Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

The End of Material Scarcity: Dystopia and Immanent Critique of Capitalism

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

The End of Material Scarcity: Dystopia and Immanent Critique of Capitalism

Article excerpt

The End of Material Scarcity Futuretype (EMS) is a representation of a future in which access to material resources fulfills the spectrum of human wants and needs. What is most startling about such worlds of material abundance is their sparse representation in contemporary science fiction TV and film. What we see instead is a plethora of media that depict postapocalyptic worlds of scarcity. The EMS futuretype is itself a scarce conceptual tool in the struggle over access to and management of available material resources today. I suggest that the lack of EMS futuretypes indicates that current conceptual tools in popular discourse are inadequate to undertake an immanent critique of capitalism's promise of infinite abundance.

Promises of "abundance for all" played a key role in the development of consumer culture throughout the industrial revolution. The historian JacksonLears argues that advertising in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often depicted "fables of abundance" that used agrarian images of plenty to depict industrial capitalism's promise to deliver an untold bounty of goods (Lears 1994). Postindustrial capitalism, like industrial capitalism before it, has continually failed to fulfill this promise.

Despite ongoing proclamations by futurologist, techno-utopians, and business pundits that new technologies will fulfill the promise of abundance in the near future, the global wealth gap has reached astounding levels and continues to widen. Citing an Oxfam report, editors at The Guardian point out that not only does the richest 1% own more wealth than the other 99%, but the richest 80 individuals own more than the poorest three billion (Elliot 2015). The staggering and growing inequality in accessing finite material resources raises the obvious and very old question: Abundance for whom? If new technologies actually could fulfill the promise of abundance for all, would the end of material scarcity really bring an end to capitalist accumulation? Postapocalyptic and dystopian futures have recently become prominent themes in young adult fiction. Books, TV, and films such as the Hunger Games (2012, 2014), Divergent (2014), The 100 (2014), The Maze Runner (2013), and Elysium (2013) offer hyperbolic images of material scarcity while highlighting the hierarchies of domination in class warfare. Such dystopian futuretypes rework well established, though still productive, critiques of social inequality.

But, where are the dystopian futures without material scarcity in contemporary sci-fi TV and film? What critical ideas and concepts are we missing due to their absence? Perhaps what is needed in popular discourse is not to rehash the imagery of capitalist social antagonism, but to critique capitalism, immanently, on its own terms, by imagining a world in which the market has fulfilled the promise of abundance and brought about the end of material scarcity. In what follows, I consider the end of material scarcity in cultural terms rather than a material problem of scarce resources, or a technological problem of inefficient production. In doing so, offer different examples of material abundance represented in Star Trek TV series/films and Wall-E (2008), and raise several questions about the different roles that capitalism and technology play in bringing about the end of material scarcity. Finally, I build from Star Trek and Wall-E with additional examples from two sci-fi films Silent Running (1972) and The Bothersome Man (2006) to highlight aesthetics--rather than just materials or technologies--as a problem to consider alongside the end of material scarcity.

For sci-fi fans, the most widely recognizable example of the end of material scarcity is almost certainly the replicator technology in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) and the subsequent series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999), and Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001) and films Generations (1994), First Contact (1996), Insurrection (1998), and Nemesis (2002). …

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