Saturday, 2 July 2016

A millionth of a ton


As many will know, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian novel WE influenced George Orwell when he wrote 1984. Set in a distant future, it was published before the crazed dictators of the twentieth century wrote their epitaphs in the blood of millions. WE is somewhat more alien and remote than 1984, but politically just as chilling. 

From Wikipedia

We is set in the future. D-503, a spacecraft engineer, lives in the One State, an urban nation constructed almost entirely of glass, which assists mass surveillance. The structure of the state is Panopticon-like. Furthermore, life is scientifically managed F. W. Taylor-style. People march in step with each other and are uniformed. There is no way of referring to people save by their given numbers. The society is run strictly by logic or reason as the primary justification for the laws or the construct of the society. The individual's behaviour is based on logic by way of formulas and equations outlined by the One State.

The logic of political behaviour is key and in my view just as disturbingly plausible as Orwell's Newspeak. Consider the two quotes below.

How good it is to know that a vigilant eye is fixed upon you, lovingly protecting you against the slightest error, the slightest misstep. This may seem somewhat sentimental, but an analogy comes to my mind—the Guardian Angels that the ancients dreamed of. How many of the things they merely dreamed about have been realized in our life!

Is it not clear, then, that to assume that the "I" can have some "rights" in relation to the State is exactly like assuming that a gram can balance the scale against the ton? Hence, the division: rights to the ton, duties to the gram. And the natural path from nonentity to greatness is to forget that you are a gram and feel yourself instead a millionth of a ton.

Yevgeny Zamyatin - WE (1921)

Few would admit it, but many people appear to desire this kind of world. Zamyatin’s imaginary dystopia is called the One State, ruled by the semi-mystical Benefactor. The Guardians enforce absolute discipline over every aspect of life, right down to sex, hours of sleep and even the number of times each mouthful of food must be chewed. Does the last one sound familiar?

Zamyatin’s key assumption on which he hangs his dystopian logic is that happiness is the absence of desire. Expunge desire and you have happiness. In some ways WE is more relevant now than 1984 because of Zamyatin’s use of dystopian logic.

Freedom and crime are linked as indivisibly as... well, as the motion of the aero and its speed: when its speed equals zero, it does not move; when man's freedom equals zero, he commits no crimes. That is clear. The only means of ridding man of crime is ridding him of freedom.

Do people think along similar lines? Of course they do and always have done.


James Higham said...

even the number of times each mouthful of food must be chewed. Does the last one sound familiar?


Sam Vega said...

"The Guardians enforce absolute discipline over every aspect of life..."

Poor bastards. Here in the real life UK, The Guardian only exercises that degree of influence over young metropolitan dimwits.

Anonymous said...

Never heard of this chap - thanks.

An old military man told me 'you can't fart against thunder', the army being a fairly similar setup.

Demetrius said...

Perhaps many of our politicians see themselves as Benefactors which is why they avoid taking difficult or hard decisions. The BBC goes along with this and to an extent most of the media.

A K Haart said...

James - he must have read the book :)

Sam - and old metropolitan dimwits surely?

Roger - if the rules are known, enforced and not completely impossible then people may as well adapt. As they do.

Demetrius - I'm sure they do see themselves in that light. For a while.