Have we been seduced by Dyst-hope-ia?

I am a scholar of dystopia – a dystopian if you will. I am an aficionado of dystopia, a connoisseur of the literary and artistic genre in its myriad of forms and nightmares.

I consider dystopian thinking to be an evolution, or sometimes an extrapolation, from the precautionary principle, which warns against change for the sake of change. Dystopia is a form of negative imagining, an attempt to envision and render in realistic terms a truly ‘negative place’, the etymological meaning of the term.

In this sense, I find dystopian thinking to be significantly more culturally useful than utopian thinking, which to a large extent has been reduced to a singular political ideology derived from a Marxist strain of post 1960s counterculture.

Whereas utopian thinking has devolved to activist academic attempts to plot routes towards one particular ‘positive place’ future, dystopian thinking has instead remained more broad and wide in its purview. After all, there are many nightmares.

If there is a structural flaw to both modes of art and thinking, it is that in practice they generally extrapolate forward to complete visions, the totalising utopia or dystopia. Rarely if ever do we see depicted the many incremental stages between the world as we know it and the heavenly or nightmare future world depicted.

Where utopian thinkers in particular have addressed the explicit or implicit developments towards utopia or dystopia, they have, to my mind, missed the point somewhat. The terms ‘critical utopia’ and ‘critical dystopia’ emerged some four decades or so ago to describe incomplete elements of depicted utopias and dystopias. Thus these key depictions of complexity, nuance and evolution in such literature and art (and philosophy) were reduced to anomalies which could either be countered (in the case of ‘critical utopias’) or fostered (in the case of ‘critical dystopias.’)

This was an innovative way of looking at things then, but it was always reductive, and ideologically driven, and at this point its limitations are becoming quite obvious. Actual examination of how society develops towards utopia or dystopia tends to be quite thin on the ground, despite examples existing all around us.

The exception if there is one is the regularly bruited risk of a return to 1930s-style fascist governance in current democratic societies. The election of leaders with an authoritarian populist rhetoric, be they Trump, Orban or Meloni, is now routinely accompanied by dire extrapolations (and often incomplete historical parallels) which overtly suggest that a slippery slope to neo-Nazi rule is already well underway.

But dystopia as I said takes a myriad of forms, and each form evolves and devolves in different forms and at different rates in different cultural and historical circumstances. As a dystopia thinker, I try to look for patterns, for trends, which suggest dystopian vectors of society, ways in which society is moving towards a less civilised state of being for most people.

In this way, many instances seem to pass under the radar. In fact, very often when they do occur, they are depicted as the opposite of what they are. They are reported as beacons of hope, anomalies which ‘critical utopias’ habitually accommodate in their positivist post-Enlightenment progress ratcheting ever forwards.

These instances are a little like ‘magic eye’ pictures, which were popular a generation back. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it, as they say. I refer to them as examples of dyst-hope-ia, as they are fundamentally dystopian developments, though usually incremental rather than totalising, swathed in a good-news suit of hope to make the bitter pill go down more easily.

In this way, a ratcheting towards a more dystopian society occurs in an almost Huxleyan sense, with the passive acceptance and approval of the population who actually are encouraged to associate such instances with hope rather that its opposite.

This is a little difficult to explain in abstract, so let me offer some concrete examples. Many years ago, I noticed a large building being erected in my district in Dublin. Over many months the grand edifice came together. I didn’t pass it often, so didn’t know what the building was intended to be, until one day in the local newspaper I read that it was due to open the following week. It was a new unemployment welfare office.

The local paper depicted this as a good thing. It was reported as a net good that the unemployed of the area now had a better, bigger dedicated office to deal with them efficiently. But beneath this patina of hope, one swiftly discerns that the expenditure of millions of euro in such a building is a commitment to societal unemployment in the area.

It is in fact an admission of failure – the failure to regenerate the area, or to provide employment for its inhabitants. At the time of its opening I wrote in my journalist’s notebook, “who approved this investment in indolence?” (I used a lot more alliteration in those days.)

Another example comes in today’s news from Britain, which in recent times can be relied upon as a stable and consistent source of examples of dyst-hope-ia. The emergence of a social charitable phenomenon called ‘warm banks’ (though the term is never used) is a classic example of dyst-hope-ia.

What is a ‘warm bank’? Based on the similar concept of food banks, a warm bank is a public charitable space where people who cannot afford to heat their homes may go to stay warm during opening hours. Bloomberg is one of many outlets who report approvingly of the concept here.

The welcoming warm bank, depicted as a jolly public community space – image courtesy of Getty Pictures.

Surely the hopeful depiction is legitimate? After all, the idea of the community rallying around to offer protection and support to the most vulnerable among them is a supremely positive and human thing. This is the hope in dyst-hope-ia, the positive cloak in which the nightmare clothes itself, the sheep’s clothing on the dystopian wolf.

Because, under this surface reaction is the initial action causing the need for such support – the vastly and rapidly escalating food and fuel costs which have left many vulnerable people in Britain with a choice between eating and heating.

And as with food banks before them, warm banks will function not only as a precarious safety net for the vulnerable, but also as a creeping normalisation of a more dystopian society, one in which it is normalised for people not to be able to afford food or heat their homes.

What dystopian thinking teaches me is not to dismiss this patina of hope cynically, nor to be seduced into thinking of the overall scenario as a positive development either. It allows me instead to see through the sheep’s clothing to the wolf beneath.

I suggest always lifting the surface of the good news story to check what might be smuggled into normality underneath. I admire the efforts of each and every person who contributes their time or money to keeping their community warm. But I refuse to allow that kind-heartedness to obscure the fact that the government is attempting to normalise the concept of citizens who cannot heat their own homes.