Dystopia’s calling

‘This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.’

– T.S. Eliot – The Hollow Men (1925)

For decades, we’ve produced and absorbed the ideas and images of dystopian societies. Considered to be surreal depictions of life, is it more accurate to say we’ve already become them?

The concept of the dystopian society is one that permeates many modern forms; whether it be music, fiction, film or even political theory. It is a concept of a future society whose traits and conditions would seem undesirable to current cultural norms. As an inversion of the utopian ideal, the word itself conjures up radical yet credible images of a world in which rights have been dismantled, democracies turned autocracy or the abolishment of personal privacy. Though these ideas have remained part of fiction and speculation for years, examples shown herein would show ways in which we have already become the societies that past decades feared we would become.

Big Brother is Watching You
George Orwell’s 1984 is a text which deals prominently with one such idea of a dystopian society: a persistent and omnipresent government who maintains surveillance over its entire population. To say something is «Orwellian», we are describing how something is deconstructive of societal freedoms. Often used to describe fictional ideas or situations, this word is becoming more pertinent with each passing day. Sixty-seven years after the publication of 1984, the government of the United Kingdom signs into law The Investigatory Powers Act (IPA) with little to no opposition from its population or its counterparts in British Parliament. With the advent of personal computers and the internet, this charter provides the UK intelligence agencies (MI5, MI6 and GCHQ) the legal mandate to amass
large quantities of personal information via electronic surveillance. US whistle-blower Edward Snowden tweeted that «The UK has just legalised the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy. It goes further than many autocracies».

Sometimes referred to as the «Snoopers’ Charter», this act was formed and passed under the guise of protection against domestic terrorism, an issue which sustains itself through communication online. Despite its reasoning, this act raises the issues of personal privacy amongst citizens of the United Kingdom as information can be collected and viewed of those not under suspicion of criminal intent. Yet it was the context of domestic crime and terrorism in which the UK government enacted a law which threatens to intrude upon what many consider to be a human right.

Illustration: Katja Henriksen Schia

War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength
These changes that we can observe in modern democracies such as the United Kingdom and the United States can be related to works even further back in chronology of dystopian texts. In Aldous Huxyley’s Brave New World (1932), the text herein discusses the anticipation of developments in conditioning as well as psychological manipulation towards the populations of nations:

«By means of ever more effective methods of mind-manipulation, the democracies will change their nature; the quaint old forms – elections, parliaments, Supreme Courts and all the rest – will remain. The underlying substance will be a new kind of non-violent totalitarianism. All the traditional names, all the hallowed slogans will remain exactly what they were in the good old days. Democracy and freedom will be the theme of every broadcast and editorial. Meanwhile the ruling oligarchy and its highly trained elite of soldiers, policemen, thought-manufacturers and mind-manipulators will quietly run the show as they see fit».

Huxley demonstrates that the society that we live in is told to us and in turn, told by us. Though we may believe we reside in a democracy, what lies beneath the surface and where power resides is more indicative of how societies like the United States are operated. An indication of this is the recent news of CNN News contributor Kayleigh McEnany resigning from her former role to become the face of a new pro-trump news outlet. This «Real News Update» is a formatted show more closely resembling that of state TV broadcasts from countries like Russia and Syria; two countries known for their mistreatment towards journalists and freedoms of the press.

In their most recent broadcast, Lara Trump hosted the news and detailed the weekly events of her father’s routine as president, a noticeably un-biased host for such a show. At the end of these updates, the host always signs out with a declaration of «the real news» having been read. This declaration builds upon President Trump’s increasingly vitriolic comments upon mainstream American news outlets and their propagation of «fake news». Political critics attribute this kind of discussion to the rise of «post-truth politics» a form of discourse in which facts are superfluous to the intent of garnering emotion through the use of language.

Illustration: Katja Henriksen Schia

And the clocks were striking thirteen
These are not the only dystopian works which foreshadow changes that we can observe in societies today, but instead a couple which have evidenced their relationship to contemporary socio-political changes. Many other themes which relate to modern-day societies and their dystopian aspects are becoming increasingly pervasive, such as: the proliferation of pain-medication and a drug-reliant population sang by The Rolling Stones in their 60s song Mother’s Little Helper. Or instead, our reliance upon technology and the subversive materials we are subjected to in The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy’s song Television, the Drug of the Nation. The lyrics of these songs, as well as the texts by Orwell and Huxley, indicate ways in which we have already succumbed to the features of dystopic cultures. But to some, this realisation is not an indication of failure but instead the precipice for where revolutionary change shall occur.

One such man was Nye Bevan (architect of the UK’s National Health Service). In 1959, he foresaw the world as it was destined to become, whilst still retaining a glimmer of hope:

«When they have got over the delirium of the television, when they realize that their new homes that they have been put into are mortgaged up to the hilt, when they realise that the moneylender has been elevated to the highest position in the land, when they realise that the refinements for which they should look are not there, that it is a vulgar society of which no decent person could be proud…when they realise that all the tides of history are flowing in our direction, that we are not beaten, that we represent the future: then, then we shall lead our people to where they deserve to be led».