Kobayashi Maru and Me

Remember the old Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan? It opened with the starship being attacked – and quickly overpowered. Just as it seemed all hands were about to perish, the lights came on, and it turned out we’d been witnessing a test, the same one faced by every would-be Starfleet captain. It was called the Kobayashi Maru, and it placed the candidate in an impossible, unwinnable situation. The point was to see how they would act when faced with the end of the line, the failure to save their ship and their crew.


A few days ago, I was at an event that referenced the work of Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, and I was reminded about one of the points she so abundantly demonstrated: that racism is fundamentally interwoven into the social and economic structures of our society, and that structural racism is incredibly resilient: as one expression, such as segregation, is dismantled, another iteration is already being consciously developed, is already waiting in the wings, ready to be deployed in the service of protecting the profits of the elite.

The experts were saying, We need to be constantly vigilant, constantly on our guard, because as we’re slicing off the head that’s actively biting us, this hydra has many more ravenous mouths that could very well be devouring our resources while we’re not watching.

And I was feeling despair. The thoughts going through my head: What’s the point of burning up all our energy and grinding ourselves down to useless little stubs to get this one law passed, when they’ve already regrouped for the next fight before they’ve even lost this one? Is the whole thing a setup? Are they keeping us distracted, battling for something they’ve already moved on from – while they just consolidate their power and wealth more and more tightly?

And if that’s the case, how can I go on?


Something hopeful I took with me from grad school: Hegemony is never complete. It can’t be. It’s impossible for any ruling class to COMPLETELY control the discourse, the helping institutions, relationships, our thoughts, heck, even the military. These phenomena are too complex, too slippery. Yes, they can exert a lot of damn control, but it will never be perfect. There will always, must always, inherently be gaps.

And in those gaps exists the possibility of revolution.


The next day, I heard this story, an African folk tale about animals getting the heck out of Dodge as a grass fire roared across the savannah. An elephant was distracted in its charge toward the safety of a marsh by something tiny and buzzing. It raced past the elephant – then it reappeared, going back the way it had come. Then it passed the elephant again, and again zoomed back toward the fire.

The elephant put up its trunk to stop the creature, which turned out to be a hummingbird, carrying water in its beak, a drop at a time, to pour onto the fire. The elephant asked why the hummingbird bothered. The hummingbird said, I want to save my home. And this is what I have to give. So I must give it…

When we decide whether to act or not based on whether we think we can possibly affect the outcome, the person telling this story suggested, we’re likely to stop acting entirely.

So we can’t allow ourselves to think this way. When confronted with disaster, with injustice, with huge suffering, we must give what is in our capacity to give, and try – as a spiritual practice – to let go of the need to know that if we keep efforting, we’ll get the outcome we want.

Because sometimes the calling is just to alleviate the crushing weight of sorrow for one person, for just a while, even if we’re still doomed.

And sometimes, our attachment to one imagined outcome is preventing something much better from being born.


I wondered then if we weren’t living some cosmic Kobayashi Maru. If our guides aren’t up there watching with serious faces, trying to see the mettle of our character as we struggle and give up and get re-inspired and struggle some more, even as each victory is absorbed almost soundlessly into the ocean of history, and the greedy and powerful remain untouched.

I wondered if that was enough of a point. If it could be enough to make me willing to keep living.

But then I remembered that Captain Kirk (well, Admiral in that movie) had forced a different outcome. As a cadet, he beat the Kobayashi Maru and saved his pretend ship from destruction by hacking the test, reprogramming the simulation to make it possible for the lives of the crew to be saved.


There’s always a hack.

There’s always a gap of possibility.

Actually there are MANY possibilities.

Just because we don’t know what they are yet, doesn’t mean they’re not there.

I think I need to have faith that a better world, a just world, really is possible. But I don’t need to know what it looks like exactly, or know that what I’m doing is going to help us get there in a linear fashion.

I think we need to keep trying everything. Every creative intervention we can think of. Even if we’re not convinced it will make a difference to the power structure currently hobbling our human spirits.

I suspect that whatever finally pushes us over the edge will be a surprise.

And it’s only by trying all the things, and keeping trying in the face of seeming failure, that we’ll ensure the door is propped open when the answer is ready to come in.

Talkin’ ‘Bout Capitalism

Now and then, at the end of the day, my partner and I sometimes end up talking about capitalism — what it is, what it does, what it encourages, what it does and/or does not allow.  We observe that it seems to foster creativity and innovation, but we wonder whether it’s part of its nature to then squash any truly status-quo-challenging pursuits.  We don’t know whether or not it contains within itself the capacity for facing and solving the problems it has caused. These are sincere questions.


Not long after one of these late-night conversations, I randomly came across this lecture by Paul Mason, recipient of the Charleston-EFG John Maynard Keynes Prize, published in the New Statesman on June 12, and it attracted my interest. Keynes, Mason says, believed that capitalism (barring unforeseen circumstances) would have to end up providing for the well-being of all. But Mason disagrees, or rather points out that the circumstances that followed Keynes’ prediction were indeed unforeseen, and as a result of these circumstances, most recently the rise of information technology, capitalism has evolved into a system that can’t support itself indefinitely. (In my words, I would say that the system is unsustainable).

Mason describes the economic impact of a situation “where large amounts of information are produced and exchanged at negligible real prices, if not for free.”  He argues,

Consider the social implications: if the cost of information goods tends towards zero, and the ability to standardise and virtualise the manufacture of real things also rapidly reduces their cost, the real price of labour will also fall because a) supply exceeds demand and b) the input costs fall.

That is what I think underpins the surprise outcome of the neoliberal revolution: the impoverishment of the developed-world working class. It looks like the outcome of class struggle and defeat, but it may also be the product of a one-time technology event.

Mason goes on to point out specific ways in which the phenomenon of the concentration of wealth constrains people’s movement, speech, choice, and wellness.  The examples he gives, like the protester being kicked by the official, resonate with his analysis; really, they are just a very few of the many possible events, public and private, that could be cited.

Yet Mason also notes that the new information technology and culture have led to a flourishing of “non-managed, peer-produced, non-market activity based around information” — all the content and all the software that people are creating and giving away for free.  “Non-market activity”!  Those are good words, to me.  Activity that exists outside of the market?  Really?  It can exist?  What an important site of production.  Mason thinks that it has the potential, if not the destiny, to unravel capitalism itself.

What most stood out to me in this lecture, however, might have been nothing more than a quirk of phraseology.  Toward the end of the essay, he writes:

If we avoid this dire outcome, it will because the forces for good, for understanding and knowledge and restraint are also being strengthened by technology. I think we should imagine new technology creating the world of abundance Keynes longed for, but it is likely to be decoupled from the question of pure GDP growth and compound interest.

It won’t happen by 2030. It will not be the transition Marxists imagined, led by the state suppressing market forces, but a transition based on the controlled dissolution of market forces by abundant information and a delinking of work from income. I call this – following economists as diverse as Peter Drucker and David Harvey – post-capitalism. In making it happen, the main issue is not economics but power, and it revolves around who can envisage and create the better life.

It’s this language of imagination that compels me.  “Creating the world of abundance … decoupled from the question of …” What he’s calling for, or maybe just observing the need for, is a paradigm shift.  Can we imagine a world of abundance?  One that’s based on something other than the working models of the current economic system?  Can we imagine that?  I think we NEED to devote a lot of our attention to imagining that, and imagining the tools that we would need to get there.

I love the last line of this passage.  It points to the idea that power, as it is currently aligned, stands in the way of any type of paradigm change.  It states that “the better life,” hopefully the sustainable life, is something that needs to be envisaged, visualized, envisioned (or held as a vision), and created, emerging from our creativity, imagined and brought into being.  My interpretation: that the practice of envisioning a better world, of a different order entirely, must be nurtured and spread, until so many people are doing it that it begins to have power of its own.


Mason ends the lecture by claiming that “the true Keynesian thing to do is to imagine a humanist future based on abundance and freedom, and explore what tools we have that might make it come about. There is no better time to imagine it.”

Social change needs imagination right now.  Ok, it needs a lot of things.  And one of those things is imagination.  From school to business to personal relationships.  From science and technology to human services to politics.  Everybody has imagination.  It is a truly vast, undertapped resource (here in America in the present day).

If imagination were truly valued in America, would we stand for companies buying out promising innovators with planet-saving solutions simply to shut them down? Or companies like Monsanto buying the research firms that test their products for safety?

Would we cut every imagination-developing class from our public schools?

Why does anyone wonder why we haven’t yet imagined, on a mass scale, a sustainable society?

And who does the status quo serve?

It is said that every system does exactly what it is designed to do.

What is our system doing?

Is that really the best we can imagine?