Real Dystopias: Dispatches from the Grim Meathook Future

Occasionally, I get the idea for a course I’ll probably never teach. This week’s idea is a course on real dystopias. A couple years ago, then-president of the American Sociological Association Erik Olin Wright unveiled a big collaborative project on “real utopias”. Real utopias are actually existing utopic projects, like cooperatives and Creative Commons. This of course inspires a whole mental 2×2 table of real vs. unreal utopias vs. dystopias (for a bit of humor at the time, see this old post). The category that most interests me is not so much Wright’s real utopias, but rather the actually existing, or plausible and predicted, dystopias. And then I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to teach a whole class about these things?

Following from the writing of Warren Ellis and Joshua Ellis, let’s call these “dispatches from the Grim Meathook Future.” Each week or sub-unit would cover a different real dystopia, ideally with a guest lecturer who could speak to the underlying science or politics of the particular kind of dystopia. A lot of them connect to climate change, but that’s almost too broad so we have to disaggregate, and I’ll just focus on one possibility. Here are some example units and ideas for guest lecture topics:

1. Antibiotic resistant infections. Guest lecturers: a historian of medicine to talk about the world before antibiotics, a microbiologists or epidemiologist to talk about the problems of antibiotic resistance, the lack of new antibiotics in development, and the already high prevalence of resistant bugs (e.g.). Here’s an essay from Medium that could serve as a primer.

2. Widespread droughts and massive disruptions of the food supply connected to climate change. Guest lecturers: a social scientist to speak about the current system of water provisioning, agriculture and the wacky politics thereof (e.g. Steve Jackson at Cornell), an environmental scientist to speak about draining of the aquifers, difficulties of desalination, and growing drought conditions in much of the world.

3. The dominance of the patrimonial super-rich. If we believe Thomas Piketty, absent some kind of major political realignment, revolution, or widespread war, the next century will see a continued increase in both income and wealth inequality, and especially the return of a class of super-rich inheritors who will dominate political and social life. Guest lecturers could include a historian or literary scholar to talk about the last gilded age and the cultural dominance of the super rich then, as well as an economist to walk through Piketty’s data and model and/or a political scientist or sociologist to talk about the improbability of enacting policies likely to stem the growing wealth of the super-elite (cf. Gilens and Page).

4. The Player Piano dystopia. In his optimistic vision of the future, outlined in Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, Keynes argued that in the future, the economic system would be so productive that most people could live lives of relative leisure, working perhaps 15-hour weeks to share the reduced workload widely and make sure all have some meaningful labor. Kurt Vonnegut offered an alternative vision in his debut novel, Player Piano, in which a relatively small clique of engineers built and maintained the machines, while a large class of unemployed workers lived lives of aimless poverty. Modern version of Vonnegut’s argument focus on the inability of society to come up with ways of distributing resources equitably outside of the labor market. Class could focus on these literary texts, and/or the economics of automation.

5. The Surveillance state dystopia. A nice place to start, because it’s so personal and yet so vivid, might be the recent debates over big data and privacy, such as the story about Target predicting a teen girl’s pregnancy before her parents knew, and the recent (sort-of) follow-up about the lengths sociology professor Janet Vertesi had to go to to prevent automated surveillance systems from sussing out her own pregnancy. From there you could move to literature (Charles Stross’s Halting State, perhaps?), discussions of the NSA, and so on.

What do you think? And what real dystopias – social, political, environmental, etc. – would you want to teach?



  1. jennocide2

     /  May 1, 2014

    If I can be of any help, let me know. 🙂

  2. afinetheorem

     /  May 2, 2014

    In your Vonnegut class, make sure to point out Ricardo: the rents go to the scarce resource. If automation/robots are not artificially scarce in the future, then those who control such machines will not capture the rents. Consider agriculture: huge productivity improvements, but no one thinks the remaining farmers are the elite of society today!

    • Good point! But perhaps we can just combine Piketty’s dystopia with Vonnegut’s to get a world of concentrated inherited wealth and massive automation of physical and intellectual labor with a lumpen class living meagerly off welfare and under the constant vigilance of the security state.

  3. Jenna Hirschman

     /  July 31, 2014

    This would expand into a very interesting book.

  4. Excellent idea – would be a great course. Other topics might include a sexuality and gender dystopia – perhaps not so much a Handmaid’s Tale scenario as a society in which sex has become so colonised by the logic of capital as to have rendered human sexuality a hyper-mediated, thoroughly commodified and ultra-privatised domain of increasingly atavistic simulations stripped of human contact; a ‘porn dystopia’ if you like, a world of libertines – think Pasolini’s Salo meets JG Ballard’s Cocaine Nights. Another topic might be a bureaucratic-audit culture dystopia, a Kafkaesque organisational world of perpetually manipulating statistics and people to achieve fictional, hollow, but all-important targets (sound familiar?)

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