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Dystopian Times

The election and assumption to office of President Trump in January 2017 and the Brexit vote and its unfolding implications have led to widespread discussions as to whether we are heading towards a “dystopia”. In the last month sales of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four have been massive, as concerned onlookers plumb the past for parallels with the present. The term “dystopia” evokes ideas of catastrophe and apocalypse, or, at the very least, images of Hitler, Stalin and the tyrannical and murderous regimes of the 1930s and 1940s. But is this an overreaction – or should we be genuinely concerned that society is deteriorating towards some awful collapse?

Readers might be aided here by a poster called “Early Warning Signs of Fascism” which has been widely circulated on the internet. It lists fourteen things to be wary of:

  1. Powerful and continuing nationalism;
  2. Disdain for human rights;
  3. Identification of Enemies/Scapegoats as a Unifying Cause;
  4. Supremacy of the Military;
  5. Rampant sexism;
  6. Controlled mass media;
  7. Obsession with national security;
  8. Religion and government are intertwined;
  9. Corporate power is protected;
  10. Labour power is suppressed;
  11. Disdain for intellectuals and the arts;
  12. Obsession with crime and punishment;
  13. Rampant cronyism and corruption;
  14. Fraudulent elections.

    I have dealt with many of these features (amongst others) in my recent book, Dystopia: A Natural History (Oxford University Press, 2016). This includes not only an account of the emergence and development of literary dystopianism, but also an account drawing extensively from group psychology as to how we should conceive of dystopian social interaction; and an historical overview of the leading political dystopias of the 20th century, focussing on Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. In what follows here I want briefly to address how the history of literary dystopias helps us to comprehend debates about the political dystopia (which is what the poster warns of) as well as of two further types of dystopia, the technological and the environmental.

    At the outset this typology indicates the need to define our key term. “Dystopia” is usually used to describe “very bad” places by contrast to (e)utopia, the ideally “good” place often associated with Thomas More’s Utopia (1516). We quickly discover, however, that this definition does not take us far. Many utopias have dystopian features, and many utopias seemingly rely on war, slavery or subservience to guarantee the privileged position of some. Thus More’s society has widespread surveillance and restrictions on travel and free speech, as well as slavery and imperialism, while in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four a privileged inner party subsists on the oppression of the rest of the population. Many utopias, indeed, it seems, are someone else’s dystopia. Nonetheless it is possible to posit a spectrum of utopian/dystopian societies defined by friendship, trust and solidarity at the utopian end to fear, anxiety and oppression at the dystopian.

    What does the dystopian literary tradition tell us about this spectrum? Until the 1980s political dystopias were predominant here. The tradition commences with satires on the collectivism of the French revolution, and enjoys its first major expansion in the highly controversial critical reception of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward 2000-1887 (1888), a now largely unknown text which proposed a scheme of highly centralised collectivist management of the American economy. The genre subsequently centres, however, on anti-Bolshevism and anti-collectivism, notably in Evgeny Zamiatin’s We (1924) and in Orwell’s great work, the best-selling (over 20 million copies) and definitive centrepiece of the canon. In the late 19th century, however, we begin to see the other two subgenres emerging, and by the early 20th century, the three subgenres intermingling. Hostility to machinery is first central to Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872), where the possibility emerges of machines evolving qualitatively as humans had from apes. A specific focus on robots is present from slightly later, and is often identified with E.M Forster’s famous essay, “The Machine Stops” (1909) and then Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. (1920), both of which extend the Frankenstein motif into technology. Following the catastrophe of World War I, political and technological utopian themes were often combined in the suggestion that humanity was increasingly driven to imitate and think like machines, notably through uniformity, efficiency and conformism. These themes are also satirised in what is usually regarded as the second great “standard” text in the tradition, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). But this is a very different text from Orwell’s classic. The latter gives us a basic dystopia vocabulary based on concepts like Big Brother, telescreen, doublethink, Newspeak, thoughtcrime. Huxley by contrast describes a eugenically-engineered despotism based on “ectogenesis, neo-Pavlovian conditioning & hypnopedia”, and a satire on mandatory sexual promiscuity and indulgence in the wondrous drug Soma which made readers in the 1960s wonder if this was not utopia rather than dystopia. (It was not: Huxley wrote another novel, Island (1962) to show the difference.)

    Our sense of impending disaster altered after World War II firstly through the invention of nuclear weapons, and secondly through the prospect, first evident by the late 1960s, of environmental catastrophe through pollution, resource depletion and overpopulation. A trend towards seeing middle class conformism in affluent societies as inherently dangerous is still evident (think of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, 1953). But as fear of Stalinism retreated new threats moved increasingly to centre stage. Two, very topical today, clearly merit mention: the blossoming of fundamentalist religious and anti-feminist dystopianism, e.g. in Margaret Atwood’s classic, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), and a resurgence of concern with total surveillance in the age of the internet, the key theme in Dave Eggers’ The Circle (2013). In addition to these, overpopulation is already a key theme by the 1960s (e.g. Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room!, 1966).

    So where then do we stand today vis-à-vis these trends? Observers were alarmed when President Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway described as an “alternative fact” the view that his inauguration had been extremely well attended, when photographic and other evidence indicated the contrary. The constant stream of downright lies, distortions and fabrications to emerge from the Trump campaign and now presidency also indicate a hostility not only to the so-called “fake media”, but to any “truth” not favourable to Trump. Such a callous reduction of “news” to mere propaganda we can associate with the Murdoch-owned Fox News in the first instance, but equally with Stalinism and Orwell’s MiniTrue. Here the pursuit of and an allegiance to “truth” is in retreat, replaced by extreme (“alt-right”) propaganda designed to favour one viewpoint, which is increasingly hostile to Islam, feminism and ideologies which promote social equality. In Orwell’s understanding, power-worship has here supplanted a desire to defend any conception of “objective truth”. The consequences and implications are frightening indeed. Some readers have also returned to Sinclair Lewis’s classic It Can’t Happen Here (1935) to ask whether this portrait of domestic American fascism has contemporary purchase. Here an agenda of “America First” is clearly combined with an aggressive capitalist desire to undermine the European Union (and in the UK, to penetrate markets hitherto blocked off, for example with a view to privatising the NHS). The worrisome prospect of a puppet Trump being manipulated by the Russian bear adds additional alarm to the scenario.

    Secondly, however, if interwoven with Trump’s designs, the idea of environmental apocalypse gains increasingly both in momentum and credibility as the 21st century advances. Sceptics with respect to global warming ignore the actual temperature rises which have come alarmingly swiftly in the past decade. Scenarios such as that suggested by Mark Lynas (Six Degrees. Our Future on a Hotter Planet, 2007) indicate that a failure to restrain this trend will indeed mean that this is likely to be mankind’s final century. “If you want a picture of the future”, says Winston Smith’s torturer O’Brien, “imagine a boot stamping on a human face for ever”. We should not imagine that the political dystopia is irrelevant in our own times, however. (But the boot will be up to its ankle and then knee in water.) Our epoch is marked once again by the proliferation of many sources of anxiety and fear, from immigration/xenophobia to terrorism, unemployment, austerity and civilisational collapse. Now, however, the three basic types of dystopian narrative come to merge more clearly than ever before. Identifying these narratives through analysis and debate will not make them go away. But at least we have some sense of where we have come to reach the present.

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