If you were raised in a dystopian society, would you actually notice? If you had no experience of people behaving otherwise, then surely this would be very hard to do.
So what would make you realise that you’re in one? Maybe there would be moments where you actually realise the fact, but then suppress the realisation because it is just too painful to carry on with your life as it is.
So: how can you sure that you’re not in a dark and strange dystopia right now?
The more I spend time with this question, the harder it gets for me not to view certain aspects of modern “mainstream” society as a deeply dystopian, as terrifying as anything envisioned by Orwell or Huxley.
These questions stem from a recent personal experience.
I lay in bed reading Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist Victor Frankl’s account of his harrowing experiences in a concentration camp. I looked up from the book, and falling abruptly out of my absorption in it, saw my bedroom as if for the first time, in the unflinching light of comparison with Frankl’s hellish circumstances.
The sheer luxury and quality of objects around me was appalling. Even the bed on which I sat appeared shockingly indulgent, with its soft mattress and sheets; in my mind’s eye I could see Frankl’s wooden board for sleeping on, shared with 9 other prisoners, with a single sheet between them. My heaps of possessions — books, furniture, instruments, electronics, art, clothes… and Frankl left with nothing but his “bare existence”. My family home felt like no other than a castle fit for kings. I got up and explored it in amazement; I could not believe that my wealth had never been so blindingly obvious. (Although I have had similar realisations in Asia, I’ve never been at home and fully aware of my preposterous wealth).
How had my mind been so conditioned, that I had been blinded to this utter abundance? Is that not completely dystopian — that we have been raised to bask in luxury and not be satisfied with it?
Then I remembered a book by my bedside called Abundance, in which Peter Diamandis lays out how we are going to make the world great… and it was so clear – abundance is not some distant goal, but something that has been here (at least in the West), for many hundreds of years. I have never known anything other than complete abundance. If you’re reading this in Europe, Australia or America, the chances are, you haven’t either, and it’s worth a million times admitting this to yourself. That’s how the modern dystopia has tricked us all: we live in decadence and we don’t even fucking realise.
Each of us must recognise — or rather, admit — the decadence of our material circumstances, and stop striving blindly, destructively for more. If we don’t do this now, then when? There will always be more material wealth, technology or experiences around the corner. If we keep looking forward, we’ll miss the whole thing! We don’t need anything more: all we need to do is learn to stop and be satisfied.
Trying to be rich is completely futile
Don’t believe me?
Well, look at how the majority of the world live… compared to them, you’re rich, baby. Doesn’t feel that way though, does it? Maybe it never will.
If our basics needs are met (food, water, warmth, rest, security, safety, as Maslow describes), then we really do have everything we need to reach the heights of human happiness. It’s increasingly accepted by modern psychology studies that material wealth, above a basic level, does nothing for our happiness. We must realise that true abundance lies in one’s attitude to life, and in a source of creative or altruistic meaning. The sooner we come to terms with this, the sooner our destructive influences on ourselves, each other, people outside our consumer-capitalist world, and the ecosystems that sustain us, can be allayed.
Gary Snyder: humanity has become a locust like blight on the planet that will leave a bare cupboard for its own children — all the while living the addicts dream of affluence, comfort, eternal progress. True affluence is not needing anything.
I wrote this in my notebook after this epiphany:
Everything we need materially is here — in moments of doubt: picture Frankl’s emaciated skeletal body leaning on his work shovel in the biting and snow, wearing nothing but rags, savouring a single crumb of bread, separated from his beloved wife, wounded, sick with Typhus, sleep-deprived, beaten and humiliated with next to zero hope of survival past the next few days of his life… and yet he was able to smile, to maintain hope and meaning that sustained him through these unthinkable circumstances.
Never again will I not admit that I live as a king does— in decadence and indulgence. Though the more I do so, the more it sickens me, and a simpler life calls. I had the amazing fortune recently to spend many months travelling, and the experience of having my only possessions (which are still mostly superfluous and not really essential at all) packed into plastic bags in my backpack, was nothing short of liberating. I am mindful of Gandhi’s remark that disposing of all of his possessions was a “positive gain”. Every fibre of my native consumer-capitalist society tells me not to believe that statement, to distrust this great man and dismiss him as crazy — to respect and laud his political achievements, yes, but to think “he’s just saying that, of course life is worse without loads of stuff!”.
More practical in the modern world than total material renunciation is voluntary simplicity. I personally enjoy the approach that above the basics, you should cut your possessions down only to those which allow you to create and contribute.
In any case: far, far worse than our decadence is our absolute failure to see it — in fact, it boggles the mind that we live in such lavish circumstances and are not satisfied, and want for more. Undoubtedly, this reveals the underlying truth that material circumstances will never bring true happiness. And a consumption driven economy will always be inherently against that fact — because a truly happy person will never buy anything unnecessary!
This is just one aspect of modern society I consider to be dystopian, and I will follow up with more soon. For now, I’ll point out that this is why anything that can get you out of your standard reference frame / comfort zone is invaluable — travel, meditation, reading widely, psychedelics, meeting diverse personalities… all of these can liberate your mind from an insane culture.
It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society. — Jiddu Krishnamurti
Ol’ Bill Shakespeare believed that ingratitude was the greatest of sins. So perhaps we can leave our evil ways behind, and foster a little more appreciation, a little more humility, a little more “holy fuck, look at this, look at my life… boy am I grateful for everything I have”.