01 July 2015

Diagnosing the Dystopian Syndrome

It may not be possible to fool all the people all of the time, but history has shown repeatedly that it is all too easy to fool enough people for long enough to trap a whole country under dysfunctional governance and ruin countless lives.

There has never been a shortage of tyrants and tricksters who claim they can bring improvements when they just plan to amass enough power to dictate to everyone else. And all too often they get away with their deception since demagogues know how to exploit irrationality, and rich manipulators can always churn out the most convincing lies money can buy.

But there is a way to cut through the miasma of falsehood. Wells, Orwell, Wyndham, Atwood and others have shown how the misruling of society can be highlighted by presenting its insidious symptoms in a captivating narrative that challenges us to deal with them.

Although they conjure up different fantastical events or futuristic scenarios in which to set their stories, the symptoms they target share three core elements, which together constitute what I have termed the ‘Dystopian Syndrome’. Their manifestations are the surest signs that the governance of society needs urgent resuscitation. The three elements are: ignorance, isolation, and inequity.

Let us take ignorance first. A well-governed society would enable its members to learn continuously from each other, drawing on the objectively verifiable evidence and coherent reasons put forward, and revising their beliefs and attitudes in the light of shared experiences. This provides the basis for critical understanding of claims made about the world and leads to informed judgements about what should be believed or rejected. But an authority which dogmatically or deviously propounds views without due justification will breed ignorance. The absence of any thoughtful authority on the other hand will be just as bad, since an ‘anything goes’ culture allows superstitions, prejudices, errors to become entrenched without being challenged and displaced.

The second element is that of isolation. The purpose of any social grouping is to enable people to cultivate supportive relationships with others, share the good times and care for each other in the bad, and build a sense of mutual responsibility in utilising resources fairly and sustainably. Any system of governance which perverts this aim and deprives sub-groups or individuals of a chance to live well like others is inherently flawed. So is any system that penalises targeted citizens without due cause. Where a system fragments to the point that it in effect leaves most if not all its members feeling insecure with nothing more reliable to count on, it would have failed completely.

Last but not least, there is inequity. No system of governance is likely to secure, or deserve to secure, the acceptance of its members if it does not respect the notion of reciprocity. People are ready to cooperate with each other provided the risks and benefits are shared out through joint deliberations and mutual agreement. But once some can decide on outcomes irrespective of what others may think, inequity corrodes social bonds and gives rise to distrust and resentment. Irrevocably giving the power to decide to just one person or an elite group is a recipe for oppression, as is removing all procedures for collective decision-making since that would just leave some to exploit the vulnerabilities of others without any public constraint.

All three elements of the dystopian syndrome are actually becoming ever more prevalent in the world today. Nationalistic extremism, religious fundamentalism, plutocratic exploitation, the arms & surveillance industry, anarchic rejection of the rule of law, all infect and damage the governance of our society. Dystopian fiction may just help to stir the imagination of many who would not otherwise engage in political deliberations, and inject renewed resistance into our democratic veins.

‘Whitehall through the Looking Glass’: a satirical dystopian novel about a Consortium that comes to take charge of both Britain and America.
‘Kuan’s Wonderland’: an allegorical dystopian novel about how wealth and dogmas rule in the surreal world of Shiyan.