23 May 2015

Power Disparity & Dystopian Breakdown

Fascination with reports on catastrophic accidents and stories about apocalyptic horrors may be due in part to a sense of relief that one has not been caught up in the former or is ever likely to be trapped in the latter.

But accounts of dystopian events grip us precisely because they bring to our attention the calamitous consequences that could unfold if we allowed certain trends to continue. Instead of serving up escapist or sensationalist diversions, dystopian writers are concerned with presenting us with danger signs, pointers to underlying threats, and what should be done before it is too late.

All the paradigmatic dystopian writers have one core diagnostic perspective in common – power disparity. When some in society have managed to amass excessive power in relation to others, what tends to follow is that the powerful few impose their will on the rest, and irrespective of the suffering caused, no one by then is strong enough to resist them.

In ‘The Time Machine’, Wells paints a grotesque picture of what the growing divergence between rich and poor can lead to. In ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, Orwell depicts a world in which an unaccountable political regime with totalitarian powers can manipulate and ruin everyone’s life at will. In ‘Oryx and Crake’, Atwood presents the dire consequences of handing too much power to a scientific genius even when his intentions are not inherently evil. In ‘Brave New World’, Huxley shows how an elite can perpetuate its dominance by breeding ‘inferior’ stock and promoting drug-induced contentment. In ‘Fahrenheit 451’, Bradbury sets out the slippery slope that awaits any society that lets a self-styled elite take control of what it can learn and discover through books and the media. In ‘The Iron Heel’, London foretells how corporate leaders can band together to crush any resistance from government or workers. And in ‘The Chrysalids’, Wyndham gives us a disconcerting portrait of how ‘religious orthodoxy’ backed by unquestionable power will deal with those who are ‘different’.

Although some novelists and screenwriters have dipped into this genre superficially and whipped up 2-dimensional political, religious, business or scientific figures as easy targets, the real problem behind dystopian breakdown has always been recognised by those who take the issue seriously as the polarisation between the excessively powerful few and the increasingly disempowered majority.

Beyond the realm of fiction, historical works have also provided some of the best dystopian stories – their being true only adds poignancy to them. For example: the degeneration of the Roman Republic towards the brutality and chaos of imperial Rome; the growth of power that transformed humble Christian congregations into a Church that tortured and killed in the name of God; the power imbalance that fuelled colonial oppression; the plutocratic irresponsibility that brought about the Great Depression and the rise of fascism; the powerlessness of those who lived under Soviet totalitarianism; and the contemporary dehumanisation of the poor under neo-liberal regimes. (For an account of the problem of power disparity through history, see ‘Against Power Inequalities: a history of the progressive struggle’)

To counter dystopian trends, power needs to be redistributed from those with too much already to those with little. To do that, the disempowered must join forces. And one of the key prerequisites for people to line up behind any collective endeavour is the development of a shared understanding amongst them of the problem they face and what must be done about it. Dystopian literature has an important role to play in nurturing such a shared understanding.

For a satirical dystopian novel about corporate-led government over Britain and America, try ‘Whitehall through the Looking Glass’.

For an allegorical dystopian novel about how wealth and power divides society in the surreal world of Shiyan, try ‘Kuan’s Wonderland’.