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Introducing 'Real life dystopias'

Yiannis Baboulias speaks about this week’s special project, “Real life dystopias”. Introducing the concept of the “dystopic condition”, he looks into how reality resembles various stages/forms of cinematic dystopias, and further pinpoints ways in which we’re moving closer to them.

Yiannis Baboulias
16 December 2013

A condition of suspended animation, experienced in a banal and trivial way, in which an individual is rendered passive and unable to influence factors and/or outcomes in his life, while being increasingly deprived of access to financial, cultural and social capital. This is the definition I would give to the term “dystopic condition”. It’s a term I’ve found myself useing with increasing frequency to describe life in our supposedly global societies, and their post-democratic, late-capitalist set of afflictions. Traced throughout history, it’s the prelude to the collapse of some of the greatest empires the world has ever seen. 

Looking into various places in the world today, seemingly different from each other, it is fairly easy to point out where this would apply. From the declining economies of the west to the war-torn plains and cities of Syria and the Middle East, reality makes cinematic dystopias look ever more passé, while dramatic historical shifts are not recognized as such.

My experience of the Greek crisis, reading into it the core problems of neoliberalism, showed Greece to be a case study not only of economic decline, but the possible prelude to societal break-down. I would argue that the epilogue of the Arab Spring and Greek/European crisis might not differ as much as we think. They were both brought on by similar factors. They are both exacerbated by similar factors. They could both end in a spiral of permanent decline. 

The “similar factors” are none other than the neoliberal financial institutions. Despite their seemingly different political inclinations in different countries, these institutions are characterized by their extractive nature, which favours a small elite while shutting out the majority of the population - not only financially but also culturally and socially. 

Borrowing from the analysis of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in, Why Nations Fail, we will be looking at exclusive and extractive institutions, as identified throughout history and popular culture. They describe inclusive vs. extractive institutions in the following manner: 

 “Inclusive economic institutions that enforce property rights, create a level playing field, and encourage investments in new technologies and skills are more conducive to economic growth than extractive economic institutions that are structured to extract resources from the many by the few. Inclusive economic institutions, are in turn supported by, and support, inclusive political institutions,” which “distribute political power widely in a pluralistic manner and are able to achieve some amount of political centralization so as to establish law and order, the foundations of secure property rights, and an inclusive market economy. Conversely, extractive political institutions that concentrate power in the hands of a few reinforce extractive economic institutions to hold power.”

We begin with Costas Douzinas' take on the Greek crisis and the cinematic depiction of dystopias, their ideological readings and how we can hold them off through resistance. In an excerpt from his latest book mixed with an original take on the subject of the dystopic condition, Douzinas showcases how the reversal of the neoliberal message of infinite hedonistic pleasure seeks only to subsume the individual for the sake of an invisible nation/group and in the name of profit.

Next we move across the Atlantic, and more specifically to Detroit, where a city that has experienced a very real apocalypse, is now seeing some hope in the cracks between the ruins, just as it goes bankrupt. In her piece Niki Seth-Smith takes us through the past and present of the city, speaks to legends like poet John Sinclair, and asks if the cradle of the assembly line can show the way out of the post-industrial state of permanent decline.

Then we look into how a generational limbo is not necessarily a sign of resignation, through a piece on the prelude to Occupy Gezi by Kerem Nisancioglou. He discusses how space and contestation over it translate into politics and explores the renaissance of the Turkish civic spirit in the streets of Istanbul and other major cities.

With thanks to TomDispatch, we will look at how technology is increasingly shutting down access to the cultural capital to which it once opened doors, in an article titled “Welcome to the memory hole: disappearing Edward Snowden”.

Daniel Trilling looks up close at the 'fast track' asylum system in the UK designed to make the country a hostile environment for those migrants who are unwanted, people like John. And in the week that Detroit declared that it was bankrupt, Yiannis Baboulias rounds off this series in the company of a journalist fresh out of Lebanon's refugee camps for Syrians in flight, and Julien Temple, director of the haunting film, ‘A Requiem for Detroit’, who suggests that the relationship between film and reality is actually the other way around. 

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