Scene from Die Hard 4: Live Free or Die Hard
Scene from Die Hard 4: Live Free or Die Hard
David Graeber has republished his popular essay Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit in his new book Utopia of Rules with some small changes that go toward supporting the book’s over-all argument that the hallmark of American neoliberalism is not dynamism and a freeing up of individuals to peruse “creative class” jobs but rather a bureaucratization of every aspect of life. This total bureaucratization (almost literally) papers over the structural violence that supports capitalism. Of Flying Cars specifically argues that the utter failure to deliver on the implicit promises of Jetsons-level automation by the 21st century is not necessarily a matter of market forces (no one actually wants a flying car!) or technical impossibility (Moore’s law hasn’t delivered thinking computers yet!) but is in fact a product of both squashing the imagination through bureaucratic devices, and the immense devaluing of labor and elimination of corporate profit taxation that leads to paltry civilian research and development. In essence, capitalism in its present form, is anathema to the future it once promised.
Graeber states in the beginning of the essay that he is puzzled by the near silence from those people who saw the moon landing on their televisions but today do not, themselves, live on the moon (or can easily teleport there, or take a drug that might extend their life to the time that both of those things are available). “Instead,” he writes, “just about all the authoritative voices—both on the Left and Right—began their reflections from the assumption that a world of technological wonders had, in fact, arrived.”
Graeber relatively quickly drops the issue of how our collective expectations of the future could be so quickly and completely re-aligned (his answer is postmodernism) and goes on to explain why such an alignment has become necessary (capitalism’s secret love of bureaucracy) but I want to dwell on the “how” question a little bit longer by offering up a corollary to Of Flying Cars. The argument that follows is also a reprinting of my own work, an article published in a 2012 issue of the International Journal of Engineering Social Justice in Peace, co-authored with Arizona State University’s Joseph R. Herkert. I want to argue that our expectations for the future are purposefully managed through a circulation of imagined threats to capitalism, the popularizing of narratives that flesh out that threat, and the re-articulation of those imagined threats as real ones that must be met with massive government funding. I will demonstrate this process using a beloved and uniquely American franchise: Die Hard.
The original article, available in full here, argued that the top-down technocratic perspective exemplified by Robert Moses’ demolishing of vast swaths of New York City are still alive and well today, but are repackaged in Silicon Valley platitudes of disruption and hacking that circulate in popular media so as to 1) provide the technocrat’s view of the world as an inevitable future, 2) drum up support for a clearly unethical approach to technological development by establishing narratives that reaffirm the need for the technocratic view, and 3) establish popular touchstones that make small areas of research that benefit an elite few appear to be global needs on the scale of clean water or sanitation.
We argued that in past iterations of this process, companies like GM and Ford offered positive views of the future through (among other marketing campaigns) their exhibits at the 1939 and 1964 world’s fairs that gave out pins to visitors that read “I have seen the future!” Today’s expectation management is different in that rather than plainly state “this is the future we will create” our media describes future development as merely a response to seemingly uncontrollable events such as terrorism or resource scarcity. This is where my previously published work on Die Hard comes in.