The Beginning of the End: Conflict

The Beginning of the End

originally published at Suvudu—May 21, 2010.

So, I’m behind by a week with The Beginning of the End. I blame moving cross-country. We left off with anarchy.

Now, let’s talk violence.

Episode 2: Conflict

There are plenty of utopian social philosophies floating around, and they’re all fun—mostly because they don’t work. At various stages in our shared history, random collections of special snowflakes have all “seen the light”—and they promptly set about sharing it with everyone, usually through complicated, Rube Goldberg-esque philosophies and architectures. And, you know, there’s a reason they typically (almost universally) don’t work. Well, not on the scales they’re intended for—anyone with enough power can make his or her own utopia work; it’ll just suck for the rest of us.

See, the idea behind utopianism is to re-direct society in ways that exploit no one, enable everyone, and distribute civic authority among the people—rather than localizing it in a central administration. Marxism and communism were attempts at this—so was the work of a Frenchman named Charles Fourier, an American named Edward Bellamy (who wrote an SF utopian novel called Looking Backward in 1888), and scores of others.

But who cares? That’s history, and what does it have to do with the apocalypse? Well, think in terms of Star Trek. In the Trek future, citizens are all socially and philosophically enabled, poverty has been eliminated, and there’s no “economy” for acquiring goods and wealth (that’s the idea, anyway—TNG was particularly bad about betraying or under-developing this idea). In this future, everything is plated with plexiglass (or “transparent aluminum,” if you’re a Trekkie/Trekker . . . whichever), everyone wears Spandex, and conflict is only the result of the aggressive tendencies of socially baser races. That is, if the Romulans and the Klingons weren’t always picking fights, the Federation wouldn’t have to maintain its massive, planetary-resource-depleting armada.

Many utopian philosophies, and many SF texts/films/games posit a future when we become “more” human. In this future, we’re kinder, smarter, more enlightened. We have eliminated conflict, which was impeding our progress toward “better” humanity.

But apocalyptic narrative takes a different approach. It rejects the idea that conflict gets in the way of being fully human—it embraces the idea that humanity is conflict . . . and always will be. Our ancestors conflicted in the struggle to find and protect resources (food, water, shelter)—which is all that “power” really is anyway: control of resources—we conflict in the competitive market, for academic achievement, and even for sexual partners. There will be no world peace when the very economy we use to make donations to humanitarian efforts is based on a national conflict to acquire more “money” (a resource) at someone else’s expense. The apocalypse knows all this, and even if it means chaos, disorder, pain, and loss, these narratives assert that conflict—and its consequences—is our true inheritance, our true lineage and lasting legacy. There’s no point, these stories tell us, in lamenting humanity and wasting time dreaming about when it will be different (utopianism). Instead, the apocalypse wants you to understand humanity now.

This may be all well and good, but is there any practical reason for following these lines of thought? Sure. Technology (or, at least, a fictionalized understanding of it) is a good example of how conflict-as-humanity reveals itself. In the worlds of research and development (in a world where nations still compete for resources), advances in any kind of technology are also, often, advances in weaponry—or they at least parallel such advances in weaponry in that our scientists reach new levels of discovery, every generation, and these lead to new technological possibilities. When someone develops a jet pack, which would revolutionize personal travel, the military will be the first in line to get some. When medical imaging technology advances and allows doctors (who often represent our most peaceful, most civilized endeavor: medicine) to “see” more, the next place that tech will appear is on strategic defense satellites or other surveillance devices. Our advancement toward the Star Trek ideal of “better” humanity is also our advancement toward more strategic power in the conflict-game of life.

Food for Thought:

•Stephen King, “The End of the Whole Mess,” Wastelands:

The off-handed anecdote on pg. 6 about forward-wing plane designs is a nice, quick example of how innovation improves weaponry. On pg. 16, grown-up Bobby’s revelation about “curing” humanity with something from humans (cutting off your nose to spite your face) is a nice nod to the “incurable” nature of violence. To “fix” humanity, you’d have to get rid of it.

The War of the Worlds (1953), Dir. Byron Haskin:

If you haven’t seen this version, look away . . .
In the end, the victorious humans are left with fully operational but now-unmanned (un-aliened?) spacecraft. These things are invulnerable, highly effective, and efficient. If the scientists were able, earlier, to figure out how to jury-rig an alien eye, where do you think they’ll turn their efforts next? And what will they do after they’ve figured it out? That’s right—boom.