I went of the launch of Economic Science Fictions, a new collection of pieces edited by William Davies and published by Goldsmiths Press. The book brings together an eclectic set of writings, by economists, science fiction writers, designers, utopians and others with the intention of disrupting the way we think about economics.
The book was originally conceived in conversations between Davies, Mao Mollona and the late Mark Fisher about three years ago. Fisher saw the project as being about how to resuscitate hope and possibility in the face of neoliberalism. A short article that Fisher wrote for the project is included as a preface; the lead essay is from Ha Joon Chang’s lecture on economics and science fiction that opened Goldsmith’s Political Economy Research Centre, of which Davies is the co-director.
Anyway, the launch event at Deptford Town Hall in May brought Davies together with the science fiction writer Una McCormack and the architecture writer Owen Hatherley to talk about the utopian idea of enclaves, which can be thought of as spaces in the present that have an eye to the future.
Orientations to the future
In his introductory remarks, Davies observed that writers such as Jens Beckert argue that economic systems are future facing by definition. Under capitalism in particular, the future becomes tradable. (Barbara Adam has a fine short article on this, “Capitalism Told, Tamed, and Traded” [pdf], although Will didn’t mention it.) Neoliberalism and post-modernism, he suggested, were essentially the same in their orientation to the future. Neoliberalism restricts the future by insisting on endless calculations on how itwill be paid for; post-modernism eradicates the idea of the “enclave.”
This matters because the enclave is crucial to the idea of science fiction and of utopia. Frederic Jameson described these as a “foreign body within the social”, thinking of spaces such as the Bauhaus. Erik Olin Wright’s book Real Utopias wrote about viable non-capitalist forms co-existing within the capitalist. The university was once an enclave, but it has now been recuperated through instruments of finance and performance measurement and metrics. But enclaves are not all oppositional. The elites also have enclaves: think of seasteading or the fascination that space projects have for the rich and powerful. Or Peter Thiel’s obsession with a dream home in New Zealand, prefigured in the ’80s by The Beat.
Separatist science fiction
The writer Una McCormack, who described herself as a recovering sociologist, took us on a fascinating excursion of a particular kind of literary enclave: the separatist feminist science fiction utopia. This goes back to some of the early texts: Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s Herland), written in 1915, influenced by William Morris’ News from Nowhere, tells the story of a group of women who have withdrawn from the world. Three men arrive, and the story unfolds from there.
Herland influenced 1970s science fiction, and McCormack waxed lyrical on the British imprint The Woman’s Press, which published writers such as Octavia Butler and Joanna Russ. Many of these works portrayed separatist enclaves, some of which were violent.
‘The women are pleading to go’
She talked particularly about stories by James Tiptree, Jr., both published in the ’70s, which featured women’s communities. In one, “Houston, Houston Do You Read Me?”, three men return from a space mission to discover that all the men have been wiped out in their absence. They respond in different ways, but only one is smart enough to realise that once the women have extracted their semen they will have no further use for them. In another, “The women the men don’t see”, a man tries to prevent aliens from abducting women, only to realise that the women are pleading to go. “We live in ones or twos in the chinks of your world.”
The punchline: James Tiptree, Jr., was the pseudonym of Alice Sheldon, a former US Army Major who turned to writing on her retirement from the CIA .
By any means possible
Joanna Russ also wrote about separate women’s communities in When It Changedin 1972. In her novel, if I understood McCormack correctly, this separate space is maintained by any means necessary.
And discussion of enclaves in women’s science fiction also takes you to Ursula LeGuin and The Dispossessed. Anares is not a world of plenty: “The land has to be worked”.
Maybe more interesting, if less well known, is a story called “Always Coming Home” [pdf]. The Kesh live in a valley in Oregon after the population has died back. It is more detailed about what sacrifices have to be made to preserve the enclave, and the culture that is created to reinforce it. LeGuin worked with Todd Barton to imagine what the music of The Kesh might sound like, and to construct it.
From left to right: Una McCormack, Owen Hatherley, Will Davies, at Deptford Town Hall.
The second talk was on the architectural enclave, by the writer Owen Hatherley, and it took us from Poundbury, Dorset, to Kiev or thereabouts, via Letchworth and Milton Keynes.
Poundbury: because it is one of the few, or perhaps the only, entirely new community built in the UK from scratch in the last 40 years. It was planned in 1988 by Leon Krier, hired by Prince Charles on strength of articles in Architectural Press. The design rejected everything in architecture post-1940.
Hatherley moved on quickly to Robert Owen’s 19th century model community in New Lanark, now a World Heritage Site. It was built by Robert Owen outside. Glasgow as an experiment in socialist working conditions, and attracted the interest of Marx and Engels.
“Common sense socialism”
It’s hard to remember this now, but Letchworth Garden City, started in 1907, was also an experiment in “common sense socialism”, by Ebenezer Howard. Even in the 1930s it had a slightly bohemian air, as we know from an infamous rant by George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier, sparked by his experience of getting on a bus there.
Hatherley argued that in 1936 every suburb being built in Britain was an imitation of Letchworth. Yet Howard’s intention was to build News from Nowhere: “Suburban Britain was designed by a gang of Marxists.” And from Letchworth to Milton Keynes, which Hatherley described as the last British utopia. Despite its car-centricity pathways and cycleways run through the whole town. Until recently, no building could be taller than the highest tree. It is even built on leylines.
Loss of faith
In the USSR, its architectural enclaves were designed as test-beds within broader non-capitalist society. For example, there is a constructivist city just outside of Zakarisha (my spelling may not be right) in Eastern Ukraine. The Bolsheviks liked the idea of the Garden City movement, but they thought the aesthetics were a bit sentimental.
The Ukraine is also the site of the last new town in Europe, built in response to Chernobyl. It was built around six estates, each representing different parts of the USSR. It had cycle paths and was informed by ecocity ideas. But because of its origins in the aftermath of Chernobyl, it has memorials to those who died in the first response to the catastrophe. It coincided with a loss of faith in technology. Perhaps in the same way that Poundbury coincided with a loss of faith in modernism.
It’s probably worth noting that the idea of the enclave, expressed in different ways, is a central idea in utopian thinking. As well as Will Davies notes’ on this in his introduction, there are other expressions that give a sense of the range. The idea of the TAZ, or the “temporary autonomous zone” [pdf], was developed by the anarchist philosopher Hakim Bey. Autonomous because they existed outside of the control of the authorities, temporary because they would dissolve themselves before (inevitable) conflicts with the authorities created compromise that reduced or removed autonomy. The Occupy camps represented such a space. While they are operating, whether for a few hours or a few weeks or a few years, they represent a different way of being human and therefore a different idea about we can exist.
A less radical version of the idea is seen in the socio-technical systems literature, which talks about ‘niche’, ‘regime’ and ‘landscape’ [pdf]. This model is associated with Frank Geels and Johann Schot. The relevant element here is the niche, described as a ‘safe haven’ for technological experimentation and innovation. Typically, it’s outside of, or on the edge of, market systems, and sometimes of regulatory systems. One example was the adoption of the hydrogen powered bus by some public transport companies, long before other hydrogen powered vehicles had access to the necessary infrastructure.
And the Three Horizons model (and futures work more generally) writes about “pockets of the future in the present”, a generic description that covers all three, the enclave, the TAZ, and the niche. The obvious point is that this types of space is essential to both imagining the future and starting to operationalise it.
Economic Science Fictions is edited by William Davies and published by Goldsmiths Press.
The images are by Andrew Curry and are published here under a Creative Commons licence.