May consumption ever be in your favor! – A closer look at consumerism from Brave New World up to Hunger Games

What if one day you woke up in a world where ignorance is strength?

Where slavery is freedom?

Where consumption is happiness?

This big “What if?!” may seem highly unrealistic, but if we take a closer look at the development of literature in the last decades we can see a clear trend: dystopian fiction.

Now what does that have to do with this horror scenario?

Dystopian fiction – too much fantasy or realistic future?

In the most basic sense you could say that dystopia is the opposite of utopia, therefore it portrays a world which lacks the harmonious and good qualities of life such as freedom, individuality or peace. Dystopian novels are often set in the future and are concerned with a dysfunctional society and a repressive government. Apart from that they often explore the concept of humans abusing technology and most importantly, society engaging in mass consumption.

This is exactly where I’d like to set my starting point. As an avid reader I have long ago noticed that in many situations life imitates art just as strongly as art imitates life. Art in any form is always the purest way of expressing one’s thoughts, fears, dreams and expectations. Not only do people project their emotions onto artworks, some great authors even had a certain sense of sensibility which enabled them to forecast the course of society long before others of their time.

Brave New World – in which consumption meets technology

“God is in the safe and Ford on the shelves” 

Let’s take a look at one of the most popular dystopian novels, Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”. The book which was published in 1932 set an impulse for a whole wave of dystopian fiction between 1930 and 1960. Main issues were the fear of state, the abuse of technology and finally mass consumption. The story takes place in gruesome place called the World State where humans are artificially produced with embryos in a factorylike process. Every human is categorized in five different castes: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta or Epsilon. Alphas are destined to become the thinkers and leaders of the world whereas Epsilons, stupefied by oxygen deprivation are set out to become simple workers.

Huxley created a dystopian setting where community means uniformity and stability means governmental social control. Less individuality brings less potential for rebellion which is the reason why almost all people have the same physical features and a familiar personality. Even if the author wrote the book a hundred years ago, technology already played an essential role. The novel focuses on the power and limits of it with a special emphasis on the development of human engineering. It is also the aspect of modern technology which enables the World State to pursue mass production. One of the more philosophical questions which the citizens of the state ask themselves is what happiness means and this is exactly where we can find one of the strongest connections to today’s society.

In “Brave New World” happiness is consumption. The state has given consumption almost a holy significance which includes ignorance and blindness for all the negative effects of an infinite demand for goods. Even worse, later in the novel it becomes clear that in the World State nature such as poetry and art is seen as a mere item without any commercial value. Therefore it is useless. Consumption has become the new God, the new nature or in the words of the book character Mustapha Mond, one of the ten world controllers, “Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning; truth and beauty can’t”. Universal happiness is clearly defined as carefree consumption. One bizarre example is the production of children’s toys in the World State. Every new toy which is produced has to have at least one feature that the predecessor didn’t have. As a matter of fact the general slogan is: the bigger the better!

As I’ve mentioned before I am convinced of the life imitated art/art imitates life relation. In the case of “Brave New World” there is a clear connection between real life historical background and literature. Huxley’s novel was published in 1913 which was exactly the time of Fordism, a movement of industrial mass production and standardization and control of work processes. Named after the famous automobile constructor Henry Ford, Fordism is defined by technology, mass consumption and bad working conditions for workers in huge factories. We can therefore definitely see where Huxley got his inspiration from.

Dystopian fiction of the first half of the 20th century generally deals with the fear of the state, the loss of freedom and the engagement in mass consumption. Other examples beside “Brave New World” are George Orwell’s “1984”, Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” or Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Angel”.  A second wave of dystopian books which focus more on the anxiety about the body as well as biological issues followed soon from 1960 – 2000. This period is characterizes by the Cold War, environmental crises and identify politics. Popular novels are Margaret Atwood’s “A Handmaid’s Tale” and P.D. James’ “The Children of Men”.  It’s highly interesting to see how reality has shaped the courses of dystopian fiction in the last years. When it comes to the issue of mass consumerism we can see that it was a very popular topic to write about in the first decades of the 20th century before it disappeared for a while. However now it seems like it’s made its comeback and with that possibly one of the most hyped dystopian books ever.

Hunger Games – in which teen romance meets dystopia

“This is the boldest form of dissent they can manage. Silence. Which says we do not agree. We do not condone. All of this is wrong.”

Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games Trilogy has become so popular in the last year that I don’t even feel the need to explain the story – but I’m going to do it for those few who haven’t heard of it (and have, I assume, been living under a rock). “Hunger Games” tell the story of a girl called Katniss Everdeen who lives in a futuristic America called Panem. There are no states anymore, just 12 districts and the Capitol. Every year one girl and one boy of each district are chosen to participate in the Hunger Games, a cruel competition where 24 children are sent into an arena to fight till death.  The last one standing is the winner and both he/she and the home district will get honor and money from the government.  Katniss, a sixteen-year-old old girl from district 12 volunteers to be a tribute in the Hunger Games in replacement of her younger sister. Despite of knowing that she is only a small part of the oppressive world the government has created she soon realizes that her actions can still change the course of the games. She eventually becomes the symbol of the rebellion against the Capitol.

The trilogy which was initially aimed at a teen audience has captured the interest of all demographics since it touches many current controversial topics of society. Again, mass consumption is one major issue. Panem doesn’t have an equal allocation of resources which is the reason why some districts live in extreme poverty whereas others live in complete abundance. District 12, Katniss’ home, is an underdeveloped place with basically no economy at all. The complete opposite can be seen in the Capitol, a place where modern technology and overconsumption rule the everyday life of the citizens. There are certainly similarities between Panem’s allocation of wealth and today’s third world and the Western society. We are lucky because we were born in a part of the world where we can buy anything we need and there never really is a shortage of products. We buy and buy even if there are people in the third world who don’t even have clean water. Something about that behavior is definitely wrong and that’s exactly the downside of consumerism.

The Capitol

If we compare “Brave New World” and “Hunger Games” it’s shocking how authors have criticized mass consumption 100 years ago and how they still do it the same way today. It’s even more alarming to see that consumption has gained more significance in society over the years. Nothing has changed since Huxley’s first attempt to raise awareness for that issue. No, it even got worse and modern consumerism increased.

Were we that leave us? That is a question that completely depends on whether we are willing to think about our behavior and the effects it has not only on our immediate environment but also on other people all around the world. Fiction has already provided a written statement that is both an analysis of the current situation as well as a prediction for a future society. Can such a cruel world as in “Brave New World” or “Hunger Games” really exist in the future? I can’t really or rather, I don’t want to believe that could ever be, however history has proved many times that nothing is impossible. Or how Picasso once said: “Everything you imagine is real!”

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Still curious? Visit the Hunger Games and Brave New World page on Goodreads!

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