- Interview by
- Owen Hatherley
Novelist and Tribune film critic Carl Neville’s novel Eminent Domain is a utopian companion piece to his acclaimed Resolution Way — a ‘luxury communist’ complement to the neoliberal dystopian London of the earlier book.
Encompassing alternative history, drugs, music and technology, it is a wildly ambitious novel that attempts something much grander and more difficult a consolatory future where the elections of 1979 (and 2019) never happened — instead, it works out the granular details of what a socialist Britain might be like to live in, the problems it would throw up, and the likely threats it might face, as experienced by a group of characters ranging from ravers to secret policemen.
In this interview, we discuss the novel’s themes, its political resonances, and the ways in which this alternative future emerges out of the worst trends of the present.
Whatever was it about living in this country in the 2010s that made you decide to write an alternative history novel about a successful and rather pleasant socialist Britain?
Indeed. Well for me really Britain has been on a downward trajectory since the early nineties (yes, I am one of those types) and the failure of the Left to find a convincing answer to neo-liberalism. I say that on the basis that, as Schumpeter observed, the boom is merely the setting of the terms of the bust. Of course, if you think there will be no more busts because you have found the perfect thermostat for the economy (a ‘Goldilocks economy’ was I believe, the term at the time) you have no need to prepare for or even consider the possibility of a downturn and you can jettison the analytical tools, largely Marxism, that would have otherwise kept you on your toes. So for me it’s really Blairism that entrenches (and still seeks to re-embed) what our old friend Mark Fisher called Capitalist Realism.
Post the financial crisis and with an upsurge in critique and action on the part largely of younger Leftists, the question ‘are we going to find a route back/round to social democratic settlement of some form or will we double-down on existing ideology and accelerate inequalities further?’ arose. There was contestation over who would pay for the crisis (as there will be again shortly) and how we might reorient in the light of it. It seemed important to me to write something where we have a non-capitalist world in which there are still problems and even some intractable ones, but in which life is overall better, both as a way of contributing to this ferment of ideas and trying to re-assert the importance of the imagination, even a Utopian imagination, and experimental fiction as way of exploiting ideas and trying to create novel, stimulating forms through which to explore them. It was an attempt to think against the the onslaught not really of capitalist realism but more of something like “neoliberal reason”.
So for me the 2010s were a period that was marked with excitement, hope, disappointment, defeat and dread. There’s been a huge amount of exhilarating intellectual activity on the Left, something which can’t be said of the somnambulist shopping spree that was the early 90s to ’08 (which continues for some….). The 2010s were a mixed bag, but I can be relatively equivocal about them because I haven’t been at the sharp-end of austerity or migration policy. Whether that will continue to be true in the 2020s looks unlikely though.
This novel is obviously a twin to your slightly earlier Resolution Way, which is a near-future scenario rather than an alternative history — basically Deptford in the 2010s only slightly but interestingly worse; even more unequal, even more brutally policed, even more full of complex technological ways of making working class people’s lives more difficult. There’s a lot of parallels and links between dystopia and utopia in these two novels, both in the events and in the characters. Could you outline them briefly here for people who might have read the first book?
Actually Resolution Way is also supposed to be set in an alternate present, just one that is few degrees to the right of our own and in which the technology is a little accelerated, but absolutely no-one has read it as such so obviously my attempts to subtly flag it up as such were a little too subtle. I wanted to have two unreal presents for particular reasons—ideas around realism in literature and the need to avoid a grounding ‘true reality’ between the two texts, and have both of them ungrounded and interpenetrating in a kind of floating Mobius strip. I could go further into my thinking around that, but that might stray away from your question, so…
The reasons there are clear parallels in location, technology, characters and so on is because really I want to avoid the teleological and eschatological biases in Utopian and Left thinking—including technological determinism—and assert that Utopia is fundamentally an immediate political concern, a question of struggle and social relations. As is dystopia. Nothing will deliver us unto the promised land or condemn us to the pit other than ourselves and the conditions for a good life (unless you are absolutely committed to the maintenance or even extension of western levels of consumption to the entire globe as the prerequisite for your Utopia) are already present.
So it’s an organisational and ideological question: how do we take what we already have and make life better, how would we have to re-organise life to do so, how would we have to reorient our desires and our relations to one another? So the two books exist in roughly the same technological world but are governed by two different sets of political principles and institutions, one of whose histories diverges hugely from the record and another whose variance is slight.
Eminent Domain is quite light on exposition—it’s very much a novel first and a historical experiment second, centred on its characters, and a lot more formally experimental and modernist than Resolution Way. Could you briefly outline for us the alternative history scenario in the book, and its geography?
The lightness of the exposition was basically an editing decision once the book got too long and some elements had to be cut away. I favour traditional fictional concerns like character and plot so that became the main focus in getting the word count down, though I did also want the experience of reading the book to be akin to arriving in a very different country and having to make sense of it as you went along (I was living in Japan when I started it so I was largely having that kind of experience of unfolding understanding of a rather different system on a daily basis). Additionally the tendency with alternate world novels to lay out the backstory in a preface of some kind always strikes me as a bit clunky so again I thought it was best to take the route of giving and repeating enough minimal information to keep the reader in there, with their understanding of the PRB a gradual accretion, more akin to a genuine trip to another country.
That said, the rough timeline would be that the post Stalin thaw in the USSR leads to a kind of early version of perestroika where you still have a leader, in Khrushchev, who was interested in Communism, this opening and liberalising meets the rising tide of worker militancy and the strengthening of social democracy in the rest of Europe, which along with strong communist parties in Italy and unions in the Nordic states etc. all allows for a pan-European great convergence. At the same time anti-colonial struggles are proving successful all across what was then called the Third World and these lead on to an African Socialist Super-State. The U.S. has remained Capitalist and has its own sphere of influence but is also coming under pressure from worker militancy within the country.
So there are multiple overlaps and entanglements between old and new institutions, coalitions and internationalist partnerships (The True Commonwealth for instance). The F(ormer)U.K. has become something of a backwater and an outlier as power and organisational capacity has concentrated in the East, and the Russians still hold sway in many of the pan-European institutions and so on. Many of the changes that take place get mapped on to particular actually-occurring events. ‘The Autarchy’ in the F.U.K. occurs around and roughly mirrors the IMF bailout and the Winter of Discontent in the 70s and so on.
Now, this is all fantastical nonsense for any number of reasons and from numerous perspectives. Stalin notoriously killed off all the intellectual and administrative talent in the USSR, meaning it was condemned to decline etc., the CIA bumped off radical African leaders, America would have intervened in any ascent to power of Communist parties within European countries a la Italy in the 70s and so on. It would be an extremely immodest ‘counterfactual’ and I wouldn’t want to use or abuse that term to describe Eminent Domain. In the writing the novel moved from thinking about a much more realistic counterfactual, a non-neoliberal Britain that more closely resembled its Nordic neighbours, one predicated on something as simple as Thatcher losing the election in 1979 say, to becoming something more hyper-real, an amalgam really of all the Utopian and counterfactual fantasizing that goes on across the left in all its many current variants from luxury communism to de-growth. In order to build in all those variants and be able to think about, via the characters, what the lived experience of them might be, the world they inhabited had to become more remote, hybridized and multiform than the one I’d imagined when I started, in which we were going to have two Britains, one a few steps to the right in Resolution Way, one a few steps to the left of the pre-crash settlement. So rather than a counterfactual Eminent Domain is really a dream-work that attempts to weave together as many of these romantic and Utopian impulses as possible (while maintaining a reasonable degree of verisimilitude).
What I think is important to stress though is that when viewed from the perspective of the times themselves, the directions that I have outlined above – World Communism, Europe shifting dramatically to the Left, Pan African Super States, America turning progressively redder—didn’t seem especially fantastical. Indeed, many of them were seen as a clear, present and growing danger. If you read futurology, commentary or speculative fictions from the time, they are all thought to represent nascent existential crises to the current settlement and numerous agents and agencies are working to stymie them. It’s only really the sclerotic backward glance of post-history that has decided it could never have happened, that it was all just an illusion. The enormous condescension of posterity, and all that.
The Economics of Feasible Socialism
Economics and technology are quite crucial to Eminent Domain. I know you’re interested in Paul Cockshott’s work on computerised socialist planning, and you root the shift from Stalinist planning into the democratic planning of the PRB and the federation around it in something called the ‘Hungarian Document’, published by Communists in that country in the fifties, which has a role here almost like the Communist Manifesto. The real Hungarian Communists came to favour a kind of ‘market socialism’ from the sixties onwards which by the end of the eighties had simply became market capitalism, but the society in your book really has succeeded in planning, achieved through computers and, notably, apps. What do you think the prospects are for ‘socialist apps’ and computerised planning, as outlined in something like Phillips and Rozworski’s People’s Republic of Walmart?
I think Cockshott is extremely interesting and I say this as someone who would self-identify as soft left, with hard left tendencies. I think Cockshott’s been marginalized because he’s an old-school Communist and affiliated to the Morning Star and all of that ‘Stalinist’ stuff that I am not allowed to be too irreverent or dismissive about lest I open up the possibility of 80 percent of the population being marched off to the Gulag. Cockshott’s argument in essence is that the victors in the Socialist Calculation Debate, of whom Hayek is probably the most famous and influential, were right – the economy couldn’t be planned at the scale required at that point, the 1920s/1930s—but by the mid-1970s with improvements in technology it had become possible.
So the Cockshottian counterfactual, which is implicit in the planned economy of the book is that the interest in ‘Full Communism by 1980!’ continues as an objective in the USSR and is achievable by the mid-1970s, the corollary of this being that the mythical Soviet internet really does thereby get developed, Kosygin follows Khrushchev instead of Brezhnev, and all this is brought forward by COMECON and other cross-border planning bodies being more internally harmonious due to liberalization and greater openness to participation by the non-Communist states of Western Europe.
In the book the Hungarian Document is really just a version of the feted two-pager by the Polish economist Michal Kalecki that predicts the wage-price spirals of the 1970s and the onset of globalization in order to drive down wages and maintain profitability. In the book originally there was a second part of the document that really was me just paraphrasing Cockshott’s arguments again as to why the Soviet Union collapsed. Basically, if I remember correctly, because it couldn’t get an adequate pricing mechanism and that resulted in all kinds of distortions, developments of a black market due to shortages, popular discontent etc. This got trimmed out for reasons of length and also because it felt wrong to use someone else’s ideas without the possibility of openly acknowledging them.
That said, The People’s Republic of Wallmart does get Cockshott to do most of the intellectual, particularly mathematical, heavy-lifting; it’s a sort of lightly extended and embellished re-formulation of his Towards a New Socialism, which is now about thirty years old. Again I think the current ‘nationalised smartphones and a People’s Amazon equals a planned economy’ that’s fashionable on some parts of the left is something Cockshott has been arguing for and experimenting with for donkey’s years and it is I assume only factionalism or fashion that has prevented his work from being better known. That doesn’t mean you have to think he’s right but this is not an unserious person incapable of dealing with complex ideas and stuck in a Tankie dugout he burrowed down into in 1968 or whatever. Quite the reverse — though his views on trans issues are lamentable.
I presumed that Corbynism lay behind some of the optimism of the book, but the most obvious contemporary parallel to its events now in real time is surely the USA—the President in the book is very Trumpian, openly nihilistic, misogynist and monstrous, a supervillain. Why is it you made the USA—which is separated from the socialist world through a militarised border known as The Partition—the one major country not to fall to the Communists in your alternative history?
Partly just because without an antagonist you don’t have any drama, but also because I think the States, in something like the sequences outlined above, would be the last to go Communist. The emigres from various European countries and the ideologically unaffiliated would have to go somewhere. There’s also the role of the dollar in the world market maintaining a form of American hegemony, and again, this hegemony is being is undermined and reduced in the book through the demonetisation of the economy in the Co-sphere and its replacement with something like Electronic, non-tradeable Labour Credits.
The president, Connaught, is a minor character in Resolution Way—an unhinged tech-guru a la Elon Musk or Peter Thiel. I find both of those guys simultaneously pathetic and sinister and their sort of brittle, peevish egotism and transcendent self-regard is very Trump-y too. The tech-libertarians are going to make a lunge for elected office in the States at some point, I think Andrew Yang was an early attempt to get some of the platform formulated and they’ll institute a kind of California Ideology Uber Alles corporate soft fascism that allows them to go about their Promethean projects unmolested: there’s a letter between Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand where Rothbard, in full Nietzschean mode, is going on about transcending man, and these guys are going to have a crack at it in some fairly nuts ways I’d imagine. If the Boomers have become increasingly fanatical in their attempts to cheat death and stay forever young then I suspect that’s as nothing compared to this particular clique of middle-aged billionaires.
So the president in Eminent Domain is sort of Trump meets Musk, though really he’s more like an aged Musk, drunk on fear of his own decline and giving rein to his basest instincts. It’s also a further opportunity for me to satirise the mindset and personality types drawn to and expounding numerous theoretical strands online like Neoreaction and Dark Enlightenment and Left Accelerationism, all of which might be intellectually stimulating but none of which I find a convincing or necessary alternative to fairly straight social-democratic demands.
Days in the life under Acid Communism
There’s a lot of drugs and a lot of music in the book—one of the things that obviously inspired the alternative history here is the real massive explosion of experimental music among working class people in the real Britain of the 1960s-1990s. Did you feel influenced here by Mark Fisher and Jeremy Gilbert’s work on ‘Acid Communism’, which was quite popular on the fringes of Corbynism?
I did a bit. Mark sent me a copy of Acid Communism while I was in the early stages of writing Eminent Domain but i was more struck by that pieces appeal to decellerationism. The image of Utopianism in that work is a family holiday on the Norfolk broads, and this accords with my own ideas about what constitute happiness, unpressured time, space, light, love, access to art. All of these essential underpinnings of a happy life have been and continue to be aggressively commodified and marketised and for me the Arcadian dimension of Acid Communism is this look back to a life that is relatively uncommodified. The drugs were really just an attempt to flip around the current situation. Drug use is already massive but rather than a tool of enlightenment of sociality or what have you they are often used as forms of escape or self-medication, so I wanted to have drug-taking be sanctioned, creative, communal, widespread and, like the ubiquitous music, just a part of everyday life and a lifestyle option that was accepted and unremarked upon. I think as well, psychic depredations of Late Capitalism notwithstanding, the British basically like getting caned and that is unlikely to have changed much. To some extent I also wanted to imagine music in the PRB as less influenced by bass culture and developing more out of folk, jazz, electronic experimentation and committed to improvisation and spontaneity, if Charlie Haden and Cage had been more important than Lee Scratch Perry or what have you. Though this does run the danger of turning the Utopia into a very long night down Cafe Oto.
At one point I was writing under the rubric: ‘acid communist in form, acid communist in content!’ but I think mostly it has bled into the form of the book, it’s not going to be an ‘acid’ text just because people take drugs and I have a penchant for purple prose. So that’s another reason why we have the intentionally disorienting and fragmentary structure. I suppose I think of it as being like a trip in which the narrative line is your spirit guide, just strong enough to keep you in there and get you out the other side, at which point you might wonder what you just experienced.
Linked to that, the People’s Republic of Britain is a bit of an outlier in the Communist federation in the book—your Soviet diplomats often complain about how it’s dissolute and unproductive, how much its people use apps so that they don’t have to vote in the very many elections and plebiscites, and a lot of what happens in the book is people raving and taking drugs. I’m curious about this—it’s almost a sort of version of right wing talking points about the post-war British working class as being hedonistic and lazy and Americanised. Why did you make Communist Britain so particularly decadent?
Hmmm, interesting question that I’ll have to address from a couple of contradictory angles. Firstly I guess I wanted a Utopia with British Characteristics and suppose that could have been upright and hygienic and buttoned down but I suspect that the British proclivity for excess isn’t solely related to the class structure and wouldn’t disappear when it did. I read Houellebecq’s Submission while I was writing it, and while I’m not really a big admirer of his work what I liked about the book was that France gets Sharia law but for the typically shallow, self-interested bourgeois central character things go on in a more or less tolerable way that he adapts to, and life is better (for him, more wives) in some respects, worse in others. I liked and was surprised by the equanimity in the book and so I also didn’t want in Eminent Domain to have a country full of model New Communist Citizens, transformed beyond all recognition. Rather the reverse—we might all be a bit worse in some respects!
To some extent I also wanted to satirise those right-wing viewpoints you mention and incorporate and subvert them. A lot of the paranoia in texts like Anthony Burgess’ 1985 (1978) or Julian Fane’s Revolution Island (1979) is around the strength of the unions, imagining that in the future we would all have numbers mandated by our Red Overlords instead of names and so on, so that was something I incorporated, we do have numbers but it’s broadly irrelevant, you can choose a name if you want. I also wanted to parody or at least echo the notion of British exceptionalism. We still don’t want to quire fully go along with things and don’t feel we have to, though there are contending sensibilities and degrees of affiliation in the book. The Old Guard are broadly more disciplined and Squires is a real Party man, but younger generations are more sceptical, critical and are trying to create something of their own. That’s because I don’t think the ‘problem of the generations’ can be quickly overcome, if it ever can be.
I am also interested in the idea that resentment is largely inescapable and even galvanising, that some forms of alienating labour may be psychically necessary, without them you collapse back into wallowing in the mire of your own drives. So I wanted satirically to suggest that even though people have a minimum number of socially necessary labour hours to do they still do their best to get out of them. This is one of the conservative elements of the book though, it’s true I wanted to write a sort of pessimistic Utopia in the way that Resolution Way was an optimistic Dystopia—so there are a number of similar threads of conservatism and pessimism, Rose’s attitude to motherhood, the grip of the past on Barrow, the Enthusiasts’ disregard for the rules and the structures that others have struggled for, the impossibility of forgetting for some and the over-eagerness to forget for others.
It’s also part of my attempt to antagonise and provoke the reader further. If you write a Utopia, itself a thankless undertaking, all you’re ever going to get from readers that think portraying a Utopia directly is even theoretically permissible in the first place, is people harrumphing and saying ‘what about’, and ‘well that’s not my idea of a Utopia’, etc. And because it’s an intrinsically impossible endeavour in many ways you might as well annoy as many people in as many ways as you can before they decide to put it in the bin by page thirty-five and leave a two star review on Amazon. I sort of start on the commercially suicidal basis that I don’t like the reader, they don’t like me and if I can get them through to the end of the text despite themselves then I have achieved something. It’s not a writer’s job to give people what they already want, I don’t think; their job is to find ways to compel people (for me, by exploiting narrative and genre conventions) to engage with and overcome their own resistance to the formal or thematic elements of the text.
The book came out during the coronavirus lockdown. You’ve promoted it with a series of video conversations on various themes connected to the idea of Utopia, with authors like Simon Reynolds, John Medhurst, and Tribune regulars Rhian E Jones and Alex Niven, rather than directly talking about the book. The conversation with Reynolds centres a lot on Jungle, which has an important role in both books. I know you weren’t a Junglist when you were growing up in 1990s Barrow-in-Furness, so why did Jungle become so important for your imagining of alternative histories and ‘parallel universes’?
Jungle was one of those forms of music that had very limited affective purchase on me at the time but which I understood to be really significant and radical both in its form and in its constituency, a real social and aesthetic phenomenon. And I’m interested partly in exploring that disjuncture between what moves you and what you know is ‘good’ objectively. I also tend to use writing as a way to find out or think more about particular interests. Plus, I enjoyed my late teens and early-twenties to a degree but I wasn’t marked by E-culture, Rave through to Jungle in the way many of my peers were, I didn’t have that epochal confluence of drugs, music and sense of imminent transformation and I haven’t experienced the rest of my life as the long-diminishing afterglow of this euphoric conflagration. So I’m not nostalgic, but many people are. I was keen to understand what that felt like, to be nostalgic for music I personally don’t particularly enjoy and a scene I didn’t participate in.
The album Parallel Universe by 4 Hero was important primarily because, Jungle or otherwise, it just feels like a sui generis work of great visionary art. The first time I heard it, even though it was twenty plus years old at that point and although I am relatively steeped in music culture, it blew my mind as they say, and sounded like a machine designed to warp and break apart space-time and give access to other worlds. It didn’t feel accelerationist as such, it wasn’t future-rush I was getting, more alternate-present rush—and so probably that pushed me further into thinking about having two divergent timelines in the two novels and wanting, out of respect for the formal radicalism of the album to push the envelope myself. I am also wondering now you have asked whether some of the formal patterning of the book isn’t an unconscious attempt to sort of mirror in text some of the rhythmic qualities and relations of Jungle, though I would probably have to think about that a bit more…
The Harrowing of the South
When I started reading the book I was thinking a lot about Lizzie Borden’s 1983 film Born in Flames, which sets a post-punk communist-feminist guerilla movement against the reformist government of a social democratic USA—and that like in that film, you’d reveal how the PRB was actually ‘sclerotic’ and repressive and patriarchal and would need some sort of new revolution from the ravers and druggies in the book. And yet you never actually do this, and remain rather sympathetic to the ageing British and Soviet revolutionaries and trade unionists who try and protect it from the still incredibly hostile USA. Similarly, unlike Morris in News from Nowhere, you’re quite clear that the revolution has been violent, and left scars—right down to a ‘Harrowing of the South’. Are there moments in there where you’re suggesting ‘yes, when the glorious day comes we will need a Cheka’?
Well, sufficiently large-scale reordering of social relations such that it could be termed a revolution will require or at least invite violence I assume. I think one of the sustained fantasies of the modern left is that we can have that change through some sort of tech-teleology where capitalism just peacefully codes or automates itself out of existence and we all meet as brothers on the other side. If you have to disinherit some to redistribute their land or what have you, then you’ll create enemies. Expropriation will invite restoration and re-appropriation. One group or nation or sphere will have to police and repress another in order to maintain its system. There will still be realpolitik. I don’t think that vision is very congenial to a lot of leftists who would like us to either fold ourselves into some kind of transcendent dance with the vibrant matter of the cosmos or terraform Mars or just wait for dialectical materialism 2.0 to deliver us. Power, authority and the imposition of a particular set of ethics are all anathema, but I don’t see how, unless we are prepared to think about these dimensions of organisation, we can think about large-scale change. I think one of the Russians castigates the ageing PRB security forces in the book by saying ‘you have lost the taste for imposing your authority’, and I do think that liberal voluntarism around something like climate-change demonstrably has been insufficient. It’s an ethical necessity for future generations that we limit consumption, but at the same time we don’t want to make anyone do anything they don’t want to. So I do have some respect for the old revolutionaries, yes. They were honest enough to understand the burden that they carried, a genuinely existential burden, in light of their commitments.
In your video with Medhurst and Jones, you all talk about the upper/middle class horror of the 1970s. As you say, revisionist accounts of the 1970s like Medhurst’s That Option No Longer Exists and Andy Beckett’s When The Lights Went Out ‘invite speculation’, even if they’re not themselves counterfactual. But there’s something really weird in all this. In the same conversation you quote Sarah Vine imagining the Red Army raiding her home if Ed Miliband won the 2015 election, a ‘hysterical’ response to extremely mild, mainstream European centre-leftism, which you root in mortal terror at the ‘nearly’ of the 1970s. Obviously this performative horror became almost a national sport during Corbynism. Why do you think this fear of the 1970s persists so much?
It’s Hayek’s endless, baleful influence on the Anglo-American right, I think, The Road To Serfdom and a hyper-attenuated slippery-slope mindset. Yes, Ed Miliband seems utterly innocuous, no doubt he’s even well-meaning BUT any attempt to bend the economy leftward will result in an inevitable chain of events by which we all end up in the Gulag with Paul Cockshott lording over us, a fate the Sainted Margaret narrowly rescued us from in 1979. I think it’s also a form of hysterical projection. Vine, Gove, et al are, let’s be frank, reprehensible, morally odious, utterly self-serving people, and they understand that they have acted in ways for which they should be held to account. The slightest hint that they may be judged or even appraised critically triggers these kinds of waves of horror and catastrophism. It’s so disproportionate that I can only assume that it’s a kind of fevered spasm of bad conscience.
In the same dialogue you suggest that the dystopia in Resolution Way was partly inspired by reading the notorious Tory anthology Britannia Unchained. How much worse do you think things can now get?
When I was writing Resolution Way, which is pretty much the Britain at least implicitly laid out in Britannia Unchained I didn’t anticipate the racism and nationalism to come, I have to say. In that respect, especially in combination with increased migration due to climate change, I think things can get much worse. A fully armed Fortress Britain with the population internally immiserated through low-wage work and the roll-back of services through privatisation and austerity but ‘kept safe’ from the foreigners and given daily doses of Heritage gruel from a Union Jack slop-pot seems perfectly viable (in fact I’m writing something that explores this likely trajectory at the moment). A Road to Serfdom indeed. If there’s an attempt to prevent Scotland from becoming independent, virtually a certainty now I’d have thought, then things will get extremely ugly.
To anticipate your next question somewhat, Corbynism, compromised, improvised, incoherent as it might have been was an attempt to drive us onto a different path. I think we could all see what was coming and tried to draw a line in the sand then heave reality onto another track, an attempt to engineer a parallel universe of our own, call a different future into being.
But here we are.
The other two conversations are very lively, so I was very struck by the way in which, in comparison, the ‘maps of utopia’ conversation with Rhian and Alex quite quickly got bogged down in the recent crushing defeat of the British left. A lot of the things being presented as ‘utopian’ in that conversation – decentralised regions, autonomous cities, extant social housing, an industrial policy—are just basic mixed economy normality in, say, the Federal Republic of Germany. Do you think there’s any chance that the defeat of the electoral, by-the-rules, ‘they go low we go high’ project of Corbynism (crushed of course by the most vicious, unscrupulous means) opens a space for something resembling the much more aggressive and genuinely ‘world-transforming’ British socialist movement described in your alternative history?
Well, as I said, I think it’s going to get ugly. The causes of Corbynism haven’t gone away and that energy, which was channelled in a fairly unconventional way into the conventional route of Parliamentary politics isn’t going away either, In fact it’s just going to mount and circulate in new ways now we have that Covid recession impending too.
Ultimately you just aren’t going to get anywhere without being as unscrupulous as your opponents. They go low, you go lower. If you have no taste for moral compromise or getting your hands dirty then you won’t be able to shape the world, but in doing so you will be confronted by your own limits and pushed out into dark territory. The young are increasingly militant and the young generally are the ones with least interest in the current settlement and are at an age when you are both most nihilistic and most Utopian, so that will drive things I would think. I suppose one of the questions underlying Eminent Domain really is how serious are we about change and what will that commitment demand of you? If you think capitalism is in the process of extinguishing all life on earth what are you not allowed to do to prevent that? Are you prepared to shoot people and if so how many? Are you prepared to throw your life into—and possibly away on—this commitment?
I’m personally not prepared to shoot anyone, nor encourage anyone else to do so; that’s partly ethical, partly temperamental. I don’t have the guts for it and other than shaping ‘the discourse’ in some incredibly minor ways I will live and die in a world fundamentally made by others. That’s probably why I write—the real world, politics in all its grim awfulness, is too real for me, but in between the pages of a book I can shape and dispose of things as I choose. But ultimately we need to find some form of modus vivendi unless we really are going to try patchworks, sea steading or indeed The Partition with all the disruption, at best, that these things entail. Whether the nation state in the age of the internet and with some of the zero-sum games that are in play (say, the housing market in the UK) can still be the space within which that modus vivendi can take root remains to be seen.