The purpose of this blog is to work through the American canon, as collected by the Library of America, from the perspective of the anarchist tradition. The blog’s title comes from Voltairine de Cleyre’s essay, “Anarchism and American Traditions.” With de Cleyre, I believe that the major tension in American culture is the libertarian, anarchist, and cooperative. Of course, this tension battled with corporatism, capitalism, nationalism, religion, and other anti-libertarian tensions. As I will attempt to show, a close reading of American writers starting from the assumption that these works speak to the unending conflict between the forces of conformity and individualism, the state and the community, is revealing and instructive.
Obviously, I cannot promise that these themes will be at the heart of every blog post for my methodology is to read around 100 pages a day, or a volume of the Library of American, every 1-2 weeks. I will upload entries every few days and at least once for every major work (as readers may know, most volumes of the LOA contain several complete novels or works). I will work through this casually, choosing volumes based on availability and personal interest. I will continue until I finish with the LOA, my readers lose patience, or I feel I have made my points.
Let us start then with American Science Fiction: Four Classic Novels, 1953–1956. Specifically for today, Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants.
The Space Merchants is set in a future that is quite familiar to readers of science-fiction. The state has dissolved into a complete adjunct of the capitalist system. The true social planners are the agents of capital. The citizen has been replaced with the consumer. The results of this transfer of power to the advertisers is debt peonage for most workers in the world, the complete saturation of every corner of the planet by capital, over-population (zero population growth would only led to fewer consumers) and the absolute destruction of the environment. The narrator, Mitchell Courtenay, works for one of these large advertizes and as the novel begins has been handed the greatest task of his career. How to convince millions to move to the unterraformed Venus. If successful, he would create a new planet of consumers.
Frederick Pohl has some leftist credentials, having been active in the Young Communist League. He seemed to participate in efforts there to organize a politicized science fiction. Like many Americans of the Popular Front era of 1930s radicalism, the romance with the Soviets ended in 1939. While I personally know little of Pohl’s other works, The Space Merchants suggests a great ambivalence with the triumphant capitalism, consumer conformity, and mass marketed pleasures of the 1950s.His co-author C. M. Kornbluth has strong working class roots, benefited from the New Deal (National Youth Association) and fought in the front lines in the Second World War.
Let me just highlight a few themes before concluding on the solution that Pohl and Kornbluth suggest.
The Environmental Problematic
Clearly, the destruction of the environment due to corporate capitalism and over population is clear. Indeed, population was so crucial to the denziens of the novel that ships had the names Thomas Malthus or the Ricardo, suggesting the influence of these 19th century economic theorists of over-population and want. Coffee and real meat are replaced with synthetic alternatives. Chicken now comes from an organic blob constantly creating new “chicken” without the burden of slaughter. “Chicken Little grew and grew, as she had been growing for decades. Since she had started as a lump of heart tissue, she didn’t know any better than to grow up against a foreign body and surround it. She didn’t know any better than to grow and fill her concrete vault and keep growing, compressing her cells and rupturing them. As long as she got nutrient, she grew.”(70) Other signs of environmental destruction and the commercial benefits of scarcity run throughout the novel. People must bathe in salt water, unless they can afford fresh water.
The Working Class
The working class “consumers” (for that is their title) are almost all debt peons. Having most of their daily needs met by instant credit, provided by their employers. It is difficult to miss that Pohl and Kornbluth almost perfectly predicted the consumer economy running on debt that defined most of the past forty years of U.S. history. When the main character is mistaken for a worker, he was almost instantly thrust into an inescapable debt trap, set by his employers. We meet many workers who are active in the major resistance movement (there is only one in this simplified tale), but the sense one gets is that most are “consumers” in deed as well as in name.
Citizens to Consumers
The authors predicted the transformation of people from citizens to nations to consumers. This seems to suggest the death of the nationalism and the replacement of the nation with the franchise. The advertizing companies are international, skilled at manipulating people’s minds into accepting the advertizes choices (the best example of this is the attempts by the protagonist to construct a campaign to make the inhospitable Venus a paradise for potential settlers). In this sense, the company takes over the nation as the prime source of loyalty. Wars become commercial “feuds”, with full-scale battles and collateral damage. Some of the ads may seem silly from our perspective but I doubt the ads we are fed are much better. “BolsterBra, BolsterBra, Bolsters all the way; Don’t you crumple, don’t you slumple; Keep them up to stay!” or “Don’t try to stop perspiration. It’s Suicide, Doctors Advise a Deodorant and not an Astringent.” I am not sure if these could replace the national anthem, but I suspect more children know jingles before they do the “Star Spangled Banner.”
Of course there is resistance to the corporate rulers of the dystopian society. The structure of secret canonical texts, underground contacts, and terrorist actions strikes me as heavily borrowed from Orwell. In The Space Merchants the main threat to order is the World Conservationist Association, known popularly as the “Consies.” As it happens, Mitchell Courtenay’s wife is a secret member. Their ideology is not clearly stated bu in a pamphlet presented to the reader, they seem to be radical environmentalists than anarcho-primitivists. They called for “reforestation, soil-building, deurbanization, and an end to the wasteful production of gadgets and proprietary foods for which these is no natural demand.” Obviously their vision required a strong state and did not necessarily suggest political democracy or individual liberty. For the “Consies” the death of the planet was the largest threat. Unlike the corporate leaders, who read into Malthus the promising future of new generations of consumers, they believed the earth did reach its carrying capacity and called for population planning.
As troubling as the alternative is, their ideas are not unknown among contemporary environmentalists who see individual freedom of choice as a major cause of the ecological crisis the planet is facing. Proponents of central green planning or zero-population growth resemble, to me anyway, the “Consies.” Ultimately, Pohl and Kornbluth take the easy way out and avoid finding a solution on Earth. Instead, the solution comes in a compromise. The World Conservationist Association would move to Venus, terraform it, and prevent the intrusion of the advertisers. We do not know what sort of society they would plan, but it would almost certainly be planned. The Earth, apparently, is left to its doom. We are left then with two unsatisfying choices: state-managed green communism or corporate capitalism and debt peonage. I guess that choice was better than not having a choice at all, which was the situation at the start of the novel.
Here is perhaps a weakness in dystopian fiction. If it is properly dystopian it suggests warnings but is incapable of solutions. If those solutions exist, it would undermine the bleakness required of dystopian worlds. I cannot think (now) of a major dystopian work that provides alternatives or solutions. Ideologically, this may serve the status quo. Why do anything, if change is impossible?