Splinterlands: A Dystopic Novel for Our Trumpian Age

splinter

W.J. Astore

Equal parts amusing and alarming, John Feffer’s dystopian novel, Splinterlands, begins with Hurricane Donald, which floods Washington DC only five years from now.  You may deny climate change, Feffer suggests, but Mother Nature will have the last word.  She will unleash catastrophes and chaos that, combined with political fragmentation driven by hyper-aggressive capitalism and myopic nationalism, lead to a truly New World (Dis)order, characterized by confessional wars, resource shortfalls, and, within two generations, the end of the world as we know it.

Can “prophets of disintegration” like Donald Trump, driven by “market authoritarianism” and their own hubris, remake the world in their own chaotic image?  Feffer makes a persuasive case that they can.  Instead of seeing “the end of history” as a triumph of liberal democracy and a beneficial global marketplace driven by efficiency and technology, Feffer sees the possibility of factionalism of all sorts, a rejection of tolerance and diversity and the embrace of intolerance, identity politics, and similar exclusionary constructs.

Coincidentally, a cautionary letter from the Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film just crossed my desk; its words encapsulate what Feffer is warning us about.  The film directors denounced “the climate of fanaticism and nationalism we see today in the US and so many other countries.”  The letter goes on to say that:

“The fear generated by dividing us into genders, colors, religions and sexualities as a means to justify violence destroys the things that we depend on – not only as artists but as humans: the diversity of cultures, the chance to be enriched by something seemingly ‘foreign’ and the belief that human encounters can change us for the better. These divisive walls prevent people from experiencing something simple but fundamental: from discovering that we are all not so different.”

The problem, of course, is that many people prefer divisive walls, while finding meaning in fanaticism, nationalism, and the politics of difference.  We are now, Feffer writes, in a period of Great Polarization. His book is about what will happen if that polarization wins out.  He writes:

“The middle dropped out of the world.  Extremes of wealth and ideology flourished.  Political moderates became an endangered species and ‘compromise’ just another word for ‘appeasement.’  First came the disagreements over regulatory policy, then sharper political divides.  Finally, as the world quick-marched itself back through history, came the return of the war of all against all.  The EU, committed to the golden mean, had no way of surviving in such an environment without itself going to extremes.”

The result?  By the 2020s, the EU “evaporated like so much steam.” With Brexit ongoing, with the EU under increasing stress daily, Feffer’s scenario of an evaporating EU seems more than plausible.

Meanwhile, another breaking news item just crossed my desk: President Trump is seeking a $54 billion increase to America’s defense budget, to be funded by deep cuts to other federal agencies such as the EPA and Education.  Trump and his team see the world as a dangerous place, and the military as the best and only means to “protect” America, as in “America first.”  But by its nature the U.S. military is a global force, and more money for it means more military adventurism, driving further warfare, fragmentation, and chaos, consistent with Feffer’s vision of a future “splinterlands.”

As one of Feffer’s characters says, “There’s always been enormous profits in large-scale suffering.”  Feffer’s dystopic novel — like our real world today — features plenty of that. People suffer because of climate change.  Energy shortages.  Wars.  Water shortages.  Even technology serves to divide rather than to unite people, as many increasingly retreat into virtual “realities” that are far more pleasant than the real world that surrounds them.

Feffer’s book, in short, is provocative in the best sense.  But will it provoke us to make wiser, more inclusive, more compassionate, more humane choices?  That may be too much to ask of any book, but it’s not too much to ask of ourselves and our leaders.  The dystopic alternative, illustrated so powerfully in Feffer’s Splinterlands, provides us with powerful motivation to shape a better, less splintered, future.

 

A Lame Duck Nation on Steroids

Lame duck, indeed.
It’s not just the Tea Party that’s lame (Toby Toons)

W.J. Astore

The more the United States has come to talk about dominance, the less dominant we’ve become.

To compensate, we’ve become a steroidal nation, to include the violent side effects associated with steroid use (just look at the latest stories out of the NFL about spousal and child abuse, or our steroidal police forces, including MRAPs and M-16s for school police).  If the story of the last fifty years is the gradual decline of the U.S., most notably in the economic and political realms, the story of today is how we’ve compensated with militarized Viagra.  We’ve reached “the age of knowing” that we’ve lost much of our potency as our country.  To compensate, we’re forever popping pills and flexing our muscles.  (Just look at John McCain’s enthusiasm for bombing.)

It’s precisely those steroids that are weakening us as a country.  As we’ve overcompensated with military weapons and bases, we’ve allowed our economy to slide.  As we’ve sought domination overseas, we’ve weakened our country right here at home.  We feverishly build and repair roads in Afghanistan but not here in the USA.  Same with schools — we’d rather build prisons, to include Gitmo, than colleges (since 1984, California has built 21 prisons but only one university).

Consider our binary debates on foreign policy.  It’s the hawks versus the doves, militarized “engagement” versus isolationist “appeasers,” the implication being that the latter is wrong — that minding one’s own business is not an option in a globalized world.  But the world is not some “global village”: it’s a conglomeration of fragments.  And U.S. efforts to dominate those fragments by military means are only accelerating that fragmentation.  Just look at what our government did and is doing to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Fragmentation facilitates dominance by multinational corporations even as the U.S. military is misused and overextended.  The result is more global instability and a retreat (or a return) to ideologies that promise coherence and order.  Witness the rise of militant Islam and ISIS.  By attacking it, the U.S. is acting as an accelerant to it.

As the U.S. weakens itself as a country, as it accumulates debt by constantly fighting wars while passing the costs along to future generations, large multinational corporations grow in power.  They are today’s equivalent to the British East India Company, the Dutch East India Company, and similar entities of the past.  Combine powerful multinationals with privatized mercenary outfits and you see echoes of the seventeenth century, to include wars over religion and resources.  Three centuries ago, it was Catholics versus Protestants and wars over spices like pepper and nutmeg.  Now it’s divisions within Islam and wars over oil.

We’re witnessing the decline of Enlightenment ideals and community-based Democracy, as seen by the way in which the U.S. government routinely betrays those ideals.  Any sense of shared, community-based, obligation is tainted by “socialism,” meaning that a Darwinian capitalism based on selfish individualism is promoted instead, which only feeds the growth of multinationals competing to sell “product” to the masses.

Everything is becoming a consumable, including the most vital parts of life.  As a consumable, it can be marketed, sold, and controlled by those same multinationals.  Even education is now an ephemeral product, marketed and sold as a commodity.

Corporations think and act for short-term profit.  But democracies are supposed to think strategically, over the long term.  Now the quarterly business cycle controls all.  Look at politics: A congressman is elected and instantly starts fund raising to win his next campaign.  Obama wins a second term and is almost instantly branded a lame duck.

But it’s not Obama who is the lame duck – it’s America.  And all the militarized steroids in the world won’t cure that lameness.  Indeed, they just aggravate it.