Space the Nation: Workers of the off-world, unite!

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Aug 31, 2018, 2:27 PM EDT (Updated)

The headlines:
DNC Chair says Democratic Socialist Ocasio-Cortez is the “future of our party”
In socialist candidates' election success, some see ominous rejection of Democratic 'Old Guard'
Young People F*cking Love Socialism And Conservatives Are Losing Their Minds About It

Many, including myself, have picked up on the link between increased activism among millennials and that generation having grown up on the heroics of young people triumphing in authoritarian dystopias. I have no doubt that being steeped in the narratives of The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner psychologically prepped genre fans to navigate the horror that the Trump administration is forcing up on us. But is it also possible that genre fiction is behind not just #theresistance but the somewhat utopian vision of what the better world after it might be? More bluntly: Did science fiction make them socialists?

There is, without a doubt, a long tradition of socialist science fiction. Socialist ideas inform the work of Ursula K. LeGuin, Octavia Butler, Marge Percy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, and the granddaddy of them all, H.G. Wells. There’s been a bit of an uptick in class- and labor-aware recent fiction as well. The Expanse’s Outer Planets Alliance is a trade union, and who can forget Hermione’s turn as Hogwarts’ own Mother Jones, pulling together the Society for the Protection of Elvish Welfare.

But as widely read as LeGuin is and as much as I love The Expanse, it seems unlikely that this generational shift is the result of direct propagandizing. Rather, I suspect that millennials’ openness to seizing the means of production stems at least in part to a more general sort of openness that comes from a constant diet of genre forms at a time when technological innovations are performing feats that were, in recent memory, only present in science fiction.

Oh, and they experience the ways in which capitalism has failed on a daily basis. With that as their constant, of course they’re open to the alternatives.

As I tend to say here somewhat frequently, all forms of social justice rely on lifting the weight of disbelief. You must imagine that change is possible, that the future can be different than what it looks like right now. Well, this generation has gotten really good at lifting that weight.

Meanwhile, capitalism hasn’t done itself any favors, and one could argue that here is where popular culture dystopias have pushed people the most forcibly to the left. From Weyland-Yutani to the Tyrell Corporation, big businesses are one of the most reliable Big Bads a story can have. But — see again that history of socialist fiction — this is hardly a 21st-century development. What’s different today isn’t the state of corporations in fiction, but the hegemony of corporations in fact. Capitalism could stand the assaults of genre writers just fine as long as it wasn’t understood to commit perpetual violence on the consumers of that fiction in the real world.

Is there a degree of separation between the haves and have-nots of Blade Runner that we aren’t already living through, thanks to rapidly expanding income inequality? Is there anything Weyland-Yutani could do that would match the surreal villainy of putting children in cages?

Donald Trump is himself a walking, talking avatar of capitalism — predatory business is his brand. He’s stocked his cabinet with a gallery of comically inept henchmen whose misdeeds challenge the limits of rational description and whose position and wealth make a joke of meritocracy. If these are the winners in the “marketplace of ideas,” obviously, there’s something wrong with the market.

Conventional wisdom has framed the growth in the popularity of socialism specifically as a choice born of ignorance; this generation is too young to remember the horror stories of the Cold War, or even the hangover of revulsion that even Democrats had for anything remotely associated with government control or shared ownership. Up to 2016, one could argue that their strongest memory regarding "socialism" is that Republicans accused Obama of it, along with a bunch of other untrue and mostly racist things. So, much like being born in Kenya or being Muslim, the worst association a young person could have had with socialism is that it's vaguely exotic. After 2016, well, obviously, “socialism” is cool grandad Bernie Sanders’ promise of free college tuition, universal healthcare, and (if you'll pardon the anachronism) bringing down The Man.

And, indeed, this not a bad working definition of modern democratic socialism. What distinguishes it from past iterations in popular culture is that it's been detached from an automatically malicious association. There was a time when merely calling a program "universal" or "nationalized" would cause proponents of those programs to shrink away. Hillary Clinton was so scarred by her experience pushing such an idea that her criticisms of Bernie Sanders’ plans seemed like the result of Stockholm Syndrome. She kept insisting, like the Republicans of 1994 misinformed the public about her plan, that the problem with free college or universal health was that such notions “will never, ever come to pass” — they were real “pie-in-the-sky stuff.” Some partisans have picked up this refrain against the idea of a jobs guarantee or universal basic income: again, it’s “pie-in-the-sky,” or a “fairytale,” even, yes, “fantasy.”

But be careful telling the generation of driverless cars and recreational spaceflight that something is unrealistic. Neither “socialist” or “fantasy” are much of an insult any more.

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