Stories about the world, visions of possible futures (good and bad) are desperately needed. Rowan Fortune explores the kind of dystopia we are facing, and why we need to show more courage in facing it.
19 December 2020
Is it time that we took dystopias seriously again? Whether it is US President-elect Biden’s incredibly unambitious plans for his first 100 days (where merely rolling out Trump’s vaccination policies is heralded as an accomplishment, while nearly 3,000 are dying of Coronavirus per day), China’s Xi Jinping retreating from the Belt and Road initiative, or the British government’s continued descent into Brexit fantasy, it is increasingly clear that none of capital’s representatives have any more tricks. They are fragile, unable to fulfil the myths of their respective political contracts with their citizenry, increasingly turning to the lowliest scapegoating in lieu of anything substantive. Despite that, however, they also lack a clear antithesis.
The compromises of social democracy and socialism in one country continue to undermine any attempt to establish a rival to capitalism. And while unprecedented strikes in India, BLM and a growing focus on the environmental crisis are amongst many signs of hope, what we now see in aggregate is not the end-of-history promised by liberals, but a rudderless history, the nightmare of human history without agency, without vision or direction.
Much ink has been spilled on the death of the working class, especially focused on core countries in the global north. But for Marxists, this proposition ought to open up a secondary consideration. If class society is dialectically determined by the antagonism of two rival camps, both of which exist only by virtue of the other, the defeat of those forces that aim to transcend current social relations has strange implications. If, as common-wisdom insists, class organisation is undergoing a historical crisis, can there even be said to be an upper class?
The point here is not that there are no longer workers being exploited and capitalists engaged in exploitation, nor even that this distinction is now hopelessly muddled, but that as class projects these great enemies no longer meaningfully contend for the future. The idea is not the post-ideological vision of Fukuyama’s 90s, where class harmony has abolished old contentions, but a darker one that Marx and Engel’s entertained in the Communist Manifesto, where they surmised that class conflict could result in a ‘revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.’ This horrifying prospect is hard to fathom, but in a world where all ideas of the future seem dead relics of lost pasts (Mark Fisher’s hauntology), it is one we need to face urgently.
I have written elsewhere about why I believe that despair is a mistake, irrespective of how bleak our circumstances. (Providing that we cannot say with certainty that all hope is lost.) My purpose here is not, then, to recommend left pessimism, but to take seriously a genre of imagination about which I have mixed feelings at best. Generally, I urge comrades to take up the call of utopia, to imagine a world where the ‘reconstitution of society at large’ is in the process of succeeding. (‘Process’ is significant here, as seeing socialism and capitalism in stark binaries results in abstract and magical thinking). But dystopia need not exist in opposition to utopia.
Utopian ideas can be found in many dystopias. Whether it’s the ancient secret society of Swastika Night, the fragile spaces of intimate rebellion carved out in Nineteen Eighty-four, the Savage Reservation in Brave New World, the future liberated society of The Iron Heel (excellently parodied by The Handmaid’s Tale) or District 13 in The Hunger Games, utopias-within-dystopias point to the fact that many dystopian authors do not see their worst-case scenarios as inevitable, but wrote them only to better understand the threats facing us. And while there is a courage to utopia that dystopia lacks, the courage of setting out a positive vision, there might be something to say for the courage of facing the near total absence of a positive vision.
All of the dystopias I listed above share a quality that makes them inappropriate for diagnosing the crisis Marx macabrely hinted at, the aforementioned common ruin. All of them (bar, arguably, the increasingly infertile and wretched future of Swastika Night) still depict a world containing some agency. In the latter two there is still even meaningful class conflict of a type. But a dystopia that depicts a rudderless history, that would have to be something quite different. Something altogether harder to accept or tolerate, which is perhaps why the idea has received so little in the way of elaboration since it was merely and ever-so-lightly sketched in 1848.
This thought occurred to me watching a Channel 4 News piece about a woman, Carol, who survived on £67 over six weeks following the death of her father. It prompted me to muse that the dystopias we currently sustain are far worst (more squalid and pointlessly debasing) than those whimsical ones we like to conjure against the utopias that could be. Carol’s sustained expression of defeat is something more eerie, more disturbing, more outrageous, than any fantastical story of plucky rebels overthrowing a well-designed system of oppression. And a part of that has to do with the lack of design, the lack of purpose, the mindless, grueling pain inflicted to no real end.
Two quite recent computer games set up the contrast between these types of dystopias quite neatly. In 2020’s Cyberpunk 2077, evil corporations under the control of evil men inflict evil deeds while vying for power against one another. Amusingly, almost everything about this game feels like the product of a dystopia: from the danger it poses to players with epilepsy, to well documented transphobia, to the grotesque levels of exploitation of the team who made it, and the buggy, rushed mess they produced. In contrast, 2019’s Disco Elysium depicts capitalism as something that permeates the ruins of a society without a purpose, where petty racist ideology and nostalgic fantasies give glimmers of false hope to the inhabitants, and your every thought is infected by prejudices and misconceptions of others’ devising.
It is easy to dismiss the value of stories, but stories are so foundational to how we understand the world. Marx himself saw this, and deployed a rich range of gothic tropes into his writings (specters, vampires, gravediggers and the shit of ages). In contrast, there is a profound dearth of meaningful accounts of our crisis today, especially for socialists who rightly scoff at the awful narrative impasses contained in far-right nonsense about ethnostates or the desperate conviction of centrists in some great reset. But when we cannot offer even ideas at that pathetic level, we have only identified how low the bar has been set, and then failed nonetheless.
Rowan Fortune is a West London activist and student of utopia, and editor of the anthology of utopic fiction, Citizens of Nowhere, which demonstrates the genre's enduring relevance. This essay has also been published on Rowan's blog.