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“I say let the world go to hell, but I should always have my tea.”
What do you call it if you make no attempt to resist accepting an oppressive lie?
In the 2002 film, Minority Report, we’re shown some mid-21st century, impossibly faraway dystopia that, even in 2002, seems like maybe Steven Spielberg isn’t living in the same reality as the rest of us; at least in their dystopia, decades from 2020, the government had the decency to lie about an infringement of civil liberties— the minority report; the possibility that the composite of the 3 “precogs” who forsee events that will happen, not that could happen, casts (perhaps beyond reasonable) doubt upon that certitude. In our world, I’d argue, we’re dealing with a much bigger menace than the government doing even that convincing of a job gaslighting the public.
What I mean when I say this is that we’re living in a system architected and operated and orchestrated by the wealthiest, most maliciously self-interested parties on the planet— billionaires, the capitalist class, whatever you want to call them, but they operate like gangsters. Consider the Citizens United decision: a decades-long project to, effectively, coup the United States government, and nullify the will of voters by giving corporations personhood status when it comes to campaign finance. We are living in the corporatist nation-state autocracy comprised of many, many autocrats who simply need to buy more shares of the federal government— this is something long-acknowledged by the defense industry, for example, to influence public policy. The worst part about of this—from guys like Donald Rumsfeld returning to the private sector and then pulling influence in the Reagan administration to boost defense spending, to the (remaining, not burning in hell…yet) Koch brother bankrolling the above Supreme Court decision, effectively over decades to create this hellscape- is that they do it in broad daylight.
I see Online Leftists™ and the far right alike use the phrase “Overton Window” to describe this phenomenon, but the reality is that it is imprecise— this usage correctly identifies where the power is being influenced, but not by whom and for what purpose. This presupposes that, if there were sufficient electoral base, the politicians lobbying for and defending these things, could be swayed, but the reality is that the originators of these policies, and ultimately who implements them (as deregulatory effort shifts more and more public functions to that of the corporate nation-state) is these billionaire class lobbies and think tanks, accountable to no one. The reason I feel this is imprecise is because, well, they simply don’t care; they don’t answer to us. Halliburton has us in the second decade of seemingly endless conflict to protect their corporate interests; no one is more free because of the US intervention, and demonstrably so because this involved many regime changes that better suited those corporate interests. It is textbook installation of a client state-amenable government; this is as far as the artifice of creating democracies will go; as we’ve seen, even our own puppet governments rarely last long before blowback gives our leaderhip and the lobbies, etc. they answer to a pretext to move forward with more regime change, invasion, etc. We’ve seen this in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, the Soviet Union even, and as recently as this year, virtually every nation in Central and South America.
And it continues to escalate in ever alarming ways, with only the laziest of pretexts that shouldn’t stand up to scrutiny, but they do: The incoming Biden administration as even already committed to invasion of Syria, citing the need for support to defeat ISIS; nevermind that ISIS only exists because of the Iraq War, the US already has a presence in the form of the SDF overseeing legitimate populist Kurdish liberation groups in Northern Syria, and that even because of Biden himself, the nominal justification for the Iraq War originated with 9/11, the nominal guilty party, the Arab volunteers who came to Afghanistan which later became al Qaeda, a group that originates from the CIA-backed and funded mujahideen in Afghistan during Operation Cyclone. This all happens in the open; the justifications have been hollow, the narrative flimsy— at least Philip K. Dick imagined a world where there was a fictional good at stake (like the detection of premeditated violent crime being used to justify a pervasive but detectable surveillance state, rather than openly doing violent crime on behalf of a corporation— which is the more bleak scenario to you?)
Even if we were to compare the function of dystopian fiction, reduced down to quotidian explication of what this means for personal privacy, rather than the global implications of imperialist warcraft, we’re in a more precarious situation technologically than even 1984 could have prepared you for. Everything you’ve done on the Internet ever likely still exists in some form somewhere, and that somewhere is a National Security Agency datacenter in all likelihood. The proliferation of 5G networks, for example, requires that everything you do will have you passing through a network mesh, every single house you walk by, will be aware of your cell phone, whether it connect or not, and because of the deployment of 5G repeaters, they will literally be everywhere, public or private— an exponentially more efficient tool for gathering. And because you don’t know what is recorded, metadata or more often even more than that, any narrative anyone with access to that data can craft becomes possible with even the suggestion of something socially stigmatizing whether or not you actually did anything. We saw this often enough during the later Bush years and early Obama years as the surveillance apparatus grew to really tap into the overreaching, oppressive potential of the Patriot Act’s implications for everyday life— you don’t have to have done it, you just have to give them a reason.
The real insiduous part is that what began as something many felt duped into being supportive of, for example the Iraq War, became correctly realigned as a moral failing and an ongoing tragedy, only to become acceptable as a non-issue in this latest election cycle while discussing comparative human rights abuses; that’s the Window shifting, or it would be if public acceptance were the goal or even a factor in the decision making about why this shift is occurring. But, it’s not. The goal is to exhaust the public into no longer caring about something, so the next major abuse can go through the same cycle; ultimately, as I’ve said repeatedly, Americans fundamentally lack the constitution to organize or even meaningfully check out of easily divestible parts of even the most average life as an American consumer, as a measure against this, even in protest. The phrase “going back to brunch” that’s been deployed in this latest election cycle is being too generous— it’s actively excusing the open harm of neoliberal enablement of the more sinister and would-have-been-if-it-weren’t-already-reality elements of far right-wing governance through sheer force of will to assert, not that there are things worth being mildly inconvenienced over for a greater lifechanging good, but that they have a right to “turn off” their awareness without having turned it on in any meaningful way to begin with (any number of corporate liberal thinktanks, etc.)
I think, for all I’ve written about alternative history fiction and of Philip K. Dick in particular, Dick never intends for us to look towards his dystopias as a reflection of our future, but metaphorically of what that future would represent, what would be better, what would be worse, if where we are right now also contended with an additional single problem. Dick wrote, “If you think this Universe is bad, you should see some of the others.”—there’s an infinite number of universes for every event that does or does not happen (depending on which universe you compare with) and cognitively, you’re left with only one path, to try to make sense of the events around you and, more often than not, as dystopia teaches us, there won’t be a defensible cover like there is in fiction.
“Every society has the criminals it deserves.” wrote Emma Goldman, an indictment of the state, not of who it chooses to criminalize or what acts against it become crimes; our societies don’t inherently have criminals, but they produce the criminalization they are subjected to— one that creates scarcity where none, logically, should exist, there shouldn’t be theft or crimes of desperation, for example. And yet, in our modern world, that’s almost all there is despite all evidence indicating that if we provide for citizens of our communities, as we could today, then the motive disappears, and rehabilitating and restoring justice can be meted out to the actually toxic elements to a society. However, for all the material comfort of those who can survive in the American empire (compared to those who do not in order to sustain it), it’s engendered a great deal of comfort with the idea that for them to have something, their struggle justifies subjecting others to greater, if not merely identical, struggles for the same dignity; the student loan debt is an example of this, how often we hear the argument, “Well, I paid mine, so why shouldn’t they have to?”— rather than perpetuating empathy, it perpetuates contempt, now imagine a more fundamental type of financial scarcity and desperation, for merely food or shelter or whether or not you’re safe from random state violence based simply on who you are.
Goldman identifies the issue in allowing our moral code to be overridden by what is deemed criminal, “No great idea in its beginning can ever be within the law. How can it be within the law? The law is stationary. The law is fixed. The law is a chariot wheel which binds us all regardless of conditions or place or time. ” With that kind of ethical out from having to challenge the order, is it any wonder we have to expend so much cognition even delineating right from wrong where there is always a whataboutist scenario on hand to feed on whatever residual empathy might’ve had a chance in that moment to prevail, from the interpersonal to the geopolitical. “Civilization has been a continuous struggle of the individual or of groups of individuals against the State and even against "society," that is, against the majority subdued and hypnotized by the State and State worship.”
A theory I’ve drawn about every Cold War-era drama, and one I think reflects my belief about the American capacity for organization, behaving as part of a community, is that the full weight of the American empire falls on the shoulders of an individual actor, while the Eastern Bloc gets to be a monolith, it’s people victims of Communism, yet it is unclear who is doing the Communism to them and how, exactly, their horrors are different from those of which we’re accustomed to seeing reported as news in far away places. The psychology of American exceptionalism is that you won a lottery ticket, and if it’s not enough for you to survive on, then that’s your own fault, even when in a situation of Atlassian proportions—a fairly low-stakes example for the nation, but one that ultimately destroyed his life is Bobby Fischer- to represent your country, but without them representing or supporting you. You, in this scenario, take on the risk of protecting the reputation of a nation or an ideology, but the consequence is to you as an individual, not to the nation or ideology if its values and beliefs do not bear out. This fundamental decoupling, delineation, is one possible explanation for how we can worship a state that does nothing for individuals sharing all but a single class interest, while it does nothing but treat us with contempt. We can, of course, shape the reality we live in as an organized populace, make our local governments for efficient and participatory-minded, but if we’ve accepted that the power from the top-down can help those at the bottom, despite every grassroots movement being crushed the moment it became politically expedient to do so in the modern era, it makes you wonder what avenues are even left.
So, with all of that said, does it matter if we live in a better or worse dystopia than our fictions call dystopia? Are we equipped to do anything about it in either case? If not, why not? What are the obstacles, and what are the dystopic challenges we face today, and what do those in fiction actually represent (because, of course, we can’t take a move from 20 years ago’s take on what will happen 20 years from now, at face value, for example)? “The most violent element in society is ignorance.” wrote Emma Goldman, warning of exactly this— a condition we find ourselves experiencing in 2020, unable to discourse because of the frameworks we’ve had applied for us; being influenced by the lies of empire, and those of oppressors. Goldman, with this in mind, also lays out the priority for recombining the municipality, locally and socially, to begin working together on answering these questions and it’s not just a matter of doing the thing: “Before we can forgive one another, we have to understand one another.”
Recent things I’ve read, listened to, or watched that I am now recommending: