The Post-Scarcity World
Capitalism meets its cyber-hippie match in a bountiful future that redefines class, politics and personhood itself
The end of history seems so quaint now. Put forward by Francis Fukuyama in his 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man, the concept posited that with the fall of communism, liberal, capitalist democracy became a kind of end state for the world. It was the big-H teleological view of History espoused by Hegel—and, later, Marx—and the 21st century was supposed to be its apotheosis. It was, of course, an idea soon undone, first by 9/11, then by the disastrous invasion of Iraq and the rise of ISIS’s Islamofascism, and, more recently, by the election of authoritarians such as America’s Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and the rise of populist nationalism in Europe. History, it seems, still has history to make. Thinkers on both the left and right derided Fukuyama’s idea for years.
Nonetheless, perhaps recent events also merit a rethink. A piece in Aeon magazine this spring suggested that the understanding of Fukuyama’s ideas as a merely triumphalist vision of western progress is wrong. Rather, writer Paul Sagar argues, Fukuyama suggested that not only would the “end of history” bring us authoritarians like Trump as people were drawn to power and braggadocio, but that the triumph of capitalism would also lead to a kind of degradation of personhood, reducing life to a base mediocrity that would only find relief in material goods.
If there is something that rings true in these assertions—what might be more miserable and misanthropic than an era in which burgeoning leftist movements are almost immediately co-opted by a Pepsi ad?—there is, nonetheless, still something missing in both this recuperation of Fukuyama and the bird’s eye view of history: technology. History has for decades now been seen in terms of right and left: of, on one side, the interrelation of markets, freedom and the stunning global reduction in poverty and, on the other, the insistence that capitalism is not just destructive, but unsustainable as well, and that it is a system predicated on both internal contradictions and the subjugation of an underclass.
Digital technology has a tendency to interrupt these narratives, particularly when one takes the long view. If for now companies like Facebook, Uber, Apple or Amazon seem to have merely intensified the worst of both capitalism and the surveillance state, the capacity of digital to radically reduce costs, reorganize social relations and democratize various means of production suggests that, at the very least, the way we understand right and left may not hold. As William Gibson famously said in 1994, “I sometimes suspect that we’re seeing something in the Internet as significant as the birth of cities. It’s something that profound and with that sort of infinite possibilities. It’s really something new, it’s a new kind of civilization.”
Of course, new kinds of civilization are exactly the purview of science fiction authors, and Cory Doctorow’s new novel, Walkaway, recalls Gibson’s own speculative literature as it sets up competing visions of the potential future tension between technologized, digitized versions of right and left. The book is set mostly in a near-future southern Ontario, and centres on a group of new so-called walkaways, people who have left the urban, hyper-capitalist world of “default,” and who have an attendant philosophy that eschews not just ownership, but also competition, surveillance and individualism. Their nomadic, neo-communist lifestyle is sustained by a dizzying array of technology, the names and functions of which are thrown at the reader at a breathless, Gibsonian pace: cyborg interfaces linked to persistent social networks, 3D printers that pull recycled material from nearly anything to create everything from food to buildings, drones and more, all put to the service of a cyberpunk hippie lifestyle. This is a fanciful world where blueprints for everything exist for free online and in which genetically engineered yeast can make beer from what you’ve just expelled as urine. But although the plot hinges on its most fantastical element—the uploading of human consciousness into the cloud in which people become bodiless “sims”—at the core of the novel is a more fundamental question raised by this idea of technology: what does the future look like when capital alarmingly coalesces in the one percent but it also costs almost nothing to make things and live?
The novel is thus implicitly structured on pitting dystopia versus utopia, and in this sense, it is something of a political tract. After all, politics is its own version of these projections of the future. “Make America Great Again” is a promise of a world, depending on your perspective, restored to glory or broken down at its most base. Fiction adds to this inherent forward-looking dimension by playing with notions of the future as either warning or aspiration—and Walkaway is ultimately a thought experiment that imagines the meeting of the logical progression of capitalism and a kind of digital neo‑communism.
It is no coincidence. Doctorow has for years been a writer and editor at the blog Boing Boing, a kind of clearinghouse for pieces on modern technology, politics and ideas that most clearly came to prominence around the copyright battles of the 2000s. Doctorow’s ethos also echoes Gibson’s sense of digital as a historical rupture—but he is deeply invested in disruption as history, rather than merely as a business model. To Doctorow, those arguments from the early part of the century about Napster and digital pushing the marginal cost of goods down to zero are not about MP3s or Netflix or even Uber upending public transit, but about creating a base for new socioeconomic relations.
The walkaways of the novel are the fictional manifestation of these ideas. For the most part, the focus is Natalie, whose transition from ultra rich heiress to walkaway is prompted by a death at a “communist party”—literally a party replete with booze and music that reclaims unused space—that causes her friends and her to go on the run. In a stylistic nod to anti-individualism, however, the omniscient narrator bounces between the minds of various characters with some frequency, most interestingly, Natalie’s love interest, Gretyl, a wizened, zaftig mother-figure, and Tam, a trans woman who is also the conscience of the group. Walkaway philosophy is to always “walk away” from possession of goods, and from authority and ego, a kind of Buddhist asceticism, but one softened by technology, including the ability to program drones to reconstruct the commune you just abandoned that was complete with Japanese onsen-style spa baths. Sex is everywhere and mostly unconcerned with gender boundaries. Everything in the rural walkaway world is decentralized, constantly skipping away from systems of control and surveillance. The common leftist complaint about techno-utopianism’s lack of materialist rigour—how talk of the disruptive effect of the cloud always somehow forgets the massive data centres or effects on people’s livelihoods—is here answered by more technology that negates such concerns, if perhaps a bit too conveniently.
The text’s dialectical antithesis to the idyllic thesis of walkaways is what the novel wisely labels “default,” and although it is perhaps a slightly too-on-the-nose version of techno-capitalism taken to its extreme, it serves its purpose. Its home in the novel is (of course) Toronto, an area controlled by the “zottarich,” the one percent of the one percent. They are embodied by Natalie’s father, Jacob Redwater, who commands both impossible amounts of wealth and the power—and violent force—that go with it. The clash of these two worlds is brought on by walkaway scientists successfully learning to “scan” consciousness and identity into the cloud where it can operate as bodiless persons. Rather than just waving off the idea, the text deals with the implications in an interesting manner, constructing an idea of digital identity that posits the necessity of an unconscious, and even of repression, rather than a sort of supercomputer version of mind. It is at its most interesting when characters must confront their own digitized identities as a kind of nod to how we live now, extending our selves into cyberspace while still tied to our bodies. The threat perceived by the rich, however, is how to police people who do not fear either imprisonment or death, and it is ultimately a meta-version of the same question the novel asks of its readers. If you can reorganize society so that you no longer need to work to survive, and nobody has to die, how might you reconceive authority, and humanity itself?
It is thus a novelization of a different end of history: the end of capital in the form of the end of death. But if Fukuyama modelled his thinking on the linear dialectic of Hegel—and the end of Marx’s dialectical materialism—perhaps the most unexpectedly interesting dimension of Doctorow’s work is his focus on the more simple mechanics of dialectical movement itself, or, more simply, dialogue. Rather than reflecting the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion that a novel should present competing views in dialogical relation with one another, Walkaway’s approach to the psychological dimensions of discourse is to treat it as a kind of athletic skill, each careful defusing of emotion in the service of a higher rational argument working to map out what it means to argue for the end of capitalist individualism. It is not a stretch to see Doctorow acting out an ideal of discourse informed by years of arguing online.
This focus on argumentation is by itself a kind of throwaway concept—and perhaps also slightly cheap biographical criticism. Yet in light of the contemporary ubiquity of the idea posed by Slavoj Žižek that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, the focus on the how of arguments is also the novel at its best, presenting the kinds of shifts in logic and the conception of the self that would be necessary for whatever comes after capitalism. Yes, digital replicators, houses powered by hydrogen cells and social discourse conceived of as wikis are intriguing as concepts, but also: how do we think our way out of the present moment when, despite the dismissal of Fukuyama, anything else other than technocratic capitalism often seems an impossibility?
Alas, it is this same back and forth where the novel is also at its worst. Characters become mouthpieces for ideologies, talking in vaguely absurd prose that, perhaps inevitably, sounds like undergraduates arguing on a web forum. The trouble with Walkaway is that because it gets so deeply into the weeds of its own ideological logic, it sets up an expectation of a similar kind of rigour in its political imaginings. We can forgive dystopian films such as Starship Troopers or The Matrix precisely because their unrealism turns them into useful allegory, but Walkaway forecloses such easy forgiveness. Its resolution in particular, which heralds the end of default and a new post-human age, seems too neat, too pat. Its thin characters do little to add to that.
All the same, the past few years have seen the slow, steady squelching of the techno-utopian dreams of the early web. This is generally to be celebrated—especially the debunking of some of the more aggressively naive ideas of simple global harmony and a shiny new, Apple-powered future. But lost, too, has been a more straightforward sense of the new. We are instead plunged into a new darkness, with the ills of nationalism, ethnocentrism, capitalism and techno-authoritarianism only rising. If Walkaway is a bit too fanciful, there is nonetheless in its breathless pace and ardent proselytizing a reclamation of the “right sort” of utopia—that, in contrast with either Stalinist brutality or Soviet brutalism, here is a vision of an anti-capitalism filled with hope.
Like the end of history, it is perhaps too quaint. Unlike that now worn concept, however, Doctorow’s novel nonetheless feels vital, or rather, full of vitality—breathing life into a dormant sense of hope that these flickering screens may simply do more than reflect and endlessly repeat what came before.