Book Review | An anti-capitalist utopia

Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future explores a path away from the deadly realities of capitalism, with worldwide peoples’ movements leading the charge to salvation.

Dystopias can pall when you’re living in one. So American socialist science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson has chosen a different direction for his latest book, The Ministry for the Future, mapping the long transition towards a utopian future where our planet and its people are actually saved from environmental destruction. Salvation comes, however, not from individual heroes or benign millionaires but via the pressure and initiatives of impoverished and working people and their allies across the world. 

In an interview with Jacobin magazine, Robinson clarifies that his utopia certainly does not imply “unreality, in the sense that it’s ‘never going to happen’”. Rather, he has chosen a terrain neglected in current speculative fiction: how we can get away from the deadly policies of modern global capitalism to a better future. “When [Fredric] Jameson said it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, I think what he was talking about is that missing bridge from here to there. It’s hard to imagine a positive history, but it’s not impossible,” he says. 

Two main protagonists propel the narrative. Mary Murphy heads the eponymous United Nations agency at the book’s core, and Frank May is a volunteer aid worker and traumatised survivor of the apocalyptic Indian heatwave with which the book opens. Murphy’s story grants us access to the smoke-filled rooms of committee meetings and tense negotiations with the obtuse, risk-averse or downright evil (often all three) forces of global capital. May’s story takes us into the desperate worlds of those whose lives such forces have devastated.

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Those are not the only stories or voices. The novel’s 106 episodic chapters – “a baggy monster”, Robinson calls it, “but it’s about the social totality” – encompass narrative, viewpoint and unashamed infodump. The viewpoints are those of individuals (for example a refugee, an engineer), natural phenomena (photons, caribou) and institutions: “I grew so large that I ate the world and all the blood in the world is mine. What am I? … I am the market.” Always, the voices sound human and often poetic. 

The infodump can be a stumbling block for science fiction readability, creating long expanses of explanations that interrupt the action: “Mr Spock, what exactly is a quark?” “Well, you see, captain, when a subatomic particle carrying a minute electronic charge…” [Skip the next three pages to get back to the action.]

However, rather than surrendering to these inept tactics, Robinson embraces his infodumps and simply writes them brilliantly. Sometimes, he asserts, novelists can’t be ruled by “show, don’t tell”. They must be able to recognise when “it’s time for some telling. You’re not a mime.”  

Underpinned by profoundly detailed research, expansive imagination and concern for how his words sound, the assemblages of data take on a power of their own, perhaps nowhere more than in three-plus pages listing real and imagined people’s groups across the world, from Argentina to Zambia, who make grassroots action work, and ending with the call: “Build your own initiative. You will love it as we do. There is no other world.” The book is, as Robinson has proudly declared, “polemic for sure”. 

A book of the Trump era

Though it’s not a book about the Trump administration, The Ministry for the Future is certainly a book of the Trump era. Robinson, however, is more concerned with the long arc of American imperialism, and presents the narcissism some analysts have pinned on the 45th president alone as characteristic of all oppressors and exploiters. And he’s unflinching in pointing out that when a situation gets as bad as the 21st century is (and the book was completed pre-Covid), every tactic of struggle is back on the table, including taking up arms against those same exploiters and oppressors. 

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“There should be no pieties, no political truisms at this point,” he has said. “As a middle-class American, a privileged white, American man, advocating violence is an irresponsibility, because it’s other people that are going to get hurt. And also, my feeling is that even the violence would only be to try to jumpstart better legislation … I was trying to walk a fine line and say to people, ‘This kind of step is likely to happen.’ Because there’s going to be people far angrier, who are at the sharp end of the stick, who’ve seen people die, who get radicalised and are going to do violent things that might be stupid violent things, or they might be quite smart violent things, depending on who’s doing it and what for.”

Robinson has, perhaps, more faith in existing institutions than some readers. “Weak reed” though it is, he believes in the rule of law and the transformative potential of the Paris Agreement, even though neither is currently delivering anything for the majority of the world’s citizens. He runs scenarios on the utility of agreeing on techniques to slow ice-cap melting, revising tax structures and adopting a form of quantitative easing based around a novel “carbon coin”. There’s cliff-edge tension in his accounts of negotiations to coat such strategies so bankers will swallow them. Meanwhile, countries facing crisis, such as India, that might not have the lives to spare waiting for results, take decisive actions that put them in the vanguard.

Taking on the fiction of modern economics

Much of Robinson’s ire is reserved for the totalising fiction of modern economics. “It takes the axioms of capitalism as givens and then tries to work from those to various ameliorations and tweaks … for a better capitalism, but they don’t question the fundamental axioms: everybody’s in it for themselves ... These axioms are highly questionable … philosophical positions that are expressed as though they are fixed or are nature itself, when in reality they are made by culture.”

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As for where the change can lead, Robinson takes many of his models from initiatives already working, such as the Basque cooperatives of Mondragon. “There are already precursors … So many of the solutions are contained in the socialist programme,” Robinson says. 

But Murphy and May are never just pegs on which to hang those ideas. As we dip in and out of their lives, the novel opens our eyes to the beauty of nature and relationships, and our sensitivities to how both can shift and develop over time. As in many of Robinson’s works – for example his GreenEarth trilogy – his protagonists lead lives that are both intricately woven into the bigger arc of history and have space for the intimate human business of living, loving and dying. Yet staying human depends on holding on to a liveable planet. “If investment capital will only go to the highest rate of return,” he told Rolling Stone magazine, “then we are truly cooked. We’re doomed.”

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