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Common House Magazine

Interview with Cory Doctorow

Leyla Abdolell

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Leyla: What differences have you found between writing fiction and writing nonfiction throughout your career?

Cory: In terms of mission-driven, political writing, fiction and nonfiction are like the two parts of a two-part epoxy.

Fiction is like an emotional fly-through of what the lived experience of some imaginary reality might be—maybe it’s minatory (“if this goes on, it will be terrible”), maybe it’s utopian and inspirational (“think of what we could have”), but it’s mostly about how it would feel to take or to avoid a course of action. Or to be sedentary, to allow something to unfold that maybe we can head off.

Nonfiction is like the other half of the epoxy. So if fiction is kind of squishy and sticky, nonfiction is strong, but it’s brittle. It’s analytic, it’s drier, it’s not structured so much around stories. I mean, we tell stories in the book [Chokepoint Capitalism], but I’m skeptical of the storytelling mode as being the first priority of nonfiction because I think that the analytic elements could be lost in it. It doesn’t have to be, but it’s so easy to sideline the analytic and the argument in service of a good tale. The vogue for it, I think, is really oversold. Memoir is great, but it’s not how you introduce and develop important arguments.

And so, when you combine the two of them (“this is what it will feel like to do it differently, or to fail to act” and “this is how we act, this is why we act, these are the structures that we’ll act against”), then you get something that’s stronger and resilient in a way that neither of them is on its own.

Leyla: Many of the ideas in your science “fiction” novels have come to pass in reality. How do you have the patience to see how the ideas in your novels play out? How often are you disappointed in reality?

Cory: I don’t think that science fiction is predictive, and I certainly never try to predict in that sense. I think that there’s something awfully fatalistic about prediction because if things are predictable, then what we do doesn’t matter. I am far more interested in, say, hope than pessimism or optimism. I think that what we do changes things.

I have a colleague, Ada Palmer, who’s a tenured professor of Renaissance history at the University of Chicago, and she’s also a very brilliant science fiction novelist. Every year, she has this signature exercise with her undergrads that’s famous on campus. It’s a four-week LARP where they recreate the election of the Medici Pope. She’s got a Google alert for theatre companies that are selling costumes, and she has pieced together enough stuff to dress everyone. For four weeks, they are each given a persona—one of the seventy cardinals, different family members, great families, and so on—and they joust and they skulldug and they stab each other in the back and they form alliances. There’s this fake gothic cathedral on the University of Chicago campus, and they gather in it for the investiture of the Pope.

Every year, two of the final candidates are always the same two. And every year, the other two are never the same. And the way that she talks about this, and the way I think about it, is that the first two are the great forces of history bearing down on the moment. They’re always going to be in the running—Hillary Clinton was always going to be a presidential candidate, right? But the other two are the space for human agency.

I don’t think that the role of fiction is to predict, but to say, “look, we have agency, here’s a thing that we could try, here’s a void we could fill, here’s the thing that looks sturdy, that’s built on foundations of sand that we could knock over.” That’s the promise, I think, of fiction in terms of political speech. And what seems like prediction in my work, generally, is just reflection of things that are going on.

I write a lot more nonfiction than I write fiction, if you consider blogging and so on. I’ve blogged for twenty years. I tried to calculate it a little while ago; it’s millions of words of nonfiction. One thing about blogging is that it gives you object permanence, like goldfish and babies. Supposedly, goldfish don’t remember things after eight seconds. Babies think that when they can’t see something, it’s not there. And then they acquire object permanence. When you’re a blogger, if you go back through your archives (which I do every day; I look at my one-year, five-year, ten-year, fifteen-year, and twenty-year archive for this day, every morning), you see what you used to think, you see what you do think, you see where the things that matter to you today actually have deep roots. You say, “oh, look, this thing that is now a crisis was a curiosity five years ago, or ten years ago.” What that lets you do is pluck things that are going on right now that seem important, but that aren’t in widespread parlance or thought, and write about them as though they were very important. And then if these nascent things do become important, people attribute to you some kind of farsightedness. But you haven’t predicted the future; you’ve predicted the present.

I wrote a novella ten years ago called The Martian Chronicles about charismatic billionaires who lure millionaires to Mars, and the second ship full of millionaires, halfway there, discovers that the first ship have decided, since they got there first, that the second ship are going to be their janitors. This is basically what Elon Musk has announced for his Mars colony. It’s not so much that I predicted Elon Musk; it’s just that this is how billionaires act. And so, as soon as we started talking about this private space colonization, that became an obvious scenario to try and dramatize.

Leyla: Speaking of billionaires, Chokepoint Capitalism talks a lot about Amazon and its monopoly over the publishing industry. Shortly after your book was published, Amazon changed its e-book return policy to function more favourably for authors. The response has been that it’s a huge win. What’s your response?

Cory: I think it tells you that when there’s solidarity, the intransigent can be moved. Amazon had been very steadfast that they were going to be relentlessly customer focused, which is another way of saying, “we’ll fuck over writers.” And they bent. They bent because of the same forces that led us to write our book, which was a growing outrage, both in political circles and in the wider public. Those two are related because political will arises out of public sentiment, such that Amazon felt like the lesser of two evils for them was to make a concession. It’s not a sufficient concession, but it’s all about whether a small victory creates momentum or diffuses energy. And I think that the right way to talk about what’s happened with Amazon is, “they’re starting to break, let’s keep pushing,” not, “we’ve got what we need, let’s take it easy.”

Leyla: Although Amazon is relatively new in the grand scheme of things, monopolies are not. The original game of Monopoly was invented in 1904, and the whole point was to teach people that monopolies are a bad thing, that landlords exploit renters, and that this is something we don’t want. We’ve had over a hundred years to figure this out. So, do you think now is when we’re going to see a shift? Or does capitalism just need to go?

Cory: I think that this is a problem of having a graph with a time series that only has two dots on it. One is the start of the anti-monopoly movement at the turn of the century, and one is 2022, and if you draw that graph, it looks like a straight line. It looks like we did nothing. That’s not what happened.

The anti-monopoly game—the landlord game, as it was called—was part of a groundswell of anti-monopoly energy that built on recent victories related to the railroads in the last decade of the 1800s. That then launched a really significant anti-monopoly movement that resulted first in the breakup of Standard Oil, and then in a muscular antitrust that especially picked up steam after the war. This was during what the French called the Glorious Thirty, around 1945 to 1975, when you saw enormous pluralistic distribution of wealth, huge economic growth, broadly shared prosperity (not perfectly shared prosperity—accruing far more to white people than Black people especially in the States, not including Indigenous people, and being less inclusive of women—but nevertheless an increased shared prosperity), far beyond anything that had preceded it for generations.

What happened in the mid-70s was neoliberalism, when we began to dismantle the prosperity of the previous three decades. We tell the story a bit in the book of this guy who we call the court sorcerer to Ronald Reagan, Robert Bork, who was a judge with an extremely heterodox theory of antitrust that included a kind of conspiracy theory. He said that not only should antitrust law be different, but the actual laws didn’t mean what we thought they meant, because we’ve been reading them wrong. And his theory about how we’ve been reading them wrong was unhinged. It made no contact with reality. It was a lie. And people just sort of believe the lie because it was a convenient lie, because it made rich people richer.

And as to why Bork and Regan and Mulroney and Thatcher all kind of grew up around that moment, my theory of that comes from Thomas Piketty, the guy who wrote Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Its underlying structure of capital is ten grad students who spent fifteen years building a time series of all the capital flows in the world for the last three hundred years. They argue that the rate of return on capital is always greater than economic growth. So, it doesn’t matter what you do; you will not make as much money as the richest person will make from whatever you’ve done.

There’s an example of that in his book: Liliane Bettencourt, who’s the richest woman on earth—she’s the heiress of the L’Oréal fortune, she’s never done a day’s work in her life—and Bill Gates, who founded the most successful company in the history of the world. Over the same period, between the founding of Microsoft and Bill Gates’ retirement, Liliane Bettencourt made more money than Bill Gates.

However, when Bill Gates quit, ceased to do work, and began to allocate capital as an investor, he made more money than Bill Gates, the founder, or Liliane Bettencourt, the parasite. So, the rate of growth will always be exceeded by the rate of returns to capital. That means that over time, in the absence of some redistributive policy, inequality will widen.

The more unequal things are, the more policy outcomes are available to the wealthy, even when they fly in the face of public interest. This is intrinsically destabilizing, because what rich people want, when it runs counter to the public interest, is destabilizing. If we, instead of growing food, grow ornamental flowers for the rich, and we get hungry, then there will be instability. Eventually that destabilization creates a crisis, and that crisis results in capital destruction. When all the capital is owned by rich people, capital destruction primarily affects rich people; poor people don’t have any capital, there’s no capital of theirs to be destroyed. You then end up with this new ground state of much more evenly distributed capital. And that opens the space for good policy.

Piketty basically says that WWI and WWII cumulatively wiped out so much capital that we got the Glorious Thirty, that rich people just weren’t rich enough to stop us from having nice things. But because the rate of return to capital is greater than the rate of growth, even during the extreme growth of the Glorious Thirty, rich people still got richer. Eventually there was a tipping point where rich people were so rich that they could command policy outcomes again, and that’s where you get this forbearance for monopoly.

And all of this is not just hypothetical. It’s grounded in these capital flow ledgers, where he’s saying that there comes a point where, when the top decile owns this percentage of the nation’s capital, then the top decile gains that kind of whip hand over the nation’s policy. So it’s not just a squishy thing; it’s a political science theory grounded in empiricism as well as qualitative observation. And I find it very compelling.

So it’s not just a straight line. And I fear that the next crisis that ends up being redistributive is going to be near civilizational collapse from the climate emergency. We can’t just let this run its course; we’re actually going to have to do something about it.

Leyla: The battleground for a lot of these issues has been in the States. But something that’s been front of mind—especially for Ottawa citizens, given the experience of the trucker convoy—has been this kind of debunking of the notion that Canada is somehow superior to the States, that age-old Canadian delusion. I’m wondering whether, in your opinion, we’re really that different, and whether these specific conditions in Canada have inspired any of your sci-fi novels.

Cory: I’ve written a bunch of fiction set in Canada, or that straddles the border, that uses Canada as a narrative convenience; I’ve got a post-Green New Deal novel coming up, a utopian novel that is set in Southern California where I live, but whose backstory is a political revolution that starts in Canada.

Canada has a different self-conception. That self-conception is often not supported by evidence. I heard someone say that every nation falls short of its ideals, but some nations have better ideals that they fall short of than others. And peace, order, and good government is a good set of ideals to aspire to.

You read in both accounts of American socialists and critical accounts of the Communist Manifesto that American socialists who appeal to American constitutional values—of freedom, of self-determination, of equality—find it both useful and inspiring to imagine how those values apply, beyond their use by the framers of the Constitution in a narrow, parochial way. And that even if the framers didn’t expect these values to take on these different valences, it doesn’t mean they can’t, and in fact, it’s an area of commonality with the people around you, that you have the shared value. You may express that value in a different way—freedom for me may mean freedom from being harassed by my boss, and freedom for you may mean the freedom not to wear a mask in the subway. But we both value freedom. And it’s a starting point, right? It’s a place we can jump off from.

Canada has values that are important. Same with the Communist Manifesto—I just reviewed a book about it for The New York Times that China Miéville wrote, and so I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Miéville’s kind of summarized and engaged with two hundred years of criticism of it, and a lot of that comes in the way that Marx grappled with colonialism—which subsequently, he got better on, but at the time was not great about. Miéville quotes colonial Marxists who are engaged in anti-colonial struggle, who say that even if Marx didn’t understand how his ideas applied to colonialism, we do. And the things we want to jettison from Marx are his misunderstandings, not his understandings.

Canada has lots that we might want to jettison, in terms of its settler-colonialist past, its white supremacy, its legacy of extractivism, and so on. Our Medicare system is, I think, substantially worse off than it was a couple of decades ago—but that is a reason to improve it, not to jettison it. And the shared values that created universal Medicare are values that we can appeal to. We don’t improve those values by dismantling Medicare; we do that by insisting on it.

One thing that Canada has done that’s extraordinary, compared to, say, the UK, is that broadly it’s resisted private healthcare. In the UK, allowing rich people to buy their way out of a failing system has deprived that system of powerful stakeholders, much in the same way that the fact that bankers in New York ride the subway means that there’s a baseline below which the subway won’t fall, whereas in Los Angeles, it’s mostly housekeepers who ride the subway, and so the subway service is allowed to decay. That’s not because they don’t do more important work than bankers—they certainly do—but because nobody listens to them the way they listen to bankers.

Leyla: I had a brief stint working at Chapters—I was essentially told in my orientation that they’re not a bookstore but a lifestyle product store that also sells books. And so, when I was reading Chokepoint Capitalism, something that stood out to me was this similarity to Amazon Amazon—they started with books, they put everyone else out of business, and now they’re using books as a bridge to all of the other things.

Cory: You sort of hinted there at whether Canada has an antitrust problem, or an antitrust answer. Canada’s Competition Bureau has been extraordinarily bad, even relative to the United States. Exhibit A is the Rogers empire, but you name it, it’s up and down—the greenlighting in the merger between Chapters and Indigo, and the much less regarded but I think even more important merger between Pegasus, which is the distributor, and Chapters Indigo, which meant that booksellers had to compete with their distributor.

I remember working at an independent bookstore in Toronto, where the distributor, which was owned by Chapters Indigo, told us that they were out of stock on frontlist titles that we needed to make money. And so we got a Chapters club card, which gave us a discount on frontlist titles, and went down the street and bought them at Chapters Indigo—who were the same company as our distributor, who had told us there was no stock—and then sold those books without the discount that Chapters Indigo was offering at half the margin that they were getting.

People ask what happened to all the independent bookstores in Canada. Well, I’ll tell you what happened: they had to compete with their distributor. And the way that Chapters Indigo can do loss leading and all those other things is by owning big chunks of their own supply chain, which allows them to give themselves preferential treatment. Just as a very coarse example, if you’re an independent bookstore, you’ll have a credit account with the distributor. So you got the books, and you owe them on net 90 or net 120 days for the books. If you can’t pay, if you owe too much money, they put you on hold and you can’t get any more books. If a Chapters store doesn’t have enough turnover to “pay Pegasus,” Pegasus doesn’t stop shipping books to that Chapters store. So that means that Pegasus and Chapters can collude to support bookstores by offering preferential credit to them to support their own stores, while they allow their competitors to go under. And in fact, the way that you improve the sales number of that ailing Chapters is by cutting off the credits of the stores that compete with it, so the Chapters becomes the only place to buy books.

The story we were told when the Competition Bureau waved through those mergers was that this would be good for books—even if it wasn’t good for bookstores, it was going to benefit the consumer welfare of Canadian readers. And it doesn’t, because it results in the circumstance where the loss leading on books is just used as a platform to actually draw down the number of SKUs that are being offered in Chapters Indigo, and replace that floor space and shelf space with scented candles and jigsaw puzzles, which is not good for readers. It’s good for scented candle fanciers, but it’s not good for readers.

So the consumer welfare story fails on its own terms. And that’s why we need to visit questions broader than consumer welfare, but it’s also why we have to stop pretending that consumer welfare was ever the question. Because if consumer welfare was the question, a child could have seen that this wasn’t going to enhance consumer welfare.

Leyla: Something interesting, too, is the aestheticization of reading now, especially with TikTok and all these things—where if you’re a reader, you are, or you are expected to be, also a scented candle lover.

Cory: The last time I was in Ottawa, they put us up in a hotel where in the lobby, the books were shelved backwards, pages out. And we were like, what the actual fuck is this? I mean, why not just mulch them and make a kind of hamster-cage-shag-carpet for us, like a ball pit you can wade in made of shredded books—it’s just as faithful to the reading experience.

Leyla: In another interview, you said that it’s a myth that taxpayer dollars are what the government spends—the government really just creates the money. I think part of the reason that some people cling to that myth is that, for better or worse, we want to feel a sense of direct impact. I ask this with a grain of salt because in your book you say that we’ve been conditioned to believe that the only way to make change as a consumer is on an individual level, even though these problems are systemic. But what can we do as students and as young writers in our daily lives and in our work?

Cory: That is the question we all face when we want to make a difference. Because even if we know in our hearts that as individuals we can’t make a difference, we are individuals. You can’t get up in the morning and be a polity. And the illusion that how you spend your money or the fact that you’re paying your taxes makes the difference in terms of how things go is a bit like being the kid in the backseat who’s got the toy steering wheel. The individual question is, how do I make that toy steering wheel steer the car? And you just can’t.

To carry on that analogy, you need to influence the people who are steering the car. You can defenestrate them, you can hold them to account, you can nag them—you can do all kinds of things, but you have to act as a polity. You asked about about Amazon and changes to its Kindle program, and they also changed their Audible program. That was the result of large numbers of authors coming together, signing letters, petitioning government, petitioning competition authorities—it comes about at a moment in which competition authorities, for other reasons, are scrutinizing big tech, and so big tech itself is now on its best behaviour, because it doesn’t want to inflame the mood that’s already turned against it. This is a really important point that often gets missed in people’s theories of change: that even if you haven’t won, even if you haven’t broken up Amazon, the fact that Amazon is worried about being broken up creates this kind of pressure on it to behave itself better.

IBM escaped breakups in 1982. They went through a twelve-year process they called an antitrust to Vietnam, where the US Department of Justice tried to break up IBM. Every year for twelve consecutive years, IBM outspent the entire US government on antitrust lawyers—and the government lost in 1982. They abandoned the case. But IBM understood that they did not want to be on the wrong side of antitrust regulators. So when they made the first PCs, they made them out of commodity components, because they knew that the DOJ didn’t like firms that tried to own their supply chain; they made them run on an independent operating system from a company called Microsoft, because they knew that the DOJ didn’t like tying software and hardware. When people cloned their ROMs and started companies like Compaq, Intel, and Gateway, they exercised forbearance because they knew that the DOJ didn’t like firms trying to extinguish competitors that may have compatible technology. So even though the DOJ lost the case, that entire PC revolution—including the most profitable company in the history of the world at the time, Microsoft—came about as a result of antitrust action.

We wouldn’t have Google, either, if it wasn’t for the antitrust action against Microsoft. In fact, in 2019, Kara Swisher asked Bill Gates why Microsoft didn’t buy Android. And Bill Gates said it was because they were distracted by the antitrust—eight years after the antitrust ended. What he meant was not that they were distracted; he meant their competitive spirit had been broken, that they were demoralized by the antitrust and no longer willing to risk the antitrust regulators, and instead, they were on their best behaviour still, eight years later. That is the power of collective action.

As an individual, you have to think about what leverage points you have to gang up with other people and push on this process that we’re trying to shift into gear—to slow down the anti-competitive flywheel, the anti-ecological flywheel, and to spin up another flywheel that has its own inertia. Some of that is politics. The parties have not been great on this; the NDP has been a little better, but still, for quite some time, has not had a real bold vision. All the parties would benefit from bold visions. No matter where your politics lie, there’s a place for you to do this politically, inside or outside of the parties.

The thing about antitrust is that it’s part of a wider fight about corporate power. You might think you’re angry because there’s only two companies that make all the beer. You might think you’re angry because one company sells all the bread and they’ve been fixing its price. Or you might think you’re angry because there’s only one cheerleading league. Or you might think you’re angry because there’s only three shipping companies left, and whenever anyone tells them, “hey, you should stop making the ships bigger because those economies of scale are offset by the risk of getting stuck in the Suez Canal,” and they’re like, “fuck off, how many shipping companies do you run?”

But whatever one of those things you’re angry about, you’re all angry about the same thing. And whatever corner you’re pushing on—because we’re all pushing on something—you can go to your allies, your colleagues or comrades and say, “You need to understand that our struggle is part of a wider struggle.” I’m not saying we should stop worrying about there only being one cheerleading league and start fighting for more brewers; I’m just saying that we should understand that we are on the same side as the people who want wider diversity in beer and professional wrestling and eyeglasses and shipping and financing, cheerleading, athletic shoes, consumer packaged goods, name it.

That’s the way to build a broad-based movement, and that’s the way, as an individual, that you can participate: to find the corner where you naturally belong, the stuff that already has inflamed your passion, and just understand its role in this wider struggle.

Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist, and journalist. He is the author of many books, most recently Red Team Blues, a science fiction crime thriller; Chokepoint Capitalism, nonfiction about monopoly and creative labor markets; the Little Brother series for young adults; In Real Life, a graphic novel; and the picture book Poesy the Monster Slayer. In 2020, he was inducted into the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.

Leyla Abdolell is a fourth-year history and professional writing student at uOttawa and editor-in-chief of Common House. She has worked as a writer and editor for the Fulcrum, the Clio undergraduate history journal, and the federal government. In her free time, she enjoys reading sci-fi, horror, and graphic novels and making the most of her ByTowne Cinema membership.

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