In Review – Looking Toward Dystopia

This review first appeared March 11, 2011, in issue 1910.

More than half of all North Americans believe that one day the Second Coming will occur, signalling the end of the world. About 20 per cent of American Christians believe it will happen in their lifetime.

And then there are those of us who don’t expect we’ll get the warning.

From super-volcanoes to asteroid extinction, peak oil to bioterrorism, global warming to genetically modified organisms, the number of vulnerabilities our civilization has is truly frightening. And the remains of Easter Island, Sumer, and Ancient Rome all stand as mute testaments to the notion that civilizations, even advanced ones, can fall.

There’s a growing market for examinations into the fall of civilizations. Rare is the night when you can watch the Discovery Channel, for example, without seeing some show depicting what life might be like without civilization as we know it. And currently, one of the more popular films on YouTube is Zeitgeist, a conspiracy theory-laden look at what might be herding our own civilization into destruction. With this in mind, when I heard of the movie Dystopia: What is to be done?, I was intrigued.

Available freely over the web, Dystopia: What is to be done? is an hour-long look into some of the more pressing issues currently facing society. It is a project of Dr. Garry Potter, Director of Graduate Studies for Wilfrid Laurier University’s Department of Sociology, and is also a tie-in to his book of the same name. An accompanying website outlines his research into our modern civilization’s problems; that section alone was worth it to me.

Dr. Potter is frank in pointing out that the film’s conception was partly in reaction to the attention garnered by Zeitgeist, which he says involves ?a lot of quackery . . . instead of social scientific analysis.? However, he also admits that, at least in comparison, Dystopia hasn’t done that well, with only 13,000 hits on the film’s website (compared to millions for Zeitgeist and its translations) and book sales comparable to his other academic texts. That leaves Dystopia with only its message as its reason for being.

The documentary is composed of alternating clips of popular movies, other documentaries, and stock or news footage, with a backdrop of ominous music. It is all narrated by Dr. Potter, to whom it occasionally cuts. To my mind, it feels too much like propaganda or a negative political campaign advertisement, hoping to generate and then capitalize on a fear-based emotional response?which is really too bad, because if you get beyond that and into the narrative, what Dr. Potter has to say is interesting and well-presented. In fact, the ?lecture? portions of the film had more of an impact on me than when the message was being drowned under images. Dr. Potter speaks engagingly and honestly in the film, something I found continued when I interviewed him.

But Dr. Potter candidly states that his choice of dramatic and ominous pieces of film and soundtrack was deliberate, saying, ?I had an analytical message to deliver but politics . . . is a battle for hearts as well as minds; hence the dramatic imagery.?

However, he notes that his message is not political in the traditional sense. ?First,? he says, ?what is required is collective action, political action in the broad sense. Individualist consumer decisions are not the way to go on this.? Additionally, he notes, ?the politics I advocate are outside the . . . mainstream of party politics.?

Indeed, one of the repeated slogans of the movie is that humanity is faced with a choice between socialism and barbarism, and that the time remaining to make this choice in a conscious and rational manner is running out. Obviously, That’s not going to be a popular message. And while I think Dr. Potter did himself and his film no favours by using the word socialism, since so many North Americans have a mistaken understanding of what the word means, he disagrees. ?I don’t think the socialist message should be presented as something to be embarrassed about, something that should be whispered gently in case it offends,? he says. In fact, he suggests that ?in a world of diminishing finite resources, rational cooperation is mandatory for our very survival.?

Whether or not you agree with Dr. Potter’s overall solution, the film also presents some smaller, specific actions that are easy to do, and which certainly can’t hurt. For example, he recommends actions like joining a boycott of Walmart, one of the most anti-humanistic corporations on the planet.

The best thing about the film is that although it certainly presents the problems we may soon face, it manages to maintain an air of optimism while still staying realistic. This leads me to my last exchange with Dr. Potter, one that I think is best presented verbatim:

Q: Do you realistically feel there is a chance that the world will make the choice for ?socialism over barbarism?? Especially given our precedent and the sophistication/allure of the capitalist ideal?

Dr. Potter: Absolutely honestly? I just don’t know. I want to be hopeful, and there really are some hopeful signs: say for example, the people protesting in the streets of Cairo, or the students who recently took to the streets in the UK. But of course there are contrary signs as well; and, as you say, there is the sophistication and allure of the capitalist ideal. I think that it is impossible to finally judge. Overall it is just too big a question with too many variables. So what I think is the rational perspective to take is what Gramsci suggested many years ago: pessimism of the intellect along with optimism of the will.

The film Dystopia: What is to be done? is freely available online, and the accompanying book can be found at major retailers.

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