Remember Lance Parkin’s Big Finish audio ‘Davros’? It’s quite good, isn’t it… if far too long. But he does some interesting stuff with Davros’ backstory, subverting your expectations a bit. (It’s got really good music too.)
Interesting stuff in it. The Doctor is depicted as wanting to stop the fall of the corporations. And, actually, I can see his point. At the moment, anyway. And as long as we’re talking about a sudden, instant fall.
Simply remove capitalism at the touch of a button today and human civilisation as it stands would fall, and the human race might die out… for much the same reason that the animals in a battery farm would all die if you murdered all the farm workers and the crime went undiscovered for weeks. As bad as it is, it is currently how things work. The system doesn’t function efficiently, or for human benefit, but it does basically function, and it relies upon keeping a sufficient number of people alive, and a sufficient level of social wellbeing going, simply because it lives off its human livestock. So it keeps the livestock alive by propping up the support systems that keep them alive, at least as a mass.
On the other hand, isn’t the continuation of capitalism itself a kind of slow-mo apocalypse? Is the damage currently being wrought upon the planet’s ecosystem not going to add up to the end of the world? Does not the system as it stands condemn millions to death every year, and billions more to an alienated and impoverished living death? There’s a case for saying that quotidian reality itself is a crisis, that our day-to-day world is not only leading us to armageddon but that, even if we survive it, that would not automatically for the best? Couldn’t we reasonably say that the fall of the system, even in flames and mass-starvation, would not be inherently worse than allowing it to continue?
It’s tempting to not only appreciate the aesthetics of apocalypse, but to go beyond such an appreciation as an asesthetic statement and turn it into a political one. As cold-blooded as this sounds, isn’t it possible to see the end of the world – millions of deaths and all – as a price worth paying for the end of capitalism? The end of the world… I mean the end of the world as it stands economically, politically, culturally, structurally… would at least be general. As the man said: “the thing about chaos is it’s fair”. It could be seen as having greater moral integrity to say ‘let it all come down’ as opposed to ‘prop it up at all costs until we can change it piecemeal and as peacefully as poss’. Propping it up doesn’t have such terrible consequences for me and a lot of other comfortable Western leftists and liberals. I’m not personally all that harmed by day-to-day capitalism. I don’t like it, but my outrage is mainly on behalf of others, and on behalf of humanity generally. It’s abstract. Meanwhile, billions of other people (people elsewhere; people usually darker skinned than me, etc) suffer very non-abstract grinding consequences from the limping along of the status quo. Calling for the total, immediate, unconditional fall of capitalism however, would at least be bound to effect me negatively to some degree. I’d take some hits from that. I wouldn’t be saying to the shanty-dwellers of the global south “yeah, I know it’s bad, and I sympathise… but it could be worse for all of us, so you just stay where you are, and your kids too.” Exactly what have such people got to lose? For a lot of them the best answer is probably ‘only their chains’. Well, isn’t it selfish of me to moralise about the disastrous consequences of a conflagration that would melt those chains along with my laptop?
One of the hardest concepts to get people to come to terms with is the concept of structural violence. The violence that the social superstructure does to us (to varying degrees according to who we are and where we are) every day. People occasionally contact me to helpfully inform me that communism killed so many millions of people. They tend to understand what I’m getting at if I point out the need to historicise such things, and if I point out that not everything that ever called itself ‘communism’ is neccesarily something I’d support, etc. They don’t agree but they understand what I’m saying. The issue of the structural violence of capitalism, however, is almost never understood, even as a proposition. Point out that capitalism as a historical epoch or mode of production has caused the deaths of far more people than all the political movements which called themselves ‘communist’ put together and you get head scratching, followed by accusations of goalpost-moving. The idea that a historical mode of production might strucuturally cause genocide upon genocide (through generating war, colonialism, imperialism, poverty, back-breaking labour, stress, depression, racism, misogyny, etc etc etc, over centuries) is an encrypted anathema to most people. And you can’t really blame people. From day one we are trained to view events like the Nazi holocaust as a random outgrowth of a fanatical ideology, rather than as a result of the imperialism of a capitalist state. And ‘our’ own genocides are not even talked about, so we never need to ponder whether the Irish potato famine was an outgrowth of the fanatical ideology of free trade.
I’m working, by the way, on the assumption that we’re talking about capitalism as the reigning global economic system rather than as an ‘ethos’ or a ‘method’ or anything like that. (It’s by no means clear from ‘Davros’ that Parkin sees things in this way, but that’s by the by.) I’m talking about, in the Marxist language, capitalism as a mode of production and as a world system. The idea of capitalism as a historical mode entails a social superstructure built upon the economic base (we won’t quibble here about exactly how this works). The social superstructure includes the state. Indeed, that’s a way of putting it warrantable only as what scientists call a ‘model’, an explanatory simplification, akin to saying that a bird’s wing is ‘designed to be aerodynamic’. The capitalist state isn’t a ‘thing’ that sits somewhere in a framework of other ‘things’, all of which taken together constitute capitalist ‘society’. The state saturates every aspect of life for people who live in a modern capitalist productive mode. The state is fundamentally a mode itself, a mode within a mode, rather than a ‘bit’ of capitalism.
Back on the subject of survival, the capitalist class is more than ready to tolerate and fund a ‘strong state’ in those areas where the market alone can’t do the job of keeping survival going. Capitalism doesn’t always need everyone to survive, and at times it explicitly needs people to die, but it basically depends upon the survival and continuance of humanity and human social reproduction… I mean, it basically is a system of social reproduction, given that (in the Marxist view) the basis of the social is the economic! By that I just mean that ‘economic’, in the Marxist sense, refers to the mode whereby societies make the things they need in order to reproduce. (I’m straying into a forest of tautologies here, but some tautologies do need to be pointed out or people don’t notice them.)
Capitalism, via the state or otherwise, is equally capable of managing the production of mass death, when it needs mass death instead. It is also prepared – as we see with people like Ian Duncan Smith – to use the state for purposes of structural mass homicide within the confines of a domestic state apparatus… when such strategies are a) a side-effect of an austerity project, or b) a salutary warning of the consequences of unwillingness or even inability to conform to ideological discipline.
The state doesn’t seem to exist in Parkin’s picture of a future effectively run by corporations. The corporations themselves seem to fill the gap left by the state. I think this is pretty unlikely, just as I’m sceptical of the kind of rhetoric which sees Late Capitalism as trying to restructure the world along the lines of a kind of neo-feudalism. But, of course, Parkin isn’t involved in futurology or actual prognostication. He’s playing the age-old (and thoroughly venerable) game of commenting on the present by exaggerating characteristics of it in the notional narrative space of ‘the future’. But this leads us to another interesting irony: the story critiques capitalism while the literal meaning of the text is that capitalism will endure well into the future.
Again, this scenario is hardly an innovation on Parkin’s part (I hope I don’t sound like I’m snarking at him – that isn’t my intention) so he can hardly be held responsible for it, as if it were a brand new technique which he pioneered for some new and unique purpose of his own. It happens again and again in SF in general, and in Doctor Who in particular. And why not? As in ‘Davros’, it is a technique which can open up possibilities for critique ranging from the mild to the savage to the wistful. ‘Davros’ is fairly strong in its aesthetic contempt for corporations. Parkin is especially strong on poking fun at corporate PR doublespeak and management jargon. There are blissful scenes where Davros gets angry at being regaled with phrases like “blue skies initiative” and asks “Did you resurrect me merely to gibber at me?”. Meanwhile, the Doctor gets offered advice on corporate dress codes from an implant stuck in his ear which bullies him about protocol. Hilariously, he is told (this is Six we’re talking about, remember) that if he wishes to mark himself out as an individual within the office context he can choose from some pre-chosen novelty ties.
But the point I was making was that the postulation of corporate capitalism as a triumphant and enduring system centuries hence, surviving to the point where corporations dominate human civilisation across a multi-planet galactic empire, actually bolsters capitalism more than it attacks it. It buys into the lie of capitalism as a kind of transcendent and ahistorical plane of eternity. It buys into the lie that the system, with all its iniquities, is so well adapted to ‘human nature’ that it will carry on as long as we remain fallen, selfish things. It buys into the lie that capitalism can rid itself of crisis and reach eternal equilibrium. Even the economic collapse that is threatened within the story comes from outside the system, from the extraordinary and malicious intervention of an ancient alien. (He’s also a fascist… remember what we were saying earlier about the systemic evils of capitalism being reframed as aberrant horrors caused by ideological fanatics?) This isn’t to say that simply depicting the survival of capitalism is a lie because it ignores crisis. For all its inbuilt and inescapable systemic predisposition to crises, capitalism has survived. Indeed, the crises are part of how it survives. The expansions and contractions are like respiration. It’s quite true, I suspect, that capitalism (periodic crises and all) would probably be capable of maintaining itself as a system across different planetary societies. It would be foolish indeed to set any kind of plausibility threshold on the capabilities of capitalism. The system is incredibly hardy and dynamic, and is probably limited only by pre-existing material constraints. Remove such constraints by opening up a new natural biosphere and I imagine capitalism would have a bloody good try at spreading into it. However, it should now be clear to any thinking person that capitalism has set a very near date for its own fall simply because it is in the process of destroying the viability of what is currently its sole natural biosphere. We’re not anywhere near escaping this planet any time soon. Meanwhile, the destruction wrought upon the natural environment by capitalist industry is inducing a terrifyingly near extinction event scenario. I was saying earlier that capitalism basically keeps most of us alive because it needs us. That’s only a short term thing. Capitalism (being an aggregation of competing capitals rather than a sentient group mind) is very bad at long terms. It will exploit a buck today and fuck tomorrow. Which is essentially what it has done to the entire planet and its ability to sustain human life. Put plainly: we won’t have time to colonize other worlds; we’ll all die on this one first.
Sorry to bum you out, it’s just that we do need, as a species, to get the grips with this truth. And writing SF which satirises capitalism by setting stories about capitalism in the future really doesn’t help. It actually helps to push the idea that we’ll survive our current environmental crisis and go out into the universe. These stories help lull us into a false sense of security. They’re just one note in a symphony of false reassurance, but still. There’s a very real sense in which stories like ‘Davros’ (and ‘The End of the World’ and ‘The Sun Makers’, etc) contribute towards the likely destruction of all life on Earth. Again I ask… is the instant and catastrophic fall really all that terrible a concept?
Also interesting to me is the way the audio play in question apparently believes – or at least portrays all its characters (including the Doctor) as believing – that the fluctuations of the market could (at least theoretically) be predicted with absolute precision with a sufficiently powerful bit of maths. This is not only reductionism and determinism of an extremely crude kind (a similar kind of crude reductionism and determinism to that which Davros is shown to indulge in when it comes to social Darwinism, etc) but also a form of commodity fetishism. It imagines a social and man-made phenomenon like the market as working like natural, physical process such as fluid dynamics. Of course, it’s by no means certain that this idea isn’t just a chimera of Davros’s diseased and reactionary brain, which the other characters credit because of his avowed intellectual power, or their own positionality within a corporate system.
Working on the assumption that the equation could successfully predict the stock market, it would presumably only give you a picture of what the stock market would do as long as you chose not to act on your foreknowledge. I mean, that’s kind of the inherent nature of all predictive calculations: to provide an ostensible snapshot of the future, based on the extrapolation of the present and past, with predictable interventions taken into account and sans any other unpredictable intervention which (by definition) can’t be included as a variable. If the prediction concerns a human organised system open to human intervention, the moment you act on your supposed foreknowledge you alter the state of the reality that has been predicted. This would probably be more of a problem the more powerful the predictive modelling was. The more exact its predictions, the more delicately balanced they are. Of course, if only one person has possession of the equation, and this person alone intervenes, the model might well work for them. They would be coming to the party late, so to speak. Their interest in a certain sector of the market would effectively post-date the interest of other investors, even if the equation-user actually invested before the others. There is a strange way in which the predictive equation (assuming it worked as well as Davros says it would) would actually warp the temporal sequence. As perfect foreknowledge, it would be a little like time travel. What this suggests to me is the irony of the Doctor’s foreknowledge. The Doctor has never, as far as we know, used his access to time travel to ascertain in advance the winning lottery numbers, or the winner of the Grand National, or the state of tommorrow’s Dow Jones. More the Monk’s style, that one. But he could do it, if he wanted to. Effectively, the Doctor is already in possession of the power that Davros claims to wield in the form of his equation. He could generalise future stock market knowledge obtained from voyages to the future, just as easily as Davros could generalise the equation. According to this story, the Doctor has, and has always had, the power to bring down capitalism.
This may just be a restatement of something we pretty much knew anyway, but it does rather bring it into focus. The Doctor is manifestly one of those comfortable people saying “sit tight and wait” to the people who have nothing to lose but their chains. To his credit, however, and unlike many such people, he does actually get out there and help them make reforms and even revolutions from time to time. There’s also a case for saying that he, the eternal outsider, doesn’t have the right to foist his solution upon us. We should get to choose for ourselves if we want to cling to quotidian oppression in the hope of improvement, or to embrace the beautiful, beautiful, blood-splattered apocalyptic reset button.
Of course, in order to see the Doctor this way, you do have to buy into Davros’ assertion that generalising the equation would bring down capitalism. Firstly, as noted, this involves accepting his rampant reductionism and determinism. Secondly, a stock market in which everybody has the ability to always predict what the stock market is going to do is very different from the kind of stock market the equation was designed to predict. The equation’s own effect, if generalised sufficiently widely, would cancel out its own power as a predictive tool. The equation cannot possibly have the effect it supposedly threatens to have, even if – for the sake of argument – perfect mathematical predictions of random and socially contingent outcomes were even possible (which they aren’t). It simply must be an insane delusion on Davros’ part, which everyone else is silly enough to believe because they’re not economists. Or, more likely, because they are economists. Mainstream neoclassical economics is about as intellectually and empirically secure as Creationism… and criticising Creationism is, as we know, like shooting fish in a barrel. (Or rather, shooting fish that’ve grown legs and climbed out of a barrel.)
Now, this actually works! Corporate drones, CEOs, academics, liberal activists… none of them could be trusted not to credit the market with the ability to do, or be, the impossible. But it’s a little upsetting to see the Doctor going in for this kind of fetishizing of the market. Especially when, by the logic of this same story, he manifestly has the power to destroy it. The Doctor is caught in a paradox here. If he fetishizes the market then he also has the power to destroy it. If he refuses to fetishize the market, there’s nothing he can do about it. This is just the kind of paradox that capitalism generates and traps all of us in all the time.