Imagining Progressive Futures: An interview with Nicholas Powers

Author and Democratic Left contributing editor Nicholas Powers writes speculative fiction that envisions what society could look like under progressive policies, offering an alternative to conservative dystopian futures. In this Zoomcast interview, he discusses why we must imagine a better world, the powerful narrative offered by transformative policies like the Green New Deal, and how fiction is a practice for politics. 

The interview is transcribed below. To read “A Socialist Christmas Carol,” Powers’ latest contribution to Democratic Left, click here or pick up a copy of the Winter 2020 print issue.

Democratic Left: Lots of fiction is political, not even the fiction that is overtly ideological—but your stories, especially the ones that you’ve published with outlets like The Indypendent and Democratic Left, are pretty explicitly ideological. So what do you hope to accomplish by writing this kind of overtly progressive fiction?

Nicholas Powers: Another world is possible, but even more so, another world already exists inside of our heads. And it’s not just the individual author’s mind. But when I’m writing, there’s a part of my writing that’s obviously my own idiosyncratic images, and poetry, and words, and experiences, and emotional angles on stories. But when you go deeper, you begin to hit a kind of collective consciousness. And that collective consciousness is the desires, the hopes, the fears that are in a sense kind of suppressed in what I would say is the communal body. In other words, because we’re all living in the same system, that same system, in a sense, pushes down similar emotions into all of us. And so those become innately political, because when you release them through fiction, you get a glimpse of what we’re really feeling inside. But then you also channel them through imagery, plotlines, or stories or characters, which allow us to actually imagine practicing this in real life, and practicing things in imagination is an inherently political act, because then you can practice that in physical action. And you can actually start to make the world slowly, or very quickly, resemble the one that you’ve imagined. And so I think fiction is a practice for politics.

DL: Something that really strikes me about your stories is that they are about the future. And it’s a future that’s recognizable, and that is traced from the world that we live in today. But your work is different from other examples of activist fiction that I’ve read, such as The Jungle, Upton Sinclair, or, you know, A Raisin in the Sun, or really anything by Lorraine Hansberry, that kind of depicted the problems with the world as it is. So why don’t you have this kind of focus? Do you think it’s because we all already know these problems, and we don’t need to be reminded of them? Why use the future as the staging ground for these stories?

NP: Well, the future is a battleground between a conservative dystopia, and I would say maybe kind of a left-liberal or progressive, not utopia, but at least a kind of saving of the world, right? And there’s these two kinds of impulses. And we’re always wrestling over the future. And, for me, there’s a kind of an anthropological skepticism that conservative dystopian fiction has that that we’re just kind of, you know, like Thomas Hobbes, where we’re brutish, life is short, it’s animalistic. We’re red and blood and claw. And it’s a very kind of pessimistic look on human nature. Now, obviously, there’s the kind of Rousseauean tradition of the noble savage, and that we’re actually innately good, and that we’re kind of corrupted by civilization. And in some ways, I see that we’re both, you know, that we have both of those possibilities. And I think history bears that out.

But what I tried to do in the fiction of the future is imagine that the need for redemption is actually at the core of a working-class populism. Because what I’ve experienced in daily life, is that the more desperate people are, sometimes the harsher they are, and they compete for each other for scarce resources, but it leaves a bad taste in your mouth, you know? The kind of cruelty that you have to do to sometimes survive when you’re poor working class just carries with it the burden of a lot of violence that’s being done to yourself or others. And one of the things that I like about imagining a future Green Deal is that it actually imagines a kind of global humanist project in which people can, in a sense, redeem themselves from the violence that it took to survive in a very kind of social-Darwinistic capitalism. And that comes with a lot of sense of redemption, redemption through work, redemption through saving other people’s lives.

And I think that that’s the kind of emotional engine that I wind up tapping into. And it’s also the emotional engine, I’ve seen other groups happen tap into, say, the Nation of Islam, for all of its ideological, theological problems, which would be boring to get into. But one thing they offer is a sense of redemption for people who believe in it. And so that’s the thing I find appealing about the Green New Deal. It’s not just about its technological, dazzling infrastructure, but it’s about, how does it actually transform people who work on it?

DL: What is the audience that you have in mind when you write these stories? I mean, from listening to what you were saying just now, it sounds like the effort is to help people who are already progressive understand the forces that make people maybe not act in their best interest. But is there any aspect of trying to convince conservatives or liberals of the importance of progressive policies as well?

NP: I would say that the three components that make the audience are implicit in my head, are people who I know. So one are, you know, left-liberal activists who need a vision beyond political discourse, something very sharply cut like a movie that they can see. The second would be working-class people who just pick up the newsletter or pick up a copy of The Indypendent at a laundromat or at a café, or at Dunkin Donuts, you know, so the Indy and other publications physically go out to a lot of interesting places. But then third is that, if a conservative would read this, that they would be taken in not necessarily by the political argument, but by the emotional acuity with which the characters are drawn. So that there’s a part of it that’s actually not political, but it’s just: how do humans act in this situation, they have to be recognizably human characters, and not kind of mouthpieces for political ideology. And so I would hope that even a conservative would read that and say, I could see myself in this. And once they see themselves in that personality type, they get carried along by the movement of the story, and then maybe, against their own expectations, they may be surprised, they wind up agreeing with the ideology.

DL: I want to explore that idea a little more, specifically with regards to “A Socialist Christmas Carol.” It’s a really charming story, but it has a pretty serious emotional punch. Multiple people have written in to Democratic Left to say that they cried after reading it. What inspired you to write this story? Were any of the characters inspired by real activists who you’ve met?

NP: It always struck me that the “Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens, was in a sense about giving someone a spiritual second chance, by having them reconnect with the world rather than being walled off by money. That’s Scrooge. And I think that, for activists, people can get walled off by two major things. One is jargon, so you cease to actually talk like a real person and everything is reduced to some political marbles in the mouth. And the other thing is cynicism, self-righteousness, like when you have one emotional tone that is the dominant one. And it becomes like a wall, you can’t actually deal with the dynamic flows of people’s emotions up and down and sideways, because you’re just always on this one note, right? Cynicism or self-righteousness. And so I’ve met people like that. And some of those people who are really talented drift away from the movement. And I wanted to give a sense of how a historical overview of the long kind of march and also acknowledging through this kind of hallucinatory time travel, how actually dealing with your real human emotions allows you to reconnect with the movement, but also allows for the movement to reconnect with one’s real humanity. And so it’s kind of a deep kind of interacting nourishment, you know, where the movement can get refueled by a real acknowledgment of how you actually feel, and then you, looking at the overall context of the movement throughout time, can say okay, maybe my feelings need to be acknowledged, but they don’t need to determine every single like decision I make, maybe I can lift above that and see the long picture. And that could be like my guiding star.

DL: As you write these stories, where does an organization like DSA fit into these futures? How does it help us get to this kind of progressive goal?

NP: You know the image of the Olympic torch, and every athlete across the world takes the torch until it gets to Athens, Greece, or wherever the Olympics are being held. In some ways, I think the DSA is like that. It carries the torch every generation. It’s saying you have the torch that will illuminate a positive future, and you have to be both very careful with this fire—like you can’t let it die out, but you also have to be very, in some ways, brave with it, and take risks with it. And try to set things on fire that aren’t already lit. You know, so you have to set people’s imaginations inflame, you have to set their hopes of flame.

And so I think the DSA is in a sense carrying that kind of Olympic torch forward, and the older generation is saying to the younger one, okay, now it’s yours, right? And, to be honest, we’re at a moment where stories are proliferating across different genres of generational handing of the baton. I may not necessarily be a big fan of the most recent Star Wars movies, but what’s pretty clear is that it’s a generational handing of the baton, you know, from one generation to the next. And there’s other genres that are doing very similar moves, right? Because the millennial generation is so huge, and Gen Z, so huge. And so people are like, okay, now it’s your turn. And so, the DSA to me is carrying that torch one step further.

I understand that in many ways, it’s being very careful with it—like, what do we do now that there’s higher interest in socialism than there has ever been before? And at this moment, this interest in fascism, as a kind of competing right-wing force, that offers the opposing side, a whole kind of self-enclosed kind of quarantined mythology, and they have their victims—except their victims are white people being displaced by the diversity of America. And their victims are things like statues that are being toppled. And their idea of communities is of shared hating of the other. And so there’s this whole kind of mythology that is fueling them, and now they’re rising. The thing is that ultimately, their mythology leads to a dead end, because it’s always about how do we separate ourselves from the world and separate ourselves from others and keep ourselves pure. Whereas the socialist mythology is always inherently more open and saying, how do we get people who are different in? And how do we build coalitions that span, not only generations, but really languages, ethnic groups, sexual diversity in the whole world? It’s a very different mythology with a different goal.

And so I think that’s why, ultimately, it’s the one that has to be the most successful, because it has, inside of it, doors that open up to the real world. And so I think that’s what, for me, the DSA is, and I think my only hope is that the DSA continues to actually invoke populism and go and talk and meet people where they’re actually at, and not retreat into what I’ve seen other leftist generations do—retreat into book clubs, retreat into sectarianism, retreat into microwaved rhetorical language, but constantly exploring the real world and meeting people where they’re at. And not being judgmental about them, not trying to harsh their mellow, not kind of coming with a hammer down if they don’t speak the right words, but just offering them a lot of grace, and a lot of forgiveness and a lot of space, and saying, look, we’re all on our different places in the journey, but we’re all, in a sense, trying to go in the right direction. And so that’s what I hope the DSA does.

DL: People weep when they read your stories, because it’s not jargon, it’s not theory—it’s just a portrait of what the future is like. How do you feel when you hear that? Is that is that your intention?

NP: The only person that I really wanted to have an emotional reaction to the work was the character. I wanted to respect her as a real human being, like, who is she? What moves her? And so, in the end, if she has a turn of heart, that’s really the only thing that matters, because that’s really what makes the story work. She actually has to be not only believable, but she also has to believe in the story itself. So it’s not just that, you know, she is an authentic person with conflicts. But she, at the end of the story, has to believe in her own journey.

And so when I know that whatever main protagonist I’m having has reached a transformation, then that’s what I care about, and I step back. And I think, as long as my focus is on that, then the kind of secondary effect of the readers’ emotional reaction to the story, that’s a very natural one, and I’m proud of it. But they’re in a sense not really reacting to me, they’re reacting to the character, and more so they’re reacting to their projection of themselves into the character, because there’s something about her that resonates within them. And so when they’re crying over this, they’re crying in a sense for their own transformation, however small or great, just by reading the story. So, in some sense, it’s not really about me. It’s like—when people read this, they’re recreating the story for themselves. And they, in a sense, wind up becoming the character in a kind of transposed projective way. And so they’re rewriting themselves. I’m not the author anymore, the reader now is the author. And that’s the magic of fiction. It’s actually much less about the author and the reader.