Modes of Control in Dystopian Fiction

Violence & Force

Dystopian fiction is often typified by physical and overt forms of control, such as Orwell’s projection of the future of “a boot stamping on a human face forever” in the classic novel 1984. While the governing authorities of these texts are not as totalitarian and all-consuming as 1984, fear and violence are enforced in varying degrees as controlling tools to maintain the dystopia. Marxist critic Louis Althusser provides an essential framework for understanding the institutions of social control in his essay ‘Ideology and The State’, described as State Apparatuses. He proposed that Repressive State Apparatuses “function by violence” from “most brutal forms, via mere administrative commands and interdictions, to open and tacit censorship”. He argued that these institutions of control contained “the Government, the Administration, the Army, the Police, the Courts [and] the Prisons”. He defined the role of these RSAs as “securing by force… the political conditions…relations of exploitation” [Althusser’s italics].

The Iron Heel depicts a brutal totalitarian state closest to the classic Orwellian vision. The Revolution against the government was described as “bloody expression in the age of blood.” The structures of power in The Iron Heel closely resemble Althusser’s structure of Repressive State Apparatus that use extensive force to oppress the masses. The state is authoritarian and tyrannical, with the corporate bourgeoise, The Oligarchy, bankrupting small businesses and reinstating serfdom. This inequality and oppression is policed by the Mercenaries, the military caste who control the population by force:“First, disorder was precipitated by the secret agents and The Black Hundreds, then the troops were called out. Rioting and mob-rule reigned throughout the rural districts… Rural bridges and tunnels were blown up and trains were wrecked. The poor farmers were shot and hanged in great number.”

Comparatively, in Fahrenheit 451, physical force is less instrumental to maintain control of the population. The firemen, who set alight to the homes of book-owners, are described as “rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord…So few want to be rebels anymore. And out of those few, most…scare easily.” Murder is used more covertly as a form of psychological control. Those who challenge the state are ‘made examples of’ as a deterrent to members of society who might want to challenge the authorities. For example, when Montag asks about the disappearance of his neighbour, Beatty responds, “Clarisse McClennan? We’ve got a file on her family…Hereditary and environment are funny things. You can’t rid yourselves of all the odd ducks in a few years…The poor girl’s better off dead.” Beatty’s insinuation that she was like a time bomb that needed expunging, suggests she was murdered by the government.

In The Circle, physical and punitive measures are enforced upon Senator Williamson for challenging the State. Annie tells Mae Williamson is “under investigation for… all kinds of ethical violations. They found everything on her computer, a hundred weird searches, downloads — some very creepy stuff.” However Mercer feels she has been set up and questions Mae, “You think it’s a coincidence that every time some congresswoman or blogger talks about monopoly, they suddenly become ensnared in some terrible sex-porn-witchcraft controversy?” Rather than being physically murdered, Williamson’s reputation is threatened and, though it is not explicitly mentioned in the text, she is likely imprisoned and her freedom is probably taken from her.

While there is little brute force in the latter texts, the symbolism of both The Circle and Fahrenheit 451 suggest that destruction to human values and rights are still violent, if not physically. The love of destruction is comparable to the translucent shark in The Circle, but while Fahrenheit 451 seeks to destroy information, The Circle seeks to preserve it at the expense of human values, such as privacy and individuality.

The subversive socialist revolutionaries contrast with the rotten, predatory weed-like plant,“Out of the decay of self-serving capitalism…would arise that flow of ages, the Brotherhood of Man. Instead of which…capitalism, rotten-ripe, sent forth that monstrous offshoot, the Oligarchy.” The implication is that the Oligarchy is at once dominating and aggressive, strangling and encroaching upon other potential life forms.

Similarly, in The Circle, other destructive natural allusions, tumultuous seas and aquariums, elude to the destructive tidal effect of corporate monopolies like Facebook, Google and The Circle, in the unrelenting ways it transcends barriers and moves towards imperial domination. In his discussion of global and political security, Masterson considers the symbolism of the fortress — walls, barriers and enclosed spaces like the cabin, in contrast with this symbolism of a tsunami of domination. The ivory tower and campus, in which “noise and struggle, failure and filth” were all locked out creates the dualism of within the walls and outside the walls. The ‘cabin’ occupied by Mercer acts is the symbolic antithesis to The Circle — in which the criminal act of disobeying the “right to informational access” takes place.

Ignorance is a vital factor that makes the repressive control in the texts all the more dangerous. Both Montag and Mae are enforcers of the violent system, but both are ignorant of its malevolent effects. Montag’s “ hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning”. The hands do not belong to Montag, he is merely a conductor rather than the composer, suggesting a more powerful agenda is acting violently through him. Comparatively, the octopus embodies the users of the Circle, like Mae “a pale spineless being… feeling around, guessing and flailing, like a near-blind fumbling for his glasses”. Inside the Circle’s aquarium, the “shark’s translucent skin… allowed an unfettered view into its digestive process.” The act of digestion represents the consumption and processing of data and human values, embodying the destructive consequences of the Circler’s ignorant actions: “Though blind it found its meals immediately…and digested them with alarming speed…Moments later the shark would deposit, on the aquarium floor, all that remained of the animal — a tiny grainy substance that looked like ash.” The destructive power of the Circle to turn things to ash, or flood them in water, parallels fire in Fahrenheit 451, the unthinkingly destructive, intoxifying effect of power: “It was a pleasure to burn.” The mindless nature of this pleasure is emphasised by its separation from the rest of the text. Burning is a simple, base impulse rather than part of considered logic. “It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed.” Fire was one of the earliest human tools and one of the key distinguishers of humanity itself. As one of the earliest distinguishers of advanced humanity represents human expression and power, the capacity for both good and bad, a force that can utilised to create a utopia or abused to create dystopia. Fire is a destructive and productive force, illuminating and problem-solving whilst also consuming and destroying. Bradbury describes the complexity and unpredictability of humanity, neither fire nor humankind are inherently good or bad: Fire is used to both oppress and liberate. Montag is liberated from Beatty through the violent use of fire, but it is also used to enforce censorship and control. In The Iron Heel, this is apparent in the description of Everhard as fiery, “aflame with democracy”, Avis’ “Eagle beating with tireless wings toward… the flaming ideal of human freedom.”

Spatial Control

The regulation of space subconsciously affects the behaviour of a society. Representations of space in The Circle are depicted through the contrast of the controlled campus in comparison to the outside world. Masterson notes that in a securitized, sanitized and safe “alternative version of the ivory tower, Eggers uses the campus as a fortified chronotope against the maddening swarm of human life beyond.” The spaces are not only literary symbols, but also have a physical and psychological function in population control. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault proposes that discipline involving restriction of space, time and behaviour works to subsequently restrict the mind. Notions of discipline are also reminiscent of the criminalisation of ‘being a pedestrian’ or driving too slowly in Fahrenheit 451, “My uncle drove slowly on a highway once. He drove forty miles an hour and they jailed him for two days.” By restricting the flow and speed of their individual movements, the citizens internalise the expectations of their oppressor. Foucault connects notions of physical control to ideological control, ideas of spatial regulation to psychological programming.

In The Circle, the different areas of the campus are named different periods from history, for example The Renaissance, thus foreshadowing the invention of PastPerfect, the Circle’s attempt to control history. As Annie explains to Mae, “every photo, every newsreel, every amateur video in every archive in this country in Europe” is digitized, and with “facial recognition advances, we hope, we hope, identify pretty much everyone in every photo and every video”. This notion is reminiscent of the Party’s ideology in Orwell’s 1984, that the power “who controls the past controls the future”. With the ability to create a false history, the Circle can use technology to falsify or skew past events and manipulate their population. Spatial control in the present is equal to control of consciousness, and perception of time and history. This second-hand temporal control is synonymous with the control of time, suggesting that if The Circle can control the movements of the body they can also control the perceptions of history.

Ideological Forms of Control

Over time, there is a shift in the texts away from punitive measures towards more psychological means. As mentioned in the previous section, Foucault’s book details the abolition of torture and creation of the penitentiary as means of social punishment, moving the punishment away from the physical body onto the mind and soul. This historical shift parallels the movement away from physical control through repressive state apparatuses, to psychological brainwashing through, what Althusser calls Ideological State Apparatuses. ISAs are made up of a variety of influences that create a cultural climate of manipulation of the masses. Althusser’s ISAs include the following categories: “religious, educational, family, legal, political, trade-union, communications and cultural”. These systems “function by ideology”.

Ideological control is perhaps more powerful because it allows the victims to essentially become their own oppressors. The later texts Fahrenheit 451 and The Circle display worlds in which the ideologies that allow oppression are internalised by the majority of citizens. In The Iron Heel, the working class are reduced to knowing but powerless victims in their oppression. Alessandro Portelli notes London’s reductive depiction of the proletarian class who “do not appear as an active force in politics and production but rather as a suffering, victimised class.” However, it might be noted that they, at least, realise they are being oppressed, unlike the brainwashed subjects of the later texts.

Fundamentally, Bradbury agrees that this is to an extent, elected self-sedation rather than oppression deriving from power structures. Raoul Vaneigem also wrote about the simplistic and consumerist American lifestyles of mid-1900s suburbia. He asks, “Who reduces a man’s life to [a] pathetic sequence of cliches”, chores and perceived necessities, like going to work to “push papers” and coming home to “eat his steak in front of the TV…He does it himself, breaking his day down into a series of poses chosen more or less unconsciously from the range of dominant stereotypes.”

In The Circle, the corporate oppressor takes its power through panoptic surveillance and ideological manipulation, meaning the masses begin to police themselves. As Mercer explains. “There are no oppressors. No one’s forcing you to do this. You willingly tie yourself to these leashes.”

Repressive vs Ideological Control

Althusser identifies the key differences between the ISAs and RSAs by noting that,, “while there is one Repressive State Apparatus, there is a plurality of Ideological State Apparatuses”. RSAs belong to the public domain, whereas ISAs are largely part of the private domain. Eggers’ The Circle illustrates a world in which the private ISA systems envelop public institutions and the government into a single force.

Stenton … saw the connection between our work and politics, and between politics and control. Public-private leads to private-private, soon you have the Circle running most or even all government services…Everyone becomes a citizen of the Circle.

Althusser iterates the distinctiveness of each form of control, emphasising the fact that apparatuses are “relatively autonomous” but supportive of each other. However, as in The Circle, when repressive and ideological apparatuses become the same source, the world becomes even more dystopian and dangerous,“Once all government services are channeled through the Circle, you’ll have helped create the world’s first tyrannical monopoly. Does it seem like a good idea to you that a private company control the flow of all the information?”

The Circle’s extreme control is validated and legitimised by their ideological framework. Mae is unwittingly involved in the propaganda campaign when she is caught on camera borrowing a water raft without permission. She is then emotionally blackmailed into an interview with the company CEO in front of all her work colleagues. The CEO, Bailey, manipulates Mae into telling him the “lessons” she learnt from the experience which correlated with the exact agenda of the company.

[Mae] blinked back tears, seeing it all there. Had she really thought of all that herself?




These ideals are reinforced by the idea that refraining from sharing an experience on social media is a decision to deprive those who cannot have that experience, for example, disabled people who be denied virtual access to the Grand Canyon. The criminalisation of privacy in pursuit of complete knowledge and the implementation of emotional blackmail forces the public into publicising their entire lives, giving the Circle access to, and control over public consciousness. While the technology forms the tool, it is the Circle’s ideology that allows them to disregard privacy, suggesting that equality and democracy should override these values. Mae reports that “[Ty] said that the soul of Circle is democratic. That until everyone has equal access, and that access if free, no one is free. It’s on at least a few tiles around campus”. These ‘tiles’ indicate the Circle’s ideological agenda, a catastrophic ideology masquerading as a benevolent, forward-thinking utopia.





The notion of Completion is another false ideology. It relies on the appeal of controlling and ‘tidying’ the world for maximum efficiency. Mae reflects that the world outside the campus “seemed more and more like a Third World experience, with unnecessary filth, and unnecessary strife and unnecessary errors and inefficiencies.” Her disorientation leads to the perspective that all life is “correctable through simple enough algorithms and the application of available technology and willing members of the digital community.” This perspective leads to a utopian perspective that is despotic and authoritarian. “She didn’t need to explain herself, or the future of the world, to the Circlers, who implicitly understood her and the planet and the way it had to be and soon would be.”

This pathological urge to control information, becomes a means of quietening inner turmoil and creating order in a seemingly chaotic world,“The ideological purity of the Circle, of real transparency, gave [Mae] peace.”

Technological Control

Lastly, the role of technology and its effects on social control must be considered. During the publication of The Iron Heel, industrialisation created the tools for what London perceived as the Marxist “means of production”. However it is not the technology itself that provides a central focus, but the presence of work as a means of obstruction from free thought and autonomous action.

You are the machine breakers… In the eighteenth century, in England, men and women wove cloth on hand-looms… Along came the steam engine and labor-saving machinery [and they] now went into factories and worked the hand-looms, not for themselves, but for their capitalist owners… Their standard of living fell. They starved. Therefore they proceeded to break the machines. They did not succeed and they were very stupid.

Everhard emphasises that technology is merely a tool for control, it is not the source of the control itself. Destroying the mechanics behind their repression does not destroy the oppressor or oppression.

Rather than the source of control itself, the technology represents the ‘iron heel’ mentality of control. People remain oppressed because of brute force. Unlike the later texts, the society offers no incentive to stay oppressed. In the words of Herbert Marcuse, the citizens are coerced into adhering to their systems. The threat of the alternative, extreme poverty polices the public.

Conversely, Bradbury might be accused of being technophobic and perceiving technology as a cause rather than a tool for either good or bad: “It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick.” Beatty exclaims, “Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time”. He goes on to explain that “Any man who can take a TV wall apart… is happier than any man who tries to… the universe, which just won’t be measured without making the man feel bestial and lonely…” He suggests that the increase in television itself causes social deterioration. Bradbury was quoted in 2010 as saying, “We have too many cellphones. We’ve got too many internets. We have got to get rid of those machines. We have too many machines now.” This somewhat conservative, ‘victim-blaming’ attitude may be reductive, as it absolves the governmental structures of their role in oppression and implies that removal of technology, and reintroduction of books, would result in the liberation of the masses. He fails to note that dystopian conditions, like poor quality of life, are not related to rates of literacy, for example, in 1840, literacy rates varied from 72 to 99% across the United States, including New Hampshire’s rate of 99.4% and Connecticut’s score of 99.7%, whilst rates of poverty among working classes were incredibly poor.

However, in support of Bradbury’s view, while not directly causing inequality, technology can provide distraction from inequality. In One Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse argues that in the mid-20th century, new forms of social repression were created in advanced industrial civilisations, including the invention of “false needs” to sedate and distract from political engagement.

Instead, people begin to take a hedonist and exploitative attitude to life, “Bring on your clubs and parties, your acrobats and magicians.” Here, these so-called needs are built upon existing base desires such as excitement, “sex and heroin”, with futuristic technology such as “jet-cars and motorcycle-helicopters ” accelerating base desires, “more of everything to do with automatic reflex”. Debord reflected that such objects of distraction were “superficial objects that people can identify with in order to compensate for the fragmented productive specialisations that they actually live.” Reality literally and figuratively accelerates passed the citizens in the novel: Clarisse questions whether jet car “drivers know what grass is, or flowers because they never see them slowly.” This is symbolic of true happiness, as when she asks if Montag is happy, he realises he has never truly considered his own happiness. He realises his unhappiness has been disguised by a bombardment of the senses.

False needs are also created in The Circle through social media technology rather than entertainment. The staff at the Circle experience an institutionalised guilt-trip. When Mae fails to share her extracurricular activities on the Circle’s social media site, Josiah emotionally manipulates her, asking “how do you think other Circlers feel, knowing you are ostensibly part of a community here, but you don’t want them to know your hobbies” The staff are forced into believing that maintaining their PartiRank as though it is a physical and social need. Because of Mae’s low social rank, Denise accuses Mae of being “sub-social” suggesting she has “low self-worth — a point of view that says ‘Oh, what I have to say isn’t so important. By increasing the demand and time-investment on social media, the Circle distracts its workforce from true reality by encouraging them to live in a false paradigm of Smiles and Shares (the equivalent to Facebook’s Likes.). Mercer points out that “”The tools you guys create actually manufacture unnaturally extreme social needs. No one needs the level of contact you’re purveying.” Through the creation of “false needs”, diversion is used to distract from critical thinking rather than subjugation or terrorisation typical of many dystopian texts.

The text illustrates very modern fears about the end-goals of surveillance society. By the end of the book, increasingly Orwellian forms of surveillance are pitched by new recruits to the company, for instance, the NeighborhoodWatch function that alerts residents of unregistered and unauthorised visitors to an area. A second pitch proposes that criminals are tracked and appear colour-coded in the retinal screens of other citizens — orange for low-level criminals, red for violent criminals. Pre-crime is also indicated by the retinas, as monitors are used to sense when anger reaches a dangerous level, and the authorities are informed of the potential violence.

The SeeChange cameras are the central panoptic resource to the Circle’s control. These cameras are minute portable cameras can be easily installed and easily disguised anywhere in world.

Their society acts similar to Jeremy Bentham’s prison: the possibility of being seen at all times functions as a panopticon by making the population police itself. As Bailey explains, “Who would commit a crime knowing they might be watched any time, anywhere?” This technology results in not the direct policing and surveillance of cameras, but the perceived potentiality of being seen, rather than the actuality of getting caught, that controls the population. While physical force is minimal to absent, in many ways, this technology is a ‘repressive apparatus’, non-consensual, enforced and oppressive.

To elucidate this concept, Mae becomes a microcosm of the panoptic effects on human behaviour. She chooses to wear a body camera, live-streaming via social media her every action twenty-four hours a day to an insatiable global audience. Everyday decisions, such as her food choices change, for example, Mae gives up soda. This demonstrates how a constantly-watched society regulates its behaviours without use of an outside punisher, merely with its own perception of the behaviours permitted by imagined external judgement. Those around her become terrified of upsetting her, her colleague Nanci messages Mae, “So glad you wrote back! Thought you might be offended I called you ‘Stranger’ ” Symbolically her insecurity is embodied by the shape-shifting Circle octopus, “balloon-like and bulbous one moment, as if inflating itself, confident and growing, then the next it would be shrinking…unsure of its true form”. It is a telescope octopus and its “tentacles seemed to want to know everything”. Mae’s insecure nature provides the perfect conditions for her indoctrination into the cult-like Circle. Mae elects to “go transparent” conjuring images of the aquarium and the translucent shark, suggesting the more time Mae spends in the tank-like setting of the Circle, the more she becomes a product of her environment, and becomes see-through and destructive herself.

Like the reality television ‘parlour’ in Fahrenheit 451 that replaces real-life families, the InnerCircle replicates friendship circles. By creating emotional attachment and entertainment, the masses do not wish to deviate from the distraction the technology provides. In The Circle, technology provides an alternative world altogether, not just to distract but also to function and live within, thus blurring the line between reality and the online world. Social media creates an antisocial society, in which privacy is discouraged and eventually criminalised.


In summary, the novels act as markers representing the historical movement away from forceful or repressive forms of social control towards more insidious ideological forms in which populations begin to oppress and control themselves. Technology aids these controlling ideologies in either distracting or legitimising oppression. Beginning with the labour machinery of The Iron Heel, the oppressed masses were forced to work with little incentive to remain oppressed, whereas in Fahrenheit 451 citizens are distracted and numbed from their oppression by hedonistic entertainment media and thrill-seeking vehicles. As the texts progress towards the 21st century, the technologies of control become increasingly enticing, immersive and distracting, rather than terrorising. The new forms of technology not only reflect advancing modernisation and industrialisation, but also the political and ideological changes in American society, in the rise of consumerism and so-called democracy. Thus, physical forms of oppression are curtailed and replaced with distracting forms that serve and reinforce the ideology of the State. Technology becomes a tool for implementing social control through the enablement of the state ideology. The Circle is not only the most advanced in its formation of alternative-reality social media but also has the most pervasive and convincing ideology, understanding that the falsification of a utopia (and, to use the concept by Marcuse, encourage them to collude in it) is far more effective in producing obedient subjects than merely coercing them into control, as in The Iron Heel, or even distracting them from their own dystopia, like in Fahrenheit 451.