What the laser-toting Nazis of ‘Wolfenstein’ tell us about the futurists of Silicon Valley
The latest blockbuster video game, Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, has the so-called “alt-right” furious.
An anti-fascist romp where one plays a Jewish Texan, guided by a breastfeeding black militant, the game has players blasting through an alternative history in which the Nazis won World War II and the Third Reich dominates the globe.
How, exactly, did Wolfenstein’s Nazis manage to bring America to heel? With some of the staples of futurist sci-fi canon: lasers, robotic super soldiers, and flying fortresses. The Nazis of Wolfenstein are technologically superb. In the game’s version of 1961, America’s streets are patrolled by armed, autonomous flying drones, and hefty little Roomba-like robots buzz across the floors of local diners.
It may sounds absurd, but Wolfenstein is just the latest in a long line of fictitious alternate histories that imagine a Nazi empire wherein technology has advanced beyond even today’s. In Philip K. Dick’s classic novel Man in the High Castle, now a popular Amazon Prime series, 1962’s rocketships usher Aryan dignitaries across a Nazi-occupied America, and can travel from Stockholm to San Francisco in just 45 minutes. In both Dick’s book and Wolfenstein, Nazis have already settled on Earth’s moon and colonized Mars and Venus.
These glitzy automations and technological marvels reflect the dreams of the original Third Reich, which saw tech innovation as key to achieving the Nazi dream of global empire. But these visions of a Nazi tech utopia aren’t just provocative settings for pop sci-fi. In fact, such science fiction and anti-fascist alternative histories reveal how those who imagine our future are deeply attracted to fascism. And not just the fascism of 1920s Italy and Hitler’s Germany, but throughout the science fiction of the American ‘60s and ‘70s and, perhaps most chillingly, today’s Silicon Valley tech culture.
Some of science fiction’s most beloved, canonical writers — Robert Heinlein (Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land), Jerry Pournelle (Lucifer’s Hammer) and, more recently, Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game) — wove their worlds with far-right, reactionary and even outright fascistic themes and heroes.
Instead of using science fiction as a means of exploring how technology might empower and transform humanity, these authors often used the far future as a setting to reimagine how society might be governed if it were run by men like themselves. In a recent book called The Old Iron Dream, author and journalist David Forbes lays out the myriad ways that some of sci-fi’s most vaunted authors used science fiction as a means of wish fulfillment.
“These are authors who were looking at technology not as something that might liberate from hunger or allow for a more equitable future, but can allow people who should be in charge — usually upper middle-class white guys — to take power and expand outward forever,” Forbes said in an interview.
Nowhere is this more obviously on display than in classic apocalypse fiction, where authors like Jerry Pournelle, who wrote Lucifer’s Hammer, create post-collapse societies where white Californian suburbanites rise up as rational monarchs over roving bands of trade unionists, religious zealots and black power militants.
This pantheon of classical writers seldom kept their politics on the page. Robert Heinlein, whose novel Starship Troopers envisioned a world where only those who’ve served in the military are given citizenship, was a pro-military activist and organized to support nuclear proliferation. Pournelle was a close collaborator of Newt Gingrich. And John W. Campbell, whose name still adorns the Center for the Study of Science Fiction’s prize for best new novel, used his platform during the Civil Rights era to decry black liberationists and suggest pumping black communities full of heroin to quell the protest movement.
Historically, futurism and fascism have worked hand in hand. Italian futurists, who saw liberal morality as antiquated and instead fetishized speed and violence, were an essential collaborators of Mussolini in the 1920s. They lent their intellectual authority to early fascism, giving it credibility as an alternative to liberal democracy.
But it’s not just the fascists and fiction writers of the 20th century who dream up a totalitarian techno-utopia. While the latest strain of American racism is often attributed to a Trumpian underclass, it’s certain Silicon Valley software engineers and tech luminaries who fill the ranks of today’s so-called “alt-right.” And like the futurists of old, technology isn’t seen as just a tool, but a means of radically reshaping who should hold power in our democracy.
“The standard Seattle Nazi is a white male under 30 who either works in the tech industry or is going to school to work in the tech industry,” writer David Lewis observed while infiltrating a white supremacist conference. In March, white nationalist provocateur Richard Spencer told Mother Jones, “The average alt-right-ist is probably a 28-year-old tech-savvy guy working in IT.”
Silicon Valley’s current strain of fascistic philosophy first emerged around 2012 among a group of reactionary techies calling themselves the “Dark Enlightenment.” The first of these was Nick Land, a former professor out of Warwick University’s “Cybernetic Culture Research Unit” of the 1990s. Land’s original manifesto, cited as a foundational tech for the co-founder of AltRight.com, lays out a corporate dystopia where America is broken up into small fiefdoms run by CEOs. Another “Dark Enlightenment” thinker is Curtis Yarvin, a California software developer who wrote that if “Americans want to change their government, they’re going to have to get over their dictator phobia.”
These “neo-reactionaries” — a term for Dark Enlightenment adherents popularized by Yarvin — inspired powerful right-wing figures in tech and media with high political aspirations. Peter Thiel, who’s written that capitalism is undermined by women being allowed to vote, is an investor in Yarvin’s startup. Breitbart chairman and former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has shown admiration for both Yarvin and Land as philosophers.
The Dark Enlightenment’s neo-reactionary vision of the chosen people isn’t drawn along explicit racial lines, but instead identifies tech industry leaders as the natural corporate inheritors of our democracy, as they feel they provide solutions for society’s ills that governments cannot efficiently provide.
“It’s fantasy of a technocratic elite emerging from the market,” Benjamin Noys, a professor of critical theory at the University of Chichester, said. “The idea being that since tech entrepreneurs have been chosen for success by the market, they should rule. It’s fascism in its elitism and values, but it plays to a capitalist success model.”
But just allowing for that premise — that there is a necessary trade between efficiency and humanity — is its own pernicious myth. Though the nuance is partly lost in the Amazon series, Dick’s novel Man In the High Castle eventually reveals the fault lines in the fascist dream of a tech utopia. In the book, the ever-paranoid citizen of the Nazi future makes sense of the world not through reason, but through vague spiritual and occult notions of destiny, and petty factional rivalries threaten to tear the empire apart.
“Dick’s evisceration of fascism — that it’s hideously inefficient, and immersed in pseudoscience — cuts against that impression that somehow these authoritarian systems are more rational,” Forbes said.
Of course, the online reactionary right is apoplectic at Wolfenstein’s open anti-fascist marketing, with some calling the game a “hysterical leftist power fantasy.”
Of course, we do not live in Dick’s vision of America, with high-speed rocket planes, but instead one where you can cross the country in a little over six hours, if you’re lucky. And still, Silicon Valley’s futurists have spent the past decade increasing their involvement in government. During the Obama presidency, Google visited the White House more than once a week, developing a closer relationship with the Oval Office than any other corporation. Today, Valley companies like Airbnb and Uber have hired small armies of lobbyists to change housing law and transit regulations so that they can devour markets.
This latest strain of Silicon Valley fascistic politics envisions life lived on lavish company campuses, where everything from our transportation to our police are managed by privately controlled software platforms. It’s being given a myriad of new names: “techno-utopianism,” “cloud feudalism,” the clunkier “left fascism,” or just good old “technocracy.” Whatever we call it, that world accelerates toward us every time a small town cheers a full corporate seizure of its local transit by Uber, and in rumors of a Mark Zuckerberg presidential run.
We beat the Nazis. No rocketships, laser drones or flying fortresses for us. But now, after our long flights, it’s an Uber or a Lyft that picks us up from the airport to take us to our Airbnb. This is once we’re past the security alerts commanding us to “stay alert,” and that if we “see something, say something” — reminding us that fascistic thinking hasn’t perished in the dustbin of history, but has merely evolved. And that, in a moment, another world is always possible.