Wednesday 13 October 2021

American Cleon

There has long been a lapsarian strain in the American imagination, and that’s why Foundation is so
Hari Seldon never suggests making something
better than an Empire. He wants to make Trantor
Great Again. (Image via CNET) 

appealing — and so dangerous — right now. But unlike the fate of the Galactic Empire, the outcomes of the issues facing us today are not certain.

Books and articles about the decline of the United States and of what is called “Western Civilization” have populated bookstore shelves and magazine pages for more than a century, with such notables as Niall Ferguson, Chris Hedges, Emmanuel Todd, and David D. Schein contributing tomes to the pastime of prognosticating American eschatology.

But in the past decade, these types of predictions have reached a fever pitch. And it’s not difficult to see why. Factors such as political polarization, global warming, the decline of democracy, increasing resource scarcity and disparities between rich and poor, all seem to have clear and exacerbating trend lines. If there were one of Hari Seldon’s prime radiants, one could imagine these trends being plotted through the equations of psychohistory and seeing a definitive predictive answer that an unpleasant end awaits us all.

These are historical trends that seem inexorable; they seem as inescapable as “the known probability of imperial assassination, viceregal revolt, the contemporary recurrence of periods of economic depression, the declining rate of planetary explorations…” all of which afflicted the Galactic Empire during the reign of Cleon II.

It must be understood that Foundation reflects the argument made by Edward Gibbons in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; that decline was only in part caused by forces external to the empire itself, that a determinant of collapse was a gradual loss of civic virtue among its Roman citizens (Though by ‘civic virtue,’ some have suggested Gibbons meant ‘members of lower classes knowing their place’). Asimov had just finished reading Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire when he began writing Foundation, but he was also writing in the immediate wake of the Great Depression, and a period of upheaval and uncertainty about his country’s future.
Some pundits have gone further back,
and compared present-day politics to
Asimov’s source material.

The idea of the United States as a “new Rome” has existed since shortly after the American revolution. It is communicated through the myth of manifest destiny and is encapsulated in the architecture of Washington, D.C. At various points through its history, American preachers have attempted to create historical narratives that cast the rise and fall of the country as divine prophecy (Just as one high-profile example, Latter-Day Saints founder Joseph Smith told his followers that the U.S. Constitution was a divine document, and that Jesus’ second coming would occur in Missouri).

Foundation as a narrative has to be understood in this context; Isaac Asimov’s understanding of history was informed by American exceptionalism, the influence of America’s third ‘Great Awakening’ of apocalyptic religiosity, the wake of the Great Depression, and of a period of upheaval and uncertainty about the country’s future. It might be asked why, after 80 years, the books are finally being adapted to the screen; is it perhaps because we are again in a period of upheaval and uncertainty?

While we should be aware that the original novel is a product of the ideas and concerns of the time it was written, the television show is a product of today and makes arguments about the world of 2021. We would suggest that the television series version of Foundation contains hints of Gibbons’ classism, echoes of Asimov’s concerns about America on the eve of the Second World War, but also reflects our own 21st Century concerns about decline.

Margaret Atwood has said that “Prophecies are really about now. In science fiction it's always about now.” And it’s really more about how people perceive the present, as today’s perceptions determine the actions of tomorrow. Apple TV’s Foundation series resonates because people perceive these trends to be inescapable, and determinative. This is underscored by science fiction’s ideas shaping powerful political forces.

If we accept that this new iteration of Foundation is indeed about the United States, those who take its core messages seriously may help ensure that decline is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The problems facing the world are not insurmountable. There are policies and technologies that will mitigate climate change. Pressure on politicians can force them to behave in our best interest. These things are not easy but they are necessary if we want to avoid Seldon’s predicted outcome.

Inescapable doom can sometimes be more comfortable than faint hope; if the Empire’s going to collapse one way or another, then enjoy it while you can and let Raven Seldon worry about what comes next. If we, as citizens of the world, accept the metaphor presented by Foundation, it can inculcate fatalism about the very real problems we’re facing. As Florida International University professor of English Charles Elkins argued in his Marxist reading of Foundation, “Reading these novels, the reader experiences this fatalism which, in a Marxist analysis, flows from his own alienation in society and his sense of impotence in facing problems he can no longer understand, the solutions of which he puts in the hands of a techno-bureaucratic elite.”

Decline is a powerful idea, and one that rightly should worry us. Foundation suggests that individuals have little agency to affect real change. In doing so, it absolves us for doing nothing.

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