'Battlestar Galactica' Predicted the End of the Republic
Political theorist Eva Cherniavsky on how science fiction can help us see beyond capitalism and democracy.
For most people, the feeling that we’re at the end of an era is terrifying, but that creeping suspicion is what gives Dr. Eva Cherniavsky job security. A professor and researcher at the University of Washington, Cherniavsky is an expert on post-colonial theory and specifically on the flaws within modern societies that might lead to collapse. Her new book, Neocitizenship: Political Culture After Democracy, is an alarming look into a future in which the neoliberal democratic system has fallen apart. It is also a book about Battlestar Galactica because, as Cherniavsky points out, that show was all about what happens when the systems and identities a culture was built on fall away.
Sure, it’s a space opera, but that doesn’t mean it’s far-fetched, or that it isn’t getting nearer fetched by the day.
Inverse spoke to Dr. Cherniavsky about the American Battlestar crew, capitalism separating from democracy, and the failure of political theory to chart a way forward.
We’ll dig into the political theory, but let’s start with Battlestar Galactica, because your reading of it made it feel very relevant in light of current political conversations. What do you see when you watch that show?
What I like about popular culture is exactly that it’s not realistic. It’s not bound by realism. It’s open, it’s speculative, so it’s less bound to the conventional categories of political analysis. What I thought was really interesting about Battlestar Galactica is the basic premise, where there are two collectives. The human or quasi-human population, which has been decimated by these artificial beings, the Cylons, and my reading of the series is that both the humans and the Cylons are versions of us in the present. The humans are the bad faith version of contemporary Americans. They proceed to cling to the remnants of these failing political institutions, the idea of democracy, popular rule, rule of law, and it’s very clear that those are operating in very shaky, bad faith fashion.
Then there’s the Cylons who are really interesting, not because they represent some hopeful future, but because I think they’re an attempt to imagine one really dystopian version of what where we’re headed. One of the really interesting features of Cylon society is that there actually is no Cylon society. Cylons are clones and their world is organized around serial, managed differences.
They are unified in their actions, but not in their motivations, right?
Cylon society does not seem to require a shared social and political reality in which everyone participates. One of the things we’re told about Cylons is that they intentionally construct their own reality. They “project.” That’s the language that one of the Cylons uses, so you imagine the environment you want to be in and they have an ability to produce their own customized virtual realities and inhabit them. I found that really resonant because it felt to me that it was a metaphor that captured something about our own political world.
How does that sort of vision for the future dovetail with political theory?
The problem with using political theory, exclusively, to answer this question is that it uses categories of analysis drawn from the marriage of democracy and capitalism. So it becomes very hard to read the divorce as anything but a failing. The way I put it in the book is that it becomes really difficult for political theorists to read the present as anything other than a degraded version of the past. One of the ways in which I think this plays out in practice is in terms of this widespread contempt for the U.S. voting and nonvoting public.
No one likes American voters less than American voters — except maybe American politicians.
It’s true that, in general, no invective is too extreme for describing American voters. They’re stupid, uninformed. The low-information voter is a touchstone. Part of what animated me in the book is this claim, which is not exactly wrong, but misses the really important question: What is producing all this stupidity? Maybe that voting public has actually very astutely understood the irrelevance of its consent to the operations of political power.
*This is where we start talking about the decline of neoliberal culture. You argue that the marriage between capitalism and democracy has always been shaky. Did you see a crisis coming in real time or do you just think of turmoil as an inevitability?
For me, the easiest way to frame this is to talk a little about that marriage as it relates to representational democracy. It’s always been a fraught marriage, because it presumed on the one hand that governments of a democratic state have a commitment to a general interest, however you define that. On the other hand, it requires that government commit to the protection of private property. One of the ways to think about what neoliberalism means is that the first of those two commitments is jettisoned. The neoliberal state is really no longer committed to any notion of a collective public good.
Or leaders try to sell the idea that if government protects personal property everyone will have a path to happiness. But that doesn’t always go great because sometimes people still aren’t happy.
Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum, “There is no society” perfectly captures that. The “good” is always an individual, private, entrepreneurial good. It’s one of the things that we mean by neoliberalism, but it seemed to me while I was writing this book that there were two consequences that we hadn’t really thought sufficiently about.
The first one has to do with the way in which, in the context of that marriage the task of elites and of their allies is to make their particular interests, their private interests look and feel like a general interest. That’s what’s often talked about in Marxist criticism has forging hegemony. You craft this sense of a general alliance, a general political interest in a certain conception of a common good that actually forwards a set of more specific interests that belong to the ruling class. It’s what Noam Chomsky famously called “manufacturing consent.” This means that the ruling interests have to craft a political center.
The other piece of this that was really interesting to me is that in the world of this marriage, consent may be manufactured, it may be aggressively manufactured, but if there is a mass withholding of consent, a large-scale social protest, that produces a crisis of legitimation.
So I’m really interested in this question of the disappearance of a center.
You believe that democracy as we’ve long understood it is over — that this is an existential collapse. I’m not misreading that right?
I don’t think that government operates anymore on a claim to represent some version of a popular will. That was obviously a fabricated popular will, a manufactured one, but it was important that the legitimacy of state power rested on a claim of representation. So, yes, I do think that what we’re witnessing now is the dissolution of the modern structures of representative democracy.
If the idea of popular will goes away and we’re left culturally atomized and without political precedent, how can we think about the future?
I think for us right now, it’s very hard to imagine anything that isn’t some kind of reconstitution of a familiar brand. One of the novels I talk about in the book is this great science fiction novel. It’s called “Distraction” by a very well-known cyberpunk writer Bruce Sterling.
It’s a near-future novel, and it imagines a more radical version of the present. Economic collapse is pervasive; technological advance has eliminated most professions; joblessness is rampant. Entire hordes of people have dropped out and become nomads. Electoral politics has become mass entertainment. It’s a form of celebrity culture and things are run by what are called the State-of-Emergency cliques. The way Sterling puts it — I really love this line — is that “in this new world, money just doesn’t need human beings anymore.”
But, at the end of that novel, the only thing he can imagine is some reconstitution of a nation. A regime emerges which manages to somehow reintegrate these really atomized factions.
You’re not buying it, huh?
I think it’s very hard for us to imagine anything other than that but it’s not clear to me that that’s the shape of the future. I guess I don’t really have an answer to your question.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.