By Alexander Wallace
It’s 2008. The bottom has fallen out from under the housing market. The world plunges into recession, leading to millions losing their jobs and their livelihoods. In our world, the choice was to bail out the banks and to allow the financial sector to more or less get away scot free. It enraged many, not without reason.
Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek firebrand known for confronting neoliberalism, has joined Newt Gingrich in the ranks of politicians that have written alternate history. He imagines a world where the Great Recession leads not to a flimsy patching-over of the issues that caused that crisis, but rather a complete restructuring of the world economy. That world is his new novel: Another Now.
The book is framed with a story set in our world’s near future, where a brilliant computer scientist in Silicon Valley (in a premise heavily reminiscent of Ted Chiang’s Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom) creates a computer that allows him to talk to his counterpart from a world where capitalism was done away with in the late 2000s. He later ropes in some of his colleagues who likewise talk with their counterparts in this world. The book’s blurb bills it as “[blending] Platonic dialogue with speculative fiction,” and that is a very accurate descriptor. More than any other book, this novel reminded me of Theodor Herzl’s The Old New Land, a work that is a fundamentally a political tract with the trappings of a novel to help with readability. Both Herzl’s and Varoufakis’ characters are ultimately paper-thin and exist to further the exploration of the ideas at hand; they exist to persuade, not to entertain. This is something I rarely say, but I wonder if the traditional alternate history timeline, like Sobel’s For Want of a Nail, may actually have made the entire exercise more readable.
At William & Mary I majored in international relations, a degree that required me to take a good deal of turgid economics courses. Large chunks of this book struck me as better-written, left-aligned versions of textbooks for those classes. There is a tremendous amount of discussions of the financial sector and its mechanisms, both in our world and in theirs, and a good deal of denunciation of “the bankruptcy of the bankers” (a term Varoufakis quite likes). Varoufakis chose characters who all plausibly have substantial knowledge in economics, but it’s obviously a convenience for him. He makes it clear enough, but those who find the entire concept uninteresting will be bored (I find economics interesting when it isn't taught in turgid economics classes so I found it interesting even if I probably didn’t get all the nuances).
A lot of the solutions that Varoufakis proposes start with the notion that the financial sector is parasitical upon the rest of society taking in its money to create more money that is endlessly shuffled around between hedge funds and corporations. He mentions that bankers say that one should never loan money to somebody who actually needs it, furthering its portrayal as a vampiric Mammon that is worshipped as a capricious god, damn the little people. To take them down, Varoufakis argues, everyone else needs to agree to stop pumping money into this monstrosity via things like rent strikes and loan strikes and hostile takeovers by guerrilla investors. He deserves credit for having a real faith in the masses and a belief in the goodness of human nature.
But that optimism is undone by the novel’s fatal flaw. For all the talk of the suffering of the working class, the four characters are conspicuously wealthy, albeit not one percent. There’s a Silicon Valley programmer, a former banker, her teenage son, and a feminist radical-turned-professor. None of these people, in this imperfect world, are faced with destitution or homelessness or even the lingering sword of Damocles of those concepts. In that, this novel has some serious undertones of the sort of middle-class socialism that George Orwell decried in The Road to Wigan Pier. This book talks a lot about markets and philosophies and theories of justice, but not nearly as much about the nitty-gritty details of the provision of food or water or other essentials (housing gets its due), assuming that the discussion of universal incomes are enough. This omission becomes most glaring at the end, where the characters are faced with a certain choice. I can see how the well-off would dither about what to do in the way these four do, but it strikes me that someone in real dire straits would have a very obvious preference.
Varoufakis does discuss some solutions with interesting detail. Of all that he discusses in textbook-worthy detail, I found his talk about immigration and housing to be well-argued, as was (to a lesser extent) his talk about international trade. However, many of these institutions strike me as being corruptible, like the councils that determine the social worthiness of businesses and other such councils. These could be bribed easily by a sufficiently successful business in the way that corporations in our age bribe legislators. He focuses on class disparities to the detriment of the needs of specific industries; both oil barons and rig workers want the wells to stay running. Similarly, I found one of his solutions for an equitable management of businesses to be vulnerable to the possibility of crowd psychology resembling that of lynch mobs.
I must give Varoufakis a significant amount of credit for acknowledging that this hypothetical post-capitalist world would not be a utopia. One of his characters, the feminist professor, talks with her counterpart in the other world about how male chauvinism is alive and well, and that ultimately that human beings are still as infuriatingly human as they always have been. I would assume that this would likewise apply for things like ethnicity and sexual orientation, but Varoufakis doesn’t spend time on those to his detriment.
Ultimately, Another Now is a deeply flawed yet interesting novel that is clearly an attempt to dramatize a political tract. This is a book that reminds me strongly of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 in that they’re both speculative fiction takes on anticapitalist economics involving short-circuiting the financial sector. Robinson, in my opinion, did it far better because his characters aren’t paper cutouts as they are here. Ultimately, I think this would have been better written as an orthodox internet alternate history timeline, strange as it is to say. Perhaps Varoufakis should have done what C. J. Sansom did and looked into how alternate history works as a genre (Sansom praises Robert Harris’ Fatherland in his afterword to his Dominion). It’s a premise badly in need of a novel, and Varoufakis didn’t quite deliver that.