Are We Living in a Dystopia?

State police officers during a “Reopen Virginia” rally around Capitol Square in Richmond on April 22, 2020.
Getty/Ryan M. Kelly / AFP

Shauna Shames, Rutgers University and Amy Atchison, Valparaiso University

Dystopian fiction is hot. Sales of George Orwell’s “1984” and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” have skyrocketed since 2016. Young adult dystopias – for example, Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games,” Veronica Roth’s “Divergent,” Lois Lowry’s classic, “The Giver” – were best-sellers even before.

And with COVID-19, dystopias featuring diseases have taken on new life. Netflix reports a spike in popularity for “Outbreak,” “12 Monkeys” and others.

Does this popularity signal that people think they live in a dystopia now? Haunting images of empty city squares, wild animals roaming streets and miles-long food pantry lines certainly suggest this.

We want to offer another view. “Dystopia” is a powerful but overused term. It is not a synonym for a terrible time.

The question for us as political scientists is not whether things are bad (they are), but how governments act. A government’s poor handling of a crisis, while maddening and sometimes disastrous, does not constitute dystopia.

Today’s empty city streets capture the feeling of a dystopian time.
Getty/Roy Rochlin

Legitimate coercion

As we argue in our book, “Survive and Resist: the Definitive Guide to Dystopian Politics,” the definition of dystopia is political.

Dystopia is not a real place; it is a warning, usually about something bad the government is doing or something good it is failing to do. Actual dystopias are fictional, but real-life governments can be “dystopian” – as in, looking a lot like the fiction.

Defining a dystopia starts with establishing the characteristics of good governance. A good government protects its citizens in a noncoercive way. It is the body best positioned to prepare for and guard against natural and human-made horrors.

Good governments use what’s called “legitimate coercion,” legal force to which citizens agree to keep order and provide services like roads, schools and national security. Think of legitimate coercion as your willingness to stop at a red light, knowing it’s better for you and others in the long run.

No government is perfect, but there are ways of judging the imperfection. Good governments (those least imperfect) include a strong core of democratic elements to check the powerful and create accountability. They also include constitutional and judicial measures to check the power of the majority. This setup acknowledges the need for government but evidences healthy skepticism of giving too much power to any one person or body.

Federalism, the division of power between national and subnational governments, is a further check. It has proved useful lately, with state governors and mayors emerging as strong political players during COVID-19.

Three kinds of dystopias

Bad governments lack checks and balances, and rule in the interest of the rulers rather than the people. Citizens can’t participate in their own governance. But dystopian governments are a special kind of bad; they use illegitimate coercion like force, threats and the “disappearing” of dissidents to stay in power.

Our book catalogs three major dystopia types, based on the presence – or absence – of a functioning state and how much power it has.

There are, as in Orwell’s “1984,” overly powerful governments that infringe on individual lives and liberties. These are authoritarian states, run by dictators or powerful groups, like a single party or corporate-governance entity. Examples of these governments abound, including Assad’s murderously repressive regime in Syria and the silencing of dissent and journalism in Russia.

The great danger of these is, as our country’s Founding Fathers knew quite well, too much power on the part of any one person or group limits the options and autonomy of the masses.

Then there are dystopic states that seem nonauthoritarian but still take away basic human rights through market forces; we call these “capitocracies.” Individual workers and consumers are often exploited by the political-industrial complex, and the environment and other public goods suffer. A great fictional example is Wall-E by Pixar (2008), in which the U.S. president is also CEO of “Buy ‘N Large,” a multinational corporation controlling the economy.

There are not perfect real-life examples of this, but elements are visible in the chaebolfamily business – power in South Korea, and in various manifestations of corporate political power in the U.S, including deregulation, corporate personhood status and big-company bailouts.

Lastly there are state-of-nature dystopias, usually resulting from the collapse of a failed government. The resulting territory reverts to a primitive feudalism, ungoverned except for small tribal-held fiefdoms where individual dictators rule with impunity. The Citadel versus Gastown in the stunning 2015 movie “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a good fictional depiction. A real-life example was seen in the once barely governed Somalia, where, for almost 20 years until 2012, as a U.N. official described it, “armed warlords (were) fighting each other on a clan basis.”

Fiction best describes dystopia – as in this reference to the landmark dystopian novel, ‘1984,’ by George Orwell.
Getty/Schöning/ullstein bild

Fiction and real life

Indeed, political dystopia is often easier to see using the lens of fiction, which exaggerates behaviors, trends and patterns to make them more visible.

But behind the fiction there is always a real-world correlate. Orwell had Stalin, Franco and Hitler very much in mind when writing “1984.”

Atwood, whom literary critics call the “prophet of dystopia,” recently defined dystopia as when “[W]arlords and demagogues take over, some people forget that all people are people, enemies are created, vilified and dehumanized, minorities are persecuted, and human rights as such are shoved to the wall.”

Some of this may be, as Atwood added, the “cusp of where we are living now.”

But the U.S. is not a dystopia. It still has functioning democratic institutions. Many in the U.S. fight against dehumanization and persecution of minorities. Courts are adjudicating cases. Legislatures are passing bills. Congress has not adjourned, nor has the fundamental right of habeas corpus – the protection against illegal detention by the state – (yet) been suspended.

Crisis as opportunity

And still. One frequent warning is that a major crisis can cover for the rolling back of democracy and curtailing of freedoms. In Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a medical crisis is the pretext for suspending the Constitution.

In real life, too, crises facilitate authoritarian backsliding. In Hungary the pandemic has sped democracy’s unraveling. The legislature gave strongman Prime Minister Viktor Orban the power to rule by sole decree indefinitely, the lower courts are suspended and free speech is restricted.

Similar dangers exist in any number of countries where democratic institutions are frayed or fragile; leaders with authoritarian tendencies may be tempted to leverage the crisis to consolidate power.

But there are also positive signs for democracy.

A sign ‘We are in this together’ is written in chalk on the sidewalk in front of NYU Langone Medical Center during the coronavirus pandemic on April 22, 2020 in New York City.
Getty/John Lamparski

People are coming together in ways that didn’t seem possible just a few months ago. This social capital is an important element in a democracy.

Ordinary people are performing incredible acts of kindness and generosity – from shopping for neighbors to serenading residents at a nursing home to a mass movement to sew facemasks.

In politics, Wisconsin primary voters risked their lives to exercise their right to vote during the height of the pandemic. Citizens and civil society are pushing federal and state governments to ensure election safety and integrity in the remaining primaries and the November election.

Despite the eerie silence in public spaces, despite the preventable deaths that should weigh heavily on the consciences of public officials, even despite the authoritarian tendencies of too many leaders, the U.S. is not a dystopia – yet.

Overuse clouds the word’s meaning. Fictional dystopias warn of preventable futures; those warnings can help avert the actual demise of democracy.

[Get facts about coronavirus and the latest research. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter.]The Conversation

Shauna Shames, Associate Professor, Rutgers University and Amy Atchison, Associate Professor of Political Science & International Relations, Valparaiso University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We Need Better End Time Stories

By Teka Lark (March 16, 2020)

So I’ll be spending this time off writing manifestos because I do that.

Writing essays, finishing my book, doing yoga, planting seeds. I feel like we need a new narrative for what happens when this all ends. THIS Is horrible: capitalism, poverty, racism, sexism, nationalism, people being mean as entertainment. This is horrible. This bad party ending is not bad, I already feel sick (figuratively of course).

But you know capitalism, imperialism creates all this fiction that makes it seem like if this horrible thing ends that more horrible things await. I think that is bullshit. I’m writing a better second part of this story, so we don’t all have to use Walking Dead, Lord of the Flies, Nineteen Eighty Four, A Scanner Darkly—besides those stories were warnings, not guides.

If this ends, and we end up eating each other, that means we didn’t really understand the point of many of those dystopian novels.



Handmaid’s Tale Inoculates Viewers from Responsibility for Real Atrocities

By Rachel Wagner (November 18, 2019)

The Haidmaid’s Tale television series producer Warren Littlefield says that Offred’s story “presents a chilling vision into an increasingly likely potential future.”

I suggest that this insistence on relevance is more indicative of a desire to *be* predictive, to believe that media like The Handmaid’s Tale can tell us something about the world and where it is headed—that order is possible. We want prediction. The more uncanny The Handmaid’s Tale seems, the easier it is to believe a television show will help us out of this mess. That it conveniently inoculates viewers from responsibility for the atrocities it references is part of its intense appeal.

The prophecy is parochial: it is for Americans, but only some Americans. It is about localized fear, not about heightening awareness about suffering around the world. It’s about how totalitarianism may come home to roost—not about the ways that Americans may have ignored it or allowed it to take root elsewhere. It’s about how painful it would *be* to become enslaved, not about the legacy of American slavery and its impact on people living right now. It’s about white guilt, but unattractively translated into a kind of performative ritual of vicarious suffering, made all the easier for being sanitized within the screen and only enacted in the safety of clumsily crafted red dresses that signal an incomplete kind of “wokeness.” It’s the “me” generation seeing the only way to process guilt as a spectacle of re-enactment without responsibility for owning the original cause or ongoing pain of the actual victims right around us.

The kind of thrill that Atwood and her crew experience when they see the show as “predictive” or “realistic” is that they have successfully translated some of the pain so many are experiencing in the world today into a more palatable format that exchanges responsibility for trauma into performed victimization and requires, as a result, only “resistance” without any of the complexities of shared blame.

Dystopia Can Offer Caution But Utopia Brings Hope

By Joseph Orosco (November 5, 2018)

The folks at Futurism Studios feel that we have become too entranced by dystopian stories about technology and political developments.  These stories can be good as tales of caution, they say, but too much can nurture cynicism and nihilism.  We need utopian stories to offer us hope:

“So fiction — of the dystopian and optimistic varieties — both have their value. Dystopian stories can be a powerful motivator for societies headed down the wrong path to right themselves. In the same way, utopian fiction illuminates a possible right way forward — the ones that lead to the kind of society we all wanted in the first place.”

They’ve produced a series of short videos that explore how technology might improve our futures rather than mutilate them.

Check them out here.

The Utopiyin Imagination: Moving Forward Toward a Better World with Ursula Le Guin

By Joseph Orosco (July 12, 2017)

Espen Hammer argues in the New York Times that we need to revive the utopian imagination in this era, fascinated by dystopian themes:

“There are reasons, however, to think that a fully modern society cannot do without a utopian consciousness. To be modern is to be oriented toward the future. It is to be open to change even radical change, when called for. With its willingness to ride roughshod over all established certainties and ways of life, classical utopianism was too grandiose, too rationalist and ultimately too cold. We need the ability to look beyond the present. But we also need More’s insistence on playfulness. Once utopias are embodied in ideologies, they become dangerous and even deadly. So why not think of them as thought experiments? They point us in a certain direction. They may even provide some kind of purpose to our strivings as citizens and political beings”.

Hammer offers some categories of utopia as a way to understand how this kind of imagination has operated in the past and what is no longer a viable way to envision alternative futures.

The first is the Utopia of Desire (a world in which all needs and desires are fulfilled). Hammer thinks that in our world of endless consumer consumption this kind of vision is not particularly motivating. The next is the Utopia of Technology ( a world in which technology provides the means to solve all of humanity’s pressing problems). This kind of utopia is not inspiring any longer in a world that recognizes the dangers of technological innovation, such as nuclear destruction. Finally, there is the Utopia of Justice (a world in which all social injustice is removed). Hammer thinks that no one can be convinced of this kind of vision in the aftermath of a totalitarian 20th century.

In the end, Hammer argues that the only kind of utopian vision that can really capture our imagination and move us to act is a Utopia of Nature:

“In my view, only one candidate is today left standing. That candidate is nature and the relation we have to it. More’s island was an earthly paradise of plenty. No amount of human intervention would ever exhaust its resources. We know better. As the climate is rapidly changing and the species extinction rate reaches unprecedented levels, we desperately need to conceive of alternative ways of inhabiting the planet.”

(Kim Stanley Robinson’s most recent novels that envision how humanity might flourish in a world forever changed by climate change seem to be along the lines of what Hammer might be calling for.)

But there is something especially fatalistic in Hammer’s discussion about the dimensions of the utopian imagination today. No doubt we have to think about alternative ways of living with nature. But Hammer accepts the myth of scarcity—we have to learn how to do things differently now because there is just not enough to go around. At least from a social ecologist standpoint, this is a flawed assumption. It’s not that nature is limited, it’s that some have more than is fair because of an economic system, global capitalism, that privileges hierarchy and domination. An ecological society can only be built, Murray Bookchin reminds us, by re-imagining political and economic structures:

“Social ecology is based on the conviction that nearly all of our present ecological problems originate in deep-seated social problems. It follows, from this view, that these ecological problems cannot be understood, let alone solved, without a careful understanding of our existing society and the irrationalities that dominate it. To make this point more concrete: economic, ethnic, cultural, and gender conflicts, among many others, lie at the core of the most serious ecological dislocations we face today—apart, to be sure, from those that are produced by natural catastrophes”

In other words, what we still need (and perhaps more than ever) are Utopias of Justice that involve deep and nuanced conceptions of justice. But how can we resuscitate this tradition of utopian thinking?

Here, it might be more useful to think along the with Ursula Le Guin in terms of Utopiyin and Utopiyang. The Yin-Yang dynamic is something that has influenced her work for years. She understands it this way: “Yang is male, bright, dry, hard, active, penetrating. Yin is female, dark, wet, easy, receptive, containing. Yang is control, yin acceptance. They are great and equal powers; neither can exist alone, and each is always in process of becoming the other.”

Le Guin thinks our dystopian era has focused mostly on picturing Yang worlds in which Yin is severely restricted or even eliminated: she has Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty Four in mind. Yin dystopias are represented our fascination with the zombie apocalypse or Octavia Butler’s Parable trilogy: “popular visions of social breakdown, total loss of control—chaos and old night”.

Thus, what Hammer seems to object to in rejecting the Utopia of Justice and Technology are actually Yang tinged visions that emphasize control over institutions and machinery eventually seeping into political control of some over the many.

Le Guin seems to tell us that what we need is a radical utopian imagination that provokes us to think of a just world in Yin terms—a Utopiyin:

“My guess is that the kind of thinking we are, at last, beginning to do about how to change the goals of human domination and unlimited growth to those of human adaptability and long term survival is a shift from yang to yin, and so involves acceptance of impermanence and imperfection, a patience with uncertainty and the makeshift, a friendship with water, darkness, and the earth”.

Any suggestions of works that operate in a Utopiyin imagination?






Forget Orwell: Fight Club is the Novel to Make Sense of Life Under Trump

By Joseph Orosco (February 7, 2017)


Sales of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four are booming across the country and websites are publishing lists of dystopian literature that might help to make sense of life under the Trump administration.

Eliana Johnson and Eli Stokols have provided us with what might be called the Bannon syllabus–a guide to the works that seem to underly the worldview of Trump’s white nationalist advisor Steve Bannon.  They suggest that the works that seem to motivate his political ideology are ones that harbor a dark apocalyptic vision of a world in need of deep shock therapy to shake off a delusion of superficial satisfaction created by out of touch beauracratic elites:

“Bannon’s readings tend to have one thing in common: the view that technocrats have put Western civilization on a downward trajectory and that only a shock to the system can reverse its decline. And they tend to have a dark, apocalyptic tone that at times echoes Bannon’s own public remarks over the years—a sense that humanity is at a hinge point in history.”

If this is the reactionary imagination that lies underneath Trumpism–a need to shock and dismantle layers of technocratic and elite ideology that prevent genuine and authentic progress and social evolution–then it seems to me that the best story to make sense of our political moment is not the one of Winston Smith’s resistance against The Party, but the one of the white, neurotic, middle class Narrator who changes his life by transforming in Tyler Durden:  Chuck Palahniuks’ Fight Club.

Fight Club, of course, is the story of a nameless Narrator who feels trapped by the American capitalist dream of forever working to achieve middle class success and prosperity. He yearns for living an life of authentic (heterosexual) manhood.  He finds this in the underground world of fight club: a space in which men gather to unleash punishing violence on one another, expressing the dominance they are denied in real life and in their relationships with women.  They soon decide to take their ideas and turn them from a mere lifestyle choice into an alternative political movement (defined by an anti-corporate and anti-materialist stance) which they call Project Mayhem.  The 1999 movie version of Fight Club ends with the group enacting a terrorist bombing of the global financial system, erasing the records of debt held by individuals, and potentially releasing all of us from the grips of the parasitic bankers to begin reconstructing our lives.

I’ve always found it interesting how popular this novel is with the many of the young white men I’ve taught over the years, particularly those attracted to right libertarian philosophies.  But reading a little bit of the ideas that fascinate Steve Bannon, its seems to be that Fight Club might be the work we want to look to understand how, all of a sudden, the rage and anger of the neo Nazi (alt right) movement crept up and captured the fascination of so many Americans enough to vote for Trump.  It may also explain the eagerness of the Trump administration to dismantle so many of the government programs that we have come to take for granted in modern life.




Finding Hope in Dystopia: Children of Men

By Joseph Orosco (January 27, 2017)

This academic term, the Anarres Project for Alternative Futures teamed up with the Allied Studies for Another Politics! and the Spring Creek Project to host a film and discussion series called “Finding Hope in Dystopia”.  The idea behind the series was to create a space for discussion about how to find hope for transformative social change in times of social and political despair.  We wanted to see how characters in dystopic films find the strength and motivation to resist and fight back against the all the different kinds of forces of oppression that can be imagined.  We tried to choose films that present dystopias with worlds that extend trends in our present society to their utmost breaking point.

The first film we chose is Children of Men from 2006.  There has been a lot written about this film lately and its relevance to our world today.  I just wanted to highlight some of the points that came out from our discussion after the film.



Echoes of Today:

It captured very well the hostility to immigrants found in the US and in Europe and how easy it is to normalize their surveillance and imprisonment (the cages on sidewalks a metaphor for detention centers in urban areas)


The detachment of the upper middle classes to a declining world around them, sheltered from the reality of decay with nostalgic bits of high culture, escapist technology, and deadening drugs.children-of-men

The infertility crisis as a metaphor for the effects of climate change;  knowing that the world is dying and people still just going about their everyday lives, jobs, families, as if they still had a tomorrow to plan for.  Denial as a coping strategy for despair that can get in the way of making transformative social change.


Sources for Hope:

The film suggested that its important not to put hope in organized vanguards offering salvation.


Change happens through the trust and cooperation of ordinary people.


It’s important to find and build places of refuge and sanctuary among friends, family, and comrades in the midst of dystopia–to share memories, stories, food, and music.



It appears that Strawberry Cough will soon make its appearance at dispensaries in the area.cane

On the Relevance of Orwell’s ‘1984’

By Joseph Orosco

In the Spring term of 2014, I offered a course titled, “Nineteen Eighty Four and Social Justice.”  This timing put the class at three decades after the year 1984; the class itself took place during the months of April, May, and June — approximately the season of the events of the novel.

(Click the title to read more)

Continue reading “On the Relevance of Orwell’s ‘1984’”