The Eudaimonist: Dystopian Nonfiction

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The week before Swarthmore’s recent TEDx conference on “What Makes a Good Society,” another vision of society began promulgating around the country, in the form of the film The Hunger Games. On the off chance that you are unfamiliar with the plot, it is a story set in a dystopian future where a brutal, totalitarian government selects a young male and female from each of the twelve districts it controls to fight to the death on live television. It took just 17 days for the film to reach $300 million in domestic box office sales. And soon we will be treated to another highly anticipated dystopian film, the new remake of Total Recall.

Its seems our culture is fascinated with dystopian fiction. We have students read stories like The Giver, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Lord of the Flies, and Brave New World. Films and novels like Atlas Shrugged, A Clockwork Orange, The Handmaid’s Tale, V for Vendetta, and The Children of Men enjoy much popularity. I think this interest is a good thing; I believe the genre offers an entertaining and compelling means of inspiring thoughtful reflection, discussion and debate on our society’s goals and the methods and changes we propose to achieve them. Hopefully, they can help us to be prudent and careful in our decision-making so that our “utopian dreams (do not) turn into police-state nightmares.”

But what is a dystopia? Etymologically, it comes from the Greek roots dys-, meaning “bad, difficult” and topos,  meaning “place.” It is a bad place, typically characterized by the demoralization of the human spirit, widespread misery, malaise, and hopelessness – a place where people endure what we would consider to be superficial or unsatisfying lives stripped of meaning, a place where, as Thoreau would say, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” or, perhaps, ignored desperation.

What if such places are not limited to the fiction enjoyed by bourgeois culture, or history, or modern authoritarian political regimes? What if the modern world is a dystopia for citizens around the globe? What if, for example, the unregulated financial speculation that profits hedge funds and investment banks while helping drive up food prices for the poor, malnourished, and food insecure, is an exhibit of the real hunger games – the version our society would not offer its money or attention to? Could it be possible that future generations might read about our present world order and consider this a bad place?

If you would, please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you feel you stand at this time? On which step do you think you will stand about five years from now? If you rated your current life a 7 or higher and your life in five years an 8 or higher, you are considered to be thriving. If you rated your current life a 4 or lower and your life in five years a 4 or lower, you are considered to be suffering. I passionately hope that you are in thriving category.

This assessment, the Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale, represents an important component in people’s life satisfaction and overall subjective well-being, and every year Gallup polls people around the world for their responses. Unfortunately, what they find is that nearly three-fourths of the world’s population is not thriving. In fact, there are only 17 countries in the world in which majorities are thriving (the U.S., at 56 percent, ranks 13th).  Not only are most people not thriving, approximately 13.6 percent, or almost one in every seven adults across the 146 countries polled, are actually suffering. Even in the United States, as many as 12.5 million people (approximately the population of Pennsylvania) are suffering.

How does the world look through their eyes? Are the fears and anxieties we experience in those few hours when immersed in dystopian fiction a daily reality for these people? Admittedly, it can sometimes be quite difficult to obtain accurate beliefs about the feelings of others (fictional or real) when we project ourselves into their environments, because we inevitably compare their conditions and experiences to our own biased expectations and proclivities. But these are self-reported feelings about peoples’ lives, and 950 million individual human beings are finding their existence on this planet to be a quite unsatisfying experience. Nearly one million people every year find it so unbearable that they prefer not to live than to live here, and take their own lives. And it does not matter if they blame themselves, specific elements of their environment, or the world as a whole, lives come into being within environments and these environments likely wield an enormous amount of influence on subjective well-being (possibly accounting for as much as 50-75 percent of the existing variance). Thus any environment that has such widespread dissatisfaction and despair, in my opinion, should be considered a dystopia, especially if it has the means to alleviate these problems.

I think many of us consider dystopias to be artifacts of history, or intriguing settings for fictional tales. But dystopia is here and now for a substantial portion of the world’s population. When the thriving wake up every morning, we enter their dreams, when those suffering wake up every morning they enter our nightmares. We rightly fear dystopias; much of our political discourse revolves around preventing them, and we imagine how we would try to right the course if we lived in such a world. But we do live in a place where hundreds of millions of people, people just like you and I, are haunted by despair. It is not a place to be prevented – it already exists, so it is not a question of what we would do then but what we should do now. A perfect world may be impossible, yet surely we have the knowledge and the ability to make a better world, a better place. But, do we have the needed empathy? When we do, maybe the real dystopias will finally attract as much attention as the fictional ones.


  1. Seeing the modern society as a dystopia is the premise of John Nelson’s novel Against Nature. In the post-9/11 landscape America becomes ground-zero for a global pandemic. The nation’s present fistula of political disunity becomes cavernous in the wake of the new crisis. Much of our sins of the past decade come back to haunt us.

    I think in a great dystopia we should see the reflection of our society in the pages.

  2. Good article, Tommy.

    It always strikes me that both American liberals/conservatives use distopian fiction as a means of illustrating what can happen if the other side gets its way. Can both groups claim Orwell as their hero?

      • Ha. Very True. Should have said some of Orwell’s writings, because Orwell himself was probably only on the “right” so far as he was to the right of Lenin.

    • Thank you for your response!

      I don’t know why conservatives would want to claim Orwell as a hero, because he was democratic socialist- “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” Also, I disagree that democratic socialism to the right of Lenin. Democratic socialism is probably only outflanked on the left by a few other groups like libertarian socialists and anarcho-communists.Totalitarianism, like in the Soviet Union, is usually considered to be to the right of anarchism, libertarianism, or liberal democracy, because the left-right spectrum is often cast in terms of acceptance of hierarchy and authority.
      Orwell opposed totalitarianism, and capitalism is, in the eyes of many socialists, economic totalitarianism, the subjugation of workers to the interests of the private owners of the means of production. (That is not to say there haven’t been or can’t be totalitarian socialist systems, only that capitalism is necessarily totalitarian, in that it unduly constrains any meaningful notion of liberty for workers, whereas socialism is not necessarily so). Of course in true Orwellian fashion, conservatives constantly repeat the doublespeak of capitalism as economic freedom, just as slave owners appealed to freedom and property rights to deny freedom and property to others.
      As Orwell said in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, “The question is very simple. Shall people…be allowed to live the decent, fully human life which is now technically achievable, or shan’t they? Shall the common man be pushed back into the mud, or shall he not?”

      But that obviously has not prevented conservatives from claiming his work. Of course, the heroes of conservatism were rarely conservatives themselves. People like Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and James Buchanan went out of their way to mention that they are not conservatives.

      In Hayek’s essay “Why I am Not a Conservative”
      “conservatism fears new ideas because it has no distinctive principles of its own to oppose them; and, by its distrust of theory and its lack of imagination concerning anything except that which experience has already proved, it deprives itself of the weapons needed in the struggle of ideas. Unlike liberalism, with its fundamental belief in the long-range power of ideas, conservatism is bound by the stock of ideas inherited at a given time. And since it does not really believe in the power of argument, its last resort is generally a claim to superior wisdom, based on some self-arrogated superior quality.”

      Conservatives admire the progressives and radicals of the past who, according to their understanding of history, helped shape their favored aspects of the status quo, like the Founding Fathers, abolitionists, suffragists, etc.
      The Founding Fathers were revolutionaries, the exact opposite of conservatives, the Loyalists. Jefferson, for example, deplored our tendency to accept the status quo and asserted:

      “I am certainly not an advocate for for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and find practical means of correcting their ill effects. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

      He repeatedly reiterated how it was not future generations’ responsibility to simply pass on knowledge, but to “advance the knowledge and well-being of mankind.”

      Every time the conservatives invoke the Founding Fathers and other past progressives and radicals to impede the march of progress I think they debase and disrespect what those people stood for-progress. As Samuel Williams explained “”no policy would appear more puerile or contemptible to the people of America, than an attempt to bind posterity to our forms, or to confine them to our degrees of knowledge, and improvement: The aim is altogether the reverse, to make provision for the perpetual improvement and progression of the government itself….”

      Why don’t conservatives want to admire past conservatives,the Inquisitors, monarchists, the Loyalists during the Revolution, the defenders of slavery, anti-suffrigists, and fellow conservatives around the world like the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood, the French and British National Front parties, all those who did or continue to try to prevent or reverse the progress of human well-being? I realize that there are many sincere conservatives who genuinely believe they are protecting society by preventing change, and surely not all change is progress but the question should not be if we should stand still or go backwards, but what path forward should we take. As it stands now conservatives are inadvertently defenders of a dystopian world, and some leftist visions, if achieved, may (inadvertently) just replace this dystopia with another, but thats why we need debate, not one side a priori establishing the superiority of past ideologies and the inadmissibility of any new ideas.

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