Left wing parents and right wing dystopias
By Alberto Mingardi
You can’t make this stuff up. Author and screenwriter Ewan Morrisson writes in the Guardian that
If you see yourself as a left-leaning progressive parent, you might want to exercise some of that oppressive parental control and limit your kids exposure to the “freedom” expressed in YA dystopian fiction.
Morrisson is thinking of blockbusters such as “The Giver” or “Hunger Games”. Like Harry Potter before them, these movies have been a gateway to novels for teen agers.
Morrisson’s friend apparently rejoiced at his children moving on to dystopian novels from “the Harry Potter cult that had been filling children’s heads with right-wing dreams of public schools and supernatural powers”. But not so fast. For these dystopian novels and movies are, all in all, “a huge indictment of the history of the left and a promotion of the right. Which is pretty cunning for a bunch of books for kids”.
I confess I haven’t read “The Giver” and I found “Hunger Games” rather boring. But what I find interesting is that Morrisson believes his friend, the one who rejoiced at his kids abandoning Harry Potter, “was projecting from his fond memories of the dystopian novels and films of his own childhood, from the free-market-will-bring-hell-on earth period of speculative fiction.” Is it the case that dystopian novels just now turned predominantly libertarian, whereas they were typically used to provide readers with a caveat on the future of commercial societies?
Morrisson names H.G. Wells, William Gibson (“championed by the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson”) and Philip K. Dick. Wells’s “The Sleeper Awakes” may be an example of what Morrisson had in mind. Though Wells was quite successful as a serial author for the masses, he championed the idea of economic planning versus impersonal and anarchistic “commercialism”, and was indeed an arch-champion of socialism. For Wells and economics, I recommend this wonderful article by Paul Cantor.
In “The Sleeper Awakes”, Wells casts in the remote future a sort of Marxist revolution, with proletarians eventually breaking the chains of capitalism – with the support of the world’s richest man, by the way, a Victorian who slept so long that the power of compound interest made him amazingly wealthy. Gibson certainly feared corporations ruling the world, and there is an element of that, frequently, in Dick’s too – though not much in his most famous dystopian novel, “The Man in the High Castle”.
However, I find rather bizarre the idea that
What marks these dystopias out from previous ones is that, almost without exception, the bad guys are not the corporations but the state and those well-meaning liberal leftists who want to make the world a better place.
The “bad guys” were not, typically, corporations in older dystopian novels either.
Sure Ayn Rand’s “Anthem” has been in the libertarian canon for quite a while, but she is certainly not alone in using the means of fiction to alert people against oppressive statism.
Think about George Orwell’s 1984. Few will dispute that Orwell belongs to the literary left, so to say, but what he feared was the emergence of the surveillance state. Zamyatin’s “We” certainly shows a kind of preoccupation with that “rational management of production” typically associated with fordism, but he is even more worried by the ambition of top-down planning in society. Neither Orwell nor Zamyatin can be dismissed either as libertarian cheerleaders, or “right wing” by any standard.
Morrisson kindly acknowledges that
there is not some secret underground bunker filled with a Bilderberg-group-type-fraternity of neoliberals & neocons dictating what Young Adult authors write and neither is there a conspiracy among right-wing media moguls to implant reactionary messages through the mass media into the minds of the young and impressionable.
He just seems to believe this is “one of those zeitgeist moments where the subconscious of a culture emerges into visibility”.
An alternative hypothesis is that dystopian novels are, by definition, stories in which those very elements that in some intellectual construction work as pillars of utopia, are shown in their degeneration, as instruments of enslavement. This is neither “right wing” or “left wing”, but since most utopias are conceived upon the notion that government can make people better (equal, happier, et cetera), most dystopias tend to show that, by attempting to make people better (equal, happier, et cetera) you may end up with despotism and misery.
Of course, one may argue that dreams of utopia are somehow “intrinsically” bounded with the socialist discourse. If so, however, I am afraid they have a bigger problem than “The Giver” or “Hunger Games” becoming so fashionable.