The following is a guest post by Edyta Materka, author of Dystopia's Provocateurs: Peasants, State, and Informality in the Polish-German Borderlands.
In the latest issue of Boston Review entitled "Global Dystopias" Junot Díaz writes, "Whether we're talking about our cannibal economics or the rising tide of xenophobia or the perennial threat of nuclear annihilation it seems that the future has already arrived. And that future is dystopian". He adds that it is "precisely in dark times that the dystopian--as a genre, as a narrative strategy--is most useful" and embraces Tom Moylan's formulation of "critical dystopias" to expose its causes, to "map, warn, and hope". Indeed, the hijacking of elections, rise of right-wing movements, proliferation of fake news, mass shootings by "lone wolves", near-daily occurrence of natural disasters, escalating nuclear tensions with rocket man, and unchecked corruption (not to mention nepotism) at the highest levels of government, all support this claim.
But do not be fooled. "Dystopia" is good for capitalism. Sales of The Handmaiden's Tale and 1984 have skyrocketed in America. Television shows like Stranger Things that portray monsters crawling out into our world from the "upside down" realm and Star Trek Discovery where mutineer heroes say Orwellian stuff like: "the real world doesn’t always adhere to logic. Sometimes down is up, sometimes up is down. Sometimes when you’re lost, you’re found," capitalize on Americans' need for catharsis in these uncertain times. Even the Boston Globe issue comes with a hefty price to view the contents within.
And what does the rest of the world do? Yawn. The truth is, the rest of the globe, whether across the former Soviet bloc or in the everyday politics in the Global South, have had to live with and adapt their lives to poverty, unchecked systemic corruption, and ongoing environmental crisis for decades. Global dystopia has not just arrived; rather, if anything, some Americans are slowly waking up to what has been a global reality for a very long time.
[Still, it could be much, much worse. At the end of the day, the dollar is strong, most Americans can still find and buy food in grocery stores, see their families, own property, speak their minds, and defecate in a toilet. Let's not rush to use the word "dystopia" just yet.]
And yet Americans' awakening to the idea that dystopia is possible in their homeland presents a unique opportunity for subjects, anthropologists, and historians like myself of the former Soviet bloc. As the world becomes Putin's chessboard, and the East's meddling in the West dominates the news, 1984 can only do so much. We scholars can help translate the rules of the game and real strategies like kombinacja that ordinary people have developed to detect ("map, warn, and hope") and disrupt their lived dystopian realities behind the Iron Curtain and beyond. Polish kombinacja is the practice of manipulating legal, political, or cultural rules in order to access a resource like food, commodities, labor, information, or power. The key to kombinacja is that it is a magical trick, in that all traces of it must be erased or performed without detection.
Not only do oral histories of kombinacja help us understand how to put food on the table without the existence of currency or during extreme shortages, but also shed light on how dystopia magically grips a society and how to carve out spaces of agency under oppressive regimes. Moreover, they expose how we are all complicit in creating and perpetuating dystopia. Breaking the rules--whatever they may be in a given regime--becomes the key to everyday survival, but it comes at a price as our minds become increasingly corrupted and addicted to it. A true dystopia exists when we all become its provocateurs--first by choice, then by necessity, and finally by addiction. But is this a kind of Wild West that we Americans are ready to seriously navigate? Are we ready to dabble in the magical arts of kombinacja and its dire consequences?
Edyta Materka received her PhD from the London School of Economics and Political Science and is a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow in the School of Geography, Queen Mary University of London.