Swat Kats: Our Radikkal Future

1993’s ‘Swat Kats: The Radical Squadron’ contains shredding guitar music, toxic sludge-caused mutants, dinosaurs back from the dead, cyborg criminal organizations, and of course cats flying jets fighting kaiju style monsters. So its clearly escapist fantasy operating under the rule-of-cool and has nothing to do with humanity’s coming future in the anthropocence….or does it?

If you need a primary on the show this will work.

When I re-watched the series (two seasons originally broadcast in 1993-4 and first seen by a then very little version of myself) a few years back, a thought occurred to me. This thought was sans the cartoon animal and supernatural parts, this was a vision of present trends come to life. Better yet, it was not a worse-case or best-case scenario but a pretty balanced one of what society might look like post-environmental and societal collapse. Specifically, after the recovery of the initial downsizing.

The show is not explicitly post-apocalyptic. It is also not big on world building outside of aesthetics and plot excuses. The standard of living for your average person seems normal for industrialized nations. There are few signs of significant poverty and most people’s living seem to float somewhere between late 20th century NATO and the upper echelons of the Cold War era Eastern Bloc such as Hungary. Gradually, however, the more of the show you watch the more you can’t shake that Megakat City is a giant megalopolis that grew out of a battered hellscape in the same way that Egypt’s original Nile Valley civilization grew out of the desertification of the Sahara. All shots of outdoor places outside of the city are at best arid and at worst utterly barren. There is wreckage everywhere. You might be tempted to think that the place is just a stand in for Los Angeles or something, but there is a time travel episode that clearly shows that once this same land was utterly lush green and forested. We aren’t talking about the normal tens of thousands or millions of years needed for such changes to occur naturally, as this distant past is medieval…which implies that if we are operating on a similar technological time frame for this world as our own, it can’t be more than a thousand or so years in the past.

Then there is the city itself. Its the only city we ever see directly in the show, even though other cities/countries are confirmed to exist due to the recurring trope of foreign investors visiting the city who the bumbling poltroon of a mayor is always trying to impress. These foreigners are distinctly different in accent and appearance (in perhaps a familiar way) but are still cats, implying sentient life on this world is uniformly one species. There is also a vast wasteland separating MegaKat City from its neighbors. Possibly, all such states are mega-cities scattered like oasis-es in a post-industrial desert. But at the very least this region is a confined city state. And the city is huge. Agriculture seems to only exist in its immediate proximity, much like how cities were before the industrial revolution and the shift to port-centric growth for urban places.

Within that city are tons of toxic pollutants, though most seem to be long standing problems rather than immediate present day problems. In addition to causing monsters and bizarre mutations that seem to cluster among the criminal element of society, such toxicological wonderlands are used by a large number of unethical/mad scientists for their own ends. This both implies that that the city has a barely suppressed underground to match its dark environmental history as well as a plethora of medically trained but utterly unethical people.

It is easy to piece together a rough outline of a civilization much like our own that entered a period of sustained and at least partly industrial-caused environmental decline, which unleashed resource wars (past conflicts are mentioned in at least one episode) which probably included bioweapons and chemical weapons programs. A large degree of Shiro Ishii-type super villains were created by this who then suddenly found themselves out of a job when either the populations declined enough to be sustainable or new energy/agricultural methods were developed to allow the cities to make peace. The world got much worse, then stabilized, but the cost of doing so was to later unleash a spectacular crime wave upon the city from the former mafiosos, freikorps-type displaced veterans, and bioweapons scientists who everyone just wanted to forget about.

The new peacetime regime of rebuilding Megakat City was in fact a triumph. A publicly affable and harmless seeming mayor as the front for a new era of peace and stability makes sense, but he was unprepared for the threat from within. The ‘Enforcers’ under Commander Feral are a war time organization used to dealing with threats in a certain rigid and hierarchical way that perhaps made sense during the dark era before, but is ill-equipped to deal with the new challenges of asymmetric underworld threats from within.

Enter Deputy Mayor Callie Briggs and her unofficial vigilante alliance with the SWAT Kats:

Much like how the Harding and Coolidge administrations were perfectly symbolic of the Roaring Twenties while also being utterly incompetent to the real dangers that lurked within society, Mayor Manx’s rule is inadequate to this new post-post-apocalyptic era. So Callie, the Deputy Mayor gradually seems to have usurped power from behind the scenes. By the time we meet her she has both a public persona as a hapless secretary and borderline overworked intern for the mayor’s office, but it clearly becomes apparent that it is she, through competence, connections, and guile, who actually governs the city. Perhaps she is a civic patriot with no public ambition, or perhaps its a canny game to keep all criticism and focus on a mayoral figurehead while she does her own thing in the shadows away from scrutiny, but either way it can’t be denied that MegaKat City only works against these new emergencies because of Callie.

And what better way to circumnavigate a foolish figurehead and an overly conservative and sometimes incompetent military/police force that is long entrenched in the city’s power structure? Callie also has her own shadow hard power, the Swat Kats. Two genius pilots and mechanics fired from the Enforcers due to Feral’s short-sightedness suddenly come across the resources to build an underground jet hangar, experimental weapons lab, and have a direct phone line to the *deputy* mayor? (but not the ‘actual’ mayor?). It can’t be a coincidence. And so, without changing the bland facade of peacetime governance, MegaKat City has a shadow government with a shadow military. The extreme superiority of the Turbokat jet fighter over Enforcer vehicles is made clear time and time again in almost every episode. Not to mention the clear superiority of T-Bone and Razor as special forces.

So far, you could accuse me of just wanting to talk about my favorite childhood show and make it spicy with some adult level political hot takes. You would be right. But my main point is this: SWAT Kats shows us a dark vision of the future after the apocalypse has been normalized. And any dark age eventually becomes adapted to and integrated into the experience of a culture or a civilization. In this example of MegaKat City, a full blown worst case environmental collapse occurred but the city survived and arguably thrives. Certain contemporary trends like urbanization and desertification happened to that world, but it wasn’t the permanent end of technological civilizations so much as a hard re-set. It would probably look like a crappy world to their grandparents, but the average person raised there sees it as normal and is glad that the only major problems they have now, though quite dangerous, are really just these periodic supervillian/kaiju attacks.

If we manage to head off the worst of climate change we will still have to get used to freakish weather, monstrous storms, and our continual curse of old people in government ill-equipped to handle new challenges. We will get through this process better if we change our ways, yes, but it couldn’t hurt to also staff the backrooms and facilitating logistical departments with people like Callie Briggs and the SWAT Kats, who are devoted to their civic responsibilities and commitment to adaptation, and not interested in public fame or vast wealth. Perhaps its time to consider hardening our own increasingly fragile societies with shadow organizations more up to date with the present day dangers we face. If the Covid Crisis shows anything its that the state as it currently is is not always reliable, but direct personal connections and unofficial organization can only be a net benefit for those who wish to act.

There. You can say you learned something useful from a kids cartoon cancelled by Ted Turner for being too violent.

Two Reluctant Cheers for Authority

hadrian

In today’s discourse you will almost never come across someone self-identifying as ‘authoritarian.’ In fact, the word seems merely to exist as a straw man for half baked and childish libertarian ‘political tests’ which are superficial and designed to make literally everyone on the planet think they are secretly libertarian. Of course, my own test based on the same axis is much better as it captures the essence of everyone and everything in all times and places which ever once had a political opinion of any kind.

But maybe the term authoritarian requires at least a partial resurrection. Coming off of the heels of a century of unprecedented state-directed terror this may seem odd, but that was also then, and this is now. As John Gray so accurately points out in The New Statesman, it is the stateless parts of the world which are the problems now more than the overly-governed.

This is not to say we need an overreaction which apologizes for the excesses of the NSA or admires the more terrifyingly over-regimented societies on the planet. As Gray reminds us, this is not a question of good and evil and freedom versus slavery. All political stances are in fact the decision of who to regulate and who not to, rather than some simplistic quest for freedom for beautiful caged birds who write poetry standing at odds against regimented hordes of riding crop wielding jackbooted thugs. A regime which is free to one kind of person can be unfree to another and vice-versa. So if merely to call for a recognition that the state is still the best form of self-organization we have, and that we should not be so quick to topple those of others lest we threaten backlashes which can make our own less free is to be authoritarian, by all means, let us be ‘authoritarian.’

Personally, I fear the political backlash to terrorism more than the acts themselves. They are far more likely, proportionally, to affect me directly. But it also means we have to be serious about what kinds of freedoms we want and don’t want. And we also have to acknowledge that most likely we will not be the ones to decide. What is relevant right now is that authoritarianism may very well make a come back, and that doesn’t have to be *all* bad. And no, I don’t even think terrorism will be the main reason it comes back, but rather ecological catastrophe. Whatever terrorism brings us now in debates on state power is merely the prelude to a greater debate on responding to a rapidly changing planet.

And this is where authoritarianism might be selectively helpful. We have already seen how some kinds of regimes in sectarian-divided countries keep minorities safer than they would be otherwise by being undemocratic. We also know that authoritarian states have a pretty good record at crisis response. Particularly on environmental issues. The world’s largest polluter and most rapidly developing country, China, is also the one going through a crash course in large scale sustainable energy which puts its rivals and some developed countries to shame in ambition and hopefully effect. But let us go further.

When Jared Diamond’s book ‘Collapse’ came out in 2005 I was a sophomore history major in college and a fan of all things Diamond (in many ways I still am-this post was originally going to be ‘Hooray for Determinism’ after all before recent events changed its nature when I got around to it-though I might still write such a thing) ¬†and also a libertarian. Having that simple (and oh so American) world view, I found myself invigorated by the challenge he presented. The two large scale examples he presented of a state successfully responding to ecological crisis were both very authoritarian states. One, the Dominican Republic, a blatantly racist and fascistic government under Raphael Trujillo, and the other, the mega-centralizing hyper-bureaucratic Tokugawa Shogunate. These were the states which he lauded for foresight. Two opposite poles of me were in a delicious conflict over what position to take on this issue.

Well, in about three years I made a full recovery from libertarianism and I knew the answer. Though to be fair, the materialist always lurking inside me probably made this inevitable. Libertarianism is, at its core, a type of Taliban-style liberalism of just taking one non-material ideology and ramping up it to 11 with philosophical purity as its key point. With this discarded, I could acknowledge that Trujillo may have been one of the biggest dicks to ever live, but a broken clock and all that. One doesn’t have to endorse a Shogunate as an ideal type of government to acknowledge there are many things that particular one did right, from public health administration to education and infrastructure. And of course, a national forestry system with an eye on conservation-in the 17th Century no less!

Weak states and loose confederacies are better at doing many things than stronger more centralized states. And I will always defend federal style systems as ideal for learning about the divergences in policy execution in the laboratories of regions and adapting accordingly. But crisis response is not one of them. Terrorism is only the tip of the iceberg. It is the less media sexy but slow burning fuse of ecological collapse which will drive state reaction in the long term. And we might just find certain types of authority useful.

After all, many of the greatest periods of multicultural cohesion have been under monarchies and pre-victorian empires. Many on the far right betray their true colors when they imply that a society which can accommodate many kinds of people is a threat to the social cohesion of democracy. Maybe they are right in some instances, but the Roman Republic appeals much less to me than the Roman Empire does. I would give up the vote before I would give my access to material goods of diverse origin and interaction with people of greater backgrounds. I doubt there will ever be such a dramatic either/or choice and I am largely playing devil’s advocate here, but should such a turn come, I will chose multicultural authority over monolithic democracy. History makes a better case for it in terms of overall case studies. Sure, one can always say most people are political idiots in any context, as it is I have already railed against the naive cosmopolitanism of liberalism on this very blog. But as a lesser of evils, wouldn’t you rather have a variety of idiots than the same kind repeated over and over again? Awash in a sea of vatniks or their American or whatever equivalent is a future far too boring and horrible for any type of interesting person to even fathom.

Previously, I waxed poetic about my love of the Heavy Gear setting for looking an a non-utopian science fiction of international relations. One thing I always really liked about the setting is that the Southern Republic was the best representation of a complicated authoritarian order. It was a zero tolerance regime for criticizing the government, but in exchange it was a patron of the arts and a subsidizer of the common citizen. It also allowed social libertinism unseen in other competing states of the setting. This reminds me of the Tang Dynasty, the early Mongol Empire, High Rome or any other period of effective cultural flowering. Of course, being able to the criticize the government is a right I would loathe to lose, but let us be honest-for most people food, sex, and housing matters most. If one can’t have it all one can get their priorities in a proper hierarchy. Principles be damned in the face of impoverishment or even in compromising the epicure.

As I stated at the start, this isn’t a post glorifying state power. It is a post building upon Gray’s call for a mature discussion of what freedom and authority really are without devolving into enlightenment baggage of good and evil and free and unfree. The world moves fast and change is constant. State collapse increases the negatives of this and as our biodiversity collapsed and our rapacious need for resources grows unchecked, its time to move beyond lame establishment narratives of NGOS and hippie activists saving the planet through fundraising and talk about what might be necessary for states to do.

And not to do.

P.S.: I love the Shadowrun games and find them (and the original rpg setting) a pretty brutal look at what a technological yet stateless society would look like. It aint pretty, even with all the cool magic and creatures. Its a setting which is clearly influencing one of my present creative projects in fact so it is on my mind. So, I leave you with the most recent (and best) entry in the series very good soundtrack. It gets much better in the second half by the way.