Death of a nation

Fiction about the collapse of American capitalist society by Adam Cornford.

As the twentieth century closes, the USA has become what the New York Times at the time of the Gulf "War" called a "Hessian state": economically depressed, technologically backward in all areas except the military. The US capitalist class has come more and more to resemble the "comprador bourgeoisies" of Central America, living on income skimmed off by speculation or by investment in still poorer countries, while most domestic industry is foreign-owned and the mean real wage drops sharply below Western European levels. The majority of the employed -- about 65% of the working-age population have some sort of job -- are low-paid, insecure workers in banking, insurance, data processing, weapons manufacture, light assembly, domestic service, and retail sales.

Literacy beyond the third-grade level is becoming a minority acquisition, since real education has been almost completely privatized and in most states only the well-to-do can afford college. The lower layers of the working population, part-time and short-term, shade off into a vast mass of desperate unemployed. Between meager welfare checks (which must generally be worked for into the bargain), the unemployed support themselves by casual labor, street vending, petty crime, drug dealing, and prostitution. The latter, despite AIDS, is one of the few growth industries, catering especially to European and Japanese tourists, who love the ethnic variety afforded by the vast red-light districts of LA and NY. About three-fifths of all African-Americans, half of all Latinos, and a quarter of all whites experience "Third World" infant mortality, nutrition, life expectancy, and housing quality.

Prodigal use of fossil fuels continues, along with a renewal of the nuclear power program. The consequence is the continued devastation of the Alaskan tundra, the California/Oregon coastline, the Dakotas, and large areas of the southwest (as "National Sacrifice Areas" for oil, coal, and uranium). Cancer clusters proliferate around the ever greater number of toxic dumps and former industrial areas, as around nuclear plants. The US government, desperate for revenue, starts reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from abroad, as well as accommodating most of Japan's toxic wastes. There is deepening ecological crisis as the Greenhouse Effect goes into high gear around 2010. With continental weather patterns disrupted, drought in the Midwest leads to famine in Eastern Europe and other countries dependent on American grain. Within the US, hunger increases.

The military-police complex clings to this dying beast like a giant tick. Heavily armed police stage quasi-military occupation of poor neighborhoods, using the pretext of "gang control" or else straight counterinsurgency. Civil liberties continue to erode, for the poor especially. For the so-called middle class too, the freedoms of speech, information, and assembly are curtailed for reasons of "war on crime," or by the corporate "neighborhood associations" that increasingly run suburban enclaves, levying their own taxes, imposing rigid codes of conduct on residents, and operating their own security forces. Data collected through automated transaction systems is accumulated into "virtual dossiers" on every citizen, linked by identifiers like Driver's License and Social Security numbers; these dossiers are used by both government and private intelligence services to target deviant behaviors, and to lock out troublemakers from employment, rental housing, education, loans, and informational services. Attempts to organize workplace or rent strikes are routinely broken by racism, injunctions, and/or semi-official thuggery. Dissent, beyond the mildest and least effectual expressions, is effectively criminalized.

Despite this clampdown (and also because of it) the 2010's see the growth of a sizable fascist movement of enraged, mostly young, barely literate whites (with a good sprinkling of college boys and professionals) who blame blacks and immigrants for economic decline. In some areas the fascists operate inside the shell of the local or regional Republican party, in others outside it as pseudo-populist formations; some are Christian Fundamentalists, others relatively non-religious racialists or even primitivistic polytheists like the core of the old Nazi SS. These white nationalists often attack workers and people of color; but they also fight the police, believing them to be deluded agents of the "Globalist Financial Elite."

The old-line reformist African-American and Latino leadership is helpless in the face of this onslaught. Younger working-class black and brown people respond at first mainly with demagogic or protofascist forms of nationalism a la Nation of Islam -- patriarchal, misogynist, homophobic, counter-racist and often anti-Semitic, and deeply authoritarian. (These tendencies are reinforced by the large numbers of young men who have been part of race-based prison mobs.) Uniformed militants of these rival political gangs patrol the borders of their respective ghettos, clashing occasionally in firefights in which the police hesitate to intervene. Within these borders, they practice terror and extortion. They are most viciously hostile to any tendency that seeks to make common cause across racial lines and according to class interest.

At the behest of transnational corporations (TNCs), the US military gets into one counterinsurgency "resource war" after another -- to protect copper in Chile or Zambia, oil in the Mideast or Africa, European and Japanese factories in Brazil or Korea, or on behalf of local client states like Kuwait. US troops are also used, sometimes under UN auspices, sometimes not, to police regional ethnic or religious conflicts where the extraction of strategic resources may be affected, as in Somalia in the early '90s. When urban insurrections break out, as they do with increasing frequency and desperation despite ever-more brutal repression, these troops are also flown in to back up the militarized police and the National Guard.

The concentration of media ownership in hands of large TNCs continues, leading to virtually total press self-censorship. A plethora of "McNews" TV channels cheerlead for the government, except when their knees jerk in Rockette-style unison against any reform that might limit the power or mobility of capital. Entertainment mostly continues dumbing down into violent/soft-pornographic comic-book movies, or else wholesome, heartwarming kitsch for the whole (heterosexual, conservative, conventionally religious) family. This situation is not essentially changed by the proliferation of TV channels and the spread of "interactivity," since the terms on which the stories can be altered by audience members to suit their own tastes are defined by the "intelligent" software that generates the simulacra of characters and settings from corporate image libraries. Similarly, books are marketed by demographic segments with a heavy racial slant, as pop music has already been for decades.

TRICKLING OPPOSITION

A trickle of critical and independent-minded work still makes it onto the market, however, simply because the market for it exists. Amid mountains of reactionary rubbish, oppositional content slips through: talk shows where social issues are debated under the disguise of "family problems"; populist thrillers about tracking down fascist conspiracies; social dramas with a feminist or pro-poor slant; a lesbian family sitcom so popular that the network doesn't cancel it despite fundamentalist pressure.

"Serious" or "high" artists, meanwhile continue to divide into three castes: successful servants of the rich (fashionable painters and sculptors who've clawed their way up through the NY and LA art-marts, and their equivalents in literature; academic artists and writers with secure gigs in colleges, doing safe, mostly apolitical, sometimes vaguely "experimental" art or novels that sell 2,000 copies; and marginal Bohemians living in decaying urban neighborhoods, producing poetry, experimental video, and performance art, as well as traditional visual forms and avant-pop or garage-grunge kinds of music.

By contrast with most commercial and subsidized art, the urban subcultures produce work that ranges from nihilist to fiercely oppositional. Black and Latino nationalists also produce propaganda art analogous to old Soviet-style "Socialist Realism" -- nostalgic stereotypes of noble Africans or Aztecs, cartoon villain whites, and gross antisemitic caricatures. There is lots of apocalyptic fantasy -- Christian and Islamic Revelation motifs, visions of bloody massacre and revolution both Left and Right, agonized requiems for the end of life on Earth. But other work illuminates subversive possibilities, humorously or bitterly attacking the rules of race, gender, money, work, and the social hierarchy generally.

At first, most of this material doesn't get out of the subculture ghettos. However, the now more multiracial inner-city intelligentsia eventually synthesizes "neo-hop," descended from hip-hop, various Afro-Caribbean musics, punk/metal, and rap on the one hand and old-style underground video and performance art on the other. Neo-hop in turn generates a growing slew of independent multimedia producers who use pirated video-capture, music-sampling, and animation software to produce hybrid "virtual performance" or "garage reality" shows. These circulate as optical disks or as encrypted, compressed feeds onto computer networks and outlaw BBSs (since there are now too many local phone systems to control completely). The "ops" and "feeds" range in quality from the crude to the highly sophisticated, and in tone from the gritty to the sensual or mind-warping.

Slowly, and especially in the West, the Southwest, the North, and the Northeast, cross-cultural tendencies gain in strength, fueled by the impotence of narrow nationalist politics in the face of generalized economic and ecological breakdown. Cultural collaboration and dialogue helps to crack the racial barriers here and there, as does common struggle over toxic dumps and other ecological concerns. The Green movement, now substantially composed of poor and working-class people, becomes the crucial site of cross-racial alliance, in genuinely grassroots groups like the Southwest Coalition for Environmental & Economic Justice headquartered in Tijuana, or Chicago's People for Community Renewal.

As the TNCs continue to shed workers, the marginal classes acquire many skilled engineers, programmers, and technicians. Media sabotage becomes, if not common, by no means infrequent: TV newscasts are overridden by guerrilla feeds that camouflage themselves with simulacra of the newscasters, sitcoms suddenly swerve into the horrific or the subversive, televangelists appear to spout anarchist rants or tear off their clothes on camera. Street demonstrations, riots, looting festivals, sit-ins, sickouts, and slowdowns multiply. Counter-terror begins: a slumlord shot in a drive-by, a homophobic demagogue executed on camera by "Queer Commandos," an executive beaten in the supposedly secure parking lot while the cameras are down.

THE NEW DIVIDE

Too little and too late, the elite starts to respond. Job-sharing plans (at reduced pay) are instituted. A guaranteed minimum income via "negative income tax" is established (but too little to live on). Health care is reformed -- again. Tough global restrictions on carbon emissions are reached. In a series of show trials, executives of some large polluters are actually sentenced to prison. Emergency farming and food distribution programs are created. Statutes against "hate crimes" are toughened.

Despite these modest achievements, Greens and progressives are unable to push through strong enough corporate-responsibility laws (and a renewal of civil-rights protections) because the Demopublican Right retains control of the Senate. The Federal government is increasingly paralyzed by continual infighting between these diehards and the more enlightened wing of the elite. Meanwhile, the acuteness of the deficit forces further massive cutbacks in Federal services, especially inspection and oversight, leading to further disasters.

In response, several Western states (Washington, Oregon, California, New Mexico) pass corporate-responsibility laws, as do Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, and Michigan in the Midwest, and Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, and New York in the Northeast. Many corporations flee to unregulated states, especially in the South (Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas) and the Southeast (North and South Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee). They do this rather than go abroad because most foreign options have become either too risky or uneconomic -- wages are too close to US norms, local infrastructure is inadequate, or production costs are too high.

Between these two main groups of states, political polarization grows rapidly. Corporate-driven governments in "Free-market" states encourage bigotry to prevent organizing; whites are racially mobilized via fundamentalist churches as well as local and regional media. "Fascist realism" becomes the dominant media style, including both pseudo-historical docudrama with racist and antisemitic themes and live audience-participation witch hunts against dissidents and queers. "Traditional values" -- capitalism, patriarchy, racial hierarchy, and mindless obedience -- saturate the informational environment. Countering the official media are clandestine ops and feeds, graffiti, posters, semi-underground concerts and poetry performances. Churches -- black Protestant in the South, Catholic in the Southwest -- also become crucial centers of opposition because of the legal protection still afforded them.

By contrast, governments in "Green" states are backed by coalitions of Green parties and local environmental issue groups, women's and gay groups, African-American and Latino organizations (though not the extreme-nationalist groups) and the remains of the unions. They are joined by "progressive" industrialists and businesspeople: credit unions and co-ops, recyclers, soft-energy entrepreneurs (solar engineers, windfarmers), bioengineers involved in earth-restoration projects, some computer companies, organic food producers and retailers. Public-access cable networks expand, rebroadcasting community-made ops and feeds. As neighborhood groups multiply, they create frequent street carnivals, with music, costumes, and masks, that invade downtown office buildings and other workplaces. There is spontaneous poetic oratory on street corners, often involving costume, sometimes electronic "special effects"; troubadours, rappers, and ranters circulate everywhere. Wild murals are painted on abandoned or squatted buildings. People begin making their own clothes and adding neoprimitivist or baroque ornamentation to their houses.

Both sets of states develop informal federative ties with each other, providing mutual aid of various sorts. Free-market states share databases of "subversives," organizers, and homosexuals and send police and National Guard reinforcements to each other as needed. A fascist coalition forms, subsidized by some of the TNCs, which provides financial aid to "conservatives" in Green states seeking to depose what they call "rosebud" (pink-and-green) majorities. In Green states, barter and other arrangements develop to deal with scarcities caused by corporate flight. There are modest low-interest development loans from better-off states to poorer ones. Neighborhood self-help and other grassroots groups dealing with housing, pollution, and education multiply and get coordinated across state lines, helped in some cases by radicals in local government.

Workers in Green states seize workplaces being shut down by fleeing corporations, initially to hold them to ransom, again often with the tacit or even open support of local government. Some of these workplaces -- light engineering and electronics plants, food production and distribution centers, and so on -- the workers begin operating themselves. Others are simply shut down as useless toxic pestholes. With the help of Green techies and some university engineering and science departments, the seized industrial facilities are converted so as to pollute less, conserve resources, and use alternative forms of energy -- as well as to be safer and more enjoyable to work in. Industrial planning networks form based on workplace committtees and city councils. In blighted urban centers, landscaping, rooftop and lot gardening, and bio-installation art become popular. Neighborhood repair shops and tool libraries spring up.

Now grassroots-led workplace takeovers and "Green bans" -- shutdowns of polluting or otherwise harmful workplaces -- accelerate. Bank workers and corporate clericals sabotage fund transfers and capital movements. A coalition of erstwhile corporate owners appeals to the Feds, who mobilize the National Guard in some Green states to take back the seized or closed facilities. There are mutinies and mass desertions after troops are ordered to fire on the workers and residents blockading the plants. The regular army is sent in and meets huge popular resistance. This mostly takes the form of mass unarmed demonstrations, but also involves sniper attacks as well as the usual jamming and disruption of communications.

Meanwhile, in Free-market states, opposition is growing. Green and black organizations, now semi-clandestine because of repression, make common cause with poor whites in and around chemical plants and oil refineries along the ultra-polluted Gulf coast. Green-state radicals send in clandestine organizers, technology (electronic gear, sabotage software), and funds to aid the opposition. In the old Black Belt, African-Americans form a huge coalition that stages armed counter-demonstrations against fascist attacks. There are bloody riots in several Southern cities that leave hundreds dead and large areas burnt to the ground. Strikes and boycotts begin to spread in spite of fierce repression. Death squads, led by "off-duty" police, wage all-out terror against black and brown organizations. Police HQ's are blown up in retaliation. Following an appeal by embattled Chicanos, thousands of armed Mexican workers march across the Texas border and engage in pitched battle with the police and the Guard. Martial law is declared across the South.Green state governments collapse as all Federal funds are cut off and state capitols are seized by armed Federal agents and airborne troops. The President, with a minimal Congressional majority, suspends the Constitution and attempts to put national martial-law plans into effect via FEMA, state militias, and crack counterinsurgency troops. Mass roundups of Green, worker, African-American, and Latino activists begin. Large demonstrations and strikes spread: the national economy is paralyzed as highways and rail lines are blockaded and airports closed. In Seattle, several hundred unarmed demonstrators including women and children are slaughtered. As word of the massacre spreads, many Army units desert; some go over to the rebel side. There are small-arms and tank battles in cities, with bitter house-to-house fighting.

The Revolutionary Democratic Federation (RDF) is formed from already existing regional councils of neighborhood, worker, and ethnically-based groups and planning bodies as well as the remains of local government. The Federation declares independence from the USA in about thirty states where it now controls production, communications and transportation and runs its own militias. The Federal government collapses as mass desertions from the military continue. A vast demonstrator-army of mostly black poor people sweeps into central DC and begins seizing and trashing government buildings. The President, top officials, and generals flee to Houston. The Free-market state regimes, most of which have been completely taken over by fascists, likewise collapse over the next few months after many thousands of deaths from violence, hunger, and disease -- as well as a reactor accident that leaves a large swath of Tennessee uninhabitable. The rebels, having seized power, affiliate with the RDF.

The USA is formally dissolved into the North American Democratic Federation. The new Federal government retains much of the Constitution minus the role of President, the Senate, and the Electoral College, but with all of the Bill of Rights, plus new amendments banning private (as opposed to cooperative) ownership of more than 40 acres of land, denying corporations the rights of persons, and making representatives subject to strict mandate and immediate recall by their elective bodies. The Federation also declares social ownership and citizen-worker management of all workplaces involving more than twenty people, including industry, telecommunications, and transportation (this law simply ratifies accomplished fact).

These legal measures are the tip of a huge iceberg of social transformation, especially around work. Few people spend more than twenty hours a week on their "job" (now called a Share, as in doing one's share); but there is strong social-ethical pressure on everyone able-bodied and -minded to do at least ten hours. New products (other than standardized components like screws and rivets, electrical and electronic gear, plumbing parts, and tools, whose production is as automated as possible) are now customized imaginatively by teams of makers who develop group stylistic signatures. Entrepreneurship is encouraged less by monetary reward than by public acclaim in competitions between work groups or cooperatives.

Money is used less and less as more goods and services, beginning with communications and basic foodstuffs, are distributed gratis to those who need them. Farmers' markets, barter-marts, and skill swaps are established everywhere. The banking, insurance, and advertising "industries" cease to exist. Now unused, most office towers and shopping malls are converted or demolished. Private automobiles are banned from cities, which are "villagized" by the breakup of all but a few large through streets and the burying of most public transit underground. Bicycles are now the most prevalent form of wheeled transport. Trees become a vital medium of space-shaping as well as objects of veneration.

Tract-home sprawl is gradually broken up as mid-range (suburban) population density is made illegal; some suburbs are demolished and plowed under for farmland, others are condensed into villages and small towns with their own centers and workplaces. Long-distance commuting becomes a rarity. Between cities, high-speed and local trains replace the automobile as the main means of transportation. Fossil-fuel burning is cut by two-thirds within five years, and the remaining gasoline-powered vehicles are subjected to strict CO2 emission control. Reforestation becomes a major social project, involving hundreds of thousands of mostly young people who do tours of duty in wilderness areas and in green belts around cities.

The tendency to regionalism becomes more marked, though TV, computers, and phones, as well as shared networks of basic industrial production, keep everyone connected. Regional and central broadcasting groups assemble and digest local news off satellite and cable feeds for rebroadcasting, and news databases make survey possible on any topic. Also, there are strong Federal laws about civil rights and ecological matters. New chemicals require years of rigorous testing in "artificial biospheres" before manufacture is allowed. Similar restrictions are made on genetic engineering, which is now mostly devoted to breeding bacteria and viruses to clean up toxic wastes, and to finding treatments for the still-spreading cancer and immune-failure epidemics the wastes have caused. Fertility drugs and surrogate motherhood are banned; any alteration of the human genome is subject to tight restriction, testing, and eventual Federal referendum (the elimination of genes for hemophilia, Downs, Alzheimer's, and some others are approved in this way).

As cities are reconstructed and transformed, poetic architecture begins to develop: people knock out back fences between houses to create open lawns and bamboo jungles, build covered bridges between apartment houses, create arbors, arcades, and tree-lined walks with sculptures. While private space does not disappear, it becomes more porous to the common life. Elaborate neighborhood games -- like ringolevio in Italian neighborhoods in Brooklyn -- provide opportunities for courtship, friendly rivalry, and adventurous encounter. The new public spaces also foster music and performance festivals, like the old Welsh Eisteddfodd, involving complex poetic improvisation around agreed themes and styles, but often also making use of computer and VR technology.

Public and group ritual becomes frequent again for all sorts of occasions. There are rites of passage for traditional occasions like birth, death, coming to maturity, sexual partnership, and for new ones like joining a work group, a neighborhood, or some other cluster, as well as for "breaking up" or departure. Seasonal festivals like Christmas-Chanukah-Solstice become communal celebrations of the year's turning.

The new world is far from perfect. Society must contend with the hideous social and ecological legacy of the corporate-oligarchic era: chronic agricultural shortages and unpredictable weather because of the Greenhouse Effect; a much reduced average life expectancy for the next two generations owing to cancer and other environmentally induced disease; residual racial hatred, misogyny, and homophobia; and a less obvious but also terrible heritage of "post-traumatic" syndromes including anxiety neurosis, psychosis, and drug addiction. There are still (though far fewer) murders, crimes of passion, assaults, rapes, and even robberies. But there is far less social stimulus to such behavior, and -- despite greatly reduced governmental intervention in daily life -- much less tolerance for it. A face-to-face-based, communal society can deal with these things much better before they get out of hand.

In general, then, the women and men of the mid-twenty-first century in what used to be the United States are both kinder and hardier than those of a century earlier. They are imaginative, playful, sarcastic, egalitarian, multi-skilled, intense in concentration and pride in their work, quick to sympathize and help, eloquent and fierce in debate, rooted in community and region but prone to switch occupations suddenly and to become migrants in middle life. They share, besides, a bittersweet appreciation of passing beauty fostered by the ever-presence of death and loss, and a passionate love of the life-web that sustains them and that they must now steward if they are to survive.

--Adam Cornford