George Monbiot searches for the reason that rates of imprisonment just keep going up in England and Wales while crime rates continue to fall. One of the causes, he suspects, is growing economic disparity:
“I can’t prove this, and it is hard to see how anyone could do so. But my untested hypothesis runs as follows: the greater the wealth accrued by the top echelons, the more ferociously they demand protection from the rest of society. They have more to lose from crime and less to lose from punishment, which is less likely to strike the richer you become.
The people who help to generate the public demand for long prison terms (newspaper proprietors and editors) and the people who mete it out (judges and magistrates) are drawn overwhelmingly from the property-owning classes. “Those who have built large fortunes,” Max Hastings, who was once the editor of the Daily Telegraph, wrote of his former employer Conrad Black, “seldom lose their nervousness that some ill-wisher will find means to take their money away from them.”
Money breeds paranoia, and paranoia keeps people in prison.”
I think a lot about Sci Fi dystopias these days. Oryx and Crake especially. It’s not that I always want to think about it. I can’t help it.
The world that Margaret Atwood described in the novel is so compelling partly because it is so well imagined but finally, because the imagination actually doesn’t have to work as hard as I wish. As any good dystopic writer will do, Atwood picks up on the most negative aspects of life in a Western corporate capitalist democracy and exaggerates them, but in so doing, is only illustrating the logical result if these characteristics continue to grow in infuence, unchecked.
So, in the world of Oryx and Crake, the world is, finally, defined by huge and overwhelming disparities between rich and poor. Societies like this are notoriously unstable. France before the revolution; Russia before the Bolsheviks; the US during the Depression and so on. So in the O & C world, the powerful rich have taken action against the poor, finding technological means to ensure their own security whilst, of course, also shutting down the possiblity of social mobility.
Fear of “outsiders” , the new untouchables, the have-nots, is rampant and profound. Understandably so. Million of people are cut off from the means to a decent life while others live off “the fat of the land” (it’s a metaphor – really, there’s not much fat land left); those who are shut out devise ever more desperate ways of trying to break in while the insiders obssess over how to keep them out. And inevitably, on ways to de-humanize and demonize anyone who wants simply to eat. In this world, stealing bread is, as always, a crime. But the worst crime is trying (or succeeding) to break in to the world of the “haves”.
I’m not a pessimist. I think good dystopic novels can function as canaries down the mind shaft, warnings of the logical result of contemporay political, social and economic decision making. Far from causing depression, they can represent their own small call to action. When I think of the numbers of people imprisoned in Western “democracies”, our growing fear of and punitive actions against “illegal aliens” (even that word “aliens” puts me in mind of the “outsiders” in O & C), food supply crises, impenetrable digitized fences, identity cards, impending environmental catastrophe and, of course, intransigent economic inequality, I’m inclined to believe the canaries are dying in flocks. Exploitive global corporations and the governments they have all but bought have no interest in changing this situation in favour of “others”. It will have to be movements of people at “the bottom”, and close by, forcing change, bottom to top: trickle up, but a trickle is likely not powerful enough to get the job done.