Note: This post contains some spoilers about the novel New York 2140. Kim Stanley Robinson will deliver the 14th Annual Wheelwright Lecture (online) on Thursday 25 November 2021. Full details here.
How can we develop a program and movement for climate justice that will address the pathologies of our toxic capitalist present? How can we overcome a pervasive capitalist realism that insists that ‘there is no alternative’, and rise to the challenge of imagining and enacting a political economy that puts people and planet before profit?
Since the 1980s, novelist Kim Stanley Robinson has been writing books addressing these urgent questions. Trained by Frederic Jameson, Robinson writes novels that are like ‘cognitive maps’ which help us to critically interrogate our present, and to think through possible trajectories towards better futures. His on-going fascination with the forces and impacts of environmental transformation has been in dramatised in novels that have used a range of different settings – from the centuries-long terraforming of Mars in the Mars trilogy, to near futures of climate change here on Earth in the Science in the Capital trilogy and his most recent novel Ministry for the Future. I slept on Robinson’s work until reading McKenzie Wark’s Molecular Red – which features a chapter on Robinson’s novels as a resource for rethinking and remaking the world that climate change has wrought.
Of the Robinson novels that I’ve now read, 2017’s New York 2140 (NY2140) is a favourite. The book transports us a century into a climate-changed future. A partially submerged New York is the setting for a dramatic confrontation between the forces of capital, the forces of nature, and the power of the people. As an urban geographer with a particular interest in the city as a site and a subject of radical democratic politics, all 614 pages of this epic had me rivetted. It’s full of brilliant speculations on the technics of urban life in a climate-changed city. But even more thought-provoking is the political imaginary it offers – of an urban citizenry that figures out how to build a commons that centres human and nonhuman flourishing, and how to defend it against state-backed processes of financialisation, gentrification, and disaster capitalism.
The future history of a climate-changed New York
The history of this future is not pretty. By 2140, sea-level has risen 50 feet, in two ‘Pulses’ that happened when warming oceans melted the ice buttresses holding back glacial ice from the sea. Each Pulse caused “a meltdown in history, a breakdown in society, a refugee nightmare, an eco-catastrophe” (34). But while the climate has changed, other things have stayed the same – in particular, in the face of a devastating climate apocalypse, states continued to act to prop up capital and capitalism:
But hey. An end is a beginning! Creative destruction, right? Apply more police state and more austerity, clamp down hard, proceed as before. Cleaning up the mess a great investment opportunity! Churn baby churn! (144)
The disaster capitalism that took hold in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the state bail-outs and austerity in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, continued to set the terms of the political-economy of climate crisis for the next century.
In New York, the city where most of the action takes place, a system of sea-walls and pumps were built to protect the city’s prime real estate. While that kept the rising seas of the First Pulse at bay, it was over-whelmed during the Second Pulse. By 2140, upper Manhattan, above the water line thanks to its higher elevation, has become the new home to the city’s elite in a collection of ‘superscrapers’ known as the ‘Cloister Cluster’. The part of Lower Manhattan below the new sea-level is the “submerged zone” which “lies flooded … like a super-Venice, majestic, watery, superb” (6). Mid-town, the area roughly between 30th and 40th Streets, is the intertidal zone – “a zone of squatters and scammers and street people out to have some fun” (106), thanks to the regular collapse of buildings which were built on softer ground and not able to stand up to surging tides.
NY2140 is peppered with details about urban form and everyday life in the submerged and inter-tidal zones for readers to geek out on. Streets with have become canals with vaporettos. The High Line is one of several oyster beds filtering pollution from canal water – although a subculture of hardy canal swimmers must wear drysuits and face-masks to deal with on-going toxicity. Pedestrians move through the submerged zone on a network of boardwalks and skybridges that criss-cross the buildings that still stand, or on skates when the canals are frozen over. Cable cars connect Manhattan to the outer boroughs. Personal airships are tethered to masts at the top of buildings, freight and passengers are moved across continents in dirigibles and clippers. The old subway tunnels have been re-purposed as corridors for power, sewage, communications and robotic supply capsules – as well as avant-garde bars and bathhouses constructed in sealed and ‘aerated’ caverns as sites of underground culture. Urban natures have made their accommodations to the new situation too. As well as the oysters, fish, water birds, otter and sea grasses are rewilding the urban environment.
The Met Tower – a co-operative residential tower in the submerged zone – is the place where most of the book’s protagonists live. Its third storey, now at water level, has been converted into a boathouse. Like other occupied buildings in the submerged zone, its underwater storeys are kept dry by a system of graphenated composite seals made from captured carbon, pumps, dryers and sterilizers. Leaks are monitored by the building’s Artificial Intelligence. Four open-walled floors thirty storeys above the water level have been converted into a farm, which produces food for meals served to residents in a communal dining hall. The rooftop is painted with photovoltaic paint to generate energy.
But it’s Kim Stanley Robinson, so the details about new urban technologies are woven into rich descriptions of the political economy of the city, with particular attention to the way that life in lower Manhattan is organised, reproduced and contested. Much of what’s been done here has been achieved cooperatively, through the making of a fragile but lively urban commons. The drowned zone was re-occupied after the Second Pulse by:
Squatters. The dispossessed. The water rats. Denizens of the deep, citizens of the shallows. And a lot of them were interested in trying something different, including which authorities they gave their consent to be governed by. Hegemony had drowned, so in the years after the flooding there was a proliferation of cooperatives, neigborhood associations, communes, squats, barter, alternative currencies, gift economies, solar usufruct, fishing village cultures, mondragons, unions, Dave’s locker freemasonries, anarchist blather, and submarine technoculture, including aeration and aquafarming. Also living in skyvillages that used the drowned cities as mooring towers and festival exchange points: container-clippers and townships as floating islands; art-not-work, the city regarded as a giant collaborative artwork; blue greens, amphibiguity, heterogeneticity, horizontalization, deoligarchification; also free open universities, free trade schools, and free art schools. Not uncommonly all of these experiments were being pursued in the very same building. Lower Manhattan became a veritable hotbed of theory and practice, like it always used to say it was, but this time for real (209).
Similar developments are taking place in submerged cities all over the world.
Wherever there is a commons, there is enclosure…
So, while much of the twenty-first century had been apocalyptic, it’s not the end of the world. The novel is set some 40 years after the Second Pulse – enough time for New York’s fragile but vibrant urban commons to be established. And enough time for vampires to have clocked this life, and sniffed an opportunity. As “the citizen” – a commentator who appears throughout the novel to interrupt with ruminations on history and political economy – puts it: “wherever there is a commons, there is enclosure” (210). It’s not just water that threatens the city, but a “drenching of money, the universal solvent” (331).
The Met isn’t immune from the threat of gentrification. The Co-op finds itself the subject of a hostile buyout offer from anonymous financial interests. The story of what happens next is narrated from the points of view of a diverse group Met residents. There’s Jeff and Mutt, two ‘quants’ who have quit their jobs writing trading algorithms for finance companies, and are disillusioned enough with the corruption they’ve seen to try to hack the system with rogue code. There’s Franklin, a trader and inventor of the Intertidal Property Price Index, who enjoys gambling on the movements of that index until he’s provoked by a crush to wonder whether “Instead of financializing value, I need to add value to finance” (278). There’s Charlotte, a lawyer for the “Householders’ Union” that works to re-house and support displaced people in the city, and Chair of the Co-op Board. There’s Vlade, the Met’s superintendent. There’s Amelia, a ‘cloud star’ who has achieved fame through her live-streamed voyages on the airship Assisted Migration relocating threatened species to new habitats. There’s Inspector Gen, an NYPD Inspector trying to help keep some kind of peace in Lower Manhattan. And there’s Stefan and Roberto, two orphans who have grown up without parents as ‘free citizens of the intertidal’, who frequent the docks of the Met and for whom Vlade is a kind of father-figure.
As the novel unfolds, these characters come together to try to figure out how to fight off the threat to their Coop. Ultimately, they realise that even if they can beat this bid, more will follow. What they really need to do is take down the influence of finance capital. Easy … not! Jeff and Mutt tried doing this on their own through a hack, but that was fixed almost instantly, and resulted in their kidnapping. Stefan and Roberto’s adventures in the shallows have unearthed a multi-million dollar buried treasure in the form of gold bars that sunk with a British naval ship centuries before, and even that’s not enough to outbid the vampires. But perhaps there’s another way.
It’s trader Franklin who schools his fellow residents on the financial system’s dependence on steady inputs of money from people paying back their debts. He explains that the 2008 Financial Crisis was a moment when too many defaults meant that no-one wanted to buy debts and the system crashed. And then he wonders aloud whether this could be deliberately organised, but with a different outcome in mind. He challenges Charlotte to think big:
If liquidity relies on a steady payment stream from ordinary people, which it does, then you could crash the system any time you wanted, by people stopping their payments. Mortgages, rents, utilities, student debt, health insurance. Stop paying, everyone at once. Call it Odious Debt Default Day, or a financial general strike, or get the pope to declare it the Jubilee, he can do that any time he wants. … I mean, you’re the head of the Householders’ Union, right? … What do unions do? They strike! (348-9)
The city fights back: after the storm, the “everybody strike”
As is frequently the case in Robinson novels, the brewing conflict over New York’s fate is brought to a head by a storm. In 2142, a hurricane brings extreme winds and a massive storm surge, and the fragile infrastructures of the submerged and intertidal zones were no match. The storm overwhelms many of the buildings in the submerged and intertidal zones, and thousands of displaced people make their way to the high ground of Central Park, which becomes a makeshift refugee camp for the homeless. Charlotte from the Householders’ Union calls the Mayor to demand that the uptown towers be requisitioned for emergency housing, but her request is refused.
A few weeks after the storm, cumulative frustration boils over into a riot in Central Park. During that riot, there’s a crowd surge uptown towards the Cloister Cluster. Police form lines to try to stop the surge reaching the Towers, but then shots are fired over the crowd by private security forces from the terraces a few stories above. Police Inspector Gen, a resident of the Met, gets to the private security to stand down – and on questioning, learns that they’ve been contracted by the same Real Estate company that represents the hostile takeover bid on the Met. Enough is enough.
Amelia spontaneously kicks things off on her cloud show. Floating over a post-storm, post-riot Manhattan on her dirigible, seeing the Cloister Cluster towers standing tall and empty in contrast to the devastation in other parts of the city, she switches on her live feed, rails against the injustices of the situation, and then makes a declaration:
You know that Householders’ Union that I was telling you about? I think it’s time for everyone to join that union, and for that union to go on strike. An everybody strike. I think there should be an everybody strike. Now. Today (526).
She explains the aims of the everybody strike like this:
The point is, when we stop funding their follies they will crash real quick. At that point they will be asking the government to bail them out. That’s us. We’re the government. At least in theory, but yeah. We are. So we can decide what to do then. We will have to tell our government what to do at that point. If our government tries to back the banks instead of us, then we elect a different government. We pretend that democracy is real, and that will make it real. … Because at this point it’s democracy versus capitalism. (527-8)
The influence of various strands of contemporary political-economy can be seen in NY2140’s story of the ‘everybody strike’. Quotes from Maurizio Lazzarato’s work on governing through debt are used as epigraphs for several chapters. Dick Bryan and the late Randy Martin appear in the book’s Acknowledgements, and their work on financialisation looms large as an influence. Through the financialisation of daily life, the surplus appropriated from labour happens not only in the production process, but also through the payment of interest on debt. As such, “the effect of labor being unable to meet credit commitments” adds another “dimension of labor’s contribution to financial volatility: not as resistance in ‘the factory,’ but by its failure to perform as capital” (Bryan, Martin and Rafferty 2009, 464). They continue:
… it would seem that the greatest cost that labor has imposed on capital on a global scale has been the recent U.S. sub-prime mortgage crisis. It was not conceived as an organized class strategy, nor implemented by workers in the name of class politics. But it has been an assault on the surplus-value generating system on a scale like never before, and one that could only be rescued by concerted state action on behalf of capital (ibid, 470).
NY2140 runs with that idea, and then imagines what an ‘organised class strategy’ might actually look like in the face of this situation.
There’s connections too with the more explicitly urban political economy of gentrification, commodification and dispossession. In his account of the parasitic appropriation of the urban commons through gentrification, Matteo Pasquinelli follows David Harvey in arguing that rent in the urban context does not only refer to land, but also to culture:
culture today produces the sites of distinction that capitalism exploits in the form of monopoly rent or the commodification of material goods (Pasquinelli, Animal Spirits, 117).
The ‘metropolitan multitude’, then, is a productive force beyond ‘the factory’ not only through the payment of interest on debt, but also through its role in the production of distinctive local cultures and commons. Those unique cultures and commons become marketable, and hence irresistible to capital seeking opportunities for the extraction of monopoly rent (Pasquinelli, 135-36). As the owner of an underwater speakeasy in the submerged zone puts it to Inspector Gen:
The intertidal is ripe. That’s what they’re saying. It’s got problems, it’s been a mess, but people have dealt with it, and now we’ve got it going. So now uptown wants to take it over again. It’s like, renovation’s over, time to flip. (180)
Riffing on Pasquinelli, McKenzie Wark wonders what can be done? If the commodification of the urban commons has turned the city into a ‘social factory’:
It is hard to imagine what sort of campaign of negative symbolic capital, or perhaps the metropolitan strike, could devalue it again.
NY2140 offers an imaginary of such a metropolitan strike.
At the declaration of the “everybody strike”, “the citizen” as narrator in the novel is replaced – one time only – by “the city”. While the city is a character all the way through the novel, through the strike it becomes a political subject that speaks through the staging of mass action – a ‘city for itself’, perhaps?! In NY2140, this political capacity of the city is not achieved by the erasure of difference. The civil disobedience that kicks off in the wake of the Hurricane takes a range of forms, pursued by a range of actors. But across this diversity:
there was a powerful sense of some underwater current in the global civilization now pulling it out into an unknown sea. History was happening. (532).
The property market and associated indices and derivatives took a massive hit, impacting on the banks and finance companies. As they’d done in the past, the demanded government support … but this time, things turn out differently.
From the strike to the state: seizing finance for good?
In a recent interview with Daniel Aldana Cohen, Robinson talks about his attraction to the Green New Deal as a vision of the state seizing finance in a kind of ‘legislated revolution’. NY2140’s resolution reflects his cautious optimism about the role of the state and finance to be different.
The book ends with Charlotte getting elected with a wave of radical democrats to advance the demands of the strikes. Earlier in the novel, she tells her ex-partner (who, conveniently, is Chair of the Federal Reserve!) that if another financial crisis were to happen, his administration should “bail them out by buying them out” so that government can then “aim finance at solving people’s real problems” in the “biggest judo flip of power since the French Revolution” (434). On the back of the 2042 strike and election of a radical congress, this eventually happens. The Fed meet with the banks and investment firms and outline a four trillion dollar bailout package, with a difference:
…to be given on condition that the recipients issue shares to the Treasury equivalent in value to whatever aid they accepted. The rescues being necessarily so large, Treasury would then become their majority shareholder and take over accordingly. … In other words, a condition of bailout: nationalization (601).
The threat of capital flight was mitigated by the similar actions of central banks in Europe, Japan, and other nation-states, and by the taxing of capital flight. The surplus generated through dividends was directed towards universal health care, free public education through college, a living wage, guaranteed full employment, a year of mandatory national service. Locally, higher taxes are introduced on capital assets and on vacant property (an absentee tax), and a new law is introduced requiring low-income housing in the uptown towers.
NY2140 also includes some optimism about finance playing a more positive, socially-useful role. This is embodied in Franklin’s transformation from derivatives trader to social investor. Inspired by an epiphany while watching water weeds float on a current, he assembles some venture capital and a team of specialists and invents a new kind of housing for the inter-tidal zones of the world – “eelgrass housing” built on city-block sized platforms tethered to the bedrock that float with the tides: “Basically, you stop trying to resist. You flex with the currents, you rise and fall on the tides” (286).
It’s unlikely that some contemporary theorists of the metropolitan strike would be convinced by all this – indeed, they might regard this relatively optimistic assessment of the progressive possibilities of the state and finance as naïve, or worse. Hardt and Negri, for instance:
regard the metropolitan strike as the specific form of recomposition of the multitude in the metropolis. The metropolitan strike is not a socialisation of the working class strike: it is a new form of counter power. … Metropolitan revolts do not pose the question of substituting a mayor: they express new forms of democracy and schemes other than those of control (quoted in Pasquinelli, 152).
More broadly, Anna Sturman and Natasha Heenan have noted that the kind of Green New Deal imagined in NY2140 has:
come under fire from the left as a vehicle for the continuation of capitalism in crisis, a programme capable of smoothing over the contradictions of the economic system in order to further delay a reckoning between social classes.
But NY2140’s ‘everybody strike’ does align with some of the critiques that are emerging of how Green New Deals are articulated in mainstream politics. In a recent column in The Guardian, Aditya Chakrobarty worries that the Green New Deal is “muddled, top-down, technocratic”, “a green transition that is done to people rather than with them”. NY2140 is a reminder, if we need it, that there will be no Green New Deal (or anything like it) without a powerful movement to make it happen. This is certainly something that animates the efforts of the labour and environment organisations and researchers involved in the Real Deal project. And for Sturman and Heenan, it’s got to be a “democratically determined programme built from the ground up”, or bust.
In any case, if the denouement of NY2140 all seems a little too good to be true, the citizen narrator returns at the end of the book to remind us that this victory is far from total, and that its durability is far from certain. Like everything accomplished before them, they are “transient political accomplishments” (604)
… there was no guarantee of permanence to anything they did, and the pushback was ferocious as always, because people are crazy and history never ends, and good is accomplished against the immense black-hole gravity of greed and fear. … So no, no, no, no! Don’t be naïve! There are no happy endings! Because there are no endings! (604)
The struggle, as they say, continues.
Hastening the future
So much climate fiction (and much environmental activism too) paints pictures of the futures we want to avoid, in the hope that it might stir us into action in the present. NY2140 certainly has a healthy dose of this. But Robinson is dubious that this style of writing will have the desired effect. Indeed, the citizen-narrator tells us that in the first half of the twenty-first century, scientists:
published their papers, and shouted and waved their arms, and a few canny and deeply thoughtful sci-fi writers wrote up lurid accounts of such an eventuality, and the rest of civilization went on torching the planet like a Burning Man pyromasterpiece (140).
Ultimately, what I love about this novel is that it pulls a switch. By the end of the book, I wasn’t so much wondering what we can do to avoid the future it depicts, but what we can do to hasten it .
Let’s not wait until 2140, and endure a century of devastation and runaway climate change, to organise the everybody strike, hey?