I note with interest an upcoming film called The Purge: Anarchy, which posits a future United States where violent crime is presented as diversionary spectacle for a stupefied public (it’s a sequel to last year’s The Purge, with Ethan Hawke). This is only the latest in a very long line of dystopian movies, music, and books – The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Running Man, Death Race 2000, Rollerball, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, V For Vendetta, The Watchmen, and many others, including Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, A Clockwork Orange, and Fahrenheit 451 – that anticipate democratic societies decaying into some kind of political or corporate oligarchy. Yet, like the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, the Second Comings of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin keep getting put off, at least in the real world.
Fear of creeping fascism is certainly a legitimate spur to artistic expression, and seeing ominous threats to civil liberty in present-day developments can make for compelling narratives. Indeed, the potential rise of Nazi-like coercion or conformity within erstwhile free countries has been a dramatic staple since the defeat of Nazi Germany itself in 1945. Jack London’s novel The Iron Heel (1908), which described brutal capitalist oppression to come, dates even further back. Many of the notions introduced in dystopian works have become part of our cultural lexicons: droogs, somas, feelies, and Thought Police. Sometimes the warnings have been thought-provoking. Increasingly, though, the “traditional” dystopia seems out of step with how modern history has really unfolded.
Of course, anyone looking for evidence of impending descent into mass authoritarianism or demagoguery can find something current which confirms their worst expectations. What else are giant sports and entertainment events but contemporary high-tech Nuremberg rallies? What is the celebration of charismatic politicians but Twenty-First-Century cults of personality? How is our twenty-four-hour onslaught of slick advertising and sound-bite news different from a permanent regime of propaganda? Are anti-panhandling bylaws all that far from the Final Solution? Are national health care plans much removed from the Gulag? It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to get from here and now to George Orwell and The Hunger Games. In fact it doesn’t take much imagination at all, which is why the perceived imminence of police states and theocracies is getting pretty stale.
The regular invocation of a nightmare tomorrow that never actually manifests itself today – no concentration camps, no book burnings, definitely no suppression of dissent – seems more like a tired device than the original insight it once was. Moreover, the invocations themselves are becoming a sort of propaganda, as the New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane pointed out regarding the adaptation of Alan Moore’s The Watchmen: “following Moore, [the director] is so insanely aroused by the look of vengeance, and by the stylized application of physical power, that the film ends up twice as fascistic as the forces it wishes to lampoon.” There’s also a whiff of self-congratulatory one-upmanship in spotting the Oceania or Republic of Gilead incubating in one’s own world, as if the most catastrophic predictions can only be made by the most visionary predictors. In their book The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can’t Be Jammed (2004), Andrew Potter and Joseph Heath noted:
Countercultural rebels have become like doomsday prophets, forced to constantly push back the date on which the world is supposed to end, as one deadline after another passes by uneventfully. Each time a new symbol of rebellion gets “co-opted” by the system, countercultural rebels are forced to go further and further to prove their alternative credentials, to set themselves apart from the despised masses.
So, by gleefully savoring the prospects of totalitarianism, the better to demonstrate a supposed devotion to the democratic ideal, today’s cineastes, novelists, and other artists manage to both cheapen the genuine horrors of dictatorships past and needlessly scare us with exaggerated alarms of dictatorships ahead. It’s possible that we are truly slipping toward an inevitable calamity which authors and fans of dystopian fiction have already apprehended, but here’s a wild forecast none of them have dared to make: maybe we’ll just keep muddling along as we always have.