Four Kinds of Dystopia

The twentieth century saw four basic visions of hell on earth, or dystopia. These were:

Orwellian. Rule by autocratic totalitarian people, party or elite group, limitation of choice, repression of speech and repression of minorities, belief in order, routine and rational-morality. Control by enclosure, fear and explicit violence. Violent repression of dissent (via ‘the party line’). Erotic physicality and sexual freedom suppressed via control of sexual impulses. Control of thought by explicitly policing language (Orwellian Newspeak).

Huxleyan Rule by democratic totalitarian systems, excess of choice, limitation of access to speech platforms, assimilation of minorities, belief in emotional-morality, ‘imagination’ and flexibility, and control by desire, debt, narcotics and implicit threat of violence. No overt control of dissent (system selects for system-friendly voices). Erotic physicality and sexual freedom suppressed via promotion of pornographic sensuality and dissolution. Control of thought by implicitly enclosing language within professional boundaries (Illichian Newspeak, or Uniquack).

Kafkaesque Rule by bureaucracy. Control of populace via putting them into writing, forcing people to spend free time on bureaucratic tasks, thereby inducing tractable stress and the schizoid, self-regulating self-consciousness (anxiety about low marks, unlikes, official judgements and the like) that bureaucratic surveillance engenders. Generation of a system which structurally rewards those who seek an indirect relationship with their fellows or who, through fear of life, seek to control it through the flow of paperwork.

Phildickian Rule by replacing reality with an abstract, ersatz virtual image of it. This technique of social control began with literacy*—and the creation of written symbols, which devalued soft conscious sensuous inspiration, fostered a private (reader-text) interaction with society, created the illusion that language is a thing, that meaning can be stored, owned and perfectly duplicated, that elite-language is standard and so on—and ended with virtuality—the conversion of classrooms, offices, prisons, shops and similar social spaces into ‘immersive’ on-line holodecks which control and reward participants through permanent, perfect surveillance, the stimulation of positive and negative emotion, offers of godlike powers, and threats to nonconformists of either narco-withdrawal or banishment to an off-line reality now so degraded by the demands of manufacturing an entire artificial universe, that only hellish production-facilities, shoddy living-units and prisons can materially function there.


The reader can decide for herself under which of above we currently struggle to eke out a life worth living. I would like to suggest that all modern societies are both Kafkaesque and Phildickian with either a Huxleyan or Orwellian overarching framework; modern, western, capitalist societies tend to be basically Huxleyan (HKP) and, on the other side of the Overton Window, pre-modern, eastern, communist countries tend to be basically Orwellian (OKP).

The reason why ideological managers** (academics, film directors, journalists, etc) prefer to have two (or more) dystopian systems is that it makes us seem like the goodies and them the baddies. Communism is to blame for their foodbanks and breadlines, but capitalism has nothing to do with ours (or vice versa). Sure our masses have the same miserable lives as theirs, reel under the same bureaucratic insanity, stumble around the same shoddy unreal worlds, and witness the same catastrophic destruction of nature and beauty as theirs do, but at least we’ve got democracy! / at least our families stick together! / at least the trains run on time! / at least GTA 9 is coming out soon / at least the Olympics will cheer us up (delete as appropriate).



If you enjoyed this post take a look at The [Utopian] Apocalypedia, which integrates it with the root of these dark taxonomies. And the ground. The book that it is extracted from, 33 Myths of the System, will be released shortly.



* Obviously I’m not suggesting that literacy is inherently or completely dystopian, but it is the beginning of a dangerous and distorting process, which starts with societies demanding literacy for participation — and devaluing orality and improvised forms of expression — and ends with the complete eradication of reality. This danger and distortion increases with every step towards virtuality (print, perspective, photography, television, internet) until, by the time we reach VR, there remains no possibility of reverie, transcendence, humanity, meaning or genuine creativity, all of which become suspect.

** And of course for those who depend on their illusions.

EDIT: The only ‘criticism’ I’ve received about this post is that there are no women on it. In fact there are many omissions; but this is a ‘high level taxonomy’ (if you will), the earliest possible ‘trunks’ of later modifying branches. A reader on another forum posted his reflections on how later dystopias might fit in to it:

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut — imagines a future where mechanical automation and IQ-optimized hiring leads to mass unemployment, but extensive welfare systems keeps the mediocre masses well-fed, just demoralized and without dignity. Combination of Huxleyan with Kafkaesque?

The Handmaid’s Tale – Orwellian with a pronounced patriarchal-religious emphasis

Anthem — generic Orwellian with a primitivist/preindustrial Luddite version of Phildickian.

Fahrenheit 451 — similar Phildickian rewriting of reality through both Orwellian (the firemen, the unspecified war in the background) and Huxleyan (parlor walls, overload of useless factoids) means.

Atlas Shrugged — world/U.S. in the beginning is not totalitarian, but a generic degenerate socialist bureaucratic state in decline. Whether or not Galt’s Gulch is totalitarian, and what type it is, can be left as an exercise to the reader.

Neuromancer, Snow Crash, other classic cyberpunk works — not totalitarian, but heavy on the Huxleyan decadent consumerist society coupled with Phildickian distortion of reality themes.

Brazil — perfectly Kafkaesque.

All seems fair to me. I don’t see any reason to put these (or others) before my four. Unless of course you have an ideological axe to grind and believe, for example, that a woman must be placed on lists like this (even a list of four!).

wordpress visitors