The idea of utopia is to offer solutions to existing social problems, often in radical ways. The broad scope of the term and the etymological paradox at its heart – a place that is not a place – gives us an understanding of why this particular field of political thought appears so often in fiction. Whether the positive eutopia or the negative dystopia, a range of novels, films, television shows and even comic books have been used to explore these themes. To suggest that fictional accounts are not useful tools, then, is a glaring insult to the potential they hold.
Dystopias, the manifestation of a utopia as a place of fear, have recently enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, with the young adult genre of writing in particular contributing heavily to the literature. These novels and films extrapolate existing socio-political issues into broader, detailed systems of oppression. In doing so, they let us examine these issues not just as they are but as what they could lead to in the future. Even if the visions they portray might be exaggerated, they still offer compelling looks at possible routes that society might take.
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games feature bleak futuristic societies that have rigid social hierarchies. While the specifics of the plots are different, one key common denominator is that both systems rely heavily on capitalist exploitation by means of class division and incentivisation. A deeper look at these novels (and their subsequent adaptations) can provide meaningful additions to ongoing debates about neo-liberal capitalism.
The population of the World State in Huxley’s novel is divided into five groups – the superior Alphas and Betas, and the inferior Deltas, Gammas and Epsilons – all born through controlled, mechanised reproduction. Citizens are conditioned from birth to value consumption, and to strictly adhere to the segregation and norms of their social group. The aim of this self-perpetuating centralised economy is to maintain stability and peace by bolstering economic growth and full employment, and constantly demonising self-reflexivity and activities based around isolation.
The continent of Panem in Collins’ work is divided following a civil war, with the victorious Capitol at the centre and twelve Districts at the periphery. Each impoverished District is tasked with the production of a specific resource for the wealthy Capitol, as well as offering two children each year for the brutal gladiatorial Hunger Games that serves as a reminder of their defeat.
The elite groups – Alphas and Betas for Huxley, the Capitol for Collins – are numerical minorities, yet the system continues to function unopposed for decades in both cases. The biggest contributor to this longevity is how the dynamics of class division are manipulated to prevent the oppressed groups from combining into a united front.
Fostering False Identities
The separation into various groups is arbitrary but strictly enforced. People are born into their respective social strata and there is no scope for mobility. Given the production-heavy nature of both societies, this means that citizens are forced into cultivating specific aspects of their lives, such as skills and career paths, in a top-down model of identity determination, regardless of their individual propensity.
The methods of implementation vary slightly in the two cases. Brave New World employs eugenics to predetermine the fate of its population. Alphas and Betas are allowed to develop greater intellectual prowess and retain some level of individuality, while Deltas, Gammas and Epsilons face forced arrested intellectual and physical development in the womb. This automatically creates limitations to the type of work –and life – each group is suitable for.
In The Hunger Games, geographical distance and boundaries are used to keep members of Districts contained within their territories. With each region having a finite range of resources, this forces the citizens of the Districts to adhere to a narrowly defined existence that is determined by what they have access to. This is reflected in various aspects of society, including how District costumes are designed around the resources they are supposed to represent.
These divisions are nurtured further by highlighting differences between the groups. Alongside genetic modifications, Alphas, Betas, Deltas, Gammas and Epsilons are conditioned from birth using subliminal stimuli to have pride in their identity, to the point where Deltas, Gammas and Epsilons are actually grateful to do grunt work. Similarly, the Capitol shows favouritism towards Districts 1, 2 and 4 while encouraging rivalry and even envy between them and the other Districts.
Furthermore, this social segregation is rewarded by incentivising the so-called merits of the existing system. The extreme consumerism in Brave New World is so deeply entrenched that no one can offer a viable alternative. In order to bolster this supremacy further, a recreational drug called soma is rationed out to the various groups depending on their roles and successes – Alphas and Betas having greater, less stringent access to it than the others – the addiction to which makes Deltas, Gammas and Epsilons more amenable to stick to their expected tasks.
The titular Hunger Games, meanwhile, not only increases the competition between the Districts, but also provides a tangible reward for the winner – an entire year’s supply of food for their District. Even though the Games themselves are a means of displaying the might of the Capitol, the prize at the end shapes expectations from an early age, making individuals more likely to buy into the system of exploitation, even in moments of severe personal danger, than try to overthrow it.
These almost-constant reminders are used to reinforce the notion that society is not divided into an oppressor-oppressed dichotomy, but that the oppressed group is actually split between several sub-categories, each with a distinct and irreconcilable identity, preventing any attempt at meaningful unity. By rewarding acceptance of these divisions, the system becomes self-perpetuating because the segregation becomes better than unity.
Contemporary society is thankfully not quite as bleak as either of these fictional accounts. Which is not to say, however, that capitalist problems do not take place along the same veins. The question of economically motivated identity is a prickly one, with debates about what constitutes the varying degrees of upper, middle and working class a regular occurrence. Similarly, incentivisation is one of the biggest problems with development aid, which is often used as leverage to prop up failing systems of democracy and governance.
Brave New World and The Hunger Games are just two instances of fiction letting us creatively explore current world issues. This is a valuable contribution provided by dystopias, one which we would be remiss to forget.
Ibtisam Ahmed is a PhD student in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, whose thesis examines the extent to which the British Empire can be studied as an attempt at political utopia.
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