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Book Reviews: 'Intrusion', 'Abundance - the Future is Better Than You Think', 'The Dharma of Capitalism'

Dystopia

Intrusion by Ken MacLeod. Orbit. 2012

The science-fiction author John Wyndham was known for his novels about the “comfy apocalypse”, where great catastrophes would wipe out all the “wrong” sort of people and lead to a renewed existence.  Ken MacLeod presents us with what could be called a comfy dystopia, where by intricate layers of pressure and compulsion a government forces people to do what it judges to be in their best interest - whether they want to or not.

The novel focuses on Hope, a woman who refuses to take “the fix” – a genetic medicine pill designed to correct any genetic defects in her unborn infant.  Everyone agrees it is in the best interest of the child and totally safe.  Yet, she still refuses, and refuses to give reasons for her refusal.  The “social and free” society cannot tolerate such a refusal in ways that are reminiscent of the totalitarian village of sixties TV show ‘The Prisoner’ (where Number Six refuses to say why he resigned from espionage).

The novel details the way in which people implement their own imprisonment (placing cameras throughout their own homes to protect them from accusations of abusing their children, for example) and how their compliance is used against them.  It is a skilful account of the ways in which surveillance technology and the erosion of civil liberties could be used to control people.  Grimly, it also shows how a sense of solidarity and of wanting to do well by our fellows can be used against us: time and again Hope is urged to comply for the sake of others, for her doctor’s insurance ratings, for the other kids at school and, ultimately, for the child in her womb.

What makes the story particularly chilling is that it is so mundane, the incidents so everyday.  There are no grand heroics or statements of high ideals, there are simply people trying to live under conditions of a claustrophobic paternalism.  It deploys a touch of SF magic, though, to suggest, ambivalently, that the outcome of such submission and control might be a form of civilisation-ending nihilism.  

The tale roots itself in contemporary preoccupations, sometimes taking a reductio ad absurdum, slippery-slope view to suggest, for example, a future fear of fourth-hand smoking.  It illustrates how, when the cheapening of the means of policing is coupled with populist demands for someone to ‘do something’ and for information to be used against people whether or not they are formally convicted, can lead to levels of control undreamt of by the old totalitarian states.  In this, it shows how technology is a dual-edged tool that can enslave as well as liberate.
PS

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Abundance

Abundance: the future is better than you think by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler. Free Press. 2012

In the 1960s there was a spate of books about how automation would usher in a world of abundance in which we would all need to work only 20 hours a week before retiring at 50. It never happened. The post-war boom came to an end in the 1970s and pessimism set in: the Club of Rome, for instance, famously predicted that many non-renewable resources would run out before the turn of the century. That didn’t happen either.

Doom and gloom is still the prevalent mood.  Some are predicting the end of civilisation by the end of the century as a result of global overwarming. So it’s refreshing to read a book that’s rather more optimistic. Diamandis and Kotler set out to show that:

“Humanity is now entering a period of radical transformation in which technology has the potential to significantly raise the basic standard of living for every man, woman and child on the planet. Within a generation, we will be able to provide goods and services, once reserved for the wealthy few, to any and all who need them. Or desire them. Abundance for all is actually within our grasp.” (p. 9)

They anticipate that it is achievements and future developments in Artificial Intelligence, nanotechnology, digitisation and genetic engineering that will enable this. Chapters 8 (Water), 9 (Feeding Nine Billion) and 13 (Energy) provide the details.

Most of the Earth’s surface is covered by water.  Water shortage should not therefore be a problem if an efficient and ecologically-sound way of desalinating it can be found. (They say it has.)  And there are also developments in water purification which permit the re-use of dirty water. Food production can be increased through genetically-engineered plants, artificial meat (grown from stem cells) and vertical farming (employing hydroponic techniques). The obvious alternative to burning fossil fuels as a source of energy for industry, transport and households is the sun. Until now a major problem has been how to store electricity. Diamandis and Kotler say this is in the process of being solved. Appropriate biomass can also provide a substitute for mineral oil.

The book’s big drawback is that this is supposed to happen under capitalism through the pioneering efforts of DIY inventors and innovators and ‘technophilanthropists’ such as Bill Gates.

There is no theoretical reason why capitalism cannot further ‘develop’ the so-called developing world by providing more and more people there with some of the amenities (such as clean water and mobile phones) enjoyed by people in the developed parts of the world. But this can be done more quickly and more rationally in a socialist world.

Under capitalism, too, the risk is always there that advances in technology will be abused; as they have been and still are being abused. Drones, for instance, which could be used to transport medicines and spare parts to remote areas of Africa, are being used to transport bombs to kill people. And it’s only under capitalism that a group of terrorists could use developments in genetic engineering to concoct, and use or threaten to use, their own biological weapons.

One thing capitalism won’t be able to do is to remove profit-seeking as the driving force of economic activity, and so prevent wars and preparations for war.  Nor will it eliminate the enormous waste of resources this involves, nor prevent economic crises like the present one when austerity not abundance is the order of the day.

Diamandis and Kotler fix a date by which abundance and “an end to most of what ails us” will be realised as 2035 (p. 25). That’s a year before the UK government is preparing to raise the age of retirement to 67. Given the continuation of capitalism, it’s the latter that’s the more likely.
ALB

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Fish Biscuit

The Dharma of Capitalism by Nitesh Gor. Kogan Page. £12.99

The Dharma of Capitalism is primarily a plea for ethical behaviour in business, but it is also part of a concerted attempt to harness the forces of religiosity in the service of an ailing and discredited capitalist system.

Gor begins with the premise that 80s-style ‘greed is good’ capitalism has been discredited by the current economic crisis, and that proponents of the system must attempt to win back the “soul of capitalism” by good works and ethical behaviour. He goes on to elucidate a form of management ethics which allegedly draws on traditional Indian religious concepts. Businessmen, apparently, must aspire to achieve the Dharma (“higher purpose”) of capitalism and regulate their behaviour according to what he terms the Mode of Goodness.

Now, it has to be said that enrichissez-vous has always and will always be the spirit of capitalism, because making money is what business is all about. If you want to know, ask a successful entrepreneur like Alan Sugar rather than a failed businessman like Gor on the ruling-class dole called management consultancy. Reading a purpose into capitalism beyond gelt is seeing something which just is not there. Interestingly, Gor is co-founder of the Dharma Index, a Dow Jones guide for Hindu investors (presumably promoting makers of Bloody Big Statues and dodgy nostrums). The Muslim counterpart is the Sharia Index (buy heavy, black material, sell AK-47s). ‘Ethical’ investments yes, but money-making first and foremost.

As to hitching the capitalist buggy to the religious mule, this is by no means a new phenomenon and may well be part of the ‘reinvention’ of capitalism to remedy the growing but unfocused distaste for the system. But not in the clunky form presented here. The attempt to marry a few spurious and misapplied Hindu concepts and phrases to a fake happy-clappy version of capitalism can fool no-one. Hinduism, particularly the reformed (‘nice’) version promoted by the Mahatma, has a good press these days. The concept of Dharma, though, like much else in Hindu theology has been used to uphold the status quo, particularly the reactionary and oppressive caste system. Dharma, however, is probably most familiar to Westerners from the television series ‘Lost’. And appropriately enough the fish biscuit (a reward which doesn’t match the effort required to acquire it) is exactly how most workers experience capitalism.
KAZ