Although America’s political system seems unable to stimulate robust, sustained economic growth, it at least is stimulating consumption of a small but important segment of literature. Dystopian novels are selling briskly — Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” (1932), Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here” (1935), George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” (1945) and “1984” (1949), Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” (1953) and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” (1985), all warning about nasty regimes displacing democracy.
There is, however, a more recent and pertinent presentation of a grim future. Last year, in her 13th novel, “The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047,” Lionel Shriver imagined America slouching into dystopia merely by continuing current practices.
Shriver, who is fascinated by the susceptibility of complex systems to catastrophic collapses, begins her story after the 2029 economic crash and the Great Renunciation, whereby the nation, like a dissolute Atlas, shrugged off its national debt, saying to creditors: It’s nothing personal. The world is not amused, and Americans’ subsequent downward social mobility is not pretty.
Florence Darkly, a millennial, is a “single mother” but such mothers now outnumber married ones. Newspapers have almost disappeared, so “print journalism had given way to a rabble of amateurs hawking unverified stories and always to an ideological purpose.” Mexico has paid for an electronic border fence to keep out American refugees. Her Americans are living, on average, to 92, the economy is “powered by the whims of the retired,” and, “desperate to qualify for entitlements, these days everyone couldn’t wait to be old.” People who have never been told “no” are apoplectic if they can’t retire at 52. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are ubiquitous, so shaking hands is imprudent.
Soldiers in combat fatigues, wielding metal detectors, search houses for gold illegally still in private hands. The government monitors every movement and the IRS, renamed the Bureau for Social Contribution Assistance, siphons up everything, on the you-didn’t-build-that principle: “Morally, your money does belong to everybody. The creation of capital requires the whole apparatus of the state to protect property rights, including intellectual property.”
Social order collapses when hyperinflation follows the promiscuous printing of money after the Renunciation. This punishes those “who had a conscientious, caretaking relationship to the future.” Government salaries and Medicare reimbursements are “linked to an inflation algorithm that didn’t require further action from Congress. Even if a Snickers bar eventually cost $5 billion, they were safe.”
In a Reason magazine interview, Shriver says, “I think it is in the nature of government to infinitely expand until it eats its young.” In her novel, she writes:
“The state starts moving money around. A little fairness here, little more fairness there. . . . Eventually social democracies all arrive at the same tipping point: where half the country depends on the other half. . . . Government becomes a pricey, clumsy, inefficient mechanism for transferring wealth from people who do something to people who don’t, and from the young to the old — which is the wrong direction. All that effort, and you’ve only managed a new unfairness.”
Florence learns to appreciate “the miracle of civilization.” It is miraculous because “failure and decay were the world’s natural state. What was astonishing was anything that worked as intended, for any duration whatsoever.” Laughing mordantly as the apocalypse approaches, Shriver has a gimlet eye for the foibles of today’s secure (or so it thinks) upper middle class, from Washington’s Cleveland Park to Brooklyn. About the gentrification of the latter, she observes:
“Oh, you could get a facelift nearby, put your dog in therapy, or spend $500 at Ottawa on a bafflingly trendy dinner of Canadian cuisine (the city’s elite was running out of new ethnicities whose food could become fashionable). But you couldn’t buy a screwdriver, pick up a gallon of paint, take in your dry cleaning, get new tips on your high heels, copy a key, or buy a slice of pizza. Wealthy residents might own bicycles worth $5K, but no shop within miles would repair the brakes. . . . High rents had priced out the very service sector whose presence at ready hand once helped to justify urban living.”
The (only) good news from Shriver’s squint into the future is that when Americans are put through a wringer, they emerge tougher, with less talk about “ADHD, gluten intolerance and emotional support animals.”
Speaking to Reason, Shriver said: “I think that the bullet we dodged in 2008 is still whizzing around the planet and is going to hit us in the head.” If so, this story has already been written.