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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

Dystopian Thesis I: The Machiavellians

An examination of some of the political assumptions behind the dystopian literary genre.

Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle subverts the dystopia, rather than exemplifies it. Dick takes what I will call the dystopian thesis, and subtly parodies it. The point of his book, as with most of Dick’s works, is not quite what it seems on a surface reading. (That is a reason adaptations of his stories tend to fail as adaptations, albeit not always, in my view, as movies in their own right.) But before I talk about The Man in the High Castle, I want to take a detour through a very Orwellian history, of bad prophecy and a genre’s basic assumptions. And to do that requires one very long quote.

Capitalism is disappearing, but Socialism is not replacing it. What is now arising is a new kind of planned, centralized society which will be neither capitalist nor, in any accepted sense of the word, democratic. The rulers of this new society will be the people who effectively control the means of production: that is, business executives, technicians, bureaucrats and soldiers, lumped together[…] under the name of ‘managers’. These people will eliminate the old capitalist class, crush the working class, and so organize society that all power and economic privilege remain in their own hands. Private property rights will be abolished, but common ownership will not be established. The new ‘managerial’ societies will not consist of a patchwork of small, independent states, but of great super-states grouped round the main industrial centres in Europe, Asia, and America. These super-states will fight among themselves for possession of the remaining uncaptured portions of the earth, but will probably be unable to conquer one another completely. Internally, each society will be hierarchical, with an aristocracy of talent at the top and a mass of semi-slaves at the bottom.

These are George Orwell’s words. And if I told you that it was a description of the geopolitical basis of his popular novel, Nineteen Eighty-four, I suspect you would believe me. In fact it is his one paragraph summary of the central thesis of James Burnham’s nonfiction book, The Managerial Revolution: What is Happening in the World. Orwell’s dystopia starts from a similar set of assumptions about the direction of travel in the world, and as with Burnham he is responding to the recent memory of Nazi Germany but, more significantly, the later features of the Soviet Union, especially under Joseph Stalin. What is most interesting of these extrapolations is, foremost, how unfit they would prove as a model for predictions, and second how influential they would continue to be on most fictional ideas of dystopia.

On the first issue, Orwell himself is quick to call out how wrong Burnham was on most of the key facts of his day. Burnham’s predictions, which he made on the basis of his ideas throughout the twentieth century, were so reliably false, merely by inverting all of them you could seem a genuine supernatural prophet. For that reason I find Orwell’s excuse for Burnham so unpersuasive; he merely points out that all prophecy is a bit of a fool’s game, that predicting the future in this sense requires the weighing of too many variables. That is fine as far as it goes, but Burnham’s predictions do not appear to be merely randomly wrong, as such a defence would justify, but as wrong in almost every instance. Orwell lists six key predictions:

1. Germany is bound to win the war.

2. Germany and Japan are bound to survive as great states, and to remain the nuclei of power in their respective area.

3. Germany will not attack the U.S.S.R. until after the defeat of Britain.

4. The U.S.S.R. is bound to be defeated.

5. the U.S.S.R. will conquer the whole of Eurasia, and probably a great deal more.

6. …whatever else happens, the ‘managerial’ form of society is bound to prevail.

In truth, idea six leads all the other predictions (except the muddle between 4 and 5). It is the central wrong idea that guided all other wrong ideas (wrong in conception and timing, even if, as in idea 4, eventually right in substance). It is what I would call the Dystopian Thesis, because dystopian literature, even before Nineteen Eighty-four, was highly committed to the idea of a managerial society in some form. The Iron Heel, We, Swastika Night for example (all books that definitely helped shape Orwell’s foray into dystopia) all also proceeded both Nineteen Eighty-four (published in 1949) and even The Managerial Revolution (published in 1941). This idea was in the air before Burnham or Orwell popularised it.

The Managerial Revolution itself, I would argue, is not that impressive a work at all. Comprised overwhelmingly of numbered lists to give loose definitions of revolutions, capitalism, capitalism’s social institutions, its defenders main arguments, its socialist detractor’s main arguments, it tends to skim difficult matters of crisis theory and to misrepresent Marx (and socialists more generally) as comprehensively committed to teleology (to the idea that history is in some sense fated, has its own purpose), conceits that allow Burnham’s own thesis to look stronger than would otherwise be justified.

Burnham, whose ideas travelled through Trotskyism, was indebted to Robert Michels, whose own ideas went from a revolutionary syndicalism to outright fascism. Michels was associated with the Elite School, a group of sociologists whose highly work lionised oligarchy from a position of seeing it as inevitable. Michels so-called iron law of oligarchy can be briefly summarised by his witticism, ‘Who says organization, says oligarchy.’ Both Burnham and Michels (as well as the Elite School) were in turn relying on a highly reactionary reading of Machiavelli. (If we imagined the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci as a left-Machiavellian, these theorists were, arguably, right-Machiavellians.) Again, it is worthwhile indulging another long quote from Orwell, as he neatly summarises the main (I would argue) metaphysical assumptions of these theorists (assumptions Orwell was ambivalent about, but did not wholly reject):

What Burnham is mainly concerned to show is that a democratic society has never existed and so far as we can see, never will exist. Society is of its nature oligarchical, and the power of the oligarchy always rests upon force and fraud. Burnham does not deny that ‘good’ motives may operate in private life, but he maintains that politics consists of the struggle for power, and nothing else. All historical changes finally boil down to the replacement of one ruling class by another. All talk about democracy, liberty, equality, fraternity, all revolutionary movements, all visions of Utopia, or ‘the classless society’, or ‘the Kingdom of Heaven on earth’, are humbug (not necessarily conscious humbug) covering the ambitions of some new class which is elbowing its way into power.

Where does Philip K. Dick and The Man in the High Castle fit into all of this? That will be the subject of part two of this two part essay, but to suggest the direction of my argument I will simply point out a few facts about Dick’s novel. That is, it was written significantly later than Orwell’s book, in 1962 when Burnham’s thesis was very evidently in tatters, but the premise of Dick’s book is essentially, what if Burnham had indeed been correct about predictions 1-4, but significantly wrong about prediction (Ur-prediction?) 6.

The belief that oligarchy is natural has a great deal of intuitive appeal while social arrangements augment oligarchy and disfavour the kind of genuine human freedom Marx valued so highly. The notion of the natural, without being done away with, is always worthwhile scrutinising closely for its tendency to obscure the historically specific social reasons for something being the case. And when the naturalness of someone’s assumptions frequently runs up against the turn of events, these assumptions should be doubly suspect. A more worthwhile view of history might stress its contingency, and it is to such a view will we turn in the next part of this essay.


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