Ghost in the Shell started as a cyberpunk manga first serialized in 1989 and was followed by the breakout success of a movie by the same title in 1995 which was adapted into a live-action film in 2017 which made news because it’s casting largely whitewashed its Japanese cast. The series was said to be inspired by the philosophical book, The Ghost in the Machine, and in turn inspired the Wachowski brothers’ Matrix films, who reportedly said of the series, “we wanna do that for real.”
But I didn’t write this to talk about the recent trend of awful live-action anime adaptations or the concern of whitewashing non-white narratives. No, I want to talk about something much more exciting; the idea of sustainable warfare that is introduced in 2020’s series Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045, a sequel to the three previous Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex anime series.
The backstory of the plot is this: in 2042, capitalism is beginning to collapse without any new markets to grow into. So, the United States has an idea: what if the world turned war into a regular industry? You might be imagining the current military-industrial complex that holds incredible sway in Washington, but the idea of “sustainable war” is far more sinister than that. And while it may seem strange, it’s not as unlikely as it may seem, and it might be coming faster than you’d expect.
Why do I say “capitalism is beginning to collapse” like it’s a given? And why would this lead to war? Let me give you a brief explanation based on the words of David Harvey. Capitalism defines a successful economy as one where the investor class can reliably find markets that get them 3% growth, and this demand compounds each year. I don’t know how much you know about compound growth, but even a modest 3% can compound over the years into a number that far exceeds its initial sum. In the short term, and even over a few hundred years, this isn’t so hard, and the necessity and obsession with creating new markets often revolutionize the areas that benefit from it. But what happens over hundreds of years? What happens when there are fewer and fewer revolutionary new ideas? How can 3% compound growth be sustained over hundreds of years?
As Marx predicted in the century before it, in the 20th century advances happened so fast that somewhere in the century investors began to ask themselves where they could park their money so that it could work and they wouldn’t have to. Concurrently, towards the end of the 20th century, capital began to wage a war on the power of labor. If they could just pay the worker less and less compared to inflation the investor class could get their 3%, workers be damned. And for a while, that’s exactly what they did.
Of course, this didn’t solve the problem for long. Predictably, it created a new one: with less and less money left after rent was due, consumer spending would be depressed. Depressed spending wasn’t good news for the investor class who wanted their 3%. So, increasingly lenders opened up credit to the newly poor, and they mined the 3% (and much much more) from us while keeping consumer spending stable.
“There’s a peculiar way in which debt financing works: It actually works in terms of both the beginning of the cycle of accumulation and at the end of the cycle of accumulation. The best way to think of this is simply the image of the financial institution that lends money to developers to develop tract housing around San Diego and then lend money to buyers to buy them. They operate on both the supply and demand. And, of course, that can go on and on and on and on. Things like that have a Ponzi character.”David Harvey
Of course, this didn’t solve the problem for long. Predictably, it created a new one: with riskier and riskier lines of credit being opened, more and more people would default on their loans. Are you starting to see a pattern here? Capitalism can’t solve the problem of how to keep the investor class happily at 3% growth for long. It can only move the problem around, in turn creating new and often worse problems. The devil’s bargain you made to get 3% yesterday becomes tomorrow’s status quo, forcing you to make a deal with the devil once again. What came next?
Without enough new markets and new ideas, investment quickly became more and more akin to gambling. Hedge funds bet on derivatives. Years later, when this was the status quo, they bet on derivatives of derivatives. They bet on mortgage backed collateral debt obligations. Even five years ago, when I worked in the financial sector myself we told people about how there was many times more money invested in derivatives than there was in global gross domestic product.
And one day, that will become the status quo. As they always have, the powers that control the financial sector and the governments of the world will make yet another devil’s bargain to keep the investor class rich enough that they never have to do an honest day’s work in their lives.
In Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045, the new devil’s bargain is called sustainable war.
Sustainable war is the idea of using a constant World War-type scenario to create economic growth in the absence of better ideas or markets. This might seem like a far out plot from a seinen anime, and it is, but it’s based in a lot of truth and realism. For example, many people believe that America’s involvement in World War II was a major contributor to our economic recovery after the Great Depression as the entire US economy shifted into high gear to support the war effort. It’s also true that many of our wars since have been fought for financial reasons or to support private interests.
Still, the constant state of war America has been in for decades if not centuries now pales in comparison to the idea of a World War without end.
Raider : “Death to the one percent!”
Major: “Don’t delude yourselves; so called sustainable war is just a big game of political chicken. Except pretty much everyone loses, mainly the politicians not savvy enough to negotiate and amateurs like you, completely out of your element.”
By 2045, many of the locations we see that isn’t inhabited by the super-rich are bombed out piles of rubble. Displaced former football stars rush out with guns in hand because it’s one of the only ways left for them to make a living, and besides, the futures they’d imagined growing up turned quickly into rubble. All of this has gotten so much worse since the Global Simultaneous Default of 2044, in which hackers turned global wealth into similar piles of rubble. Imagine the end of Fight Club only on a global scale.
This only deepened the wounds to the economy, and the world had only one solution, the same one it had in 2042: more war, but now with a side of rioting, terrorism, seperatist movements, and civil wars. The opening of the series caps this all off by saying that this way of life is driving humanity to extinction.
Togusa: “We’re looking at the aftermath of this sustainable war of yours, huh? Another American Civil war?”
“John Smith”: “It’s nothing more than a public disturbance. There’s no need to be critical; sustainable war is one of the most elegant industries that mankind has even invented. As long as all the amateurs stay out of it there’s no better boost to the economy. Just look at the Cold War…”
But this is more than cyberpunk fantasy, it’s a real possibility in our future, especially as Americans. Our colossal mishandling of COVID-19 has put the power of the US dollar in question and resulted in record unemployment and the slow death of many American small businesses. Americans are at a historic risk of defaulting on their loans, which will certainly destabilize our whole economy, after all, you likely remember the aftermath of the housing collapse in 2008. This looks like it will be so much worse, and Congress has failed to take the steps it needed to ensure that our economy will remain stable, most notably in my mind being nationalizing payroll like many other large countries did. We can easily see the difference in these two approaches by how poorly our economy and citizens are doing compared to theirs in this time of crisis.
This unprecedented economic collapse will require an unprecedented response to right our economy. The two choices that seem most likely to lead to recovery are a New Deal type plan such as the Green New Deal or large scale war, something that will make our ongoing war in the Middle East look like schoolyard bullying. Looking at US history, we seem more likely to opt for war than New Deal policies. To me, watching this anime is like taking a terrifying look into our future, and I don’t like it. Hell, that fact alone made the show a little hard to get into, even though I love the series’s mix of cyberpunk action and philosophical musings.
Let’s take a deeper look into this dark mirror of our own society and glean from it a warning.
The show starts with our heroes working as mercenaries for an American Private Military Company and during an operation in Los Angeles they’re kidnapped by a shadowy figure that turns out to be working for the US NSA. The franchise’s usual cyberpunk landscape is instead dominated by rubble, toppled buildings, and uninhabitable battlefields. This is especially in America, which, according to NSA operative “John Smith”, suffered the most damage in the sustainable war model. Large walls separate rich from poor, but also shield the rich from the war. The first antagonists of the series want to use the weapons of war to launch a hellfire missile over one of these many walls.
Major: “From the perspective of those who don’t live where the bombs land, I think every war could be viewed simply as a controlled economic act.”
This establishes a dynamic that seems to be common in this new world. The rich hire the poor to fight one another for their own profit. Is this so different from the wave of wealthy pundits and politicians who were okay letting people die to restart the economy early on in the COVID-19 pandemic? I guess the difference is that sending people to die in a pandemic doesn’t cause nearly as much property damage as hiring people to bomb everyone on the other side of the tracks, or in this case, the wall.
It’s not just the war that’s dire; early on Togusa encounters a woman running a food truck who has mortgaged her own organs just to survive the harsh economic landscape as he’s tracking down the rest of his former group. In a later episode that takes place almost entirely in a bank, we learn a little more about this world’s economic desolation. First, the show seems to suggest that only the elderly use the bank anymore, hinting at one or more of two things: the elderly are the only people with any money or they’re hanging on to an old cultural tradition long past it’s time. The latter reminds me of my late father, who mailed in all of his bill payments until he died, refusing to make payments electronically. Though, the former reminds me of the comparative economic desolation facing my generation.
In the beginning of this episode a woman goes to withdraw money from an ATM inside the bank, having over 37 million yen in her account. She has this converted to Yen-Dollars, which seems to be the currency used in the anime and gets just over two million in return. Batou explains (at least in the sub) that the exchange rate is only 7%. Moments after, the bank is robbed by a group of old men, working alongside the equally old security guard, but the robbers stand no chance against the fully prosthetic body of Batou. All of them, including the woman, have been wronged by the bank at one point or another, and are here seeking revenge, but their plan is misguided, which they realize after Batou explains to them that they can’t actually spend any of the paper currency they’re stealing. According to the police who arrived on the scene, this is the first bank robbery in 25 years.
Their stories are awful. The woman wants to be euthanized after seeing her husband die a painful death but needs three million yen-dollars to do it. The guard wants the money to be able to bury his wife but can’t afford to after the bank manager lost his pension betting on cryptocurrencies. After hearing their stories, Batou agrees to help them, showing them how to steal the money electronically instead. Batou, the Major, Togusa, and everyone in the cast I haven’t mentioned are by now members of Japan’s Public Security Section 9, so it’s ironic to see someone who’s effectively a member of the police help them pull it off.
The episode closes with the woman from the beginning deciding to go on a trip to Honolulu to enjoy the rest of the twelve million yen-dollars before she goes to Switzerland to join her husband, so to speak. From hearing their stories it might be hard to imagine this, but they’re the lucky ones. Most people lost everything. The woman only had the money because her husband had kept it in paper currency. As our money becomes increasingly digital in nature, we run an increasing risk that something like this could happen to us.
In fact, something similar was depicted in the 2015 show ‘Mr. Robot‘ (which I’ll probably have to write about at some point, so stay tuned) as well, and had a destructive impact on the world’s economy in a similar way to the simultaneous global default referenced in SAC_2045. I’d forgive you for imagining that this is also a narrative fantasy, but this too is more based in reality than you’d think. Truth is banks already see millions of attempted attacks each year, and though the losses aren’t high, hackers are increasing the sophistication of their attacks faster than bank security. What’s worse, the Federal Reserve claims that a successful attack on just one of the US’s most active five banks could affect as much as 38% of the banking network.
The same year that Mr. Robot released, the world saw the SWIFT banking network attacked, losing millions of dollars to the hackers including over $100 million from Bangladesh, showing the world that banks could be robbed electronically, and inspiring a new generation of hackers to try to replicate their results. While these attacks aren’t a destabilizing force yet, experts worry that a successful attack could lead to bank insolvency and/or a run on the banks like we saw leading up to the Great Depression.
So, both of the events that led to the proliferation of global sustainable war are possible now, not just in 2045.