In the run-up to OPEN 2018, the conference which explores the ideas of co-operative vision and the evolving politics of a world of abundance and inclusivity, Oliver Sylvester-Bradley interviewed Cadwell Turnbull. Cadwell is a ‘social fiction’ writer who is exploring ideas about how collaborative narrative and a co-operative vision can help create the spaces needed for a more equitable economy – which works to put people and planet before profit.

Oliver Sylvester-Bradley: What do you do and how did you get to where you are now?

Cadwell Turnbull: I’m a science fiction and social fiction writer and a member of Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO).

CT: The writing thing started when I was a kid. I wrote essays for school, and stories and comics that I would share with friends. I got my Bachelors in professional writing from La Roche College in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. Then I moved on to get a Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing and a Masters in English with a linguistics concentration from North Carolina State University. My stories have appeared in Asimov’s Science FictionLightspeed and Nightmaremagazines and I have a science fiction novel coming out next spring.

My involvement in co-operativism came much later and rose out of my interest in utopian fiction and social systems. I always had a social justice bent to my writing but recently I’ve spent a lot of time envisioning alternative social systems. My upcoming short story in Asimov’s Science Fiction is about an imagined planet where the system of government is global panarchism and governments compete for people’s citizenship. The process is voluntary and people can change governments, be a citizen of multiple governments, or opt out of government altogether as long as they follow agreed-upon laws. It is an ambiguous utopia, since large international governments have the power to manipulate smaller local ones in sometimes subtle and sometimes significant ways.

O S-B: You use the term “social fiction” – can you explain that, and how you think it can be used to influence social development?

CT: Social science fiction isn’t new. My favourite authors all write speculative fiction with a focus on exploring social alternatives. Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is a social science fiction novel, as are Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and John Kessel’s The Moon and the Other. There are a lot of books within this larger sub-genre of science fiction, and many novels that would fall into utopian fiction. But often these stories are set in the future, after a collapse or on a distant planet. They show the world after a new status quo has already been implemented.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge comes close to what I would consider to be social fiction. Though it is set in 2065, the novel builds realistically off of the world we have today, imagining a best case scenario for our current societal model, putting caps on income disparity and strong reform aimed towards a sustainable green society. Many of these reforms are done primarily through legal means (a revolution of lawyers and activists), while maintaining a recognisable social structure. Robinson’s later Mars trilogy explores similar themes with added science fictional elements.

When I talk about social fiction, however, I am talking about fiction that inhabits the middle space between the present and imagined futures status quos. How do we get there?

Science fiction has a history of star-spanning empires and intergalactic wars, but it is the practical application of ideas that have inspired scientific advancement: artificial intelligence, cloning, life extension, terraforming, the possibility of space travel, long distance wireless communication, global information networks. All of these things were imagined long before they were thought achievable, and we’ve been moulded by the long-standing echo chamber of science’s conversation with science fiction. They feed back into each other endlessly and our present is directly due to that conversation with what can be done and what can be imagined.

Some of the best science fiction deals with the ramifications of a great discovery. These stories ask: how does the world change if we discover human cloning? How does the world change if we’ve developed the ability to communicate through telepathic means? Fiction on the edge of change is extremely powerful.

This has led me to wonder: why don’t we have the equivalent in the form of social fiction? I haven’t read every book ever written, but I can count on my hand how many books explore how social inventions can influence the world as they are happening. I can’t even list one movie about co-operatives. I have no knowledge of any television shows dealing with the speculative future of the commons. Why is that? Imagine the feedback loop that could develop if we actively created these fictions.

Fiction on the edge of change is extremely powerful,” says Cadwell Turnbull

O S-B: Where do you stand on the “let’s try to fix what we have / “work within the present system” vs “… we’re going to need a revolution to get out of this mess …”debate?

CT: I don’t think these ideas have to fight against each other. I’m a fan of a diversity of tactics. We have to build the world we want to inhabit. And I don’t think we need anyone’s permission to do so. That’s a revolutionary act: to not ask permission. It rejects traditional notions of power. We can act as free people. Of course we have to be smart about it, and that’s where working within the system may sometimes come in. Sometimes. We have to use the tools at our disposal. Other times we can make brand new tools. In the end, we’ll need both to fix the mess we’ve made.

Revolutions are tricky. History has taught us that usually they end up being a passing of power to different hands, and often there are casualties of this transfer. Some people are more vulnerable than others and they suffer the most when revolutionaries don’t look where they are planting their feet. Revolutions should be creative, not destructive. It should have something to offer first, something for others to choose. That is what excites me about the solidarity movement – it is about creating something and it is about consent. For me, there is nothing more revolutionary.

O S-B: How could social fictions do more to develop a more co-operative culture?

CT: It is a mistake to underestimate how powerful narrative has been in the historical development of societies. It is our primary form of linguistic persuasion and the major way we transmit culture and meaning across generations. Beyond just the sharing of ideas, narrative allows the sharing of concepts through analogy, through contextualising ideas within a story.

A good test of the power of narrative is this thought experiment. What separates popular culture and academic knowledge? More specifically, what does one possess that the other typically lacks? And how do academics make their ideas popular? Narrative is the answer to all these questions.

The arts are a powerful form of culture creation and so often academic knowledge enters the popular culture through story, sometimes fiction and sometimes non-fiction, but always through being contextualised within a narrative.  

Social fictions not only give an opportunity to contextualize these ideas within narrative, they also can act as an avenue for these ideas to germinate within the popular culture. The Overton window of our current news infrastructure is very narrow, but social fictions can widen that window. If the leftist solidarity economics movement presented their own fictions, they could develop their own culture through aspirational story-telling as well as provide a point of access for a vast amount of the general population.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Think about how social fiction could be used as a form of funding for leftist education and research projects about solidarity economics. Think about how many new industries could be developed through solidarity media. Not only can it shine a light on solidarity movements, it would build alternative structures to support the solidarity movement: publishing co-ops, theatre co-ops, streaming platforms, co-operative representation agencies, co-op film and art festivals, co-op actors’ guilds, along with a broader co-op film and art industry.

The biggest contribution social fiction would bring is the opportunity for self-critique. Through narrative we can better locate the places in the movement that need work. We can show people grappling with shortcomings of the movement in the present and the future in a positive context. We can also imagine possible future problems so that the movement can be proactive about them.

But the biggest advantage social fiction brings is the opportunity to push already good ideas forward. Narrative doesn’t only help others access ideas. It provides a space for ideas to live and to grow and develop within context. This fits very well with co-operative ideals.

O S-B: If platform co-ops and the generative economy take hold, we could be living in a very different world in the future. Can you describe what you think this world might look like?

CT: I imagine vast open networks of individuals, co-operatives and commons, forming a strong web across the planet. These networks will be deeply political and rooted in their local politics as well as concerned with the state of the world.

Community councils will abound and decision-making will be focused on concrete problems within communities. The global network will invest in struggling communities by listening to their needs and sending them resources in solidarity. Basic necessities will be accessible to everyone and there will be a strong safety net for people who can’t work or choose different forms of community contribution. Work itself will be viewed differently and expanded to areas often labelled as hobbies or passion projects. Physical commons will be built within communities and intellectual commons will be a form of innovation. The specifics will of course be very diverse and only as standardised as necessary for communication across networks.

O S-B: I like this vision – it sounds like you are describing a state where we have managed to transition from a world of scarcity to one of abundance. What do you see as the main barriers for moving towards the vision you describe?

CT: The main barriers are cultural and ideological. People don’t believe that sort of world is possible – many haven’t even considered it as a possibility. The other issue is that so many are trapped in cycles of poverty and/or desperation. They can’t leave their awful jobs. They can’t raise the funds to start co-operatives. They don’t have the time to fully engage politically.

We could probably support each other more in order to build a future like this, go lean until the system is robust, but people need to know that it is possible, they need to see where and how it is being done.

O S-B: Do you think there is scope for the concept of ‘self, us and now’ to be developed into a more collaborative narrative, which could help galvanise action towards a sustainable world …?

CT: There are a few examples of shared worlds, where many writers contributed to one work of fiction, or a series. The Wild Cards series was a shared universe that has had more than 30 authors contribute to it, including George R.R. Martin. Thieves’ World was a fantasy shared world that was also created by multiple authors. There are examples of collaborative fiction. But there should be many more.

How could those projects feed back into communities? How could they function as a means of aspirational future-making? If creatives work closely with actual worker-owners, academics, and activists, there’s really no limit to what could be collectively imagined. It would provide the perfect excuse for global research and information networks, non-fiction and fiction working together in a way that raises both ships. How else has knowledge ever been transmitted? How else have we ever generated change?

The Wild Card Trust (the group of writers that wrote The Wild Cards series) coined the term mosaic novel. This kind of novel tells a whole story, but via a number of perspectives and narrative styles. It is a story about people within a larger context and it doesn’t centre on just one perspective.

Co-operative media could also take on mosaic narratives to tell larger stories. These stories would be filled with personal accounts, but there would also be accounts of groups and movements, featuring prominently the obstacles that we must collectively overcome.

The Wild Cards series is an example of collaborative fiction writing

I think people would want to experience these kinds of stories. We may not have to wait for movies or film. Multi-cast audio projects could provide the perfect middle ground for collaboration along with affordability.

Imagine a long-running podcast fiction series that has multiple contributors. A budget for that would be reasonable and could also provide the perfect opportunity for an expansive work exploring co-operativism.

I love the idea put forward in StarHawk’s Fifth Sacred Thing, in which she quotes Dion Fortune: “The ends don’t justify the means. The means shape the ends. You become what you do.”

“You become what you do.” Those words speak to a practice of revolution, not just the making of it. We have do things on a personal level to be the people we need to be to make the big changes. We start at the deed and we work our way out.

O S-B: What do you think about experimenting with new axioms to help unite the progressive / solidarity / peer to peer / commons / permaculture etc. movements into an effective force for change?

CT: I love the idea of new axioms to help unite the various movements. It is useful to focus on commonality in a diverse movement like this. So often we focus on what makes us different. Pinpointing where we agree can lead to mobilisation on those issues. I believe we would find a lot of places to work together.

If we see progressive movements as an interconnected emergent system, we’d realize that we’re all providing key roles in helping to build a diverse infrastructure of leftist change. Knowing that infrastructure, learning how to use it, would be valuable. No, we don’t always agree on approach or belief. But I think we can counterbalance each other. We tend to think of society as something that has to be standardised. We’ve never lived in a monoculture. We shouldn’t treat our movements as such.

If we could see a map of our movements, study their intersections and where they diverge, we might be able to strengthen the movement by filling in the gaps between different movements, creating cross-ideological approaches, balancing out the rougher edges.

Our media could be a good opportunity to do this. Find the problems. Write about them. Consider additional/alternative systems that help fix the areas where we’re weakest. We can unite while maintaining diversity of opinion. It doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. Our axioms can come out of the areas where we align.


Originally published by The News Coop.

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