More than any other dystopia, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four concentrates on its hero’s psychological state and his efforts to reveal the truth of the superstate in which he lives. Orwell’s meticulous attention to the engineering of reality and the digesting of the individual into the political entity makes this the definitive dystopia of post-Stalinist authoritarian power. The novel is divided into three books that cover, respectively, Winston Smith’s rebellion under the grind of daily life in Oceania, his love affair with Julia, and his incarceration, torture and erasure. The story is basically a struggle for truth, love and liberty where these are criminal. Gradually, through reflection, experience, and a “successful love affair,” Winston discovers the nature of his oppressor and briefly steals the freedoms that make life worth living, acknowledging from his first crime against the state, writing in a journal, that he is a “dead man.”
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Sinclair Lewis wrote this political satire of American exceptionalism in the early 1930s, when one in four Americans were out of work and the complacent assumptions he’d ridiculed in Babbitt were rasped away by real poverty. What most Americans assumed couldn’t happen on the economic front had happened, and even more had happened in Germany, Italy and Russia, with the rise of nationalist totalitarian regimes. So Lewis aimed his satire at the smug assumption of the American politician and parochial patriot that a despotic, militant, nationalist tyrant and, consequently, organized atrocity, were foreign, or only possible elsewhere.
H.G. Wells originally published When the Sleeper Awakes in 1898 as a serial in The Graphic, an illustrated London newspaper. In his preface to the 1910 edition, The Sleeper Awakes, he expressed disappointment with the book, claiming that it was hastily composed and overwrought and that he was badly in need of a vacation at the time. He also claimed that in editing the original he did not rewrite it, as what concerned him at the age of thirty-one no longer did at forty-three. So he cut out some of the fat and reworked the latter part of the book to give it more thoroughness and depth. What has come down to us in this 2003 Modern Library edition, When the Sleeper Wakes, is not one of Wells’ better novels but a template dystopia containing both accurate and inaccurate forecasts, as well as the fundamental dystopian elements of class war and awakening consciousness under authoritarian rule.
Checking the news sites this morning, I couldn’t help but notice that the lead story on Reuters anticipated the Labor Department’s employment report, due out later today. What struck me was not the expected increase in jobs and decrease in unemployment but a factoid that the service sector now accounts for 80% percent of US labor. If true, it confirms my long-held suspicion that the U.S. economy would eventually become a service economy.
Jack London’s political dystopia, The Iron Heel, published in 1905, is not so fantastic as it is relevant, not so prophetic as it is cogent. The question the novel leaves you with, in this age of unprecedented income inequality, conservative-libertarian populism, corporate propaganda fronts and political puppetry, is why the country has not gone down the path that London took it almost a hundred years ago. Why, with our increasingly vast poverty, waning middle class, wealth stratification beyond levels since those seen before the Great Depression and legislators thrall to powerful corporate and industrial interests, hasn’t the republic degenerated into the modern oligarchy as portrayed in this book?
A few years back, when Dubya was ridin’ his wooden horse hard, I was in a bar talking to a gal who at some point proclaimed, or admitted, that she was a republican. I asked what made her a republican, and she testified to her belief that the government should do nothing with regard to the environment, poverty, crime, discrimination, pollution, disease, illiteracy, stupidity and every other social ill since the age of Cain. Her point wasn’t a stumper: government solutions to social problems don’t work. I asked if public service and governance weren’t essentially social—if these weren’t designed to address the conditions of civilization. To that I got more of the same: social programs are unnecessary because the problems they failingly address would otherwise fix themselves and everything works best on its own in accordance with the natural, self-regulating way of things. So it’s all up to the individual? I asked. To which she answered with an unequivocal yes. In a flash I saw the genius of republicanism: an abdication of the necessity of improving society, thus narrowing the job of governance down to eliminating the public sector and putting public money in private hands.
The drawbacks of a positive attitude are clear enough: first, you can assume one in regard to almost anything from the beneficial to the depraved, thus it is arbitrary; second, having encountered a number of very positive fanatics, liars, lunatics and sociopaths in my time, it’s obvious that a positive attitude is not necessarily a correlate of moral excellence and mental health; and third, a positive attitude in the work place matters less than the ability and willingness to do the work. That’s why a certain poster on the wall of the elevator lobby at the Pacific Gas and Electric Company office, where I temped for a time, struck me as absurd the first time I saw it.
It should have been quick and simple, establishing a telephone account for a new place of residence. As Verizon was my existing provider, I saw no reason to take the business elsewhere. So I navigated Verizon’s website and, having found no option to complete this common transaction there, bounced through a complex telephone menu system until I came to “speak to a representative.” I held to Morris Albert’s “Feelings,” Barbara Streisand’s “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” and Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight” until a young man answered. I quickly explained what I needed. He said, “Whoa, got to check the catalog.” The catalog? I thought. The line went dead. The dude had, like, hung up.
About a year ago I bought a gadget that uses wireless technology to play electronic files and Internet radio through my stereo. Not a mind-bending idea. Receivers and transmitters have been around for over a century—telephones, radios, televisions, etc. And these earlier manifestations of our rut toward technological utopia, when finally mass marketed, were fully operational. They were plug-it-in-and-turn-it-on retail products. They required only a limited degree of end-user manipulation—volume, channel, band, tuning—and fulfilled the promise of actually working when you purchased them. Remember?
Getting hired by a temp agency is relatively easy: make an appointment, appear in your second-hand monkey suit, fill out the application, take the software test, and discuss your resume with the “analyst.” Provided you type over forty words per minute, pass the software test and are functionally literate, they’ll hire you. As you leave, however, do not skip, sing, or whistle the theme song to Rocky; you’ll wait before you work. And, as you wait, your day of ostensible triumph will become one of languishing hope, brooding uncertainty, indignant irritation, then cynical indifference. It will become days and days will become weeks and weeks will become months until the day you abandon any chance of the phone ringing as a sucker’s bet. Whatever hopeful signs the analyst gave will cease to evoke hope. Rather, they will evoke abhorrence and disillusionment, thus preparing you for the ultimate sacrifice: that of personal liberty to institutional authority.
For three years I remained a temp or, should I say, impermanent. To those for whom I worked I was as insignificant as the tasks they assigned. And when those tasks were done, I was less than insignificant—I was gone. More than any other class of employee my presence was explained and defined by the job. I repeatedly lived the abridged fate of every office prole. I sustained the lie of my indispensability until I was dispensed with.
On the October 14, 2005 Diane Rehm Show “Friday News Roundup,” David Corn of The Nation complained that the Administration’s policy to rebuild New Orleans as a tourist town would permanently exclude many of the locals. Policy Review editor and Hoover Institution fellow Todd Lindberg rebutted, “Most of those people are the product of a failed social policy anyway.” This comment had an odd effect on me. It tweaked into focus the conservative republican attitude toward the poor. Certain prejudices and preconceptions—not the least specious of which is that people are products of policy—at once took on clarity. So I went to my desk and jotted down the primary ideas contained in the comment: (1) the displaced New Orleans locals are the product of a failure, (2) the failure was one of policy, (3) the policy was “social,” and (4), as suggested by his dismissive anyway, they don’t matter. Delivered in a tone of smug disregard, it boiled down to this: “Quit whining about the poor and put ‘em out with the trash—they’re just more damaged liberal-policy goods.”
During the recession of the late ’80s and early ’90s, big businesses were suffocating in their own fat, bloated from non-performance-related capital the Reagan Administration had pipelined from public coffers in the form of deregulation, tax cuts and corporate welfare. As these companies were actually failing and realized that they would have to practice economy all on their own or cease to exist, they downsized and reorganized (laid off workers, cut salaries and benefits, and reallocated the work). This is the fascinating story of how that historic trend was instrumental to my becoming a stellar white-collar asshole.
If anything in this essay reflects badly on Empirican white-collar culture, I do not absolve myself of hypocrisy. On the contrary, I admit that I have practically benefited from that culture and, rightly or wrongly, feel no gratitude. After all, should a work of cultural criticism, which intends neither to eulogize nor instruct, be apologetic and polite? Is there some kind of debt to be honored? Nah. I’ve paid my dues and I’m no longer beholden to the walking turds I worked with. Aside from an admitted proclivity to piss on, rather than hump, the boss’s leg, I’m objective enough to consider most of what I have to say to be true. So on with it.
A guy with a couple of decades of office avoirdupois pumps up on his $3,000 touring bike, sporting about $500 worth of highly flammable stretch material in 15 garish colors, covered with the logos of his “sponsors.”
“Passing on the left,” he quacks as he goes by on the sidewalk, where it is illegal to ride. Then, nearly missing me, he cranks his head around and yells, “I SAID, PASSING ON THE LEFT!”
He’s beyond reach. No need to get flustered over a dude posing as Lance Armstrong. But another passes, and another, and it dawns on me that not one of these cyclists is wearing civilian dress—that the jerk in tights (JIT) is not the exception, but the rule.