Saturday, April 5, 2014

" We " by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Still of the movie "Call Northside 777" by Henry Hathaway

In every man sleeps a prophet, 
and when he wakes there is a little more evil in the world.

E.M. Cioran

A man starts a journal. He sits in a glass armchair, at a glass desk, in a glass room. Around him, thousands of other men and women sit in their own glass rooms, in glass buildings in a huge megalopolis entirely made of glass.

Set in the 26th century, in an urban civilization that has reorganized itself after a nuclear Armageddon, the engineer named D-503, starts his journal to celebrate the “Integral”, a spaceship he helped to design and which will soon leave Earth to conquer and civilize the inhabitants of other planets and other galaxies.

OneState, a dictatorial regime led by the “Benefactor”, rules the city. Private property does not exist. Nameless citizens have been denied any individuality and are just "numbered cogs” in an immense urban machine. Their life is regulated around the clock, up to the minute, according to strict efficiency rules laid out in “The Table” and enforced by sinister Guardians. The transparency of the glass city has rendered all privacy impossible with the exception of their 15 minutes of emotion-less weekly sex, when couples are briefly allowed to lower the blinds of the windows of their dwellings.

When D-503 wakes up, we get a strange “endless reflection” effect, like the one we get when we stand between two mirrors facing each other :

[…] time to get up. To the right and the left through the glass walls I see something like my own self, my own room, my own clothes, my own movements, and all repeated a thousand times. It cheers you up ; You see yourself as part of an immense , powerful  single thing. And such a precise beauty it is : not a wasted gesture, bend , turn.

While the intention of his writings is to laud the society he serves, D-503, will unintentionally record in his journal, his own progressive mental and social breakdown.  Two women, more brave than himself, will tempt him into rebellious acts of love, transgressions that will bring him face to face with the repressive forces of the most brutal of tyrannies.

As the novel is written by Yevgeny Zamyatin, a Russian living in the beginning of the 20th century, (1884 – 1937), a reader could easily misunderstand “We” as a reaction against the Soviet and Stalinist dictatorial horrors. But, to be really that, the book was written a decade too early. The draft of the novel dates from 1919 and by 1921 it was already censored, well before the Stalinists purges of the 1930’s. Rather than an indictment of the Soviet rule, “We” is in fact an eerie accurate prophecy of things still to come. The true genius of Zamyatin, an engineer by profession, was that he merged the several societal developments he witnessed, into a credible Monster of the future societies.

Partly inspired by HG.Wells’ scientific socialist utopias, but himself a huge inspiration for Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984, Zamyatin in his novel links the dots between the collectivization, he witnessed on a large scale at the Tyne Shipyards in England, Lenin and Stalin’s attempts to incorporate Taylorism into Soviet manufacturing and Bentham’s architectural theories of how to control inmates by the very shape of their prison.

Notwithstanding its intellectual scope, We still is an agreeable read. The novel exudes some kind of thirties charm, the charm of the old Buck Rogers - Flash Gordon comics, with its descriptions of men and women dressed alike, in a Uniform with a numbered badge on their heart and the girls in the control room of the space ship launch wearing cute winged helmets.

The novel has its funny details too. In this world of excessive egalitarianism, as said, man and woman do not have a proper name and are recognized by a given number. Males have odd numbers prefixed by consonants; females have even numbers prefixed by vowels. The narrator for instance is D-530. While critics insist that these numbers were inspired by the technical specifications of the icebreaker Saint Alexander Nevsky, on which Zamyatin was working, I rather think that the writer amused himself and later his readers with a few jokes. The adventurous femme fatale who disturbs and infringes on the narrator’s life is called I – 330. She is indeed svelte like an I and the twist and turns of the double threes stand for the sexy curves of both boobs and buttocks. The woman who is designed to D-503's for his cavorting on command is named O-90. She is shorter and more rotund and wants to have a child. The nine is easily recognized as the shape of a fetus in an early stage. Onestate has forbidden O-90 to get pregnant for she does not fit the right profile of length. The double agent S-4711 has a snaky double curved twist and stinks like a cheap foreign perfume. And maybe the D of D-530 stands for Durak or fool, a man failing to recognize his destiny.

On top of the charm and the fun, Russianness too, seeps through the lines of this dystopia. Not only is there a Babushka guarding the door of the only opaque building in the city, other and more literary allusions abound. There are for instance the negroid lips of the narrator’s poet friend who remind us of Pushkin, there is the Gogolian obsession with noses, but the work that comes most to mind is Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov novel. Indeed, Onestate, the society build on rational principles and scientific laws is Ivan Karamazov’s progressive dream turned into a social nightmare. The figure of the “Benefactor” reminds us strongly of the Grand Inquisitor and his creation of a society meaning to do good, to eliminate war, hunger and poverty, but ending by being bad, for having cut out its social and religious value systems, to have lacerated itself from its citizens. And finally, OneState’s worse enemies are those individuals, who like Misha, the other Karamazov Brother, have freed their so-called Karamazovian force, that crude unbridled earthly force which sits in the center of our soul, a passionate animal lust of freedom.

A dystopia, even a Russian dystopia like the one written by Zamyatin, is a middle-class fiction. An idea is worked out to such an extreme level, that it becomes a warning of things to come for those people, affluent enough, to lose something if things further develop along the predicted lines. It always strikes me that even in the bleakest of dystopian novels, the Maslowian levels of physiological and security needs are never at the core of the problem. This obviously stands in stark contrast with the real, war drenched, 20th century in which they were written. Even today, for the more than 800 million people suffering of chronic undernourishment and the many more, homeless and war affected wretches, Zamyatin’s story (if only they could read ) would be a fairy-tale rather than a nightmare.

One man’s Dystopia can be another one’s Utopia.

What makes “We” particularly interesting is that Zamyatin is identifying the two real underlying mechanics that still push us onward to what we consider today dystopian, but which might well be our everyday life in a very near future.

Depicting OneState, this future world of terror, as a clear transparent urban nation, almost entirely constructed out of glass, is a stroke of genius. One can easily follow Zamyatin’s reasoning why the use of transparent building block is the most efficient tool for dictatorial oppression. For people living under the oppressive State - control often have the impression that the secret police can see right through the walls of their private dwellings behind which they  hide.

In all its glass and steel architectural modernism OneState is nothing more than a huge prison for its citizens. Such real constructions existed already when Zamyatin wrote his book. One thinks about the Panopticon prison design developed along the ideas of the 18th century English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham. In a Panopticon (observe – all), a single person can watch a greater number of people without that they, say the inmates of a prison, can see who is watched or not. Bentham boasted that his concept was “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.” And indeed, while people realize that they cannot be all watched all the time, they start to act as if they are watched constantly, effectively controlling their behavior.

The panopticon concept is outdated nowadays. Electronics and IT have replaced it more effectively in ways even Zamyatin could not foresee. The enthusiasm with which we adopt the blinking new technologies like mobile phones and GPS, home computers and Internet is hurling us at neck breaking pace towards the world Zamyatin is warning us for.

The use of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Foursquare, Linkedin, Snapchat, private blogs, email, electronic membership cards, user registrations, mobile and electronic banking, have effectively replaced glass transparency and allows to any “Great Benefactor” out there, to “see”all we do and get control over our private lives.

The second and more important mechanism exposed by Zamyatin is Taylorianism.

Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856 – 1915), is the so - called father of scientific management and industrial efficiency. He was the fine gentleman who debased the manual worker to the level of the machine cog, by stating that if they were so stupid as to do manual work, they were certainly too stupid to understand the simple tasks they were doing.

For the implementation of his efficiency methods, Taylor was equally clear that it could only happen through enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best working conditions, and enforced cooperation.

While a greater efficiency was certainly attained through its methods, people like Mintzberg correctly warned that an obsession with efficiency would overshadow less quantifiable social benefits and social values and degrade work into monotonous and skill-reducing tasks that would alienate workers from what they were doing.

Still in We, Taylor is a God and his efficiency methods a mantra.

D-503 somewhere enthusiastically exclaims:

“No doubt about it, that Taylor was the genius of antiquity. […] How could they write whole libraries on Kant and hardly even notice Taylor – that prophet that could see ten centuries ahead?”

And in the immense hangar, the engineer holds his breath when he observes the teams at work on the Integral, that immense spaceship:

“I watched the men below, how they would bend over, straighten up, turn around, all in accordance with Taylor, smoothly and quickly, keeping in time, like the levers of a single immense machine.”

Again, information technology today has brought Zamyatin’s world closer. While Robotics and more efficient – computer steered machinery have made the problems on the work floor less acute, the developments of IT have also allowed to apply Taylorism to white collar jobs. Embedded in a wrong company culture, IT and the possibility to apply draconic efficiency rules to office jobs, has turned employees and clerks into the new salary slaves.

With all that in mind, one starts to understand that Zamyatin’s book is by far superior to Orwell’s dystopia. While Orwell just had to glance over the iron wall to see what he predicted, Zamyatin’s not only foresaw much earlier what was going to happen in his mother country, but he also identified for us the mechanics on which a modern rational authoritarian society could be build. Zamyatin’s warning still stands , more acute than ever I would say, and in his short but brilliant little book, he also advices on the stance to take:

"There is no final revolution. Revolutions are infinite.",one character says.

Nothing less than a paraphrase of Karl Marx’s famous world-shaking concept of the “Permanent Revolution”

Addenda : Additional comment by TC Murr.

Zamyatin was writing against the influence of Chernyshevsky, on the side of Dostoevsky. We is a kind of repository of all the pre-revolutionary literature that caused the Revolution, as well as current concerns that were happening in the early Soviet Union, during the 20s while the civil war was going on, before Stalin took control.

The image of the crystal palace and the emphasis on rationalism is straight out of Chernyshevsky's What is to be done?.This image appears again in Notes from Underground, where the underground man imagines what the world would be like if Cherny's ideal of the crystal palace is ever implemented: he says people would become insects. Against the mathematical certainty of rationalism, the underground man asserts the irrational. All these themes are found in We. Zamyatin and Dostoevsky assert irrationalism as the defining characteristic of the human.

In We, when the protagonist and his woman go outside the glass into the subterranean chamber, this chamber is decorated as if it was the 19th century, and if I remember correctly, there is a picture above the fireplace, which is a picture of Chernyshevsky, I think, although the text doesn't say this. Zamyatin is writing against Chernyshevsky, and includes this visual symbol of the pre-Revolutionary writing and world in his novel. 

During the civil war the soviets instituted major programs of fitness, sports, efficiency studies by Taylor and Ford etc etc a new education program was instituted which had the aim of producing good little communists; children were only allowed to learn vocational skills so that they could work in factories. This was a directive from Lenin himself, and was bitterly opposed by those to the centre of Lenin, like Lunacharsky, who thought children should be educated to the level of the prerevolutionary intelligentsia.

The early Soviet period was a time of huge experimentation: HG wells, visited Russia in this time and his ideas were also a big influence on the new society. For more on this, interested readers might want to check out Bukharin's and Preobrazhensky's The ABC of Communism which says that in the new Machine World, everything will be precisely calculated. There was even a League of Time, whose members wore outsized wristwatches and noted down the time it took to do daily tasks. Also to check out is Gastev, who was the director of the Central Institute of Labour, set up by lenin himself, to study efficiency methods. It was Gastev who had the idea of replacing names with numbers. 

The illustration shows the interior of the, maximum security Stateville Correctional Center designed according to the panopticon concept.