“Usually I’m pretty mild, in fact many of my friends are kind enough to call it ‘Folksy,’ when I’m writing or speechifying.” – Zero Hour, Berzelius Windrip*
A chilling familiarity: Where have we read this before?
Oh, yes, in Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 dystopian novel, It Can’t Happen Here. In it, a charismatic middle-aged man on a white unicorn gallops across a battered economy littered with the wreckage of past federal stimulus programs to the White House, advocating the transformation of the country into a utopia of social justice, and promising everyone, not $5,000 a year, as did Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, but government-managed health care and a “fairer” (re)distribution of wealth. In his entourage are numerous placemen eager to control everything from the consumption of oil and nicotine and sugar and salt and history and science to education, and who also suggest “minor” adjustments to the Bill of Rights in the Constitution to better facilitate social justice and economic fairness to bring about their leader’s promised land. Just like Windrip and his entourage in the Lewis novel.
The administration and “folksy” style of President Barack Obama have in part prompted this essay. His and Congress’s statist legislation and semi-disguised and dissimulated agenda to “transform” the United States from a faltering constitutional republic, already burdened with a plethora of government interventions, regulations, and extraordinary enforcement powers, into a certified socialist “republic,” have elicited an intense public hostility toward him and that agenda. Many Americans have now seen the face of extortionate, authoritarian arrogance, and like it not. It was not gratuitous slander or character assassination when many Tea Party protest signs featured a pairing of his face and the term, “Big Brother.” Whether or not that hostility will translate into effective resistance, a rediscovery of freedom, a decoupling or abolition of government powers, and support for the sanctity of individual rights, remains to be seen.
There is, however, no part of the Obama agenda that does not comport, complement, or mesh with legislation advocated and enacted by earlier administrations, and that does not contain the germ of totalitarian or dystopian power. This includes Social Security, Medicare, the Federal Reserve, the income tax, the FDA, the EPA, and so on. Obama’s agenda is merely the undisguised climax of collectivist ideas and yearnings dating back to the early years of the republic. Both major political parties are responsible for the patchwork of economic and “social” controls, the direct and indirect confiscation of wealth through taxation, and regulations that weigh upon Americans, a byzantine quilt not quite basted together to create the kind of smothering totalitarianism that existed in Soviet Russia or that exists in Mainland China and North Korea, or in a theocratic state such as Iran or Saudi Arabia.
But, back to Berzelius Windrip, Adam Sutler, Mr. Thompson, and Big Brother.
The corpus of dystopian literature is old, vast, disparate, intriguing, and of varying quality. The stories discussed here focus only on a few of the better known or outstanding examples of it, and does not claim to be comprehensive by any means. It will not address the concerns of past dystopian writers, such as Thomas More, Jonathan Swift, and Samuel Butler. It will, however, address what I see are key strengths and faults of the genre.
The term utopia is classical Greek for nowhere – meaning an imaginary, impossible, unrealistic place – while a Greek homophone, eutopia, means a “good place,” or a society that has actually achieved realizable perfect happiness and contentment. Dystopian stories focus on one or more negative attributes of totalitarianism. Therein lies their key fault.
The only realm in which tyrannies or dystopias “work” is in literature, specifically in fiction and in motion pictures. In reality, by their nature, they must self-destruct. If they endure for any length of time, it is by grace of external factors: the sanction of the victims, as dramatized in the finest and eminently credible “dystopian” novel, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged; by compromise with evil, a la Neville Chamberlain; or by toleration of totalitarian regimes, e.g., through “trade pacts” and “cultural exchanges” between totalitarian regimes and semi-free nations.
The trouble with the dystopian genre is that while the best of it can be disturbing, compelling, instructive, and very effective – depending on a writer’s narrative and dialogue skills – they are not credible, no matter how well accomplished. That is because if such dystopias existed in reality, they would, once they had reached the point of perfection, implode and collapse. I do not think that any creator of a literary dystopia has ever believed that such societies could actually exist and function. Most men, however, take them literally as the possible.
The chief value of a dystopian story – and here is its potential strength – is that it can impart a moral, in the way of a parable, or portray the essence of a particular totalitarian ideology, or offer insights into current social or political phenomena in reality that are in incubation and not yet fully grown, and which deserve dramatic explication. They can depict the consequences of evil ideas in action, and what men do or do not do about them.
In reality, a perfect dystopia would collapse and perish because it was perfect, because it could not achieve its ideal state, stagnation, without courting suicide. Total control and manipulation of men, their minds, and actions in such a political projection would succeed in crushing the very thing such a system depended on to make the system work: man’s volitional capacity. To prevent such a death, totalitarians resort to even more force – invasion of their neighbors, or unleashing the power of the state on their own citizens. Pol Pot in Cambodia, Stalin in Russia, and Mao in China, are examples of the latter alternative. Force is the only alternative in a totalitarian’s ideological toolbox. It is there to be used.
Stagnation, or an enforced state of a status quo, of an arrested movement in men’s minds and actions, is the ideal state sought after by despots and totalitarians. But, stagnation means regression, dissolution, and death. It can have no other end. And, as only one fiction writer has eloquently demonstrated, it has only one unacknowledged purpose: destruction for the sake of destruction. Or death.
For example, in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the ruling Inner Party pursues of policy of lobotomizing the members of the Outer Party to create an obedient, unthinking cadre of servants of the Inner Party’s hold on power. This is most evident in Orwell’s brilliant grasp of the necessity of destroying language, of a policy of deliberately reducing the number of operative and permitted words and ideas among all Party members.
But if such a policy were actually implemented, the Inner Party would be helpless against the first man who rediscovered or reinvented the words that had been excised from others’ minds (and words are, as novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand defined them, audio-visual symbols for things or entities, including ideas). The literary and philosophical antidote to this aspect of Orwell’s novel, as pointed out by Shoshana Milgram in Essays on Ayn Rand’s Anthem**, is Anthem, in which the hero triumphantly rediscovers the words that were lost to or banished from the truncated minds of his fellows.
Orwell demonstrates an understanding the role of language in the essay that accompanies the novel, “The Principles of Newspeak.” However, the essay is merely a description of the mechanics of thought control and thought suppression, of chaining men’s minds to a miniscule lexicon of politically correct thought, and is not a critical delving into its infeasibility, one consistent with his true contention, portrayed throughout the novel and also in a fictive book in the novel, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, that a totalitarian regime could not maintain or progress beyond the technological level that it inherited when it took power.
(Incidentally, it is only government force that can fuel and sustain political correctness in speech. See my “Speechless Speech” and other essays on political correctness and incorrect speech. It can accomplish this if it has a head-lock on a nation’s educational institutions, as the government now has. Syme, a character in Orwell’s novel who works on the ever-shrinking Newspeak Dictionary, remarks to Winston Smith, “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?….Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller….Orthodoxy means not thinking, not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”*** Because he is intelligent enough to make such an explicit observation – which is completely in line with the Party’s ends – he is subsequently vaporized by the Party. Active minds such as his can also rebel against the Party.
But Syme’s acumen reveals an internal plot contradiction in the novel. O’Brien, an Inner Party member and Smith’s tormentor, displays an intellect vastly superior to Outer Party member Syme’s, who not only repeats Syme’s statements but claims he helped to write the banished book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, an indictment of the Party and its ends. Yet, it is unlikely he will be targeted for liquidation, even though he has the mind to orchestrate the Party’s overthrow.)
In reality, a government that ruled a nation of truncated minds would not be able to “run the country,” other than “running it to the ground.” It would not last. Either the country or the government would collapse first.
Independent minds do not obey commands to think or not to think. And independent minds not free to act on their thinking, do not produce, create, innovate, or function at their maximum capacity in totalitarian systems; at the very most, they function, quite deliberately, at minimal capacity, on the short-range. They produce as little as possible. They cease to function – as far as the statists are concerned – or they remove themselves from the realm of coercion. That is a key point demonstrated in Atlas Shrugged.
A totalitarian regime cannot even remain stagnant for long – unless it leeches off what is left of a nation’s private sector, or benefits from the proximity and productiveness of its free or semi-free neighbors. Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Imperial Japan, among others, subsisted on a combination of loot, conquest, and trade with willing, indiscriminate, more prosperous nations that they had not yet invaded and looted, together with the willingness of most of their populations to work for and defer to the state.
Whence the means of oppression?
Many dystopian novels, dubbed “technocratic,” are warnings about an over-reliance on technology. They depict technology “gone wrong.” This view is in error on two counts. The first is that technology can “go wrong” only with the power of government force. The second is that in most novels of this type, an industrial civilization that could produce the technology is implied or taken for granted. A literary indictment of any technology is, implicitly, an indictment of industrial civilization per se. We have seen today protests against everything from nuclear power to cosmetics to sugar to salt. No product of human effort is exempt from the indictment.
For example, in the film V for Vendetta (a gross distillation of a popular British comic book series) there is no negative existential consequence portrayed in a recognizable, prosperous society ruled by Adam Sutler’s totalitarian government. Set in Britain, one discerns no real distinction between contemporary Britain and its standard of living, and the story’s setting. One is left asking: What has anyone to complain about? Everyone seems fat and happy, and the trains run on time. This copasetic depiction renders all of the subplots – of some government biological experiments, the round-up and extermination of anyone not approved by a nominally “Christian” dictator, and the protagonist’s mission of vendetta – entirely irrelevant.
On the other hand, In Nineteen Eighty-Four (the novel or the 1984 film production), the appalling material living conditions are gruesomely described, just the opposite of those portrayed in V, with incredible poverty endured by Outer Party members – aside from their risk of arbitrary arrest, torture and execution for thought crime. Orwell was close to identifying the key motive – the poverty is planned and has a purpose, to sustain a grinding, exhausting existence that drains men’s capacity to think clearly, or to choose not to think and rather obey so as to earn an increase in the chocolate ration – but not close enough. He knew that a key to enforcing obedience was to erase concepts from men’s minds – to stymie any thought of disobedience and the possibility that one could even imagine or experience another kind of existence. Without the object or vision of freedom as an expressed possibility, no motive to think of it or move toward it could be possible. The goal of the Inner Party in Orwell’s novel was power for the sake of exercising power for its own sake – the power to destroy and reshape men – and he gave Big Brother a more credible means to achieve and retain total power.
Still, he discounted the role and efficacy of volition and the possibility that men might still think and triumph, and that, even in the absence of eradicated words, minds would still struggle to find, identify or create words. The fate of Winston Smith, the novel’s anti-hero, reveals the malevolent, deterministic premise of its creator. In spite of his contention that such a regime could not foster technological progress, he grants it an overriding metaphysical potency.
But, where does the chocolate come from? And the telescreens? Who produces them? Under what conditions? As do most other dystopian writers, he makes only passing references to an industrial base, manned largely by the “inhuman” proles, with raw materials coming from regions of the world contested by perpetual warfare between similar totalitarian regimes.
The parable of the short film 2081 is about complacency. George Bergeron, the father of Harrison, a man of superlative virtues – possessing genius, beauty, and strength , who has earned every “handicap” equalizing device imaginable – watches his son be murdered by the state, but cannot remember the event, thanks to the state’s power to disrupt his thinking and memory. His son, an “extraordinary” who was “beyond the reach” of the Handicapper General’s purposes, was impervious to the punishments. But in fact it is not the devices hanging from George’s body that stop him from thinking, or remembering. It is his acclimation to wearing the devices. He tells his wife that if he removed the devices, he wouldn’t want to put them on again. But, by the end of the story, he chooses to leave them on.
But, where do these sophisticated devices come from? Who makes them? Of course, 2081 is a parable, and not meant to be taken literally.
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 assumes that a society in which books are burned and banned can maintain itself as a technologically advanced and prosperous one, relying on mere pictures and the general illiteracy of its population. Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day depicts a society that can maintain technology if its citizens are regularly doped up (or doped down). THX 1138 depicts an underground society that relies heavily on industrial production; in neither of these instances is there evidence of how a regime obtains its sophisticated tools of oppression, such as drugs and robot policemen and fire engines.
Totalitarian regimes, such as Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, could claim some longevity because, aside from the sanction granted each regime by its victims, they also existed by grace of pragmatic policies and toleration of their more prosperous and freer neighbors. Red China has sustained its existence as a nominally communist country by adopting pragmatic “free market” policies that allow its citizens some modicum of freedom. Communist Cuba has existed on handouts from friendly statist regimes. Mixed economies such as Argentina and Mexico, or the Scandinavian countries, stumble along, relying on the vestiges of freedom that have not been snuffed out.
The only novel to make the connection between a government’s expropriation of the products of an industrial civilization (to use as weapons against men) and industrial civilization itself, is Atlas Shrugged. That unique, distinct feature makes Atlas not only more credible as a story and a projection of the possible, but more realistic, for the principles that govern the story also govern reality. It is a masterful integration of creative imagination and loyalty to facts and reality, an integration not evident or only suggested in most dystopian stories, and not likely to be repeated in the near future.
In the story, as in reality, when the policies of force lead to the shut down or extinction of free, productive work and the suspension of thought, the nation and the government both collapse. The nation has been bankrupted, not only in its economy and its productive industrial capacity, but it loses the minds that made the economy and capacity possible. The philosophy for living dramatized in Atlas is equally and wholly applicable to living in the “real world”; there is no dichotomy between them in any particular, no lapse of context, evidence of ignorance, or evasion of truth.
At their very best, dystopian novels and films, particularly those with a clear dramatization of the choices between freedom and slavery, freedom of thought and servile parroting, productive work and drudgery for the state, and revolution and submission, can lose one for a time in an imaginary world where those choices parallel the ones necessary in the real.
*It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis. 1935. (New York: Signet Classics, 2005), p. 130.
*”Anthem in the Context of Related Literary Works: We are not like our brothers,” by Shoshana Milgram, in Essays on Ayn Rand’s Anthem. Ed. Robert Mayhew. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2005), pp. 119-171 (Orwell discussion, pp. 149-154).
***Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell. 1949. Ed. Irving Howe. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982), p. 36.