New America Weekly

We’re on the Brink of Cyberpunk

Weekly Article
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April 8, 2020

This article originally appeared in Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate.

Where is the president in Blade Runner?

Beneath the 1982 neo-noir’s trappings of genetically engineered human automatons is a story about corporate power over and indifference to life, alienation in the face of wealthy indifference to the plight of workers. Replace the Tyrell Corporation with Amazon and reframe the replicants as “essential services,” and suddenly you have a world of workers terrified that their jobs are inherently a death sentence—moving straight from fiction to reality.

But while Blade Runner’s once-distant future of November 2019 feels resonant in so many ways—vast corporate power, persistent surveillance, life in a time of constant crisis—it misses the actual 2019’s most salient feature: an inescapable, painful awareness of politics and of the presence or deliberate absence of government in daily life.

Government, as experienced for much of the 20th century, is largely absent from the lives of characters in cyberpunk stories. Police are a durable feature, but government services and functions beyond the security state are absent.

Yet for all the aggressive visibility of politics in our daily lives, we’re not that far off from the powerlessness of a cyberpunk future. Cyberpunk speaks to the present because the conditions that inspired cyberpunk remain largely unchanged.

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps through the world, it collides with governments in the West that have spent decades deliberately shedding power, capability, and responsibility, reducing themselves to little more than vestigial organs that coordinate public-private partnerships of civic responsibility. This hollowing of the state began in earnest in the 1980s, and the science fiction of that time—the earliest texts of cyberpunk—imagines what happens when that process is complete. Cyberpunk is a genre of vast corporate power and acute personal deprivation. The technologies at the center of it are all means of control, control bought by the wealthy or broken by criminals. Where recourse is available, in whatever small way, it’s through direct action.

There is more than a little of the Tyrell Corporation’s prudent life expectancy design in how Amazon responds to worker protest over a lack of personal protective equipment.

In William Gibson’s Neuromancer, characters interact with the government either through past military service or in the law literally made manifest in code. Real power is reserved for entrenched wealth. For Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net, politics is visible but is driven by corporations either bending states to their will or actively routing around governance. These dystopias are the logical culmination of a political project designed to fundamentally limit what government can do for people and expand what it can do for the wealthy.

“Back in the 1980s, before movies and video games reduced the genre to a mass of unimaginative violence and body modification tropes, cyberpunk was the literary movement that was busy projecting our fears about rampant capitalism, media oversaturation, and emerging computer networks into fictional futures,” writes Infinite Detail author and journalist Tim Maughan.

The 2020s are, in a real, tangible sense, the conclusion of The Long 1980s. Writing in the 1980s, foundational cyberpunk authors were watching as leaders on both sides of the Atlantic pursued a set of political reforms collectively known as neoliberalism. Prioritizing competition in the market above all else, these reforms were fundamentally a political project, aimed at shrinking the public sphere and undoing many of the commitments to social welfare that had been made in the wake of the chaos, upheaval, and deprivation of the first half of the 20th century. The neoliberal turn was a project of unmaking the state for individuals and communities and remaking it for capital.

Cyberpunk conjured a world at this end state of neoliberal reorganization. Islands in the Net features drone warfare launched against data havens at the behest of corporations. In Blade Runner, the profit considerations of multinational companies determine worker personhood. There is more than a little of the Tyrell Corporation’s prudent life expectancy design in how Amazon responds to worker protest over a lack of personal protective equipment. Today, cyberpunk’s anticipated neoliberal end state is nothing more fanciful than life as we know it.

What is remarkable is not that writers anticipated how the neoliberal turn would go, but that 40 years and several international economic crises later, politicians still respond to these crises with solutions that prioritize markets over people. In the United States, greatly decreasing state capacity has been an ongoing bipartisan project since 1981. Even the Affordable Care Act, itself the flagship bill of the furthest-left administration in the United States in a half-century, is fundamentally built around the market first, with the government obliging humans into participating in that market. It is easy to see health care markets warping into what we see in cyberpunk. The genre is rich with augmented bodies and artificial limbs, available at a steep price—a privilege available to the ultrawealthy or for a tremendous debt that obliges the recipient to a benefactor. It is the promise of the best medical care known to history—and the least affordable means to get it.

Hospitals across the United States are in bidding wars with wealthy enclaves, black market profiteers, and one another for a finite supply of protective equipment. At every point where the supply chain is open to market incentives, companies built to prioritize profit exploit the absence of state control, bogarting lab test contracts and protective mask production lines.

Cyberpunk portrays a world dominated by an insulated wealthy elite, catered to by exclusive services offering premium versions of what governments once offered the public. In 2019’s Alita: Battle Angel, itself a schlocky adaptation of 1990s cyberjunky manga Gunnm, the upper class literally lives in a floating city, where they receive monthly shipments of exceptional organs harvested from the underclass below. It’s modern organ transplant disparities blasted to hyperbolic proportions.

That disparity, extended to all aspects of life, is the end stage of a deliberate political process. Historian Nils Gilman describes this policy program as a “plutocratic insurgency,” where the wealthy seek “to carve out de facto zones of autonomy for themselves by crippling the state’s ability to constrain their freedom of (economic) action.” The wealthy do this within elected office and outside it, spending some small portion of their fortunes to ensure politicians meet crises with tax cuts instead of rent freezes.

As the wealthy expand the space where they can act with impunity, they are aided from below by entrepreneurs of crime. In the void where a government once offered protection, financial support, and access to medicine instead thrives an alliance of the rich who believe themselves above the law and their accomplishes willing to flout the law.

What might it mean, say, to experience a pandemic knowing that many of the needed medical supplies are getting bought up for personal use by the ultrarich, or captured by the black market and auctioned off to the desperate? And, more importantly, what happens next, when companies are free to take over functions that in a previous era would have been taken care of by the government? Amazon’s logistics empire now gets headlines comparing it to the Red Cross, even as warehouse workers protest over lack of personal protective equipment. While the state of Texas waited until March 31 to issue a stay-at-home order in the face of the pandemic, San Antonio–based H-E-B activated its own Emergency Operations Center on March 4. By contrast, the Pentagon is still waiting for direction on where to send its 2,000 ventilators.

It is not hard to imagine that after the pandemic, the mishandling of federal resources will be used as a reason to surrender even more state capacity to private companies, which will leave the government even worse equipped to handle whatever crisis comes next. A significant strategy of the plutocratic insurgency, as enabled by the neoliberal turn, is to leave the government ill-equipped for a shared crisis.

Rationing once-public goods by wealth is a choice societies make, no matter how much market essentialists portray it as natural. It is the same logic that deems people ordering goods at home worthy of protection while denying protections to the workers preparing those deliveries. It is a short hop, skip, and jump from Amazon branding the whole of its workforce “essential services” to imagining a future, as envisioned by cartoonist Matt Lubchansky, where “Service Guarantees Free Shipping.”

One of cyberpunk’s most durable spinoffs is steampunk, which transposes the technological ingenuity and exploration from the imagined near future to an alternate past, from the 21st to the late 19th century. Steam engines and fantastical contraptions aside, it is telling that the conventions of cyberpunk work seamlessly in the Gilded Age. The 2020s are hardly the first era of unaccountable corporate power, of deprivation and dehumanization in the name of markets and technological progress.

Escaping a Gilded Age takes more than just clever protagonists who can outwit the cruelties and exploitations of the wealthy few. As insurmountable as the power of robber barons once seemed, cataclysm and political action brought the Gilded Age to a resounding end. The inoculations against another Gilded Age are found far less in the works of cyberpunk and far more in the Works Progress Administration. Escaping a Gilded Age takes an active, collective politics, one that refuses to let governments hide behind algorithms or abdication of responsibility to the market.

Without that politics, we’re not just living in the prologue to a cyberpunk future. We’re living in the first chapter of a cybourgeoisie reality.