The theatre started to fill up. Hundreds of people took their seats, for what would eventually become a full auditorium. On that late evening in London, everyone was ready, anxious and intrigued by what would happen next. A light went on, illuminating the stage of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. The host for the night welcomed us to an especial event with popular and controversial Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, who would be interviewed live and would spend a couple of hours telling us everything about her famous novels. Only a couple of minutes after this, Atwood came into the stage. The ovation was overwhelming. People were excited to see the author that inspired one of their favourite T.V. shows: The Handmaid’s Tale.
Given her interest and writing on dystopias, mainly of the fascist type, it did not take long before Margaret Atwood started to talk about fascism and revolution. In the end, the premise of her lauded The Handmaid’s Tale, is precisely a world where women lose their rights and end up in a new tyrannical nightmare. According to what Atwood shared with us that evening, it was exactly that her inspiration for the book. She wanted to think about the specifics of what would need to happen for our society to start losing all of the rights that we have and for which we have fought for ages. Despite a magical evening in the company of a brilliant writer, I kept thinking, however, “which rights?” I also wondered why we kept talking about fascism as something happening in the future. Are we not living in a fascist world already? Interestingly, one of the questions asked to Atwood had to do with this. She replied that there are many things wrong with the world in which we live today, but that our times are certainly better –i.e. less fascist– than in the past. She is right about that. Yet, the question remains as to how living in the West today is already, in some ways, a dystopia? The answer is fairly complicated, but let us try to summarize it.
Our capitalist times today are simply a qua-fascist regime in disguise. The problem is precisely that since it is not presented as an imposition or a totalitarianism, most people do not even know the forces to which they are constrained and by which they are slaved today. Yet, we realize that something is wrong with modern capitalism, when we look at the rising levels of inequality. Just “Credit Suisse recently revealed that the richest 1% have now accumulated more wealth than the rest of the world put together” (OXFAM, 2016). Can you imagine that? Additionally, we see how wages, in real terms, for the middle class in the UK and the US have basically stayed stagnant for the last 30 years, while paradoxically, the ratio of debt against income of the lower 95 percent of American consumers, from 1989 to 2007, doubled from 80 to 160% (Ford, 2015, location 3188). And, what could we say about unemployment or underemployment, which in addition, are making our lives harder. Now, some people would argue that even with inequality, underemployment and accruing personal debt, at least there are still jobs for us, and especially the middle class in the West manages to survive. Yet, when we go into the whole job dimension, things turn even sourer, do not they? We work to be measured all the time by ridiculous metrics that are supposed to have hegemonic power over us, and whose authority is not to be challenged, not today not ever. These metrics beyond usually being profoundly simplistic, tend to overemphasize also profit, efficiency or productivity, over happiness, satisfaction or professional realization. In a word, they simply translate the wants and desires of the proverbial Marxist ruling industrialist (2004), to control people for his/her benefit. Then, we have to face the uncomfortable reality. It turns out that people are miserable at their jobs: “Climate surveys routinely show that 60%–70% of employees in most organizations report that the most stressful aspect of their jobs is their immediate boss… Further, the failure rate of managers in corporate America is 50%” (Van Vugt, Hogan and Kaiser 2008, p.191). However, the managerial obsession with controlling everyone continues, and far from making us feel free, it makes us feel simply comfortably enslaved.
That is perhaps a relevant and useful label for our times, at least in the West: comfortable slavery. We remain without freedom to be the masters of our domains. Today, everything we do is controlled and there is a rule for everything. Nonetheless, it is true, that at least in the West, we live a bit more comfortably. This Nietzschean comfortableness is perhaps the root of the lack of change in our social and economic systems. Just look at what happened after the Great Recession of 2008/09, capitalism crumbled, yet it continues to rule the world. No one is willing to change it; but why?
As Pierre Bourdieu once elegantly argued, the problem might be that the assumptions of our capitalist modernity are given as evident to us, we do not even question them. We do not question that people get better jobs if they went to better universities simply because they were lucky to be born in better families, we do not question our Key Performance Indicators which in a discriminative way are supposed to be our metonymy, we do not question that markets are supposedly free (Chomsky, 1999), and we certainly do not question, despite evidence of capitalist corruption, that those that have more is because they deserve it. In short, “A whole set of presuppositions is being imposed as self-evident: it is taken for granted that maximum growth, and therefore productivity and competitiveness, are the ultimate and sole goal of human actions; or that economic forces cannot be resisted” (Bourdieu, 1998, p. 31).
Two things are, therefore, clear from this problematization. First, we could say that Margaret Atwood was right, and our times are not as bad as previous times of blatant and physical fascism. Second, it should be, nevertheless, acknowledged that we are far from free today and that our world is far from fair. In a word, it seems, perhaps, like the times of a despotic and tyrannical fascism have been turned into the times of a mindful, comfortable, and disguised one. It is in the end, probably, this quid pro quo between comfortability and liberty, which has made modern neoliberal capitalism a success. Because people, at least in developed countries, surviving in an excruciating but at the same time reasonably comfortable way, do not want to jeopardize their lives by rebelling. Besides, how could they rebel if they are buried in debt, anxious about becoming unemployed at any time, and worried about losing their homes? It is the perfect combination of anxiety and comfort for most to be eager to keep the system actually as it is. Sadly, the ones losing the most, those living in actual and profound poverty, are too weak to do anything about an hegemonic global economic system. It is like this, that the disguised tyranny in which we keep living, is sometimes too, regrettably, the fault of the middle class, which between their anxiety and their petty comfort prefer not to get into trouble. Like this, the middle class betrayed the lower class, left them all alone, while the system became King. Who will dethrone it?
Bourdieu, P. (1998), Acts of Resistance, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Cambridge.
Chomsky, N. (1999), Profit over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order, Seven Stories Press, New York.
Ford, M. (2015), The Rise of the Robots, Oneworld Books, London.
Marx, K. and Engels, F. (2004), Manifesto of the Communist Party, marxists.org, Online.
OXFAM. (2016), An Economy for the 1%, OXFAM, UK.