The administrators of the Steampunk Facebook group and proprietors of Parliament & Wake have an interesting op-ed on their site where they argue that, “as a movement of social revolution, steampunk has failed.”
Kate Franklin and James Schafer point out that writers at The Gatehouse never recognized steampunk as such, “but we were some of the few who wanted to believe,” they write.
We were never convinced that people were only attracted to steampunk because it looked cool and made a great setting for adventure novels and RPGs. Instead we believed that steampunk’s appeal was its inherent rejection of disposable consumerist culture and the dominance of our contemporary society by modern-day robber barons. We felt that, even if most people couldn’t enunciate it, they were embracing steampunk as a way to deal with the pervasive unease experienced by nearly everyone raised in the West on a steady diet of ideas like “planned obsolescence” and “for-profit health care” — on ideas spawned by a nineteenth-century capitalist ethos run amok with twenty-first century technology.
They still believe that but write that they “can’t deny the reality that this hasn’t created a community of steampunks who seriously adhere to a revolutionary, or even a particularly progressive, philosophy.”
I applaud the authors for the courage to admit it, because it’s almost taboo in progressive steampunk circles to recognize that steampunk isn’t a political movement — and never was.
Franklin and Schafer believe that steampunk can still be relevant to them, “because it allows us to imagine change and that is the most important step in ultimately making such change a reality.”
Which is fine. Not all steampunk enthusiasts believe that the world is secretly run by “corporate plutocrats” who have deluded us into thinking that freedom is real and capitalism works. But if you do, you can still enjoy steampunk.
You can even think of steampunk as an alternate vision to our modern-day, globalized world. For some, this is escapism. For others, it’s activism. Either works so long as neither pretends that only their motivation is proper.
Franklin and Schafer agree. They suggest that “some measure of apparently escapist fantastical role-playing is actually protective against the malign influences of mass commercialism.”
This isn’t to say that all steampunk role-players are leftists or anti-capitalists. We all cherish individuality, though, and personal creativity. None of us particularly cares for the soullessness of mass-produced consumer goods, but that’s not to say we all intend to “fight the system,” destroy the factories and dismantle consumerism altogether. That’s the critical distinction Franklin and Schafer are willing to make and I hope more political steampunks will.