A Dystopian World

brown tower clock

Maybe this world is another planet’s hell.

A Dystopian World

Do you know the word “dystopia”? Perhaps you heard it as a description for “dystopian” books or movies… Most science-fiction literature deals with dystopian themes, particularly those parts governed by the question “What if?”. And if you ever heard about Jonathan Swift, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Franz Kafka, Aldous Huxley, John Steinbeck, George Orwell, C. S. Lewis, Kurt Vonnegut, Ayn Rand, Isaac Asimov, William Golding, Arthur C. Clarke or Margaret Atwood, you likely already encountered this concept. Also, when speaking about dystopian movies, those made by the Wachowski former brothers, now sisters (transgender) are good examples: the Matrix trilogy, V for Vendetta or Cloud Atlas. But what “dystopian” actually means and where do we encounter it nowadays?

Dystopia comes in English from Ancient Greek: “dys” means “bad” (like in dysfunctional for instance, “bad/difficult/abnormal/failing + function”) and “topia” means “place or region” (like in topography for instance, “place + write/draw”). The concept, originally used by John Stuart Mill in 1868, is based on another concept, utopia, a term created by Thomas More in 1516, also from the Ancient Greek terms of “ou” + “topia”, meaning “no (negation) + place/region”. Utopia was described as an imaginary world where everything and everyone works and lives in perfect peace and harmony. Dystopia is approximately the opposite.

Most dictionaries define dystopia along these lines: an imagined dysfunctional world/society in which people lead worthless, dehumanized and fearful lives, and in which suffering/distress, overcrowding, corruption, authoritarianism/oppression and injustice reign. Associated themes to dystopian societies include complete control of the people through the use of propaganda, heavy censoring of information or denial of free thought, worshipping an unattainable goal, complete loss of individuality, heavy enforcement of conformity, environmental disasters, tyrannical governments and the cataclysmic decline of society. These themes are mostly focused on politics, economics, social, family and identity issues, religion, violence, environment/nature and science & technology.

Take a moment to read again the above paragraph! Seems familiar? If you are old enough and you lived sufficiently so as to be able to compare how the world was, say, 30 years ago and nowadays, you might end up acknowledging that we are actually living right now in what was previously described as a dystopian world. If you are younger, you might not be able to see this, as you were born in this present world and everything might seem normal to you. Also, if you are not sufficiently educated, which you probably aren’t if you’re young (because you didn’t have sufficient time or because it is not fashionable to be a nerd anymore), you might be tempted to relativize the fact that we’re in a dystopia. And it’s OK, we don’t have to agree.

I would like to cover below some of the dystopian themes included in the definitions above, themes which are searchable online and found everywhere, taking in consideration how I perceive my reality right now.

The first theme is “dysfunctional functioning”. Right now, the entire Western world is crying because of the lack of doctors, of long waiting lists, of shortages in the medical system. However, when making an application, I am forced to wait for many months in a row so as to be granted the recognition of my professional degree, as a European citizen, while non-European professionals are fast-tracked and are getting immediately the approval and then good contracts. It appears that the society is ruled by bureaucrats, and a true bureaucrat will never think outside the box, that is, will not understand the purpose and the idea behind (or beyond) “we have shortages and people die”, so they will make sure that “the check list is complete” and “your application will be processed in about 2-3 months, depending on our availability”. Dysfunctional functioning leads, obviously, to casualties and/or corruption. If a system is small, it is going to fall down or fall apart. If a system is too big to fall, it will get corrupt, as opportunistic people will absolutely find a way. And here we arrive to the second theme: corruption.

The theme of “corruption” is linked to the theme of “social injustice” which is further linked to the theme of the “polarized society”. This basically means a rich/poor divide and the disappearing of the middle class: you are either sufficiently shrewd to be close to or be part of the reigning class (or should I say caste?), or you are falling among the poor and unscrupulous mob that is ready to tear you apart so as to assure its own survival, hence eliminating any competition for the scarce resources. This is something I witnessed not only in the Eastern society, which is “traditionally” corrupt, but has spread to the Western society, to the point where the quality of life in the East has become higher compared to the one in the West. Everywhere I go, East or West, people are evaluating my status (or the caste to which I belong); in the West they ask for recommendations, in the East they ask for money as a bribe…

The theme of “living a worthless life” is somehow mixed with the “overpopulation or overcrowding” theme. Most of social media websites are offering the illusion of being important, of being “someone”, of having an “impact”, in a very different environment from the one I was used to 20 years ago when fewer people had access to internet. I used to stop in the center of a Western city, have a sit somewhere, and ponder on what I, a foreigner, could offer to the people around me… It’s a humbling experience: you quickly understand you have nothing to offer with the exception of your own time spent working so as to fill the gap/shortage that none of the locals care to fill. Similarly, I often watch “street walking” videos in Indian or Asian cities, and I ask myself the same question: what could I offer to that society? In both scenarios, the worthlessness of your existence hits you very hard, at the same time with the realization that, due to overcrowding, “if it’s not you, it’s going to be somebody else who will get the job done”. In other words, you are totally replaceable and totally expendable, and this leads us to another theme, the “suffering/distress” theme.

The “distress” theme is a nice name, it is meant not to offend the reader. The existential angst, the futility of life, the death of God, the extreme loneliness and the depersonalization of the human being which is increasingly surrounded either by robots or by cynical others… these are the real themes. In a way, this was also predicted by philosophers; Nietzsche for instance, wrote about the world to come after the collapse of faith and religion (the death of God) and about the fact that this world will be governed by addictive behavior patterns (alcohol, drugs, idealism/ideology, games, social media, self-importance and narcissism… and counting…). Also, in the Japanese society – a “particular” society for many reasons, but definitely an “advanced” society – you can see a decrease in the birth rate because people focus on profession and have become awkward with each other, while the old people die alone in their small apartments, being found weeks later because nobody knew of their existence until the smell of the decaying body is too thick. If this is only “distress”, I don’t know what “pain” means… And with this, we touch another theme: the “compelled speech” theme.

Typical theme for dystopian societies, the “oppressive or tyrannical state” theme is the most obvious. In a dystopia there is rarely complete anarchy; in general, some kind of tyrant must come or be born. An alpha male. A mischievous woman. The secret service. Or an alien. In a heavily polarized society, it’s always about a few rich people and a huge poor crowd. With our much-advertised intelligence, we couldn’t arrive to a different solution of sharing the wealth other than this way… Therefore, “the empire has to fall”, “the world war must come”, “the dictator has to be executed”, so that the wealth can be redistributed. Never in the history of human society have I encountered a rich majority and a poor minority; it is always vice-versa. So we have oligarchs, we have big pharma, we have Microsoft and Google and Facebook and Apple and Amazon and others who will come, we have the United States and China and Russia and other nuclear powers, and then there is us… the mob. In the smallest village of the world there will always be “the mayor”, “the Party”, “the policeman” or “the priest”… and then again the mob, us… The archetypal tyrant must, obligatorily, dominate; so we have the themes of “complete control of the people”, from not being able to cross the border without a passport, to not being able to earn something without paying a tax to the State and a protection tax (bribe) to the local tyrant; we have mobile phones who continuously send our GPS position and are tracking us everywhere online; we have surveillance cameras and salary and pensions sent on credit cards so that Visa or MasterCard or others know exactly not only how wealthy we are but also what we like or need to buy. Then we have the “propaganda” theme, and this covers a huge area, from political advertising of either of the only 2 (two) possible (established, agreed) parties, to Covid vaccination advertising. And finally, we have the “censorship” theme, beginning with ethnicity, race, skin color, religion, etc. and ending with forced speech such as he/she/they, which I’m yet to encounter, although I recently encountered racism directed at me in the West, for the first time, which is something completely new. You might wonder why I discuss the “tyrannical state” and the “censorship of free speech” themes in the same paragraph; it is because it’s one thing when someone tells me they want me to call them “they” and I say “OK, sure”, and a totally different thing when the State forces me and punishes me if I involuntarily “offend” someone by my use of pronouns, which is utter tyranny. And from here we go to other subthemes: “worshipping an unattainable goal” and “enforcement of conformity”.

There is a saying that “if you want a chicken to be a duck, and a duck to be a chicken, you will suffer”. You cannot deny reality and the limitations of our human race and human existence. We are born man and woman. It is simply so. You may choose to feel otherwise, you may choose not to accept who you are, and the others might agree to play a part, or pretend to do so, in your own phantasm or inner movie. People can hallucinate together, with or without drugs. Same is for religion. But is it an “unattainable goal”. Sooner or later, if you tyrannically impose on others your perception of how reality should be, you will radicalize the other extreme which will come after you. The more you “enforce conformity”, the more radicals and rebels you are going to give birth, because the human race, conditioned to survive by all means, will always tend to be diverse. Ying will give birth to Yang and vice-versa… This is how things are and there is nothing to be done about this, unless to accept the “shared reality”. Or assume the consequences of living your dream, with which I’m personally OK, but with which others (other tyrants inhabiting this dystopian world and having different extreme ideas) might not be so…

The “cataclysmic” theme, currently mostly visible through the “global warming” theme and the “nuclear risk” theme, are obvious to the naked eye. The climate change can literally be felt on your skin, it can be seen in the wildfires on the polar circle in Canada. But it is still denied. An overly dysfunctional society coupled with a wild weather can only lead to the last theme I want to write about: the fear.

In dystopian literature, fear is the main emotion. “Living in fear”, “fearing the worst”, “fearing the future”, “fearing of not being good enough or not being accepted by society”, “fear of loneliness, isolation and death” – all these fears – are abundantly present in our lives. And because people are plagued by fear, they need security, safety. Actually, they are ready to pay for it or make sacrifices. Or donations. Or give bribes. Or protection taxes. Or increase the defense budget. Or sell weapons so that others die in their place so that they won’t have to die themselves, such as in Ukraine. Or accept foreign military bases on their soil, such as Byelorussia but also most of Western Europe. Fear is the engine of the dystopian world, and we pay it with our money, from one more inefficient vaccine to just one extra drone or nuclear head…

Navigating through the dystopian world is tricky business. I believe we are now, in the present and in reality, in what the writers from the past thought might be an imaginary dystopia. They have asked “what if?” but unfortunately we made that “if” a reality. It might be a good time now to start dreaming again, this time… utopias. Dream better possible worlds, better societies, better laws!… Do something different!… But this will only be possible following the eradication of fear and the return to reason and truth, while being able to feel empathy towards the others and assume who we truly are, including our complexities. Dreaming utopias does not mean, however, dreaming infantile utopias of unicorns, angels or benevolent extraterrestrials coming to solve our problems or save us from ourselves. Instead, dreaming utopias could also mean mature ideal worlds in which our children could thrive, worlds in which we would have loved to be born ourselves, in which unnecessary suffering would simply not be a theme…