Kim Stanley Robinson: We Need Democratic Socialism
Utopian thinking gets a pretty bad name. But for author Kim Stanley Robinson, we should resist the idea we’re simply doomed to climate disaster — and insist that there is a world beyond capitalism.
- Interview by
- Philippe Vion-Dury
“There aren’t many popular writers who take head-on the capitalist system, big social and economic theories, and utopia. Still fewer take an interest in the environmental crisis and the near future it has in store for us. But Kim Stanley Robinson is one of them — a both prolific and political author, famed for his Mars trilogy.
His most recent novel is called The Ministry for the Future, dubbed a work of “cli-fi” — climate fiction. It helps us think about the disasters in front of us, but also what we can do about them. Philippe Vion-Dury of Socialter magazine spoke to the author about ecoterrorism, geoengineering, and the themes that pervade contemporary literature.
Your novel doesn’t match classic genres of “utopia” or “dystopia”… it’s not even science fiction really. How would you define your attempt with The Ministry for the Future? Proleptic realism? Fictional Prospective? Some even say it is an essay or a political tract (albeit one that’s eight hundred pages long) turned into a novel. There are, indeed, multiple passages that are clearly meant to inform the reader…
I would insist that The Ministry for the Future is a science fiction novel. It’s a novel, for sure, because the novel is a very capacious form, which can include many other kinds of genres in it, all thrown into the pot to make a kind of stew; and also it’s science fiction, simply because it’s set in the future. I would say science fiction is a genre that divides into three parts: the far future (often called space opera), the near future (proleptic realism, perhaps), and then a third less frequent middle zone in time that I call “future history,” which is say about a hundred to three hundred years in the future; this zone is much rarer, but very interesting, and it’s where I’ve placed many of my novels. But Ministry is near-future science fiction.
There are some famous novels in American literature which make the mixed nature of the form very clear — Moby Dick by [Herman] Melville, and USA by John Dos Passos, which was [Jean-Paul] Sartre’s favorite American novel. These are great novels, beyond my capacities, but they have been inspirational for me in my own work, in particular for 2312 and Ministry. You could say these novels are in the form of a bricolage or heteroglossia, or poly-vocal braids — but you see what I mean.
You’ve been a thorough observer of climate change issues for a few decades now, and you wrote many novels about it. Would you say it is an issue sufficiently or adequately present in modern literature (apart from science fiction)?
Not really, but also, I wouldn’t dismiss many new novels that are published as ordinary or mainstream novels, domestic realism I call it, or the modernist or realist novel, set in the “present” or the recent past, that are now concerned with climate change (one good example is A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet, or Clade by James Bradley) that do very well using the standard novelistic forms and contents to tell a climate story set in the present and immediate future. So, it’s maybe not adequately present yet, but writers are certainly trying, and doing well too.
Amitav Ghosh, for example, in The Great Derangement, claims that the effects of the Anthropocene are absent from “bourgeois literature,” that the ecological crisis is also a crisis of storytelling, for us being unable to figure it out, for it being too big, too invisible, too slow…
I reject Ghosh’s analysis completely because of his hierarchical and snobbish dismissal of science fiction as a genre equal to any others, including his supposedly superior domestic realism. Snobbery is always arrogance, and arrogance is always stupid. See [Marcel] Proust for the great analysis of this frightened and insecure claim of superiority, which is at the heart of snobbisme; anyone claiming this kind of superiority is like Madame Verdurin. Sadly, Ghosh is an excellent conventional novelist; The Glass Palace is a great national novel, but he is one of many good novelists who are quite bad at criticism or theory. Here, it’s important, not just a personal embarrassment, because he has attacked precisely the genre that can do what he claims he wants done.
So one needs to say that science fiction is the realism of our time; that it is a better genre for dealing with our current moment than the “bourgeois literature” that he exemplifies; and that his own attempts at climate fiction written since The Great Derangement are very weak because he doesn’t understand the power of science fiction, and therefore doesn’t believe in it, and so his powerful talent is wasted on finely written but trivial work. Historical fiction or semi-nonfiction won’t do what we need done in fiction now. He should set a novel thirty years in the future and see what happens. It could be good. And then he would have moved from “the mansion of literature” to one of “the outhouses of literature” as he put it, and might learn that this where the real power lies. Science fiction — which is to our time as plays were to Elizabethan England — is the right form for the content.
On the other hand, we could say that, in some ways, the Anthropocene is extremely present in our “collective imaginary” through science fiction — but in an obscure and bad way, maybe. Aren’t space opera sagas, for instance, like the very popular The Expanse, fostering the ideology of “escapism,” of building a multiplanetary species that will escape his fate on Earth… rather than fighting for building a livable future?
I like The Expanse, which is set in that “future history” of two hundred years out that I mentioned and uses that fictional space to explore issues that are pressing right now, especially in its analysis of capitalism, expanded into space to reveal its problems. So here you have to once again remember that since science fiction encompasses all fiction set in our future, from tomorrow to five million years from now, it is a big genre, with subgenres divided by how far in the future they go.
Far future fiction, often called space opera in English, uses our galaxy as a semi-magical story space, and can often be very educational and entertaining as it examines basic philosophical issues. I would submit as examples Iain Banks, Ken MacLeod, Alastair Reynolds, John Scalzi, Wolfgang Jeschke, and Catherynne Valente, among many others. The Expanse is closer to the present than these, and thus it falls in that relatively underexplored temporal zone of a hundred to three hundred years from now; this zone is my specialty, and I can see the effect of my work on The Expanse, which is a pleasure to witness.
The ambivalence of a certain kind of sci-fi regarding technology is sometimes emphasized: while criticizing technology or it’s possible use, it also strengthens its core position in our vision of the future, its halo of ineluctability. We could say, with the Mars trilogy, that you were doomed to strengthen the belief that one day we will be able to terraform an exoplanet, and why not alter or save Earth, too, by these same means. You also stage geoengineering experiments in The Ministry for the Future, which carry an additional ambivalence: Even if we don’t want to do it, will we be able to keep us from doing it if things go mad? How do you feel about that?
I want to point out that we have been technological for the entire history of our species, and indeed we evolved with technologies (of fire and stone and wood, etc.) to become human in the first place. Any simple criticism of technology as such is a misunderstanding of what humans are: the social primate that uses technology. Homo faber.
So, if the underlying power source for our civilization — a technology — has accidentally poisoned us — which it has — then it’s entirely appropriate to wield other technologies to reverse the damage if we can. Some damage can be reversed (buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere), but other damage can never be reversed (extinctions). Since we’re beginning a mass extinction event, we have to consider all possible actions as things we might want to do while they will still help.
Calling some of these actions “geoengineering” and then defining them in advance as bad actions is not a helpful move at this point. Women’s rights are geoengineering: when women have their full human rights, the number of humans goes down, and there is less impact on the Earth. Once you accept that, the uselessness of the word is made evident. Each move our civilization makes has planetary repercussions, and all are now important. Just think of it that way, please, and avoid all knee-jerk judgments in the service of ideological purity of the individual bourgeois subject holding said opinion. Purity of one’s beliefs is highly overrated.
Regarding technology, Ursula Le Guin says it’s “a heroic undertaking, Herculean, Promethean, conceived as triumph, hence ultimately as tragedy.” I’ll quote: “If, however, one avoids the linear, progressive, Time’s-(killing)-arrow mode of the Techno-Heroic, and redefines technology and science as primarily cultural carrier bag rather than weapon of domination, one pleasant side effect is that science fiction can be seen as a far less rigid, narrow field, not necessarily Promethean or apocalyptic at all, and in fact less a mythological genre than a realistic one.” What do you think about that?
That’s all fine, and I loved Ursula and her transformative views, but she would agree with this, I hope: a carrier bag is a technology! So quit with the mythic distinctions and focus on survival of civilization, please, which will be a technological accomplishment, just as the danger was created in part by earlier technological accomplishments.
That said, the real creation of danger comes from capitalism, as Le Guin would also agree with. If technology was deployed for human and biosphere welfare, we would be in good shape even now; but it’s deployed for profit, appropriation, exploitation, and gains for the rich, very often — and so the best good is not accomplished and we are in terrible danger. This is not the fault of technology, but of capitalism, which of course is a systems software, so therefore also a technology — but a better one is justice.
Your novel also cast a light on something quite rare in literature, and even more in the public debate: ecoterrorism. Since Edward Abbey’s novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, published half a century ago now, it seems that the idea of violent acts to protect “Nature” (and now climate, or the planet, or whatever) was marginalized. What’s your opinion on that? Is it a taboo amongst writers?
This is a very interesting question, and I don’t have a good answer for it, I’m sorry to say. I am mystified. Maybe the concept of the taboo, which you suggest, is a good one here. Once, Rod Serling wrote a Twilight Zone script in which people took an airplane hostage, and demanded a landing and a ransom, etc. After the TV show came out, real events like it started to happen. Inspiration? Coincidence? No one could be sure, but I remember hearing that Serling was taken aback by the events.
So, eco-terrorism: first, the word has to be challenged. What if this kind of action was named the Resistance, as in France during World War II? Then the whole moral balance shifts. Also, if people are not hurt, just property and machinery, is this terrorism, or even violence? Maybe these words should be reserved for harming people, and always condemned, I think — but breaking machinery, maybe not so much. Andreas Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline is good on making this distinction. It’s an important distinction, because people who would never want to hurt other people for any reason (like me) might be okay with breaking a bulldozer, or blocking a pipeline, etc.
For sure this is a subject that fiction should be exploring more than it does now. Richard Powers’s The Overstory gets into this to an extent, but there should be many more books like it. Possibly The Overstory is as popular as it has been because it explores these issues, among others.
You mention Malm. With your duo of characters — Frank, the damaged guy who survived an apocalyptic heat wave, and Mary, the technocrat who has limited power over things but wants to do good — it almost seems you create a fictional version of the “radical flank theory” developed by this author in his book. He suggests that even the “moderates” need “radicals” to make their claims look acceptable, and so both flanks should not undermine each other. Yet, in our present world, it seems most people still abhor any kind of radicalism or “violence,” even against goods or infrastructure, even if the targets are despised…
I am dubious about this “radical flank theory,” which says that power only gives concessions to nonviolent protest if it sees violent protest waiting in the wings. The example is often Lyndon Johnson [LBJ] dealing with Martin Luther King, Jr [MLK] because he was afraid of Malcolm X. Historically this doesn’t appear to be true; you can listen in on a phone conversation between LBJ and MLK (rather amazing in itself) and hear very clearly that they worked together in ways that showed LBJ didn’t fear Malcolm X’s approach but rather actually called for a little of it to help give him leverage with Congress; but Malcolm X’s approach would have created a backlash.
Each historical situation is so individual that historical analogies are nearly useless, and “covering laws of history” are just stories we tell ourselves in hopes of finding a useful generalization. Malm may be right and is worth reading, but you need to also read Joshua Clover, Erica Chenoweth, and Bill McKibben as just a start on this matter of what I call a “rhetoric of actions,” which is maybe also praxis. We have an incredible anatomy and taxonomy of rhetoric in speech from the ancient Greeks. This is the art of persuasion. But in the realm of actions (which Clover claims is all that really matters in the end), where is the description of which actions can produce which results? It doesn’t exist, possibly because of what I said before: each historical situation is unique. So, it can’t be generalized into any kind of taxonomy or guide to which actions get which result from onlookers.
That being the case, maybe now we can say this: we need to pressure our political representatives to do the right things for us and the biosphere. Mass demonstrations, either entirely peaceful or with a violent edge, seem to me appropriate now. The failure of the Biden administration’s Build Back Better act is not an indictment of that administration, but of the US electorate and political class; we should have elected a real working majority. Missing by one vote does not invalidate the goal or even the method; we need more votes in the Senate to get a true working majority. Then that majority has to legislate and pass the legislation. That’s one obvious tactic.
I also think that breaking machinery in ways that don’t hurt humans may be appropriate. This is one of Malm’s subjects; for sabotage, against murder. Making this distinction for ordinary citizens wanting to act is I think his primary achievement so far, and it’s important too. It’s much clearer in his books than in my Ministry for the Future, which is more of a warning, among other things, of how violent things could get if we don’t deal with these problems now.
There is this well-known sentence (almost cliché!) of your mentor (?) Fredric Jameson: “It’s easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” Was your intent with this novel to imagine a realistic end of capitalism rather than end of the world?
I like that way of putting it. Although, as you point out below, it isn’t really the end of capitalism at the end of Ministry for the Future — more like the return of Keynesianism, which is only one step on the way to a better civilization, for sure. It’s a rather modest reform, but one we could imagine being legislated now. In fact, we missed it by one vote in the US in 2021, for instance. And it will surely come, or so we can hope and should work for.
So, what I wanted to imagine in my novel is not any particular political formulation, but rather a messy and yet effective swerve away from a mass extinction event, which means, as a first step, away from neoliberal capitalism. One step at a time: I think we need first a refusal of austerity and neoliberalism, by way of Keynesian stimulus; then social democracy; then democratic socialism; and then on from there. But these are names for macro-systems and idealistic descriptions, and what I also want to insist on is a broadband and united front, a bricolage of whatever helps to dodge the mass extinction event, without any insistence on twentieth-century descriptive terms.
Yet, it doesn’t really sound like the end of capitalism, yes? It rather sounds like a new pact with capitalism, a constrained capitalism, like the Fordist pact after World War II. In brief, you set out a very Keynesian or neo-Keynesian perspective: you even dedicate an entire chapter to Keynes’s idea of the “euthanasia of the renter class.”
Yes, it is a first step we can take now, in the current political situation and legal/administrative regimes — not the least being the EU itself, as the great experiment in nation-states becoming member states, to make things go better. If the US is too individualist or libertarian or right-wing, and China is too authoritarian or socialist or left-wing, then maybe the EU is the space in the middle, where effective action might be created as a kind of social democracy of member states — or so one can hope.
As for [John Maynard] Keynes, I like his phrase “the euthanasia of the rentier class” very much — he seems to have been suggesting a real revolution within capitalism, without horrific violence and chaos, toward some kind of reformed capitalism that would be more egalitarian — maybe even a social democracy. So, his method is not the total solution, but it seems to me a viable step on the way.
Is the belief, shared nowadays by many ecologists, that capitalism has finally reached its final contradiction and is now doomed to fail, an illusion? It reminds me of [Norman] Spinrad’s Greenhouse Summer, where global syndicates took the succession of capitalism without doing so much better… Do you believe possible that capitalism finds a way to “overcome” this catastrophe and perpetuate itself, even at a terrible cost on life and habitats on this planet?
No, capitalism can’t persist in an antihuman and anti-biosphere way; it’s already reached its limit in that direction, which is why we are now in a period of acute crisis, the poly-crisis as some are calling it. Capitalism could possibly reform to an earlier Keynesian mode and squeak through this poly-crisis by becoming something like social democracy and thereby doing just enough to avoid collapse. If it got that far, that would be a success; and then there might be momentum for more, making a transition from social democracy to democratic socialism, which is more a name than an actuality, but could be voted in if enough voters believed in it.
The names don’t matter, the policies do. Meanwhile, neoliberal capitalism — which is to say, let the market do the thinking for us — has now shown itself to be a massive failure, in that it has created huge injustice among humans, and started a mass extinction event in the biosphere, all the while proclaiming itself a success — which it has been for the 1 percent and their enablers, but for no one else. So, what can’t go on, won’t go on; and since change has to happen, it will happen. The only question is: Is it change for the better or for the worse? And we make those choices every day now.
Despite all the terrible events you describe, you seem to think there is a light at the end of the tunnel if we collectively build tools, infrastructure, and innovative social organizations that are more fitting to the Anthropocene event. What do you think about degrowth? What do you feel about the idea that maybe it’s not innovation we need the most, but just to start stopping some things we do that we shouldn’t — that the best thing to do is sometimes not to do anything?
I do think that if we responded well to the climate/biosphere crisis, we could dodge the mass extinction we have begun and improve from there.
I don’t like the term degrowth because it seems wrong to me, as being some kind of capitulation to the current definition of “growth” that is quantified by GDP and GWP — in effect, growth of profit, as being the only rubric or measurement system we use. This is a very narrow use of the word, and new definitions of growth are already there which suggest “growth of goodness” or “growth of human welfare.’’ I would suggest that we might work for something like growth of sophistication, or stylishness, which implies doing more with less, by way of science and clever applications of technology. Also, a change in our structure of feeling, in which more is always better; something like the old English proverb “enough is as good as a feast.”
The word “growth” is too broad and amorphous, and needs to be retired and replaced by other words suggesting welfare for all humans, while not damaging our biosphere (our only home and our extended body), all at the same time. This is perhaps what degrowth advocates are talking about, but they don’t have the right words for it. Using less and yet getting more — is this degrowth, or innovation, or whatever word you choose? Sophistication, stylishness, sustainability, living within our means, prosperity — there are a lot of ways to describe it, but degrowth is not a good one, because there are at least two billion people living in misery, and we need them all at adequacy (another good word) before we can say we are doing well as a civilization — at the same time we have to fit within all the biosphysical boundaries of Earth’s biosphere.
In a text, you wrote that “one must be anti-anti-utopian,” meaning one must fight against narratives, fictions, ideas, people who tell you that “there is no alternative.” One way of being anti-anti-utopian is to be utopian, maybe tell stories with more carrier bags and less spears, OK. But don’t we also, above all, need “combat literature”? And what do you think about these calls for “new narratives”?
Interesting. In The Ministry for the Future, the coming decades are named by future historians: “The War for the Earth,” among other names. That does suggest combat literature, as you call it, and indeed my novel does include a lot of fighting, some of it actually strategic and useful, some of it lashing out and useless, or worse. That’s no doubt right: the coming decades are going to include a lot of violence, both slow violence (a good term from Rob Nixon) and fast violence, as it so often is.
It will be a mess; there will be no global plan, except for the Paris Agreement, which is a great plan, but in danger because it has to be enacted, and so far, it isn’t being enacted. But it is a good global framework for action, so we know such a thing is possible. Now the fight is on, to enact it, to create justice among humans at last, to save the biosphere from a mass extinction event. It’s going to be chaotic and confusing, and it’s going to last for as long as anyone alive is still alive. We have to get used to it, and fight effectively. Combat literature might help give us ideas or warn us of ramifications, but it’s the actions in the world that will matter — laws, norms, behaviors.