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Dystopia and economics

from David Ruccio

It’s not the best of times. In fact, it feels increasingly like the worst of times. I’m thinking, at the moment, of the savage attacks in Pittsburgh (at the Tree of Life synagogue) and Louisville, Kentucky (where 2 black people were recently gunned down by a white shooter at a Kroger store) as well as the election of Jair Bolsonaro (who represents, in equal parts, Rodrigo Duterte and Donald Trump) in Brazil. So, it seems appropriate to change gears and, instead of continuing my series on utopia, to turn my attention to its opposite: dystopia. 

Mainstream economics has long been guided by a utopianism—at both the micro and macro levels. In microeconomics, the utopian promise is that, if the prices of goods and services are allowed to reach their market equilibrium, everyone gets what they pay for, everyone is equal, and everyone benefits. Similarly, the shared goal of mainstream macroeconomics is that, with the appropriate institutions and policies, capitalism can be characterized by and should be celebrated for achieving full employment and price stability.

But that utopianism has been disrupted in recent years, by a series of warnings that reflect the emergence of a much more dystopian view among some (but certainly not all) mainstream economists. For example, the crash of 2007-08 and the Second Great Depression have raised the specter of “secular stagnation,” the idea that, for the foreseeable future, economic growth—and therefore the prospect of full employment—is probably going to be much lower than it was in the decades leading up to the global economic crisis. Moreover, what little growth is expected will most likely be accompanied by financial stability. Then, there’s Robert J. Gordon, who has expressed his concern that economic growth is slowing down, it has been for decades, and there’s no prospect for a resumption of fast economic growth in the foreseeable future because of a dearth of technical innovations. And, of course, Thomas Piketty has demonstrated the obscene and still-growing inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth and expressed his worry that current trends will, if they continue, culminate in a return to the réntier incomes and inherited wealth characteristic of “patrimonial capitalism.”

Such negative views are not confined to economics, of course. We all remember how readers sought out famous dystopian stories—for example, by Sinclair Lewis and George Orwell—that connected the anxieties that arose during the early days of the Trump administration to apprehensions the world has experienced before.

However, Sophie Gilbert [ht: ja] suggests that, over the last couple of years, fictional dystopias have fundamentally changed.

They’re largely written by, and concerned with, women. They imagine worlds ravaged by climate change, worlds in which humanity’s progress unravels. Most significantly, they consider reproduction, and what happens when societies try to legislate it.

She’s referring to speculative-fiction books that parallel the themes in and draw inspiration from The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood—novels such as Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God, Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks, and Bina Shah’s Before She Sleeps. 

With the help of Jo Lindsay Walton, coeditor of the British Science Fiction Association’s journal Vector and editor of the Economic Science Fiction and Fantasy database, I have discovered another burgeoning literature in recent years, representing and critically engaging the dystopian economics in fantasy and science fiction.

A good example of a dystopian scenario is “Dream Job,” by Seamus Sullivan. As the editor explains, it is a “cutting parable for a generation that undersleeps and overworks to get underpaid—where paying your student loans is quite actually a waking nightmare.” The protagonist, Aishwarya, lives in Bengaluru and works for low wages in a call center. In order to supplement her income, to pay back her loans, she attaches wireless electrodes that arrive by courier from SleepTyte and sleeps for an extra hour or two a day on behalf of someone else (such as as banker in Chicago), who gets more waking hours in the day without feeling tired. An eight-hour shift pays more than the call center and her customers tip her well. But even though Aishwarya manages to save enough rent for her own apartment, the increasing number of hours she’s spending sleeping for someone else leads to her own ruin, as her body deteriorates and she can no longer control the break between her customers’ dreams and her own living nightmare.

As Robert Kiely and Sean O’Brien explain, while much twentieth-century science fiction tends to traffic in a certain techno-optimism, a growing body of recent work looks to counter that narrative and emphasize the negative effects of the existing (or, in the near future, imaginable) technologies of capitalism, especially increased automation and the rise of digital platforms.* The themes include, in addition to the capitalist takeover of sleep time, the automation and digitization of both the labor process and the distribution of commodities, the proliferation of new border zones and heightened constraints on the circulation of laboring bodies, the reappropriation by capital of ameliorative measures such as the universal basic income, the development of performance-enhancing drugs for the workplace, the development of surveillance technologies and a concomitant increase in hacking tools designed to evade detection, and the intensification of climate change. The result is a dystopian landscape of impoverishment and impasse,

not a transitional space on its way to postcapitalism, but an immiserated space going nowhere at all, a wasted landscape of inequality and insecurity built on the backs of precarious workers and hardwired to keep them in their place at the bottom of the slagheap.

The fact is, utopian literature has always been accompanied by its dystopian opposite—each, in their own way, showing how the existing world falls short of its promise. Both genres also serve to cast familiar things in a strange light, so that we begin to notice them as if for the first time. What distinguishes dystopian “science friction” is the warning that if things continue on this course, if elements of the economy’s current logic remain unchecked and alternatives are not imagined and implemented, the outcomes may be catastrophic both individually and for society as a whole.

As is turns out, mainstream economic theory, when viewed through the lens of speculative fiction, is replete with its own dystopian narratives. As Walton points out, the story of the origin of money offered by mainstream economists—that money was invented in order to surmount the problems associated with barter—is not only a fiction, which runs counter to what anthropologists and others have documented to be the real, messy origins of money as a way of keeping track of debts and as a result of the actions of sovereigns and the state; it rests on a dystopian vision of a money-less economy.** The usual argument is that barter requires the double coincidence of wants, the unlikely situation of two people, each having a good that the other wants at the right time and place to make an exchange. Without money, producers (who are always-already presumed to be self-interested and separate, in a social division of labor) are forced to either curtail both their production and consumption, because they can’t count on exchanging the extra goods and services they produce for the other goods they want to consume. People would have to spend time searching for others to trade with, a huge waste of resources. Barter is therefore inconvenient and inefficient—a presumed dystopia that can only be superseded by finding something that can serve as a means of exchange, unit of account, and store of value. Hence, money.

The barter myth is eager to argue that money arises from the uncoordinated, self-interested behavior of individuals, without any role for communal deliberation or governmental authority. Simultaneously, it tries to insinuate that money is a completely natural part of who and what we are. It tells us that learning to use money isn’t too different from an infant learning to move around, or to make their thoughts and feelings known. In other words, money has to be the way it is, because we are the way we are.

The theory and policies of mainstream economics are based on a variety of other dystopian stories. Consider, for example, the minimum wage. According to mainstream economists (like Gregory Mankiw), while the aim of the minimum wage may be to help poor workers, it actually hurts them, because it creates a situation where the quantity demanded of labor is less than the quantity supplied of labor. In other words, a minimum wage may raise the incomes of those workers who have jobs but it lowers the incomes of workers who can’t find jobs. Those workers, who mainstream economists presume would be employed at lower wages (because they have little experience, few skills, and thus low productivity), would be better off by being allowed to escape the dystopia of a regulated labor market as a result of eliminating the minimum wage. Similar dystopian stories undergird mainstream theory and policy in many other areas, from rent control(which, it is argued, creates a shortage of housing and long waiting lists) to international trade (which, if regulated, e.g., by tariffs, would lead to higher prices for imported goods and less trade for the world as a whole).

Dystopian stories thus serve as the foundation for much of mainstream economics—from the origins of monetary exchange to the effects of regulating otherwise-free markets. Their aim is to make an economy without money, or a monetary economy that is subject to government regulations, literally unthinkable.

But, Walton reminds us, “the relationship between dystopia and utopia is intensely slippery.” First, because it’s possible to go across the grain and actually want to inhabit what mainstream economists consider to be a dystopian landscape—for example, by embracing the forms of gift exchange that can prosper in a world without money. Second, once everything is torn down, it is possible to imagine other ways things can be put back together. Thus, for example, while Laura Horn argues that the ubiquitous theme of corporate dystopia in popular science fiction generally only allows for heroic individual acts of resistance, it is also possible to provide a sense of what comes “after the corporation,” such as “alternative visions of organising collectively owned, or at least worker-directed, production.”***

Dystopian thinking can therefore serve as a springboard both for criticizing the speculative fictions of mainstream economics and for imagining an “archaeology of the future” (to borrow Fredric Jameson’s characterization) that entices us to look beyond capitalism and to imagine alternative ways of organizing economic and social life.****


*Robert Kiely and Sean O’Brien, “Science Friction,” Vector, no. 288 (Fall 2018): 34-41.

**Jo Lindsay Walton, “Afterword: Cockayne Blues,” in Strange Economics: Economic Speculative Fiction, ed. David F. Shultz (TdotSpec, 2018), 301-326.

***Laura Horn (“Future Incorporated,” in Economic Science Fictions, ed. William Davies [London: Goldsmiths Press, 2018], pp.  41-58).

****Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2005).

  1. John deChadenedes
    November 1, 2018 at 10:56 pm

    Another way to describe the “utopian” and “dystopian” thinking of conventional economists would be “wrong”, “deliberately misleading”, “erudite gibberish”or even just “convenient lies”.

  2. Scott Baker
    November 5, 2018 at 8:58 am

    As regards Minimum Wage being a cause of lost wages to those who would otherwise be employed at less than Minimum Wage, this is a fallacy. If we posit that Minimum Wage is set to the lowest wage necessary for sustainable life – which $15/hour is closer to than the current national $7.25 – than any wage below that must be supplemented somehow, by money of indirect supplements such as SNAP, rent subsidies, or even the “kindness of strangers (also, family and friends)” for life to be sustained. You can’t have it both ways: either the Minimum Wage is the minimum amount to sustain life or it is not – it is too high or too low.
    The money comes out of the economy somehow if people are not paid enough to sustain themselves, so it is a drain elsewhere.
    This is why raising the Minimum Wage to a Living Wage does NOT cost lower paid workers, or society, anything. That amount is ALREADY being paid from elsewhere…except for those, thankfully still few, who are allowed to starve to death (or perhaps more subtly, die sooner from disease or homelessness).

  3. November 16, 2018 at 2:34 pm

    David, utopia and dystopia are not the correct dichotomy in my view for this discussion. After all, we’re looking at human creations. Humans can’t be, nor can their creations be either perfectly prefect or perfectly imperfect. The dichotomy that works better, in my view is supporting human survival vs. impairing human survival. On this scale capitalism clearly falls nearer the impairing end point. You say, “Mainstream economics has long been guided by a utopianism—at both the micro and macro levels.” And, “[b]ut that utopianism has been disrupted in recent years, by a series of warnings that reflect the emergence of a much more dystopian view among some (but certainly not all) mainstream economists.” I disagree. Many economists may believe their kind of economics form a utopian way of life for humans. But these versions of economics were never utopia, nor stable, nor equal, nor fair. At almost every level they impaired the chances for humans as a species to survive. These economic types (mostly one form or another of capitalism) set humans against one another in war, impoverish more than half of humanity, threatened the health of our planet, and lower the value and moral underpinnings of all human communities. As a way of life capitalism is a failure. And economists who support and defend it threats not just to our species but to every species on earth. The entire energy and imagination of our species must now focus on creating a “transitional space on its way to postcapitalism.” At this point in human history this is the only way forward on supporting human survival.

  4. January 13, 2019 at 2:52 am

    We should remember or reread Moore’s “Utopia” before bandying it about while assuming it means something it wasn’t and isn’t. Utopia was a nightmarish mishmash of what was wrong with medieval feudalism and what might be beyond it. Neither case depicted an enviable state of sociocultural reality.

    • Craig
      January 13, 2019 at 3:18 am

      Correct. Utopias have generally been depicted as unreal, and historically that has also been how they have turned out for theories like capitalism and socialism. The trick with creation of an actually workable and beneficial utopia is to create it by empowering and freeing the individual instead of trying to enforce it from top down. What is required to resolve the conundrum is to find an un-impeachably ethical concept whose aspects are the integration of opposites itself and applying it both systemically and in a way that also simultaneously distributes freedom and personal empowerment “into the many hands of the individual.”

      Such a concept is the natural philosophical concept of grace, and viz economics its aspect of Gifting.

      • Robert Locke
        January 13, 2019 at 9:43 am

        A clever intellectual, killed in the battle of the Marne in 1914, made the distinction between “mystique” and “politique” when discussing ideologies, “mystique” is what you believe about your utopia, “politique” is what you argue about ideologies you oppose. This is the sensible distinction.

      • Craig
        January 13, 2019 at 7:17 pm

        Correct Robert. And the integration of the truths, workabilities, applicabilities and highest ethical considerations of those two opposing perspectives is wisdom and its pinnacle natural concept of grace. Why settle for mental dualities when mental and temporal thirdness greater oneness is imminently possible? Consult the Hegelian dialectic.

    • January 13, 2019 at 10:54 am

      Utopias are the safe harbor for the millions in the world who feel cheated, dismissed, abused, or just forgotten. They all want a better world. That sometimes becomes in times of great stress and unhappiness the search for utopias. For perfect peace, happiness, and well-being. Many utopian communities were created in the New World. After all it is the “New World.” These communities include, Mormons, Oneida, Shaker community, New Harmony, Brook Farm, Fruit farms, Nashoba, New Philadelphia Colony, Oberlin Colony, Hopedale Community, Wisconsin Phalanx, Prairie Home Community, Amana Colonies, Colorado Cooperative Company, Twin Oaks, and many, many more. Most are no longer active, though you may recognize the names of some who still exist today, though in a different structure. These reflect the great immigrant diversity of the USA since the 19th century. None worked as planned. All this work and nothing to show for it.

      In the Scandinavian nations few such utopian communities have been formed. Either because Scandinavians are not unhappy or deprived, or because they don’t believe such communities could help if they are. It seems to be the former. If we examine Scandinavian fiction, we see little indication of widespread disaffection from their fellows. Some of the world’s greatest crime fiction is written in Scandinavia, depicting clearly the madness and evil that lurks in the hearts of humans. And Scandinavian science fiction certainly depicts in detail how modern society, and particularly modern government can destroy both the souls and the lives of people. But there is little focus on the unfairness, economically or politically of modern Scandinavian life in general. There’s evil in the world, but it is not a result of either capitalism or communism. Scandinavians have rejected both for over 100 years. This has, in my view saved them from the need to think in terms of utopias. I suggest the US follow their lead ASAP. Knowing that the chances of that happening in the tribalized and always unequal US are small to nonexistent.

  5. January 17, 2019 at 3:20 am

    Ken et al – Great thread! Unfortunately, being a US citizen, I must agree on the unlikeliness of systemic change for the better. That seems to support a more severely dystopian state of ecocidal decline, globally. However, as Donald Schon realized, the faster it gets worse, the faster it can and does get better, usually, at least at some scales. The more dysfunctional a toxic-addicted organization/group gets, the more likely it is that even the most heavily entrenched elites maintaining the sick status quo will lose interest in letting the decline continue. Dr. Diamond’s books–Collapse, also The Way it Was Before Yesterday–provide more real-world evidence of that truth. Unfortunately, the kleptocratic winning-class and the vast majority of the losing-class may have let the process of global pollution and climate destabilization go on for so long that the “Tipping Point” has been passed. The global processes accelerating are driven by multiple interacting environmental “feedback loops” that will keep accelerating for a few more centuries, no matter what we do now. Naturally, the sanely, effectively compassionate thing anyone can do is to stop a large majority of the insanely ecocidal behaviors, addictions, obsessions & amusements that keep making the problem worse. Are enough of us committed to that, with enough valid knowledge & compassionate wisdom to make a substantial difference in the outcome? We shall soon see. However, given the awful odds, it seems to me wisest to consider really high QOL (quality of life) the prime objective of human life. Clearly, that requires abandoning the toxic phantasies & lies of piratical capitalism AKA nihilistic-narcissistic materialism AKA individualistic Anglo-American exceptionalism and all the ecocidal isms- plaguing us and our only habitat. Obviously, that also calls for also abandoning and denouncing dysethical economics, absurd econometrics and all the preposterous assumptions & shibboleths required for maintaining the kleptocratic scam: Plutonomy.

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