In his new collection of essays on Raymond Chandler, Fredric Jameson describes the detective writer’s “picture of America” as presenting “the darker concrete reality, of an abstract intellectual illusion about the United States.” The illusion is federalism, an “archaic federal Constitution [that] developed in Americans a dual image of the country’s political reality, a dual system of political thoughts which never intersect with each other.” Local prejudices in everyday life are tolerated because of the egalitarian promise encoded in the nation’s official documents, no matter how inconsequential these aspirations are at the state and municipal levels. As a founding father of American crime fiction, Chandler foregrounded the “odium” and “ever-present corruption” of local politics on display in his novels and stories against the “glamorous national politics” that existed in the contemporary reader’s imagination. Idealism that extended from the New Deal, through World War II and into the Cold War, the span of Chandler’s career, lent the jazzy charm that made his hard-boiled art crackle. And the inverse relation can be seen in a subsequent generation of paranoiac novelists like Robert Coover and Don DeLillo, whose nostalgic suburban idylls are infected by seedy national designs. But in both cases, the dark reality of the fiction is suspended in some kind of bright firmament just off camera. Our national face, for those assured that the country is on the right path and trust its personification in the president, maintains stability domestically while convincing other nations to abide our influence abroad. In a word, the darker local reality is accepted as a particular failure of a national policy. And no matter how disagreeable one policy is, it will be contested by a better policy, amounting to the meta-policy of an open, democratic society.
The 2016 presidential election made Jameson’s formulation of Chandler so timely because the winning candidate abandoned any pretense of a debatable policy whatsoever. His dizzying reversals on policy-sounding topics earned charges of “unpredictability” from Republicans and Democrats alike. Instead, Donald Trump promised a non-policy of one-off actions or “deals,” a course of action seen in the publicized, ostensibly job-saving deals pursued with car manufacturers and Carrier air conditioners. It doesn’t matter that dealmaking is essential to getting legislation passed and loosening Congressional deadlock, as anyone who has seen Lincoln or read Robert Caro knows. The problem is that shady backroom negotiations, a la Chandler’s world, do not offer an uplifting message to an increasingly unequal and exploited citizenry. The charm is lost when a president speaks of the same vulgar, private interests as an offshore casino operator in Farewell, My Lovely.
Walter Mosley would already be a key writer for this transitional period in presidential discourse and non-policy if only for his Easy Rawlins novels, which updated the hard-boiled genre to register exploited groups and individuals quite aware of their marginalized situation. As if to show just what a stark contrast existed between the national egalitarian ideal and America’s de facto class system, Mosley began his Rawlins saga where Chandler left off, at the height of the Post-war boom. The dialogue between past and present became even livelier in recent novels, set during landmark civil rights struggles in the ‘60s, with many published under Barack Obama, America’s first president of color. Only read 2004’s Little Scarlet, set in the aftermath of ‘60s riots in Los Angeles, to appreciate Mosley’s grasp of what’s at stake when a significant group of Americans feel the system has failed them.
But Mosley expands his political reach even further in surreal or speculative works such as the recent Inside a Silver Box. Supernatural conceits free up the characters in order to have radical conversations, as when, due to an ancient otherworldly spirit, a central park jogger is allowed to confront the young criminal who beat her to death. This other kind of dialogue, liberated from realist, hard-boiled constraints, stages a kind of utopian exercise that borders on the naïve. Genuine, unexpectedly likeable characters interrogate the deepest assumptions about their society, in the vein that unemployed Charles Blakey, in The Man in My Basement, parries with an international businessman who pays him in hard cash so he can be voluntarily locked up in Blakey’s basement.
Utopia, a Greek term invented by Thomas Moore meaning “no place,” signals the fantastical and satirical possibilities of a line of thinking when it looks beyond the narrow possibilities assumed by a given society. In this sense, the mysteries and the S/F – nearly all of Mosley’s work – are utopias, peopled with desperate characters who have no place to freely exist, nowhere to turn to. At least insofar as Donald Trump flouted conventions of acceptable speech for national candidates, many disappointed Americans are confronted with a void, a “no place,” where they once found constructive debate. Visible features of government – the executive branch, its president and cabinet – are now conducting secret business up in Trump Tower, the public and media left to sort through the detritus of inflammatory Tweets and trashy boardroom videos, like December’s roundtable knighting of Silicon Valley barons. This virtual presidency, an unacceptable substitute for “glamorous national politics,” leaves an opening for new thinking unparalleled since the 1930s. (During the 2008 Great Recession, there were still presidents.) And it is at just this time that Walter Mosley has produced another concise, genre-busting jewel reminding all his readers why he’s such an effective master of form and intellectual steward for his country.
Mosley presents a short tract with a lengthy title: Folding the Red into the Black; or, Developing a Viable Untopia for Human Survival in the 21st Century. Mosley’s coinage “untopia” indicates a practical departure from attempts to engineer a “perfect state of social harmony.” He never claims a perfect solution. The strategy throughout this plainspoken essay is to release the project of human survival from partisan baggage. Utopias contrived since the rise of industry have been socialist alternatives to capitalist reality, even as capitalist modernization has been sold globally with the same kind of starry-eyed ideals and force-fed militarism. The abstract ideas and “virtual” structures humans are violently subjected to are “derived from false notions of history and the subsequent confusion about who, and what, we are.” Both socialist and capitalist ideals threaten to dehumanize the global population – Mosley prefers the universal term “denizens” – by treating humans uniformly like drones in the first instance, and running most of them like mules in the latter. Therefore, the early sections of the book delve into Mosley’s conception of people. As a streetwise author of crime fiction, he has a certain authority to call upon in this area. But the key human insight around which he constructs his society derives from his own introspective nature as an artist: a society has to allow for the creativity of its denizens, and will be all the more successful and humane if it does.
Creativity, like the humans who generate it, is an X-factor the present capitalist regime uses all its power to restrain, especially the creative thinking of alternatives beyond capital. In the middle of the last century, modern nations used socialism intently, redistributing wealth to build up its domestic consumer base, through public projects, a safety net, and bureaucratic jobs. Scholars like David Harvey point out that by the 1970s, neoliberal agents deployed by big business hijacked these public coffers and began redirecting more and more of the wealth back to businesses and the superrich, instead of lower-earning consumers who made the whole system work with their labor and spending. The nominal two-party divide in U.S. politics is a contest between pro-capital adults who want to spend enough to sustain the creaky system and juvenile short-term hoarders and parasites, future be damned. Even as the real benefits of the system dwindle, through stagnant wages and increased inequality, hardliners become more emboldened by cultural forces that keep exploited workers on the sinking ship.
Mosley’s even-keel assessment takes account of his conditioned audience, slamming the worst features of both systems up front. “Capitalism fans the fire of want and socialism clamps down on it like a Calvinist automaton,” Mosley writes. “Either situation is explosive, filled with discontent.” But his challenges to the status quo are pointed at neoliberal purists and their sucker’s bet. “Modern capital,” having obtained the ability to “crush competition by legal means, [turns] itself into an economic system of fascism.” Such an oppressive lockdown by big business on small timers, in Mosley’s estimation, results in despicable violence, as when Eric Garner, selling cigarettes on a street corner in Staten Island, was choked to death by police. Mosley, with Marx, holds that wealth is created by labor, yet most workers “are lured into a quagmire of debt.” They’re “brainwashed” into believing that maxing out their credit cards on nice things promotes them to “an elite economic class that does not share the fates of stevedores and farmers.” The cultural divide between workers is just that, cultural not material. But the first thing citizens in Mosley’s society must recognize together is their individuality. In a few short sentences, Mosley sums up a new society’s higher aims, while also explaining why race is not significantly dealt with in the present book:
We have needs, wants, and require (as far as is possible) unhindered expression. Undergirding these three elements of human rights there must be equality among all people . . . Social and economic systems, governments, nations, peoples, tribes, cults, races, genders, religions, and all other group-obsessive predilections must play second fiddle to the [above] claims.
In terms of wants, Mosley is candid about the comforts and privileges his remarkably successful writing career has garnered. (This success, in part, resulted from following a personal interest after leaving a Ph.D. program in political theory at UMass Amherst, we’re told in an autobiographical preface.) At the level of needs, however, the last century under global capitalist expansion has proved to be a disaster of “social failures.” “We have had the ability to feed and house everyone in the world for decades but still poverty, famine and disease proliferate,” Mosley inveighs. Here the author’s learned brevity saves his reader from unending calculations and economic models. Are there enough resources, in human labor and innovation, for the global population to subsist and even thrive? Why wouldn’t there be? Flexing his untopia’s full willingness to be sensible, Mosley offers a deal of his own. If the government were to protect the workforce better against the “vicissitudes of the market” and the perils of aging, homelessness, illness (a kinder, more robust safety net), then “we can develop a system that will assuage the emotional and physical pain and suffering of the common laborer while increasing the productivity and vitality of capitalism.” Surely the titans of industry would accept such a proposal and outcome, if they didn’t think they could get by on a cheaper more advantageous deal. What big business interests wouldn’t tolerate is the even more appealing proposition following this détente, which asks that a handful of basic food items and other products be government subsidized and sold to the public for bare minimum prices. American consumers would have the option to earn more and spend more on flashier products, but at least essential needs would be provided for. This proposal makes perfect sense, which is why it would never be tolerated under the current irrational, cut-throat system. Readers will recall how the health industry lobby successfully gutted the Affordable Care Act bill by removing the “public option,” an attempt to keep costs down by introducing real competition. How depressing is it for the state of American enterprise to be so afraid of being outsmarted by, for instance, an Uncle Sam-branded peanut butter?
Written before the Trump ascendency, Walter Mosley’s Untopia stands as an accessible point-by-point inventory of real systemic shortcomings dressed up by American optimism. The challenges the new administration poses to this traditional optimism clear up fertile ground for a substantive, and thus hopeful, awareness by Americans of what improvements they should demand.
Christopher Wood is a native of Springfield, Massachusetts, who now lives on Long Island.