“YA dystopias teach children to submit to the free market, not fight authority,“ read the strangely self-contradictory headline in The Guardian. “The Hunger Games, The Giver and Divergent all depict rebellions against the state, and promote a tacit right-wing libertarianism,” continued the 2014 article by Ewan Morrison, a Glaswegian author of fiction who also writes about fiction.
The piece only recently came to my attention, but it was too good not to critique. In advance, let’s consider the possibility that Morrison was trying to write a parody of the progressive left. If so, it is an excellent demonstration of Poe’s Law: without knowing the author’s intent, no parody is ever so obviously exaggerated that it cannot be mistaken for the real thing.
That said, the arguments surely do sound like familiar left-wing fare. It starts with two misconceptions. The first is that one “submits” to free markets as if they were governmental authority, and that libertarianism is not inherently anti-authoritarian. The entire purpose of the freedom to own and trade one’s property or labour is that such transactions are not subject to the dictates of authority. You don’t “submit” to your own voluntary actions. Asserting individual liberty is to fight against authority.
The second is that Morrison conflates libertarianism with the right wing. In reality, libertarians are opposed to authoritarianism from both the left and the right. They often find themselves opposed to establishment parties on the left and the right. Libertarians like neither Obama nor Trump. They favour the personal freedoms advocated by the left, and the economic freedoms advocated by the right, while opposing the economic socialism of the left and the conservative values of the right.
Morrison argues that the dystopian fiction older adults grew up with was of “the free-market-will-bring-hell-on-Earth period of speculative fiction”. He cites a few examples, but in reality, dystopian fiction was far more diverse than this, as I wrote last year. It was just as likely to warn against oppressive states as it was to warn against oppressive corporations. It was just as likely to warn against the ecological dangers of rampant consumerism as it was to warn against the horrors of state-led nuclear war. Some fiction was explicitly libertarian, such as Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.
Notably, the evil corporations in such fiction were often monopolies that exercised powers usually associated with the state, such as legislation and law enforcement. This is hardly a feature of free markets. In order to support a generally anti-capitalist stance, the left often conflates state capitalism or crony capitalism with free-market capitalism, as if economic freedom causes the abuses associated with a corrupt relationship between governments and private interests.
Libertarianism opposes so-called “corporate welfare”, opposes “public-private partnerships”, and opposes “state capture”. It opposes government doing much more than protecting life, liberty and property. It doesn’t oppose corporate lobbying as such, since anyone is entitled to lobby for anything, but since everyone ought to be equal before the law, the government is not entitled to legislate in favour of certain special interests at the expense of others. In an ideal free-market world, there wouldn’t be much to lobby for other than improving government accountability and reducing red tape.
“What marks these dystopias out from previous ones is that, almost without exception, the bad guys are not the corporations but the state and those well-meaning liberal leftists who want to make the world a better place,” writes Morrison. But that is nothing new, really, nor is that surprising.
The authoritarian villains in dystopian fiction almost always are well-intended elites that plan societies for the supposed benefit of everyone, but in which the outcome is unintended poverty, oppression or war.
And today’s governments fall squarely in that category. Under the guise of economic stabilisation, they have lurched from one financial crisis to the next, each time “solving” the crisis by doubling down on the inflationary monetary policy that led to it. Printing more money to hand to banks to lend out amounts is nothing more than a wealth transfer from the poor to the rich. Under the guise of social welfare, governments create ever-growing bureaucracies, and ever-accumulating taxes and regulations. They are forever digging themselves deeper into debt to fund these schemes; debt for which today’s young adults are on the hook. Under the guise of security, their surveillance has become ever more invasive, their arrests ever more arbitrary, and their drones strikes ever more extra-legal.
Many young adults cannot find employment, and if they do, their wages cannot pay for housing, insurance and retirement – the most basic elements of the lifestyles that their parents and grandparents could once afford on a single middle-class income.
If the youth of today have found that anti-government messages have become “incontestable”, as Morrison argues, that is because they have become disillusioned with government by experience. It is not only in fiction that the powers-that-be have been, to use Morrison’s words, “exposed as an all-controlling government that dictates, enforces and polices all social norms and behaviours and which has laid down a rigid structure for the society and the economy through which it operates.”
He writes: “This generation of YA dystopian novels is really our neoliberal society dreaming its last nightmares about the threat from communism, socialism and the planned society. We’ve simplified it to make it a story we can tell to children and in so doing we’ve calmed the child inside us.”
“Dreaming its last nightmares”? Really? Tell that to the people of Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, or even the much-lauded China. Communism was no dream. It killed more people than both World Wars combined. Socialism is no nightmare. It is painfully real, survives under authoritarian dictatorships, and it destroy lives. It is not childish to fear them. It is a rational, adult perspective on modern history.
“If you see yourself as a left-leaning progressive parent, you might want to exercise some of that oppressive parental control and limit your kids’ exposure to the ‘freedom’ expressed in YA dystopian fiction,” advises Morrison, revealing his instinct for enforcing acceptable norms and behaviours upon others by force. As if banning books will dispel “the message that left-wing utopians are inherently dangerous and potentially evil”.
I’m not at all convinced that young adults are indeed learning to fear left-wing ideology or an authoritarian state. Colleges and universities (not to mention The Guardian) are certainly doing all they can to drum such revolutionary notions out of them, and government bureaucracies perpetuate themselves without much regard for the consent of the governed.
But here’s hoping that a few fans of The Hunger Games, The Giver and Divergent really do become more inclined to liberty, even if they have to smuggle forbidden literature into their dorm rooms at night. That would be a harbinger of a more free, more prosperous society to come. DM
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