What kind of concept is ›dystopia‹, and how does it differ from that of ›utopia‹? Dystopia is popularly supposed to be an inverted, mirror, negative version of utopia. If ›utopia‹ entails the depiction of any kind of idealised society regarded as superior to the present by its author, ›dystopia‹ implies its negation, or any kind of society regarded as inferior by its author.

Clearly just as one person’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist, one person’s utopia is another’s dystopia. Dystopia, in other words, rather than being the negation of utopia, paradoxically may be its essence. Any privileging of the communal over the individual will for some have dystopian overtones. Writ large, in this view, utopia is the predecessor of totalitarianism, particularly of the Marxist type; In Norman Cohn’s classic study, The Pursuit of the Millennium, modern utopianism is quintessentially an extension of the millenarian thrust of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. History possesses a particular telos, which is some form of salvation, and culminates in some variation of its secular realisation. In socialism, this consists essentially in the recapturing and/or realisation of some form of social essence, or primeval sociability. For Marx this was early on described in Ludwig Feuerbach’s concept of species-being, which was repackaged as a plea for ›human emancipation‹ or ›universal emancipation‹. Utopianism, in other words, is secular perfectibility. Realising the essence of the communal involves the suppression of the individual: the family and private life are sacrificed to or subsumed under the greater identity of the society, state, party and/or nation. Students of twentieth-century history, in particular, will have little difficulty assembling a teleological construction of dystopia in which the origins of modern totalitarianism lie in something like the vision described by Thomas More (whether the latter approved of this or not of course remains contentious). Utopia is here not dystopia, because the demands it makes respecting the suppression of individuality are justified by the ends achieved in terms of a more just, fair and equal society. To its opponents, however, such a view eventuated in Stalinism in all its manifold forms, in the hyper-politicisation of individual and social relations, in the privileging of conformity over dissent, in leader-worship as a quasi-religious observance, in systems of surveillance which superseded any such efforts previously, and in the Spartan militarisation of society generally. In the most extreme expression of this view, all forms of socialism and social democracy are guilty of these sins. But for some, of course, these effects were not to be identified with socialism as such but only its perverted Marxist form.

The first definition of dystopia, then, we might term the ›identity‹ definition. In it we see the pursuit of the secular millennium as the greatest tragedy of modernity. A second definition of dystopia will term the latter a perversion of the former, rather than acknowledging any essential identity between the two. This involves a defence of the utopian principle which might be mounted from several directions, including the response that the society portrayed by Thomas More was relatively free and vastly more democratic than most in contemporary Europe and lacked most of those elements we associate with modern totalitarianism. This preserves some form of the concept of ›utopia‹ for positive contemporary application. A third definition will uncouple “dystopia” from the Morean tradition generally and yoke it instead to negative visions of humanity generally and secular variations on the Apocalypse. These may emanate from various forms of social and political oppression; from the domination of humanity by machines, monsters, or alien species; from the imposition of norms derived from specific scientific and technological developments, such as eugenics or robotics; or from environmental catastrophe.

Dystopia, then, is a broad and diverse tradition. Within the context of the European intellectual tradition we may recognise the portrayal of hell and Satanic rebellion as the most important original paradigm underpinning these ideas. The monstrous, too, notably in the modern Frankenstein tale, remains a constant trope in such visions. This wider definition is linked to the “identity” definition at a variety of levels; most essentially, it describes an act of hubris (political, scientific or other) which produces catastrophically negative consequences where more modest aims might have prevailed. Thus building machines, even robots, with useful functions might be applauded, where the attempt to create life as such is attended with deeply negative results.

What also links these three definitions is their description of societies where human volition has been superseded or eroded by an authoritative imposition of control from outside – from the leader, party, alien race and so on. In this sense dystopia is antithetical to the idea of popular control, or democracy, in particular. Try as we may to separate the definition of utopia from the domain of religion, we are here again brought inexorably back to this starting point of explaining the meaning of the concept of dystopia. For just as the Garden of Eden and Heaven remain prototypes of utopia, so hell performs the same role for dystopia. And both motifs remain a constant, indeed central rather than peripheral, aspect of human experience. From this perspective dystopia is quintessentially a post-political or anti-political (perhaps ante-political, naturalistic) state. Modern politics, we suppose, is intended to give us deliberative and executive authority or collective control over our conditions of life; in dystopia we are merely pawns in the hands of others. In the democratic utopia we collectively make the right decisions and create a free and affluent society (or so it is popularly supposed). In its antithesis, we are deprived of these benefits.

Utopia is often defined as the portrayal of the ›perfect‹ society. In the Morean tradition, utopia does not portray this ›perfection‹: crime, warfare and folly still exist. Perfectibility is an essentially theological conception, inherited from the mythological pre-history of the Morean tradition. It is not a concept suitable to describing human beings or human societies: the quest for immortality, if forestalled by formaldehyde, remains fruitless. The quest for utopia when seen in terms of perfectibility demands a quasi-millenarian spiritual rebirth or return to original purity, a state of grace or absence of sin, often during the revolutionary process, in which human nature is remade, ostensibly permanently for the better. A racial, ethnic, national, class or ideological purity is supposedly attained during this process which demarcates the new human nature, ›Soviet Man‹, the ›Real Khmer‹ or whatever, from the old. But as we know too well, this all-too-temporary surge in virtue is always succeeded by a lapse backwards, by moral failings which become inevitable insofar as the ideal aimed at is impossible to attain in the first place. In this variation of the Noble Savage ideal, the romanticised proletariat and peasantry prove rather more savage than noble. The totalitarian dystopia, then, is not an inversion of utopia or anti-utopia but a misinterpretation of the concept of utopia which mistakes the earthly for the divine. This gives us a good sense of how far the concept of utopia remained entwined with religious consciousness through the last century, as well as of the persistence of the millenarian impulse.


This text is a shortened reprint from: Dystopia(n) Matters: On the Page, on Screen, on Stage, edited by Fátima Vieira, Newcastle 2013. Published with the permission of Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Text: Gregory Claeys