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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

Dystopian Thesis II: The Subversion

Updated: Oct 10, 2021

We do not have an ideal world, such as we would like, where morality is easy because cognition is easy. Where one can do right with no effort because he can detect the obvious.

—Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle

In the previous essay we looked at the dystopian thesis through George Orwell's summary of James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution: What is Happening in the World. Rather than just a world in an undesirable state of affairs, I wanted to suggest that the mainstay of dystopian literature is characterised by a much narrower and specific set of assumptions, and most of these are captured by Burnham's diagnosis of the present and imminent future at the time of writing, the early 40s, taken up by dystopian writers for decades afterwards.

These features are that the future will be neither Capitalist (defined mostly by markets free of the state, rather than along Marxist lines), but not Socialist (defined mostly by a vague notion of democracy, as a stand in for equally vague ideas of freedom and equality reconciled). That is, 'society will be hierarchical, with an aristocracy of talent at the top and a mass of semi-slaves at the bottom.' Such a society will be led by some assortment of 'business executives, technicians, bureaucrats and soldiers', which collectively are termed managers. And geopolitically the world will be divided by super-states fighting 'among themselves for possession of the remaining uncaptured portions of the earth, but will probably be unable to conquer one another completely.'

Moreover, Burnham projected such a vision through a set of predictions that would bring that world into being. These predictions included a world in which Nazi 'Germany and [Imperial] Japan are bound to survive as great states, and to remain the nuclei of power in their respective area.' I observed that interestingly, Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle takes precisely that scenario, Burnham’s erroneous prophecy, but rather than projecting it forwards in time, Dick sees it as a contingent alternative history.

Important to Dick's book is the full extent of the horror. It is indescribably grim. The Holocaust was completely unimpeded, resulting in a slaughter even greater than the one that took place in actual history. Slavery, racism conquest and the use of weapons of mass destruction have become the world's norms. The point is not just the horror, however, but that against this the characters of the book get up to pretty mundane and petty lives, full of affairs and double dealing. It is the banality that creates the true horror, that normal, everyday life continues much as it would have either way.

This is the first of Dick's subversions of the dystopian thesis, as these books share another feature; they all pose completely transformed and dysfunctional modes of everyday lives. In Nineteen Eighty-four, The Iron Heel, We, Swastika Night and so on, people live utterly horrid and strange lives, and whether through a resistance movement or everyday acts, everything is focussed on the dystopia itself. Whereas most of the dramas in The Man in The High Castle could be imagined in our own contemporary society. Dick asks, what if you lived in dystopia but acted as if you lived in just any society? By backgrounding the horror, Dick more effectively brings it out to our attention.

The second of Dick's subversions becomes more apparent when we look at a fictional fiction contained within (a novel within a novel) The Grasshopper Lies Heavy by Hawthorne Abendsen. This book (which is said to be written with the help of the I Ching), like the book within which it is contained, is an alternative history in which the Allies defeat the Axis Powers. However, significantly, it is not our history, but one in which various events are also different, and indeed in many ways better. The Axis Powers are defeated faster, the world's rebuilding gets underway sooner and is more effective, etc.

In the previous essay I concluded that the belief that oligarchy is natural has a great deal of intuitive appeal providing our social arrangements augment oligarchy and disfavour the kind of genuine human freedom Marx valued. That is, the reason Burnham’s predictions were such was that he made them based on the idea that the way things are under certain social arrangements are natural, and while he did not perhaps moralise this notion of the natural, he took it as a given that history would continue along such a course. This is where assuming that social arrangements are natural will often trip up would-be prophets.

Dick's second subversion, then, is to propose that history is not set along one unalterable course. Or, perhaps better stated for his concerns, that the nature of that course is not as obvious as a surface reading would suggest, that our assumptions based on superficial appearances are generally misguided and fail to penetrate to deeper truths. The reason Burnham was wrong was not merely that he made a set of false predictions; rather, he would have been wrong in a more profound sense even if he had been trivially correct. Burnham was wrong because he assumed that oligarchy, and a particular social form of it at that, accrues inevitably out of some fixed state of affairs. That is, human nature.

Dystopia are not always so bleak. Margarat Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale directly acknowledges history is contingent. The Iron Heel ends in a utopia (likely something Atwood is parodying in her own conclusion). Katherine Burdekin's Swastika Night is in some ways extreme precisely because it rejects many of the Nazis (and Burnham's) assumptions about the world: it is satirising how implausible a regime so counter to human flourishing would be. A regime in which the everyday mundanities of life cannot continue. Even Orwell ends on a vague note of hope. Still, it is hard to write a dystopia without creating a sense of inevitability, a sense of pathos and fate about the terrible situation.

It is Dick, perhaps more than any other dystopian writer, who accomplishes this goal. He does so not for any grand political reason (he was no Marxist or even really a utopian), but because all of his fiction contains a distrust in the notion of a stable, easily comprehended reality. Despite many dystopias containing themes about power manipulating truth, history, speech, etc. the dystopian thesis is loathed to ask if appearance might be different to essence. They all follow Burnham in taking their hypothetical nightmare societies at face value. A certain set of people wield very blunt instruments of power over a subjugated mass. That mass can be cowed or fight back. It is a vulgar idea of power and resistance to power.

The two ways in which Dick subverts dystopia are not disconnected. Dick's characters every day, mundane lives belie the true horror going on in their world, but the various, and layered alternative histories belie history as we know it to have happened. Such layering is a staple of Dick's literature. And he proposes something far more terrifying than a regime hiding the truth; he proposes a truth so hidden even the regime do not know it. Much could be said on Dick's Gnostic themes, but this is by far the most overt. For Dick, reality is never just apparent, what seems natural is rarely so. For quite different reasons, Marx would have agreed.

The dystopian thesis is now woefully out of date. Society is not dominated by managers. Indeed, the truly awful fact might be that even our ruling class, such as they are, no longer feel any confidence in the future; and not because, as Burnham believed, they are about to be replaced by a new ruling class. Nor even necessarily because, as Marxists ought to aspire to help bring about, because class society itself is threatened. But rather because various and overlapping ecological ruptures threaten the species itself while capitalism's dysfunction is met by precisely no alternative.

It is in that context that Dick's dystopia is the most timely, and arguably anti-dystopian dystopia. Dick asks us to look far more intensely, far more penetratingly, at the assumptions that hold up the appearance of the world.


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