Speculative presence – 2

by Jehu

Following Zizek’s proposition, I suggest that the 1951 classic, The Day of the Triffids, may be one of the best examples of the speculative post-capitalism-fiction genre ever written, for reasons I hope to detail.

According to Wikipedia:

The Day of the Triffids is a 1951 post-apocalyptic novel by the English science fiction author John Wyndham. After most people in the world are blinded by an apparent meteor shower, an aggressive species of plant starts killing people.

The story, written after the two Great Wars and the Great Depression, and on the cusp of the Cold War, has received critical praise for its realistic portrayal of a global catastrophe. At the same time it has been criticized by some for portraying a “cozy” catastrophe and, according to one critic, for being “totally devoid of ideas”.

The most important thing about the story, however, the thing most people I have read seem to miss, is that it poses a simple question for us to consider:

What would happen to capitalist society if 95% of the adult working population woke up tomorrow to discover they were blind?

In the opening pages of the story, almost every able-body adult capable of a day’s labor has been suddenly disabled and no longer able to perform even the simplest tasks. Perhaps one person in twenty has managed to escape this illness. Recalling those first moments, the narrator addresses the implication of this new reality where almost all labor power is disabled as he recalls the growing horror when he realized that the incredibly sophisticated division of labor, on which society depends for survival, effectively no longer existed.

Although highly educated, the narrator realizes he knows almost nothing about how the basic processes that made his life possible functioned:

It is not easy to think oneself back to the outlook of those days. We have to be more self-reliant now. But then there was so much routine, things were so interlinked. Each one of us so steadily did his little part in the right place that it was easy to mistake habit and custom for the natural law—and all the more disturbing, therefore, when the routine was in any way upset.

When almost half a lifetime has been spent in one conception of order, reorientation is no five-minute business. Looking back at the shape of things then, the amount we did not know and did not care to know about our daily lives is not only astonishing but somehow a bit shocking. I knew practically nothing, for instance, of such ordinary things as how my food reached me, where the fresh water came from, how the clothes I wore were woven and made, how the drainage of cities kept them healthy. Our life had become a complexity of specialists, all attending to their own jobs with more or less efficiency and expecting others to do the same. That made it incredible to me, therefore, that complete disorganization could have overtaken the hospital. Somebody somewhere, I was sure, must have it in hand—unfortunately it was a somebody who had forgotten all about Room 48.

I side with those who have labeled this insight “extraordinarily well carried out”, in the sense that it manages to explain in the briefest possible way both how dependent we are on the modern division of labor and how in credibly ignorant it has made us of the material requirements of our own life. With the great mass of society physically disabled, this modern division of labor is suddenly and irretrievably lost.

With the loss of labor power and the division of labor, nothing would be left to maintain the great world instrument of production that capital had brought into existence:

I wandered across to the window and looked out. Quite consciously I began saying good-by to it all. The sun was low. Towers, spires, and façades of Portland stone were white or pink against the dimming sky. More fires had broken out here and there. The smoke climbed in big black smudges, sometimes with a lick of flame at the bottom of them. Quite likely, I told myself, I would never in my life again see any of these familiar buildings after tomorrow. There might be a time when one would be able to come back—but not to the same place. Fires and weather would have worked on it; it would be visibly dead and abandoned. But now, at a distance, it could still masquerade as a living city.

My father once told me that before Hitler’s war he used to go round London with his eyes more widely open than ever before, seeing the beauties of buildings that he had never noticed before—and saying good-by to them. And now I had a similar feeling. But this was something worse. Much more than anyone could have hoped for had survived that war—but this was an enemy they would not survive. It was not wanton smashing and willful burning that they waited for this time: it was simply the long, slow, inevitable course of decay and collapse.

Standing there, and at that time, my heart still resisted what my head was telling me. Still I had the feeling that it was all something too big, too unnatural really to happen. Yet I knew that it was by no means the first time that it had happened. The corpses of other great cities are lying buried in deserts and obliterated by the jungles of Asia. Some of them fell so long ago that even their names have gone with them. But to those who lived there their dissolution can have seemed no more probable or possible than the necrosis of a great modern city seemed to me….

It must be, I thought, one of the race’s most persistent and comforting hallucinations to trust that “it can’t happen here”—that one’s own little time and place is beyond cataclysms. And now it was happening here. Unless there should be some miracle, I was looking on the beginning of the end of London—and very likely, it seemed, there were other men, not unlike me, who were looking at the beginning of the end of New York, Paris, San Francisco, Buenos Aires, Bombay, and all the rest of the cities that were destined to go the way of those others under the jungles.