By Joss Sheldon
There is always political tension between society and the individual. Perhaps nobody has advocated their loyalties to individualism better than Margret Thatcher. In an interview with Women’s Week in 1987 she offered a quote that perfectly captured her political philosophy:
“There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.”
The interview appeared shortly after Thatcher had won a third successive general election. Thatcher’s government had a decisive influence in shaping modern social attitudes; at the core of her political philosophy was a commitment to self-reliance and individualism. Her time in government saw a drive for increased competition and mass privatisation as traditional civic institutions started to crumble away.
Joss Sheldon takes this as the premise to present Individutopia a dystopian novel set in the year 2084. It’s a hyper-competitive and individualistic society where people are atomised and left without human companionship. They interact with virtual simulations and are unable to communicate with their fellow citizens. The protagonist of the novel, Renee, has mounting debts and so consents to meaningless work for derisory funds. Communal bonds and relationships are lost. Everything is reduced to the status of a competitive activity from citizens caloric intake to peoples appearances. To pacify the population in their lonely existences people are given various forms of medication. Renee decides to break free from this solipsistic world and enters out into the natural world to endeavour to be truly free.
The book takes its inspiration most clearly from George Orwell with allusions to his classic 1984. In both novels, the protagonists exist want to break free from a world in which they are constantly under surveillance. In 1984 this comes in the form of the watchful eye of Big Brother whereas in Individutopia we see a system of competitive rankings that encourages conformity. There are also similarities to be drawn with Indivdutopia and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Huxley’s novel has proved to be a more prescient account of modern society. The dystopia that Huxley portrays is one in which state power does not need to be enforced by Stalinistic terror, everyone is instead simply pacified into complicity. Much like in Individutopia, characters rely on a mixture of relaxants and anti-depressants to foster the self-belief to carry on. This is many ways was the more chilling observation of Huxley. In the future people would not need to relinquish their freedoms on pain of terror, but that they would voluntarily choose to do so for material comforts.
Individutopia is an entertaining and thought-provoking book. It would appear more of a satire on modern capitalism than a realistic vision of where things will end up if our current trajectory is maintained. Here there is more in common with 1984 which doesn’t present a society we would have recognised 30 years ago. Orwell was understandably reacting to the political environment of his time drawn from the aftermath of World War 2. 1984 still holds up as a remarkable work of political analysis, but Orwell’s imagining of a future Britain has not come to pass. In the same way, Individutopia does perceptively analyse many of the issues that are impacting people today, from zero-hour contracts, unaffordable housing, spiralling consumer debt, corporate consolidation, these are all scourages on our society. Some of these issues may still persist when we will get to 2084, but time will only tell if society will take such a form.