Rather You Than Me: Dreaming of Dystopia
In a Commune article from 2018, Kim Stanley Robinson argues that the dystopian genre is a blinkered, politically-inhibiting and defunct mode of thinking. As we are living through compound crises of health, finance and ecology, have grim visions of science fiction become an indulgence we can no longer afford?
Robinson claims that dystopia is part of an all-encompassing hopelessness. We can return, in a later post I’ll return to what art and fiction media’s response should be, for now let’s say Robinson is right to state that utopia and dystopia are not the only forces at work. By mapping the phenomena onto a Greimas square he distinguishes between dystopia, the opposite of utopia (malign in both intent and outcome e.g. Nazism) and anti-utopia, the contrary of utopia (benign in intent, malign in outcome e.g. Soviet Russia). He doesn’t go into detail over the fourth category, anti-anti-utopia, instead ending with an insistance on the need to return to the purism of a utopian horizon.
Robinson’s fatigue with dystopia echoes well a point made by Slavoj Žižek’s on the inherently conservative nature of dystopian media. In an article for The Indepent Žižek explains the soothing and cathartic function of Margaret Atwood’s dystopia by referencing Frederic Jameson’s “nostalgia for the present”:
The entire story […] is permeated by the sentimental admiration for our liberal-permissive present ruined by the new Christian-fundamentalist rule, and it never even approaches the question of what is wrong in this present so that it gave birth to the nightmarish Republic of Gilead.
As he says, this kind of dystopic speculation allows us to morbidly contemplate the intricate cruelties of a 20th century anglophonic theocracy whilst safely quarantining its evils within the realm of fiction. Such a smug denunciation of religious extremism on the part of viewers cushion them from the fact that our supposedly enlightened society is already suffused with ideological essentialism of a not-so-different kind. I’m talking of course about Capitalist Realism, the “business ontology” as Mark Fisher called it, of begrudging acceptance that there can be no alternative than to apply cold market logic to the administration of human life. It should be noted that this is a relgious attitude., more accurately it is fast becoming a death cult. Max Weber, in The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) and Walter Benjamin, in Capitalism as Religion (1921) both have pointed out the parasitation of religion by capital and the intermingling of their histories (capitalism may resemble a religion, however a Christian society without capital or class would less resemble Gilead and more primitive communism). The “necessity” of capitalism’s attribution of commodity value to every last slither of human experience, to every public institution and every corner of civic society, along with the percieved impossibility of escape or change betrays its cultic nature.
Capitalism is a religion of pure cult, without dogma. Capitalism has developed as a parasite of Christianity in the West … until it reached the point where Christianity’s history is essentially that of its parasite – that is to say, of capitalism.
actually existing dystopia
Is late capitalism all that bad? Isn’t an emaciated state and an end to the concept of public good surely a fair tradeoff for short-term GDP stability ? Most people seem willing to put up with dropping living standards and increasing inequality but the mask finally slipped when the complete incapability of a defunded and privatised state aparatus to respond to exogenous shock, combined with an unparralelled demand-side economic disaster has led us to Actually Existing Dystopia. This is the future. Britain, the second largest GDP in Europe has the third highest Covid deaths per Capita and the most overall deaths to date.
This should hopefully remind us that the most frightening examples of the dystopian genre contain spores of possibility in our present. Children of Men is rightly acclaimed as a dystopian film par excellence. In the words of Mark Fisher: “The changes that [Children of Men] introduces do not point toward alternate reality, they simply make reality more what it already is.” This umbilical connection to reality is what enables truly artful dystopias to raise our conciousness and gird us with the necassary “pessimism of the intellect” to face the coming storm. Pessimism can be distinguished from cynicism by way of comparing Children of Men to one of the more hyperbollic dystopias like A Handmaid’s Tale or Elysium. The pessimist expects the expects bad things will happen, a cynic believes. Counterintuitively, the extrapolative nightmare of Children of Men provides us with greater hope and better instructions than the grim what-if scenarios of alt-histories like The Handmaid’s Tale or The Man in The High Castle. What were the warnings we missed?
This isn’t the familiar totalitarian scenario routinely trotted out in cinematic dystopias […] For all that we know, the authoritarian measures that are everywhere in place could have been implemented within a political structure that remains, notionally, democratic […] The world that it projects seems more like an extrapolation or exacerbation of ours than an alternative to it. In its world, as in ours, ultra-authoritarianism and Capital are by no means incompatible: internment camps and franchise coffee bars co-exist.
I won’t go into the coexistence of internment camps and cafes this time and will let the mere existence of Yarl’s Wood should speak for itself. Let’s instead look at a key theme in Children of Men which has been excaccerbated by the COVID-19 crisis: the aging population in a crisis situation. The elderly, we were told by the WHO and European leaders needed to be “cocooned”. Instead though, British politicians sent home early from hospitals to care homes where the virus has since run rampant, leading to incalculable early deaths either of- or with COVID-19 whilst whistle blowers like MP Nadia Whittome are gagged to protect their employers. There is a chilling resonance with the P.D. James’ novel on which Children of Men is based as over-60s in the near future are pressured into suicide to ease the welfare burden of a depopulating society.
Back to Kim Stanely Robinson. In Dystopias Now he motions to a parallax representation of both cautionary future and metaphorical present. Robinson refers to this bisected reality/unreality of dystopia as a “kind of surrealism”, which struck me as odd. As anyone who knows about the surrealist international movement, proponents of surrealism tacked much closer to utopianism than dystopianism and many were either communists or anarchists.
To quote Andre Breton writing in Nonnational Boundaries of Surrealism:
The whole future includes the unlimited hope for the liberation of the human spirit that surrealism, perhaps the only existing intellectual effort to be concerted and sustained on an international scale, can infuse into that word
He later goes on to state the “indivisible propositions of surrealism” including the creation of paths to the superstructure so it might be changed to influence the course of historical struggle. It should be obvious that this deploying of Marx and Engels’ dialectical materialism to invoke historical change is an emminently utopian objective and not inherent to the dystopian metaphor from Robinson’s standpoint. To be clear, Robinson isn’t wrong to raise surrealism in diagnosing the experience of contemplating a bifercated reality, he is however wrong to attribute this to dystopia alone. Furthermore, this ceding of territory to political cynicism in fact cements our predicament: imaginative energy is being used only to cook up nightmarish potentialities for sci-fi paperbacks, video streaming services and other apocalypse simulators. Considerv the continued popularity of dystopian media throughout the 2010s alongside the uptick in civil wars, mass shootings, deepening environmental collapse and the resurgence of xenophobic populism. Pardon the slightly hack observation but if you want catastrophe just turn on the news.
Since the Corona outbreak, already bleak socio-economic conditions have exploded to historical levels which makes dystopia indistnguishable from reality. Hence “actually exisiting dystopia” and the need for a new radical cultural imaginary. Here I’ll give a few examples of how the neoliberal consensus has broken down and forced a recoordination of Western politics as we know it. This moment must be seized upon to, as Breton put it, lay a path to the superstructure…
- Capitalist parties have been forced to deploy socialist-style interventions to rescue the failing corporations which were previously cheered on and allowed to perform the roles of state organs.
- UBI-style measures are being used across Europe to keep workers employed and hotels are appropriated to stop homeless people from dropping dead in the street.
- The West Texas Intermediate for crude fell more than 100% to -$37.63 per barrel, making crude oil less than worthles for the first time ever.
- The UK’s only significantly profitable sectors, non-productive areas of the service economy such as retail, leisure and higher education have all been hit hard by social restrictions and will crash and burn spectacularly, probably leading to an extremely slow recovery or none whatsoever.
To fight the phantasmagorical miserablism of the now superfluous dystopia genre and perhaps fill the hole in Robinson’s utopia/dystopia Greimas square we have to revisit, among others the Surrealists and salvage the “open realism” of 20th century utopians for our own transformative ends.
Robinson, Kim Stanley. “Dystopia Now”, Commune Magazine website. url:https://communemag.com/dystopias-now [accessed 02/05/2020]
Žižek, Slavoj. “Margaret Atwood’s work illustrates our need to enjoy other people’s pain”, The Independent website 14 September 2019 url:https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/margaret-atwood-handmaids-tale-testaments-human-rights-slavoj-zizek-a9105151.html [accessed 02/05/2020]
Fisher, M. “Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?” London: Zero Books, 2009. p17.
https://ourworldindata.org/coronavirus [accessed 08/05/2020]
Žižek, Slavoj. Transcript from promtional content from Children of Men url:https://jdeanicite.typepad.com/i_cite/2006/12/zizek_and_child.html
Fisher, M. “Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?” London: Zero Books, 2009. pp5-6.
Breton, André. “Nonnational Boundaries of Surrealism.” Free Rein. Trans.Michel Parmentier and Jacqueline d’Amboise. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996.
Breton, André. “Manifesto for An Independent Revolutionary Art.” Free Rein. Trans.Michel Parmentier and Jacqueline d’Amboise. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996.