Garden of Eden or Fool’s Paradise?

By Medha Arora, Deputy Editor

After the decline of the European Feudal system, the introduction of waged labour and the Industrial Revolution, capitalism emerged as a system viewed synonymously with growth and prosperity. The reality of a free-market system, the essence of which includes recognition of an individual’s rights and private ownership of property, coupled with the intent to reduce inequality and increase standard of living, appeared emblematic of a glorified alternative universe when compared to the exploitation borne at the hands of feudal lords and merchants. Some would even characterize its visions as ‘utopian’. Coined in 1516 by Thomas Moore, utopia refers to an exaggerated perfect and idealized fictional society, embodying humanity’s hope in the world, and is mainly popularized by its use in literature and art. The visions of the free-market system as utopian arise from the promises of equality, abundance, cooperation and the absence of suffering that it claims to entail.

For instance, The ‘Utopia’ Exhibit, a collaboration between the New York Public Library and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris traces Western Utopian thought beginning with the biblical Garden of Eden and ending with the world of cyberspace. It is inferred by some as representative of free thought and enrichment of life, and suggests a society without poverty, misery and human suffering, perhaps brought about by technological advancements, as “capitalism’s unprecedented dynamism turns utopia from a “no-place” to a real possibility.”

However, the irony behind this exhibit was awfully apparent to Costas Panayotakis of University of Glasgow as put forward in his critique. As he was coming out of the library along with other visitors, waiting for the tourists and passers-by was a group of 6-12-year-old African-American children, dancing and performing acrobatic tricks, to a mostly white audience that would hopefully throw a quarter or two into their empty bucket. And thus, he “returned to the dystopian reality of a society that can domesticate and neutralize the Utopian impulse within the walls of its museums while its oppressive “business as usual” continues outside.” Which brings us to the question of how utopian the idea of capitalism really is. Is it instead closer to the concept of a dystopia or anti-utopia? Are we currently in fool’s paradise?

What is Dystopia/ Dystopian Literature?

With the ongoing pandemic and lockdown, the word ‘dystopia’ has seen an increased usage, and fairly aptly, considering the uncertainty and unparalleled horrors that came with it. Dystopian writing originally began as a form of speculative fiction in response to utopian fiction. In stark contrast to utopias, dystopias reflect depressing, vivid, frightening accounts, generally placed in the potential future as exaggerations of present trends and developments. Published in 1895, H.G Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’ was one of the first notable examples of the “scary-utopia” genre. Examples of dystopian writing range from old classics such as Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and George Orwell’s ‘1984’ to Young Adult, teen fiction books such as ‘Divergent’ and ‘The Hunger Games’. Other forms of dystopian fiction also include Web Series such as ‘Black Mirror’ and ‘Leila’ starring Huma Qureshi. 

What makes dystopian fiction distinct from other ‘scary’ fiction is the identifiability and relatability associated with present scenarios. Current aspects of society that seem distressing, alarming or are liable to massively affect a country or the planet are popular themes. For instance, climate change, religious control, government control, technological control etc. Common characteristics of a dystopian world include oppression, mass poverty, loss of individualism, totalitarianism, dehumanization, surveillance and government control, totalitarianism being one of the most popular themes. Lucy Sargisson, researcher and writer on utopia suggests that during the Cold War era, dystopian fiction was primarily fixed on totalitarianism, partly because of “deliberate attempts to invalidate any proposed alternative to capitalism; anti-utopianism is a standard weapon in the armoury of the status quo.”

Capitalism and Dystopia

Despite the acknowledgement of capitalism’s numerous flaws, to associate dystopia with the opportunities, innovation, general increased availability of resources and absence of continuous government intervention that the system has brought doesn’t exactly sit right with most of us. The impression that things are different and better and will continue to be better- sits more comfortably with us, after all capitalism is a very optimistic system. However, the growing influence and degree of control of corporations on the environment, families, education, mental and physical health, faith, politics etc. brings to light how in its own way, the system is gaining control over our choices and decisions, overruling its principal endorsements.

For instance, the advertisements we are greeted with now, in the age of surveillance capitalism are targeted specifically at us and shape our choices and behaviours, as we bear little or no knowledge about it. Perhaps, the idea isn’t too far from a rigid regime making decisions for us, with the exception of covertness. Dystopian fiction also typically includes a backstory of war, uprisings, natural disasters or other dramatic events that could lead to the establishment of an undesirable system. The mounts of evidence substantiating how Disaster Capitalism is used to make individuals believe in the promises of their best interest, while their vulnerability is exploited and the interest of the free-market and the elite rich is furthered, is a self-explanatory parallel to dystopian visions. 

Another key feature of dystopian societies is the hegemony of a single person or group over the middle class and lower class of people. (the workers or proletariat.) Like in George Orwell’s 1984, there was the dominion of Big Brother, the big surveillance head, (whose references continue to embellish all spheres even today), the elite Inner Party, the industrious Outer Party, and vast numbers of uneducated proles. Needless to say, our current society while drastically different from Oceania in most ways, bears a similarity in terms of class distinctions and inequality, generally attributed to things like culture, race, colonialism and now, capitalism, with the powerful companies and monopolies serving as the elite and controlling, instead of a political party. Similarly, the Black Mirror episode, Fifteen Million Merits, set in a futuristic capitalist society provides a social critique on how consumerism and mass culture keep the working class in servitude. It need not be reiterated that the system is under fire for exploitation of workers- also displaying a semblance with the structure in The Hunger Games trilogy- the all-powerful, rich, living-with-excesses, ‘Capitol’, bestowed with the finest fashion, food, and a lavish lifestyle at the cost of the culturally and physically differentiated ‘Districts’, who are forced to undertake production and extraction of raw materials, for the Capitol, while living in poverty.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano (1952), dystopia is reflected as a highly mechanized society, which in a post-war era, creates conflict between the wealthy upper class, the engineers and managers, who keep society running, and the lower class, whose skills and purpose in society have been replaced by machines. Unlike in previous dystopian work, there is no significant political repression, citizens have the ability to vote and freedom of expression, health care and the standard of living is higher than before. However, the competition with machines leads to a decline in self-worth, depression and even suicide. It fronts questions of human purpose, personal relationships and environmental issues being left unattended. Gregory Claeys, 2017, contends that the book is largely a satire on corporate life and as a dystopia, even though realistic, is a particularly mild one.


To say that our society is as ghastly as the ones described in these stories would not just be bold, but also incorrect. Dystopias and utopias are after all, works of imagination. But the critical engagement with the present that dystopian literature postulates, in the realm of possibilism cannot be overlooked. From age-old to contemporary forms of dystopian writing and film, the potential destruction that capitalism is capable of, is far from obscure. Building on the fixed association of dystopia with totalitarianism, it goes to show how the big corporation and the market have replaced the state as a coercive power that could threaten our well-being. In a 2019 paper ‘Disaster Capitalism and Dystopia’, analyzing the same, Ingólfur Stefánsson says, ”What if the order of large State companies is replaced by an order of large private companies, which do not even have to cater to the rights and demands of free citizens, but simply to the artificially constructed preferences of artfully managed moneyed consumers?” In this form, lives are materially better and safer, but freedom and equality are a simple utopian-selling-narrative.

“Utopian possibilities are recognized as the product of a dynamic capitalist society which, if left to its own devices, will frustrate these possibilities in favour of an increasingly dystopian future.”Costas Panayotakis, University of Glasgow

Other books and films featuring similar parallels:

8 Anti-Capitalist Sci-Fi and Fantasy Novels- Speculative fiction that challenges capitalistic systems of oppression

Imagining the End of Capitalism in ‘Post-Occupy’ Dystopian Films


Disaster Capitalism and Dystopia

Daily Dystopia: Marxism and The Hunger Games

Dystopian Capitalism and the Specter of Utopia: A Critique of the New York Public Library Exhibit


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s