In­stead of ‘1984,’ read this

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - GE­ORGE F. WILL georgewill@wash­post.com

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.

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