Totalitarianism and Dystopian Literature: A Review

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The struggle against a totalitarian government is unsurprisingly a frequent theme in dystopian literature. Almost by definition the genre is set in a futuristic society characterized by extreme oppression and despondence. Malevolent autocrats at the helms of totalitarian governments have, throughout our history, been responsible for innumerable travesties. This young century alone has witnessed the evil of Bashar al-Assad, Omar Bashir, and Saddam Hussein. Probing only slightly deeper into our collective memory, we are acquainted with the reigns of Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, Josef Stalin, Hideki Tojo, Francisco Franco, and (of course) Adolf Hitler. The last hundred years have undeniably been bloody, and it is therefore only natural that our perception of dystopia largely revolves around the evils of the totalitarian regime.

However, it would be misleading and inadequate to imply that the greatest works of dystopian literature derive their frisson from the mere presence of a dictatorship. In fact, this would be a gross simplification. Therefore, in this article I shall explore an additional five frequently occurring aspects of individual-state relations that are prevalent in dystopian stories, all of which are necessarily predicated on the existence of an autocratic regime that denies its citizens the simplest of civil liberties.

It is important to note that these governments need not be widely regarded by their constituencies as malign entities hell-bent on the destruction of freedom and the infliction of suffering. In fact, they can take the exact opposite form (the World State in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World provides its citizens with endless supplies of hallucinatory and sexual pleasures). But all governments in the literature I discuss are totalitarian insofar as they prevent the exercise of free will and political dissidence.

Theme One: Governmental Monopoly of Information

The availability of private sources of information is a prerequisite for a robust democracy. If government has an effective monopoly on the dissemination of facts, healthy public discourse cannot exist. In other words, if citizens are dependent on an Orwellian government as the sole source of news, anti-establishment worldviews cannot possibly gain influence—this is government’s motivation behind outlawing books in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

This desire for governmental control of fact has become so associated with the works of George Orwell that his eponymous adjective now connotes a miserable condition in which perceived truth and the availability of information are subject to the whimsical desires of the state. In 1984, the Party not only rewrites history (more on this below) but also adroitly keeps its citizens in a perpetual state of confusion through the promulgation of lies and misinformation. “Ignorance is strength,” declares the Party slogan. Certainly there is an element of truth to this, as the Party is obviously strengthened by an ignorant populace incapable of articulating philosophical or pragmatic reasons for the overthrow of the ruling powers. We also see this in Animal Farm, in which the pigs are ultimately able to enslave the other animals because their monopoly on literacy provides them with exclusive knowledge of the farm’s constitution. Because other animals lack the education to personally understand the pigs’ amendments to the farm’s ordering, they succumb to the Aristotelian prophecy (fix) that citizens who fail to vigilantly guard against constitutional changes will ultimately find themselves living under the rule unrecognizable institutions.

Theme Two: The Rewriting of History

“Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past,” says the Party slogan in 1984. In other words, in order for despotic governments to create a sense of internal legitimacy capable of mollifying their potential critics, they must first create a revisionist version of history that portrays them in a better light. We see this in the twentieth-century cults of personality surrounding Chairman Mao or North Korea’s Kim family.

This is a central theme in 1984, in which protagonist Winston Smith works at the Ministry of Truth as a historical revisionist responsible for modifying and re-modifying historical texts such that they constantly reflect the Party’s ever-changing goals and ideologies. By destroying any connection with the true past, the Party successfully eliminates any basis for comparison or for questioning its aims. If citizens have no knowledge of pre-Party times, they cannot evaluate the Party’s failures or tyranny in light of their historical experience. Note that themes one and two are intimately interconnected; government cannot rewrite history without first having a monopoly on information. If alternative sources of information exist, they perpetuate the knowledge of true history.

Whereas 1984 distorts the historical past, Lois Lowry’s The Giver eliminates it. In a small village in the distant future, there are no memories of history. Society has no understanding of famine, sickness, or war—or of love, joy, or adventure. Selected to be the next Receiver of Memories, Jonas begins training under the guidance of the Giver, who alone has knowledge of the human experience. The Giver and Jonas realize that absent this historical experience, society is experiencing a profound moral and cultural decadence.

Theme Three: Equality as the Primary Motivating Agent of Governmental Actions

To some degree, a quest for economic equality is normatively official insofar as it attempts to empower the poor and alleviate misery. When taken to the extreme, this search creates a dystopia in which excessive government regulation designed to elevate the status of the worst-off have the exact opposite effect. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged explores this concept in extensive (and often tedious) detail. Set in a near-future America, the novel features downright ridiculous government regulations that are justified in the name of equality and helping the “moochers.” Companies are required to donate their products to the needy and are forbidden from producing more than their competitors so that all may remain in business. As the producers no longer have incentives to work, they shutter their businesses and vanish from society. This strike results in catastrophic shortages of food, electricity, and transport—a complete economic collapse that ultimately leads to an even more destructive anarchy.

The ethos of equality in dystopia is not limited to economic issues. Far more alarmingly, future autocrats espouse a perverted version of Jefferson’s timeless adage that “all men are created equal” which holds instead that “all men are created identical,” with disastrous results.

In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the state quite literally ensures that all members of the same social class are created nearly identically. In an effort to ensure that all within the same class are equal, fetuses are given inhibitory drugs to prevent the full development of their mental and physical faculties. In order to further homogenize members of the same class, all children are raised and indoctrinated by the state, creating full equality of body and mind within a class. This eliminates the potential for internecine conflict.

Kurt Vonnegut further explores this theme in his short story “Harrison Bergeron,” which removes Brave New World’s institutionalized social hierarchy, thereby ensuring that everyone is “equal every which way. Nobody [is] smarter than anybody else [or] stronger or quicker than anybody else.” This equality is enforced by a ruthless United States Handicapper General, who retards the intelligent by using transmitters to stop them from “taking unfair advantage of their brains” and cripples the physically strong by requiring them to wear heavy “handicap bags” around their necks at all times. Interestingly, even the socialist-leaning author acknowledges as natural varying levels of physical and mental capacity.

Theme Four: The Loss of Individual Identity

In contemporary totalitarian regimes, those with non-conformist identities or ideologies are often persecuted. Those who dare adhere to heretical philosophies or subscribe to a heterodox Weltanschauung are ruthlessly persecuted. Dystopian literature takes this hatred of individualism a step further, however; it portrays regimes seeking to eliminate diversity at its source through the destruction of the very concept of the individual.

The searches for absolute equality described in Brave New World and “Harrison Bergeron” certainly also have the effect of destroying individuality. These two themes are highly interrelated; complete equality and individuality are mutually exclusive, as the former cannot be obtained without the complete destruction of the latter. Ayn Rand’s Anthem explores this in further detail. The novella is a testament to the individual and its right not to be placed in a condition of servitude to society. In the world of Anthem, there is not a single trace of individual rights or personal identity. An individual only has value insofar as he can serve society; those too old to work are referred to as the Useless. As in The Giver, an individual’s occupation is chosen by the government. In lieu of names the state assigns each character an identification consisting of a number and a word designed to promote solidarity and collectivism (Equality, Fraternity, Union, and International, among others). In order to further encourage the mindset that the individual is a mere drone whose sole task is to serve society, the words ‘I’ and ‘my’ have been replaced by ‘we’ and ‘our,’ and the utterance of a singular pronoun is punishable by being burned alive.

Theme Five: The Erosion of the Family

This final theme is by far the simplest. Psychologists and political theorists have long acknowledged that the family, through the act of child-rearing, is responsible for the cultivation of morality and perpetuation of virtue in individuals. Parents (ideally) teach their children right from wrong and instill the concept of free thought in the next generation. Absent the family, however, a totalitarian government can impose its own views of morality on children, thereby preventing the formation of unorthodox opinions and creating a state full of mindless drones incapable of questioning the prevailing status quo.

It is typical in dystopian literature that government has weakened familial ties. Although family units are present in The Giver, biological families as we know them do not exist. Women selected as birthmothers give custody of their children to the state nursery. Ultimately, infants are placed in state-created families consisting of a mother, a father, and adopted children. The word ‘grandparent’ is unknown. Jonas is shocked to learn that “parents-of-the-parents” exist; he admits to never having thought of such a thing before.

Family units in Anthem and Brave New World are entirely nonexistent. In Anthem, all children are raised by in the Home of the Infants and study in the Home of the Students. Contact with the other sex is forbidden except for state-controlled reproduction at the Palace of Mating. Humans are therefore denied a family experience. Mothers, fathers, husbands, and wives do not exist. Children undergo a similar treatment in Brave New World, as they are mass-produced and raised in government-run “hatcheries and conditioning centers.”

Conclusion

We are blessed to live in a free society in which a near-manifestation of any of these themes is essentially impossible. This is not to say that traces of these themes are nonexistent in today’s America:

The government attempts to silence its critics and monopolize information regarding its procedures in areas it deems vital to national security. Whistleblowers who dare expose its systemic violation of Fourth Amendment rights are imprisoned or exiled.
History is being gradually being rewritten in order to promote liberal or conservative agendas—the College Board recently released a new, revisionist AP US History curriculum that has been widely denounced for its alleged sympathy to leftist movements and near-omission of American founding principles. Likewise, a school district in Colorado recently adapted educational changes designed to denounce civil disobedience and protest.

In an Atlas Shrugged passage eerily reminiscent of what Obamacare will bring, a doctor explains he is on strike because he “would not let [the government] dictate the purpose for which my years of education had been spent, or the conditions of my work, or my choice of patients, or the amount of my reward.” Today’s socialists, who have unrealistic expectations for future economic equality enforced by central planning and economic micromanagement, would do well to remember that Atlas Shrugged is a warning, not an instruction manual.

Categorization is leading to the loss of individual identity. In broad appeals to voters, politicians on both sides of the aisle are guilty of assuming homogeneity where it may not necessarily exist. We have all heard of “women’s interests,” “the middle class,” and “Latino voters,” but seldom do we stop to contemplate that these constituencies are merely aggregations of individuals who are often extremely ideologically diverse.

Finally, I will concede government is not making war on the family. However, the current war on religious institutions serves the similar purpose of eliminating the influence of countervailing morality instilled by private associations that are traditionally free of government oversight. I am not merely referring to the issues present in Hobby Lobby v. Sibelius and McCullen v. Coakley, in which the federal government relentlessly bullied individuals who espoused religious beliefs. Rather, I am more concerned with cases such as Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC and Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, in which government attempted to gain power over religious institutions themselves by regulating the appointment of ministers or by outlawing religious rituals considered savage or immoral—in this case, animal sacrifice.

Thankfully, dystopia is a fictional concept. As analysis of the genre has revealed, humanity has a not-so-subconscious fear of these anti-liberty principles. With the exception of the economic aspect of theme three, these motifs should be anathema to all holding non-authoritarian political beliefs. The authors whose works are examined above have views ranging from Rand’s libertarianism to Vonnegut’s socialism. Liberals and conservatives, socialists and libertarians, communists and anarchists should all be horrified by this literature. Therein lies its value. Its universal appeal presents a rare opportunity for those of all views to unite and condemn certain governmental actions as not only anti-liberty but also anti-human.

Josh Zuckerman is a junior from Marietta, Georgia. He is majoring in Politics and is the Executive Editor of the Tory. He can be reached at jrz@princeton.edu.

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