Dystopia at Work
Dystopias are the worst of all possible worlds—the opposite of utopias, or imagined places where social and political conditions are ideal. Dystopian novels came into their own in the first half of the 20th century, when sociopolitical revolutions ultimately resulted in totalitarian states. Today dystopian narratives remain influential, especially, as this map will show, when crossed with big business.
The World State, Brave New World’s 26th-century global society, is predicated on happiness, not repression. The methods of ensuring this happiness, however, have a classically dystopian result: absolute dictatorial control. In the foreword to the 1946 edition, Aldous Huxley writes, “A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude.” This is precisely Brave New World’s situation. The World State’s motto is “Community. Identity. Stability,” a corporate-sounding mission statement the government enacts by controlling its citizens’ development from test-tube conception to adulthood. Eugenics determines intelligence and status, and “Conditioning Centres” create class-based homogeneous beliefs. Enforced promiscuity and the abolition of the family promote loyalty to the state (“Everyone belongs to everyone else”). Finally, the drug soma replaces reality with hallucinations of happiness.
“The people who govern the Brave New World may not be sane,” Huxley notes, “but they are not madmen, and their aim is not anarchy but social stability. It is in order to achieve stability that they carry out, by scientific means, the ultimate, personal, really revolutionary revolution.”
Henry Ford (1863–1947), founder of the Ford Motor Company, represents the embodiment of American industry and, by extension, American capitalism. His production strategies, collectively known as Fordism, included unskilled assembly-line labor and standardized mass production, which helped bring about the transformation of the U.S. from an agricultural to an industrial society. In Brave New World, belief in a god has been replaced with Ford worship (citizens praise “Our Ford”). Christian crosses have their tops lopped off to make T’s, a reference to the Ford Model T, America’s first mass-market car, and people make the “sign of the T” when they mention Ford’s name. His autobiography, My Life and Work (1922), is the state’s most revered text. Ford’s apotheosis is justified toward the end of the novel: “Our Ford himself did a great deal to shift the emphasis from truth and beauty to comfort and happiness. Mass production demanded the shift. Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning; truth and beauty can’t.” Fordist techniques are applied in the novel even to the birthing process and childhood, which is the responsibility of enormous Hatchery and Conditioning Centres: “The principle of mass production at last applied to biology.”
Automaker Henry Ford had trouble keeping workers because of his monotonous assembly-line tasks, so he raised wages and cut the workday by an hour. But the concept of a deskilled workforce performing simplified operations had its critics. A central theme in Austrian director Fritz Lang’s iconic silent film Metropolis, which is classically Marxist in its portrayal of labor relations, is the struggle between workers and bosses. The industrialists enjoy idle lives in gleaming art deco skyscrapers, while the workers slave in an urban underworld. The celebrated opening scene shows exhausted laborers tramping home while a replacement shift marches in the other direction. Lang’s philosophical position is the same as Aldous Huxley’s in Brave New World: Mass production is dehumanizing. With the increasingly automated processes of factory work, this vision has become a reality, with assembly-line laborers turned into little more than robots performing repetitive tasks. Lang touched on this, perhaps unintentionally, in Metropolis with the Maschinenmensch (“machine human”), a malevolent robot copy of Maria, the workers’ peaceful advocate. An interesting side note: The word robot was first used in 1921 by Karel Čapek in his play R.U.R.—Rossum’s Universal Robots—and originates in the Czech word robota, meaning “forced labor.”
Many dystopian scenarios present a society in which the business world has been subsumed by the state. In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, for example, dictator Big Brother’s face is stamped on the labels of Victory gin bottles and Victory cigarette packets. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis instead presents a world where big business has taken over the machinery of government. Perhaps this is because the film was produced in a Western democracy (albeit a fragile one) of the 1920s, when the economy was booming and capitalist countries were pursuing a laissez-faire policy toward big business. After the Great Depression, writers imagined future societies with strictly controlled economies. But Metropolis’s conception of a state in which the corporation is all-powerful was explored more fully in the 1980s, when conspicuous consumption was once again the West’s governing economic principle. The Tyrell Corporation in Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner (1982) is a prime example. This company, to use a term popularized by cyberpunk author William Gibson, is a megacorporation, equal in power and ambition to a medium-size national government. Its headquarters, a 700-story ziggurat, dominates the Los Angeles skyline, and even the police submit to the company’s demands.
The idea of untrammeled capitalism that the Tyrell Corporation represents in the film Blade Runner isn’t antithetical to every writer who has imagined a dystopian future. For Ayn Rand, it was an ideal. Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged is set in a socialist United States where the government curtails opportunities for brilliant individuals to outdo their rivals on the free market. In a strike organized by the mysterious John Galt, the most talented U.S. industrialists, inventors and academics disappear, leaving the state in turmoil. Galt ultimately founds a new nation built on individual excellence and “enlightened self-interest,” concepts key to Rand’s espoused philosophy, objectivism—a profoundly conservative system of thought that enshrines self-interest as the most important of all impulses, views laissez-faire capitalism as the fairest economic model and dismisses altruism as a liberal delusion. The larger society is seen as a parasite upon its most exceptional members.
All dystopian works stress freedom as an absolute, but Rand’s strain of absolutist individualism in Atlas Shrugged goes further and raises a difficult question: How free is too free? But, one may ask, is it wise to entrust a society’s well-being to the enlightened self-interest of the Tyrell Corporations of the world?
Both Blade Runner and The Matrix depict dystopian systems that exploit artificial realities. Based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the world of Blade Runner is dominated by the Tyrell Corporation, the business conglomerate that has symbolically replaced the nation-state. But not only does Tyrell Corp. dominate the present, it falsifies the past. The company produces “replicants,” or artificial humans, the most advanced of which have been implanted with false memories to complete the illusion of their humanity. Some do not even know they are machines. The Matrix blends pop philosophy with elements of cyberpunk, anime and martial arts. It was strongly influenced by French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard’s 1981 book Simulacra and Simulation, which asserts that we now live beyond reality, in the zone of the “hyperreal,” and that the difference between “real” and “simulated” experiences has become so muddled that it is impossible to tell them apart. In the film, the false visions of machine-generated reality conceal horrible truths about the utterly debased condition of humanity.
The Matrix is built on a forbiddingly grim premise. Surpassing most dystopian scenarios, which employ an outsider or a doubting character to show the reader or viewer an oppressive world, The Matrix reveals that late-20th-century reality itself is false: Humans lost a war against machines and now lie in tanks, dreaming a life that doesn’t exist, while serving as living batteries for computers. Messianic protagonist Neo’s journey is about how an exceptional human can transcend the world of appearances, accurately perceive the real with the aid of philosophy and then transmit that knowledge to the masses. This vision indicates a new phase of dystopia, one that has moved beyond the genre’s foundations in the overtly political, ideological dystopias of the 20th century’s first half: the influential totalitarian dystopias, in which the individual is subservient to, and often consumed by, the gigantic machinery of the state. The causes of dystopia are now less likely to be political movements than they are sentient machines, bioengineering, genetically modified crops or manmade ecological disasters. Humanity’s pessimism, a constant and often valuable force, is processing a new set of problems.