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The Culture of Dystopian Governments

TW: Violence

Dystopias are societies where people battle with environmental ruin, dehumanizing elements, government oppression in order for survival and the recognition of fundamental rights. The entire theory of dystopias has always been a favourite go-to for fictional avenues. This has even led to a genre of fiction known as dystopian fiction. It is always fascinating yet heart-wrenching to witness such stories in the reel world but how often do we come around accepting the presence or the soon-to-be-coming advent of such dystopias in reality.

The relevance of fiction
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood is a spectacular depiction of governance gone wrong. It begins with the growing environmental catastrophe that leads to an extreme fertility, which leads to a majority of the women losing their reproductive capacities. Following this, the democratic government in the US is thrown by a military coup. The structure is formed in a way that power is concentrated only in a few hands, the commanders. This coup establishes a quasi- Christian regime in which the once free women of the nation are made completely subservient to the state and in general, the men. There is an extreme class distinction amongst women officially instated by the state that determines their actions from how they talk to how they dress. None of the women are allowed to read, write or even raise their voice; if found, it leads to severe punishment involving physical mutilation. Moreover, the major highlight is the state-sanctioned rape of the few women (the handmaids) who still have their reproductive capacities in order for the population to continue. The story also evokes some fundamental Christian orthodoxies starting from the submission of women, the practise of witch-hunting and the classic Madonna-whore complex. The shocking aspect is the establishment of this fictional state in the 21st century United States. Another movie series, ‘The Purge’ depicts the United States as a dystopian democracy. The incumbent leaders assign one day each year to the citizens when every crime is allowed. This decision came after the growing income inequality and power in the nation. As a result, it is the poor who suffer at the hands of sadists who kill for pleasure and the government who kills under a façade in order to reduce poverty. There are more phenomenal pieces of art that have come close to elucidate the living hell of dystopian societies.

However, the relevance of these fictional tales is not exactly lost in reality. Atwood wrote her magnum opus in speculative fiction. According to her, “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.” Her novel was inspired by Cambridge, Massachusetts during the American Colonial period where similar conditions as expressed in her story existed. Cambridge, at that time, was ruled by theocratic Christian puritans where the state controlled the matters of personal life. Moreover, the novel draws upon real-life politics with the growing influence of religion-based politics, environmental concerns and women’s fight for their freedom, especially their reproductive rights.

In the movie series ‘The Purge’, the bitter reality of the supposedly nation-serving nature of the governments is exposed. The blind ignorance and insensitivity of the government towards the poor, the favoured inclination of the policies and “politics” towards the rich and the relentless concentration of power in the top crust, is made quite evident. These stories may seem too dark to be real but these concepts do have some deep-rooted footing in reality.

Dystopian Democracies
The above-mentioned examples have their roots in democracies. Is the structure of democracies that is prone to such regimes of absolute power and inhumane establishments? Is democracy in retreat to give way to dystopia? Whenever we define democracy, we always assume the main outlines to be the application of universal suffrage, multi-party presence in politics, the freedom of institutions like press, media, judiciary and the freedom of citizens. One thing that is often not prioritized while determining democracies is the valuation of socio-economic outcomes produced by it; whether the inhabitants of that system are happy to live in it or not.

The ignorant aspect highlighted above is the tipping point that might often lead to the construction of a dystopia, a society affected by great sufferings and injustices. Dystopia isn’t only a synonym of something terrible happening in the moment; it can also come as a form of warning. The contemporary democracies that we witness often give us an illusion of crumbling down. In the past year, we have witnessed several crises throughout the world. With the rise of populism and ethnopolitics, the government’s silence towards the major humanitarian issues gives a negative signal. Moreover, the rise in ethnic and caste violence with no efficient response from the party in power, the distortion of freedom of speech, media’s role as a tyrant of people’s characters and increasing double standards in the institutions meant to uphold a democracy gives us a cause to worry about.

Theoretically, democracies follow the concept of “by the people, of the people and for the people”. However, with the growing complexities of every nation that calls itself a democracy, the minority groups are often excluded from the “people”. Democracy is an institution that is supposed to be people-centric not government-centric. The government is supposed to intervene to ensure equity and inclusion. The threat arises when the institutions formed by the people act on the interests of the majority with the government turning a blind eye towards it. The complete neglect towards the interests of the minority and the infringement on individual rights of the entire society, in my opinion, is a set-up towards a dystopian democracy.

Are Dystopias effective?
Authoritarian regimes exercising absolute power over their subjects often create a mirage of “being more effective” than other representative and inclusive forms of government. They might seem like the kind of governments that “gets the work done”. With no beating around the bush, quick decisions are taken to resolve a crisis at hand, with most of them “being effectively implemented”. This might lead to “less chaos and more orderliness” in a nation. However, one should not let this imagery fool themselves, for every nation is a product of its resources with human resources being the top-most priority. Following this, their welfare should be the top-most concern of any governmental regime. Dystopias surely put the existence of its citizens in a precarious position, encroaching on various fundamental aspects of individual life.

In conclusion, dystopias might be effective and absolute authoritarianism might eliminate chaos, but the nations, if they are to thrive, will only do so on the ideals of freedom, equality and welfare of their citizens. Democracy is the best shot people have in being able to exercise their basic rights. However, the thin line between democracy and dystopia can be easily breached if not supported by proper institutional strength. Governments should realize their rightful responsibilities and ensure that the distribution of power is not biased towards a specific societal group. Moreover, in a democracy, each and every citizen should realize the governing ideals of equality, equity and welfare. It is time to distribute the power, making it a more inclusive world, where peace and humanity are sought and achieved, instead of numbers and territory.

By Ananya Tripathi
A First-year Undergraduate student at SRCC
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