Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Look What Greed Did: Birthing a Dystopia using Alternate History

Guest post by Steve Keefe.

Writing during the austerity of post-war Great Britain, Orwell projected a grim, totalitarian future for his nation as Airstrip One in 1984.  When viewed in the context of Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union of Orwell's own time, or Saddam Hussein's Iraq or Kim Jung-un's North Korea that followed, such a repressive society as Orwell's 1984 hardly defies reality.

But even more chilling than seeing the operation of the fully matured police states of recent history, or of fictional ones from Orwell's Oceania to Collins's Panem, could be observing how relatively just and free societies devolve into oligarchic machines bent on exploitation.  Perhaps having such a front row seat to witnessing a struggling democracy slip into darkness made Larson's In the Garden of the Beasts such a frightening read.  Despite the candor and detail of his reports, no one cared to pay attention to Ambassador Dodd as he rang the alarm bells warning of Hitler's rise.  Within a few years of Dodd's flow of telegrams to Washington, getting caught doing something as fundamental to a free society as distributing leaflets warranted a death sentence in Germany, like the one meted out to Sophie Scholl in wartime Munich.

But how does it all start and when does a society reach injustice's tipping point?  Is the descent into tyranny even reversible without tremendous suffering once flawed mankind has wandered off course?  And at the bottom of most of history's tyranny and suffering, is some extreme ideology usually the culprit?  I wrote Look What Greed Did to search for answers to these questions.
     
The United States has problems, no doubt.  Hospital charge-masters, as persuasively set forth by Steven Brill in his recent Time magazine article "Bitter Pill," have pushed millions into medical bankruptcy.  The lobbying industry has formed a financial wedge between the American people and their elected government. Education costs have absolutely and unjustifiably skyrocketed, threatening to rip apart the level playing field so important to rewarding those wishing to rise in a capitalist society.  And atop these first three egregiously misbehaving American institutions sits Wall Street, ruling over global capitalism, perhaps as the true tyrant king of our society.

The wealth gap is increasing, and America has perhaps already entered a second Gilded Age of robber barons and rising poverty threatening to hollow out the middle class.  In the final analysis, this widening economic inequality may provide more fodder for a future dystopia than even the Orwellian misadventures of the National Security Agency in recent months.

Americans have been flirting with some pretty extreme ideologies in recent decades--a somewhat curious exercise for a nation of historically practical-minded people.  The objectivist "greed is good" line propagated by Ayn Rand, who incidentally immigrated to America from a land cursed by ideology and tyranny, may in the end reveal itself as a terribly tragic wrong turn in the history of an economic system.  Has greed so pervasively infected our hospitals, universities, lobbyists, and financial sector that they now unwittingly sow the seeds of some future dystopia?

Maybe.  Maybe not.  After all, whether society's institutions are falling into tyranny likely forms the crux of the struggle conservatives and liberals have been embroiled in since even before they called themselves Populares and Optimates on the streets of Rome.

But putting all the politicized economics aside, there's still one surefire way to rev up the engines of tyranny and push a society quickly toward dystopia.  It can happen when misbehaving institutions start to get their hooks into one of the holiest of Democracy's pillars.  And you'll find lobbyists, today's equivalent of the corrupt Renaissance Catholic Church, standing at ground zero of the political crime tantamount to the rape of democracy.  That is, if you mess around too much with the vote and play too many cynical games uncoupling swaths of American society from the right to vote, then you might put a nation on the bullet train to dystopia.

When the law breaks apart from justice and serves as an obstacle to the voting booth, and when a people lack the political instincts to recognize such tyranny and the courage to fight back against it, then the tipping point into oppression may be close at hand.  Therein lies one possible road to destinations like Oceania and Panem.

I wrote Look What Greed Did to fictionalize a first wrong turn toward dystopia.  The book's imaginary America portrays much of the actual present, but also reflects a less fortunate alternate history where the nation has slipped further toward tyranny.  Neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama, who both love their country despite seeing it quite differently from each other, serves as the villain in this less fortunate version of our world.  Greed itself, that innate imperfection of mankind now polished up by ideology into a would-be virtue, stands as the enemy to justice in the book.

Following grossly gerrymandered 2012 elections, Look What Greed Did begins with tensions across the country at a fever pitch.  With mistakes made on all sides, a private security firm fires into a crowd of students protesting Wall Street and perceived inequality on December 22, 2012.  Outraged by a feeble response by the courts, survivors of that massacre on Wall Street form the December 22nd movement, counterattacking with a vengeance against the private security guards who machine-gunned the crowds and targeting the private actors behind the voting scandals infecting the 2012 election.  But as December 22nd's reign of terror rises over the political landscape, the violent revenge the movement inflicts may only serve to push the country further away from justice.

Concepts like one person, one vote live at the core of a functioning democracy.  Let medical and university debt, a cynical lobbying culture, and a financial sector ruled by Mammon batter democratic institutions and the middle class too much, and the pillars of freedom could start to buckle.  Long before modern society could allow any ministries of love or reapings to roll over it, it must first surrender the core institutions of democracy.  Look What Greed Did explores the beginnings of one such decline into dystopia, where human greed marshals the forces of hospital chargemasters, rising tuition, K Street, and Wall Street against the will and the spirit of the People.

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Steve Keefe is the author of Look What Greed Did, available on Amazon.

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