Four Kinds of Dystopia
3 January, 2017
The twentieth century saw four basic visions of hell on earth, or dystopia. These were:
Orwellian. Rule by autocratic totalitarian people, party or elite group. Limitation of choice, repression of speech and repression of minorities. Belief in order, routine and rational-morality. Erotic physicality and sexual freedom suppressed through violent control of sexual impulse. Constant surveillance and constant censorship. Control of bodies by enclosure, fear, explicit, violent, repression of dissent and forced obedience to ‘the party line’ (orwellian fanaticism: All must submit). Control of minds by explicitly policing, limiting and punishing subversive language (orwellian newspeak: state-controlled reduction of vocabulary to limit range of thought). Truth cannot be known (aka hyper-relativism or postmodernism); and therefore we need an external authority to decide what the truth is (kings and priests) and to protect society from chaos and madness (the orwellian them: commies, anarchists, extremists, radicals, infidels, plebs, proles, freaks, criminals, etc.).
Huxleyan Rule by democratic, totalitarian, capitalist, technocratic systems. Super-excess of choice. Limitation of access to speech platforms. Assimilation of minorities (via tokenism), foundational belief in emotional-morality, ‘imagination’ and ‘flexibility’. Control by desire, debt, narcotic, technical necessity and implicit threat of violence. No overt control of dissent (system selects for system-friendly voices and unconscious self-censorship). Erotic physicality and sexual freedom suppressed via promotion of pornographic sensuality, promiscuity and dissolution. Control of bodies through pleasure and addiction to pleasure. Control of minds by proliferating information and enclosing language within professional boundaries (Illichian Newspeak, or Uniquack). Truth can be intellectually known (the religion of scientism) and is obvious when understood (huxleyan fanaticism: only the wicked can refuse it) and learnt in the process of setting up an internal authority (aka morality or conscience) called ‘education’.
Kafkaesque Rule by bureaucracy. Control of populace (and of nature) through putting them into writing; fixing names, surveying land, standardising measures, tracking movement, quantifying, measuring and recording everything that happens everywhere, thereby abstracting it and making it manageable, which, in itself, induces tractable stress and the schizoid, self-regulating self-consciousness (anxiety about low marks, unlikes, official judgements and the like) of the bureaucratically surveilled. In addiction, bureaucratic functions and practices in an expanding abstract system are increasingly designed to manage their own abstract output. Having less and less to do with the actual lives of those who engage with it bureaucratic tasks necessarily become frustrating, interminable, dehumanising and pointless; a state of affairs which is permitted, and even encouraged, as it automatically grinds down those who threaten management; the informal, the illiterate, the spontaneous, the shifting, the weird, the local, the private, the embodied and all those who seek to have a direct relationship with their fellows; all of which is intolerable to kafkaesque systems, which promote into power hyper-normal functionaries who seek an indirect relationship with their fellows and who, through fear of life, seek to control it through the flow of paperwork.
Phildickian Rule by replacing reality with an abstract, ersatz virtual image of it. This technique of social control began with literacy1—and the creation of written symbols, which devalued soft conscious sensuous inspiration, fostered a private (reader-text) interaction with society, created the illusion that language is a thing, that meaning can be stored, owned and perfectly duplicated, that elite-language is standard and so on—and ended with virtuality—the conversion of classrooms, offices, prisons, shops and similar social spaces into ‘immersive’ on-line holodecks which control and reward participants through permanent, perfect surveillance, the stimulation of positive and negative emotion, offers of godlike powers, and threats to nonconformists of either narco-withdrawal or banishment to an off-line reality now so degraded by the demands of manufacturing an entire artificial universe, that only hellish production-facilities, shoddy living-units and prisons can materially function there.
These four visions of hell2 are all founded upon the civilised system. This foundation, or background, serves as the origin and meeting point of Orwellian, Huxleyan, Kafkaesque and Phildickian worlds, which necessarily overlap and interact at key points; namely the fundamental alienation and misery of civilisation, the commodification and rationalisation of capitalism and the hyper-specialised, hyper-technical approach to life of late-capitalism. From this common root grew those branches of modernity and post-modernity which Orwell, Huxley, Kafka and Dick explored and described.
All modern societies, for example, are both Kafkaesque and Phildickian (indeed virtual Phildickia can be seen as a modern refinement of the hyper-literate Kafkastan) with either a Huxleyan or Orwellian overarching framework; modern, western, capitalist societies tend to be basically Huxleyan (HKP) and, on the other side of the slit-thin officially acceptable ‘political spectrum’ (aka the ‘Overton Window’), pre-modern, eastern, ‘communist’ countries tend to be basically Orwellian (OKP), although within these disparities much diversity prevails. We are, while at work for example, largely in an Orwellian mode, where freedom to choose how and when we work is strictly limited (either explicitly or, for modern professionals and precarious freelancer, implicitly), where spontaneity, sexuality are severely punished and where, essentially, we are treated like chattel. When we leave work, however, we instantly enter a Huxleyan world of transcendent freedom, infinite choice, democracy and pleasure; we can comment, vote, travel, consume to satiety, a panoply of sexual and creative opportunity opens out and everyone everywhere treats us (or is at least supposed to treat us) like the capitalist gods we really are (official term; customer); at least those of us who can pay are. The dirt-poor remain in Airstrip 1.
The reason why ideological managers3 (academics, film directors, journalists, etc) prefer to have two (or more) dystopian systems is that it makes us seem like the goodies and them the baddies. Communism is to blame for their foodbanks and breadlines, but capitalism has nothing to do with ours (or vice versa). Sure our masses have the same miserable lives as theirs, reel under the same bureaucratic insanity, stumble around the same shoddy unreal worlds, and witness the same catastrophic destruction of nature and beauty as theirs do, but at least we’ve got democracy! / at least our families stick together! / at least the trains run on time! / at least GTA 9 is coming out soon / at least the Olympics will cheer us up (delete as appropriate).
- Obviously I’m not suggesting that literacy is inherently or completely dystopian, but it is the beginning of a dangerous and distorting process, which starts with societies demanding literacy for participation — and devaluing orality and improvised forms of expression — and ends with the complete eradication of reality. This danger and distortion increases with every step towards virtuality (print, perspective, photography, television, internet) until, by the time we reach VR, there remains no possibility of reverie, transcendence, humanity, meaning or genuine creativity, all of which become suspect.
- With apologies to Yevgeny Zamyatin, Jules Verne, Walter Besant and other authors of proto-dystopias.
- And of course for those who depend on their illusions.