Postcapitalist Realities — Outline

Fictions become REALITIES. Fictions, long regarded as distractions from or means of coping with the real world, emerge as powerful reality-building forces.

  • Integral to human understanding and invention, fiction plays an essential role in imagining alternatives to reality, in shaping reality, in disguising reality, and in providing avenues of escape from reality.
  • Fictional narratives are more than entertaining stories; they are simulations of worlds, not unlike scientific experiments, algorithms, and AIs.
  • Realizing that they are trapped in an artificial world invented to serve commercial interests, writers and readers of fictional texts can escape together into an alternative world of their own invention.


Fiction has been rendered impotent. Political leaders dismiss controversial scientific findings and intelligence leaks as fictions while at the same time crafting and promoting their own fictional accounts of how things really are. Entertaining stories function as anodynes, distracting readers/viewers from the staged unrealities of the real world and from their own inability to change it. Fiction publishing is itself an invented reality, relegated to a relatively minor segment of the entertainment industry. Recognizing the fictionality of the publishing status quo, imagining alternatives, building and running simulations of these alternate realities, re-imagining fiction as a potent force: fiction writers and readers are well equipped for the task.

Challenges and Opportunities

Reforming Habits. People adapt to environments, even artificial ones. Adaptations become habits, hard to break even when moving into an alternative environment where those habits are no longer adaptive. Freed from the constraints of the traditional publishing world, would readers and writers of fictions remain locked into their habitual ways of reading and writing? Or would the alternate reality of writers’ syndicates and readers’ duplicating libraries establish a different ecology, calling for different adaptations from which different habits take shape?

Revaluing Fictions. The criteria by which fictions are judged are themselves fictional, derived from invention and reified by convention. Is it necessary to renounce contemporary genre and middlebrow commercial standards only to champion a nostalgic return to a fantasized golden age of elitist literary artistry? Or are the fictions generated in the post-capitalistic precarity to be judged by unprecedented standards of value?

9 thoughts on “Postcapitalist Realities — Outline

  1. “People adapt to environments, even artificial ones. Adaptations become habits, hard to break even when moving into an alternative environment where those habits are no longer adaptive…”

    So human beings are in the process of adapting to modern capitalism whose essential catalyst (the “death urge” I would say) is consumerism. Our meaning and purpose is defined by what we buy, as consumers, and by what we do, i.e., by our productivity. Accepting that this is our status, we’ve formed habits, but we’ve also formed new perspectives, new ways of viewing ourselves, the world, and our place in the world. Isn’t this greater in scope than the word “habit” implies?

    Globally, most human beings (and non humans) suffer, even though they are often producers (sweat shop labor, coffee plantations, factory farms, etc.). That’s another adaptation: we accept that people must suffer for the sake of capitalism. Again, this seems to encompass more than just a habit, though I suppose it could be considered a mental habit?


  2. Hey Erdman! It’s a good question — will the larger ecosystem of capitalism always shape specific habits, overriding attempts to change them? It’s possible to imagine alternatives to capitalism, but they’re fictions. Is it possible to step into those alt realities and actually live inside of them, for the fictional to become actual?

    Part of the experiment here would be to try to change specific habits inside of the larger economic system. I’ve already pretty much broken myself of the habit of buying books: just today I borrowed 4 books from the library. But I do still harbor an attitudinal prejudice, largely unconscious, in which I regard people whose shelves are lined with books as classier, more intellectual, more artistic. But it costs money to buy those books, those props signaling class status. Similarly, as a writer I tend to fetishize the printed bound book as a “real” book, signaling the status of the author as being a “real” writer, even though the words on the printed page are the same as the ones on the computer screen.

    Is it possible to alter these attitudinal biases within the framework of traditional capitalistic publishing? I’m skeptical. I think it’s probably necessary to step into an alternate postcapitalistic reality where those habitual ways of thinking and feeling and acting no longer make sense, a different ecosystem in which different sorts of habits take shape. We’re not in a position to set up a fully functioning parallel economy to capitalism any time soon. But maybe we can set up a laboratory, buffered from the larger context, in which we can experiment with alternatives. As fictionalists we might be more temperamentally inclined to step into alternate realities, walk around in them, see how it feels…

    Regarding suffering for the sake of capitalism, I’m wondering whether fiction writers should experiment with zero-based economic expectations. Practically no one makes a living by writing fiction, but it’s hard for writers to abandon the capitalistic fantasy that their hard work and genius will be rewarded financially. It’s that fantasy that keeps the agents’ and publishers’ pipelines filled with creative content. The middlemen make a living from the writers they represent and edit and publish, even as the published writers themselves make next to nothing while the ones who don’t make the cut are flushed into the slush pile.

    What if fiction writers assume that they’ll make no money from their writing? Would writing stop feeling like a job, and a crappy job at that, with low pay and no job security? Would writing start feeling more like play, or like art, or like justice, or like truth? Of course that means that the fiction writers would have to keep their day jobs, or find a sugar daddy, or have independent means. Maybe that’s part of the criteria for joining the postcapitalistic experiment: a willingness to abandon, or at least to suspend, the fantasy – the fiction – that fiction writing is a job. In that regard the postcapitalistic fiction writers would be acting as forerunners in an economy where all the jobs are being outsourced to sweatshops or robots.

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  3. Somehow I missed your response until just now…….You make some really good points here, and it’s part of a larger project (Ficticities) that I deeply admire….

    You said: “We’re not in a position to set up a fully functioning parallel economy to capitalism any time soon. But maybe we can set up a laboratory, buffered from the larger context, in which we can experiment with alternatives. As fictionalists we might be more temperamentally inclined to step into alternate realities, walk around in them, see how it feels…”

    This stirs a good deal of thought, regarding alternative communities, “laboratories” as you call them, and the underground…..

    Alternative communities have existed throughout the recorded history of homo sapiens, so far as I can tell, and they’ve had to exist because all of recorded history is a record of exploitation, in one form or another. (Capitalism is simply the most recent form of hierarchical domination and control, though scholars speculate that humans actually did most of their evolving in egalitarian hunter-gatherer communities, which were usually small and non-hierarchical.) Through the millenia these communities have born witness, so to speak, to a better way of social organization but deeper still, they provide an example of a better way of being human.

    This has often been the case for Christianity, as an example. In the immediate wake of the death of Jesus of Nazareth, his followers created a communist community, devoted to prayer and the preservation and practice of the teachings of Jesus. It wasn’t long before the church merged with the dominant culture, which can be seen even in the New Testament itself, e.g., the contrast between Paul’s authentic writings wherein he deconstructs the conventional hierarchical order (“…in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile [racial] male or female [gender] slave or free [class]”) and that of the later, pseudo Pauline writings, particularly in Titus and 1 and 2 Timothy where hierarchies are reinstated, based on the way good Romans did things.

    But after a while some hermits went out into the desert and they eventually formed monastic communities, and the desert Fathers and Mothers again left the dominant culture to form an alternative to the existing realities. They lived out a fiction, so to speak, and it became the basis for a monastic movement that preserved and practiced a good deal of what Jesus of Nazareth was talking about.

    We can’t romanticize this, though, especially in today’s capitalist society because consumerism has commodified resistance itself. If someone rants about global warming or some other ecological destruction, those who defend capitalism will say, “okay, let’s make smarter consumer choices that help the environment!” And suddenly there is a massive market for “green” products.

    But Derrick Jensen (one of my favorite writers and someone we’ve discussed before) took aim at this a good decade ago in his short essay “Forget Shorter Showers.” His opening paragraph is worth citing:

    “WOULD ANY SANE PERSON think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday, or that chopping wood and carrying water would have gotten people out of Tsarist prisons, or that dancing naked around a fire would have helped put in place the Voting Rights Act of 1957 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Then why now, with all the world at stake, do so many people retreat into these entirely personal “solutions”?…”

    In his essay Jensen says that entirely personal solutions, like taking shorter showers, won’t cut it because “personal change doesn’t equal social change.” So, the question is: Are alternative communities (like ficticities) in a better position to bring about social change?

    I’d tentatively say “yes,” but capitalism has become extremely skilled at commodifying resistance. Perhaps the best example I know of, off hand, is the monumental fail that is Burning Man.

    Burning Man is a festival to celebrate the earth, promote sustainability, etc. In its current form, however, it ends up with an absolutely massive carbon footprint, which is to understate the point. For one thing, everything used to build the Burning Man community is burned at the end of the festival (including a literal man, a towering wooden structure, that burns as sort of a ritual), and this burning itself emits so much carbon into the air that it negates any and all efforts to make a sustainable festival, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.

    Tens of thousands of people are flying and driving in (and out) for this grand event, some are driving campers and RVs, most everyone is running generators, and it’s gotten to be such a highly popular and highly commercial event — tickets are actually sold now, as if it were the Super Bowl — that wealthy $ilicon Valley executives bring in lines of luxury RVs, setting up their own camps, complete with rave parties and other extravagant exercises. At the end of the day, it’s more a celebration of capitalist waste than anything else. It’s also a testament to the ability of capitalism to delude people into thinking that they are “making a difference” when if fact all people are doing at Burning Man is creating more of an ecological problem than if they were to have just stayed home.

    Jensen’s solution is to dismantle industrial society by any means necessary. This is more than a little quixotic, I think, though it is admirable.

    To my knowledge, though, Jensen doesn’t ever seriously engage the idea of alternative communities as means of presenting a real challenge to the system, perhaps because he is even more familiar with how they are co-opted (as in the Burning Man example) than I am.

    Even so, I tend to think that alternative communities are the best chance we’ve got. Well, that and the act of fiction writing itself. I’m taking a break from the novel and picking up a nonfiction project that I’ve had in the que for about 5 years, but this nonfiction project is an effort to imagine a fictional alternative, so one might suggest it is a loose form of fiction writing. It’s an effort to explore a new narrative that could substitute for the American Dream narrative, i.e., the narrative that justifies capitalism and consumerism.

    In short, stories do have power, I think, though even they can be easily commodified by the market. That’s only part of the solution, I think. I don’t really believe there is one simple solution that can fix this right now.

    Here’s Jensen’s essay:

    Here’s Jensen reading the essay, as part of a recent documentary on the California water crisis:

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  4. It’s widely said (who said it first?) that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Clearly it is imaginable, but is it achievable? I.e., under what circumstances does a fiction become actual? Actually existing capitalism is just as fictional as any imagined alternative, in the sense that capitalism relies on constructs like money, wealth, ownership, labor, value, production, consumption, etc. that aren’t intrinsic to the material world. Still, these capitalist constructs have become entwined with the material world. Is it possible to pull the material world apart from the fictional context in which it seems so inextricably enmeshed? That’s part of the fictional laboratory’s proposed experimental agenda: to explore ways in which alternative imagined realities interact with actualized realities.

    Early Christianity is an intriguing example. Especially in Paul’s writings you get the sense of a virtual kingdom of God superimposed on the material kingdoms of Judea and Rome. Paul regarded it as a spiritual kingdom, but one could also construe it as a fictional kingdom. What does it take to “see” the fictional kingdom, to occupy it as if it were already made materially manifest? Paul invoked faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” which might be a good description of how people are able to stay inside of imagined realities when reading a novel or writing one, when designing a house or planning a trip, when constructing theories or algorithms or simulations. There is a kind of mystical reality-travel involved in spanning the “already/not yet” divide, but there’s also a kind of discipline, a partitioning of realities and their components that requires exerting a kind of mental and emotional labor in order to resist the entropic pull of actualized fictions. Heading into the desert or some other wilderness probably makes in easier to maintain the partitions, letting the alternate imagined realities expand to fill up the ecosystem.

    As you point out, the early Christian faithful also organized themselves into communities. I’m wondering how important actual physical proximity is in sustaining a collective alternative reality. You’ve discussed at your place how Facebook creates and sustains community partitions in virtual space. Most of the platform businesses do the same: “people who bought this also liked…” Still, these virtual community-builders tend to build centralized physical campuses for their own workers, relying on the physical community’s presence to reinforce the shared ideological and economic commitments of the faithful.

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  5. There’s an intriguing thing about Paul in that he wants to both imagine an alternative and actualize it at the same time. Fiction becomes reality, which sounds oddly postmodern in the context of our current discussion, but in truth Paul is simply following the lead of Jesus, and Jesus is simply following in the prophetic tradition. Faith is the fiction plus the attempt to actualize the fiction. The thing about the prophetic tradition is that their faith didn’t seem to depend on whether or not they believed it could happen. Like Jonah, they might have believed that there wasn’t a snow ball’s chance in hell, but they still tried.

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  6. Once I did a study of Paul’s theory of Old Man versus New Man. It seems that he saw himself and fellow believers occupying the Kingdom of God but only tenuously, because the World still exerts its force. It’s less that the believer’s self is transformed from worldly into spiritual; it’s that there are two selves, one occupying and adapted to the World, the other occupying and adapted to the Kingdom. The believer can flip from one to the other and back again, shifting back and forth between alternate realities. But these selves, the Old Man and the New Man, didn’t seem to be deeply rooted essences in Paul’s view. He would exhort his readers to “put on” the New Man, as if it were a kind of garment or suit of armor.

    Similarly you’ve got Paul’s discussion of law versus faith. It’s not that the Mosaic Law is dead — he’s very clear that the Law persists. It’s that the Christ-believer is dead to the world in which the Law holds sway. But again, the believer can slip back over the boundary, come back out of the grave you might say, and find him- or herself back in the world of the Law. There are always the two realities superimposed, and also the two Men.

    Maybe there are lessons to be learned from Paul in our attempts to enter into alternate subcultures or communities or realities.

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  7. I seem to remember us conversing about this years back….Paul’s idea of slipping back and forth between the two worlds seems to mirror my own sense of my own reality……Interestingly Jesus said 1) “the kingdom of God is within you” and 2) it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of god. So, those who occupy the lowest points within the hierarchy of power seem to be in the best shape to slip into the alternative reality of the kingdom of god.

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  8. I don’t remember whether Harari discussed in Sapiens the tendency for new discoveries and inventions to come from those on the lower levels of the social hierarchy. They’re more motivated. If you’re on top of the heap, why go looking for other heaps you might not find or that might not even exist. Wait for some other loser to find or build the new heap, then marshal your forces to conquer it. Or as the professor in an MBA organizational innovations class taught, “be a quick second.” I.e., wait for others to come up with something new and to demonstrate its value, then either buy it up or compete it out of existence with a knockoff. As you observed earlier in this thread, “capitalism has become extremely skilled at commodifying resistance.”

    I was taught that a better translation was “the kingdom of God is among you.” Jesus was talking with the Pharisees, pointing out to them that an alternate reality was right there in front of them but they couldn’t see it:

    Now having been questioned by the Pharisees as to when the kingdom of God was coming, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.” – Luke 17:19-20, NASB

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