Steampunk is a popular retrofuturistic subgenre of science fiction that incorporates 19th-century aesthetics and steam power technology into speculative visions of the past, present, and future. The steampunk aesthetic and ethos have permeated literature, film, fashion, DIY crafting, and political thought.
At its core, steampunk grapples with themes of technology, history, and society’s relationship to progress that resonate in the modern era. As such, steampunk offers a unique lens to examine contemporary political issues and ideologies.
- The Roots of Steampunk Politics
- Politics in Steampunk Fiction
- Politics of Steampunk Style & Community
- Political Ideologies in Steampunk Thought
- Political Currents in Steampunk Subcultures
- Steampunk Politics in the Modern Context
- Steampunk Politics Going Forward
The Roots of Steampunk Politics
To understand steampunk politics, we must first trace its origins in speculative fiction and progressive political thought of the 19th century.
Works like Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein encapsulated a spirit of scientific romanticism and social critique that would influence steampunk. The genre emerged as a reaction to the slick, dystopian visions of cyberpunk in the 1980s.
Early steampunk works like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine and Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentleman revived the possibilities and anxieties of the industrial revolution with a postmodern twist.
So from its inception, steampunk channeled both the ethos of 19th century romanticism, counterculture and proto-science fiction, as well as postmodern pastiche and skepticism about technology under capitalism.
Both strains have influenced the political dimensions of steampunk.
Politics in Steampunk Fiction
Steampunk fiction frequently grapples with political issues and systems explicitly and allegorically.
Works like Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker saga examine class conflict and labor unrest in a steampunk alternate America.
China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station plays with cross-cultural politics and artistic revolution in the steampunk city of New Crobuzon.
Many stories use the retrofuturist setting to tackle issues of colonialism, imperialism, and oppression. For example, steampunk takes on colonial India in works like GD Falksen’s “The Strange Case of Mr. Salad Monday”.
For marginalized writers, the genre has offered opportunities to re-envision history from below. Works like P. Djeli Clark’s The Black God’s Drums use Afrofuturist steampunk to subvert dominant historical narratives.
The flexibility of steampunk allows for commentary on everything from emergent technologies to climate change.
But regardless of subject, political themes are ubiquitous in the genre.
Politics of Steampunk Style & Community
Beyond fiction, steampunk’s distinctive retrofuturist style and DIY culture have real-world political dimensions.
Steampunk style often consciously evokes a sense of bricolage – cobbling together modern apparel with vintage items like goggles, corsets, top hats etc. This reflects values of uniqueness, craftsmanship, and sustainable fashion.
Participants also seek to apply these DIY ethics to technology. Events like the Maker Faire showcase hobbyist engineering that re-imagines the possibilities of tech.
This aligns with steampunk’s skepticism about the alienating effects of modern tech under capitalism. The preference for fix-it-yourself craftsmanship reflects a desire to take control over one’s material surroundings.
Politically, this maps onto hands-on, grassroots approaches to technology, economics and activism. The community ethos emphasizes firsthand participation over passive consumption.
Political Ideologies in Steampunk Thought
So how do these currents manifest in steampunk political thought and movements? While diverse, we can discern a few common threads:
Revival of Old Left Critiques of Capitalism
Steampunks frequently adopt a stance of 19th century romantic anticapitalism associated with arts & crafts and other movements. This critique focused on the dehumanizing effects of industrial capitalism on creativity, autonomy, traditional craft, and nature.
Modern steampunk politics often apply this analysis to twenty-first century issues like automation and the environment.
There is also an affinity with more recent critiques of technology under capitalism.
Anarchism & Libertarian Socialism
The DIY ethic and desire for direct control over one’s circumstances resonate with various strands of anarchist and left-libertarian thought.
Activist groups like Steampunk Emma Goldman bring these currents together.
This manifests in wariness about state power and support for decentralized, voluntary cooperation – often infused with utopian, egalitarian ideals.
Postcolonialism & Multiculturalism
As noted earlier, steampunk provides opportunities for counter-histories from below presenting perspectives of marginalized groups.
Politically, affinity with these approaches translates into support for racial justice, indigenous rights, immigrant/refugee rights, and related causes among many steampunks.
Support for DIY tech and craft aligns with a general ecological ethos skeptical of exploitative relationships with nature forged by modern capitalism.
Sci-Fi Infused Policy Thinking
Finally, steampunk’s roots in speculative fiction foster policy thinking that draws on sci-fi. For example, ideas about how emergent technologies could be shaped for equitable ends.
Political Currents in Steampunk Subcultures
The specific political expressions within steampunk vary across its subcultures:
- Cosplay & Convention Scene: Here the politics are mostly implicit – valuing craftsmanship, customization of persona/identity and community. Critical views on capitalism and technology may be prevalent but not necessarily overt.
- Fine Art: Often intersects with issues around technology, industry and environmentalism – for example, recycling industrial debris into sculptural works. Can be politically provocative or ambiguous.
- Literature: As outlined earlier, steampunk fiction frequently engages political ideas and themes overtly across genres from pulp action to highbrow literarure.
- Music: Genres like steampunk-infused folk and carnival punk play with vaudevillian anarchism and anticapitalist motifs in both form and content. Political views tend to align with the punk/metal overlap in these scenes.
- Activism: The most expressly political manifestations often combine steampunk aesthetics and DIY ethos with anarchist/libertarian socialist activism around technology, environment, labor rights and more.
So steampunk provides a vehicle across subcultures to engage with technological anxieties, environmentalism, equity and oppression in diverse ways – from subtle to overt.
Steampunk Politics in the Modern Context
Today, steampunk’s political valence resonates with debates about the social impact of technology, the climate crisis and issues of justice, oppression and history. For example:
- Tech Criticism: Skepticism of automation and alienation under modern capitalism aligns with thinkers sounding similar alarms today.
- Climate Change: The ecological ethos and interest in sustainable DIY technology provide frameworks to examine the climate crisis. For example, solarpunk applies similar design ideas toward sustainable futures.
- Social Justice: Sensitivity around colonialism and oppression in steampunk parallels modern struggles. The impulse toward counter-histories resonates with questioning traditional narratives.
- Policy Imagination: Science fictional elements prompt imagining how tech could be shaped equitably. This creative speculation can spark innovative policy thinking.
So in grappling with contemporary issues, steampunk political currents offer a useful mix of romantic Anti-capitalism, skepticism about tech/power, egalitarianism and counter-cultural creativity.
Steampunk Politics Going Forward
As a relatively new phenomenon, steampunk politics are still evolving. Debates continue about issues like applying its ethos to live more sustainably versus just being a superficial aesthetic.
However, at its best steampunk politics fuse:
- Romantic sensibilities about nature, craft, and technology’s social impacts.
- Progressive stances on oppression, colonialism, the environment and labor rights.
- Policy creativity fostered by science-fictional imagination.
- Hands-on, DIY values that bridge the modern/analog.
This outlook suggests unique solutions to problems of technology, equity and the climate crisis moving forward.
More applied steampunk thinking could fruitfully inject its spirit into modern policy debates.
While not a unified ideology, steampunk politics meaningfully grapple with many of the pressing issues facing humanity today.
Its distinct retrofuturist lens offers much to contribute to imagining more just, sustainable societies.
The conversation between the past, present and future at the heart of all things steampunk will no doubt continue to evolve in compelling directions.