The origins of Solarpunk
Solarpunk was born as a term in 2012 as the title of a Brazilian science fiction anthology of short stories. Draco publishing house commissioned it as the closing of a trilogy of short story selections by Brazilian authors in which the two previous volumes Vaporpunk (an alternative brand for Brazilian steampunk) and Dieselpunk made clear the objective of the proposal and its ideological basis.
If the science fiction of the 80s and 90s (marked by Cyberpunk) had explored how information technologies transformed power relations, Draco proposed to shift the focus to energy sources and their associated technologies. Something that, with Victorian imperialist nostalgia, Gibson and Sterling -the fathers of cyberpunk- had already begun in the 1990s with The Difference Engine, the inaugural Steampunk novel.
Draco's Solarpunk stories, however, managed to get little further than a change of props: clean energy, AIs and collaborative systems replaced the usual science-fiction props without providing anything more than subtle references to the myths of Brazilian political environmentalism then on the rise.
It does not seem to be a very hopeful start. However, if we were to take the word of Wikipedia, both Ursula K. Leguin and her Dispossessed and Callembach and his Ecotopia would have already been solarpunks... in the 1970s and, of course, without knowing it. The backward expansionism in the description of what is supposedly already a settled and even defining sub-genre of our time actually conceals that.... for a long time it was little more than a brand, the demand of a group of science fiction fans that publishers were slow to exploit.
The redefinition and prefabricated boom of Solarpunk
Solarpunk architectural fantasy... the same old characteristic capitalist overcrowding, the only difference being that generators and greenery surround it.
Less than a year after the first anthology in Portuguese, supposed groups of English-speaking Solarpunk fans, mostly American, started to appear. They filled the net with illustrations desperately looking for someone to write something based on their premises. These premises were not those of the original literary movement that they had not read and of which they only had general references, but an expression of the hunger for a positive story, for a utopian horizon for the New Green Deal that was beginning to emerge as the main proposal of the Democratic left.
What was striking about the proliferation of all these holy cards depicting supposedly organic, solar and green cities? First of all, that they abounded in the urban overcrowding characteristic of capitalism, with the only difference being that they also depict green roofs and the occasional windmill.
But what was most striking was the fact that not a human being appeared, not even by chance. These cities were supposed to be paradises... but they were desolate. And it is that the utopia was restricted to the energetic... social relations were left out of the picture of the fantasy.
That is why it is only logical that Solarpunk, unlike cyberpunk in the eighties, did not generate any scandal. And for the same reason, up until the Democratic party began to prepare an ideological turn towards environmentalism in its battle with Trumpism, the publishers did not see the market clearly.
It was only when it became clear that the opposition to Trumpism was beginning to take on a defined ideological program that U.S. publishers started to commission projects that fit into the new framework. They published Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation in 2017 and Glass and Gardens in 2018. From then on, publications multiplied and the ideological framework became even clearer. Solarpunk became synonymous with fantasy tailored to the feminist and racialist identitarianism embraced by the Democratic party. Collections dedicated to establishing a sub-sub-genre Afrosolarpunk began to appear, for example.
The "Venus Project"
Venus Project *Holy Cards*
It is common by now for articles on Solarpunk to present it as opposed to the Cyberpunk of the 80s and 90s. But although the aesthetics are relatively opposed, the solarpunk brand did not develop alongside literary cyberpunk, but rather in the American underground, which, shaken and nourished by the recession of 2009, had been inclined in the previous five years towards the tea party and the alt-right rather than towards the pyjama party of Occupy Wall Street.
This movement, born of an audiovisual propaganda piece of the same name that began to be published and massively viralized in 2007, gave organizational form for a few years, including the first years of the crisis that followed the fall of Lehman, to the ideological hodgepodge of the angriest sectors of the American petty bourgeoisie. In 2011 when the decantation towards Bannonism was beginning to become quite evident in this environment, the Venus Project broke ties with the movement that had given it worldwide visibility.
The Venus Project was, is, an old-fashioned classical utopia: the brilliant idea of two people, Jacque Fresco and Roxanne Meadows, who through urbanism and architecture come to the conviction that it is necessary to move towards a decommodified resource-based economy and hope that, simply by arguing and demonstrating that it would be a better system, it could prevail and surpass the established mode of production.
That is why the emphasis on resources is important. As good utopians they do not see, nor do they look for, in the real historical movement social forces that express the need for decommodification and make it possible. If they had done so, they could only have found them in the social class that fights for universal human needs and therefore puts forward a historical project that imposes those universal needs as a criterion for the ordering of society and its productive system. That is to say, they would have arrived at communism.
But the Venus Project leaves, like Solarpunk, existing social relations out of the picture. They would simply disappear in a moment by the appearance of a magical social consciousness above classes. It is no coincidence if, as in Solarpunk, its graphic prints are systematically depopulated. There are buildings, machines, landscapes... but no people. Unable to give a subject to historical change, they are also unable to visualize a future with humans.
But in reality, what Fresco did was to propose an artistic movement. His merit was to affirm the need for demercantilization, although surely he himself never knew he was talking about the communist goal. His mistake: to do so while denying his followers the material means to make it a reality. The outcome: hundreds of holy cards and some constructions that serve as consolation.
Communism and artistic utopias
"In the Time of Harmony", Paul Signac, 1893-95
Artistic movements are on a different plane from that of political discussion and struggle, although this plane is far from independent. It is an old debate that Trotsky summarized well in several of his articles on literature in the context of the Russian Revolution.
Marxism offers various possibilities: to evaluate the development of new art, to follow all variations, to encourage progressive currents by means of criticism; hardly more can be asked of it. Art must carve its own path for itself. Its methods are not those of Marxism.
That is to say, we must ask ourselves what moves and where these movements lead, evaluating their consequences and their presuppositions without treating them as political movements.
In the case of Solarpunk, it seems clear that a real Solarpunk, that of the Democrats' Green Pact, materializes here and now in new forms of everyday poverty for American workers, from living and transportation to housing.
As of today, Solarpunk is little more than a "green" aesthetic in the service of a very reactionary ideology: the Green Deal, which is nothing more than a massive transfer of rents from labor to capital falsely presented as a solution to climate change.
There is nothing of the future in all those tower cities, where, just as under capitalism, we would live in cramped conditions, immersed in lush vegetation typical of tropical and equatorial areas. Even Ursula K. Leguin wanted to imagine a demercantilized society in the deserts. And the fact is that capitalism will bequeath us many new desolate and waterless places.
However, we must recognize that the Venus project is just as honest as it is insufficient... leading to outcomes that contradict its stated aims. As we have seen, it is incapable of linking itself to real social forces operating in the present time. It can only create ideology, it will never be able to offer anything other than a pastime of intellectual escapism.
But even these are not the main issues. The underlying question is what lies beneath the social demand to which these kinds of artistic utopias seek to respond. And that's when the answer becomes interesting.
- These artistic utopias give a false answer to a real material need: to affirm as an immediate perspective a society of abundance without salaried work or the State; a society that recovers and makes conscious the common metabolism between our species and Nature of which it is a part.
- In a capitalism that is decadent to the point of being incapable of making true art, it reveals that the social need for Art still exists. And in fact it points to the orientation demanded of it as a necessity, which goes completely against the current of what the system can offer.
So from our point of view, the audience reached by these artistic projects, their undeniable impact on so many young workers around the world, is a cue to speak clearly and openly of communism. And to do so in its two dimensions: as a society of future abundance, necessary and possible today; and as a social force operating in the present.
- Who will do the jobs that nobody wants to do?
- What will the city and housing look like? How will production and housing be distributed throughout the territory?
- Will the sexual division of labor disappear?
- Will families exist? What will parenting be like?
- Who will be in charge of agriculture? In a communist society, won't we have pineapples, oranges or coffee?
- Will there be restaurants under communism?
- Won’t there be large chemical plants and gigantic heavy industrial factories?
- Will art, craftsmanship, traditional productions disappear?