A chilling reinterpretation of Idiocracy

idiocracy1Half-joking comparisons between our present crisis and the future portrayed in the 2006 dark comedy, Idiocracy, have offered some comic relief from our present crisis. However, there is a darker theme sitting beneath the obvious satire and the laugh lines, a detail that is never explored in the film’s plot. That detail is starting to trouble me.

If you’ve never seen the movie, here’s the premise. A man and woman selected specifically for their ordinariness, are placed in a military hibernation experiment. The experiment is forgotten, and they wake up 500 years later in an environment in which they are the smartest human beings alive.

The world of the future is ludicrously crude, dysfunctional and crumbling into ruins. President and former pro-wrestler Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho is struggling with a crisis. Crops won’t grow, even though they have been aggressively fertilized with Brawndo, a popular sports drink. Our heroes struggle against violent persecution to save the fools around them by persuading them to adopt a novel practice – putting water on crops.

foxIt used to be a moderately funny movie. Then it started to become a little uncomfortable. Now it is morphing into our generation’s 1984. Idiocracy might be best understood as a horror film.

In the film, nothing seems to work. Homes are falling down. Garbage is piled everywhere. Health care is a ruinous shamble. The most popular sitcom is a show called “Ow, my balls.” Advertising slogans have merged with popular culture, as marketing taglines become mantras. Nothing actually works in the world depicted in the film. Everything is collapsing to a degree that begins to threaten human existence.

While the film focuses on the hilarity of a culture of idiots who spray sports drinks on farm fields (thanks to the commercial tagline – “Brawndo, it’s got what tarryltonsplants crave,”) it glosses over a detail. Beneath this premise lies a paradox. There are bar code scanners that successfully process these people’s transactions. Brawndo and Mountain Dew are able to efficiently manufacture and mass-distribute their products. Starbucks, which is now a brothel, is able to conduct business.

Behind the comedy lies a quiet horror that never finds its way into the stated plot. Someone, somewhere else, in a place which is not shown to us in the film, is making a fine living. In a world in which politics has ceased to be relevant as an engine for improving the human condition, millions of ordinary people are being bled to death. Beyond that realm, there must be another existence we never glimpse; a place where things still work.

This goofy little lark of a film has layers we have largely ignored. It may be time for us to update our definition of dystopia.

screen-shot-2016-10-14-at-9-40-58-amFor Brawndo and Starbucks and Carl’s Jr. and Costco to continue to function and thrive in this Idiocracy, an entire class of humans must have escaped the reach of democratic politics. They exist in a realm beyond the conception, much less the authority, of President Camacho and his cabinet of simpletons. Idiocracy may not be about the descent of humans into stupidity, but rather the collapse of politics as a means of achieving common human interests.

Picture a scenario in which successful (not necessarily smart or good) people have largely withdrawn off into their own realm, a place where everything works, innovations are quickly absorbed, and life is a seemingly endless cycle of improvement. These communities lose most of their connection to the geography and politics around them, having more in common with cohorts in similar enclaves around the world than with less affluent communities an hours’ drive away.

mike-huckabeeIn the communities they left behind, dysfunction piles onto dysfunction, compounding existing challenges into crises. Efforts to express their desperation are turned aside and ignored. Frustration boils over and they saddle an existing political system with the burden of an erratic, populist autocrat. It makes no difference. Their autocrat is merely a grifter, enriching himself at every turn while the job itself is neglected. Their outburst merely pours energy into efforts by the more affluent to insulate themselves.

Capable, bright people joined together in successful enclaves build the institutional bulwarks necessary to protect their lives and their communities from a dysfunctional democracy. Under the leadership of a long series of increasingly weak and incompetent charlatans, ordinary people are eventually anesthetized into compliance and exploitation.

Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? Thank goodness it’s just a movie.

35 Comments

  1. Hi Chris- first time posting here. One of the secrets of dystopia is that the stories are usually written about the trends of the present. I live in Asia and have worked in Latin America. It seems like the “polarization” of Idiocracy, with everything falling apart for most, a political system that’s captured for rent-seeking and private gain, and the scanners buzzing happily away suggesting an unseen elite…is pretty much how the rest of the world (non US and Anglo-Saxon/EU and some Asian Tigers + Japan) operates. Even Southern Europe seems to have given up on (or never arrived at) the possibility of broadly clean/productive government. The purpose of Latin American government has always been to enrich real elites with little concern for popular welfare. So what you’re describing as a possible future is the present in much of the developing- and a good bit of the developed- world. Suggests that it is a very plausible future.

    1. You’re right about the Asian Tigers. However, you so do not want to emulate us. Even the Asian Tigers are undergoing democratic reform though, although I don’t know where we will end up. You can look up the reformation movements in South East Asia if you want. Whereabouts are you in Asia?

      One of the disappointing things about the whole US election is that, the American Civil Rights Movement and liberal democracy has always been a beacon for the reformation movements in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia etc, where my heart and loyalties lay. The sight of that rabid cabinet that is forming now means that the fight is now so much harder for the fledging movements here.

    2. I live in Canada, and I feel like the government here is remarkably corruption free. It is perhaps a little bloated, but I never get the feeling in dealing with the federal or provincial government that someone is getting personally enriched (with the possible exception of Quebec, which is well known as a place of graft). And if they are, I expect them to be punished appropriately if they ever get found out.

      I contrast that with several years I spent living in America, living around the South (mostly Louisiana). I definitely got the sense that local government was sleazy, packed with cronys.

      It’s probably mostly to do with so many local positions being elected ones. I cant think of even one good reason for why judges, LEO’s and prosecutors should be elected officials, but I sure can think of a few for why they shouldn’t.

      These sorts of positions should be filled by non partisan, qualified career civil servants, not ppl subject to the whims of the electorate.

      Im not at all convinced that direct democracy is always the best system of governance. I tjink it’s much better to have in place smart, common sense guidelines and standards for filling these positions (based on competency and professionalism demonstrated throughout ones career) and using those policies to guide the process, leading to the most qualified candidate.

  2. Really interesting Politico panel discussion of future of Republican Party. There are sidelights about the Democratic Party as well. One of the most telling observations dealt with damage to the Republican “brand” by Democrats. Turns out that the Democrats chose to attack Trump rather than those conservative agenda items they traditionally attack, which leaves the GOP relatively unscathed going forward. Their message, agenda are intact and their base – newly enlarged and engaged. Dems, on the other hand, are fragmented, and struggling. What a difference an election makes! Some good thinking in this piece.

    http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/11/republican-party-future-2016-donald-trump-214453

    1. The papers and websites are full of instructions for the Dems:

      Reform the DNC. Don’t let the DNC chair be a part-time position of an elected official. Etc. Etc. Help the DNC regain its soul.

      Don’t follow big data. Hillary should have engaged Trump on the issues, not on him — even though the data indicated 60% of the electorate thought he was unqualified to be president. (Truthfully, I don’t know of any campaign manager, from advertising to marketing to politics, who wouldn’t have followed that data.)

      Stop with the identity politics. Remember white people?

      As I prepare for my big exam in a couple of weeks (please, please let me graduate!), I’m digging into early thoughts about rhetoric.

      Early Greeks were interested in how words worked, how communication can cause agreement and action. Because this new idea, democracy, would require figuring out how to agree and how to act on that agreement.

      They focused on the person creating the message and logic. If people (this means men) creating the messages, giving the speeches, were of good moral character and laid out their messages logically, an audience could follow that logic and either agree or disagree.

      More recently, though, it’s clear that it’s unclear how words and images work to create agreement. Logic doesn’t seem as functional as the early Greeks thought.

      Recently I came across this idea from a 20th century rhetorical analyst:

      Identification is more powerful than persuasion.

      This guy, Burke, is a tricky read. But he suggests that the rhetorical terms used to create identification (white, black, middle class, working class, farmer, factory worker, etc.) do simultaneously exclude other groups.

      If he’s correct, it sounds the Rs were heavy into identity politics and it worked for them, worked well enough for a large number of people to vote for a candidate they were persuaded was unqualified. That’s big.

      Do future candidates have to use some form of super-charged identify politics to win the presidency?

  3. May be completely off-piste, but is there anything in the States like Wevolution? It was set up by Church Action on Poverty in Scotland, supported by the Scottish National Party ( do not mention them to Trump, they kicked his backside over that wind farm ) and are starting to make an impact on exactly the sort of white working class that you are talking about.

    Essentially they are experimenting with the establishment of Self Reliant Groups in hard core poverty stricken areas like Govan in Glasgow. Here’s the guff;

    “WEvolution is a movement of people from disadvantaged backgrounds and their aspirations for a better life for themselves, their families and communities. Bringing people together in its Self-Reliant Groups (SRGs), WEvolution promotes a way of working alongside communities that is based on trust, self-governance and collective endeavour towards entrepreneurship.

    WEvolution’s SRGs are the first of their kind in the UK.

    SRGs are small groups of 5 to 10 women who develop strong bonds of trust and friendship, save small amounts of money together, learn skills and support each other to create income-generating opportunities for themselves.”

    There’s more and it seems to be taking off. We are hoping to start one here in Salford

  4. Always figured the logistical production stuff was automated and people, forgetting how to be workers and producers, started relying on automation as invisible environment rather than infrastructure.

    If you want to know my real, true belief in dystopic futurist narratives, watch Soylent Green. This is where I believe we may go.

    Technology continues to build at a clip, but government services, infrastructure, and especially resources start suffering widespread shortages as populations are increasingly packed into dense urban hellscapes where trash can’t even get picked up off the street and humans have to sleep in stairwells and await massive deliveries of synthesized proteins called ‘Soylent’, of which Green is the most nutritious and valuable.

    With no government infrastructure, rich people live in luxury towers completely cut off from the streets while police have to turn to discarded football helmets to suit up and baseball bats for batons, and bulldozers for crowd control — after all, sports and construction are things of the past, as there’s no more room to build and no money or resources for entertainment.

    What passes for ‘middle class’ life is the lead character’s tiny studio apartment, shared with a nice older friend and stacked with old books and lit by a single dusty bulb. The lead character, a police investigator, marvels at ‘cakes of soap’ the size of his palm (“Did you ever see one so large?”) but skips merely over the bodies of starving people piled on his apartment building’s staircase without much of a second look, as it’s his every day experience.

    His friend, a wizened old Jew with memories of a better life, has little to look forward to in his older years except to afford a luxury death, which includes a 360 panoramic video installation of flowers and natural sites that have since gone extinct. The protagonist’s love interest is a woman who sells her life to the rich via arranged marriages in order to have access to the luxury lifestyle unavailable to the streets — she has no other choice, it’s remain the wife of abusive rich men or starve. The protagonist isn’t much nicer to her, speaking in the same misogynistic details of the role of women that she’s learned to stare it with cold eyes and say, “It’s what I do to survive.”

    And then through all of that, the real deal-breaker for this man’s moral acceptance of this society is the actually relatively innocuous reveal of some fame, a tidy but dehumanized resource recycling system that upsets his worldview more than the fact that he beats off starving mothers with baseball bats as the last institutional form of crowd control.

    Side note that the star of this movie is famous NRA and Republican member Charlton Heston. Heston was featured in a spectacular trilogy of post-apocalyptic 70s science fiction including this, Planet of the Apes, and Omega Man. In each movie he played a scientist, an astronaut, an investigator — people of intellect and moral drive, dealing with shocking and painful changes in human nature and character, attempting to find hope and survival against imminent threats. As such he represents the Republican party that Chris remembers: technocratic but ethical intellectuals cautious about sudden and disruptive changes, but always focused and willing to fight for righteousness no matter how desperate the circumstances.

    This same Heston, older and suffering from Alzheimer’s, was set up by Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine as a villain of irresponsibility responsible for the death of children and incapable of acknowledging it. Of course, any shot-for-shot breakdown of the Heston sequence indicates that Moore’s treatment of him as a character could be what 2016 would term ‘post-factual’, making it seem like Moore is chasing a hardened villain through his estate from footage that was mostly a barely cognizant Alzheimer’s patient realizing he’s been set up and refusing to continue the dialog.

    And gee, I wonder why Republicans are upset by the liberal media? And suddenly of the many obnoxious aspects of American culture Trump has resurrected, now the reactionary Moore is back in the fucking spotlight, wandering around the post-factual media wasteland he helped create, and newly relevant because the Republicans he’s talking about now are like the Heston he made out of editing rather than the Heston that actually stood side by side by with Martin Luther King Jr on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

    1. I agree with you. Whilst in some ways I like Micheal Moore’s work it was disgraceful how he manipulated Charleston Heston, who was a man of principle and who, from what I’ve read of that episode, Alzheimers notwithstanding, thought he was entering into a reasoned debate.

  5. At one point they show the CEO of Brawndo and he’s a rich idiot too. So either the position of CEO is basically nominal and all the real work is outsourced to the enclaves or they completely rely on the technology created by past generations and when the technology gives out they’re done.

    Never thought political junkies would be going into detail about the lore of Idiocracy, eh? I think my father actually always saw it as a horror film. I remember him watching it saying “this isnt funny. This could happen”. I thought he was just being overdramatic but here we are…

      1. Turns out Trump’s appointments aren’t very funny. There is greater potential for investigations of Hillary Clinton, dissolution of the Iran Accord, and major changes in treatment of immigration and issues related to American Muslims and minorities. These men have histories. They have personal agendas. They may go too far, but there is no one to check them except we, the people. Elections have consequences. Add Flynn to this circle and I think we can see where Trump is headed in his administration mix.

        http://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2016-election/mike-flynn-jeff-sessions-mike-pompeo-who-are-trumps-latest-n685811

        http://www.politico.com/story/2016/11/trump-taps-sessions-for-attorney-general-pompeo-for-cia-231599

  6. “Idiocracy may not be about the descent of humans into stupidity, but rather the collapse of politics as a means of achieving common human interests.”

    Achieving common interests! There has been an accelerating collapse of politics as a means of achieving common interests for about three decades, ever since some (but far from all) Republicans introduced the idea that the government is the problem.

    I was fortunate to grow up in a family, and in a community, that understood that the things we could do for ourselves, we should do for ourselves, and the things we can’t do for ourselves, we should work together. And secondly, “work together” could mean our synagogue, where that was appropriate, and the March of Dimes, where that was appropriate, but by and large it meant our government, at whatever level that was appropriate. Government, after all, was simply how we agreed to work together to do things we couldn’t do separately.

    The Tea Party accelerated the descent into anarchy, trumpeting the meme that politicians are bad, that we need to get rid of the politicians and put control “back in the hands of regular folks.” That’s strange, isn’t it, that the professionals, the folks who understood that compromise is the way to get your way, and who knew how to do it, would get wasned away in a wave of “no more politicians in government.”

    I fear that an entire generation of Americans (and I suppose it’s true in other democratic western countries, too) has been brainwashed into forgetting why we have a state, and a country, instead of just a bunch of individuals fending for ourselves. The same people who understand why we need capitalists to build factories and mines, since the workers to not have the individual means to do it for themselves, have no concept of how we are going to support “the common.”

    I am terribly discouraged that some of the more sensible Republicans of this century haven’t tried at all the stem the tide. How important is it to Mitch McConnell that he maintain his position, that he has been willing to throw his government under the bus to appease the Tea Party?

  7. One of the weirder mental realignments I’ve personally made in the last year has been my opinion of big bidness. As an old-style Democrat and refugee of the 60’s, I was really amazed to find that the most useful action against Mike Pence and the state of Indiana’s idiotic “religious freedom” law, allowing so-called “religious” people to discriminate against gay people, came from business. Big business. Big, bad business. Businesses like Walmart and Dow.

    Here is a list of 72 different businesses that told Pence and Indiana that they were prepared to kick these clowns hard in the nads if they didn’t roll up this hateful law.

    Apple
    Salesforce.com
    Walmart (I know, right?)
    Angie’s List
    Nike
    Microsoft
    Wells Fargo
    American Airlines
    Orbitz
    Levi Strauss & Co.
    Gap
    Eli Lilly
    Paypal
    Twitter
    Yelp
    Subaru
    Square Inc.
    Accenture
    Anthem
    Cummins
    Dow AgroSciences
    Emmis Communications Corp.
    Indiana University Health
    Roche Diagnostics
    Airbnb
    Affirm
    Zynga
    Lyft
    SV Angel
    Ebay
    YCombinator
    Zillow
    Mixbit
    Homejoy
    Evernote Corp.
    IfOnly (Traina Interactive Corp.)
    Nextdoor
    NextLesson
    Quip
    Formation 8
    Elance-oDesk Inc.
    Path
    BackOps
    North Technologies
    Jawbone
    Cisco Systems
    About.me
    Sidecar Technologies
    Sequoia Capital
    Glassdoor
    Emerson Collective
    Alphalight
    ThirdLove
    SherpaVentures
    Tumblr Inc.
    LinkedIn
    Gilt
    Bebo Inc.
    Braintree
    Shutterstock
    Dropbox
    Spark Capital
    ZestFinance
    RedOxygen
    eMaint.com
    Tippling Point Community
    Box Inc.
    Gogobot
    Webtrends Inc.
    First Round Capital
    RealNetworks Inc.
    Intel

    I find myself in oddball alignments with people like Glenn Beck and Lindsay Graham. Realignments are happening all over the place, including inside my own skull. I’ll take any friends I can get, from anywhere, these days.

      1. This outgoing interview of Pres. Barack Obama by David Remnick, editor, the New Yorker, speaks to your comment, Fair. It’s a fairly long read but well done. Here’s a bit of it citing comments delivered as Obama layed the wreath at Arlington, days after Trump’s win of the presidency. It reflects a deep-thinking man who we have been fortunate to have as our president for 8 years.

        “Veterans Day often follows a hard-fought political campaign, an exercise in the free speech and self-government that you fought for,” he said. “It often lays bare disagreements across our nation. But the American instinct has never been to find isolation in opposite corners. It is to find strength in our common creed, to forge unity from our great diversity, to sustain that strength and unity even when it is hard.

        “It’s the example of the single most diverse institution in our country—soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and coastguardsmen who represent every corner of our country, every shade of humanity, immigrant and native-born, Christian, Muslim, Jew, and nonbeliever alike, all forged into common service.”

        http://www.newyorker.com/?post_type=article&p=3281823

  8. I’m a first time commenter here. It took two weeks before I could bear to look again. We have much the same problems in the UK and in my home country, Malaysia. Disinformation is rife, and is used as a political tool by yes, strongmen or demagogues ( witness Brexit ). You give me hope that it doesn’t have to be like this. The grassroots organisations that seem to be taking the lead in the UK are strangely enough church organisations, the local mosques and so forth, who are mercifully non-partisan.
    One writer/activist who has been a real force for change in Scotland is Alaistair Macintosh, who spearheaded Scottish Land Reform. It might be worth taking a look at his body of work.
    You keep going Chris, we have you in our thoughts over here

    1. People of faith if you look at history is where social change starts. Some bad stuff can happen but overall the majority of it is positive. A Jewish and Moslem organization have joined to combat Trump.
      http://www.upworthy.com/in-the-wake-of-trump-a-top-jewish-and-a-top-muslim-organization-are-banding-together
      And many Churches have not supported Trump’s agenda. Some church members voted for Trump because he is anti-abortion and would appoint Supreme Court Judges that would overturn Roe versus Wade. But he has supported abortion rights in the past and has a record on not keeping his word. That coupled with his unchristian behavior and talk makes me wonder about the thinking of these people. That is where education can sway some. I use the standard that Jesus gave us “You shall know them by their fruits”. That has never failed me.

    1. Actually, yes. Though to be fair, one week is not a habit.

      That said, the kinds of things people are gearing up for are interesting for their durable impact. Talked with two “normal” people who are making plans to run for office. And not talking about dumb, pointless campaigns – like making some sudden, out of the blue run for Senate. We’re talking about the state house and a township position.

      It’s early, but this is encouraging stuff.

      1. Just barely. DuPage had voted for every GOP nominee since Lincoln until ’08. Hasn’t gone red since. Trump and Sen. Kirk both lost this county. Trump’s 38% is a new low.

        At the level of county administration we are still Republican, but that’s probably going to change now.

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