase stowed, and settled into a window seat on the right hand side.

What was going to happen when I got back home, I knew, was a complete crapshoot. Among Ellen’s top advisers, I’d been the most outspoken critic of her planned reworking of government policies, and so it was pretty much a given that once I threw my support to the plan, it would go ahead. Just how far the legislature would be willing to cut government subsidies for technology and stop penalizing employers for hiring workers was another question, and just how much of the broader Lakeland Republic program would be adopted was an even bigger one. The more clear it became that what they were doing worked, and what we were doing didn’t, the easier it would be to push that ahead, but there would be plenty of resistance among those who still thought that it made some kind of sense to keep doing the same thing while expecting different results.

Maybe I could make it work, and maybe I couldn’t. Maybe my term as ambassador to the Lakeland Republic would be successful, and maybe I’d flop. Maybe the other North American nations could get Texas and the Confederacy to agree to a ceasefire before they ran both nations into the ground, and maybe we’d all end up with failed states on our southern borders and a world-class refugee problem.  For that matter, though I had high hopes for the relationship Melanie and I had gotten going, there was no way to know in advance if that would work out in the long run or turn out to be a flash in the pan. The future hides in a cloud, and you just don’t know what’s going to pop out of it.

The conductor came through, calling out his “All aboard!” as a last handful of passengers got on. Doors clattered shut. No, I thought, there’s no way to tell in advance what’s behind the cloud that hides the future, but maybe—just maybe—I can make a difference.

The car jolted once, and then began to move.

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In other fiction-related news, Founders House Publishing—the publishers of Star’s Reach and the After Oil anthologies—has just released the second volume of Ralph Meima’s Inter States series, Emergent Disorder. It’s a harrowing and uncomfortably plausible vision of the United States in terminal crisis, and readers of my novel Twilight’s Last Gleaming may want to check it out. It can be ordered here.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Retrotopia: The Only Way Forward

This is the twenty-fourth (and next to last) installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. At a final meeting between our narrator and Isaiah Meeker, President of the Lakeland Republic, certain unstated agendas are revealed and the future of one of the post-US North American republics takes an unexpected turn...

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A taxi brought back to my hotel from Janice Mikkelson’s mansion—one of her flunkeys called it for me—and I spent most of the ride staring out the window and thinking about what she’d said about the prewar rich. I’d heard plenty of stories along the same lines, of course, everybody has, but for some reason my mind kept circling back to the way that they’d dug their own graves and then jumped into them. Why didn’t it occur to them that voting themselves one billion-dollar bonus after another, while driving their own employees and the rest of the country into poverty, was going to blow up in their faces sooner or later?

I was thinking that, staring out at the darkening sky, when a little pale streak brought me back to reality. The dozens of governments and corporations that kept launching satellites even after 2029, when the Kessler syndrome in low earth orbit should have given them a wake-up call, had gone waltzing just as cluelessly into a preventable disaster of their own. I thought of the mess we’d gotten into back home by going long on nuclear power plants in the 2040s, long after it should have been clear to everyone that nuclear power was—what was Fred Vanich’s phrase?—a subsidy dumpster, one more technological white elephant that never paid for itself and only looked profitable because most of the costs were shoved out of sight one way or another. I thought of the war going on a thousand miles south of me just then, and wondered sourly why a species that was so smart at coming up with clever technologies was so dumb about so much else.

The taxi stopped outside the hotel, and I went in, climbed the stairs to my room, and made a phone call. Yes, the call was to Melanie Berger; yes, we spent the evening together; no, I’m not going to go into any of the details. We didn’t talk about progress or technology or the future of the Lakeland Republic, in case you were wondering.

Another taxi brought me back to the Capitol Hotel about seven-thirty the next morning. I tried without noticeable success to coax my electric shaver into giving me a decent shave, then showered and got everything but the day’s clothing packed. I’d considered more than once putting on ordinary bioplastic businesswear for the trip back, knowing that people back home would look at me as though I had two spare heads if I got off the train in Pittsburgh dressed in my Lakeland clothes, but that resolution lasted just about long enough for me to reach into the closet and grab a business suit. The slick clammy texture of the thing made my skin crawl. So I dressed in hempcloth and wool instead, checked my appearance, put on my trench coat and porkpie hat, and headed out the door to my final appointment with the President of the Lakeland Republic.

The weather had turned cold and damp overnight, and stray raindrops spattered down as I walked the familiar six blocks to the Capitol. Another round of scaffolding had gone up on the unfinished dome, and stonemasons were already clambering around up there, laying another course of marble blocks beneath the shelter of brown tarps I guessed probably weren’t made of plastic. Down at street level, people were already picking up the latest papers at Kaufer’s News.  I bought the Blade, glanced at the headlines on the front page:  the fighting in the Gulf and in northeastern Texas seemed to be grinding toward a stalemate; the other North American republics had appealed to the Brazilians and Chinese to stay out of the fighting and try to talk their respective client states into accepting a ceasefire; one of the big Indian telecom multinationals had gone bankrupt—the first corporate casualty of the satellite crisis, though I knew it wouldn’t be the last by a long shot—and stock markets everywhere but Toledo were doing another sickening downward lurch in response.

I stuffed the paper into one of the big outside pockets of my trench coat, crossed the street, and went up  the long walk to the main entrance of the Capitol. It was five to nine, still too early for kids on field trips or photo ops in the Rotunda, so the only people I saw were members of the legislative staff hurrying this way and that, getting ready for what would probably be another hectic day, and a couple of white-haired politicians, one light-skinned, one dark-skinned, talking intently as they ambled toward the Senate end of the building. Me, I headed straight across the rotunda to the door in back and went in.

It still startled me that you could just walk into the offices of the President of the Lakeland Republic. No doubt the uniformed guards in the Rotunda weren’t the only guards in the place, but they were the only ones I saw. I went down the corridor into the front office, said hi to Gabriel Menendez, waited while he called back, shed my coat and hat in the cloakroom, and then through another corridor and the round room with the spiral staircase to Meeker’s office.

“Mr. Carr,” said the President, as we shook hands. “It’s good to see you again.” He gestured toward the side of the room. “Please have a seat.”

The same people who’d been present for my first meeting with Meeker were waiting: no surprises there, though I hadn’t expected them to be sitting in precisely the same chairs. I shook hands all around. “Mr. President, Mr. Macallan, Ms. Patel, Mr. Vanich—” With the faintest of smiles, just for her: “Ms. Berger.”

We got settled. “Before we get to business,” the President said, “I have a bit of good news to pass on:  to you, or course, but also through you to Ms. Montrose. Our State Department heard backchannel last night via an embassy I won’t name that the Confederate and Texan governments are both potentially willing to talk about a ceasefire. No word yet about when or where, much less what terms either side’s likely to demand, but at least they haven’t rejected negotiations out of hand.”

“That’s good to hear,” I said.

“We certainly have hopes,” Meeker went on. “That’s all we have so far, though.” A gesture dismissed the issue.  “I hope you’ve found your stay here—shall we say, instructive.”

“That’s one way of putting it,” I replied. “I don’t mean any criticism at all when I say that in some ways, it’s been two very long weeks.”

Meeker nodded. “Melanie mentioned that you’ve found yourself reconsidering some of your ideas about technology and the like.”

I considered him. “Again, that’s one way of putting it—and that brings me to one last item I’d like to mention before I leave for home.”

“Of course,” said Meeker, smiling. Fred Vanich and Melanie glanced at each other, and I wondered if they’d made another bet.

“I suspect you’re aware,” I said then, “that I had more reasons for coming here than the ones we discussed earlier.”

Meeker turned to look at Stuart Macallan, who said, “Mr. Carr, I hope you won’t mind if I state the obvious. None of us could think of any reason why Ellen Montrose would have sent one of her key advisers here right after the election, when almost any competent staffer could have handled the preliminary work on the the three agreements we worked out. We’ve had plenty of other unofficial envoys come here since the borders opened, of course, and most of them had some agenda other than the one they told us about. We assumed you had one too.”

“With that in mind,” said Meeker, “I’d be most interested in hearing what your other reasons for comong here might be, to the extent that you can talk about them.”

“Fair enough,” I said, meeting his gaze. “You know that Ellen won the election promising across-the-board changes in our national economic policy. She means it, too—we’ve already got the first round of legislation drafted, and everybody’s going to hit the ground running the day after inauguration. I’m sure you know the basic thrust of it.”

“What’s been made public, yes,” said Meeker. “She hasn’t mentioned defaulting on the foreign debt Barfield and his predecessors ran up, but that’s almost certainly going to have to be part of it. Even before this business down south got going, there was no way she could keep her election promises without renegotiating the debt, and that means at least a technical default.”

I gave him a bland look and said, “I can’t comment on that.” He chuckled, and I went on. “The new administration’s going to have its hands full getting the economy a little less dysfunctional, and now there’s what the satellite crisis is doing to stock markets and the telecom industry, not to mention the Confederate-Texas war, to add to the fun and games. Beyond that, though, there’s another set of plans relating to economic regulations, the tax code, and a range of other policies. Those haven’t been made public yet, but when they are, you’re going to find some of them just a little familiar.”

“Indeed?” Meeker said, his eyebrows rising. “Please go on.”

“The short form is that she wants to redirect government support for business away from the high-tech sectors of the economy and into manufacturing and agriculture, and change the tax code and other public policy incentives so that they reward employment rather than automation.”

Jaya Patel waited a moment to make sure Meeker wasn’t about to speak, then said, “I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how sensible that sounds from our standpoint.”

“No. When she suggested it to me, though, I told her to her face that she was stark staring nuts.”

That got slightly glazed looks from the others. “I’d be interested in knowing how she took that,” the President said.

“She expects that sort of thing,” I told him. “You’ve heard about her reputation for blunt talk, right? She hires staff who will talk to her the way she talks to them.  Half the problem with Barfield’s administration is that he only hires people who tell him what he wants to hear.”

He nodded, gestured for me to go on.

“I told her that there was no way the Atlantic Republic could go back to a twentieth-century economy, that nobody would put up with it, and even if we could and they did, it just meant that we’d be eaten alive by less backward nations that kept up with the latest technology. She pointed out that the more we invested in the latest technology the further behind we got, and I dismissed that as the product of outside factors. We had a fine donnybrook—the kind where everybody else on the floor gathers outside the door to listen—and I finally insisted that it simply wouldn’t work. She just smiled and said that it was already working.”

“So she knew what we’ve done,” said Melanie.

I nodded. “I don’t happen to know where she got her information. I know Barfield sent someone from his inner circle over here right after the borders opened, but her report went into a locked file as soon as she got back and I don’t know if anyone but Barfield ever saw it. Ellen’s got connections in surprising places, though. But she told me that policies like the ones she had in mind were working on this side of the border. I simply wouldn’t believe it, and so we made a deal.  If she won the election, she’d come up with some plausible reason to send me over here for two weeks right afterwards and see for myself.  After that, if I could give her a good reason why her proposals wouldn’t work, she’d reconsider them.”

Meeker paused, watching me, and then asked, “And what will you tell her when you get back?”

The words came more easily than I’d expected. “Something that I couldn’t have imagined myself proposing a week ago. I’m going to advise her to go considerably further than she’d planned, and begin moving the Atlantic Republic in the same directions that you’ve gone here.”

When I was a kid, my grandmother used to talk about deep silence by saying it was quiet enough that you could hear a pin drop. That’s what came to mind just then; I’d have had to drop it onto Meeker’s desk—the floor was carpeted—but if I’d done it, nobody in the room could have missed hearing it. Everyone but Melanie was staring at me; she was smiling.

“Well,” Meeker said, recovering before any of the others. “If I may say so, Mr. Carr, that’s quite a compliment.”

“Thank you,” I replied. “I’m not sure whether it’s a compliment to the Lakeland Republic, though, or a criticism of everyone else. It shouldn’t have been so hard to figure out that if you’ve gone down a blind alley, the only way you can go forward starts by backing up.”

Fred Vanich glanced at his boss, and then at me. “It’s a little more complex than that, Mr. Carr,” he said. “Progress, development, going forward. Those are powerful metaphors, and it’s not always easy to think clearly when they’re being waved around by those who have blind faith in them—especially if rich people stand to get much richer by convincing others that here and now, going forward means buying whatever technology they happen to be selling.”

I gestured, conceding the point. “Have you decided how you’ll propose going about the transition?” Jaya Patel asked.

“No,” I admitted. “I’ve only had a couple of days to think about it, and quite a few other things to do in that time. When we get the first couple of rounds of legislation passed, cope with the end of satellite services, and figure out how we’re going to deal with the blowback from the war down south—ask me then and I can probably tell you.”

“If there’s anything our government can do for yours in the process,” Meeker said, “I trust you’ll let us know.” With a sudden amused smile: “For reasons that are not entirely altruistic, of course.”

“I know Janice Mikkelson would love to sell us some streetcars,” I observed.

That got a general laugh. “Yes,” Meeker said then, “but there’s also the point you made when we first talked, about not wanting a war zone or a failed state on your country’s border. If I may be frank, if the Atlantic Republic had kept going the way the Dem-Reps were leading it, it’s an open question whether you could have avoided serious trouble for long. The changes Montrose has announced will help, but it’s going to take quite a bit more to achieve the kind of economic and political stability we’ve managed here. If we can help you make that happen, that’s an investment we’ll consider.” He smiled again. “‘You’ in this case meaning the Atlantic Republic and Ellen Montrose primarily. I don’t claim to know what role you personally will be playing in all this.”

“That’s another issue,” I said. “My position in the new administration was one of the things hinging on my deal with Ellen. Of course there’s the confirmation vote on our side and the usual formalities on yours, but part of our deal was that if I ended up agreeing with Ellen, I was committing to four years as our ambassador to the Lakeland Republic.” I drew in a breath. “So I expect to be back here early in the new year, if everything goes according to plan.”

Meeker considered that and nodded. “That’s welcome news, Mr. Carr.”
 
“Thank you, Mr. President.” We shook hands. Past the President’s shoulder I could see Melanie’s face. She was smiling as our eyes met.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Retrotopia: The View from Ottawa Hills

This is the twenty-third installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. On his last full day in the Lakeland Republic, our narrator pays a visit to industrial magnate Janice Mikkelson and gets a different perspective on the Republic and the lessons of its history...

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The next morning I was up early, and walked to Kaufer’s News while the sky was still that vague gray color that won’t tell you yet whether it’s clear or overcast. The Blade had done the smart thing and printed extra copies of the morning paper—the stack in the bin was almost as tall as I was—and I watched three other people buy copies as I walked up the street to the newsstand. The Lakeland Republic flag snapped in a brisk wind from the flagpole out in front of the Capitol, and lights already burned in the windows. The Republic’s government had a long day ahead of it, and so did I.

Back in the hotel, I settled down in a chair and spent a few minutes checking the news. Most of the front section was about the war down south, of course; both sides’ naval forces were still duking it out with long-range missiles, and the Confederate advance toward Dallas-Fort Worth had begun to slow as Texan forces reached the war zone and flung themselves into the struggle. The presidents of Missouri and New England and the prime ministers of East and West Canada and Quebec had joined Meeker in calling for an immediate ceasefire and a negotiated settlement of the dispute over the Gulf oil fields; back home, outgoing President Barfield and president-elect Montrose would be holding a joint press conference later that day to announce something of the same sort. That last story made my eyebrows go up. The Dem-Reps had been sore losers in a big way since their landslide defeat a few weeks back; if Barfield had loosened up enough to appear on a stage with his replacement, things might have shifted, and not in a bad way.

There was more—another attempt at a ceasefire in the Californian civil war, another report by an international panel on the worsening phosphate shortage, another recap of the satellite situation that ran through a roster of collisions, and estimated that the world had less than three months left before all satellite services in the midrange orbits were out of commission for the next dozen centuries or so—but I folded the paper after a glance at each of those and tossed it on the desk. I had a little over a day left to spend in the Lakeland Republic before catching the train back home, and part of that would be spent with Janice Mikkelson. In the meantime, I had decisions to make that would affect the lives of a lot of people I’d never meet.

You learn to get used to that if you’re in politics, but if you get too used to it you land in trouble really fast. Half the reason the Dem-Reps had been clobbered in our elections a few weeks back is that they’d gotten into the habit of thinking that the only people who mattered politically were the people who had the money and connections to show up at fundraisers and get their interests represented by lobbyists—and much more than half the reason why Montrose’s New Alliance swept the legislative races and put her into the presidency with the strongest mandate in a generation was that she’d had the sense to look past the lobbyists and fundraising dinners, and reach out to everyone whose interests had been ignored for the last thirty years. I’d played a certain part in that strategy, and the choices ahead of me might also play a certain part in determining whether Montrose’s victory would turn out to be a long-term gamechanger or a flash in the pan.

So I sat there in my room for what seemed like a very long time, listening to the faint clop-clop of horsedrawn taxis and the clatter-and-hum of electric streetcars on the street outside, sometimes paging through my notes, and sometimes staring at nothing in particular while following a train of thought right out to its end. Finally I happened to glance at the clock, and saw that I had just about enough time to grab something to eat for lunch before I caught a taxi for Ottawa Hills, where Mikkelson lived.

So I made sure I was presentable, headed downstairs to the hotel restaurant, and got soup, sandwich, and a cup of chicory coffee. Sam Capoferro was playing his usual lunch gig on the piano, and he gave me a nod and a grin when I came in and another one when I went out. Half an hour after leaving my room I was tucked into the cab of a two-wheel taxi, heading northwest from the Capitol district through  one mostly residential neighborhood after another. I’d gotten used to Lakeland habits by then, and so it didn’t surprise me that the houses looked sturdy and old-fashioned, with flower beds out front that would be blazing with colors come spring; that trees were everywhere; that there were little retail districts at intervals, close enough that people could walk to do most of their everyday shopping; that the schools didn’t look like prisons, the libraries didn’t look like prisons—in fact, I passed something I’m pretty sure was the county jail and even that didn’t look like a prison.

The houses got bigger as we went up out of the Maumee River valley into the hills beyond. None of the trees looked more than thirty years old—I recalled from some half-forgotten history vid that there was a major battle west of Toledo during the Second Civil War—and all the houses looked better than a century older than that, even though I knew they were all recent construction. Finally the taxi turned off a winding road onto a circular driveway, and brought me up to the door of a genuine mansion.

The place was the sort of big half-timbered pile that makes you think of ivy-covered English aristocrats and nineteenth-century New York robber baron industrialists. I gave it a slightly glazed look, then paid the cabby and went to the door, and I kid you not, it opened right as I got there. The doorman asked my name and business in the sort of utterly polite tone that sounds ever so slightly snotty, which amused me, and then handed me over to some other category of flunkey in formal wear, who took me up one of the grandest grand staircases I’ve ever seen, down a corridor lined with the kind of old-fashioned oil paintings that actually looked like something, and into a big windowed room with a grand piano near one wall, an assortment of tastefully overpriced furniture, and Janice Mikkelson.

We shook hands, she asked about my preferred drink, and then sent the flunkey off to get a couple of martinis while we walked over to the windows. Down below was a formal garden, with a crew of gardeners doing whatever it is that gardeners do in late November; further off were the roofs of other houses not quite as fancy as the one I was in; further still was the Toledo city skyline, with the half-finished Capitol dome rising up over everything else, the bridges over the river beyond that, and green and brown landscape stretching off to the east.

“Quite a place,” I said.

She chuckled. “Thank you. I try to set an example.”

I gave her a startled look, but just then the flunkey came back in with the martinis. Mikkelson thanked him, which was another surprise, and then we took our drinks and waited while he vanished.

“I’d like to talk business first, if you don’t mind,” she said then. I’m not in the habit of arguing with the very rich, and so I agreed and we spent half an hour discussing the prospects of selling Mikkelson locomotives, rolling stock, and streetcar systems to the Atlantic Republic.

“I’ve got one requirement,” she said, emphasizing the number with a sharp gesture. “If other transport modes get a subsidy, rail and streetcars get an equal subsidy. If rail and streetcars don’t get subsidized, neither does anything else. Are you at all familiar with the way they handled funding for different transport modes back in the old Union?”
“Not to speak of,” I admitted.

“Roads, highways and airports got huge subsidies from federal, state, and local governments, and so did car and airplane manufacturers. Rail? Pennies on the hundred-dollar bill, and then the politicians yelled that rail was a waste of public funds and should get its subsidies cut even further. I won’t enter a market that’s run on those terms—it’s like gambling in a crooked casino. Equal subsidies for all modes, or no subsidies for any, I’m fine with that.”

“Do you do a lot of export on those terms?”

“A fair amount.  Missouri’s gone to a no-subsidies system, the same as we have, and they’re buying my locomotives and rolling stock as funds permit. Quebec treats urban transit as a public utility, which works for me—I’ve sold three streetcar systems there since the borders opened, and my people and theirs are negotiating two more. East Canada? The car manufacturers still have too much clout to allow parity for rail, so no dice. The Confederacy’s still sore about the way the ‘49 war went, so they buy from Brazil.” She shrugged. “Their loss. Our products are better.”

“I don’t happen to know about the subsidy regime back home,” I said.

“Don’t worry about it. You’ve got some highway and airport subsidies and a lot of public funding for roads, but no domestic auto or aircraft industries and no subsidies for buying those from overseas. If Montrose’s people are willing to negotiate, we can work something out—and from what I hear, your urban transit is a disaster area, so her administration could get even more popular than it is by getting streetcar systems up and running in half a dozen of your big cities.”

All in all, it wasn’t exactly hard for me to figure out why she was the richest person in the Lakeland Republic; we talked over the possibilities, I agreed to discuss the matter with Ellen Montrose when I got back home, and the conversation strayed elsewhere.

When we got to the third martini each, I asked, “You said you try to set an example. I’m still trying to parse that.”

That got me an assessing look: “I was the first of our homegrown millionaires here in the Lakeland Republic—there’s a good dozen of us now, and there’ll be more in due time, but I was first through that particular gate.”  She gestured around at the mansion. “Quite a place, as you said.  During the Second Civil War, my brother and I—we were the only two of our family who survived the bombing of Toledo in 2025—we lived in the basement of a wrecked house in a suburb thirty miles south of here. We ate a lot of rat, and were glad to get it, and so I decided then and there that if I survived, I was going to live in the biggest house in the state of Ohio, and all I’d have to do is snap my fingers and somebody would bring me a roast turkey, just like that.” She laughed reminiscently. “I got so sick of roast turkey.”

I laughed along with her, but I knew that she meant it.  ‘Did your brother survive the war?”

“Fortunately, yes—he’s younger than I am, and wasn’t old enough to be drafted by either side until the war was over. He’s a professor of political science at Milwaukee these days—he came out of the whole business wanting to know why it is that nations do dumb things. Me, I just wanted to get rich.” She sipped her martini. “And fortunately I learned an important lesson on how to do that and survive. Do you mind hearing an ugly story?”

“Not at all,” I said, wondering what she had in mind.

“This was right after the war, when I was working any job I could get, trying to put aside enough cash to start my first business. I got hired as day labor to do salvage on what was left of a gated community, west of here a ways. It was one of the really high-end places, where the very rich planned to hole up when things came crashing down; it had its own private security force, airstrip, power plant, farms, the whole nine yards.

“Now here’s the thing. There were sixty big houses for the families that lived there, and every single one of them was full of what’s left when you leave dead people lying around for four years. As far as we could tell, right after the old federal government lost control of the Midwest, the security guards turned off the alarm systems one night and went from house to house. They shot everyone but the domestic staff, took all the gold and goodies they could carry, and headed off somewhere else. That wasn’t the only place that happened, either.”

“I heard some really ugly stories from the Hamptons back in the day,” I said.

“I bet you did. The thing that really made an impression on me at the time, though, is that they didn’t shoot the domestic staff. All the skeletons were up in the family quarters. That told me that it wasn’t just about the money. There was a grudge involved—and if you know how the rich used to treat everyone else in the old Union, you know why.” She sipped more booze. “Rich people only exist because the rest of society tolerates us, you know. Have you ever considered why they do that?”

I shook my head, and she went on. “Part of it’s because we give them a place to anchor their unused dreams. Poeple here daydream about the rich the way that people in Britain follow the doings of their royal family. They’ll put up with the most astonishing things from the people they idolize, the people they allow to get rich and stay rich, so long as the rich keep their side of the deal. I could get by with a quarter of the staff I have here; I could get by without the four-star dinners with a big tip for everyone right down to the dishwashers, the big donations to every charitable cause in sight, the private railroad car with its own fulltime chef, for God’s sake—but that’s my side of the bargain.”

“It gives everyone else something to dream about,” I guessed.

“Yes, and it also pays one hell of a lot of wages and salaries.”

I took that in.

“They tolerate me because I live out their dreams for them,” Mikkelson said. “They can afford to tolerate me because I don’t let myself become too expensive a luxury, and they want to tolerate me because their sister’s best friend got a hundred-buck tip the last time I had dinner at the restaurant where she waits tables, and their cousin’s husband works in the garden down there for a good wage and a big bonus come Christmas, and a guy they know from high school just got promoted off the shop floor at the Mikkelson factory and is getting a degree in engineering on my nickel.”

“As I recall,” I said, “You get some pretty fair tax benefits from that last one.”

“Of course.” She smiled. “And I lobbied like you wouldn’t believe to get that into the tax code. Partly because I don’t mind being paid to do the right thing, and partly because I knew it would keep my work force happy.  Half the reason Mikkelson products are better quality than anybody else’s is that all my people know that if the company wins, they win. There’s a stock ownership plan, bonuses based on the  annual profit, plenty of opportunity to move from the shop floor to better-paying jobs.  All of it gets me a break on taxes, but it also means that I and all my limited partners do better in the long run, and so do my employees and the union.”

I gave her a puzzled look. “I didn’t know you still had unions here.”

“Couldn’t get by without them. Of course we have binding arbitration on contracts—if my people and the union can’t reach an agreement, the Department of Labor sends in an arbitration team and they decide what the new contract will be—but the union does a lot of the day-to-day management of the work force. When I need to sort something out with my factory employees, I can pick up a phone and call the local president here in Toledo, say, and settle it in ten minutes or less. They know their jobs depend on the company making a profit, and the union funds have a big stake in Mikkelson stock and seats on the board, so it’s in our interest to work together.”

She turned toward the windows, looked out over the Toledo skyline. “That was what nobody seemed to be able to figure out in the old Union,” she said. “You can cooperate and compromise, share the gains, and keep things going for the long term, or you can try to grab everything for yourself and shove the poor and the weak to the wall, and watch it all come crashing down. In world politics, the United States tried to grab everything; in domestic politics, the executive branch tried to grab everything; in the economy, the rich tried to grab everything—and down it came.” She glanced back at me over her shoulder. “I wonder if anyone thinks about that in Philadelphia.”

It was a hell of a good question, and I didn’t have an answer for it.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Learning From Failure: A Modest Introduction

The other day, one of the readers over at the other blog asked a question as sensible as it is timely: why do so many sane people start foaming at the mouth when the subject of this year’s US presidential election comes up? It’s a fair question.  Even by the embarrassing standards of political discourse that apply to the United States these days, the blend of sheer paralogic, parroted sound bites, and white-hot rage that can be heard from the supporters of both major party candidates is out of the ordinary. I spent some time mulling over the question, and I think I know the answer: cognitive dissonance.

That can be explained by a simple thought experiment.  Let’s imagine, dear reader, that you were to go into a Starbuck’s in a hip neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, and ask the people there—dyed-in-the-wool Democrats to a man, woman, gender-nonspecific individual, and child—to describe their nightmare presidential candidate, the person they’d least like to see in the White House next January.

They’d tell you that it would be a political insider openly in bed with banks and big business who spent years in public service pandering to the rich, who is also a neoconservative who pursued regime-change operations against Third World countries and was committed to military confrontation with the Russians. The candidate would have a track record supporting the kind of trade agreements that allow corporations to overturn environmental laws, and would also be dogged by embarrassingly detailed allegations of corruption on a stunningly blatant scale. The candidate would insist that everything was just fine with America, and anyone who disagreed was just being negative. Oh, and it would help if the candidate had engaged in race-baiting behavior, and had insisted that a woman’s claim that she was raped wasn’t to be taken seriously if it was directed at a member of the candidate’s own family.

That is to say, the rank and file Democrats’ idea of the worst possible President is Hillary Clinton.

Now let’s imagine that you were to hop on a Greyhound, get off in Bowling Green, Kentucky, head for the nearest Southern Baptist church social, and ask the people there—dyed-in-the-wool Republicans down to the very last lady, gentleman, and well-scrubbed child—to describe their nightmare presidential candidate, the person they’d least like to see in the White House come January.

They’d tell you that of course it would be a Yankee from New York City, which still edges out Los Angeles in the minds of many of the godly as the ultimate cesspit of evil in North America. The candidate would be a profiteer who made a pile of money exploiting vice, a wheeler-dealer who repeatedly declared bankruptcy to get out from under inconvenient debts. The candidate would be vulgar—you have no idea of the force of this word until you’ve heard it uttered in tones of total disdain by an elderly woman who’s a downwardly mobile descendant of Southern planters—and a hypocrite in religious matters, mouthing only such Christian catchphrases as might help win the election. Such a candidate would of course be on a second or third or fourth marriage, have fathered a child out of wedlock, and would fail to show any trace of pious horror toward gays, lesbians, transexuals, and the like. Finally, such a candidate would claim that America is no longer the greatest nation on Earth and has to make sweeping changes to become great again.

That is to say, the rank and file Republicans’ idea of the worst possible President is Donald Trump.

I suppose its probably too late in the game for both of the parties to do the right thing and swap candidates, so that the Republicans can go back to running a corrupt establishment neoconservative and the Democrats can field a libertine populist demagogue. Lacking such a sensible move, it’s not at all surprising that so many people have basically gone gaga, as Democratic and Republican voters try to convince themselves that they really do want to vote for someone who’s literally everything they least want in the Oval Office. That degree of cognitive dissonance does not make for calm discussions, rational decisions, or sane politics.

We can therefore expect any number of bizarre outbursts as the current race settles which of the two most detested persons in American public life gets the dubious benefit of putting a hand on the Bible next January, and becoming the notional leader of a bitterly divided nation in the throes of accelerating political, economic, and social decline. While that plays out, though, there are other dimensions of politics that deserve discussion, and some of them surfaced in a big way in response to my post last month talking about the failure of climate change activism to achieve any of its goals.

That post attracted quite a few hostile comments and no shortage of furious denunciations. A very large number of these focused on one detail in the post:  the comparison I drew between climate change activism and the campaign for the right to same-sex marriage here in the United States, in that both faced a well-funded opposition that pursued a scurrilous campaign of disinformation against them. The campaign for same-sex marriage, I pointed out, triumphed anyway, so the defeat of climate change activism couldn’t be blamed on the opposition alone; the reasons why climate change activism had failed, while the right to same-sex marriage was now the law of the land, had to be taken into account.

This, however, a remarkably large number of my readers were unwilling to do. They insisted that the goal of the campaign for same-sex marriage rights was a simple, straightforward change in laws that affected very few people, while the goal of climate change activism was a comprehensive overturn of every aspect of contemporary life. Some of them got rhetorical on the grand scale, painting the sheer overwhelming difficulty of doing anything about climate change in such daunting colors that I don’t think all the climate denialists on the planet, backed by a grant from Exxon, could have equalled it. It seems never to have occurred to them to ask whether there was a way to reframe their goal into something more like same-sex marriage—something, that is, that they might be able to accomplish.

More generally, the core of the hostile response was an absolute rejection of the idea that the climate change movement should learn anything from its failure. That’s a surrender more total than anything Exxon’s board of directors could have hoped for in their fondest dreams. Movements for social change that want to win always take each temporary defeat as a learning experience, draw lessons from the failure, and change their tactics, strategy, and framing of the issue based on those lessons, then fling themselves back into the struggle with a better chance at victory. They also look at other movements that succeed and ask themselves, “How can we do the same thing with our cause?” Movements for social change that respond to failure by reaching for excuses and trying to convince themselves and everyone else that the battle could never have been won in the first place, on the other hand, get a shallow grave and a water-color epitaph.

For what it’s worth, I think there’s something even more important to be learned from the insistence that the lessons of the movement for same-sex marriage rights can’t possibly be applied to climate change activism. The same-sex marriage movement was notable among recent initiatives on the leftward end of the political spectrum for two distinctive features. The first was that it went out of its way to violate the conventional wisdom that’s governed activism in the US since the early 1980s. The second is that it won. These two things are by no means unrelated.  In fact, I’d like to suggest that certain habits, which have been de rigueur for social change movements for the last thirty years, have been responsible for their near-total failure to accomplish their goals over that period.

Let’s take a look at those habits one at a time.

1. Piggybacking

This is the insistence that any movement for social change has to make room on its agenda for all the other currently popular movements for social change, and has to divert some of its time, labor, and resources to each of these other movements. Start a movement for any one purpose, and you can count on being swarmed by activists who insist they want to be your allies.  Some insist that they’re eager to help you so long as you’re willing to help them, some insist that you can best pursue your goal by helping them pursue theirs, some insist that theirs is so much more important than yours that if you’re a decent person you should drop your cause and join them, but it all amounts to a demand that you divert some of your money, time, labor, and other resources from your cause to theirs.

Behind the facade of solidarity, that is, the social-change scene is a Darwinian environment in which movements compete for access to people, money, and enthusiasm. Piggybacking is one of the standard competitive strategies, and it really goes into overdrive as soon as your movement comes up with a plan to do something concrete about the problem you’re trying to solve. At this point, your allies can be counted on to insist that your plan isn’t acceptable unless it also does something to benefit their cause. You can’t just fix A, in other words; you’ve also got to do something about B, C, D, and so on to Z—and long before you get there, your plan has stopped being workable, because no possible set of actions can solve all the world’s problems at once.

One of the things that set the campaign for same-sex marriage rights apart from other movements for social change, in turn, is that it refused to fall for piggybacking. It kept its focus on its actual goal—getting same-sex couples the right to marry—and refused to listen to the many voices that insisted that it was unrealistic to pursue this goal all by itself, and they should get in line, join the grand movement for social change, and wait their turn. If they’d listened, they’d still be waiting. Instead, they succeeded.

2. The Partisan Trap

The Democratic Party is the place where environmental causes go to die. To some extent, today’s US partisan politics is the ultimate example of piggybacking; movements on the leftward end of things have been talked into believing that they should put their energy into getting Democratic candidates elected, rather than pursuing their own agendas, and as a result Democratic candidates get elected but the movements for social change find that their own causes go nowhere.

This isn’t accidental. Both US parties have perfected the art of reducing once-independent movements for social change into captive constituencies, which keep on working to elect candidates for one or the other party, while getting essentially nothing in return. The Democratic party establisnment has no more interest in seeing climate change activism succeed than their Republican opposite numbers have in seeing the antiabortion movement succeed; in both cases, that would cause the movements to fade away, as movements do when they triumph, and important captive constituencies would be lost to the parties that own them. It’s much more profitable to the party apparatchiks to toss occasional crumbs to their captive constituencies, blame the other party for the failure of the captive constituencies to achieve any of their goals, and insist every four years that their captive constituencies have to vote the way they’re told, because the other party is so much worse.

The campaign for same-sex marriage rights managed to break out of that trap despite the strenuous efforts of both parties to keep it in its assigned place. It so happens that there are a significant number of gay and lesbian people who are Republicans—who vote for GOP candidates, donate to GOP campaigns, and take part in party activities—and they bombarded their Republican legislators with letters demanding that the GOP do what it claims it wants to do, and get government off people’s backs. This played a significant role in bringing about the collapse of GOP opposition to same-sex marriage, and thus to the success of the movement.

3. Purity Politics

The creation of a movement that included Republican as well as Democratic gays, lesbians, and sympathetic straight people also violated another commandment of contemporary left-wing activism, which is that movements for social change must exclude everyone who fails any of a battery of tests of ideological purity. It’s been pointed out, and truly, that the Right looks for allies to attract while the Left looks for heretics to expel; this is one of the reasons that for the last forty years, the Right has been so much more successful than the Left.

To some extent, purity politics is simply the flipside of piggybacking. If your movement also has to support every other movement on the leftward end of things, the only people who will be attracted to your movement are those few who also agree with the agendas of every one of the other movements on the list. Still, there’s more going on here than that. I’ve written in a previous post here about the way that narratives about race in America have been transformed into a dysfunctional game in which bullying an assortment of real and imagined persecutors has taken the place of doing anything to better the lives of those affected by racial injustice. Purity politics rises out of the same dynamic, and it’s played a large role in taking any number of potentially successful movements and reducing them to five or six people in an empty room, each of them glaring suspiciously at all the others, constantly on the lookout for any sign of deviant thinking.

One of the reasons the movement for same-sex marriage rights triumphed, in turn, was precisely that it refused to get into purity politics. All that mattered, in large parts of the movement, was that you were in favor of giving same-sex couples the right to marry, and a great many people who weren’t in favor of the whole gamut of social-change movements were in fact perfectly willing to let gay and lesbian couples tie the knot. That capacity to bridge ideological divides and find common ground on a single issue isn’t a guarantee of victory, but refusing to do so is almost always a guarantee of defeat.

4. Pandering to the Privileged

No one ever built a mass movement by appealing to an affluent minority. That’s one of the major reasons why so few movements for social change these days show the least sign of becoming mass movements. Since the early 1980s, most activists have framed their appeals and their campaigns as though the only audience that mattered consisted of affluent liberals, and as often as not went out of their way to ignore or even insult the great majority of Americans—you know, the people who would have had to be on their side if their cause was going to achieve any kind of lasting victory.

I’ve discussed in other posts on this blog the extent to which class issues have become a taboo subject in contemporary politics, precisely during the decades in which the once-prosperous American working classes have been destroyed. In our collective conversation about politics, you can talk about race, you can talk about gender, you can even talk about the very rich, but if you talk about another very important divide—the divide between the people who earn salaries and have done very well for themselves, and the people who earn wages and have been driven into poverty and misery by easily identifiable policies supported across the board by the people who earn salaries—you can count on being shouted down. (One of the many advantages of having this conversation on the fringes where archdruids lurk is that the shouting is slightly muffled out here.)

A great many soi-disant radicals have thus ended up trotting meekly along after the privileged classes, begging for scraps from the tables of the affluent rather than risking so much as a raised eyebrow of disapproval from them. Real change will come to the United States when others learn, as Donald Trump already has, that the exclusion of the needs, interests, and viewpoints of wage-earning Americans from our national politics and public discourse has shattered their once-robust faith in the status quo and made them ripe for political mobilization. That change need not be for the better; if the mainstream parties continue to act as though only the affluent matter, the next person who finds a following among the wage class may have a taste for armbands and jackboots, or for that matter, for roadside bombs and guerrilla warfare; but change will come.

The movement for same-sex marriage rights had a great advantage here, in that the policy changes it wanted to put in place were just as advantageous for wage-earning same-sex couples in Bowling Green and Omaha as for salary-class same-sex couples in Seattle and Boston. (If you don’t think there are wage-earning same-sex couples in Bowling Green and Omaha, by the way, you need to get out more.)  That gave their movement a mass following that, even if court rulings hadn’t made the point moot, had already begun to win votes on a state-by-state basis and would have won a great many more.

And the movement against anthropogenic climate change? If you’ve been following along, dear reader, you’ll already have noticed that it fell victim to all four of the bad habits just enumerated—the four horsepersons, if you will, of the apocalyptic failure of radicalism in our time. It allowed itself to be distracted from its core purpose by a flurry of piggybacking interests; it got turned into a captive constituency of the Democratic Party; it suffers from a bad case of purity politics, in which (to raise a point I’ve made before) anyone who questions the capacity of renewable resources to replace fossil fuels, without conservation taking up much of the slack, is denounced as a denialist; and it has consistently pandered to the privileged, pursuing policies that benefit the well-to-do at the expense of the working poor.  Those bad habits helped foster the specific mistakes I enumerated in my earlier post-mortem on climate change activism, and led the movement to crushing defeat.

That wasn’t necessary, nor is any future climate change activism required to make the same mistakes all over again. In an upcoming post, I plan on sketching out how a future movement to stop treating the atmosphere as an aerial sewer and start mitigating the ecological impact of our idiocy to date might proceed. The specific suggestions I’ll offer will be tentative, but the lessons taught by the success of the campaign for same-sex marriage rights will be incorporated in them—and so will the equally important lessons taught over and over again by the failure of other movements for social change in our time.