By George Katsiaficas
June 10th, 2021
Science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson has been hailed as “one of the world’s finest working novelists” (The Guardian) and “one of the most important political writers working in America today” (The New Yorker). And for good reason. His prolific career includes his latest novel, The Ministry for the Future, in which he blends scientific riffs bursting with erudite understanding of Antarctic glaciers, agricultural pesticides, and mammalian habitat with glimpses of the back alleys of Zurich and the waves of Hawaii. He writes with humor, using unbridled sarcasm to criticize those with whom he disagrees. Set a few decades in the future when Earth’s environment has become so degraded that life itself is imperiled, he imagines a planet where unendurable temperatures and dire water shortages kill thousands amid apocalyptic heat waves and agricultural disasters.
To finish The Ministry for the Future requires no small endeavor. Its 563 pages are contained in more than one hundred chapters that sometimes have no apparent relationship to each other. A disconnected narrative gives Robinson a means to insert opinions about what he considers inchoate attempts to change humanity’s headlong plunge into ecological disaster. Chapter 39 takes place at the annual summit in Davos, Switzerland, where the world’s richest people gather to network and make decisions of global impact. In Robinson’s scenario, swarms of drones suddenly take control of the sky, and in combination with elaborate ground control measures, a mysterious group he surmises must be “Maoists” kidnaps the “tenth of one percent of the human population [that] owned half of humanity’s wealth.” Held captive for a week during which they are reeducated through compulsory PowerPoints and films, plutocrats are compelled to shit in the woods and “hydrate entirely on four-thousand-dollar bottles of wine, of which there were many on hand” (p.161). Robinson belittles the insurgents for their Beatles’ soundtracks (“All You Need Is Love” and “Can’t Buy Me Love”) as well as for their Germanic, Werner Herzog-sounding narrator who castigates the rich for “strip-mining of the life-world.” By the end of the week, the action miraculously ends with none of the 2,500 hostages killed. As he summarizes: “So, effect of this event on the real world: zero! So fuck you!” (p. 164).
His disdain for radicals is only surpassed by his sympathy for the rich and famous with whom his narrator unabashedly identifies. If we pause a moment to consider the targeted violence of Maoists in Nepal, who routinely killed avaricious money-lenders that had forced thousands of children into horror-filled lives of sexual slavery, we might wonder why Robinson has such a sweet spot for the Davos delegates and not with their antagonists. But wonder not—Davos is one of his character’s “favorite parties.” Rather than trivializing a daring and intricately planned action, might his story have been better served if none of the 2,500 of the world’s wealthiest people survived? Recall the French Revolution, when some 2,000 aristocrats were beheaded (approximately the same number present at Davos). According to distinguished historian Barrington Moore, the guillotine saved France from fascism, unlike Germany and Japan, where rule by the landed nobility in the 20th Century caused dictatorships and World War 2, leading to the death of more than 50 million human beings. In today’s world, where tens of thousands of people starve daily or die unnecessarily from polluted water and lack of medical care, would it be a large sacrifice for 2,500 of the world’s rich to meet their demise if redistribution of their wealth and power could save millions of lives?
In another disconnected fragment, Robinson begins Chapter 55 by engaging with the French Yellow Vest movement. Politically speaking, this is the best part of the book, so I will quote him at length:
The gilets jaunes shifted the model for how to proceed, away from May 68 or any fainter impressions of the Commune or 1848, not to mention 1793, which it has to be admitted is now like a vision from ancient history, despite the evident satisfaction of the guillotine for dealing with all the climate criminals sneaking off to their island fortress mansions. No, modern times: we had to get out into the streets day after day, week after week, and talk to ordinary people in their cars stuck in traffic, or walking past us on the sidewalks and metro platforms. We had to do that work like any other kind of work. It wasn’t a party, it wasn’t even a revolution. At least when we started . . . we took over the city, Paris was ours by way of sheer bodies jamming the streets. And of course some of us had read about the Commune and realized if we didn’t win decisively we would be hunted down and killed, or at best jailed for life. So at that point it was win or die, and we buckled down to making it work as an alternative system of life, a kind of commons that was post-capitalist, even post-money, just people doing what it took to keep everyone fed… it was all France maybe even the world, we couldn’t tell. But for sure what happened then was the most intense and important feeling I could ever live in this existence…We didn’t have a plan to change government itself, and we argued with each other about how to proceed. A movement without leaders is a good idea in theory, but at some point you have to have a plan. How to make one wasn’t so clear…And so the police waited until after midnight one night, and charged us. Pepper spray and men with giant shields like Roman soldiers in a nightmare (pp. 245-7).
Sadly, Robinson only needs one police charge to abandon hope for a victorious outcome. Just like that, one police attack and the movement disintegrated. What if people stayed in assemblies as long as possible, reconvened year after year, and continued to go into the streets? At least in the world of science fiction, such a possibility should exist. In Robinson’s fantasy world, however, the police state is too powerful. Has he never heard of the heroic resistance of 1980 in Gwangju, South Korea (a more recent Commune than that in 1871), where unarmed citizens rose to defeat a massive attack by thousands of crack paratroopers pulled off the front lines with North Korea? Taking arms from defeated soldiers and joined by some police, the heroic people of Gwangju held their city for nearly a week, governing themselves through daily assemblies of tens of thousands of people. To-date, the citizens of Gwangju continue with their decades-long struggle for justice and punishment for those responsible for the military’s orders to shoot to kill.
What about the possibility of preparing intercommunal councils around the entire planet in advance of the coming internationally synchronized insurrection? Then people could directly redistribute our vast resources, take humanity’s wealth from billionaires and giant corporations and hand them over to factories, offices, neighborhoods and universities all organized in self-managed bioregionally-based grassroots forms of self-government. Already in 1970, when the Black Panther Party called upon the movement to draft a new constitution for the USA, more than 10,000 activists congregated in Philadelphia for a Revolutionary Peoples’ Constitutional Convention. Despite intense police intimidation, the convention collectively wrote documents that reveal the outline of a new society. Going far beyond the BPP’s 1966 program, the popular movement called for abolition of standing armies, community control of police, and alternatives to the patriarchal family (including equality for people of all genders).
In Robinson’s dim view of our species, “the dead hand of the past clutches us by way of living people who are too frightened to accept change. So we don’t change . . . (p. 248). To his credit, he gets the beautiful feelings that emerge during synchronous uprisings, but he has no idea what to make of such moments of “turmoil and uncertainty.” His selective memory mirrors the social amnesia of our society. Rather than embrace episodes of what I call the Eros Effect, when people spontaneously rise up to fight the system, he muses that “… No one could explain why it was happening in so many different places at the same time. Coincidence? Conspiracy? World spirit, Zeitgeist in action? Who knew? All they knew for sure was that it was happening. Things were falling apart” (p. 377).
From his perspective, society in such moments is “falling apart,” but another perspective is that we are coming together in new ways, from the bottom up rather than the top down. Precisely in such moments, he calls for a Plan B:
. . . riot, occupation, noncompliance, general strike: breakdown. Now it’s time for Plan B. Time to act – as in, act of parliament. It will be legislation that does it in the end, creating a new legal regime that is fair, just, sustainable, and secure. Public utility districts, state-owned (meaning citizen-owned) enterprises, cooperative enterprises, real political representation, and so on. We have to act on a Plan B as law, as soon as possible. The best Plan B will emerge from the multitudes (p. 411).
Robinson’s faith in the elite and change from the top cancels any possibility of qualitative transformation from below. He is well aware of the tremendous popularity of autonomous projects since he devotes one of his chapters to listing several hundred of them. Yet their impact is quite limited and fragmentary, while his annual Conference of the Parties can only “support the Ministry for the Future” (pp. 352-3) and new policies formulated by a changed elite. Robinson dedicates his book to our former teacher and colleague, Fredric Jameson, who may have been the first person to turn the phrase: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Sadly, nowhere in Robinson’s narrative is capitalism’s demise through grassroots insurgency entertained.
At one point in Robinson’s narrative, multitudes do rise up: “under assault were the UN offices in the country, Interpol, the World Bank offices in Geneva, and Switzerland itself. The international order, in effect, was under attack.” (p. 314). In that moment, none of the elite bureaucrats or bankers in the room, not even the book’s main character, Mary of the Ministry for the Future (which was also targeted by insurgents), could discover just who the attackers were. Mary finally composes herself and turns to the seven powerful members of the global elite within earshot: “Gather the rich small nations into a working group. Help us get to the next world system. New metrics, new kinds of value creations. Make the next political economy. Invent post-capitalism!” (p. 317).
Near the book’s conclusion, he returns to the idea of simultaneous uprisings. He begins Chapter 103: “I don’t think anyone ever figured out who organized it. Whoever they were, they wanted to stay out of the way and have it look self-organized. Have it emerge out of the Zeitgeist. And maybe it did, I mean ultimately we all did it together. It was already a feeling everyone had. I think something like three billion people tapped their phones to say they had taken part.” Rather than seriously consider the outcome of global actions, he dismisses them as little more than celebratory, fleeting moments:
Whatever, an excuse to stay up all night and party, and it has to be admitted that it was still nice and warm for us even in the middle of the night, so we could go to Diamondhead and look out over the ocean as we party. And the moon was full that night, no coincidence I’m sure. So it was nice . . . [it] went on for about fifteen minutes. Then we quieted down. Time to get back down in the bowl of the concert space and dance to the music for what was left of the night. Had we done it right? Had we joined with every sentient being on the planet, brought into existence a new Earth religion that would change everything? Were we all brother and sister now as they always telling us we should be? Hard to tell. It felt like a lark but larks are beautiful” (pp. 537-9).
At the chapter’s conclusion, he describes catching one of the most beautiful waves in his life and attributed the worldwide “electric pulse” to his surfing success.
Even so, as he comments earlier on, for him:
. . . demonstrations are parties. People party and then go home. Nothing changes. Well, but what about coordinated mass action? That sounds like more than partying to me. The so-called fiscal strike that we hear so much about, leading to a financial crash and the subsequent nationalization of the banks, for instance. National governments would then be back in control, coordinating a complete takeover of global finance. They could rewrite the WTO rules, and create some kind of quantitative easing, giving new fiat money to Green New Deal-type causes. We call that legislation. So again we come back to legislatures!” (p. 156).
Robinson’s earnest and continual legitimation of existing global institutions and nation-states stands in stark contrast to the aspirations of everyone from the Zapatistas to partisans in the streets of Seattle, all of whom called for abolition of the WTO, the World Bank, and the IMF. Does he really believe that legislation passed by existing parliamentary bodies, divided by archaic national borders, can transform global capitalist patriarchy?
Not only does Robinson fail to consider qualitative alternatives to the present global system, he continually ridicules past attempts at revolution. As was the case with many Cold Warriors, he speaks with authority about China: “China is too big, and the party leaders are too convinced they are right. I’m more in the camp that gets called Tail Wags Dog’s Butt. This is more realistic even to the image itself; when a dog wags its tail, even when it is most excited, it’s only the butt that also moves with the tail, not the whole dog.“ (p. 516) As opposed to the “Tail Wags Dog people” (who believe Hong Kong’s “sterling example would eventually transform all mainland China”), Robinson says China will not change. Only the dogs, in this case southern China where Cantonese is spoken, could possibly be transformed.
Yet in Robinson’s future, as if by magic, elections in India depose the current “nationalist nativist BJP” and a new party emerges uniting all Indians, “every religion and caste, urban poor, rural poor, the educated, all banded together by the disaster” (p. 25). India is the “new leader of the world” and the “world’s largest democracy” that makes the Chinese “look dictatorial, monolithic, brittle, afraid” (p. 127). His faith in India’s capacity to overcome its ecological demise through legislation fails to comprehend caste culture’s dire need for a social revolution. From 1981 to 2015, Chinese “socialism” lifted more than eight hundred million people out of dire poverty. In India, Dalits still comprise as much as half of the population, their anguished cries ignored by insolent politicians, while even basic women’s rights, like the capacity simply to walk the streets at night, remain a distant dream—despite legislation banning rape and discrimination decades ago.
To transform the destiny of our planet, we do not require a new five-year plan or a Plan B. We need a completely new system—something that would be possible only through a genuine social revolution. Alongside the need to uproot existing global economic structures, to abolish nation-states along with their weapons of mass destruction, we need to transform ourselves in our daily lives. Real freedom cannot be achieved through political representation in its present forms, including a United Nations where a handful of countries have veto power. Indigenous Americans, Kurds, Palestinians and hundreds of other nations have no UN representatives, since only recognized states, especially ones legitimized by armed force, are permitted entry. Freedom worthy of the name requires direct democracy through bottom-up grassroots decision-making. Standing armies would be abolished and community policing and discussion would replace today’s disastrous first use of armed force. Patriarchal domination and gender binaries in everyday life would be subjected to examination and transformation. Unlimited individual accumulation of wealth would become undesirable. Global cooperation would arise from people’s expressed needs in a multitude of face-to-face and digitally connected networks.
Robinson’s abiding faith in legislation is echoed in his repeated calls for a “Plan B,” which presupposes there ever was a Plan A, despite no evidence that such an original blueprint was ever produced. On the contrary, the present system artificially evolved over thousands of years, during which time ever-changing elites forced the rest of us to hand over control of the vast social wealth generated by the labor of previous generations. Today’s billionaires and kings are the latest iteration in an unplanned development of unbridled economic accumulation based upon exploitation, conquest, and war.
Part of the reason that Robinson fails to envision the possibility of qualitative change arising from global grassroots impulses is that he remains confined to categories such as “Us” and “Them.” He dismisses any chance to learn from “socialism with Chinese characteristics” simply because “we don’t like them” and “…they don’t like us either.” Without a pause, he moves on to ask what about the poor? Just as easily as he wrote off China, he has no hope for the poor as agents of change. The “four billion poorest people alive have less wealth than the ten richest people on the planet . . . Might they be a force for change? There are guns in their faces.” Same for the “middle billions”—the precariat (p. 156). Left out of his musings are Latinxs, African Americans and First Nations. They simply do not exist in his world of “Us” and “Them.” His multiplicity of actors does not include those who have done most in recent centuries to transform America. Indeed, the one example of an African with agency that emerges in The Years of Rice and Salt is a eunuch who sets out to assassinate the Ming emperor of China after ninety-nine percent of Europeans had been killed by the Great Plague.
The title of the book expresses Robinson’s faith in legislation as the only possible solution to humanity’s problems. Although Robinson presents a multi-actor scenario utilizing a diversity of tactics in response to the climate crisis, he repetitively advocates legislation as the ultimate remedy. It is no accident that he writes at a time when Donald Trump’s electoral defeat makes a Green New Deal the last best hope to save the world. In the US today, much important energy is rightfully directed at fighting Republicans’ voter suppression efforts in order to make electoral change possible.
Mirroring his times, Robinson’s faith in legislation is almost religious. His more than occasional musings about street protests and uprisings often seem constructed as opportunities for ridicule. In his narratives, radical attempts to change humankind’s tragic destiny are doomed from the start. Simultaneous strikes by teachers and transport workers erupt in Berlin, London, New York, Beijing, and Moscow, but their impact was merely a massive drop in stock markets that benefitted short-sellers (p. 284). Acts of righteous violence by India’s Children of Kali dispatch swarms of drones the size of sparrows that kill unnamed “guilty” by the dozens, but the net effect is for weapons dealers and billionaires to remain indoors and increase security details (p. 135). No possibility seems to exist for us to escape from the “iron cage” of bureaucratic institutions. With no hope for freedom, the best we can achieve are better laws, better people at the top, but no chance of abolishing rule by elites. Despite his scientific expertise, he offers no alternative to destructive technologies based upon domination of Nature.
In my view, legislative reforms are largely responses to movements in the streets. One recent example of this correlation is the relationship between Biden’s much heralded progressive measures with the eruption of Black Matter Protests. Without tens of millions of people going into the streets, would Biden’s personal choices as president have been so pleasing to many on the Left? Coming to power after the largest mobilization in US history, he rules over a deeply divided nation and must keep protesters content. At best, Biden’s reforms will follow the trajectory of FDR’s New Deal, providing temporary relief for the needy until a new Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher completely undoes them and recaptures power over an inherently destructive and unstable system. No matter how many times capitalism is rejuvenated by grudgingly allowed refinements, no matter how many times positive legislative reforms may be legislated, they will only end up preserving a system based upon impoverishment of a huge minority of people who are kept subjugated by daily police violence and that requires continual wars to protect billionaires’ accumulation of vast fortunes. And, as Robinson makes quite apparent, a system that also causes global ecological devastation. Republicans and Democrats may differ on climate change and health care, yet both agree on imperialism (whether or not they believe it exists) and on the need for increasing corporate profits. Neither party refrains from using weapons of mass destruction against innocent civilians: Obama and Trump were both premeditated serial killers. No matter who sits at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Wall Street makes enormous profits.
If this were not a work of science fiction, Robinson could easily be excused. His previous books are exciting and imaginative reformulations of the past. When it comes to the future, however, he conforms to what has long been understood as contemporary civilization’s atrophy of utopian imagination. If nowhere else in our commercialized and vapid universe of discourse, surely the possibility of a coming utopia (some would say its necessity) should appear in works of radical speculative fiction. Already, today’s widespread calls for abolition of police indicate grassroots yearning for substantive social transformation. Half a century ago, as the global 1960s movement passed its apex, Black Panther leader Huey Newton and anarchist intellectual Murray Bookchin (despite their immense political differences) both enunciated startlingly similar visions for the future of freedom. Newton called it “revolutionary intercommunalism” while Bookchin designated his as “libertarian municipalism.” Both advocated decentralized, autonomous political forms of self-government which could link together through democratic choices. Neither believed in refining nor enhancing the power of existing nation-states. The best Robinson can imagine, his Plan B, is “something called socialism…public utility districts. They are almost the same thing. Public ownership of the necessities, so that these are provided as human rights and public goods, in a not-for-profit way…It’s as simple as that” (p.409).
Socialism has never been so much part of the conversation in my lifetime as today, yet the meaning of that word has never been so distant from a “socialism worthy of the name,” a phrase used repeatedly by Herbert Marcuse to distinguish a free society from Soviet “socialism” and German Social Democracy. Of course, all woke folks support AOC, Bernie, and parliamentary progressives’ programs, including elimination of student loan debt, universal health care, labor’s inclusion in corporate governance and ownership, a Green New Deal, to say nothing of Robinson’s “socialism” in which all would have “food, water, shelter, clothing, electricity, health care, and education” (p. 409). Yet I refuse to let go of the other, more distant, but no less significant dimensions of genuine freedom: abolition of war and weapons of mass destruction, an end to patriarchal domination and racial oppression, abolition of police, uprooting of racial and gender binaries, a new technology in harmony with Nature, drastic reduction of the work week, overturning the rule of alienating labor over our lives, enhanced individual privacy and enduring collective harmony. Rather than building more mega-states and ministries, freedom “worthy of the name” requires smashing the forms of powers built by capitalism and the construction of councils for community control in a decentralized, bio-regionally organized society.
Despite Robinson’s abundance of technologically sophisticated diversions, at the book’s end, I was left feeling empty. The few individuals named in the narrative are never deeply developed. They jet-set around the world desperately seeking solutions to the catastrophe humanity faces. Shallow imitations of human beings gather in a variety of exotic settings—from summit meetings of global importance to steamy rooms where unnamed people die for lack of breathable air or potable water. Left with few options, they merely observe and curse the heat, try to hide from it, and use their privileges to escape it and find new places to party. Despite sorrowful moments of squirreling away life-giving water while people nearby die of thirst, the depths of their moral dilemmas are never really plumbed. Any feelings of guilt and shame that surely must arise in such moments are left to the reader’s imagination. Or is Robinson’s omission intentional—a mirror of contemporary society’s lack of empathy? Rather than elaborate inner emotions, Robinson offers glancing interactions in brief meetings on the other side of digital media. By their very nature, elite agents discussing legal fineries can be incredibly boring. Yet recurrent superficial exchanges account as much as any other factor for my disappointment with the book.
I wish I could be more positive. Robinson’s work certainly has good buzz and occasional spark. He is a revered figure for many of my friends. My disappointment is the same problem I have with our society: technological overdevelopment has not been accompanied by deep thinking about our social reality. Robinson’s failure to give his characters any real depth can be correlated with his inability to comprehend the need for social revolution, for the transformation of everyday life, not simply legislation. Does he really believe seven Swiss bankers can “invent post-capitalism”? Could a decision of seven people really liberate us from a culture that has spawned QAnon, Trump, and Bible-thumping killer cops? Robinson may well be “one of the most important political writers working in America today,” but it should also be said that the universe of discourse in this book stifles the expression of utopian possibilities. When even one of our most speculative fiction writers fails to imagine a world already anticipated in the praxis of tens of millions of people, our road ahead will surely be long and winding. So long as we continue to “progress” (and regress!) with technology but do not confront the social roots of its brutal applications, we will produce an abysmal fate for all forms of life.
This review originally appeared in the online Perspectives on Anarchist Theory from the Institute for Anarchist Studies here!
George Katsiaficas is the author of books on the global imagination of 1968 as well as European autonomous movements. His two-volume Asia’s Unknown Uprisings (PM Press) places the 1980 Gwangju People’s Uprising in South Korea at the center of an Asian wave that overthrew eight dictatorships in six years. Together with Kathleen Cleaver, he edited Liberation, Imagination and the Black Panther Party (Routledge). His website is http://eroseffect.com
George Katsiaficas is the author of The Subversion of Politics.