John Feffer, Splinterlands

(Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), 151 pp., $13.95

Fears of Fragmentation

In his controversial study of the decline of capitalism, How Will Capitalism End? (2016), Wolfgang Streeck, Professor of Sociology at the University of Cologne, envisages the termination of today’s “failing system” not with a revolutionary bang, but more as a tortuously protracted demise in which society as we know it will fall drastically apart, creating a chronic condition of social and political limbo:

For the decline of capitalism to continue, that is to say, no revolutionary alternative is required, and certainly no masterplan of a better society displacing capitalism. Contemporary capitalism is vanishing on its own, collapsing from internal contradictions, and not least as a result of having vanquished its enemies – who, as noted, have often rescued capitalism from itself by forcing it to assume a new form. What comes after capitalism in its final crisis, now under way, is, I suggest, not socialism or some other defined social order, but a lasting interregnum – no new world system … but a prolonged period of social entropy, or disorder (and precisely for this reason a period of uncertainty and indeterminacy).1

This global tendency towards systemic disintegration will, moreover, most likely be accompanied by a brutally individualistic free-for-all, where the basest of human instincts are let loose upon a world without any collective constraints:

Undergoverned and undermanaged, the social world of the post-capitalist interregnum, in the wake of neoliberal capitalism having cleared away states, governments, borders, trade unions and other moderating forces, can at any time be hit by disaster; for example, bubbles imploding or violence penetrating from a collapsing periphery into the centre. With individuals deprived of collective defences and left to their own devices, what remains of a social order hinges on the motivation of individuals to cooperate with other individuals on an ad hoc basis, driven by fear and greed and by elementary interests in individual survival.2

A similarly apocalyptic vision of a dark and fragmented future is what John Feffer has attempted to dramatize in fictional form in his dystopian novel, Splinterlands. The centrifugal forces of late capitalism have, as the title suggests, led to a total collapse of the epicentres of power and influence. Yet, there is little or nothing progressive to replace them. Feffer’s novel is a bleak and sobering warning about a world gone terribly wrong.

In a metafictional frame of cross-references, the main character, Julian West, is the author of a geo-paleontological study “on the fracturing of the international community” entitled Splinterlands (a bestselling book in 2020) (1) and has the same name as that of the narrator of Edward Bellamy’s state socialistic utopia, Looking Backward (1888), a book, we are told, that “influenced West in the writing of his previous work, Splinterlands” (49). Now, in 2050, West sets out using the technology of a virtual reality avatar to try and reconnect with the estranged members of his family in different parts of the world, while at the same time investigating how far the slide towards social and political dislocation has gone. This forms the main plotline of Feffer’s novel, also called Splinterlands, of which West is the narrator. West’s existential round trip – from Brussels to Botswana and back to America – provides little hope, however, either of any personal reconciliation with his wife and children, or of a positive future for humanity. The European Union has been shattered. Russia and China have fallen apart as states. Even the US has lost its political hegemony, symbolised by the removal of its capital city to Kansas, mainly for environmental reasons. The empires of the 20th century have succumbed to the pressures of nationalism, regionalism, localism, racism and reaction, all compounded by global warming and its catastrophic ecological consequences. Socialism has disappeared from the political agenda and been replaced by different levels of localized xenophobic feuding.

It should be noted that Feffer is not depicting a post-capitalist world here – the rich are still rich and the poor are even more powerless. It is just that the system of private property has mutated into smaller but even more hostile geopolitical life forms. This is shown when West visits his daughter in Brussels, straying from the still prosperous Zone Verte into the devastation of Zone Rouge, where rival football fans are fighting running street battles with one another using advanced weaponry. Despite these glaring social disparities, however, Feffer’s narrator is no revolutionary. More than anything, he laments the death of the European Union, broken and battered by waves of refugees from the imperialist wars in the Middle East and by the terrorist attacks of far-right paramilitary gangs. Indeed, against this background of dissolution and decay, West continues to sing the praises of the former Union as one of the last great bulwarks against the forces of destruction:

I was confronted by something I wish I hadn’t seen. The impact on the city’s landscape of the disappearance of the European Union saddened me the most.… All that remained of the greatest geopolitical innovation in history – a fair and just riposte to empire and colonialism – was the cracked bust of its co-founder, Robert Schuman, in trash-strewn Cinquantenaire Park. (29)

This suggestion that the European Union represents something progressive is one of the first intimations that Splinterlands is underpinned by a liberal reformist worldview. The fight to preserve the EU as a democratic point of support is reiterated throughout the novel, most strikingly in the pride West feels about his daughter’s own commitment to it:

When she became involved in the European Commission, during those last efforts to keep the EU together, I was thrilled that one of my children was involved in the greatest ideological fight of our generation, just as the Spanish Civil War or the Arab Spring had been for previous generations. (36)

It is difficult for the reader to resist identifying with the narrative voice of the novel, and West’s claims about the stabilising function of the EU appear at first rather compelling, given what has happened to Europe since its collapse. There is however some critical distance created towards West’s own views by means of a number of (fictional) editorial footnotes included throughout the text. These are primarily comments that challenge certain details about West’s personal life, but occasionally there are more political observations. While his pro-EU standpoint is never in doubt, one oblique footnote does mention that “Even as a young academic, [West] was nostalgic for an earlier version of Europe” (24).

In reality, the European Union was and is a completely reactionary project aimed at combatting all forms of genuinely socialist politics. Since its conception after the Second World War it has engaged in a concerted attack on the gains of trade union struggles and any form of public ownership of resources, social services or utilities. In recent years, it has imposed a punishing regime of economic austerity on working people throughout Europe, while promoting wholesale privatisations and tax cuts for the rich.

This brings up another related issue in the novel that revolves around the question of agency and the working class. It can be illustrated most clearly in the visit that West makes to China, now split into a ragbag of more or less brutal capitalist dictatorships. Nothing seems to have changed, however, except that the previously centralised Party dictatorship has been replaced by a confusion of regional ruling classes. While this is declared to be the result of a revolt from below, the so-called “Middle Uprising” of 2029, it seems to have led nowhere as far as the Chinese people are concerned. As West himself notes: “In retrospect, it was obvious that the underemployed workers and farmers in China’s heartland, who had only marginally benefited from the country’s great capitalist leap forward of the late twentieth century, would attack the political order. But who would have thought that the Middle Kingdom could so quickly lose its middle?” (66) The emergence of local fiefdoms such as Xinjiang, where one of West’s sons works as a financial advisor, represents no challenge to the capitalist order. On the contrary, it is bourgeois business as usual – the place is thus characterised by “extremes of rich and poor. No unions. Favourable tax rates for corporations. Very little in the way of a regulatory regime” (63).

Feffer’s novel has been favourably compared to Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1907), which predicted the rise of fascism in the US in the wake of an abortive uprising of the ‘People of the Abyss’ in Chicago. There are certainly similarities in terms of the image of working-class people as either reactionary mobs or helpless victims of predatory capitalist oligarchs. But in Splinterlands there is no need for any totalitarian Iron Heel to crush the masses. They appear incapable of helping themselves politically in any decisive way and are certainly no threat to the system, despite its internal geographical divisions.

There is, however, one social alternative of sorts represented in Splinterlands in the form of a utopian commune called Arcadia set in the hills of Vermont, where West’s wife, Rachel, has now retreated, dropping out from her job as a university lecturer. It is a pastoral enclave that has succeeded in holding out against a hostile world. For West, however, his encounter with this communal enterprise triggers yet more ideological wishful thinking about the European Union as a future democratic model:

Arcadia was largely self-sufficient: If push came to shove, the community could survive without outside help. Locals and a few flatlanders had commandeered several other abandoned farmsteads nearby to create comparable communes. Together, they formed a kind of trading confederation. Here was my European Union in miniature. Perhaps they would someday set up a parliament and a court to rival or replace what the Republic of Vermont and New Hampshire had already established. (117)

The outcome remains tenuous however, since the commune is already threatened by organised gangs of armed racists, compelling the planters to maintain an armoury of weapons themselves, which even their children are taught to use. As Rachel herself despairingly comments: “I just don’t have much faith in the future. That’s why we’re seeing if turning back the clock will achieve something different” (123).

These pessimistic concerns seem to be shared by Feffer himself who has written about the real state of what he calls “humanity’s loss” in a recent article published on the webpage of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies where he works as Director. The article also has some revealing things to say about the limitations of science fiction, not least in the way in which reality can catch up on even the worst of dystopian warnings:

My new book is a dystopian novel about how the world falls apart. Splinterlands …was not intended to be a depiction of current events. I didn’t think that Britain would vote to leave the European Union last June. Nor did I think that Donald Trump would win the November elections.

But when I was writing the manuscript a year ago, I was certainly worried about the trend lines.…

So, Splinterlands was supposed to be a warning. Britons were supposed to handily defeat Brexit; Hillary was supposed to easily win the Electoral College. Don’t be complacent, I was warning my future readers: The EU could still fragment, and the United States could still elect a neo-fascist.3

However, in contrast to his novel, Feffer does express here a much more urgent awareness of the importance of grassroots political activism in the face of what he describes as the approaching “Trumpocalypse”:

Dystopias are not always safely in the future. We may discover with a start that we are soaking in it. But we are not just passive readers. We are also active writers. And with a lot of grit and old-fashioned organizing, from bookstores to barricades, we can write ourselves a different story.4

Dystopias are often utopias that have gone wrong. Despite its previous triumphalism over the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is clear that capitalism is now itself cracking up, everywhere. Not only in fiction. There is no going back to the liberal consensus of the past. Today’s capitalism is a moribund but still aggressively armed system that offers nothing but perpetual class war on the world. While Splinterlands is a timely reminder of this condition of violent global implosion, it also begs for a more radical re-imagining of a very different kind of world.

Review by Ronald Paul
Department of Languages and Literatures
University of Gothenburg, Sweden


1. Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End? Essays on a Failing System (London: Verso, 2016), 13.

2. Ibid., 14.

3. John Feffer. From Here to Dystopia. 2016.12.30.

4. Ibid.

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