Octavia Butler and the Base for American Socialism
In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.
-- Marx & Engels, The Communist Manifesto (76)
I invite you to step out of your gloom, citizens of the old continent: you have conquered everything, and all that you have gained is individual isolation. Now it is your turn to discover and regain for yourselves a sense of community with all humankind.
-- Tomás Borge, former FSLN Interior Minister (96)
Two kinds of science fiction. The one fantastical and fabulous, playing on other worlds; the other paraxystic, extrapolating a detail, a characteristic feature and, by a rigorous logic, revealing its eccentricity or its extreme effects.
-- Jean Baudrillard, Fragments (123)
In June 2004, the American historian Theodore Allen presented a provocative paper at the second bi-annual “How Class Works” conference, held at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.* Allen’s paper, “Base and Superstructure and the Socialist Perspective,” posed a question so obvious it seemed to startle everyone in attendance. Allen reasoned that if the bourgeoisie was able to overthrow the feudal order “only because their mode of production had developed in the womb of the old order,” then “the basis of the necessary socialist relationship of production must be defined and developed within the womb of the capitalist order before the gravediggers of capitalism can become the builders of socialist society.” His question followed directly: “But precisely how is that relation of production to be defined?”
Allen understood the base of socialism, that of “the individual and the collective,” in a manner that all class societies have been understood: as a dialectical unity of opposites. Thus whereas under capitalist hegemony the social relation of production is wageworker and capitalist, under socialist hegemony it will be the individual and the collective. “But unlike the blind, blundering, hesitant manner of the bourgeois revolutions,” he argued, “this development of the base for socialism, benefited by Marxist historical materialist insights, will be a preconceived, conscious, foresighted process.” In specifying this socialist base, Allen made his most important contribution to the discussion of transition. “The collective is a group of individuals who are ready and willing to join in a common purpose,” Allen argued, “even though each individual knows that the effort will most certainly require a subordination of some degree of individual differences in a common purpose. Yet the basic constitutional vitality of the collective depends upon the tension between the individual and the collective. Inherently, therefore, the most difficult problem for the collective becomes that of dealing with the individual deviation. Not every individual deviation serves to advance the cause of the collective; yet it is in the nature of the collective that every step in progress begins with an individual deviation… It follows as a corollary that one test of a good collective is not how many differences it can overcome, but how few it must overcome in order to minimize the frequency of those instances in which the unity of opposites becomes the opposite of unity.
And what, according to Allen, are some of those instances today in which the unity of opposites is becoming “the opposite of unity”? To close his paper, in a vocabulary doubtless regarded by the sophisticated postmodernists as nostalgic, he argued that it is the persistence of white racial oppression in U.S. society -- “the historic Achilles heel of democratic and socialist movements in the United States,” as he put it -- which is responsible for the persistent blockading of new, equalitarian social relations. Allen had already substantiated this particular thesis, systematically, in his magisterial two-volume work The Invention of the White Race (Verso, 1994/1997).
Although it would be wise to review closely the significance of Allen’s thesis, especially in light of his recent passing, the purpose here is to dwell instead on Allen’s concept of the base for socialism in connection with the immensely popular, award-winning science fiction of African American novelist Octavia Butler. For it is difficult to find in all the imaginative literature of the United States a more single-minded obsession with this problem, of the base for American socialism, than that gleaned on every page of Butler’s enigmatically joyous fiction. Each of her books—there are fourteen—is motivated directly by the problem of the dialectical unity of the individual and the collective, and each argues that until this unity is perfected consciously any attempt to restructure U.S. society is doomed to merely reinvent the old bourgeois relation of production: wage labor and capital, or, worse, slave and master.
Butler organized her fiction into a series of possibilities, themes familiar to any science fiction reader: time travel; total human self-annihilation; an epic clash with another intelligent species; and the biological rebirth of humanity. To be beautiful and without deadly conflicts, this is the utopian impulse in all her books. Yet the stories never stray for a moment from the “blind, blundering, and hesitant” course on which U.S. society continues to stumble (never more evidently so than today), which could be considered her work’s dystopian dimension. At all events, Butler in her fiction was always focused on a single issue, what she termed perspicaciously “our hierarchical problems.” For Butler, the present is also history and hence every human plot is determined by the species’ historic failure to approach, with careful forethought, its own transparent “hierarchical tendencies.” These terms come from the first novel of her “Lilith’s Brood” trilogy, Dawn (marketed originally as the “Xenogenesis Trilogy,” i.e. the novels Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago), yet they recur under different valences in all fourteen books.
Before proceeding further, it’s necessary to recognize the full effects of Butler’s recent and untimely death, which shocked not only the science fiction publishing industry and its many millions of consumers around the globe, but also the world of African American belles-lettres. It should be stressed that while Butler was clearly one of the world’s most popular and critically valorized science fiction writers at the time of her passing, in the African American tradition she stood shoulder to shoulder with Amiri Baraka, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker as a vitally present and prolific master of her literary craft as well as an exemplar of the Black Aesthetic established during the rise of the 1960s civil rights and Black Power movements. In short, Butler enjoyed during her lifetime, as Baraka, Morrison, and Walker continue to do today, two unassailable reputations simultaneously: one in the U.S. literary mainstream and the other in the long and magnificent African American tradition.
Thus her death is an insupportable double loss. In this way, the hole she leaves can never be filled, which appears a rather banal thing to say despite the statement’s actual scale. The fact is that Butler rejuvenated the science fiction genre from an originary underground position: the African American artist working on her own terms in a white male supremacist U.S. social order, a role which in the wake of her passing has been registered by mainstream newspapers and Web sites in the misleading terms of “pioneer.” In fact, every mainstream obituary focused on her status as the first African American woman writer in the white-male-dominated science fiction genre. Yet this is like dwelling on the fact that Ma Rainey was the first African American female vocalist in the blues music industry. That is, it instantiates insidiously a form of white racist tokenism in which the broadly felt yet highly idiosyncratic achievements of Butler are reduced to a standard case of a minority artist breaking new ground in white male America and being warmly embraced for the valiant effort. To put it differently, it completely marginalizes the African American tradition by invoking a wholly imaginary absence. If one takes a cursory look at Butler’s place in African American studies, for instance, it becomes immediately obvious that she is viewed not as a “pioneer” but rather as one particular African American woman writer, in a long tradition of such writers, exploring and perfecting her own interests and objectives.
For the purposes of this essay, then, a generous survey of her eclectic body of work would be constructive, especially to highlight some of her more provocative interventions within the African American tradition as well as in the science fiction genre to which she has been a unique and influential contributor. Yet rather than survey her fiction, the more interesting treatment, I think, is to simply enter one of her novels and follow the action as it’s taking place. In this respect, choosing her novel Parable of the Sower as the object of analysis is somewhat arbitrary. At the same time, Butler’s individual genius can be felt precisely in that such an entry is not only easily possible for the critic, formally speaking, but also enabled felicitously by her own “positive obsession,” to use the formulation of her main character from Parable of the Sower, Lauren Olamina: an obsession with the problem of transition from the current capitalist social relations of production to an equalitarian (or anti-hierarchical), socialist one.
For the Love of Humanity
In the age of the Internet, or “Information,” the familiar nostrums of bourgeois socialism, as well as the newer “oppositional” epistemes and ideologies, such as Foucauldian social constructionism and other anti-socialist anarchisms, are losing their appeal. Like an over-used antibiotic, the conservative religious claim that the masses of humanity remain self-oppressed, because of both the massive diffusion and constant consumption of capitalist ideology and the retrenchment of bourgeois socialization processes, is showing its seams. A few fragments of the whole: While polls consistently show that Oprah is the most popular and well respected American alive, African American women have the highest rate of HIV in the country and are the fastest growing section of the nation’s incarcerated, with few raising an eyebrow. Despite hundreds of militant anti-war Web sites and instant access to nearly limitless information about the barbaric everyday conduct of the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq, around half of all Americans still feel the “war against terror” is morally right and politically necessary; around forty percent believe that Saddam himself engineered the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The bookstores are overflowing with self-help manuals of every kind, especially texts on healthy food, meditation and exercise, and non-factory farm food is easily available to most Americans, yet the hospitals and medical suites across the country are filled to capacity with the obese, the diseased, and the malnourished. Books and articles of all kinds, in most languages, are readily available to most Americans without them having to leave their house, yet serious illiteracy problems continue to plague the schools and workplaces of U.S. society. Unions are spending more money than ever to organize the unorganized, yet membership rates continue to decline, as manufacturing jobs leave the country for good and in record numbers. At Yale University there are popular courses in Marxist theory, yet the graduate students there are unable to form a union. In Harlem, the Earth Institute at Columbia University, directed by economist Jeffrey Sachs, was founded to eradicate poverty around the world and save the environment. It has an annual budget of $90 million and a staff of 800 specialists, yet half the residents of Harlem, where the Earth Institute is headquartered, have severe asthma, caused mainly by toxic air pollution and roach-infested uninhabitable housing. Consequently, Harlem residents have a lower life expectancy than people living in Bangladesh.
There are structural reasons for each of these late U.S. capitalist contradictions. But meanwhile what has happened to the claim that knowledge is power? What of the notion that broad access to information and a new, felt awareness of oppression lead to social change? It appears difficult to maintain these postmodernist claims in the face of the new information technologies, and in light of the fact that schools across the country, from elementary through graduate school, feature today some of the most authentic and creative anti-capitalist educators U.S. society has ever seen, a direct outcome of the African American civil rights struggle and the militant student anti-war movement of the 1960s.
One answer is that consciousness has been raised exponentially, but the social relations of production remain fundamentally the same, if not worse. For example, unemployment among African Americans is more than double that for whites: 10.8 percent versus 5.2 percent in 2003—a wider gap than in 1972. African American infant mortality is also greater today than in 1970. In 2001, the black infant mortality rate was 14 deaths per 1,000 live births, 146 percent higher than the white rate. The gap in infant mortality rates was 37 percent less in 1970. For every dollar of white income, African Americans have 57 cents. Income equality and hence new social relations between blacks and whites, far from advancing, are in fact backsliding.
In the U.S., the contradiction between quantity (information excess) and quality (actual social relations) becomes more acute each day. Often it seems obvious that the broader and more excessive is the dissemination of analysis and information, the more repressive does reactionary social control become.
Preconceiving the Future
Reaching adulthood in the thick of the African American civil rights struggle, Octavia Butler anticipated presciently our current conjuncture. The civil rights movement raised critical consciousness about white racial oppression on a national scale and helped put an end finally to Jim Crow in the South, but this would not change the social relations of production in U.S. society. What could? This question stands at the beginning of Butler’s writing career.
Parable of the Sower, published in 1993, takes place in California between the years 2024 and 2027. The dramatic consciousness gains of the civil rights movement are evident in the lead character herself, Lauren Oya Olamina, an African American teenager whose name harkens back to the days of the Black Power movement, when many African Americans changed their names to South African ones both in solidarity with the anti-apartheid movement there and to signify, in the words of the great Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiongo, a “decolonizing of the mind.” Lauren’s mind is indeed decolonized, thanks largely to her father -- a preacher, professor, and the leader of their small community of embattled and completely encircled working-class multi-ethnic southern Californians. Yet the social relations are much closer to late nineteenth-century U.S. society than to the emergent twenty-first. Debt peonage is commonplace; the company town is resurgent; education, as well as every other public service, including transportation, law enforcement, and clean water, is available only to the ruling class; and the environment has become completely toxic. The community members live in a constant state of fear, mainly of being invaded by heavily armed gangs of the unemployed, the desperately hungry, the brain-damaged, and the drug-addicted. In response, they have built for themselves a fortress community within which they simply endure life and try to survive another day of hell on earth.
In a brilliant riff on the intoxicating consciousness-raising mood of the 1960s, Butler endows Lauren with “hyper-empathy syndrome”: she feels, literally, all the pains and pleasures of other people. She sheds her own blood when they do, and experiences their orgasms just as she experiences her own. Although the condition is in the first instance biological, Lauren experiences it every day socially. She inherited the condition from her mother, who died giving birth to Lauren. Her mother believed, along with millions of other mothers of her generation, that taking a certain “smart pill” would advance her child socially, from the moment of gestation. She would be born socially privileged, in consciousness.
Dialectically reversed, Lauren’s hyper-empathy syndrome becomes, inside her fortress community called “Robledo,” a horrible affliction, for there is no pleasure in 2024 except the occasional orgasm, and absolutely no room for social advancement. Obsessed with the exploration of Mars and focused single-mindedly on building a new society after the inevitable cataclysm—the violent destruction of her community from the outside, helped along by “hierarchical problems” inside—she begins to construct her own theory of post-capitalist society. Readers are privy to her emerging philosophy because of the novel’s storytelling structure: the tale is related calmly, lucidly, and sometimes lugubriously through Lauren’s notebooks, which she has titled Earthseed: The Books of the Living. In these notebooks is a theory of the individual and the collective that only a serious-minded teenager, living on the precipice of epic social and ecological disaster, could advance. “Our adults haven’t been wiped out by a plague so they’re still anchored in the past, waiting for the good old days to come back,” she writes. “But things have changed a lot, and they’ll change more. Things are always changing” (50).
However, Lauren’s eagerness to get free of adult inertia and self-deception is not merely a teenage wish fulfillment. Her desire comes necessarily from two sources. The first is her hyper-empathy syndrome, or “sharing,” as it is known, which makes it an everyday torture for her to live with deluded, depoliticized, anxiously self-destructive and emotionally insensitive people-- in other words, “normal” Americans. The second is her critical consciousness, best expressed in her critique of religion and of reactionary philosophy. “We give lip service to acceptance,” she writes in her notebooks,
as though acceptance were enough. Then we go on to create super-people -- super-parents, super-kings and queens, super-cops -- to be our gods and to look after us -- to stand between us and God. Yet God has been here all along, shaping us and being shaped by us in no particular way or in too many ways at once like an amoeba -- or like a cancer. Chaos. (23)
Lauren’s obsession with change is typical for a teenager, but what is “weird,” as she admits to herself in the notebooks, is that she will “have to do something about it…That reality scares me to death” (23).
What she does about it is to first construct a theory of post-capitalist social relations and to then organize the survivors of her terminal late capitalist society into these theoretical relations once the chance arises. The first third of the novel is her theory of post-capitalist social relations and the second third is the struggle to establish them. The theory is elaborated partly through verse. Lauren’s little poetries astonish with their exquisite logic and explanatory power. Her originary poem is definitive:
God is power- Infinite, Irresistible, Inexorable, Indifferent. And yet, God is Pliable- Trickster, Teacher, Chaos, Clay. God exists to be shaped. God is Change. (22)
Another of her early poems is just as direct and all embracing:
Belief Initiates and guides action- Or it does nothing. (41)
But the most important protocol of Lauren’s philosophy is stated at the beginning of Chapter Three:
We do not worship God. We perceive and attend God. We learn from God. With forethought and work, We shape God. In the end, we yield to God. We adapt and endure, For we are Earthseed, And God is Change. (15)
A strategist by temperament, experience, and circumstance, Lauren’s use of “God” is not spiritual, cosmological, theological, or moral; it is devotedly secular. When asked in the second part of the story why she keeps using “God” to express the idea of change, Lauren explains: “People forget ideas. They’re more likely to remember God -- especially when they’re scared or desperate” (198). What becomes clear toward the end of the tale is that the intention of Lauren’s “God is Change” maxim is to crystallize, into a single slogan, the dialectical unity of opposites under post-capitalist society, to which she has given the name “Earthseed”: the individual (“Change”) and the collective (“God”). If “God” is the collective and “Change” is the individual, then a brief return to Allen’s theory of the individual and the collective is helpful in understanding Butler’s insistence on the need to “preconceive” social relations for life after the horrors of capitalism. How will we know we are living under socialism? What will be different?
A change of ruling classes has been the pattern, from the French Revolution down to the Bolshevik, Chinese, and Cuban Revolutions, but these revolutions ended up using the old bourgeois methods of social control as soon as unmanageable socio-economic crises arose, i.e. the Police State. This is not to say that the three socialist revolutions were failures or that they fell short of making new socialist societies, ones much better qualitatively than the capitalist kind. Rather the point is that they lacked a conscious theory of the social relations of production, or, better, that they had not preconceived them. In Allen’s conception, the great twentieth-century socialist revolutions show that a radical change in the mode of production does nothing to prepare the way for a radical change in the social relations of production. For that to happen, a new social relation between the individual and the collective has to be prepared in advance.
Moreover, the familiar liberal bourgeois claim that greater access to affordable goods and services, i.e. more consumption, will mark the beginnings of American social democracy is equally faulty, since the establishment of broad access to the products of proletarian labor power has nothing to do with the social relations of such production. The recent economic history of U.S. society proves persuasively the errant logic of this claim. Take, for instance, some of the facts and analysis provided by the Nobel laureate in economics Joseph Stiglitz in his book The Roaring Nineties. “The nineties showed that they [newly expanded markets for consumption goods] did not ensure stability,” he says, “the seventies and eighties [showed] that they need not produce high growth, and that poverty may increase even as the economy grows” (292). Today it is well known that despite all the impressive labor productivity gains of the 1990s—an increase of 82 percent—which greatly increased the availability of goods, the socioeconomic polarization of rich and poor, north and south, west and east, white and not-white, male and female, has remained essentially the same, or in many cases has become much worse.
Thus in Allen’s terms each of these failures at the level of the social relations of production—the twentieth-century socialist revolutions down to the Washington Consensus and Clintonomics -- can be attributed to their poor showing at testing time: plenty of technological growth and social development, but did they establish a “good collective”? In Allen’s terms, the measure of a good collective is “not how many differences it can overcome, but how few it must overcome in order to minimize the frequency of those instances in which the unity of opposites becomes the opposite of unity.”
In societies where the overwhelming majority of the laboring classes were peasant in origin and where the social relations of production were hierarchical, these specific revolutionary socialist failures were inescapable. That is, without a prior transformation of the old slaveholding capitalist and bond-labor social relation, the masses of newly emancipated rural workers would, under a new working-class political power, resist the new government rather than support it, at least initially. Why, then, all the hand-wringing? Why the unnecessary ideological defensiveness about the uncompleted socialist project of transforming our social relations of production? Allen’s compelling insight is that the struggle for American socialism today need not defend itself against these failures, since socializing the relations of production is always a great work in progress, as history proves at every turn. More importantly, these socialist failures have nothing to do with the peculiar development of U.S. society or the arrangement of social relations specific to the U.S. nation-state. In the U.S. national context, the question, “How will we know we are living under socialism?” is, first and foremost, a question of the social relations of production. Another way to put it is, Are all the workers black yet?
What if All the Workers Were Black? Beginning from Ground Zero
In Parable of the Sower, the mystifying staying power of the hierarchical white hegemon, more than three hundred years old and counting, can be seen in the fact that, despite being completely isolated from the rest of the nation, in a state of perpetual crisis, inhabited by a multiplicity of ethnicities and language-speakers, and led by a militant African American civil rights preacher, Lauren’s fortress community is still racially stratified and male supremacist. It seems hard to believe, but inside the gated walls of Robledo are all the old racial and gender divisions, anxieties, and conflicts. It makes one lose faith in humanity, which is one of Butler’s objectives: to lose faith in an unexamined hierarchical humanity. Only after the community is invaded, burned to the ground, and most its members savagely raped, murdered, and dismembered is the U.S. system of white male racial oppression finally null and void. Finally we can begin from ground zero. One of the great tensions in Butler’s work, and that which animates Parable of the Sower from beginning to end, is precisely this equalitarian impulse to start completely from scratch but without losing any of our common, irreducible humanity -- for instance, the ability to mourn, and the special capacity to preconceive the future. In other words, the more brutally is this human impulse towards new social beginnings politically repressed and postponed, the less possible is a non-violent solution to ending the rule of racial and masculine domination.
It is a simple yet frightening proposition and one consistently advanced in the African American tradition, beginning with David Walker’s Appeal in the early nineteenth century, down to the Black Aesthetic writers of the 1960s such as Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, Sonia Sanchez, and Haki Madhubuti, as well as the leaders of the Black Power movement. A lot of contemporary hiphop artists, and lately Derrick Bell in his recent book Silent Covenants, have suggested a similar scenario. For many American humanists and even anti-humanists, ironically, this proposal is simply unthinkable. Certainly something as irrational as the American Color Line could be eradicated without the prior annihilation of innocent communities like Robledo? Moreover, isn’t the “browning” of America a hopeful thing? Won’t white supremacy wither away on its own through the dramatic demographic shifts in U.S. society taking place every day?
Butler’s science fiction argues that these hopes are well intentioned but seriously deluded by a hovering white fog in which the notion of “race” is still linked wrongly and self-servingly to skin color. On the contrary, Butler shows that white racial oppression is about social control, not phenotype, and the proof is in the fact that this great multiplicity of American ethnicities and complexions, under white male supremacist rule, still align themselves into “black” and “white” social blocs, even, and especially, in the most desperate of situations. But this is how the social engineers of U.S. capitalism designed things from the beginning, which Butler takes as her departure point. The real issue for Butler is preconceiving a new social relation for the days immediately after the white incubus has been exorcised, and by forces completely unstoppable by the elite white male rulers themselves, still chasing mindlessly after present profit as they were built to do.
Indeed, the prophetic power of Parable of the Sower lies in Butler’s keen awareness of American political economy. She shows that the enduring contradictions of late U.S. capitalist society -- privatization; extreme racial and gender inequalities; the increasing polarization of rich and poor; chronic overproduction; the decline of the dollar; a massive and corrupt military budget; the easy flight of capital off-shore; the reliance on sweatshop labor; the unchanging U.S. government preference for anti-communist death squad governments around the world; de-unionization; the defunding of public education; the unregulated privatization of financial markets; and the addictive, manic pursuit of present profit -- will lead, logically, to the irruption of a huge, irreversible social crisis. And only through this crisis will the white national nightmare finally come to an end, and from all the ashes the possibility for a new social relation present itself.
Ingeniously, Butler’s leader is a brilliant and courageous African American girl, and so all the workers in post-capitalist U.S. society will become “black,” as their only alternative would be to leave Earthseed for the rancid, decaying world of white male supremacy, a choice only a fool would make. This gets Earthseed off to a good start, because in it, therefore, are no fools. Early in the novel, Butler establishes for Lauren a kind of self-irony that follows from her “underground” social position: she feels and thinks about the world with a perspicacity specific to the unequal status of young, black, and female imposed on her from above. Lauren knows full well that she is different, both in terms of her hyper-empathy and her unequal social status in the community yet, rather than live under that kind of veil, she openly explores the opportunities enabled by this circumstantial social position. “I walked, then rode in a daze,” Lauren writes about her first experience of killing, “still not quite free of the dog I had killed. I had felt it die, and yet I had not died. I had felt its pain as though it were a human being. I had felt its life flare and go out, and I was still alive. Pow” (40).
Lauren is self-ironic. She knows that most people are scared of her but have no choice but to follow up her rational proposals. This is what makes her one of the most remarkable American revolutionary socialists in U.S. fiction and an entirely new breed of leader. Joining her movement is a social and political necessity, not a moral choice. In this way, she has a lot in common with the slain Salvadoran communist revolutionary Roque Dalton, a master of self-irony, who wrote in his classic volume Poemas Clandestinos, “But everywhere the revolution needs people not only willing to die but also willing to kill for it” (75). And Lauren will kill, and kill again. “I killed him because he was a threat to us,” Lauren tells one of her shaken Earthseed members in the post-cataclysm phase of the story, “to me in a special way, but to you too” (171). This new member of her growing community, gathered from the wreckage of a dying capitalism, is a white male. When Lauren asks him what he would have done about the man she just shot and killed, who was attempting to rape and kill Lauren and her comrades, he says: “I only know I wouldn’t have done what you did” (171).
His name is Harry and through work, dialogue, reading, thinking, and experience, he will come to accept Lauren’s concept of killing in defense of new equalitarian American social relations. This notion might sound romantic and even nostalgic, but then this sort of automatic denial of the violent contradictions of late capitalist society, by those trapped up inside the interstices of the social hierarchy, is precisely the target of Butler’s fiction. To deny the obvious is the hallmark of the white male identity and the main reason for the total scale of the American crisis in the first place, she argues. When all the workers are “black,” this sort of denial will become improbable, and then the new social relations will begin to take shape. But what will they look like?
Individual Deviations and the Healthy Collective
Lauren is a secular heretic, a dissenter, a logician, and a rational, independent thinker: she constantly deviates from the white American norm. In the thrilling sequel to Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Talents, Butler explores the issue of how a new equalitarian American community could be based on the work of a radical not-white and not-male leader and intellectual, but that is outside the purview of this essay. Suffice it to say that in the immediate aftermath of post-capitalist society, Lauren’s bold individual deviations are what make possible a decisive break with the hierarchical tendencies integral to the persistence of white racial oppression, male supremacy, and the moronic, bloodthirsty march backward of a dying and panicked U.S. ruling class. But what are her ideas? What makes her deviant?
Lauren believes in science and repudiates religion. In academia, that might be normal but never in the American social world of the frightened, hungry, and destitute, where the future is a nightmare far worse than the present, and where the past is a sexy, alluring vision concocted by the corporate media. Lauren writes in her journal: “A tree cannot grow in its parents’ shadows” (79). And elsewhere:
I’ve never felt that I was making any of this up -- not the name, Earthseed, not any of it. I mean, I’ve never felt that it was anything but real: discovery rather than creation. I wish I could believe in the supernatural, and that I’m getting messages from God. All I do is observe and take notes, trying to put things down in ways that are as powerful, simple, and as direct as I feel them. I can never do that. I keep trying, but I can’t. I’m not good enough of a writer or poet or whatever it is I need to be. I don’t know what to do about that. It drives me frantic sometimes. I’m getting better, but slowly (69).
In a democratic nation, this position would be openly debated and generally accepted as normal and more or less interesting. But in a religious, socially backward, and undemocratic society like the U.S., where the majority still believes sturdily in the existence of the devil and the inevitable return of the Messiah, a view such as Lauren’s is considered crazy. Hence, her first deviation is an unblinking rejection of all religious ideology, in all its radical postmodernist masks and poses.
Her second deviation, expressed in the above passage, is self-irony, alluded to in the reference to Roque Dalton. Lauren is always questioning herself and is never satisfied with her own words, her special approach to life and to other people. Yet every poem she writes, every thought she thinks, and every proposal she advances publicly is persuasive. Her proposals are logically sound, always subject to dialogical critique, precise, rigorously self-analyzed, and pleasingly and directly presented, with forethought and concern for others with their own various abilities to understand what she is trying to communicate. She is an effective antidote to academic jargon, endless meetings, monologist discourse, self-righteousness, and narcissism; she is open at all times to self-correction, self-perfection and, most importantly, to the curious and insistent criticisms of her peers. She is the kind of teacher that every student dreams of when they register for a course, and the kind of national political leader that everyone either openly or secretly desires.
The third deviation is her equalitarianism: she refuses to accept any hierarchy either inherited or imposed politically by human beings. This rational, species-specific, felt embrace of difference and diversity is not only conceptually advanced but socially dangerous, because it takes Lauren far away from the earth, away from her native planet which is being consumed daily by genocidal madness, religious seizures of state power, state-sponsored terrorism and the use of torture, the wholesale destruction of forests and rivers, child labor, the systematic incarceration of the poor, the forced starvation of children, house demolitions and the confiscation of olive trees, the reckless use by state power of depleted uranium and cluster bombs, imperialist wars of aggression, and the smug, ironic indifference of cosmopolitan writers and artists who have assured themselves somehow that humanity is really a bad joke. Butler shows that by 2027 the cosmopolitans have outlived their purpose.
In 2027, Lauren’s most deviant question of the day is: What is our common destiny? “The Destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars,” she tells a few eager listeners, skeptical arrivants to her emergent Earthseed community, who ask her the question.
That’s the ultimate Earthseed aim, and the ultimate human change short of death. It’s a destiny we’d better pursue if we hope to be anything other than smooth-skinned dinosaurs—here today, gone tomorrow, our bones mixed with the bones and ashes of our cities, and so what?… I know it won’t be possible for a long time. Now is a time for building foundations -- Earthseed communities -- focused on the Destiny. After all, my heaven really exists, and you don’t have to die to reach it. “The Destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars, or among the ashes.” (199)
For Lauren, “the stars” and “the ashes” are symbolic and factual at the same time. They demonstrate the empirical fact that certain possibilities once existed in the past (the ashes) and that others exist for the future (the stars), however remote and fanciful they seem. They also represent, symbolically, the current conjuncture in which humanity finds itself a moment away from self-extinction and thus at a point where previously unthinkable ideas are considered seriously and then acted upon, or “shaped,” in Lauren’s terminology. Politics of Apocalypse
In 1993, Jean Baudrillard assessed a dominant turn-of-the-century structure of feeling -- the desire to see everything come to a big, fiery end, i.e. the Apocalypse -- in the following terms:
Imagine the amazing good fortune of the generation that gets to see the end of the world. This is as marvelous as being there at the beginning. How could one not wish for that with all one’s heart? How could one not lend one’s feeble resources to bringing it about?
To have been there at the beginning would have been fantastic. But we arrived too late. Only the end remains. Let us therefore apply ourselves to seeing things -- values, concepts, institutions -- perish, seeing them disappear. This is the only issue worth fighting for. (33f)
At the same time Baudrillard was arriving at his ironic concept of the Apocalypse (which for him was a feeling manifest all through popular culture), Butler was in Parable of the Sower advancing her own. If juxtaposed with Baudrillard’s theory, the logic of her novel can be better understood.
For instance, an essential element of her story is the existence of an apocalyptic American death cult: it is in fact the group responsible for burning her Robledo community to the ground and slaughtering its residents. Known as “the Paints,” because they shave all their body hair and then paint themselves green, blue, red, or yellow, it is an anarchic group of rich kids who “eat fire and kill rich people” (98). Readers are provided an inside look at the Paints through the reports of Lauren’s prodigal stepbrother Keith who has fled his gated community in search of excitement outside. Keith joins the Paints, although his involvement is short-lived as several months later his dead body turns up skinned-alive. But before dying, Keith has made a few trips back to Robledo to see his mother; during these several returns Lauren questions him about what is happening outside. Keith reports that the Paints are setting a good deal of Los Angeles on fire. He tells Lauren that they take a certain popular drug, set fires, and “just watch them burn. It’s like… I don’t know, it’s like they were fucking the fire, and like it was the best fuck they ever had” (98). Also popular with the Paints is a lot of current high-tech media equipment such as “TV windows you go through instead of just sitting and looking at. Headsets, belts, and touchrings… you see and feel everything, do anything. Anything! There’s places and things you can get into with that equipment that are in-sane! You don’t ever have to go into the street except to get food” (93).
In the sequel, Parable of the Talents, this new media technology is used directly by the state for social control, but here in Parable of the Sower the technology is depicted as a direct outgrowth of television: it is the next stage in a giant collective hypnotizing project engineered by corporate America. Butler’s suggestion is that television, as well as later electronic technologies such as video games and cyberspace, lead ultimately to the worship of death and destruction, because they isolate the individual at the costly expense of the collective. Thus the death of her community at the hands of the Paints is also the death of television and cyberspace. Butler’s position on television and new media technology is mainstream in the literature of science fiction; the difference with her approach, however, is that it is part of a much larger meditation on social relations. That is, her critique of the media is thoroughly secular rather than religious: it refuses to grant media technologies an omnipotent power over society.
Her position is close to the renegade critiques of the media offered by American counter-culture critics and activists of the 1960s and 70s, such as Jerry Mander’s in his 1978 book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. “By unifying everyone within its framework and by centralizing experience within itself,” Mander argued,
television virtually replaces environment. It accelerates our alienation from nature and therefore accelerates the destruction of nature. It moves us farther inside an already pervasive artificial reality. It furthers the loss of personal knowledge and the gathering of all information in the hands of a techno-scientific-industrial elite…Television freewayizes, suburbanizes and commoditizes human beings, who are then easier to control. Meanwhile, those who control television consolidate their power (349).
Raised in a poor yet self-sufficient community, Lauren has never lived in an artificial reality largely because her family never owned a television. This is an important aspect of Butler’s logic in Parable of the Sower, for her community’s awful fate is mainly a result of nobody listening to Lauren, who chooses to gather her information not from television and the Internet but rather from reading old books, listening to news on the radio, and studying closely her community’s real problems every day. She accomplishes this through both careful listening to her elders when they speak and writing her reflections down in her journal.
Building Socialist Foundations: “We’ll have whatever we can shape”
Once or twice each week A gathering of Earthseed Is a good and necessary thing. It vents emotion, then quiets the mind. It focuses attention, strengthens purpose, and unifies people.
-- Lauren Olamina, Earthseed: The Books of the Living
Seemingly quaint, the fulcrum of Lauren’s theory of post-capitalist social relations is “a gathering of Earthseed.” Yet by “gathering” she doesn’t mean ten hours of meetings intended to bring about more quickly the inevitable socialist revolution, to finesse the group’s ideological line in hopes of “reaching out” to more people, or to clarify the group’s internal pecking order. Lauren’s gatherings are cooperative, improvisational, spontaneous, and always a matter of necessity, not schedule, routine, or ideological conversion through propaganda. They involve at least three main elements: individual testimony, or the expression of a pressing individual need or problem in the presence of the group; open, democratic dialogue and debate; and the assertion, or re-assertion, of a common purpose, arrived at and agreed to collectively. The premise of Earthseed is that all individuals will work and come and go as they please, always with the right to withdraw without any questions asked. “The essentials,” Lauren says to another arrivant to the new collective, “are to learn to shape God with forethought, care, and work; to educate and benefit their community, their families, and themselves; and to contribute to the fulfillment of the Destiny” (234).
Lauren and the other members of her growing new collective hear a lot of individual testimonies as they march forward to Canada -- an exodus that is a matter of necessity, since everything behind them is either in flames or controlled by gangs of desperate predators. “The world is full of painful stories,” she says to herself, immediately after listening to a new member’s harrowing personal narrative. “Sometimes it seems as though there aren’t any other kind yet I found myself thinking how beautiful that glint of water was through the trees” (235f). It’s a revealing moment, for Lauren is always torn, as in her obsession with Mars, between remaining emotionally attached to a self-destructive humanity and the possible revivification of the human life force through a new beginning, somewhere else, far from old humanity’s hierarchical grasp, with new people.
The novel’s denouement prepares the way for the sequel, Parable of the Talents; it is deliberately open-ended. But in addition, the ending brings together the final “gathering of Earthseed” in which the central concerns of post-capitalist society are brought to the fore and hotly debated by a diverse group of physically exhausted exiles, all of whom are ready for anything other than the past social relations, and who are excited intellectually at the opportunity to preconceive a new equalitarian community on the ruins of the old hierarchical one. They will have it out and then agree on the proper foundation for their collective new beginning.
They never get to Canada because one of the new arrivants to Earthseed, an older African American man named Bankole, owns property in northern California. When the inchoate collective arrives on his land, they find it in ruins, everything burned to the ground. The big debate centers on whether to stay on the land and build Earthseed there or keep traveling north to Canada and, once “safe” from the imploding U.S. system, to disperse and begin again individually -- in other words, to treat the nascent Earthseed collective as a short-term means to individual “freedom.” Bankole and Lauren have become lovers, which helps make up Bankole’s mind, but the rest of the group is undecided until the final gathering. Lauren proposes to build Earthseed on Bankole’s land. Her argument is based on the acorn and other seeds she has been carrying in her backpack: “We can… put in a winter garden from the seed I’ve been carrying and collecting since I was at home” (286). The men in the group are skeptical and prefer to move on. Harry wants “something of my own. Land, a home, maybe a store or a small farm. Something that’s mine. This land is Bankole’s” (289). But the women of the group vote to stay and build. Zahra, a former concubine, doesn’t think twice about it: “Of course we’re staying” (289). The rest of the group finds no good reason to abandon the new collective, especially after Lauren’s tersely stated final argument: “We’ll have whatever we can shape” (292).
The individual deviations are still critical, but the social situation -- a new, equalitarian dialectical unity of opposites -- is now in the making, where from each according to her abilities and to each according to her needs is now the ruling idea. Under the former capitalist social relation, Lauren’s deviant ideas are dismissed as crazy and her panicked and embattled working-class community ignores her completely, at their own peril, mainly because she is young, black, and female. In post-capitalist American society, Lauren is still dealing with the remnants of white male supremacy, expressed in Harry’s militant opposition to her proposal to build where they can, which comes down to his white male desire -- a “white” incubus, as it turns out, to be free finally of the very multi-ethnic working-class American community that has enabled him to survive thus far.
But the difference has become transparent. Running for his life in post-capitalist America, Harry is without a white government behind him and thus he can no longer claim automatic membership in a monolithic, privileged social group -- the “white race” -- which had been established to keep him “safely” inside it, above in social status and away physically from every not-white person on the earth. The males of color in the new group are also reluctant to accept Lauren’s proposal, but, lacking the chance of white-privileged work outside Earthseed (because they are not-white), they have little choice. One of the men, Mora, jokes crudely that Earthseed has no chance but he’ll stay anyway. He tells Lauren, “You’re nuts. But this is a crazy time. Maybe you’re what the time needs -- or what we need. I’ll stay. I may be sorry for it, but I’ll stay” (292).
In enlivening ways, Butler’s fiction is itself an individual deviation. There have been few African American women writing in the science fiction genre -- her first important deviation. Second, her different individual deviations are always positional: they come from within a kind of writing that is all about the “What if?” and already has a mass reading audience. Thus the question, “What if U.S. capitalism falls within the next fifteen years?” is not, for Butler and her readers, an academic one. It is not fantasy either. Ironically, it is the kind of question that is most widely posed in science fiction, since the U.S. bourgeois state apparatus of education and media, or “public society,” cannot permit such a question in any other form. Yet Butler’s deviations continue at the level of science fiction itself, where her race-and gender-free perspective is made uncommonly concrete, as in her attention to the everyday details of unchanged white male hegemony in U.S. society -- what Baudrillard has called science fiction’s “paraxystic” element.
Never before had a science fiction novelist taken as her starting point this most enduring of all American social oppressions and the lynchpin of U.S. ruling-class social control. In the immediate aftermath of Bush’s re-election, which depended on his opponent’s “weak” white maleness and, conversely, the “strong” white maleness of his reactionary Christian electoral base, Butler’s “positive obsession” with how to deal with the white male hegemon seems today all the more perceptive, persuasive, and correct. Butler’s unifying strategy, felt most directly and urgently in Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, is to examine this oppression from a place free of race and gender -- that is, from her own subjective standpoint in which an equalitarian future is always being preconceived -- and, from it, to objectify American racial and gender hierarchies precisely by exposing their central role in the disintegration of U.S. civil society, and of the planet as a whole. In this respect, there is one historical American figure who seems closest to the fictional Lauren Olamina and whose basic qualities and philosophic approaches to American society, as every biographer of his has agreed, whether hostile or sympathetic, were arguably the most deviant U.S. society had ever seen. A quick parallel between him and Lauren helps to shed a fuller light on Butler’s work.
Like Butler’s Lauren, John Brown came of age during a time of great crisis: for Brown it was during the early nineteenth century when the U.S. ruling class was imposing its system of racial slavery westward. As a teenager, he committed his life to “doing battle with the Slave empire” (Fried: 20). And like Lauren, Brown spent much of his youth pondering “the wretched, hopeless condition of fatherless and motherless slave children” and asked himself, “Is God their father?” (21). More than anything, it was Brown’s feeling that he was “called” to contribute to the overthrow of racial slavery—that he was simply following, in Lauren’s terminology, “the Destiny” -- that makes him Lauren’s historical antecedent and political soulmate. In his final message, the day before his hanging, Brown said: “I John Brown will never be purged away with blood. I had as I now think vainly flattered myself that without very much blood it might be done” (15; emphasis in the original).
As Parable of the Sower concludes, a great deal of blood has been already shed, all of it deeply felt by Lauren personally, as John Brown had felt it personally, and readers anticipate that in Butler’s sequel a great deal more blood will be lost in the struggle for an American socialist society, led by an older and wiser Lauren and all the members of the new Earthseed collective. The sequel, like Parable of the Sower itself, never displays any illusions. But there is so much cheerfulness in the final lines of the Sower that readers could be relaxed in thought, finally, at least for a moment or two, to consider what they could do themselves to contribute to the fulfillment of the Destiny:
So today we remembered the friends and the family members we’ve lost. We spoke our individual memories and quoted Bible passages, Earthseed verses, and bits of songs and poems that were favorites of the living or the dead.
Then we buried our dead and we planted oak trees.
Afterward, we sat together and talked and ate a meal and decided to call this place Acorn (295).
Allen, Theodore W. “Base and Superstructure and the Socialist Perspective.” Paper delivered at the “How Class Works” Conference, The State University of New York at Stony Brook, June 11, 2004.
Baudrillard, Jean. Fragments: Cool Memories III, 1990-1995. London and New York: Verso, 1997.
Borge, Tomás. “The Reality of Latin America.” Race & Class. January-March 1992, 96-102.
Butler, Octavia. Parable of the Sower. New York: Warner Books, 1993.
Dalton, Roque. Poemas Clandestinos/Clandestine Poems. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone, 1986.
Fried, Albert. John Brown’s Journey: Notes and Reflections on His America and Mine. New York: Doubleday, 1978.
Mander, Jerry. Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. New York: William Morrow, 1978.
Marx, Karl, & Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. New York: Signet Classic, 1998.
Stiglitz, Joseph. The Roaring Nineties. New York: Norton, 2003.
*Theodore Allen died on January 19, 2005 at the age of 85. A truly great American working-class intellectual, he always put working people at the center of the world. This essay is dedicated to him.