A New Dystopia

I have just finished reading And Still the Earth by Brazilian writer Ignácio de Loyola Brandão.


If you thought 1984 and Brave New World was scary, here’s a dystopia that updates all of that. Interesting since it was written in 1981. The book summary:

Welcome to Sao Paulo, Brazil, in the not too distant future. Water is scarce, garbage clogs the city, movement is restricted, and the System–sinister, omnipotent, secret–rules its subjects’ every moment and thought. Here, middle-aged Souza lives a meaningless life in a world where the future is doomed and all memory of the past is forbidden. A classic novel of "dystopia," looking back to Orwell’s 1984 and forward to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, And Still the Earth stands with Loyola Brandao’s Zero as one of the author’s greatest, and darkest, achievements.

Brandao’s work Zero was banned in Brazil and his subsequent works have caused a great deal of stir.

Here are some of the summaries and comments provided by Goodreads reviewers:

…this dystopia seems all too credible in many countries. the bleakness, the environmental hell, the meaningless routine life gradually becoming more and more restricted by ‘the system’, the loss of anything like a civic society, the corruption, the endless propaganda, the removal of any sense of history- it is not an error the protagonist is a former history prof- and the way this oppressive and unquestioned, nameless, authoritarian ‘system’, comes to take over even the least freedom of what parts of the city you can visit, what days you must consume (even if you do not want to), what time what bus you take, what side of the sidewalk you walk…this is a portrait from sidewalk level of an ordinary man who has the misfortune of knowing of a better past… [thegift]

The world, as usual in a dystopia, has gone to shit. What is surprising is that this book, which was written in the early ’80s, imagines a total environmental collapse. Brazil has cut down it’s rain forest and now has "one of the wonders of the world," The Great Amazon Desert. Heat pockets are so intense that people burn to ashes if caught in one. Pharmaceuticals and multinationals have poisoned generations, and The System (and governments that proceeded it) have created blunder upon blunder. The Rich hide in massively walled cities, while everyone literally dies of lack of water and food. [Troy]

Plagued by water shortages and rationing, constant heat waves and unnatural heat pockets (where if you get pushed into, you’re incinerated) that develop wherever they please, overflowing debris and garbage, and synthetic food, this São Paulo is definitely not the place to be. Stuck in the overpopulated state of hyper-surveillance is a disgruntled and apathetic former history teacher named Souza, who gave up the resistance a long time to slum it like everyone else, trudging back and forth between his stuffy apartment and his mindless job, waiting for certain death. One day however, he finds a hole in his hand that makes him more like the people stuck in the danger zones outside of the city than his partially sedated neighbours, and all hell breaks loose….And Still The Earth is definitely an extreme example of what blatant apathy towards what the government is doing can be come, but it is still an example….The planet is warming up and the forests in Brasil are being cut down. Now we have synthetic meat, a project that is supposedly geared towards alleviating the meat shortage. [leslie nikole]

I devoured this book, even reading some parts twice because they were eerily familiar. Prescient, as overused as that word is, describes it so well.

One doesn’t need a qualification in sociology or anything else to appreciate the novel or to identify with the characters in it nor to recognize the strands of oppression that were beginning in the 1980s under Thatcher-Reagan and are starting to reach fruition now.

It’s also a psychological study of a man who, because of the circumstances of his society, finds himself, formerly comfortable and bourgeois, pushed to the margins before he begins to realize what has been happening. The undoing of society is also his undoing. This juxtaposition of the individual and the collective and their mutual influence is superbly demonstrated in the novel.

Perhaps why I find this book so compelling is because of the non-fiction and academic stuff that has my attention now. I’ve put some of that at the end of this piece.

Material that discusses the topics in the novel.

Here are some resources (videos, texts) that discuss some of the sociological things going on in the novel from a real world perspective.

The Logics of Expulsion: Permanent Crisis, Land Grabbing and Surveillance Saskia Sassen, professor of sociology at Columbia University, New York, visiting professor at the London School of Economics, author of "The Global City" is interviewed in the video. She discusses the global trends of people not only being dispossessed but actively expelled from the economic system and ownership such as the mortgage crisis, the financialization of the global economy which allows the finance paradigm to invade every area of life, the appearance of tent cities in developed nations as a social sign of the development of predatory formations and assemblages, the superstructure of surveillance mechanisms to oversee these advanced capitalist processes, the monoculture of globalization, loss of local community and financialization as a form of economic violence. Well worth the 35 minutes it takes to view the video.

That same professor, Saskia Sassen, has another longer video, Expulsions: The Fifth Circle of Hell, on the same topics. Here is an overview [via Synthetic Zero blog]:

“In the last two decades there has been a sharp growth in the numbers of people that have been ‘expelled’, numbers far larger than the newly ‘incorporated’ middle classes of countries such as India and China. She uses the term ‘expulsion’ to describe a diversity of conditions: the growing numbers of the abjectly poor, of the displaced in poor countries who are warehoused in formal and informal refugee camps, of the minoritized and persecuted in rich countries who are warehoused in prisons, of workers whose bodies are destroyed on the job and rendered useless at far too young an age, able-bodied surplus populations warehoused in ghettoes and slums. One major trend is the repositioning of what had been framed as sovereign territory, a complex conditions, into land for sale on the global market — land in Sub-Saharan Africa, in Central Asia and in Latin America to be bought by rich investors and rich governments to grow food, to access underground water tables, and to access minerals and metals. Prof Sassen’s argument is that these diverse and many other kindred developments amount to a logic of expulsion, signalling a deeper systemic transformation in advanced capitalism, one documented in bits and pieces but not quite narrated as an overarching dynamic that is taking us into a new phase of global capitalism.”

Here is the video:


There is too much in professor Sassen’s work, the effects of which are presented and presaged in the novel, to ennumerate here.

Whistle While You Work (For Nothing): Positive Affect as Coercive Strategy – The Case of Workfarethe role of  psychological coercion, notably through the imposition of positive affect, in UK Government workfare programmes. There has been little or no debate about the recruitment of psychology/psychologists into monitoring,  modifying and/or punishing  people who claim social security benefits. This silence raises important ethical questions, including about the relationship of psychology to the medical humanities.” This is a scary development. Not only are people supposed to work for no wages while they’re on earned benefits they are supposed to enjoy it. It reminds me of the parts in the novel where people go to “Alleviation Centers” for psychological and emotional relief from the stress The System is putting on them. [I want to do a blog post about this aspect of advanced capitalism because it ties into much Zizek has written about current practices of Buddhism and of McMindfulness as collaboration with capitalism that merely seeks to make people comfortable in their oppression and doesn’t challenge the context in which they are being practiced. That’s one upcoming thesis I’m developing.

Communique from the Committee for the Liberation of Autonomous Amusement: on the question of labor The Deterritorial Investigations Unit blog contains interesting commentary on a lot of current topics. In this particular “Communique”, which is one of a series of “Communiques”, discusses the necessity of labor as we know it.