Science Fiction vs. The Stock Market - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Science Fiction vs. The Stock Market

Alexander Wallace doubles down.
It can feel almost picaresque that so much of the world economy is dominated by the whims of gamblers in New York. They are the ultimate embodiment of what I’ve seen described as ‘casino capitalism:’ the fact that so many hedge funds play with the savings of teachers and retirees. They are stewards on the Las Vegas strip, caring not for the lives of those who are in their care. The recent fracas kerfuffle over the soaring value of GameStop stocks brought about by enterprising redditors shows how absurd the whole notion is, and that our economy may as well as be one of those casino levels in one of the many Sonic the Hedgehog games. It has laid bare that so much of our economy is not based on real work and real value, but rather a simulacrum thereof.

I have seen it argued that it is impossible to write conservative science fiction (although I would suspect that the likes of Tom Kratman would disagree), since the genre is predicated around questioning that which we take for granted. Sometimes it is our technology, but other times it is our society; consider Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. In this article, I will focus on two science fiction authors who have dared to envision life outside of a massive casino: Kim Stanley Robinson and Yanis Varoufakis (who may be recognizable for other reasons). Merely a few decades ago, the very idea of a bunch of internet dwellers organizing on a network of computers to disrupt Wall Street via declining video game retailers, declining theater chains, and silver would be something out of science fiction, so I think that putting the two together is a very appropriate thing in this moment.
Let’s start with Robinson; The Ministry of the Future, which I reviewed here, has some relevance to the stock market, but most relevant is his New York 2140 (note that a lot of what I have to say about this book concerns its ending). The book concerns financial chicanery in a New York that has been turned into something like Venice, where people ride gondolas beside the skyscrapers; the city has to cope with the climate-ravaged world that its financial behemoth created. Eventually, a massive hurricane hits New York, whose residents must be exposed to the elements as the apartments of absentee capitalists lie well-furnished and empty. It is this utter callousness of the financial class that leads to the city going on a rent strike, which spreads nationwide: they refuse to pay their rents to the banks, which cannot feed that money into the great casino, which leads to the market rendered complete impotent and the banks having to be nationalized by the federal government, which uses their assets to fund social services.

Such an event is mentioned offhandedly as occurring in Robinson’s other novels The Ministry for the Future and Red Moon. Robinson recognizes that the labyrinthine network of hedge funds and trading floors is based fundamentally on fiat currency whose legitimacy only lasts so long as people buy into the system. The point of such a rent strike is to dam the flood at its source, denying that monstrosity its lifeblood and forcing it into despondency and nationalization. I have my doubts that the government-nationalized banks that Robinson proposes would necessarily be the force for the public good that he wants them to be (I fear that they would just transform aspiring financiers to become nominal civil servants), but it is an interesting vision of how that which is at once Moloch and Mammon could be fought.
Robinson is not the only author who has proposed the possibility of society-wide rent strikes. In his alternate history of the Great Recession entitled Another Now (which I have written about on the Sea Lion Press blog), Yanis Varoufakis discusses a world where, among other things, the global working class goes on rent and debt strikes in an attempt to put an end to what he calls “the bankruptcy of the bankers.” Here, as in New York 2140, he shows that casino capitalism cannot persist if the people refuse to gamble.

Varoufakis goes even farther than Robinson in showing how he thinks that a society outside of the grips of the banks would operate (albeit to the detriment of Another Now’s literary qualities); he does not put the breaking of the banks at the end of his novel, but interweaves its effects throughout the narrative. To neuter the power of corporations, he depicts activist investors (not unlike /r/wallstreetbets) as buying up large amounts of shares and then compelling the corporation to change its behaviors (cease funding environmental devastation, for example). Later on, one radical change he posits is the abolition of not just the stock market, but of transferable stocks more generally. Rather, he shows a world where businesses are employee owned, with each worker having a stock, and business decisions being made collectively. It’s utopian, but that’s the point; ‘utopia’ means a place that doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t prevent us from trying.

Science is about trying to find order, and the stock market is complete and utter chaos bereft of any order beyond greed. As a genre that has so often provided a platform for those that dream big in trying to sort out humanity’s ills, it is natural that some would try to reform an economy based on gambling and instead create one based on sound financial planning. I am not an economist so I am certain some of the nuances are lost on me (and I do have reservations regarding the state of the discipline), but both Robinson and Varoufakis ask you to dream big. Is that not what great science fiction has always done?

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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