If you’re reading this without IP maskers, free from the fear that your online interactions are being monitored, though I wouldn’t recommend you be so bold to assume such privacy is awarded to you, chances are your living in a capitalist country. It’s pretty great. We’ve got stuff, loads of stuff, so much stuff that we don’t know what to do with it all. It’s easily the single most important driver to a cyberpunk tomorrow through consumer demand today.
Pick your medium, whether it be books, film, games, music, any and all contributions to the collected bibliographies of cyberpunk share many tropes in order to be inducted. However, few are as shared as the theme of fascism. Whether we experience military control and interaction like in Deus Ex, or a corporate-fueled future like that of Neuromancer, the idea of control by larger forces is ever present. And rarely does it ever feel out of place. In order to find out why we want to be oppressed tomorrow, we first must look at why we enjoy it today.
Much of the developed world enjoys the fruits of a capitalist infrastructure. Most would naively call this an exchange of money for goods and services. It is likely the definition most of us retain from high school economic courses. But like when an AI asks what it means to be human, the dissection of what should be simple is seen to be quite complex.
The German philosopher and sociologist Max Weber had what is arguably the most investigative and scathing review of capitalism as a system. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber likened American capitalism to Calvinism. He even went so far as to argue that capitalism could not be possible without this particular Protestantism. Calvinists, like all protestants, believe that entry into heaven and the good graces of God requires tireless work. The congregation pressures one another to work tirelessly, for the alternative is eternal damnation. This makes unemployment ungodly asking for assistance in the form of money or services is akin to carnal indulgences. To place it succinctly, Calvinists believed only a handful of people are selected for greatness and salvation, the rest are to prove their worth through tireless labor, and to fall in neither category places you as one less than deserving of God’s consideration.
With Calvinists touting the belief that reward follows hard work, the uninterrupted calling for repetitious task in search of hope, the dismissal of idleness, it’s easy to see how such a religious principle would have a home in the capitalist world, particularly in America.
But what is wrong with a calling to work? Many might be thinking just that. For this we have to look at what makes a calling and who is it that answers.
Another German philosopher, Karl Marx, believed that the ills of capitalism had less to do with its origins and rather man’s relationship to things. In his view of materialism, man is most at harmony when he produces what he can reasonably and consumes accordingly. Technological advances made it so we could produce infinitely more than we need to consume with an efficiency that borders on the inhuman, which is the case as most manufacturing positions are becoming fully automated. And the use of robots, though seen by some to be the beginning to the end of manual labor, is only furthering a phenomena that had existed beforehand: alienation.
To Marx, alienation arises when man produces and is separated from what he makes, and that product is sold. As a reward for this, man is given money with which to purchase the products made by others, thus making man a commodity as his labor once was. Man is no longer part of the thing he produces. Similarly, man is alienated from man, as both are placed into constant competition, one believing that the other may take his valued position of employment and thus the means with which to purchase more products. Marx saw this as the reason for the modern man’s suffering, as his life had become a constant competition to produce things he does not care about while competing with an endless line of rivals in order to attain the capital to purchase those same soulless products made by other hands.
Pretty bleak, huh? Marx truly believed, however, that such a reality would be demolished by the proletariat and his view of utopian communism would be adopted. Hasn’t happened yet, and if we get the neon-striped future of our favorite cyberpunk works, we’ll never get there.
Quite commonly we’ll hear from the politically inclined that they cannot fathom why certain people may vote against their personal economic and social interests. This is an attitude that could be extended to sexual relationships, where one is abused and chooses to remain with the abuser. An employment arrangement where someone accepts lesser pay for a position regardless of what their coworkers earn or what their educational and employment history should warrant.
To understand fascism as a system, it’s best to look to Gilles Deleuze. A Christian himself, this French philosopher expressed a need in man to be controlled by a supreme and absolute authority, and through the suppression of their desires they may be provided for. He believed this was true and saw it as endemic in society through the existence of mental health as a science, as most people were likely fine, but were conditioned to behave differently through therapy or medication, all in search of control from some authority. The French tradition of provocative thought through liberal philosophy is not lost on him in this examination of his faith, and it gives us a filter of sorts to understand our tendency to trend in the direction of fascism.
If we consider the above to be true, adopt the alienation and need to consume from Marx, and the adherence to tireless labor and threat of death explored by Weber, the idea that the anxiety and absurdity of our existence is made simple again with the adoption of a supreme authority makes the most sense.
(Photo courtesy of Evan R. Boyd)
In Neuromancer, Gibson’s fantasy of a post-geographic society is actualized. Many non-Japanese populate Chiba City. The country’s larger national identity is abandoned. At first glance it would seem some sort of anarchy is adopted, and the world has entered as kind of Free Side state of being. This thought it dashed away when Case first sees a man with a “Mitsubishi-Genentech logo” tattoo. In his future, fascism is now instituted by corporate rule, it provides purpose, work, identity, and authority. We learn by reading that such a state is never imposed, it is adopted. As postmodern and ironic such a state is, one can look at our hypermodern society and see the foundation for such a state has been laid. Question now is which company you’ll submit to.
Nice post. I wonder how we are little by little going to a social transformation and, unfortunately, if a new better system do not emerge, fascism can take place, because its the only way to keep people under control by force.
Daniel, I was really looking forward to reading this post. It’s very intriguing and I have already faced these ideas someday in my life, especially when I was a communication student. For me, it was always curious how modern companies/brands sell not only the product, but a lifestyle. The comparison between fascism and capitalism in that image is quite precise, as much as Gibson’s logo tattoo – because I’ve seen several examples of people who had tattooes of Apple’s logo, for instance. And it always makes me annoyed when people take Steve Jobs as a genius when, in my (very shallow) opinion, he was just a guy that knew how to sell a lot.
Also, this reminded me of something I read some years ago… about Japanese culture being a huge selling success, because they don’t only sell products, but something called “national cool”, as you can see here http://foreignpolicy.com/2009/11/11/japans-gross-national-cool/.
Finally, for me this is my favorite idea/quote from your essay: “Modern man’s suffering, as his life had become a constant competition to produce things he does not care about while competing with an endless line of rivals in order to attain the capital to purchase those same soulless products made by other hands”. You simply nailed it. Thank you so much for this text!