The Political Economy of Dystopia
Today’s culture and Covid wars can’t be reduced to a material substrate, but we discount the material dimension at our peril.
Dystopia is a punchline. Those of us who inhabit the Very Online Right like to point out how this or that new social phenomenon resembles this or that dystopian fiction. Daily, hitherto sane institutions enshrine insanities as dogma. The latest seems to be the use of “pregnant people” to refer to pregnant women: We laughed, mocked and raged; then it made its way into the style guides of the Washington Post and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
No, we don’t face torture for rejecting these insanities, the way Orwell’s Winston Smith does in Nineteen Eighty-Four. But the institutional triumph of insanity and untruth is real, all the same. And for many people in America and the West, the threat of being “un-personed” and losing their livelihoods seems to do the trick. They mouth the untruths, or at least, they keep silent.
These resemblances to fictional dystopias should arrest us. Our culture-creators are highly adept at prophesying dystopia, and we love to nod along as their premonitions come to life—but we can’t seem to be able to stop the process, much less reverse it. As Patrick Deneen has observed, “our popular culture seems to be a kind of electronic Cassandra.” It “offers entertaining prophecies born of our anxieties, and we take perverse pleasure distracting ourselves with portrayals of our powerlessness.”
What if dystopia is already here? What if our territory already conforms to maps drawn long ago by science-fiction authors? Could it be that we have crossed the invisible frontier that divides an ordinary place, an ordinary topos, from a dystopian realm?
If that’s the case, then the imagined futures of the past are a better guide to the present than any think-tank white paper. Novelists can be so much more farseeing, so much wiser, than most of the people populating the think tanks in Washington and Brussels: those who would tell us that we live in the best of all possible worlds because flat-screen televisions are so cheap. By casting a serious literary glance at our realities—or perhaps I should say, at our un-realities—we can shake off such complacency. The best dystopian literature, moreover, can reveal the deeper currents shaping our age, and that, in turn, can help us understand why we feel so powerless, as Professor Deneen says.
We need a deeper analysis, to figure out whether cancel culture, woke-ism, gender ideology and the like really represent something new and revolutionary, or whether what we are dealing with is merely the acceleration of older and deeper processes of ideological transformation. If the latter is the case, as I believe it is, then we have to wonder at the material forces driving the cultural change, or at least cooperating with it. No, culture and social consciousness aren’t simply reducible to material reality, as a kind of vulgar Marxism would have it, but it is foolish to deny that all culture rests on a material substrate. And it seems to me that we can’t begin to properly counter cancel culture and to defend the truth concretely without untangling these knots.
In other words, we need a material diagnosis.
To do that, I propose we visit a place called Eden-Olympia, the setting for one of J. G. Ballard’s last novels, Super-Cannes, published in 2000. Our protagonists are Dr. Jane Sinclair, a British pediatrician hired to replace one of the park’s physicians, and her husband, Paul, a pilot convalescing from a plane crash.
Eden-Olympia recruits Jane, because her predecessor in the job, another Brit named Dr. David Greenwood, has gone postal, shooting up ten colleagues, many of them senior executives at the park, before turning his gun on himself. And as Jane gets absorbed into her work at the park—Eden-Olympia is a sort of playground for workaholics, not unlike real-world counterparts in Silicon Valley or the leafy suburbs of Seattle—it falls to the jobless Paul to unravel what really happened with Greenwood, what led a gentle pediatrician to murder innocents in cold blood. Or perhaps Greenwood’s victims weren’t so innocent.
It’s a magnificent novel, a potent mix of noir and science-fiction and social commentary. What matters most for our purposes is Eden-Olympia itself, the business park, which is as much a character in its own right as Ballard’s human figures. What are the chief characteristics of Eden-Olympia? I’d like to focus on three, which are closely bound up with each other.
The first is an obsession with bodily health. It turns out that in addition to more routine duties, Jane is expected to help Eden-Olympia create a park-wide medical-diagnostic system. As she tells her husband, “every morning, when they get up, people will dial the clinic and log in their health data: pulse, blood-pressure, weight and so on. One prick of the finger on a small scanner, and computers here will analyze everything: liver enzymes, cholesterol, prostate markers, the lot.” Her boss, she goes on, is “very keen on fecal smears, but I suspect that’s one test too far. He hates the idea of all that used toilet paper going to waste. The greatest diagnostic tool in the world is literally flushed down the lavatory.”
Paul asks: “So no one will ever get ill?”
Jane replies, “Something like that.”
Later, we learn that Jane “is running a new computer model, tracing the spread of nasal viruses across Eden-Olympia. She has a hunch that if people moved their chairs a further 18 inches apart they’d stop the infectious vectors in their tracks.” Ballard quite literally foresaw the social-distancing regime two decades before anyone had heard of the novel coronavirus—although even with his dystopian prescience, he couldn’t foresee the rise of universal, permanent masking as a sort of medical hijab for the Western laptop classes.
And again we get Paul’s sarcastic aside: “I thought people here were too far apart as it is.”
A term frequently flung about in Eden-Olympia is “corporate puritanism”: It captures both the absolute workaholism of the park’s corporate class and their disgust with the ordinary grime and messy civic give-and-take of the outside world. Now, this puritanism coexists, in another prophetic flourish from Ballard, with a kind of controlled hedonism. In those all-too-brief hours when the executives don’t work, they get kinky, to put it mildly: hard drugs, sadomasochism, even random ultra-violence directed against people outside the park.
We will return to this transgressive impulse. But to understand it, we have to attend to the other major features of Eden-Olympia. The second feature is that it’s a profoundly anti-political place. Here, I want to briefly pause and note that Sophia-Antipolis is the name of an actual, Silicon Valley-style business park in southern France, mentioned in Ballard’s work. Antipolis is the ancient Greek name for nearby Antibes. “Antipolis” literally means opposite the city—that is, opposite Nice. But the ancient name happens to be nicely evocative of what these business parks are like, to Ballard’s mind: anti-polises, anti-cities, the opposite of what the ancient city represented, the ideal of the city as a family of families, a political community, a space for cultivating civic virtue.
“An invisible infrastructure took the place of traditional civic virtues,” Paul tells us.
At Eden-Olympia, there were no parking problems, no traditional burglars or purse-snatchers, no rapes or muggings. The top-drawer professionals no longer needed to devote a moment’s thought to each other, and had dispensed with the checks and balances of community of life. There were no town councils or magistrates’ courts, no citizens’ advice bureaux. Civility and polity were designed into Eden-Olympia, in the same way that mathematics, aesthetics and an entire geopolitical worldview were designed into the Parthenon and the Boeing 747. Representative democracy had been replaced by the surveillance camera and the private police officer.
Again and again, Eden-Olympia’s architects drive home this point. In a telling exchange, Paul tells one executive that “‘there’s no drama and no conflict [at Eden-Olympia]. There are no clubs or evening classes….’
‘We don’t need them [the executive responds]. They serve no role.’
‘No charities or church fêtes. No fund-raising galas.’
‘Everyone is rich. Or at least, very well off.’
‘No police or legal system.’
‘There’s no crime, and no social problems.’
‘No democratic accountability. No one votes. So who runs things?’
‘We do. We run things.’”
At Eden-Olympia, the private has somehow completely swallowed the public, eaten it from the inside out. Morality, if it can be called that, is baked into ergonomics. You don’t debate great public issues, or allow the ancient rivalry between classes to play out in a real political way. There are cameras everywhere, and a private police force to respond to any abnormalities that might concern the executives. Again, Ballard is prophetic here: For us, morality, insofar as it exists, is programmed into our smart phones. Things no longer get debated, but algorithms ensure that we are steered away from “extremist” ideas, the definition of which is ever-shifting, according to the needs of the system.
In the real world, the New York Post, the newspaper I work for, faced the sharp end of this kind of new techno-moralism last year, after we published an exposé on President Biden’s son Hunter. We obtained, through ordinary journalistic methods, a laptop hard-drive apparently belonging to Hunter. In it, we found, among many other things, e-mails showing that in 2015, Hunter had arranged a meeting between his father, then the second most powerful man in the world and the Obama administration’s point man on Ukraine, and an executive from Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company that was paying Hunter $83,000 a month as a board member.
By 10 o’clock on Oct. 14, the day our first Hunter Files story was published, a Facebook public relations staffer announced that the social-media giant was taking steps to “reduce circulation” on the story pending “fact-checking,” while Twitter banned the story altogether: Not only were users barred from posting it to their public pages, they couldn’t even share it privately in direct messages.
Did our fellow journalists stand up for the Post? Far from it. Most of them cheered the censorship. One reporter who shared the story with a skeptical note soon was forced to post a long, Maoist-style apology and self-criticism. And when 50 former intelligence officials published a letter claiming, on the basis of zero evidence, that our reporting was Russian disinformation, other media outlets simply repeated and affirmed this: Imagine, journalists acting like stenographers for spies, and this in the Land of the Free.
Now, nearly a year later, some of those same outlets are coming forward to substantiate the Post’s reporting and even to do their own digging, which finds that, yes, Hunter, the illustrious first son, arranged that meeting between his father and Burisma, as the Post had reported; and yes, just as the Post reported, Hunter had also negotiated a deal with executives from a Chinese energy firm, with 10 percent held for “the big guy,” that is, his father.
Nearly a year later, Joe Biden’s presidency is secure, so it’s safe to disclose all this. This strikes me as a supremely Ballard-ian touch: Truth is perfectly malleable to the contours of the regime’s practical needs. It isn’t that the executives at Eden-Olympia are unaware of the business park’s darker side—they are perfectly aware, and they take what they consider “sanitary” steps to contain it as needed. It isn’t that the corporate-media industrial complex in the United States is unaware that the illustrious presidential son traded on his last name to enrich himself and his family—the system is perfectly aware, and it is prepared to take any necessary “anti-extremist” steps to contain the information until the populist threat to the regime has passed.
There is no public political culture, no institutions devoted to sustaining it. To the extent that a vestigial public political realm exists, it is totally devoted to serving the needs and preferences of the neoliberal ruling class.
Which brings us to the third feature of Eden-Olympia: This is a place that has no progeny and no past. Not long after they arrive, Jane and Paul cease conjugal relations. Jane works too hard. She has no time for sex. When Paul suggests they have a baby, Jane says, “That’s rather clever, Paul. But I can’t. At least not now. There are problems.” And of course, he knows that she has an IUD installed to ensure marital sterility. Indeed, in the entire park, there are no children—none. One executive tells Paul, “Today’s corporate city is superbly talented, adult and virtually childless…. You define yourself by the kind of trainers you wear.”
So much for progeny. As for the past, well, it doesn’t exist. The executives at the park, as you might expect, are quite diverse. This is a multicultural place. Its professional ranks are drawn from Britain, France, Mexico, Japan, and so on. But there is nothing particularly British, or French, or Mexican, or Japanese about them. Rather, what unites them, as one critic of the park tells Paul, is that they’re all “paid-up members of the new elite. They’re the corporate chosen people.” As the park expands, it literally destroys the history, natural and manmade, of the surrounding community. Paul observes, “The site-contractors were already at work, clearing the holm oaks and umbrella pines that had endured since Roman times, surviving forest fires and military invasions. Nature, as the new millennium dictated, was giving way for the last time to the tax shelter and the corporate car park.”
Interestingly, Jane embraces this ahistoricity. You might say that she is someone with true class consciousness, a member of a professional “class for itself.” She hasn’t thought about it that deeply, but she somehow understands that the ahistoricity of the place is good for people like her, for their success. Eden-Olympia, she tells Paul, “has a lot going for it. It’s open to talent and hard work. There’s no ground already staked out, no title deeds going back to bloody Magna Carta. You feel anything could happen.”
Jane is expressing the dream of total meritocracy. Places that have deeds going back to bloody Magna Carta impose inherited obligations, they are messy, they are democratic, there are competing claims, there is memory, there are ancient authorities—all this stands in the way of the global meritocrat.
And where these messy competing claims, not least the claims of the poor, the small-property holder, etc. arise, Eden-Olympia wages literal class war. I mentioned that the executives find a kind of sexual release in ultra-violence. They go on these hunting parties—they call them “ratissage” (raking over)—where they beat up local prostitutes, immigrants, tourists, etc., people who in some way or another still represent the older world that stands in the way of the omnipresent car park.
One thing that’s off here, the one point in which Ballard’s powers of prophecy and verisimilitude failed him, is that the executives have this undercurrent of hard-right nationalist politics; some are members of France’s National Front, and they think of themselves as waging war against undesirable elements and so on; of course, their real-world counterparts would absolutely steer clear of anything like Marine Le Pen’s party—these people delight in labor arbitrage, both in the form of offshoring and of immigration.
Nevertheless, I do think Ballard is right in the main, in his analysis of class violence and war required to realize the dream world of the professional-managerial class. Now let me circle back to the first feature of Eden-Olympia—that is, its obsession with bodily health. Here, Ballard’s prescience is just off the charts, enough to induce goose-bumps. The program of ratissage, of these vicious human-hunting parties, was instituted as a mechanism to deal with the executives’ otherwise inexplicable physical ailments—mainly, respiratory conditions. These men and woman who otherwise strenuously exercise and watch their calories would suddenly be seized with respiratory illnesses. I call them the ailments of antipolitical man. Something about this apolitical, ahistorical way of life literally makes the executives sick, and to fend off the condition, they have to enact violence against people who still inhabit the old political, historical, embodied reality that is part of human nature.
To tie all this together: It seems to me that we are living in a kind of Eden-Olympia writ large. Or rather, we are in a stage of transition—a shift between, on one hand, a vestigial world of still-embodied communities inhabited by political animals with historical memories and, on the other, the nightmarish utopia of Eden-Olympia (note that the name is both biblical and classical, suggesting a religious-mythic utopia, or non-place, which, when established in the real world is, of course, a dystopia). The paroxysms that so worry us—woke-ism, cancel culture, gender ideology, etc.—are symptoms of this historical passage.
The neoliberal class, the globalist class, the managerial class—whatever you wish to call it—is subjecting us to a kind of ratissage, raking us over to create a world that will serve its material interests even better than the semi-normality that prevailed just a few years ago.
Hence, for example, the bodily obsession and social distancing: the dream of a world without grime, without the scent and sweat and germs of other human beings—an aspiration as much for Eden-Olympia’s executives as for our ruling class.
The laptop class generates value by manipulating information on screens, and it looks with bewilderment and contempt at two classes it sees as vestigial: small property holders and what I have called tangible workers. What to do with them? Ideally, all that kind of labor and value generation would be automated, relegated to drones, online retailers, and so on. But the intangibles class, or the laptop class, still needs tangible labor: Silicon Valley, as the author Michael Lind has pointed out, can’t do all it does without massive storage and power-generation facilities spread across the heartland of the United States and maintained by the working class, by tangible labor.
Eden-Olympia needs farmers and restaurants and high-end escorts and private security. Now enter Covid-19: a real crisis, but also what a tremendous opportunity to squeeze the tangibles class, to discipline it, to transfer as much of its livelihood as possible to virtual realms controlled by the laptop class—an incredible opportunity for an upward transfer of wealth. And, of course, the added benefit of social distancing: literally enacting distance between people and classes, a separation symbolized by the medical hijab and the Plexiglas barrier. Why won’t they let the virus go? Why won’t they let us move on? Because class war is carried out in many ways.
Hence, too, the war against historical memory. The bringing about of Eden-Olympia demands ahistoricity. People who have historical memory have heroes, they have romantic ideals, they have authorities that guide their individual consciences, they have national pride. Family and community form the warp and weft of their characters. People who don’t have such things make the perfect corporate subjects, be they the ones who occupy the commanding heights or the ones who toil on the peripheries.
Today’s culture and Covid wars can’t be reduced to a material substrate, true, but we discount the material, class-based, and political-economic dimension at our peril. If the emerging dystopia is a material and political process, then our responses must also reflect this. We can shout and scream that only women can get pregnant, that Lincoln wasn’t a racist monster, until we go blue in the face—but it won’t do much good if we are coming up against the material logic and thrust of a political economy.
Ballard was writing dystopian noir, and in noir, there is never any political solution. The noir protagonist typically peers behind the glossy surface of his society and finds ugly oppression churning there. But he can’t muster any kind of political action or mass movement to alter material reality. He either escapes the dystopia altogether, as Harrison Ford’s Deckard does in Blade Runner, or he goes on a rampage, as Paul in Super-Cannes ultimately does, recapitulating David Greenwood’s righteous massacre. Dystopian noir is romantic. We can’t afford romance. But a serious study of fantastic literature can sometimes help tear down our own fantasies.
This column was adapted from keynote addresses delivered at the ISI Honors Program in Williamsburg, Va., and the inaugural symposium of the Collegium Intermarium in Warsaw.