“He loved Big Brother.”
The final chilling words of George Orwell’s most famous book, 1984, the moment in the book where the protagonist, Winston Smith, has given in to the tyrannical government of the future and has come to accept things as they are, and even love them. A chilling and depressing ending for a book that warned about the new types of governments that arose around the time of the book’s publication in 1949; but does the model that this dystopian novel (and other dystopian novels) present correctly display the world we live in today?
Well, dear reader, to approach what it means to determine whether or not we are living in a dystopian world, we must first decipher what a dystopia is. Originally, the word dystopia came from ancient Greece as a way of describing a society that is frightening, terrifying, undesirable, or riddled with problems around every corner. The word did not gain popularity until the 16th century with the publication of Utopia by Sir Thomas Moore (1779-1852) and was given its modern meaning in the mid 1860’s in a speech given by John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) to Parliament in describing the English government’s disastrous land policies in Ireland.
In the 20th century, the word dystopian took on a whole new meaning in terms of what it was supposed to represent; beforehand, it was used mostly to refer to a fictional society where nightmarish policies and scenarios would occur. However, dystopians and dystopian fiction changed in that it was moved from isolated societies to societies that were based on the ones we lived in. Especially after the destructive period of the World Wars and the rise of fascist governments and dictatorships, people and scholars alike became worried that we would be subjected to nightmare-like societies where problems ranged from politics to economics to social.
Dystopia no longer became a what-if; it was a warning.
But the question of what kind of dystopia we would end up in was unsolvable, a question that nobody had any sure answer to, but was a big enough problem on its own. Writers, authors, scholars, political and economic scientists tried to provide an answer to what the ultimate low for humanity would be, but each answer seemed to counter another with no clear winner in sight. Each scenario presented its own distinct possibility and was based primarily off of events unfolding at the time that had grave effects on people of all kinds. Some examples of dystopian works include, but are not limited to:
- 1984 by George Orwell.
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
- It can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
- Anthem by Ayn Rand
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
- A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Each one of these books may have contained fictional events based in societies we presently live in, but they were all written with some sort of inspiration taken from the time in which they were written. Although some of them may have been exaggerated, modern dystopian novels contain at least a shred of truth about what the future may look like if we continue going down the path we are currently travelling. What’s also important to remember is that it’s not only America or Western countries this could happen to, it can happen to any place in the world…and in some cases, it already has.
Doesn’t the oppressive government in North Korea bring a shocking reminder to the totalitarian government posed in Orwell’s 1984? Or what about the status of women in many Middle Eastern countries? Much as how The Handmaid’s Tale predicted? Even the constant pill-popping and lethargic nature of people in Huxley’s Brave New World has drawn some parallels in many western countries, especially the United States. To an extent, one could argue that we are living in a near-dystopic society with problems lurking around every corner, with shreds of these books’ predictions as evidence. But does this truly mean we are living in a dystopia?
When it comes to dystopias, two main mindsets are in place in what will truly be the downfall of the human race: Orwell’s harsh totalitarianism as proposed in 1984 and the way too lax and indifferent society pushed forth by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World. In a letter by Aldous Huxley to George Orwell, shortly after the publication of Orwell’s 1984 in October of 1949, Huxley expressed his sentiments towards Orwell’s work, but was skeptical of the ways that governments would come to rule us.
In the letter, Huxley suggested that complete subversion would go farther beyond oppressive governments, endless warfare, and even beyond the planes of politics and economics. Instead, the key to proper subversion would be to start with the individual and condition them into accepting servitude and psychologically coerce them into a position that would be suitable to be taken over. While Huxley himself imagined a war of a truly devastating scale in which new forms of governments would arise, he believed that the most effective and efficient way of subverting any given population would be by psychological means.
As he said to Orwell in his letter:
“Within the next generation I believe that the world's rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.”
Whatever the ways may be, the end goal is that people will be forced into servitude by one way or another to appease some sort of higher entity or class. Evidently, people have caught on to the path we seem to approach since numerous bookstores have run out of copies of 1984 or Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here around the time of Donald Trump’s election and inauguration. Even nowadays with terms going around such as “fake news,” “alt-facts,” “covfefe,” amongst others, one’s first instinct would be to assume that we are officially living in the nightmare world predicted by either Orwell or Huxley. However, it would not be wise to immediately jump to that conclusion, after all, a dystopia is a worst-case scenario where a society has hit rock bottom and has little chance of coming back.
Even at the end of Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, after the main protagonist Alex DeLarge (I swear, that is his name) has gotten the violence, the anger, the psychological torment, and the suicide attempt out of his system, he is able to reform himself anew. While a dystopian novel may present an absolutely inescapable situation, there is still a glimmer of hope in that things can change for the better. In our case, sure things may seem dark and dismal in the world of political, economical, and social institutions, but they aren’t the worst potential outcome they could be; not to mention that there is still plenty of time and enough liberty and freedom to change things before it gets worse. There are still objective rules that must be followed by politicians and institutions before they go too far, and the Constitution still ranks as the highest law of the land in terms of protecting the rights of American citizens. Despite the events that may have occurred since the inauguration of Trump, there are still civil rights and liberties, groups organized for the advancement of minorities, and a set process of laws that must be adhered to. Plus, if Trump goes down the way he is currently going, then he is sure to face severe consequences for his actions, if not impeachment; an action taken into control by the legislative and judicial branches as a means of keeping a check on the presidency.
While it may not seem as though the United States is in a dystopia, however, that is not to say that other countries are not facing a dystopia of their own. Unstoppable drug cartels in Mexico and Central America, constant bomb droppings in Syria, a never-ending stem of refugees, and even standing on the closest brink of nuclear war since 1984, may potentially have their place when it comes to defining the period of the world which we are living in. Then again, dystopia has a relative meaning when it comes to different societies and populations, so it wouldn’t be fair to label one particular state as purely dystopic for the globe.
But for the sake of the United States, let us just say that, for the time being, we haven’t quite reached dystopian levels yet. While we may be suffering from numerous problems in most institutions, there is not the absolute hopelessness of the situation where we cannot do anything more. We are not living in a post-classist, post-racial society, and probably never will in our lifetimes, but the important thing to remember is that there is an opportunity to change all of this. The Ludovico Techniques, and Room 101s of dystopian futures are not in existence yet, and hopefully will not be for a long time, so with the freedoms we still have now, there is still a chance to turn things around.
So, dear reader, before you go around saying that we are living in the world predicted by Orwell or Huxley, ask yourself “Do I truly love big brother?”