- Interview by
- Derrick O'Keefe
The Ministry for the Future is Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest attempt to fill in a major gap in the utopian fiction tradition. Rarely dealing with the transitional phase toward a better and different society, speculative fiction of this type instead explores the final stages of a utopian experiment. The Ministry is an exception to this tendency.
A speculative history of the next few decades, the novel revolves around an international ministry assembled to help implement the Paris climate agreement. The novel’s action spans the globe, featuring popular uprisings, ecoterrorism, asymmetrical warfare, student debt strikes, and geoengineering. Green New Deal–style programs in a number of the world’s biggest economies feature prominently — with a post-BJP India leading the way — and the commandeering of many of the world’s key central banks to finance the work toward a just transition off fossil fuels is explored.
This is the meat and potatoes of the long transition — that which has dismissively been called “a cookshop of the future.” But while it may not service as a political blueprint, it is undeniably fertile ground for a novel. And genre disregard for the subject matter has been to Robinson’s gain.
Looking backward from the mid-twenty-first century, The Ministry helps open our minds to a world in transition away from capitalism. Imagining is a necessary precondition for solving the ecological crisis of our times. It provides the pivot for leveraging the horizon of the possible. By envisioning possible routes forward, Robinson has done us an invaluable service.
Jacobin’s Derrick O’Keefe, a Vancouver-based organizer and writer, caught up with KSR to talk about politics, economics, climate change, sci-fi, and the journey from now to the future.
This past month, Vancouver, where I’m based, has had a few days with the worst air quality in the world, thanks to the smoke from the California and West Coast wildfires. This was an appropriate backdrop for reading The Ministry of the Future, which opens with a catastrophic weather event. That event, which takes place in India, helps trigger a wave of political change and climate action worldwide. Do you think it’s going to take something really extreme to trigger the changes we need?
I think we’re already there, with the pandemic and with the fires and hurricanes — the level of extremity has brought a sense of general awareness that something is going to have to be done, and the sooner the better. That said, I think we’re on the brink of even worse events happening, as the book makes clear. It’s been a memorable year, a traumatic year — so this may be a stimulus to the start of some changes.
The Ministry is dedicated to Fredric Jameson, who was your PhD supervisor.
Fred was my PhD supervisor, and while I was working on my PhD, he moved from UC San Diego to Yale, and when that happened, he stayed on my committee — but the actual supervision shifted over to my undergraduate advisor.
I wanted to ask you about the now-famous quote attributed to Jameson, which is actually a bit of a paraphrase: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” It strikes me this book is coming out in a year when it’s become pretty easy to imagine the end of things, and that the real challenge is to imagine the beginnings of some kind of socialist system. As much as The Ministry is about the future, it suggests that those beginnings we need are already here with us now and that it’s really a matter of scaling up some of those alternatives.
I’m a novelist, I’m a literature major. I’m not thinking up these ideas, I’m listening to the world and grasping — sometimes at straws, sometimes just grasping at new ideas and seeing what everybody is seeing.
If we could institute some of these good ideas, we could quickly shift from a capitalism to a post-capitalism that is more sustainable and more socialist, because so many of the obvious solutions are contained in the socialist program. And if we treated the biosphere as part of our extended body that needs to be attended to and taken care of, then things could get better fast, and there are already precursors that demonstrate this possibility.
I don’t think it’s possible to postulate a breakdown, or a revolution, to an entirely different system that would work without mass disruption and perhaps blowback failures, so it’s better to try to imagine a stepwise progression from what we’ve got now to a better system. And by the time we’re done — I mean, “done” is the wrong word — but by the end of the century, we might have a radically different system than the one we’ve got now. And this is kind of necessary if we’re going to survive without disaster. So, since it’s necessary, it might happen. And I’m always looking for the plausible models that already exist and imagining that they get ramped up.
Real-World Models for the Future
The cooperative economy of Mondragon, in the Basque region, comes up as one such model in a number of your books. And in The Ministry, there is the example of Kerala, because India is so central to the book’s action as a leader of the transition to dramatic climate action.
I’m very interested in both these examples. I’ve actually never been to either region, but I’ve got contacts in both. In Mondragon, they are aware of me as an American science fiction writer who likes them, because my Mars trilogy books are translated into Spanish and do quite well in Spain. With Kerala, I’ve been studying it for twenty, twenty-five years. Like, why is it different and how is it different? Could it be a tail-wagging-dog situation for the rest of India? And so on.
I did put places that I’ve been in the novel, because I needed some anchoring points — principally Zurich [where the titular ministry is headquartered]. My wife and I lived in Zurich for years, and I finally managed to put that into fiction, which was a great pleasure. But as for the rest of the world, and for these kinds of leftist precursors, or already existing leftist states that are at a regional or town level, I’ve often thought to myself, “Is there any reason that these can’t be taken as models?” Is there any real reason — since obviously there are ideological reasons; if you’re a defender of capitalism per se, then you would say these are outliers of sorts or too small to be relevant — but if you’re a leftist, you look at them and see the public support for what they’re doing, and you ask, “Why couldn’t that work at a larger scale?” Especially if you’re trying to imagine futures that are working better, which is what a utopian science fiction writer does, then you’re kind of desperate for real world-models.
When I originally heard the synopsis for this book, it struck me immediately as something like an ecosocialist Looking Backward 2000–1887. The main character in that work by Edward Bellamy had fallen asleep for over a century and then woke up in a sort of post-capitalist utopia in the year 2000. In contrast, The Ministry is more about the journey to 2050 or so, a world that is very different from today both economically and politically. How do you situate this work, and your work more broadly, within the utopian tradition?
Well, Bellamy’s is a good book to think about, because it had an impact in the real world. There were Bellamy clubs, and the whole progressive movement was energized by Looking Backward.
I’ve steeped myself in the utopian tradition. It’s not a big body of literature, it’s easy to read the best hits of the utopian tradition. You could make a list, I mean roughly twenty or twenty-five books would be the highlights of the entire four hundred years, which is a little shocking. And maybe there’s more out there that hasn’t stayed in the canon. But if you talk about the utopian canon, it’s quite small — it’s interesting, it has its habits, its problems, its gaps.
Famously, from Thomas More (Utopia) on, there’s been a gap in the history — the utopia is separated by space or time, by a disjunction. They call it the Great Trench. In Utopia, they dug a great trench across the peninsula so that their peninsula became an island. And the Great Trench is endemic in utopian literature. There’s almost always a break that allows the utopian society to be implemented and to run successfully. I’ve never liked that because one connotation of the word “utopian” is unreality, in the sense that it’s “never going to happen.”
So we have to fill in this trench. When Jameson said it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, I think what he was talking about is that missing bridge from here to there. It’s hard to imagine a positive history, but it’s not impossible. And now, yes, it’s easy to imagine the end of the world because we are at the start of a mass extinction event. But he’s talking about hegemony, and a kind of Marxist reading of history, and the kind of Gramscian notion that everybody’s in the mindset that capitalism is reality itself and that there can never be any other way — so it’s hard to imagine the end of capitalism. But I would just flip it and say, it’s hard to imagine how we get to a better system. Imagining the better system isn’t that hard; you just make up some rules about how things should work. You could even say socialism is that kind of utopian imaginary. Let’s just do it this way, a kind of society of mutual aid. And I would agree with anyone who says, “Well, that’s a good system.”
The interesting thing, and also the new stories to tell if you’re a science fiction novelist, if you’re any kind of novelist — almost every story’s been told a few times — but the story of getting to a new and better social system, that’s almost an empty niche in our mental ecology. So I’ve been throwing myself into that attempt. It’s hard, but it’s interesting.
Homo Economicus Is a Fraud
Amidst and between all the action of The Ministry, there are some polemics carried out, is that fair to say? One recurrent polemic is against mainstream economics, a theme running throughout the book that there’s a need for new metrics and new indices both to quantify the biosphere and to express what we truly value rather than just GDP and the stock market.
There is a polemic for sure. First, I would want to make a distinction between economics and political economy, because by and large, economics as it’s practiced now is the study of capitalism. It takes the axioms of capitalism as givens and then tries to work from those to various ameliorations and tweaks to the system that would make for a better capitalism, but they don’t question the fundamental axioms: everybody’s in it for themselves, everybody pursues their own self-interest, which will produce the best possible outcomes for everybody. These axioms are highly questionable, and they come out of the eighteenth century or are even older, and they don’t match with modern social science or history itself in terms of how we behave, and they don’t value the natural biosphere properly, and they tend to encourage short-term extractive gain and short-term interests. These are philosophical positions that are expressed as though they are fixed or are nature itself, when in reality they are made by culture.
Political economy is a kind of nineteenth-century thing, a more open-ended idea where we could have different systems. And that accounts for a lot of the struggles of the twentieth century. But capitalism likes to pretend that it’s nature itself, and that’s what economics is today, largely.
Take the term “efficiency.” In capitalist economics, that’s just regarded as almost a synonym for “good,” but it completely depends on what the efficiency is being aimed at. You know, machine guns are efficient, gas chambers are efficient. So, “efficiency” as such does not mean “good.” It is a measure of the least amount of effort put in for the most amount gotten out.
One of the things you’re seeing during the pandemic is that the global system of creating masks is efficient, but it is also fragile, brittle, and unreliable because redundancy, robustness, and resilience are all relatively inefficient, if the only rubric of efficiency is profit.
Capitalist economics misunderstands and misjudges the world badly, and that’s why we’re in the mess we’re in — caught between biosphere degradation and radical social inequality. These are both natural results of capitalism as such, a result of the economic calculations we make under capitalist axioms.
Distinctions have to be made here. Quantification is really part of science. Social science has some tools for understanding and generalizing from the particulars of individuals to what the group might want.
Twenty-five years ago, I might have said, “Economics, we have to throw it out.” That doesn’t hold for me anymore. Economics has a set of tools. And social science tools, working with the right axioms, could make for a socialist economics. There could be a post-capitalist economic system. But what you’re then talking about is a different political economy.
That’s one of the things The Ministry is about. Can you morph, by stages, from the political economy that we’re in now, which is neoliberal capitalism, to what you might call anti-austerity, to a return to Keynesianism, and then beyond that to social democracy, and then beyond that to democratic socialism, and then beyond that to a post-capitalist system that might be a completely new invention that we don’t have a name for?
This is why I hold myself to calling it “post-capitalism,” so as not to try and define it by any of the nineteenth-century political economies. I think many of the solutions can be found in socialism, but I don’t call myself a socialist. I would want to keep it a little more open to the idea that we have to morph capitalism as such, and that we might shove it to the margins, where we might have a market for the non-necessities. I think the market itself has to be reexamined, and this is so fundamental to the way that modern society works that it’s frightening, and, for me, it’s better to think in a stepwise fashion and to imagine society from where we are now transforming to an undefined better political economy.
Planetary Heat Death or the End of Capitalism — We Can Choose
One of the axioms of that better political economy is expressed in The Ministry as “Public ownership of the necessities, and real political representation” — two things together that we are far from having, by greater or lesser degrees, really almost everywhere today.
A key part of getting from here to there, to a new political economy, involves the question of finance. In New York 2140, one of your characters is a Wall Street trader speculating on intertidal markets, and much of the action concerns finance and the banks. In The Ministry, even more radical measures are contemplated for putting finance at the service of a livable, non-submerged future. Where did you get the inspiration for Carbon Quantitative Easing and the rest of the transformation of finance imagined in this book?
Carbon Quantitative Easing is not my idea. I really am just a listening facility here, trying to amplify ideas. That one is out there. Recently, even Lawrence Summers — who was the treasury secretary for Bill Clinton and a neoliberal of the first order — and his think tank have been putting out stuff about some kind of CQE. So it’s been spreading quickly as an idea, and I’m glad.
But in the years since I wrote New York 2140, I learned more about the central banks and realized that nationalizing the banks, which happens in 2140, wouldn’t be going far enough. It would be great if all banks were owned by the people, and if banks were not private profit-making enterprises, that would be great — but it would only be one step along the way; it would not be enough. Because, at this point, central banks are only concerned with stabilizing money and maybe helping employment levels, and they will not do anything else unless they are under enormous pressure. They need to be changed, and that’s a lot of what this novel’s about.
Changing the way we regard money, that would be a step toward post-capitalism right there. If money was created from scratch but not given to the banks to loan to whatever they wanted but given to decarbonization projects first, then flowing out into the general economy — the first spending money by governments, which make money in the first place, would be targeted toward decarbonization efforts. This strikes me as a good idea, a necessary idea.
Because saving the biosphere doesn’t make a profit in the capitalist order, we will never do it, and we are therefore doomed. So a very fundamental reform of how we regard money itself is absolutely necessary. I’m saying that a post-capitalist political economy that regards money as created for the public good and is spent on that first — and then trickles into the general economy — is a fundamental shift, and without it, we’re in terrible trouble.
A lot of the action takes place in Switzerland, as you mentioned, because many of the main characters are members of the Ministry of the Future headquartered in Zurich. Do you worry that your story could evoke right-wing tropes like the globalist, world government bogeyman that nationalists talk about to avoid action on climate change?
Well, maybe so, but I would say the Left has to fight fire with fire. Right-wing ideas are also conceptions of globalization, in terribly poor disguises as being nationalist. But the nationalist system is embedded in capitalism; it’s just completely international and global. These right-wingers, if they could make an extra dime an hour by selling out national citizens by sending their industries to China or India — they’d do it in a second, and they already have. So they need to be called out for being completely inconsistent and hypocritical. And the Left needs to be much more aggressive on that, and say the problem is not globalization per se; the problem is bad globalization, which is capitalism, as opposed to good globalization, which is mutual aid and cooperation among the nation states by way of international treaties and things like the UN.
The Paris Agreement is crucial. It’s a major event in world history. It could turn into the League of Nations, in which case we’re screwed. Or it could turn into something new in history, a way to decarbonize without playing the zero-sum game of nation against nation.
So all this needs to be fought at the level of the discursive battle, and no concessions can be made on that point. I mean, right-wing thinking is supremely hypocritical and convoluted and self-contradictory, and that needs to be pushed on and pointed out at every chance — these supposed nationalists are also going to sell you out. This discursive battle, it’s very important.
You talked about the Great Trench, of how we get from here to there, and it strikes me that this book is very grounded. There’s no reference to a lunar colony, let alone to any Elon Musk Inc. version of Mars, and there’s no mention of off-planet gated communities like in the film Elysium. Does this absence imply that saving the earth, or transitioning to a livable system, requires stopping the capitalist colonization of space? I kept waiting for an Elon Musk character.
Well, since there are 106 chapters — I guess that I could have made it 107, and I could have talked about that. But maybe the absence does speak louder than words. All of those things are fantasies, and billionaire fantasy trips are not going anywhere.
In Red Moon and Aurora, I’ve made my statement about what’s possible and what isn’t. Because in the capitalist world, you have to make a profit, and even the billionaires don’t have enough money to properly fund these ventures on their own. So they talk about asteroid mining — that’s bullshit. They talk about Helium-3 mining on the moon — that’s bullshit. There is no profit in space. It’s just a fantasy of our culture right now, because everybody’s been convinced by science fiction writers [laughs], and they’re not paying attention to the numbers game, I guess.
I believe in space science. I’m totally in love with NASA, and with public space science, as part of government. There’s this saying of NASA’s, “space science is Earth science,” and I totally believe that.
That strikes me as the theme of Aurora, right there. You have to go 150 years away from Earth into space to realize what you’ve got, and in that book, they actually turn the ship around.
Yes, exactly. Aurora is my statement about leaving the solar system and that whole idea that humanity is destined for the stars. I try to put a stake in the heart of that idea. But the moon, Mars, the asteroids — that’s more local. But it’s not profitable. So, you’ll see China on the moon [as in Red Moon], you’ll see an international presence there. I’m confident it will be just like Antarctica. And Antarctica’s interesting. There’s a couple thousand people down there every summer. It’s not exploitable; there’s no profit to be made down there. And nobody’s interested. Like, if I say to people, “Oh, I went to Antarctica,” it’s like, “Who cares?”
To Fight Climate Change, We Will Need Every Arrow in Our Quiver
And I assume you have spent quite some time in Antarctica, because there’s so much detail to the action that takes place there, in both this book and your earlier works.
Yes, I have been there twice. I have a whole novel about it. Sea level rise is so imminent that Antarctica will be important. And this idea of sucking out the water from beneath these glaciers to slow their melting and sliding into the ocean, this is an idea that glaciologists have, really an individual glaciologist. And when I ask their colleagues about this plan, they say, “Yeah, we have the technology.”
The question is whether the bottom [of the glaciers] is configured correctly. In other words, the earthy form of Antarctica that the ice is resting on may or may not be conducive to sucking water out. So it’s an open question whether my save-the-sea-level section of The Ministry would actually work… it’s probably the most speculative part of the novel, to suggest that that could be done and that it would work. That would be extremely useful geoengineering, but as of now, no one is confident that it would actually work, because we don’t know enough about what the bottom is like. So the Antarctic strand of the novel is a bit of wishful thinking.
Geoengineering is sometimes a kind of “third rail” in left or ecological political circles. At one point, one of your characters in this book suggests that what’s needed is a new word.
I know just what you’re talking about, this kind of third rail sensibility. I would say that conditions have changed such that we are now obviously actively experiencing climate change. I can see that a standard leftist analysis of this is that it’s just more capitalist excuse-making. But what I’m saying is, we’re doing it already, it might become necessary, and anyway, a nation like India, if they get hit by a heat wave, they’re not going to care about any kind of leftists clutching their pearls. Many leftists are fairly well off, well off enough to have a political philosophy that wants things to be better for everyone, partly, like in my case, so I don’t feel like a ridiculous aristocrat but just a precursor of what everyone will have later on.
What I want to say to all my leftist readers is, get over it. We’re in an all-hands-on-deck situation, where every possible thing that has ever been suggested to escape the mass extinction event is going to be on the table. And these theoretical arguments — it’s just another capitalist ploy, it’s a silver bullet, it’s a fantasy — well, some of that’s true and some of it isn’t. So there is no excuse for ideological rigidity about something this important. As a leftist, I would say to other leftists: Get over the prejudice against the term geoengineering and look again at the situation that we’re in. We need to decarbonize. Anything we do at scale to achieve that is a form of geoengineering.
Here’s one thing I’ve been saying to open eyes around geoengineering: women’s rights are a geoengineering technology. Here’s why: when women have developed and achieved rights, because we need to get to post-patriarchy as well as post-capitalism, the population replacement rate — a steady population is like 2.1 kids per woman — drops naturally from their own life choices to a rate of like 1.8 or 1.6. So, if you start talking about women’s rights as a geoengineering method, that takes it out of the techno-silver-bullet land, which is where we’re stuck right now. Because right now, when a leftist hears “geoengineering,” they think about an oil company pulling the wool over our eyes, suggesting we can keep burning carbon if we just throw dust into the atmosphere, and how we could end up in some kind of Snowpiercer or other extreme, far-fetched situation. So it serves as an allegory about things that could go wrong.
But I want to argue that humanity is now a major player in Earth’s biosphere, and anything we do to help Earth’s biosphere at scale — in other words, the whole civilization doing it on purpose — could be defined as geoengineering. And then you get software as well as hardware solutions.
So law, justice, post-capitalism, women’s rights, post-patriarchy — all these things could be defined as forms of geoengineering, and at that point, the term kind of falls apart. What we’re really talking about is civilization, as such, as a form of biosphere management. So this is what I’m going out there with over and over on this point, because there’s too much hardening of positions, and these positions are being taken on the basis of the situation as it existed in about 1980 or maybe 1990. The positions are behind the curve of the realities. So, as a leftist science fiction writer, it’s my responsibility to be politically incorrect in provocative ways.
One of the Ministry characters wonders at some point, “Were they fools to have tried so hard for words in a world careening toward catastrophe?” Every writer working on the topic of climate, whether approaching it through fiction or nonfiction, probably has this thought from time to time. You’ve worked hard for decades in a genre that many have often dismissed. Against this snobbish trend, Ursula K. Le Guin once suggested abolishing genre and subgenre categories altogether, arguing that “literature is literature.” Do you feel like science fiction, or speculative fiction, is finally getting its due respect — especially in this year of the pandemic?
We’re in a science fiction novel, as a culture. Science fiction is the realism of our time, as I’ve been saying over and over again. It’s the best way to describe the world that we’re in.
I read widely, I’m open-minded. As a writer, I chose science fiction consciously because it best expresses the realism of our lives today. Since the pandemic, everybody wants to hear what a science fiction writer has to say. Of course we don’t have the solution, and of course we can’t predict the future, but what I think is happening is people are realizing climate change is already here, it’s hammering us, and that we have to think more like how science fiction writers have been thinking for decades now.
This year, I’ve seen a bump in interest that’s doesn’t have to do with me personally. It has to do with science fiction as a genre. Now, you don’t see everybody interested. There’s a crowd of people who like to stay in a previous structure of feeling, to use Raymond Williams’s term. But that structure of feeling is now inadequate, and essentially reactionary. Now you’re in a science fiction world, and so what are you going to do? Maybe you’re going to read more science fiction!