Each night, sometime between six and seven, a cold, blue-white glow fills my flat. It unfolds across the room, like a book opening and closing. Some days I encounter this sterile glow as I walk to or from the shop. It casts me in half – searing one retina and not the other – leaving a dark humanoid form to stalk me for a few seconds. Looking up at the source, pupils constricting, more often than not ‘I ♥ LDN’ emblazons itself upon my face. On other instances, the giant LED screen of the bin lorry is advertising a foreign currency exchange business and the company’s own waste collection services. Seemingly, the medium isn’t taking off. For the time being, at least, even this is too far for the lunacy and brutality of the late capitalism we find ourselves in.
But amidst this chilly glow, my mind is drawn away from that moment and pulled to another, one of the cinema screen, one of dreary Los Angeles, electric animals, AR girlfriends and replicants, all of which are caught in the ceaseless emissions of neon and diode. Well “drawn” is perhaps a negation of my will; I want my mind to be drawn back. I hold tightly onto any sensory rope that pulls me to the world sculpted by Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and later remodelled, first by Ridley Scott in 1982 and last year by Denis Villeneuve. It is the final world, the reimagining of the reimagining, where my mind especially wishes to dwell.
Rich, grand and beautiful, Blade Runner 2049 is far more intriguing than its predecessor. Its gaze weaves through the definitions and dives into the boundaries of the human with a deftness that surpasses the original. Villeneuve slows the pace and extends the scenes, providing the viewer with time to get lost in wondrous tableaus that flawlessly enmesh the conventionally real and the computerised real. This slowness, which certainly bored some viewers, Ridley Scott included, also allows for a level of introspection often amiss in blockbuster sci-fi. The viewer can truly immerse themselves in the world crafted for us and begin to grasp at its dynamics . But what world do we encounter? Of course, it is one where technological advancement begs us to consider what it is to be human. But it is also one, I believe, that is especially pertinent to our ecological, political and economic moment.
A crisis of capitalism
Blade Runner 2049 opens with a title card, the first of many nods to its predecessor, which introduces the viewers to the world they are about to enter. It tells us that the Tyrell Corporation, the capitalist locus of the original film, went bankrupt after the production of replicants was prohibited following a series of rebellions. Shortly thereafter, sometime in the mid-2020s, the Earth’s ecosystem collapsed. Whole scale crisis was averted by the evolution of agro-industrialist Niander Wallace’s synthetic farming. Wallace’s new power ensured he was able to acquire the remnants of Tyrell’s operations and restart the production of replicants, who were then further bioengineered to ensure obedience. This supposed subservience means that replicant labour is found across Earth as well as the outer space colonies.
K, played by Ryan Gosling, is one such obeying replicant. He works for the LA police force as a blade runner, “decommissioning” stray replicants from the Tyrell-era of production. The opening shots of the film place us with him as he travels to a protein farm to execute an operation. The camera moves with K’s hovercar over Gurskyian landscapes – tessellating polygons of plastic sheeted agriculture and radials of concentrated solar power fill the horizons of this California. Its towers take the mind back to the flaring platforms that punctuated the sky of the original Blade Runner’s opening scene, and seemingly mark the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies.
But for a viewer today, this combination of title card and opening scene produces an unnerving incongruity: renewable energy yet ecological collapse. Presently, reducing carbon dioxide emissions through renewable energy is discussed as if it is a panacea to all the environmental and consumptive ills of capitalism. This logic, dubious yet reassuring, bypasses serious consideration of a multitude of environmental problems, such as resource depletion, the ruinous disruption of the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, or the sixth mass extinction, to pick three.
Blade Runner 2049 is full of such discoordination – the Voight-Kampff is now an instrument of control for workers as well as prisoners; the splendours of the space colonies do not end up in the hands of the impoverished city dwellers; the bioengineered labour force does not alleviate the enslavement of children. Even disregarding the immorality of replicant biopolitics, there appears little or no evidence of emancipation for the humans in the technological advancements of Blade Runner 2049. The future received does not align with any conventional formulation of hope for human or replicant, alike. Instead, humans appear, like replicants, as objects to this future. So, in what future does Blade Runner 2049 find itself?
Using two scales – planetary abundance-scarcity and social equality-hierarchy – and taking each combination of extremes along with a constant of wide-spread automation, Peter Frase formulates and maps out four futures in his book of the same name. These oscillations and interferences of ecological crisis and class power produce four possible systems which Frase names Communism, Rentism, Socialism and Exterminism. If we align the bioengineered workforce of Blade Runner 2049 with the automation of Frase’s thought experiments, in which future do we find ourselves for those 163 minutes? Clearly it is not Communism or Socialism, both of which are predicated on the destruction of class division. So that leaves Rentism and Exterminism, abundance and scarcity, respectively.
In Rentism, the means or techniques to produce abundance are monopolized by an elite. Frase envisages networks of intellectual property ensuring the extraction of rents from the masses despite the promise of abundance. Exterminism, however, envisages a world in which ‘scarcity cannot be totally overcome for all but can be overcome for a small elite’, leaving the majority of the ‘residents of Earth [to appear] less like a proletariat than like inmates of a concentration camp’, left to be ‘warehoused rather than exploited for their [labour].’ As with today, the elite of this future would enjoy a life of intractable consumption and comfort, leaving the vast majority of people with the rotting corpse of capitalism. These two futures require the further expansion and empowerment of state power to ensure the sustainability of such inequity. Notably, in both Scott and Villeneuve’s films, we see a police force of such power, nearing omnipotence.
The shadow of the past
But then there is much of Blade Runner 2049 that does not fit such dystopias. For one, we see capitalist power far surpassing that of the state and its police force. But more generally, there is something disconcertingly familiar, even mundane, to this world. It’s as if the world has partly stalled in time, allowing the future, the present and the past to concertina together. Pan Am, Coca Cola and countless future brands vie for space and attention, creating mesmerising overlaps of neon glow. Futuristic assemblages of vacuum packed foodstuffs are overlaid and hidden by projections of steak and chips as Sinatra croons in the background. Most illustratively, in one incredible scene we see holograms of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Elton John crackle, jump, rewind and fast-forward, appearing and disappearing without intention or thought. The ghosts of the past are glitching into the future of Blade Runner 2049. Such an impression is further emphasised by the social relations the film presents us with. K and his AR girlfriend present the viewer with the new potentials of love. But this relationship, while seemingly radical, is at its core conservative, existing within the structures and confines of patriarchal power. This latter point is unavoidable throughout the film – as blatant as the sexualised, stripped and sky-scraping holograms.
It is not just time that is disintegrating in Blade Runner 2049, but time and space. The disintegration of space can be understood in two ways. First, the environments of the film are devastated by ecological collapse. Outside Los Angeles, dark, charcoal-like dust lands dominate while, later in the film, we find Las Vegas engulfed in deep orange of desert sand. These two environments appear like extrapolations of our present – the wildfires that increasingly encroach on the cities of California and the unavoidable desiccation of Sin City. Secondly, this collapse of space is experienced in the contradictions of Blade Runner 2049’s geography. The forces of expansion and contraction coexist – humans and their bioengineered labour force have colonised space; the waste and rubbish of life, once shipped away to impoverished lands, now consumes San Diego. Indeed, amidst these rusting topographies, we find the exploitation of children that in our world is held (emphasis on held) at arm’s length. The landfills of Agbogbloshie now brush up against the sprawl of Los Angeles.
The worlds that Philip K. Dick created in his novels were full of such juxtapositions, ones where ontologies dissolved across the pages. In Ubik, for example, the dead and the living coexist and become increasingly indistinguishable, much like the human and the replicant in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In the former, the dead can override and alter the thoughts of others who have died and even the living, who are themselves able to morph and reconfigure thoughts, feelings and even histories through telepathy. Dick’s futures are contradictory futures; they thread together places remote in time and space into a whole, a whole which disintegrates and reforms and disintegrates as the world is increasingly detailed to the reader. They make my mind think not of Frase’s social science fictions, which seem clean and streamlined by comparison, and instead drag it backwards to Jason W. Moore’s historically exhausting Capitalism in the Web of Life. As Dick puts it in Ubik, the ‘past is latent, is submerged, but still there, capable of rising to the surface’.
Moore’s study takes in early Dutch capitalism, the sugar plantations of Brazil and the Caribbean, Bohemian silver mines, Norwegian forests, the riches of Potosi, the Atlantic slave trade, agriculture and industry in England, Indonesia spice, and American cotton, and contextualises each within the boom and bust cycles of capitalism. To understand such a deep history and its dynamics, Moore draws on Marxist, feminist and environmentalist thought to develop a theory of “Cheap Nature”, which is split into “Four Cheaps” – food, energy, labour-power and raw materials. Building on social reproduction theory, Moore understands capitalism to be reliant on free or cheap labour of slaves, women, animals, land and resources. If capitalism were to pay for these, it would, as a world system, collapse. Indeed, Moore sees the cycles of capitalism as being indelibly tied to these Four Cheaps – when one or more can no longer be extracted for free or cheaply, then capital accumulation enters crisis.
But despite the many crises that have punctuated its 400-year history, capitalism persists, organising human and nature alike. How is this so? Moore acknowledges the conventional wisdom of technological advancement in dealing with these crises but devotes greater attention to the expansion of the exploitation of cheap/free human and non-human natures. To illustrate this, consider the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. The lands cultivated and exhausted were captured in colonialist expansion, they were laboured by West African slaves, and the energy for production came from deforestation. The sugar – once a luxury product – was exported across the Atlantic to feed workers cheaply in Western Europe. This sugar-slave complex provided profits for the colonialist slave traders and plantation owners as well as buffering the wages of the working classes in Great Britain, Spain and France.
The political economy of Blade Runner 2049 fits neatly within Moore’s understanding of capitalism and its reliance on Cheap Nature. Food remains plentiful due to the agro-industrial developments of Niander Wallace and the expanses of now worthless land. Cheap energy is provided through the capture of free solar energy. Resources are extracted from the space colonies. The bioengineered replicants are enslaved and put to work across Earth and these new colonies. As now and then, the Cheaps of this future world intersect and reinforce one another, with all dependent upon each and each dependent upon all.
The limits to capitalism
Capitalism in the Web of Life concludes with a chapter that asks if our moment denotes the end of Cheap Nature. Centrally, when capitalism enters crisis mode again (if it is not there already), where will it turn for profitable exploitation? Where are the new frontiers to ensure a supply of cheap food, labour, resources and energy? Renewable energy, perhaps. Resources provided by seafloor and space mining with ever deeper extraction. Automation and AI could ensure cheap labour in the coming years through minimal costs and increased competition. But what of agriculture? Genetic modification looks unlikely. Moore draws attention to the inability of agro-biotechnology, the new frontier in agriculture, to stem the long downturn in productivity. Indeed, perhaps this future crisis for capitalism is even more profound than those of the past. This one also denotes the emergence of negative value, the most prominent and profound example of which is climate change. How will capital accumulation persist when the externalities become insuperably internal?
In Blade Runner 2049 we find a coordination that has allowed capitalism to persist, just as perversely and destructively as ever, despite the ecological ruin of Earth. Fitting with Moore’s theory, the wealthiest and most powerful person on Earth is the one who overcame the problems of agriculture. However, counter to Moore’s hypothesis, the coming crisis of Villeneuve’s film is not the lack of cheap food but of cheap labour. Niander Wallace’s main concern is his ability to reproduce the replicants upon which the capitalists’ wealth relies. The systems of technological reproduction are too slow, too cumbersome, resulting in a limitation on their access to workers/slaves. Simple supply and demand tells us that this is a problem – what happens when replicants begin to understand their irreplaceability? What happened last time, as the opening title card told us, we can guess.
In response, Wallace works on the development of replicants that are able to reproduce themselves, organically, like human and non-human life. Yet his Promethean ambitions are stumbling, appearing to rub, instead, against the limitations of science and technology. When K happens across the skeleton of a replicant who has given birth to an unknown but presumably alive child, Wallace expends all the force and power he wields to capture the evidence and material necessary to ensure his reproductive ambitions.
This information, the reproductive potentiality, is also of extreme interest for the state in Blade Runner 2049. K is tasked by his senior at the police force to destroy all evidence pertaining to the replicant who gave birth and whatever they gave birth to. The world must not know that they could produce like us, for what would then differentiate us, or so the logic goes. As K’s police chief notes, the ‘world is built on a wall.’ But this is not a new wall – it is an old wall reconfigured and repurposed for 2049. Aristotle spoke of humans who were, by their nature, bound to be slaves, to be the property of someone else. This concept was the basis for the enslavement of Amerindians during the European colonization of the New World. Enlightenment thinkers such as Linnaeus reified such brutality with reason and empiricism. They sought to differentiate the European from the African, consigning the latter to a lower rung, an inferior species, to Nature with all its violent abstraction.
It is this wall, between Human and Nature, that Moore’s history casts its gaze upon, understands as essential to capitalism and, most importantly, wishes to dismantle. Viewing Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 through the prism of Cheap Nature, we find a future in which this division has been built up, reinforced, not crumbled as Moore would hope. The film presents us with the devastation of both environment and society, illuminating and outlining the threads which connect them. It is a clear and devastating articulation of what Isabelle Stengers has called the ‘coming barbarianism.’ But this is not a unidirectional flow of influence, it’s cyclical: the book feeding the film, the film feeding the book. Villeneuve’s film enriches the history and theory of Capitalism in the Web of Life. Blade Runner 2049 is an appendage to the history, articulating a future in which the forces and dynamics identified by Moore have been able, as they have for so long, to sustain themselves, ensuring accumulation and ruin.
But what of the present? We are used to history being a tool to understand and to shape the present. When that present, however, folds up against a future that appears unprecedented, as it is with this moment that lies on the edge of a climate, resource and ecological crisis, history begins to feel lost. The ideas it has helped produce for today increasingly feel redundant, ineffective or even counterproductive. But what we are experiencing today is history itself crashing through the present and into the future. This is not a glitching past, but one of devastating actuality. We require new histories and theory to make sense and struggle with this present and looming future. Capitalism in the Web of Life is one an example, Andreas Malm’s study of the industrial revolution and coal, Fossil Capital, is another.
The multiplicity of realities offered by science fiction, however, provides us with another means to grapple with our reality and craft a new one. They provide us with the distance and perspective necessary to gaze upon our moment and see both its deficiencies and possibilities, understanding how and where the world can be changed, whether that is for better or worse. To articulate this, Peter Frase draws on the documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself in his Four Futures: ‘If we can appreciate documentaries for their dramatic qualities, perhaps we can appreciate fiction films for their documentary revelations.’ And so it is with a blockbuster sci-fi film and a piece of eco-Marxist world history.
David Lee Astley works for an environmental NGO and writes occasionally on art and politics