Would You Recognize a Dystopia If You Saw One?


By Ryan J. Barilleaux

Dystopia is all the rage these days. Not only does it make for hit television, in the form of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, but it is the concern of many popular fiction and Internet ruminations. Indeed, it has become a weaponized term in the culture, used against Donald Trump, intrusive data collection by big Internet firms, the State of Israel, environmental degredation, racism, and just about anything that anyone wants to denounce. Unfortunately, “dystopia” is as poorly understood as it is frequently employed as a form of name-calling. The word has become a verbal tic.

This tendency to define dystopia down should encourage caution in use of the term. After all, the charge of “dystopia” is not one to take lightly, suggesting as it does tyranny in its bleakest forms. Once reserved for grim fictional futures as in 1984 or Brave New World, or the nation-sized prisons of Pol Pot’s Cambodia and Mao’s China, today “dystopia” is overused and under-thought. What does dystopia really look like?

The Map of Dystopia

“Dystopia” is not just any bad situation; it is what results from an attempt to create a utopia. Dystopia is necessarily and specifically the consequence of utopianism (the pursuit of utopia in this world, as opposed to the great tradition of utopian speculation). It reflects someone’s program of social and political perfection. As Ursula K. LeGuin observed, “Every utopia contains a dystopia; every dystopia contains a utopia.”

Dystopia is not to be confused with just any awful situation. Some so-called “dystopias” are merely scenarios of decline, such as predictions of what things will be like when the planet is overpopulated (as in Soylent Green or John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar) or the economy collapses (as in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles) or the atmosphere and water are poisoned (as in The Road or Blade Runner 2049). Others present apocalyptic or post-apocalytic environments, whether the nuclear nightmares of 1950s science fiction (such as Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz or Nevil Shute’s On the Beach) or when robots take over (the Matrix trilogy), or the zombie apocalypse. Still other so-called “dystopias” are nothing more than stories of wildly power-hungry dictators or oligarchies (as in V for Vendetta). None of these scenarios represents someone’s idea of a perfect society.

Dystopia is what results from the attempt to create utopia. Consider the society of Brave New World, which is horrible precisely to the extent that the World State was designed to be exactly as it is. Likewise, in Zamyatin’s We, Orwell’s 1984, and even Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day, the designers of the oppressive society in each novel get exactly what they wanted. Likewise, Pol Pot’s Cambodia was not horrible by accident, but because the Khmer Rouge created exactly the society they wanted. Dystopia is not about a failed attempt to create utopia, but—more powerfully—about what happens when such an attempt succeeds.

For all that the various dystopias of fiction and reality reflect wildly different visions, they share several common features: social regimentation, dehumanization, abuse of technology, state terror, a new class of rulers, propaganda instead of truth, inevitable totalitarianism, and the tragedy of the individual. When combined, these features sketch the map of dystopia.

Two key identifying marks of dystopia are social regimentation and an inevitable totalitarianism. These marks are easily seen in 1984, Brave New World, or Lois Lowry’s The Giver. Regimentation may be as obvious as the Alphas, Betas, and Deltas of Huxley’s World State, the Proles and Inner and Outer parties of Orwell’s nightmare, the genetically determined Valids and Invalids of Gattaca, or the rigid hierarchy of Nazi Germany, or it may be the more subtle type of bureaucratic regimentation portrayed by Walker Percy in The Thanatos Syndrome. Likewise, dystopias are inevitably totalitarian: to achieve a perfect society, nothing can be beyond the reach of the state. Not surprisingly, many dystopian regimes take a particular interest in the sex lives of their inhabitants (in We, sex partners and encounters are assigned by the state, while Pol Pot’s Cambodia arranged all marriages).

Next, dystopia is marked by dehumanization, whether it is the mass-produced creatures of Brave New World, the heavily drugged automatons of THX-1138, or the starving slaves of North Korea. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the women who serve to provide children to the elite have become gestation machines. In the famous Twilight Zone episode “Number 12 Looks Just Like You” everyone is remolded at age nineteen into one of several standard beautiful models with uniform ideas. The inhabitants of dystopia are stripped of their free will, their dignity, their humanity.

The abuse of technology is another characteristic of dystopia. In The Thanatos Syndrome, a sodium isotope is placed in the water supply to make everyone docile, compliant, and Pongid-like (Pongidae is the family that includes chimpanzees and gorillas). 1984’s visiscreen, Brave New World’s Bokanovsky’s Process for cloning humans, and the Ludovico Technique used to condition Alex against violence in A Clockwork Orange are all instances of the abuse of technology, along with all-too-real examples like Zyklon-B gas and North Korea’s use of more than one hundred thousand surveillance cameras to monitor its population.

Next, dystopia empowers a new class of rulers and uses propaganda and state terror to maintain the power of the regime. Whether it is the World Controllers, the Inner Party, the Elders (in The Giver), federal bureaucrats (in The Thanatos Syndrome), or the Khmer Rouge, there are rulers who control dystopian society. Dystopian regimes employ propaganda (“Freedom is Slavery,” “Community, Identity, Stability,” “Workers of the world, unite!”) to mislead the populace and state terror (disappearances, reeducation camps, gulags, the Thought Police, the Firemen of Fahrenheit 451) to enforce conformity.

The ultimate result of dystopia can be seen in the tragedy of an individual. In dystopian stories and novels, the protaganist (such as John the Savage or Winston Smith) is crushed—or nearly so—as a way to make clear just how brutal the prevailing order is. In the real dystopias of modernity, individuals come to symbolize the oppression of the regime: the survivors of Hitler’s death camps, figures such as Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, or Otto Warmbier, the American student who died from mistreatment while in North Korean custody.

Dystopia and Other Discontents

These features not only map the horrors of dystopia, but help to distinguish it from the ugly situations that lead sloppy cultural commentators to brand everything they reject a “dystopia.” Is Trump’s America a dystopia? Not quite: not only do his views on nationalism, immigration, trade, and world affairs not add up to a utopian vision, but most dystopian features are missing from the nation today. His tweets may sound to his critics like propaganda, but the persistent debunking of his false claims by the meda, the chattering class’s contemptuous distate for Trump, and Democrats’ open opposition to everything he wants make it hard to characterize his presidency as totalitarian.

How about modernity as dystopia? Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed portrays “the liberal project” as failing because it succeeded, creating a world in which atomized individuals have been ripped from their communities, isolated, and connected only by the rigors of the market and the power of the state. But Deneen’s description of modernity does not add up to dystopia, and he both praises several of liberalism’s achievements and admits to self-limiting aspects of the liberal order. While he writes with an urgency and a passion that suggests that modernity is dystopian, he ends up calling only for more endeavors to create communities that can nourish human flourishing.

If anything can be a dystopia, then the concept loses all meaning. In fact, the kind of equivalency that leads some pajama-clad pundits to equate Trump’s America or Google or whatever to dystopia has been seen before. During the Cold War, there were those who portrayed the West and the Soviet bloc as morally equivalent (anyone who spent time in an American university in those days is familiar with this line of thought). The people who lived inside the Soviet Union or its satellites never made that mistake, and after the Cold War ended so did this kind of talk. When, briefly, Soviet archives were opened to researchers, it turned out that the numbers who died for the “worker’s paradise” was greater than even many hardened anticommunists suspected, and that Soviet infiltration of Western governments was quite aggressive.

Everything need not be classified as a dystopia in order to see evil in the world. Just as Dante illustrated that the punishments of Hell are proportionate to the gravity of sin, so the evils of the world need not be made equivalent to be real. There is not just one setting for “bad,” but a spectrum.

Moreover, this world is fallen, so it is by nature flawed. It is not capable of perfection. That is the real lesson of dystopia: attempts to create a perfect society are doomed—not just to failure, but to possible horrible success. The utopian visions that animate real places like North Korea and Nazi Germany, or imaginary places like Huxley’s World State or Orwell’s Oceania, seek to remake humanity and society in someone’s image—and that is not the image of the Creator. The results will be terrible.

Dystopia is not the only bad situation that humans need to avoid, however. The ancients taught that tyranny is the worst regime, for example, because it made everyone—including the tyrant—slaves to the passions of the ruler. It is certainly possible to suffer under a tyrant who has no utopian aspirations, only the desire to rule and not to be challenged. Saddam’s Iraq need not have been a dystopia to be a scary place to live. The ancients also taught that a number of other situations were bad, including oligarchy and mob rule. Not all gradations of evil are the same.

Overstating one’s case—whether against Donald Trump, the bicoastal socialists of the left, or a dictator—does not advance the cause of human flourishing. Does anyone really think that American politics is better today because it has become a Manichean battle between the forces of light (us) and darkness (them)? The triumph of one’s opponents is likely bad enough without claiming that dystopia has arrived, and attempts to find workable compromises and solutions to real problems are likely doomed in the face of dystopian rhetoric.

It is important to keep dystopia in its place, and in perspective. There are and have been real dystopias in the world, and imaginary ones help illustrate how utopian visions can endanger decent regimes and communities. Not every call for a border wall or “Medicare for all” is dystopian; one (or the other) may be a stupid idea, but it is not summoning 1984.  

Ryan J. Barilleaux is a professor of political science at Miami University of Ohio.