Dystopia or Hope?

A century ago, novelist and muckraker Upton Sinclair weighed in on the political debate of his day with a play that predicted worldwide devastation when a radioactive element causes a deadly explosion on New Year’s Eve in 1999. Called The Millennium, his script follows the attempts of a handful of survivors to create a new society. Oddly enough, the long-lost play, written in 1908 yet never performed publicly, is a comedy in which utopia prevails and all the characters live happily ever after. Looking at the state of the world today, it’s hard to be as optimistic.

In Sinclair’s fantasy, survivors of global cataclysm come to see the failures of feudalism and capitalism, finally discovering a socialist society that works. As it turns out, however, capitalism has so far managed to squelch consideration of any other option, while wreaking havoc globally and promoting the cynical notion that governments can do little to reduce misery. For many, socialism has become a synonym for repressive state control, a dream that produced totalitarian nightmares.

Sinclair, who focused on labor’s struggles and capitalism’s excesses, could laugh about humanity’s plight and look beyond catastrophe. Today, in contrast, a sense of ultimate doom hangs over the world. Many people have lost faith in a better future. In pop culture, post-modern scenarios often stress the dangers of technology in dystopias built on lies, brutality, and callous inequality. Though the hero usually saves humanity from oblivion, the basic message is that we are headed for a breakdown. Beyond that, who knows? It’s an essentially hopeless vision, which subtly promotes the glorification of greed and selfishness. We’re all on the Titanic, waiting for an iceberg, so why not just party until the inevitable happens.

Some say the only way out is global revolution, which is almost as dangerous as not doing anything. If rapacious corporations and their transnational institutions imperil the planet, goes the logic, the solution is basically to abolish both. Yet, this approach, like the state’s rights movement that seeks to challenge federal power in the US, could leave no way to enforce uniform standards of behavior. Some regions would flourish, others would become police states or ecological basket cases. And we’d all get to watch it on the Internet.

Like it or not, the global village is upon us. The questions are how it will evolve and what constructive role citizens can play. A quarter-century after creating his own millennial vision, Sinclair opted for reform, seizing the Democratic nomination for California governor and advancing the End Poverty in California (EPIC) platform.

For the Right, the prospect of a radical governor was terrifying. For the much of the Left, Sinclair’s move was a betrayal. But some, like fellow author John Dos Passos, saw his plan for land reform and socialization of idle factories as a valuable small step. In fact, although Sinclair ultimately lost the election, EPIC radicalized a generation of activists and helped create the Democratic Party’s progressive wing.

Rather than sinking into cynicism or clinging to fantasy, Sinclair translated his vision into a practical program for change. And that’s precisely the challenge that still faces humanity: to resist despair, sustain a positive long-term vision, and yet confront corporate power with practical, evolutionary alternatives. This means engagement with – not withdrawal from – the emerging global system.

Anti-government attitudes make people susceptible to reactionary, often isolationist appeals. Even though they may understand that no single nation can control violence, reverse environmental destruction, or protect basic rights around the world, many also believe that any form of “global management” is either fantasy or a potential nightmare – the dreaded One World Dictatorship. Only one problem: it’s already here, operating behind closed doors and accountable only to those managing its administrative agencies.

The World Bank and International Monetary Fund virtually run the economies of many countries, primarily in the interest of transnational industries and global financial interests. The UN plays a small role, as a forum for dialogue and a convenient place to dump problems. But even there, the real power lies with the five permanent members of the Security Council — the US, Britain, France, China, and Russia. Rather than worrying about secular humanists or black helicopters, those concerned about the New World Order might want to consider the open conspiracy to create a Corporate World Order.

Some suspicion of government’s potential power is certainly legitimate and relevant. Yet, the form of centralized power that most threatens us today isn’t public, it’s private, the negative power of big business and elite financial institutions. These interests, influencing and sometimes even determining the actions of governments, ought to be the main focus of scrutiny and action. Conveniently, the same interests lead the campaign to convince us that freedom means “me against the world” or “me against the government.” Appealing to fears of government intrusion is a convenient way to derail intrusions on the “right” to profit at the expense of the general health and well-being, and exploit in the name of freedom.

Fighting for more responsive and responsible government — both locally and globally — doesn’t mean surrendering our visions of a better society. In fact, winning a few battles would give hope to millions. But of course, higher aspirations — an increase in the demands citizens make on their governments — is precisely what corporate overseers fear.

Self-reliance is a fine idea, but there’s no point in romanticizing a bucolic past that never existed. As Doug Henwood puts it, what’s the point of treating globalization as the enemy, rather than capitalist and imperialist exploitation? Instead, we can work to democratize the global system, actively supporting the UN as a transitional institution to reduce violence and regain control over economic decisions. According to the UN Charter, the IMF and World Bank are “specialized agencies” within the UN system. Yet, they operate independently, including and excluding countries, imposing unilateral decisions, and undermining the UN’s potential as a place to resolve global economic and environmental problems.

The movement to challenge our de facto world government — the “mobilization against globalization” — has turned public attention to the issues, and challenged the complacency of corporate-dominated, transnational institutions. More accountability and transparency, as well as consideration of environment, labor, and human rights impacts, is the least we should ask. Beyond that, however, we need to move past fear and work for democracy at the world level.

This means some planet-level guidance, to ensure health and freedom for all, and deal with arms proliferation, malnutrition, toxic materials, and genetic engineering, among other problems. Rather than continuing to accept the myth that government is inherently evil, why not at least consider the idea of effective and participatory global governance, a higher authority that nurtures children, helps poor regions develop along sustainable lines, and defines and enforces global standards of human rights? Rather than assuming government is the enemy, let’s take it back and bring it to the next level — beyond misleading calls to nationalism and toward global democracy.

Reforming and strengthening the UN isn’t a revolutionary agenda, even with more democratic voting, removal of the Security Council veto, a restored economic agenda, and a standing army. It is still a forum for nations — not people. What we really need is a global parliament, effective enforcement of universal human rights, and trully equitable resource management. But like Sinclair’s plan, a small step could inspire future generations to believe that something other than a high-tech dystopia is still possible. Aside from global meltdown as the catalyst to create a new post-apocalyptic utopia, it could be most likely route to a hopeful and — dare I say it? — socialist transformation.

Earlier version published in Toward Freedom, April 2000.

Greg Guma is an author, editor and the former CEO of Pacifica Radio. He lives in Vermont and writes about politics and culture on his blog, Maverick Media (http://muckraker-gg.blogspot.com).