Alberto Mingardi  

Left wing parents and right wing dystopias

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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.

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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Daniel Kuehn writes:

If Morrisson thinks the antagonists of The Giver and The Hunger Games are left wing liberals, then he's doing left wing liberalism wrong.

Tom West writes:

I'd argue that YA's are inherently going to lean Libertarian. If the structure of authority is actually working reasonably well, then you simply don't have a story.

After all (and generalizing horribly), the protagonist of a YA is generally a young person who must do something they're not being qualified or allowed to do, which means the proper structure of authority, be it government or family, has in some way failed.

NZ writes:

@Tom West:

I think that's generally but not necessarily true.

Plenty of popular-but-forgettable YA fiction is borne out of the concept of a young person who makes himself stand out by being an exceptionally good enforcer of the prevailing authority structure, perhaps coming of age or discovering noble heritage in the process.

MG writes:

For many like Morrison, YA literature (and films) would be problematic even if the antagonists were not universally agreed to be left-wing liberals, so far as the protagonists and their quests were generally agreed not to be collectivist.

Andrew_FL writes:

Perhaps literature of today seems more libertarian because the counterpoint of the corporate dystopia has started to fall out of fashion?

It would make sense, the modern corporation is not much like that of yesteryear, after all.

It would be surprised though, that the observation was anything other than "more apparent than real." I can't cite statistics but I don't get the sense that fiction has had a severe shortage of corporate dystopias in recent years.

JKB writes:

Tom West,

That is pretty much why all the Disney movies start out with a dead parent or parents.

N. writes:

Gibson was always -- perhaps primarily -- interested in increasing inequality between haves and have-nots. The quintessential Gibsonian moment, which occurs somewhere in every single one of his books, is the instant where:

...she stared directly into those soft blue eyes and knew, with an instinctive mammalian certainty, that the exceedingly rich were no longer even remotely human.

That said, I find Morrison's suggestion execrable and I hope his children find the moral courage to rebel... just like the protagonists in those YA novels he hopes to suppress!

Hazel Meade writes:

One of my favorite dytopian novels is "We" by Yevgheny Zamyatin, written in Russia in 1918, shortly after the Bolshevik revolution.

Favorite quote:
"That ancient legend about paradise... it, you see, was about us, about now. Yes! Think about that! Those two in paradise stood before a choice: Happiness without freedom or freedom without happiness; a third choice wasn't given. They, the blockheads, they chose freedom --and then what? Understandably, for centuries, they longed for fetters. For fetters--you understand: That was the cause of world sorrow. For centuries! Until we figured out how to return to happiness again. No, wait, wait, listen! We and the ancient God are side by side, at the same table. Yes! We have helped God to conquer the devil definitively-- It was this devil, you know, who urged people to violate what was forbidden and take a bite of that fatal freedom; he was the malicious snake. But our boot: on his head--Crrunch! and there: paradise is restored. Again we are simple-hearted innocents, like Adam and Eve."

Moebius Street writes:

@N - I don't recall the inequality theme at all from my reading of Gibson, although it has been some years.

In fact (SPOILER ALERT) you'll recall that the final climax of the Neuromancer series was the revelation that the entity that had been pushing around the chess pieces through the whole thing was really an AI.

So it wasn't about becoming rich and losing one's humanity at all. And I think one could make a pretty good argument that it was the cyberpunks, with all of their augmentation, that were the ones becoming less human.

Troy writes:

Two points of interest:

* Morrison demonstrates the movement of the Left from revolutionaries struggling against established governments to wholehearted allies of expansive governments is complete. That the fictional big oppressive governments are assumed to be representations of the Left is revealing. It's this shift by the Left, not a shift by authors, that has shifted the default antagonist in dystopian fiction.

* The comments below the article discussing whether the paternalistic owner of all property and enforcer of planned economic and social systems is a government or a monopolistic corporation betray an almost comical lack of self awareness. I don't think PK Dick would have recognised any distinction.

Hazel Meade writes:

Very good point. At some point in the last 10 years, much of the left stopped seeing "the system" as the enemy, and started arguing that obedience to a democratically elected authority was a moral and civic duty. It pops up in everything from "You didn't build that", to Bill DeBlasio's statements that Democracy means doing what the police tell you to do. You even see it in the ACA supporters insistence that "the debate is over" and that there is something traitorous about opposing the insurance mandate or taxes in general. Obedience to the system is now obedience to THEIR system.

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