By Sasha Simic | 10 October 2015
Utopian dreams are often just truths before their time.
– Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869)
The fourth film in The Hunger Games series – Mockingjay Part 2 – is scheduled to be released across the word between the 18 and 20 November 2015.
It will make a lot of money.
The first in the series -The Hunger Games (2012) – grossed over $691mn worldwide against a budget of $78mn. The sequel Catching Fire (2013) grossed over $864 million worldwide against its budget of $130mn and Mockingjay Part 1 made over $752 million worldwide following its November 2014 release.
The Hunger Games film series is the only franchise ever to have three films earn over $100 million in a weekend.
Hollywood goes where the money is. The success of The Hunger Games has led to a boom in dystopian films aimed at young adults. The studios have given us The Giver (2014), Divergent (2014), and The Maze Runner (2014) and there are more to come with Maze Runner: Scorch Trials (September 2015), Logan’s Run (2016), Second Born (2016), The Purge 3 (2016), and the on-going Divergent Series: Allegiant – Part 1 (2016) and Allegiant – part 2 (2017)
What is behind the popularity of The Hunger Games which by any criteria tells a grim story? Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen lives in the Appalachia Mountains in the impoverished mining District 12 of Panem, a totalitarian state that has risen from the post-war ashes of North America.
It’s a state where at least 75 years previously the counter-revolution won. As a result, every year a boy and a girl aged between 12 to 18 years are chosen by lottery from each of Panem’s 12 districts to compete in the gladiatorial games of the title.
It’s a televised media spectacle not unlike The X Factor – with all the media glitz and emotional manipulation that implies – which is supposed to end in a fight to the death of all but one of the competitors. It serves as a reminder to the former rebellious districts that they lost and that absolute power resides with the Capitol’s elite: “This is what we can do to your children.”
Katniss is a hard, unsentimental character. She is focused on survival even before the Games (In the books she’s prepared to kill her sister’s cat Buttercup because it is another mouth to feed).
To survive in the arena she plays-up to a media-spun, fictitious love affair with Peeta, the other ‘tribute’ from District 12. By surviving the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss becomes an unwilling symbol – the Mockingjay – of a growing revolution against the Capitol and the sinister President Snow. This revolution takes a bitter toll on Katniss. The series has no happy ending.
And yet The Hunger Games was a huge international success. The films only reflected the success of the books. As of 2014, the trilogy has sold more than 65 million copies in the US alone.
The Hunger Games trilogy has been sold into 56 territories and translated into 51 languages. On 17 August 2012 Amazon announced The Hunger Games trilogy was its top seller – surpassing the record previously held by the Harry Potter series.
But the publishers and studios are only trying to cash in on the appetite for dystopia stories. They didn’t create that interest. Why are people – and overwhelmingly young people – so interested in dystopia fantasies?
Utopia and dystopia
Here we must pause to try and establish what is meant by utopia and dystopia. There have been and continue to be arguments about the terms. Margaret Atwood (The Handmaiden’s Tale) has written about the distinctions between utopias, anti-utopias and dystopias. It’s not an argument I want to explore here. I think Darko Sovin, the Croatian literary academic, produced the best working definition when he described ` a fictive utopia as an:
Imaginary community where in which human relations are organised more perfectly than in the author’s community
Utopia is a play on the Greek words OUTOPI and EUTOPIA meaning “no place” and “good place”. The fictive origins of the word are in Thomas Moore’s Utopia (1516), presented as the report of a sailor on the far away island of Utopia. The book ushered in a new genre of fiction and was so influential that from then on any book in which a fictional, largely positive society is portrayed it’s called a utopia…and its reverse is a dystopia.
What is of particular interest is that Moore describes his Utopian society as being, amongst other things, communistic with no private property and with goods in common – everything belongs to everyone and everyone gets about the same amount with an institutional care of “maintenance of equality in all respects.”
What we can’t be sure of is what Moore was advocating with his book. The Utopians are republicans who encourage freedom of conscience. Moore wasn’t and didn’t. Moreover the person who describes the social system of the Utopians is called Hythloday which translates as “speaker of nonsense”.
But Utopia, whatever Moore’s intentions, is a subversive text – its central idea was revolutionary, that other ways of living and organising society were possible and that society was malleable.
Utopias and dystopias are political vehicles. They are the “other” places – remote Island, planet or the future – where they do things differently and to which we might want to aspire to or avoid. Alaya Dawn Johnson, author of dystopian fiction (The Summer King) argues correctly that “All futures are political.”
The Hunger Games stands in a long line of dystopias in both film and in literature. It is, beyond question, political. By that I don’t mean it will detonate the revolution. But neither is it to be dismissed, as some have, as “popcorn agitprop”.
The Hunger Games has been appropriated into real-world activism. This is an established process. The Guy Fawkes mask from V for Vendetta (1982) has appeared on occupations and demonstrations the world over. And in February 2010 Palestinian activists from the village of Bil’in protested against the Israeli wall which has divided their land by dressing up as the Na’vi from Avatar (2009).
This is how Donald Sutherland, an actor with a long record of progressive activism in civil rights and anti-war activity, answered when he was asked why he had chosen to play President Snow in The Hunger Games:
I wanted to end my life being part of something that revolutionizes young people…We’ve wrecked this world and if you’re gonna fix it, you have to do it now….If I can just see young people catalyse and go to the voting booth and have some sort of revolutionary movement – not an armed revolutionary movement – but a revolutionary movement that would change things up.
– The Hollywood Reporter, 12/11/2014
And this is an interesting story from The Guardian:
Thailand’s military rulers say they are monitoring a new form of silent resistance to the coup – a three-fingered salute borrowed from science fiction blockbuster The Hunger Games – and will arrest those in large groups who ignore warnings to lower their arms. The raised arm salute has become an unofficial symbol of opposition to Thailand’s 22 May coup, and a creative response to several bans the ruling junta has placed on freedom of expression. “At this point we are monitoring the movement,” said Colonel Weerachon Sukhondhapatipak, a spokesman for the ruling junta. “If it is an obvious form of resistance, then we have to control it so it doesn’t cause any disorder in the country.
Activists are appropriating elements of The Hunger Games and using them in their own struggles. Unfortunately this process is not limited to the Left.
In the autumn of 2015 the BBC is set to launch Britain’s Hardest Grafter, a five-part BBC2 “ TV reality show pitting unemployed and low-paid workers against each other for a cash prize”. It’s been justified as a serious “social experiment” but its opponents have branded it The Hunger Games. The contestants will compete against each other in a series of tasks with the “least effective workers” asked to leave until one is crowned champion. The winner will receive a cash prize of about £15,500, the minimum annual wage for workers outside London.
But given The Hunger Games is political, what are its politics? And what does it share with other dystopic films and what is different about it? And why is there such a popular appetite for dystopian fiction? And does it matter?
Some see a general and a specific problem with this new wave of dystopias.
This is Joe Queenan’s article “From Insurgent to Blade Runner – Why is the future on film so grim?
The message in all these films is identical: we have seen the future. And it looks bad. Dystopian films used to be one-offs such as Soylent Green or Blade Runner; dark, disturbing glimpses of the future which turned up from time to time but not every other week. Back in the old days – say, 2005 – there was a public consensus that while an occasional depressing film about an Orwellian future was OK, a whole slew of them would be a major downer.
Now, however, these films are coming in bunches, turning into tent pole franchises to use industry gobbledegook.
“Dystopian films always posit a world that is going to be even worse than the one we’re living in. Here is a key question: why do directors so rarely make a film about the future where society is not a grim, totalitarian nightmare? If we honestly believe that the history of mankind is a record of steady – though not uninterrupted progress…why can’t we imagine a world not so far in the future where civilisation has not collapsed and thugs do not rule the world and the lighting is actually pretty good?
That is the general problem for Queenan: Why, given this is such a marvellous world, do people make and watch stories about how rotten things will be?
There have been attempts to make ‘feel-good’ Utopian films – to pre-anticipate a market on the assumption that people in difficult times will want to watch happy films. George Clooney’s star power couldn’t save Tomorrowland (2015) – a film founded on positivity – from becoming one of the biggest flops in cinema history. Specifically designed to offer optimistic future it is projected to make a loss of US$140 (£180 million) on its combined production and marketing cost of at least $US330 million.
Others see a more specific problem with the current fad for dystopian films. In another article for The Guardian, Ewan Morrison – an author of young adult fiction – argues that these films are politically reactionary:
The Hunger Games, The Giver and Divergent all depict rebellions against the state, and promote a tactic right-wing libertarianism… What marks these dystopias out from previous ones is that, almost without exception, the bad guys are not the corporations but the state and those well-meaning liberal leftists who want to make the world a better place…. agit-prop for capitalism…. Of course, there is not some secret underground bunker filled with a Bilderberg-group-type-fraternity of neoliberals & neocons dictating what young adult authors write and neither is there a conspiracy among right-wing media moguls to implant reactionary messages through the mass media into the minds of the young and impressionable. This is one of those zeitgeist moments where the subconscious of a culture emerges into visibility. We might be giving ourselves right-wing messages because, whether or not we realise it, we have come to accept them as incontestable.
This generation of young adult dystopian novels is really our neoliberal society dreaming its last nightmares about the threat from communism, socialism and the planned society. We’ve simplified it to make it a story we can tell to children and in so doing we’ve calmed the child inside us.
I think both these positions are wrong. I want to put another explanation forward for the success of The Hunger Games and its ilk and another reason why they might be symptomatic of a real problem.
Marxists root cultural production in the material world. Artists cannot help but create in specific social and economic circumstances which shape their work and how it is received. I do not mean every work is consciously ‘political’ – agitprop for the Left or Right (although some is). The 19th century Italian Marxist Antonio Labriola contemptuously dismissed those critics who could reduce Dante’s Inferno as an expression of the economic activity of “wily Florentine cloth merchants”. But he also insisted: “Ideas do not fall from heaven and nothing comes to us in dream.“ Art mediates the real world but is always, ultimately connected to it.
Take for example the last Quatermass (1979) serial which was set in a dystopian future where society had completely broken down – street fighting in all the major cities, food and fuel shortages, and governments helpless – and then something really horrible happens…
Nigel Kneale – who’d written all the 1950s Quatermass episodes – pitched the project to the BBC in 1972 during a period of rising class struggle, the oil crisis and what Kneale saw as “impending social disaster”. The BBC decided to abandon the project on budgetary grounds but it was later made by Euston films in 1979. It was the first ‘event’ programme and broadcast after a ten-weeek technician’s strike which had blacked the network out from August to October 1979.
It was screened after the workers’ struggles during the “Winter of Discontent” and six months after Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher’s first election victory. The times seemed right for a story set in a world where “some primal disorder was reasserting itself”. Actually it was not a ratings success. It was deemed to be ‘too depressing’ but it was spot on about Britain’s post-war decline and clearly shaped by times it was made in.
I think that is true of all dystopias – good or bad, consciously or not – they are a black mirror to the times.
Queenan doesn’t seem to understand that there are material roots that feed the interest in such films – nor what is the same, and different, about the current boom.
I think the current wave of dystopian films share a lot with the last wave (although this is a genre which has never completely disappeared) but they are being created in different circumstances and for a different audience which has given them new relevance and appeal.
There has never been a time when there wasn’t a dystopia in cinemas. But the last great wave – the one Queenan references – came at the end of the 1960s, lasted through the 1970s and petered out in the early 1980s.
It was a period when a number of films were made that warned where society was going and what it might lead to if there wasn’t change. They were films that could all have been set, as Nigel Kneale’s Year of the Sex Olympics (1968) was set “sooner than you think”.
What were these films about? The Marxist critic Frederic Jameson argues they were “vehicle(s) for political statements of some kind: sermons against overpopulation, big corporations, totalitarianism, consumerism, patriarchy, not to speak of money itself”.
They’re about nuclear war and the Cold War. On the Beach(1960), The Time Machine (1960) and Planet of the Apes (1968) all invoke nuclear destruction. Peter Watkin’s The War Games (1965) was a docu-drama on the effect of a nuclear strike on the UK which the BBC commissioned and then banned on the grounds that “it has been judged …to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting. It will, however be shown to invited audiences.” It was only broadcast in 1985! By then it had been joined by The Day After (1983) and Threads (1984) – all dramas about the effects of nuclear war reflecting the concerns raised by the second Cold War.
These films are also about environmental destruction. For a film with a low budget, global warming is captured very well in The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961). Silent Running (1972) is about the space-ship Valley Forge which contains the last scraps of the natural environment to have survived industrialisation. It’s hoped they will eventually re-forest the planet but the project’s cancelled and the order is given to destroy the forests. Soylent Green (1973) is set in 2200 against on a massively over populated Earth. Blade Runner (1982) depicts a world in constant rain and darkness. The Mad Max films offer a parched wilderness.
These films are about the oppression of women.
There are no women on board the American Airlines spaceship Valley Forge in Silent Running.
Shirl – the female lead in Soylent Green – is a “furniture woman”, a concubine who comes as an extra with the luxury apartment in a gated-community for the rich. She’s worried in case the new owner of the apartment she comes with won’t want her.
Rollerball (1975) champion Jonathan E is provided with a number of women – Makie, Daphne – to replace Ella his former wife taken from him by an executive from the energy corporation. In Logan’s Run (1975) Jessica 6 helps Logan 5 escape into the post-apocalyptic wilderness and puts aside the polymorphic sexuality of the protective dome they both grew up in to become his wife and re-found the nuclear family.
The robots fashioned as women in the Delos resort of Westword (1973) and the robots who replace the real women in Stepford Wives (1975) are compliant, submissive and are programmed to be sexually available.
There is a change in how women are depicted in these films – at the end of the 70s Sigourney Weaver made Ellen Ripley in the Aliens series one of the strongest characters in science-fiction films matched only by Private Vasquez of the Space Marines in Aliens (1986). The attacks on the gains made by the women’s movement in the 60s and 70s produced a response by Margaret Atwood’s in The Handmaid’s Tale, written in 1985 and filmed in 1990 which was set in an oppressive, totalitarian future where women were reduced to breeding stock under the North American Christian theocracy of Gilead.
It’s interesting that these films don’t really deal with racism. Most assume racism at least will disappear in the future. The corporate elite in Rollerball are shown to have at least as many black executives as white for example. Parker, the black crewman of the spaceship Nostromo in Alien (1979,) represents, alongside Brett, the working-class members of crew. They spend the first part of the film expressing dissatisfaction at having fewer shares in the enterprise than the rest of the crew.
These films are very interested about the use of the mass media entertainment and – and in particular gladiatorial sport – as a means of social control. This was pioneered by Nigel Kneale in The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968) which is set in a world of the future where an elite class keep the lower classes passive through the broadcast of state sanctioned pornography. When an accidental death is broadcast it gets a huge response and ‘reality TV’ is born. This play was screened 30 years before Big Brother (2000) and was the first dystopia to look at the media (and especially television entertainment) as a method of social control.
Rollerball (1975) is based on the resistance of a future gladiator in a violent spectator sport through which the corporate elite sublimate the violent and revolutionary impulses of the masses:
You, know how the game serves us. It has a definite social purpose. Nations are bankrupt, gone. None of that tribal warfare any more. Even the corporate wars are a thing of the past…The game was created to demonstrate the futility of individual effort
– Bartholomew the Executive, Rollerball
As with Katniss in The Hunger Games, the triumph of Jonathan E over Rollerball becomes a focus for wider dissent.
Logan’s Run (1976) is set in 2274 where domes protect a hedonistic society from a hostile post-nuclear environment. Social equilibrium is maintained by ensuring everyone over 30 years old is killed in a game called Carrousel (sic). An armed caste called Sandmen ensure co-operation. There is an under-ground resistance of ‘runners’ and Sandman Logan 5 is sent to infiltrate it. His allegiance to the system is under-minded when he realises that no one ever survives Carrousel.
There’s a “game” in Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdrome (1985) – an arena where warlords in post-apocalypse Australia settle their differences by proxy. Max fight’s for Aunt Enitity – Warlord of Bartertown in the Thunderdrome arena.
But the big theme, the universal theme, which all these dystopian films share, is their critique of monopoly capitalism. Big Business is the “bad guy” in the vast majority of these films.
In Silent Running (1972) the American Airways Corporation owns the Spaceships – including the “Valley Forge” – which contain the last natural environments. And they give the order to destroy the project.
In Soyent Green (1973) the Soylent Corporation is recycling the dead into foodstuffs and feeding them to the masses in a polluted and overpopulated future under the pretence its refined algae. It provides a small elite with the money to live in gated-communities and enjoy undreamt of luxuries like meat and alcohol. The vast majority suffer.
Rollerball (1975) is set in 2018 – in a world now under the control of five corporations who provide Transport, Housing, Communications, Food, Energy and Luxuries. Nations no longer exist and the crowds are invited to stand for the playing of corporate anthems before each game of Rollerball commences:
Corporate society takes care of everything. And all it asks of anyone, all it’s ever asked of anyone ever, is not to interfere with management decisions.
– Bartholomew the Energy Executive
In the Alien series (1979-) the mega-corporation Weyland-Yutani is key to the action given it risks the crew of the Nostromo and then the colony settled on planet LV-426 (Aliens, 1986) to exploit the military potential of the Xenomorphs.
In Bladerunner’s (1982) world of 2019 the Tyrell Corporation manufacture human beings (replicants) and exploit their labour on the “off-world colonies”. The company’s motto is “More human than human” but they give their creations a limited life-span, no control over their lives (they’re bred for manual labour, war or sex work) and they’re not allowed on Earth. Special law-enforcers called Blade Runners (who are probably also replicants) are licensed to ‘retire’ them if they’re detected here.
In Robocop (1987) Omni Consumer Products Corporation is gentrifying the heart of Detroit into an exclusive gated community. It needs to build its own cyborg law-enforcers to police the social costs of the whole grisly-process.
In Total Recall (1991) set in 2048, Vilhos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox), is the corporate dictator of Mars – exploiting the colonist with his monopoly of oxygen and fighting the independence guerrillas.
In Avatar (2009) the Resources Development Administration (RDA) corporation in 2154 is out to plunder the Planet Pandora of the superconductor Unobtanium and isn’t going to let the resistance of the native Na’vi stand in their way.
(James Cameron was behind the last three films referenced above. All did spectacularly well at the box office. Avatar was the first film to make over $2bn world-wide.)
In Dennis Potter’s last TV play Cold Lazarus (1996) set in the 2368 the Total Universal Entertainment Corporation is financing experiments into harvesting the memories of the dead to exploit as commodities.
Hope is not in huge supply in dystopian films. The focus is on individuals – usually white men – whose role is limited to exposing the corrupt nature of the society they exist in. They rarely bring change.
In Silent Running vegan ecologist Freeman Lovell (Bruce Dern) kills the rest of the crew on the spaceship Valley Forge in order to preserve the last scraps of nature. His shipmates are shown as uncaring and thrill-seeking slobs more interested in racing their go-carts around the ship instead of looking after humanities future. However once he’s killed them, the earnest Lovell starts regressing. He begins eating the reconstituted “food” he previously rejected in favour of his organic vegetables and takes up racing a go-cart round the ship. The message is clear – people are the problem, even the most well-meaning.
Frank Thorne finds out that “Soylent Green is people” but that doesn’t repair the world that’s led to mass cannibalism. Jonathan E is the sole survivor of the Rollerball finale but his triumph is probably limited to the arena.
Logan destroys the society which forces people to die at 30 – but what will emerge from it given the only organised force left are the Sandmen militia? Bladerunner’s Dekker and Rachel “escape” but where do they “escape” to? And given at least one of them is a Replicant with a severely limited life-span, how long do they have if they get there?
In some films there’s the whisper of a collective fightback but it is usually inept. There is a deep suspicious of organised revolutionaries.
The “Underground Railway” in Logan’s Run helping dissenters escape Carrousel is a dead-end. Box the robot is processing them as frozen food. Kuato’s Martian Liberation Army in Total Recall is incapable of emancipating Mars. It’s the alien oxygenator activated by Quiad which does the trick.
The Fishes, the revolutionaries active in Children of Men (2006), are shown to be untrustworthy because for all their high ideals they have their own selfish and amoral agenda.
The end of the first wave
Ridley Scott, who directed Blade Runner (1982) – the late highpoint of this wave of dystopias – didn’t think much of many of the films referenced above or the worlds they tried to conjure.
As he started to make the gritty Alien (1979) he was quoted as saying:
The sci-fi films I’d seen always contained silly utopian ideas or tended to take the more extraordinary dilemmas of the day and assume they’d develop in non-logical, unbelievable ways.
I think he was wrong. Most of the films Scott scorned are about the things the radicalised generation of the late-1960s and early 1970s were campaigning against. They were asking questions about the cost of the long post-war boom.
Scott was inspired to direct Alien by Star Wars (1977) which was about spectacle not ideas. That first great post-war wave of dystopian films which dealt in ideas and politics was diverted (but not completely ended) by Star Wars. Science Fiction films after Star Wars were sold on the strength of the brilliance of their special effects – not by what they were saying (ironic given George Lucas’s first film was the 1984-inspired THX1138 (1971).
The dystopia genre never went completely away and there are some fine films in the genre in the 80s and 90s. But the film that sets up the current wave – that heralded The Hunger Games – was the Japanese film Battle Royale (2000). Maggie Lee of Reuters describes Battle Royale as the “film that pioneered the concept of the teen death game”.
The film describes a generational conflict in which adults force classes of high-school students to fight each other to the death:
At the dawn of the millennium the nation collapsed, the adults lost confidence and fearing the youth eventually passed the Millennium Educational Reform Act.
The film was a huge success in Japan, making $25 million over two years. Why would a film about children being forced to kill their schoolmates resonate so powerfully?
I’d argue that one of the elements is Japan’s notoriously competitive education system – which includes after-school hours and weekend extra classes at “juku” private cram schools. The pressure is such that some have been driven to suicide.
In 2006, the number of suicides among Japanese school students was 886 — the worst since 1978 when they started compiling statistics. In their suicide notes, 91 suicides mentioned problems at school. With or without suicide notes, police attributed school-related problems to 242 suicides, nine more than in 2005. Pressure of exams and bullying cited as key reasons.
– Japanese Times, 15/06/2007
Even if you do well at school in Japan the world’s third largest economy and second largest developed economy is now into third decade of stagnation. Battle Royale was released at the end of what the economist call Japan’s “ten lost years” – except that it went on into another decade and is now half-way through a third decade of stagnation. Japanese unemployment figures fluctuate across the recession from 5 to 3% – relatively low but, as in the UK, those figure cover up by high percentage of part-workers who would rather be full-time workers.
My point is its small wonder if Japanese people and young people in particular don’t see their lives as a “war of all against all” and would relate to Battle Royale which depicts that literally.
I’d argue there were similar material roots to the success of The Hunger Games and its rival dystopias in the West. This is from a report in The Guardian in July 2015 under the headline, “Children in complete meltdown over exams”.
Teachers in England are seeing unprecedented levels of school-related anxiety, stress and mental health problems among pupils of all age groups and abilities, particularly around test or exam time, according to a new report. Children aged 10 or 11 are said to be “in complete meltdown”, in tears, or feeling sick during tests, and problems can be made worse by their competitive parents, according to the ‘Exam Factories?’ report commissioned by the National Union of Teachers and conducted independently by Merryn Hutchings, emeritus professor at London Metropolitan University.
Capitalist competition everywhere is placing intolerable stress on young people. This is from The Daily Telegraph in April this year.
With just weeks until China’s dreaded annual university entrance exams, a secondary school in Hebei province has installed cage-like “anti-suicide” barriers to prevent stressed students jumping to their deaths. Around 9 million students will pack Chinese exam halls in early June for the “gaokao”, (the HIGH TEST) a gruelling nine-hour examination that makes British A-levels look like a stroll in the park – Two years ago there were calls for the system to be reformed after a spike in the number of student suicides being reported.
The young adults who read and watched The Hunger Games were part of the generation that has been tested and selected to near-destruction by an education system based on free-market principles of competition.
There were other factors. One of them was the phenomena of “reality” TV which dominated global television in the late 1990s and 2000 with the breakthrough successes of Big Brother and Survivor. They were the first of nine “reality” franchises – which also included MasterChef, Come Dancing (aka Dancing with the Stars), and The X-Factor – that have had 30 international adaptations each. Most are predicated on the idea of cut-throat competition leaving one triumphant winner.
The invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq and the War on Terror were another source of inspiration for The Hunger Games and they prepared the way for its reception. A generation grew up aware that a million people had been killed by the West’s invasion of Iraq. They were a generation who were told it was a war of civilisation but who saw that “their” side were capable of the torture in Abu Grahib, of extraordinary rendition and of locking up people in Guantanamo Bay indefinitely without trial.
Many were also aware of what that meant in terms of civil liberties. They were a generation who grew up under draconian, authoritarian legislation like The Patriot Act (2001) in the US or in the UK which implemented detention without charge, unlawful imprisonment and secret courts. All were introduced or expanded in the name of fighting the “War on Terror”. We are now at a point where prime minister David Cameron can say:
For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone.
This might go far in explaining why dystopian films involving young people embroiled in the homicidal games of dictatorial elites are popular. Both reality TV and the War on Terror inspired Suzanne Collins to write The Hunger Games. She explained:
I was very tired … and I was flipping through images on reality television where these young people were competing for a million dollars or whatever, then I was seeing footage from the Iraq war, and these two things began to fuse together in a very unsettling way, and that is the moment where I got the idea for Katniss’s story.
Joe Queenan is just plain wrong to insist:
If we honestly believe that the history of mankind is a record of steady – though not uninterrupted progress…why can’t we imagine a world not so far in the future where civilisation has not collapsed and thugs do not rule the world and the lighting is actually pretty good?
Because “we” don’t. In April 2014 Ipsos MORI published a Global Trends Survey based on material collected across 20 countries in September 2013 which showed how pessimistic many in the West were about future prospects for their young people.
Across the 20 countries more people thought the future would be worse than better (42% versus 34%).
People polled in Western Europe were amongst the most pessimistic with France at the bottom of the list. In France seven in ten people thought young people will have a worse future than their parents had. People were also very negative in countries like Belgium, Spain, the US and Britain. Even countries with relatively successful economies such as Sweden and Germany were twice as likely to be pessimistic than optimistic for their young.
In Britain, just 20% of those polled thought today’s youth would have a better life than their parents – over half (54%) thought it would be worse.
Young people in a number of countries are significantly more pessimistic than the population as whole in their country, including in Belgium, South Korea, Italy and Britain.
They’re right to be pessimistic. A report presented by the UN-affiliated International Labour Organisation in February 2015 argued that the worldwide unemployment rate among 15 to 24-year-olds of 13% (or 74 million) is significantly underestimated and the real number is six or seven times bigger. That report said youth unemployment is especially problematic in Europe with rates of 52% in Greece and Spain.
It’s 40% in Italy, 24% in France, 20% in Ireland and 14% in UK (with a 50% rise in youth unemployment among black people and minority ethnic groups since 2010).
The ILO predicts that between 2014 and 2019, youth unemployment will rise by up to eight percent in parts of Europe, South America and Africa.
Suzanne Collins’s great achievement was to unite elements of previous dystopias – the corporate elite which use technology and the media to oppress the majority – with the concerns and anxieties of young people. She explains:
“I don’t write about adolescents. I write about war for adolescents.”
But does it matter? I’d say it does matter but not, as Ewan Morrison believes, because the new wave of dystopia fiction is a carrier of right-wing ideology. It takes a very perverse – and seriously Stalinist – reading of The Hunger Games to see Panem as in any way progressive.
Morrison’s equation “STATE = PROGRESSIVE” is nonsense. The elite in The Hunger Games are disgusting. They eat while the majority starve.
They have made a mass spectacle of watching children forced to kill each other. They rely on a murderous apparatus of brutal “peace-keepers”. It’s the equivalent of siding with the Empire in Star Wars.
I think the success of these dystopias is symptomatic of a deeper political problem.
Marxists have been traditionally wary of Utopias. Marx had a laugh at positivists of The Paris Revue who were upset that Capital confined itself “to the mere critical analysis of actual facts, instead of writing receipts (Comtist ones?) for the cook-shops of the future”.
Auguste Comte was of that school of utopian socialists described and rejected by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto and Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. While admiring their rejection of capitalism, Marx and Engels were against a utopianism which looked to a better world without any idea how to get there.
But if Marx insisted he wouldn’t give blueprints for a socialist society – “recipes for the cook-shops of the future” – he also insisted:
A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.
– Capital Volume 1.
We don’t always build in reality. We also build in the imagination and the movement has always found a need and a place for imagining how things could be different – for better or worse.
In January 1898 Eudward Bernstein, one of the chief theoreticians of the Second International argued against a vision of a Socialist future as a concrete possibility:
I frankly admit that I have extraordinarily little feeling for, or interest in, what is usually termed ‘ the final goal of socialism’. This goal, whatever it may be, is nothing to me, the movement is everything.
Leftwing veteran Tony Benn had a version of this sentiment:
There is not a railway station called “socialism” or “peace” and if you catch a train driven by Bob Crow you’ll get there.
But actually they were wrong and Oscar Wilde, in The Soul of Man under Socialism (1891), was right:
A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.
I’d argue that socialists need a concrete vision of socialism (not worked out to the last detail) in order to attain socialism: that the economy should be run on the basis of need, not profit; that power should be in the hands of the many, not the few; that the state needs to be smashed; that privilege should whither and equality thrive; that people should live in peace with each other; and that oppressions of race, gender and sexuality should be dim, incomprehensible memories one day.
Dystopias are thriving because they make sense to an audience who can see that things are getting worse and no longer have a vision of how they might be better:
The academic Frederic Jameson argues:
The waning of the utopian idea is a fundamental historical and political symptom, which deserves diagnosis in its own right—if not some new and more effective therapy
For the first 500 years of the existence of this genre of speculative social fiction utopias dominated and dystopias were in the minority.
Moore’s Utopia (1516) was a historically premature work but as the bourgeois advanced and challenged the feudal order the possibility of other ways of living led to more utopian fiction being written. They included Antonio Doni’s I mondi (1552), Francesco Patrizi’s La città felice (1553) and Tommaso Campanella’s La città del sole (1602). In 1626 Francis Bacon wrote New Atlantis describing a society dedicated to the development of scientific discovery.
There was an explosion of literary Utopia’s in the run up to, and throughout, the English Revolution. The digger Gerrard Winstanley wrote a utopia in The Law of Freedom (1652) calling for unpaid state officials to enforce laws decided upon by universal suffrage and a society based on the twin pillars of egalitarianism and physical work. It was written after he tried to initiate a real utopian society of “True Levellers” on St George’s Hill, Weybridge, Surrey, in 1649.
As the great bourgeois revolutions advanced – materially altering society – so did utopian fiction. There were over 40 Utopias published between 1700 and 1850. The period of the great bourgeois revolutions was the period of political Utopianism – of Saint-Simon, Fourier and Robert Owen.
The 19th century saw utopian literature (the Staat Roman) flourish, driven by visions of a future which were technically advanced and often socially collective. Significant contributions in the genre are Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872), Mor Jokai’s A Novel of the Coming Century (1872), Kurd Lasswit’s Pictures from the Future (1887), A Crystal Age by WH Hudson (1887), Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888) and News from Nowhere by William Morris (1890).
There were dystopias – Col. George Tomkyns Chesney’s Battle of Dorking (1871) is written as a story told to a son by his father as a way of explaining why the British are “now” ruled by the Kaiser as part of the German Empire. After London by Richard Jefferies (1885) depicts civilisation tipping backward into barbarism.
In The Time Machine (1895) H G Wells plays a neat trick. When he reaches the year 802,701AD his Time Traveller meets the gentle Eloi and is convinced he’s arrived in a communist utopia. But he discovers the reality of the era – the subterranean Morlock’s breed and eat the Eloi like cattle. This is where the unresolved class differences of his era have ended. That’s bleak enough, but the darkness is compounded when the Traveller leaves 802,701AD to voyage to the end of the planet and the realisation that, given we’re all doomed in any case, nothing really matters anyway.
Despite the pessimism of The Time Machine – and Wells’ The Sleeper Wakes (1899) which shows a future of class oppression on more conventional lines – the dominant visions of the future were utopian. Wells would go on to write many of them in the duller part of his career. Bourgeoning technology and a theory of socialism’s ‘inevitability’ peddled by the Second International gave grounds for optimism.
Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1908) foresaw fascism but because the novel is treated as an artefact discovered and examined by intellectuals of an even more distant future (a device adopted by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaiden’s Tale in 1985) – and a socialist future at that – all is well.
With the 20th century the balance tipped so that more dystopias were written than utopias. As the hope offered by the Russian Revolution receded under Stalinist counter-revolution and after the horror of fascism, there was less ground for optimism. As George Orwell glibly put it in Nineteen Eighty-Four:
By the fourth decade of the twentieth century all the main currents of political thought were authoritarian. The earthly paradise had been discredited at exactly the moment when it became realisable.
The two great dystopian works of literature in the 20th century were Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) – the former a vision a future dominated by vacuous consumption, the latter a nightmare of all-powerful totalitarian oppression. There were many others: The Machine Stops (1909), We (1924), Consider Her Ways (1956), The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), On the Beach (1957), Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) and The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
The 20th century’s fictional utopias are far fewer. There is Shangri La of James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon (1933). There is a fictional future – without money or the prejudices of the contemporary world – presented in the various incarnations of Star Trek. There may be others…but they are not nearly as common as the dystopias offered by film and television.
That’s because Queenan is wrong to ask:
Why can’t we imagine a world not so far in the future where civilisation has not collapsed and thugs do not rule the world and the lighting is actually pretty good?
It’s clear that most people don’t believe that things are progressing and cannot see a better future before them.
And there are plenty grounds for pessimism. Climate change, for one, is now a horrific reality.Each year of the 21st century is among the hottest in history. Two of the world’s hottest temperatures were recorded in the last ten years. Around 400,000 square miles of Arctic Sea have already melted due to global warming. In the near future, around a hundred million people will experience a sea level rise of three feet. By 2050, 15% to 37% of our planets plant and animal species could be wiped out.
Nuclear weapons are an almost forgotten threat as if they vanished with the Cold War that bred them. But nine countries in the world possess a total of 15,695 nuclear weapons with the United States and Russia accounting for 93% of them.
What most people don’t see is the possibility of a popular social rising – of which they would be part – which transforms the world for the better. The slogan of the anticapitalist movement which started with the “Battle of Seattle” in 1999 was “Another World is Possible”. Few see that today.
The future on film is grim because the present is grim and people can’t see how it might get better. Fictive worlds in which a rich, corrupt elite lives in luxury and oppresses the majority are much nearer to our experiences wherever we live. And though people can relate to stories about resistance they find it difficult to conceive of a world without exploitation and oppression.
We live in a dystopia: the richest 10% of the world holds 30% to 40% of total income, while the poorest 10% will earn as little as 2%.
Active socialists need to raise the vision of utopia again – not as unreachable ideal – but as a target for all our struggles within those struggles.
This is not a call to abandon Marxism. As Frederic Jameson has correctly said:
Any idle fantasist could dream up some ideal society, but it took a historical materialist to identify those contradictions in the present which might eventually lead to its negation.
But Macaulay was wrong to argue that “an acre in Middlesex is better than a principality in Utopia.” Quite the opposite.
The Bolshevik Alexander Bogdanov wrote a utopia in Red Star (1908).
The novel opens as the activist Leonid is taken to visit socialist Mars while the 1905 revolution is raging. The Martian pilot tells him:
Blood is being shed (down there) for the sake of a better future. But in order to wage the struggle we must know the future.
That’s true. We need visions of the better worlds we can build. We need hope and a goal. We need more maps of utopia.
“Thank you for your consideration and may the odds be always in your favour.”