totalitarianism

Anthem by Ayn Rand

I’m pleased to see Laissez Faire Books publishing a new edition of this book. I may be unusual in this, but Anthem happens to be my favorite of Rand’s four major works of fiction. It is pithy, pared down to essentials, and more poetic. This guest editorial was originally published as the editorial preface of the new edition. — GAP

Anthem by Ayn Rand

“The author does not understand socialism,” read the letter from MacMillan in reply to the submission of Ayn Rand’s novella, Anthem. They turned it down. Actually, the publisher didn’t understand socialism. Hardly anyone did in 1937, when this book was written. Rand, however, did understand socialism. She understood it so well that she knew it would result in the opposite of what it promised and that its proponents would eventually come to embrace its grim reality, rather than repudiate the system of thought.

In many ways, this book is one of the best dystopian novels ever written because it puts the central focus on the key failing of socialism: its opposition to progress. How is that possible given that progress is a central slogan in socialist thinking? The problem is that by collectivizing private property, socialism removes the machinery of progress itself. It abolishes prices and profits and calculation and the incentive to create. It puts a premium on political control, and politicians resent the revolutionary implications of entrepreneurship. Therefore, a consistently socialist society would not only be poor and backward; it would revel in those features and call them the goal.

Think about it. This was the 1930s, long before the environmental movement and long before the primitivist streak in socialist thinking was to emerge as an outright agenda to be imposed by force. But as a child in the old Soviet Union, Rand had seen it in action. She had seen how entrepreneurship and creativity had to be sacrificed for the collective, and how this drove civilization straight into the ground. A totalitarian society would not be a world with amazing technology and flying cars, but would exist only at a subsistence level. And it would try to stay that way.

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The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games

Whatever good you have heard about The Hunger Games, the reality is more spectacular. Not only is this the literary phenom of our time, but the movie that created near pandemonium for a week from its opening is a lasting contribution to art and to the understanding of our world. It’s more real than we know.

In the story, a totalitarian and centralized state — it seems to be some kind of unelected autocracy — keeps a tight grip on its colonies to prevent a repeat of the rebellion that occurred some 75 years ago. They do this through the forced imposition of material deprivation, by unrelenting propaganda about the evil of disobedience to the interests of the nation-state and with “Hunger Games” as annual entertainment.

In this national drama and sport, and as a continuing penance for past sedition, the central state randomly selects two teens from each of the 12 districts and puts them into a fight-to-the-death match in the woods, one watched like a reality show by every resident. The districts are supposed to cheer for their representatives and hope that one of their selected teens will be the one person who prevails.

So amidst dazzling pageantry, media glitz and public hysteria, these 24 kids — who would otherwise be living normal lives — are sent to kill each other without mercy in a bloody zero-sum game. They are first transported to the opulent capitol city and wined, dined, and trained. Then the games begin.

At the very outset, many are killed on the spot in the struggle to grab weapons from a stockpile. From there, coalitions form among the groups, however temporary they may be. Everyone knows there can only be one winner in the end, but alliances — formed on the basis of class, race, personality, etc. — can provide a temporary level of protection.

Watching all this take place is harrowing to say the least, but the public in the movie does watch as a type of reality television. This is the ultimate dog-eat-dog setting, in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” in the words of Thomas Hobbes. But it is also part of a game the kids are forced to play. This is not a state of nature. In real life, they wouldn’t have the need to kill or be killed. They wouldn’t see each other as enemies. They wouldn’t form into evolving factions for self-protection.

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The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games

So you want to see Hunger Games when it comes out on Thursday at midnight? It’s not likely that you will get the chance. Tickets in my community have been sold out for weeks. In fact, the first 10 showings of the film are sold out. This disappoints me greatly because it is one of the few teen flicks I’ve really wanted to see.

The whole phenomenon seems set to make the Harry Potter hysteria and the Twilight mania seem like warm-up acts. Ask around among teens, and you will hear this confirmed. This is a true example of mass frenzy. Actually, the whole thing seems like a modern “madness of crowds.” It’s “pandemonium,” as People magazine put it.

Both the plot line and the marketing genius have lessons for our time.

Based on a book by Suzanne Collins that came out in 2008, the film tells the story of an impoverished, totalitarian society in which rebellion among the subjects is punished by the creation of a killing game for mass entertainment. A teenage girl is put in the position to kill or be killed, but she cleverly plots to stand up to the regime by cooperating with her opponent. Together, they win the hearts of the crowd and bring the regime to its knees.

In other words, it is a story about personal freedom against a powerful state, a tale of courage and defiance in the face of power. The reviews by actual readers (versus professional critics) are over the top. It’s Amazon’s No. 1, and it has 4,000 reviews and counting. This is a phenom.

Aside from the plot line, there is something contemporary about the theme of sheer deprivation and survival. It sums up the way young people are looking at the opportunities they are being presented in these times. We aren’t playing hunger games yet, but when an entire generation is pretty sure that it will not fare as well as its parents’ generation, that’s not good. Life seems like the zero-sum game posited in the film.

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BOOK REVIEW | City of Dust (A Philip Khrome Story) by Steve Niles Thumbnail

Brilliant art coupled with a clever story make Steve Niles’s graphic novel City of Dust an instant sci-fi horror classic. Niles, who also wrote graphic novel 30 Days of Night and the first draft of its film adaptation, loops good cops, bad laws, prostitutes, and mechanical nightmares into a deeper story about imagination and thought crimes. The story takes place within a metropolis setting where your socio-economic status, as well as your physical safety, is dependent on how many stories you are above the ground. Cops roam the lower parts of this vertical city looking for looking for anything resembling imagination-paraphernalia, classified as anything that might evoke imaginative thinking or thought crimes. All media is banned in the year 2166: books, music, movies, religious art, even religion itself.

Khrome, leading character and cop convinced something is wrong with the system, was persuaded as a child to have his father arrested and imprisoned for life simply for reading him children’s books. Years later Khrome does the arresting and the trials are conducted instantly via e-mail. The verdict for indulging in such imagination-paraphernalia…instant death. Later on in the story, Khrome becomes involved in a crime scene investigation where a children’s book is found on the scene of a mutilated, half-eaten corpse. Told to keep his distance until the fed’s arrival, Khrome can’t help but open this rectangular object and indulge. His actions are cause for alarm and Khrome finds himself involved in much more than police work.

Overall, City of Dust is your typical dark, sinister sci-fi horror graphic novel (though nothing close to the level of disturbia in Garth Ennis’ Crossed). It’s well-written and well-drawn with lots of political undertones dealing with authoritarianism and censorship, though the story feels slightly rushed at the end. The author’s well-structured plot seems to fall apart in a last minute sprint to finish the project within the remaining 10 pages of the book.

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