Panem and the dueling dystopias

As was mentioned in my prior review of the first book in the Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins got the inspiration for the idea for the books while watching American reality television juxtaposed with the very real horrors of the Iraq War. If the first book, for all its violence, concentrated on the decadence of the Capitol, the second book, Catching Fire take us much deeper into the dystopian tyranny of Panem, and it is the combination of these two versions of dystopia that Collins has skillfully packaged in the form of a children’s novel that most sparks my interest.

Catching Fire, tells the story of what unfolds after Katniss and Peeta have returned victorious from the Hunger Games. Their act of defiance at the end of the games, threatening to commit suicide rather than follow the cruel logic of the games which permits only one victor, has proven a spark that begins insurrections against the tyranny of the Capitol. Rebellion only grows as the Capitol tries to manage the story of Katniss and Peeta and put an end to their worship as heroes. But, what has begun can not be stopped and here we are shown the deep violence at the heart of Panem that transcends the dark cruelty of the ritualized brutality found in the spectacle of the games.In desperation, the Capitol isolates rebellious districts and attempts to starve them into submission. It tortures, imprisons’ , and, as appears to be hinted at towards the end of the novel,commits an act of genocide against District 12 the home of Katniss and Peeta.

As the philosopher have always told us, tyranny, being based upon fear, is the worst form of government. Such fear can only lead to three results in the individual: paralysis, flight, or the decision to fight back. The tyranny of the Capitol has been based on the institutionalized fear of the Hunger Games, along with the “memory” of the Capitol’s complete destruction of District 13 during the last rebellion. Katniss and Peeta had broken the spell of the games. Katniss herself entertains ideas of flight only to ultimately decide on courageous rebellion, and the peoples of the districts become inspired to end their paralysis and fight back not only by her, but by the hope that District 13 has somehow survived and remained beyond the control of the Capitol

On a superficial level what Collins has done here is something quite interesting and groundbreaking, for she has managed to combine successfully the two rival versions of dystopia that have held us in their spell since the first half of the last century. Those two versions are, of course, George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Orwell aimed to capture the brutality of totalitarianism, in both its right-wing, and left-wing varieties. The dystopia of totalitarianism was characterized by Orwell as “a boot stomping on a human face, forever”. It was a state based upon not only fear, as were all tyrannies of the past, but the need for the absolute submission of the individual. Obedience was not enough. The soul of the individual was a territory the totalitarian state aimed to bring under its will, and the aim of the state was to surround its subjects in an omnipresent web of surveillance that took from them not only their public but their private lives as well.

Huxley took a much different, and many argue more prescient, view of dystopia in his Brave New World. For him, tyranny was less likely in the modern era to take the form of a regime based on fear and total control, than it was to be based on the population being lulled into submission by entertainment, consumption, sex, and satiety.

In his brilliant, if horribly ill timed book, The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov, argues that we have been blinded to the nature of modern tyranny by seeing the distinction between Orwell’s and Huxley’s visions of utopia as an either- or question. Thinkers, such as Herbert Marcuse, have made a pretty good case that the West has many of the features of the dystopia presented in Brave New World. We are a society that has, willfully or not, been distracted from politics by a plethora of entertainment, advertisement, and pleasures. As Morozov points out, many non-Western regimes  that are in every sense of the word, authoritarian, have caught onto this trick. States like Russia and China let people watch or buy whatever they wish. The reality and dreams of limitless consumption appear to steer attention and energy away from politics and thus leave current political elites entrenched. “Bread and circuses” as the Romans used to say is the best way to control the masses.

Morozov insists that just because regimes have learned from the West how to lull their people  to sleep ala Brave New World does not mean that Orwell should be left in the dust. For, when deemed necessary as the only means of retaining their grip on power,  manyauthoritarian regimes have shown themselves capable of 1984 style violence. We need both Huxley and Orwell to understand dystopia in the present, and Collins has managed to combine both.

The Capitol is a Brave New World style dystopia through and through. Its citizens are enthralled, not merely, by the reality TV “entertainment” of the Hunger Games, but by seemingly endless consumption, celebrity, and vanity. A great metaphor for the Capitol can be seen in a common practice there which Collins presents to us almost as an afterthought. “Citizens” of the Capitol have a habit of eating everything in sight at their major social gatherings. The way they pull this off is to ingest a liquid that makes them vomit between periods of gorging. This occurs even in periods when the Capital is trying to starve the people of rebellious districts into submission or death.

Yet, if within the world of the Capitol dystopia takes on the form of a Brave New World the way the Capitol brutally treats the districts is straight out of 1984. It tortures, murders, terrorizes, and commits acts of genocide.

Collins could not have anticipated that within several years of writing her novel the whole scene of the Capital trying to bring the rebellious districts to heel would be replicated in the real world as challenged tyrants resorted to the fear of extreme violence to keep themselves in power: Gaddafi in Libya, Assad in Syria where the horrors continue. Only where the forces of the regime refused to kill their own people, such as Egypt, was enormous bloodshed avoided.

The Panem analogy could also easily be applied to the US if one sees America itself as the Capitol and the world at large as the districts. We are a consumerist and entertainment paradise that spies upon, brutalizes, and attempts to control the rest of the world.  No matter if this analogy holds or not it’s pretty certain that if Aldous Huxley were brought to early 21st century America he’d think he’d stepped into his Brave New World, but Orwell could not say the same for 1984, at least not within the United States itself.

Still, the best real world version we have for Panem is not, despite all its flaws and injustices, the United States, but China. The developed eastern China is enthralled to a versions of consumerism that would make even Americans blush. As long as the Chinese Communist Party can keep the money flowing they remain largely unchallenged even if a blind renegade such as Chen Guangcheng
can periodically bring the injustices, of at least local governments to light. If eastern China is Collin’s Capitol, its Tibetan and Xijiang regions are its districts, which inspire brutal crackdowns wherever their inhabitants get a little too uppity for the PRC’s taste. It will be interesting to see how the Hunger Games movies, and the inevitable copycats they will spawn will play in China. This potential of a now global film and media industry to pose deep questions may be the only way to balance out its tendency to lull society into a state of passive acceptance of the current order.

No one in the West should become smug on the basis of this characterization of China as Panem.  Rather, we should remain ever vigilant for any movement in the direction of 1984 and push back hard on any extension of the power of the state to imprison, silence, torture, spy upon, or lie. Huxley’s dystopia, which is probably the one we live in, is based upon the state having solved the problem of scarcity and stuffing the people until they no longer know what freedom is for. This may be characteristic of a very particular period of human history following the Second World War, but this might prove to have been a golden age of economic equality which we have exited permanently.

If we do not, sometime soon, emerge from the current economic crisis, if the model of middle class consumer society proves irretrievably broken, then all bets are off. Elites may be challenged in ways they have not since the early part of the last century and one of the possible, if unlikely, dystopian outcomes would be a return of at least some of the features of the tyranny on display in 1984.

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8 comments on “Panem and the dueling dystopias

  1. Great post!

    I agree with you, I’ve always thought western regimes resembled and exerted the social control brilliantly described by Huxley as opposed to Orwell’s. However, you’re right, as the economic crisis takes its toll on society and as social angst at high levels of inequality rises, then western regimes might just resort to the good old 1984 tactics.
    Personally, I find more dangerous the power exerted by a Brave New World regime than a 1984 one. The ways in which the notion of freedom has been re-conceptualised throughout the past 30 years has effectively neutered its potential for political agency, rendering it a concept solely glorifying economic liberty. I find this more dangerous than the nude violence exerted on the individual’s body (or on its soul) as described by Orwell.

    • Rick Searle says:

      Thanks for the compliment, Giulio.

      My view on the question of Brave New World vs 1984 is something like this: If we tried to find perfect analogs in today’s world for Huxley’s and Orwell’s visions perhaps Singapore and North Korea would make the best fit. Now, I’d certainly rather live in Singapore than North Korea, and I don’t think we should downplay just how dehumanizing and terrifying living in Orwell’s dystopia, North Korea in this example, would be. Huxley’s dystopia is more dangerous only in the sense that it appears to have far more staying power. A regime like North Korea collapses almost overnight once the bubble of propaganda and fear has been burst. A Brave New World regime, on the other hand can last seemingly forever, only a systemic crisis can dislodge it, and those come perhaps once in a century.

      What hit me while writing this post was that if our current crisis really does prove unsolvable then elites were unlikely to just roll over and accept change in the direction of a new systemic order. They might just as likely turn towards Orwellian methods.

  2. I perceive Huxley’s Brave New World as a negative portrayal of a global communist reality, so while many of his ideas reflect the attitude of liberal ‘Western’ societies towardssystemic opposition, I still believe Orwell’s violent methods will remain relevant for a long time.

    However, dystopias, like utopias, are idealizations, and hence they lie on the extremes of imagination. So while we may characterize Singapore or North Korea as somewhat reflective of a dystopia, I think the valuation of who is dystopic and who is not is primarily based on our respective ideologies. To be fair, I doubt the majority of the North Koreans wanted to live in the US. Panem, then, is not a parodic reflection of a specific state, but a concretization of certain values, experiences, realities, etc, that exists regardless of what state perceives it to be.

    Btw, thank you the insightful article. Cheers!

    • Rick Searle says:

      Hi John, thanks for your comments. One area I would disagree with you regarding: I do not think the majority of people really care that much about ideology- unless, that is, they are the subject of particularly effective propaganda by the state. What they do care about is they and their children not starving to death or living under the threat of execution.

      I have no way to prove this, but I do think the majority of North Koreans would rather live in South Korea or the US, Panem or not. I think this desire can be seen in the streams of people who attempt to flee North Korea for neighboring countries. How many South Koreans, whatever their political ideology, are trying to flee into the North?

  3. […] if it is the case, as I have argued elsewhere, that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a better guide to our dystopian present than the much […]

  4. […] with household tools: knives, clubs, axes. In scenes far more gripping than those in Collin’s Catching Fire, London depicts urban warfare between security forces fighting raging crowds and bomb throwing […]

  5. […] if it is the case, as I have argued elsewhere, that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a better guide to our dystopian present than the much […]

  6. […] with household tools: knives, clubs, axes. In scenes far more gripping than those in Collin’s Catching Fire, London depicts urban warfare between security forces fighting raging crowds and bomb throwing […]

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