Pluralistic: 08 Nov 2021

Today's links

An altered version of Henry Fuseli's 'The Nightmare,' an oil painting depicting an evil demon crouched on the chest of a sleeping woman. The demon's face has been replaced by Margaret Thatcher's face.

Imagining the end of capitalism (permalink)

My latest column for Locus Magazine is "The Unimaginable," about the relationship of science fiction plays to the future. Sf is a literature of inspiration and warning, not prediction.

I mean, thank goodness. If the future was predictable, there'd be no point in getting out of bed, because the future would arrive irrespective of our actions. Sfnal tales that posit a predictable future (like Asimov's "Foundation" or Heinlein's "Jonathan Hoag") are pure fatalism.

Instead of predicting a future, sf imagines lots of futures. This is an intrinsically political act, because it rejects the political claim that the world is the way it is because it could not possibly be different. This claim is often implicit in ideology, but Margaret Thatcher made it explicit, claiming "there is no alternative" to free-for-all capitalism. This idea – shortened to "TINA" – is the cornerstone of capitalist realism, whose goal is to foster a mindset where "It is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism."

Now, this is obviously untrue. It's super-easy to imagine a world without capitalism. My own books – Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Walkaway and more – have done so. The very exercise of imagining a postcapitalist world is heady and refreshing.

But while postcapitalist futures are a dime a dozen in sf, the actual moment in which capitalism ends is rarely depicted. For example, Kim Stanley Robinson has published a string of astoundingly great novels depicting postcapitalism (Pacific Edge, 2312, etc), without giving us the transition itself.

Or rather, he hadn't given it to us, not until 2020, when he published his blockbuster climate novel "The Ministry for the Future."

"Ministry" breaks new ground for Robinson and does something rarely seen in the field: depicts a plausible, step-by-step sequence in which capitalism falls. To make this work, Robinson employs a documentary storytelling style, where short vignettes depict key moments through the eyes of dozens of characters. This in-the-round view of a complex and wrenching change is so damned hopeful – a tonic against the dystopian fatalism all around us.

But as I wrote with in initial review of Ministry, I think Robinson's book has an important omission. The transition from capitalism to postcapitalism that it depicts involves multiple acts of spectacular, ghastly violence. For example, one key turning point comes when every private jet in the sky is destroyed midflight by a coordinated drone-attack.

This event is depicted through a news-story-like exposition – the documentarian's camera does not switch on in the cabin of any of those jets, nor in the lair of the terrorists who caused them to fall.

I think I understand why Robinson made this choice. He's trying to split a very fine hair: the injustice and death of unchecked climate change will make people angry enough to murder, and the people who have it in their power to avert climate catastrophe might be motivated by the fear of that anger. I don't think he's glorifying the violence, nor apologizing for it, but rather, depicting it as a kind of inevitable outflow from abandoning billions to suffer and die in order to preserve profits for a tiny elite.

Even for a writer of Robinson's prodigious talents, giving us the worm's eye view of the terrorists and their dead is hard going. You don't want to glorify the violence, and you don't want to transform the martyrdom of their victims into redemption for their decades of genocidal greed.

Margaret Thatcher is the opposite of science fiction: TINA is a demand to stop trying to imagine an alternative. By contrast, thinkers like David Bollier advance TAPAS, which stands for "There are Plenty of Alternatives!"

As Michael Hudson writes for Naked Capitalism, TINA's appeal is in its ability to offer a deceptive "proof" that markets produce the best of all possible worlds:

For decades, capitalist realism has attempted to extinguish our very ability to imagine alternatives. Hudson says that the thing that comes after capitalist realism isn't another ideology with pretenses to empirical capital-T truth. Rather, we're heading to a world based on "a variety of useful alternative views on economic policies and practices."

Robinson's decision to draw a veil over the spectacular violence in his transition isn't a flaw, but rather, a residue – the last remnant of our TINA-stunted imaginations. It points the way for future work, where writers lean hard into this question.

The more ways we imagine a transition, the more hope we bring into the world. The very fact that a transition is possible is a reason to attempt it.

The cover for Charlie Jane Anders' Victories Greater than Death.

Charlie Jane Anders' Victories Greater Than Death (permalink)

"Victories Greater Than Death" is Charlie Jane Anders' debut YA novel, and it's superb – an exciting, engrossing book that captures everything great about young adult tropes while deftly subverting the problems those tropes present.

Tina Mains is not actually a human girl. As her mother has told her, she is the reincarnated clone of a great space adventurer, whose space-navy comrades disguised her as a human girl and hid her on Earth from their evil adversaries.

Now, Tina is in high-school and she senses the coming of day when her beacon will activate, signalling her maturity and summoning her alien comrades to take her to adventure. She knows that when the beacon activates, she will be immediately beset by the evil foes who murdered her forebear, and has mentally rehearsed her escape plan many times. Nevertheless, when the fateful night arrives, her friends are swept up in the peril, and she ends up on the space-navy ship in the company of Rachael, her best friend of all.

Right away, the story starts to depart from its expected trajectory. Yes, Tina is The Chosen One, but so is Rachael? And then Rachael has the idea to fill in the limping space-crew's missing cohort by recruiting four more Earth kids, so maybe they're The Chosen Ones, too?

This is emblematic of Anders' excellent work breathing new life into the standard form for YA space-opera. A friend texted me last night looking for YA recommendations because "the protagonist always saves the world." In Anders rendition, everything about this statement is made deliciously nuanced – the identity of the protagonist, what "saving" means, and what "the world" is.

All this, without ever losing sight of the reason we love YA and space-opera: majesty and sweep, good and evil, bravery and sacrifice, treachery and danger. In a single book, Anders gives us a whole franchise's worth of alien races, strange worlds, ancient plots and terrifying weapons, and all of it delivered through the friendships and troubles of a tight-knit group doing their best to save themselves and everything they love.

It's proof of the false dichotomy between excitement and thoughtfulness; between pleasure and sensitivity, and between tradition and novelty. It's just what sf – for adults and teens alike – should be.

A hand on a multibutton mouse, the body behind it is blurred and out-of-focus.

Right-Clicker-Mentality (permalink)

Having coined a few terms in my day, I revel in new coinages that capture something really gnarly and interesting.

Take "bezzle" – JK Galbraith's term for "the magic interval when a confidence trickster knows he has the money he has appropriated but the victim does not yet understand that he has lost it." So much of our contemporary economy is captured by that delicious term!

Recently, I happened on another coinage that is marvellously apt for our current moment: "right-clicker mentality."

The term comes to us from the world of NFTs, which have blown up into a massive, fraud-ridden speculative bubble that is blazing through whole rain-forests' worth of carbon while transfering billions from suckers to con-artists. A bezzle, in other words.

The creators of NFTs envisioned them as a kind of bragging right that described the relationship between a creator and a member of their audience. When you paid for an NFT, you recorded the fact that you had made a donation to the artist that was inspired by a specific work. That fact was indelibly recorded in a public ledger – the blockchain – so everyone could see it.

Instantly, the idea of supporting artists with NFTs was converted into a financial bubble. The point of an NFT wasn't to support an artist – it was to acquire a tradeable asset that would go up in value because the buyer thought they could unload it for even more.

In this age of stock markets that boom in response to mass unemployment, supply-chain collapse, monopoly and runaway climate emergencies, NFTs aren't really that weird. They represent the dream of "retail investors" to participate in the rigged lottery that minted 412 new billionaires during the covid lockdown.

In the NFT bezzle, NFT "owners" deliberately blur the distinction between owning the right to say you helped an artist and the right to say you own their work. They treat the NFT as equivalent to the image it refers to, rather than a bit of metadata that relates to that image. That's not surprising, as speculators are far more interested in inflating, tradeable assets than in arts patronage!

In response, NFT skeptics are wont to troll speculators by right-clicking the NFT image, choosing "Save As…" and making a copy of the image. Then they taunt NFT bros with the copy, driving home the point that their speculative bubble is trading in something even more abstract than a digital image.

On Oct 26, an NFT bro calling himself Midwit Milhouse coined the term "right-clicker mentality" to refer to these spoilsports who insist on pointing out the inconvenient truth of his white-hot ponzi scheme.

Milhouse used the term to disparage an amateur chef who made his own version of a $2,000 "Salt Bae" steak for $90. Salt Bae is a trendy London chef who charges tens of thousands for gold-leaf-covered steaks that he showers with salt in a kind of tableside piece of performance art.

Milhouse called this person "a great example of right-clicker mentality," whose homemade steak didn't deliver "the satisfaction, flex, clout that comes from having eaten at Salt Bae’s restaurant."

Milhouse went on: "The value is not in the cost of the steak. Go ahead, make yourself a gold-coated steak at home. Post a picture of it on Instagram. See how much clout it gets you."

And then, displaying galactic-scale lack-of-self-awareness, "Salt Bae’s dish costs around 1500GBP because people want to pay 1500 GBP to show off that they can afford to pay that much. It’s all about the flex."

You really couldn't ask for a better encapsulation of the NFT bezzle: buy an NFT to "flex" and "show off you can afford to pay that much." Ignore the intrinsic value or satisfaction of the underlying work. You're doing this for "clout."

Right-clicker-mentality is a value we should all aspire to. As Matthew Gault wrote on Motherboard: "Sometimes a word or phrase comes along that’s so perfect it almost makes you angry."

"To right-click is one thing, but to have a right-clicker mentality implies an ontological break between crypto-fans and critics. Indeed, it implies the person saving the JPEG to their hard drive isn’t just wrong, they’re broken in some way."

Nenad Stojkovic


(Image: Nenad Stojkovic, CC BY)

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Secret WIPO memo: rich countries to kill Broadcast Treaty, Development Agenda

#15yrsago Canadian copyright czar forced to turn away industry bribes

#10yrsago Boyett’s Mortality Bridge: Rock n’ roll Dante meets Orpheus

#10yrsago photo policy: all staff-produced photos will now be Creative Commons licensed

#10yrsago Preservation Hall Jazz Band: old time jazz from New Orleans

#10yrsago Glitch: dreamlike whimsy and play in a MMO

#10yrsago “Piracy-stricken” Viacom CEO tops pay-raise charts

#5yrsago CBC threatens podcast app makers, argues that RSS readers violate copyright

#5yrsago Glenn Beck’s “decency” doesn’t extend to answering questions about why he was such an asshole

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (

Currently writing:

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. Friday's progress: 274 words (29013 words total)

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. Saturday's progress: 523 words (35132 words total).

  • A Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. PLANNING

  • A nonfiction book about excessive buyer-power in the arts, co-written with Rebecca Giblin, "The Shakedown." FINAL EDITS

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Breaking In
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Upcoming books:

  • The Shakedown, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press 2022

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