Speculative presence – 4

by Jehu

I have made the case for re-situating John Wyndham’s post-apocalyptic nightmare in a context that is slightly more consistent with the actual history of the 20th century and, perhaps, a little more plausible. Of course, it is still somewhat of a stretch, since we have to drop World War 2, and assume no other mechanism for Keynesian-style stimulus of a similar scale. (We might fudge this a little by assuming early and aggressive British-French intervention to confront Germany over Czechoslovakia, but let’s clean that up later.)

In truth, I don’t actually want to create a Europe with 95% unemployment like occurred in The Day of the Triffids. I just want to show that, in theory at least, it is possible that a catastrophe like the one in Triffids could have arisen solely from economic causes and without any extraordinary mechanism like the sudden and inexplicable blindness of 95% of the planet’s human population. At the same time, if 95% unemployment happened solely as the result of economic causes, the end of the world, which, per Zizek, we have no problem imagining, would be identical with the end of capitalism.

Finally, my point in this particular post is to show that behind both causes — blindness/triffids and the more plausible economic depression — is the same proposed mechanism: technological innovation.

***

John Wyndham was quite aware that technological innovation had the most unpredictable effects on economies.

He has this to say about it in The Day of the Triffids:

The discoverer and the inventor are the bane of business. A little sand in the works is comparatively a mere nothing – you just replace the damaged parts, and go on. But the appearance of a new process, a new substance, when you are all organized and ticking nicely, is the very devil. Sometimes it is worse than that – it just cannot be allowed to occur. Too much is at stake. If you can’t use legal methods, you must try others.

For Umberto had understated the case. It was not simply that the competition of a cheap new oil would send Arctic and European and their associates out of business. The effects would be widespread. It might not be fatal to the groundnut, the olive, the whale, and a number of other oil industries, but it would be a nasty knock. Moreover, there would be violent repercussions in dependent industries, in margarine, soap, and a hundred more products from face-creams to house-paints, and beyond. Indeed, once a few of the more influential concerns had grasped the quality of the menace Umberto’s terms came to seem almost modest.

It is technological innovation in two fields that come together briefly to create the catastrophe in The Day of the Triffids: the first is in the field of horticulture, likely from the Soviet Union, which produces the deadly triffids. The second is in the field of space weaponry, likely from the United States, which produces the malfunctioning satellites that blind 95% of the world population.

To establish the role of technological innovation in the generation of economic depressions, we need cite no other source than John Maynard Keynes, who argued the Great Depression was caused by rapid technological progress that was eliminating the need for human labor in production.

Keynes wrote:

We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come—namely, technological unemployment. This means unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour.

Just to remind the reader: at this point, I am not actually trying to find a way to create a global depression with 95% unemployment. I am simply trying to show that the mechanism John Wyndham employs in his story, technological innovation, is the same one Keynes employs to explain the Great Depression, which actually produced a much less severe 25% global depression. I argue that by fiddling with the actual historical timeline — namely, removing the destructive impact of World War 2 on the productive forces — we could realistically have expected the Great Depression to be far more severe than it was.

This should set the stage for my attempt to construct a speculative fictional alternative future communist society.