New Feudalism or Enlightened Planet


It seemed like we all just got “woke”. Things were looking like they might coalesce into some kind of concerted effort to ensure things like an adequate food supply, plenty of potable water, clean oceans. We seemed to have generated some real interest in being good caretakers of our tiny planet spinning in space at the edge of the Milky Way galaxy, soon to be home to 9 billions humans (and as many species as we can keep from extinction). Younger people seem to have some interest in global cooperation, extending human rights – perhaps an evolutionary leap to a more enlightened planet.

Now we suddenly find ourselves in a white nationalist cul de sac which, if it becomes our permanent abode, certainly will put paid to our dreams of global nirvana. Our dual nature, of course, makes global nirvana just about impossible unless they design a drug to tamp down negative human traits (but the side effects would probably be brutal). Doesn’t matter. We have been turned away from that global future into this isolationist cul de sac. Will our sojourn here be brief or long? Will the world join us here or move on without us?

We were on the cusp of the future predicted by or copied from science fiction – except for the tiny hiccups like hating to share our country with people of color, or Muslims, and a weird insistence on doubling down on fossil fuels (that we are pretty sure are harmful to us because they harm this planet we are not able to leave – our lovely home, earth). However there are tendencies towards that still-possible global future developing alongside us as we get steered into that dead end where Trump wants to take us.

Progress in technology is relentless. AI may change everything. Adventurous sorts with money are still trying to reach the stars (Elon Musk, Tesla). We may still end up with cars we don’t have to drive and space elevators. Will these parallel trends save us from revisiting the Dark Ages? Will tech trends interrupt the economic trends that could turn most of us back into serfs.

I find myself awake sometimes in the middle of the night wondering what forms government might take in the future. I guess a brain sometimes wants to be entertained, although I wish it would choose a more opportune hour. But I am a science fiction geek, not so much the new stuff, with exceptions, but the classics, so my mind takes me to the future. I wish my understandings were mathematical, or as an expert in engineering or physics, but beyond comprehending that tesseracts involve dimensions and folding space (which we can’t actually do), I will never be joining any NASA  tech team. (I also know tesseracts, used in this way, are from Margaret L’Engle’s book A Wrinkle in Time, which just became a movie).

My real interest in science fiction is political, sociological – about the mechanics of human organizations in space. Since none of us have been in space (not including the Moon) the writers of science fiction create the ways people behave in space, the governmental structures in space, the wars in space, even the day-to-day activities of humans in space. If/when we go to space will the schema we have placed in our brains limit the kinds of government we can imagine? Maybe.

Isaac Asimov, in the Foundation Trilogy (which ended up as more than a trilogy), depicted an entire universe plunged in a Dark Age with one lonely think tank/foundation of enlightenment hidden in a distant and rarely traveled corner in space. The trilogy tells what happens when the secrecy ends, which is a pitted struggle between, of course, the forces of evil and those of good, or corrupt reactionaries v. insightful progressives. The form of government favored by Asimov in this trilogy involves a sort of mind-meld of all living things into “one harmonious living entity in which all beings and the galaxy itself would be a part.” This is so far from our current cult of the individual as to seem far-fetched and not terribly enticing, although it seemed more beckoning in the Age of Aquarius when these books were widely read. At least it was not simply a rehash of the government types we already knew, but it also involves a mental transformation which is beyond our current capacities. It does coincide with the idea of a more global approach to organizing life on earth in the 21st century.

Frank Herbert fathered the Dune books which had one of the most intricate governmental structures, basically feudal in nature. The Butlerian Jihad had dictated the destruction of computers and machines and robots that “think”, (our suspicions about AI are a recurring theme in sci-fi). Mentats, human “computers” take the place of machines. There are royal families (the Houses), the Spacing Guild, the Bene Gesserit sisters trying to genetically engineer a superhuman male called the Kwisatz Haderach, and the Fremen who control the sandworms that produce spice. There is the spice with all its parallels to our fossil fuels, although with religious overtones. Many feel that the Dune books were so popular because they went along with the environmentalist movement, still a sort of fringy, but hardly new movement, which appointed us as the caretakers of our planet. Although the feudal governments in Dune do coincide with our current moves in the direction of feudalism and a new dark age, that probably was not the real point of the series.

Star Wars gave us the Empire and the Rebellion but as the prequels were added we saw that this was intended to be Democratic government, although so enormous that corruption seemed inevitable – and it was. Star Trek had the Federation and its nemesis the Klingon Empire, a malignant imperialist military state, but we don’t learn much about how the Federation governs beyond the rule that its space peace enforcers should not meddle in other civilizations, a rule that may influence how we would like to conduct ourselves if we ever become a presence in the universe beyond our planet.

We have the systems of governance we have already tried – barter, monarchy, dictatorship, communism, socialism, democracy/republic, social democracy – and perhaps even some examples of anarchy. Every system we try tends to end the same way with plenty of economic inequality and the inability to keep at bay our negative traits. I could go on with my sleepless ruminations about whether or not science fiction may offer us some answers about human government and social structures, but it is just a symptom of my desire to part the curtain of time, to see how we will govern ourselves if we avoid being led into the wilderness and find our way back to global governance, or at least global cooperation. What we might get, if we accomplished this seemingly impossible feat, is a sort of microcosm of how we might interact with each other, or even with alien cultures, in space. And may I say, “yikes”, it doesn’t look like we will ever get the hang of a government framework that provides long-term stability, fairness and peace.

But if we will be sidelined into some grim nightmare of feudalism, of endless work – some nouveau Evangelical ethic which says that if you are not wealthy then you are inferior and you belong to the wealthy. You will be expected to labor, reproduce, get sick, and die. If such a future is where we are headed then I don’t have any desire to take any time machine to see it. I do not want to lose the fine freedoms we have enjoyed in our nation, an ideal of governance which has convinced much of the world to go along with it, and has, so far, been the most promising of any system of government that the human mind has devised on earth.

There may be some better design in the future but let’s not throw our republic away before someone imagines it. If we don’t conquer the issues of wealth inequality, the corruption that big money has bought to our republic, and the reactionary slide of our current politics we could easily descend into a society that turns the poor into slaves or convicts. We fear an Orwellian future or a return of gestapo mentality because we see these tendencies on the rise, and shockingly, it looks like America may go there first. No wonder I am having nightmares. Aren’t you?

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