Dystopia or Hope? ( 2/00)

Almost a century ago, novelist and muckraker Upton Sinclair weighed in on the millennial debate with a play that predicted worldwide devastation when a radioactive element causes a deadly explosion on New Year’s Eve. Called The Millennium, his script follows the attempts of a handful of survivors to create a new society. Oddly enough, the long-lost play, written in 1908 yet never performed publicly, is a comedy in which utopia prevails and all the characters live happily ever after.

Now that the crucial changeover – and with it, much of the fear about Y2K-related calamity – is behind us, you might assume that we’re out of the woods. And yet, looking at the state of the world, it’s hard to be as optimistic as Sinclair. With Russia blasting its way through Chechnya, instability reaches from Moscow to Indonesia. Ongoing hostility between India and Pakistan, among others, raises fear that religious differences could escalate into nuclear conflict. Meanwhile, despite the US economic boom, the gap between the rich and poor grows, and corporate globalization threatens human rights and the environment across much of the planet.

In Sinclair’s fantasy, survivors of global cataclysm come to see the failures of feudalism and capitalism, finally discovering a socialist society that works. As it’s turned out, however, capitalism has managed to squelch consideration of any other option, while wreaking havoc globally and promoting the cynical notion that governments can do little to reduce misery. For many, socialism has become a synonym for repressive state control, a mere dream that produced totalitarian nightmares in the USSR and China, and economic disaster wherever else it was tried. Most leaders are afraid to even use the word these days.

Of course, many millennial predictions have turned out to be wrong. The odd thing is that Sinclair, who mainly focused on labor’s struggles and capitalism’s excesses, could still laugh about humanity’s plight and look beyond catastrophe. Today, in contrast, despite a successful millennium transition, a sense of ultimate doom hangs over the world. We’ve defied the doomsayers, yet apparently lost faith in a better future.

In pop culture, post-modern scenarios often stress the dangers of technology in societies built on lies, brutality, and callous inequality. Though the hero usually saves humanity from oblivion, the basic message is that we’re headed for a breakdown. Beyond that, who knows? It’s an essentially hopeless vision, which subtly promotes the glorification of greed and selfishness. We’re all on the Titanic, waiting for an iceberg, so why not just party until the inevitable happens.

Some say the only way out is global revolution, which is almost as dangerous as not doing anything. If rapacious corporations and their transnational institutions imperil the planet, goes the logic, the solution is basically to abolish both. Yet, this approach, like the state’s rights movement that seeks to challenge federal power in the US, could leave no way to enforce uniform standards of behavior. Some regions would flourish, others would become police states or ecological basket cases. And we’d all get to watch it on the Internet.

Like it or not, the global village is upon us – with a vengeance. The questions are how it will evolve and what constructive role citizens can play. A quarter-century after creating his own millennial vision, Sinclair opted for reform, seizing the Democratic nomination for California governor and advancing the End Poverty in California (EPIC) platform. For the Right, the prospect of a radical governor was terrifying. For much of the Left, Sinclair’s move was a betrayal.

But some, like fellow author John Dos Passos, saw his plan for land reform and socialization of idle factories as a valuable small step. In fact, although Sinclair ultimately lost the election, EPIC radicalized a generation of activists and helped create the party’s progressive wing.

Rather than sinking into cynicism or clinging to fantasy, Sinclair translated his vision into a practical program for change. And that’s precisely the challenge that still faces humanity: to resist despair, sustain a positive long-term vision, and yet confront corporate power with practical, evolutionary alternatives. This means engagement with – not withdrawal from – the emerging global system.

Self-reliance is a fine idea, but there’s no point in romanticizing a bucolic past that never existed. As Doug Henwood puts it, what’s the point of treating globalization as the enemy, rather than capitalist and imperialist exploitation?

Instead, we can work to democratize the global system, actively supporting the UN as a transitional institution to reduce violence and regain control over economic decisions. According to the UN Charter, the IMF and World Bank are "specialized agencies" within the UN system. Yet, they operate independently, including and excluding countries, imposing unilateral decisions, and undermining the UN’s potential as a place to resolve global economic and environmental problems.

Reforming the UN may not sound very revolutionary. But like Sinclair’s plan, such a small step could inspire future generations to believe that something other than a high-tech dystopia is still possible. Aside from global meltdown as the catalyst to create a new post-apocalyptic utopia, it could be the most likely route to a hopeful and – dare I say it? – socialist transformation.