A Discussion on Costi Gurgu’s Political Thriller Servitude

In Costi Gurgu’s near-future political thriller Servitude (Kult Books, 2022), what is real and what is fiction blurs with terrible prescience and possibility. Gurgu has created a scenario based on a premise that stirs dangerously in the reality of today’s capitalist western world: what if corporations were allowed to take back with impunity what their debtors owed them—in whatever way they pleased?

In Gurgu’s near-future America, the fourth Republican president in a row will be elected with virtually 100% Republican representation in Congress and the Senate—ensuring a monopoly government and creating a potential dictatorship (something a certain Republican president was trying to achieve not too long ago—and came dangerously close).

The story begins in the UK, which has recently made corporate slavery law. Under the Freedom Act, corporations under the British Servitude Exchange (BSX) can lawfully capture and detain persons with significant debt to sell them and their services in exchange for what is owed.

Wishing to do the same, the American corpocracy pushes the Freedom Act bill through Congress, potentially making corporate slavery a lawful pursuit using the concept of servitude. The concept of unconditional restitution in a country of people living largely on credit becomes popular among wealthy corporations; (consider that over two thirds of Americans are currently in debt with an average of $96,000 owed by each American, which includes mortgage, student loans, auto and credit card, personal loans and home equity1).

Neoliberal idealogues and proponents of the Freedom Act suggest that citizens should learn to be responsible for their lifestyles and should not expect the government to bail them out of bankruptcy every time they overspend (ignoring the fact that the U.S. government’s current national debt is some 30 trillion dollars—to corporate investors, China, Japan, and intra-government agencies.2 However, given that corporate investors currently hold over a third of the national debt2, dominant corporate influence on government to create a slavery act as demonstrated in Servitude is not outlandish).

A fifth of the way into the book, a Texas governor proclaims: “Servitude is merely a form of adult education. If you have graduated from the American education system and proceeded to live your life as though there is no tomorrow and spent more money than you have earned, well beyond your fair share, then you must be re-educated with America’s modernized value system. Servitude is an educational tool for the people.”

Gurgu hints at key events that brought us to this point: from the shenanigans of Donald Trump to starving children in New York City and Chinese troops taking down the American flag at the Hawaii State Legislature. The European Union has been dismantled and the Eastern Block reborn. Climate change related resource wars were waged by the Second Ottoman Empire and others, leading to the collapse of the global market. All have led to the reintroduction of slavery and homo sacer, the disposable human. Foucault would attest that the biopolitical hegemony of Capitalism already enslaves human beings as disposable ‘human capital.’  

In my upcoming eco-thriller Thalweg, character Daniel considers his 2050s world in which humanity is largely commodified, a world similar to Gurgu’s Servitude world:

It’s the end of the world…The beginning of the end of the world really came with the steam engine back in 1784 and the enslavement of water, when James Watt’s ‘universal machine’ coerced water to help usher in the industrial age of carbon extraction and the disposable human, homo sacer. By 1920, 97% of electricity in Canada came from hydropower. We were sure eager beavers. Enslaved water germinated a culture obsessed with defining itself through a ‘precession of simulacra’—the truth which conceals that there is none. Social media. Facebook. Twitter. Echo-chambers of denatured reality, signs reflecting other signs, saturated with ‘likes’ and emojis, where meaning becomes infinitely mutable to the point of being meaningless.

What’s left is a ‘desert of the real,’ a Kafkaesque menagerie of interminable, unresponsive fragments of experience in a fiction that no longer knows it’s fiction. One in which Huxley’s Soma rules in a kind of warped Foucauldian governmentality, where corporations like CanadaCorp use facial recognition and Pegasis spyware to manage plebian behaviour through quiet authoritarianism. Like bioelectricity subverting the neural pathway, it infects our fragile brains with subliminal notions of freedom when we’ve already surrendered our sovereignty to the omnioptic gaze of capitalism …

Why is it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism? Half a century ago, Mark Fisher took up that concept first introduced by Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek in his book Capitalist Realism3… Several things Fisher pointed out resonate, such as, “Capitalism is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics.”3 This sad construct leaves us with a kind of ‘post-literate’ world in which the ruling ideology is cynicism or what Fisher calls ‘reflexive impotence.’4

Daniel Schindler in “Thalweg” by Nina Munteanu

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How realizable is Gurgu’s Servitude?…

Since 1989, neoliberal ideologues have fed us the narrative that capitalism is the only realistic political-economic system. We cheerfully engage in this confabulation to feed our rapacious desires; and like an insatiable amoeba, capitalist realism consumes and digests our dreams and desires then feeds it back to us at a price. At what cost? Fisher astutely tells us that in our current world, “ultra-authoritarianism and Capital are by no means incompatible: internment camps and franchise coffee bars co-exist.”3 Gilles Deleuze tells us that “Control societies are based on debt rather than enclosure.”5

In Gurgu’s story, Detective Blake Frye—himself burdened with heavy debt—becomes ensnared in an inter-agency investigation into the for-now-still illegal slave trade in America that has already created secret slave camps and is actively kidnapping ‘nobodies’ off the streets. Connected somehow to UK’s BSX and several billionaire tycoons, the slave trade has become highly lucrative. Earlier, Frye’s wife, Isa—who is an investigative journalist and TV producer—embarks on an exposé of the illegal slave trade. Just before her show “Debt Hunters” is about to air, the material is confiscated by the NSA who consider it a breach of national security; her entire crew is detained and the NSA investigate her on suspicion of treason. Later, when slavers kidnap Isa and put her on the market, Frye must navigate through corrupt government officials and rogue agency operatives to find her before she’s sold and disappears forever.

Near the end of the book, Gurgu’s not-so-hidden message resonates loudly through Detective Frye’s lamentations:

“Hard-hitting investigative journalism appealed to an increasingly smaller pool of customers. People were always working, always checking their phones and other electronic devices, and they wanted their news to be just as easy to digest. Well documented and researched reportages took too many minutes to watch, and didn’t often line up with their social or political viewpoints. Truth had become debatable. Everyone had their own, personalized version of the facts, easy to access on targeted media outlets. They no longer questioned the facts they consumed. Doubt took too much effort. Everyone was entitled to their own opinions, and considered them the definition of a political truth. That philosophy had been in effect since 2017, the year that practically everything that mattered in the world deteriorated.”

Detective Frye’s analysis is relevant to today’s sybaritic North American society. Gurgu’s fiction is not about the future; it is about today. And his message is clear: we have become lazy and apathetic, seduced by a craving for comfort and pleasure at the expense of integrity and freedom. Freedom is not given; it is earned. Only through active responsible vigilance will we keep it.

Path meanders through a black walnut forest in an early winter fog, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

References:

  1. First Republic. 2022 “Average American Dept.” September 13, 2022. FirstRepublic.com
  2. Porter, TJ. 2022. “Who Owns the US National Debt?” September 3, 2022. Finmasters
  3. Fisher, Mark. 2009. “Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?” Zero Books. 92pp.
  4. Munteanu, Nina. “Thalweg.” Upcoming novel.
  5. Deleuze, Gilles. 1990. “Postscript on Societies of Control.” L’Autre journal, no. 1 (May)

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