All Commentary
Thursday, January 23, 2014

Dystopias Seen, Dystopias Imagined

Two things converged in my media-viewing world last week that together made an impression on me. One was a talk show, the other a documentary.

The NSA Versus

On a National Public Radio call-in show about the National Security Agency’s PRISM program, a caller wanted to know why people were making such a fuss over the NSA collecting this data when corporations like routinely record the buying habits of their customers to sell more stuff. She didn’t know the difference.

As we all probably know by now, PRISM lets the federal government access and potentially read any of the countless email and telephone messages that daily pass through the Internet around the world. The radio host passed the question on to his guest who, fortunately, answered something to the effect that “Well, the government can throw you in jail, can’t.” Pretty good answer; pretty bad question.

Of course, as we have learned from Edward Snowden, the NSA can use its political power to demand that Google, Verizon, Facebook, Skype, and other private companies turn that sort of data over to it, in effect contracting out its spying operations.

Still, it's disturbing that the caller, who sounded otherwise intelligent and interested in political affairs, would ask such a question. I suppose that in large part it’s because people, especially on the left, conflate “economic power”—the wealth that enables us to buy and sell on the market—with “political power”—the initiation of legitimized violence and fraud against others. I’ll expand on that in a moment.

North Korea

The other program was a PBS television documentary on Frontline called “Secret State of North Korea.” It showed fascinating, illegal footage of daily life in what is probably the most totalitarian collectivist state on the planet. No one can freely enter or leave North Korea, and external communication of any kind is strictly controlled by the government. Violators risk imprisonment or execution and neighbors are encouraged to spy on one another. That’s surveillance with a sting!

There is of course practically no economic freedom there. There is no private ownership of the means of production that would enable ordinary people to choose whom to work for and with, where to live, and what to buy or sell. The result has been widespread deprivation and, especially in the 1990s, starvation on a massive scale. The economy depends on large subsidies from communist China to the north, which, while highly interventionist compared to the United States, looks like paradise to average North Koreans.

I found it somewhat encouraging from the video that, as when the first cracks of freedom appeared in the People’s Republic of China in the 1980s, authorities in North Korea have recently begun tolerating some rudimentary, but fairly open, buying and selling. You’ll also see that the spirit of entrepreneurship and of challenging authority is not entirely dead there.

The Great Conflation

Strange, but the NPR caller and the PBS documentary made me think of the movies and how they typically conflate political power with economic power.

I can run off a number of highly popular movies that have depicted what we might call “capitalist dystopias.” That is, stories about giant private companies that putatively “run everything” and trample on ordinary people. For starters there’s Blade Runner, the Alien films, WALL-E, and more recently Elysium. In these films, the rich fat cats live sheltered, privileged lives on the backs of downtrodden proletariat-citizen-slaves. The premise being: If you’ve got enough money you can hurt anybody, and the way to get that money is by squashing and swindling the rest of us.

There is, too, a long list of movies about collectivist dystopias, such as Michael Radford’s adaption of George Orwell’s 1984.

But my point is that these imaginary, capitalist dystopias typically make no conceptual distinction between becoming super rich Bill Gates style—by selling things people want to buy at prices they’re willing to pay—and becoming super rich Vladamir Putin style—through aggression and corruption. Moreover, the filmmaker doesn’t seem to expect the audience to know the difference either, and most of the time they don’t.

Are we today in the United States living in a capitalist dystopia run by giant corporations? Crony capitalist corporations aside, let’s try to get a sense of proportion here.

First, the net worth of the United States in 2013, its total assets minus liabilities, is around $77 trillion. One website, which gives neither the year nor the source of its data (so beware), puts Exxon Corporation at the top of its private net-worth rankings at $486 billion. Let’s round that up to $500 billion. That means that the biggest corporation in America has a net worth that is about 0.65 percent of the total net worth of the United States.  And even if the top 10 corporations in America each had that same net worth, which of course they don’t, they would still amount to only 6.5 percent of total net worth. Contrast that with the president of Russia, who has virtually 100 percent of the $2 trillion net worth of the entire Russian economy at his disposal.

Second, let’s say that we are indeed right now living in a capitalist dystopia, yet, for the vast majority of us, it really doesn’t look or feel much like the dismal world of Blade Runner or Elysium. If the hyper-capitalist world depicted in those films isn’t the present-day United States (or Japan or Germany or Singapore), then where is it? Where is or when was that dystopic Googleland? Does it exist and has it ever existed? Answer: It doesn’t and it hasn’t.

North Korea Versus Googleland

But what about the world of collectivist dystopias as depicted in 1984, where the State and its agents openly oppress the population, conduct surveillance, and hand out cruel and arbitrary punishments? Why, they’re not hard to find at all. Examples abound: the USSR under Lenin and Stalin, China under Mao, Nazi Germany, and now of course North Korea under the Kim dynasty.

So there are the capitalist dystopias we imagine but that don’t and haven’t existed, and then there are the collectivist dystopias we’ve actually experienced. Which should we fear more, the imaginary capitalist dystopias we see in the movies or the collectivist ones that too many have actually had to live through? Then why do so many fear the former as much as or even more than the latter?  I confess, I don’t know the answer.

I believe it was Gabriel Kolko in The Triumph of Conservatism who argued that opposition to “centralization, conformity, bureaucracy” and the oppression of “the little guy” motivated left-progressives a hundred years ago, regardless of whether its source was the private sector or government. The job of the libertarian intellectual then, and a job for classical liberals of each and every generation, is to explain how those things are much, much worse when done by the State, using its monopoly over violent aggression, than when done by even the largest private companies in the world.

  • Sanford Ikeda is a Professor and the Coordinator of the Economics Program at Purchase College of the State University of New York and a Visiting Scholar and Research Associate at New York University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.