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Utopia or Dystopia? Politics of Dystopian Fiction

The politics of a text are integral to understanding its motives.

The Iron Heel

Jack London’s The Iron Heel is overt socialist manifesto borne out of 20th century capitalist and industrial domination over communities in 1900s America. In an environment of exploitation, London sought to address the poverty and mass oppression of the working classes, advocating the redistribution of wealth and implementation of socialist structures. He was heavily influenced by the works of Marx and the Socialist Worker.

From a literary perspective, London assembles his text using double-framing and structures his dystopia with footnotes in order to adopt a historical and credible style. London constructs a revolution that has already happened, aiming to conceptualise American socialism in the minds of his readers, as not only feasible, but eventually inevitable. Spoken through commentary from the future, historian Antony Meredith describes the cycle of society as though it had already happened, “Primitive communism, chattel slavery, serf slavery amd wage slavery were necessary stepping-stones in the evolution of society”. He speaks with authority and certainty because it had already happened, “Socialism would come.” This narration by fictional academic Antony Meredith imply a level of critical credibility to the text, by suggesting such revolutionary contents is worthy of such sociopolitical commentary in the first place. In acknowledging “errors of perspective…and a bias of love.”, the novel (despite being fictional) seeks to legitimise itself as a pseudo-historical artefact in the minds of readers, and convince them that, contrary to popular belief, texts about socialist revolution are of “inestimable value.”

Theorist Paul Stein understands London’s use of fiction, not only for dystopian projection, but as a form of political proposal in his essay ‘Art As Manifesto.’ Here, Stein responds to criticism of the text as reductive and dogmatic, and overall lacking in artistic merit.

The text is often criticised as having “clearly labelled one-dimensional characters”, namely the protagonist Ernest Everhard who appears a “superman, a blond beast, aflame with democracy”; his only purpose, as indicated by his name, to be ‘ever hard’, ever correct, ever noble, an ‘iron man’ to battle the Iron Heel. Stein concludes “As psychological portraits [the characters] fall flat, and a consequence the novel may be dismissed as a didactic exercise.”

Further evidence of London’s novel showing weakness as a unique, original text are found elsewhere: Baskett’s article cites the plagiarism of the magazine The Socialist Worker in London’s text. It illuminates the extract in the novel that shows the hypocritical silence of the Church during the exploitation of the proletariat class during the Industrial Revolution. The arguments expressed in The Socialist Worker that the “Church never had the proletariat” are echoed almost word-for-word in the novel. Overlooking this as an artistic deficit, London’s duplication from The Socialist Worker suggests that rather than perceiving his fiction as a form as art that should be original and expressive, his work should reiterate existing political arguments and messages as part of a social movement to encourage change, and even revolution.

Leon Trotsky’s review of the text concludes that “the form of the novel represents only an armor for social analysis and prognosis. The author is intentionally sparing in his use of artistic means. He is himself interested not so much in the individual fates on his heroes as in the fate of mankind.” Despite its flaws, praises the “audacity and independence of its historical foresight.” Stein defends the claims by Engels that the text was merely “overt didacticism and exposition from the literary artist”, concluding that the novel “succeeds in projecting in Marxist political terms a gripping view of future possibilities.” He argues that the political message is deliberately prioritised over the character and plot development; London’s implementation of dystopia was to form a political and historical piece rather than a popular bestseller.

While Bradbury avoids overtly political dogma, it cannot be denied that his is a political text. Fahrenheit 451 depicts a hedonistic society free of intellectual thought, cares or concerns. Beatty explains that “…” However, Bradbury presents this society as reducing its citizens to an unthinking, unquestioning populace bribed into submission with a bombardment of entertainment, reminiscent of Juvenal’s “bread and circuses”. [His perspective was technophobic and right-wing]

The Circle

The Circle’s creator, Ty describes the politics of the Circle corporation as “infocommunism… paired with ruthless capitalism” The Circle corporation propagates the almost-socialist sharing of personal information through social media, while financially exploiting the information and monopolises the market. The company enforces a system that has dangerous effects for democratic values and processes.

“Stenton professionalized our idealism, monetized our utopia. He’s the one who saw the connection between our work and politics, and between politics and control. Public-private leads to private-private, and soon you have the Circle running most or even all government services, with…an insatiable appetite. Everyone becomes a citizen of the Circle.”

The Circle shares a similar anti-centralisation philosophy to The Iron Heel, as it demonstrates the effects of corporate monopoly on democracy.

It is important to note the advocated utopia of The Iron Heel, is similar to the dystopia of The Circle. Similarly, the advocated utopia of intellectualism is also similar to the dystopia of The Circle. While none of these effects come to fruition in The Circle, it is the potentiality for the kind of exploitation apparent in The Iron Heel that haunts The Circle.

In American dystopia, many societies impersonate political utopia, but are later exposed as fundamentally anti-utopian. Alternatively, as expressed in the introduction, a society may be interpreted as both utopian and dystopian. For London, influenced by Industrial Revolution and subsequent socialist movements, capitalism is his dystopian vision, synonymous with exploitation, poverty and war. However. the controlling elite propose that capitalism is natural, fair and democratic. Police state to enforce control over the unruly.

The Circle provides perhaps the most convincing utopian argument. Their systems emphasise complete equality, human advancement and social betterment. The centralisation of resources enables public services to all with “incredible private-sector efficiency”, eliminating physical impoverishment and illness prevalent in The Iron Heel. Many people would argue that the Circle provides a perfect society, with low crime rates, efficient health care, and high-quality education. Their ideology centres around information-utopianism, the notion that all information should be shared for the greater good. leads society open to exploitation and inequality. A further danger: one single totalitarian entity is controlling the flow of information. The danger of surrounding all data and information and destroying privacy. Additionally, true equality gives its citizens the freedom to choose their lifestyle. For example, Mercer’s utopia involves freedom of speech, privacy and rural living away from technology, an ideology that cannot co-exist with The Circle’s totalitarian rule.

Philosophy

The philosophical values provide insights into the changing outlooks of the times and their historical and political influences. Two central themes are important in discussing the political values of the texts: the first is information and intellectualism, the text’s perspective on the value of collective knowledge, and the second is equality, and the extent to which citizens have a right to equal treatment.

The Iron Heel is the only text that explicitly resists intellectualism. At the beginning of the text, Everhard lectures a room of clergymen at a dinner party about the limitations of what he calls “metaphysical thinking”, believing that such thinkers “dwell in a cosmos of his own making, created out of his own fancies and desires. You don’t know the real world you live in.” He sees over-intellectualist thinking as irrelevant in a society of material dystopia, of physical, real-world impoverishment. He argues that philosophers “declaimed about famine and pestilence while scientists were building granaries and draining cities.” He states that non-scientific philosophies can only lead to paralysis in the real world, whilst the thinker absents into their own mind. […]

Beatty states that in his society, “The word ‘intellectual’… became the swear word it deserved to be.”

Here, Bradbury elucidates the danger of Everhard’s way of perceiving the intellectual. Critical thinking is nearly eliminated through the destruction of literature and bombardment of visual media.

The modern texts do not disregard the merits of non-physical thinking, perhaps because, unlike The Iron Heel, the societies in Fahrenheit 451 and The Circle meet the physical needs of its citizens, for example, with futuristic healing technologies that both prevent and treat ailments. While citizens under The Iron Heel suffer from physical impoverishment, the later texts depict a spiritual and mental health dystopia. (discussed at greater length later in the essay).

Bradbury alludes to the importance of knowledge and intellectual freedom in his references to Plato’s Cave. James Filler expands upon the implication of the intertextuality in his essay ‘Ascending from the Ashes: Images of Plato in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451’.

His essay plots the allusions to Plato’s Cave through the different character’s philosophical and psychological level of development. In the book, reality is tied closely to intellectual experience. Montag’s wife Mildred occupies the lowest intellectual stage as she experiences reality through the “parlor”, the television show that she describes as her own “family.” These images embody the shadows in the Cave in Plato’s story, suggesting her lack of mental stimulation stunts her intellect, and therefore her relationships to externality and her quality of life. The spiritually-aware seventeen-year old who lives next-door to Montag, Clarisse is “like the eager watcher of the marionette show”, she finds reality in the physical objects. Clarisse’s mindfulness of the physical grounds her mindset, but she fails to understand reality from more than just the concrete surroundings.

The character who represents the most advanced level of Platonic development is Faber, who “talks the meaning of things” rather than the objects themselves. Whilst Clarisse is inductive and trusts reality at face value, Faber deduces conclusions from the unseen. In contrast to the sentiments of Everhard, the ability to question and critique the non-physical elevates Faber’s consciousness.

This essay identifies Guy’s Bildungsroman from viewing images, the shadows, to objects, the puppeteers, to ideas, the reality outside of Plato’s Cave. The text identifies the philosophy of Fahrenheit 451 — one that counters the maxim that ignorance is bliss — and argues that the route to true freedom and happiness can only arise from reason and knowledge. For Bradbury, intellectualism is closely intertwined with the value, quality and depth of reality experienced by humanity. Without critical thinking, the citizens in Bradbury’s society are confined by cultural ignorance and reduced to mere responders to exciting stimuli. .

While Fahrenheit 451 perceives intellectual knowledge as an escape from dystopia, and The Circle implies that the unrelenting pursuit of knowledge can pave a road towards a dystopia. The apparently noble philosophy of complete knowledge becomes an obsessive hoard of information. When citizens freey donate their information, governments are granted monopoly over knowledge and power to dominate collective consciousness. (This concept is to be further explored in the discussion of ideological control in Part 2)

Secondly, concepts about equality are key themes in the texts. In Fahrenheit 451, head fireman Beatty proposes equality through mediocrity, “We must all be alike…Each man the image of every other, then all are happy for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves.”

Everhard’s rhetoric about equality and fairness are somewhat shared with The Circle. Their values appear to follow a philosophy of Egalitarianism, the ideal that all citizens should be treated equally and fairly. Although they appear to share socialist values of equal rights and opportunities, the execution of these values should be noted, with the understanding the human values can and will be exploited by governing powers.

To conclude, while allowing society to project and follow current problem trajectories into the future, dystopian fiction gives the reader insight into the social anxieties of the past. When reading alongside historical material, dystopia allows the reader to identify with the worries and anxieties caused by historical events on an intimate, emotional standpoint rather than factual historical narratives.

Dystopian fiction can prove a useful tool in presenting current social problems to the public. In The Iron Heel, radical political ideologies were narrativised in order to make them accessible and conceivable to the masses. Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 defamiliarised issues with 1950s society, a non-threatening way of critiquing society, in order to provide comfortable critical distance for his audience. He adopted elements of the science fiction genre to create fantastical technologies that seemed alien, but provide illuminating metaphors for his audience, namely the telescreens and Mechanical Hound. Conversely, Dave Eggers’ The Circle is somewhat similar to the current world in order to allow the audience to empathise and visualise the very real dangers faced in a surveillance society.

In addition to historical insight, dystopia can also present problems with political ideologies, particularly with dogma that appears, at first, to be guided by humanitarian principles. Political doctrine can exploit philosophical concepts such as intellectualism and equality in order to legitimise excessive power. Specifically, such intellectual and ethical values are seemingly by both the villains and the heroes of the texts. The creators of the Circle, the Wise Men, appear to share the values of advancing humanity’s knowledge, along with Guy Montag, the protagonist of Fahrenheit 451. However, the distinction between the characters is in the utilisation of these values as means of power. In The Circle, the sharing of knowledge is enforced upon all citizens and thus monopolised and monetised by a centralised power. The opposite is true of Fahrenheit 451, in which the government enforces mass ignorance. Here, utopian philosophies are exploited by oppressive governments to meet political ends. Fahrenheit 451 prioritises a state of ignorance bliss over intellect and knowledge, whereas The Circle sacrifices the human rights of its citizens for the sake of collating every piece of known data, a dogma that eventually becomes destructive to humanity. Bradbury’s dystopia emerges due to a departure from, and the destruction of knowledge, whereas Egger’s dystopia is bourne from an uncompromising pursuit of collective knowledge (at the expense of values such as privacy.) Similarly, the philosophical values of equality, fairness and accountability are problematically shared by the oppressors of The Circle and the heroes of The Iron Heel: the difference emerges from the practical application of such values. In many cases, dystopia and utopia are fates that stand dangerously close together, it is merely perspective that distinguishes one from the other.

The Iron Heel

In addition to the historical influences discussed previously, the political advocacies must also be considered. Politically, Jack London’s The Iron Heel is overt socialist manifesto borne out of 20th century capitalist and industrial domination over communities in 1900s America. In an environment of exploitation, London sought to address the poverty and mass oppression of the working classes, advocating the redistribution of wealth and implementation of socialist structures. He was heavily influenced by the works of Marx and the Socialist Worker.

From a literary perspective, London assembles his text using double-framing and structures his dystopia with footnotes in order to adopt a historical and credible style. London constructs a revolution that has already happened, aiming to conceptualise American socialism in the minds of his readers, as not only feasible, but eventually inevitable. Spoken through commentary from the future, historian Antony Meredith describes the cycle of society as though it had already happened, “Primitive communism, chattel slavery, serf slavery amd wage slavery were necessary stepping-stones in the evolution of society”. He speaks with authority and certainty because it had already happened, “Socialism would come.” This narration by fictional academic Antony Meredith imply a level of critical credibility to the text, by suggesting such revolutionary contents is worthy of such sociopolitical commentary in the first place. In acknowledging “errors of perspective…and a bias of love.”, the novel (despite being fictional) seeks to legitimise itself as a pseudo-historical artefact in the minds of readers, and convince them that, contrary to popular belief, texts about socialist revolution are of “inestimable value.”

Theorist Paul Stein understands London’s use of fiction, not only for dystopian projection, but as a form of political proposal in his essay ‘Art As Manifesto.’ Here, Stein responds to criticism of the text as reductive and dogmatic, and overall lacking in artistic merit.

The text is often criticised as having “clearly labelled one-dimensional characters”, namely the protagonist Ernest Everhard who appears a “superman, a blond beast, aflame with democracy”; his only purpose, as indicated by his name, to be ‘ever hard’, ever correct, ever noble, an ‘iron man’ to battle the Iron Heel. Stein concludes “As psychological portraits [the characters] fall flat, and a consequence the novel may be dismissed as a didactic exercise.”

Further evidence of London’s novel showing weakness as a unique, original text are found elsewhere.

Baskett’s article cites the plagiarism of the magazine The Socialist Worker in London’s text. It illuminates the extract in the novel that shows the hypocritical silence of the Church during the exploitation of the proletariat class during the Industrial Revolution. The arguments expressed in The Socialist Worker that the “Church never had the proletariat” are echoed almost word-for-word in the novel. Overlooking this as an artistic deficit, London’s duplication from The Socialist Worker suggests that rather than perceiving his fiction as a form as art that should be original and expressive, his work should reiterate existing political arguments and messages as part of a social movement to encourage change, and even revolution.

Leon Trotsky’s review of the text concludes that “the form of the novel represents only an armor for social analysis and prognosis. The author is intentionally sparing in his use of artistic means. He is himself interested not so much in the individual fates on his heroes as in the fate of mankind.” Despite its flaws, praises the “audacity and independence of its historical foresight.” Stein defends the claims by Engels that the text was merely “overt didacticism and exposition from the literary artist”, concluding that the novel “succeeds in projecting in Marxist political terms a gripping view of future possibilities.” He argues that the political message is deliberately prioritised over the character and plot development; London’s implementation of dystopia was to form a political and historical piece rather than a popular bestseller.

While Bradbury avoids overtly political dogma, it cannot be denied that his is a political text. Fahrenheit 451 depicts a hedonistic society free of intellectual thought, cares or concerns. Beatty explains that “…” However, Bradbury presents this society as reducing its citizens to an unthinking, unquestioning populace bribed into submission with a bombardment of entertainment, reminiscent of Juvenal’s “bread and circuses”. [His perspective was technophobic and right-wing]

The Circle

The Circle’s creator, Ty describes the politics of the Circle corporation as “infocommunism… paired with ruthless capitalism” The Circle corporation propagates the almost-socialist sharing of personal information through social media, while financially exploiting the information and monopolises the market. The company enforces a system that has dangerous effects for democratic values and processes.

“Stenton professionalized our idealism, monetized our utopia. He’s the one who saw the connection between our work and politics, and between politics and control. Public-private leads to private-private, and soon you have the Circle running most or even all government services, with…an insatiable appetite. Everyone becomes a citizen of the Circle.”

The Circle shares a similar anti-centralisation philosophy to The Iron Heel, as it demonstrates the effects of corporate monopoly on democracy.

It is important to note the advocated utopia of The Iron Heel, is similar to the dystopia of The Circle. Similarly, the advocated utopia of intellectualism is also similar to the dystopia of The Circle. […]

While none of these effects come to fruition in The Circle, it is the potentiality for the kind of exploitation apparent in The Iron Heel that haunts The Circle.

In American dystopia, many societies impersonate political utopia, but are later exposed as fundamentally anti-utopian. Alternatively, as expressed in the introduction, a society may be interpreted as both utopian and dystopian. For London, influenced by Industrial Revolution and subsequent socialist movements, capitalism is his dystopian vision, synonymous with exploitation, poverty and war. However. the controlling elite propose that capitalism is natural, fair and democratic. Police state to enforce control over the unruly.

The Circle provides perhaps the most convincing utopian argument. Their systems emphasise complete equality, human advancement and social betterment. The centralisation of resources enables public services to all with “incredible private-sector efficiency”, eliminating physical impoverishment and illness prevalent in The Iron Heel. Many people would argue that the Circle provides a perfect society, with low crime rates, efficient health care, and high-quality education. Their ideology centres around information-utopianism, the notion that all information should be shared for the greater good. leads society open to exploitation and inequality. A further danger: one single totalitarian entity is controlling the flow of information. The danger of surrounding all data and information and destroying privacy. Additionally, true equality gives its citizens the freedom to choose their lifestyle. For example, Mercer’s utopia involves freedom of speech, privacy and rural living away from technology, an ideology that cannot co-exist with The Circle’s totalitarian rule.

Philosophy

The philosophical values provide insights into the changing outlooks of the times and their historical and political influences. Two central themes are important in discussing the philosophical values of the texts: the first is information and intellectualism, the text’s perspective on the value of collective knowledge, and the second is equality, and the extent to which citizens have a right to equal treatment.

The Iron Heel is the only text that explicitly resists intellectualism. At the beginning of the text, Everhard lectures a room of clergymen at a dinner party about the limitations of what he calls “metaphysical thinking”, believing that such thinkers “dwell in a cosmos of his own making, created out of his own fancies and desires. You don’t know the real world you live in.” He sees over-intellectualist thinking as irrelevant in a society of material dystopia, of physical, real-world impoverishment. He argues that philosophers “declaimed about famine and pestilence while scientists were building granaries and draining cities.” He states that non-scientific philosophies can only lead to paralysis in the real world, whilst the thinker absents into their own mind.

Beatty states that in his society, “The word ‘intellectual’… became the swear word it deserved to be.”

Here, Bradbury elucidates the danger of Everhard’s way of perceiving the intellectual. Critical thinking is nearly eliminated through the destruction of literature and bombardment of visual media.

The modern texts do not disregard the merits of non-physical thinking, perhaps because, unlike The Iron Heel, the societies in Fahrenheit 451 and The Circle meet the physical needs of its citizens, for example, with futuristic healing technologies that both prevent and treat ailments. While citizens under The Iron Heel suffer from physical impoverishment, the later texts depict a spiritual and mental health dystopia.

Bradbury alludes to the importance of knowledge and intellectual freedom in his references to Plato’s Cave. James Filler expands upon the implication of the intertextuality in his essay ‘Ascending from the Ashes: Images of Plato in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451’.

His essay plots the allusions to Plato’s Cave through the different character’s philosophical and psychological level of development. In the book, reality is tied closely to intellectual experience. Montag’s wife Mildred occupies the lowest intellectual stage as she experiences reality through the “parlor”, the television show that she describes as her own “family.” These images embody the shadows in the Cave in Plato’s story, suggesting her lack of mental stimulation stunts her intellect, and therefore her relationships to externality and her quality of life. The spiritually-aware seventeen-year old who lives next-door to Montag, Clarisse is “like the eager watcher of the marionette show”, she finds reality in the physical objects. Clarisse’s mindfulness of the physical grounds her mindset, but she fails to understand reality from more than just the concrete surroundings.

The character who represents the most advanced level of Platonic development is Faber, who “talks the meaning of things” rather than the objects themselves. Whilst Clarisse is inductive and trusts reality at face value, Faber deduces conclusions from the unseen. In contrast to the sentiments of Everhard, the ability to question and critique the non-physical elevates Faber’s consciousness.

This essay identifies Guy’s Bildungsroman from viewing images, the shadows, to objects, the puppeteers, to ideas, the reality outside of Plato’s Cave. The text identifies the philosophy of Fahrenheit 451 — one that counters the maxim that ignorance is bliss — and argues that the route to true freedom and happiness can only arise from reason and knowledge. For Bradbury, intellectualism is closely intertwined with the value, quality and depth of reality experienced by humanity. Without critical thinking, the citizens in Bradbury’s society are confined by cultural ignorance and reduced to mere responders to exciting stimuli.

While Fahrenheit 451 perceives intellectual knowledge as an escape from dystopia, and The Circle implies that the unrelenting pursuit of knowledge can pave a road towards a dystopia. The apparently noble philosophy of complete knowledge becomes an obsessive hoard of information. When citizens freey donate their information, governments are granted monopoly over knowledge and power to dominate collective consciousness.

Secondly, concepts about equality are key themes in the texts. In Fahrenheit 451, head fireman Beatty proposes equality through mediocrity, “We must all be alike…Each man the image of every other, then all are happy for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves.”

Everhard’s rhetoric about equality and fairness are somewhat shared with The Circle. Their values appear to follow a philosophy of Egalitarianism, the ideal that all citizens should be treated equally and fairly. Although they appear to share socialist values of equal rights and opportunities, the execution of these values should be noted, with the understanding the human values can and will be exploited by governing powers.

To conclude, while allowing society to project and follow current problem trajectories into the future, dystopian fiction gives the reader insight into the social anxieties of the past. When reading alongside historical material, dystopia allows the reader to identify with the worries and anxieties caused by historical events on an intimate, emotional standpoint rather than factual historical narratives.

Dystopian fiction can prove a useful tool in presenting current social problems to the public. In The Iron Heel, radical political ideologies were narrativised in order to make them accessible and conceivable to the masses. Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 defamiliarised issues with 1950s society, a non-threatening way of critiquing society, in order to provide comfortable critical distance for his audience. He adopted elements of the science fiction genre to create fantastical technologies that seemed alien, but provide illuminating metaphors for his audience, namely the telescreens and Mechanical Hound. Conversely, Dave Eggers’ The Circle is somewhat similar to the current world in order to allow the audience to empathise and visualise the very real dangers faced in a surveillance society.

Dystopia can also present problems with political ideologies, particularly with dogma that appears, at first, to be guided by humanitarian principles. Political doctrine can exploit philosophical concepts such as intellectualism and equality in order to legitimise excessive power. Specifically, such intellectual and ethical values are seemingly by both the villains and the heroes of the texts. The creators of the Circle, the Wise Men, appear to share the values of advancing humanity’s knowledge, along with Guy Montag, the protagonist of Fahrenheit 451. However, the distinction between the characters is in the utilisation of these values as means of power.

In The Circle, the sharing of knowledge is enforced upon all citizens and thus monopolised and monetised by a centralised power. The opposite is true of Fahrenheit 451, in which the government enforces mass ignorance. Here, utopian philosophies are exploited by oppressive governments to meet political ends. Fahrenheit 451 prioritises a state of ignorance bliss over intellect and knowledge, whereas The Circle sacrifices the human rights of its citizens for the sake of collating every piece of known data, a dogma that eventually becomes destructive to humanity. Bradbury’s dystopia emerges due to a departure from, and the destruction of knowledge, whereas Egger’s dystopia is bourne from an uncompromising pursuit of collective knowledge — at the expense of values such as privacy.

Similarly, the philosophical values of equality, fairness and accountability are problematically shared by the oppressors of The Circle and the heroes of The Iron Heel: the difference emerges from the practical application of such values. In many cases, dystopia and utopia are fates that stand dangerously close together, it is merely perspective that distinguishes one from the other.




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